On ViewKemper Museum Of Contemporary Art
Virginia Jaramillo: Principle Of Equivalence
June 1–August 27, 2023
Kansas City, MO
Virginia Jaramillo: East of the Sun, West of the Moon
May 13–June 24, 2023
Los Angeles, CA
Virginia Jaramillo has a longstanding connection to Kansas City, Missouri. In 1975, her work was displayed at the Douglas Drake Gallery in Kansas City as part of the group exhibition Less is More. This exhibition generated momentum and interest in her work, resulting in acquisitions by various institutional and private collections in the area, including Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. In 2019, curator Erin Dziedzic and Jaramillo met for the first time. Their meeting led to the planning of Jaramillo’s first major retrospective exhibition and catalog titled Virginia Jaramillo: Principle of Equivalence. This retrospective offers a comprehensive overview of Jaramillo’s artistic career spanning nearly seventy years. Simultaneously, Pace Gallery in Los Angeles presented a solo exhibition of Jaramillo’s new work. In this conversation, Dziedzic and Jaramillo discuss significant milestones in Jaramillo’s career. They explore the evolution of her painting practice and establish connections between painting and her longtime focus on handmade paper as a medium. Furthermore, they delve into some of the origins of her abstract investigations, including the Eames aesthetic, the Japanese philosophy of Ma, and the fundamental principles underlying our physical, metaphysical, and spiritual cosmologies.
Erin Dziedzic (Rail): It’s been a while. [Laughs] Just kidding. You’ve just opened two major exhibitions within less than three weeks of one another in June—a solo exhibition of new work in Los Angeles at Pace Gallery, and your first retrospective in Kansas City at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art—and I’ve had the pleasure of spending quality time with you. I know not much time has passed between the openings and now, but how are you feeling at the moment?
Virginia Jaramillo: You know, at the opening at Kemper Museum, it was unbelievable, I had to keep pinching myself to make sure this was all really happening, that all these people were there. The attention was really genuine. When you get to be my age, you can tell when people are putting on. People were really resonating with the work. And I really appreciated that. I was just getting over the attention of the Pace exhibition, which was really great and overwhelming. [Laughs] I just wanted to lay down and catch my breath for a while. And that’s what I did when I got home. I just dropped everything, didn’t even unpack. I had to decompress.
Rail: I saw the community come out in a strong way. Whether they knew of your work previously in Kansas City, or were just being introduced for the first time, it was like you said, a very genuine response and an overwhelming joy and love for the work.
Jaramillo: Yes. You know, after being in this field of endeavor, for all these years, I can tell what’s genuine and what isn’t, in terms of response. It was genuine, which was so gratifying.
Rail: We’re talking about the present, but in the spirit of a major retrospective spanning nearly seventy years I’d like to go back to the beginning. What made you want to become an artist and particularly an abstract artist?
Jaramillo: I wanted to be an archaeologist growing up. I was interested in why people thought the way they did, how they lived their lives, and where their belief systems originated. I’ve been imagining that since my early childhood. I would always ask, “why?” and sometimes my parents would throw up their hands—“we don’t know Gigi, we don’t know” was their answer. Also, having grown up around so many ethnically and racially different kinds of people and witnessing how they interacted with religion and customs always intrigued me. My parents’ close friend was a dentist of Asian descent. We grew up with his children. Together, their two daughters, my sister and I, would sew quilts, which was a really beautiful thing. It was our choice of where to put the patterns, how to put the little squares together, and make sure they were sewn properly. That was my first introduction to composition, without even having a clue. You asked what made me want to become an artist? Being around these people and in tune to their culture. I later found that it was very influential to my early concerns and background as an artist.
Rail: The acknowledgement of someone’s expression of their life synthesized in the geometry of a quilt, in abstraction.
Jaramillo: Yes, the thing is that these quilts weren’t being made to be beautiful. We were given scraps of material to keep us occupied. I still have one of the quilts my sister and I made. It’s very interesting the way certain things affect you without you realizing it.
Rail: Having spent quality time with you over the past several years, something I’ve greatly admired is the way that you observe things with extraordinary intention. It reminds me of author William Least Heat-Moon and his idea that everywhere in the world should have a “deep map.” The ten-thousand-foot view all the way to the microcosms. Real, deep, inquisitive investigations. Could you share your early experience at LACMA? I feel like this recollection gives some insight into what I’m talking about.
Jaramillo: On a class trip in grammar school to the LA County Museum I was looking so intently at a huge Japanese Edo vase behind glass as the class was on its way out to the bus. I was following the lines and trying to figure out how the pattern repeated, and in what way. There I was just looking at it and I became so mesmerized that my teacher had come up to me and said, “Virginia, we’re leaving now.” And I said, “Oh, sorry.” We walked out, but I just had to figure out the key to that pattern. It resonated with me in that moment that there is no single criteria for civilizations or people. It’s all about everything, everything is connected. When I see interesting patterns, or hear the name of an archaeological site, or a scientific theory, if it grabs my attention, I pay attention to that. It tickles my brain as I say. And I’ve got to do something. It may take time for me to finalize that concept. But eventually I’ll get to it and that’s when the journey and the magic begin.
Rail: Like the cracks in the earth at your grandparent’s turkey ranch in El Centro, California that you visited as a child. The experience of riding your bike over the desert earth translating so succinctly into the early “Black Paintings.”
Jaramillo: Yes. In fact, those paintings are a direct result of my growing up in California. I was the only one at the ranch who wanted to ride this rickety bike that was rusted and looked like it was going to fall apart. But it was something I could do. You know, I couldn’t drive a truck or anything like that, so I observed the earth as it passed beneath the wheels of the bike. I’ve always wondered about the different colors, the reds, the grays, the whites, and even yellows that I saw. That’s when I became really interested in earth pigments. I also wondered, how could the Earth be so fragile and still be so solid?
Rail: Feels like there was some deep observation going on there.
Jaramillo: Yes, there was. I would really study the cracks. They were beautiful designs, beautiful lines, some extending like two or three feet and some ending in four inches. The compositions were great. I would also ask my grandfather sometimes, “why are there eucalyptus trees only on the edges of the alfalfa fields? Why weren’t there more eucalyptus trees all over?” He said, “Well, Virginia, they’re windbreakers. They break the wind so the crops can grow.” Only on the edges of these fields. I always remembered that, and I love eucalyptus to this day.
Rail: Edges ended up playing a big role in your work, beginning with the “Black Paintings,” where the encrusted textures meet the smooth surfaces. That feels very connected to the earth, particularly where different types of landscapes or land and water meet.
Jaramillo: I regret I couldn’t or didn’t produce a larger body of the “Black Paintings.” I didn’t have the money to buy materials. However, they’re really outstanding pieces. Looking back, I’m amazed at how well they’ve held up.
Rail: They really have—there’s a strength to them.
Jaramillo: Yes. I have to pat myself on the back, “you did good girl!”
Rail: Those materials aren’t going anywhere.
Jaramillo: [Laughs] I know. Someone asked me once during a studio visit if the “Black Paintings” were handmade paper. [Laughs]
Rail: That’s interesting, though. And we’ll get to that. There are fascinating correlations between the handmade paper works and the paintings.
Jaramillo: Are you serious? You think so?
Rail: Very much.
Jaramillo: Oh, that’s interesting. I never put that together.
Rail: The mid-sixties was a transitional time in your practice. You and Daniel LaRue Johnson (1938–2017) moved your family to Paris for a year. What was that like?
Jaramillo: It was great. Dan had received a Guggenheim Fellowship. It was directly after the Watts Riots in LA so we decided to—fortunately, we had the means to do it—move somewhere else. Everyone said, “Well, if you’re real artists, you have to move to Paris because of the light. There’s nothing like the light in Paris.” We kept hearing that and we said, “We got to go to Paris.” René d’Harnoncourt, who was then director of the Museum of Modern Art, had befriended us. Dan and I went to see him—and of course, I was on the sidelines in those days—and Dan said, “René, we need a place in Paris when we move there.” He looked at us, and put his hands to his head and said, “Children, I love the way you think I’m Santa Claus.” Eventually he said, “Okay, go to the American Embassy, they’ll have a place for you, I arranged it.” So, we ended up with this really great apartment, nothing fancy, but it was big. We moved all of the furniture into the largest room, the living room, and put it against the walls and covered it. We were going to use that room as our studio. And that’s what we did. And it was really great. We met a lot of expat artists living in Montparnasse where there was this café bar, La Coupole, where everyone went. Artists would sit there all day, with their wine—see, that could be dangerous. The waiters never ushered you out or anything like that. It was like, “Oh, would you like some more?” And they’d pour their local wine.
Rail: It sounds like a place ripe for conversation.
Jaramillo: Yes. And sometimes three or four artists, ourselves included, would sit at tables and just talk. Talk about what was going on, talk about an exhibition, talk about aesthetics, it was fantastic. There was no one-upmanship. There was a lot of camaraderie since most of us were Americans. Then we met other artists from other countries. They would join in and we’d talk for hours. It was really beautiful.
Rail: And how did the light hold up? Did it disappoint?
Jaramillo: No! It changed my whole attitude towards color. Paris is full of color. It was like a realization, an opening of my mind. Aesthetically, in Paris I felt like I was walking through history. I realized that coming from California where everything is kind of torn down and rebuilt. That changed my attitude, or added to the aesthetic I had, and reverence for architecture.
Rail: In 1966, after a brief stop in LA to collect all of your things you moved to New York.
Jaramillo: We first moved to the Fulton Fish Market. We were just a block and a half away from Mark di Suvero and Barnett Newman had a studio a few blocks from us too, which we visited several times. Atmosphere-wise, it was the fish market so you could smell the fish and hear the morning deliveries.
Rail: You had been to New York before because you and Daniel traveled across the country quite a bit.
Jaramillo: Yes. Many times, to make sure this is what we wanted to do. To make sure this was a move that would be good for us and the kids. It was good for us as artists too. We took our boys on every trip and we drove because we wanted to see the country. We wanted to know what it was like.
Rail: After the Fulton Fish Market, you moved to 109 Spring Street.
Jaramillo: The way we found 109 Spring Street was by driving down Broadway. At that time, we still had our car from California. For some reason, I would always look down Spring Street and say, “Wow, this would be a great street to live on.” And one day, we were driving along and I saw a sign that read loft for rent. I said, “Dan, Dan stop the car.” The place had been a former chenille factory. And was on the fourth floor.
Rail: What was that studio and living space like?
Jaramillo: The floors were caked with about two or three inches of oil, black oil, and chenille fibers. There were metal rods hanging from the ceiling. It was a gigantic, five-thousand-square-foot loft. We said “wow,” and everyone we knew said, “this is where you’re going to lay the Golden Egg.” [Laughter]. So, we asked “how much?” It was 360 dollars a month. We said, “we’ll take it!” [Laughs] We thought, “Oh, wow. Can we afford that? That’s a lot of money.” It was at that time. We had a cleanup job like you would not believe. Scraping, literally scraping the floor with huge scrapers and shovels to get oil and everything else out. It was a labor of love. We knew the place had good bones, as they say. We also found out that there were other artists living in these former light manufacturing buildings.
Rail: You knew you would be there for a while, it felt like the place you wanted to be painting? Did the size of that space lend itself to the increased scale of your works?
Jaramillo: I determined that I wanted to do large paintings. How could you paint small art in a huge space? It just didn’t make sense to me. For a while, I had been interested in the Japanese aesthetic of Ma. I loved it because it was so kindred to the Eames aesthetic of stripping away everything that’s meaningless. And I really started investigating that in the “Curvilinear” series. First, I started painting with the line, but each section between the lines was a different color. And I said, “oh, this is still not working.”
Rail: They started with three or five colors—
Rail: And as the series progressed, there’s less and less color. The “Curvilinears” were a major breakthrough series shortly after you moved to New York City in 1966. Something you often say about them is “It’s all about placement. That line better say something!” Can you share what you mean by this?
Jaramillo: I had to keep stripping away. I just wanted to get down to the basics. I studied the line, like Ma states, the space within the space within the line within the division. That’s why I would say “this line better mean something.” I would labor over sketches done on graph paper so I could get the right scale if I wanted to blow it up. That’s how it all started.
Rail: Was your process for making the lines an intuitive gesture?
Jaramillo: Well, there were dozens of drawings just with the gesture of the line. For one painting, I would keep repeating lines at different angles or curves until it felt balanced. It was all about the balance of the line and my intention. How could it occupy that space of the canvas, without becoming clumsy, without becoming inadequate? And line can become inadequate: just there, and meaningless. So how could I divide the space in a meaningful way? When I was satisfied I would start contemplating color. Sometimes it would take me days, as I always say, I don’t consider myself a colorist. To come up with the right color I would labor over it: wait, just a little more yellow. Wait, how does that look? Just a little more. I would labor over the color. Some artists can just approach it and they have it. I wish I could be like that, but I’m not. So, the color had to mean something else. It had to aid in what the line was talking about.
Rail: They almost had to simultaneously elevate each other and cancel each other out.
Jaramillo: It’s true. How far could I take a line? How could color extend that line? This is the reason lines sometimes extend beyond the edges of the canvas, or around and beyond the edges of the stretcher. I want the viewer to imagine where the line ends.
Rail: Again, creating that kind of tension in the balance.
Jaramillo: Yes. Absolutely.
Rail: It’s a little discovery moment.
Jaramillo: Yeah. Yeah. It’s good.
Rail: The De Luxe Show in 1971, conceived of and curated by artist Peter Bradley and presented in a defunct theater in Houston’s Fifth Ward, is considered one of the first interracial exhibitions in the US, and included two of your “Curvilinear” works: Green Dawn (1970) and Untitled (1971). How did you feel about being a part of that exhibition in 1971 as the only woman and only Mexican-American artist? And has that changed?
Jaramillo: You know, there were so many group shows going on at that time, especially in New York, I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t go to the opening. Peter Bradley organized the exhibition but it was Kenneth Noland who came to my studio to look at the work. He along with Clement Greenberg were helping to select the artists is what I understood. Ken Noland came to my studio—and this is a famous story I always tell—and I was explaining this “Curvilinear” painting to him, and I asked, “Can you see the way the red line goes underneath the purple line? And one is thinner than the other.” And he said, “Virginia. I know how to look at paintings.” I thought, “Oh, my God.” And I said, “I’m sorry, Ken, I really didn’t mean anything by it.” He just laughed. And then I heard, “Oh, Virginia. You’re one of the artists that they’ve selected.” It wasn’t because I was Mexican-American. It was about the work and that’s what I loved about it. Barbara Chase-Riboud was to be the other woman in the show, but for some reason, she declined. I’m not sure what happened.
Rail: The exhibition was in an old theater in Houston.
Jaramillo: The Fifth Ward location for the exhibition was something that everyone asked Peter about. “Peter, why are you doing this in the Fifth Ward? You know, in a defunct theater?” And Peter said, “It’s for the children.” Yeah. It was really beautiful—
Rail: It brought abstract language outside of the white walls of the museum.
Jaramillo: Oh, yes, definitely. And out of the white establishment, so to speak.
Jaramillo: Yeah. Because art is for the people. It’s not only for a select few. It was especially for the children, to inspire them. And it did. Obviously, they’re still talking about the show to this day. Kudos to Peter because it was a brave move.
Rail: Is this show at Kemper the first time that these two “Curvilinear” paintings from The De Luxe Show have been brought back together?
Jaramillo: I believe so.
Rail: It’s pretty powerful to see them in the same place, interacting with each other.
Jaramillo: I know. And at the Menil in 2020 for the fiftieth anniversary of The De Luxe Show Michelle White brought eight of the “Curvilinears” together. I could not believe fifty years had passed. [Laughter]
Rail: How wonderful to bring so many of these iconic works to Houston.
Jaramillo: Oh, yes. Because there weren’t that many. I didn’t have the time. I was married, raising two boys, and taking care of a household in New York City. And then doing my work at night. It became routine for me to work at night. It was the best time for me. No interruptions.
Rail: In LA, Paris, and then in SoHo, you were part of a strong community of artists. Whether you were running into one another on the street, or dialoguing more in depth in the studio about aesthetic philosophies, or working on exhibitions together, these conversations were the impetus and drive for supporting one another.
Jaramillo: One of the beautiful things about SoHo in the early days is you could walk down the street on weekends, and no one else was around. I’d often run into fellow artists. We’d say, “Hey, how you doing? How’s the work going?” I remember, Jean-Michel Basquiat would visit Dan, who eventually moved his studio downstairs because he wanted to do larger work, and it was beautiful. Really nice. It also felt like we were holding one another accountable, like, “are you working on something?”
Rail: Hearing you and others talk about SoHo in the 1970s and ’80s, it sounded like there was collective energy focused on painting and where it was going at the moment. Can you talk about that?
Jaramillo: Oh, yes. Without a doubt. But first, I’ve always been a loner. I’ve never been a person that liked to join groups. I would focus on my work. Fred Brown was a catalyst at that time for artists and musicians getting together. In 1973, Fred and I put together a performance called Be Aware. I designed the lighting to accompany a dancer, and there was jazz music, and it was at Automation House in New York. Megan Brown and I would talk often at their 120 Wooster Street loft or at our place about our aesthetics.
Rail: The “Curvilinear” works with their smooth opaque surfaces gave way to a couple of series of works in the 1970s—the implementation of more watery surfaces, square motifs, and straightened lines in 1972 through 1975 and then the “Stained Paintings” in the late seventies where you developed a technique for allowing veils of richly toned colors to drip down surfaces before rotating them so they would drip in the other direction. Can you talk about the influences for these series and some of the processes you developed while making them?
Jaramillo: Well, since I was always alone in the studio, and no one was actually looking at my work at that time, I was free to play around, to explore different means of expression. What I wanted to do at that time with the “Stained Paintings” in particular, was to disintegrate the surface. I wanted to get away from painting as painting. That’s where the whole concept of the “Stained Paintings” came about. I would put a stain on the top and then turn the painting upside down to let the colors run.
Rail: Watery surfaces became even more prominent when you began making handmade paper works with Dieu Donné Papermill in 1979. You put painting with oils and acrylic on canvas aside and in a way began painting with paper (linen) pulp. How did this seemingly abrupt shift in medium come about?
Jaramillo: It had to do with water. The running of the pigment seemed natural to me. I wanted to explore something, which I knew nothing about. I was looking for a fresh approach. I didn’t want it to have anything to do with traditional painting, with brushes or anything like that. I just wanted to get into something new. And that’s why, perhaps without even my knowledge, I started disintegrating the surfaces, which led to the handmade paper. It was more intuitive than an actual affirmation.
Rail: I know there was a desire to move away from painting in its traditional sense, but when considering the veils and layers of color, the lines, and anchoring square motifs that are present in the handmade paper works, they feel very kindred to your paintings.
Jaramillo: Right. It is because my personal aesthetic is still there. I can’t escape how I view things. But the methodology was different. I became inspired to make handmade paper one day while looking at stationery, and I found a watermark that inspired me. I put it up to the light and saw that the watermark was thinner than the actual sheet of paper. I wondered what would happen if this were blown up? Not only enlarged to signify any image, but segmented, so it becomes an abstract image. So, I went to Dieu Donné Papermill, which was only about three blocks from the studio.
Rail: How fortuitous.
Jaramillo: I know, I couldn’t believe it. When I got there, I looked at their moulds, which had all of these woven brass lines and I became very inspired.
Rail: It’s your language. It’s the language of the line that’s been carried between series.
Jaramillo: I know. Initially, the first handmade papers were very elementary, but they were leading me somewhere. They were smaller, because I had to acquaint myself with the techniques. Then I became more adventurous, and the size of the moulds increased. Eventually, they had special large-scale moulds made for me.
Rail: Dieu Donné’s longtime artistic director, Paul Wong has said “no one has ever made handmade papers like Virginia Jaramillo. And no one has ever made anything like them since.”
Jaramillo: They went along with me and my ideas, which reminded me so much of my parents, who never stopped me. They never said “No, you can’t do that.” They just kind of smiled and said, “Okay, Gigi.” That was what I needed. And I got that at Dieu Donné, which led me to expect that from everyone afterwards. [Laughs] If anyone would try to stop me from doing anything I was like, “what?”
Rail: Did people question your shift into handmade paper?
Jaramillo: No, because like I said, no one was really tracking my career or anything like that.
Rail: What were the last works you made at Dieu Donné in the mid-aughts?
Jaramillo: The last pieces I did at Dieu Donné actually look like sidewalks.
Rail: It’s interesting that you mentioned that, it reminds me of the Eames video Blacktop from 1952 that you introduced to me in our early conversations. Many of the handmade paper works recall, for me, the image of the swirling soapy water over the tar surface, especially Mount Meru or Jasna Góra – Luminous Mountain (both 2006). Equally, this action reflects your attentive observations of seemingly simple moments.
Jaramillo: Someone once told me: an artist must observe and absorb. And I said, “Oh, yeah.” You know, it goes to show you can’t escape your past.
Rail: True. And it reminds me of that story you told me about how patient Daniel needed to be to walk down the street with you because you’d be intrigued by so many things you passed.
Jaramillo: He’d stop at the corner like he was waiting for a light. It was so embarrassing for him. I would stop and look into windows, and there would be no one else doing it. By the time I continued on, there would be two or three other people looking in the window too, trying to see what I was looking at. It was so funny. And then I’d meet up with Dan who’d say “Are you ready?”
Rail: I find that really inspiring about you. I now give much more time and attention to observations than I had in the past because of you.
Jaramillo: Oh, that’s really kind.
Rail: I really appreciate the way you look at things.
Jaramillo: As an artist, you have to notice everything. It’s life around you. Someone once asked me, “what inspires you?” I replied, “All I have to do is look out my window and see all this beauty.” I mean, how could you not be inspired? I have a habit, when the day is really nice, around the same time every morning, I photograph the sky. And it’s really beautiful. But if nothing’s happening and there aren’t any clouds I don’t photograph the sky.
Rail: That reminds me of Alma Thomas painting her garden. Her vision of that particular subject was something that is unparalleled. Your work resonates in that way.
Jaramillo: Flying back from Kansas City to New York, there were so many beautiful sky formations, as opposed to the land grid underneath. I took pictures, must have been about fifty or sixty photographs on the way. Now I have to edit them.
Rail: That makes me think a lot about your interest in referencing archaeological sites, spiritual sites, your interest in foundations, and in the cosmos, even using geographical coordinates as titles for your works to reference places like Stonehenge or Teotihuacán. Are these sites you’ve visited?
Jaramillo: Some. They are sites that I am interested in. Sites that caught my attention. I wanted people to be attentive to that.
Rail: What’s your process for considering these sites? Are you contemplating places that have a history of being archaeologically significant?
Jaramillo: Yes, archaeologically significant. I’ve had interest in these sites over the years and this is my homage to them. For example, when archaeologists work on sites for twenty or thirty years, they number them and include titles. So, I title my paintings as geographic coordinates, providing another layer for viewers to think about. You can immerse yourself in the work from several different points of contact or experience.
Rail: Oftentimes I think of your work as existing within a firmament. This place between the earth and the sky. And none of the paintings ever seem to be one or the other. They vibrate somewhere in between this space, which makes the works exciting.
Jaramillo: Yes. I want to take the viewer on a trip. That’s really what it’s about.
Rail: In what ways has your earlier work inspired the paintings that you’re making now?
Jaramillo: One thing that’s always been a standard is my primary focus on earth colors, earth tones, and hand-ground earth pigments. There’s only a certain range of color that you get with earth pigments. I veer away from that every once in a while, but that’s been my mainstay. The painting, To Touch the Earth (2023) in the Pace show, reflects the minerals—gold, copper, and silver—of the Earth that early humanity used, and was available for them to create objects. It’s become a little embarrassing, because there’s repetition in certain colors that I use, however, they are meaningful to me.
Rail: Maybe you are a colorist. I’d like to close our conversation by asking: what are you excited about right now?
Jaramillo: Strangely enough, even though I was totally physically exhausted after these last several years of preparation for these exhibitions, my mind is racing a mile a minute, and I’ve come up with a new concept for another group of works. I said, “Wow, I’m so tired.” But my mind just unleashed and opened up. I think that’s what I needed, was like—what do they call that? Jump-started my brain. I’m thinking about compositions right now, and how to express this concept that I have.