Interview by Paulina Pobocha
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Since 2001, R. H. Quaytman has been working on an ongoing series of paintings, “Chapters 1 – 16.” Each chapter is bound together by a unifying theme, yet the images flickering across the surface of the wood panels vary greatly—silkscreened snapshots, newspaper clippings, blinding Op Art patterns, stark geometric abstractions. Culled from or referencing a range of sources, even at first glance, these pictures are oddly familiar. They seem to point beyond themselves, evoking some vast collective image archive of the twentieth century. Installed together in a gallery, the standard-sized panels are hung at deliberate intervals, creating a landscape of contingency, and challenging the notion of a singular work of art. Writing about the experience of being in front of R.H. Quaytman’s work is like trying to describe a dream or long-forgotten childhood memory that flashes into your mind for only an instant but with enough potency to stop you in your tracks. A gallery filled with these paintings is a calibrated collection of such moments, visually intense, inherently auratic, and always elusive to language.
Paulina Pobocha: In 2001, you started to structure all your exhibitions as what you call “chapters.” To date, you’ve made sixteen chapters, each of which is a series of interrelated works that address a single theme. Can you explain the genesis behind the idea?
R. H. QUAYTMAN: The idea of organizing my paintings and exhibitions as if they were chapters in an ongoing series began in 2001, with eighty paintings called “The Sun.” They were all the same size, 20” x 32.36”. Half of them were at Spencer Brownstone Gallery, and half were at the Queens Museum of Art. The subject of the whole series was related to the site of the Queens Museum, which is where the 1939 World’s Fair occurred. At the ‘39 fair, there was a traumatic event in which my grandfather and great-grandfather were hit by a train. One of them had been born in Łódź, Poland, which I had just visited. I had taken photographs of a one-day train trip to that city, and I used these photos of trains and tracks as the binding motif of this series. After I finished those shows, I didn’t immediately know that I was going to say—“Okay, this is Chapter 1” and I will continue with this method. The idea of thinking of exhibitions as chapters was slow in coming. I don’t remember having a “Eureka” moment, but it probably had to do with 9/11, which happened right after “The Sun”. Also I think it had to do with the anxiety of turning 40. I panicked a bit, thinking, “I’m getting old” or “how am I going to take charge?” I decided to leave my gallery and claim all the problems of being my own art historian, my own collector, and my own kind of painter. I was represented by no gallery until 2007 when luckily and finally the dealer Miguel Abreu took an immediate and unmediated interest after one visit to my studio. So, between 2001 and 2008, I showed almost exclusively in non-commercial settings.
QUAYTMAN: I realized after “The Sun,” that in order to “take charge,” I needed to start being systematic about each exhibition opportunity. Then my father (Harvey Quaytman), who was also an artist, died in 2002. We had to go through all of his paintings in the warehouse, and this experience contributed to a growing painful awareness of the fate of most art objects. Five years earlier, my family also had to face the inheritance of my stepfather, David von Schlegell’s unsold work. Those two deaths of artists in my family made a traumatic impression on me as to the fragility and temporality of one’s career. It made me need to take charge of my own output and insert the idea of its ending. Rather than seeing the accumulation of unsold work in a studio as a failure in entering the market or history or whatever, I would make it an element of the project: the collection of my own work.
Pobocha: You also include the small caption paintings in practically every Chapter, so there is a strong allusion to literature. I’m wondering how you conceptualize the link between painting and writing, especially because writing and reading entail a linear progression, encountering things in a particular order over a period of time.
QUAYTMAN: The caption paintings are the only traditionally painted paintings, I mean with a hand and a brush and personal desire. Maybe this is why I somewhat ironically call them “captions,” as if they have the authority to explain the other paintings like words, which of course they do not. In fact, they do the opposite of explaining – they disrupt. I like the idea that the first chapter in a book is not put away but rather always available for the last chapter, that it is a continuum—that it began, and it will end, and I am thinking about that. I am conscious of it.
Pobocha: And, then there is writing itself. I’m thinking about your book Allegorical Decoys, in which you explain a tremendous amount about the evolution of your practice.
QUAYTMAN: That book was one of the best things I ever did, but I want to revamp it. One idea I had is to work with the same format, but this time, instead of text, it would be comprised entirely of photographs of all the paintings in all the painting Chapters. Maybe the essay which I will write will be the cover. I’m having a survey show at the Neuberger Museum in December, so I want to publish it in conjunction.
Pobocha: What type of work were you making before?
QUAYTMAN: I was always painting on wood, since the beginning. I never liked a surface with bounce. I also wanted the picture plane to have a very precise edge. With canvas, the edge is foundationally disconnected to the support. The problem, since the very beginning, upon leaving art school, was how to reinvent some rules, how to continue with abstraction but also introduce perspective. This led me to the next problem: how to paint a painting that was not founded on its bounded oneness but contingent upon different structures, whether they be architectural, optical, historical, or biographical.
Pobocha: In your work, there never seems to be one singular painting but rather a vista of painting. But can they also be understood as singular works?
QUAYTMAN: It is a kind of paradox: They are legible as singular works but they can only be made or figured out in a consideration of their contingency. Before the chapter format began, I was doing compositions in which every painting related to another painting. I first did that in 1989 in Russia, when I was in a program called the Institute des Hautes Etudes (en Art Plastiques) that Pontus Hulten and Daniel Buren had started. We went to St. Petersburg and had an exhibition at the Russian Museum. Going through old slides recently, I saw an image of the small installation I did there, and it reminded me of just how long I had the anxiety of making one painting, just the one painting.
Making a painting which could be altered by its neighbor became the way to make one painting. I was aware of this ego of painting: where it says it’s the monocular one, and I’ve always thought that that’s something that could be disrupted, something that you can think about and change.
Pobocha: And that becomes clear when looking at your work. There is such a strong relationship between the paintings, but I know that you also sell them individually.
QUAYTMAN: I’m interested in the idea that if a collector buys one or several paintings they are not getting a whole. They are not buying something finished in a sense. I retain ownership of the whole. I got this idea originally from Hilma af Klint.
Pobocha: A great many of these paintings are in fact photographic silkscreens. When, and perhaps more importantly, why did you introduce photography into your practice?
QUAYTMAN: In 1992, I began to research perspective. I read a lot of books and started using a Polaroid camera, making black-and-white Polaroids, and then I made silkscreens from them on wood. And that opened a route to content for me through abstraction. I didn’t know how to access content before. It seemed arbitrary. I developed an interest in Katarzyna Kobro because of going to Łódź. I made an exact replica in reverse of a sculpture of hers and took lots of photographs of it and then silkscreened them onto panel. It was a painting of a photograph of a sculpture. It was a sculpture that could have been made at any time in the twentieth century. It was a black-and-white sculpture, and unless you were in the actual space of the work, you couldn’t see the whole. The whole sculpture couldn’t be revealed in any photograph, which I liked. Conceptually, it connected to my idea that each painting is not a whole.So, in a sense, I’m trying to draw that point out in photography. But I also wanted to build my own art history. I became interested in asking what art mine is coming out of. I started thinking about various other people—artists, writers, architects—to incorporate. I tried some chapters that never actually became chapters. I couldn’t find the right place to show them. One subject was Anne Tyng, who was Louis Kahn’s collaborator for many years.Another one was a photographer named Dorothy Norman. I bought this photograph that she took of Afred Steiglitz’s gallery, An American Place, which reminded me of a Louise Lawler photograph—and I would also mention that Lawler’s work has had a big influence on me.
Pobocha: And you were reading a lot of art history as well?
QUAYTMAN: I would say that Yve-Alain Bois is the most important writer for my work. Painting as Model was everything for me in the beginning. In it, there’s the chapter on Kobro and Strzeminski. Reading that book propelled me forward with my ideas and was incredibly fruitful. The other artists and scholars who I got a lot from were Robin Evans, Hubert Damisch, Dan Graham, Andrzej Turowski, Birgit Pelzer, Manfredo Tafuri, and last but not least Rosalind Krauss.
Pobocha: Was Painting as Model your introduction to Kobro and Strzeminski’s work?
QUAYTMAN: It was, but I wasn’t conscious of it until I was invited to do something for Bydgoszcz, of all places, and then I remembered that text. During the early 00s, I could only get shows in Bydgoszcz and Ferndale, Michigan! I was really not happy, but in the end, I think it was very healthy for me to have had such a difficult time finding a gallery. I needed that time to stew. Also reading about Kobro’s unbelievably painful life made my problems seem so ridiculous.
Pobocha: When I went to the Łódź Museum for the first time, I had read that chapter so many times, but I had never seen the work, so it was strangely familiar, though at the time, I didn’t know why.
QUAYTMAN: And now Poland is kind of hot, but it wasn’t like that when I first went there. People still seemed engaged with a hippie aesthetic, at least the people I was meeting at the time. But I liked that it was peripheral and it had to invent itself. There is a very particular sensibility that comes out of Poland, which is an amalgamation of typefaces, geometry, and a dark humor, which is connected to the informe. It’s interesting that both Malevich and Osip Mandelstam were born in Poland. They both are foundational for me. It also interested me because my father became a hard-edge geometric abstract painter when the tendency of his generation was more towards gestural abstraction. I think it was probably that Polish DNA—lines and hard edges. He had no information at all about his roots in Łódź, completely gone. And so I wanted to find out.
Pobocha: So, the Łódź Biennial was the first show after Chapter 1?
QUAYTMAN: Yes, that was Chapter 2. A year later, Orchard was founded, and this was really good for me. All my career anxiety was relieved by having that context. I felt empowered through my peers for the first time, which mattered more to me than the market. I developed the idea of the shelving unit there and was also able to work with other artists, which, as you can see in my paintings, interests me so much.
Pobocha: And is the standardized size of the panels something that has always been a part of your work?
QUAYTMAN: I think that happened in Chapter 2, but the founding size is 20” x 32.36”, which I got from Kobro’s sculpture and from studying the golden ratio, so I began to work with those geometries. I didn’t want the size to be arbitrary, I wanted there to be a logic to it, and the same with the color. I need reasons other than personal choice.
Pobocha: And that’s something that becomes clear when the paintings are on the wall. You might not know what the governing logic is, but you see that there is a relationship between the sizes.
QUAYTMAN: That’s what I hope. It’s a way to make a syntax for a group of paintings. So, I guess there are all these rules, in a sense, to make me as free as possible and allow me to incorporate as many different kinds of images as possible.
Pobocha: And are you still making handmade, straightforward paintings as well as silkscreens?
QUAYTMAN: Yes, usually they are only the small caption paintings, and usually I start a chapter by making one of those. When I begin to think about a chapter, it usually goes as follows: 1. Making one of the caption paintings, which is more of an unconscious conjuring without rules. 2. Starting to read about the architecture and history of the site where the chapter will be, and 3. Reading poetry, which helps me get at how to approach a particular chapter. So, for example, for the Whitney, I was reading Osip Mandelstam whose work is always generative for me. His poetry is hieroglyphic, which is what my paintings are. I wanted that Chapter to address as large a subject as the window in painting. Through Mandelstam, I realized that a main point of the chapter was the idea of distance in a painting—how you can insert distance into a painting that is, at its foundation, abstract. How do you make that painting have distance and still be a flat plane?
Also there is a portrait in the series that plays on an Edward Hopper painting, Woman in the Sun, which is the quintessential Whitney painting. So, I had K8 Hardy do this pose. I realized that K8 looked a lot like the woman in the painting. She’s muscular and a bit masculine like the woman in the Hopper painting. So, I took the photograph in the museum, which was also interesting, having a nude in the museum, smoking. I made a model of the space and put these caption paintings in it. I made about twenty-three paintings in that chapter, but I could only show nine of them. It was hard having to pick.
Pobocha: When you start a new chapter, what determines the final number of images that belong to it. Is that something you think about in advance, or is it more of an intuitive process?
QUAYTMAN: It is kind of intuitive but I also have to consider of course, the size of the space. I know roughly how many paintings it can take, but I don’t know what is going to be generated by the sequence of the paintings. It’s really complicated and tough to conjure something that starts with a subset of intentions and ends up hopefully becoming something new. It’s very delicate, and it doesn’t always work. One thing can kill another thing. It’s complicated and has to do with how the audience goes around the room, the light in the room, what’s across from a painting, how to think about the paintings as mirrors and also how to approach color.
Pobocha: Do these have color?
QUAYTMAN: I wanted a new Op pattern for this Chapter, so I decided to do a ray pattern that references light. I wanted them to look black and white from a distance, but when you got up close, you could see that they had a lot of colors. So, in a sense, some of the paintings are trying to figure out how to achieve that. Finally, I did achieve it with RGB, not the usual silkscreen CMYK, and it worked out to be something better than what I had first set out to do.
Pobocha: At the ICA show, the paintings have this pinkish-purple color, which refers to a design element used by the museum.
QUAYTMAN: The ICA was kind of a shock for me because the subject of Boston was just too big. My mother’s side of the family is from Boston, and that’s something I’ve avoided. And it was mainly that: What was going to be the biographical element to it? My mother (Susan Howe) is a poet who grew up in Cambridge, and her mother (Mary Manning Howe) was an Irish playwright, a big character in my life, who was very important to me. I didn’t quite understand how to insert them into the subject of painting. So, while I was wondering about how to approach these things, I just began to work with the Institute itself, and finally, that’s what I chose to address. I realized that there was going to be a huge sign about my work on a bright pink background before you even saw it. I wasn’t used to that kind of explanation before you even looked at the work, so I took that as subject matter. How the institution explains paintings to the public became part of the subject matter. I thought I’d make a painting lesson and have an answer that you could understand for every painting—a logic and a sequence. I went through their photographic archives, and they scanned tons of images for me to work with. Finally, I zeroed in on three different images: two shows they had done, “Corporations Collect” and “Art in US Embassies.” In one of these pictures was an Op painting from the sixties. I took that pattern in the Op painting and brought it out in other paintings.
Pobocha: Op paintings are an element of every chapter?
QUAYTMAN: Op paintings work well to activate other paintings, like little engines. And they make you move. Dave Hickey wrote that they propel you through the room, and I thought that was so true. I am also interested in the sheer electricity of them because they are like television screens or monitors. They emit something like light.
Pobocha: Are they found images, or do you make them?
QUAYTMAN: I make them.
Pobocha: But the ICA was a found image?
QUAYTMAN: I settled on a particular Op pattern vis-à-vis this older painting in a photograph I found. It also referenced the shape of my stepfather’s sculpture, which is like an open book. I like the idea that an open-book shape is also an arrow. I can’t tell you how delicate it is to try to install these paintings and make it work. Very unexpected things happen when I do it. I stacked two paintings—I had no idea I would do that, but in the space, I had to do that. I usually have to bring many more paintings than will fit. I definitely think that my sensitivity to that comes out of working at PS 1 Contemporary Art Center, and helping put shows together there in the late 80s. It’s difficult to put together a room that really works.