Interview with Al Peters: "In Praise of Painting"
“The only valid thing in art is that which cannot be explained.” - Georges Braque
KS: You requested that we call this interview “In Praise of Painting?”
AEP: Yes, I also thought about calling it “In Praise of Intuition” for I have found no more fascinating aspect of the human mind than that of intuition, but I am an artist, a painter, not a psychologist or philosopher so “In Praise of Painting” is appropriate. Honestly, I couldn’t praise painting enough.
KS: OK. Perhaps I can begin by asking, where do you get the shapes that you use in your paintings and what do they mean?
AEP: Well, I collect them from here, there and anywhere -- and have been collecting them for quite a few years now. I have a sizable collection of shapes, which over time and use seem to converge, emerge, recede and even transform. Whatever seems to work at the moment I use.
KS: And they mean?
AEP: (…long pause…) In a way of speaking, they mean everything, but within of the context of the painting itself, they don’t mean any particular thing. Within the context of the paintings they allude to things (animal, vegetable, mineral) and I accept that fact --- but I am intent on purposely making “non-objective” paintings so I don’t want the shapes to be experienced as specific objects, i.e., subject matter. Shapes that are too specifically descriptive I usually discard or modify. One of the predominant shapes in this recent work was referred to humorously by a friend as “rabbit road kill.” Perhaps that is a little too literally descriptive (Ha!). More seriously, some have said that they thought that the shapes reminded them of plant forms and I like that -- flowers perhaps. I suppose that there is a sexual element (what is it in life that doesn’t involve sex -- (laughter) although I don’t particularly think of them in that way and I use them in a constructive rather than a biomorphic manner. I think of the paintings as painted constructions and myself as a composer. You can think of them as musical notes if you wish -- reverse musical notes. Good non-objective art, like all good art -- is a very specific, unique experience, and my art is not clothed in the guise of the recognizable. Nor do they contain any symbolic value. My paintings contain, as Giorgio Morandi said about his, “No metaphysical, psychological or literary meaning whatsoever.” Non-objective art as we know it (which began equally as a metaphysical proposition with Kandinsky, etc.) is about 100 years old and so by now it shouldn’t be particularly shocking, hard to understand -- or controversial. At any rate, my aim has never been to shock or puzzle but only to express a certain visual poetry. My paintings are visual poetry, or visual music, if you prefer, calculated to inspire emotion among whoever chooses to participate. I insist upon making a clear distinction between subject matter and content (Clive Bell) and if the lack of definite subject matter bothers you, well then, you’d better look elsewhere. (Once a woman explained to me excitedly that she understood my paintings completely! -- that I was actually painting circus parades with animals and balloons and clowns, etc., etc., and well, of course, I’m NOT! -- and I didn’t have the heart to tell her otherwise (oy!) They are painted with a very clear and specific idea as to what I want them to look like -- and then all are free I suppose, to find my vision (hopefully!) or imagine their own.
KS: You begin your statement of purpose with a fragmentary quote “…a vision to project … a tradition to sustain…”
AEP: Yes, that is an edited quote from Charles Ludlam which has for many years helped to direct and sustain me. You see when I first came to NYC in the 1980’s there was already well established in the art world a critical conversation that “painting was dead.” This seemed as silly to me then -- as it has subsequently turned out to have been -- and I didn’t need to read Clem Greenberg (although I was and did) to realize that those who believed that painting was dead didn’t care much for or know much about painting. You see I firmly believe in painting then, painting now, and painting always! (laughter!) After many years of trying many different media and approaches I simply realized that it was painting that I loved first of all and most of all and that I wanted to be a painter! -- and that as long as there were people who felt like I did (which I am quite sure that there will always be) that like nature, food, sex, etc., there would always be painting, as a human constant, constantly maintained and restored by people who love and care about it.
KS: Most people who believe that painting is dead probably meant or mean that there is not any longer much room within the medium of painting itself for innovation or novelty?
AEP: True innovation and true novelty are paramount aspects of the ongoing creative process (Stravinsky) but what really changes I think is painting’s relation to any particular culture -- not painter’s attitudes towards painting, which I am convinced remain pretty constant in all times in all cultures. Alberto Giacometti, in writing about some late Georges Braque still-lifes described them as being “audacious” and when one looks at these small canvases with their ostensibly simple marks one can readily realize what he means. Now, most people, even the cultivated ones (in our electronic, media-saturated culture) would hear the word “audacity” and immediately imagine some spectacular and daring show! True painters (artists) don’t really see it that way as for us the drama of “audacity” happens primarily within the context of (the) painting itself -- miracles made simple if you will (and that is quite spectacular -- and difficult! -- enough, thank you very much!). I’m very serious about this. For example, a particular form or shape is introduced to the composition and that form or shape is placed, say two inches from the left, it’s exact, say, pale green tint resonating with the perhaps, dark reddish brown in concert with … etc., etc. Perhaps you can get what I am saying, it is to the painter or the lover of painting the mysterious and profoundly satisfying and delightful drama of “pictorial audacity” (or not!). Genuine melodramatic leaps do happen, of course, and are sought after and encouraged, but history shows that the most interesting and lasting leaps in painting develop more subtly, organically out of the work itself. Pollack, to give a popular and an extreme example, worked his way towards and then instigated a wonderfully original and dramatic leap (with his drip technique). More subtly, Turner used to say something to the effect of, “always try to find a way to use the mistake.” I am sure that the list is endless … never ending.
KS: I like that quote by Goethe with which you end your statement of purpose, “Thinking is more interesting than knowing, but not as interesting as looking.” Could you amplify …?
AEP: Simply put, it is one of my favorite all-time quotes! Let me make the crucial addition of “doing” and with these four words we have the genesis of visual art -- with the emphasis on looking! One would think that doing was as important -- and it is -- but looking is the initial, gathering, generous and non-judgmental act, and looking is the steward of them all, the constant verifier, the overseer, if you will (pun intended). My paintings are, as I want them to be, readily accessible -- one needs not know anything special to experience them, just exert the desire and confidence to do so. Like Brancusi said (and many others) my work ultimately concerns the experience of JOY! If the artwork is not concerned with the expression of joy, then I am not interested in it and any theories don’t mean a fig (except as possible literature). I don’t remember exactly who said it, but I believe it: “a good idea never helped a bad painting and a bad idea never ruined a good one.”
KS: Nice! Can you tell me of some examples of each?
AEP: (Laughter!) All that said, painting, like all art forms (and human endeavors?) is a conversation, and it can be beneficial to familiarize oneself with the conversation(s).
KS: Regarding that thought, could you say something about your relationship with tradition and the reality of influence on you of other artists?
AEP: Yes, indeed. I make an important distinction between the many artists from all cultures throughout the entire history of art whom I very deeply love and admire -- and the few artists without whose work my work would not be possible in its exact form. For example, I love and admire very deeply Masaccio -- but without Paolo Uccello my own paintings in their exact form would be impossible. The same goes for someone like Pollack and Gorky, or Picasso and Juan Gris -- the list could go on. It seems that almost, in spite of oneself, one is linked to certain painters by some sort of mysterious perhaps chemical, psychic bond. No kidding, after traveling to Assisi I came away feeling that way about Cimabue! I think that Claude Lorain is in my DNA … and to this very day, I can hardly look at books on Juan Gris, so desperately do I covet his work -- and all of these are NOT rational decisions … (laughter!)
KS: I would like to hear you say a little about how you paint your paintings, your specific process.
AEP: I would rather discuss that issue generally -- the subject of how artists paint their paintings. You have to understand that painting is something that is little understood -- like writing, it is little practiced and little understood. Today, unless one is part of an academy, there really is no ONE WAY to paint, just as there is no ONE THING to paint. Each artist, rather, must choose what they want to paint and then INVENT A WAY (ways) to paint it. That’s what painting is and that’s what painters do. They invent, or rather, reinvent ways to paint and the paintings are a result of that inventing -- once again, not at all different from tradition. Today, of course, the options are much greater, and the education of the artist can be quite haphazard which compounds the difficulties. It’s probably why so many painters mature later these days -- more late bloomers -- (Hello!). As far as the way that I paint my paintings, well, each artist has their own secrets, and those are ours to share -- or not, as we so choose. I do, however, like it when people say, “How did you do that?” -- because I am constantly asking that as I look at paintings, and I am always looking at paintings and always trying to figure out how painters do things … it fascinates me.
KS: OK then, let me ask you this, do you have any do’s and don’ts as far as your paintings are concerned?
AEP: That is an odd and interesting question. Once out of my own curiosity I sat down with pen and paper and tried to decide on essential rules -- and this is what I came up with:
First of all, everything must be flat.
There is no such thing as no color.
The image must be unified and should defy expectations.
The edges of the support must be appropriately acknowledged.
There are no other rules!
KS: Whew! I can’t believe that we have come through the entire interview and you still haven’t really tried to tell me what your paintings mean!
AEP: Well, I do take that initial quote by Braque very seriously. All visual art is the same: Obviously the very point of ART is for the viewer to seek and to find meaning -- and without that essential self exertion, that “self-activation,” (Worringer) not much truly means anything at all! -- and very little would really stick! I will only add that in my work I have always tried to be, in the words of Voltaire, “… original without being bizarre ...”
KS: Considering the state of the present NYC art world (2011), I cannot resist asking you one last somewhat devilish question: Your paintings are without one trace of IRONY -- Do you ever feel left out or alone?
AEP: My answer to that question is YES! -- and NO! As far as painting goes unfortunately, considering the present state of the predominant culture that I live in, I do not “… have one ironic bone in my body!” I will now tell the art world loud and clear: IRONY IS A CONDIMENT -- NOT A VEGETABLE! -- and they had better quote me on that! (no laughter)
Keith Schweitzer is an independent curator and arts organizer working in New York City. Keith played an integral role in the launch and success of No Longer Empty, a non-proﬁt public arts group that orchestrates collaborative, site-speciﬁc art exhibitions in high proﬁle public locations throughout New York City.
After receiving a B.B.A. degree in Marketing and Fine Arts from The George Washington University in Washington D.C., Keith has had a diverse career in both ﬁnance and the arts. Based in Chelsea during the last ten years, he has worked with leading galleries and institutions to produce high caliber exhibitions and art projects.
Keith recently co-founded The Paper Forest, a global not-for-proﬁt arts initiative with a mission to increase exposure for emerging artists in developing nations as well as to empower grassroots environmental and social projects internationally. He is also a co-founder of the MaNY Project, a collective of artists and arts groups that together organize outdoor contemporary art installations and murals in New York.
Select projects and exhibitions can be viewed at www.keithschweitzer.com