“Interview in Alison Van Pelt’s Studio, New York”
by Michael K. Komanecky
Published in Alison Van Pelt: The Women. Ed. Michael K. Komanecky. Dayton, OH: The Dayton Art Institute
MKK: How did you become interested in painting this group of portraits?
AVP: I love painting faces. These women have such great faces to
paint. It was interesting to me that they themselves could be the
subjects of my paintings when it was their paintings that influenced me.
I’ve always been especially interested in painting Georgia O’Keeffe. I
first painted her in 1978. I remember having O’Keeffe Museum posters in
the house as a child.
MKK: When did you want to be an artist?
AVP: When I was a kid I never really thought about it. I always drew
and painted. My mother painted, her mother painted. My parents
encouraged me to paint. I took violin lessons for a brief period – they
encouraged that less. Throughout grade school and high school I
continued to paint. I was enrolled in art classes and did a lot of
drawing on my own. I was pretty driven scholastically and was headed
more in the direction of law or medicine. When I was twenty-one I was
really lost. It was a difficult time for me. I realized that I could
have given up everything – except painting. It became the most important
thing to me. I guess I was always an artist, and it became clear to me
at that point.
MKK: This group of portraits, with the exception of those artists who
died at a young age, Frida Kahlo and Eva Hesse, are of mature, older
women who are also highly accomplished artists.
AVP: As a society, we are presented with a narrow scope of beauty,
exalting nubile women. I wanted to paint the faces of these women and
explore their physical beauty, a result of their experience.
MKK: Why these artists?
AVP: I was interested in them as artists, but also as exceptional
women. They were mavericks at a time when women were marginalized from
the mainstream art world. I like what Grace Hartigan said, “If you are
an exceptionally gifted woman, then the doors are open to you. What
women are fighting for is to be as mediocre as men.” These women are
extraordinary and stand out to me. Not only where they good, they were
determined, original, unorthodox, and persistent. They seem to have been
driven by an individual internal mechanism at a time when success, in
market terms, was not a factor. The motivation seems to have been more
about one’s potential, or even, as Louise Nevelson said, “…fulfilling
MKK: It is a fascinating group of women spanning almost three
generations. Käthe Kollwitz is the only one whose career really began in
the nineteenth century. How did you choose her as one of the women you
wanted to portray?
AVP: While in Germany, I went to see Kollwitz’s self portraits at the
eponymous Museum in Cologne. She was a survivor. I could see that in
her face. I responded to that.
MKK: Frida Kahlo is another artist of this earlier generation,
younger than Kollwitz but of an older generation than all the reset. She
is something of a cult figure in our world and time. Why her?
AVP: This is more personal choice than a comment on history. Clearly, though, another survivor.
MKK: Kahlo is one of those artists who is seen largely in that
context, a powerful personality and important as an artist almost as
much for that personality as the work itself. Yet it is hard in some
ways to think about her apart from her torturous relationship with Diego
Rivera, one that seems at times undeniably destructive.
AVP: Many of these women had relationships that were destructive,
perhaps not as abusive as Kahlo’s, but in many ways they subjugated
themselves in their relationships with men.
MKK: And Georgia O’Keeffe?
AVP: It was an issue. She had to get out of the shadow of Stieglitz.
The same goes for Krasner and Pollock. They were independent at a time
when society didn’t encourage women to pursue careers and personal
MKK: When I think of Georgia O’Keeffe, I think both of her powerful
work and the striking photographs of her by Stieglitz that capture both
her physical beauty and her strong independence.
AVP: You get a sense of her strength from those images.
MKK: Each of these portraits was done on an enormous scale and most
focus solely on the face. How did these issues of scale and focus
AVP: I painted these women on a grand scale, somewhat as a form of
idolatry. I admire them now and have looked up to most of them since I
was young. In terms of framing the face there is subtle variation. I am
trying to capture character, with some I went close in on the face like
Helen Frankenthaler – while with others like Frida Kahlo, I pan out
slightly, depending upon what I find to be essential. Kahlo’s hair,
ribbons, and the line of her neck were all a part of her character as
were her facial features.
MKK: You worked in large scale in previous series, the Flight and
Fight paintings, but all of your current portraits are of uniform scale
and even larger. How did that decision come about?
AVP: I wanted paint them in large scale format and 9’ x 7’ was the biggest stretched canvas I could get through the studio door.
MKK: Did you conceive this group of pictures as a series or did it just happen?
AVP: It began with a general preconception, the sequence unfolding as
I worked. Lee Krasner and Georgia O’Keeffe were first and I finished
with Eva Hesse and Frida Kahlo.
MKK: Were you interested in Frida Kahlo more as a figure of what an artist could be, Eva Hesse more for the body of work?
AVP: Whatever difficulties Frida Kahlo faced, she had the capacity to
express herself without editing her work. My attraction to her revolves
around her independence from approval. This engenders confidence,
without which, life as an artist is much more difficult. For Eva Hesse
self-confidence was more of a struggle. But she emerged with a powerful,
MKK: Is that something you identify with?
AVP: Somewhat; I have issues with approval, but I think I have the tenacity to work them through.
MKK: Were there some women artists whose portraits you thought about painting but rejected?
AVP: No. There are so many from Artemesia Gentileschi to Mary Cassatt
and Berthe Morisot, Natalia Gonchorova, Rosa Bonheur, Romaine Brooks,
Nikki de Saint Phalle, Malvina Hoffman, and more. While I was working
within the parameters of a group of artists building careers just before
the women’s movement, this is not a historical commentary. These
fourteen women were prominent in my mind, the decision being based on an
emotional and personal response.
MKK: Are these artists you became familiar with in your own training as an artist?
AVP: Some I was introduced to in childhood under my mother’s influence, some I learned about later.
MKK: You said from an early age you wanted to be an artist, or would be.
AVP: I knew that I was.
MKK: Which is a different thing?
AVP: It was always an avocation. I didn’t know it would be a vocation.
MKK: Was there any hesitation in going to art school and pursuing art as a profession?
AVP: No. Once the decision was made to study as an artist I was completely focused.
MKK: You studied first in the U.S. and then went to Italy.
AVP: I went to UCLA, Art Center Pasadena, and Otis College of Art and
Design. Italy was much later. I went back to school in Florence at the
Academy of Art.
MKK: How was that different from the training you had up to that point?
AVP: The training was very specific. We drew from life casts, made
paint using raw pigment. Our practice was informed by the schools of
Renaissance masters. There was strict adherence to that tradition, to
building a strong foundation. I still feel like a student of painting
and I think I always will.
MKK: Drawing has played an important role for you as an artist, first
as a young child and right up to your time in Italy. Drawing certainly
informs much of what you do.
AVP: Drawing is the bones, the armature. Drawing is the foundation of
my work. When the drawing is tight, I have more freedom to be loose in
MKK: Being more a student of old master than contemporary painting,
it has always puzzled me in a way knowing that Rubens or Rembrandt would
make a drawing on canvas or panel and then paint it over. It seems such
a destructive act.
AVP: Much of great painting is destructive. It’s a lesson in
non-attachment. You have to be willing to allow a painting to change and
evolve. Look at Francis Bacon, Willem de Kooning. Einstein said,
“Matter is neither created nor destroyed – simply rearranged.” Much of
my process is the rearrangement of the paint – for me, that’s what makes
MKK: A photograph has been the source of each of these paintings.
AVP: Sometimes several photographs.
MKK: And then you go about making a drawing?
AVP: I do drawings until I am happy with one that will translate into a painting. This becomes the basis of the painting.
MKK: Then comes the destruction of the drawing.
AVP: There is the destruction of the painting as well. A very detailed painted image is broken down.
MKK: Do you do color studies?
AVP: I like to experiment with an image using variations in color,
size and surface texture. I do image studies on wood, paper, canvas…
MKK: It seems evident that some artists seem to know exactly what
they want to get before they start. Although some alterations,
accidents, and discoveries take place in the process of painting, the
near total conception has to be there.
AVP: I can plan, visualize, and make an exact drawing, but with these
paintings I have to give up a certain amount of control. I think it’s
the accident that is really so beautiful and interesting. Francis Bacon
said, “I move the paint around until it takes on a life of its own.”
That’s what’s happening in these paintings. At a certain point I am
moving the paint and just watching what it does.
MKK: The remarkable quality of these paintings is that from a certain
distance one can feel the presence of the people you have portrayed,
and yet as one gets closer and closer to the pictures they have a
different existence, as paint on canvas. It is striking to me how you
can keep both things working at the same time, particularly when you
talk about the intensity of the process, having this limited window of
AVP: The paint itself is the most interesting thing to me. The
process of painting is foremost. The subject is a vehicle to create an
image, and that’s always changing, but the technique is constant. The
fact that the texture of the paint contains the disintegration of the
image is the most exciting part to me.
MKK: Do you feel a sense of control over this while doing the painting?
AVP: Not entirely. I like to feel surprised by what the paint does –
to an extent. Each time I feel total control, I like to push a little
into the realm of chance.
MKK: Working on such a large scale is a special kind of challenge and
it has been for centuries. Again, referring to artists of earlier eras,
working on canvases so big required building a scaffold just to do it.
AVP: It’s a very physical endeavor to do the larger paintings.
MKK: Let’s talk about color. There is color in each of these
pictures, but they are each relatively monochromatic. What was the role
of color in each?
AVP: I worked in black and white for years. I was interested in form,
light and shadow, creating images in light and dark. Color is
relatively new for me. These portraits seemed to have demanded it.
MKK: Frida Kahlo is an example that comes to mind, there is a striking range of reds.
AVP: Yes. There is a deep crimson, orange, black, a fiery red, a hot pink.
MKK: In your recent series it is interesting to see that in Flight it
is an action that you have captured and frozen. In Fight, you have
again frozen action, but only in a few instances can one actually
recognize the images in those paintings. In this most recent group the
subjects are different. They are immediately identifiable, they have
been chosen because of their identity.
AVP: Sometimes my objective is to convey motion, to get a sense of
movement, a captured instant, usually movement across the canvas. But
with a portrait or still object, my concern with movement is a recession
from the surface. I want the blurring of the image to create depth. As
the image moves deeper into the painting it can begin to breathe and
vibrate. The blur obliterates pieces of information and can leave space
for the viewer’s imagination. But most importantly, especially with
portraits, the blurring is a way to get to the essential, to break down
and unify. To blur the image, removing the distraction of surface
details, allows the essence of the thing to be revealed. The essence of
that person or thing becomes the subject.
MKK: It seems you have come to a new point n doing these pictures. Is
there something that is starting to form as to what will be next?
AVP: I’m working on a new group of paintings in the direction of the
Agnes Martin piece, white-on-white, working with a perceived minimal
surface that reveals a complex, unexpected image.
MKK: Do you work on only one picture at a time?
AVP: Not always. It depends on scale and the amount of attention needed for a particular painting.
MKK: How long does it take you to complete a work from the initial drawing to the completed painting?
AVP: It varies including preparation and recovery.
MKK: What happens when you finish a painting?
AVP: I pray no bugs fly into it and hopefully I can sleep.
MKK: How long is it before you begin the next?
AVP: I get on a roll. Once I’m working on a series I stay focused on
it. I need to keep the momentum going. It’s easier to keep going than to
stop and start. But between projects sometimes it’s good to just live a
little – to have a life to bring to the work.
by Jim Dicke II and Alex Nyerges
Published in Alison Van Pelt: The Women. Ed. Michael K. Komanecky. Dayton, OH: The Dayton Art Institute
An image of Frida Kahlo stares back at the viewer through a murky
haze of time. The extraordinarily large canvas, measuring nine by seven
feet, captures the late painter in a moment of pause, a hesitant moment
of thought and introspection. This canvas and those of the other women
artists in this exhibition ALISON VAN PELT: THE WOMEN illustrate the
grace, power and beauty of these exceptional women and reflect the
powerful imagination and talent of their creator, Alison Van Pelt.
The series is comprised of a veritable “who’s who” among women
painters and sculptors of the twentieth century. Not meant to be
comprehensive in any sense since they reflect the emotional and personal
responses of Alison Van Pelt, they are quite impressive both
individually and in the collective form. Van Pelt means to impress us.
She painted these works on a grand scale “somewhat as a form of
idolatry.” And it works. Her large canvases were limited only by the
size of her studio doorway through which they entered and departed. The
finished works are much larger in the psychological sense than a mere
illustration in a catalogue can portray. These are works that need to be
experienced – the value of the viewer’s personal interaction is as
important as the interaction between the painter and the canvas at the
point of creation. They are a wonderful homage to a group of women who,
in Van Pelt’s own words, were “mavericks at a time when women were
marginalized from the mainstream art world.”
Life is made of moments that pass as quickly as they arrive. Van
Pelt’s images are based in photography but then are translated into a
thin surface of paint. They capture those fractions of time for the
viewer to ponder and contemplate.
We quickly recognized that it was important to exhibit and document
this series before the inevitable occurred – these women would be
separated and find homes in disparate points across the country and
possibly the globe. This exhibition allows us to view the series of
portraits in their entirety at the point in time closest to their
creation. This is a rare and precious moment. And like that frozen slice
of time in which we see Frida Kahlo’s inquisitive gaze, this exhibit
and publication will stand as silent sentinels upon which we can reflect