Tuesday, October 22, 2013
“Interview in Alison Van Pelt’s Studio, New York, January 2003.” Michael K. Komanecky
“Interview in Alison Van Pelt’s Studio, New York, January 2003.” 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 one’s destiny.”
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 goals.
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 evolve?
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, original voice.
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 my painting.
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 it exciting.
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 time.
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.