Rachel Nackman: Your drawing Untitled (t.02.3), from 2002 (fig. 1), was made with blue painter’s tape. When did you start using that material, and how did you encounter it?
Christine Hiebert: Sometimes you have to trick yourself into making new work. I started to use blue housepainter’s tape in 2000 while thinking about building a house—but I quickly lost interest in that project when I saw that I could use blue tape to make new drawings. I saw a link between my subject matter and the material, because I’ve been thinking about structure and dwelling in my work for a long time.
Every time I start a drawing, it’s really a marriage between the medium—the tool that I’m drawing with—the surface, and me. It’s very important for me to let the medium reveal itself so that I can learn from it: each medium has a different nature. The tape gave the drawings a different look: hard-edged, industrial, temporary, and very bold. But it also had the potential to be delicate. Given the range and flexibility of tape, I could really manipulate the line in order to continue my exploration of structure and space.
RN: Was there a process of learning how to work with it practically, to make the line do what you wanted it to do?
CH: I was familiar with tape from my years studying graphic design. Before the computer, we had a way of making smooth, curved lines by bending very thin strips cut from tape . . . so I felt comfortable working with it. But I had never thought of using it in a drawing until that moment.
RN: On what scale did you start working with it?
CH: I started to use it on the wall, so it began acting on the real, physical space of a room right away. The wall felt like a natural place to work with that line (housepainters use blue tape on painted walls—it belongs there). Later I started to make some small studies on paper, and those were really about figuring out how to join things. Originally I didn’t intend these studies to be pieces that stood alone. I was just trying to figure out some things about overlapping—how lines come together, how they hold each other up.
What became clear is that the tape works on paper didn’t act, for me, as sketches for larger works. Each one really was its own little event on paper.
RN: Did you notice any change in the quality of the tape line as you moved from working on the wall to working on these more contained sheets of paper?
CH: I had always worked with graphite and charcoal, and those media pick up the movements of the hand in such a sensitive way. The tape wants to do something else—so there are twisty, curvy lines or turning lines or awkward, jagged lines, but there are also a lot of straight, bold lines. That’s just the nature of tape. And any of the drawings has a greater sense of intimacy on paper than it would on the wall.
RN: Once you started working with tape on paper, did you then move back to working with tape on the wall?
CH: I wasn’t much interested in working on the wall in my studio. There are too many things going on there, and to make a wall drawing, I needed to be able to act fully on the space of the room. So in the studio I worked on pieces on paper, and whenever I had a chance, I would find some kind of public wall—a gallery or museum wall to work on. For each new project, I looked for a wall that had a different set of conditions—different shapes, dimensions, architectural considerations, light conditions—so that each drawing could respond to something new.
RN: Before you started working with blue painter’s tape, you had been working primarily with graphite and charcoal. Your untitled drawing from 2006 (fig. 2) is made with graphite and charcoal on paper. Can you tell us how you started working with these tools?
CH: I’ve been working in charcoal since 1989. No matter what other kinds of drawing media I’ve used since then, I have always been working with charcoal at the same time.
At one time I wanted to be a painter, so I tried working in oils for a while. One day I decided I wanted to work large and didn’t have large canvas, so I set out to make a very large painting on paper. This was the first large-scale surface I had attempted, and after some frustration I picked up a piece of charcoal in order to move more quickly across the paper. I never went back to paint. I had been working small for a long time, and I felt a need to work larger. I saw that I could activate a large field more quickly with drawing because drawing is more direct. And it was easier for me to orient myself in this larger field by making a charcoal mark than a painted line.
I tried to continue some of the smaller paintings for a while, but I found that I could not be as direct and spontaneous with oil paint. I’d pick up the brush, wanting to do something in particular, and I’d put the brush to the paper—but then the brush would give. In the moment that the brush would give, I would lose my connection. I would lose the impulse. I found that very frustrating. A rigid tool, like a stick of charcoal, was much more gratifying. It responded immediately, and I could run with it.
RN: So your choosing graphite and charcoal was in part about retaining an element of control?
CH: It didn’t feel like control; it felt like directness. I know that one can say there’s sense of control in drawing that’s different from what happens in painting, but I also felt like the drawing tool could be itself a little bit more. With a paintbrush I felt like I was always the one making it happen.
RN: So you took out the middleman?
CH: I took out the middleman, exactly. [Laughter.]
RN: How has the gesture itself changed from earlier in your work to the late 2000s?
CH: Early on, I didn’t see the lines as single lines. They were put together in such a way that they merged with other lines; they sometimes even made shapes.
The lines have become more and more isolated. They may be layered, especially in more recent years, but I still think of them as individuals.
RN: Rather than as components that make a whole?
CH: Yes. They have to act in both ways—as individuals and as components—but I am especially interested in lines as individuals. The lines became more varied over time. My introducing these other media—like the tape and the ink roller—and combining them allow for a lot more variation among the lines in a single drawing.
RN: Does that possibility affect your process of placing the lines on the page?
CH: At times that process can be very self-conscious, but that’s the problem I’ve set up for myself. I’d rather not be so self-conscious. I’d rather run with the kind of fluidness that these lines suggest. I feel like the drawing challenges me to do that, and often I have trouble meeting the challenge. I sit back and wait, and then I hang onto and protect these lines. I’m not always ready to let them go. That’s a life challenge, and that’s why I think drawing is so engaging for me.
RN: Your process seems so editorial—in the way that you approach the empty space of the page or the space of the wall, it seems that there’s a lot of placing and stepping back, thinking, and re-placing. Are you saying that this type of process is one part of your search for something more fluid or immediate?
CH: Well, you can’t be completely free. [Laughter.] I think what I’m trying to do in my work is to balance these two states of being. Have a sense of freedom but also develop some kind of conscious understanding. That editing is more conscious—it’s more controlled.
RN: Can you walk us through what the application of line might feel like to you?
CH: Well, I never know what’s going to happen. I think I’m starting to do one thing, and then I go somewhere else. Blue painter’s tape turned out to be a very good drawing material for me because it’s removable—it’s very easy to take it away or to change it once you’ve put it down.
I might have a couple different widths of tape already cut; that’s my palette. Then I’ll start to place pieces of tape on paper and pick them up, place them down and turn them, pick them up and place them down, move them and turn the paper, decide I need different width lines, go right back to the cutting board, cut new widths . . .
This might take days, or it might take a couple of hours. Usually I don’t finish a piece in one session. The drawing needs some time when I’m out of the room.
RN: Is it the same for the drawings with charcoal?
CH: It’s the same process. The first marks I make on the paper tell me where to go. Over time, what gets revealed is a certain general sense of space that I might have started out with—although I can lose that.
RN: You’ve said that you don’t think that any of the lines are architectural per se, but that they come from an architectural source or structure, from building . . .
CH: Well, there is no architectural “source.” The putting-together is what relates to architecture. Each line reflects the nature of the tool, and they all reflect my nature. They’re organized: they’re joined, they interact with each other, they claim space, they provide passage. In this way the drawings are “built.”
I’m very aware of how the lines move. Any hand-drawn line has direction. It starts at one point, and it ends somewhere else. It moves at different speeds; it moves in different ways: it lurches, it becomes upright, it falls over, it wafts through the air. I’m interested in how all these different elements can live together—this variety of lines with different character. They are my materials at hand. Now how can they work together?
When I talk about architecture, I mean the human activity of creating structures to provide residence. In the past I have sometimes thought about the drawing as a metaphor for human habitation, but even that feels too literal for what I’m doing. I am really looking for each drawing to provide a place for the viewer—a way in, a way to interact with the lines and to stay with them. “Residence” seems like a condition that is important in seeing, in knowing.
Mark Williams: I decided to work with verticals and horizontals in the early 1990s, and I have stuck with them ever since. At that time, I was making paintings with lots of diagonals and jutting planes. In reviewing some of my sketchbooks, I noticed that all the sketches I was making were actually details taken from my dynamically constructed paintings. These details tended to be little boxes of activity that I pulled from the original work. One day I gave myself permission to make just the detail—maybe, I thought, everything that’s in this whole wild, elaborate construction is also in the detail. So I did that, and I really liked it . . .
I become interested in different materials as I come across them. This untitled piece from 2010 (fig. 1) is made on drafting film. I remember putting my hand on and under this translucent, frosted material, and thinking, “What would I do with this?” The quick internal response was, “I’d like to paint on both sides.” I thought about creating a new kind of space for myself, in which I’m looking through the material and seeing different surfaces of paint. I wanted to create a sense of atmosphere—not quite a fog but a density.
To make these works, I place horizontal and vertical strips of tape—of various widths and kinds—on the surface of the polypropylene. Then I paint over the tape structure, let it dry, and remove the tape to reveal the image.
Rachel Nackman: These works are made with oil enamel paint?
MW: This is oil paint applied with Spackle knives—like what construction workers might use to put a compound into seams in walls. I tape and paint one side at a time and let it dry. This takes only a day or so, because the paint layer is very thin. Then I flip each sheet over to work on the other side. In a way, I’m responding to whatever I can see through the first side. But I’m never sure which side is going to be my priority side—or if I’m going to find it interesting at all.
The oil paint tends to be opaque. I’m really interested in the translucency of the support and what I can do with it. The drafting film is a grayish color with a rather matte finish. The oil enamel I use is very glossy; I like the contrast. The enamel is mostly scraped on and scraped off, and I guess it stains the drafting film.
Wherever a piece of tape sits up high enough on the surface of the film to disrupt the movement of the Spackle knife, there’s a slightly darker area where paint has collected. That’s incidental.
Some of the little things that are going on in here happen because I make the piece right on my worktable, where there are drips of paint and things stuck to the surface. When I work directly on the table, I start to get a frottage or rubbing, like a manhole cover when you put a piece of paper on it and draw. It doesn’t look like a table at all, but some of the bumps or glitches that happen constitute the residue of this table, which I’ve had forever.
Little accidents or unexpected events can be okay. I like a little bit of visual incident. I accept it and then I start to work with it, so the result is not totally out of my control. I select when I stop and adjust.
RN: You understand your materials well enough to be able to manipulate these things, but some elements are left up to chance as well?
MW: I leave some things up to chance. But whenever I change the steps in the process, I get a different result. I’m interested in the results or consequences of my artistic actions—and not so interested in making masterpieces. Curiosity about different materials is something that drives me.
RN: You’re interested in trying something and seeing what happens as a result.
MW: And I’m interested in seeing how I might respond to the result, and what I choose to do or not to do with that.
RN: The edges of your works are what people tend to focus on—there’s a very individual quality to the edges of these planes. The pieces might be made through a relatively mechanical process, but they have a human edge.
MW: I like that. I really think of these works as handmade. There is a mechanical aspect—perhaps one would see that. But I know that all sorts of decisions have gone into each piece—so many decisions that it makes me a bit crazy to think about it.
RN: How do you choose to apply the tape to each side of the sheet?
MW: First, I know I’m going to use only vertical and horizontal elements. That is a rule I’ve adhered to since around 1994—so for quite a while. Also, every line or element is anchored to at least one edge of the drawing, sometimes top and bottom or sometimes just one side.
Why is that? At some point, long ago, it occurred to me that if I were going to use a rectangular surface—a stretch of canvas or a piece of plywood or paper—then other rectangular elements would fit quite nicely within that framework. How could I work with those? I decided that every element would need to be activated and have a kind of fit within the whole of the space. I didn’t want anything floating across the surface independently. So all the painted areas are anchored to at least one edge of the work.
RN: In terms of serial processes in your work, then, the one real constant is the compositional rule that you’ve set for yourself—that everything is anchored to one side. And that rule is applied throughout your work.
MW: It sounds simple and silly, perhaps, but it has made for endless possibilities. It seems very restrictive. “Why would you do that? You just eliminated a lot of possibilities.” But I’ve found that it allows me to explore.
RN: You’ve also said that you started working only in verticals and horizontals because they impart a sense that you’ve interrupted planes that continue elsewhere.
MW: In each work, you just see the nexus where things come together. I use the title Join from time to time. I know it sounds like it could be a carpentry term, but I think that it’s more about how you bring elements together or bring people together. You generate possibilities for something more interesting to occur.
RN: You’ve said many times, “I make the rules and I can change them.” I wonder if you’ll ever change the rule that you have of anchoring things to one or both sides.
MW: I don’t know if I’ve ever given it a second thought. I think maybe I have changed it. I don’t really start there anymore. With these works on polypropylene sheets, I just create a structure, an armature, which lies behind any visual element, literally beneath the surface of the works. That structure is modified or augmented or interrupted or messed up by these gestural elements—and also by its connection to my worktable.
In a sense, I want to say that everything arrives at a point where it’s a fabric woven together. It’s all there in one shot, but it took a lot of shots to get there.
RN: Do you make preparatory drawings for this type of work?
MW: No. I see them as an end in themselves. They stand—or don’t stand—on their own. I like the idea of making things. I like to get things out into the world and see what happens.
RN: You don’t create barriers between yourself and your process in the form of preparatory drawings.
MW: I don’t know what I would be preparing for. Why prepare? Why don’t I just play the game? Playing the game gets me just as much feedback as practicing would—maybe more. If you’re just playing in your little studio all the time, you never know how your work is going to affect somebody. If you’re trying to communicate with other people, then communicate with them.
I follow things that are interesting to me. And in a sense that’s what I’d like to do in turn: to interest somebody else. Then maybe they can make something in response to my work.
Play to hear Mark Williams discussing the concept of chance in his process.
Play to hear Mark Williams discussing preparation in his practice.
The following discussion was conducted by email with the artist in July 2012.
Rachel Nackman: How did you select the materials you used to make these drawings, and what makes them work well for you?
Hadi Tabatabai: For DF-27 (2005; fig. 1) and DF-29 (2007; fig. 2), I used drafting film, colored pencil, and acrylic and vinyl paints. I usually select material based on need, but in this case, I think I was intrigued by the drafting film itself. This type of drafting film has a frosted working surface on both sides, and since the material is translucent you can see both surfaces at once.
RN: Can you describe the process by which you make these drawings?
HT: The drawings are made using a technique similar to glass painting, in which the paint is applied in layers to the reverse side of the glass. Here the windows of the grid were painted first, and then the background color was applied over the first layer. So the entire painted area is seen through the drafting film, and if one were to turn over the drawing, all one would see would be the background color. Afterward I outlined all of the edges with colored pencil on the front side of the drafting film. Because material is applied to both sides of the film, the viewer is allowed to move back and forth between the two surfaces.
RN: What is your working environment for making these drawings?
HT: It varies, but I usually work on a very messy drafting table, where I constantly have to move things around to find a place to work.
RN: How do you prepare yourself for the work ahead of you?
HT: I usually try to take instruction from the work itself. To do that, I try to remove myself from the work as much as I can, since the work ultimately knows what it needs to be, whereas I have only a vague notion.
RN: DF-27 and DF-29 are part of a larger series of drawings. When did you begin making this series, and how long have you continued working within it?
HT: I started making these drawings in the summer of 2005 for a show titled Series at Gallery Joe in Philadelphia. The show opened in December 2005. I continued making these drawings for about four years, and by the end I think I had made fifty-three of them.
RN: Within that series, have you experimented with variations from work to work?
HT: The drawings started out as simply having a painted surface on the back and a line drawing on the top of the drafting film. Afterward I moved from using colored pencils to using a drafting pen, applying acrylic ink lines on both surfaces, before finishing with an overall painted background on the back. From there I moved to using threads to make lines. I would adhere thread to the back of the drafting film and then apply a layer of paint behind it.
RN: You’ve said that rhythm and proportion are very important to you in developing your composition and that those decisions are made intuitively as you work. Where do you try to take each object during the process of making?
HT: The pattern, proportions, and color of each object come from the desire to create work that is neutral. An impossible task, perhaps. So the first piece always informs the second one. If, after finishing the first piece, I realize that it is too light, then the next piece tends to be darker. By making the second piece darker, I realize that the proportions don’t work anymore. Adjusting the proportions in the following piece will affect the temperature of the color, and I will make it hotter or cooler. And so on. . .
RN: Space is also an important element in your work. How do you use your materials in these drawings to engage our perception of space?
HT: Transitional spaces are the main area of interest in my work. This is the type of space where one thing shifts into another—the empty space between things. In the case of these drawings, the material of the drafting film itself is that space. As your eye moves between the painted back of the work and the drawing on the front, you are moving through the drafting film, which is empty of any gesture.
RN: You have made objects using many other materials, including thread, wood, and beeswax. How does working in two dimensions, in acrylic and vinyl paints on drafting film, change the nature of your process?
HT: For at least the past fifteen years, my intentions in making my work have not changed much. What drives me to make my work is often the limitation of the materials. Failures in working with other materials were probably what brought me to using drafting film. Ultimately the process itself does not change. It is always a learning cycle in understanding the materials and trying to come closer to my vision.
Rachel Nackman: How did you begin making drawings with a typewriter?
Allyson Strafella: I started using a typewriter when I was in college. I would go to the school library every day and use the typewriter there as a way to process my thoughts. The writing was very stream-of-consciousness; I set no rules for myself, had no structure—I just put words down. In school, written language was always tough for me. How do you use language? How do you use words? I always felt a pressure to do it correctly and formally. So when I started showing up at this typewriter each day with no rules, it was total freedom. I could just write.
Then one day I sat down and thought for a little too long before I started to write. For me, the writing was supposed to be about not thinking, about just writing whatever my thoughts were. I didn’t want to become too conscious of what I was writing; that was what I was trying to avoid. So on this day when I had sat and thought for too long, I just absentmindedly hit the dash key. That particular key has a repetitive keystroke, and when I held it down, it made a really nice dotted line across the paper. Then I did it again and again. It eventually turned into a grid. Somehow I felt like I had fallen into my world.
In school, I always felt like I was trying to find my center. What is my work? I was always working from the outside in, trying to define it. That first typewriter drawing allowed me to start working from the center out. If you’re floating out in the world, always drifting, it’s hard to find wherever it is you’re grounded. You can’t make a decision until you know what you want to do. But once you know what you want to do, everything can happen more easily. With the typewriter drawing, I felt like I had broken through my fear of traditional language and had found my own visual language. Drawing, mark making, and form: that’s my language. I just happen to use a machine meant to be used for English words.
RN: Can you describe the process of making a drawing like factor (2007; fig. 1)?
AS: I use a typewriter as a tool for making marks. When I started to make the typewriter drawings, I was thinking a lot about rhythm and pattern. As I was typing, I would think about the keys hitting and the sound. I was also thinking about the forms on the paper—whole forms and what happens if you remove a piece from a form and put it somewhere else. This drawing is a little bit like that, in that it has the original circle form, and then there’s a piece of the circle that’s taken away and moved to create two forms. I think much of the process here is in thinking about forms, pulling forms out of forms. I always like things that are either slightly off-center or incomplete.
RN: When you begin making a drawing like this, you choose one mark that’s repeated throughout, and you also make decisions about the form that those collective marks end up creating.
AS: Over time I’ve come to use primarily one key on the typewriter: the colon. I pretty much know that’s what I’m going to use when I start making a drawing. As for the form the colons create, I always think that the last drawing leads to the next drawing—in some ways, it is a linear evolution.
I’m interested in circles because a circle is a form that goes against the linear structure of the typewriter. I like the idea of making a circle as well as I can, using a machine that doesn’t really do circles. I also like circles that are just slightly incomplete, so it isn’t a fully formed sphere. Factor falls into a series of drawings in which I was playing with the circle, the sphere, and the linear structure of the machine. A lot of the time my process is just thinking about the form—imagining the sphere, what it does, where it goes.
RN: Does knowing ahead of time what the component of the mark is going to be—the colon—allow you to focus only on building form?
AS: Probably. I think that’s why I’ve become so committed to the colon—because I know what it’s going to do. I like the density of the mark it makes. Through this dense building up of marks, the paper breaks open, which I love.
I know the possibilities, but I don’t always know the outcome. How much will the paper tear? How dense will it be? I use a machine that has a built-in structure, but I try to manipulate that structure subtly by holding the typewriter carriage—which allows me to adjust the space automatically placed between key strikes. It’s inconsistent because I interfere with the machine.
RN: You’re manually kerning, and the spacing becomes irregular because you’re doing it, as opposed to the machine doing it.
AS: Right. Even the machine has its irregularities. I always thought that I loved straight lines—lines that were clear and beautiful and uniform. But the typewriter makes a really beautiful line that is not straight. It moves, it has a current through it, something that shifts and vibrates. It has its own inconsistencies, and then I get to bring in my hand.
RN: And the typewriter is mechanical—not digital.
AS: That’s right. People always ask me why I don’t use a computer to do this. Well, the computer is sort of sterile. It’s a machine made to achieve as much perfection as possible. I can’t get the tactile quality of the typewriter’s marks with a computer. The typewriter is so physical, and I love that element: the physical gesture of a key hammering into the paper.
RN: Is the experience of making a drawing immersive for you? Where is your mind when you’re making these drawings?
AS: A lot of times my mind is in the drawing or thinking about what the last drawing was and where it might lead. In the middle of making one drawing, I might get an idea for something that I want to make afterward. When I first started using the typewriter, my mind was a lot slower and more present in the drawing. I was totally engaged. Everything else fell away. My consciousness has since shifted, and now I think about other things while I’m drawing. Usually those other things are related to what’s in my studio—other things that are lying around or things that I’m looking at.
The things that I look at fuel my thoughts. A lot of the time I’m thinking about architecture, or structure, or nature. My work is generally seen as abstract or minimal, but while I’m not rendering the landscape in traditional ways, I am completely informed by it. If I could, I would be out in nature making beautiful botanical drawings. But that’s not my language.
RN: On your website you have a number of resource videos. Can you tell us a little bit about them?
AS: I took those videos when I was traveling in India. In one video a man is pulling a string; he’s drilling, and he’s rigged up the string to run a basic tool to drill a hole. It looks like he’s playing a musical instrument. There was something there that seemed connected to the sensibility of the typewriter. In today’s world, almost every machine is made with the intention of the user not having to do a lot to get something done. Today you just push a button and something happens. Those little resource videos, for me, are about real machines.
I think that’s what I was looking at in India: ways of getting things done using invented methods of making that are part machine and part human hand or human body. The custom typewriter that I built is sort of like that. We cannibalized a Smith Corona, and then I worked with a machinist to build a carriage that is thirty-six inches long. In a way, it’s overbuilt; I think we both realized that. It was complex to figure out how to reroute the machine to do certain things. But there’s something humorous about that to me. Here I am, so committed to these old machines, to the point where I’d want to build my own machine rather than use a computer, like people are always suggesting. Using the typewriter to make works of art is more like building sculpture than making two-dimensional drawing.
RN: Your interest in using machines is not about efficiency; it’s about how the machine can be used as an extension of your own body.
AS: Yes, right.
RN: One thing about your videos that’s really striking is the sound—the rhythm and the repetition. I wonder if that repetitive quality is a major part of the intrigue of your process.
AS: Exactly. When I first started making typewriter drawings, I was very aware of the sound of the keystroke; it was like a film projector, that wonderful sound of the film going around, clicking. Those sounds seemed to be so much a part of the process, the making and the viewing and the seeing of things. The sound of the typewriter, the rhythm and the counting, has evolved into a sort of formal consciousness. It is a form of meditation, I would say.
That sense is still there when I make drawings, but it’s almost like I know too much about my tool now. I’m still aware of the sound and the rhythm, but at this point I want to make the drawing and get the image. I’m always so anxious to see the form I’ve made that sometimes I drift away from the rhythm and the sound.
RN: How much of the form can you see while you’re making it? Or is the process really about listening to the rhythm of the typewriter and intuiting where to stop each line?
AS: Initially it was exactly that: listening and counting in my mind and intuitively knowing where I wanted to stop. As the drawings have evolved, I’ve come to think so much more in advance about each drawing, whereas initially it was more spontaneous. Now I think about the rhythm and the sound, but more preparatory thought has gone into the form, so I’m trying to get to that form. I might draw on the back of the page as a guide, if there’s something I want to make sure to accomplish, rather than letting it be.
RN: What side of the paper do you see while you’re making the work? What sorts of papers do you put into the machine?
AS: I use a lot of carbon paper: colored carbon and black carbon. Initially I was working with just white paper and black carbon, and the carbon sheet goes on top of the paper. There is always an element of surprise. Sometimes I’m anxious to finish the drawing because I want to see it. I don’t really see it in the typewriter. It’s like being a little kid—you can’t wait, so you keep peeking. I keep pulling back the carbon and looking as I go along. If I peek a little bit, it keeps me moving. But I never really know what’s going to happen until I take the drawing out and peel back the carbon.
Then usually I am left with two drawings: I have the carbon and I have the drawing on paper, the positive and the negative. When I’m making the drawing, I still feel the excitement of wondering, “What is it going to be?” If it doesn’t quite come out how I imagined it, do I sit with it, or do I cut up that drawing? Is the drawing somewhere in there? Do I need to find it or crop it? I’m open to all of that. If a drawing is not what I thought it would be, I don’t disregard it.
Rachel Nackman: How did the Laid Line drawings develop?
Karen Schiff: The Laid Line drawings came out of my concern about being able to relate directly to the physical world. Before I started this series, I was making rubbings of floors, getting a sense of a texture that isn’t immediately available to the eye. The Laid Line drawings were an attempt to get at the texture of paper, which one also can’t necessarily see. But I knew that I couldn’t just rub my pencil over the surface of a sheet of paper and make that texture visible. I had to articulate it more closely.
Both the rubbings and the Laid Line drawings perhaps grew out of my practice of meditation. A lot of people think that meditation is about going somewhere in your head—a nice beach or some fantasyland. But my experience of meditation is that it’s simply and literally a practice of being in touch with what’s actually happening and with the world that’s around us. And it’s “practice” for doing that all the time. The techniques that I use in my drawings are material ways of bringing that practice into my art making.
RN: So you’re trying to “get in touch” with the paper, to enhance your own understanding of its character?
KS: Yes, I want to “understand” the paper but through the senses. And I want to give that sensory experience to the viewer as well. Paper is the underlying substrate of so many drawings. In the Laid Line drawings, the physical object is highlighted. The drawings invite viewers to have a visceral experience of what is immediately in front of them.
RN: Does the drawing act as a scrim over this object: a screen through which you hope people will see the paper in a different way?
KS: It is a scrim—in the sense that I’m layering graphite over the paper. But I actually want that layer to act as more of a conduit. I want to lift a veil between the viewer and the object.
Wynn Kramarsky: Clarifying is probably a good word for that.
KS: Yes. I highlight or articulate the paper, clarifying our view of what we can’t so easily see.
WHK: For a fairly general audience, I think it might be good to distinguish between laid and wove paper.
KS: Sure. The laid paper I’m working with is made on a mold, with a mesh of very fine wire ribs. The resulting paper is embedded with a perpendicular grid that looks like books on bookshelves. That laid texture intrigues me—maybe because it reminds me of Agnes Martin’s grids but also because it’s a clearer texture than you can see in wove paper. Papermaking molds for wove paper have a very dense, interlocking wire structure, which results in a more uniform, allover texture.
RN: When you make other drawings, do you work primarily with laid or wove paper?
KS: Neither. I actually avoid making other types of drawings on textured papers because I find the texture so distracting. One of the sources for this idea was a Vincent van Gogh drawings exhibition that I saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art [Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings, October 18–December 31, 2005]. I kept looking at the papers Van Gogh used because their textures and colors were so intriguing. I was thinking, “How can he be making all of these marks on the paper, when there are already so many marks in the paper?”
RN: When did you make your first Laid Line drawing?
KS: It was in 2006, when I was on a residency at Jentel in Sheridan, Wyoming. The drawing in this exhibition is from the pad of paper on which I first started tracing the Laid Lines. I had the idea maybe a year earlier, and as with lots of my ideas, it sprang fully formed into my head, but I let it simmer for a while. In this case it finally reemerged because I found this particular pad of paper—and I make Laid Line drawings only on paper that speaks to me in some way. If the paper is materially intriguing, then I want to work with it, to bring attention to whatever it is about it that I find qualitatively interesting.
RN: Why was this particular pad of laid paper intriguing to you?
KS: It had nice proportions—I liked the seventeen-by-fourteen-inch size. It had a good color, a good weight. For those reasons, I bought it, but when I got back to the studio and looked at it more closely, I realized that there were all kinds of anomalies in this paper that made it even more interesting. The columns in this main space of the paper—they’re called chain lines—are not always evenly spaced. Sometimes they’re bending or curving! That’s what intrigues me so much about this project. When I engage with real paper, it’s not ever what I expect. My goal is to bring out those anomalies.
I should say also that this is machine-made paper. I use only machined papers in the Laid Line drawings; I don’t use handmade papers. I have a sense that daily, seemingly boring materials are actually quite unusual the more you look at them. These machine-made papers, which try to be so regular in their manufacture, actually contain surprising details. The more we look at our daily surroundings, the more surprised we might be.
I want to show the human quality in machined material. That human quality comes out of the paper—not only in the bending chain lines, but whenever I clarify or articulate these details, my hand also makes mistakes. Variations come from me as well as from the machine.
RN: By applying graphite to the paper, you bring all these imperfections to the surface.
KS: Yes. I use only tools that will respond to my hand—graphite, ink—but applied with a brush or a dip pen so that there is variation in the mark.
RN: How do you decide where on the page you’re going to begin drawing?
KS: I hold the paper up to the light and examine it. What I’m looking for are the places where there are bends in the chain lines, where the widest and narrowest columns are. . . . This particular pad of paper had an anomalous horizontal seam that fell at a different place on each sheet—an extra bit of raised texture. In this drawing, I found where that horizontal seam fell within the field of the sheet, and I used that to determine the location of the top edges of these two columns.
RN: Is that sort of decision based in any additional way on the formal composition that you’d like to develop? Or are your choices based entirely on the conditions of the material?
KS: It’s some of both. In this drawing, the dark column is the narrowest column in the whole field, and the lighter column is the widest column in the whole field. I was really interested to see what it would look like to make a drawing of just those anomalous columns.
When I make drawings in which more standard columns are involved, I annotate those columns in a medium gray, in terms of the density of the graphite. I decided that if I were to squeeze the graphite—to fit into the narrower column—it would get denser and therefore darker. And if I stretched it out like taffy—to fill the wider column—it would get lighter. That was my color-coding key for this series.
RN: Do you feel that it’s important for a viewer to understand what you are doing on each page, why your marks are arrayed in a certain way?
KS: I think that each drawing—if it’s working—has its own life. I don’t need to say anything about it. Ideally, if somebody looks at it long enough or hard enough, the source for the marks will reveal itself.
WHK: That assumes that people know enough about paper to begin with.
KS: In a way, I don’t assume that people know anything about paper.
WHK: Do you hope that your drawings will teach them something?
KS: Yes, or bring them to appreciate the paper visually, even if they don’t know how those creases are made.
WHK: It’s a leap of faith.
KS: It’s a hope. I’m really interested in bringing out the art in the everyday or the artisanship in the machine. That’s partly because I’m distressed at the way that culture seems to be veering so far away from valuing craftsmanship. Through these drawings, I’m saying, “There is actually craftsmanship here—even in the stuff we think doesn’t have it.”
RN: What do you think about while doing the repetitive work involved in a Laid Line drawing?
KS: I’m thinking both of keeping track of where I am and of anything else that happens to be in my head. I hope that the process reveals not only the actuality of the paper but also the moment-by-moment engagement of my hand.
Paul Klee used to say that drawing is taking a line for a walk, but when I make these lines, I feel like I’m walking hand in hand with the line. When you’re walking with somebody, holding hands, you are aware of holding hands with that person, but your mind can be anywhere. If I’m too fixated on these lines, the whole process feels so tight that I get exhausted, and I think that the drawing suffers as a result. If I’m too loose with my attention, I’ll go beyond the margin, or I’ll otherwise lose track of where I am on the paper. I need to have my mind somewhere in between paying attention to the physical act and not paying too close attention. It’s like a light touch—an awareness with an aerated quality.
RN: Is this a frame of mind that you enjoy?
KS: Yes. It’s relaxing, both because I enjoy working with the paper and because it’s a frame of mind that feels generous toward my own thoughts, which could involve anything.
RN: These drawings do so much to clarify and annotate your materials, but are they ever about you?
KS: I was just thinking about the word clarifying and how it relates to butter. When you clarify butter, you separate out the parts, but also it becomes much more rich, and it tastes good. That’s something about me that I hope comes through in these drawings: an expression of my appreciation for these materials. Even though the genesis of these drawings is conceptual, they also come from a deep love of material that I hope people will pick up.
WHK: I think any good drawing is a self-portrait. Maybe it’s totally abstract, but it is an expression of whatever that artist is trying to communicate. It is very important that you’re a part of this, intrinsically, because without that involvement, the drawing would not exist.
KS: I’m showing you my priorities here—and my priorities are, to some degree, getting beyond myself. My contribution is to say: “Look at this paper! Isn’t it cool? There’s so much to it.”
WHK: It’s interesting that, even with that kind of concern for the material, you decided to use machine-made paper rather than handmade paper. For many people, the idea of paper being handmade is very important, and they want to communicate that. Your approach is more twenty-first-century.
KS: Yes. Well, I’m not just concerned with this piece of paper. I’m concerned with the world to which it belongs. If it’s handmade, then the world that it belongs to feels almost hermetically sealed—enclosed in craft. This paper does belong more to the twenty-first century.
RN: While you were beginning this series, you were also conducting research on contemporary music. I imagine that as you make each drawing you develop a rhythm of making that drawing.
KS: Yes. That’s so true. The tool changes the rhythm, and it develops into a way of spending time or thinking about time.
RN: Or marking time.
KS: Yes, literally. That’s another way I think about these drawings: each of these lines is a separate moment. Each is like a character in a language that we don’t yet understand. Each character is unique, even though it’s the same type of mark.
RN: You’ve said that perhaps what attracted you to laid paper was its reference, in your mind, to Agnes Martin’s work. Agnes Martin has been very important to you throughout your practice.
KS: For me, Agnes Martin is a model of rigor and of honoring a certain aesthetic standard and work habit. Her works exhibit a mixture of a human touch and a regular, quasi-mathematical sense of proportion.
My Laid Line drawings are gridded, as much of her work is gridded, but the sources for our grids are completely different. She would have a feeling, an “inspiration,” and she would wait until she could envision whatever geometry was going to make manifest that particular feeling. This was a romantic activity, and in a way I’m a romantic too. But my romance is with something very real-world. I look to material reality for my inspiration. It’s my contact with reality that inspires the work.
Play to hear Karen Schiff discussing awareness and intention in her work.
Winston Roeth, Selected Desktop Drawings, 1990-2011
Graphite and ink on graph paper, 40 sheets, each 8 1/2 x 11 inches (21.6 x 27.9 cm)
© 2012 Winston Roeth
If you would like to view this slideshow on an iPad, please click here.
Rachel Nackman: When did you start making the desktop drawings?
Winston Roeth: I have always drawn, but the desktop drawings became a more formal practice when I started making them on graph paper in the mid- to late 1980s. Around that time I was beginning to receive the kind of financial support that I needed in order to be more active in the studio. I was spending more time at my desk—more time thinking about what I was doing and what I could be doing—and the desktop drawings became a good conduit through which to organize my thoughts.
RN: How did you decide to start using graph paper?
WR: To me, the graph paper provided a nice way to measure space in my mind. By using the increments of the printed grid, I could establish scale and get an understanding of how something might look in space. I could also play around with the grid of the graph paper as a formal element, which was mirrored in some of the drawings and paintings. Altogether, the graph paper provided a neat, compact way of thinking out loud on the page. And I liked the notion that the grid was there before me and would be there after me; I find that very nourishing.
RN: Is that sense of continuity one of the things that attract you to graph paper?
WR: Yes. The grid is a constant with which I can work directly. It can be contained within itself, but it can also express something that extends beyond the borders of the page.
RN: Did you initially begin making these drawings with specific paintings in mind? Or were they just one part of your larger studio practice?
WR: In the beginning I was just noodling around, trying to figure out proportions within paintings. The desktop drawings were never so directly correlated that one drawing referred to one painting. All these drawings have a kind of flux to them; they keep flowing back and forth. Sometimes I make these drawings over and over, with little increments of change here and there, so that ultimately the ideas begin to pull together, and then I have a record of all this thinking.
When I decided to focus on gathering together all the desktop drawings, I tried to retrieve whatever I had squirreled away in boxes here and there. When I left Manhattan and moved up to Beacon many years ago, I had put a lot of things away in storage. I started to pull out these desktop drawings and organize them—trying to date them correctly and put them into a kind of timeline. I began to realize that these drawings are an interesting record of my work over a certain period of time.
RN: The earliest one that Wynn has is from 1990.
WR: Yes. Around that time I started to find significant support for my work, and my mind was really trying to grow in many different directions at once. I was inspired. The earliest desktop drawings were made freehand, and then as I started to become more focused in the late 1990s, a bit more discerning, I used a ruler.
RN: How do you think the desktop drawings fit into your overall practice? How do you use them while you’re working on your paintings?
WR: The desktop drawings have changed over the years, but I would say that they serve primarily as a backdrop. They’re like the rudder of a boat as it moves through the water. The way I have worked for many years is in many separate currents of painting; the drawings allow me immediate access, across currents, to all areas of my work. For example, if I’m working on some grid paintings and I get a bit tired of working within such a rigid system, I can use the desktop drawings to take a turn toward more open color. Often the desktop drawings help my thoughts drift off into whatever direction I want to go.
RN: Do you use the desktop drawings throughout the process of making a painting, before, or after?
WR: It’s not a formally regulated system; I would simply say that I’m always making them.
RN: When you’re making a desktop drawing today, are you ever conscious of the fact that it relates to one particular painting? Or are the drawings more atmospheric?
WR: Atmospheric is a good way to put it, yes. Then again, they can occasionally be quite specific. If I’m working on something and I need to find a little advice on what I’m doing, making a desktop drawing sometimes gives me just the push or the focus that I need to take it to the next level.
RN: When you make a desktop drawing in direct relation to a painting that you’re making, do you use the drawing as a compositional tool? Or do you use it to make color choices?
WR: I use the drawing primarily as a compositional tool, especially when I’m organizing a grid, which presents so many variables within such a simple form. I can measure out a painting in front of my eyes using a desktop drawing. All kinds of decisions can be quickly accessed and made. I might make a few notes on the margins of the drawing about colors that I have in mind. Sometimes I change to a colored pen, just to play around with how color might change the image, but those colored inks are specific to the drawings and don’t travel into the paintings. The desktop drawings are basically black, blue, and red ink; the paintings have much more complicated color.
I did find that in some of the desktop drawings, if I worked the ink into the paper over and over again, I’d start to achieve some of the material aspects that are interesting in the paintings, like a little sheen on the surface that allows the color to shift slightly.
RN: Some of your desktop drawings are oriented horizontally and some vertically. Some of them have more marginal space than others. But in none of these drawings does the image take up the entire sheet.
WR: No, the drawings are always set within some kind of space. Oftentimes you’ll see a line that runs across the bottom of the sheet, like a baseboard, where the wall meets the floor. I use some desktop drawings to play around with particular arrangements of forms in space. In some of them, I was preparing for a show that I had at the Eric Stark Gallery on Crosby Street in 1997.
RN: In the drawings relating to the Stark Gallery installation, there is a fair amount of architectural detailing included.
WR: It was such a challenging space that I wanted to think through the whole exhibition as best I could. I literally used the gridded paper to reconstruct the walls of the space and to test hanging the paintings within them. A lot of the drawings have to do with where certain works are going to hang in a gallery. Making a drawing often helps me to deconstruct the complexity of an installation, to find the nugget of what I’m trying to achieve.
I also use the desktop drawings to do a lot of exploring. They’re not the works themselves; they’re just drawings for the works or, more simply, drawings of ideas. If I went through all the desktop drawings, I would say that most of them were never realized. They’re just possibilities.
They’re the same ideas that I have always had—similar ideas run through my career. The desktop drawings give me a sense of where those ideas have navigated. Titles surface that never were attached to paintings; if I still like the titles, I may want to use them. The same thing goes for proportions, placement. As I move from one group of works to the next, the drawings are right there for me to use.
RN: How do you prepare yourself to make a desktop drawing?
WR: Well, I just take out my pad of paper and get a pen. It’s not very formal. I don’t have to prepare myself to do it. It just happens.
RN: Do you ever throw any of them away?
WR: Well, sometimes my hand slips or coffee spills . . .
RN: But are there ever drawings that you just don’t like?
WR: This is the one format in which I don’t have to worry about liking or not liking something. If I keep a drawing that I don’t love, it’s just a part of a body of work. They’re not that important individually.
RN: You occasionally make desktop drawings in preparation for a certain exhibition in a certain space. How do you use those drawings when you’re installing?
WR: My first time installing in a gallery, I usually walk in cold and think, “What are we going to do here?” After I’ve learned the space and seen it a few times, then I begin to imagine the works within that setting and to make drawings.
RN: Do you ever bring a desktop drawing with you to a gallery to aid in the actual installation process?
WR: Well, sometimes I will fax one to the gallery to let them know what works are coming. Or I’ll fax one to the people packing the work for transit, so that they can keep track of what goes into each box. That sort of inventoried list or sketch—made by hand—is probably going to become less relevant in the future because of the computer.
RN: Do you think you would ever make a desktop drawing on a computer?
WR: No, I don’t think so. It’s handier to work on a drawing pad right in front of me, and I like that practice. It’s much more private.
RN: In the group of drawings we’ve selected, we can see many titles underneath the images, like captions. Some titles recur, and some never show up more than once. How do you use your desktop drawings to make determinations about titles?
WR: A title might be really clear in my mind as something I’d like to use, so I’ll use the drawings to work out which painting it belongs to. Some of the drawings are just inventories of extant works, so in that case the little sketches already have titles attached to them.
RN: One of the drawings has a list down the side of titles that you may have been thinking of at the time, but they’re not attached to any particular image in the drawing.
WR: That’s something else, aside from the drawing: I make lists on paper of titles that are looking for a home. They’re floating around in my head. Sometimes one seems right for a particular work.
That’s what I like about the desktop drawings: things just float in and reveal themselves. Sometimes that’s all they need to do.
RN: Some of the drawings have dimensions written on them, and some do not. Are these different types of drawings, or do you make them at different points in your process?
WR: The drawings that indicate dimensions are usually linked to physical paintings. In those cases, I would have been using the drawings to make decisions about the painting’s scale.
RN: How would you feel about showing one of these drawings alongside the finished painting to which it corresponds? Would that be antithetical to what a desktop drawing actually is?
WR: In most cases, yes, it would be misleading. I think the desktop drawings are not about finished paintings, even if they occasionally correlate directly. They’re really about the ideas. When I review the desktop drawings, I end up thinking: “Oh, my gosh. That was a really good idea for a painting, but I never got around to making it. Maybe I’ll get to it someday.”
Rachel Nackman: How does drawing figure in the entirety of your work?
Erwin Redl: There are two ways that drawing fits into my work. First, it can function purely as an engineering tool; second, it serves as an artistic expression. Then there’s everything in between.
RN: This series of drawings was made in 2001 as part of your proposal to the Whitney Museum for its 2002 Biennial. The project ultimately realized was a light installation on the façade of the Marcel Breuer building.
ER: Engineering is a very creative trade. These drawings were made on paper, but now much of the engineering work is done on the computer. Very often we don’t even print it out anymore. Going back to 2001, everything was done by hand. My technician and I would sit with two pencils and draw on the same drawing. The artistic part was solely in my corner, but when it comes to figuring out how you should work in the real world, with real problems, the plans are made collaboratively.
In 2001 the visualization process was almost exclusively completed by hand. Even though much of the work is done on computers today, I continue to sketch ideas for myself by hand because I love the gestures. It’s good to have a corporeal step between the idea and its realization in the three-dimensional world, and that step is made by hand.
There’s a whole group of artists and engineers that I call “pixel pushers.” They don’t have any idea about gravity or mass or volume, because for them those concepts are just pixels on their screen. I grew up in a workshop with my father, who was a furniture maker. For me, everything was about mass. As a kid I grabbed stuff intuitively and learned by osmosis—not in an abstract way, like with a pixel. It’s very different now. I’m not saying it’s better or worse. It’s just a different concept of reality.
RN: Can you tell by looking at these drawings at what point in the development of the piece they were made? Were there other drawings made before these?
ER: These drawings showed different versions of what I could do. Larry Rinder, the curator at the Whitney, saw my piece MATRIX IV in the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage as part of Creative Time’s project Massless Medium: Explorations in Sensory Immersion in 2001. He asked me to do something for the Biennial.
In preparing for this piece, I had to tell them what I wanted to do and think carefully about how it could be done, because we were dealing with the Marcel Breuer building. It’s a landmark; you can’t drill into the façade. It was a long process—between an idea, the rehearsal of the idea, and then what you actually do.
Most of the time the idea process is very quick. I don’t fuss around too much, especially at the scale of these drawings. The ideas are mostly spontaneous. If I go to look at the space while working on a proposal, it usually just happens. How it happens goes with the experience—seeing how it influences you.
Then you have to present the idea to yourself, because at first it’s just in your headspace. Get it out and look at it. How does this actually look? Not just in your head but on real material, in a drawing.
RN: Is that process like a translation?
ER: It’s just like a translation. You have an idea about something you want to do, and then you have to explain it to somebody else. The older you get, the more experienced you get in translating whatever drives you, in presenting your ideas to the rest of the universe.
A drawing for this type of work is the translation of an idea that becomes something else later on. I make other works that are a whole different type of drawing. They are out there on their own terms, and they make no reference to anything else. But of course they’re made by the same person, and they employ similar principles.
RN: Once these drawings were presented to Larry Rinder and you had made a collaborative decision about what would be installed, what happened to the drawings? Were they used in the installation?
ER: Not really. The engineer needs to get an idea of what the piece should look like, so that he or she can visualize the end result in terms of the engineering. We try to further translate the idea so that it can actually be realized.
RN: So from these preliminary conceptual drawings, you had to move into a completely separate set of drawings.
ER: Yes, and at that point it was all done by hand. We managed to do it, and nothing fell on anybody’s head, which is good.
With this work, I wasn’t trying to modify architecture. The Breuer building is there, and I put something else there that is on equal terms. The architecture creates a spatial event or tension. My piece is not there to counter it; it’s just there to grab what’s underneath and present it, like an invisible force in space. I’m plumbing space; that’s my job. The space already has the tension. I find those invisible points of tension and squeeze them a little bit, and then the space becomes physically different.
RN: Today, in 2012, do you still make drawings like this as part of your working process?
ER: Yes, I still make drawings like this, but the process has changed a lot. You don’t give a drawing to someone as a proposal anymore; you send a PowerPoint or you send a PDF. But even so, I scan drawings.
RN: Drawing still has to be the way you get to the next steps?
ER: Among other things. I like drawing by hand, because then I feel more connected to the project than I do making a 3-D model on the computer. But some people can’t even express themselves that well on paper anymore. Today you can download a software program, and suddenly you have your idea in 3-D. Everything is done very quickly.
RN: After realizing this installation at the Whitney Biennial, how do you feel about these drawings being shown as artworks in an exhibition?
ER: They will always be shown in the context of the installation, because they’re representational, and I don’t make representational art. These drawings represent the piece I made at the Whitney. Viewers will know that these drawings were not meant to stand on their own feet, like an abstract drawing is meant to do.
RN: Can you tell us about the drawings that you make as finished works, which have no relation to your light installations?
ER: Well, those drawings are purely flat, and most of them are monochromatic. They’re based on very simple grid systems, but within each system there are small individual gestures. I use that type of drawing to embrace Minimalism. That’s what it is, and that’s why I’m interested in it.
RN: Do you ever think about your abstract drawings while you’re making light installations?
ER: Oh, yes. They come out of the same mold, and they influence each other radically. I sketch something by hand, and I might take that idea and turn it into an independent drawing, or it might work for an installation—or both, or neither. I trust my intuition.
RN: Notations includes drawings by Fred Sandback and Dan Flavin, both of whom made finished drawings and proposals for installations. Do you have a relationship with either artist’s work?
ER: Fred Sandback changed my life—that’s my relationship to Mr. Sandback. Before I saw his work in person, I had seen it in some exhibition catalogs. In 1997, when I was in the residency program at PS1, I was focused on computer installations that were either projected or on a screen. At the Dia Center in Chelsea there was a Fred Sandback exhibition, and when I saw it, I was completely knocked dead. The next day I went back to my studio, I packed away my computers, and I made my first light installation. It was a 360-degree difference.
For me, what Sandback did was exactly what I had always wanted to do. I was interested in abstraction—but corporeal abstraction, in a purely spatial way. It doesn’t get much more minimal than Sandback. It’s a very geometric, clear, delineated feeling that his work provides, and that was a complete knockout for me. I was blown away.
Dan Flavin was influential in a different way. Of course he also used lights; that’s by default very close to what I do. But the early Flavin was a sculptor. He used fluorescence like a sculptor would, making works with three-dimensional mass. Those works also involve time. How much time do you spend in the space so that your eye adjusts to the light? How much time does it take to traverse the space so that your perception changes?
RN: Your first and most affecting experiences with both Sandback and Flavin were with their sculpture.
ER: Yes, absolutely.
RN: How do you feel about their drawing practices?
ER: I can’t separate their drawing from their sculpture. You see it, and you cannot erase your memory—it is all related to that formative experience. When you experience that work, it is with the whole body. I get the same goose bumps—the same corporeal goose bumps—seeing their drawings. I don’t make a distinction.
In talking about drawings, Sol LeWitt is another very big influence. His wall drawings have had an enormous influence on my work. Those drawings give me the same goose bumps. LeWitt’s space is completely structured—tightly and very narrowly structured—but infinite at the same time. I don’t think it’s a retinal experience so much as a whole-body experience.
RN: It doesn’t matter what the medium is?
ER: It really doesn’t matter.
RN: In your work, however, there’s a difference between looking at your drawings and looking at a light installation. So the medium creates certain specificities?
ER: Oh yes. For me, it’s completely different. I try to be accomplished in the medium itself. If I want to draw, I want to take the time to become a good draftsman. And it’s the same with light installations: you have to know a lot of engineering to express your ideas.
That’s it; the rest is just about the idea, which is abstract. In my case the idea is abstract in that it’s not representational—but not abstract in that it’s not corporeal. It’s always corporeal for me.
Rachel Nackman: Seriality has been a very important part of your work for many years. Can you tell us a little bit about the history of that part of your practice?
Jill O’Bryan: I started out as a painter. First, out in the landscape, learning how to see, and then later the paintings became an immersion in the process and the pigments—pushing paint, as it were. This was an intuitive, sensual process, and I was really in love with it. My relationship to art making changed when I began studying philosophy and contemporary art theory. I became intrigued with the notion of truth as a variable—for example, linguistically, that there exists a slippage of meaning between the signifier and the signified, which makes it impossible to accurately represent the self. I experienced these ideas as beautiful and powerful poetries of complexity, and I used them as a schematic to write a book about the artist Orlan as my doctoral dissertation, hypothesizing that her continuously shifting identity was a radical political means to undermine fixed perceptions of identity.
During this time I started doing writing exercises with pencils, to experience language, viscerally and visually, and to feel its relationship to the body. These exercises led me to understand writing as a performed geometry, and I began a series of paintings that mimicked this movement. They were made with painted paper, ripped into small pieces and then sewn together, left to right and top to bottom.
When I finally finished the PhD, I went into my studio, put up a big piece of white paper, and stared at it for weeks. I thought: “Okay, the thing that’s weighed the most heavily on me for so long has been this book. So I’ll erase my book; I’ll just go backwards.” I started making marks on that large sheet of paper—one mark on top of each imagined letter, left to right and top to bottom. I took great pleasure in approaching the book’s text letter by letter instead of word by word. It broke the text into its most minimal way of being—and nonbeing.
Every day in my studio I made a few marks—for several hours or maybe just five minutes. I never thought 40,000 Breaths (2000-5; fig. 1) would become a finished drawing. It was a process, a way to be in my studio. While making it, I felt an enormous freedom that had to do with presence, with just being there with minimal materials—a pencil and a piece of paper. I discovered that this activity also had a rhythm that correlated with breathing. So I started counting my breaths as I was drawing—archiving breaths.
RN: And this was the first of the Breaths drawings?
JO: This was the first. Wynn spotted it before it was finished and told me he liked it. I worked on it constantly after that, and (as he tells the story) nine months later I brought it to him. [Laughter.]
RN: Yes, he likes that story. Can you tell us about the precursors to 40,000 Breaths?
JO: They were large monochromatic paintings made by dyeing, painting, or pounding pigment into wax paper that I then ripped into small rectangles so that I could rearrange them and sew them back together again. I used glue and other types of medium. Some areas are translucent, and in other areas powdered pigment sits on the surface. I discovered an obsession with putting together lots of little things to make a large finished piece.
RN: So they’re really worked objects.
RN: You were working on those pieces during graduate school. Was that a sort of physical escape for you, a separate task from the theoretical work that you were also doing on a daily basis?
JO: It absolutely was. The visceral activity of making paintings offset the theoretical research—it created a balance. These paintings were about seriality but also pigment and translucency.
RN: Do you feel that the connection between art theory and your work as an artist really began with 40,000 Breaths?
JO: Yes. I’d been having a bit of a rebellion within myself, a struggle to conceptually bring together the artwork and the writing. 40,000 Breaths was initially an imitation of the act of writing, or rather a negation of it. I was blacking it out. But I was also clearing my mind.
RN: The writing exercises, which you mentioned starting while working on your dissertation, before you began 40,000 Breaths—were those notes? Words?
JO: Both. With a pencil I copied passages from the texts that I was reading. A close reading, if you will, with a physical quality. This helped me understand the complex ideas that I was taking in. I guess that’s the difference between an intellectual’s approach to thinking about what they’re reading and a visual artist’s approach to it.
RN: It seems almost like another form of linguistic exercise, taking what you’ve learned outside of the language in which you’ve learned it—a way to turn it around and make it something that you own.
JO: I like the way you put that. It’s a quest to own the knowledge.
RN: It’s so easy to think you understand something because you can repeat it in the language in which it’s written, but you may not be able to conceptualize it in your own language.
JO: You’re right about that. You’ve obviously experienced this firsthand.
RN: It’s interesting that those exercises preceded 40,000 Breaths, because we know that we breathe, but we don’t really know what that’s like.
JO: Making it visual, archiving it, may reveal our mortality, but it’s when you can’t breathe that you understand what it is.
RN: One of the things that I’ve noticed about the serial quality of your work is that each of the components you assemble does retain its own individual character. Is there a certain level of variability that is acceptable to you within one work?
JO: In spite of the fact that each mark has its own character, there’s an overall sameness in the marks that has to be there in order for these drawings to work. I choose a small shape and repeat it until the paper is filled up. Within the drawing there’s variability in value and texture, depending on how I hold the pencil and how hard I press. I incorporate a bit of randomness by using different pencils yielding different values, but I don’t predetermine which ones I will use . . . just whichever one I pick up out of a pile. There’s a transition that happens because of the materials used.
RN: The materials and your body.
JO: Yes. Once I centered the work within the body, I knew I would access qualities of universal experience and interconnectivity.
RN: And that universality locates itself, in part, in everyone’s being able to recognize the body-driven differentiations between the marks.
JO: At first glance the most recognizable quality might be the large amount of repetition, the amount of work invested in making the drawing. Its title links it to the body and then lodges the body in time. I’ve calculated that one breathes about 630 million breaths over one hundred years. That means that most of us will never even breathe a billion breaths.
RN: 40,000 Breaths took you five years to make—from 2000 to 2005. How much of a part of your day was this drawing? And when did it fit into your practice—as an artist but also as a person?
JO: I worked on it for a couple of months and then didn’t touch it for a couple of years, although it was always hanging in my studio. I would go to it when I was blocked, while in between pieces, when I felt lost or upset. I discovered that working on this drawing was very calming, and the process became a meditation. It became a part of my life.
I hope that I have this kind of connection to all the art I make—that it will evolve from a clear concept but also that it will be organic—from an intention that’s not necessarily to “make art.” For me, the point of departure with the most integrity is: “I’m not going to make art. I’m just doing this activity.”
RN: It’s a constant activity, and it’s a touchstone.
RN: Did you begin other Breaths drawings while you were working on 40,000?
JO: I started several. A few were successful, but I threw some away.
RN: What made those drawings unsuccessful?
JO: They felt contrived. I realized that I had to finish the first one in order to move on to the next. I can have only one going at a time.
RN: Because you have a relationship with the drawing?
JO: That’s right.
RN: It sounds like a demanding relationship but also a really supportive one.
JO: Well I can’t have an affair on the side. [Laughter.] I can make only one Breaths drawing at a time. I did have a relationship with 40,000. It wasn’t like I could’ve just finished it tomorrow. We had a thing going on.
RN: It’s such an involved and intimate process that if you don’t enjoy it I can’t imagine that you’d want to keep working on a particular drawing.
JO: Sometimes they’re problem children. Sometimes I have to force myself to work on them.
RN: When you start to make a Breaths drawing, what goals do you set? Are you looking to fill a certain sheet of paper, or are you looking to do this for a certain period of time? Or do you want to record a certain number of breaths? What’s the limiting factor?
JO: It’s a process that requires a commitment to filling a large piece of paper with tiny marks. It is sometimes difficult to begin, but once I have, I enjoy watching it evolve. There are no time constraints.
RN: What sorts of material preparations do you have to make? Do you go out and buy a load of pencils? Do you work on the floor or on the wall?
JO: I have hundreds of pencils, as you can imagine. I always work on the wall, and I adjust the position of the paper so that the marks I’m making are at eye level.
RN: That’s really interesting. So you’re not experiencing drastically different body positions while you’re working on the drawing?
JO: I focus on my breathing, and to do that I’ve found that my body has to be in a somewhat meditative mode.
RN: Does the process ever become exhausting, or do you always feel that it’s calming?
JO: I’ve always been drawn to repetition as an indicator of commitment and endurance. The Breaths drawings are as much about endurance as they are about meditation. Sometimes they are almost impossible to finish because they require such focus. I’m adamant about not just sitting there, making marks. Each mark really has to correlate to one breath, or the drawings don’t work.
RN: So they’re very honest drawings.
JO: Yes, they’re honest. That’s what gives the drawings their integrity.
Play to hear Jill O’Bryan discussing presence, rhythm, and archiving.
Play to hear Jill O’Bryan discussing the meditative process of her work.
Play to hear Jill O’Bryan discussing breath.
Rachel Nackman: When you’re working on a particular series, is there a progression from works on paper to sculpture? Or do you work on a plurality of media at the same time on a similar theme?
Sharon Louden: I work on everything at the same time. I don’t really see a difference between drawing on Mylar and drawing with rubber. I see it as very similar.
Wynn Kramarsky: For you, shaping these objects feels similar to drawing?
SL: I decided to start making sculpture because I wanted to be able to embrace forms; I wanted to feel them. I asked a sculptor, “How do I get into this?” And he said, “Just pick materials that feel like the marks that you make.” So I picked rubber initially because I can mold it in the same way and use a similar stroke—it’s a familiar way of using my hands to make the form. Yes, I can hold rubber, and I can’t hold paint in the same way, but for me it’s the same process. It feels different because the materials are different, but the thought process is the same.
RN: The muscle memory and the mechanics of it feel very similar?
SL: Yes. I make one mark, then another mark, next to another, next to another—pulling it out, putting back in. . . . The Agents were the first body of sculptural work that I made.
RN: You began sculpture working with this rubber tubing?
SL: That’s correct. I initially used pins because I wasn’t sure—I was tentative. Then I started using Krazy Glue and epoxy, and once it held for me very quickly, I thought, “I’ve got something here.” That’s how it started to form.
RN: So for you the immediacy of the glue drying and holding those forms together felt like adding paint stroke after paint stroke?
SL: Absolutely. One stroke, secure. Another stroke, secure. It’s exactly the same, at least in my mind. Drawing on Mylar—with the resistance that the Mylar has to paint and the way it lies on the surface and creates an elastic feeling—is about building up rather than working with something there that’s already built. But the process and where the marks go are the same.
RN: When you’re working on a drawing and working on sculptures, do those two different mediums relate to each other? How does pausing and working in one medium then affect the other?
SL: It’s about relief. If I can’t see in the sculpture so much, then I go to the drawing, and I go back and forth. Even though it’s a similar process, they’re two different things.
RN: And do they complement each other, or are they very separate?
SL: I think they totally complement each other. The nature of my work is such that all the mediums I use assist a visual vocabulary, and that visual vocabulary transcends through these different mediums to be able to speak of one thing.
RN: In this series the works are all called Agents, and you’ve said that you think of your gestures as characters. Can you tell us a little bit about the Agents and what kind of characters they are?
SL: When I think of an agent, it’s an agent for something. If you think of Bond 007, you think of an agent as somebody who’s a quiet person that is doing something for somebody else. So it immediately has a character. . . . I think that these things—since for me they imply movement and they have mystery to them—are agents for someone or something.
RN: How do the Agents differ from your other characters?
SL: [Laughter.] I think they’re funny. I think they are complex. A museum curator for whom I have a great deal of respect once said to me, “Your work is either very straight and minimal, or it’s very knotted up and complex and clustered.” And I think that’s true. I think she made a very good observation. I seek that relief, and then I find that complexity that I want too. The Agents are about the richness of energy being stored in one place—and they’re also meant to be very funny. They’re very minimal little gestures, and when they’re put together, they create a whole character. That’s very similar to the rest of my work.
For example, in the piece in Minneapolis in which I used 250,000 strips of aluminum [Merge (2011) at the Weisman Art Museum]: each piece of aluminum is hand formed. They’re all individual forms. Singularly, each one has an identity, but when they’re put together, they create a whole environment. It’s very much like the body; you have one cell that may have one function, but together with other cells, it makes the entire machine run. That’s what I’m thinking about in the work.
The Agents are very special to me because they’re the first characters that led me into three-dimensionality. They’re very funny. I now have a great relationship with rubber; it’s like one of my best friends.
RN: How did you get acquainted with the rubber tubing that you use?
SL: A few sculptors mentioned it to me when they were giving me advice. I think getting information from other artists is extremely important. Having that exchange has fed the growth of a lot of my work. So they mentioned rubber . . .
Also, of course I love Eva Hesse. When I was at Yale for graduate school—and afterward when I was finished with school—I leaned on Hesse a lot in my drawings. And I loved her sculptures; she helped me with this body of work as well. Then I had to work through her in order to become more independent from her. I love her work quite a bit, but I have to stay away from it because there’s a certain amount of vulnerability there that’s too close for me.
RN: You tried to move beyond your original attraction to Hesse, toward working with the materials and the forms that you see in her work?
SL: I think that she gave me the confidence, along with other artists who are living and breathing in this world, to work with that material. I eventually moved past her and others who influenced me.
RN: Is the rubber tubing an art-making material? Or is it an industrial material? And if so, what is it used for?
SL: This foam rubber is used for storage and shipping of cosmetics actually. It’s also used for plumbing and has other industrial uses that I’m not familiar with.
RN: Do you buy it in a long roll? Or does it come in sticks? How do you detach the gestures that you make from the original mass of the material?
SL: I have had a great relationship with Canal Rubber in Lower Manhattan since the mid-1990s. There’s a guy whom I work with there, and at first he didn’t understand why I was buying coils and coils and coils—mounds—of this rubber. They love me for that, but they’re still puzzled about why I need that much. The rubber comes in huge rolls, and I usually buy in bulk.
RN: And you’re working with glue?
SL: Just glue and epoxy, and that’s it. It’s simple.
RN: How did you decide to start working with the black rubber tubing? Is that just something that arrived at Canal and you picked it up?
SL: Yes, I saw it and it was just like the marks I was making in the drawings. Anything that looked like the marks I was making, I was going to try.
RN: When you started working with black rubber tubing, did you then start working with black acrylic, as in this drawing [Drawing for 'Agents', 1996; fig. 2]?
SL: No, I was already working with black acrylic. This is ink and acrylic with gel medium. I generally go with whatever I’m using at the moment. I don’t question it too much. I’m in this work, so it’s sort of automatic.
RN: It’s all about the gesture.
RN: Can you tell us about the materials in this drawing and the application of the medium to the support?
SL: A lot of people think I work with just my fingers. That’s been a recurring comment, especially in the last ten years. But this drawing was made with a brush. The way I got that circle was by going over and over and over it again, so that the paint started to recede and move to the outside edges of the stroke.
To make these drawings, I would take a stack of paper—in this case Mylar—and then I would edit the group by throwing out drawings that didn’t work. So these are quite spontaneous, of the moment, and very special.
RN: You chose to have some of the rubber Agents cast in bronze. Can you tell us about that decision?
SL: I wanted them to go outside. [Laughter.] That’s the only reason. I just wanted them to walk outside—that was it. I felt bad for them. At Rhona Hoffman Gallery in 2000, I had them cast very small in bronze, and they were put on the floor. People would walk into the show, and they would have to crouch down to look at them. I loved the power of that size—the Agents had a lot of power themselves. They were like, “We’re here too!” I loved it.
RN: Can you tell us a little bit about installing them, how they related to one another and to the space around them?
SL: It’s all about drawing. I think of using sculpture much like I do a drawing. Space is like a blank sheet of paper. The tension between those forms is determined by the way they are carved out and placed within that space.
RN: The sculpture that’s on view is a lot larger than these earlier, smaller Agents—and it has a very lengthy tail gesture.
SL: That’s right. Oh, I love it! I think that Agent is, in a way, an ugly little thing. It’s not very glamorous. But lately I have embraced more and more a sense of glee or flamboyance in the work. I wanted to extend the gesture further into space and reactivate that space with it—to create that sort of flamboyance, with a peculiar form that has this odd head. It isn’t as beautiful per se (or funny or cute), as those other Agents were. It’s just where I am in my head right now. The fact that I still love these forms and still have a relationship with them—that they’re with me as I keep growing—is important to me.
RN: Is there anything that you consider crucial to the installation of this Agent that you wouldn’t want someone to change?
SL: If that little Agent was flat on its back (the poor thing), that would be pretty upsetting. But I think that if the orientation is correct, we’re in good shape. I like things not to be centered. Once you move something off to the left or off to the right, it indicates a question: Is it entering the space? Is it leaving? Where did it come from? There’s a history then—and it also implies momentum, implies movement.
RN: It implies volition too, like the Agent itself is making some decisions that you can then question.
SL: That’s right; that’s good.
RN: Your really early history was in figuration.
SL: I still find the Agents to be very figurative—I really don’t find this work to be that different for me. I’m in dialogue with these forms, and I feel like they have a heartbeat. They’re anthropomorphic. They’re little beings. I don’t quite know what they mean sometimes, but they are important to me.
My dialogue with my work has been linear. It really developed after I left Yale, and my mentors there—Mel Bochner and William Bailey, among other people—helped me to see both the conceptual and the formal, and how they relate to each other. To this day, I will always say that I feel like I’m a formalist. I’m very traditional in a lot of ways.
In my studio now, I don’t think about drawings and paintings and sculpture. I don’t think about it that way anymore. It’s across the board what it is. Some people call me a sculptor, but I don’t look at myself that way. I think all my work is part of a visual vocabulary—my truest expression.
Drawing is an act. It’s an extension of my hand. In whatever manner I use that hand, with whatever medium—my hand is still there. Some people call it painting; some people call it drawing. I love the fact that this debate is there. Because it is what it is. [Laughter.] It’s a piece of work!
Play to hear Sharon Louden discussing sculpting with rubber.
Rachel Nackman: Each of these drawings was made through very heavy surface application of graphite onto paper, incised with a series of lines that define a dimensional object. Can you tell us more about making these drawings and the materials you used?
Kristin Holder: First, I taped off the edges of the paper. I found the center of the sheet using a pencil. I constructed a cube within the taped edges. I incised lines into the paper using a burin, a tool for printmaking; those lines define the sides of the polyhedron. Then I rubbed on the powdered graphite with my hand. I used a good deal of powdered graphite in order to try to fill in all the troughs in the drawing. The graphite is just like baby powder; it goes everywhere. That’s why it extends beyond the edges of the incised lines.
RN: How did you construct this polyhedron shape?
KH: I used really simple geometry. I found the center of the sheet by drawing straight lines from opposing corners and making an X. Then I built out from that center point. For these drawings, I tried to eyeball it. I drew a circle using a compass, I made a hexagon within the circle, and then I drew a cube from the hexagon. Then I started slicing off corners in order to approach the shape that’s in Albrecht Dürer’s print Melencolia I (1514).
RN: The drawings are both titled Heavy Thinking. You made a wall drawing in 2007 with the same title. Can you tell us how, if at all, the wall drawing relates to the drawing?
KH: These drawings aren’t related to the wall drawing as preparatory drawings. They’re not related in terms of scale either. The only similarity is in the medium. Both works are made with graphite, and they’re both rubbed onto their support. The idea for both also comes from that print by Dürer, in which a polyhedron plays a significant role. The print is kind of a warning to artists not to let their practice fall too much on the side of the intellectual.
I decided to pull that polyhedron form from Dürer’s print and start working with it as a warning to myself. Don’t overthink. Don’t become too involved in the intellectual side of things. Try to make sure there is a balance between your appreciation of a drawing as you make it and the physical properties that come out of making, which are more in the realm of beauty and the spiritual.
I’ve drawn the shape from two different perspectives. His View (fig. 1) is the artist’s view of the shape as you look at it in Dürer’s print. Her View (fig. 2) shows the object rotated ninety degrees—from the muse’s point of view.
RN: Is there a reason why that polyhedron in particular catches your eye?
KH: Before I was working on these drawings, I was thinking about fractals a lot, and I was making some other wall drawings. One of those wall drawings was based on a fractal form—a kind of a branch shape. I had made a stencil out of the branch shape, and I used it to create a larger form that looked kind of like a feather or a tree—just by repeating this shape and following a very mathematical way of growing it.
Occasionally I get overly engrossed in the mental intricacies of an idea and go too far with it. After seeing the Dürer print, I kept thinking about that polyhedron. I couldn’t figure out what it was—or where it derived from in the first place. So I started drawing it to try to figure it out. I determined that it was a cube, and it took off from that earlier idea of studying the cubic fractal.
RN: Can you provide a basic overview of fractals?
KH: A fractal is a mathematical construct. It is a way of studying forms that look the same whether you’re viewing them from a 1x magnification or a 1000x magnification. Fractals are used to study clouds, trees, river tributaries, coastlines—things to which you wouldn’t think you could apply a mathematical formula. These drawings are in no way representations of a fractal, but that was a jumping-off point.
It’s hard for me to say that drawing a cube would be intuitive, but the cubes in His View and Her View are intuitively made. I eyeball a lot of it. I use a really simple way of finding the center of the drawing, using and making tools, and then rubbing. So there’s not a lot of math involved. There’s no form that can’t be intuitive. I think that’s a frame of mind.
RN: And these drawings are an exercise in that frame of mind?
KH: Yes. It was something I set out to change in myself. In these drawings, I think I needed the progression and the steps. I think that being physically involved in the making, letting it become more of an intuitive process, has been really healthy for me.
RN: In a statement that you wrote in 2007 about your wall drawing Heavy Thinking, you mentioned that you made the work in two phases: the first phase was concerned with line, and the second, with mass. Was there a similar distinction in making these drawings?
KH: Not so much. When I was making the wall drawing, the line was set up purely for me to fill in—in order to draw an object that is to scale. Making the wall drawing was extremely enjoyable because I was working freehand on a twenty-foot wall—so the line had a lot of give and play, and I reacted to myself trying to keep it straight. It shows in the final drawing that line and mass are really separate, because the graphite area is hard-edged, heavy, matte, and the line drawing is erratic—it has a whole different quality.
In the works on paper, line and mass are intertwined. I see the incised lines as part of the drawing. Each line becomes a cavity to hold the graphite, and there’s no separating them for me.
RN: We’ve talked about the Dürer print quite a bit, but you’ve also spent some time at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, installing Sol LeWitt wall drawings. Did that experience, or your experience with LeWitt in general, have any bearing on these drawings?
KH: I think the most direct correlation between these drawings and LeWitt’s wall drawings would be the sound of making these drawings. When I made a LeWitt wall drawing, it was a noisy, repetitive movement, done with lead pencils on a bumpy wall. You could hear the sounds of the pencil, and that made a lasting impression. When I am making my drawings, there is a similar kind of grating sound, especially when I am incising the lines, because my burin tears at the paper a little bit. I think the similarity of sound is the most pertinent relationship here.
But I don’t think there’s any way that I could really extract the legacy of Sol LeWitt from my work—split it into pieces or parts that are particularly relevant. I think his work is a visual language that’s part of me.
RN: You also spent some time working in conservation at the National Gallery, which must have given you an understanding of materials, beyond just how they’re used.
KH: Yes, it did. The benefit to me from working in conservation lay in seeing all the underdrawings beneath paintings. I was interested in unraveling the processes of other artists. Artists use their materials with a great deal of respect. They may have a lot of expectations for the materials, and they may not understand the chemistry behind them, but they make it work.
RN: From one angle, these drawings were an intellectual project, through which you were changing the way that you approach making work. But was this also a material project? Was this in part an effort to get to know something about graphite, something that you didn’t already know?
KH: I think a lot of great work is made when the artist is working with materials that he or she doesn’t know. As you work, you push your materials farther and farther, but you don’t ask them to do more than they can. I have some understanding of what graphite can do. What I want it to do is stick to the paper, and that’s about as complicated as the question gets. So I use a burin to try to make a place for the graphite to stick to the paper. Step by step. I wasn’t trying to find out something new about what graphite can do. I didn’t set out to do it, but along the way I did.