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
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In Conversation with Rachel Nackman
February 2012, Beacon, NY
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.”