Art In Conversation
DAVID REED with John Yau
On the occasion of the current exhibit of his working drawings and color studies, which is showing for the first time at Peter Blum SoHo till March 6, 2010, the painter David Reed welcomed Art Editor John Yau to view the works at the gallery a day before the opening reception. Afterward, they both sat down to talk about his life and work.
John Yau (Rail): There are two things I want to start with—Herb and Dorothy Vogel and your education at the New York Studio School.
David Reed: I heard about the Vogels from other artists and first met them in the 70s. They started visiting my studio in the 90s. When in the studio they always asked about drawings. I would hang my head and say, “I’m a bad artist, I don’t make drawings.” Herb saw diagrams and notes on scraps of paper that I made for myself, reminders of what to do the next morning. He said, “These are drawings.” I said, “No they’re not, Herb. They’re just reminders.” He kept after me about this for many years. I never could find the notes when I went back to a painting, so when I moved to my new studio on Greenwich Street, on one wall I put a sheet of paper for each painting in progress. I would make my notes on those sheets about my plans for the next day and anything else I thought was relevant for the painting. Those pages turned into these drawings. I owe a lot to the Vogels. I had been drawing all along, but I didn’t know it. I had an academic view of drawing from my training at the Studio School. I thought that I needed to stop and figure out a way of drawing, but I didn’t. I just needed to look at what I was doing.
Rail: Which leads me to ask: how did you manage to start drawing after your training at the New York Studio School, which you went to in 1967?
Reed: Yes, I took one year off from Reed College. I was a student at the Studio School in 1967/68. I learned the “house” style of drawing, a post-cubist style based on Cézanne, Giacometti, and Hans Hofmann. It wasn’t of any help to my paintings.
Rail: It’s a limiting notion of what drawing is. Is that why you didn’t show your drawings until recently?
Reed: Partly, that’s right. At the Studio School, through Milton Resnick, I learned about a history of painterly painting: Delacroix, Tintoretto, Rubens. The style of drawing that I was being taught didn’t fit with that at all. I fell for the Studio School drawing style hook, line, and sinker, but it was of no use to me in my painting. When I got out of school, I stopped drawing. I had no way to draw.
Rail: There is a generation around a decade older than you that didn’t draw at all, like Stella, Noland, and the Color Field painters, who were connected to Greenbergian Formalism. A number of people have wrongly connected you with that older generation. With this show, it becomes clear that was never the case. Starting with your brushstroke paintings of the 70s, you were drawing all along, making plans, and taking notes—a diary of the painting. And you are a note taker. In these drawings, there’s a history of a time and place, as you witnessed it.
Reed: After we finished hanging the show I noticed how many of my friends are mentioned in the drawings. I can almost feel them with us here in the room. If someone comes to the studio and says something about a painting that interests me, I put their comment in the drawing so I won’t forget. I don’t view art as something done by singular, talented individuals, but as something done as part of a community. It’s very important to me to be involved with other people, to be involved with the ideas that circulate around paintings and the consequent friendships. That feeds my work. My paintings wouldn’t exist without those connections. I’m very pleased that these connections have become a part of the drawings.
Rail: Each drawing is a diary and an investigation of how you’re going to make it. Figuring out where you’re going to tape it off, for example, what colors to use. It subverts that popular prejudice that painting is all body, no head. There’s a lot of thinking, and the thinking is going in many directions.
Reed: And sometimes the thinking doesn’t work. Usually it doesn’t. There’s a record, of course, in these drawings of what I’ve tried that didn’t work. Decisions that were eliminated sanded off. But sometimes these bad decisions lead to another decision that I would have never thought of, if I hadn’t made all those mistakes. It’s fun for me when I finish a painting to go back to the beginning and read through the drawing as if though through a story. Often there’s something that I had forgotten about while working that resurfaces in a way I could have never expected.
Rail: So the drawing-cum-diary might be on six sheets of paper, each a step of its coming into being.
Reed: Yeah, that painting was a tough one. Several times I thought it might be finished. I had definite plans and ideas, and none of them worked out. The painting turned out in a way that I would have never expected. At the beginning, I had an idea about what I think of as super color, a glaze of a hue over the same hue that makes a super hue. In the end this kind of color appeared in an unexpected way to finish the painting. But first I had to eliminate all my other color ideas.
Rail: Also you rework your paintings, even after they leave the studio. There’s one drawing in which you write about reworking paintings that came back from Germany. But when we see your work, we don’t see all the steps along the way. There’s the Abstract Expressionist model that proposes that you have to show all the steps along the way, which you never do.
Reed: It’s true. My paintings are about process but hide the process. Resnick spoke about what he called “studio paintings”. I think the phrase comes from Gorky. There are certain paintings that you make for yourself to advance your painting, to find out about painting, to do something different and new. I decided that I only wanted to make “studio paintings”. I love to get a painting back and re-work it. Also it means they’re strangely open in some sense. I almost feel like I never finish anything.
Rail: It’s interesting that you mention Resnick, who was one of your teachers and a big influence, because, unlike many people who studied with him, your work doesn’t resemble his in the least.
Reed: Thank you. I had good advice from another teacher, who said if you love someone’s work, ask them about their influences and then be influenced by their influences. So I would talk to Milton about Rubens.
Rail: That goes back to the drawing, because the drawing taught at the Studio School emphasized a Giacometti-like, de Kooning-esque erasure, a kind of Cézanne drawing style that became baggage in the end.
Reed: Yes. There’s something particularly destructive about it in the way that that drawing style teaches you that you don’t have to make that final line, that final decision. Instead you make the line wrong ten times, erase and the blur looks good. I really believe in that final decision.
Rail: Your paintings are about making a decision and not equivocating. You may change it, alter it, or re-work it, but you’re not going to disclose all the signs of that re-working. You want it all to be decisive, “This is what I’ve done and I stand by it.”
Reed: In the drawings I’m always asking: Should I do this or that? Oh, that didn’t work. I’ll try this. That didn’t work either. I’ll try this.
Rail: I think that openness is not immediately clear. Starting about two shows ago, I felt like your paintings were getting more open, and that you were making yourself become more open. You’d stop at a point where I thought, “Oh, he never stopped here before or he never did that before.”
Reed: I’ve been trying to make my paintings more and more open; it’s really important to me that they keep growing and they keep being “studio paintings”. That I don’t just repeat something that I know could work or has worked before. That’s just the starting point for a painting.
Rail: You don’t want to be David Reed making a David Reed.
Reed: I sure don’t. Once I was complaining on the phone to Dave Hickey about the difficulties of painting and he told me: “Oh, stop suffering. You should just knock yourself off a little while, that’s what everyone else does.” I often think back and laugh at his joke. There’s no fun in that. The fun is in finding out something new. Someone who has been important to me is Mary Heilmann, who titled one of her shows “Greatest Hits.” She has helped me realize that what I’ve invented in my painting is there for me to use again. My process is not subtractive, but additive. Therefore, I can add something from any of my paintings, whenever it was done. Thinking in this way has helped open up my painting process, make it richer and more surprising to me.
Rail: You can configure things differently and see what happens.
Rail: That makes sense. There are things you’ve done recently, like the illogical scale shift between the small mark and larger brush stroke that is a very new thing in your work.
Reed: Often in new paintings I’m using horizontal brush marks made with the painting on the wall showing the effects of gravity and also working on them flat, on Leo Steinberg’s flatbed —no gravity. The two processes are completely different. I thought you had to do one or the other. Now I realize you can do both in the same painting. There’s one drawing in which I’ve included a reproduction of Domenico Veneziano’s “Saint John in the Desert.” St John is reaching down, discarding or picking up a red cloak on the ground. Simultaneously, he’s either putting on or taking off an animal skin. You don’t know which way it goes. I like that idea of a painting both showing the effects of gravity and being without gravity. Is the viewer putting on the cloak of the painting or taking it off? I don’t know which it is.
Rail: This reminds me of a conversation we had after you saw the Cézanne and Beyond show in Philadelphia. You were talking about the small bather painting with the arms askew, one pointing diagonally up and one pointing diagonally down. You said you thought the beginning of abstraction is when we went swimming because we didn’t know where the body ended and the world began.
Reed: That “Bather” by Cézanne is really important to me. I wrote about it in one of the drawings. Abstraction comes from losing the contours of your body and not knowing where you are. That’s the beginning of abstraction. It doesn’t come from cubism or out of some formal innovation. It comes from those moments when you lose the boundaries of your body: sex, kissing, religious ecstasy, swimming.
Rail: It’s clear from your comment about the Cézanne and the Veneziano that you think metaphorically and precisely. You read paintings both analytically and metaphorically. This goes against the grain of literalism, and those who believe that what you see is what you see. You’re saying that seeing is different.
Reed: Yes, it is. One of the reasons I love Baroque paintings so much is that they have all those religious themes, but the paintings are not about that religious subject matter. There’s a second meaning underneath. The painters used the religious themes as metaphors to get at other subjects. Other kinds of painting can do that as well.
Rail: So you don’t want your paintings to be read literally.
Reed: Never! I want to be a bedroom painter. I like to look at my paintings as I’m falling asleep or waking up. I like the idea that other people would see them that way and would connect them to dreams, half-thoughts and musings, not just analytical thought and put them in that space between dreaming and waking. I think that’s when paintings really enter into you and become a part of you.
Rail: You are saying that painting comes out of daily life, which is different than saying painting comes from painting.
Reed: Yes, what interests me about paintings are the connections to life. Paintings are very subtle, true to emotions and feelings, which are very hard to describe. These emotions and feelings are especially hard for me to understand and describe verbally. Somehow through painting I can get to them.
Rail: At the same time the paintings don’t try to represent a particular cultural or public moment. This is one thing that parallels Thomas Nozkowski, who has said that every one of his paintings comes from a specific experience. It clearly comes out of a daily life and the notes suggest it, yet you can’t reduce them and say this is this or this came from that, which is a way of reading art that is very destructive.
Reed: Yes, I agree. I want viewers to choose to participate and have their own thoughts. I don’t want to control their thoughts at all. What’s important is the connection and collaboration with the viewer, rather than control. It’s easier to do this with abstraction, rather than figuration.
Rail: A figure is referential in some way that can become reductive in one’s reading of it. I think we have to resist that tendency to simplify and yet not become formal.
Reed: I just saw the Gorky show in Philadelphia. I grew up with stories about him. One of my favorites is a story Resnick heard from the poet Charles Reznikoff. Reznikoff saw Gorky pacing back and forth in front of his studio on 14th Street. Reznikoff said, “What’s the matter Arshile?” Gorky replied: “I’m so frightened. I can never paint again. The most terrible thing has happened to me in the studio. It’s just awful.” Reznikoff says: “Calm down, calm down, we’ll go get a cup of coffee.” They have their coffee, talked for a while and Gorky explained that he had been painting and saw an image appear in the painting that was so frightening, he threw down his brushes and ran out of the studio. Reznikoff agrees to take him home. Gorky’s studio was in the front. Gorky goes directly to the back, but Reznikoff wants to see what’s on the easel, which is facing away from him; he goes around and it’s a small still-life with an apple.
Rail: [Laughter.] It’s great to know that Reznikoff and Gorky knew each other. I think the long separation between painters and others, like poets, seems to be breaking down again.
Reed: I think it’s very healthy if it does break down. John, I should make a confession. I have been friends with a lot of poets here in New York, but I haven’t done collaborations with any of them and I wish that I had. It was a mistake. I don’t know what stopped me exactly, I never had the offers or the opportunities, but I wish I had found a way. I hope I do find a way.
Rail: You never really made prints. You did a few, but you told me you had mixed feelings about them.
Reed: Once I went to make a lithograph. I didn’t like what I did and we didn’t publish them. The first time the printer had failed: it was a bad experience for everybody. Partly I failed because I didn’t have that way of drawing with which I was comfortable.
Rail: I think your paintings don’t yield to any obvious print medium, the way you paint—plus the drawings make it clear that there are so many different steps a painting goes through to become the final thing and you don’t want to make a print that is based on the final thing.
Reed: I sure don’t. I don’t want to just do a reproduction of a painting as a print. I also did a print project with Jacob Samuel in Los Angeles. He’s a master printer and had a very good idea for an innovative technical process to make a surface in a print like the surface of my paintings. It was a technically demanding white ground aquatint and paper collé process: thin colored Japanese paper printed with black and white brush marks were glued onto paper so that light seemed to glow from behind the colored paper. The technical process worked beautifully to capture the surface of my paintings, but for me the process wasn’t good. It wasn’t flexible enough. The prints looked like the surface of the paintings, but I couldn’t go back and work into them more. You’re right. I have to work through a number of steps that don’t work, before I get to a place that I like.
Rail: There are paintings that I have seen in your studio that have been there for years. I keep saying it’s done David [laughter] and you keep saying, “oh no, it needs something else, I don’t know what else it needs.” Yet, for all that intention, I don’t feel like it ends up in the same place. Sometimes the thinking makes it collapse.
Reed: Oh boy, John. I can really do that! I’m very good at it. I have learned over the years that I have to be very careful as I’m finishing a painting. I can fool myself into thinking that I have a very clever solution. After the painting is done for a week or two I think “Oh, that’s great.” And then one day, I look at the painting again and realize that it’s just awful. [Laughter.] My long process of working is a problem. But trying to finish too soon makes it worse. I have learned that I have to be very careful at the end. If I think it’s a really smart thing to do, I had better stop and step back and think a little more [laughs]. Sometimes the stupid, obvious moves are the way to go.
Rail: You document this in the drawings?
Reed: Yes. I wanted to go back and test myself about these experiences. How often do I make the right decision? How often am I wrong? Am I taking enough chances? Which kinds of thinking help me? And which kinds don’t?
Rail: These are really working drawings—they’re full of questions like, “Well, what happened here?” and for you to go back and look at it and say, “Where did I go off the tracks, and what was it that lead me off the tracks.” You have to be willing to be embarrassed, or embarrass yourself and be wrong as a way to not follow a dictum. I think going to Studio School goes back to that. You learned a lot of dictums, this is the way to go, this is what you do. You’re one of the people who broke through that without becoming reactionary which is the other obvious choice. Wherever you get educated, you have to learn to negotiate the authorities there if you are going to get somewhere. How do you gain your own authority without just throwing everything out the window?
Reed: What I learned from the Studio School, the lessons closest to my heart, come from stories about the Abstract Expressionists. These stories are often about the process of working. It’s something that’s hard to describe. That’s what interested me, because I knew I could understand myself emotionally through painting, if I could find a way to really work on a painting.
Rail: That makes sense and I think of you as a real student of painting.
Reed: I love painting and thinking about it. I feel a special connection.
Rail: You and Katy Siegel did the show “Hard Times, High Times: New York Painting 1967-1975” and you’ve been instrumental at our re-looking at this history that people thought was one way, and you show that there are different histories going on.
Reed: It amazes me that in New York there’s a history that painters know, a street history of painting, that is totally different from the history that the museums know and the history that is written about in books. I care about the street history, that’s what is important to me. I want to be part of that history.
Rail: One thing we worked on together many years ago was a show of Alfred Jensen, Forrest Bess, and Myron Stout at the Studio School. I remember you bought a little painting of Forrest Bess’s through the mail and sold it in order to have the show happen.
Reed: Yes, to finance the catalog.
Rail: I was thinking, if he is going to sell that painting maybe we shouldn’t do the catalog. [Laughs.] It was “Black Rain,” a beautiful painting.
Reed: It is a beautiful painting and Bess is a great, great, still under-recognized artist—the same with Stout and Jensen. The three of them have so much in common.
Rail: I think the thing with the street history is the same if you are a poet in New York. There’s one history that’s told and there’s the street history of a poetry community that is fractured, argumentative with each other, but certainly not however it’s been presented. I think that the “Hard Times, High Times” show gave younger artists a lot of hope because they saw there was this denser history that had been neglected and they could learn from it.
Reed: I have been very pleased to see the reaction to the show and all the interest by young artists. It’s very moving. I’m very happy about that and I hope it leads to lots of other investigations of art in the late 60s and 70s. There are other painters to include. We didn’t have enough room. I would love to see more research and shows reflecting different opinions about the time. There is a lot to find out.
Rail: Wasn’t one artist about to move, and he was thinking of destroying a lot of his work?
Reed: Roy Colmer. Mitchell Algus called me after 9/11. There was a shakeup downtown. Roy was being forced out of his loft and Mitchell had heard about him. I had never heard of Roy or seen his work. Mitchell and I went to the studio on Walker Street together. It was amazing: hundreds of terrific paintings that were done in the mid 70s and never shown. The loft was like a time warp. I asked Roy, “Did you know Dick Bellamy? Did you ask him to come to the studio?” Roy replied that he did know Bellamy: “Oh yeah, I knew him, loved talking to him at the gallery, but you know, I could never ask him to come to the studio.” Roy is just a shy man. John, the fact that those paintings could have been so easily lost is terrifying. Anything that can be done to preserve something like those paintings means a lot to me.
Rail: There is one difference between being a painter in New York and being a poet. You can send your poems out and you don’t necessarily have to meet the person face to face. In the art world I feel there is this pressure to be social, that you have to meet a dealer or you have to meet people face to face and this man is a shy man and the art world doesn’t quite accommodate itself to shyness. It welcomes male aggressiveness. There should be something larger possible, but the art world seems to reward social behavior that is the opposite of shy.
Reed: Yes, what you’re saying is true—there is a kind of confidence that can help you socially in the art world, but often doesn’t help you as an artist. This confidence can lead an artist to repeating him or herself. You think what you are doing is better than it is. We have seen that happen to a lot of artists. Shyness is often a symptom of the questioning and doubts that make for better art. But it doesn’t help with presenting yourself to the world. When I became a painter I thought, “Oh, this will be great, I’ll never have to deal with the world, I’ll just push the paintings out in front of me and I’d hide behind them.” Of course you can’t get away with that. Being an artist has forced me to be more sociable than fits my nature. In ways it has been good for me, but it’s difficult. I have a convoluted personality. I like to hide things, as you were saying. I hide all the decisions in the painting. I do that in the world as well.
Rail: You said somewhere in another interview, that you feel like you’re part of this long history. Its not about a beginning or an end. It’s about being in the middle.
Reed: Exactly, I want to be in the middle. That is my dream. To continue some of this wonderful art from the past and to have younger artists find something worthwhile in my work. That’s what I would like. I don’t want to kill the father, I don’t want to reject what came before, and I don’t want to end art. I want art to keep going after I’m gone. One of the great things about Gorky, since we were just talking about his show, is that you see that throughout his whole life, it’s his love of art that really drove him.
Rail: It freed him.
Reed: It did free him. But all those disasters that happened to him at the end of his life, made him doubt that feeling of freedom. There’s a nice interview with Resnick about Gorky. Resnick says that in those years, there was an argument between feeling and intellect in painting. And Gorky said painting is not religion, you don’t have to kill the father, and the father doesn’t have to kill his son. Art is not a tragedy. To be an artist was his fate. One loves art, you can continue it, and you’re lucky to be in that position. But then at the end, Gorky had all those personal tragedies. He was forced to think that he was wrong, that art is tragic after all. Those thoughts really disturbed him, and led to a painting like “Agony.” He felt that the world was trying to kill him.
Rail: He does come from that past, and that childhood, where suddenly it can come back as the future; it’s not like he could leave it behind. He did leave that world and enter into this new world of America, and become someone else, but then, I think, in the end, he thought, maybe the past is coming for him.
Reed: That’s well put; Gorky feared that the past had caught up with him. He was being punished for trying to escape.
Rail: Which is to survive.
Reed: And make those beautiful paintings. The paintings from ’43 and ’44 are just glorious. It seems that he can do nothing wrong. They are carefully painted, but then he ran turpentine over the whole surface, from the top of the painting down, and left it. What an amazing thing to do. Have those wonderful forms, the precise drawing all worked out, perfect. And then risk it all, letting all the paint run together, gravity taking over. To me, those are his best paintings. Then he starts putting drawing, the line back in. To me, he is falling back on what he knows, propping himself up with what he had learned. He had taught himself to be one of the greatest draftsmen ever, but it was of no help to him. What’s so great about the best paintings is that they are something else.
Rail: You feel that if he had survived, maybe he could have propped himself up to get to the next place. And we don’t know what that next place would have been.
Reed: It’s shocking how young he was when he died. Forty-four now seems very young to me.
Rail: It is young. O’Hara, Pollock, this is young. The Gorky show at the Whitney, all the things he had done and all the ways he had worked. I mean it was an eye-opener for me.
Reed: Yes. Gorky worked hard. He put in long hours. It’s moving to see. And he worked for the right reasons. I’ve been thinking about Cézanne recently. Sometimes it seems to me that Cézanne finishes a painting with a mark that is thicker and more material. This mark is isolated and stands out from everything else. Rather than resolving the painting, this mark throws everything into question. Cézanne also often leaves parts of the painting unchanged from when he began. These beginning and ending marks keep the paintings open. Gorky learned these lessons from Cézanne. His obsession with Cézanne wasn’t about learning a style or how to make a proto-cubist structure. He learned how to keep a painting open while working: how to finish a painting that was still open and not closed off.
Rail: Which is the hardest thing to do. You want to close it off.
Reed: I sure do, yes.
Rail: It makes you feel secure, but to leave it open is to say I don’t know how to finish it, and I’m not going to finish it, And I’m going to live in that situation, and put it out there. I think there’s more and more of that in your work.
Reed: Thank you.
Rail: It seems to be the last few shows at Max Protetch you did things that seemed more open. I mean there are parts that weren’t as sanded off as another part of the painting. Like with the little candle flame shapes, and brushstrokes. And the shape of a brush. They seem to have slipped out from another plane and just sit there. The first thought was “What’s he doing?” Because I didn’t know, but I liked not knowing. But there’s this moment where I had to say it out loud, to hear myself think it.
Reed: I want more than ever to have the parts not fit together—to have the painting break apart. To have elements that don’t seem like they should go together, yet be in the painting fighting, and things appearing out of nowhere. I want all of that in the paintings. I want them to be less resolved than ever. I want to really emphasize that now.
Rail: Did the drawings help you get there?
Reed: Yes, they help me talk to myself, remind myself of what’s happening. A few of the drawings in this show are related to paintings that are still in progress. I put an exhortation on one of those that reminds me to “Break this painting open, let it destroy itself.”
Rail: If you know how to finish a painting. Then what’s the next step, right?
Reed: Right. And if it’s finished, then how does someone get involved with it, relate to it? I want a viewer to have a complicated relation to my paintings. Finish them for me.
Rail: Your work has become more unconventional.
Reed: I’ve been pushing the paintings in that direction.
Rail: There’s something unconventional about the format of your paintings pretty much from the beginning of your career. And you pushed that slowly without becoming “eccentric.” I mean the easiest way to be unconventional in America is to adapt a pose of eccentricity. And you didn’t do that. But there is something unconventional about the long vertical or panoramic horizontal you have. You’re talking to a certain current, or tradition when you do that, but it’s a tradition that gets buried or suppressed or overlooked. The second thing is that color wise, your paintings seem very different than almost anybody else’s. There are paintings that have many grays, blacks and yucky browns. Others with real pinks, turquoise, hothouse colors. You don’t have a set palette. You’ve really gone in different directions with your colors, so someone can’t say, oh that’s Reed’s palette. And this seems not to have been commented on.
Reed: A lot of my work is shown in Europe, rather than here. Only about a third of my work has been shown in New York. There are big gaps in what has been seen here.
Rail: That’s another interesting thing. Painting in Europe is not held in the same low estimation as it is in America. The world is big enough in Europe for all different kinds of art to co-exist.
Reed: The support I’ve had in Europe has been very important to my development. I’ve had opportunities to work on exhibitions with smart curators and museum directors and to have useful dialogues with European painters and art writers.
Rail: Also the notion that painting is philosophical and our encounter with it is ethical.
Reed: I often wonder why people are so eager to kill off painting. It makes me think there’s something really important about painting, something that disturbs people. There’s an aspect of being human that comes out in painting, something the world would prefer to ignore. We all have embarrassing, fleeting feelings, and thoughts that we wished we didn’t have: losing the contours of our bodies and wanting desperately to get back in, disgust with being in a body and wanting to get out, embarrassing sexual fantasies, vanity, self destructiveness, unreasonable anger, cowardice, despair. Painting is so sensitive, it picks up all of this. Whether the painters want to reveal these feelings and thoughts or not, a record is left in the paintings. The paintings are a reminder of what many people wish would just go away. What can be done with these embarrassing records of being human? Pretend they’re really something else. Put them in grand museums and have them cost a lot of money. Say that they are glorious and only geniuses can make such masterpieces. I don’t think the museums are what they pretend to be. Often at museums I feel that I’m in a giant confidence game which is trying to convince me that what I am seeing and the meanings I’m sensing are not really there. The reaction against painting is a way to keep this secret. Once at the Ludwig Museum years ago, thinking about all of this, I had fun looking for the hidden messages I found in the paintings. I was especially drawn to a small painting by James Ensor of a skeleton in a rocking chair looking at Japanese prints. I had been thinking that I was in a death museum, so Ensor’s fear of death really came through.
Rail: One answer is to cordon him off and make him eccentric, but maybe he’s really not eccentric.
Reed: Ensor is strange. It was very interesting to see the show at the Modern recently. I love his early work. It’s so romantic. He loves painting so much. In those early paintings he does something that was completely new for painting. He posed figures in dark silhouette against the light behind them coming through an open window, or against the pale color of a wall. The light doesn’t seem to have a source, come from somewhere else. It doesn’t seem to come through the window. Instead the light is a screen. Ensor invented television—that’s what I think. [Laughter.] This light behind the figure, this screen of light, became the white grounds behind his later paintings. And then became the white grounds in many later paintings, Philip Guston’s and Jon Lasker’s, for example. Ensor invented screen painting, which is what I’m a part of, and a lot of other painters as well. But because his innovations weren’t recognized, because no one understood what he had done, he turned bitter. He lost his romantic feeling for painting, that sense of possibility. The death images, his skeletons, are about an inner death. They are not about a fear of physically dying. The fear is of being killed through misunderstanding. I wish that hadn’t happened to him. His light has helped a lot of painters.
Rail: That’s what I mean by unconventional. It seems to me it clearly influences your work. You don’t read painting according to the conventions of how they have usually been read. Since I’ve known you, that has always been the case. You would say something about a painting and I would go, “Wait a second, what is he saying?” and I have to go back and look at that person’s work and remember what you said.
Reed: I love that about painting. I can find my own way. The street history is a conversation, a long conversation. Dave Hickey says it started when two guys sat down over cappuccinos at an outdoor café in Rome about 1620. One said he liked the Farnese ceiling by the Carracci and the other said he liked Michelangelo’s Sistine better. They argued. Dave says that conversation is still going on and if you want to join in, you can.