Ellen Altfest's paintings appear confrontational, digested, and candid in how they deal with a meditative state of mind and a hallucinatory dedication to "somethingness" that lies between things and entities. Subjects range from ordinary objects, manmade or natural, sometimes painted in full as portraits (like a large rock, a gourd, two cacti) and other times close-up with idiosyncratic croppings (as with a human torso, a foot, a back). The artist endlessly explores the pictorial application of both representation and abstraction through the way her eye hones in; all works are carefully painted from life over long durations. I first encountered the work at the now defunct Bellwether Gallery—Rock and Trees (2002), and Still Life (2005)—and recently had the pleasure to discuss the new paintings in the artist's Long Island City studio, on the occasion of her exhibition Green Spot at White Cube Hong Kong.
Phong Bui (Rail): Since I read with pleasure your interview with Sylvia Sleigh (published in Turps Banana, No. 4, Spring 2008), who I'd met a few times through the late critic John Perrault in 2007, and with great regret we never got our chance to interview her for the Rail before she passed away in 2010, I thought it'd be delightful if we were to begin with some of the questions you had asked her even though she didn't quite answer in full, for example: what's the difference between a painting of a man painted by a man and a painting of a woman painted by a woman?
Ellen Altfest: How the human figure is portrayed often depends on the sexual orientation of the artist. So, a gay man painted by a gay man is different from a straight man painting another straight man. That's something I've been thinking about . . . there's this idea that we fault male artists from the past for objectifying women, and I don't agree with that, partly because I think everyone to a certain extent wants to be objectified or desired in the right circumstance or by the right person. And men have the right to their sexual desires just like women. So, I do relate to straight male painters painting women. But in terms of women painting other women and men painting other men erotically, I think that there's a definite gay aesthetic. And sometimes I feel that it can border on kitsch because of the extreme, exaggerated portrayal of the body parts, including big muscles, strong erections, just over the top "sexiness." To me, as a viewer, that's very loud. At the same time, I'm almost less interested in a straight man painting another straight man, as an idea. I suppose I have to go on a case by case basis, knowing that a great painter's always going to make a great painting, doesn't matter what. I'm thinking like, for example, Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne  by [Jean Auguste Dominique] Ingres. I could look at that painting for hours, although I'd be mostly looking at the fabric, but I probably would be more interested in his Grande Odalisque  or The [Valpinçon] Bather . I like his paintings of women because of the sexual charge. When women paint themselves, it can be empowering because it's like a woman thinking about her own identity or who she is. And I spent years in undergrad at Cornell University painting many self-portraits, so I understand this implication. Sometimes, however, I think that women painting themselves can also lean on this tendency to please the viewer. Viewers in general want to see naked women, especially attractive women. So, I don't always know how edgy it is for a straight woman to paint herself, or another straight woman.
Rail: Can Lisa Yuskavage's painting be a good example in either case? Even though we know her figures, for a long time were mostly women until a few years ago. Lisa's been painting both men and women most often as an affectionate couple recently, and are products of her pictorial invention from the imagination rather than working directly from life.
Altfest: There's a self-criticism in Lisa's work that I also see in Jenny Saville's work. Maybe in her early work where she was thinking about coming to terms with a certain notion of the imperfection of the female body, yet it's always charged with a sense of confidence in its sexuality, which is what gives it its edge. I'm personally less interested in examining the flaws in the human body in themselves as a subject.
Rail: Which leads to my next question that you'd asked Sylvia but it seems as though you were asking the same question for yourself; at any rate, how do you choose your model?
Altfest: Sylvia definitely had an idea of righting the wrong that had been committed by the male artists that she felt, at least from my recollection, had depersonalized the female model. Taking away the humanity and making the female into just an object. So, she wanted to, through her subjects, elevate the male and portray him the way that he thought women should be portrayed. Or portray all people in this romantic way. Which I personally have no interest in doing. [Laughs] There are two different sides to how I approach my model. First of all, I'm very pragmatic. For my last painting that I made for this exhibit, which I managed to finish in December last year, Three Folds (2018), I wanted to see what skin tone would be best to synthesize everything in the painting in terms of how the overall tonality would relate to the form and composition … This meant I needed the exact right model for the task. So, in some ways I color coordinated the skin tone of the model's flesh to harmonize the composition. But I also, because there's only a small sliver of the model visible on either side, left and right of the painting, needed to include just the right amount of body hair, for body hair often signifies to me masculinity. Especially in this instance, I also needed the contrast between skin and the texture of the cloth. I had to search hard for this particular model, and I eventually managed to find this model from South India whose skin tone was perfect. Secondly, I have to sit with the model for a long time, so I need someone who's intelligent, curious, sensitive, and creative, and who I can have a good dialogue with.
Rail: And to understand your commitment to the "act of endurance" from the outset.
Altfest: Yes, the model has to agree to how long it's going to take, and what it's going to take to maintain and sustain the endurance. The viewer may think that all the model has to do is lay passively for me to paint for days on end, but that's not quite true. I've either been very lucky or I've gotten smarter about who would be right as a model for a painting. My last few models have been amazing. I like when I believe in what they're doing in their own work, and there's this ongoing give and take. Their working for me helps facilitate what they're trying to do for themselves. Then there's a mutual respect. To get back to Sylvia, she, too, wanted similar humanity. This essential element was important to her, as it is to me. I'm just not trying to convey the model's personality. I just need the model's personality to facilitate the work.
Rail: How do you determine the canvas size before you make the painting?
Altfest: All my paintings are one-to-one scale so everything is the exact size as I see it on the model. So, I have to figure out what I want to include, or exclude, and I get it down to the sixteenth of a millimeter, or whatever the measurement. As I've moved along in my development as an artist, from my first show at Bellwether Gallery when I was painting rocks and trees, I feel like my work got more and more specific, because I now know more precisely what I want.
Rail: When the gallery was still in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Altfest: Exactly! What I've discovered is that painting the male figure has to be so specific. One inch in one direction, or half an inch in another can change the meaning of the painting.
And the painting became a lot more detailed when I began painting individual hairs and pores.
Rail: When you say to yourself that you determined and realized that one-to-one scale of your own particular focus on certain parts of the body, which part would you find more compelling, more seductive in your selection process? I mean whatever you've decided on, be it a head, foot, an armpit, a back, and so on, because each would require seven months to a year to complete one singular painting.
Altfest: It's all true, though I think I've had different reasons at different times selecting a specific subject or part of the body. Each painting asks a different question and proposes a different solution. For the second show I had of men [The Bent Leg at White Cube London, 2011], I wanted to paint a whole male figure, almost.
Rail: Do you mean the extended vertical picture Reclining Nude (2007), when the figure's torso takes almost all the space of the painting in the center along with the two upper arms and upper portions of the legs stretching out, which together form the letter X?
Altfest: Yes, there are certain parts of the body that are very essential if you're going to represent a man, or a person, and to turn each one of those body parts into an interesting composition. Then for it to read as a group as a whole, the "whole" being the group of paintings as opposed to the whole body. So, in certain ones I would look at the model and have an idea, like one model had a really interesting hairy back. And the pattern of hair was like, "I'm never going to find this again, I'd better go with it." I just knew that I had to paint a head, and I knew that was an issue because I didn't want it to be a portrait. That percolated in my mind for a long time, until I had an idea to try different things out with the head, to make it into part of the exhibit and a painting in itself. After that, I realized, OK, I've done this. I've really made this exhibit about men, and now I really need to push it in a different direction. This was around 2013 when I started using less recognizable parts of the man. I kind of went for the biggest expanse of skin without necessarily recognizable, physical landmarks, like nipples or pubic hair or belly buttons. That, to me, was the torso, there's a big expanse between nipples and the belly button, or the back, so that the paintings could become more abstract and move away from being specifically about men, but just having men be one part of the painting.
Rail: Like the painting The Leg (2010), which was included in the show I curated, Intimacy in Discourse: Reasonable Sized Painting in 2015 at Mana Contemporary.
Altfest: Exactly! It was a great show.
Rail: My first reaction to that painting was, which still persists as a recurring theme or feeling, of a hidden sense of violence that certain parts seem to arouse. I'd say there's a certain forensic mien infused with a quiet violence, which I finally understood the reason why Brian O'Doherty in his book American Masters: The Voice and the Myth [1975, Viking Press], he included Andrew Wyeth in the company of Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Rauschenberg, and Joseph Cornell! As Brian told me in my conversation with him (published in the Rail in June, 2007) that unlike urban life which depends on the rapid make and break perception, sharpened by continual motion, country life has its own code which hovers below the surface of nature's stillness, certain harsh brutalities that lie underneath. Afterward I looked at Christina's World (1948) differently: I always marveled at the minute and loving paint handling in egg tempera, but then I realized that exaggerated the odd and eerie in her pose. (I soon learned of her being a neighbor of his in Maine, who seems to be determined to climb up to the house uphill despite being crippled by polio.) Why do you think that small size, close cropping, and tender paint handling amplify this sense of eeriness or hidden disturbia? If you even agree with that assessment…
Altfest: I don't think I'm after drama, or creepiness like the severed ear in the movie Blue Velvet, although one painting, The Bent Leg (2008), might come close. I do think there can be something aggressive or violent about cropping. What is outside of the frame doesn't exist, it has been eliminated. Sometimes I think of this as how much power or agency the subject of the painting has. I also like to control where the viewer looks and what they see. These are my darker tendencies. But I also have fun with them. It's a push and pull of impulses. And, as you mention, the close observation and detailed rendering adds an element of reverence that elevates the subject at the same time it's under scrutiny.
Rail: I really appreciate the effort of why you had to search for the right color of skin tone, as you explained earlier, even though it was exposed just as slivers of spaces on both sides, in order to match, not just the texture of the cloth, but also the overall tonality of the whole painting. It's perhaps your own way of exploring flatness and abstraction, which is so distinctly identifiable as your own vision of the world, no less than say Catherine Murphy's paintings of the ordinariness of the objects she depicts, be it entangled water hoses lying on a suburban lawn, a kitchen sink, a cherry pie, and whatnot; it's fair to say Cathy doesn't paint images, rather she paints things. But my question is: it's very hard to tell sometimes whether an image of a thing is more interesting than a painting of a thing or can it be both?—I mean knowing what we would consider commonly identifiable things that have real physical existence as opposed to images, which are either optical or graphic pictures, or representations of real objects.
Let me put it differently: the way you distill the real human being, and reconstruct it in the proscenium space of the painting using a tiny sable brush, it's as though you're weaving the surface stitch by stitch. (This is where your work is different from Lucien Freud who thrived on the bravura of his painterly eloquence.) Your small scale also accentuates the notion of the "gaze," be it a male gaze, a female gaze, the gaze of power, etc. The image calls forth the act of seeing and of being seen. Is it a huge difference in worldview than in, say, the endless details and information to tell a narrative in Wyeth's Christina's World or on the other hand, a still-life painting by Morandi, which is reduced to its simple form from painting the space between the bottles, where the thing appears by default, in a way. Yet in your case and Morandi's they both function as images, and we remember them as images. My point is, you paint things. Things that sometimes we can identify as images and sometimes we can't (at least not readily). What are your thoughts on this predicament?
Altfest: If I understand what you're asking, in denying the recognizability of an object the painting resists becoming a recognizable image. There is a tension created in having a fidelity to what I'm looking at and at the same time a resistance to what I want to allow it to be within the framework of the painting. In my recent work, objects and human subjects are "de-thingified" if you will. They don't control their own boundaries and become subordinate to the painting itself.
I paint what I see, and I paint it as I see it so I guess it would be considered as a form of realism. But it's always hard when someone asks me what kind of work I make when they haven't seen my work because I never feel like I can describe it, which is probably true of most artists. But I like that idea that it made everyone uncomfortable because Wyeth didn't fit into mainstream sensibilities. He was doing his own thing. I'm doing my own thing, which I'm comfortable with, and it's quite alright if my work doesn't quite fit to what is expected in the mainstream art world. In terms of Wyeth specifically, I admire his craft. I admire his virtuosity with watercolor, and especially his treatment of dark tonality. I did see an exhibit of his paintings (Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect) at Brandywine River Museum of Art in 2017, and to me, and this sort of goes into what you were saying about Christina's World, on one hand they were a bit overwrought, which is the opposite of what I'm trying to do. I like things that are extremely understated. In part because I understand that viewers pick up on everything that you put into a painting. I remember years ago, right after graduate school, I made this huge painting of the Grand Canyon, and looking back on it I think I was interested in the rocks. At the same time, I was looking at Guston, but my painting looked nothing like Guston. I never would have said to anyone, "I'm looking at Guston." But people could see a little Guston! My point is just looking at something, and thinking about something, and any type of intention you have: it enters your work, and you don't have to underscore it.
There were certain things in Wyeth's paintings that were simply off. There was a little bit of melodrama and I don't like the invented fantastical touches in the work either. I find that a little bit cloying. What I like is just how he observes what he sees. I mean, my favorite paintings were probably the Helga paintings, especially the ones where he was just looking at the pubic hair and the light and the shadow her pubic hair casts on her skin. I find that extremely satisfying.
Thinking about being a representational or realist painter also relates to what you're talking about with Catherine Murphy, who was my teacher at Yale. I think in some ways what we might have in common is an interest in the intersection of abstraction and figuration. Where we diverge is that she has a narrative element in her painting. She loves to set something up, a scenario or a scene to suggest some sort of situation or story. Whereas in my work, the painting is stripped down in a way.
Rail: How about with Philip Pearlstein?
Altfest: Philip Pearlstein, as a painter of the nude, was an artist I had to come to terms with. He's not interested in the humanity of the model or models. He combines people and objects. It's as if they and the objects are the same, and by cropping out parts of the body, or bodies, there's an equation, like a parallel equating the models to the objects. I believe that's a conceit, or a failed premise, that the model is too interesting to ever be equal to a Mickey Mouse puppet, a marionette, or whatever he has in his paintings. And yet there are certain things in Philip's paintings that I connected with and felt like I could use for my work. I think his paintings are unlikeable in a way that I find interesting. In other words, at first, I didn't like them, partly because of all the things I've described, but slowly I began to see how powerful his use of cropping is. In my work, there are some elements of eroticism, there are some elements of mockery, and there's some elements of humor and elements of violence due to the intense cropping which is an important part of making my paintings what they are.
At any rate, when you're talking about stripping things down, I thought of The Leg painting. The reason I kept that painting for myself was because it was the first painting that I made that was more abstract, and it didn't matter to me what that body part was. I didn't have a specific attachment or narrative around the leg itself. It's just that it was a horizontal band among other three horizontal bands. I could see it was this direction that I wanted to take my work to evolve. I wanted to move away from having painted with the penis, for example, which had so much power as an image, and was so much about a man, and I wanted to move into more of making a painting about painting, and making a believable image so that the subject and all the other elements are balanced. I'd say it's a constant struggle to get this balance but I'm conscious of it every time I'm in front of the painting and while I'm painting.
Rail: Yes, I understand. Take the painting, Abdomen for example, it's not that one can identify it as an abdomen at first. One looks at it as a field of brownish flesh-like sky above, and a textured platform of earth below, as an overall image. It even recalls Caspar David Friedrich's painting The Black Monk by the Sea without the monk! I see no drama, no spectacle, except thinking out loud whether this object I'm looking at should be identified?
Altfest: I always want it to be a slow read, and if you don't know what it is, but you're interested in the painting, that to me is fine. If the image or the object becomes too interesting, it can kind of destroy the balance of the painting and the overall success of the painting. To me when a viewer can identify, "Oh, it's a figure on a couch" or whatever and that's all they really see, then it can become less interesting. Once you understand something, your interest wanes as a viewer. So, I want to prolong the viewer's engagement or make something that's more interesting than the identity or the recognition of the subject matter. To go back to Pearlstein, he did have this idea of making the model into an abstract element, which I find myself attempting even though I don't believe it's truly possible. I'm aware that a figure is always going to be intrinsically interesting and have a power that no other object or thing will have.
Rail: In Philip's case, his thesis on Francis Picabia, when he enrolled in the Masters of Art History program at NYU Institute of Fine Arts in the mid '50s eventually led him to treat his figures like machine parts. To me, Philip's reinvention of the so-called roving eye perspective or observation infused with his allure to Abstract Expressionist painting, particularly Franz Kline, where the allowances resulted from a synthesis of a careful setup with the spontaneous depiction of one thing; say he begins with an ear somewhere on the canvas then lets the rest go from there. I think it's an amazing invention.
Altfest: I agree! I admire in paintings what you've just described.
Rail: Describe to me the genesis of your indispensable use of surface.
Altfest: First of all, I don't want anything in the painting that's unnecessary. In my mind, making something bigger would be desirable. I like the presence of bigger things but I'm not going to add space just to make a bigger painting and this is what the paintings call for. Maybe it's just because you build on what comes before, and I've gotten into this way of working. It's part of a residue or a byproduct of getting things right and how much I work on things. And yeah, if I got things right, right away, I know I wouldn't be satisfied with the surface of the painting. But I wouldn't want to just make paintings where the surface is an effect. They become that way because of the amount of time it takes to get the visual information in the place it needs to be. It's a result of the whole process.
Rail: I understand what you mean. It's like when one looks at, for example, the surface of a Vermeer painting, one sees how impeccable and uniform it is. There are no extraneous brushstrokes revealed anywhere. It seems to be proportionately melted throughout the surface like a piece of glass, as opposed to Chardin's more built up painterly surfaces that recall a porcelain-like texture.
Altfest: There are limitations in all different aspects of how I'm painting. I paint entirely from life, that's a limitation. I can't paint people having sex, not that I want to, but there are certain things that I can't paint. So, there are pluses and minuses, but I can understand there's an economy to many ways of working that obviously is not mine. I feel accountable for every millimeter of the painting being the way I want and wish it to be as good and interesting. I went to a talk of Catherine Murphy a while ago and she said of her early work that a smaller painting actually takes longer than a larger painting. I took that to mean that in a larger painting the total surface area is bigger, and if a small part isn't working, it's not as noticeable. In a small painting, you're accountable for every tiny mark in a way that leaves little room for forgiveness.
Rail: Since you mentioned your big painting of the Grand Canyon in reference to Guston earlier, I can't help but think of what Guston did with great intelligence: in order to construct a narrative filled with episodes of grotesque figuration, loaded with all kinds of psychological conditions, it needed the stability of a still-life form in which objects are centralized, and placed on a tabletop. My reading of some of your paintings is that while it may refer to a still-life in its composition, the frontality of the image is so intensified by strong vertical and horizontal lines that it may relate more to a Mondrian painting than anything else. We see this pictorial formation more clearly in a few paintings, for example: Composition (2015), Three Parts (2014-15), and Three Folds (2018) of course.
Altfest: I think that's true with Guston in both cases—his objects have a real human quality about them, and his impulse towards still life. That is something that I have always connected with in his work. Like in his Painter's Forms (1972). He isolates these different elements and creates a vocabulary of objects. And, I believe things can have personalities of their own.
Rail: You mean the alphabet paintings of objects, often in singular image like a book, a shoe, a cup, and other objects of studio and domestic life?
Altfest: Yes, those too, from 1968 to 1970 before putting them together in big paintings. I should also share that before I was working with landscape, and before I was working with the figure, I was working with still-life objects which were basically my last gallery show in New York (Bellwether in 2005 – 6). So, you're right, I approach all these other things, like the landscape and the figure, through the eyes of a still-life painter. But yes, the frontality of images and the shallowness of space are more or less direct results of what I've been thinking about abstraction. I'm also bringing the objects closer to the painting's surface, which increases the parallel between the painted space and the space of a painting in general. And above all, it relates to the surface of the things I'm painting, which relates to the painting itself. There's a direct parallel. Right now, there is this idea of being really close to the things I'm painting and really understanding things in the first person.
Rail: Guston imparted psychological intensity through the quiver of his brushstrokes and the images he put together, particularly when in a blown-up scale. How would you describe the psychological or even emotional dimension in your work?
Altfest: I always wanted to paint what I see and to make it specific to me. In some ways, I like for the psychology of the work to be the psychology of the artist. Painting Tumbleweed was trying to order this chaotic thing, and I feel the painting reflects a state of anxiety. In the paintings of men the identities of the models were withheld, and so the work becomes about my choices and what they have to say about what I'm painting. However, I seem to have a different relationship to nature. I walk through the woods and find things and respond to them. When I made the painting Green Spot there was a loose framework, but the subject itself had a quiet intensity that emerged over the months.
Rail: One of the unique attributes about your work: once the prolonged experience is gained, the viewer feels as though he or she is relishing the labor that is responsible for the endless details that appear on the surface, and the surface itself as the topography of a real compilation of earth, of nature so to speak. In a way there is no detail because it all becomes a seamless mass of Earth.
Altfest: That's right!
Rail: I mean, you can either make great details with thin paint or physical forms with thick paint, but in your case, it's neither too thin nor too thick. At which point do you know that you should just stop painting?
Altfest: If the paint gets too thick, it does get hard to get things on that level of detail. Sometimes I have to sand it down, for example, in the Green Spot painting, which I spent a year painting, and at some point, when I was looking at it, I saw certain exact details were lost because the tactility of the paint obscured them. I mean, there are things that happen that are not necessarily intended, although if they weren't there I would probably miss them—and want them. You mentioned Freud before, whose paintings I sometimes get frustrated with for the very same reason I get frustrated with my own painting, the physicality is its own thing and kind of interrupts the description of what he's painting. In his work it's almost an indulgence, or some sort of signifier of the amount of work he's done. And you get these little bumpy clusters of paint where you felt he was saying "Look how much I worked on this" and it interrupts what I'm seeing and what he's painting. And it looks like a remnant of something that was there before that he chose to keep and let it accumulate for the sake of accumulation.
Rail: Even when you do sand an area down, you'll have to paint and build it up again in such a convincing manner so that it would blend in with the rest of what has been painted.
Altfest: Definitely. It's not a uniformity but a certain quality that's hard to describe but that it has to have. And that indescribable quality is attached to the thing I see, and yet it's also its own thing. The whole idea is, from the beginning, to make something I see subjective. And I believe that is possible. That is to say it has nothing to do with photorealism, which is about the process of executing a picture, and maybe you add some painterly flourishes, but it doesn't have that personal element of standing in front of the thing, responding to the thing, changing your mind, noticing different things over time, and choosing certain things that you see even certain times of day or the element of translation that goes on from the eye to the hand, and so on.
Rail: I like your term "active endurance." Since you mentioned all the things that are required to be changed over time in order to modify a certain condition of light that is constantly subject to change. This is why we admire a painter like Rackstraw Downes who has worked out his calendar of the season, when and what time of the year, the week, the day, the hour to go down to Presidio, Texas, to go up to his favorite spot in Harlem, Gowanus, and so on. Having read his journals on how these paintings get made, my admiration for Rackstraw's work increases day by day.
Altfest: I admire Rackstraw's work as well. And I can definitely connect with the way he works on different paintings in different weather conditions. The weather drives me crazy too: when it rains it gets dark or wet and can disrupt my whole workday or work week. There's a certain insanity that painters who work from direct observation have, that other people don't know about or don't have. It's very specific. And it's almost like a comfort to talk to other people who paint from observation even though there are so few of them in contemporary art. My paintings are more of an average of different moments than Rackstraw, who is actually painting the sky and so the clouds have to look a certain way because the clouds are in his painting. For me, all of my paintings here are from daylight, whether it's in my studio or not. There's never direct light on the subject. I have north light in my studio, and I cast a shadow on the things when I paint outside, whether it's an umbrella or whatever, so that I can paint for longer time. So, I guess, having an indirect source of natural light gives me a little more stability and flexibility. I do think natural light has a beautiful quality. Someone asked me what beauty is in my work. I said I didn't really think about the subject itself being beautiful, but I would say now, thinking about it, that I do find natural light has a quality and a beauty that is often overlooked nowadays. And it is possibly the source of the beauty of work from the past when work was made in daylight.