A Conversation

Chuck Close and Isca Greenfield-Sanders

January 17, 2006 4:00 PM

CC: Let’s start at the beginning. Did you start out as a straight photographer?

IGS: No, I’ve never been a photographer. Of course, my father is and I grew up having a darkroom in the house, but I was always more interested in painting.

CC: Where did you go to school?

IGS: Brown University where I double majored in painting and math.

CC: They are mutually exclusive as far as I’m concerned.

IGS: (laughs) I actually think that each discipline helped me with the other one. Math taught me to have a regimented step-by-step mind but my creativity pushed me to think outside the box. As a painter, without a method or plan of attack the lack of rules are overwhelming.

CC: I don’t even know the multiplication tables.

IGS: Really?

CC: I can’t add six and seven in my head. I have to count domino spots with my fingers. People look at my work and think it involves mathematics and systems, but it is all determined with no mathematics whatsoever.

IGS: People think the same with my work especially when they hear I studied math and my grid has nothing to do with math either.

IGS: I’d love to talk to you about grids. I have a seven-inch square grid that I work on regardless of the size of the painting.

CC: Oh really? A big painting would just have more?

IGS: Yes. Exactly.

CC: I used to do a six-inch grid. It is a comfortable box.

CC: I was recently in Rome when they were restoring Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. I was up on the scaffolding, which had an elevator so I could take my wheelchair up there. I went left to right, top to bottom, and looked at the entire wall and you could see the seam. You wonder how he could do all those figures in three years. The interesting thing was you could see the seams of one days work because of the application of wet plaster, which is really sort of a grid. If you looked at that chunk you could say, oh, I could imagine doing that in one day. If you break something down into a lot of little pieces you can eventually get there.

IGS: I find that I naturally break images down, it is how I parse visual information. I seem to have an intuitive understanding of an image and then I immediately see how it is going to be broken down.

CC: You found this treasure trove of photographs of some family?

IGS: Some forgotten family.

CC: Has anyone ever said, oh, I know those people?

IGS: Not yet.

CC: That would be interesting.

IGS: Actually, there is a wonderful distance to them. In the beginning when I used my own photography I had an attachment to the framing, there was intent involved. It was much harder to translate my own images into paintings whereas with found photography I have no attachment and am able to pair down the image, use only the elements that I think speak about painting.

CC: So you grid off the photograph and you make this small watercolor. How big is the watercolor?

IGS: The watercolor is seven inches square, typically.

CC: Seven? Wow.

IGS: Occasionally I’ll make them larger but seven inches square is my comfortable box.

CC: And then that becomes many seven-inch squares.

IGS: Exactly.

CC: What is the size range of the paintings?

IGS: My smallest paintings are 14 inches square and large pieces are usually 77 inches, and recently often square as well. I like to make the same image in a number of different sizes because part of the way I work is reproducible. I have an interest in the never-ending quality of an image. I think of these paintings as being traced from one medium to the next, perhaps being translated. So the translation changes each time.

CC: I love recycling, too. When you go through something a second time and you see things you didn’t see the first time, isn’t it amazing?

IGS: It is.

CC: You swear you knew everything about that piece…

IGS: Each time I change the size of an image I learn more about it too. An image at seven inches square can have a very small mark which holds a lot of information -- but when you enlarge it, it abstracts so wonderfully and means something different.

CC: There is also a threshold below which you cannot comment on something, like an eyelash, and above which you can. That’s pretty interesting, too, I find. Or if you make something big that has the same information as something small, that’s interesting, too. No increase in information except it is a lot bigger.

IGS: The perception changes, especially with my work. Some of my paintings read as photographic in nature while some are almost entirely abstract and lose their photographic underpinning. When you paint something little it reads more photographically than when you paint it really big -- it loses its place marks as an image.

CC: What else happens?

IGS: Recently I’ve been doing a fairly thorough investigation of my palate Because I work with photography I started to wonder if my palate was inherited from photography or if it was of my own making. I noticed that almost all of my paintings relied on the color black. Black is not a color that necessarily makes its way into a painting whereas it is a signature element of every photograph.

I backed away entirely from the palate of my earlier work and exchanged those early colors for more monochromatic hues. First I did a series of beach paintings in blue that eliminated black entirely. Then I began to feel that blue was too easy and went about eliminating it too replacing it with pink. I was testing the limits of color to see if the image would still function.

CC: The color that you used to have was that kind of faded color of old photographs. That had to feel like a real constraint after a while. You couldn’t use a color that was bright. Plus it looked so nostalgic.

IGS: I was attracted to the original found photographs despite the fact that they were “nostalgic”. The stillness of the figures, especially the bathers, reminded me of Matisse’s paintings – the group scenes reminded me of Seurat, I found such a wealth of material and quickly overcame their period qualities.

CC: When I saw a show of yours in Chelsea a few years ago I wasn’t sure how it was made, and I’m pretty good at reading paintings and photographs.

IGS: Was that something that bothered you?

CC: No. I don’t have any feelings about any way of working inherently being better then any other. When I was coming up in the sixties there was this schism between what people called eyeball realists and people working with photographs. I was the antichrist as far as those people were concerned. It was a moral issue. If you worked from life you were closer to God and if you worked from photographs you were closer to the other guy. It was so extreme. I got spit on and had people throw bottles at me in lectures. It was really amazing.

IGS: Unreal.

CC: The notion of a “purist painting” didn’t seem like a good argument to me. After all, Warhol was making paintings with silk screens that were one gesture, one squeegee stroke. Rauschenberg was transferring things from newspapers with lighter fluid and stuff like that. Who cares as long as it gets on there and is something to look at? But it does seem to upset some people.

IGS: I have been told by a number of people who have known me for years, “but Isca, you are such a good draftsmen, you are such a good watercolorist, why are you relying on a photograph?” And I always sort of smile and say thank you.

CC: And why are you relying on the photograph?

IGS: I love beginning with that type of information. It really gets you to a point very quickly. And then there is exploration after that.

CC: And it doesn’t change. You can always go back and see if you saw what you thought you saw.

IGS: Right. I recently re-made a painting that I made for my first show in Italy in 2000 and it is so different than that first painting.

CC: The thing about working from life is that it is so elusive and it keeps changing. The next time a model comes it is different. If you work out of your head it is so hard to keep the same handwriting, the laziest kinds of marks. I don’t know why everyone doesn’t work from a photograph because it gives you a way to make shapes you have never made before, use colors you have never used before, make edges that you haven’t dreamed of. I remember Philip Pearlstein wrote in the New York Times years ago “I get my highs from using my eyes” which was an indictment of people who worked from photographs. And in essence he was saying that if you worked from photographs that you weren’t looking. If you are working from life you are seeing and if you are working from photographs you are just mindlessly copying. I thought, so, if you are looking at a photograph you aren’t looking? What shuts down? It just doesn’t make any sense to me.

IGS: I know, I am a third generation artist. My father is a photographer and my grandfather is a painter. To my grandfather’s generation photography was barely an art. A lot has changed.

IGS: I am constantly aware of how the paintings that got painted before I was painting allowed my work to short hand those changes in attitude without having to restate the givens…

CC: For me, people who kicked open the door that I breezed right through were trying to make intelligent, modernist figuration instead of going back and breathing new life into nineteenth century notions of figuration. It was really important, absolutely critical. I think as a matter of fact that one could make the case that modernist painting is entirely what it is because of the invention of photography. If you think about photography in the 1940’s, it was black and white. Painting immediately became much more colorful. Early on, photography was static because of the long exposure times so everything in painting began to move and shift -- and we got futurism and two views from cubism. Photography was incredibly detailed so the impressionists broke up everything in view. In a way photography drove painting each step of the way. It wasn’t until the 1950’s and 60’s that there became an antagonism between photography and painting -- although painters were the first people to embrace photography.

CC: Your imagery is an American kind of imagery. It’s suburban, the kind of suburban life Spielberg made his career out of making seem sinister. It is interesting to me that you took the risk of nostalgia or sentimentality. Your generation of artists is perfectly happy to appropriate from anything, but one thing they seem to steer clear of is anything sentimental or nostalgic. What you do seems to me to be a kind of gutsy, an against the grain kind of attitude. I wonder how much you thought about this and how much you think about this now.

IGS: I wanted to paint figures, I wanted to paint landscape, I wanted to explore the difference between a photographic and a painted image. I had an agenda and I was drawn to the simplicity and beauty of these images from the 1950’s and 1960’s. The nostalgic quality never bothered me. Maybe I was rebelling against the notion that you couldn’t work with nostalgic imagery. Whatever.

CC: I love the photo focus, as it is clearly not the way the eye sees, unless you broke your glasses or something. Kind of the way light expands. Which is why anyone who has made a painting from a photograph, knows that Vermeer used a camera obscura even when art historians didn’t believe that to be the case. Artists know what happens when a light spot expands and agrees with the retina of the lens. Those lion heads on the back of the chairs in Vermeer paintings all have those expanded wide cuffs. Anyone who knows photography knows they can only be made that way. Only something in the front will be sharp or only something in the back will be sharp. It can’t be both. I like dropping crumbs along the trail, Hansel and Gretel style, for people to pick up. I want them to know that my images were made with a camera.

IGS: I too like to leave clues that give an indication of the way the painting was made. I like to see the inaccuracies. I have paintings in which two figures have shadows pointing in different directions.

CC: It is good to know that it was collaged together, if not physically collaged, mentally collaged, and that there is layer of artifice. One reason I chaffed under the title photorealist was that I was as interested in artificiality as I was in reality. The distribution of marks on a flat surface is as important to me as the image.

IGS: I chaff under the title digital painter.

CC: Yeah, I can imagine so.

IGS: In my work the computer is a unifying device. I use it as tool equal to all of the other tools that I use. I must say though that seeing images on screen has affected the way that I want my paintings to look. Even really beautiful color reproductions of paintings in art books have led me to strive for a different look.

CC: I wasn’t going to ask you about your father or your grandfather because you can never be sure if it is a curse or a blessing and I’m sure it would be nice to get through an interview without them ever coming up and actually I wouldn’t have, but you did mention them earlier.

IGS: Well, I am about to have a museum show with my father I think it is appropriate that we mention him!

CC: How has your family affected the choices that you’ve made? Were you tempted to run in a different direction?

IGS: Not really. My grandfather began teaching me watercolor at a very young age – but only after I had expressed great interest in it on my own – and my father – I credit him with teaching me how to be an artist. My grandfather and my father have such different practices and such different approaches… without being too obvious I suppose I am the natural combination of a photographer and a painter…

CC: What would Freud say about that?

IGS: (Laughs) Right.

IGS: I wanted to ask you to discuss the smaller elements, the cells in your large paintings. In my grid I see them as smaller paintings within paintings. How do you prepare for a painting?

CC: For me the painting always comes first. I never do preparatory drawings and since I’ve been quadriplegic I don’t do drawings at all anymore. I do a lot of prints, which have drawing in them I guess. But every thing I’ve done is recycled. Sometimes a painting will become a drawing, which will become a print, which will become a pulp paper piece. Sometimes I will go directly from a photograph to one of those mediums but usually there are several layers in between. One of the reasons I recycled the Philip Glass image more then any other image of mine is because of those Medusa-like curls which lent themselves to different kinds of art; finger prints, little chunks of paper, or dots or whatever. And, it was always a hoot to see what would happen when I would pump it through a new medium at a different scale with a different mark making method. Sometimes there would be exactly the opposite of what I did on a previous piece, where the first one would be black on a white surface and then I would do white dots on a black surface. All I was trying to do was to stay engaged in my work. I thought that if I just kept changing the image I’d be doing the same thing in the studio everyday. But if I keep the image constant it would force me to look for, and find something else within it.

Another aspect of my work, what I would call “the woman’s work aspect” is the process of signing onto a method, like knitting or crocheting. You know, that whatever you did today, you did yesterday and are going to do tomorrow. I always thought inspiration was for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and do the work.

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