Catherine Redmond: An Interview

Catherine Redmond lives in the Garment District. Walking there from the Art Students League in Midtown, I stroll down Ninth Avenue, through Hell’s Kitchen, which has undergone a revival (along with most of Manhattan) that brings to mind a Hollywood concept of old New York: great food shops and restaurants in old tenement buildings. There is an urban homespun atmosphere that is irresistibly charming, and that’s just how I feel when I arrive at Catherine’s. She welcomes me with a hug as I get out of the elevator. As we walk into the loft I’m greeted by a four-foot square painting on the wall directly facing the door; it’s an interior with a still life of flowers that looks like a display of fireworks. This, along with paintings lined up on  easels and the stretch of white walls pinned with studies, speaks of Catherine’s exuberance and sophistication. I know we’re going to have a great conversation. 

Painter Catherine Redmond
“I write to get rid of words, not to open up truth. Painting is about reaching for what’s really going on and is pre-verbal or extra-verbal.”

IRA GOLDBERG: I’m intrigued with this found poetry series, “Text,” that you’ve been working on. You say it is a way to find what you call “openings.” Have you always used words in this way?

CATHERINE REDMOND: I see, I remember, those flash cards from first grade, just like the cut out text I’m using now. They are intuitive guesses.

IG: Guesses?

CR: I was so conscientious about being honest, I went to Mrs. Mosher, and I said, I couldn’t read the word “father.” It was the fall of first grade and our first reading lesson and the first word she had held up on the flash card was “mother” and no one had known what it said, and so when she held up the next card I just figured that “father” would be the natural next word. Now I was confessing.

IG: So what you’re saying is that when she was complimenting on your comprehending the reading, you really weren’t actually reading.

CR: Yes, and I knew I wasn’t reading. I was worried she would think that I knew something I didn’t.

IG: Do you think this led to your art career in a weird kind of way?

Painter Catherine Redmond
Catherine Redmond, Arrangement with Nancy, 2010. Oil on canvas, 14 x 11 in. Collection of the artist.

CR: I loved the comic Nancy but how I discovered her is part of this, too. My siblings were all much older; the closest in age was the younger of my brothers, who was nine years older. He had a serious comic book collection. It stayed on the left side of the sofa in the front living room, and I wasn’t to mess with it. In the evenings his pals would come by the house and the boys would trade from their holdings. I was not a participant, only an observer. And these were boring things: Green Hornet; Flexo the Rubber Man; soldiers in action with screaming mouths and big teeth; men throwing grenades with jagged explosions. Not my taste. The boys had a discard pile, and there I found Nancy. Those pictures! I grabbed those up and made my own pile in my own play area. Some of The Katzenjammer Kids, too. Those are the two comics I remember. And I studied them very closely, these marvels of color and edge.

Back to Mrs. Mosher and our first reading lesson. I got home one afternoon sometime after these early reading lessons. I went to my pile of comics for solace because I think I didn’t like school. I opened up Nancy, and in those beautiful bubbles with the small black markings, I recognized “a,” “and,” and “the.” And I felt such a sense of disappointment. I was seated in the bay window with my toys, and there, there were words.

Painter Catherine Redmond
Catherine Redmond, Downtown Near Wall Street, 1997. Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 in. Private collection.

IG: Why the disappointment?

CR: Because there were words, words, and I didn’t feel, “Oh, wow, I can read these.” I felt, “Damn it, they aren’t just the pictures.”

IG: Were you just disappointed that you didn’t understand enough from reading?

CR: No, no, it was that the purity of these had been ruined for me and someone else had changed their meaning, something was imposed on it that got in my way. My imagination was no longer free. It didn’t open up worlds. It snapped them shut. It felt the same way about school actually. I had wonderful teachers. It wasn’t my teachers. It was that I felt regimented from the start and it never felt right. But, in this one incident all of it crystallized.

IG: That’s interesting.

CR: My attachment to Nancy has to do with Nancy without words. Nancy as that visual delight of those first scenes. I had the idea to put Nancy in a painting back when I was on Chambers Street. So my connection doesn’t lock in to how other people have seen the comic character in an ironic way Pop has used it. A lot of artists use Nancy, but it isn’t my Nancy.

IG: You connected with your persona in first grade. Obviously it was a profound moment.

CR: What else is art if not reaching back to those original moments where there is a transformative “a-ha.”

IG: Was that your first transformative experience?

CR: My inner world was rich. There’s a moment that I distinctly remember. I was very young, in my bedroom, drawing on paper at my desk, and I was trying to draw a girl walking up a hill. This was preschool. I knew what it felt like to be a girl walking up a hill, the having to lean into the hill as you are walking up, and I knew what it was like to draw a girl and draw a hill. My drawing showed this green knob, and this girl sticking out of it on the side. I knew that is not the way it feels to be a girl walking up a hill. There was this moment when I looked away, probably at my dog beside me. I looked down, and I looked back. All of a sudden I had this comprehension that making what I would have called “art,” was about that friction between the two. You know what it may look like and you know what it feels like, but the space between is where art is. How to make them one?

IG: It sounds like there was a conscious realization that that was there.

CR: Yes, there was! It was that sense complete. There was something I didn’t understand, but that I knew that making a big hill, lump, green, sticking a girl out of it like a pin, in a hill was right in a certain way – I suppose as diagrammatic, to explain it — but it had nothing to do with the how the girl on the hill felt, and that that was what I was after: how the girl on the hill felt as well as looked.

Painter Catherine Redmond
Catherine Redmond, Return to Standard Time, 1988. 48 x 72 in. Collection of Kaiser Permanente.

IG: You must have seen yourself as the girl on the hill.

CR: I understood that I wasn’t expressing it in the way it needed to be expressed.

IG: How old were you?

CR: I was maybe four, not in kindergarten yet.

IG: OK, so there was a certain prescience.

CR: There was a lot of art and art talk. Paintings everywhere. Photographs everywhere. My mother went to the Art Students League. She studied with Guy Pène DuBois and Kenneth Hayes Miller. I was nursed on this. This was in my mother’s milk.

IG: Was there ever a time when you didn’t think that you were going to be an artist?

CR: Well, I tried to reject it. I wanted to be anything but be an artist because everybody said I was an artist. Yuck. Who wants to do that? I wanted to be a scientist. I wanted to be … a veterinarian. I don’t know. Anything. A musician. It seemed like too much of a burden to take on art.

IG: When did you finally give up the fight?

CR: Oh God, I don’t know.

IG: Where did you go to college?

CR: I went, first, to Cornell, in industrial and labor relations, so I could avoid being an artist. I think the only reason I applied is they only took ten women in a class of 150, and that appealed to me. And I liked the look of factories.

IG: The concept of industrial labor relations wasn’t the draw?

CR: Yes and No, it was really how factories, old grimy ones with smoke and soot looked. But equally, about the charm of mediation, getting things that don’t belong to work together, to create that third other.

IG: So it was about aesthetics.

CR: Yes, though I couldn’t name it or accept it then. I only applied to one place, and I got in. I had no idea what I was doing, how to be a student. I went to those economics classes and I drew in them. And I flunked out, as was appropriate. Then, I went to SUNY Binghamton, when it was the only liberal arts state school back then. Harpur College, a small school. I hated almost every minute of it. I hated that I had to be someplace other than my imagination. When I graduated, I returned home for a year, my father was very ill at time, dying really, and I wanted to be near him. I taught 12th-year English, also creative writing, in my hometown high school. The following June I married my college sweetheart and came to New York. I found work, and I went to the Art Students League as soon as I had enough money, three years later.

Painter Catherine Redmond
Catherine Redmond, View from the Road, 1994. Oil on linen, 12 x 14 in. Collection of the artist.

IG: How old were you?

CR: I came to New York at twenty-three and started at the league at twenty-six. I taught in a Catholic school on West 108th Street to support us. I had no training to teach children, no training to teach anyone. There was an opening, it was post-Vatican II and they were willing to hire a non-Catholic.

IG: When was your first formal education in art?

CR: I won a full scholarship to Chautauqua the summer between my junior and senior years in college. The painter I studied with had studied with Gorky. It was my first serious study, my first real investment, hours of painting and drawing every day with other young, talented kids from all over. There were enough our age that we had a good group. In college, though I was an English major, I did everything to be an studio art major short of a senior thesis. Studio art at Harpur in those days was limited, and taught mostly by one person, small expectations, narrow assignments, models wore leotards. No serious painters on the faculty. I knew that English was much more rigorous. Oddly, when I had to choose my major, I went to the Chair of the Art History Department. Parenthetically, he was one of The Monuments Men. (I didn’t know it at the time; he never mentioned it in class.) I told him of my uncertainty about majors. He advised me to major in Art History, I remember his words: “Oh, major in Art History. It’s more important. Studio Art – “ he waved his hand as if he were shooing away a fly “– it is nothing! Nothing!” That convinced me to major in English Lit.

IG: So you got your undergraduate degree at Harpur College, SUNY Binghamton?

CR: Yes. That’s the reason I decided not to go to graduate school for an MFA after almost five years at the league. I’d had a great undergraduate education, in spite of my bad attitude. Once I went to the league, I learned the technical things I needed, and most important, focused dedicated time to make rapid progress and to understand the flow and the disciple of studio work. So I consciously made a choice not to get an MFA. I’ve never regretted it.

Painter Catherine Redmond
Catherine Redmond, Yellow, Yellow, 5 7/8 x 12 in. Oil on rag board, 1987. Private collection.

IG: Well, considering how far you’d come, that’s understandable.

CR: My eyes were open when I made the decision. It meant that I could chart my own course.

IG: At the time you attended, those institutions were extremely well-considered.

CR: Yes. You would recognize the names of many of my classmates. I came away from there with training in how to think, how to think critically, how to develop and research and even some knowledge.

IG: Would this be something you would recommend any art student?

CR: Especially today, yes. BFA programs in fine arts have a heavy challenge now where the business people are squeezing them to produce market-ready graduates. What does that mean in fine arts? Young people are supposed to graduate and be artists? Come on. They haven’t even figured out who they are much less have had time to really develop their studio skills. They are still under the influence of whomever. The BFA programs are charged with both giving a studio education and at the same time offering a liberal arts tasting menu. Look up “de-skilling” — the latest rationalization for not having rigorous drawing and painting programs.

Painter Catherine Redmond
Catherine Redmond, Afternoon Light Simultaneous and Sequential, 1987. Oil on linen, 72 x 84 in. Collection of the Butler Museum of American Art.

IG: Do you think the onus today is on artists to explain their own work?

CR: I don’t think the artist needs to or even can explain anything. Who cares anyway? Most of what we say is just groping to explain what can’t be explained with words in the first place. It’s the biographer’s task to explain your work. You do the work. Let someone else decipher it. You make a painting and that’s half of it. The other half is the viewer. And the viewer apprehends it in his own way and will project onto it whatever he will. You the artist and you the viewer. My job is to be true to my voice, my vision.

IG: Are all of the educational experiences you had that led to who you are now as an artist still provided by by institutions today?

CR: You mean for young people? Of course, if they are willing to search it out. If they are hungry and need to make work, they’ll find a way.

IG: Would anyone say, “Before you major in art, or before you go for your graduate degree as an MFA, get an undergraduate degree. Understand language, philosophy, history.”

CR: I would. First, being an artist is a calling. This is something you simply must do, it runs you, it owns you, it won’t leave you alone, you don’t sit down with a pen and make a decision tree and decide, yes, yes, I am going to be an artist. You have to do it because you can’t do anything else. It won’t let you. It’s much simpler than it sounds. But, you can afford a few years of basic knowledge, time to learn about your culture, other cultures, ideas from other areas, and time to mature a little, time to grow up before you go into an art program. It’s a better use of an education.

IG: Do you really think that everyone studying art in a BFA has a calling?

CR: No. Nor does everyone who attends the League. But neither does everyone in Harvard Law have a calling to the Law either. Many of them are just good at memorizing and taking tests. How few of the people I knew in art school continued. Not because it was so hard but because they didn’t need to. You do it because you have to. All I think about is painting; painting and sex are the only two things I think about. But, not as you imagine I mean. I mean the erotics of yearning, the sensuous, the mystery that compels us to merge, the hidden goings on, the phantoms we try to grasp, sense but can’t reach, trying to find out what’s going on, what’s real, what’s the secret we know is there but can’t lift the curtain to. That’s what I think about.

Painter Catherine Redmond
Catherine Redmond, Church Passing Chicago, 1988. Oil on rag, 24 x 30 in.

IG: How many years have you been painting?

CR: I’m 70. I accepted that I was an artist when I was about 19.

IG: You gave in.

CR: I gave into the claim it made on me. This was coupled with the inevitable tussle to separate and be an adult, too. I think it was coupled with resistance to giving in to my mother. She didn’t like music, she couldn’t carry a tune, so I wanted to be a musician. Obvious, huh?

IG: I think one finds the right medium to suit one’s own temperament, I don’t think it has as much to do with talent as it has to do with temperament.

CR: I don’t know. It’s good I grew up in the country with the parents I did. Had I grown up in a striving Manhattan family, where my parents would have had made sure I had music lessons with the right people, I might have been a really mediocre musician and trapped in the wrong life just because I was acting out to find my definition. Instead, fortunately, what would happen is I would come home, and tell them that I wanted to learn the oboe. Can I have money rent an oboe? I would ask. And my father would ask, how much this time? He’d write a $25 check and we would drive go to the nearby city, forty minutes away driving over narrow country roads, to the music store and rent an oboe for three months. And then I would teach myself the technique of breath, embouchure and fingering on an oboe from an instruction book during the summer. The saxophone another summer. The bass clarinet. I would learn instruments because I was curious. Well, it has made me a very good concert-goer. I have a good ear. But I didn’t have the true talent or the drive. God bless them, they would say, OK, go do it. But nobody sat with me, and said, Hey, have you done your practicing today?

Painter Catherine Redmond
Catherine Redmond, Downtown Devotional, 1996. Oil on linen, 30 x 34 in. Private collection.

IG: Right, didn’t need to justify the $25 dollars.

CR: Just that I wanted to learn it was enough. Following your interests and learning were high values and taken for granted.

IG: To me, that speaks a lot of the league, and the fact that you don’t have to come in with much money.

CR: That’s right. The pressure comes from inside. You show up. It’s up to you. That was exactly like my upbringing. OK, you want to do it, well, here’s the check, go do it, but we aren’t going to bother you. It’s your trip. But also, you take the responsibility.

IG: You were nineteen when you accepted it but twenty-six when you finally came to the league.

CR: I thought I was old. One of the wonderful things about the league, which, at 26, I could appreciate, is that no one gave me any illusion that I was going to be famous, be known or that the world would reward me for my obsession much less care. It’s the first place I ever felt at home. The league, to its credit, unlike the university, has no investment in the people who go through it. You understand that it is up to you from the day you walk in the door. That was freeing for me.

IG: Affordable tuition relieves the pressure of having to accomplish something in any given period of time.

CR: Exactly. If you don’t want to show up to a class, nobody cares. As someone who has been both a student there and years later an instructor there, it is a much fairer situation when you are dealing with the people who choose to be there than when you’re wasting your time by reporting people who don’t show up, giving grades, cajoling the un-cajole-able. This is an enforcement tactic. It may work for some situations — like the military — but it doesn’t have anything to do with creativity.

IG: Back to your beginnings, at twenty-six, what was connecting you with wanting to make pictures?

CR: That was there from the time I was born. My mother used to say that I was born with a pencil in my hand. I drew. I drew with a ball point pen on the sheets. I drew on the walls.

IG: You didn’t get punished for doing that?

CR: I was fourth child, born when my parents were in their 40s. Look, I could draw. I was drawing always. That was the world I owned. My parents took our interests seriously when it came to our obsessions, and most other things too. For my big brother it was radio. For me it was drawing. I remember that in the third grade, I was eight, we were going on a class trip to a local sawmill and I asked my father if I could borrow his new Rolleiflex. This was a 3.5 twin lens reflex in the early 50s, a pretty cool camera. He asked me why I needed it. I told him I wanted a fast shutter speed to catch the action at the mill. He lent to me. My dad was a lawyer but photography was his serious hobby. We had a darkroom. I didn’t realize this was an unusual thing for a parent to do for his daughter until I was grown and the respect it confers.

IG: What made you want to paint pictures? Who was your influence? Who were you looking at?

Painter Catherine Redmond
Catherine Redmond, Rembrandt’s Man with a Golden Helmet, undated. Oil and graphite on newsprint, 11 x 8 1/2 in.

CR: The first thing I ever remember consciously studying, copying —because I didn’t copy—happened because I had an earache. In the middle of the night, I woke up my parents, and my parents had twin beds, just like in the show “I Love Lucy.” I was crying. This was before antibiotics. My mother put me in her place in her bed, turned on the reading light, and said, “Why don’t you paint something? The pain will go away.” So I sat in her bed, and she brought me her palette. She opened up a book of Rembrandt. Just get the picture: her palette, her brushes, this is oil in her bed. I made a copy of Man with a Golden Helmet. It was my first experience of oil on paper. That did it. The pain in my ear went away. I remember the dark of the room. I remember my father sort of groaning as he turned over in the dark. I remember the smell of the turpentine, the oil, and there I am sitting in a bed, the white sheets an ocean around me with a palette on my lap, tiny, making this painting (which I still have). What I remember was the seductive way the paint felt on the paper. I still work oil on paper. In all these years, I remember the moment that happened.

IG: But there was not one moment in all the time you’ve been working when you thought, “Where do I want to go?”

CR: Well, sure, but that’s not the same as that sense of, “I’m being an artist in spite of …”

IG: You didn’t have to fight.

CR: No, I didn’t have to fight in that way, though I certainly had to struggle. It wasn’t all la-de-dah. I don’t think nostalgically about those early adult days – I can’t think back on the sixties and seventies longingly. All I remember is how hard and how much I had to work and how insecure I was about surviving and how tired I was, exhausted really and anxious. Never had enough money, the wolf always at the door, we lived on the edge all the time. My husband and I got no financial help from our parents, mine didn’t have it and his were miserly. We were on our own. The dentist would be paid off $5 a month, the phone would get turned off. Con Ed threatening up until that last moment. It wasn’t romantic, young and struggling, it was hard. I can smile at it now but I can’t paint it in a rosy glow. It’s nothing at all in comparison to real suffering, I know that. But for me, it was hard. I learned to live with uncertainty. It was more that I wanted to establish my identity separate from my parents and siblings, but at the same time I was accepting being something that I had resisted.

IG: If the family was perfectly comfortable with you being an artist, there was no hurdle.

CR: Exactly. And hard to break away, too. My issues in the studio have never been, “What do I paint?” “How do I respond to this critical text?” They’ve always been, “How do I put the paint on?” “How does the paint serve my need?” I’m working on ideas in one incarnation or another that I was working on when I was twenty. I may be using the city to enable that flight. I may be using the still life. I may be using the interior. That’s immaterial. Those were always in me. It’s instead, “How does the paint go on so the magic can be revealed through it?” I consciously, logically think about it. Not about the content. Not consciously, I mean. The content is just a means to get me to uncover the secrets that come out in the medium.

IG: You didn’t have to battle against family to establish yourself as an artist. Did that help to enable you to paint and make it that much more of a natural experience?

CR: I don’t know. I had plenty of battles with my family but not about being creative. I know the only mistakes I’ve ever made have been when I’ve opted for security over trust in the work. If I go with the work, I’m always OK.

Painter Catherine Redmond
Catherine Redmond, Pink Sky Blue Smoke, undated. Oil on canvas. Collection of the artist.

IG: What would get in the way?

CR: Taking the wrong job or being in the wrong relationship. I learned a lot.

IG: So you haven’t had many obstacles.

CR: Not that I’m willing to talk about. I’ve had plenty.

IG: How have you seen your work evolve?

CR: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly to the past,” the last line of Gatsby. Fitzgerald said it better than I can. I don’t see these things in evolutionary terms. Look, you have to kill the father. I think this is one of the shortcomings of the Art Students League. One has to murder the father. You understand I’m speaking metaphorically. You cannot be in this position of honoring the old man whomever was the professor, man or woman, the boss, the master, the one you revered. The League suffers from having too many people who work in the shtick of, in the mode of their adored master. You must get over that if you are to claim your own voice. You can’t play it safe. You must leave, go out into the wilderness and find your own treasure, the gold, your own gold.

IG: Is that something you can enforce, or is this something we leave up to the individual to determine?

CR: I tell my students: your job isn’t to please me; your job is to kill me, to steal my fire. Grab it and run away for your own use. Your job is to find your own voice. Probably as a woman I’m able to say that better than a man. I don’t need quite the same reassurance in that dynamic. Maybe I’m being a sexist here, but I don’t have the need or the desire to produce “lesser clones” who do my technique and reassure me of my own validity as an artist.

IG: I think that the particular instructor, artist, master, has a certain responsibility to say, I’ve given you as much as I can, you have to go.

CR: Agreed. I prefer to give a little nudge, okay, a push, to see them flap their wings and realize they can fly, because they can, they can, and out they go. The cycle is complete.

About the magic of the student/teacher dynamic, I have a nice story. I studied with Vaclav Vytlacil, whom I really took because he was tough and terrifying and he had to interview you before you were accepted into his limited class. There was a long waiting list to get into his class and he’d made one of my friends cry when she tried to get in his class because she had given an answer he didn’t like and he had sent her packing. So my name moved up the list and I didn’t screw up during the question and answer routine and I got in. He started me out with a simple direction and that was it. He gave me no criticisms. Ever. All year. Five days a week. Everybody else got crits but me. Vyt didn’t like people who’d already been trained. He wanted to do the baptism himself. I had studied with Hale, Anderson, Brackman, Moy, so was badly tainted.

Well, he only came in on Thursday and we’d all go to lunch with him before class in the Merritt Farms, a lunch place just east on East 57th. We sat in the back, the smell of grease permeated everything, but the lunches were inexpensive. We always talked about issues in painting, current shows, gossip, anything that he wanted to talk about. Great discussions, arguments. No matter when I came in to the restaurant, and I usually was late because I had a morning class, the only seat left would be across from him. We’d sit at this particular table. I knew I was not favored, an outcast, because he didn’t want to give me a crit. Code for: if he doesn’t want to crit you, you don’t want to know what he thinks. Taki, the monitor, usually sat beside him. There were his favorites there, too, all seated. That chair across from Vyt was the only one that was left. Ever. So I sat there usually. And toward the end of the year in class, it was the spring, Vyt said, “None of you know how to draw. You are not seeing the forms, the directions or making the space matter. Let’s bring in a model for two weeks and you’ll make drawings.” He showed us what Hofmann had done in Munich, brought in actual student drawings from the period. We soaked it all in. He has a very specific way he wanted us starting, so small sheets, separate, to train the eye to the edge. I did lots of drawings. He returned to class two weeks later and asked us to put all the drawings out on the floor. They filled the floor. I can still see them on that gray league floor and him tall in his paint stained surgical gown. He walked right over to mine, stood over them and pointed, his back to us and he said, “These have it. These get it. Who did these?” Silence. He went through everyone in the class, his back still to us, calling out names, his most favorite, his next most favorite, down the line asking if this or that person had done them. Finally he asked, Who’s are these? I confessed, I said I did them. He whirled around jabbing his finger at me and said, “Redmond, you don’t fool me. You don’t fool me. Your God is Raphael. It isn’t Cézanne.” It’s the only thing he ever said to me about my work.

Time passed, I was painting on my own. Someone gave me a ticket to a concert at Lincoln Center. I saw Taki. He was an usher taking people’s tickets at the escalator. We stopped and talked. He wasn’t painting anymore, he told me. I said, “I have to apologize. I always took that seat across from Vyt at those lunches, and I always felt bad because I knew he didn’t like me. But it was the only spot left each time and I thought somebody else should have taken it.” Taki said, “No, Vyt told us, ‘Save that for Redmond.’”

Painter Catherine Redmond
Catherine Redmond, Chelsea, 1997. Oil on linen, 48 x 24 in.

IG: That addresses so much. The study of art cannot be quantified.

CR: It’s a good story because his gift to me whether by intention or not was my realization that I was waiting for a nod from the master rather than becoming my own master.

IG: Were your surprised when he told you that your God was Raphael and not Cézanne?

CR: It was a shock to me. And I don’t know that it was correct. I still muse on it.

IG: What did you do with that insight?

CR: I went home, and I thought about how much classicism is at my center.

IG: These are the trappings of being an artist.

CR: Hans Hofmann, who taught at the league, to my mind, is an example of someone who was a gifted artist but who didn’t produce clones. He trained so many other artists and you don’t look at them and say, Oh, he studied with Hans Hofmann. Whereas we can name people where you know he is “the student of.” But who is he, what is his voice beyond a copy of someone else? A technique is not a vision.

IG: I’ve always felt that Hofmann was able to connect basic principles of art-making that go back centuries to a modernist mode. These elements of picture-making are universal—whether it is Rembrandt’s Man in a Golden Helmet, or whether it is Picasso, or Van Eyck, or Titian, or Matisse. Hofmann knew that successful pictures share the same elements. He was able to discuss modernism in an intelligent way and push art forward, so that it didn’t have to adhere to anything, except very basic principles like spatial awareness, structure, the golden section, and other principles.

CR: OK, but if someone knows them all, it doesn’t mean that he can make art. Were they able to make art, any graphic designer could make a painting that is art. There is something that happens—and this is the magic—when you know it has “it,” whatever “it” is. And when you’re in the studio and it happens, the work has a heartbeat, I swear you can almost hear the lub-dub, lub-dub, as it’s been brought to life. You’re not quite sure how it happened. Design rules and recipes can’t do that. They just give false hope to those without imagination.

IG: How does education have an impact on that?

CR: Education gives you the language, the history, and the knowledge of techniques and the skills to use them, hopefully ways to be critical and to think about how you are thinking. Claude Lévi-Strauss makes the distinction between the engineer and the bricoleur. The engineer designs the bridge. He knows how much steel goes into it. He knows how much cable. He knows how much concrete. The length of the span. He knows where he has to go, how to proceed and what he will get at completion. He figures this all out, and then he builds the bridge. Whereas the bricoleur, the handyman, the tinkerer, whom Lévi-Strauss equates with the artist, creates from what he finds and in a less programmatic way. He sees a rock. He sees some broken ceramic. He sees and picks up other things. He puts them together, and he has created something unexpected, a wall but what a wall, a unique wall, a wall he didn’t know he was going to make in that way. The confusion today, perhaps it’s a wish, is thinking the engineer is the artist, that the designer is the artist. No, that’s a designer.

Painter Catherine Redmond
Catherine Redmond, The Upper East Side, 1998. Oil on canvas, 60 x 72 in.

IG: Is the Guggenheim Bilbao such a case?

CR: Yes, it seems so.

IG: The lure to go to Bilbao is to see the envelope not what’s inside.

CR: It’s a textbook example of a Foundation 3-D problem about scale. CAD Programs are wondrous, but what we appreciate most is the genius who designed the software, not the outcome. It is as if when we look at an Agnes Martin all we see was Williamsburg Payne’s Gray. Yet in Bilbao, that CAD program is the message.

IG: I remember seeing a picture of yours in the catalogue many years ago, a landscape looking out a car window.

CR: I did a lot of things that were from the car window. Most of us experience the land from the car, moving by us, a film. Those obsessions remain with me, where there is a rear window. There’s another view that still interests me: how you can be there and here at the same time. The landscape is ever-present for me. Place is everything. The car, the rear view, the television or computer screen. Here and here.

IG: I’m looking at the work in your studio right now, but I don’t see that many references to that.

CR: You see it up there. That is an inset. That we’re in that interior with that still life. But that is an inset, not a window outside. It is someplace else. It exists simultaneously. Maybe it’s the still life’s dream.

IG: I used to do the same thing. When I was going to Provincetown, and I would paint in the studio on rainy days, every still life I did had a window looking out into some sort of Provincetown landscape.

CR: A window in that context is different, if I understand you. It is a long tradition, think of those views behind Piero’s portraits in the Uffizi. Or Jane Freilicher. Bonnard. In other words, the painting includes both that potted plant, that nude and in the environment of the painting there is also a window with a view to the garden. Mine are not that. In my painting they are divergent, separate existences. They are windows that my mind opens up. Or they are windows that the object in the foreground opens up.

IG: But it is integrated within the painting.

CR: One tries. I have the same thing in my photography. It is the same obsession

IG: I can see this is still happening today.

CR: Yes.

IG: If you started painting today, would this still be part of it?

CR: Sure. These ideas are even more in our consciousness than they were when I first addressed them in the 70s. We are here in the present, and we are also someplace else in our minds. I like the computer window because that is a metaphor for this. I can delete, save, edit, share. I can open a different window. I think that it the digital representation of a window that we open in our mind. I’m painting a portrait of you, and then I’m thinking about my ex-husband. Then I’m thinking about the Crimea. Then a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Maybe even broccoli. It can be anything. It is only my mind (my painting) that connects them. They are operating at the same time, and they are operating at the same time in my head.

IG: Are there cultural conditions now that really get in the way the process of a visual artist?

CR: I don’t think so. In spite of all hype, you have places like the League. My colleagues in Painting at Pratt are first-rate. They haven’t lost their belief in painting as a worthy call either. There are artists teaching everywhere who are passionate about what they do and if a student is hungry, he’ll find a way. The misperception today is that a) everybody is creative and b) everybody can be an artist. If institutions redesign their programs to enable that, they do a disservice to those who need quality education and opportunity.

Painter Catherine Redmond
Catherine Redmond, Easy Street, 2003. Oil and canvas, 60 x 60 in. Collection of the artist.

IG: So you’re saying is that nothing has changed.

CR: I think it sounds like something has changed, but I don’t think anything is different.

IG: Can students today still get the tools they need?

CR: I don’t think that is a problem. I don’t think it is harder to be an artist now.

IG: Is there also the mistake in how an artist is defined? Or how art is defined?

CR: Look at history. There’s always a mistake in the way art is defined. It just doesn’t matter. Do what you need to do and let the world worry about what it is.

IG: Isn’t the accessibility of affordable real estate part of this?

CR: I’m not sure that that’s changed either. This is a place where you must need to be. I had remarkably kind landlords in Tribeca. At a very hard time in my life, a period of significant financial struggle, they were very kind to me. The true thing is, artists have all had the experiences of people who help them along the way – all of us have. If you are on your path there are those who want to help you do well.

IG: I think New York is no longer the Mecca. I really do think it is due to the cost of real estate.

CR: For the present time, an artist must be in New York for a time in his or her life. For the moment, New York is the center. But I don’t think an artist needs to stay here. I don’t think it is essential at all. It is much less hospitable now, bookstores have gone, small pockets of culture are drying up, even real cafes are going. It’s more and more a big mall. But, if what you say is so, and all the young talents leave, it’s the end of a generative culture here.

IG: You don’t really see yourself having to move on. You’re well established. You’ve got a great career as an artist. You’ve got a great career as a teacher at a prominent institution. What do you see as your artistic future?

CR: Same as always. Be free to make what I want. But, If I could have anything, if I won the lotto, I would have a place in the country, too, and spend the summer there with the critters and the land so I could hear a wild turkey sing to her chicks, plant a flower, walk in the woods, fight off the ticks, be left alone to watch what appears in the work in that fresh environment. That’s what I’d like. There’s so much I have yet to paint and make. I want to live a long time and see those paintings come. There’s so much yet to discover.

IG: Do you feel there is anything stopping you from doing that now?

CR: Only the usual: money. I took time off to learn various software programs, to teach myself things, and I have no regrets about doing that. Did it have any effect on my painting? No. But I like seeing the difference in the ways of creating with these.

IG: Was part of the reason you stopped exhibiting because the whole gallery scene had drastically changed?

CR: No, it didn’t. It really was that I wanted serous time to investigate what would happen if I made a video. What would happen if I learned how to work in Flash? What would happen if I learned Photoshop? Curiously, it’s had, I would say, little effect on my painting. But it had a thrilling effect on my consciousness and the way I think of things in my writing. Ideas of sequencing, time streams. place. Place again, always my inquiry.

Painter Catherine Redmond
Catherine Redmond, Day for Night, 2007. Oil on canvas, 50 x 50 in. Private collection.

IG: But you got it out of your system.

CR: This wasn’t a disease to go into treatment for. It was excited by it. I’m still working at it, and I still like learning about time, about language and logic. It cannot do what painting does. But I don’t want it to either. I just want to learn about it. If I want to learn—like the poems I was showing you—if I want to do something, I do it. I don’t have to know that it is going to pay off, amount to anything beyond its call.

IG: Is that a result of your own maturity as an artist?

CR: No. It is a result probably of my upbringing, which is, “If you want to do it, you do it. But you’re on your own.” Guston said that he stopped teaching because when you teach you can only talk about what you already know, whereas in the studio an artist must reach to what he does not know.

IG: Do you think that, having really created a pretty impressive, large body of work, you’ve attained a certain freedom to make these decisions without feeling that there are consequences for those decisions?

CR: That’s a good question. There are consequences for everything, for doing and for not doing. I’ve never, ever, ever wanted to do was work that was signature. I never wanted to have branded work. The same subject matter, the same paint application, the same palette in small permutations. Puke.

IG: That’s a very interesting position.

CR: A production line is a position straight out of design. Touchingly American and puritan. More stuff and more money. Warhol majored in Industrial Design at Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon. He’s uniquely American and deserves his due in the way he expressed the advertising ethos as the American vision. But, it isn’t a way of making work that seems alluring. It’s more like printing money. The attention to screen as surface is a deadly position. I reject it. The work for me is always a journey to find out what I don’t know. Not a production event. You’re in a cave, it’s pitch dark, you’re holding a silk thread, and you move one inch at a time forward, because the secret you want is deep inside, and if you yank that delicate thread you may break it, or if you drop it, you risk never finding it. If you don’t go forward, you are stuck. I’m only compelled by what calls me forward. I’m not interested in producing work that is signature because that’s a marketplace thing. That has nothing to do with my journey.

IG: I think a Catherine Redmond will be Catherine Redmond because Catherine Redmond painted it.

Painter Catherine Redmond
Catherine Redmond, Three Houses, 1987. Oil on linen, 72 x 84 in. Private collection.

CR: We’ll see.

IG: Yeah. And it is yours. You have a palette. You have an approach. It becomes recognizable. Otherwise, you’re a chameleon. And artists aren’t chameleons, unless you’re a forger.

CR: Even forgers have a hand. David Goldblatt has a very good examination of forgeries, copies and what he calls self-plagiarism in Art and Ventriloquism. He addresses this. It’s a good read. I want unique experiences with each thing. That’s all that interests me. I want to be entirely lost and used up in the reaching.

IG: You’ve just cited the perfect difference: You want to be interested, not interesting.

CR: Yes, yes. I want the work to do its work in the world. It’s on its own.

IG: This is something that seems to be universal: the need to be identified, which goes back to what you were talking about. There is a preconception from artists who have yet to really to be truly immersed in art that they need to be identified as an “artist.”

CR: Advertising as essence.

IG: To me, it’s the thing that kills the creative process faster than anything else.

CR: If your creative process is killed, Fine, goodbye. It wasn’t there anyway. There are very few people in any given time who can carry it forward. We don’t really know who they are. I want to feel that I am one of them, but so does everyone else. I don’t know. It may be somebody hidden off in Yonkers in a back apartment who is holding the flame.

IG: Maybe it is not just up to one person.

CR: This is not anything that we have any control over. I think we get a gift. If we know what the gift is, then we have to give it back. End of story.

IG: I think you’ve got the gift. You’ve got the gift of being creative. You’ve got the gift of the time and space to do it in. And that just says it all.

Catherine Redmond is an adjunct associate professor at Pratt Institute and is a critique artist at the Art Students League’s Vytlacil campus. 

Related post: Catherine Redmond: Painting on Paper and Canvas


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