IRA GOLDBERG: What got you interested in art?
PAT LIPSKY: I was good at it.
IG When did you know you were good at it?
PL: I first got the idea at around seven or eight. My mother was very interested in art. When I was seven, she took me for classes with a refugee from the Second World War. He had a frame shop. I now understand that he was a Holocaust survivor. It was a culturally rich neighborhood then. He took me to a little booth and showed me how to make a sky and a road and trees. I was just intrigued. I also did other things. My mother, you could say, was very ambitious. I had dance classes. I played the piano— total disaster. My father was interested in poetry. My parents had met at a poetry class. So it was a very arty background. I was interested in many things. I seemed to be pretty good at painting.
IG: By the way, where did you grow up?
PL: Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn. It’s on the tip of Brooklyn. I grew up right along that waterway. When the Second World War was over, there were these Quonset huts along the water in Manhattan Beach that had been used as lookout posts. It actually was a very rich neighborhood. Around 1951 or 1952 they were taken over as sort of art places. Pete Seeger sang there. I heard Pete Seeger. Woody Guthrie. My dance teacher was Woody Guthrie’s wife, Marjorie Mazia. My mother took me to a painting class there when I was nine or ten. It was called “the base.” Adults and me. I was precocious. I was standing there painting a beach scene, a seascape, and the teacher—you know these teachers were pretty hip—came over to me and he said, “Why are you making the water blue?” I said, “Well it’s blue.” He said, “No, there’s a lot of colors.” That’s interesting for a ten-year-old because ten-year-olds just think categorically. Water, blue; sky, light blue; sun, yellow.
Thinking about it now, or over the last twenty years when I thought about it, I realized that he must have had some impressionist training. What he showed me, which again I thought was shocking, was, “Put a little green, put a little red, put a little yellow.” So he’s talking to me like a Seurat follower. And I did that. The painting was a big hit at school. You could say I was very interested.
IG: Did your parents take you to museums?
PL: Yes, more my father. It started when I was twelve or thirteen. I would go to the Museum of Modern Art. I particularly liked Chagall as a kid. I loved Delaunay. I loved Delaunay’s disk painting. Sometimes, I would go with my friends. That was so great about growing up in Brooklyn. You could just take the subway and be in Manhattan. I would have a “date” and we’d go to the Museum of Modern Art. The Museum of Modern Art, unlike now, was incredibly hip and fun.
IG: What makes you think it’s not hip and fun right now?
PL: Well, in my class yesterday, we were reading about the most recent insanity, where the woman is sleeping?
IG: Sleeping in the cube, and it’s Tilda Swinton.
PL: Whoever she is. I don’t know her.
IG: She’s a very well-known actress. But do you really think she was sleeping the whole time? I wonder about that. But how long can you fake it?
PL: The point is that they are discussing it, that they’ve thought about it. It’s so absurd. I don’t even have the words for it.
IG: By the way, when you were going to MoMA, what did it cost to get in?
PL: Well, nothing significant. MoMA was my home base by a certain point. I’m moving up to the Brooklyn Museum in a minute.
IG: The school?
PL: Yes, I went to the art school. It was brilliant. Max Beckmann was teaching. So was Moses Soyer. I was sixteen.
IG: You were in the hippest place in the world.
PL: Yes, I was in the hippest place in the world without knowing it, or even knowing what hip was. The Museum of Modern Art was connected to the Whitney, did you know that? Well, it was just fascinating. You’d go to the Museum of Modern Art, and you’d walk through the Whitney, and you saw everything right there. It was right there. When I was sixteen, I saw an ad in a newspaper and it said there is going to be a class in painting at the Brooklyn Museum for the summer. I said to my father, “Can I go? Could I take it?” I had been going to camp. It was like, “Camp, why go to camp?” So he said, “Yes, if you take typing and sewing.” So I said, “OK, I’ll take typing and sewing but I want to go to the class.” I went every day to the Brooklyn Museum and it was just a very exciting time, and I did a whole group of paintings. It was my first body of work. Then I brought them back to Lincoln High School where I was a student. They had a very good art department. I brought the whole portfolio, and I knew about the Scholastic Art Award. The guy who ran it then was called Leon Friend, who was well known. These high schools then were very interesting places full of talented people. Arthur Miller had gone to the school, which we were told every day. So, I asked Leon Friend if I could apply for the Scholastic Art Award. He said, “Don’t bother. You’ll never get it”
IG: How could he be so discouraging?
PL: Unbelievable. I don’t know if it was because I was a girl. They were very well-known in that particular department for graphic design. I had no clue. Me and graphic design was like me and accounting. So that was why he had that very limited point of view.
IG: But there must have been a few other people doing art.
PL: Well, I won.
IG: Well, of course, I figured that was coming. What did you get it for?
PL: A self portrait. The painting got first prize. It was shown at New York Coliseum. It was acquired by Hallmark Cards. And I got a four-year scholarship to Miami University. I was a good student, so I had applied to Cornell, in the art department.
IG: Any particular instructors you wanted to study with? Or was it just Cornell?
PL: Yes, I wanted to study art, but also be in a college that was demanding.
IG: At that time it was really the very upper echelon of education.
PL: What was great about it was the four years of drawing every morning at 8:30.
PL: Four years.
IG: Five days a week?
PL: Yeah, I don’t know, maybe it was three days. I think it was five. When this kid from Cornell came by, he said they still have drawing five days a week. I remember the teacher was British then. I thought he was great. He was the best teacher I had there. The other teachers were hacks. Sorry, it’s the wrong word.
IG: That’s ok, you kind of describe it.
PL: Well, they were academics. That’s a better way of putting it. They were academics who were kind of impressive in some way. They could fit into Cornell. They were sort of having careers.
IG: Were they teaching the principles of picture-making?
PL: I don’t want to be overly negative. Let’s put it this way; it wasn’t up to what I had already experienced.
IG: At the Brooklyn Museum School?
PL: Yes. Nothing was.
IG: It’s understandable. When you are in a place that is really concerned about art, that has a great resource of art to look at, you are in a different environment. Did Cornell have a collection?
PL: Not that much, some prints, a Jacques Lipchitz sculpture. What happened to me at Cornell that was very important was meeting Allan Solomon. Allan Solomon was running the Jewish Museum at the time. He was commuting between New York City and Ithaca.
IG: And he was teaching?
PL: Yes, and he was very popular. The students loved him. He was teaching a course on Picasso. He was teaching a course on impressionism. He was teaching a course on aesthetics, which I took. I was very fortunate that Allan Solomon took me under his wing. He would tell me where to go, what shows to look at, and I would go. On the weekends, I would take the Greyhound bus to Manhattan and go to the shows that he told me about.
IG: How long was that trip?
PL: Five hours. I stayed overnight. So it opened up, the whole thing. Helen Frankenthaler was showing at Emmerich, which was on a side street, on like 64th Street. That is the one I remember the most. I went around. The gallery scene—we’re talking about 1961, 1960—had a lot of abstraction. The most riveting experience was when Solomon told me to go to the Jewish Museum where he had set up a show. There was a Rothko, a Rauschenberg, a Kenneth Noland, that’s what I remember. I had not known about Rothko. My background up until then was basically the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum. I knew about Max Beckmann’s painting, Departure. I knew about impressionism, I knew about Kurt Schwitters. Klee. That’s what I knew about. Yet, I didn’t know about contemporary New York painting.
IG: They didn’t have Rothko or Pollock in those days?
PL: No, I’ll tell you what. They did have Pollock. It’s great that you asked me. I’m going to go back to Pollock. Let’s say if they had Rothko; I didn’t know about it. I did know about de Kooning, who wasn’t in the show at the Jewish. In the mid-fifties, there was always a de Kooning landscape hanging at the Whitney. And I liked them. I liked them, which I wasn’t allowed to say later with Clement Greenberg.
Anyhow, I saw the Rothko. I didn’t know you could make a few colors the subject of a painting. I literally gasped. I went [takes in a deep breath]. It was a big yellow and orange painting. I just didn’t know you could make a painting of only orange and yellow.
IG: Did you respond to what you perceived as its audacity, or was it just the painting itself?
PL: I felt that it was the liberation of just a few colors interacting on canvas. The Delaunay disk, now hanging at MoMA, was what I knew in terms of abstract use of color. color. Simultaneous Contrast: Sun and Moon was always hanging back then.
Could be. The Delaunay disk now hanging at MoMa is what I was familiar with in color. Simul Con was always hanging.
My teacher at Lincoln High School, Mr. Kaufman, was a fan of Paul Klee. So I knew about Paul Klee. Plus, we had to copy Braque. So abstraction per se wasn’t new, but Rothko to me that day was very new. But to a lesser extent, a Noland target appeared very new too. Then there was the Rauschenberg. I thought, “What is this disgusting thing?”
IG: Was this one of his “combines?”
PL: Yeah, it is the combine Monogram with the goat with the tire. It’s famous. I went back to Ithaca and said to my professor, You know I loved this, this, and this. But the Rauschenberg?
IG: You didn’t think it belonged in the same room.
PL: No, no. I still feel that way. It’s fascinating how these antecedents project into the future because Solomon was a big fan of his. He actually selected Rauschenberg for the 1964 Biennale.
IG: Do you still feel that way?
PL: Yes, I don’t get it.
IG: You still can’t understand how someone can love both those artists at the same time?
PL: Yes. I don’t understand it. I don’t believe it. I can’t imagine that a person who really got and liked Rothko could like the goat.
IG: Yours isn’t an unusual observation—the disbelief that one can have an equal appreciation for two completely different kinds of artists.
PL: The bottom line is that you have to accept it. What can you do? The person is telling you that. You can’t say, “Well, I don’t believe you.”
IG: No, I’ve heard of many other cases. I’ve been told: I can’t understand how someone can love Rembrandt and Matisse at the same time.
PL: Oh, I get that one.
IG: Or it’s impossible to love Titian and Caravaggio.
PL: Oh no, I can understand that.
IG: In any case, I’m saying that those perspectives exist, which to others seem like clashing colors.
PL: When you say it that way, it makes me wonder about my premise.
IG: It’s perfectly OK. I think it reflects a sense of order. You have a specific sense of harmony, and when something unharmonious enters into the equation, you think, “Wait a second, this doesn’t work.”
PL: Rothko and Newman felt the same way. Sidney Janis had been their dealer and was representing several abstract expressionists, but when he started to show pop art, they walked out.
IG: Well, pop art had no relationship to Rothko or Motherwell.
PL: Here is the next new thing …
IG: Here is the next new thing, and it stuck. We’ve had this discussion before. It is the aggrandizement of American culture. Pop art, the brand. It usurped the brand, and the brand became the thing. And if it is in the museum, it’s elevated to art. Pop art just overtook everything that came before.
PL: Absolutely. It was tragic. At the same moment, our country was at its height. You had a great movement in art, abstract expressionism. We’ve seen it in the Renaissance. We’ve seen it in Venice, in Florence, and we saw it in France. The moment when a culture peaks, very often you’ll have an art movement that peaks, too. Pop art is the beginning of the demise. I sensed it, and I didn’t act on it. If I had really acted on it, I would not have gone into the field.
IG: Maybe you acted on it by taking your work in the opposite direction.
PL: Yes, but bottom line is I would have rather not have been in the same field as performance, pop, installation—all these things that have no standards, that are too easy.
IG: How did you get to the place where you are painting now? You weren’t always painting in the same manner.
PL: First, at this moment I find myself political just by painting. Every time I paint an abstract picture that relies on color I think it’s a political statement. Second, when you have a woman dropping by the Museum of Modern Art to lie down in a glass box, I say that’s a sign of decline. A serious decline where what is being shown can’t compete with the best art of the past.
IG: That’s just one of many examples.
PL: Right, just the most recent.
IG: Why is that? Is it part of a cycle, something that happens after a movement has peaked?
PL: There are different aspects to the question. What came to my mind was an art dealer who was at my studio recently. His name is Michael Findlay. He is a director of Acquavella. He’s a few years younger than I am. He was bemoaning the state of art and his own experience. He was the head of Christie’s, working with a lot of art, impressionism and modern painting. Then he went to Acquavella. He knew my early paintings and had come to see my recent ones. And he said to me, That abstract moment—a time when he had a gallery in SoHo in the 70s—is possibly never coming back. That was a great moment in culture, like the period of Akhenaten in Egyptian culture (when the sculptors dropped all the rigidness of Egyptian art, and were making more fluid images).
When I came in, it was a very exciting moment: abstract expressionism was towering.
You asked me about Pollock. One of my early memories at the Museum of Modern Art, when I was fourteen, was the retrospective for Pollock. Of course, I had no clue who Pollock was. I had never heard of him. I walked into a room, off the main lobby—you know, when it was a little cute building, not the monstrosity it is now—and I see unfamiliar paintings. To my eyes, with my training, totally wild. So, I walked around the room, and I actually became physically ill. I got nauseous. I felt dizzy. That’s why I remember it.
PL: I figured it out in college because everyone was talking about Pollock. I thought, Oh, that’s the show I saw. So that was my first introduction to Pollock. I was just mystified. Totally. But the point was, by looking and looking and looking, I became not only acclimated—it wasn’t like a bad thing—it was an exciting, fabulous thing, but I also had a feeling of intimacy with this new art. Which had an order also.
IG: You recognize a sense of order that you would relate to as compositional. When he moved into the drip paintings, everything just got opened up. Each canvas is like a window, which would otherwise keep going, except for the borders of the picture plane. The boundaries are what keep it contained. That sense of order goes beyond any kind of spatial structure that we’re used to looking at. You have to give up what you expect to see from something like that and just look at it for what it is. There is no reference point for what’s taking place. There is cognizance of a level of quality that distinguishes it from something that’s not successful.
PL: It holds together and it satisfies the inherent rules stated within it.
IG: Can you describe why it does?
PL: Well, it is very lyrical. There is a tremendous flow. When you look at it, it checks out. You can follow the moves. When you look at a bad painting that doesn’t happen. A bad painting is clogged. It doesn’t answer the questions it raises.
IG: Before he did the drip paintings, he created some very powerful images, just before he expanded the language of figuration.
PL: It is obvious that he was tremendously in touch with his feelings. He had an ability to connect with himself that’s unusual. You see that from the beginning. You also see a deep level of integrity and honesty.
IG: Do you think that is a hallmark of the abstract movement?
PL: No, I think it is a hallmark of him.
IG: Well, you see it in Rothko.
PL: For a short period of time. To my way of thinking, and it’s weird to say, Rothko was only good for about five or six years, really good.
IG: From when to when?
PL: From 1949 or 1950 to 1955. The big paintings that he broke through with are magnificent. The early work, I think, is simply transitional. Then he got pompous. He took himself too seriously. He’d invite people over and say, “Who’s better, me or Mozart”? I mean he really got carried away.
IG: He did. I went to the chapel in Houston and found it disappointing.
PL: A lot of people did. I never saw it.
IG: There is really nothing there. It’s the most depressing thing.
PL: Yes, I’ve heard that. Everyone I respect has said that.
IG: I felt as if the only thing one can contemplate in that chapel is darkness.
PL: I had a similar experience, not in Texas but at the Tate. I’d go and sit in that room with all his red paintings, the Seagrams murals from the late fifties. They were morose, horrible. Rothkos with the dark red-maroon—that very Jewish color. I’m sitting there, trying, trying so hard to like the pictures, and I think, “This sucks. It’s morbid. It’s joy-less.” These were the paintings he sent to the Tate right before he committed suicide.
He was on a bad track unfortunately. But the shelf life of recent artists is very short. Still, five great years like that, how many people ever have that?
IG: Well, we have to define contemporary. We’re talking about something that happened sixty-something years ago, right? You can’t bemoan the current state of the art world without really defining contemporary.
PL: OK. Chalk it up to our age difference.
IG: A lot of these people had bad … Pollock, you know, basically killed himself. Rothko killed himself.
PL: They were like some of the poets close to their age—Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell—Americans who were very self-destructive.
IG: Diane Arbus comes to mind. She produced some amazing images, but they were macabre. They were of the dark side of humanity. Sometimes you can recognize it and actually even express it. But it’s very hard to separate yourself from it. The more you connect with it, the more you become it.
PL: Yeah, that’s great. But she killed herself over a love affair. It was kind of petty.
IG: The odds were that any of piece of bad news was going to put her over the edge.
PL: OK. She was tottering on the edge of madness. Rothko certainly seems to have been.
IG: Madness is also very seductive.
PL: Yes it is.
IG: It is a place one wants to explore. The core of our creativity is as dark as it is light. You can easily get to that fork in the road and go down something that you may not return from. That’s one of the dangers of being an artist, of really creating. It’s the opposite of pop art, which got us away from that core of who we were. Which got us away from…
PL: That is what I wanted to say. And you said it so well.
IG: We’re back in sync.
PL: The point is that in the 50s and early 60s you had a public gearing itself toward a fine art that was not immediately accessible. You know the concept of The Revenge of the Philistines? It doesn’t mean that every time something is difficult to look at, it’s good. And it doesn’t mean that if you don’t like something—it’s because it’s over your head, and you don’t get it. It could just mean it’s bad.
IG: If you don’t like something, it also may mean that it is good but you just haven’t recognized it yet.
PL: Right, so that’s why it’s a tricky thing. Perhaps that’s what has happened recently with people like Agnes Gund and other trustees of MoMA. These people are my age and backing all these novelty things. My perception is they desperately want to be “with it.” More than anything they want to show that they get it.
IG: It’s about image.
PL: Yes, it must be cool that Tilda Swinton wants to sleep in MoMA. She already slept in Rome. Now we’re having her sleep here.
IG: It’s a sleep in.
PL: What my student observed, which was both hilarious and sad, is that this piece is taking place all over the city. There are people sleeping around the city, the homeless.
IG: It’s back to the conceptual. It is not about what you understand; it’s about what you can concoct.
PL: But it’s easy, too easy.
IG: Of course it is. It is a concoction.
PL: Much easier than doing a good painting. All the forces are moving away from actually painting.
What Greenberg said that if you want to get philosophical about a chair, write a book or a philosophical treatise. Compete with philosophers. But putting the word “chair” next to a chair, that’s not visual, it’s not art.
IG: It goes back to the origins of who we are, back to the paleolithic era, and the cave paintings. What I’ve noted over and over again is that our ability to create goes back 40,000 years. And it’s never gone away. “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” Werner Herzog’s documentary explores a cave that’s even older than Lascaux. It’s believed to be 40,000 years old. When you see the poetry of the juxtaposition of forms, it’s as sophisticated as anything Picasso or Matisse did. There is a rhythm. The basis of art is about rhythm, which connects music and makes art compelling.
PL: Fascinating. It predates words.
IG: And it hasn’t changed in 40,000 years. So this intellectual movement that says, Hey, it’s all been done. Don’t you dare tell me that. Because we still have a compulsion, deep down, to make and look at art.
PL: Well, they obviously don’t.
IG: Today, it is not about what you do, it’s about whether you can sell what you do.
PL: If you can’t sell it, and soon, then it’s over. Think about Vermeer or late Rembrandt. Their work wasn’t selling. What would they do in a market like ours? Meanwhile, I’m standing in my studio working seriously, and this woman is getting attention—for lying down in the Museum of Modern Art.
IG: You could be that person. Do you want to be?
PL: No, and that’s the point.
IG: Do we want the attention? We have to make a living, and that becomes the problem. Now it requires a lot more to make a living. You’ve got to have sources of income. The revenge of the philistines goes both ways. Realists who resented the rise of the abstraction, for example, found themselves suddenly pushed out. Those involved with Sargent and Rembrandt were suddenly considered passé. When pop art took over, the movement became the market. The market is what rules now. Pop art serves the corporate culture, and the market mentality is the culture. Today, if it sells, it must have value.
PL: Oh, brilliant! I love it. But that is part of a celebrity culture. The culture is obsessed with success.
IG: It’s not culture, it’s a cult, a segment of culture that is corrupt.
PL: It is very corrupt. That’s what we’re dealing with.That’s why I’m fascinated with this big collector Stevie Cohen, someone I think of as a corrupt billionaire, and with all the forgeries that Knoedler Gallery seems to have sold.
IG: I told you about the show of Picasso’s pictures of Marie Therese Walter paintings at Acquavella, some of which are very well known. Among the iconic works were two huge paintings owned by Steve Cohen. To me, they were definitely inferior to the other works being shown, not nearly among Picasso’s major works. The figures in them looked like they were floating in space, not firmly placed on the surface. They were more like large studies rather than finished work. Well, one can imagine that Steve Cohen had approached this prominent gallery. They will borrow famous works and then add his paintings to the exhibit. All of the sudden those paintings have a provenance. It seems like nothing more than a manipulation of the art market.
PL: Yes. That’s why I hate the guy and just want him to have to deal with the consequences of his actions, which mean getting arrested.
IG: He’s not committing a crime. He’s just wealthy. Henry Clay Frick’s great legacy was his art collection, not his union bashing business practices. He’ll always be remembered for his philanthropy and the great collection he amassed and left to New York and Pittsburgh.
PL: Through Duveen.
IG: To give the man credit, walking into that museum is like being in an extension of your own home. To be able to see art in that way—not just the greatness of the works themselves, but the environment …
PL: I don’t think Frick had anything to do with it. I just read S.N. Behrman’s Duveen: The Most Spectacular Art Dealer of All Time the definitive book on Duveen. It’s fascinating. Duveen was a great genius, not Frick. Behrman goes into this very closely. Duveen designed the house and picked the paintings. Frick only knew who to contact. Duveen had the goods. Do you think Frick was as disreputable as Steve Cohen?
IG: Yes, the big industrialists rose to an incredibly high status and in many cases on the backs of others. In order to deflect attention from their status as robber barons, they became a great art collectors, which elevated their image.
PL: When I had work bought by Joe Hirshhorn, he came around. I didn’t meet him, but he went to buy the work himself. Now you have somebody who is trained as a “curator” who works for some very wealthy person and he or she chooses. The person who is the collector doesn’t even get involved anymore. That’s so weird.
IG: Let me ask you something that is a concern of others of your generation who’ve accomplished something. How concerned are you about the future?
PL: I’m very concerned. As I said before, every time I walk into my studio it is a political act. I am fighting to keep this alive against tremendous odds. Very few people care about abstraction; very few people can see abstraction or color that works. Galleries say they can’t sell abstraction. This is a losing battle. Now, you keep fighting because that is what a noble person does. But it’s debilitating.
IG: You’re represented by DC Moore, a well-regarded gallery. Doesn’t that give you some faith?
PL: I think the unfavorable conditions take a toll. It’s very expensive to keep up a studio. It is very expensive to make a painting. You have to have a certain level of support. And when there are very few people than can even see—I mean that is why Greenberg’s death was a great loss, because he had a great eye. Clem really cared about abstraction and painting. In 1994, he said, “I kept thinking the art world couldn’t go any lower, then I turned around and, no, it had gone lower still.” Well, he wouldn’t be surprised today. It’s just a little more permissive than it was in 1994. It has been going on for quite some time. One part is educational. Are there people who are going to be educated in the language of abstraction? And who are trained in color perception? So that they can get painting about what Matisse called the soul of art, color?
IG: It’s tonality.
PL: Well, I don’t think it’s tonality, it’s about colors working together. It’s about the painting being a metaphor for truth. It’s about truth. It’s about honesty. I use color as the way to show that because I have a deep inherent feeling for color. When that matters less and less to the people around me, it’s like a language that is being lost.
IG: Who is going to be able to understand this language?
PL: I don’t think it’s about understanding. As Picasso said, “Do you understand a bird singing?” I don’t want people to understand my painting; I want people to see my painting. But in order to do that people have to care about color.
IG: It goes back to image. Again, a function of pop art’s rise is that now the image has nothing to do with the image that is created. Rather it is part of the marketing that gets people to buy it. It’s not longer, I love this and I know why, but the market says this is valuable. The market is basically a dictator.
PL: Well, I had the thought the market now is about decadence. The present art can no longer equal the great art of the past. We have nothing to equal Matisse; we have nothing to equal Picasso; we have nothing to equal Pollock. Or if we have it, work of this caliber, it is not known because the market doesn’t get it. That’s the problem.
IG: Does it have anything to do with political correctness?
PL: It has something to do with that when you don’t respect the past or you don’t respect your ancestors—and that is where we are right now—the art is reckless, there are no standards. How are you going to judge it? Did Tilda Swinton sleep well, or what? Where is the judgement? As Kant said, Judgment of taste is key.
IG: I don’t think one can judge it.
PL: I first became aware of it when somebody like Judy Pfaff put a room together. They throw things in a room, like at summer camp. It’s like, “How do I know it is good?” I have no way of telling. I haven’t got a feeling that somebody achieved something, that somebody worked hard, that they went through a certain process and they succeeded. When you see the great Rothkos. Yes, he broke through. What am I going to say is great about somebody throwing a couple things around the room? It’s too easy. The people who look at it are easy too, easy and not demanding. what art had always supplied, beauty, feeling … I find the whole thing now regressive.
IG: Who redefined art?
PL: Really? They have that much power?
IG: The degree does not necessarily come having provided a skill set or an understanding of the formal creation of the space of art. The degree is a symbol of authority. You take a stop sign off the corner, you put it on a museum wall, and now it is art. That’s the authority. Academia is the authority. The stop sign is now the degree. That is where we are. That is why you’re despairing. That is why we’re having this conversation.
PL: One of the problems is that people are not talking enough. We’re very passive. We’re afraid.
IG: I don’t think it’s fear. It is the feeling of being powerless. Maybe it’s the same thing.
PL: I think it is more, Maybe they’ll show our work, but if we say anything they won’t show our work. Bullshit. The bottom line is they’re getting away with one of Greenberg’s most brilliant concepts that I use four times a week and that I’d like to pass on to you now.
PL: Okay. His remark is, “It’s the taste that permits it.” It works across the board. Somebody wants to take a stop sign off the street here, and pretend that’s art. When they put it on the museum wall, it’s them. They’re the culprits.
You can try anything. When Abramović says, “I’m going to starve myself,” who cares? I don’t know her. I don’t care if she starves herself. She manages to get people to permit her to do it in their gallery. Now, suddenly, there is a crowd, Marina whatever her name is starving herself. People are watching.
IG: I read an article recently about a conceptual show in Denmark that involved a number of blenders filled water and in each was a goldfish. The option of the viewer was to push the “on” button. A couple of people did.
PL: It’s like an experiment.
IG: Of course it is an experiment. Who wants to do this?
PL: It is totally irrelevant though to what we’re talking about, a visual experience. To what art has always been about.
IG: It is the depth of decadence.
PL: Totally. Decadence is one of the main points. The taste that permits it. Collusion is another. Recently, Ken Johnson called him a performance artist relying on “saintly charisma.” He thought his work was fairly nondescript. Did you see that one? The pollen blower/gatherer? An “artist” from Germany, whom I saw on the subway recently. He’s smiling all the time. “I go out into the field and I collect the pollen.”
IG: And then what?
PL: He identifies the location of pollen by blowing on the tree branch. He has jars and jars of the stuff. They permitted him to put the yellow pollen in the Museum of Modern Art. Well, again, I would have had my paintings hanging in the atrium, or some other painter could, but instead, it was the pollen collector’s work.
IG: Well, I think that is how we feel about all of these things.
PL: Yes, the guy is selling himself as peace-loving and beatific. They have a film of him tripping down a mountain in southern Germany going like this … (blows)
IG: Are people getting hay fever? What’s the purpose?
PL: I guess it was about the color. It was an expanse of yellow. We’ve seen craziness like this throughout history.
IG: Is this the fall of the Roman Empire?
PL: I think it is. Absolutely. Talking about history—I hate to bring this up because it is so predictable—but we saw a period of eight to ten years where anyone born of my religion was murdered categorically. Any Jewish person. That was part of the political policy of an entire nation. That happened just sixty or seventy years ago.
IG: Sometimes you start a fire and the fire just catches and, you know, there’s no logic behind the fire. It just consumes whatever is around it. But once it has been started, the consumption is what takes over.
PL: Again, it has to do with the people who go along: “The taste that permitted it.”
IG: Taste is a good word for it. These people were very well educated. You tap into an anger that people have. This person is doing is better. What is the common denominator of all these people who are doing better than me? Now, that wasn’t actually true.
PL: No, it’s the irony.
IG: It becomes propaganda. Once that takes off and you’ve lived for twenty years in this incredibly oppressive state, you are going to lash out at anyone. That’s what fascists exploit. The fire took. Not all fires burned everything, but that one did.
PL: This was a really bad fire. But this could be a fire that we’re experiencing of a different type, on a lesser scale now.
IG: That’s what I am talking about, political correctness. But openly hating Jews was accepted back in the 30s. We are linking this with a cultural oppression.
PL: Yes, cultural oppression now.
IG: You’re recognizing that it is not involved with art or with the creative spirit. It’s image-making, which isn’t about being creative. These days we only relate to the marketplace. Remember when you could afford to be poor? Remember when you could get a place on the Lower East Side and work a part-time job? There was time to explore. It was a fertile time. Will Barnet would talk about the 1930s when there was no money. Somehow you would find ways of surviving. It’s doable. There’s a strong sense of community because everyone sees each other. No one wants to see anyone drop out. We don’t live in that world anymore. We live in a world of “mine.” We’ve lost our sense of service, even as artists. There’s no sense of “we are in this together.” I think the League is one of the few place where there is a sense of community where people are in it for a million different reasons.
PL: You mean the students?
IG: Yes. Some just want to be in this creative environment.
PL: But when they walk out, they’ll be hitting their head against the wall.
IG: Right, but at least it is a sanctuary. What I’m saying is you don’t have the same sense of community.
PL: Not at all. That stopped in my lifetime when I was in my early thirties. I had thought, “Oh, we’re all artists. We’re going to be friends, we are going to talk about each other’s work.” And what I experienced was, It’s a woman competing against the guys. They did not want a woman in their group. They would recommend each other. They would never recommend me.
IG: Let’s talk about your relationship to Clement Greenberg. How did you meet him?
PL: I met him in 1971 when I was living in upstate New York. I had just had this early success. I was showing at Emmerich and sold seventy-one paintings in one year. Everything I sent sold. I brok a selling record for the gallery.
Greenberg was giving a series of five lectures at Bennington College. I had heard about him but didn’t know that much about him. I had heard about him. The first lecture he talked about Willem de Kooning and Robert Rauschenberg. He didn’t like the work of either. He said the art world in the 1940s had broken into two groups: the group that followed de Kooning and the group that followed Jackson Pollock. He said that de Kooning was cute, handsome, like a movie star. The guys that followed Pollock, who was more crabby and difficult to tolerate, had the better taste. Clem identified with Pollock. The critic Harold Rosenberg identified with de Kooning. (Some of my recollections are in a talk that I gave at the Pollock-Krasner House right after Clem died. It’s called “What Tony, Lee, and Clem Told Me.”)
I was completely captivated by his lectures because he said everything I thought, and more. He came down on Rauschenberg, whom my professor loved. Greenberg said, He uses iconography. He said, “The composition in Rauschenberg is safe, it’s easy, people like it because it looks familiar.”
IG: The familiar being the image?
PL: Right, because he has Michelangelo; he has the hand of God touching the hand of Adam. He has the Kennedys. It’s iconographic. This gave the art historians—”the girls,” Clem meanly called them, “the so-called friends of art,” something to write about.” Oh, they touched the hand. They had the Kennedy figure. What does Jackie’s face mean in the painting.” Blah, blah, blah. Not, How’s the color, as in Rothko. How’s the structure, as in Pollock. What is the feeling?
When I met him during the 1970s, I was going through some very big difficulties in my own life—with a divorce, my children. In 1982, I was 41, at a nadir. I’m walking down the street, around 82nd Street, between Fifth and Madison. There is Mr. Greenberg at a moment when I was being avoided, more or less, by anyone from my age group. He said, “How are you? What’s going on? How’s your working going? Send me slides.” So we became friends. Then we put a panel together in 1984 called “The Importance of Taste in Art,” which was fascinating. He was interested in Kant, particularly his Critique of Aesthetic Judgement. What my work is all about, and I believe your work is all about, and anyone who’s really interested in the field is about: aesthetic experience. He put it this way: “We go to art for what art alone can give us. We go to art to be moved. We go to art for aesthetic experience. We don’t go to art to read a treatise on philosophy. If you want a treatise or philosophy, there are great ones, but I’m talking about art.”
IG: Read a book.
PL: Yes. So he started looking at my paintings. We became friends. He’d come to my studio on Riverside Drive often and look at my work. I went to all the lectures he gave on the East Coast between 1984 and 1994. I would say that I assimilated his ideas. I learned a great deal from him. I didn’t totally approve of him either. There was too much of a group mentality on some of the things he did.
IG: Did you feel that he didn’t like figurative art?
PL: He felt that the best art of the period was abstract. He said something like, “I can’t say why, but the best new art being done is not figurative.” He would say that it’s been done. It’s over.
IG: But that’s the mantra of academia.
PL: Is it really?
IG: Of course. It’s been done. Why go back?
PL: It is a dangerous attitude.
IG: Once you say it’s been done, you’re going to get rid of charcoal and painting and clay and stone. Everything is going to become equal to the woman sleeping in the cube.
PL: But you could say that the best, most adventurous work being done from the 1940s on was abstract.
IG: At that time, absolutely. Things were opening up. Suddenly, there were other channels of energy. But once you say it’s been done, you’re taking a political course.
PL: He was looking always for new avenues within abstraction. So, for example, when I was using contrasting colors, he said, “Don’t use contrasting colors because they’ve already been explored. Try going close value.” Well, if you’re ambitious, you want to try something new, you want to add.
IG: Does perception add or subtract? If you’re in the moment, can whatever it is that you’re actually connecting with be unencumbered by history? Is pure perception political?
PL: I don’t know anything about that. “Is pure perception political?” I don’t think you mean political. I think you mean is pure perception involved with time.
IG: Well, it has to be.
PL: Let me tell you what I know about this. Baudelaire had a concept of the timely and the eternal. He had the wrong artist, unfortunately, Constantine Guys. He said, “Great art has an eternal element, which allows it to be relevant afterwards and also has a timely element.”
IG: Totally spot on.
PL: It’s a brilliant concept. It works.
IG: When it’s there, it’s there. That’s something that cannot be explained. Art is self-evident. You cannot quantify that which is self-evident; you have to be cognizant of it. This is where the marketplace completely disengages. The marketplace can only relate to quantification.
PL: What does that mean?
IG: How do you judge value? Is it something relevant to an image, or is it something that is relevant to art? And there is a very big distinction between the two.
PL: Most of these things have nothing to do with art. But it’s not, they’re in the wrong area. They should have another name for it.
IG: Right. It’s like a huge fishing net out there. You want to rob the seas of all its resources? Get nets that are ten miles long, pull everything in, and call it seafood. Call it fish. Call it art. A lot of it is just bait, but because we’re hauling in fish, or we’re hauling in art, everything is included in this vast mass of matter.
PL: What do you mean “bait?”
IG: Well, what I’m talking about is this, in what we define as art there are elements of quality and then there are elements that have no quality at all: The woman sleeping in the cube. “Well, it is in the Museum of Modern Art, therefore it must be art, therefore it must be included.” But once you include a concept with a Rembrandt self-portrait or a Picasso, and this becomes the problem. It’s all about marketing. It’s about identifying. It’s about some authority saying that this is art, but the authority is not, is not Berenson, or Duveen, or Acquavella. It’s a marketeer who is manipulating the market so that they can call something art so it would sell for more money.
PL: You’re absolutely right. Clem called those people “the so-called friends of art.” He called Duchamp “the enemy of art.” We all wonder when we’ve been at an opening of pinball machines at the Whitney, when on the fifth floor there is a beautifully-conceived painting by Edward Hopper. How does Adam Weinberg justify those two things together in his mind?
IG: It’s because some curator came up with it, and they found a way to get it funded.
PL: That’s why the “so-called friends” is brilliant. They have done an extraordinary disservice to humanity. I actually believe that. They have confused the terminology, which is also an example of decadence. Nothing means anything anymore. Terms that had a meaning, no longer have a meaning. It’s dangerous.
IG: How much do you think this has to do with territoriality? Everyone wants his turf. We have cyberspace, which is vast and free for anyone. People like Gagosian are in a better position of authority to identify what is art and what is going to be appreciated by the market.
PL: It’s all about money. Gagosian has more money. The culture worships money. There are only two things in our culture: money and celebrity. Anything that falls into money and any way that you can make yourself a celebrity, that’s great. If you’re not a celebrity, you’re nowhere. That’s what the culture values. That wasn’t the case when I was a young person.
IG: And don’t we miss it.
PL: And wasn’t that a great time.
IG: And wasn’t that a time. ◆
Pat Lipsky teaches painting and figure drawing at the Art Students League of New York. You can see and read more on her website. Ira Goldberg is the executive director of the Art Students League of New York.