On the occasion of the installation of his large-scale painting, Dream, in 2015 at the Fordham University School of Law, lifelong painter Bill Conlon sat down for a conversation with the art historian Barbara Rose. The two, who have been friends for decades, touched on everything from the history of abstraction to George Kubler, Clement Greenberg, Al Held, and New York real estate.
Barbara Rose (Rail): You have always been an abstract artist. Does abstraction have a future?
Bill Conlon: Abstraction is only 100 years old, and we’re just at the beginning of it. We’ve only just started to untangle what abstraction means and there are things to discover all the time.
Rail: In terms of painting and sculpture it’s 100 years old—if we consider the first entirely abstract painting to be Malevich’s Black Square. But if you go back into the tradition there is abstract art in ornament and in architecture.
Conlon: Today there has been a sea change that has taken place: it has to do with media and communication and the ability that anybody has to use their cell phone and be connected to the world. I think this has everything to do with abstract art because it’s the way we think now. We think in icons, we think in terms of the ability to punch different little icons on our iPhones. It’s about seeing the world in a whole different pattern and structure. It has to do with opening windows, opening doors.
Rail: And you feel that your work has been changed by new technology?
Conlon: Yes. In the ’70s I thought of abstraction as pure abstraction, relating more to Donald Judd’s way of thinking in terms of purity.
Rail: It was literal, anti-illusionistic.
Conlon: What opened doors for me was when I saw that those little squares and rectangles that I have floating around can be windows into other things and those windows are amazing because you can have them interact with each other and that’s what I’m doing.
Rail: In the new work you’re doing, there’s clearly an alteration of space and conflicting perspectives, which I find very exciting. Rather than balancing things out, or making some sort of relational, Cubist-style painting, you have these self-contradictory illusions that resolve themselves on the plane because no single one is dominant.
Conlon: I’ve always been fascinated with the duality of shapes. It’s no longer just about negative and positive space—it’s about a space that envelops you in a whole different way: it presents itself as negative and positive simultaneously—which is one way of seeing.
Rail: It’s canceling extreme illusions. The forms are transparent in the way a form would be on a screen, so in a sense you’re using the elements of painting as information.
Conlon: That’s where I connect it to the internet and to the whole idea of the technology of media. I’m also finding ways to do it so that each one of these icons has an identity that can interface with other icons that have other identities so you begin to develop a tension between these different systems.
Rail: That issue of tension is incredibly important because when the ultra-reductive dogma of flatness came to be the authority, pictorial tension was lost. I think the job to be done right now is to regain pictorial tension. In this new painting, Dream, how did you come to these different images that you call icons, which are certainly different kinds of spaces?
Conlon: I’m working with Islamic tile patterns, which I’ve used before. This one happens to come from the Alhambra, but it also hearkens to a larger Islamic tradition and a kind of structure or order where everything fits together.
Rail: There seems to be a lot more freedom in this work than in older works, and of course using a biomorphic vocabulary as opposed to a strictly geometric one is pretty new. It’s certainly not the way you started.
Conlon: No, but it goes back maybe twenty years. The structures in the ’80s were dealing much more with literal transitions. Here’s a painting from 1986 called NYC Downtown. There are some similar elements, but what I was trying to do was deal with the different kinds of spaces that not only are these rectangular spaces, but actual spaces like a tunnel.
Rail: Do you feel that New York City influences your work?
Conlon: It did then. That’s an interesting question because I think as a painter you’re always influenced by your environment. Your environment is really crucial to how you see the light, the space. But this painting was painted in my studio on a small island in Maine.
Rail: How much time do you spend there?
Conlon: Four or five months a year.
Rail: Don’t you feel that more and more people don’t paint in Manhattan?
Conlon: You can’t afford it. I’m lucky because I still have a small studio downtown in my loft. It’s small but it’s enough for me to work in the wintertime. But if I have a large project I have to go to my studio in Maine.
Rail: Yeah, everybody I know has their studios outside of Manhattan. But back to Dream. The upper rectangle which is floating off into outer space looks like a [Jasper] Johns Tantric Detail cross- hatch and then at the bottom it looks like a de Kooning.
Conlon: There’s a duality to these icons—they can represent a culture and they can also represent a painter or a movement or a style. That’s true of style as well. Style is interesting too. You can juxtapose one style against another, which creates a wonderful, enigmatic tension.
Rail: Well, that comes out of a post-historical consciousness. You have to think about George Kubler’s The Shape of Time, where everything from all traditions is contemporaneously available.
Conlon: I took a class with Kubler at Yale. I have always wanted my paintings to be moving in time, not frozen in time. That’s how I got involved in these elliptical bands that create this animation or movement around the space. And there’s always this sense of living in gravity—we’re tied to a gravitational pull and I find that these axis points in the painting are the center around which everything moves. So in a sense the painting is frozen now, but in one’s memory it can move and change and literally be seen from another point of view. I’ve always been interested in is simultaneous points of view, like the Cubists.
Rail: Yes, but Cubist simultaneity was looking at the same object from different points of view.
Conlon: The Cubists, especially Braque and Picasso, used a simple still life: a bottle of wine, the newspaper, something that sat on the table in the cafe. When you expand it to today’s thinking, it’s not one subject—it’s ten or twenty subjects.
Rail: Do you mean an artist’s view, or a spectator’s view?
Conlon: My view is not just one still-life Cubist painting. It’s ten still-life Cubist paintings. Everything seems to be moving in a kind of—
Conlon: Flux, very good.
Rail: I’ve been trying to figure out where we are because somehow or another, painting has to describe where we are emotionally and consciously. Otherwise it’s meaningless.
Conlon: Well, in this painting, Broome Street Boogie, from 1977, things are compressed. It’s literally like a steam roller rolled over it and compressed all these things into one overlapping space, which was a different way of thinking. The space has become inflated and more able to breathe.
Rail: These are definitely the freest paintings you’ve done.
Conlon: I think that has to do with the fact that I’ve been liberated, in a good way, from the pressures of the art world. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that.
Rail: No, you have to be honest. My theory is that today there are parallel universes. Real, committed, life-long artists inhabit one sphere and the market and academia are in another world. Sometimes—rarely—they coincide.
Conlon: I’m at a point in my life where I know how to paint. It’s not an issue about what I have to discover. I’ve already discovered it, so now I play with it, I manipulate it, I use all of the forms. I now feel very excited about what I do because I have control over it.
Rail: Mastering the tools of the trade is rarely addressed anymore because nobody puts in that kind of time—they want instant everything, but learning to paint is not something that happens overnight. Even for Jackson Pollock it wasn’t overnight. This idea that you instantly produce something worthwhile is crazy because there’s a process of mastering technique and material.
Conlon: One thing I’ve become very aware of is how an artist has a history, partially because of my involvement with the Al Held Foundation, of which I’m a trustee. One of the amazing things about Al is that he had maybe ten distinct styles or periods in his life. He’s an artist who evolved.
Rail: But it was still Al, he didn’t suddenly become a figurative painter or a pop artist. Basically the late work is inspired by Baroque architecture. He was always going to see Borromini’s churches in Rome—which also fascinated Serra. Al Held’s late paintings are all about Italy and the Renaissance and Renaissance architecture. And also outer space. He was thinking about all kinds of space and form. How do you begin a painting?
Conlon: With little sketches. It’s the vocabulary I’ve been working with over the years. That’s the frustrating thing about when one evolves. You are what you are and I have a history and there it is.
Rail: There’s this juxtaposition of really conflicting information in the Dream. You’re not really quoting de Kooning or Johns. The idea of appropriation I find without imagination.
Conlon: Every painter I know is ripping off something.
Rail: The Old Masters quoted each other. Johns is constantly quoting Cézanne, Picasso, and the Old Masters as well.
Conlon: I find that fascinating because painting is about gesture and movement. There’s also something about the hand which I think has been lost.
Rail: This is the issue as far as I’m concerned: Greenberg promulgated the dogma that painting is addressed to eyesight alone. It was exclusively an optical experience. Now that leaves out all tactile experiences, all physical experiences, and the brushstroke itself. I find it incredible that people accepted that. What about the trace of the hand or the gesture or the body? Isn’t that relevant?
Conlon: I don’t see Greenberg that way. It was about style to him. He was able to make these snap judgments about looking at a painting—
Rail: They were snap judgments that stuck for far too long.
Conlon: And it was style, “Oh that’s fresh.”
Rail: Yes, fresh was a big word.
Conlon: It still is, but it has nothing to do with content, it has nothing to do with ideas. I always try to work with ideas, I have tried not to just work with a surface or a kind of tonality or a kind of flatness. Each of those things is relevant, but I like to put them all together, flat is good but so is some sort of staccato surface. It’s about combining things, not eliminating things.
Rail: As Greenberg’s dogma became the lingua franca of the academy and MFA programs, serial painting was mistaken for style. You’re talking about pictorial ideas, and what happens in the academy is that the ideas are purely theoretical. They are not pictorial ideas. They’re pseudo-philosophical ideas.
Conlon: Greenberg was all about purity, a certain level of refinement. He became seduced by paint.
Rail: But he didn’t like surfaces. It was all about the stained color field, the texture of the canvas. It wasn’t about tactile brushstrokes.
Conlon: Right. This is difficult because he also supported Ken Noland and Noland had a kind of touch.
Rail: The most boring painter who ever lived. He never had an idea, ever. He took Stella’s formats and he took Gene Davis’s formats. But he had a really great color-sense and a really great touch, so it all cohered in a way that gave you the instant impact that Clem was looking for. I think that work has faded and will fade more in the future. It’s thin, it’s blown up watercolor and it’s not satisfying besides being physically unstable. Dyed color is fleeting.
Conlon: Even though I was in a gallery [Andre Emmerich] that was deeply involved with the Greenberg tradition, I always felt that I wasn’t a part of it all. I felt like I was developing my own situation. I didn’t want to become a Greenbergian—and I think I succeeded.
Rail: You had to. Greenberg would have these sort of malice conferences where people would sit around in a circle and drink and everyone had to denounce Al Held. And you were very close to Al, therefore you were out by definition because you were associated with Al Held, the second greatest enemy. The first greatest enemy was Ad Reinhardt in terms of the Greenberg hierarchy. Greenberg did broadcasts for Voice of America and was paid by the USIA. He could only go to English-speaking countries because he couldn’t speak any foreign languages, but he was sent everywhere by the USIA and that’s how his views took root everywhere. It’s actually the least of the problems now because many far worse types of dogma have come to replace it, like Conceptual art, which isn’t art at all. So after Greenberg, you have a kind of an interregnum because Greenberg used to be the test of quality in painting but now there really are no criteria.
Conlon: Richter is a Greenbergian. I just saw some of his work when I was in London and he’s just pouring paint on glass. There’s that great film of Pollock working on glass and it’s so interesting that Richter can’t make his paintings fast enough for sale—
Rail: And they look like it.
Conlon: At the same time there’s something there, there’s something deeply rooted in the consciousness of collectors that makes this kind of art still viable.
Rail: Richter rehabilitates it with a theoretical matrix—the process becomes the content.
Conlon: He was also able to contradict himself by painting realist paintings.
Rail: He’s working in two separate styles, so in that sense there’s an irony and he can get off the hook for being an academic, which essentially he is. I think his early East German black-and-white paintings are great, but after that it becomes mannerism. He goes to the West and he does the scraped pigment paintings and they’re interesting for a while and then he does a whole bunch of stuff that looks like travel posters.
Conlon: The MoMA show of young painters in 2014 was difficult.
Rail: At least with Greenberg you had authority. Today it’s not that the emperor has no clothes—the problem is that there is no emperor. Greenberg was very useful because you could be for or against his ideas. You could pursue the train of thought and accept it or reject it. That doesn’t exist anymore. Everything has changed and that’s why real painters, or real artists of any kind, feel isolated. Even though there is instant communication with everything all the time, serious artists can’t communicate with each other because there’s too much noise.
Conlon: The tension has maybe always existed, at least in my life, between an art world that’s about realism and an art world that’s about abstraction. I see someone like Chuck Close as a very interesting artist because he’s actually moving toward abstraction. He started off as an abstract painter at Yale as de Kooning’s student, and there’s still an image in his work, but it’s about gesture and brushstroke.
Rail: Exactly. You know that he’s a really good artist because he’s not going to sacrifice the essence of painting, which is the hand. It’s not the eye, it’s the hand.
Conlon: To get back to that thing about how an artist evolves, Rackstraw Downes.
Rail: Rackstraw is one of my favorite artists.
Conlon: He’s terrific, he has such a refined touch, and he’s out there working in the Lower East Side—
Rail: He is an exquisitely refined painter. How can there be a world in which Alex Katz is a hero and nobody’s ever heard of Rackstraw Downes?
Conlon: No comment. [Laughter.]
Rail: Seriously, it is a world in which everything is dumbed down to the lowest common denominator; it’s a world that was made possible and constructed by Andy Warhol. Andy won hands down. He played a game and he won. He wanted to destroy bourgeois culture and he did.
Conlon: It’s true, but my point is not about that. It’s about the development of an artist and their hands and their minds. And I use Rackstraw and Chuck because we’re all about the same age and I’ve always felt that I had the ability to do whatever I want with my hands, but what you see in my work and in their work is an evolution of how to paint.
Rail: That used to be the goal, but that’s not the goal of artists today. They’re not looking for that ultimate refinement or sophistication. They’re looking for impact, success, whatever.
Conlon: Part of the reason I used the white ground in Dream as frame was that I was trying to find a new way to use a Rothko edge.
Rail: I see a kind of vibrating edge of the white against the orange, but the orange isn’t the whole ground. There isn’t an orange ground under there and it becomes a very explicit framing element. To make the frame explicit is also kind of a strange radical thing to do. There’s no color theory going on here of any kind.
Conlon: Exactly, it’s not an Albers system.
Rail: Is there a system of any kind? How do you finally come to a moment where you feel there is a pictorial equilibrium? The notion of composition is totally changed and I’m trying to figure it out.
Conlon: That used to be a bad word.
Rail: Composition? Oh I know, very bad.
Conlon: Because it implies structure.
Rail: Cézanne’s problem was that every time he put down a mark he had to adjust everything. There was a constant adjustment going on until it reached a state of equilibrium, which goes back to tension. Cézanne is such a great painter because it’s about that tension—because the whole thing looks like it could dissolve. I think that’s why Cézanne stays endlessly relevant to me. He’s not my favorite painter from the point of view of taste—I’d rather live with a Matisse—but in terms of how it feels to be alive in a modern world, there’s something in Cézanne that you just can’t ignore.
Conlon: Cézanne was just like the physicists of that period. They were discovering a new space and so was he—he’s responsible for Cubist faceting of space.
Rail: We’re in this age of spatial discovery. It might be positive, it might not be. But at least it’s explorative. Do you think our awareness of discoveries in outer space changes our way of thinking?
Conlon: Those discoveries are also happening in micro-space. That’s not quite the right term, but the whole “Collider” series is referencing the big collider at CERN, in Switzerland. It’s about smashing elements together. It’s just a term, but the “Great Diamond” series, which I did before this, was about breaking up space and using elliptical space as a drawing. The elliptical bands allowed me to work with some of these other forms. In a funny way I do come from a Minimalist tradition in that I have to start from a very basic point and then slowly develop an idea.
Rail: Every generation has a point of departure. For your generation it was Minimalism. Al Held’s point of departure was Surrealist drawing. He would start his process doing a sort of Surrealist free-association.
Conlon: He had a respect for artists like Matta, who I think is overlooked, but who is important to me. And Kandinsky, who was also important to Al.
Rail: Cosmic consciousness was Kandinsky’s subject matter. He was a mystic. We’re dealing more with matters of physics. Do you think there’s virtuality in art?
Conlon: Yes, it’s funny because there’s a show at Zwirner now [Giorgio Morandi November 6 – December 19, 2015] and that to me is spiritual. It’s so spiritual it gives you goose bumps. He transformed those objects he painted into something other than what they were, and that’s what painting can be about.
Rail: Well it has to be about that or it’s about nothing. And that’s part of the problem. I think it was Rothko who said, “There’s no such thing as a painting about nothing.”
Conlon: You can’t make good paintings without skill, intelligence, experience—
Rail: And content. You may not be able to name the content, and you shouldn’t be able to, because if you can it’s just an illustration, but there has to be content and the content has to be perceptible.
Conlon: Good painting comes from good painting. I’ve always spent a lot of time looking at other painters’ work trying to decipher what the hell it’s about and what I find at this point is that it’s about taste—it’s about understanding how you go about the process of making a painting and utilizing your understanding of other great paintings.
Rail: I agree with you, but I think very few people have an extensive experience of very great paintings in the original. I’m glad you brought up Kandinsky, but Dream is going way beyond late Kandinsky because of the different pictorial styles which in the same space with the Chinese ideogram and the Islamic mosaic.
Conlon: It’s hard to see, but it’s Impressionism.
Rail: What’s exciting about these paintings is the rhythmic motion. There’s a lot to look at but there’s also a lot to make you feel alive.
Conlon: That’s the great thing about narrative painting, like Géricault. Or that wonderful painting, Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley. The thing I love about Raft of the Medusa is all the activity. You can spend hours thinking about who’s alive and who’s dead. And I love to take on the challenge of space and activity in a large painting. You can’t make a big painting and have it be static.
Rail: That begins in the ’30s with the mural convention. It’s the flat wall versus the easel convention, which gives you pictorial illusionism. It’s not a debate that can end because a mural scale means public art and public art is part of the problem. There’s no basis for public art once you lose a context or a framework or a raison d’être for it. The state no longer represents anything and the church doesn’t know what it’s doing so there’s no reason for public art, except to decorate public lobbies. The corporation is the dominant form of our society so therefore public art has got to be corporate. Can there be good faith if what you’re actually doing is decorating capitalism? In the Renaissance the fresco paintings were done for a purpose—to glorify the ruler or the religion, which everyone believed in, but do we really want to glorify the corporation?
Conlon: Most of the Renaissance paintings were done because most of the population was illiterate so it was how they learned this history of Christ, but the successful muralists, like Orozco, were basically communists.
Rail: They were hard-core Mexican Marxists. That was the ethos, that was the WPA.
Conlon: It’s very fascinating, Barbara. I’ve always tried to figure this one out because it goes back to what we were talking about earlier: why in the world was Jackson Pollock involved with Thomas Hart Benton?
Rail: It makes perfect sense. Pollock’s ambition was to be a great painter on the scale of the great tradition, on the scale of Renaissance and Baroque painting, and Benton was trying to do that. Pollock was not sophisticated enough when he was studying with Benton to understand that it couldn’t be done any longer, but he got a lot from Benton in terms of the organization of forms in space. The structure of Pollock is all out of Benton. That’s why Pollock coheres.
Conlon: There are some early paintings, like American Indian sand paintings.
Rail: He studied Native American art and he had all thirty-six volumes of the encyclopedia on Native American art. René d’Harnoncourt, the director of the Museum of Modern Art at the time, was a specialist in tribal art, and he brought the Navajo sand painters to the museum and Pollock saw them do a demonstration. He was also influenced by Siqueiros, whose workshop was applying paint in that way. Pollock put these things together and it gave him a technique to make the forms and movement he wanted to make, but the actual form and structure comes out of the diagramming of the Old Masters that Benton did.
Conlon: I feel, in a funny way, that I’m a really traditional painter in that I’m trying to carry on the tradition.
BARBARA ROSE is an art historian and curator who lives in New York and Madrid, Spain.