Art In Conversation
R.H. Quaytman with Felix Bernstein
“Paintings have their own grammar, in a sense. That one painting could affect the painting next to it, a little like words, is what excites me.”
On ViewGlenstone Museum
September 22, 2022–Ongoing
R.H. Quaytman’s current exhibition at Glenstone closes a major body of her work while opening a new one. Since 2001, her paintings have been organized in chapters, and Glenstone displays recent chapters alongside a new set of Warburgian vitrines show hints of her research for Book, a self-made artist’s catalogue that will pick up where her last major collection Spine left off: covering the years 2011–2020 (Chapters 21–35). This volume is bookended by Łódź—the scene of both her Polish-Jewish familial lineage and her aesthetic forebears in the early avant-garde—which remains a continuously vexed site of fascism, censorship, and authoritarianism. The volume is hardly a straightforward homeward journey: the sun and the horizon are continuously displaced; train-tracks and arrows lead one through a chiastic hall of mirrors of retrospective futurity, in which Quaytman uncannily “predicts the past.” Her protest against Cyclopean painting means that presence is always delayed; “the images slide away,” only to reappear as blurred after-images which emerge despite incongruous bi-focal inputs: mirroring the auto-stereoscopic trickery of Magic Eye books and random dot patterns. This boundless deferral of vision and indefinite accrual of meaning becomes a metonym for “reading,” which in Classical aesthetics was prized for its diachronic, metrical horizontality in contrast to painting’s synchronic, simultaneity.
Not one to remain frozen like the angel of history looking backwards, she has started a new volume with Modern Subjects, Chapter Zero, which was exhibited at Wiels in Brussels last year, and features historically neglected Belgian artist Antoine Wiertz, notorious for his gothic studio/museum, which he managed to have the Belgian State fund and maintain in perpetuity after the artist’s death in 1865. In researching the show, I discovered that he was one of the earliest artists to be classified as “degenerate” by Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso, who influenced the Nazis in his attempt to classify deviant features. Chapter Zero brings to the fore a longstanding aspect of her work: the recuperation of exiled system-makers who make hermetic arks, museums, and allegories can be found at the edge of historical oblivion from Katarzyna Kobro and Władysław Strzemiński and their museum of modern art in Łódź, to Hilma af Klint and Otto van Veen. But its figurative moments also highlight Quaytman’s exaltation of female protagonists like the Biblical Judith, who decapitated warring patriarchs, and the Amazons and Scythians, or the Persian Women who according to Plutarch exposed their genitals in order to frighten and provoke their failing men in battle.
Using the model of a book Quaytman seduces us with the promise of unity, oneness, and closure, only to disperse, dismember, and beguile us through serialization: the partiality of the episode keeps displacing the totality of the book but also seems to fractally recapitulate the whole, like the fractal nesting system she uses for canvas specifications. Chapter, like capital, is etymologically derived from caput or head: and perhaps Quaytman’s corpus is a back bone in search of its capstone. Her new “volume” will move from ground zero towards one in fractional increments but never reach it. This postponement seems analogous to her asymptotic approach to presence, gender, and memory. But this is not a mere celebration of the nihilating negativity of “zero.” Unlike the heroic double-negation which affirms and visibilizes the void, her new project is something like a triple-negation: neither side of the binarized digital world made up of zeros and ones is allowed to take precedence, as we are sprawled out in the indefinite infinity of the in-between; a shifting, quavering, scintillating “lenticular perspective,” which uncrosses the verbal and the visual.
Felix Bernstein (Rail): Yve-Alain Bois’s Painting as Model was important for shaping your way of conceiving paintings. How would you say your own method of chapter-making fits into the tradition he excavated?
R.H. Quaytman: Model drove home to me the importance of reflecting on how art history is constructed, finding ways to reinvision the genealogy of the canon and make interventions into that history as an artist. I understood that the history gates were not so well guarded as, it appeared, the artists gates were. Back then, to put it simply, unless you could thread the eye of the needle between the blank white Ryman monochrome and the squeegee pull of a Warhol polaroid painting, you were on your own. In retrospect, I see that many of the ideas and concepts I learned from Bois and also Rosalind Krauss about sculpture, seriality, space and the photograph I did try to apply to painting. I was not taught in school how to develop a philosophical or historical logic: to think about motivation with regard to subject matter, exhibition installation, sexuality, politics, etc. in defense against the corporatized, shallow, standardized, glittering star preferences of capitalism. Maybe it was Painting as Model that laid the seeds of my method—I call it a method and not a system because methods open, systems close. Since adopting it, I have gone to places that I wouldn’t have without it. You can see that a bit in the Glenstone vitrines. The geographical logic that the book opened was unexpected and influenced every chapter in unexpected ways: New York to Chicago, Vienna to Koln to Brussels and Venice and then back to LA, and to Brazil, Mexico City and Tel Aviv. But there’s also the temporal expanse in the subjects depicted from the present to the twentieth century and then all the way around to the archaic with the paintings of Amazonian and Persian women and classical mythology.
Rail: Many of these disparate referential threads can come together in a single painting, even when it’s isolated from its context. They become condensed like an aphorism, which is another metaphor you use for your paintings.
Quaytman: There are definitely synchronicities between the paintings that come about as the result of my approach to research and site: many times, I don’t notice these until after the fact. At the entrance to the show at Glenstone is a painting from O Tópico, Chapter 27, originally made for a forthcoming pavilion located in Brazil’s Inhotim. Tópico means matter—not space and time but stuff, earth. This work comprises one painting nailed onto another. From the center a little eye peers through a black mud-like substance. The eye is copied from Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920). While making Chapter 27, I was already making my research for Chapter 29 and so included the subject of the Angelus in the Brazil chapter. The story of the Angelus is a long complex one, but to be brief, I happened to have the opportunity to see up close the Angelus Novus in the storage rooms of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Normally I don’t work with images that are already so famous, but looking carefully at it lay down flat on a table in front of me, I saw immediately that the Klee drawing of the angel was glued onto an old engraving. Apparently, no one ever even noticed it before. Probably because you could only see it on the edge or the periphery and seemed only meant to frame the central image. The periphery of images interests me because often we are blind to that spot. After much debate with the conservation department of the museum and myself pouring through hundreds of websites of old engravings, the print turned out to be a mass-produced portrait of Martin Luther. This was a big shock to everybody, given the work’s complex historical importance to Walter Benjamin: it was in his collection, and was the inspiration for his famous essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” But, also, because he wrote early on about the Reformation, and because Luther was a famous, virulent anti-Semite. It was my proudest moment when I found it amidst hundreds of images on a web site from Italy.
Rail: From the beginning of the chapters, palimpsestic and archival discoveries carry through the works.
Quaytman: Yes, a big aspect of the chapters is a kind of art historical hunt or investigation. And I’ve also always been interested in how the history of engraving links to the history of painting. Maybe that’s why I was primed to even notice that engraving.
Rail: I think your investigation is transferred in a certain way to the viewer. I found looking at the images in your work that there are many clues that resonate in unexpected ways. For instance, your work with artist Antoine Wiertz brought me to criminologist Cesare Lombroso.
Quaytman: I love the idea of establishing one’s own art history. From the first chapter, which involved a train ride to Łódź, Poland, the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, my paternal family, and a panorama of eighty paintings all the same size, I became interested in how art history, institutional structures, and lifetimes intertwine. When I went to Poland, first in the nineties, I became interested in two artists, Katarzyna Kobro (1898-1951) and Władysław Strzemiński (1893-1952), who Bois also had devoted a chapter to in Painting as Model. A sculptor and painter who founded the first museum of modern art in Europe (Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź), and what Chapter 35 was based on in 2019.
The formalism in my work found its footing somewhere between these two artists. Strzemiński was a painter interested in optics and the after-image while Kobro’s insight was to say what’s important about a sculpture is not the sculpture itself, but the space it sculpts around the sculpture and the movement of your body in relation to its architecture. Both implemented precise geometric ideas into their works. I’m also interested in the way a viewer moves past a painting as if it were a sculpture.
Rail: Did Strzemiński’s thinking about optics influence your use of optical illusions such as moiré patterns?
Quaytman: I had already been using optical patterns as a way to activate a wall of painting but Strzemiński’s research on the after-image supported this instinct. I like to use op-patterns that provide a slight optical burn or reflective sparkling surfaces that do the opposite and attract the eye. I use these optics like tactics to help compose installations, because these optics clearly affect the neighboring paintings.
Strzemiński also made the first artwork that I know of acknowledging what was happening in the concentration camps. Łódź had a very huge crowded ghetto where many of his Jewish students were tragically imprisoned. He made these incredibly moving drawings of figures seen from a distance in the ghetto. He drew them using the optics of drawing he had been developing—moving out of abstraction into figuration: philosophically and optically grappling with this notion of after-image, trace, and memory.
Rail: Kobro gave you the idea to use the golden ratio (a fractal of squares in rectangles related to the Fibonacci sequence) for your canvas sizes, which can therefore be nested together. You also based your first panel size in The Sun, Chapter 1 (2001) on the dimensions of Kobro’s sculpture Spatial Composition II (1928), literally taking it up as a model for your work. A lot of these geometrical formulas are mathematically complicated. How did you figure out how to work with them?
Quaytman: The only way to figure geometry out is to draw it yourself. I especially like this Irish geometry teacher on YouTube. I’m terrible at math, but one thing I love about geometry is it makes math come alive in space in a way I can intuitively understand. It also gave me a method with which to determine the dimensions of a rectangle whose proportions to the square hanging next to it could relate—could cohere rather than relying on guess work or being too tempted to fill the ever-increasing size of galleries with ever-increasing sizes. Also, a painting from twenty years ago relates geometrically to a painting now.
Rail: This formula determines not only the panel sizes, but also the way you hang the paintings, which itself is quite unusual. One grazes the floor, some are eye level, some are turned around.
Quaytman: All the paintings, no matter the size, are related to each other geometrically. One odd thing about my work is that it is difficult to define an overriding appearance. Paintings from one chapter to the next can look quite different. There is something of a group show feel about an installation of mine. I noticed that geometric and material consistency—like on plywood panels with a beveled edge combined with a consistent geometry—enabled me to side step this expectation of style or consistency. Hanging an exhibition of my work can, on a good day, feel like plugging in a circuit. Some connection between paintings can be activated that doesn’t exist with the singular painting. Paintings have their own grammar, in a sense. That one painting could affect the painting next to it, a little like words, is what excites me. So, for example, all the spaces between paintings at the Glenstone are based on the distance and height of paintings around them. Also, much of the time, a painting can turn in any direction. I often turn them when I paint them. Every room treats a group of paintings differently so it’s good to have flexibility that way.
Rail: One work that nicely concretizes the cross-referentiality of your works is an assemblage you made at Glenstone: a painting from The Sun, Chapter 1 is placed on a bright blue shelf which appears to support a larger painting behind it from The Sun Does Not Move, Chapter 35: it’s both a kind of closure for the volume and an open-ended hall of mirrors.
Quaytman: I think it points towards the implication that time is circular or doubles back on itself. One painting from twenty-two years ago still can be strongly related to the paintings now. I use shelves under paintings sometimes in order to place other smaller paintings in front. I like in my studio seeing paintings change when leaning on other paintings. Also, it is a way to think about paintings as books, which can exist between storage and display, unlike paintings. So, there’s not only a relationship, hieroglyphically, but also through physical depth. As I was leaving my house for the drive down to Glenstone for the installation, I decided last minute to pack that painting from Chapter One along with all the material for the vitrines in the trunk of my car. I thought it might be good to have at least one painting from The Sun, Chapter One, and it’s a portrait of Washington, and Glenstone is outside Washington. I brought a few extra shelves with me to be on hand during installation in case it occurred to me to place two paintings together. I thought the Washington painting would fit well with this larger work from 35 that was silkscreened with a painting I mentioned earlier of the Amazons and Scythians, made originally for the Secession in Vienna. It was painted by Rubens’s teacher, Otto van Veen, and it depicts the Amazons getting together romantically with the Scythians because the Scythians didn’t insist on matrimony.
Rail: How did the Washington picture fit into the original thematic of Chapter One?
Quaytman: It’s a statue of George Washington from the 1939 Queens World’s Fair. Since The Sun, Chapter 1, was meant to be shown first in the Queens Museum, I decided to use the image from an old photograph I found in their shop which sold memorabilia. My great-grandfather and my grandfather were killed in a fiery car wreck with the Long Island Railroad coming back from the World’s Fair, which was held on the same site as the Queen’s Museum. I got the title from the Sun newspaper where I found the Warholian article reporting the train wreck that killed these two men on the weekend the fair was celebrating the victorious car. The chapter was also a look at Łódź, which my father’s family had immigrated to the States from.
Rail: There’s a recurrent image you’ve used since Chapter 21, the start of the new volume, that looks like a stone breast or eye. Is it from a known source?
Quaytman: Christopher Williams was making a window display at Buchholz Gallery in Cologne at the same time I was showing Cherchez Holopherne, Chapter 21 in 2011. He was showing books designed by Hannes Jähn, and one of them, Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge, had that image on the cover and it just, it really struck me. I loved it—a singular breast made of cement. I suppose that tied into the prosthetic nature of gender explored in Breckinridge. I like that it can draw out plural associations; one friend of mine assumed it was a wine glass seen from below! You never know what people will see.
Rail: The film of Myra Breckinridge also contains the strangest example of Mae West’s late style, which features its own kind of gender prosthetics. I think the most striking work at Glenstone is your painting of an obscured American flag. Is it your rebuttal to Jasper Johns?
Quaytman: I was invited to write an essay for the Jasper Johns retrospective. And I ended up focusing on his American flags, and writing essentially a “Dear John” letter to him in which we break up. But then I thought, “Oh, I better do my own flag. You know, it’s only fair that I should do my own.”
Rail: There’s a time-lapse video of the making of this painting over a period of months that I love since it shows how many layers are occluded from the final image. It starts with the silkscreened op pattern and the flag is painted over that with multiple kinds of stars. And then there’s Trump, who turns into Martin Luther, and a woman crawling across the canvas taken from Muybridge. And the flag slowly turns into a black hole painted in singularity black. Does your work always involve this much underpainting and obscuring?
Quaytman: More and more. When I began the chapters I didn’t paint that much over silkscreened images. I usually reserved painting by hand with a brush for smaller paintings. But slowly I began to paint more and more on images of other paintings or simply over patterns that make your vision jump and vibrate. I became more interested in that process. Now it is not unusual to entirely cover the original silkscreened image with paint.
Rail: Can you explain how you painted the panorama from Morning, Chapter 30? It’s simultaneously opaque, transparent, and reflective.
Quaytman: I think it helps to think of it this way: I paint over and under the silkscreen. These twenty-two panels were under-painted with gesso made of two kinds of indigo mixed with rabbit skin glue, chalk, and then sanded. On the top half of the expanse is a gradient from light to dark made with woad indigo. On the lower half, the earth part is painted in synthetic indigo that is darker and more purple and sands very differently than the woad. Then on the far right, a big wedge of shiny gray lacquer pierces the landscape over nine panels. It was very high gloss, which reflects the paintings on the adjacent wall. I wanted the lacquer to resemble a turned off TV or computer monitor.
The original motivation was to make my first trip to the Southwest and also visit Michael Heizer’s land art work Double Negative (1969), photograph it and incorporate these images into a panoramic landscape painting meant to give a sense of the vast space of an American landscape. The idea to reference Heizer occurred to me because Double Negative is in MOCA’s collection and I have on occasion referenced the collections of museums where I’m showing. I took a series of polaroids and silkscreened them across six of the twenty-two panels forming the landscape. I called the chapter “Morning" because it referenced the opposite of Los Angeles which is known for its sunsets, not sunrises. To see the sunrise in LA means to look east. But then I didn’t want the hope or optimism that a sunrise implies, so I made the sun a tiny yellow dot on the horizon of the eighth panel in from the left before the indigo starts going towards the color of a night sky.
Time is an important motif in four chapter titles. The first chapter is The Sun and the end of a period of twenty years became The Sun Does Not Move, a quote from da Vinci. Then there is Morning, Chapter 30, and An Evening, Chapter 32. I made the road trip to the Southwest with my son, Isaac, who had recently transitioned, and he can be seen in one of the panels standing in the distance. So, there’s a double meaning of sun and son. Also, at the time I was painting and installing Morning, Trump was running for election. I believed there was a strong chance he would be elected. So I thought the sound of the word morning appropriately named the period of American mourning we entered shortly after the show opened.
Rail: What’s the classical image on the far right panel?
Quaytman: It’s from a reproduction of a print I had discovered in a library print archive in Venice, when I was beginning work on I Modi, Chapter 22. I’ve always been interested in an Italian printmaker named Marcantonio Raimondi (1480 – 1534). He was the first printmaker to focus on reproducing paintings in the form of engravings. Also, he was the first artist accused of plagiarism by Dürer. This image in particular fascinates me. It’s an engraving of a lost painting. It is called The Dream of Raphael (1505–10), also sometimes Hecuba’s Dream. Hecuba was the mother of Paris. It is believed that the image is a depiction of Hecuba having a nightmare in which she gives birth to a flaming torch that ends up burning down Troy. The torch is Paris made famous from Raymond’s most important work, The Judgement of Paris. I thought it was interesting how compositionally, it’s identical to the Judgment of Paris, which is also a foundational image for me. And there’s the three phallic monsters on the bottom right that seem to echo the group of three men in the Judgment engraving. I like the mysterious almost Bosch-like nature of it all: Is she dreaming? Is the doubling of the two women symbolic of dreaming? Or is it two lovers? Or simply two nudes reposing while the city burns in the background? It expands the temporal in the panorama with the distant past, what was politically unfolding in the present. And, dare I say, my own shifting sexuality at that time.
Rail: The vitrines show some of the images from Chapter Zero and hint at what you are working on now. What prompted you to start a new volume?
Quaytman: I started calling the accumulation and research of my paintings a book as a mental exercise in self motivation, as I rounded the bend of turning forty in 2001. I found it a useful armature on which to hang my heart—it might inoculate me against the demands of the present, in the quickly appearing and fading calendar of the art world focus. It was a way to maintain a steady focus on my thought and work through all the noise of the present. How to hold separate exhibitions and the ideas they explored together like a continuous stitch. There is something very different about this time, my time, your time. We are living on the rails. This time—I was born in ’61—has probably been one of the most extreme periods in human history. 2001 to 2020 was a definitive, distinct era. 2020, marked as it was by the pandemic, was clearly different and thus the time to start again.
It was in that spirit that I chose Antoine Wiertz and his atelier/museum as the appropriate opening for a new period. So much about his story and work seemed to parallel the present, so I decided to take his title in the museum guide book for a certain genre found in the peripheral spaces of his museum and call Chapter Zero “Modern Subjects.” It got me through Covid and Trump. Wiertz allowed me to paint subjects I could not have without the foundation of his work.
The next decade of chapters will begin with zero but never again reach one. I need to reorientate infinity in the face of aging. I intend to continue working within my basic form of plywood panels with beveled edges in ten dimensions. I will continue to paint one painting in order to effect and affect other paintings around it or in the chapter. The difference may be that I rely less on site specificity for subject matter and work more with the images and source material I have already accumulated. The vitrines at Glenstone and the book I’m working on presently with the designer Petra Hollenbach demand at least some sort of interpretation of what the last thirty-five chapters were developing and that is what I am focusing on this winter.
Rail: The influence for Chapter Zero was the reclusive Belgian artist Antoine Wiertz. How did you discover him? He’s relatively unwritten about in art history but has some notoriety for being excoriated by Baudelaire, who decried his museum as a house of horrors and moral pedantry. His giant paintings led to Lombroso claiming he suffered from a newly coined megaloptic disorder. This view still envelops him: I just read an article calling him the Ed Wood of painting.
Quaytman: I worry perhaps that emphasizing the macabre in Wiertz may be to the detriment of the qualities that I found so fascinating about the subject. Of course, I also wallow in the macabre spooky feeling of the place, but ultimately I don’t choose to think of him that way. I think of him as a painter who predicted accurately what the public was going to want and also weirdly what it got—namely TV, film, giganticness, the news. He was the unlucky recipient of the message from the future and he responded as a firm socialist or proto-Marxist. Rejecting the idea of an art market connected to value. Rejecting the idea of critics. Rejecting firmly the idea of Paris (his New York). Rejecting painting realistically, like a bricklayer, as he quipped. Longing for a future in which photography takes over the boring labor of copying. Wanting to be the architect of his cumulated work. Being a feminist probably, because I believe, he was homosexual, although have no written proof. And what else? Oh yes, making a painting so big that it doesn’t fit in the room and must lean forward in such a way that one can’t help but worry that those thin wires that tether the giant canvas precariously to the wall could snap, thus crushing the hapless visitor under its weight. Morality and aesthetics are put to the test in his circus museum.
I had, over the years, heard mumblings about this eccentric atelier-museum that hardly anyone visits anymore. And then when I was invited to make a chapter at Wiels in Belgium with Broodthaers filling two floors below me. Broodthaers actually wrote a defense of Wiertz’s museum, when it was threatened with closure and his name appears in many of the vacuum-formed sign works (called “Industrial Poems”). I’m sure the fact that Wiertz made his own museum replete with every genre would certainly have influenced Broodthaers in his own attempts at museum making. Anyway, I visited Brussels right after installing Chapter 35 in Łódź to look at the space in Wiels and try to begin thinking about a subject. One that could deflect the unspoken hope that I would directly work with Broodthaers. So, one cold morning I thought the time had come to finally visit this museum I had heard murmurs about and see it for myself. I didn’t expect to actually find anything I could use there. However, the second I entered I was overwhelmed and knew I had my subject. It’s rare when you’re just really shocked and baffled and moved by a museum like that. I spent the next two years in a process of researching and then making work based on the place and artist. Since I am also motivated by this idea of holding all one’s work into an ongoing whole—an idea I first got from Hilma af Klint, who thought of all her work as one. Wiertz painted some very violent images as a means of protest against social injustice. These include images of women avenging their tormentors with live action gunshots, or cooking the baby for dinner because the mother is starving and can’t pay the tax bill laying at her feet. Or a triptych depicting the agony of the guillotine. It is rumored that the prototype for the Statue of Liberty was the sculpture in the museum of a woman tearing the sword from the devil’s hand and holding up a torch. It gave me license to paint these very dramatic, gothic subjects. Probably his most famous painting is Premature Burial (1854) since it’s been used as a book-cover for many books, including Poe’s. This was the painting I worked on first, at the beginning of COVID; Wiertz painted his during the Cholera epidemic. I did not silkscreen an image of his painting, however, I just copied it. At the end I made the hand mine and put my Athena ring with real tiny diamonds on the hand that emerges from the coffin. It was just so satisfying and fun to paint that. Without Wiertz, it would never occur to me to paint a premature burial or any of the other horrific modern subjects in this chapter including: capital punishment, suicide, cannibalism, etcetera. That’s why I like working with historical figures who have been dismissed as antiquated or obsolete: they enable me to address real and present fears through refracted and parallax viewpoints, which you cannot access if you only look at things head-on.