BOMB revisits the work of Jonathan Lasker. Here the artists discusses his early works with Amanda Valdez.
Jonathan Lasker: Early Works at Cheim & Read highlighted the early output of this New York-based abstract painter’s career. Though the artist was born in New Jersey, the show started off with the last painting he made while at CalArts. Now known for squiggly black lines, thick impasto paint, and bright bold colors, the early paintings show the beginning of issues he would continue to mine in painting for the next thirty years. Moving between rooms there was a clear progression in his handling of paint, the sometimes awkward and challenging color choices, and the development of images and their relationship to one another. Some have the clarity and borders of brushstrokes in later works while most others lack the restraints he went on to develop. The washy backgrounds of paintings like the 1981 Pre-Fab View and Zen for Ben with the Richter-like painted forms that sit right on top, make for a completely new experience of Lasker’s work. Lasker took time in the studio recently to discuss these early works.
Amanda Valdez What does it mean for you to have this exhibition up of your earlier works? Do you regularly have these works around you in the studio or at home?
Jonathan Lasker In a way, I have never gotten completely away from the early works. I’ve written about one of the paintings, Illinois. It was the beginning of the whole figure/ ground dialectic in my work. I’ve said in the past that, in a way, I’m still painting that painting with each successive painting. Namely, the foundation of what that started is still in my mind. Although, of course, the paintings that I’m doing today look radically different than the paintings from the late ’70s.
AV Specifically what investigation did that painting launch you into?
JL I was trying to understand what I felt it was doing and what was significant about it. It had a certain resonance for me. If you compare the background of that painting with the background of the paintings I do now, it has a very subtle modulation between two colors, with a bit of a shimmer to it. That background resonated against the white forms that were laid on top of it and then when I drew the black lines into those forms it seemed to create a kind of optical sensation that fascinated me. That painting was made at the end of my last semester at CalArts. After that I lived for a year and a half in San Francisco. There I painted works which are in the first room of the exhibition and which elaborate on what I saw as being themes inherent to Illinois.
AV When you look at them are you able to see problems you were laying out and tackling in painting at that time? In this show it’s clear that you were engaging with the question of how to lay paint and shapes down on a surface. In Illinois you use an off-registered mark, in others there’s a sense of the beginning of your layering techniques, or in Nature Study you were carving out space with the black line, while other times the paint is pushed next to each other so that you can’t find the layers, like in Parasite.
JL I was very conscious of the physical process of painting from the beginning. The process of layering in Illinois came from experimenting with silkscreen printing at CalArts. I simply approached that painting the way you would a silkscreen print, except with the malleability of paint. I had one completely articulated surface and then I laid something down on top of it, namely these white forms. The third thing was the line drawn with paint into the wet white paint. They were each separate entities and that interested me.
AV I think among painters there’s an interest in making a difficult painting, so we set up problems for ourselves. The three paintings in the back room, Nature Study (1983), Deep Purple, and 3 Card Monte (1984) seem like you’re setting up difficult color relationships and yet those moments hold the most triumph in them.
JL When people first saw those paintings in the mid-’80s they found my color choices almost unbearably ugly.
JL They aren’t to me, I seek resonance and dissonance in color. I’m attracted to the sensation this creates. Harmonious taste is really not so interesting to me. If harmony and good taste were the central issues in art, we would not have the music of Arnold Schoenberg or even the late quartets of Beethoven. Also, I grew up in the ’50s and a lot of ‘50s design has similarly odd color choices. When I was younger I collected a lot of Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll records, stuff from the ’50s and ’60s. The design of the labels had strong color choices, which attracted me. Whether this is beautiful or not, I don’t know. The argument of the works having a harsh palette slowly dissipated, as my color choices became more harmonious. Now there’s a lot of black and white, red, yellow, and blue and who can argue with that? It won’t get you in trouble. There’s another show by me of paintings from the ’80s, concurrent to this one. The reviews in London were interesting, the show was really controversial. The reception was, in the majority, very positive, but there’s no question that people felt challenged by the color choices. One of the “(external)reviews”:http://painters-table.com/link/abstract-critical/jonathan-lasker-pretty-ugly was entitled “Pretty Ugly” and in two or three other reviews people pointed to the difficulty of the color choices. The whole dialectic about that came back.
AV You have to reckon with it again since you’re showing those works.
JL Right, only this time people seem to have gotten it. (laughter)
AV What influences your color choices?
JL:There is actually a design to all of this. A lot of my color is based on certain color theory sources, my main references were two books, one from Johannes Itten, who has a very broad base color approach and one from Josef Albers, who had some very specific goals in what he was doing. I was very interested in creating a certain resonance between colors, so I went for colors that had very strong relationships and I reduced my palette very severely, much as in Albers’s The Interaction of Color.
AV I can see it in Illinois the way those two background colors vibrate off each other, reminding me of some of the lessons you learn in a color theory class. The professor who taught Albers’s color theory at The Art Institute of Chicago stressed that it wasn’t color theory but color observation — it was a reality in your eye.
JL That’s true, it’s more specifically color observation and the effect of color on the viewer. I was also interested in creating light in the background of my paintings.
AV It’s really apparent in the suite of paintings in the middle room that have washy backgrounds like Zen for Ben and Romantic Gulf (1981).
JL They relate to the light of nature. They are, in a way, abstract landscapes. But even in 3 Card Monte the blue and lavender are pretty close in value and really resonate in a way that creates light. I also used complimentary colors in relatively close values in paintings at that time. I would gray them so you wouldn’t get such a strong afterimage, but you would get some kind of color resonance. All of these things led me to color choices which were odd. But it wasn’t the oddness that I was after but a resonance and visuality. I was more interested in sensation than beauty, let’s put it that way. Although, beauty is always up for redefinition.
AV In your writing you’ve stated that you’re not interested in making narrative painting. The specification and esoteric nature of narrative painting doesn’t appeal to me as a painter either. I share with you the use of abstraction, for me, as a means to talk about being human without using a narrative. What are your shapes communicating?
JL They’re very subconscious shapes, so to say that there’s any specific image intended would not be true. The issues that I’m interested in, and it sounds like you’re interested in them as well, are ontological — our sense of our own being as humans, our perceptions of the world around us and how we identify things. A lot of instinctual things go into that, as human beings we’re very anthropomorphic in our interests and we identify things as human figures much more readily then we do anything else, when we’re looking at an abstract form. I don’t know if there are any statistics for it. I have noticed that a lot of people will see an abstract form and they’ll have an almost Rorschach test-like relationship to it, “Oh that looks like a small boy or a dog.”
AV Or three penguins.
JL Exactly, there’s a couple of penguins in the show.
AV It’s more that you’re creating situations with shapes and that’s when I feel connections to my human experiences. The openness in using abstraction allows for the creation of meaning to happen in the viewer.
JL When I started painting, at the end of Minimalism and Conceptualism, in a way the picture plane had been completely emptied out and the only way forward was to try to re-engage the subject of imagery. What I believe you’re saying is in line with how I want the viewer to be affected. My work is about having an interpretive experience in front of the picture plane. The human mind has a fundamental need to comprehend visual phenomenon.
AV Your work starts from small developed painted studies. What happens in the translation from the study to the finished painting?
JL None of the paintings in the show at Cheim & Read had studies prior to their execution. I started doing the studies in 1986, although the nature of my approach to painting was always strategic. The larger paintings are never exactly what the studies are. Mostly the game plan of the image is clear, but in the final execution things can change a lot. Mostly, something gets added as opposed to subtracted. Also, the scale of the painting is limited by the nature of the marks in the study. Certain impastoed marks can scale up better than others. I guess people think of it as a new way of working, but actually it’s very traditional. Before Modernism, all painters did numerous studies prior to executing a painting. Since Action Painting, a very high priority has been placed on the moment of execution. My interest is the picture rather than the act of painting, although with the malleability of oil paint the act of execution is still inherent in the process. You can think of the study as being a rehearsal and the painting as the on-stage performance.
Jonathan Lasker: Early Works was at Cheim & Read from February 23 through March 24th 2012.
Amanda Valdez is a New York based artist and critic. She received her MFA from Hunter College and her BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is a regular contributor to Dossier Journal.