From Bruce Nauman and Peter Halley to the blogosphere, Joshua Abelow discusses his influences and his unique approach to painting in the age of the Internet.
Joshua Abelow’s geometric abstractions can disorient the eye when they are placed together. Their alternating color theories have the habit of skipping along the meridian line of their fixed tablet size, creating hemispheres of white throughout a room. Some of the paintings make faces, smiling for the ensuing lens of cameras. They know quite well, in this digital age, that they’ll end up disregarding their physical bodies to reside somewhere online.
So they glow, even here, like runners’ neon, to attract attention. Upon closer inspection though, the rough burlap peaks through in bleeding texture as reminders of a material origin. Abelow equips painting for two realities—a human toiling with his displacing gadgets. The artist reflects here about being an apprentice during the dawn of the Internet and his current days as a self-deprecating “Famous Artist.”
Frank Expósito Do you remember a time when you weren’t using a computer?
Joshua Abelow I remember growing up in the ’80s with the first computer Apple put out. That was really exciting at the time. But, actually, I didn’t have one in college. I felt technologically unaware because I was so determined to be a good painter. I just didn’t have room for it in my head. I didn’t buy one for myself until I moved to New York in ’99 and started working for Ross Bleckner.
FE Was that because there you felt there was a conflict between the manual and the automatic?
JA With Ross, I saw that a painter could also have a computer. I started to open up to the idea of a painter being technologically savvy. Now, I no longer see a separation between them at all. I see technology as being an integral tool to any artist, really. I can’t imagine an artist who doesn’t have images of their work as JPEGs. It would be unheard of. You wouldn’t be able to participate in the contemporary art world.
FE Can a painting’s online legibility steer its apparent reality?
JA I don’t think the need for painting-as-an-object will ever go away. No matter how virtual we get, how much those two worlds collide, I think there will always be those people out there who will love to make things with their hands. I’m so thankful that I grew up at a time when I could see my dad getting his first car phone that was the size of a wine bottle.
FE Because the communication device was so intoxicatingly physical?
JA I had a show in Chicago last year and a lot of people told me that my work looks so different in person, that it’s so physical, because a lot of my paintings are on burlap. I think when you see it online it might look more graphic, more flat. But when you see it in person, it’s very object-like, even kind of rough. I like that the work doesn’t translate exactly.
FE You discovered Ross Bleckner’s work back in college at a RISD library. You would later write him the letter that would lead to a future job right out of school as his assistant. Were you interested in his paintings because of their concern with the idealism of technology?
JA I saw him as having a more intellectual approach to painting, more scientific and systematic, of having an idea ahead of time and then executing it. Prior to meeting Ross, I really didn’t know how to work that way.
FE What was your process?
JA I was working much more intuitively, in a series of actions and reactions by making a move, throwing some paint on, and reacting to it. But, Ross’s way of working really became the foundation for everything I’ve made since. It might not be fun to make a painting where you’re following specific rules, but the end result can be more striking.
FE What rules do you now follow?
JA I have notebooks full of notes on color. Colors get coded and I’ll write them down on the backs of paintings before I execute them. I usually limit myself to two layers: Cadmium Red, Silver, or Cadmium Yellow and Cinnabar Green. Oil paint itself is difficult. You can buy two tubes of the same color from the same brand, like Cadmium Red from Old Holland, and the pigments can be slightly different and might dry at slightly different times. So the colors are preconceived, but the way they’re going to relate to each other is still unknown to me. I used to put the paint on first and then write down what I did on the back, like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs.
FE There’s a choreographed control, a system put in place, that allows art to happen, resulting in these unexpected relationships between brightly layered abstractions and line figurations. From trace to directions, why include the coded information?
JA I was thinking about art as mimicking the way we see images on the computer, like a trail, clicking and following all these different pathways. There’s almost a rhythm to it and that’s how it is with my paintings. I set up certain visual narratives that happen, then there will be a shift, and it will continue forward.
FE Are letters then starting points like Berners-Lee abbreviations?
JA Part of the reason why my work went in that direction was because I wasn’t in New York when I made them. I started to develop small abstract paintings that used the color codes I had developed in school when I moved to Berlin, in late 2008 and 2009, and continued when I was in Maryland in 2010. My whole experience with the New York art scene at that time was via the Internet.
FE Initially, in 2006, after working for Bleckner for seven years, you left the city for a place called Bloomfield Hills.
JA I had spent most of my twenties working for Ross. In my late twenties, Ross sold the six-story building in TriBeCa that he had owned since ’78. The building used to have the Mudd Club on the ground floor. Julian Schnabel had a studio there at one time. Ross’s studio was the entire 3rd floor, with twenty-five foot ceilings because the 4th floor had been removed. When he sold it, the deal was that Ross and I could stay in the building on the second floor for a year while we figured out where we would each move. Ross ended up getting a place in the West Village and I ended up moving to the Lower East Side, to a loft on Allen Street.
But, because of the sale of the building and because I had put so much time in working for Ross, I was burned out. I knew I wanted a big change. So, I thought that maybe I should apply to grad school. An artist friend of mine suggested Cranbrook, a mostly studio-based program like a residency. The day after my 30th birthday, on September 3rd, 2006, I drove out to Michigan and spent two years there.
FE Is that when you started your more personalized investigations of color?
JA Yes. When I was younger, a teacher of mine used to say that I was good with color. But I always thought of that as a kind of insult, as if I was good at decorating, because, to me, it came so naturally. My big break-through piece at Cranbrook was Mystic Truths, which I just recently showed at Frieze [New York]. It reads,“HANG ME, HANG ME, HANG ME, HANG ME, HARDER, FASTER, HARDER, FASTER.” Everyone at school thought I was suicidal.
FE Of course you weren’t just dealing with death. You were dealing with the mortality of intent and presence, paintings made for walls that also end up elsewhere.
JA It was a direct reference to Bruce Nauman’s light sculpture, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths. Nauman doesn’t make paintings but does a lot of neon light sculptures, some of which flash. The way we receive information on a daily basis is by being bombarded with so much visual information. When I think about that in an abstract way, the flashes of information become like playing cards. I wanted the installation of paintings for Mystic Truths to read like this flash, some popping forward more while others recede.
FE You also build their dimension by drawing attention to their informative, physical backs, like the serial numbers and disclaimers underneath laptops. Is the glowing geometry of pixilation attractive to you because you stare at it so often?
JA My grandmother is an artist and I grew up in a house full of really beautiful, quasi-cubist wash paintings of New York rooftops and park scenes, paintings from life but abstracted. I often think about Peter Halley and how he uses geometric abstraction not as a closed off endpoint of formalism. Abstraction in the early 20th century was all about formalism—abstract painting was about its own components. I’m interested in using the language of formal abstraction to talk about not just painting, but about any number of things, like how we multitask so much in any given day.
FE Has the Internet, which has enhanced social connectivity, also opened channels between media and disciplines?
JA The boundaries that we put on each other are largely self-imposed and they don’t really need to be there unless you want them to be. We’re here, we’re there, we’re doing this, and we’re doing that. We’re in reality; we’re in cyberspace. We live in such a fractured world now that it only makes sense to me an artist’s activity would also be. That happens within the paintings themselves. Some are abstract and figurative, some are text, and some are text and abstraction. There’s a fracturing within that.
FE How do your drawings relate?
JA I’m a multi-tasker; a little bit of energy will go into drawing as well, while also a little bit going into sitting in front of my computer checking emails and blogging. I tend to work in small bursts of activity, bringing the same amount of focus to multiple tasks at once. That’s what we do on the computer with all those windows that pop up, doing a transfer on Bank of America, but also watching porn and going to an online gallery exhibit. The character in my drawings represents the absurd frustration that has come out of painting and the experiences of being a painter. Paul McCarthy’s video, Painter (1995), was a huge inspiration for me. I saw it in 2006.
FE In the video, artist Paul McCarthy satirizes the persona of the “painter,” fumbling with messy paint and his own inaudible ideologies. Are you ever stuck within what you hope to express?
JA I’m sure a lot of artists can relate to this feeling of working really hard and getting nowhere, not getting a show, or even having a show and not selling anything, and continually feeling unable to communicate what you wanted to communicate in your work. Because my paintings tend to be so systematic and so restrained, to make a drawing becomes such a release. Over the last few years, I have been drawing them faster and faster. I want the drawings to undercut and make fun of my paintings, releasing my own self-doubt and undermining the seriousness of my painting practice. When you’re working for weeks on simple abstractions, you can think, “Is this really what I do?”
FE Is that what would motivate you to start the blog, ART BLOG ART BLOG, in 2008, giving it a name that reaffirms exactly what it is?
JA Actually, I have this painting that I made in 2003, a self-portrait where I have a television on top of my head. It’s a painting that’s important to me conceptually because I was thinking about what an artist is or should be. To me, an artist is really a transmitter and a receiver of information.
FE You now have enough posts on your blog from over the past few years to stretch out daily for twenty, cataloguing gallery openings, studio visits, poems and essay excerpts, and periodic art historical citations. Is its aim to be a place online to experience what’s happening outside?
JA I think what drove me crazy about being younger was that I felt sort of invisible. I wanted to leave a mark where I had been so that I could look back at it. When I made that piece with the TV on my head, I wasn’t blogging yet. But now, I’ve literally become a transmitter and receiver of information. I feel like I’m painting with other peoples’ work. I’m constantly on the Internet seeing what’s being shown around the world. I’ll steal images directly from the gallery’s website or go to the galleries if I’m in town and have my camera. I’ll find myself entering a gallery, walking around the room and taking pictures first before even looking at the show in person. More and more that’s what we use our iPhones for. Countless times a day you see someone snapping pictures, cataloguing what’s happening in their day, and then going back to pick out images that for whatever reason resonate.
FE Do you think that is our answer to the modernist end of art history—the advancing amnesia of technological outsourcing that subverts the aimless present by immediately verifiable past events?
JA There’s a certain amount of distance that’s like a filtering process. After you’ve already seen the image reproduced in a magazine or online, and then see it in person, it creates a myth of that object. I think it works in exactly the same way advertising does, creating desire and mystery with the power of repetition. When I see an image of my own reproduced in this way, to then see it in my studio or out at a show, I’m more attracted to that work than the others that haven’t been reproduced.
This just happened to me when I was in Miami. I went to the De La Cruz Collection and they had a couple of Martin Kippenberger paintings on the wall and one was a self-portrait in an acidic green color. I was looking at it for a minute and it looked like an abstract painting. I stood back, took a photograph of it, and when I looked at it again on my phone, the image of the self-portrait was completely visible and readable. I didn’t really see it as a self-portrait at first. But, a good painting doesn’t reveal itself all at once. I had to see it in this digital format to actually see the painting even though the painting was right in front of me.
FE Has that influenced your practice, or at least how you think people experience your work?
JA I started making small abstract paintings in Berlin. Now, I can be working on as many as fifty at a time. I’ll pick one up, put it flat on a table, work on it, then put it on the floor. I’ll pick up another one, work on it, then put that one on the floor. There’s restraint and impatience with the timing, having to know when to wipe something off and when to apply the next layer.
But, I used to make only big paintings, until it started to seem out of date with the way we were looking at the world. I like that in a little painting there’s also a connection with its size to a book that you can tuck under your arm. One time I was carrying a stack of paintings and someone thought I was delivering pizzas. You can travel, put a little painting in your suitcase, go anywhere in the world, and hang it up in the same way you could take a laptop with you, anywhere in the world, and connect to the Internet. It was actually when I finished traveling and was living in Frederick, Maryland that James [Fuentes] emailed me out of the blue, thinking that I was in Brooklyn.
FE What did he say?
JA He wrote to me asking if I was available for a studio visit. He had found me online, someone had directed him to my blog, and he said that he found himself repeatedly going back to it.
FE How would he see your work in person?
JA I made plans to move back to New York on October 2nd or 3rd and James came over the very next day. He was the first person to come to my new studio in Williamsburg. He spent about an hour and we had a good conversation but nothing happened. He had come over initially in October and I guess it was in early December when he emailed me again to come back to my studio. I thought he was coming over to ask me to be a part of a group show, but, he offered me a solo show instead that would open in two weeks. It would be a very good holiday season.
FE You would show with the gallery again in 2012 at the first Frieze New York. How did you accommodate the larger, open-ended stage of an art fair?
JA It was wall-to-wall craziness. Initially, exposing it to the world in that way made me feel very uncomfortable. My natural inclination was for it to be labored over, going through many incarnations until I got it exactly right. The way I show my work is usually very considered. For my first show at James Fuentes, “OH! ABELOW,” the paintings were hung in a carefully selected row. But, James encouraged me to play into the art fair idea, that most galleries would have their particular arrangements. With little paintings, there is so much more freedom. James and I wanted it to feel like you were in my studio, paintings just everywhere.
FE How does your latest show at Sorry We’re Closed compare?
JA The space itself is really interesting. The gallery is named that because it started out as a white cube with a glass window that faces a busy street but cannot be entered, even though it’s lit up 24hrs a day. It will have both kinds of moments, moments with paintings and drawings in a row and one section that will be more freeform. Part of a wall will be painted orange. I’ve never done that before. I don’t really know how it’s going to look.
FE Just like how your paintings enlighten when they’re finished, consuming a room as installation or living on in your blog’s deepening backlog.
JA My approach to color has always been a balance between an idea and allowing something unexpected to happen. If I’m not surprised by what happens, then I must do something else to make myself surprised.
FE You say in your book, back in 1998, that a true artist is forgetful, of time and his identity, and that you by no means are an exception. Do you think this is even truer today, that because we can pay less attention to the present due to its casual record, unforeseeable results stemming from these systems is what actually grabs our attention?
JA No matter how much I post, or how many hours I spend looking at images on the Internet, I still feel like I barely know anything. Retrospect is what gives us that privilege.
Joshua Abelow: Famous Artist is on view at Sorry We’re Closed in Brussels from September 7—November 10, 2012. The artist will also show at Milan’s Brand New Gallery in November. Abelow’s Painter’s Journal is available from Peradam. You can see more installation views of Joshua Abelow’s work at James Fuentes.