Alan Uglow doesn’t neglect a single source of inspiration—from the noise of the street to the beauty of Italian luxury cars—his is a rigorous formal reflection with a subjectivity full of charm and tenderness. Alan’s paintings are beyond reductive commentary and that’s why, with him, it’s always best to stay alert.
Alain Kirili It’s a big decision, in life, to go from one country to the other. What was it, 20 years ago, that made you decide to come to the United States?
Alan Uglow I first came here in ’68 for a month, and liked it so much I decided I had to come back again. That is basically it. It was a situation that looked much more interesting than London did at that time. The energy of New York, the art scene was still developing.
AK Was it cheaper to live here than in London?
AU I was doing construction work to get by but it seemed that rent was cheap, $250-300 a month.
AK Were there artists you liked in this country?
AU In ’59 there was a show at Tate (Gallery) of the new American painters so I was familiar with that work.
AK You told me that the first time you met Ad Reinhardt was in London.
AU I didn’t meet him, I saw him giving a lecture when Lawrence Alloway was the director at the ICA which was an intimate kind of town house gallery space. It was a great show and he put on a great performance. He basically read his fundamental spiel, nothing more, which completely nonplussed everybody in the room. There was nothing that they could get back at him with, it seemed totally unclad.
AK Your first one-person show in New York was in 1978, with Mary Boone?
AU Yeah, yeah. And ’79.
AK And then there was this long period.
AU There was quite a long period of time where I didn’t show here, although I showed in Sweden.
AK Why was there such a long period? Do you feel there was resistance to your work?
AU Well, things happen. One is still doing alternative things to make money, you know, you lose time and you lose ground in a certain way. And the climate was changing. People said painting was dead which they say all the time, every five years or whatever.
AK Do you know that you are a dinosaur? We are dinosaurs, very wise.
AU It was a good period, too. Certain people, of course, just kept on doing what they always do.
AK You did a show in Cologne, Germany, in ’84. I have this image about the friendship between Imi Knoebel and Blinky Palermo: did you feel that there was something in favor of abstract painting at that point in Germany?
AU That group came out of the Academy in Dusseldorf in the late ’60s, the boys’ class, the Beuys’s boys’ class, so to speak. It opened up a lot of new directions and possibilities. (Gunther) Umberg’s Raum fur Malerei was where I showed in ’84. Up until then he’d shown strictly monochrome people. Monochrome has been partly my concern in the work. When he offered me the space to do shows, I said, “You’re sure? I thought this was like the monochrome room.” He said, “No, we’re allowed to make a change.” So it happened, in subsequent shows after that, he indeed showed a whole variety of different artists. The great thing about that space was that you couldn’t put too much work in there, it allowed you maybe three works.
AK You built a wall so that two of your paintings could interact.
AU They were begun with the idea that this one painting consists of two paintings opposite one another. The picture plane was at an angle to the wall so it projects more on the right. You could actually run your fingers down behind the picture plane, where it hovered on the left side. The two pieces ended up being one piece, attracting one another across the room. They were like bodies, in a way, but it really brought the spectator into the piece; that was the reason why they had to be opposite one another.
AK There is always a strong feeling about space and painting, installation and painting in your work. In your 1988 show you had a relationship between sounds and color which contrasts with the silence of the show you had last fall. The show of 1988 was large, monochrome panels placed high on the walls with four speakers . . .
AU That was originally a project for Century 87 in Amsterdam. I had the choice of a couple of sites but I chose a Calvinist church to do it in. There was some kind of thing about Mondrian and his pre-Theosophic upbringing. Anyway, I said okay, let’s go in there and make a noise in this place. It looked not abnormal on the walls in the church because each piece faced across from each other so it was in the form of a cross.
AK A cruciform installation.
AU The church had these high windows, four points opposite one another, and then the center of the church where the congregations sit is circular in form so that one can walk around the perimeter of the seating, and in relationship to the walls, the sound would travel with you, or one went into the sound. So there was a direct kind of contrast to the semaphore of the monochromes.
AK But the speakers in New York played sounds of a ticking clock, a jackhammer, guitar, drums, voices of soldiers . . .
AU Yeah, it was the same tape, there was a lot of stuff like that, T.V. Some recording Elena (Alexander) had brought home from the street. I made a collage of sound which was on two recorders and two tapes playing the same thing. It’s my excursion into performance—that’s about as much as I perform these days. (laughter)
AK In your recent show there was great charm and serenity, a relationship you created with those two paintings presented low, next to the corner of the floor and the wall, the paintings called Bordeaux and Midnight Blue. Both are lacquer on aluminum and have an aluminum frame. What is that separation of the aluminum frame that you put around each of those paintings?
AU Um, Jesus, where to start? (laughter) Well, going back to these kind of paintings goes back to 1968. At that time, the paintings I was doing dealt with the center of the field and the edge, and I was using broken borders. The border would change its relationship to the edge, in each corner and around the four sides of the painting. On this new piece I decided to literally stick the frame on the wall and leave the space between the frame and what was visible of the wall by slightly decreasing the size of the panel, so that we’ve got this relationship, first with the wall with the frame, and then the relationship with panel to the space that is then created by the edge of the panel and the inside edge of the frame. It’s like some kind of vacuum which occurs there. Yeah.
AK How do you proceed for the selection of colors? That Midnight Blue and that Bordeaux belongs to what range of colors? And how are they fixed onto the aluminum?
AU It’s a sprayed lacquer which is then baked, and it was done at the fabricator’s shop, Joe Bougayer. The one made in 1988 was recreated because the first one was lost and damaged, or damaged beyond repair so…
AK You mean the one from 1968?
AU From ’68. So in ’88 I began making a series of those pieces. To some extent, the panels as I get them now, as they’ve changed, come almost as a ready-made. So for these two, I asked Joe to spray automobile colors on designated areas.
AK That Midnight Blue belongs to what sort of car?
AU An Alpha Romeo.
AK And the Bordeaux?
AU The Bordeaux is Maserati.
AK Great, very, superb, yes please, please go on then Alan. (laughter)
AU Well, where were we?
AK When the panels come back, what do you do on them?
AU I have to deal with Joe’s work, he’s prepared the panel with the grounds for his application of the lacquer and then I get the rest of the pieces in a raw state for me to work on. So then I’m making decisions as to where I want the color. The decision was to paint above and below the Midnight Blue on either side of the Bordeaux Red. It becomes the technical thing. I have to deal with the way Joe has left the piece for me to carry on and so I have to do any preparation on the edges of the lacquer which may need it, then I have to tape paper over the whole thing in order to not allow any mistakes to fall onto the color. I don’t want the thing to get damaged at that point so . . .
AK I know by being at your studio that you do some paper cut outs. Do you systematically do first studies and research on paper?
AU I don’t know if I’d call them studies. For instance the cut outs, I know where they should be in relationship to the corners but one never knows exactly what’s going to happen. Once you start painting on it is when you get used to the idea of the thing. And then it hopefully becomes another situation but, it being ready-made when it gets to me is the thing that I’m interested in right now.
AK Your work seems very photogenic; they have a mirror quality and they create with the deepness, the separation between the frame and the panel, shadows. I notice that you like to take slides, to photograph certain stages of your work; do you do that systematically or irregularly?
AU No, it’s just while I’m moving around the pieces . . . I like to take photos of them while things are happening. Especially when there’s good light in the studio. If I change something then I can see what happened before in case I want to go back to it. About them being photogenic, one has a sort of built-in camera. But by now, most of my pieces, when it comes to photographic paper, being photographed . . . are totally illusive . . .
AK They are totally illusive, because there is a mirror aspect in the work. That very strong raw aspect in those two paintings of high gloss creates a certain relationship to reflection.
AU I think it breaks a piece at a certain point. It’s definitely a high contrast situation. The older paintings are more non-reflective, flat. It’s the build-up of the paint, because there are at least 30 coats of paint on there. Where the tape is embedded into the pieces, where the beginning of the painting is revealed at the end of the making of the piece—it’s a very two-dimensional situation. Especially on the canvases which wrap themselves around and hit the wall and then the other pieces which float—are thicker, almost square pieces. Those are the pieces with the cut outs. There are basically three kinds of activity that went on in the last show: two paintings on canvas, two paintings on fiberglass, two paintings on aluminum supports. But the two canvases are the only ones which really contact directly with the wall.
AK The relationship between your decision-making and the ready-made quality of your work has nonetheless a very vibrant gracefulness. Do you assume that, or is it a projection of myself on your work?
AU Well, I . . .
AK You don’t give a damn about that or what?
AU No, no. I mean it’s interesting what comes in and goes out, how the viewer can . . .
AK . . . Perceive it.
AU I’ve always been drawn to certain cool elements and ways in which ideas can be manifested. In the two high-gloss pieces there’s something else going on. 68/88, the original piece which is all white, could suck you into the wall in a vacuum. I refer to that first piece as like a pissoir, the height of it, the way it enters and leaves the space and where it stops itself and then goes. I make work and I go around in a thing for a while and then I stop doing another kind of painting over here, and then I go back to it, it’s never that straight line, it’s the same with talking into this machine.
AK Because of the low position of those two paintings you relate them to a pissoir, which is funny because I relate them to the low horizon of Monet’s Water Lilies. I think the Uglow is between Duchamp’s pissoir and Monet’s Water Lilies. (laughter) You see?
AU Yeah, well I think maybe I’m pissing in another direction. (laughter)