Was there any influence from the New York School on the teaching of painting at the Royal College in the late sixties, when you were a student there?
When it came to painting the college was really very old fashioned. The bias was toward British figuration born in the 1930s, and I had a hard time with that. The teachers were the same as when the English pop-artists went there, and knowing that they had a hard time too made it easier for my generation. The teaching itself was so obviously out of date that, in a way, this gave the students a tremendous freedom. I was mainly influenced by minimalism and conceptualism. That was the framework within which I saw myself, yet I wished to continue making paintings.
I thought a lot about painting and its limitations. Early on I started to use photographs, not only to do what couldn’t be done in painting, but also to comment on painting and how it functioned. Instead of viewing painting as a “language” or means of expression, I saw it as a demonstration of something that is emphatically visual and material. This was closer to the way artworks function in minimalism. One can think of suprematism and then minimalism as the two great historical moments of critical rupture in the way artworks function. Both have had ongoing repercussions for me and have opened up many possibilities. Rosalind Krauss and Douglas Crimp may disagree, since this doesn’t account for surrealism, but I see surrealism less as a rupture than as an elaboration of the symbolic and representational possibilities of picture-making.
I agree, but what about Dada, or Duchamp at the time of Russian futurism?
Certainly there is a literal rupture in Duchamp’s “Large Glass” and in what he wrote about having to break the shop window in order to consume the objects. He was describing the problem of representation or, mopre broadly, meaning in painting. You have to destroy painting to be able to consume its meaning and deal with it. At the time I made fairly stripped down paintings, even though I thought monochromatic painting was itself problematic.
I developed a distrust of open-ended repetition and reductive variations, where the identity of the artist is locked into a manner of working or signature style from Mark Rothko on.
But doesn’t everyone still want to be a signature artist like him, even if it’s too late for that?
It’s been too late for that kind of certainty for quite a while.
Perhaps it also should have been too late in the fifties, because that wasn’t the first time around either. We already had, as you mentioned, suprematism.
That’s right. But if you look at suprematism itself you don’t find this kind of repetition, this obsession with the repetition of the single moment. In contrast to the wonderfully inventive period in Russia from 1910 to 1922, in a sense this is all these postwar paintings say, however beautiful they might be individually. Art’s a dynamic activity, while the monochrome represents a stasis. Which monochrome are we talking about by the way? Yves Klein’s signature blue?
Or the monochrome of Ad Reinhardt?
I think the Ad Reinhardt monochrome is altogether different. Klein’s is a gesture, whereas Reinhardt comes out of Mondrian. It is a distillation of the idea of the Mondrian structural image. You can see it the development of his painting, and you can see his critical mind at work also in the cartoons. Reinhardt continually made critical judgments about art and why should we do it. This is inscribed in the structure of his paintings. To me, the idea of the monochrome boils down to the ideas of color and surface, things that are really formal.
So somehow it remains a dream, to be able to repeat or re-sign the monochrome, or the simple icons like Newman’s, with the zip in the middle?
A perfect and unrealizable dream – an impossibility, but a compelling idea nonetheless. Of course there are single or two-colored paintings that are terrific, particularly Barnett Newman’s, and looking at those paintings as points along a trajectory of how the work developed, you know they are outstanding things.
Would you say all his pictures really say the same thing, or too much of the same?
They say a few things, and some of the things he may try to say with them, he can’t. When you talk about transcendental ideas in Newman, it is all a bit dubious.
But still it’s grand project.
Yes, it’s grand, and it suggests that in painting you can actually engage with big ideas through very simple means. That is quite an interesting idea in itself.
But then this moment passed, and today one has to cope with the fact that art has become too complicated for a signature style like Newman’s.
The complexity of the situation in the 60s is partly what guided me toward my own conclusion about style. Obviously I wasn’t the only one of my generation to do so. What then are the alternatives? There is, for example, a relationship between minimalism and pop-art, as shocking as that may sound, which opens up a way to the other side…
I would say the readymade is common to both pop and minimal art.
Absolutely. As soon as you expand the idea of minimalism and put it into a context, then you are working in a much more open field.
Your own work can serve as an example. I am thinking of the paintings with a cross structure, where a photograph has been projected and painted on the canvas, as well as your use of Scottish tartan patterns. In the former you combine the simple division of the picture plane, a strong index, the cross, with a very complex and strong literary or social subject.
As opposed to a monochrome, these paintings are conceived as duochromes — one thing against another, with a dialogue or dialectic between them which has to be negotiated.
It is still connected to the notion of the simple indexical picture?
I wondered what would happen if you put one pictorial element on top of another, if there were two images competing for the same ground. So I made a painting like that, but it was like having two slides that were slightly out of register with each other, showing different things. The idea of the cross comes from thinking of the painting as a zone within which different things negotiate each other. They exist autonomously, yet co-exist. This allowed for a kind of dialectic between two kinds of ideas, and consequently a more complex way of ‘talking’ about something.
It may seem curious to say that my work came out of minimalism, and was further informed by conceptualism, but for me that is really the driving motor. Pop-art is not alien to all this either. I am very much taken up with the idea of complexity itself. The cruciform paintings are about a negotiation, or an argument taking place between the complex and the minimal.
In your lecture you quoted a young Australian artist who studied at Goldsmiths in London and called the art they presently do there “one-liner art.” That must be the opposite of complexity. Art as a joke. Or is it really? I was thinking of Freud’s theory of the joke. In your lecture you said Freud was your university.
Yes, Freud in the sense that the analytical process teaches you to stand back and consider things in a less obvious way. It also teaches you a sort of blunt way of dealing with sensitive things, which I think is very useful. You have to cut through them.
If we return to the joke, and to Freud’s definition of it, you have a blunt surface, with all the complicated stuff let loose underneath.
I love blunt one-liners, and I love the way in which one can play with language and invent something surprising, and where the surprise has an element of humor.
Duchamp’s art seems to me very much to be based on one-liners.
Exactly. Based on the structure of the pun.
The point I am trying to make here is that every work of art has to have a joke side to it. It has to have an immediate bluntness to be able to carry any kind of complexity underneath.
There’s the thing called ‘the hook’. There are certainly quite interesting works of art which function in precisely that way, something grabs you immediately and then there’s a residual effect that works on you more slowly. Let’s say this is the way dreams function. Something happens, along with all the other stuff behind it. It’s not completely resolved, but is there to be worked through. Art works like that. Perhaps the one-liner isn’t the most apt metaphor, unless we think of one-liners in the sense of Man Ray. Then they are tedious because there is redundancy rather than a meaningful residue. The one-liner aspect of much recent art has to do with the way it functions like advertising – a simple message or affect to be quickly apprehended.
I would like to move on to the next body of work, which makes use of the Scottish tartan, the clan pattern signatures. You told me Dunn is a Scottish family name. Is there a Dunn tartan to account for your use of these “grids” in the paintings?
There is an Erskine tartan, which is regional, that Dunn would be a part of. These clan tartans work as umbrellas, covering groups of family names. Initially I used tartans relating to my four grandparents. But there is also a kind of joke aspect to this in the sense we have been talking about it.
The way you remake or resign the reference to the Mondrian grid?
Yes, there is a family reference and a reference to classic modernism and a significant moment which came later, developing out of Jasper Johns into minimalism and conceptualism. I quite liked making these little references, which are in a way coded. These paintings are as much about the tartan as Jasper Johns “Flag” is about the American flag. So the reference remains ambiguous. As much as Scottish tartans refer to genealogy, they are mostly 19th century inventions popularized after King George IV visited Edinburgh in 1922 – and are therefore inherently ambiguous.
The Scottish tartans may also hold a personal story, connected to the Dunns moving down under to Australia. Is there an epic motivation behind the ambiguous references in the tartan pictures?
The Dunn story is altogether different. Looking at Scottish migration in general, however, Australian history is once again the history of the displaced displacing others. For what did these people do when they got there? Farms were established on clan lands of the indigenous people. It is really astonishing that those who suffered displacement themselves would go to another place and do exactly what had been done to them. That is one aspect of a quite tragic story.
But weren’t they forced to take the land from the Aborigines?
In hindsight, and in the view of Australian humanists at the time, there were alternatives to the brutal treatment of the Aborigines. At the moment the debate is not only about the question of ownership, but about how the land is used. The different uses represent different world views with different purposes, which can in fact coexist. As I said in my lecture, Australia of the nineteenth century was a highly urbanized society. Urban humanists opposed what was taking place in the countryside, but the countryside was often a long way away. These are tragedies of displacement and colonization. As much as the tragedy of the Scots was one of displacement — the prohibition on wearing tartan was, for example, an attempt to break down cultural identity — the aboriginal people in Australia are also confronted with questions of identity and cultural cohesion.
This is a difficult discussion about the burden of guilt of generations as well. You mentioned that the Prime Minister of Australia refused to apologize for the injustice done to the aboriginals. But what authority does he have to apologize for what earlier generations did to the native Australians?
That question is a bit legalistic, isn’t it? Of course he could and should have apologized. This is an important human gesture that people can make to assist the process of reconciliation.
What if we are unhistorical here, and say that the question is whether intolerance towards the native population is a precondition for modernization — unhistorical also in that native ways of life are not an alternative, and thus not exempt from this intolerance, if not downright brutality, just like the common intolerance known throughout history between the sedentary and the nomad?
I don’t agree with that. “Nomad” suggest a lack of attachment to land through farming or settlement, and this idea was used to justify the concept of “terra nullius” or unoccupied land. Because of the physical conditions in most of Australia, indigenous people moved across large tribal or clan areas that were culturally mapped and symbolically interpreted. This was their own territory.
So to be Australian, you have to be a part-time anthropologist, so to speak, and avoid thinking in terms of European universalism?
Society becomes much more complex when aboriginal people are seen as being an essential component of broader national identity. Obviously we have something to learn from these people, not least of all because they are such good survivers. That means that we have become more open to different approaches to things. In Australia there’s a growing pride today in aboriginal people and aboriginal culture.
Australia is still an exotic place today, as it has been in art history – a topography of strange, non-domesticatable sites. This would also seem to apply for Australians themselves, since the landscape has dominated Australian art all the way up to the 1960s. This is, by the way, quite similar to the history of art in this country.
Norway and Australia could well be mirror images of each other. I suspect that this picturing the landscape was a romantic notion, created for projection within the country. There was a group of artists towards the end of the 19th century, called Australian Impressionists. They were plein-air painters, and many of their paintings were done in what is now suburban Melbourne and Sydney. These were ‘frontier-pictures’, in which we can romantically place ourselves, of a landscape that didn’t even exist at the time the paintings were made.
You quoted the Australian artist Imens Tiller, who claims that Australia is quintessentially postmodern — a fact which would justify his own appropriationist poetics. It’s a sad position but true of any margin in art: to be well informed, but always late, as can be seen for instance in New York before the Second World War, when it was still a provincial scene. The appropriation of other art won’t always correspond to the Australian situation, because this situation is not static.
There’s an important distinction to be made here. Tiller’s statement about Australia ignores the actual situation, which is much more complex. It’s symptomatic and clever to say that if we’re all postmodern, then anything goes. Even if appropriation is a kind of theoretical approach, in practice it is still akin to stealing.
But appropriation is also a first step in coping with isolation, just like the Americans appropriated Picasso in preparation for the dominance of New York after 1945. It is vital for Australian art to be well informed, as a preparatory step towards setting up an agenda with wider relevance.
Appropriation can be a rehersal for independence, or dependence. The real question is whether art is a game where you can play with images and things, or whether something more substantial is possible. If art is regarded as a more significant matter, then some great things will come from it. This requires confidence, though, while appropriation involves modeling one’s own behavior in a self-conscious way.
What is the situation for an Australian artist, and what is the agenda at your art school in Sydney? How does one go about “utilizing the local,” as your lecture was entitled?
The agenda for my school has been to develop an approach that is international and well informed, focusing on the realities of contemporary art. The founding idea in 1977 was to prepare students early to take responsibility for their own decisions about the direction of their work and to guide that decision. The school has recently restructured to break down the traditional barriers between disciplines, and to better utilize the knowledge and skills of artists who teach in the program.
You are head of a school that houses fine arts and crafts under the same roof.
We call crafts ‘object art’ now.
How does one avoid the problems inherent in such organizations?
There are those ‘craftspeople’ who’ll behave like artists, and there are others who want to be craftspeople in a traditional sense. Still others wish to become designers and work in a more industrial sort of way. So how do you provide for these different ambitions? One of the problems is that ‘craft’ has felt it had to compete with fine art and consequently lost whatever was interesting about it as a thing in itself. So you end up with this thing called conceptual craft, which, well, you don’t want to know. I went into a gallery recently that was showing glass, and it was explained to me that this glass was conceptual glass. What is that?
What if we intermingle everything in the art schools, and then let the market decide what is art and what is craft, what is high and what is low?
We attempted something like that, but it was quite difficult because of the traditional structure of separate art school departments and the fact that they selected their own students. What I have tried to do is open the whole thing up, creating one structure where students could use facilities in different ways. Instead of distinguishing between each discipline’s own studio area, a student can now make his or her own distinctions. In one facility you can make, say, photography. The work produced might not have anything to do with photography as such, but be more akin to painting. There are many artists today who really work like painters and just happen to use photography, although the physical resources are the same as for making documentary photographs. It’s a question of what students want to do, and how students are supervised given their ambitions. It’s up to the students to make the ultimate judgments themselves. In the craft areas what we try to do is emphasize the design aspect of craft.
I’ve suggested to the arts and crafts school in Oslo that they just put it all together and call it design.
That’s the way we’re going. We use the term ‘object design’, which places the emphasis on the design process. The distinction is crucial, because this process is more rigorous than the one traditionally applied in the crafts. We’re doing the same thing in the craft area as in the other areas — trying to make practice as rigorous as it can be. We think of the teaching of design in an art context as the most valuable and inventive approach. The dialogue between the different visual arts areas is better than it has been. Up until thirteen years ago we had a design school in the college, but they didn’t like the word art, so they moved out.
Isn’t that a pity.
It really is. I was against it, but that’s what they wanted to do. They felt that associating the word art with design was bad for their employability.
But design is art.
Design is art. We have artists that are actually good designers, too. In the year 2000 these are not mutually exclusive activities.
At the same time you cannot reduce art to craft or craft to design. They have meaning separately. This issue is in fact related to our discussion of painting. You’ve stayed with painting, and still you were very much formed by a conceptualism which started out very anti-painting. In an interview with Kosuth as late as 1996, he kept stressing the point that to become an artist, he had to quit painting. In my opinion the problem of conceptual art, which is also an asset, stems from its ambiguity. It tried to “deprivilege” art, to use Alexander Amberro’s expression, but at the same time it invested too much in the concept “art,” making art into an idealist balloon which disappears into thin air. This idealism is too much for painting. It will never be immoderate enough to disappear like that. After conceptual art painting has become modest and defensive, art as good as it gets, when there’s not much good going around.
It would be immodest to argue with that. My attitude could be called open. In other words, I have a tolerance towards difference. But not a tolerance towards bad art. There is nothing inherently wrong with painting apart from the weight of its history, which is what Kosuth is referring to. It’s a question of what you do with it — just as with any other practice. Looking at Lawrence Weiner’s work, for example, it’s interesting to see how romantic it is, how he deals with the sublime. But this is also work which plays with language and the way it functions. Language is a very imprecise thing, as Wittgenstein knows.
Because it is always more than the letter.
You can deal with something in terms of photography or in terms of language. They are simply different means. You can make ‘pictures’ with words using metaphor or description. It is also possible to use language and pictures together. When I’ve done this it’s because it elaborates on the ambiguities or inconsistencies at the heart of painting itself. I like the fact that paintings are physical objects. Your response to the work is tied to what you gain from being in a space with them. It involves a physical and visual relationship with something, not a verbal relationship. Who is to say that language is the primary and only means of communicating something? That’s obviously not true. I always liked the piece by Arakawa which says, “The Signified says No.”
The No in the picture. Freud says there are no No’s in dreams, but maybe conceptual art overlooks the possibility of a No in painting?
Magritte conceptualized in painting what Kosuth did in “One and Three Chairs” — a piece which I like a lot — namely, the distinction between the naming of something and what it is: “This is Not a Pipe.” Take something named a cloud. Maybe it is a cloud, and maybe it is something without a name. Understanding the distinction between images and words, and consequently allowing for vision and physicality, may not be all that much, but it is enough to open up a space for painting.
Interviewed by Stian Grøgaard