DON KIMES: MAKING THE OLD NEW AGAIN
Don Kimes is a painter who did not stop painting when they said painting was dead. Through a long process of working through, and living through images lost and regained, he has arrived at a personal style retrieving the fundamental elements of painting (light and color), in a new convincingly contemporary form.
Kimes’ realization that traditional depiction was no longer assuredly modern led him to a difficult crossroad. He began to experiment with materials, at first with large scale collage and mixed media on wood panels, later with the chemical erosion of metal plates, and then at last to a means of image making that married chance with structure through photographic processes. Living and working in Italy brought him into direct contact with the old masters, especially Piero della Francisco and Giotto, as well as the walls of Pompeii, whose monumental geometry became a principle inspiration.
The loss of his studio and most of his work in a flood was a traumatic crisis Kimes resolved by confronting the destruction directly: The destroyed images themselves became his source. These ghostly images underlie the brilliant light filled canvases he began to produce once he was able to paint again. In their insistence on a continuity broken by events, as well as by the necessity of filtering imagery through a technological medium, Kimes has found a new way to express the qualities intrinsic to painting throughout history by redefining how they are expressed.
Paris, France, May 30, 2011
BIBLIOGRAPHY AND MEDIA
Who’s Who in America
Who’s Who in American Art
Who’s Who in the East
Who’s Who in Education
Barbara Rose Talks with Don Kimes
(Full text of the interview at the bottom of this page)
The Brooklyn Rail: Reinhardt Melted the Ice
by Don Kimes
Author of essay on Reinhardt (other contributors to this special edition celebrating the centennial of the birth of Ad Reinhardt included Dore Ashton, Sol LeWitt, Carter Ratcliff, Donald Judd, Lucy Lippard, Peter Halle, Barbara Rose, Charles Simmonds, David Reed, Richard Serra, Dorthea Rockburne and others).
Colecao de Arte Moderna Gerardo Rueda, Madrid, Spain
Catalog for the Rueda Museum collection of Modern Art (including works by Don Kimes, Beverley Pepper, Antoni Tapies, Joan Miro, Rossella Vasta, Miquel Navarro, Saul Steinberg, Julio Gonzalez, Antonio Lopez, Esteban Vicente, Chillida, and others).
Co-curator and catalogue essay author for exhibition of works from the Albright Knox Museum including Lynda Benglis, Orli Genger, Tom Nozkowski, Sean Scully, Mia Westerlund Roosen, Tam van Tran and others.
A Sense of Place
Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art, Augusta, Georgia
American Abstraction: The 1970’s and 1980’s
Co-curator and catalogue essay author for exhibition of works from the Albright Knox Museum including Mel Bochner, Richard Diebenkorn, Nancy Graves, Keith Haring, Bryan Hunt, Robert Mangold, Beverley Pepper, Peter Plagens, David Reed, Susan Rothenberg, Richard Serra, Donald Sultan, Mia Westerlund and others.
The Madness of Art
Worked with Chelsea Gallery dealer Jim Kempner, Chautauqua Institution Managing Director
in the Visual Arts Lois Jubeck, artists Charlie Hewitt and Stephen Westfall and others in the production of this episode of "The Madness of Art"
WQED Pittsburgh Interviewed on this NPR Station
Studio Break: Conversations with Artists “Don Kimes” (May 29, 2012)
War and Peace: The Chautauqua Literary Journal; Pub. University of North Carolina
Abstract Art from Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Artes Magazine 23, October 2012
Don Kimes on Abstraction Center for the Study of Art, Architecture, History and Nature –
C-SAAHN, Buffalo, NY: seven part series of talks delivered by Don Kimes
Abstraction Exhibition: 15 Drawings that Command the Room, by Anthony Bannon
Finding Humor in the Art World, by Jessica Tabak On colloquium organized by Don Kimes
Art Critical.com, Editors Pick: Don Kimes, by David Cohen
American Abstraction: The Forties to the Sixties, co-curator and catalogue essay author for exhibition of works from the Albright Knox Museum including Avery, Bourgeois, Gottlieb, Hofmann, Johns, Kline, Krasner, Tobey, Twombly and others
Chautauqua: An American Narrative, Interviewed in nationally broadcast PBS documentary
The Continuity of Painting and the Necessity of Interruption, by Don Kimes, published in the book Interruptio, ed. Rossella Vasta, pub. Fabrizio Fabbri Editore, Italy
40 Years of Prince Street Gallery, Prince Street Gallery, NY catalogue
Umbria Libri Viva l’Italia, la partenza e’ folorante, La Nazione, Italy
Pushing Tradition: Nicolas Carone – A Film by William Page
Interviewed for this film on the life of first generation New York School painter Nicolas Carone. Carone, one of the last artists alive of that generation, was a friend of artists ranging from Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston to Giorgio Morandi and Antonio Severini
Where Magazine Review and reproduction for Kimes Hillyer Gallery Exhibition in Washington, DC
Washington Post “The Scene”
Washingtonian Magazine “Still a Scene: Dupont, Pen Quarter and Beyond” (review/reproduction)
Polish Global-Village “Painted Music” with painting performance by artist Don Kimes “Aesop Suite” narrated by Bob Bennett; Jerzey Sapieyevski, composer
Crits: Dialogues in the Visual Arts Issue focused on Don Kimes, James McGarrell, Alex Katz
Don Kimes: 1976-2006 Catalogue for retrospective exhibition at the Chautauqua Institution and the Herritt Center Museum (Idaho). Essays by Hearne Pardee, Gerard Haggerty and Barbara Rose
Great Lecture Library “Painting, Fishing and Other Signs of Life”, Don Kimes
lecture on the Chautauqua Institution main speakers platform
Public Radio interviews: WNED (Buffalo); WQED (Pittsburgh); WJTN (Jamestown)
Corriere della Sera Perugia, Italy (review)
Colveyco “Don Kimes at Elizabeth Roberts” Colvyco.com.newsletters/5/4-04
Corriere dell’Umbria “Prosegue con success oil gemelaggio artistico”
Corriere dell’Umbria “Corciano l’Americana”
ABC Madrid, article on 9/11, Barbara Rose (Don Kimes essay reprinted with Rose essay)
New York Magazine for the Arts “Umbria Mystica”, by Lori Nozick
New York Magazine for the Arts “American Artists in Italy”, by Rachel Vancelette
Arte In “Appunti Dalla ‘Zona di Guerra: L’Arte Dopo Ground Zero”, by Barbara Rose
Washington Times, quoted in feature article on Barbara Rose
Corriere dell’Umbria, “Biennale Internazionale” included reproduction of Kimes work
La Nacione article on Kimes
RAI 2 Television broadcast interview, Umbria
Washington Times Interviewed in article on Italian architect Paolo Lattaioli
Washington Post review of Kimes work by Ferdinand Protzman
Washington Post review of Kimes work in “Another Shade of Summer”
Chance + Necessity catalogue essays by ArtNews critic Rob Edelman and Power Boothe
Painters Who Make Prints catalogue with essays by Martha Macks, Barbara Rose
Washington Post The Arts Section, review
WETA Public Television Broadcast Around Town
(William Dunlap discussed Kimes work in two separate programs in 1996)
Forced Proximity Catalogue essay on this Washington, DC exhibition by Kimes
Tempo del Parea Catalogue for Kimes exhibition at Rocca Paolina in Perugia, Italy
Eight in Dialogue Catalogue essay on this Washington, DC exhibition by Kimes
Formas, Naturaleza, Abstracion Catalogue on Kimes exhibition in Villahermosa, Mexico
The Collage Aesthetic Catalogue for traveling exhibition including Kimes’ work. Essay by Gary Jurysta
Caroll Sockwell Authored catalogue essay on the work of Caroll Sockwell for the Washington Project for the Arts
The Washington Post “Moving Heaven and Earth Images” review by Hank Burchard of Kimes’ solo exhibition at the National Academy of Sciences
WETA Public Television Broadcast Around Town
Discussion of Kimes' show at National Academy of Sciences
Sunstorm Magazine of the Arts “The Subliminal and the Sublime” article on Kimes work by Gerard Haggerty
College Art Association of America News article on exhibition Kimes organized for CAA
Open Season on the Arts Catalogue including reproductions of Kimes work, CAA Galleries, Chautauqua, NY
Antiques and Collectibles issue 146 included review of Kimes exhibition
Sunstorm Magazine of the Arts “The Collage Paintings of Don Kimes” by Victor Forbes
The Chadakoin Review, included reproductions of Kimes work
New York Art Review, Ed. Les Krantz, forward Mary Boone, included reproduction and essay on Kimes
The Chadakoin Review, included Don Kimes/Bruce Gagnier interview of Peter Agostini
Sunstorm Magazine of the Arts, “Don Kimes:The Artist as Philosopher” by Cynthia Kramen
Artspeak NY Miles Unger Review of Kimes show
Soviet Life Magazine Photographs by Don Kimes
PBS Television Broadcast on Chautauqua Exchange in the Soviet Union
Downtown Manhattan Reproduction
Popolopen Metaphor Catalogue for Kimes Prince Street Gallery exhibition with essays by
John Arthur Shanks and Hearne Pardee
Artspeak NY Leonard Horowitz review of Kimes exhibition at Prince Street Gallery
Buffalo News “Artists Choose Artists” review by Anthony Bannon in Buffalo, NY newspaper
Sunstorm Magazine of the Arts “Don Kimes Paintings at Popolopen”, John Arthur Shanks feature
Critics Choice Catalogue for Arsenal Gallery exhibition, Lawrence Alloway
Artspeak New York “Two Views of Landscape” review by William Pellicone
Artspeak New York “Vertical Landscape to Stone” review by Palmer Poroner on Wayne Thiebaud, Gretna Campbell and Don Kimes landscape exhibitions
Don Kimes, Nicolas Carone, Barbara Rose
in Carone's Westbeth Studio, New York City, working on the William Page film Pushing Tradition: Nicolas Carone, 2009.
Don Kimes Hillyer Art Space exhibition, Washington, DC, 2008
According to a rabbinic legend, a king was distraught when his favorite diamond was scratched, but a skilled jeweler redeemed the royal loss by transforming the blemish into the thorn of a rose he proceeded to engrave upon the stone. Don Kimes is an artist whose career has a similarly cathartic sense of redemption to it. A catastrophic flood some eight years ago wiped out the best part of his life’s work and its documentation. He has since made the damaged residue of that disaster the starting point of abstractly reworked imagery that utilizes scans of what’s left of the originals, often to startling effect. I am using the second part of my life to re-paint the first. The flood turned out to be a gift, an exquisite interruption, the artist has written. Metaphors of alchemy are well-worn in art discourse, but for once they make sense.
Todi Steel and Popolopen Memory
Mixed media on canvas, 55" x 76", 2012
Denise Bibro Gallery, NYC
Scraping My Shoes on the Stones of Roads
Begun 1996, completed September 12, 2001
Watkins Gallery exhibition, Washington, DC, 2001
Earlier this year I visited the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii. The walls, the fragments, the frescoes, are magnificent. They have come to us from a culture that never saw a light bulb, let alone a computer terminal - a culture whose language is 'dead' and who never saw anyone travel faster than a horse could run - yet the frescoes in Pompeii still talk to us across two millennia. And while standing in the courtyard of this marvelous two thousand year old house I was reminded that painting is painting. . .
Before the Romans there were the Etruscans. They painted frescoes on the walls of tombs. The Romans came and the Etruscans disappeared. Painting continued. The Romans built the Pompeii that we know, and they painted the frescoes on the walls in the Villa of the Mysteries. Vesuvius erupted and buried Pompeii.The Roman Empire rose and fell. Painting continued. It survived the Dark Ages and industrial revolution, world wars and how many other empires? How far has pictorial space "progressed" since the frescoes on the walls at the Villa of the Mysteries were painted? At it's most funadamental level, art exists outside of time.
Todi, Italy, 2000
BARBARA ROSE TALKS WITH DON KIMES, June, 2015
I met Don Kimes in the Nineties and have watched his work develop and change over time in response to both personal and artistic challenges. We have had an ongoing dialogue ever since. Recently I saw his show at the Denise Bibro Gallery in New York City and we had a chance to talk about how he views his own work and the contemporary art scene in general.
BR: How Do you feel your work is related to current practice?
DK: I wince at the phrase “current practice”. It sounds like a nod to the professions, like being a dentist or an attorney. Maybe I should hang a brass shingle outside my studio door with the inscription Don Kimes’ Artist’s Practice is located here, hours by appointment. Or maybe it’s because it sounds like I’m getting ready to do something, to practice, instead of actually doing it: I remember the painter George McNeil once talking about the Fauves. He nearly shouted that even though some of them were in their twenties, they weren’t getting ready to do something with their work. They were just doing it. Every time I hear the phrase “my practice” I essentially hear George shouting “Quit getting ready and just do it!”
Maybe my response to the word is a reflection about how I feel my work relates to current "practice". It’s apples and oranges. There is the art world and there is the world of art. These are two very different places. The art world is a pop up, the place where the business happens. It’s amoral. It’s not bad. It’s not good. It blows with the wind and shifts as quickly as high frequency traders on Wall Street. Artists who get upset about this are foolish and they miss the point. It’s simply a fact, like the color red. It is what it is at that moment in time. The world of art is something else. The world of art is where there is a connection to who we are as human beings. It’s the place where art actually happens, sometimes in the wind on the surface, but more often than not far removed from that superficial transitory market place. The world of art is where everything of significance takes place: from the cave painters to the frescoes in the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii; from Chardin, to the most thoughtful, meaningful artists working today. These two worlds are constantly being confused in the media, in the art schools, and on the street.
For me they are two entirely different worlds that once in a long while bump into one another. I think of what I do as trying to participate in the world of art. I hope that what happens in my studio, in my work, occasionally bumps into the art world. There are financial and other rewards when that happens. It can be a long, sometimes dark time between the moments when those bumps happen, so a little attention feels good. But at the center, I am interested in the world of art, so my relation to current practice is one of an occasional, very slight bump. If one is lucky enough to have them overlap, that’s great. But if the work is to have any kind of authenticity and ability to last longer than the next art world fad, then it has to be rooted in the world of art and not in a relation to what is perceived as current practice.
BR Do you think of yourself as an abstract artist?
DK: I never really understood the whole abstract/not abstract thing. I think of myself as an artist. It’s impossible to really understand anything holistically. We understand the world through fragments, partial images, overlapping information. We put those fragments into a pile and from that we abstract meaning. \As soon as we enter the world of thought everything is abstract. If I look at a Lucien Freud painting I don’t actually see a person. It’s flat. It’s made out of oil and dirt mixed together. It’s a combination of colors and tones and drawing. My dog would not bark at it if it showed up in my living room. I am not sure about what the division between “representation” and “abstraction” is, except that the weakest links on one side of the equation don’t seem to understand that there is a difference between depiction and expressing a sensate quality. Once the photograph was invented, abstraction became essential because that was all that remained to drive the content of the image beyond “likeness”. Titian, Rembrandt, Piero – these are some of the greatest abstract artists ever. Yes, they happened to have “likeness” in their work along with specific subject matter, but one doesn’t have to know the words to a piece of music to respond to its emotive power. Is Beethoven telling a story? Are there words that we need to go along with Charlie Parker’s sax in order to feel it? Abstraction is who we are.The reason Goya is powerful isn’t because of the story he tells. It’s because of how he tells it visually. It’s because the form, the color, the light and the surface all come together in an inexplicable way which elevates the emotive quality of the image beyond the story. That sensate quality comes through whether one knows the story or not.
BR: What are the problems confronting abstraction today and do you think it has a future?
DK: Abstraction falls off when it becomes categorized or formulaic. That’s the point where it can be explained. I’m not talking about quality here. I’m talking about rules, formulas, and the ability to “get it”. That's where it turns into nice decoration - furniture. That’s the point where abstract art dies, but that can be said of anything. Jerry Saltz gave a talk the other day at American University where I teach, and one thing I remember is his quotation of Oscar Wilde: “The moment you think you understand a great work of art, it’s dead for you.” That’s true no matter what kind of work we’re talking about.
BR: How does an artist create a personal style in the face of globalism?
DK: By being genuinely aware. By that I mean don’t limit yourself to the last fifteen minutes. It’s important to look at everything you can. But so many artists are caught up in trying to strategize their next move in the context of the current zeitgeist they can’t see past the end of their own noses. If you set out to create a personal style, which seems to be what a lot of current graduate education focuses on, you come up with an academic MFA thesis statement, a superficial imitation of what you think is a personal style but is really just an illustration of a combination of things you already know that are in vogue.
Art isn’t a sprint. It’s an extended, long distance marathon. The artists I respect and admire seem to have two major phases in their evolution. The first is the construction of a language. That language is not the same thing as art. If someone can speak French that does not make them a French poet. It takes a long time, a certain amount of humility combined with an equal part of ego, an awareness of the larger world, and the ability to be in a moment without controlling it. If you are lucky and you work all the time, you may fall backwards into something and wake up one day saying “oh – that’s it!” When I look at early Titian and late Titian there’s clearly a kind of style that emerged over the course of his life. He didn’t decide to do that. It happened because the language that he developed early in his life allowed him to become Titian late in his life.
BR: How do you deal with the fact that we live in a media culture, inundated by images?
DK: First of all it’s important to acknowledge the reality of this fact. Otherwise you're just an ostrich burying your head in the sand. The shift in terms of media, especially visual media, that has happened over the past 25 years is at least as earth shattering as anything since Guttenberg. Sixty years ago Matisse wrote an essay called Looking at Life with the Eyes of a Child. In it he laments the fact that everything we see is affected by acquired habits and he cites the proliferation of cinema posters and magazines that “are to the eye what prejudices are to the mind”. If posters and magazines were an issue, can you imagine what he would have to say today? Matisse went on to talk about the importance of seeing everything as if you are seeing it for the first time, like a child, and he said that without that ability an artist can’t be personal or original. The times they are a changin’. I used to agree with Matisse about "eye prejudices". I’m not so sure any more. I’m convinced that there is a limit to how much visual information a human being is able to ingest. We hit that limit a long time ago. The ability to make choices is what saves us. Now we have to decide whether to look at the sculpture, look at an image of the sculpture on the I-phone, look at the press release about the sculpture in our hand, or listen to the person who is talking about the sculpture. We can’t do all four of these things at the same time. In the end it becomes a matter of discernment and judgment about what to pay attention to. It takes effort to make the most effective choices, but ultimately we are still creatures of free will. The more new images and media inundate us, the more meaningful those choices become.
BR: What do you feel are your biggest challenges in terms of developing your work?
DK: The biggest challenges are the same as they are for most people. The exigencies of day to day existence. Dealing with some health issues in my own family. Paying the bills and so forth. I do get to the studio every day and some days are productive, others not so much. And the other challenge is to find ways not to make art in isolation. To get the work seen. To talk with other artists about the work. To participate in the art world without being swallowed up by its more vacuous and cynical propensities.
BR: Do you feel close to any painters working today?
DK: I can’t think of anyone who is alive that I look to the way I used to. I loved the work of Gretna Campbell to the point that I wanted to be Gretna Campbell. I admired Mercedes Matter’s drawings. I did admire most of Kiefer’s work. I’m not sure why I don’t feel the same way today, but the only influences I can think of would be in the distant, historical past. Maybe it is because I know that I can be influenced by say, Cezanne, or Rubens, or the frescoes in Pompeii, but it would be impossible to mimic them because I live in a different time. When someone does work that looks like some hot contemporary artist, it is the reinvention of someone else’s wheel. I don’t think we are able to see our own time because we are immersed in it. I get more from spending a few hours with Piero than I do spending a few hours with “you fill in the blank”.
BR: What did growing up near Pittsburgh in Western Pennsylvania mean to your work?
DK: Yes, I am from that foreign nation called the Midwest. Living in Western Pennsylvania I grew up thinking that I lived in the East. But having spent the rest of my life on the east coast, I realize that Pittsburgh is actually where the Midwest begins. It’s a mindset completely different than say, Philadelphia. My first shock was encountering Cezanne, who I saw for the first time when I was in college. I knew from childhood that I wanted to be an artist, but I don’t think I ever saw an art museum or gallery until I left home for college. I remember the piece that really pulled me in, way more than Cezanne ever did. My grandparents lived next to the Allegheny River and in their living room, across from the deer antlers mounted over the rocking chair, was a black and white print of three horses running ferociously. It was a copy of a romanticized sentimental 19th century painting by John Frederick Herring, who in 1845 was appointed “Animal Painter to the Duchess of Kent” in Victorian England. The painting was called Pharoah’s Chariot Horses. I remember looking at that print every weekend when I visited my grandparents. I stared at it for years, fascinated by their manes flying and rippling, and a storm that appeared to be approaching (though I think I made the storm part up in my mind). They seemed to be racing against time. The swirls and rhythms of their manes and the movement of their heads had an incredible flow wrapped in a dramatic light. The eyes of the horses had everything in them – power, uncertainty, fear, beauty. I copied that print many times, starting at the age of about five until I was in high school. When I told this to my friend Julie Heffernan, who saw my show at Denise Bibro, she said “you’ve just described your most recent work”. I was shocked. I hadn’t thought about that print in 40 years. But she was right. The work I am doing now comes from a very dark place, a flood and a depression that nearly destroyed me. There is fear in that, but the work is also about rhythm and light and is unafraid of beauty and drama.
BR: Andy Warhol, whose parents worked the assembly lines in Pittsburgh, turned his studio into a factory. Why didn't you?
DK: There were many factories in Western Pennsylvania but there were also forests. Andy's ancestors were Czech peasants. Some of mine were Seneca Indians. Maybe that's why my art is basically rooted in nature just as his is in the machine. Most of my friend’s parents worked in factories or mills, but everyone hunted and fished. School was always closed for the first two days of deer season, which were official holidays (though I never shot a deer). Except for sleeping and school I literally spent all of my time outside, winters included, mostly in the woods or on the river. There is a combination of raw energy, a need to respond to things one can’t fully control, and contemplative silence in the woods and on the river. So while the world around my youth was mostly “rocks and hills and mines and mills”, I preferred the first two. That sense of contemplative response to nature may answer the question about Warhol and his factory.
BR: You have lived and worked in Washington, D.C, the origin of stained color field painting, for years. Why didn't you become a color field artist?
DK: To be quite honest, although I’ve lived here for almost three decades now, I’ve never found any traction in DC. Almost all of the good things that have happened for me have happened in New York and oddly enough, I still feel like an outsider in DC. My sources originally grew out of nature, and maybe that’s why I was later drawn to some of the earlier generation of abstract expressionists instead of the color field painters, who I simply found to be too tame, too polite. I mean they may be great, but they just didn’t enter into my thinking. Later I was living in Italy half the year and looking at the walls in Pompeii, and the monumentality of Piero, and the ruins in Agrigento. And the Etruscans, Raphael, the frescoes in Napoli and the Villa of the Mysteries, Roman ruins, Carravaggio, Byzantine cathedrals in Ravenna and Monreale and, well, when that is what you are looking at, Morris Louis just doesn’t cut it.
BR: You mean you don't agree with Greenberg that Olitski is the greatest painter since Titian? What will last of the Greenbergers?
DK: Since you mention Greenberg, I think the direction became increasingly narrow in the color field work. It could only distill more and more, so it seemed like a dead end to me. He ruled the art world, but now that he's gone, nobody young knows who he is. He was brilliant but he ended up dying by his own sword. He insisted on the rejection of the preceding generation, and that lesson was very well learned by the generations that followed him. What will last of the Greenbergers? I have no idea. We’re not far enough away yet, although the subject of his earliest championing, Pollock, is still his greatest vision. But I have to say that a new generation of readers and writers, unburdened by both modernism and post-modernism, should really take a serious look at his essays.
There is a need for seriously intelligent critical writing today, for people to take a position. It’s hard to find conviction without cynicism in much of what passes for contemporary critical writing. I have a collection of art magazines that goes all the way back to the early sixties. Every once in awhile I pick up a copy from one decade or the other just to get a sense of now in relation to then. I guess it's nostalgic to go back and read opinions from a range of writers including Greenberg who, although I may have disagreed vehemently with them, at least weren’t afraid to put a clear, unequivocal position out there and declare for something. Like Mellencamp said “you gotta stand for something, or you’re gonna fall for anything”.
BR: What experiences have affected your work?
DK: As a young artist in my twenties living in New York I began teaching and also set up the lecture/visiting artist program at the Studio School on 8th Street. Every week I met, and in some cases came to know, a who’s who of the post-1950’s New York art world. Everyone from Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner and Dore Ashton to Christo and Jean Claude, John Cage, Alice Neel, Nam Jun Paik – the list goes on and on. If they were active in New York in the 1970’s, they visited the Studio School and I was the person talking to them to arrange their visits, introduce them and listen to all of their lectures and critiques. Being a kid from Pittsburgh, I was star-struck when I listened to the artists themselves, rather than a teacher talking about something that someone other than that teacher had written about the artist who was standing in front of me. For most young artists contemporary art history is at least three or four or six steps removed. For me it was often completely direct, and what I now read often conflicts with what I've experienced first-hand. That experience has been extremely important to me.
BR: I remember when you lived in my house in Umbria during your sabbatical. How did living and working in Italy change your work?
DK: The experience of living in Italy that first year was incredibly formative. I took the whole family--my wife Lois Jubeck, who has been my support system through it all, the three kids, the ninety pound dog. We didn’t speak the language. We were living in that tiny agrarian hill town with no cell phone, no Internet, no television. I’d never realized how American I was until I spent that year in Camerata di Todi. When we visited the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii and saw the magnificent walls, the frescoes, the remnants, I think I had an out of body experience. While standing in the courtyard of that marvelous two thousand year old frescoed house I was reminded that painting is painting. What's happened since the walls were painted doesn't do anything to diminish them. They still talk to us across language, across cultures, across more than two thousand years. How far has pictorial space "progressed" since the frescoes on the walls at the Villa of the Mysteries were painted? Living in Italy with great art teaches you that concept alone isn’t enough. And it also teaches you that craft alone isn’t enough – next to every Caravaggio there are usually a couple of Piero del Crappo’s which are every bit as well crafted as the Caravaggio, but we’ll never remember them.
BR: Outside the Italian experience, has anything else been crucial for your art?
DK: The biggest experience in terms of an impact on my work has to be the flood. Nine years after our first year in Italy, I answered the telephone at our cottage on Chautauqua Lake in western New York State. Water was coming out of the front door of our home, 400 miles away in Washington. My studio was on the floor underneath that door. That flood washed away twenty-five years worth of works on paper, as well as the contents of five filing cabinets containing nearly all of my correspondence with artists and friends I’d known and cared about, everything that I’d ever written, and everything that had ever been written about my work. It was pre-Internet era, so I also lost most of the slides documenting my life and work as a painter, more than a thousand photographs including not only a record of my work but also most of our personal family photographs of my children growing up. At the time I felt that the record of my existence had suddenly been erased. Other artists like my Italian friend Rossella Vasta experienced life threatening or life changing trauma that interrupts their work. This was my interruption.
I was lost and it was devastating. I went into a three and a half year depression but I kept painting, out of habit more than motivation. It was the worst experience of my life. Eventually the depression lifted and all of the work I have been doing for the past twelve years has been based on those destroyed images. I think it is the strongest work I have ever done, and I now look at that flood as a kind of gift that set a lot of things free.
BR : What did you do to recuperate memory and to transform a tragedy into a creative turning point?
DK: Originally in New York I was doing huge collage paintings inspired by my experience of landscape. Using collage I created an obstacle for my habits by not allowing myself to use brushes. That was the beginning of a long journey toward the work that I have been doing since the flood. Eventually the collages met the same fate as the earlier oil paintings. I was showing them and people were interested in them. But as I got better and better at doing them they became less and less interesting to me. After 9, maybe 10 years, I was given a residency at Yellowstone National Park. I was in a studio in the Madison Valley with nothing but me, the buffalo, and the thermal geysers. My work started to calm down. The color started to slow down. After six weeks I came back to my studio in Washington packed with all those high key, screaming collages made out of huge sheets of torn paper and bright, luminous colors that had been poured and mashed and scraped into the paper. I looked around and felt like I didn’t know who did the work. There was a small piece of steel on the floor that I had drawn on a bit and spilled something on before I’d left for Yellowstone. It had rusted and it now had the blacks of the charcoal mixed with the sienas and umbers of the rusting steel, and it made me think of the thermal features in Yellowstone.
Within a week I’d packed everything up and was working only on steel. It was a new material and it seemed like the door opened up again. That was the spring before we moved to Italy on my sabbatical. In Italy Beverly Pepper helped me find cheap steel and I began using the refrigerator in the house as my supply cabinet. I layered things on the steel, poured red wine, white wine, vinegar, tomato paste, whatever. I embedded found materials in stucco on the steel. I left it out in the rain to see what would happen. I played with these ideas from 1994 until 2003. I talked about the way that nature interacts with things, and the way that in the end nature takes everything back. I talked about not knowing what would happen and how that was a good thing, and how Thoreau said that the only people who ever get any place interesting are the ones who get lost.
And then the flood happened. Those ideas about nature taking everything back, about not knowing what would happen next, and about being lost, had come around a corner and bit me in the throat. Losing 25 years of work, along with the history of your family and all or your images and writing is devastating. It wasn’t just a crisis. It was the crisis. Nothing meant anything to me any more. I began peeling the destroyed photographs apart trying to salvage something, but nothing was salvageable. I peeled them apart for three months that summer and at one point I realized that these destroyed images contained everything I’d spent the preceding two decades looking for. I began blowing them up digitally to make them huge. I didn’t know what they had once been, but they had transformed into something else. They had the color of the collages and the density of the steel pieces. They had the sense of time from the oil paintings but they also had my life and the life of my family embedded in them. I began painting on the blown up images and through the media filter of photography and a few studio tricks, the underlying images allowed me to go back to painting in an original way. I could retain everything that I loved about painting: light, form, color, content (not subject matter), without reinventing somebody else’s wheel. It wasn’t just raw paint being poured on a canvas, or mild acids in a process driven attack on a sheet of steel, or a photographic blow-up of a smaller image.
The image now is discovered and submerged, refined but not finished, through the act of painting and I hope touching on the metaphysical in some sense. What I am doing now is something that I can’t define, but I know it is work that I could never have done before. It took everything that had happened in my life to bring it to this point, and a willingness to let it happen even though I’m not sure what it is.
BR: Do you have to live in New York to have a presence?
DK: When I first moved to DC from New York in the late 80’s I got to know two artists who had moved there from New York before me: Jacob Kainen and Carol Sockwell. Jacob was a big deal in DC, and Carol quickly became a good friend with whom I felt an immediate connection as an artist and who was on an ascending career trajectory. Sadly he committed suicide by jumping off a bridge into Rock Creek Park. Early on they both told me I should leave Washington as soon as possible and get back to New York. I couldn’t really afford to leave my DC job supporting my family, but I kept my studio in New York for several years and have always returned at least once a month. Something always seems to happen when I go to New York that doesn’t happen in other places. I got my first teaching job there because I was sweeping a stairway, standing between two people who were trying to figure out how to fill a teaching slot. I got my current gallery because I happened to walk into a show where a gallerist I know had just hung up the phone after being told that one of her artists wouldn’t be ready for her scheduled show. Those things would never have happened online. It’s like Woody Allen said, “95% of success is showing up”. It’s hard to show up if you’re not there. I might throw in a few other cities that have some of that same kind of presence – LA, Berlin, London. It’s true that New York is not the same totally dominant force that it once was, but there still is no other place that I know of where the topsoil is so thick.
BR: What can artists learn from studio art programs?
DK: I was at the Studio School when Mercedes Matter was running it. I remember Esteban Vicente, one of my teachers who conducted a Tuesday afternoon critique seminar. He once was fired (not by Mercedes, but by what vaguely resembled an administration). In his thick, elegant Spanish accent I remember Esteban saying to me “Who are deeze people? Dey can’t fire me!” and the following Tuesday Esteban just showed up at his usual seat and continued to teach his seminar anyway. He just kept coming back. He wasn't being paid, but it wasn’t a matter of money anyway since the school was always on the edge of bankruptcy. As you’ve quoted Janice many times “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”. Esteban outlasted everybody. So I learned you have to keep coming back, no matter what.
Chautauqua, where I built the summer studio art program, is another case in point. We’re always tight for money, but as the artistic director I have freedom and flexibility that just doesn’t exist in a university setting. It’s not a democracy. There are no committees. In 30 years the administration has never asked me to explain why I have hired a given artist, or why I have a particular schedule, etc. They may tell me I’m out of money, but they never question the program that I set up. In many ways it’s modeled on the Studio School as I experienced it --pretty much a benevolent dictatorship with no academic busywork. The phrase doesn't sound good, but throughout history I think the best art programs have been influenced by a particular individual's vision. So I'm able to cherry-pick an incredible faculty from schools all over America every summer, and students consistently respond that it's the salient catalyst in their early evolution. That wouldn't be possible if we voted on things - in other words, another thing that I've learned from studio art programs is that the lowest common denominator is not the best way to realize vision.
BR: What do you think about current MFA programs that seem the sine qua non as a jumping off point for a "career"?
DK: I was already a very young teacher at the Studio School when I got my MFA. I did it because I was starting to see that some older, very established artists, were getting turned down for teaching positions in universities because they didn’t have a degree. It was as simple as that. I did it for the wrong reasons – just to get a degree so I could get a job. At the same time, through my experience as a student at the Studio School, I came to believe that the real purpose in going to art school is the community, your peer group. That has driven all of the programs I have been involved with since then. In an MFA program the faculty have a new group of students every year, and they eventually forget most of their names. They have hundreds, if not thousands of former students. But as a graduate student you only have the one or two dozen people you went through school with. If it’s a good program they become your community, the artists you still talk to twenty years later when no one is looking at your work, you just lost your gallery, your adjunct position was cancelled, the studio rent just went way up, and the abyss is looking ominous. For me the value of an MFA is that it can create a community that gets you through the dark times.
Today MFA programs are in crisis. Too many people think it’s a ticket to a career. If you believe an MFA will get you a tenure track teaching job, you’re dreaming. There's a lot more to it than that, and most artists aren't cut out to be teachers anyway. It’s popular to say that there aren’t any jobs any more. But there never were many jobs. The biggest problem for MFA programs isn’t the lack of jobs: It’s the corporatization of education in America. The academics from the French Academy to the contemporary academy--like to have everything clearly laid out.The academy loves to have it planned, justified and explained, balanced out and pigeon-holed: a structure that basically is entirely at odds with the creative process. Corporatized academic power structure looks to other universities for validation and justification. Everybody wants to feel secure in the struggle to emulate the next guy up the food chain in order to replace him. That creates uniformity. It's disconcerting to see a lot of the same work being done by different people in different places as young artists struggle to find a way to function in the boxes that have been created by the institutionalization of graduate level art education.
Then there is the fact that faculty who came of age at the height of the deconstruction theory wave of the 1990’s are teaching what is naïvely called “cutting edge”, in other words a formula for looking radical, when radicality, which is the invention of something new, can’t be taught. The notion of progress by eliminating/ deconstructing/ appropriating/ denying/ disempowering that which precedes you was originally intended to be the antidote for the 19th century academy. Now this idea has itself become the 21st century academy, every bit as full of dogmatic navel gazing as any of the 19th Century European academies.
Rembrandt said about painting that you can’t separate a perfect conclusion from a perfect beginning. Working out a good start is all that can be expected in an MFA program. Coming up with a thesis and a "final exhibition" is basically absurdity wrapped in a premature academic security blanket.
One is very lucky to have one or two great teachers. For me the stars were aligned and I had many more than that. I went to five different schools, but the place that had the greatest impact was the Studio School in the 1970’s. There I met dozens of artists, but the ones who had the greatest impact were the ones who had a strong conviction that art was the most important thing in the world, that the location of a mark on a piece of paper was a life and death struggle. They weren’t teaching me how to do what they did. Yes, they spoke a lot about form, space, pressure, structure – all modernist ideas, but they weren’t thinking of these things as art. They were each giving me a language. Nicolas Carone had a methodology but what most interested him was the metaphysical nature of art. Esteban Vicente taught me about the difference between art and low level decoration. I remember someone put up a painting of a vase of flowers. With that commanding voice and elegant Spanish accent he gently said “Iss nice. Very nice. You got de flowers. You got de vase. You got de dish under de vase. Iss all nice.” And then there was a long pause followed by: “Iss nice. Iss no painting, iss just nice”. George McNeil helped me to refrain from trusting my first efforts because “they are almost always too conscious, too literal, and too shallow.” He pushed me to understand the importance of delving deeper into a place where things can’t be conceptually explained. And then there was Mercedes Matter, who in her unyielding passion and total incorruptibility, taught me not to acquiesce to anything – that the slightest change alters everything else in a way that makes painting go on forever, a Sisyphusian struggle which ultimately gave me permission to never stop exploring. And all of them taught me about the difference between the art world and the world of art.