Group 2: College of Creative Studies> Yale & NYC 1978-1979

In my first two and a half years at Creative Studies I had been exposed to most of the trends in contemporary of art. I have to credit my first girlfriend there, Lani Asher, for hipping me to many things. When I started there I knew next to nothing about cutting edge contemporary art. My background was the Ab Ex generation with a little Pop mixed in.  That was about it except for knowing a bit about 19th Century and early 20th Century art, stuff common to most middle class “artsy” kids.  So Lani’s world was an opening.  Among the many artists she was into, Eve Hesse’s work has stayed with me, close to the heart.

The College of Creative Studies at UCSB was an incredible program. CCS was the first place and maybe the only place, I’ve experienced a truly open theoretical curricula.  A traditionalist on the art faculty was Hank Pitcher. Hank had assimilated Manet and the Impressionists as well as modern figurative artists, like Wayne Thiebaud and Paul Georges. Working with narrative themes and painting in a highly mannered way, Pitcher’s direction was a precursor to some of what happened in the 80s.  At the same time, we had a post-minimalist, the master of “fetish finish” on the faculty, John McCracken.   I had some good conversations with John and some astute advice from him too. Everything from McCracken, was very quietly said and that added a certain power.  We also had two incredible regular visiting artists who lived in LA, and taught on a semester-by-semester basis. Charles Garabedian taught most of the time I was there and Kiesho Okayama taught quite a bit as well.  Kiesho’s family had been the Sakuhaci players for the Emperor of Japan. I think he was supposed to be the next in line.  Kiesho played that flute once for us, by way of introduction, one semester.  It was like the pied piper… everyone fell in love with him.  Kiesho taught drawing and they were some of the most difficult and satisfying classes I have ever taken. In one class we were instructed to draw lines back and forth across the page for an hour or till the paper wore through.

Garabedian was so eclectic. The first time I experienced him was at a slide lecture he gave on Italian artists including Botticelli, Giotto, Piero, and Pontormo.  He talked about how the arrows went though St. Sebastian’ body, the angle of attack and how various artists drew them, and how the ankles of Jesus were painted while he was on the Cross or standing in the water during Baptism.  Chaz blew our minds in adapting these kinds of structural concerns to his California funk cartoon collages. He had the most amazing attitude towards art I’ve ever encountered.  I go to see his shows whenever I can.

We had a class that visited artist studios in LA. guided by David Trowbridge.  I saw Baldesari’s place, the old arcade in Santa Monica, that he had converted for studios. He’d kept all the different rooms and booths where the games had been and had different projects going in each one.   Tom Wudl also taught at CCS and Bill Viola  came through once.  These various influences provided without any administrative editorial, was how things were done at CCS. Throw everything at the student and let them sort it out for themselves.

In 1978, I got to attend Yale’s summer art program in Norfolk, CT. By then I had decided that abstraction / formalism, was the direction I needed to move in.  It was largely because I came to believe that color was the primary force in visual art and I wanted to focus on it, so I began to pursue a reductive approach that would eliminate other elements I defined as non-essential.    This happened in fits and starts throughout the summer at Yale, where I admittedly was struggling, and had a kind of odd relationship with the faculty. Louis Finklestein and Andrew Forge, were running the place. I could not quite cotton to the NY Studio School technique/dogma they dished, although I loved Cezanne on whose work their agenda was based. I did relate though to the photographer Larry Fink and even more to his then wife, (not on the faculty but a “visiting artist” who we could talk with) Joan Snyder.  Trying to make the transition from representational work to abstract, Joan’s example really helped me jump the divide. I have admired her work ever since I came to know it that summer. At some point I started drawing tile patterns and they grew into a series of etchings. These became the basis for moving forward. Even the faculty I did not get along with responded to the etchings, so that to me, was a sign of sorts.

In August, when the program was over I arranged to spend the fall living in New York on an independent study through CCS.  I had lined up advisers, the painters David Budd (SVA) and Ray Parker (Hunter), who would visit my studio, critique the work and report to CCS that I was indeed working. With Fritz Van Orden, a friend from CCS who had graduated and was living in New York and Elizabeth Greason, an artist who Fritz had met in the search for a loft, we rented 276 Bowery. 2nd floor. It was just below Houston St. I was the lucky one, because all I had to do was paint and see shows for three months. Fritz had the most grueling life during those years, driving taxis during the graveyard shift. (He later founded the Ordenaires with drummer Jim Thomas, another CCS grad. They were one of the best instrumental bands, ever.)  Elizabeth, who was gorgeous, worked in upscale restaurants and made enough to support herself a few nights a week to spend the majority of her time in the studio.  She was a very diligent artist.  Ray Parker had a studio nearby, in the same building as Chuck Close. Ray took me over there once and I got to meet Chuck and see how he worked – on a customized easel that moved the canvas vertically so he could cover the entire surface working horizontally from the same position, like using a typewriter.  That was fascinating and taught me something about set-up.

That fall I traipsed around Soho. Dorothea Rockburn, Alan Sheilds, Sol Lewitt, Alan Saret, Keith Sonnier, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Ned Smyth, Alyce Aycock, Carl Andre, Lynda Benglis, Gordon Matta Clark, Mel Bochner, Chuck Close, Brice Marden and Agnes Martin were the most important to me, and the influence of Joseph Beuys was in the air.  Paula Cooper and Michael Werner had the best new stuff.  Basquiat was still doing SAMO. I also visited the Hamptons once or twice that fall and hung out with Neil Williams.

While soaking in what I saw, I found that I needed to adapt the formalism I was interested in, to personal way of making paintings. Relying again on my training in watercolor, I used washes of color to stain sheets of paper. I would then cut the sheets up into small rectangles and then assemble the rectangles onto canvases or other larger supports, using roplex, the all purpose medium /adhesive of the time. I also used “color chips” to make works with, would glue them down and then add washes of color over the original colors.  I felt that a handmade feel was important to retain, to keep a kind of human feeling to the otherwise hard edged geometric abstraction. The patterns that emerged from this way of working intrigued me and sometimes I would make cuts in the assemblage and shift the patterns of the initial composition. This began to be a language for me.. a way of creating a dynamic in the process.  I was following Jasper Johns’ statement, ” … you just take something and do something to it and do something else to it…” A few pieces became irregular in shape, particularly Green Way. The brick pattern I had been using encouraged me to let the work become a pathway across the wall. The idea of “gait” of movement across the surface was very appealing to me. You could say they were simply shaped works but they became that way through the process and not as a preconceived design.  Certainly Dorothea Rockburn’s work, which was everywhere then, really got under my skin. Nothing wrong with that.

On my return to CCS at the beginning of 1979 I made some larger grid etchings with the intent of using them as a structure to paint on.  Having completed just a few I decided to switch to doing oil paintings. I guess the idea of being able to paint things in and out, which oil on canvas lets itself to so well, was a logical thing for me to explore and moving into oil on canvas was a way of evoking “classical” connotations. I did about twenty small paintings that way. I had my graduate show in late 79. It was half representational – comprised of the work I made from 75 – 78 and half abstract, work made from 78-79. That kind of set up a pattern I would follow… the back and forth between mimetic and non-mimetic practices.

I moved to New York the first day of 1980 and lived in Roy Fowler’s loft on Walker St. for a short while.  Lani had already moved to New York and so we found a place on 27th St., but I was not that happy there, was restless, moody. One day I got a call from John Chamberlain. John had seen some of the paper assemblages I had done at my parents house where I had hung them. We’d met a few years before when he’d bought a car I wanted to get rid of.   John called to ask me if I’d help set up a Florida studio for him. He liked my assemblages and thought I would be a good assistant.  He’d had trouble in Essex, CT, where he’d just moved with his new wife. The town wouldn’t see John’s assemblage material, the crushed car metal he had spread out on his back 40, as anything other than junk. They stopped him from working there.  It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, so off I went in May to Florida alone, to work for John.