Trevor Winkfield: On Painting and Writing, July 5, 2017:
The painter Trevor Winkfield was born in 1944 in Leeds, England, and moved in 1969 to New York City. There he became involved with writers, poets, and other painters from the New York School, including John Ashbery and James Schuyler. Winkfield’s paintings are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Berkeley Art Museum, among many other in the United States and abroad. He shows at the Tibor de Nagy, in Manhattan.
Winkfield is also the author of several books. Recently, he published a book in collaboration with the poet Charles North titled Elevenses, which is published by Granary Books in an edition of 30 copies, all of which are signed by the author and artist.
Trevor is a friend of many years. Over the course of several decades, and through the halls of many museums and galleries, he has done his best to teach me how to look at paintings, including his own, a few of which I proudly hang in my home. He is a master at explaining what makes great paintings great, how they repay careful looking, and how to appreciate the excellence of less-great, but very good, painters.
The imaginative world of his own paintings, inhabited by characters ranging from Egyptian gods, to roosters, to madmen, to famous poets, is an orderly delirium presided over by one of the brightest and greatest of palettes in contemporary painting. We talked recently about all of this and much else. Here is part one of our conversation. Part two will be published tomorrow.
Lee Smith: Can you talk about your new book with the poet Charles North?
Trevor Winkfield: Charles and I often meet in uptown Manhattan around 11:00 a.m., buy a coffee and pastry, then head for a park bench for an amiable talk. Elevenses takes its title from this ritual—elevenses being the English expression for a mid-morning break.
As designer of the book, I tried to make the book look as much like a medieval manuscript as I could, using as many colors as possible . . . .and then some. I hope the effect is one of handling an object rather than just reading a book, with my saturated images complementing rather than illustrating Charles' text, a text exemplifying our mutual love of journals, Dorothy Wordsworth's above all.
LS: We first met when you were designing book covers, including one for a reissue of the poet John Ashbery’s Some Trees. Also, you’ve worked with writers and poets before, including a series of portraits you painted of poets, like Ashbery, Ron Padgett, and Doug Crase. What is it that you as a painter like about collaborating with writers?
LS: You’re also a writer, and a poet, and a translator, as well as a painter.
TW: I'm not a poet, though I wrote poems and short stories immediately after leaving art college in 1967, and continued roughly through 1975. I wrote because I didn't know how to paint the paintings I wanted to paint, but I found I could I describe the elusive painterly scenarios in words. And I found a new way to paint during that same period by studying, then translating Raymond Roussel's expository essay “How I Wrote Certain of My Books,” which described the techniques he used in writing his very strange novels and plays. I found I could use similarly bizarre techniques to construct a painting. So from 1975 onwards I became a full-time painter. I never wrote another poem or story, since they had been only a means to an end. Neither was I tempted to translate anything else, ever. Translating is a total nightmare: I'd wake up at 3:00 a.m. having thought of another solution to a translation problem.
The only period where I've subsequently felt an urge to write was 1990 through 2005. Never having taught, I had all these ideas bubbling up inside me with no audience, at which point two very nice and sympathetic editors approached me for articles. Despite the travel perks, and the pleasure of seeing my name in print, after I'd written about 20 pieces I realized I'd said more or less all I wanted to say, so I stopped. I think the problem with so many critics is that they go on writing too long—it becomes a job and not a vocation. Repetition sets in. And in my particular case, I felt that the attention span of audiences was changing. Web magazines and blogs were taking over, with a lot less space for expository articles, let alone personal viewpoints such as I expounded.
LS: As a young boy growing up in post WWII Great Britain, what were your earliest experiences of art?
TW: The city of Leeds had an official coat of arms, which I seem to recollect was emblazoned on a lot of municipal vehicles trundling around our neighborhood. It was probably my first experience of everyday Surrealism, since the coat of arms depicted a central blue shield displaying a golden fleece suspended from a belt, with a black band above it holding three silver stars. But what made it especially strange was the fact that the shield was supported on either side by owls wearing ducal coronets, and nestled on the shield itself was a shiny silver helmet streaming ribbons. And balanced stop that was another, smaller owl. A pyramid of nonsense. None of it made any sense to me at the time, and even though I later discovered the reasons for each piece of symbolism, I initially revelled in its apparent ambiguity. You can barely go five miles in England without running into yet another castle or ruined monastery, so by hopping onto my bike I discovered lots more heraldry in the surrounding countryside and neighboring towns. It didn't take long to find out that heraldry had its own exotic terminology —azure, couchant, proper, gorged, engrailed, chevron, fess, shakefork, and so on. Very appealing to a schoolboy sleuth—a secret language to describe the bright, flat color fields I instinctively knew I wanted to emulate in my crayon drawings.
LS: But you didn’t go directly from crayon drawings to acrylic paint on canvas. What did you mean when you said that you had to find a new way to paint?
TW: The problem in a nutshell was how to stop being a student and how to become a full-time painter. I was a slow developer—it took me eight years to find out. I didn't stop making art entirely—I made a few drawings for small magazines, plus a handful of paintings for friends' birthdays. But translating Roussel's essay (very carefully, as my French at that time was only a notch or two above schoolboy French) introduced me to a much wider world than the somewhat static one I was experiencing in London. My student paintings were essentially one dimensional, both literally and figuratively, simple objects against plain backgrounds. Moving to Manhattan in 1969 helped too. I'd never experienced so many overlapping occurrences as Manhattan had to offer. Has anyone ever noticed how many doorways there are in Manhattan? How many people emerge and disappear into them all the time?
A feeling of constant and unfocused busyness, with nothing static. This is what Roussel had to offer: a tumult of images, ever unfolding, one thing leading to another.
In a manner of speaking, Roussel could make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Something he taught me was that I could use something totally mundane to produce the most outlandish imagery. For instance, he phonetically distorted his shoemaker's name and address, Hellstern, 5 Place Vendome, into "helice tourne zinc plat de rend dome," which translates as "propeller turns zinc flat goes dome"—all the elements used in a complicated apparatus constructed by one of the protagonists in Roussel's novel Impressions of Africa.
One lesson Roussel taught me was that you could extract complexity from simplicity. You could take anything simple—a business card—and squeeze from it several meanings, shapes and puns. One of my earliest painterly puns involved piling a heap of builder's mortar atop a professor's mortar board. An almost banal use of Roussel's methods . . . but only John Ashbery got the connection. A general oversight that alerted me to the sad fact that most people don't want to think when they're looking at a painting.
LS: The way I look at paintings is how you've taught me to see them over the years: construction, composition, color, subject, etc. On Instagram I started posting pictures of details of paintings I photographed, which is how you taught me to look at paintings—break them down into smaller parts and look at them like that to understand how it was really made. But what do you mean here when you say most people don't want to "think" when they're looking at a painting?
TW: Well, it's the difference between looking and seeing. Most viewers are tourists, and just look. Some stay and study a painting, and they're the visitors, the ones who try to think about what's going on. There again, some great paintings are just meant to be enjoyed. You don't need to understand the religious symbolism underpinning most medieval altarpieces, for instance, and even when you do it's no guarantee you'll appreciate them any deeper than if you viewed them purely formally, as simple shapes and colors. But I've always been the kind of inquisitive viewer who needs to know why that particular martyr is hanging upside down on a wheel.
Curiosity is a way "into" a painting, and I've noticed that the more time one spends trying to read a painting, to think about what's happening directly in front of your nose, the more secrets the painting will reveal. It's like time spent getting to know another person—it usually repays the effort. For instance, a couple of years ago I attended a talk at the Frick Museum on an Antoine Watteau painting, Venetian Pleasures, that had been loaned from the Scottish National Gallery.
It was a painting I thought I knew well—I'd studied it in Edinburgh a year or two earlier. This talk took place in front of the painting, and I managed to position myself directly in front of it. My nose was 12 inches from the surface for the better part of an hour. That close, and with that amount of time to scrutinize, I began to find things I'd never noticed before: how lascivious the white female statue looked, and how she seemed like a real woman who'd been doused in whitewash. The incredible amount of sexual tension generated between the assembled couples via their glances, the way in which one woman ignores her potential seducer to focus on the dancer in the foreground. The delicate coloration of her clothing offset by the gray garb of the man next to her.
All this taking place in a few square inches—incredibly economical. Other paintings, as I've mentioned, don't need that much scrutiny. Mondrian's surfaces are scrumptious enough without theorizing (whatever you do, never read his writings).
Trevor Winkfield: On Major, and Minor, Artists, July 6, 2017:
Yesterday I spoke with the painter Trevor Winkfield about his early years as an artist—and his first experience of surrealism as a young boy in post WWII Great Britain, studying heraldry. (You can read the first part of our interview here.)
Winkfield was born in 1944 in Leeds, England, and moved in 1969 to New York City. His paintings are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Berkeley Art Museum, among many other in the United States and abroad. He shows at the Tibor de Nagy, in Manhattan.
Winkfield is also the author of several books, including among others collections of his art writing, translations, and poems. Recently, he published a book in collaboration with the poet Charles North titled Elevenses, published by Granary Books in an edition of 30 copies, signed by the author and artist.
Trevor is a friend of many years. Over the course of several decades, and through the halls of many museums and galleries, he has done his best to teach me how to look at paintings, including his own, a few of which I proudly hang in my home. He explains what makes great paintings great, how they repay careful looking, and shows how to appreciate the excellence of the less great but very good painters.
In this second part of our interview, Winkfield explains which artists are most worth the viewer’s attention and discusses some lesser known, and no less worthy, artists he thinks it’s time to look at once again.
Lee Smith: Who else repays that kind of careful looking that you spoke of yesterday? I know you are a big fan of Paolo Uccello—does he? Maybe this is another way of asking you who are your favorite painters, or maybe better—who are the five painters who repay this kind of close attention, or that you've learned most from.
Trevor Winkfield: Certainly I'd have to acknowledge Uccello as one of my great enablers, one of several painters who taught me—as both viewer and painter—how to travel from one side of the canvas to the other side, with no boring patches in between. Though he also brought home to me how disinterested I was in his main obsession: Perspective was not for me. I was much more attracted by the flatness of Egyptian wall paintings than by Uccello's vanishing points. It's strange, I've always seen the world around me in terms of flat patterns . . . maybe I was born with ocular defects!
I'd be hard pressed to name the other four artists who've influenced me the most, and most of their influences are not immediately visible in my own work.
Georges Braque, Wyndham Lewis, Paul Cezanne, and Georges Seurat are some of my perpetual favorites. But I'd have to go back to Roussel to pinpoint the one person who taught me how to really see things with any intensity.
Very early on I read a poem of his, “La Vue,” which was based on three minuscule views that Roussel proceeded to describe in excruciating, impossible detail. One scene in particular struck me: a tiny photograph set into the head of a pen holder which could be held up to the eye and viewed through a diminutive magnifier, a kind of porthole. My own grandmother possessed one similar, so I was familiar with the conceit, similar to William Blake's idea of seeing the world in a grain of sand. At which point seeing becomes scrutiny.
Shortly thereafter (and it's worth noting that Roussel has influenced generations of artists, from Marcel Duchamp onwards, because his work is both enigmatic and persistently visual) my whole approach to painting changed. I began examining every square inch of the paintings I liked. You might say my eye became like a worm wriggling around on the surface, delving into everything, at close quarters. That's when my student enthusiasm for Roy Lichtenstein began to wane: the closer my eye approached his surface, all that happened was his dots became bigger. Ocular sleuthing proved unnecessary.
I think it was Andre Breton who called Roussel "the great magnetizer." His magnetic little peephole certainly sucked me in. "The longer you stare, the more you see" might be his motto, and it's my own, too.
LS: I am glad you brought up Cezanne because I am trying to understand what it is he did with perspective that makes it interesting. Or maybe another way to ask that is: Why is Cezanne such a central figure in modern painting? Is it fair to see Duchamp as a painter who learned a terrific amount from Cezanne, from like the Chocolate Grinder to the large glass?
TW: It's worth recalling that old saw: actions have unexpected consequences. Or: no good deed goes unpunished. When Cezanne tried to capture the outlines of Mont Sainte Victoire, in a series of paintings of the same name, I don't think he can have foreseen that it would very soon lead to something called Cubism. But then I don't think he knew the kind of painter he himself would become, since his early picture planes are veritable hotbeds of rapes, murders, and orgies—nothing like the austere limner of mountains he became.
I suspect Duchamp and the Cubists were especially attracted by Cezanne's figure paintings—his numerous bathing scenes and his portraits of friends, family, and domestic staff. They're very dispassionate . . . and very odd! The faces lack any kind of emotion apart from stoic boredom. They've had their personalities stolen, as though they existed solely as excuses to explore the medium of paint. That's my feeling, anyway. Duchamp, referring to his own work, categorized it as "the beauty of indifference."
Cezanne's figures end up resembling robotic sculptures, not surprising since he was the first painter to use his brush as though it were a chisel, hacking out a shape on canvas, trying to see it from all sides. And using paint as modeling paste, patting it onto the surface like a sculptor dabbing nodules of wet clay onto an armature.
I'm not sure that Duchamp found Cezanne's influence first hand, or through the intermediary influence of Braque and Picasso. It's there all the same, though this time cloaked in humor, a quality found nowhere in Cezanne, who was a bit of a misanthrope. He didn't like being touched, for one thing.
Anyway, Cezanne spent a great deal of time drawing sculptures in the Louvre, and he also painted and drew in quarries, which might account for the faceted surfaces we find throughout his later canvases. Many of Duchamp's early paintings, before he opted for readymades and chess, resemble rock faces. Very cold and calculating. Stand in front of his "King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes" in the Philadelphia Museum and see if you disagree.
LS: I want to bring us up to more contemporary times. It's relatively easy for young artists to get a sense of their contemporaries and the historical past with all of the social media out there. Our friend Elliott Green loves to post his work on Instagram, for instance, where he finds lots of people interested in his work and contemporary painting generally. But for you growing up in the north of England, how did you come to experience not just art, but the particular currents in art that motivated you.
TW: How did I find out about art? The library. There was a very good branch library at the bottom of my street in Leeds, the same one that the playwright Alan Bennett had frequented a decade earlier. It had books on most subjects, including heraldry, which was right next to the history of gardening section, another passion of mine. And of course I could easily catch a bus into the center of Leeds, all of a mile and a half away, and read even more, including national newspapers and international magazines. There wasn't any sense of being isolated, which is more of a problem in the States, a place my late friend the poet Larry Fagin described as a land mass and not a country. There's a lot of truth in that. It does have a terrifying sense of loneliness when you're out there.
You mentioned the Internet as a facilitator to explore the past. I hate to disillusion you, but in my experience younger artists have little or no interest in the past—2000 is the cut-off date for most of them. Though they can, and probably still do, make great discoveries when they venture into their college libraries and find books on Rembrandt next to those on Rauschenberg and Ryman.
I remember taking a very long bus ride as a 14-year-old in the middle of a snowy Winter to see the Merzbarn that Kurt Schwitters had begun in the Lake District just prior to his death, a pilgrimage based on a tiny review. So a newspaper clipping can open a whole new world to you, as can glancing at a postcard magnetized to a friend's refrigerator door. It doesn't take much . . . Just taking your eyes off the computer screen.
LS: Are there more or less contemporary British painters you like, David Hockney, Graham Sutherland (though I know he's a bit older)? What about Lucian Freud?
TW: I certainly liked early Edouardo Paolozzi, especially the bulbous humanoid sculptures he made in the late 1950s, the ones with spindly legs. They had this wonderful patina constructed from machine parts pressed into wet clay, which he then cast in bronze. Something like the science fiction monsters I was currently obsessed with in my adolescence (War of the Worlds is still one of my favorite nightmares). Hockney and R.B. Kitaj were also student enthusiasms of mine. But I think in neither case did they do much major work after the mid-1960s. Hockney did his best work, his Pop paintings, while still a student at the Royal College of Art, and even Bacon never recovered from the success of his first retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1962.
The poet Doug Crase emailed me recently, talking about Gertrude Stein's readers. Apparently some Hollywood mogul, probably Sam Goldwyn, asked her the secret of her fame, to which she replied "small audiences." What a gal! And she was right, of course, insofar as for most artists the doorway to success also doubles as the gateway to failure.
The usual suspects aside, I was much more interested in marginal figures such as John Latham, who made fantastic reliefs using books, usually charred and stuck in plaster on canvas. And early on, my fellow Leeds painter Patrick Hughes was a huge influence, basically allowing, even encouraging me to be as funny as I wanted to be in painting. Not exactly a permissible path at the time in Northern England.
LS: You talk about marginal artists. So much of art seems to be about aiming for something major, but the marginal aimed for something smaller and often with great success. So what makes marginal artists often more interesting than those artists universally acclaimed as great? Or what makes them more useful to artists and a source of joy and charm to the audience?
TW: Well, if Sherlock Holmes made no bones about being an omnivorous reader, I have to confess being a omnivorous viewer. I have a good eye for what's good and what's only mediocre. But that said I've always tried to be generous, right from being a student at a very rigorous art college, where all was geometric seriousness with no laughs. No disparate elements were allowed to ruffle the aesthetic discourse (this in a country renowned for its sense of humor). A lot of other tasty ingredients apart from humor had found their way onto the banned list, too, but don't get me started.
Actually, it was good to have something to react against, a bit like the oyster forming a pearl around the irritating piece of grit. As an act of defiance I pretended to prefer Theo Van Doesburg over his mentor Mondrian. That was cheeky in my part, but I felt some reaction against the prevailing winds was necessary. Later, I got to know the work of their compatriot Bart van der Leck, and he was good too, a little different, adding another side to the story. Then I stumbled across yet another De Stijlartist, Marlow Moss, the Cornish lesbian who trotted around the countryside garbed in male riding gear, and whose work complemented and occasionally surpassed that of Mondrian.
They're utterly fascinating, these so-called secondary artists, adding nuances to someone else's matrix. Really I just like anything that's good, it doesn't have to be great, though I like "great art" too.
Another Picasso/Matisse show? Give me André Derain, or better yet late Maurice de Vlaminck. Wouldn't a show of his snowy gas stations be an eye-opener?