Hadas Ophrat Interviews Gary Goldstein on his Work - February 27, 2006
Hadas: I would like to carry on a conversation with you from a personal point of view since I don't want an academic result. Try to be open. If you find something difficult you don't have to answer, OK?
Hadas: So let's get going.
Hadas: What is your daily routine?
Gary: Apart from exceptional situations, in periods that are somewhat less disciplined or less productive, I get up in the morning at about seven. I generally do Yoga at home or go to a yoga class. I come back, start working and my ideal day in fact stretches over the entire day, until I go to bed at about twelve or twelve thirty. Most of the day I work, naturally with breaks. At times I cook or do something else, but on the whole I sit and work. Often the computer is on, I listen to the radio via the Internet or there is a TV program running in the background and the day simply stretches out. It's quality time. I have to be with myself. The problem with this is that it cuts me off from the world a bit. When I do fewer things, when there are fewer things around, it's really much better for me and for my work.
Hadas: And inside this bubble of quality time, how much time do you really devote to painting?
Gary: I suppose it's eight to nine hours a day, if not more. There is a segment in a film about Jasper Johns where Richard Serra is shown talking about him. Serra describes Johns working in his studio, how Johns works a little on his painting, then goes and brings a ladder, returns the ladder, brings something else… Serra asks him: "How long have you been working on the painting?" And Johns replies: "Eight years", and Serra asks him if he likes doing this and Johns answers with a question: "Which part?" It's as though all these things that happen "around" the actual act of painting are also included in the work. But in fact most of my work, most of the hours in the day, I sit here, just where I am sitting now, facing the veranda, facing the trees. I sit and I work.
Hadas: In the living room?
Gary: Yes, on this dining table. Hadas: And the switch from a situation of family space to a space of private, artistic work is not a problem? Gary: Not only is it not a problem. It is, in fact, desirable. I made the switch from a studio outside the house to working in the house and I also adopted a mode of work that I can do at home. I think I have inside me a kind of reservoir or pit of solitude that cannot be filled, and the place, the surroundings, the connection with the family, when Anat or the girls are here and I am working - these are the happiest moments of my life.
Hadas: Can you work even when someone is sitting at the dining table and eating, or drinking a cup of coffee?
Gary: I have no problem with this. This is something I like very much, that is, this situation where people are around, talking …
Hadas: It's amazing, amazing … close your eyes please. Try to describe what you see around you, the space inside and the reflections from outside.
Gary: Yes … (closes his eyes) there is the table with all its defects, with the scuffmarks and stains. There is the door in two parts; sometimes I work with the door open, sometimes closed.
Hadas: What do you see?
Gary: There are the trees: there is a Chinese orange tree and a bamboo tree, not bamboo actually but Some Thai tree. There are the cypresses and there are the windows of the neighbors opposite. There are the potted plants and the continuation of the pinkish floor of the balcony. On the left there is the coffee table and two chairs with white cloth and the white sofa. On two opposite walls there are the works of Sasha Kosolopov, a work by Jan Rauchwarger. All these are things that I look at during the day. They create a sort of atmosphere for me.
Hadas: In other words, this is a space in which you are very well oriented. This is a comfortable or Enveloping environment, a very permanent environment, right?
Gary: Look, this is an important question because most of my life I have had a sense of not belonging, not being in the right place, and this feeling of roots, of belonging, of a place in which I feel comfortable, in which I feel at home, it's something I have truly had perhaps only for the past ten years, and today I am fifty five years old. So perhaps up to the age of forty-five I felt I was out of place.
Hadas: Did you work differently in the kibbutz?
Gary: Yes. When we lived in Afikim, I had a studio near the entrance to the kibbutz, and I really did work differently: I worked on canvasses, with oils, I worked in a completely different way. The decision to work at home, and to have things compatible with the living space, that was a very clear decision. I noticed that artists live with works that are different from those they do in the studio. Gallery owners hang things at home that are different from those they hang in their galleries. Their homes look completely different from the gallery space. This interested me very much and I did not want to make this distinction. For me, the act of doing, the act of observing, is a private act. It's interesting, today when you go to the Documenta or any biennale, you encounter a different kind of experience, a kind of art show, a spectacle, an art event - it is not at all connected to the artistic experience I am looking for. And I did not want this distinction at all between life and an activity that is not connected with my life. The artists who influenced me in the context of multiplication as well as of scale are Paul Klee and Kurt Schwitters, who often worked in transit, in hotels. Van Gogh worked in his bedroom, which also served as a living room and studio. It seems very natural to me. There's this image of the colonel in Gabriel Garcia Marques' "One Hundred Years of Solitude" of a person who is frustrated with his outward- directed, public political activity, isolating himself, cutting himself off and making gold fish, while drinking bitter black coffee. It is in fact also Shcharansky, who sits in the gulag and writes on cigarette paper, which he rolls up. The writer is in fact the prototype that I imagine when I work. The boundaries of my table, on which I work, are important to me. Belonging to a place is very important to me. This feeling of detachment, the experience that I do not belong to the world, that I am getting lost inside the cosmos, inside remote space, is very real.
Hadas: Has your artistic language changed in the move from the studio to the private, domestic, family table?
Gary: Look, in many respects the images have not changed, but the essence has changed a lot. Because when I worked in the studio I was an "arena artist," I was an artist who in a sense created for public space. Turning to the pages of books and to the book format was in a sense finding my way in. It already started at the Jerusalem Artists' Studios but became sharper and more conscious when I moved to working at home. Even today at times I feel like working with different materials but because I do not have any storage space and this could disrupt the course of daily life, I don't do it. That is, I do things that are very intimate and private even though I want people to see the things I do. What I do meets my own judgment and that of Anat, whose opinion I rely on a lot.
Hadas: Isn't there a problem of a lack of perspective here? The fact that it is so intimate so delineated within the 50-60 centimetres that are stretched out before you. And when you finish those hours of work and have to prepare supper, you have to pack up everything. Isn't there a lack of perspective here? This need to go, to leave things, return to them after an hour or in the middle of the night and look at them from a certain distance?
Gary:This too is a very interesting question because perspective is very important, but also very confusing. The subject matter is myself, the banal and absurd things about myself. John Cage talks about the desire to transcend the limitations of his own subjectivity. My work is my own subjectivity. That is, there is no perspective within my own subjectivity. Also in yoga, with the breathing and relaxation and movements you are inside your own body. My existence is inside my body; my spiritual existence is inside my body. My work is the very limited work of a very limited person, of a very limited cosmos. There were years in which there was this need within me to suddenly get up and travel abroad, to be in another place, see other things. This is also one of the things in which Yoga helped me a lot. Today I feel good about myself, both physically and emotionally, like an internal journey. I am aware that I will never manage to do all the things that I want to do. And as the years go by I accept this. This knowledge, that even when you travel abroad, you are ultimately inside yourself. I feel good within my own limitations.
Hadas: But the self with you is not only the space of consciousness, the self with you is the domestic space. It is a physical space. It is part of you. In one of your interviews you said: "I think that collecting is linked to subjectivity." That is, even this act of collecting, packing, storing, cataloguing, belongs to subjectivity, to self-ness. Is this not a conceptual cataloguing? A collecting of the self, of life? Taking Gary and putting him in a cupboard, or putting him in a suitcase and lo and behold! - The suitcase arrives at a museum in San Francisco and out comes a huge exhibition. In other words, the ability to condense the materials of self, with all their multiplicity - the thoughts, the forms, the languages, the knowledge, the freedom, whatever makes up Gary - into a page, into the format of a book.
Gary: Yes. That is part of the work. What motivated me to work in books, books on the history of art, especially those that focus on the career of an artist, is precisely this "telescoping", where you take the career, the deeds, the life of a person and you put them inside a codex, between two covers. On the one hand, it's very limiting. It's sad. It's scary. On the other hand, it creates a unity. I know that this energy, this documentation, this archival work of mine is located in a single place - it helps me a lot. It helps me because this way I do not see my work all the time. Because when I see my works I see all the defects and all the limitations in them. There are people who view the entry into the realm of books as a minor, unimportant art form. It's not Michelangelo. It's not Picasso.
Hadas: Because it is book art?
Gary: Because it's miniature, it's minimalized, it's smaller, it's less ambitious, it's not granite, it's not marble and it's not a cathedral.
Hadas: It's not monumental.
Gary: It's not monumental. It's lyrical. And with this lyricism in every sense of the word I am much more comfortable because I also don't feel comfortable with all this grandiosity, this monumentality.
Hadas: Doesn't the book suggest the image of a body? Isn't the book an aspect of your body?
Gary: Yes, I am not the first to have seen this. There was Tobias Ben Moshe Cohen from the 17th century who drew a parallel between the human body and a house. You see this on the cover of some books. You see the similarity between a book and a building.
Hadas: And from the point of view of “touch”? In a conversation with Yona Fisher, you said: "My work is delivered through touch. I try to reach through touch." Can you continue to claim that when you draw, scratch, erase, you touch the paper the way a person touches his body, his rough or smooth skin?
Gary: There is no doubt about this. As a result of therapy I underwent, I realized that there is a very big difference between cerebral understanding and physical understanding. I began to truly understand the essence of the plastic arts. It is a condition in which you in fact feel and understand the world in a physical way. You see it even in the structure of the language: in English "to make sense of the world" comes from the verb "to sense." In German it's the same - macht sinn means "to make sense," sinnlich means "sensual," kein sinn is "senselessness." The sense/senses relate to things that are associated with consciousness and understanding. The world is perceived and understood through the senses. Before the codex (the bound book) in the 10th-11th century, they used to write on papyrus and stitch the papyrus leaves together to make scrolls. The rolling of the scroll was generally referred to as "plicit" in Latin, while unrolling the scroll was termed "explicit." So in English "to make something explicit" is to make it understood, which means that in fact you are opening … In other words, without the senses, without this act of rolling and unrolling, you in fact do not arrive at an understanding. Actually, the artists' wish to have people approach their compositions like an innocent child and understand them is an illusion - it cannot happen on its own. Even with the physiology of seeing, you notice all sorts of flashes and then you have to utilize all your senses and cultural knowledge in order to understand and interpret what you are looking at.
Hadas: Your work is performative. I would call you a "performance artist" because I have a feeling about the manner of your touch, that it is different from the touch of an ordinary person who paints. When one looks at the signs, at the writing of your artistic language, one can see the adornment as scars. One can see the rhythm, the short lines, as a kind of tattoo. One can liken your visual language to the blood circulation or nervous system. When I experience your paintings, it occurs to me to ask about your mood when you paint. Do you paint with lust? Do you paint with anger? Is it connected with the experience of the moment and with the subject you are painting?
Gary: Look, these questions are very interesting, and your interpretations are also interesting and correct. This ceremonial aspect is very important in my work. There is something frenzied and very high-strung inside my work. I work with both desire and anger and at times even with a sense of very great pleasure. When I see paper, when I see the point of a pen, when I see the contact between the point and the paper, the meeting, the absorption of the drop of blood, that is, the ink, which does not actually go below the surface and does not stay on top, this for me is a sexual, erotic experience of the first order, almost a perversion. When I see a book that I want to work on, I feel desire. You also see this in another paradigm that speaks to me. It is the idea of surrealism that talks about sex and desire as something liberating, as something that makes you feel the subjectivity, the freedom, the joy within yourself. In the context of scars, I have stopped working with oils, among other things because of certain physical sensations. This feeling of oil paint on canvas, on gesso, appears somewhat like a burn scar, like skin that has been burned. This scar, it simply makes me uncomfortable.
Gary: It reminds me of a burn scar and really makes me feel uneasy. When you see a person who has been burned, you see his skin; it creates, in me at least, a feeling of discomfort. My physical position too called for a change. I could not work on or look at something that is hanging in front of me on the wall. I feel comfortable looking from above, holding something, as though I am embracing it like a lover. You can take a book home, get into bed, cover yourself, hold it close to your body, and smell it. You cannot do this with the Mona Lisa. This is a different experience altogether, even though it is a work on a small scale. Only in recent years have I gone back to the wall, have I been able to see my work hanging on the wall. The act of looking is really like dancing with a partner, a kind of intercourse. Something very physical and personal. And I think that I am much more comfortable with my work, which is on the one hand very intimate, and on the other very personal, very physical, but nevertheless very remote, where things are said but not in too revealing a manner, in hints, which leaves room for distance, for escape. This is something that is associated with my generation and not with the directness of the present generation.
Hadas: In the article that Tali Tamir wrote about you, "The Artist as a Cultural Mole," she quotes Antonin Artaud: "I use the word 'cruelty' in the sense of a lust for life." And there is here some sort of choice between two contradictory focal points, as it were, of love and death, lust and cruelty. Do these two polar opposite feelings really exist to that extent in the body of your work?
Gary: Undoubtedly. Dylan Thomas wrote: "Go not gently into that dark night." This feeling, this anger, is what keeps you alive, and when you resign yourself and let things flow, it is as though you do not exist anymore. Because of this I think that there is something very fundamentally contradictory between the Buddhist concept of the world and Judaism as manifested in the Book of Psalms. And I suddenly feel very comfortable with the Psalms. Because you are constantly having a very paranoid, day to day, disturbing relationship with the Almighty, with the cosmos surrounding you - although in the sixth psalm, King David says to God: Do not be angry with me, do not punish me, do not kill me, because when I am in my grave, no one will be able to remember you or tell about you. That is, it is clear that God not only needs you but that there is no God without you. I feel comfortable with this direct connection of David with God, with God's anger at David. It's as though the cosmos is in a way a likeness of my relationship with my mother. It cannot give you one minute of rest or quiet. This is the way I came into the world; this is how the world exists in my consciousness. And all this anger is also related to my manner of working.
Hadas: Can one add to this a third emotion, a religious emotion? I get the feeling that you paint texts, signs, that you do not paint forms, that the painting is hierarchical, and this is related to the tradition of religious painting.
Gary: I was an art student in New York in the 1970s during the period of Minimalism and Conceptualism, and I could not relate to them then. What kept me going were visits to the Metropolitan Museum and to other places to see Byzantine art, icons, supposedly Primitive Art, art that derives from religious rites and ceremonies. I was always interested not in the position of the artist toward the art scene, but in who the person is. What are his beliefs? What are his physical, emotional and spiritual needs vis-?-vis what he is doing? I also think that in the final analysis it is almost impossible to do something that lacks a spiritual meaning. You look at Frank Stella, the minimalist, who says things like "what you see is what there is, "there's nothing beyond what you see - and he wants you to register the composition in the first few seconds. This is in contrast to Frank Stella on reaching middle age, who talks about a spiritual-emotional experience. I understand the change he underwent because this is the essence of my life and I hope that other people too will relate to the spiritual in my work as I do when I create it. Even though I try not to explore the meaning of the symbols I use too much. Your reading is correct. My Frame of reference is less easel paintings and paintings on the wall, and more manuscripts.
Hadas: That's interesting because many have related to the context of graffiti and animation in your paintings, and in my eyes the influence stems in fact from religious, iconic painting.
Gary: Undoubtedly, even though these things stem from the same source. Many people make the comparison between my work and that of Keith Haring. Keith Haring comes from Pittsburgh, and the Carnegie-Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh had works by Aleschinsky, which very much influenced Keith Haring's linear work. Aleschinsky himself was greatly influenced by Japanese calligraphy. The graffiti artists' cry is something very externalized, very self-promotional. You realize this when you pass down the street in a car or when you are on the subway and you see a flash. It's something you absorb in a split second, but in the final analysis it is also related to the black leader Jesse Jackson, who says: "I am somebody." And when you read interviews with graffiti artists, they say: "We are somebody, we want to be treated like human beings and leave, even for a moment, something spiritual, until someone comes and covers it up." Every person wants to leave a mark. It's like all the pilgrims who made the journey and carved the sign of the cross to show that they were there. Leaving a mark is a very spiritual thing. Even though I enjoy working, enjoy it immensely, I want to leave something for following generations, leave my mark.
Hadas: In the context of the same traces that you talk about, I would like to move from the "something" in the body of the work to the "somebody" you talk about. I want to ask about the figures, the organs that are reflected off the page at us. My feeling is that of a mirror inside which self-images, come apart. Deconstruction of the self. The organs that appear from it are the evidence that you leave. It is not clear incidentally, what the figures are saying - they clearly have something to say. The figures mostly have their mouths closed, and when their mouths are open, their teeth are almost always clenched, preventing possible expression.
Gary: I think we attach too much importance sometimes to clear and conscious things on the cerebral- conscious level. There is some kind of expectation that people will utter well-articulated statements, but I think that my work operates much more on the level of feelings, which are much less well phrased. The multitude of texts in my work is an expression of the noise existing inside my head. Most of my existence is built on the fact that there is an unrelenting noise all the time. So what you see in my works is almost a photo-realism, a kind of representation of the noise that I have in my head. And it is parts and it is flashes and it is a kind of dancing of images and memories and associations, to the extent that I cannot phrase anything.
Hadas: Yes, but you see here that one can definitely leave the multitude of details for a general statement where the figures have closed mouths, where the word balloons emerging from them are empty, empty of text. There is some kind of a statement here that the figures do not want to or cannot express. You block something, you close something inside, you reveal the figures, you reveal the organs, but you do not reveal their thoughts or their intentions.
Gary: That's not entirely correct. Because I think that many times people say things in a more correct and simple way not in the content of the text but in the things around it. Notice that the pages of used books contain stains and marks. In my work there is a multitude of symbols. It creates a rhythm, it creates noise, it creates energy, and it creates movement. There is the matter of relations and temperatures, of black, white, off-white and red, warm and cool. You see the ink, which is not on the surface but is absorbed inside. These are things you register; these are things about the atmosphere. The atmosphere, the feeling - that is what interests me. Because I think that there is really no point.
Hadas: Not only no point, no message.
Gary: There is no message.
Hadas: The message is the energy, it is the multiplicity, is that what you claim?
Gary: Right, right. I don't think that everyone leaves a final formulated statement.
Hadas: I cannot reconcile this with the observation regarding the religious painting.
Gary: Yes, religious, but I change and extend my perception of "religious" in the sense that once again I adopt the Jewish model regarding contradictions. Where you say one thing and at the same time say exactly the opposite and both are correct. There is no sense, no meaning, no uniform meaning, it's the argumentation, it's the touching, it's the annoyances, it's the camaraderie.
Hadas: If that's the case, you are saying that this mould is one of non-statement.
Gary: Both an inability and a lack of need for statement. I studied in an American university, I studied history, American Studies, and you see the paradigm of an American writer like Hemingway - clear sentences, well phrased, short. And I thought that the problem was with me, that I say both this and that, and that I turn things around, that it's my stylistic problem. It took me years to understand that this is a genetically moulded way of thinking. In Yiddish often you say something and say it again reversing the order of the words and another meaning emerges. "Er is a groisse mann" - "A groisse mann is er". "He is a big man" - "A big man is he" are not the same thing, even though they are very close. And I think that this is something in our perception, when you think of the meaning of Jewish existence. You see this also in the arrangement of the Talmudic page, when you read the text and you see the interpretations around the various letters. It is something programmed deep inside the Jewish DNA.
Hadas: What about the book that you choose to work on? What is the significance of the act of working on top of a painting?
Gary: There is clearly a meaning. But it is a little like the significance of putting the picture of a rabbi or of Buddha facing you in the place where you enter to meditate.
Hadas: Do you paint barefoot?
Gary: (Pausing) No, when I think about it - no. I have to wear shoes.
Hadas: (Laughing) Work shoes?
Gary: Yes. I have to be dressed for work. It's sort of part of the ritual. There's an austerity - I always wear black, a black shirt, a black T-shirt.
Hadas: Do you work with gloves?
Gary: No, not with gloves. It's interesting, they talked about the tortures that the Americans subjected their prisoners to in Iraq, and they talked about the fact that one of the things they did was to put gloves on the hands of the prisoners for days on end, with a light that was burning all the time and with loud music. Even going around with gloves is something that drives people out of their minds. I must have feeling in my hands. There's a kind of action that I repeat, the start of a mantra inside which I begin, and this sensation in the tips of my fingers is what steers me.