Karen Gunderson

Karen Gunderson, CLEAR VOICE OF BLACK : Interview by Alessandro Ryker

A:        Her name and surname, Norwegian through and through, are just the tip of the iceberg. Karen Gunderson is, in fact, a cocktail of ancient passions: Scandinavian, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and, since the 19th century, American Indian. She was born in 1943 into the bosom of a middle-class family in Racine, Wisconsin, on Lake Michigan, two hours north of Chicago.  “I had my first taste of culture when I began college”, she confided over the phone from her New York studio, in 2004.  I have never talked to her before, and her voice is so soft that it takes me a while to adjust to the fact that it is a woman’s, “married to Julian Weissman in 1979 and a mother of a son, David, born two years later.  I feel confused and, but suddenly I decide to put as first the prophetic question about crisis in art: a classical question that doesn’t look really for a concrete answer (it doesn’t need: in art crisis means no crisis), but for clues to get into the artist we are talking at…

A:        What is your opinion of the crisis in art? Does it exist? Is painting dead?

K:        Your questions have a complex answer.  Ever since the 1960’s, I have heard critics and artists state that painting is dead.  They have come to this conclusion via their own work.  In the case of Ad Reinhardt, I think he must have felt that he made the ultimate discovery that nothing could follow logically, but I think it is inappropriate to think that one can stop the rest of the world from painting just by telling them they can’t or they shouldn’t.  How do those who have made this claim decide that painting is finished?  Perhaps they think if they say it is so, that makes it so.  They set up a rationale for not painting and then expect everyone to follow it because of their idea.  In a way, in terms of the art world, Richter “brought back painting”, and he was able to do it because all the critics who said painting was dead could rationalize that he was exploring the reasons for painting by painting in all the different ways he paints.  I think he just wanted to paint… not kill painting for everyone else.  I look around and see great paintings being made by artists like Lucien Freud, Odd Nedrum, William Beckman, Sol Lewitt, April Gornik, myself and many, many others.  Painting has not died, but maybe it has for those who cannot find the place in themselves where painting can be an expression of their intellectual pursuit.  As with the death of royalty- painting is dead, long live painting!

A:        Then why do they talk so much about that crisis?

K:        If there is a crisis in art it may stem from cynicism.  Maybe people have become so cynical that they are afraid to embrace something that isn’t “hip”.  It is so much easier to negate or destroy something than to struggle to accomplish something beautiful and human.  As we in New York and you in Madrid have all experienced lately, it is so much easier to blow something up than to build it.  The important thing is to keep building.  I think the crisis, if there were one, is in people’s spirit.  I would grant you that we are in a tough time, but I believe we have to continue to be creative about life.

A:        What about art that isn’t painting?

K:        No problem.  I have an MFA in Intermedia from the University of Iowa where I worked with Hans Breder, and so I am extremely open to any kind of media as a means of expression and intellectual pursuit.  For instance, I think Matthew Barney is a brilliant artist, but the underlying spirit of negativity in his work bothers me.  On the other hand, I love the spirit and the work of Bill Viola.  And one of my very favorite artists is William Kentridge, whose drawings all become his animations.  He is socially critical, but not negative. 

A:        You attended graduate school and received an MA in Painting and the first degree of MFA in the United States in Intermedia so that you could teach?

K:        Yes, I am from a working class family and I needed a job in order to live.  Teaching college provided a job I enjoyed and time to do my art.

A:        While still only 26 years old and working as an instructor at Cornell College in Iowa, Karen Gunderson mounted her first solo exhibition in Racine, Wisconsin and later in Mt. Vernon, Iowa.  From 1970 to 1973, she taught at Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, and in 1973 she moved to New York, where she taught at New York University in the School of the Arts for three years.  She has been living and working in New York ever since.”    Exactly when, how and where did you begin your first important pictorial period, the Clouds?

A:        While still only 26 years old and working as an instructor at Cornell College in Iowa, Karen Gunderson mounted her first solo exhibition in Racine, Wisconsin and later in Mt. Vernon, Iowa.  From 1970 to 1973, she taught at Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, and in 1973 she moved to New York, where she taught at New York University in the School of the Arts for three years.  She has been living and working in New York ever since.”    Exactly when, how and where did you begin your first important pictorial period, the Clouds?

K:        I began making constructions using clouds as images within Plexiglas boxes in 1967 in Iowa, but the paintings of clouds began in 1972 when I was teaching at Ohio State.  They were enamel spray painted images of clouds with secondary images of animals on muslin backed seamless paper.

A:        How long did you paint clouds?

K:        From 1972 until 1989, and then two commissions later in 1995/6 and then another in 2000.

A:        What was the scale of the cloud paintings?

K:        They ranged from 3 x 5 inches to 21 feet wide and 17 feet high.  Most were in the range of 5 x 7 feet and 7 x 9 feet.

A:        Why such big paintings?

K:        The scale was the sky itself, and I wanted to help the viewer imagine and place themselves within the perimeters of the painting.  I also loved painting big.  To capture the essence of the clouds I could use large, sweeping motions.  It was a great feeling.

A:            Twenty-five years painting clouds more than two meters wide are a lot of years and a lot of meters.  What is it about clouds that captivated you for so long?

K:        The clouds were always available to become anything I wanted them to be and to help me work through and understand any art idea I wanted to know about.  They helped me to get to the place of image and feeling.  The clouds allowed me a context to understand the idea of continuous transformation, the light, and the idea of the vital importance of the position of the observer.  Painting clouds kept me on the edge of the art world, observing, but staying out of the fray of art-world politics. 

A:        In 1977, you staged your first successful exhibition in New York, followed by Chicago.  These were important years.  You got married.  Your son was born…

K:        And from that point on, after so many years of teaching, I decided to dedicate more time to painting than to teaching.

A:        And you continued painting even bigger and more complex clouds until 1988, another key year in your career, the year you discovered black.  Can you tell me about that?  How did it happen?

K:        My art dealer Alidar Marberger of the Fischbach Gallery in New York was dying of AIDS.  I painted a sunset for him.  It was an installation of paintings.  One side of the room was the beginning of a sunset with a golden yellow color reflecting on the cloud forms.  Going down the room, the color on the clouds became pinker and pinker until the last painting at the end of the room.  It was a very tall painting entitled, “Memories”, and the clouds were bright cerise red-like pink.  All of the forms of these clouds were first painted with black paint.  After the black was dry, I painted the colors against the texture of the black that made up the forms of the clouds.  Later, when I left the gallery and was just on my own in my studio, I was painting these “under-paintings” of black paint, and one day, my friend Jonathan Silver came over.  I had already sold an entirely black painting entitled “Night Vision”  to my best collector, Blaine Roberts.  Jonathan encouraged me not to paint on the “under-paintings”, but to wait two weeks and see what there was in that time.  That was the beginning.

We went to the museum for part of the day on November 1st to check final lighting and the catalogs and then went back to the hotel to get ready for the opening. Wearing my brown, long vertically pleated, Issey Miyake dress, that had been given to me by a friend,  Julian and I went to the opening early and were interviewed separately for Bahrain Television. 

The rooms looked beautiful.  My paintings looked their best and there were gorgeous flowers on pedestals running the length of each room.  I was so touched by the effort.  It was wonderful to meet Ambassador Ereli and his wife, Marina.  The Minister of Culture, Shaikha Mai was not able to attend the opening but Dr. Isa Amin, the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Culture was there in her place. For a nervous artist in a foreign country, Dr. Isa Amin was both calm and calming.  He made me feel like everything was under control.  With some ceremony, the four of us walked together into the first room to officially open the exhibition. I met so many people that evening and the reaction to my paintings was wonderful.  I was interviewed “live” by the English-speaking radio show and felt he asked some good questions. One of my most important objectives for my art is that people connect with my paintings and become aware of their own personal visual experiences. It was a fantastic and very memorable evening.

The next day, Tuesday, November 2nd, Jeanne Whatley took Julian and I to the Al Bareh Gallery where we saw the paintings of Omar Rashid and met with Jehan Saleh who is the gallery manager of Al Bareh.  She is also a talented artist which I would learn later.  We also had the opportunity to meet the artist and his dealer, Hayfa Al Jishi.  It was a wonderful exhibition and Omar is a superb painter.  His use of color is great and he can really draw.  On top of that, he is a wonderful person. I hope I can help him in NYC some day. I really liked and respected Hayfa and she invited me, Julian, Jeanne and Will Whatley to her home for drinks on Saturday, November 6th, before Julian returned to New York.

A:        What is the secret?

K:        The secret is light.  Light is part of the process, and they have to be lit properly.  They need halogen or quartz overhead lighting.  That is how they are painted, and so that is how I want them to be seen. 

A:        The first series of your black period is the 1990-91 Sunflowers set, and taken up again and expanded in 2003.  Why sunflowers exactly?

K:        In 1985, my husband, Julian Weissman, our son, David, and I went for a month-long trip to Spain.  We were leaving Madrid after a few wonderful days of leisurely walks and visits to museums, heading south, when we began to pass fields of sunflowers, one after the other.  They were everywhere.  I never forgot them.  Then, in 1990, when I was only working in black, I wanted to paint those sunflowers.  To me, they were so full of life, their heads searching for the light.  My sunflowers also capture the light, since when they are illuminated the brush strokes come to life.  I perceive the sunflower as  a magnificent symbol of hope.  And from a formal perspective, they are a good way to paint spatial and emotional relationships.

A:        And now, twelve years later, Sunflowers again.  How have you found the experience of taking a subject up again after so long?  What difference do you notice between your first sunflower and the most recent?

K:        My new sunflowers involve the light even more than the first sunflowers.  Moreover, I think the first sunflowers are perceived more as images, albeit using the haptic, while the new ones, in my opinion, embody the sense of touch or haptic because they use the light even more.  And finally, there is the circles of seeds, present in the first group, but even more evident in the more recent sunflowers.

A:        The circle is not a new element in your work…

K:        True, besides early paintings of clouds in circular formations, the sunflower circle bears a relationship to another circle, one actually in the main painting in this exhibition.  It is the circle that surrounds the figure of Christ in the Crucifixion that I painted in 1990 in honor of my uncle, LeRoy Anderson, a Danish Lutheran minister, after his death.  In that picture, I see the circle as a spirit, or a vortex to the world after death. 

A:        Then came the Orchids

K:        Yes, an homage to beauty.  I am very interested in still life paintings.  The flowers set up an environment of intimacy.  Depending upon the kinds of flowers I use, they have an added emotional parameter.  I find the orchids very elegant, and they have some very interesting forms, and I love the way they have of occupying space, almost regally.

A:            Speaking of regal, then came the Kings.  Which King was the first?

K:        Yes, the King and Queen paintings comprise a rather large series, and one that I foresee continuing in the future.  King Christian X was the first, and he became the beginning of a different series of work.

A:        Let’s see.  In fact, that series is called Moral Courage During WWII: Denmark and Bulgaria.  It consists of a large series of paintings and drawings dedicated to the rescue of the Jews during World War II by two countries, Denmark and Bulgaria.  You painted Christian X of Denmark and Boris III of Bulgaria.  In 2000, in the catalogue of your own exhibition, the critic Elizabeth Frank writes, “Karen Gunderson has created a very novel form of historical painting.  They are works in which the artist commemorates the events and pays homage to the people who participated in that rescue as saviors.  But far from reviving the great machine of historical painting, he artist has chosen an intimate and direct style, using charcoal, chalk and paper for some works, and wide strokes of glossy black paint for others, finally achieving a vision in black and white and another in black and light”.  Why the Holocaust?

K:        In 1988, in New York City, I could sense a real feeling of anti-Semitism.  Farrakhan was speaking out against Jews, there was an incident in Crown Heights, and even Jesse Jackson was calling New York “Hymie Town”.  I decided to raise the archetype of King Christian X of Denmark to help fight the anti-Semitism.  I had learned the apocryphal story of King Christian X from my Uncle, the Danish Lutheran minister.

A:            Creating this “stunning assemblage of black-on-black and charcoal”, as defined by James E. Young, Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, must have been for you, amont other things, a thrilling journey into history…

K:        Yes, it has been fascinating to learn the events that caused events that caused events.

A:        Allow me, in this connection, a science fiction question: If you had had to live in another era, which would you have chosen?  

K:        That depends…it would have been fantastic to be an artist in the XVI century, in France or Spain or England; or even before that in the north of China, under the Sung dynasty.  Then, the artist worked with the Tao, nature (to be simplistic), and made works which gave the viewer he experience of nature, not just the picture of it.

A:        In Europe or China, but always an artist?

K:        Yes, because the artist has the right to be himself, and nothing or no one rejects him, at least theoretically.  But I say this with the knowledge that in those times it would have been virtually impossible for a woman to be an artist.

A:            Christian X and Boris III were your paintings of the kings from those countries.  In reference to the latter, Young says, “her black paintings also underscore what the historian Saul Friedlander has called ‘the ambiguity of goodness’”.  Now that you know so much about kings and courage, could you give me an outline of your ideal king?

K:        James Young referred to the ambiguity of goodness because King Boris III was forced by the Germs to sign the papers that sent 11,000 Macedonian Jews to their death at the hands of the Nazis, but after that, he would not allow the 50,000 Jewish people in Bulgaria to be sent to the death camps.  He was murdered for it. And about …the ideal king is only interested in the good of his people.  Ideally, he would be a strong moral person.  He would use his power to set a good example.  He would be a great patron of art, and a charitable king, with solid ethical business principles, who would work every day to make his country more beautiful.  He is a symbol, so if he does a good job, he helps make the people proud of their country.  It is a tough job because so much responsibility is riding on the way one person lives.  I have come to believe that royalty is a big family business, and the business is the country.  If the royal can help the country, good.  I think monarchies are also good for tourism.

A:        Is there one artist you think your work relates with the most?

K:            Probably Roy Lichtenstein.  In undergraduate school, some of my teachers studied with Hoyt Sherman at Ohio State.  Hoyt was interested in composition and perception.  Lichtenstein was one of his students as well.  Later, I chose to teach at O.S.U. so that I could get to know Hoyt, and that was a rewarding experience.  The other thing that makes me think my work relates with Lichtenstein, besides both of us building particular kinds of compositions is that my images are built from small pieces of abstraction, just as his are.

A:        Which, in your opinion, are the big names on the present-day international contemporary art scene?

K:        The big names that are presented to us are Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Gerhard Richter, Cindy Sherman, Thomas Struth, Murakami, Gilbert & George, Matthew Barney….Of those, I am drawn to Richter and Sherman.  Other big names that I connect with are Lewitt, Christo, Hockney, Katz, Kusama, Stella, Fishl, Kiefer, Neshat, Bleckner and one whom I think is very important is  Juan Munoz.  The world lost a great artist with the death of Munoz.  I felt like he was just getting started.

A:        Ah, a Spanish artist…

K:        Yes, and at this point I must say that exhibiting in Spain is, for me, a very special event, since many of my present favorites, as well as the most important artists in art history, are in fact Spanish artists:  Velazquez, Goya, El Greco, and then Juan Munoz.

A:        What is that you most admire about them?

K:        With reference to Valazquez, Goya and El Greco, they were just geniuses.  With reference to the others, I admire, above all, the fact that they have never allowed themselves to be intimidated by their predecessors.  Quite the contrary, they have embraced the spirit of their predecessors and mastered their skills to the point of making them their own.  This makes their works timeless and simultaneously, so much a part of the present.  This is something that I constantly try to achieve in my own work.

A:        Do you consider yourself a patient person?

K:        Yes and no.  I am willing to spend months finishing a painting.  I think that makes me patient, but while I am painting, I feel impatient for areas to dry so that I can continue.

A:        So you’re methodically impatient?

K:            Exactly.  I work eight hours a day and for years, I’ve only been able to paint one picture at a time.  Now, thanks to the fact that I have an assistant, I can work on up to four works simultaneously.

A:        Let’s talk about reading.

K:        That’s not advisable.

A:        Why?

K:            Because I read anything; mysteries, popular novels, art books…I am not very discerning about my reading.  I know I should be, but I’m not.  Now, for example, I’m reading The Secret Life of Bees.  It’s a good book, but not heavy reading.

A:        Do you work to music?

K:        No, I listen to old movies while I work.  It prevents me from getting distracted by the noises outside.  If the phone rings, I pause the movie, and when I come back, I am right back where I was.

A:        Okay, all we need to know now is who the great masters are for you.  Who inspires Karen Gunderson?

K:        That is very difficult to say, because I find things I love in the works of so many, but here goes, beginning with those whom I most identify with: Velazquez, Lichtenstein, Sol LeWitt, Jonathan Silver, Goya, Grace Hartigan, Juan Munoz, Hockney, Piero Della Francesca…Shall I go on?