"Art Space Talk: Karen Gunderson", by Brian Sherwin, MYArtSpace, March 5, 2007
I recently interviewed artist Karen Gunderson. Karen is prolific painter who has gained a high degree of respect throughout her years of work. Through the years she has befriended major names in the art world... Sol Le Witt, Elaine de Kooning, Willem de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Julian Weissman, Hans Breder... the list goes on. There is an old saying, "You are as good as the company you keep."- Karen Gunderson is in good company.
Karen's series of 'water' paintings are of great interest to me. In all-black paintings, Karen renders expansive bodies of water through what critic Gerard McCarthy described in Art in America as a "deft working of surface texture alone." He continues, "Over the past eighteen years the Wisconsin-born New York artist has perfected a technique whereby pictorial illusions result from white light reflected off the raised edges of varied brushstrokes."
Due to the way in which light reflects off of the black paint, Gunderson's canvases sparkle, shift, and change as viewers move about the artworks- just as water itself undulates and glistens when seen from various angles.
Karen is represented by ClampArt.
You can find out more about Karen by visiting her site www.karengunderson.com
B: When did you first discover that art would be an important part of your adult life?
K: Something happened at 12 years old that shaped my perceptions, but knowing that art would be an important part of my adult life happened in college…at what is now the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater. At the time it was a State University at Whitewater. A much smaller context than the one it is today.
B: Can you share some of your philosophy about art and artistic creation?
K: I feel like we are in an on-going Renaissance of sorts. A kind of a rebirth of humankind and a quest to find out the different aspects of being human. That is why I like so many different kinds of art. I see them all as expressions of our humanness. And I think it is our job as artists to find an aspect of our nature and investigate and express it…share it with the hopes of a better understanding of ourselves and others.
B: From 1963 to 1966 you studied with Clayton Bailey and Tom Parker at The University of Wisconsin, Whitewater. How did that experience influence your future work?
K: I was a kid from a working class family from Racine, Wisconsin and they were the first people I ever met who felt a true passion about art. Because of them I became serious about art and built the work ethic I have today. Actually Clayton wouldn’t talk to us if we weren’t in the studio at least eight hours a day. He and Tom and John Stevenson were all tough taskmasters and I will be forever grateful to them for helping me build my discipline. They were also very encouraging and helpful. Without Tom Parker I wouldn’t have gotten to The University of Iowa with a graduate assistantship. He literally took my slides to Stuart Edie and said help her. There was also someone named Francis Quello who had worked with Hoyt Sherman at Ohio State. I learned about composition from him.
B: In 1967 you studied with Hans Breder. The work you created at that time was plexiglas constructions using Cloud images. During that same year you were included in the first Graduate student exhibition in a professional gallery as a part of "Seven Young Talents from Iowa" at the Richard Feigen Gallery in Chicago, Illinois. How did these experiences, working with Breder and the Graduate exhibit, shape you as an artist?
K: Working with Hans brought a new kind of focus. I learned to pare down anything that wasn’t essential to what I was going for. It also allowed me to come at something from many different angles. Hans Breder is a great artist and a great teacher. He stayed in Iowa because he loved what he built there. For the sake of his art, I wish he had gone to New York, but I am certainly grateful as are so many others that he was there for us. Being a part of the "Seven Young Talents from Iowa" at the Richard Feigen Gallery in Chicago was a huge honor and it was great because we bonded as a group. I am still good friends with Bill Beckman and I met my best friend Meg Abbott while she was working for Lotti DrewBear at Feigen. It also gave me a different angle on the business side of being an artist.
B: In 1968 you received the first MFA degree in the nation in Intermedia. Can you share with us why you decided to concentrate on that area of study?
K: I was working with Hans and I was making three dimensional objects, but had never taken a sculpture course at Iowa. They had this new degree and since I was working with a combination of media, they gave me the degree. The area of study became more performance oriented than I was at the time, but I was faithful to the concept after graduation and when I began teaching, I taught Intermedia with site specific ideas and performance everywhere I went when it was allowed. It was often thought of as "suspect".
B: Through the years you have befriended many important people in the 'art world'- Sol Le Witt, Elaine de Kooning. How did those relationships shape you as an artist? Did you ever meet Willem de Kooning?
K: Yes, I met Willem de Kooning with Elaine on many occasions. It is amazing to meet a legend and you can feel the electricity between the paintings and the person. That’s how it felt in his studio with him there. Elaine was one of the most inclusive and generous people I have ever met. She was a really good artist as well. She made me feel the art world was filled with real people. Not just legends…even though Willem sure was one.
Sol LeWitt besides being a great artist is a great inspiration. He also is magnanimous and generous and brilliant and sets a high mark for all of us to be true to what we believe. If I had his power, I would do exactly as he does because he has tremendous integrity and insight.
You didn’t ask me about Grace Hartigan, but she also is a legend and an amazing artist. I have learned to always keep trying to learn and change in my art, at least not to be afraid of it. I would say she has taught me courage.
B: How did your relationship with Julian Weissman shape you as an artist?
K: Julian made me a mother and a woman. Those aspects of life certainly have shaped me as an artist. He has always been supportive of me and my art and has believed in me even when he didn’t agree with what I was doing. I couldn’t have done half of what I have done without him.
B: Many female artists at that time were held back due to a male dominated 'art world'. Do you think that problem is still the same today or is there now a sense of equality? How have you seen the 'art world' change as far as gender roles are concerned? Do you think female artists of the not-so-distant past are finally obtaining the recognition they deserved?
K: I think there is more of a sense of equality today, but still there are many more male artists in collections and museums than women. I never felt bad about it because all the men that I had relations with in my art career have been nothing, but supportive. In fact in the "Seven Young Talents from Iowa", I was the only woman. As a woman, and as a teacher, I try to be a role model to both male and female students.
B: You've been reviewed in Art in America, ARTnews, The New York Times- did you ever expect your work to be so successful?
K: I was thrilled when my work was reviewed by the people who reviewed it. They were connecting to my paintings in serious and interesting ways which was first of all great and they made pathways for people to have a way in to see and understand the paintings in ways they might not have been able to without the writing.
B: In 2001 you were invited to be in the Florence Biennale. You won the Lorenzo Magnifico Second Prize in Painting... how did you feel upon learning that you had won the prize?
K: The critic Barbara Rose had visited my studio a while before I received the invitation to be in the Biennale and so when I saw her name as a juror, I decided to participate even though the artists had to pay shipping. Barbara Rose is an amazing person. She is brilliant and tough and rigorous in her way of looking at art. I was really happy actually stunned to receive the prize. It meant a lot because there were some really good painters in the Biennale and that Barbara Rose and John Spike and David Rubin had been a part of the choosing made the honor even greater.
B: In 2004 you were included in Donald Kuspit’s book The End of Art, as a "New Old Master". How did you feel about that?
K: I have never been a part of a painting/genre group before so I am excited about it. I really respect the people named as "New Old Masters" and although my work probably seems more cutting edge or even conceptual, I really feel honored to be associated with these artists by Donald Kuspit.
He put together the show of "New Old Masters" recently in Gdansk, Poland and I went for the opening and I have to say that he did an amazing job with the help of Natalia Kruss and Krzysztof Izdebski. The whole thing was beautifully done including the catalogue in which Donald wrote good small pieces about each artist. It felt important and challenging. I loved it and felt so proud to be a part of it.
B: What do you think about some of the art that is being made today? For example, the work created by Damien Hirst.
K: I like some of his work and I admire the way he carries off giant megashows, I think maybe Gagosian to his credit has a hand in that. His fly pieces are really good and the butterflies are beautiful, but I always feel bad when a creature has to die for art. I think I prefer imagination and metaphor or reference materials. I don’t like the fact that he doesn’t paint his paintings. Sol LeWitt doesn’t draw his wall drawings either, but he makes the plan and that’s a different idea. The other thing I don’t like about Damien Hirst is the cynicism. There are other artists who work that way as well. Maybe it’s a part of human nature, but I don’t like it.
B: Do you have any 'studio rituals'? As in, do you listen to certain types of music while working? What helps to get you in the mood for working?
K: I listen to old movies. I love old movies and depending upon my mood, I play something and it acts as a great white noise. Also, if the phone rings, I can stop the film and after the conversation, I put it back on and I am back in the same emotional space.
B: What trends do you see in the 'art world'?
K: I see figuration becoming more important…I think it has been becoming more important for some time. That includes photography and film. I also personally like the cause/effect/nature kinds of work that I see out there.
B: Any tips for emerging artists?
K: Emerging? I feel like we are all emerging all the time! If you mean young and inexperienced, I would say find a way to make a living and be true to what you want to do. I taught college after graduate school and I can’t believe how hard it is to find a job teaching now. My assistant Lara Star Martini who is a fantastic artist and would be a great teacher is having a really hard time finding a job. If anyone reads this who can help her, you wouldn’t be sorry. In terms of the art, the more honest you are and true to yourself and what you want to investigate, learn, evoke, emote, the better you will feel about your art and after all that’s what counts.
B: What was the toughest point in your career as an artist? Have you ever hit rock-bottom?
K: I think my toughest point in my career was when my dealer Alidar Marburger was dying of Aids and I was shifting from painting clouds for 25 years to the all black paintings. For the first three years I painted the all black paintings, people would ask me when I was going to go back to painting clouds. I had to tough it out and now people understand what I was trying to do. I guess it just wasn’t good enough early on, but now I know more of what I am doing, and I am still learning all the time.
B: In one sentence... why do you create art?
K: I create art because I can’t do anything else. I don’t mean I don’t have other skills…I’m a pretty good typist, but if I don’t make art, I am impossible to live with or be around.
B: Does religion, faith, or the lack thereof play a part in your art?
K: I made a crucifixion and then a triptych of the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension when my Uncle LeRoy Andersen died. He had been a Danish Lutheran minister and I felt very close to him and so when he died I made the paintings to honor him. I have faith and as much as one makes things from who they are and how they feel, it influences me.
B: Is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the 'art world'?
K: The ‘art world’ is something very separate from my art. The ‘art world’ is made up of artists, collectors, critics and dealers and then all the people who service them and it is where the four groups come together to do business. It’s a very different place with a very different function than my world where I make art or where other artists make their art. Each group in the ‘art world’ has their own realities. I always think it is interesting to see how the art world realities brush up against the public non-art world realities. Sometimes it is a delight and a link from person to person. Sometimes not.
B: On average, how long does it take you to create a piece? When do you know a work is done?
K: The length of time it takes to create a piece depends entirely upon the subject matter. For intricate paintings, it can take months. For simpler structures, maybe a few weeks. For very small ones a few days. I know when a work is done when no canvas shows. I don’t paint on top of the first coat of the painting, so when the whole canvas is covered with one coat of paint, it is complete.
I hope that you have enjoyed my interview with Karen Gunderson. Feel free to critique or discuss her work.
Take care, Stay true