Christine de Lignières Your work is visually related to a high-modernist formalism that includes Bauhaus, De Stijl, Mondrian … to aesthetic movements, at a certain period in history. Do you feel a kinship with those artists?
Joan Waltemath I don’t really approach my work stylistically in relation to Modernism because the kind of geometry that I’m working with is so old, and I mean mostly it’s been used in architecture. If you look at plans from Gothic and Romanesque churches, from the pyramids, the Ziggurats — these geometric forms obey certain mathematical laws of nature. That’s the basis of the grid I work on using harmonic ratios. The lineage of modernism is something that I’m obviously in tune with, but my focal point is more on the timeless nature of the geometry itself and how it’s able to open certain doors of perception.
Recorded 2 April 2017 at the Anita Rogers Gallery in New York City. The Finch is grateful to Joan Waltemath, Christine de Lignières, Jarrett Earnest and Anita Rogers Gallery for editing and transcribing this interview.
When I was growing up in Nebraska, the things I looked at were the Plains Indian beadwork and painted hides. I remember that many people were really astounded by the beauty of the Plains Indian show at the MET a couple of years ago and for me that was also a great moment, but a very familiar one that had already impressed me. I could identify most of the pieces in the show, whether I had seen them before — or only in books and often I would know what museums they are in or what part of the country or world. The Plains Indian works and ceremonial objects are really my deepest connection to art. There’s a certain dichotomy between their apparent resemblance to modernism and their actual roots in a much more ancient worldview — and that is true of my own work to some degree as well.
Waltemath – Leibniz – 1
Joan Waltemath, 1 2 3 5 8 east Leibniz’s God or walks with lightening, 2017, pencil, colored pencil, oil pastel, crayon, casein, gouache, egg tempera on cotton and linen paper, 22 x 22 in.
...i'm taken with your consistent structural obsession with the right angle... +
…which I subconsciously associate with the post and lintel in architecture. Knowing that you have also taught on architecture at Cooper Union, do you feel architectural concepts or principals are thematically present in your work?
CL I was reading your interview with Gordon Moore and he speaks of your obsession with right angles. At the same time, there is an element of painterliness in your work that reminds me of Rothko’s feathery edges where contours evaporate in a mist. A painterliness that accompanies and alters the literality of the line.
JW I find it funny to speak of ‘an obsession for the right angle’ since the orthogonal here is really about a decision to work within a number field and that is how it happens to be configured. My taste for or ‘not for’ 90 degrees doesn’t play a role, even though it’s easy to see how it might seem so.
But I want to go back to the point you made about classification, because this is something that I’ve worked on and tried to come to terms with for many years. I read Deleuze’s book on Bergson in the 90s, and got really interested in it. Bergson talked about how when you perceive something, the first thing you do is classify it as related to something you know already.
Often in seeing a work, there is a first association that comes to mind; this in and of itself begins a process of seeing. After apprehending that first association, you have the possibility of going further and seeing what the object actually is. Before that happens, before classifying it, you’re still within the realm of memory, and you’re not actually able to see what’s in front of you. That understanding of Bergson fascinated me.
elsewhere on the finch: "i find a place where mondrian closed off a white square with deep visible brush marks... +
… He was clearly impatient to complete the geometry and solve the shape without masking by simply rerouting the final strokes to the horizontal. In his haste he let his hand be seen…
Read: Jen Mazza, Ill Said Ill Seen (6/27/2017, theFinch.net; retrieved 27 September 2017).
CL Memory also means knowledge. It imports into your perception how much of painting you have seen, if you have never seen a Mondrian, you won’t have this association. Knowledge in that sense is very cumbersome it comes in front — it intercepts your vision … unless one chances upon a satori … which could be art’s very purpose.
JW I see the path as being through the knowledge; if you don’t know anything you look at it and “it’s just a bunch of squares and rectangles, it’s just a scrap of canvas.” So, if you don’t have any knowledge —
CL The trick is that you cannot not have knowledge, if not perhaps in a meditative state of mind.
JW But you can not have knowledge about art.
JW Yet still, back to Bergson’s point, I know with my work that the more you know about art the more the paintings become what they are as you look at them. since I’ve spent most of my life looking at paintings in museums all over the world, there are so many references or inferences packed into them, so it’s my baggage, it’s unavoidable that it’s all there, or somehow could unfold, but I think that’s what makes it. This is another idea about clearing the mind, by moving through it.
CL What about your Dinwoody series? I had never heard of the Dinwoodies!
JW The Dinwoodies are figures that are carved into the rocks in Wyoming. The white anthropologist who first wrote about them was called Mr. Dinwoody, so they were named “Dinwoodies.” They have nothing to do with him except that he was the first western scholar who wrote about them and so he got to put his name on them. There are other ones, and sometimes they’re named for the creek —
The Dinwoody group was something that I sought out when I was at the Jentel Residency in Wyoming. In certain sites where there’s a stream too — you look around and you can’t find anything, and then all of a sudden, you see a figure alone, maybe it’s like 5 or 6 feet high or something, pecked into the rock. After a moment you see, oh, there’s another one and another one. They can be from 10,000 years ago or more. I’m not convinced actually about the dating, it seems to change with the method used, so I would say nobody really can date them. The Dinwoodies are figures, but they are abstract.
In 2013, I did a show at Mary Judge’s Schema Projects with long, narrow graphite on mylar drawings inspired by seeing them. They have a similar kind of feeling as these canvas pieces here, but the canvas pieces are tiny, just 4 or 5 inches though they have a similar proportion.
I found out about them from the library the first time I was at Jentel, but I grew up around there, so I knew there were petroglyphs. I thought there was maybe one or something, so I went to research and I realized there are fifty to a hundred sites. They’re very hard to find though.
The carvings are not of humans, some people would call them aliens. My understanding of them is that they’re spirit figures. Because when you see them, it’s so elating.
Of course, I have many books that were published on the subject! I’ve been there a number of times to Wyoming to look for them. The last time I went there, I made sound recordings in some of the locations. I travelled in Wyoming for about four weeks to make these recordings — ambient recordings at sunrise — in these different sites. They’re really special places; they’re sacred sites — the mysteries.
At a certain point, I realized I need keep seeing this kind of work from the area where I grew up because it’s really inspiring to me in terms of the work I make myself. Even though I went to art schools, and I have been educated in the Western canon, the things that really touched me were more those things from where I grew up. Those rock drawings are a manifestation of a whole way of life, and that has a lot to do with my connection to them.
CL Because of the spiritual? What about spirituality in art?
JW I think spirituality is in people actually, and people respond to things in their own way. Spirituality is not something that you can really talk about, it’s a way of being and the way people understand what that is, is so different. I’m not convinced that you can transmit an idea that you have about it to anyone else, nor can you transmit it through an object.
I realized my connection to philosophy really comes through language … it was understanding the construction of the language that let me see its philosophical aspect.
CL Since phenomenology is such a preëminent part of your creative concern, I should have looked for the perfect quote from Merleau-Ponty …
JW Husserl is my phenomenology connection. Husserl wrote about geometry and about mathematics. And that’s where I come into it. I mean, I’ve read Merleau-Ponty but —
CL Is there a philosopher who has influenced your work, has been important to your work?
JW I love that you would ask me that question because in ruminating on it, I realized my connection to philosophy really comes through language. When I lived in Germany in the ’80s — for maybe 18 months, and when I started to speak German I grasped how philosophical German is— I mean it’s not a coincidence that Kant and Hegel were German speaking — but for me, it was understanding the construction of the language that let me see its philosophical aspect. For example, the word for “perception” is Wahrnehmung, taking the truth to yourself. As I came to think of looking at the world, Wahrnehmung, as meaning taking truth into myself, was a mind — blowing concept for me that the formulation of thought is imbued with a point of view. As I learned to speak German and I made my way through the language learning all these words, I saw how the language is a philosophical understanding through its nature and through its construction. And that was a beginning for me.
When I was growing up, a trace of German was still in my family. It’s the mother’s tongue of my father’s family, so my Dad’s still knew three words that he would use sometimes, so there’s just the smallest glimmer of that language left in my family.
When I started to study it in high school for the first time, I knew I had to learn to speak. When I started to speak German, I felt, that’s my language, and I could for the first time in my life express what I was thinking. That led me to philosophy.
I could not really understand much of it. I read and I read. I didn’t have such a good grasp on the English language anyway, but I was reading it because I was searching for some way to talk about what I was doing in my work. I knew what I wanted to do, that part was already there when I was 17 or 18, but I didn’t have any way to articulate my thought. I was seeking philosophy to find a language for myself.
I began reading Baudrillard and Virilio. I couldn’t tell you anything about these books now, but I had great ideas reading them. I would write things down, and then I found Blanchot. When I read The Space of Literature and he talks about how there’s two books, there’s the book that’s written, and then there’s the book that writes itself in your mind when you are reading it. That was the first philosophical concept where I felt, I’ve got to read everything Blanchot ever wrote, and my library is full of Blanchot. I read Infinite Conversation. It took me three or four years; I doubt that I finished it or even got half-way through that book, but it freed me to really experience what I was thinking about when I was reading those different philosophies. And that enriched my life.
JW I don’t know, perhaps. It would be pretentious to assume that I have any kind of philosophical expertise. I didn’t study philosophy, I don’t know the history, I’m completely ignorant of a lot of things, but I’ve been using philosophy for myself as a way to become verbal because I grew up in the country with really no one to talk to. As a child, I had mostly communication with animals, which is a non-verbal communication. Through my early experiences I became very mistrustful about the misunderstandings that accompany words and so I developed a strong and sustaining non-verbal engagement with the world through movement —
CL You were muting yourself?
JW No, I wouldn’t say that — I didn’t even mute myself, I just never consequently developed language. When I was about ten I became convinced that language always betrayed you of something, so I just didn’t go there. I went somewhere else.
CL You didn’t engage in dialogue? You didn’t speak? Some kind of aphasia?
JW Of course, I spoke on a mundane level, but any idea I had or thought, what mattered to me — it wasn’t happening on a verbal level, so when I started reading philosophy, I had a certain part of my mind that had gone a really long distance in a non-verbal form, and I needed to find language to communicate what I was trying to achieve in my paintings. Philosophy was what helped me to be able to articulate what was going on in the other part of my mind, where I was making things, and understanding how form communicated, and looking at paintings.
My mother took me to Europe when I was fourteen and so I started looking at art when I was still young. I remember going to the Uffizi and the paintings I saw.
When I started teaching at Cooper Union in 1997 I had never thought about articulating what I saw going on in painting, or what I was doing. I read Adorno’s Aesthetical Theory to begin to find my way.
CL What class were you teaching?
JW It was going to be a studio elective at first and then by the time my appointment got sorted out I was doing a seminar for the first — year architects. I had never talked about painting before and that’s what Raimund Abraham and John Hejduk, wanted me to do, so — I did.
Tintoretto[’s] work gave me a breakthrough in seeing how to enter my grids and get out of modernism’s two dimensionality.
CL In art history, then … theoretical?
JW Not art history. They wanted me to talk on a formal level, like in a studio course about color and composition. Robert Slutsky had taught there years before, and I was asked to reconfigure as a lecture course what he had been doing. Theoretical and formal, so I started making these formal analyses of works that went on sometimes for 2 hours.
CL I think that … it’s a teaching tool, to start from ekphrasis, simply to describe what is happening there on a surface. Of course, when it’s about something like Veronese with a multitude of details, that can become a parlor game! And the semantic level of the narrative adds to the complexity.
JW I started working with Tintoretto because I had been in Venice for a couple of weeks that year and looked at a lot of Tintoretto. His work gave me a breakthrough in seeing how to enter my grids and get out of modernism’s two dimensionality. In class I would focus on describing the phenomenological experience that happens when you look at a Tintoretto composition — you see this, you go up there, then over here (tracing the air); that opens a space, there’s a void over there like this — so I wouldn’t describe the image, I would describe the structure that guides the movement through a painting. And for architects that was interesting because they could take the structural understanding I was giving them from painting as inspiration and translate it into architectonics.
I developed a whole syntax for painting that, in a certain way, parallels the architectural syntax that I learned while I was teaching there. I spent hours and hours sitting around listening to the great minds that were at Cooper at that time talk about architecture and critique architectural projects. Then I would build up discussions that would take that formal vocabulary and try to show them something in visual art that was dealing with a similar formal problem, but in a completely different way. If they could understand the nature of painting language, it became a metaphor or parallel to seeing possibilities in architectonics and that opened things up for them. It would take them far away from that kind of narrow building science mentality, and that brought their work into a kind of form/content or form/context dialectic. This was John Hejduk’s vision. He felt that painting was the true muse of architecture and he hired me in order to have that a central part of the 1st year program at Cooper.
Initially I think he was looking at the relationship between Le Corbusier and Ozenfant and how their dialogue informed both painting and architecture. He was interested in that. There are several of Hejduk’s pieces reconstructed in front of Cooper Union right now. There’s one grey cube and one black cube, and they have these spikes coming out, I mean they’re intense. In the black one the spikes go pretty much straight up, and in the grey one they move out.
"hejduk was often criticized for work lacking social or political relevance... +
… These objects reveal how misconceived such a judgment was.”
— James Williamson, Dean and Professor Office of the Dean College of Architecture Texas Tech University
Read more about John Hejduk Works/Jan Palach Memorial @Copper Union here and here.
CL Is it a sculpture?
JW No, it’s architecture. Since architecture has its own syntax you can make things that might be an architecture that’s theoretical, an architecture denies inhabitation to seek a form, to speak poetically. That is something Hejduk, Abraham, Aldo Rossi and others, who were part of a group in the Sixties that also included Massimo Scolari and others were into. Diane Lewis, who recently passed, was their student. Peter Eisenman, and [Elizabeth] Diller and [Ricardo] Scofidio, who were also there at the time, seemed to serve as a kind of counterpoint to them at Cooper, but that is my view.
CL Perhaps a desire on the part of the architect … an envy to do things that are not utilitarian, a lust for non-utilitarianism … multi-syllabic, it’s hard to pronounce.
JW I don’t know. I never thought of it like that. In a way it’s a contingency, because it shows the possibility for architecture, which doesn’t have the latency for inhabitation. It becomes a question of what function is being served. That group of people took a position, in particular, about architecture being a language — that’s why it was so useful for me to develop a painting language in tandem. That architecture is a language, that architectonics is the formal language of architecture means that you could do things that were architectonic — that had a program — but instead of a program for inhabitation, they would have a program that denied inhabitation.
CL A programme that wouldn’t be called sculpture?
JW No, no — it has different criteria and it’s made with a different intention — as a part of a discourse. It’s the same with painting. We get so involved in some crazy ideas — grids for example. Rosalind Krauss writes that grids are emblematic of modernism, and they represent the end point because they can’t be developed. That’s an idea and people can get all absorbed in it. Somebody could come and look at a grid painting and have a completely different idea — think representationally: “oh this is just a mechanical screen for a window, or an air vent or something,” and not understand what specific kind of discourse that object is carrying with it. That can be a problem, we talked about that earlier, about how much people know when they look at stuff.
…what I’m doing is layering all these relationships of ratios on top of each other until I get a dense matrix.
CL Well “architect” simply means “builder” … and buildings can have infinite forms and meanings. . But how come you have such a mathematical mind and you’re not a computer whiz?
JW Who said I wasn’t good at computers? [Laughs.] You mean because I often don’t know how my phone works? Well mathematics and technology are not the same thing. Whatever I’m doing mathematically is coming completely out of the nonverbal part of my thinking, because I’m not a scholarly mathematician, I just have a very intuitive capacity for understanding numbers.
My grandfather ran a lumber yard and sold all kinds of building materials and in seconds he could calculate volumes of materials translating between dimensions in plan and quantities of things sold, so I inherited that. My mom is like that, too. For some people, numbers are your dear friends.
CL So, what kind of algorithm do you use? Algorithm … I guess, it’s simply a process, and the formula of a process, reciprocally … what kind of formula are you using?
JW To explain what I’m doing mathematically with the square root of two by talking about it is very complicated because what I’m doing is layering all these relationships of ratios on top of each other until I get a dense matrix. I’m working to configure a volumetric condition that articulates a time/space dimension you can slip through when you see it. But it takes time to see it, you can’t just look at it and see it, what you see initially seems flat. If I try to explain that mathematical framework in language, which it’s a linear process where one word follows the other, it’s like a nightmare, especially for my mind. You can’t grasp it like that really — it must be seen — in time.
CL Your spatio-temporal explanation, this simultaneity of flatness and volume with and through a temporal dimension reminds me of the hyper precision of virtual reality …
But what about musical harmonies, are they part of your formulas, of your algebraic alchemy?
JW Yes. It’s completely related. Recently, I started doing these drawings, it’s a body of work that comes after these torso paintings. I’ve worked with this grid for so long as a systemic or programmatic approach. While there are certain aspects of ‘system’ to it, I don’t think that system is exactly the right word, because the arrays of numbers are very fluid and permeable and can be articulated in very different ways.
In as much as it is a kind of a system or order, my interest moved towards the relation between different kinds systems or orders — and how they communicate with each other. I imagine these ideas stem from the understanding that the complete nature I grew up in operates with a whole different set of rules than those I slowly learned when I came to live in the city. When I was about twenty — eight that was a revelation to me, but it took a long time before I got there. Growing up with animals, it’s such a different world, and the way you can connect to animals in the wild and are able to be on that level where you don’t frighten them — that’s a whole different kind of sensitivity. So anyway, I became conscious that there were these different orders.
I became interested in how different orders or systems engage with each other or how they intersect, interface. Where do they override each other, where do they ignore each other, where do they engage with each other? So, I set up some grid drawings to explore that idea. I’ve been working on those drawings since 2012.
As I was working with this idea, I got an opportunity to do a piece in Hamburg with the art space/collective This Red Door. I wanted to do a musical piece, a sound piece. I’ve been working with harmonics — I’ve been teaching myself these roots — since 1988, and since I’ve been working with them for a long time now, and I’m going to start playing and see what happens. My friend Walter Steding had given me a squeeze box years ago that I used in a performance at the Kitchen. And so, I thought, well…
CL What’s a squeeze box?
JW It’s like a tiny accordion type instrument. I was doing a kind of rhythmic thing with it then, but I don’t know how to say I was playing. I listen to Cage and Morton Feldman all the time, so that was sort of my framework as much as Malevich and even Mondrian were for my paintings. But then Walter came and gave me this beautiful Italian black lacquer accordion! I started playing with Walter, and he’s a very accomplished violinist, so he was a little bit challenged by the fact that I didn’t know an ‘f’ from a ‘g’, and that sort of stuff, but I’ve been able to play with other people, too. I’ve been practicing since then.
We did the performance in Hamburg — it was very well received — you can listen to it [here] or on my website. The accordion is this instrument that breaths, so it’s like a body when air gets in it. I heard Pauline Oliveros, I actually got to see her last concert and realized that I’m playing a bit like her even though I’d never heard her before. I see she’s working with the air in the instrument. She’s not playing the musical scale as something that would be imposed, but she’s just making the inherent quality of that instruments speak. That is how I approached it.
Style is such a problematic word. For me it has to do with the shoes I’m wearing, the pants I have on, my jacket.
CL It makes me think of how, in the vocabulary of Greek architecture, style and system are associated in a semantic conflation. Doric order vs. Ionic and the others … with a volute or not … Could you say that algorithms act as a style, as recurring elements in your composition, although invisible?
JW Style is such a problematic word. For me it has to do with the shoes I’m wearing, the pants I have on, my jacket.
CL So, you’re thinking of it as fashion?
JW Well fashion, I don’t know, but in that sense, I like style, I like certain kinds of clothes.
CL How do you apply to your work the algorithms that you select?
JW I work with harmonic progressions based on the relationship between the side of a square and its diagonal. I use a number of these progressions and they’re layered on top of each other, so they form a matrix.
CL But it’s always a root of two?
JW Yes. It’s just this very simple thing of the relationship of the side of the square to its diagonal.
CL In which way do you project the ratio around the room? As a numerical notation, as a line, a geometric figure, or the representation in perspective of a volume?
JW Well, to achieve this I collaborated with Andrew Tripp. I was working in the architecture school at that time and I saw Andrew had done this really interesting urban farm project in the third year. He was calculating harmonic ratios mathematically in his work, so I talked with him and asked him if he could develop a computer program for me that would generate the ratios I was using. I wanted to project them into a virtual room like in a CAD model and let the progressions grow exponentially so that they could wrap around the room. In the progressions as you get further and further out and you have a dimension of 1,034 inches or something that would fall outside of the room, but if the progressions could come back in to the scheme by wrapping around the dimensions of the CAD model they would form yet another layer in the dense grid matrix.
I started to work with him and we developed some CAD models. At first, I used the dimensions of the gallery spaces that I was going to show in for the dimensions of the virtual room. I would make drawings of the actual room measuring every single dimension of every detail and then Andrew would build a virtual model of it.
The interesting part was choosing a point to begin the progressions — the zero point. I would decide that when I was in the gallery space drawing. I would allow that the zero point would be at a certain height in relationship to my body, and it would be in relationship to the architectural elements of the room so the progressions are wrapping around the room a particular way. Maybe I had room where I had multiple zero points. The grid I’m working on now, I had four zero points in the room, so that generated this much denser network. Out of the elevations of that model, I could excerpt a little piece of the grid matrix to work with in a painting.
Waltemath White Skins 1
Knokke white skins, installation view, G & B, 2003. White-out studio, Knokke-Heist Belgium
Waltemath White Skins 2
Knokke white skins axon with grid measure, 2003. Computer print out, marker by Andrew Tripp. 8 1/2 x 11 in.
CL Like a fractal, where a piece of the whole is the same as the whole in a different scale? A geometric mise-en-abîme?
JW Yes, that’s a beautiful analogy. In that sense, it’s easy to see how it’s both specific and arbitrary or random, in a way. The lines in a grid that I’ve extracted to work on could be from the beginning of a harmonic progression or they could be ones from further out that have come back and wrapped around the room. Where they land in the wrap is relevant to the dimensions of the room that has been modeled, it isn’t purely in line with the harmonic progression.
CL What is the random part in that?
JW Well, if the virtual room has a length of twenty feet, when a line in the progression comes back around it would land in one place. But if it was 25 feet, it would land somewhere else in the model, so this changes the grid.
CL Then it was not random, but a result of the dimensions of the room …
JW Yes, you could say that, but the choice of the rooms in different models I made are coincidental, so I tend to think of it as random. You are more precise. I was interested in this move because it gave me grids that had all different kinds of sizes of squares and rectangles in them.
CL If all the paintings use that method, does it mean that each painting corresponds to the size of an actual room, of a specific room?
JW Yes, ‘corresponds’ being the key here. For the torso group, after we made the virtual models with all these lines wrapping around them, I printed out the elevations of the room so I could look at them. They were nearly the length of the wall in my studio. And then I made selections of eleven separate grids, both vertical and horizontal within the model. Andrew created files for me so I could send them to a blueprint place and plot out a drawing that would be at any scale. I worked from those plots, redrawing them on different sizes of paper to develop my drawings for the torso series. All of the torso paintings, I think there are now 50 or 51 of them altogether, are all based on 11 different grids that came out of two different virtual models of wrapping the room. On my website, there’s an option called “grid wrap” and you can see the computer model and there is a text there attempting to clarify the process.
CL So actually, each painting is a translation of the dimensions of a room.
JW It’s more like a response to its dimensions since it is a little piece of that room taken out.
CL Could you reverse that process? Could you hang the painting at a certain point in that room by reversing that process?
JW Yes, I did that in Belgium at Knokke-Heist in 2003. Andrew made a model of the gallery space there and then I selected some grid formats that were printed on mylar that I drew into and then hung back in the room in their original locations. There was one where the zero point was captured, so you could see where it all started.
CL Did you repeat that setup?
JW No, not to that extreme. I felt like I got something from it that was interesting and I was really amazed at the correspondences that evolved in the room, but it wasn’t necessary to repeat it. There was so much involved in drawing the room and building the CAD model; it pushed me towards some thoughts about the body and the latency of the void in architecture, but I wanted to go forward to the experience of standing in front of a painting and where that takes you.
When I was working on that show, I was reading Husserl’s Crisis of the European Sciences … on the plane on the way over and back. David Rabinowitch had told me to read it. Husserl is focused in the initial part with the development of equations and the scientific approach to the quantification of matter and life. He talks about how Leibniz considers the incalculable as a necessary part of an equation, and how at a certain point that notion was let go. The philosophical shift away from an acknowledgement of the incalculable as constituent initiates, in his view, the crisis. I knew I was more interested in the incalculable and that I had the calculable represented in my grid matrix, so I moved away from more complex grid calculations at that point.
It was significant for me to be reading Husserl while I was doing that work!
CL Do you recall the experience of that exhibition? How was it?
JW It was different. There was something about it … It was divine! The place was called “White Out Studio” and the entire space was painted white — the door handles, every detail in the room had been painted white, so it was an extraordinary experience to be in there and see all that whiteness. I made these white drawings in colored pencils on white mylar. The mylar was frosted and matte, the colored pencil was shiny and it picked up the light. I called the show “White Skins“. It was a phenomenon, but I almost collapsed from all the work! I did this when school was on, and I took a student from the architecture school to Belgium to do the installation.
CL You always have the elves around!
JW It’s the Beuys model, look at Beuys, he got his students involved as collaborators, it’s a great learning experience.
Anyway, I finished hanging the show about twenty minutes before the opening. The next day I went to see it and make some photographs. I mean it was impossible to photograph, you had to be in there! The following day I went back for school.
CL You mentioned the Stark gallery, when it was on Broadway …
JW Yes. I showed there a couple of times. Eric Stark is now the curator of the New School collection. They’re doing an amazing Agnes Denis piece now, next to their dining hall.
JW Before that actually. She was with John Good then, but later showed with Stark in Chelsea. It was when he was next to John Gibson Gallery that I had my first show with him. It was called “Cruciform,” with Eric Saxon, Winston Roeth, Russell Maltz and myself. And then I did a little backroom show the following year, just with four paintings. That sold out. And then I did another show a couple years later, also with four or five paintings. Stephen Westfall reviewed that show in Art in America, and that was a big breakthrough for me. The Harvard University Art Museum bought one of my pieces and one of the drawings that you were asking about earlier from the show. It was a drawing that showed how the algorithms were initially developed and that was hanging in the office during the show. Wynn Kramarsky bought it and donated it to the Fogg Museum at Harvard together with the painting that Ivan Gaskell chose, so that was a huge step for me.
What I thought would happen is that people would seek to discover the relationship between the two things … Why are these things hanging together, what’s the meaning of this?
CL Then what happened?
JW Well, I did a third show with him at Broadway where I had an eleven — foot square drawing that also showed how the algorithms or progressions were constructed. I needed to keep making those drawings bigger and bigger, because I wanted to make bigger paintings, and I needed more territory to find the configurations for my paintings. Finally, I got to the point where it was like a map that was as big as the territory …
JW Exactly! I made these drawings that were like eleven feet square and larger with graph paper that was all taped together on the back. I showed two of them in that show together with the paintings that were derived from them. Wynn also bought that piece and it is now at the Hammer Museum. Kim Levin from the Village Voice reviewed it; while she more or less dismissed my paintings, she raved about the drawings. It was fantastic.
What I realized was that in showing different kinds things together people could feel compelled to make a choice. Either they liked this or they liked the other work. What I thought would happen is that people would seek to discover the relationship between the two things — that’s what I would do. Why are these things hanging together, what’s the meaning of this? But the response I got was different: “Oh, these drawings are great, but these are Modernist paintings. That was 1994 at the mid-point of the Post-Modern era, so the context was working against my viewpoint. Since my approach is to build a theoretical framework, set up limitations to work within and then let the piece evolve through its material processes, most modernist works are not adequate in referencing the scope of my concerns. They tend to distort or confuse what is at stake in my work — though at the same time they partly inform it.
The show was called “Zwischenzeit” meaning ‘in-between time’ or ‘meanwhile’. Most of the paintings went to European collectors; it was my last show with Eric Stark for a while.
CL I was thinking about algorithms in regard to your work, thinking about algorithmic numbers, and started to find out about it; then instead of doing my home-work, I looked through books about mosques!
JW How brilliant! When Harvard acquired my pieces, Ivan Gaskell, who was just coming to work there from the Warburg Institute, did a show where he put my drawing and painting together with a ceiling fragment from a mosque, because often the tile patterns that you see in the mosques are based on the square root of 2. Also, there was a Russian icon — since the square root of 2 is present in the construction of the cross patterns of many Russian icons and that was actually my source.
CL On the side of the canvas of some of your paintings there are at times pencil marks at the location of a line and some numbers, and it reminded me of your comment on Agnes Martin — you were saying how you had been touched by the end of her line.
JW Yes, I read a whole evolution of thought in the quality of her lines, from the willful early work to the transcendent awareness of her last paintings. Seeing those shows at Dia and at Pace, the last show she did, brought me full circle to her early influence on me as a student at RISD. Do you remember when I wrote that piece about her in 2003?
the degree of precision that she demands of her making is the key to martin's ascension into a singular realm... +
…If we think about what it actually means to construct one of these paintings, the repetitive actions of drawing straight lines an eighth of an inch apart on a canvas in pencil, it becomes apparent that she must remain conscious of every single aspect of her endeavor in order achieve the level of precision that these paintings give us. To maintain the constant width of the pencil line with her hand negotiating the relationship between the wearing down of the pencil and the resistance of the canvas as the canvas and the pencil connect, to maintain a constant width in the spaces between the lines, to end and begin each line at exactly the same spot over and over again—these are the impossible tasks she sets herself. And then the same degree of attention is paid to laying down the short white strokes in the space between them.
It is a job that most anyone would do using some mechanical means. I can scarcely imagine the level of concentration necessary to achieve the near perfect rendering of each grid, and yet it is the degree to which each grid deviates from a perceived ideal that gives the work its life. Martin comes close enough to that ideal to measure her distance from it, and in doing so she moves us closer to it. No obsession with perfection was ever more profound. In this haptic world, the absolute comes into view precisely by acknowledging the impossibility of its existence.
CL No, but I have thought of your essay on Uglow and I remember the extent of your description of his work, it was so acutely detailed, amazing!
JW Thank you. He was so important to me. Out of all the painters that I knew in New York —
You know, that painting (pointing to the painting in the room) owes everything to Uglow. I mean he was just incredible with his whites.
for uglow, a painting seems to be complete when someone is moving through its field… +
Uglow’s exploration of perspectival angles and illusion, interference pigments, and surface reflectivity, are all aspects of his work that demand varied approaches that go beyond the faculty of mere sight. Through our movement certain things become known, and this form of knowing bypasses a theoretical understanding and puts the work in the service of anyone who inhabits the present moment. Not only the eye and the mind but the human body, with all its perceptual capacities and memories, is the means of verifying the experience given to us through painting. Uglow shows us that we cannot fragment ourselves and still have the means to comprehend painting.
With this position Uglow set himself apart from the dominant market interests, and distinguishes himself from such contemporaries as Olivier Mosset who took the position in the 70s that a painting is finished when it is sold, and then later modified, when it is restored. For Uglow, a painting seems to be complete when someone is moving through its field. As he described it in an interview with Bob Nickas, it’s “A paradox. A finished object that stays open.”
JW I went to the Blue Mosque when I was 17 years old. It was 1971, I was in Istanbul by myself then, which was absolutely untenable, but it was an incredible experience. I visited the Hagia Sophia at the same time because my freshman year in college I had been studying proportional relationships and I realized that the Hagia Sophia was the ultimate expression of squaring of the circle, which is a very important concept in sacred geometry. I knew I had to see it, I had to feel what it was like to be in that building!
CL What’s fascinating to me is that the Blue Mosque is more than a millennium older … I love the idea that people would think, “that’s a good building, let’s do the same” … and that they used as a model a Christian basilica!
JW When I was there in ’71, Hagia Sophia was a complete ruin. It was more or less open to the air, and it’s right near the Bosporus, so it was sea air. It was crumbling, and you couldn’t really see any of the frescos, they were just crumbling off the walls. There were leaves blowing around inside of it because it was open. Nobody was around in that part of Istanbul. The Blue Mosque is about ten minutes away. When I went back there in ’85 it was completely restored and I was so thankful I had seen it at the point I did. Now they’ve turned it back into a mosque, but there was a time when it was left as a Christian ruin. I spent the afternoon in there several times because I stayed in Istanbul for maybe a month at that point.
CL It’s amazing this superimposition of architecture of different faiths, and of course there is Cordoba! You add a few chapels, throw in some saintly paintings and a sprinkling of crosses here and there and voila, you turn a mosque into a cathedral! A pre-postmodern mentality.
JW I started to cry when I saw it!
CL I’m absolutely fascinated about your huge works this summer, it’s going to change the rapport of the peripheral vision to be in the presence of a fifteen feet long painting. They will abstract the surrounding.
JW I know. I’m almost scared to think about it.
When I designed the church facades in Berlin, which I worked on from about 2000 to 2003, I had a wall that was five stories. The front façade was just a little bit longer, so it was almost a square but not quite, just slightly off — like the 15-foot paintings.
It’s very hard to make that scale jump 1 to 32, but in the initial drawings, the scale that I drew them at is better, but I had to make them smaller because I couldn’t convince the parishioners. That was my biggest obstacle working with the Jesuits on that project, that I had too many crosses, which of course, is the ultimate irony, no?
JW When I saw the five stories built, what happened was that instead of corresponding to the body at that scale, my intervention into the architecture, which reflects light like my paintings do, reflected the weather, reflected the environment, and it was a whole different thing than I had imagined — better, actually. As you walk up to the church and see all these metal pieces that are embedded in the concrete in the form of crosses they’re all reflecting the light differently. They’re all put in by hand, and so they’re all at slightly different angles and that creates an affect.
"...more important for ms. waltemath is the relationship between architecture and the human body... +
…and how that is echoed in painting. The pieces in the “Torso/Roots” series at Hionas are vertical and narrow and emphasize the phenomenological — conscious, sensory and perceptual — experience of standing before a painting. Also significant are Ms. Waltemath’s use of unusual materials like graphite and luminescent phosphorous and fluorescent pigments, and the fact that the gallery feels like a crypt where you’d encounter a religious icon or a fresco embedded in a wall…”
JW Polished stainless steel. In a certain way, this project led me to working with the torso scaled paintings because when I saw how the scale reflected the environment, it gave me the idea to format something very specifically to reflect back to the body. I started this group of work, the torso/roots paintings two or three years after the church was completed.
CL So, your design was integral to the architectural plan?
JW Yes. I went through the design process with the architects.
CL Who designed the church?
JW Büttner, Braun & Neumann, Architects. I had met Heike Büttner in Venice, in ’97, and I was talking to her about another project that was never materialized. When she got this commission, she contacted me to collaborate with her. I was in Berlin at the time they were starting to work on it. The first European tour of Wynn Kramarsky’s collection was shown in the Akademie der Künste there in 1997, so I met her again, and we started to talk.
I was at a presentation the other day by Julia Fish and Kate Nesin. Julia was talking all about the structure and systems involved in her piece, and the methodology she used in constructing her work, which was based on an existing floor pattern she modified. After a while Kate says, well, what about the gap between all that you are saying and seeing the work itself. What a brilliant thing to say!
CL The gap between what and what?
JW Julia was explaining the back story — what she’s doing mathematically, what she’s doing conceptually, and what it means to her. Like I could sit here and say well, I call this painting “Interwoven” because it elicits for me how the strands of events I experience get interwoven to create the fabric life. One thing happens, and then five years later another, and you see these things as connected. Then sometimes there’s two or three things that happened seven years ago, and they’re appearing in your life again in some form, but differently — the presence of a person, a film, an object — while in the meantime those things haven’t been present for you. These kinds of relations really fascinate me because they reveal something about the structure of time — what I think time is.
CL On an existential level?
JW Yes, on an existential level. That’s my little meandering in my head. But there’s an enormous gap between those things that I think about and what my painting looks like. So, Kate asked Julia about that gap in her work. I thought, what a fantastic question; that gap is a void! The person that comes in to look at your work, they step into that gap. Whatever resonance comes off a painting is there to guide them to fill it with their own story. For me that was such a beautiful moment. In making my paintings I’m really focusing on how the space in front of the painting enables or is latent towards an experience that the person who goes in to see it has with their own reflection.
CL You mean the gap between the work and the viewer, there is also the gap between the intent and the result — it’s one of the gaps behind the painting … but you’re speaking about the gap in front of the painting.
JW Yes, while I know what I’m working on and what I’m trying to create, my individual paintings come out of drawings. For every painting that I do there’s fifty drawings that I don’t use. Then when I make the painting, it’s not the drawing, it’s evolved in the process of making it. I often don’t see what my paintings are about until they’re finished and I start to read what they’re doing. Then I see how it’s an analogue for a certain kind of experience that I can recognize from somewhere — in myself or in literature or… There’s a gap there too, because what I recognize in it, isn’t what you recognize.
Speaking of gaps, I wanted to say this about the painting RA’s Dream. In [un]built, a book of Raimund Abraham’s architectural drawings, there is a story of his dream about a cube with moving wooden arms, and how he got up and he made a model of it and wrote a text called House for Euclid.
He saw the drawing for this painting, so I ended up giving it to him for his 75th birthday, and then later after he died I made that painting of it. When the painting of it was finally done, I was mystified by how, in that black and white space near the cross, you feel like there’s a void you can stick your hand into. It’s like that’s where you can escape into the dream, into the space of the dream. But I didn’t think of any of this until it was finished and I could see it.
JW Fecund Algorithms is really the culmination for me of my torso/roots works. It started in 2006. I was working at the Edward Albee Foundation in Montauk that summer when I had the first grids made up. I planned to do some graphite on mylar drawings, thinking they’d eventually become paintings. So, I prepared the walls, and then the first drawing; I stayed up half the night to finish it. When I woke up I came into the barn and opened the big doors to let the light in and then I went to get my breakfast. I was going to come back and sit to look at the work that I’d done the day before. When I came back into the room I saw that the wind had come in the barn doors in my absence and torqued the mylar and compete destroyed the drawing. I was stunned, it was the beginning of the residency. I sat there looking at what had happened: the wind is trying to tell me something, and if I can’t listen to the wind, I’m not going to produce anything here — it’s going to be a failure.
So, I sat there with my breakfast and contemplated the wind: wind has to pass through things and then it’s free, if it butts up against something like the drawing — no — not the way. Those works had to be portals that you could pass through, and that then characterized the drawings, and the paintings that came out of them.
CL The portals … Then it’s an allegory, a continuity of metaphors, from one painting to another.
CL I have been circling around your engagement with the sensorial, the impulse and aim of your work and your use of the term “haptic” to characterize this approach … your speaking of visuality as tactile, and I thought about figurative analogies, such as “eye contact” … since you mention movement in the viewing process, “kinesthetic” could also work; but “somatic” seems more encompassing, it refers to the body in all its functions.
JW “Haptic” is understanding something by movement and touch so I’ve used that, but I’m totally interested in expending my vocabulary.
CL [Looking on-line, at dictionary] “Proprioception” is pretty good: it’s the “unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself.”
JW It’s more precise in a certain way. I mean “haptic” deals with the body because of the touch, but “somatic” comes from the body and that may be more interesting. But I think the real problem is about how sensation informs you or how you become aware of things through sensation.
CL In that sense Kant’s Critique of Judgment is phenomenological … it starts with sensations and a concept of aesthetics that is more restrictive than the meaning if got along the way — and that’s the path through which you are invested in your work.
JW Yes, very much. I’ve never read the Critique or … I read Hegel and Adorno … I wonder if the numbing of the body through technology renders it impossible for people to experience sensation on a subtle level.
CL The orthogonal configuration of your work makes me think of a linguistic analogy. You could consider the grid, the mathematical formula, on the plane of syntax, if you visualize it in terms of Cartesian coordinates, with the syntagms on the horizontal plan, and color as the perpendicular paradigm that falls and nestles into that grammatical order.
JW I love it when the framework I’ve set up allows others to visualize their own structure, and it is no longer what I’m doing.
CL Ok, but inside each painting there is a structure strictly relevant to that work, a planned ordering, premeditated, which precedes the pigment on the panel that reveals it.
JW Yes. As I get different ideas to work with, I make changes to the matrix, so it good to note that the mathematical structure is intuitive, and on some level it is highly idiosyncratic. Stephan Westfall mentioned this in his review in 1992 in Art in America. It’s just an idea about something I can see working. I think an artist sees something, and then they make it, because they have a vision. What you are aiming at though that is significant, is that the numbers are a kind of a language. It’s a language that makes a deep sense to me. But its’s not necessarily rational, it’s not logic. What I’m interested in mathematics is the irrational aspects of numbers. They can be articulated with precision as a ratio, hence the grid structure is a precise way of working with them. My geometry becomes a field within which you can articulate different connections and relationships between things. That is what interests me in working with it.
CL Are you saying that grid and color could be equally accidental, an ad lib — and therefore, evolving on the same plane?
JW Not exactly. Rather that they are different languages. Because color has its own voice, it is different, in kind, from the mathematical structure. But that doesn’t mean the numbers work logically. It is conveniently oppositional to draw those kinds of conclusions from what I’ve set up, but that is the path I’m intending to subvert. Where do we end up if the numbers that are our foundation, and that we count on to be rational, actually are not?
CL Yet, the root of 2, or whatever ratio you have selected, exists within a logic where 13 is forever 13, impervious to context.
JW You are asking something like this: is “x still x” impervious to context in these two situations. x = y + 4 and the word xylophone. I’m not sure how to answer that other than to provide this analogy.
In my work, I’m just taking little fragments of a huge field of progressions and working on that to find something. In a certain way, it’s kind of like when they started doing the bubble chamber experiments and they would shoot a photon beam into the bubble chamber to make a photograph of the collision. Then rooms full of eastern European women would pour over the prints looking for an anomaly. It’s kind of a shot in the dark, but charm was discovered in this way.
CL I don’t understand your reference.
JW In the bubble chambers the scientists were looking for something based on a very specific and yet also arbitrary situation they had set up. They were looking to see how they could capture an incident that would occur with the collision of the photon beam with other particles. They would have to shoot thousands of photographs and look through them to find if something unusual occurred. Subatomic particles were discovered like this through these chance collisions.
CL I’m so glad that the viewer, certainly myself, doesn’t have to know mathematics when encountering your work.
JW Me too, because like a computer, the underlying code is not interesting and most people would go nuts if they had to wrap their head around it.
There is a code under there that I am using, that I could have fun with because I understand it in a certain visual way. It’s derived from decoding how the Russian icons were constructed in the cross patterns of St. Nicolas — that was the beginning. I’ve taken it through a number of levels since then to build the matrix.
CL And the small pieces of sewn canvas, do they have a mathematical rationale or are they random outtakes of bigger pieces?
JW They are outtakes, yes! As I was sewing these giant 15 foot pieces I’ll be working on over the summer, there were so many scraps. So, I started sewing together pieces that had the same dimension. I thought that random approach would end up giving me something that would have an interesting connection with the mathematically generated pieces. The large pieces are sewn according to a grid. I made the drawings when I was at a residency at the Bemis Center in 2008 where I figured out all these patterns to sew. I made eight giant pieces that are sewn together like that.
CL How did you do that physically?
JW I was sitting on the floor.
CL So, you drew on the canvas, cut it to follow a pattern and then sewed the pieces?
JW Yes. I would get big pieces of canvas, roll them out, draw them out with big long straight edges and squares to keep everything square — measure constantly to keep it precise and then sew them together. I built a dolly and put the machine on the dolly about 4 inches above the floor, so I could roll the machine through the fabric while sitting on the floor.
You are rolling your eyes!
CL Epic! Epic!
JW Yes, epic! I’m so glad it’s finished because I’m reaching the age where I can’t really sit like that anymore for hours at a time.
CL How long did it take you to sew all these canvases?
JW Well I did it over the summer for the last 9 years. I started in 2009.
CL There I would say for sure: assistant, please!
Waltemath at Bemis
Joan Waltemath painting m’s crossing_8.2017 at Bemis Center, Omaha, Nebraska. Photo by Haya Kim
JW When I first made them, I was going to have them free hanging. But then after I made the first one, I realized I would need to stretch them. They are out at Simon Liu's being stretched now.
CL And you will have to send them back to Omaha! Insane!
JW I’ll send them out in a truck. Simon Liu is amazing. There is no one else who could take on a project like this and make a stretcher on that scale that would be of the quality you need. He is really helping me to trouble shoot the problems, things you never would never think of…
CL Why did you decide to stretch them?
JW It didn’t look right hanging. It needs the tension of the frame. The sewing is pretty funky in some parts, and you see the canvases have all these black canvas lines in them, which are based on gaps in the original grid drawings. Also, you see — the sewing is the sewing — it’s the reality of the materials, it’s not the ideal geometry, so I need something that’s sharp to counteract and give it tension. I’ll be going out to the Bemis Center again this summer to paint them. I’ll stay out there until I finish them because I don’t want to break!
Ed Dadey of Artfarm is building me a platform I can drive over the paintings, so I can do them on the floor. I mostly work horizontally, so I’ll have this mobile platform that can go back and forth. It’s pretty cool, isn’t it?
CL What kind of paint will you use?
JW I am going to work in oil. I don’t want to change now. I’ll use a lot of oil sticks and drawn lines, we’ll see. In my drawings, there are a lot of crayons. I just ordered these giant Chinese brushes, too.
CL You could use brooms!
JW Well, they are kind of like brooms!
CL When we spoke about philosophers you said Husserl. What about artists?
When I read the Husserl text, I felt I had finally a vocabulary to talk about what I am doing with this work — because the grids, even though they are so idiosyncratic, you could trace a logical process through them: if you could bear up to it. I could think about the work that I do on top of the grid, to intervene in it, in the terms that Husserl set. What I am actually doing in painting is everything that goes beyond what’s calculable, what’s quantifiable, and that is the part that interests me.
CL Do you think about death?
JW Well, I mean death is so important. It enables you to have a perspective, that you only get this way — I mean other people dying. For me many of the works in this show Fecund Algorithms are also about how you grasp life from death — what life a death in your inner circle gives you, because that’s such a profound reflection. When somebody that’s really close to you dies, everything starts to shift and that movement in and of itself is a phenomenal experience. There’s so much that can come from it if you’re able to embrace and celebrate the experience it’s giving you, and you know, it’s not an easy thing to do. I don’t know that anyone else would ever think about it this way, but in my dreaming, it’s like that.
Joan Waltemath lives and works in New York City. Her works in oil on panel, graphite on mylar, mixed media on paper and sewn canvas employ materials for their connotative properties as well as their experiential potential. Her abstract paintings focus on constructing spatial voids using harmonic progressions and non-traditional, reflective pigments in oils. Her drawings on mylar and paper in diverse wet and dry materials have long been at the root of her artistic practice, serving as a means to map the development of her thinking. Shown in New York, Miami, Portland, Baltimore, London, Basel and Cologne, her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art among others. She is the recipient of numerous grants including Creative Capital, and the Pollack-Krasner award. She has written extensively on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail. She taught at the IS Chanin School of Architecture of the Cooper Union from 1997 to 2010 and at Princeton University. She is currently the Director of MICA’s LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting.
Christine de Lignières is an artist who lives and works in New York.