The distinguishing policy of this gallery is the value and emphasis it places upon those artworks that engage, before anything else, the observer’s eye. For all these artists, the act of seeing is primary. The intellectual engagement, which follows, for both artist and audience, is an interpretive and reflective process set in motion by the engaged eye.
Future exhibitions will include featured artists as well as invitational group shows curated around a thematic basis. Some exhibitions now in the developmental stage are: The Bleak View, a show based upon the work of artists whose artistic view is - well, bleak. From Life, a show of works concerned with imagery derived from direct visual observation; and Description to Abstraction, which will deal with the work of artists whose own approach defies easy classification, in that they may use traditional observational conventions in some works and emphasize the abstract and non- objective qualities in others.
Please visit the website for Prographica / fine works on paper: www.prographicadrawings.com
Prographica / fine works on paper does not exhibit Lundn’s own work. For those interested in his work go to the websites listed on the “contact” page.
This interview was conducted by David Brody in Norman Lundin's Seattle studio on April 14, 2006. It is featured in: Norman Lundin: Selections From Three Decades Of Drawing and Painting. Published by The University of Washington Press, The Koplin Del Rio Gallery, Los Angeles and The Francine Seders Gallery, Seattle; 2006
DB: Many people would probably assume that you paint from observation, that you set things up - your cup, or metal can - or you go out into nature and are looking at things while you're painting.
NL: I'm not against painting from nature and I do plein air painting from time to time, but nature doesn't look the way I want it to, so I change things. Nature can also give you more information than you need or want, but If I need to look at a landscape or an object - like a coffee pot, or as you see in the paintings here, I certainly I do. Many elements, though, are imagined; the coffee pot I looked at. The windows are from when I went around the city and took photographs of industrial windows to see the configurations. I'm quite an authority on the design of industrial windows now. These paintings are not based on any specific windows, but that's where I got the idea.
DB: So in many ways the paintings themselves are really a synthesis of things you've seen and remembered - and you may have actual objects in the studio, which you are consulting. But you are really orchestrating all of this in your mind's eye and then on the canvas.
Yes, I know what I'm after. Sometimes I do preliminary sketches, which are very cursory. Then I will work, for example in this current series [miscellaneous studio objects on a window sill overlooking a landscape], from back to front. I start with the background and move forward in space. I have an idea where things are going to go in the foreground. I'll put down pieces of tape on the canvas and say, "well, something should go here - nope, it should go over there-then, no, it should be over here". Then I select something that's very mundane - a jar, a box - something that has no, or very little, emotional association - very ordinary objects so you're not drawn to the object itself.
NL: Yes, I know what I'm after. Sometimes I do preliminary sketches, which are very cursory. Then I will work, for example in this current series [miscellaneous studio objects on a window sill overlooking a landscape], from back to front. I start with the background and move forward in space. I have an idea where things are going to go in the foreground. I'll put down pieces of tape on the canvas and say, "well, something should go here - nope, it should go over there-then, no, it should be over here". Then I select something that's very mundane - a jar, a box - something that has no, or very little, emotional association - very ordinary objects so you're not drawn to the object itself.
DB: When you're starting a painting, like one of these horizontal still-lifes with the gridded windows and a landscape outside, do you say there are going to be a certain number of objects, one on the left and three on the right?
NL: Well, I'd like it to be that way, but it doesn't work out. Pretty much, I know where the objects need to go; I put one down and then I put two down and then I think, no - it needs help, so I put in two other objects and three other objects and then stop and think and say, "no". They're in the wrong place and I re-paint it. That's pretty much the way it goes, by addition and elimination.
DB: Every artist has his or her catalogue of subjects. Looking over several decades of your work, I would list the following: figures/nudes, still-lifes, landscapes, interiors, interior/exteriors.
NL: Well, I started off as an abstract expressionist but didn't stay with it for very long. The list you mentioned is about it. The first major exhibition that I was ever in was at the Whitney and was called "The Grotesque in American Art". I was in my 20s and doing work that was caught up in the expressionist fever of the 60s. My work was hanging figures, howling dogs etc., and I was getting some recognition for those kinds of paintings. But, I became aware, slowly, (these things seldom happen with an epiphany) that I was frontloading. I was loading all the emotional subject matter into the painting "in front of" any other concern, formal or not. When you do that the painting is "carried" by the subject matter alone, which is a bad idea.
I began to think that I'd like to have paintings that were not about the subject matter per se, but about volume and space, breathable air. Just as you cannot have something "short" without something "long" to compare it with, you can't have a "void" without an "object" for comparison. Of these two, I find that it's the void that interests me. And, since a void is pretty fragile, if I want it to be the primary concern, I can't have objects that have a lot of emotional associations or they get all the attention. I was doing these interiors that had no figures in them. They were concerned with the play of light and air and I thought "That's it? I've got something here". The viewer becomes aware of the painting as opposed to being aware of the "loaded" subject matter. The viewer is still engaged, but in a different way.
I finally concluded that if I set certain formal problems for myself to solve, I would open the door for whatever personal expression I had to come through all by itself, no need to push it. Of course no matter how wide I opened the door, expression sometimes refused to enter - and that is just the way it is. Lots of work doesn't succeed, some paintings just go "thud", and that sure can be depressing.
DB: That brings me to another point. There seem to be two primary and related concerns. One has to do with an insistence on flatness, on dividing the rectangle into shapes and sub-shapes in a very forceful way. The landscapes and recent still life's are often composed in elongated horizontal formats. This brings real attention to the format itself and the primary horizontal division. At the same time you are interested in creating a very convincing illusion of a depth-of-space. How do these relate to one another?
NL: Well, paintings are, by and large, rectangles. The term "renaissance window" means that, in the Renaissance, the rectangle was a window through which you looked into reality or imagined reality. In the twentieth century that rectangle became less a window and more of a component of the painting. It was a vertical or horizontal that you needed to deal with as a geometric element within the painting.
I went through a period, when I was young, of looking at Diebenkorn. He was a first-class composer; in his paintings the geometric component of the interiors specifically related to the vertical and horizontal edges of the rectangle. This, along with his handling of color, resulted in paintings that were flat, like Matisse, an influence he fully acknowledged. Diebenkorn was interested in shape more than volume. This is true of a great deal of Hopper's work as well. In both figurative and non-figurative art, being conscious that the interior rectangles and diagonals relate to the overall rectangle is an important concept. When I compose I consciously relate the rectilinear aspects of the imagery to the edges of the painting. But, I'm interested in breathable air. So, I use geometric relationships in combination with atmospheric perspective.
DB: That's why when we look at these objects which are clearly rounded like jars or coffee cups we don't see any ellipses.
NL: Well, ellipses are hard to paint. (laughs)
DB: So, what do you get by denying the ellipse or the top plane of the jar or the underside of something?
NL: Sometimes I do use the ellipses. Usually, I do when looking at objects as they recede at a diagonal. Mostly, denying the ellipse gives you a sense of frontality. When you're looking at objects frontally, and at eye level, they sit extremely formally within the painting. And, when I compose this way I use a different sort of logic in placing objects than I do when viewing things obliquely.
DB: You once said, quite articulately, that a lot of painting is "just knowing where to put things". When you are looking from an oblique angle what are the compositional considerations?
NL: Composing frontally is like moving things around on a stage where you're viewing at ninety degrees, more or less. It's a different kind of thought process than when you are looking from above or below or in two-or three-point perspective. At ninety degrees you can move objects up and down, left and right and in and out. If they're on the same plane their weights and scale don't diminish the way they do when seen along a diagonal where the distant objects appear smaller than the objects in the foreground.
If you're looking at objects along a diagonal, well, things are going to go off the canvas and, often, you may need to introduce an element to slow them down - a vertical of some sort - or a counterbalance with a diagonal going off to the left. At ninety degrees going off canvas is still a factor, but much less a factor. The compositional problems when working at ninety degrees are different from those when working at oblique angles. You can't use the same solutions - they won't work.
DB: Another compositional problem you seem to enjoy giving yourself is one where all the planes in the painting are parallel to the picture plane.
NL: I've always liked geometric abstraction so that does come through in some of the architectural interiors. I like to stay with illusion though. Some of the pieces I've done are paintings of paintings, which is just a formal problem that I've set for myself. The painted painting often has very deep space.
I've done several paintings where there is a still life on a table in front of a wall and on the wall is a painting of a landscape. So what happens is a visual contradiction of sorts: the illusionistic space is shallow and then there's this landscape on the wall with deep space in it, but the verticals and horizontals are all parallel to the edges of the painting. It's only a semi-interesting problem though.
DB: It's related to the recent still-lifes with the gridded window and landscape outside.
In these, the grid of the industrial window is a geometric shape working off organic shapes. If there were no panes in the window, it would have a different dynamic. An architect friend of mine said that if you have a window that has small panes in it you're much more conscious of movement - the trees and birds - because they're moving against a static element, and that's true. Here, one of the key factors is the relationship between the rigid geometric shape of the grid working in opposition to the organic, that is, the loosely painted landscape outside.
NL: In these, the grid of the industrial window is a geometric shape working off organic shapes. If there were no panes in the window, it would have a different dynamic. An architect friend of mine said that if you have a window that has small panes in it you're much more conscious of movement - the trees and birds - because they're moving against a static element, and that's true. Here, one of the key factors is the relationship between the rigid geometric shape of the grid working in opposition to the organic, that is, the loosely painted landscape outside.
DB: Earlier you spoke of "breathable air". How do you relate that to painting both planes and atmospheric space?
NL: If I were to list the factors that go into creating a convincing illusion I could come up with 7 or 8 major categories. Those that come to mind are: overlap, subject matter of recognition, relative detail, atmospheric perspective, scale, light source, linear perspective and color.
Color could be a separate category because convincing illusions may be made without using it. But, let me talk about it for a moment. Intense color will appear to advance, neutral color to recede, warm color to advance, cool color to recede. That, though can't be a stand-alone series of statements because there is a built-in contradiction, i.e. what about an intense cool color? You have to include a disclaimer and note that, spatially, intensity overrides temperature. That is, if you have an intense cool color, an intense blue, for example, it's going to advance over a neutral warm color like a brown-orange. Of all the visual factors that we have for locating ourselves in three-dimensional space, overlapping is the most powerful. If there's something in front of something else, it's closer. If you walk into a forest and see a branch, you don't even recognize that it's a branch, but if it's in front of something else, then it's closer. You can override that kind of circumstance in a painting, but it's rather difficult. Any of the spatial factors I've mentioned could be overridden by any of the others, in the context of a painting.
DB: How would you describe the difference between two paintings, one where there is breathable air and the other where the objects sit there in proper perspective but there is no air.
NL: I gave an assignment to my students. I set up an arrangement of pieces of cardboard cut into various shapes and lit the set-up. It looked vaguely architectural but had no recognizable identity that would give it scale. I said, "Ok, the first drawing you do is as though they are just geometric shapes." After we talked about the drawings I said, "Now, draw it in such a way that it has a sense of scale and breathable air." After a discussion in which we talked about the spatial factors I mentioned earlier, they got it. The far side of the box would have a softer edge than the near side of the box; even in shallow space the amount of color is diminished as you recede down the side of an object.
DB: So it's about subtleties of value, intensity, edges . . .
NL: Very much so. When you say you want to do a convincing illusion, what do you want to convince? The only response is that you have to convince those senses you use to locate yourself in three-dimensional space. There's no other reference. You get kinetic and audio clues as well, but we're talking about the static ones, and it comes down to that list of things I mentioned a moment ago.
DB: I'm looking around the studio and I see several drawings and paintings which are repeated in varying scales. You take something two feet wide and do another version six feet wide. What do you get out of these permutations?
NL: You make different decisions. I suppose it's like writing a short story - you ask yourself: "If I'm going to change this into a novel I'm going to have to do something different. I've got to develop the character, or do something with the ambience, with the other characters . . .." You have to develop it more. If you just make a big painting out of a little one it won't necessarily work. Particularly if you're doing some kind of abbreviation in the small one - a little squiggle can mean a lot in a little painting but in a big painting it just looks like a squiggle. It worked small but now you have to re-interpret it. It's a different kind of decision-making process - maybe like orchestrating a piano piece. You can solve your compositional problems, or most of them anyway, in a smaller piece - and that's an advantage.
DB: When you look back on the work you did 25 to 30 years ago, if you could travel back in time and speak to that younger, less-knowledgeable artist, what would you want to point out?
NL: I'd say, listen you idiot, you're going the wrong direction - go this way. I was probably in my early thirties before I really knew what I wanted to do. I searched around for different forms and some were satisfying, but they looked like somebody else. Looking like somebody else is perfectly okay sometimes, but only sometimes.
DB: Are there things you know now that would have been useful to know then?
NL: There were a lot of formal things I ignored, and formal knowledge can be a big help. It took a while to realize how important this was. I can do much more with much less now. There is something to be said for experience. You try things . . . there is a learning curve. If I can identify the problem and keep at it, after a while, I'll solve it. Some of the problems were huge problems. If I told you how hard they were to solve, it would be laughable. Skies are very hard to paint. That's where your totally non-objective painter comes into play. Clouds can be anything at all, almost any color at all, any shape at all, and I want the skies to be important but subordinate. I don't want the sky to be the main character.
DB: What have you found out about painting skies?
NL: That it is hard to be purposefully ambiguous. Skies are ambiguous and they are changing all the time. Clouds are always and never the same. How do you capture that feeling? How do you make a sky feel low down, or bright and sunny? It requires some skill. I go out and look at skies and at the work of artists who paint skies. I look specifically at 17th and 18th century Dutch paintings and at late 19th century Scandinavian realists. I look at them and ask myself, how did they do it? You learn a lot if you know what to look for. You can learn from anything - it doesn't necessarily have to be a good painting. It helps if it is a good painting, but it doesn't have to be.
DB: Many people imagine artists as talented idiots . . . they go into their studios and just express themselves. You frame the activity of painting as problem solving - not unlike a scientist or a mathematician. There's a problem, something to be solved. You consult historical sources and other approaches and then work on your own resolution.
NL: I do believe there are talented idiots. I'm not using the term clinically here, but I've come across artists whose works are stunningly well painted with a great expressive presence and an understanding of the human condition. Then you talk to the artist and find that there are no lights on. There are people who can jump high, swim fast, or sing well. They're naturals, nature gave them a gift and they can do these things better than the rest of us. That includes naturals who can paint; I don't mean just eye to hand skill; I'm talking about the ability to be successfully expressive. Many actors have that kind of gift. That's just the way nature distributes talent in our species.
I used to believe that expression was the way to get wherever you wanted to go. When I was in my mid-thirties I began to think I had it backwards. You don't go in with an expressive idea but with a visual problem. I want to do this thing with a painting - be it skies, or color, or composition . . . and then I think how can I solve this problem? How did other artists solve this problem? I find any expressive quality that happens, if it happens at all, is a result of this approach. I don't believe that the approach I describe would work for everyone; there is no such thing as a good approach with bad results - if your results are continually poor, you must change your approach. If an approach works for you, well then, you're doing something right.
DB: So, is the intent important?
NL: An artist's intent, if you understand it, can be a signpost of sorts, it can point towards an intended direction. But I don't really care much about an artist's intent nor should you care about my intent. What you should care about is my accomplishment. When I talk to students and they tell me what they intend to do, I tell them to be careful not to confuse their intentions with their accomplishments. What really interests me is accomplishment and how are you going to get there. Most bad art is done by people who have good intentions.
DB: Do the different subjects we've talked about - still life, landscape, the figure - require different procedures? Do you handle them differently?
NL: Well, you get a lot more latitude with landscape. You can move trees around and change their color and proportions without harming the overall idea. Whereas with the figure - you may want to make this figure shorter, okay, but you have to remember, it still has to be believable. If you want to move an eye up, as Picasso well knew, it's going to have a different impact than if you move a branch up; moving a branch up is not a distortion in the way that moving an eye is. When asked by an interviewer about the difference between painting the human figure and the landscape, Sargent said famously, "When you paint a landscape there's never anything a little bit wrong with the eye".
DB: What about scale? In the recent still lifes (points to a work in the studio) things seem to be about life-size, maybe just a bit under?
NL: We can enlarge space mentally. When you're looking at a photograph of a landscape you can imagine enlarging the space in your mind. But, the reverse isn't true. You don't mentally reduce the space if you see something that is over life-size - I'm not talking murals because they are expected to be seen from some distance away - but in easel painting when you see something that is painted over life-size it becomes part of the overall understanding of the painting. This is neither good nor bad, it's just a factor.
In the painting you alluded to the space is very shallow. The objects are about the size and scale they would be if they were real objects and you were standing about six feet away. So, they are slightly smaller than one-to-one. If they were one-to-one they would look too big. In these paintings I don't want over-life-size to be a factor. If you held your finger up to your eye, you'd paint your finger forty inches high. You can do that, and it may even be interesting, but everyone is going to notice the big finger. So, at least in these paintings, I prefer not to have "larger than life" be a consideration.
DB: It's about neutrality, not calling attention to the objects themselves.
NL: Right, right. I want you to look at them and be convinced that they are where they are and that they are properly sized.
DB: Can you talk a bit about the relationship between figuration and abstraction?
NL: I discovered when I was fairly young that paintings need to have abstract relationships. You must think abstractly about where you put things and why. While I paint descriptively, I think abstractly. When I'm working on a painting I'll think I need something over here, and I'll put a mark or a piece of colored tape there. Then I decide what it's going to be. When I put the piece of tape up it's an abstract conclusion. When I compose, I use a visual logic that's unrelated to the appearance of a given object. If I were a non-objective painter I'd do the same thing - I would use the same thought processes.
DB: So, structuring the painting is largely an abstract endeavor, with the structure eventually made descriptive. But the structure of the painting is an abstraction.
NL: Yes, that's it.
DB: Given that you don't generally paint from observation, how do you think about color?
NL: If you look at the skies in the four paintings here (points) they are all different colors. I will use different color combinations because it's like eating dinner, you don't always want to eat the same thing. If you ask me how theoretical I get - do I use, triads, split complements; a primary red, or primary yellow etc.? Yes I do, but what is a primary red? What's a primary yellow? There's the red under the light I have in my studio, but if you're outdoors or in the living room it appears to be a different red. I'm not a musician but I think I'm right that in American orchestras the A is 440 cycles a second. In some European orchestras they still use 444 cycles a second and in Baroque orchestras it's around 426 cycles a second. If you're in an American orchestra and you key your instrument to a Barouque orchestra you're going to be out of tune. It's all relative - and color functions much the same way. What you do is calibrate your color differently. Sometimes I don't use blue - I use another color as blue. I'll use graphite gray and mix it with yellow which gives you a green, but a different green than you would get if you were to mix yellow with blue. What I do is calibrate the color to the painting.
DB: When you begin a painting do you generally have an overall color idea or a sense of mood - wanting it to reside in one area of color or another?
NL: Yes, I'm quite specific at the outset. I usually I follow through on my original conception. I will use the colors I have in mind and I will stay with that. And I know what I'm after in terms of mood.
DB: How do you begin a painting?
NL: I start like this (shows his sketch book)
DB: You're putting in some linear structure . . . and then you would be brushing-in some areas of color?
NL: I tend to put the neutral colors in first because it's more practical to make a color more intense than less intense. So I will tend to "up" the color as the painting progresses and I have a little more control. You know, value is always a component of color but color is not always a component of value, so they play different compositional roles. I tend to make my value decisions separately from my color ones. You could call it a division of labor.
DB: And you don't start with any under-drawing in charcoal?
NL: Sometimes, not often. I so often change things en route.
DB: What artists have been important to you?
NL: As a young man I just wanted to be a painter. I had an older cousin, Wesley Beck, who was an artist. He had a great adventuresome life, and I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be a sea captain too. The artists I really identified with were Edvard Munch and Vilhelm Hammershoi, who was a Danish painter of the late 19th and early 20th century - pretty well known. If you look at early modernism, he'll be in there.
In general, I like late 19th century Scandinavian realism. I'm also influenced by Giacometti. Not only in the fact that he has great expressive presence, but also, in how he composes. He'd do a standing figure it in the middle of a room, fairly rigid, looking straight out, not making eye contact, and not acknowledging another presence - isolated in self-reflection looking out to eternity. The inside of his paintings are like little volcanoes, the figure grows and shrinks, and the outsides are just turpentine washes. The edges move in and out to accommodate the space that belongs to the figure. Like, if you were on a subway train and it's an empty train and then someone comes and sits next to you, you have every right to feel a little bit nervous. But if it's a crowded train and that's the only seat that's there, you don't think anything about it. Your sense of space expands and contracts depending on the social context, and so does the space that belongs to the figure expand and contract. And so the relationship of the figure to the volume of space in Giacometti is something that becomes expressive.
DB: Munch's early works are naturalistic - quite different from his best-known paintings like "The Scream".
NL: What drove me to his work were the expressionistic paintings like "The Scream" and "Madonna" - filled with terror and sex - a pretty powerful combination. Unbeatable actually. And he was good at it. But, on the whole, when I got to see his work, and I saw lots and lots of it when I was in Norway, I found myself drawn to the work from the 1880s and 90s that are prior to "The Scream", which was done 1893. I was particularly impressed with "Spring" of 1889; it's a big painting, has lots of breathable air, great expressive presence. As an artist he had fabulous traditional skills. Everybody acknowledged it. He was one of these guys that people said, "you're going to be a famous artist", and so he was.
DB: What are some of the other things that fuel your work?
NL: I like to drive around North America. If I have a show on the east coast, I'll drive there with my paintings and, usually, my dog; on the way back I may drive through Canada. Or, I might go down through Texas and wander along the way. I've been doing this for forty years; it gives me time to be alone. If one is going to be an artist one has to be able to be alone, and comfortably alone. It suits me just fine - so I do that. And, I get a lot of ideas for painting from these trips.
DB: You say to be an artist, you have to be alone. How do you organize your day?
NL: I get to my studio around 9:30 after going for a long walk. I'll do whatever I'm planning to do and generally I am alone. Sometimes I'll meet a friend for lunch. My wife will call me in the early evening and then I'll go home. I tell my wife that I won't go to the studio on Sunday unless I have a show coming up, but I find myself here on Sundays anyway. Other than that I have dogs, cats and a wonderful family. I have ordinary tastes.
DB: You talked about retiring from teaching- what other kind of art related jobs have you had over the years?
NL: My first job was working for the Cincinnati Art Museum where I built a Spanish Romanesque chapel to display some 12th century murals that had been given to the museum. The chapel is full size. I, with the help of two carpenters, constructed the framework. I plastered it myself and aged it so it looked a thousand years old and did all the necessary additional fresco painting to make it look like it was part of the original chapel. I found that I'm really good at doing that sort of thing. In another life and another time that would have been a great career. I had the grand job description of Assistant to the Director. I did this for about a year but I wanted to be an artist, so I quit and went off to Norway on a Fulbright to study Munch's work. That chapel is still in the museum. I did it when I was twenty-three. It was my first professional job.
About a decade ago I was invited to do set design for the Pacific Northwest Ballet. My sets have been used at the Seattle Opera house, at the Kennedy center, and by the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. The undertaking was really engrossing. Once again, given another life, set design would have been a very interesting career.
DB: You taught for many years. You were a professor at the University of Washington. Did you find that served you well as a painter? Did it have any influence on your studio work?
NL: Oh yes. You have to be reasonably articulate in talking to students about what you want them to do or what they have achieved. It makes you develop a vocabulary for discussions with them, but you also use that vocabulary for your own internal dialog. And it's a pleasure to work with bright creative people. You learn from your students.
DB: In the 1800s with the advent of the camera, the death of painting was announced. Now, through digital technology imagery has become even more ubiquitous - you don't even have to print things. How do you see painting in the current world, which is so inundated with images?
NL: I don't think painting will have the dominant role that it has had. The history of art, which has essentially been the history of painting, sculpture and architecture, is going to have to admit some new art forms. Painting, though, is the most exquisite form of individual expression that we've ever acquired. It's among the earliest human activities we can document. Maybe we have a "painting" gene?. Something that has been around that long, 35,000 years, probably many thousands more than that, isn't going to go away - it may change form - but it won't go away.
Chair, Painting Program
University of Washington