New Art Dealers Alliance Art Fair, Miami Beach: James Hyde & Wallace Whitney (interview between James Hyde & Wallace Whitney)
James Hyde: Maybe we should start with how we met…. I don’t remember a specific time when I met you, you seem like the type of friend where it feels like I’ve always known you.
Wallace Whitney: You’re the type of friend, Jim, where other artists would say to me “you would have a lot to say to Jim Hyde on this subject…” And then I’d have to admit that I didn’t know you and people would say “You don’t know him!?” so I felt like it was just a matter of time before I got a chance to meet you. So, I ultimately did meet you and it was at an opening at David Krut Gallery back in 2005 or so and I remember very clearly that you were wearing a knit wool hat that I was very impressed by, it seemed like it was a pink gray or grayish pink…
JH: Stripes, it had stripes.
WW: Yup, that’s right it had stripes, it was kind of tight around your head…
JH: It was my son’s hat-- I boosted my nine-year-old son’s hat.
WW: Yes that seems right, so that was it, really meeting you and then you invited me to your house almost immediately afterwards and I went to your studio with Kate McCrickard who was the director at Krut’s at that time. And I was floored how natural it felt, like I understood so well what you where doing in your work. And of course I was sort of star-struck because you and some of your contemporaries, the generation of artists that were in New York just before me like Matthew McCaslin, Steve Parrino, or Steve Dibenedetto...You and those artists is what I aspired to be, treating New York in a fabulous pirate-y way like a wonderful jungle gym or an art playground, a place to work in and explore and draw inspiration from…Very romantic obviously… A place that doesn’t exist anymore.
JH: Oh, I don’t think that ever existed.
WW: Ok. Wow. That’s disappointing.
JH: Well, if it never existed then there is a possibility that it is actually still here. It’s this ineffable invisibility that you can make if everything comes together and if you are lucky. And I think it does exist, maybe. I moved to New York when I was teenager in the late 1970’s. I could have gone to Studio 54. People would say “what was that like?” and I’d say “I don’t know” because I was holed up in Brooklyn trying to make a living, trying to make paintings.
WW: I sometimes have a sense of being somewhere and not being there at the same time, which seems like a particular feeling that artists might have.
JH: That’s the studio life. The studio life is extremely immediate, but it’s not the immediacy of say hanging out at CBGB or something; or hanging out on social media. When you are in your studio you are hanging out with de Kooning or Kline or Alfred Jensen and your scene is being part of that imaginary invisible.
WW: When I’m working in the studio strange things happen to time: where an hour can feel like three hours. Life moves so fast, the painting process can slow that down for me.
JH: It’s also super fungible, because you can be in the studio for three hours and it feels like 15 minutes and then your wife calls and says ”you said you’d be home an hour ago…”
…Getting back to Kate and Svetlana Alpers and our first meeting, there was a good discussion about painting back then. When I first saw your paintings I thought “these are really cool”. And it wasn’t a matter of intellectually dissecting them. Because they really lead with this great feeling of what it is like to make a painting.
WW: That is good to hear. Yeah and it is good hear you talk about studios.
JH: Right and something I admire about you is that you are willing to go to the outermost of outer boroughs, the Bronx, to get a studio because you wanted something big, rather than be in the thick of things working in a postage stamp studio.
WW: I agree, but I still like to be in the thick things, but the studio is special, the kind of place that you can spend many hours. And the Bronx is special; it’s a strong place with tons of character.
JH: It's like Brooklyn 15 or 20 years ago.
WW: Exactly, and speaking of character we are sitting in your studio right here on the side of the Gowanus Canal looking at your old waterskiing boat. And it seems so different than it was like 15 years ago and you see the layers of history and memory and the layers of experience and how things change… another type of experience of time.
JH: For me the essential thing about having a studio is the sense of duration that is the sense of being planted someplace and really looking around. I mean I can’t imagine having a studio in lower Manhattan. I would feel too immersed. I need a refuge-- I need to be outside things so I can look inward; so that I can look further out. A studio is a powerful device, a workshop; home base-- a perspectival device to look out of.
WW: When you look out of here what do you see?
JH: Well, I had a studio in an old factory space in Boerum Hill. And I renovated it to be somewhere between a barn and an office in a factory. I made work that was more geometrically based than what I made later on. Then in 1992 I moved to a house in Carroll Gardens that had a studio in the back of the garden there. There was an enormous difference leaving the house and walking through an earthy, green, leafy place and then into the studio. And that completely jumbled my work, completely jangled it.
WW: Did that bring a more organic element to the work?
JH: It put a more biological element into the work. I became more interested in what a hand meant in a natural, cultural and anthropological way. I also become interested in density; in mark making, which is what happens in nature. Like when a tree is full of leaves, then loses its leaves and then the circle goes around again. I came to the studio here on the Gowanus Canal in 2005. When I look out my window now I see…
WW: This is amazing it is like walking into that Robert Smithson essay “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey” or something…
JH: Exactly, there is an enormous big sky, industrial landscape, with a circulation of subway trains on elevated tracks, trucks on the BQE, barges coming and going on the Gowanus…
WW: Airplanes coasting into JFK…
JH: Seagulls, and we even have a kingfisher here sometimes, a plucky little guy…But my work got quite a bit bigger here and the focal range changed. All the other stuff is still there but this is added on.
WW: I like the idea of depth of field in your work, to use a photo metaphor, the same way you described the studio as a device used for seeing. And a focal point is where you focus. It could be up close or further back or miles in the distance. Your glass boxes give me lots of opportunities to focus on so many different planes. Like multiple events inside the same piece. And just the materiality and the inventiveness of the whole thing: alligator clips, plexiglass, house paint, cardboard, webbing from cheap lawn chairs…
JH: It’s all in there!
WW: And so many verbs, like scraping and scratching, pulling and stretching which also goes back to the sense of time. All these events which happen separately and yet seem to pile up and get meaning from the thing that has happened next to it, sort of bumping up against it…One thing seems to create the next thing, kind of like nature. Is that planned or the mythical happy accident?
JH: You talk very well about painting. But my guess is that you aren’t thinking about these things when you are painting.
JH: What I like about your work is your suspension of idea in order to get the thing done. Everything has to be let go of in order for the painting to gather itself up and come together.
WW: Yes, hmm. It's like I have two minds as an artist. There is the intellectual side which is good at analysis and there is the practical or muscular mind which actually doesn’t exist without a paintbrush in its hands.
JH: I agree. And the other thing about a studio is that it is this wonderful place with your paint kit all around you and your paint kit can do a lot of the thinking for you. And the world does a lot of the thinking for you. It is a place you built a nest , a perch, a vantage point…
WW: A life raft
JH: …and then in the moments of desperation, the moment of desperation it all (your painting material) comes back and starts helping you.
WW: I definitely had that experience with the big painting "Apparatus" that is heading to the booth in Miami. I was riffing on the idea of a body in nature but the color was too literal. It was all wrong and way too obvious. In the last few months, somewhere, I picked up this can of pinkish red paint that was really like a coral color, and someone wrote "FREE" on the lid, so it is not like a color I can buy again. And I added it to the painting in a moment of desperation it all came together, everything that I had been looking for in the last 3 months just kind of showed up, and at that moment the studio came to my rescue.
JH: I have a question for you: how do you think of your paintings: mineral, vegetable or animal?
WW: Well to return to that first dinner party at your house, Svetlana Alpers asked me directly in your kitchen “what is an abstract painting?” And I said “An abstract painting is a landscape” and she said “NO, NO, NO! That is ridiculous." I defended my position by saying that looking at one of my paintings could be like the experience of looking out at a vast space that is essentially indifferent to you and through the act of looking the whole thing sort of get flips back onto the viewer, and so instead of the viewer asking "what is this painting?", the painting is sort of saying…“who are you?”
JH: You know that great Ad Reinhardt cartoon right?
JH: There is this guy wearing a tie and a business suit and he is looking at an abstract painting that is just lines and circles and he says “Ha Ha Ha, what does this represent?” Then, in the next frame, the lines and circles change into a face, and the painting points at the guy and says “What do YOU Represent?”
WW: (laughs) Hey that’s good! But I really don’t want my painting to seem so heavy.
JH: Why shouldn’t it be heavy? There is this type of easygoing-ness today in painting that is very much of the time. Because it wasn’t like that in New York when I arrived in the late seventies. Painting was blood and bone…it was serious business. And that is what I like about your work: your ideas matter.
WW: When I look at these box pieces I do see...I feel like I am a participant in their constant unfolding. And somehow this appeals to my sense of absurdity somehow, which is something I try to get into my paintings. Not that my work is riotously funny, but they succeed when they get the pathos and the wry sense of humor I sort of carry around with me. Anyway I like the zaniness of the boxes pared with the seriousness of your depth of feeling for painting…
JH: Well, you know, when I am happy with a painting it can look very not funny. Like a flat abstract shape on top of a highly detailed photograph for example, but there will be something that when I look at it I’ll feel a little eruption of laughter. And it isn’t funny but it is a type of mirth or a bit of wit, which is a very nice word and a very good name, I might add. But that little bit of wit isn’t coming from me; it is something that just happened. If it was just about me I wouldn't be so interested. But I love that beginning of a tickle of a laugh, which seems so much about what it means to be alive…in a good way. There are a lot of ways to be alive, some better than others.
WW: Well it is the openness to possibility and the willingness to find pleasure in the everyday. And being open to the fact that life sometimes offers, if not comedy, then possibly wonder, confusion, hilarity.
JH: Sweet. Is it boat time?
WW: Yeah! Boat time, let’s go…