O n  B i g  D r a w i n g s

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Friedhard Kiekeben


       When did you start drawing? Were you naturally attracted to this medium, or is this a more recent concern and engagement? 


Like most kids, when I was little all I wanted to do was make drawings. I couldnʼt stop, itʼs all I looked forward to. I made drawings at home, through dinner, at school through my classes. When I realized I could communicate something with them, Drawing became the center most orchard in my world

It wasnʼt until an art class in community college in Rochester that Drawing was presented to me as a preliminary step to Painting and not its own, autonomous way of working. I had a hard time with that. I tried to make the leap, letting one become the other but on the other side of that leap Iʼd end up missing something, leaving something behind. In the act of painting something vital was always edited away, something immediate and of the moment and understated and inelegant. I spent years trying to make that leap, all the way through grad school. But I kept finding Drawing when Iʼd go out walking, Iʼd find it in writing, as something happening to the buildings on Kenmore Street, near Montrose, Uptown. There the world seemed to be resuming and exaggerating the buildings back into something else out of the reach of Architecture. The buildingʼs, symbols –– which they are covered in and perhaps may not have been there when the building initially went up –– seemed to be dropping away. The building was becoming something else. And there Iʼd see Drawing, which was nothing to do with Painting. I live in New York now, there arenʼt many buildings here in the neighborhood that do this, but you can sometimes see it in Riverside Park. There is a productive tension suspended in the park, along the path parallel to Riverside Drive. That tension is enacted by simultaneously establishing and stepping through a particular identity of space, of differentiation, like mapping a little drop of ink in a bowl of milk, which you can only access through walking it out. Even the trees seemed to confirm it. 


       How would you define the fundamental differences between painting and drawing? (A quote: 'A drawing is a painting made with less paint', ... Henry Matisse). 


Iʼm not sure I could define a fundamental difference between the two, but I donʼt think itʼs necessarily in the materials. As far as Drawing goes, the materials you are using are irrelevant except insofar as they express certain tensions between not only what youʼre working with but what youʼre working on. Maybe the difference is that the materials go hand-in-hand with the subject matter; one guides the other. 

Itʼs always important to look at other artists. What is Julie Mehretu doing in her work? Or Sara Sze? Both of these artists are making Drawings but with different materials and in very different ways and with very different ends. In the explosive, accumulative, catalytic harmony of her mark making, Mehretuʼs work interprets the potentiality of becoming. Her gigantic, architectonic work (somewhere in Harlem in a church) is the potential to realize being -the pure profusion of being- through an endless contingent weather of configurations over the surface in the here and now. This is Drawing. 

I saw Sara Szeʼs last two shows at Tanya Bonakdar and in each I felt like I had walked into The Poetics of Space, into a Drawing arcading around me, little internal agile engines of differentiation. The image of her installation, or sculpture (I am really at a loss about what to call it), sparkling with conflict and ladders and shattered and torn images and projections lifted the room onto an almost transparent stage, it was like peering into the homelessness and formlessness -the great burden of having already lost so much- so central to our collective current experience. The installations spilled out over the floor, onto the walls, into the rafters of the gallery, it transformed the room into an image both extremely personally historical as well as cosmological and fabulous. 

In Szeʼs work a coded reef of vacillating subjects -transformation and fixity, the various and varying, disorientation and relocation- each endlessly repeated in spatial capture. The Drawing was in there somewhere, slipping through passages. 

Or Sonya Blesofsky. Her work at Spencer Brownstone last year had filed architectural elements and anthropological tropes, down to fossils, to a chill, almost erasing them in space. But walking through the show -even the crane in your neck could feel their tectonic immutability, it was like a 

drained lake of white air. Blesofskyʼs work keeps history somewhere above us, somewhere in the space, charged with symbolic, even metaphysical implications. Her work simultaneously harnesses and exceeds the architectural elements use (this is where her Drawings are), as if these arcs and columns and supports, unbound and reduced, are here only images caught mid-stride leaving the world architecture laid for them and revealing instead the something like the figure, or the little crane in your neck. 

The Drawing is there setting a double task in motion: 1) the repurposing of an architectural element to a symbol, and 2) the symbol to a kind of document where it can participate with space, submerged in the dynamic flow of the language and time of a given room. 

All these cross-histories, counter-histories, there really is no model, only modeling. 

The drawing is there, in how the artist worked their way through their work and left indelible traces of themselves along the way, like they are their own Beloved in the moment of their moment. 


       How important is a notion of 'process' in your drawing practice? 


Process might be everything to my work. And this is where Drawing gets weird and tricky. What Sze and Mehretu are so good at is making available, in how they handle their material, very certain tensions (ideological, cultural) latent in their worksʼ forms which, by the very act of configuring them, allow these tensions the potential to pass fluidly into other, further (re)configurations. This process is documented in the form itself, broadcast there in the object (indeed, its so much more interesting to look at an artwork that is a document of itself getting up on the wall than a finished product). Itʼs a transmission, also a transformation. Thatʼs Drawing, the Drawing process. Itʼs also an act of seeing, of looking. Drawing reveals the difficulty -and the possibility- of the form (or the body, the building, the fossil, the lake, etc) on its way through a transformation. 

My own work is obviously rooted in architecture, thatʼs where my concerns have always been. My work looks at common architectural details, basically sculptural nodes, fixed repositories within which an invisible library of 

societal identities (class, racial, economic) intersect and dispatch. However, in Drawing these details out, these sculptural nodes, they are changed, and by removing them from their context they are entered into an act of reclaiming. Here the relationship the detail has with its place in the world (that long reach of spatial and cultural identities youʼll find in Riverside Park one day) is maintained, but at the expense of a gutting. 

Architecture is incapable of dealing with history, though it constantly returns to it, measures it, remeasures it, mourns it, puts it back and forgets, traverses it into other bodies, returns to measure it again, and memorializes it. My work is an attempt to break with the past in order to cope with the present, an arrangement that allows us to respond to history, and it to us. (A tall order but thatʼs at the heart of it all.) 

Again, a reconfiguration of architectural language and energies (ideas are energies), energies built into the material and transformed so that something not visible at first or ever before is reconfigured into a readable, legible image (or fossil, or doorway, or walk). This is what Drawing does. And the process is the best part.

 

       One question foremost on my mind, was: how do artists respond to the Covid-19 crisis, and do you think the new situation has an impact on your creative practice, your exhibitions and projects, and the nature of work being affected by working from home for extended periods of time? Perhaps artists start making smaller scale, more intimate works, made from simpler and easily accessible materials ? 


Yes, Covid has impacted my work. And in a way that is so beguiling and strange and otherly I canʼt get my mind into it. Time seems unpinned, unbearable, I canʼt remember things very clearly. March and April of this year feel like another lifetime. Thereʼs the obvious distress and sleeplessness and worry that comes with living and working in a Pandemic, but then thereʼs this other starry trauma unfolding in everything, like an assemblage of tenses clicking in and out of place. Everyone I know is going through this, too, it seems. As far as the studio goes, Iʼve never worked so hard in my life but I canʼt get anything done. Iʼm an essential worker, and my studio isnʼt far from my nine-to-five, and so Iʼm one of the lucky ones 

thatʼs been able to stay employed throughout everything, nonetheless itʼs certainly taken its toll. 

Most of the art work Iʼve looked at lately is just trying to get away from all this. Thereʼs a cheeky escapism to it thatʼs not at all subtle. Heavy-handed, cooped up, self-deprecating jokey stuff made by someone deadly serious, working awash in the grayness of what it means to be holed up in the studio right now, let alone laugh right now. I know itʼs been relevant for a while, but I see so many artists using humor in their paintings that I think itʼs telling of a different, depleting kind of pain. 

I think we are going to see work for a long time that intensely, relentlessly, shamelessly looks inward. A lot of my friends had some serious time to be in the studio, just working and watching helplessly as the world burned around us. We are going to see art that grapples with our own lip-servicing ineptness to instantly effect real change in a time of actual social justice; work that fumbles with not knowing whether what an artist does is hurting or helping. 

Moreover, the art world is so undone into a million pieces no one knows who is going to put it back together or how. And while we all know it canʼt go back together the way it was, there doesnʼt seem to be any other way. 


I have a friend that works in Art Handling, and that industry saw a bump when collectors began moving their work out of New York City. He said heʼd never been so busy crating and shipping and driving work Upstate to storage. Wherever that work is headed, draining art out of the art world is like sucking momentum from a tossed cinder block. I think itʼs going to have very material and lasting effects on an economy that so many of us are grinding every day for the opportunity to dip into. I think we are going to see a much different, much more fiscally conservative art world, and those opportunities will thin out for a while. 

But no oneʼs going anywhere (where would we go?), artists are still here working, and so we are also going to see a world insanely joyous for the sake of joy and making art (why else would we stay here?); an art world high on working and contributing, with itʼs shoulder pressed so hard to the 

wheel that we may be able to prop one other up for a while, this way we donʼt have to sleep with our heads in the mud. 

I think when galleries do open regularly again people will want to go look at art that knocks them out. Theyʼll want big, bold, triumphant moves from painting and sculpture. Something to get them washed out of their bodies and feeling the world around them again. I recently saw the Suzan Frecon show at Zwirner and I was so grateful to be in a gallery again, I had not been to a gallery in months, floating around room after room and standing in front of good paintings, like a communion. It was overwhelming. I left feeling like I had just witnessed something special, and hadnʼt realized how starved I was for that feeling. 



 

      Thank you so much for sharing these profound insights into your practice. Having got to know your work in 2013, there are two topics that keep coming to my mind: 'Scale', and 'Painting'.

You are writing extensively about your love of drawing (and the precision that goes with that), yet I find there are so many aspects in your work that are painterly, and sometimes also intensely colorful and chromatic, thus highly subjective and non-linear. 


Could you share your thoughts on what you make of the medium of painting, both as a contemporary practice, and as an art historical form? 


There are moments in my work, throughout the years, where paint appears suddenly, thatʼs true. And here itʼs important to note that I approach paint in a way thatʼs different than Painting. There is an age old and drubby Cat and Mouse game of semantics that pops up every time we try and draw a definitive line between drawing and painting and what really constitutes either, and I donʼt mean to get into all that here (the differences are so auspicious that as you zoom in youʼll notice that their boundaries actually overlap more often than not). Suffice it to say, Iʼm not interested in making Paintings. Paint is a material, simply put, and thatʼs how I approach it. But I know itʼs not that easy, no one gets to just use paint. 

In my work, for a particular effect, Iʼll use paint the same way I use spackle or tree limbs or graphite. The important thing is that paint is loaded to the brim with magically effortless and far-reaching cultural implications, and 

using paint means gathering about you at once the whole of those implications (see Christopher Wool). Even alluding to Painting (see Max Schubert or Sara Elise Hall) means that your decisions, your moves across a surface, will crackle with those implications. In turn, and perhaps not surprisingly, deliberately not using paint will get you the same thing (see Heidi Bucher). 

When I began using architectural details I found I could prompt an inextinguishably complex cultural language of place, of time, and of building --recognition requiring as it does silent repetition. What the power of these architectural details suggest is that the cultural movements that evoked them are generated out of sentiments expressed so long ago that theyʼve become general, banal; theyʼve become common, and, moreover, durably extensive. But, like I said earlier, in drawing them something changed that; they werenʼt so much repeated again (no, they can never repeat again) as they were re-articulated anew. Even the most simple constructions seemed to re-define in the heat of the act. As formal hooks their transition from the faces of buildings to surfaces like paper and tarp crested them with a different kind of energy, and as a subject matter this exposed that under the detailsʼ sleepy decorative purpose there lived a world of signs still very much alive and vectored by economic and political forces. 

These details, these architectural ornaments, furthermore, have a kind of new old-ness, a white washed catalogue-ready everyday-ness to them that seems to remove them out of the arch of a particular time and place, or a particular history. (In fact, they are inherently characterized by their capacity for mass production.) 

However, as the detail makes its way from the building to the paper, that non-specific, oft-replicated, almost commercial idiosyncrasy is disabled and offset by a process uniquely human and handmade. The detailsʼ ahistorical structure is charged open by rather rawly unforgiving industrial materials like tarps, discarded wood, construction-grade adhesives, and a kind of clawing search for the form. (Both of these things, I think itʼs important to note, are constituted by, and so carry with them, a prior context). The dying have indeed chosen the living world for text. 

Here, no matter how hard I push the form back into itself, no matter how hard I try to make it right, the regimented mass-symmetry of the detail comes into contact with and tenses against the resolute and simple constraints of the material, and across the surface a searching, stuttering play of decisions is recorded there in the Drawing as accurately as the detail itself. This breaks the detail from the structure of pattern and lends it to a sense of growth and movement. In the walking, a bodily and tectonic relationship appears to guide the drawing. 


Paint sometimes makes its way into play and the entire thing changes, the load shifts. I used to think that color is its own identity, subject to its own laws. And as far as architecture is concerned, to a undeniable extent perhaps more than any other material, color has had important ramifications for it that are not necessarily related to form and proportion (or scale, as you put it, Friedhard), but rather to atmosphere and effect, and to something more emotional. But I no longer see Painting as some autonomous phenomenon, insofar as its absorbed the world as much its been absorbed by it. 

What color does in my work (and Iʼm interchanging color and paint here because I approach paint as a material not as a medium --I realize they are not necessarily the same thing) is show that a kind of mourning in layers, layers without depth, bare layers of surface, are building. Like a characterized patterned energy. Iʼll often spend a year or so chasing something down, working my way around it, taking it apart, making drawing after drawing, and in the end I may necessarily need paint, with all its skin and speed, to drag the thing Iʼm getting at out into the world. 


The work youʼre referring to, the “painterly and sometimes intensely colorful and chromatic”, usually comes to me all at once, otherwise I donʼt try. It takes forever to see those pieces, in whole, but once I do they are done. I just have to wait them out to carve them out. 

Works like Untitled (June 30th), My Dream of Your Dream, and Untitled (November 30th) each came out of a moment where what I wanted to say with the weight of the room, a moment where the body in movement there, in calling from itself a way to guide the work out, was blocked, all of it blocked, where piling beneath the thing you know, have always known, is a 

centerless open volume, like a moon, or like a sea of steps, wasnʼt it always there? and where working is just beating it back amidst all that searching and measuring and walking, time collecting the reeds of an irresolvable loss, clacking. And the huge overlaying of color and material, all of it somehow a familiar shape --a mattress cover, blankets, an old tarp, a pattern, all of it touched endlessly and blocked away. Kept away. Not any longer accessible. And all you can do is stand in place, maybe circle the inlet cooly for some time, but there isnʼt any way back in. 

Iʼm constantly looking at Richard Serra, at Anselm Kiefer for clues into this world, at how Doris Salcedo lobs transactional items at us through the mists and matter of material agency. And somehow lands them every time perfectly in the shell of each of our laps. 


What Serraʼs work requires of us is that we move about his sculptures, absorb them by allowing them to reframe the room theyʼre situated in and test their massive, irregular, brutal bodies against the perception of our own, which then moves them out of pictorial allusion (Painting) and into actual space. Somehow, however, for all their juggernaut presences, his sculptures seem withdrawn, familiarly sacred, cruel nearly, like a prototype. And they are as preoccupied with Painting as they are with the rival architecture whose bodies they subsume. Indeed, Serraʼs work uses a particular language (and by language I mean a function that connects images and structure) but, even as he separates his work form them, itʼs one thatʼs undeniably rooted in Painting and architecture. Here, a pool of compositional units is facilitated by a way to regard the universe: as a dream. 


The nature of Serraʼs work belongs to an ideological framework which seeks to recover architecture as a collective experience, but in the space of that thinking, in making the work and doing it or undoing it endlessly, in the inevitable indeterminacy in breaking it down and building it back, in walking and changing the paths and processes of works like Switch, in being devastatingly alone inside that very sculpture, there is a rhythm of being tracking the effort in it all coming together to meet the world. 

Anselm Kiefer too uses a kind of material strategy that disarms and repositions traditional concepts of architecture and Painting, often using the 

medium as the subject itself. This is essentially collage, which pivots the work of art into an object, or a sign. In his case, a constellation of signs. 

In works like Drache, and wohin wir uns wenden Gewitter der Rosen, Kiefer arranges a dense commotion of material like mud, shellac, furniture, unearthed fabric, huge found books, and woozy battered garden things into a diorama of ringing kinetic pressure. Even language itself is a material (though never begets a poem). What do these things mean together, they build up with such primacy and tension; what can be taken from their placement here? Like a theme, their reappearance and repetition across works produces a bizarre difference among them, and textures and rhythms become temporal, spatial, and material organizations. Kieferʼs sculptures (or Paintings) seem constructions, or surfaces for projection halfway to witnessing themselves dissolving rather than any kind of discovery. None of these objects embedded in the work any longer have an origin, they are on the cusp of a long history of memory, of perception, they are in the world without coming from it, which ultimately allows them to serve as a screen for the deployment of the sign, of the signifier. 


And here Kiefer seems to aim his work back at us, back at the world, like an emphatic mirror gun, a portal breaking down the notion that art is somehow one step removed from reality. And with each blast at the world an absence follows since, as Rosalind taught us long ago, “Absence is the condition of the representability of the sign”. 

There is raw facility to paint. But also in terra cotta, in sheet metal, in the anonymous millions lost Tupperware lids, and those are hardly exalted though equally human with secrets, like Painting. The little plain words, a terrible beauty. Painting, as a locus or a tightened bow, is at the extraordinary mercy of everything around it, and paint, like everything else, is an instrument that processes others work into its own. Weʼve been following Painting around for centuries, and it keeps leading its way back to ourselves.