interview with tyler green

by tyler green modern art notes, 2009

Yesterday I kicked off a two-day meandering around the Hammer’s Oranges and Sardines show here and by talking with Mark Grotjahn, whose gallery I particularly enjoyed. Today artist Steve Roden goes all O&S here on MAN. Just as the artists in O&S picked their own galleries, I asked Roden to pick some works of art for me to ‘hang’ here. My first question refers to those works, and I’ll show all of them on MAN in this or in upcoming posts:

MAN: I noticed that a number of the works you picked have circles in them: The Cage, the Lee Mullican, the Redon, the Martin. The Schoenberg might, depending on whether one counts the street lights as circles. Why are you attracted to the circles?

Steve Roden: Wow, that’s a really interesting question. I never realized such an attraction, nor did I initially view any of the works you mentioned in terms of their circular presence. (I immediately thought of Kupka, whose cosmic use of circles floors me.)

I’m thinking first in relation to my own work and how I’ve rarely managed to use circle forms in a painting, so perhaps it’s a kind of longing and attraction to something I’ve struggled with but never found my way. I rarely use tape, never pre-draw, and all of the forms on the surface of the works are birthed through the process of making. So if I plan to use a circle in a piece there’s a good chance it won’t happen, as it has to evolve naturally. Generally when an actual circle-form enters the work it feels forced and ultimately gets painted out as a kind of dishonest solution to a visual problem.

I have used marks as a kind of aura or circular presence — a field of bits that surrounds a circle of negative space, which relates to Lee Mullican, as well as the circles in the Redon, as a kind of cosmic presence or activity — be it electric, spirit, or dust. My whole relationship to Agnes Martin as a painter is that she does the kinds of things in her paintings that I don’t feel I can ever approach in my own work, which is perhaps why I gravitated towards an early work of hers, which is the closest bridge.

With John Cage the circles are tracings, and thus the form is really about the hand and the action — making circular motion with hands — I also gravitated towards this because of the score-based nature of my own work, which is really a combination of making a picture and performing an action. Like Martin, Cage manages to capture everything in a fairly simple and straightforward action. The purity of his work and Martin’s is something I really do try to approach in my own work, although of course on the surface one might never find those connections. (I should mention that with both of them their writings have been profoundly important to me as well.)

With Schoenberg you have something I think that is closer to my own attempts with circles, which is a built-in awkwardness and handling… that is, you can tell he’s trying, he’s climbing, and he’s struggling. There’s so much honesty in his circles, and more than circles, that is what I’m after in my own work. In a way, it was his inability to “master” technique (or perhaps even more wonderfully, his desire not to master technique), that allow these presences to flutter between circles and street-lights. They are ambivalent, and feel somehow true.

MAN: A number of the works have palettes I would almost call eccentric. The colors in Eugene von Bruenchenhein’s ‘Filament of Ages’ do not typically go together. Lee Mullican’s colors [in the jump] often seem turned down somehow. Your colors are bold — you throw more color at one painting than Agnes Martin used in her whole life. Do you take your use of color from, well, from where?

Steve Roden: It’s funny because when i give talks someone always asks me about the color, and I always say that my goal is to someday make a white painting (and I’m totally serious).

I don’t feel the color is so much an intentional decision as much as is it intuitive. I think when you ask me where i take my color from, I can’t really answer other than it is simply a part of me. In all aspects of my work, there is never a kind of over-controlled moment where I tell the painting what i want it to be — i don’t have any sense of what I want from a painting until it is finished. I don’t view color as symbolic, nor do I want to use it in a way that suggests any kind of specific emotion or meaning from color.

Painting is a very, very quiet and deeply intuitive activity for me, and so I rarely question decisions such as, ‘Why are you using blue here, red would work better.’ I try never to force things I want, but to negotiate with the painting and generally to let it have its way with me.

Of course, there are things from childhood that come into play, as if placing colors together in a painting is an act of triggering memory. A few years ago I put this strange green and orange together, and I instantly remembered this baseball cap from Japan I had as a kid. The combination on a cap was so exotic and strange for a ball team, and the cap fascinated me even though i rarely wore it because it was so ugly! So now every time I place those colors together they bring that all back. I have a lot of moments like this, where I realize that the color choices are not always coming from the environment of the painting itself, but from specific “color moments” or memories from my life.

It’s unconscious certainly, and feels accidental, and I rarely end up remembering the sources; but these moments allow me to at least feel like I’m pulling things from inside me rather than from anyone else. One of the bonuses of going through art school at the time that i did (1982-1989) is that I had very few technical classes, especially related to painting, and in many ways I’m self-taught in terms of technique.

I’m not the kind of artist who because I’m totally overwhelmed with love for the color in a Rothko or in a Guston, feels that I must notate these things and try to exploit them in my own work. Other artists have their path, I have mine, and I mean that with absolute humility. Rothko spent his entire life devoted to the things he discovered by following his own path (and of course being obsessed with some history that fueled his interests). How could I possibly feel comfortable using his work as “cheat notes,” or even inspiration in terms of wanting to use how his work works, to make my own work… I need to find my own way.

In the end it tends to be about negotiation with the moment and with the painting at whatever stage it is at. I don’t have kids, but i would imagine that my own color decisions are similar to the way you negotiate with a child when leaving the house: You select for them a green shirt, and they instantly go for purple shoes and you try to coerce them to put on the green shoes, and so they put the green shoes on but change the shirt to a pink one and throw on a yellow hat. Where do kids get this kind of determined color sense? It’s not learned. It’s in them.

I try to negotiate with the painting in the same way — to kind of ask it what it wants next to an orange form, and intuitively I reach down to the paint tubes and grab a color that I generally feel has come from conversation with the painting, but of course, on a deeper level, coming from that place that as a child you know you want the yellow hat with the green shoes…

MAN: With a couple exceptions, most of the paintings you chose don’t push the eye to any particular place. They’re almost color-fieldy in that way. Why does that attract you?

Steve Roden: It’s interesting to think about busy things that are color-fieldy, but i do indeed see the paintings i make as a field of bits and/or actions, and i do think there is this element of things holding together and falling apart at the same time, as well as a visual focus on the bigger picture than say a “subject.”

Again, in relation to things I think about that I can never approach as a maker, the first thing that comes to mind is Kusama’s early ‘net paintings’ which do exactly what you are talking about. They are calm in spite of their busy-ness. Terry Winters’ work of the last few years takes that whole idea of a field of fragments or bits to another level. I love how that work feels architectural and stable as well as about to collapse, with things existing on different planes — they move back and forth between being pictorial and graphic. I’m certainly interested in a kind of compression — of moments and images, and perhaps the love of “fieldy” work is that these people have been able to maintain the integrity of both the bits and the whole, leaving a viewer the ability to wander through the bits as stepping stones, towards the entire landscape.

I really love looking at maps for this reason. They flutter between bits of information and their larger, beautiful graphic presence. Alfred Jensen’s work is kind of like this — there are so many components that at some point you become overwhelmed by the amount of parts, so you find yourself in some kind of calming whole. That’s what i love about his work, how it seems loud, with an almost hyper-intensity in first moments, and then it kind of washes over you like a wave, and you have to start over with a quiet mind and a whole lot of patience. You can follow so many paths through the work, and it takes so long to even begin to approach grasping the whole.

For me, it’s very much related to the idea of life as a collection of moments and say a landscape as a collection of visions. I am really interested in this tension between a painting being a field of bits and a whole, between being a picture and an action, between holding together and falling apart. This is one of the biggest connections to my sound work. I have no background in music, but composing with sound is so much about fragments forming a field, which I tend to solve by attempting to deny any kind of narrative quality. Like a painting, the idea is that once someone is inside the sound, there is no beginning or end or dynamic that shakes them out of the space of the “soundscape”.

With paintings my hope is that it is kind of the same. I don’t want there to be any kind of referential situation that might draw someone out of the “painting-scape,” which would deny them the ability to wander. If the work wasn’t able to dissolve into a field, one would have to take a narrative approach, which in the case of my own work, would be a dead end. The systems I use to generate the work are all related to translation, but if one seeks a kind of literal logic in the work, it falls apart because it can’t be translated back — these aren’t codes, so logic isn’t necessary to navigate them.

It probably sounds a bit esoteric but the idea is to create a situation that one can only truly participate in if one has the ability to “unknow” certain things, to allow the fieldy-ness of the work to become a world that one must enter on its own terms… It becomes a place where a bright pink might have the potential to suggest ‘somber,’ and a gray the possibility of ‘sunlight,’ and the only way someone can piece this landscape of bits together is to begin to let it overwhelm them, to find their own way rather than worrying about my intentions. It is important for me to make work that attempts to have this kind of generosity, where my intentions can fall away freely, and no one really notices the difference… All of this is simply towards the creation of a visual experience that might have some value for those who are willing to take the time to look at it…

(Also: Roden specified that he would also like his O&S gallery to include one wall with works on paper hung salon-style. It would feature a late collage by Joseph Cornell, a paper cut-out by Hans Christian Andersen, an ink drawing by Victor Hugo (preferably The Octopus), and a calligraphic ink drawing by Henri Michaux, a similar one by Brion Gysin, a Tom Marioni drum brush drawing, and a William Anastasi subway drawing.)