“My paintings are for unlocking thought.” – Robert Ayers in conversation with James Siena
James Siena is one of our best-known contemporary abstract artists, and one of the most successful too. His first New York show was at Pierogi back in 1996, and since 2005 he has been represented here by Pace, who are staging his latest show at their 510 West 25th Street space through this Saturday, April 30. His most characteristic works are small in scale and, as he puts it, “rigorously abstract”. These pictures are arrived at by following sets of rules that he invents for himself and which govern the decision-making in any particular work. That gives him a great deal to maneuver obviously, but intriguingly the last few years have also seen him exhibiting strange cartoon-like drawings and paintings of faces, figures, and body parts alongside the abstractions. When I spoke to him just after the Pace show opened, we eventually talked about these representational pieces, and their relationship to his better-known work, but before we got that far we talked about everything from his painterly processes to art’s human content and spirituality, from the importance of color in his work to a great number of other subjects besides. Mr Siena turns out to be a thoughtful and entertaining conversationalist with a wide-ranging and highly original intelligence, and it was an enormous pleasure talking to him.
James, I wonder if I could begin by asking you to describe how you go about making a painting.
It depends on the painting, actually. Sometimes the decisions happen during the process of making the painting, but sometimes the decisions happen before. Oftentimes the process involves laying out an image, and then painting it and un-painting it in alternating sessions. I might paint the lines in a painting, and then I paint around the lines, rather than paint the lines over a background. I don’t really like the idea of backgrounds. So I’ll paint what might be called the “figure” of the painting, and then paint what might be called the “background” or the “secondary form” or the “negative space” afterwards.
Then I might have adjusted the lines too much, so I have to paint the lines again. In the paintings in the current show there are a lot of negotiations like that going on. Occasionally I want the sense of paint and light and color to be more intense than it was originally, so I’ll paint the painting two or three times: paint every line over and over again, paint every shape again and again. Right now I’m working on a painting that I just couldn’t deal with in time for the opening of the show. It’s a deceptively simple painting that I could work on forever. One day I paint the white and then the next day I paint the black. Just negotiating; making adjustment after adjustment. So there’s conception, then there’s execution, and then there’s adjustment or what you might call ‘deepening’. A lot of people at the opening of the show were saying that the color is amazing, so maybe it was worth painting things an extra couple of times because the color does get richer.
I was just re-reading an old Brooklyn Rail interview where you said that you actually weren’t very interested in color.
I wasn’t. Maybe I’m still not. I’m interested in intensity. As Tom Nozkowski says, “Colors are very useful for keeping the shapes apart”! You can use black and white, but if you’ve got a very complicated image you might need more than black and white, so you’ve got to come up with different values or different qualities to underpin the complexity of whatever you’re trying to build.
Color just hasn’t lent itself to the sort of procedural iterative thinking that I get involved in and that I’ve just been talking about. (Or it hasn’t until recently, anyway). But there are some very geometrical paintings (called Sequence paintings) that look like mazes, and every time the unit of the maze makes a turn, the color shifts incrementally. It went from blue to green and back to blue in one of the paintings, and from brown to gold and back to brown in another. The sequencing thing lent itself to doing that with color. So maybe color is more interesting than it was all those years ago!
These are the sort of rules that famously govern your paintings …
They’re procedures. Each painting has to do with carrying out a procedure, no matter how simple. It’s the task of making it physical.
But are these procedures articulated in your mind in terms of drawing, so that the color is secondary?
Yeah, I think that’s true. Drawing in the sense of drawing a painting. I don’t really distinguish between drawing and painting in that sense, although of course I think it’s harder to make a good painting than it is to make a good drawing. I love to draw. But the color is in large part secondary. Certainly the painting could be done with different colors and be just as relevant to the execution of the rules.
Tell me about the painting called 5 against 4
The reason that it’s called 5 against 4 is because there are five colors that carry out a rotational sequence of the four sides of the painting. And because there are five colors, color number one shifts over so that it doesn’t abut itself. That was the point of the painting, to use the fewest number of colors possible to make a sequence without any L-shapes coming out of it, and seeing what the result was.
The procedure of making a concentric rectangular sequencing image has been carried out in a number of pictures going back to the early nineties. One of the things I like about it is that none of the bars are the same length. They’re always diminishing in length. I’ve done it many times before. This time I thought it would be interesting to make them progressively smaller. Then the white stripe in the middle of the painting was almost an impulsive move. I think I miscalculated, actually. I got to the middle and I thought, “Well, either I stop or I repeat, because I can’t make these things any smaller.” So I just thought I’d see what it looked like. It’s one of those things that artistic license allows us to do. I liked how it zooms in and then flattens out towards the middle of the picture.
Initially that painting was painted entirely in grays, but I wasn’t happy with the way the gray looked. It was dull. I had mixed the grays myself and they weren’t holding up. So I decided to repaint the painting using color. It was repainted a couple of times. There’s a lot of paint under that painting!
I don’t think I’m easy to talk to about this stuff. I think it’s intrinsically difficult to talk about the work, and I think that’s one of the reasons why I make the work. It’s visual language, and it’s called visual language because it’s not verbal language, but to talk about it we have to translate it into various sorts of spoken language.
I find it intriguing that you use the same sizes over and over.
Yes I do, more or less. In this show there are four different sizes of painting, or maybe even five if you include the smaller paintings that are 9 ½ x 7 or something – they’re proportionally equivalent though, in terms of height and width ratios. That goes back to the very old device of painting on square formats that I was hung up on in college. It took me years to get over that. (These days I can hardly stand to look at a square painting. Maybe it’s because I did so many of them myself.) But the standard size of a work provides me with a visual anchor to unify a body of work, no matter what happens within the rectangle. Working on an intimate scale it just seems convenient and logical to have this similar matrix.
I do the same in drawing too, and that came out of an economic impulse: I didn’t have much money for art supplies back in the eighties, so I would buy reams of archival typing paper (and I also liked the reference to text, and the office, and non-traditional art supplies).These days I still find myself cutting museum board or even hand-made paper to 11 x 8½, just so that it’s consistent with the other work scale-wise. In the current show there’s a group of abstract drawings that are on all different kinds of paper, but they’ve all been trimmed to that size.
It’s not that big a deal for me any more. It’s funny, I’m getting less and less attached to these things. Still, it’s carried over into the new work in an almost absurd way – there are these figurative things happening that have a much more tenuous relationship with the rule-based work, and yet they’re still the same size. I don’t know, maybe it’s just because I had the panels lying around and I was too lazy to go out and get a new size. It’s just become this thing that happens. I find it oddly comforting.
Let me ask you a pretty fundamental question. What are your paintings for?
That’s a really interesting question: Why do we work? I think my paintings are for unlocking thought, in some way. But I think they’re also about giving satisfaction – looking at something that is satisfying, and yet unusual. But if I really knew what they were for I probably wouldn’t paint them. That’s the constant question. What are anybody’s paintings for? What is a painting for or a poem for or a song for? We definitely want to be moved. We want to be moved by art, and we know in our heart of hearts that art is somehow essential to the survival of our species. It’s an unstoppable force like sexual desire. It’s that powerful. Why do we like to have sex? We’re not trying to reproduce every time. It’s this thing that makes us feel alive, and it feels good, that’s one of the main things.
One of the reasons why I make the work is that I like the journey of making something and completing it. But I’ve been thinking this since this show went up, I also like the transitional moment when an exhibition goes up and the works are no longer mine. When they’re in the studio they’re in play, but when they’re out there’s a separation.
And you want to know what other people think about them?
There is an audience. The first audience is me. I want to look at them when I think they’re finished. I want to know what my partner [painter Katia Santibanez] thinks, I want to know what my son thinks, and I want to know what my colleagues think. It’s my form of communication. If you write a song, you want to sing it for somebody! You want them to hear it and be moved by it.
I came late to having any success with my work and I for quite some time I was comfortable having just a few friends who looked at it. I just figured the best thing I could do was enjoy the making of my paintings as much as possible and take the time to make them as consistent and complete to what I’m thinking about as I possibly could. I felt that eventually people would want to look at them and a few people would care enough about them to buy them and show them.
Roberta Smith once compared you to Agnes Martin.
Yes she did. I have no idea what she was talking about. I don’t consider myself anywhere near as focused or as hermetic as Agnes Martin. I love Agnes Martin’s work, but I don’t see the relationship at all.
Perhaps Roberta was getting at the possibility of a spiritual content in your work?
I don’t feel very spiritual at all. But I don’t think you have too feel it to be it, in a way. Or to be in touch with some commonly held notions regarding the meaning of existence, which is about as far as my religion goes. I worship and revere and am awed by the mysteries of existence.
But do you see your painting having anything to do with that?
I do. I think what am doing has to do with researching the mysteries of existence. But I don’t do it in an overt way. I don’t get up in the morning thinking, “When I finish this painting I’ll understand the mysteries of existence a little bit better.” It’s not overt. I don’t need the systems of religion or of so-called spirituality to be motivated to do the work I do, or to love my fellow man or want world peace or anything else. I think there’s a lot of logic in what some people call spiritual thinking: its just logical and in our best interest to be peaceful and to respect each other and be open-minded with each other.
Finally James, can I ask you to say a little more about the relationship between your abstract works and the rather newer figurative things?
I expected you to ask that. I think everything else we’ve talked about up to this point applies to the figurative works as well: the idea of consistency and completeness and thoroughness, and the enquiry into what a work can do in terms of its relationship to visual language and outside of verbal thinking.
I just had an impulse at one point to draw a face. I was drawing a low-relief abstraction and rather than just drawing a line, I started doing some pictures. An illusionistic space was beginning to happen and a couple of faces just appeared. You could see them like in a Rorschach test. And I thought, “Why not embrace them? Why not just see what happens?” It seemed like it was time to give myself permission to disobey the stricter abstract rules and see what I could do. And to let some of that more overt stuff about the human condition that we talked about a few minutes ago to come through. I was not happy with the state of things in the world, so why not express that? Just do it. See what happens. And I started drawing these screaming old men, and a man with his lips sown shut, and a starving woman suffering. I think all work is about the human condition. I think Mark Rothko’s paintings are as much about the human condition as George Tooker’s. But I love realist painting, and it was just there inside of me waiting to be activated. I guess that’s a big part of it.
The figurative stuff is so new to me it’s still ongoing. Who knows where it’s going to lead. But I do enjoy keeping a lot of balls in the air at the same time. I love to make the very rigorous abstractions, but there’s room in my head for the other work. As long as I’m satisfied with the result of any given work, I give myself permission to do it.