Barbara Rose Talks with Don Kimes
Republished with permission from Artscope, December 11, 2020
This is the last interview Barbara Rose conducted.
I met Don Kimes in the Nineties and have watched his work develop and change over time in response to both personal and artistic challenges. We have had an ongoing dialogue ever since. Recently I saw the work he is including in his exhibition at Denise Bibro Gallery in New York City and we had a chance to talk about how he views his own work and the contemporary art scene in general.
Barbara Rose: How Do you feel your work is related to current practice?
Don Kimes: Current practice is wide open. Anything, anywhere, without fixed judgement and dependent only upon personal circumstance and acuity. I still tend to wince at the word “practice”, like it’s an out of place interlocutor in the lexicon, though it became commonly used overnight. But it sounds like a nod to the professions, like being a dentist or an attorney, like I should hang a brass shingle outside my studio door with the inscription “Don Kimes’ Artist’s Practice, hours 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.”. Or maybe I wince it’s because it sounds like getting ready to do something, but not actually doing it. Like I’m practicing for the day when it is finally figured out. I remember the painter George McNeil once talking about the Fauves. He nearly shouted that they weren’t “getting ready” to do something. They were just doing it. It may be odd, but every time I hear the phrase “my practice” I hear George saying “Quit getting ready and just do it!”
So perhaps my response to the word itself is a reflection of how I feel my work relates to current practice. It’s apples and oranges. There is the art world and there is the world of art. These are two entirely different beasts. The art world is a momentary thing, the place where business happens. It’s amoral. It blows with the wind and shifts as quickly as high frequency traders on Wall Street. It’s not bad. It’s not good. It’s simply a fact, like the color red. It is where “current practice” exists and that’s all. The world of art is something else. It is where there is a connection to who we are as human beings. It’s the place where art actually happens, sometimes in the wind on the surface, but more often than not it happens far removed from that superficial surface layer. It’s the world where everything of significance takes place: from the cave paintings at Chauvet to the frescoes in the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii; from Chardin to the most meaningful artists working today. These two worlds are constantly being confused in the media, in the art schools, and on the street. But for me they are two entirely different worlds that once in a while bump into one another. I think of what I do as participating in the world of art. “Practice” belongs to the art world. I hope that what happens in my studio, in my work, occasionally bumps into the art world. There are financial and other rewards when that happens. It can be a long, sometimes dark time between moments when those bumps occur, so a little attention feels good. But at the center I am interested in the world of art, and my relation to current practice is one of an occasional, slight bump. It’s not about fighting against the art world or anything like that. My relationship to the art world is as amoral as the art world’s relationship to the world of art is. If one is lucky enough to have them overlap, that’s great. But if the work is to have any root in authenticity, the ability to last longer than the next change of weather in the art world, then it must be rooted in the world of art, not in relation to what is perceived as current practice.
BR: Do you think of yourself as an abstract artist?
DK: I think of myself as an artist. It’s impossible to understand anything holistically. We understand the world through fragments, partial images, layered pieces of information. We put those fragments into a pile and from that we abstract meaning. As soon as we enter the world of thought everything is abstract. I never really understood the whole abstract/not abstract thing. If I look at a Lucien Freud I don’t actually see a person. It’s flat. It’s made out of oil and dirt mixed together. It’s a combination of colors, tones and line. My dog would not bark at it if it showed up in my living room. Once the photograph was invented and took over the niche focused only on depiction, abstraction became essential because that was all that remained to drive content beyond “likeness”. Titian, Rembrandt, Piero – these are some of the greatest abstract artists ever to have walked the surface of the planet. They’re full of light, drama, tension, spirituality. In that sense they share the world more with say, Mondrian, or Hilma af Klint, than they do with “likeness” in photography. Yes, they happen to have “likeness” and nameable subject matter in their work, but they’re highly abstract as well. One doesn’t have to know the words to a song in order to respond to its emotive power. The reason Goya is powerful isn’t because of the story he tells. It’s because of how he tells it. It’s because the form, the color, the light and the surface all come together in an inexplicable way that elevates the emotive quality of the image beyond the story itself. Is Beethoven telling a story? Do lyrics accompany Miles Davis’ horn so we can feel it? Abstraction is who we are.
BR: What are the problems confronting abstraction today and do you think it has a future?
DK: Abstraction falls off when it becomes categorized or formulaic. That’s the point where it can be explained. I’m not talking about quality here. I’m talking about rules, formulas, and the ability to “get it”. That’s where it turns into nice decoration – furniture. That’s where abstract art goes to die, but that can be said of anything. Jerry Saltz calls it Zombie Abstraction. He gave a talk at American University and one thing I remember is that he quoted Oscar Wilde: “The moment you think you understand a great work of art, it’s dead for you.” That’s true no matter what kind of work we’re talking about.
BR: How does an artist create a personal style in the face of globalism?
DK: By being genuinely aware. By that I mean don’t limit yourself to the last fifteen minutes. Yes art is global, and it’s important to look at everything you can. But so many artists are caught up in trying to strategize their next move in the context of their current bubble that they can’t see past the end of their own noses. This effort is about the course of lifetime. It’s not a strategy. If you set out to create a personal style, which seems to be what a lot of current graduate education is, you come up with an academic MFA thesis statement and a superficial imitation of what you think is a personal style but is really just an illustration of a combination of things you already know, usually things that are in vogue. Art isn’t about what you know. It’s about taking a chance on what you don’t know.
It isn’t a sprint. It’s an extended, long distance marathon. The artists I’ve respected and admired seem to have two major phases in their evolution. The first is the evolution of a language. That language is not the same thing as art. Being able to speak French doesn’t make one a French poet. It takes a long time, a certain amount of humility combined with an equal part of ego, an awareness of the larger world, and the ability to be in a moment without controlling it. If you are lucky and you work a lot, you may fall backwards into something and wake up one day saying “oh – that’s it!” When I look at early and late Titian there’s clearly a kind of style that emerged over the course of his life. He didn’t decide to do that. It happened because the language that he developed early in his life allowed him to become Titian late in his life.
BR: How do you deal with the fact that we live in a media culture, inundated by images?
DK: First, it’s important to acknowledge that fact. The shift in terms of visual media that has happened over the past couple of decades is as tectonic as Guttenberg’s printing press. Maybe this is an argument in favor of expanded visual education. More than sixty years ago Matisse wrote an essay called “Looking at Life with the Eye of a Child”. In it he laments the fact that everything we see is affected by acquired habits and he cites the proliferation of cinema posters and magazines that “are to the eye what prejudices are to the mind”. If posters and magazines are an issue, can you imagine what he would say today? Matisse talked about the importance of seeing everything as if you are seeing it for the first time, like a child, and that without this ability an artist can’t be personal or original. I used to agree with Matisse, but I’m not as certain today because there is a limit to how much visual information a human being is able to process at one time. The ability to make choices is what saves us. We have to decide whether to look at the sculpture, to look at an image of the sculpture on our phone, to read the press release about the sculpture, or to listen to the person who is talking about the sculpture. But we can’t do all four of these things at the same time. So in the end it becomes a matter of discernment. It still takes effort to make the most effective choice, but ultimately we are still creatures of free will. It may even be that the more images and media inundate our world, the more meaningful that singular choice becomes.
BR: What do you feel are your biggest challenges in terms of developing your work?
DK: The biggest challenges are the same as they are for most people. The exigencies of day to day existence. Dealing with health issues in my own family. Paying the bills and so forth. And the other challenge is to find ways not to do it in isolation. To get the work seen. To talk with other artists about the work. To participate in the art world without being swallowed up by its more vacuous propensities.
There are a lot of artists I feel quite close to as friends and individuals whose opinions I respect. Some have been friends for decades. Others have been younger artists who have become close friends and co-conspirators. Others have been my mentors. But with all of them it’s not about the work as much as it is about the sensibility. They are artists with whom I never find any transactional, game playing superficiality. They have a deep belief in what they do when they walk into the studio. What it comes down to is that these are the people who I can talk with about art and life for hours, and never once mention the art market, galleries, art fairs, careers or real estate.
We can get a lot out of talking with other artists whose work is very different from ours, and that dialogue, which interestingly enough has become more frequent in this Covid age of lockdowns and the cloud of wannabe fascism, is incredibly important to me as an artist. It helps me question my own preconceptions
BR: Do you feel close to any painters working today?
DK: Not in terms of being a direct influence on my work. The influences I think of tend to be in the distant past. Maybe that’s because I know that I can be influenced by say, Rubens, or the frescoes in Pompeii, but it would be impossible to mimic them since I live in a different time. When someone does work that reflects a hot contemporary artist that they admire (and there are thousands who do this) too many are either unaware of it as the reinvention of someone else’s wheel, or too willing to give it a pass. The truth is, I don’t think we are able to see our own time because we are immersed in it. Maybe it’s just that the influence of some of these historical artists has more to do with the reality that I get more from spending a few hours with Piero than I do spending a few hours with “you fill in the blank”.
BR: What did growing up near Pittsburgh in Western Pennsylvania mean to your work?
DK: Yes, I am from that foreign nation called the Midwest. Living in Western Pennsylvania I grew up thinking that I lived in the east. Having spent most of the rest of my life on the east coast, I’ve realized that Pittsburgh is actually where the midwest begins. It’s a mindset completely different than say, Philadelphia. I remember (before the virus) having dinner with Julie Heffernan when she asked “what’s the first artwork you ever saw that really knocked your socks off?” After talking with Julie for a minute about Cezanne’s rocks I suddenly remembered the first piece that really pulled me in, much earlier than Cezanne. My grandparents had a small cottage on the Allegheny River. In their living room, across from the deer antlers mounted over the rocking chair, was a black and white print of three horses running ferociously. It was a copy of a romanticized 19th century painting by John Frederick Herring, who in 1845 was appointed Animal Painter to the Duchess of Kent in Victorian England. The painting was called Pharaoh’s Chariot Horses. I said I remembered looking at that print every weekend as a child when I visited my grandparents. I stared at it for years, fascinated every time. Their manes were flying and rippling, and a storm appeared to be approaching. They seemed to be racing against time. The swirls and rhythms of their manes and the movement of their heads had an incredible flow wrapped in a dramatic light. The eyes of the horses had everything in them – power, fear, uncertainty, beauty. I copied that print many times, starting at the age of about five and drawing it for the last time when I was still in high school. Julie, who had seen my last show at Bibro, said “you’ve just described your most recent work”. I was shocked, as I hadn’t thought about that print in 40 years. But she was right. The work I am doing now comes from a very dark place, a flood and a depression that nearly destroyed me. There is fear in that, but the work is also about rhythm and light and is unafraid of beauty and drama. It’s Pharaoh’s Horses all over again.
BR: Andy Warhol, whose parents worked the assembly lines in Pittsburgh, turned his studio into a factory. Why didn’t you?
DK: There were many factories in Western Pennsylvania but there were also forests. Andy’s ancestors were Czech peasants, factory workers and carpenters. Some of mine were from the Seneca Nation. Maybe that’s why my art is basically rooted in nature just as his is in the machine. I spent all my time out of school, even in winter, in the woods or on the river. Most of my friends’ parents worked in factories or mills, but everyone hunted and fished. In fact the first two days of deer season were official school holidays. There is a combination of raw energy, a need to respond to things one can’t fully control, and contemplative silence in the woods and on the river. So while the world around my youth was mostly “rocks and hills and mines and mills”, I preferred the first two, probably because of that sense of the contemplative in response to nature.
BR: You have lived and worked in Washington, D.C, the origin of stained color field painting, for years. Why didn’t you become a color field artist?
DK: To be quite honest, although I’ve lived here for more than three decades, I’ve never found any traction in DC. Almost all of the good things that have happened for me have happened in New York and oddly enough, I still feel like an outsider in DC. My sources originally grew out of nature, and maybe that’s why I was later drawn to some of the earlier generation of abstract expressionists instead of the color field painters, who I simply found to be too tame, too polite. I mean they may be great, but they just didn’t enter into my thinking. Later I was living in Italy half the year and looking at the walls in Pompeii, and the monumentality of Piero, and the ruins in Selinunte and Taormina. And the Etruscans, Raphael, the frescoes in Napoli and the Villa of the Mysteries, Roman ruins, Caravaggio, Byzantine cathedrals in Ravenna and Monreale and, well, when that is what you are looking at, Morris Louis just doesn’t cut it.
BR: What experiences have affected your work?
DK: As a young artist in my twenties living in New York I began teaching and also set up the lecture/visiting artist program at the New York Studio School on 8th Street. Each week I met, and in some cases came to know, a who’s who of the post-1950s New York art world. Everyone from Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner and Dore Ashton to Christo and Jean Claude, John Cage, Alice Neel, Greenberg, Marden, Joan Mitchell, Nam Jun Paik – the list goes on and on. If they were active in New York in the 1970s, they visited the Studio School and I was the person talking to them to arrange their visits, introducing them, and listening to all of their lectures and critiques. Being a kid from Pittsburgh, I was star-struck when I listened to the artists themselves, rather than a teacher talking about something that someone else had written about that artist. For most young artists recent art history is at least three or four steps removed. For me it was often directly from the source, and what I now read often conflicts with what I’ve experienced. That period of time was extremely important to me.
BR: I remember when you lived in my house in Umbria during your sabbatical. How did living and working in Italy change your work?
DK: That experience living in Italy the first time was seismic. I went with my wife, Lois Jubeck, three kids and a ninety pound dog. We didn’t speak the language. There we were, living in that tiny agrarian hill town where no one spoke English. We had no cell phone, no Internet, no television. I’d never realized how American I was until I spent that year in Camerata. It’s impossible to be that isolated today, but there is a parallel sense of contemplation made possible by the pandemic, the great pause.
When we visited the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii and saw those magnificent walls, the frescoes, the remnants, I nearly had an out of body experience. While standing in the courtyard of that marvelous two-thousand-year-old house I was reminded that painting is painting. Whatever has happened since the walls were painted doesn’t do anything to diminish them. They still talk to us across language, across cultures, across more than two thousand years. How far has pictorial space “progressed” since the frescoes on the walls at the Villa of the Mysteries were painted? The experience of living in Italy that year taught me that it’s possible to make serious art even with the most stringent restrictions. Living in Italy with great art also teaches you that that concept alone isn’t enough. It also teaches you that craft alone isn’t enough – next to every Caravaggio there are usually a couple of Piero del Crappo’s which are every bit as well-crafted as the Caravaggio, but we’ll never remember them.
BR : I know that your flood caused a major shift in your work, and that you have had other calamitous junctures in your lifetime. We are living in the midst of world crises on many levels. Can you talk in a general way about what you did to recuperate memory, to transform tragedy into a creative turning point?
DK: The biggest experience in terms of an impact on my work was the flood. Nine years after our first year in Italy, I answered the telephone at our cottage on Chautauqua Lake in western New York State. Water was coming out of the front door of our home 400 miles away in Washington. My studio was on the floor underneath that door. That flood washed away twenty-five years’ worth of works on paper as well as the contents of five filing cabinets containing nearly all of my correspondence with artists and friends I’d known and cared about, everything that I’d ever written, and everything that had ever been written about my work. It was before the Internet, so I also lost most of the slides documenting my work as a painter, most of our family photographs of my children growing up, and many other elements of my life. I was fifty at the time, and it felt like the record of my existence had been erased.
This was my interruption. I was lost and it was devastating. I went into a three and a half year depression, but I kept painting, out of habit more than motivation. It was the worst experience of my life. Eventually the depression lifted and all of the work I have been doing since then has been based on those destroyed images. I think it is the strongest work I have ever done, and I now look at that flood as a kind of gift that set a lot of things free. It’s not what happens to you that defines you. It’s how you respond to what happens to you that defines you.
BR: Outside the Italian experience, the flood and this pandemic, has anything else been crucial for your art?
DK: I left Western Pennsylvania shortly after graduating college and moved to New York. While there I decided to teach myself more about painting. I started driving an hour north of the city, hiking down into a valley and climbing up onto a rock in a stream bed to paint what I could see around me. I was quite aware of the art world, and I knew this kind of work would do little for my career. In the end I went back to that rock several days every week, and it became infinite. I painted, standing on that same rock for three days each week, for six years. Eventually I began to feel it wasn’t feeding me anymore, that the paintings were just turning into nice likeable pieces, so I stopped going there. Somehow it’s in the struggle with what we don’t understand that we begin to find a sense of what it means to be alive. By then I had a job as a janitor at the NY Studio School on 8th Street and I took classes there and they gave me a studio. I started doing collages thinking about the space, the movement, the light and the sense of time that I experienced when I was standing on the rock. That was the beginning of a long journey toward the work that I have been doing since the flood. After 9 or 10 years, I had a residency at Yellowstone National Park. There was nothing but the studio, the buffalo, and the thermal features. My work started to calm down. The color slowed down. After six weeks I came back to my studio. There was a small piece of steel on the floor that I had drawn on a bit and spilled something on before I’d left for Yellowstone. It had rusted and it now had the blacks of the charcoal mixed with the siennas and umbers of the rusting steel, and it made me think of the thermal features in Yellowstone.
I packed everything up and started working only on steel. It seemed like the door opened up again. That was the spring before we moved to Italy on my first sabbatical. In Italy the sculptor Beverly Pepper helped me find cheap steel and I began using the refrigerator in the house as my supply cabinet. I layered things on the steel, poured on red wine, vinegar, tomato paste, whatever. I embedded found materials in stucco on the steel. I left it out in the rain to see what would happen. I talked about the way that nature interacts with things, saying that in the end nature takes everything back. I talked about not knowing what would happen and how that was a good thing, and how Thoreau said that the only people who ever get any place interesting are the ones who get lost.
And then the flood happened. Those ideas about nature taking everything back, about not knowing what would happen next, and about getting lost being half the fun, had come around and bit me in the throat. Losing 25 years of work, along with the history of your family, is crushing. It wasn’t just a crisis. It was the crisis. Nothing meant anything to me anymore. I began peeling the destroyed photographs apart trying to salvage something, but nothing was salvageable. After about three months I suddenly realized that these destroyed images contained everything I’d spent the preceding two decades looking for. I began blowing them up digitally to make them huge. I didn’t know what they had once been, but they had transformed into something else. My daughter thinks I was saying “you can’t get me that easy”. They had the color of the collages and the density and sense of time in the steel pieces, but they also had my life and the life of my family embedded in them. The underlying structure from destroyed images allowed me to go back to painting in a new way. I could retain everything that I loved about painting: light, form, color, content, without reinventing somebody else’s wheel. It wasn’t just raw paint being poured on a canvas, or mild acids in a process-driven attack on a sheet of steel, or a digital blow-up of a smaller image. The image is now discovered and submerged, refined but not finished, through the act of painting and, I hope, is touching on the metaphysical in some sense. What I am doing now is something that I can’t define, but I know it is work that I could never have done before. It took everything that had happened in my life to bring it to this point, as well as a willingness to let it happen.
BR: You talked about moving to New York in the 1970s. Do you still have to live in New York to have a presence?
DK: Before I left New York I asked a much older artist, George McNeil, if he thought I should accept a teaching job in DC. He answered absolutely not – “You will disappear if you leave!”. Then he started talking about people he knew who had left, mentioning one artist after another. At the end of the conversation he said, with a surprised look on his face, “you know, I think almost everybody I know left New York as soon as they could afford it”. When I moved to DC from New York in the late 1980s I got to know two artists who had moved there from New York before me: Jacob Kainen and Carroll Sockwell. Jacob was of the AbEx generation and a big deal in DC, and Carroll became a good friend. We felt an immediate connection as artists. Carroll was on a quickly ascending career trajectory. Sadly he committed suicide by jumping off a bridge into Rock Creek Park. Early on they both told me I should leave Washington as soon as possible and get back to New York. I couldn’t really afford to leave my DC job supporting my family, but I kept my studio in New York for several years. I have always returned to New York at least once a month. We talk like virtual interconnectivity diminishes the need for real life space, but something always seems to happen when I physically go to New York that doesn’t happen in other ways. I found my current gallery because I happened to walk into a show where a gallerist I knew had just hung up the phone after being told that one of her artists wouldn’t be ready for her scheduled show. I got my first teaching job there because I was sweeping a stairway, standing between two people who were trying to figure out how to fill a teaching slot. Those things would never have happened online. It’s like they say, “95% of success is showing up”. It’s hard to show up if you’re not there. There are other cities that have some of that same kind of presence. We do live in a global context, and technology continues to change things radically – Zoom alone has eliminated distance in an unimaginable way. I’m teaching students in China from my basement right now. It’s true that New York is not the same dominant force that it once was, but from my perspective, there still is no other place that I know of where the topsoil is so thick and so fertile.
BR: You’ve previously mentioned T.S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”. Can you talk about that in terms of your own work?
DK: Today, if it is read at all, it is criticized because of its Eurocentrism. But he says much more in that essay. It has to be read in its historical context, and interpreted through our own contemporaneity, which will also one day need to be understood in a historical context. What that essay gave me was a recognition of the rampant confusion between novelty and originality in the contemporary art world. For a hundred and fifty years we have been presented with this binary choice: complete rejection of tradition or mindless deference to tradition. But Eliot’s essay talks about the difference between novelty and originality; that originality doesn’t negate tradition. Instead it takes everything that precedes it and builds on it and in so doing alters how we perceive everything that preceded it. Originality, as opposed to novelty, requires the synthesis of a lifetime of acquired experience. This one of the reasons that, as an artist, teaching has been important to me – Not because I have an agenda to impart, but because when I am talking with students I am forced to synthesize ideas and a lifetime of acquired experience in a way that is not possible when I’m standing alone in my studio. And the synthesis of those ideas, experiences and relationships follows me back into my studio work. We’re all just vessels. Experience is poured into us and if we can build on that, then meaningful art has a chance to emerge.
BR: What can artists learn from studio art programs?
DK: I was at the Studio School when Mercedes Matter was running it. I remember one of my teachers, Esteban Vicente, conducting a Tuesday afternoon critique seminar. He once was fired (not by Mercedes). In his thick, elegant Spanish accent he said to me “Who are deeze people? Dey can’t fire me!” and the following Tuesday Esteban just showed up at his usual seat and continued to teach his seminar anyway. He just kept coming back. He wasn’t being paid, but it wasn’t a matter of money anyway since the school was always on the edge of bankruptcy. You know, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”. Esteban outlasted everybody. So I learned you have to keep coming back, no matter what.
The summer studio art program I built at Chautauqua is another case in point. We were always tight for money, but as the artistic director I had freedom and flexibility that just doesn’t exist in a university setting. It wasn’t a democracy. There were no committees. In over thirty years the administration never asked me to explain why I did one thing or another. They often told me “you’re out of money”, but they never questioned the rubric that I set up. In many ways, during the three decades that it was my school, it was modeled on the Studio School as I’d experienced it –pretty much a benevolent dictatorship. The phrase doesn’t sound good, but throughout history I think the best art programs have been influenced by a particular individual’s vision. I was able to cherry pick phenomenal faculty every summer and never once had a meeting about who would be picked. Former students consistently say it was the salient catalyst in their early evolution. That wouldn’t have been possible if we’d run it in a more democratic way – in other words, another thing that I’ve learned from studio art programs is that the lowest common denominator is not the best way to realize vision.
BR: What do you think about current MFA programs that seem the sine qua non as a jumping off point for a “career”?
DK: I was already teaching at the Studio School when I got my MFA. I got the degree because I was starting to see that some older, established artists were being turned down for teaching positions because they didn’t have a degree. It was as simple as that. I did it for the wrong reason: I got a degree so I could get a job. At the same time, through my own earlier experience I came to believe that the real purpose in going to art school is the community, your peer group. That has driven all of the programs I have been involved with since then. In an MFA program the faculty have a new group of students every year, and they eventually forget most of their names. They have hundreds, if not thousands, of former students. But as a graduate student you only have the one or two dozen people with whom you went through school. If it’s a good program they become your community, the artists you still talk to twenty years later when no one is looking at your work, you just lost your gallery, your adjunct position was cancelled, the studio rent just doubled, and the abyss is looking ominous. At their best MFA programs can create a community that gets you through the dark times.
Today MFA programs are in crisis. Too many people think it’s a ticket to a career. If you believe an MFA will get you a career or a tenure track teaching job, you’re dreaming. There’s a lot more to it than that, and most artists aren’t cut out to be teachers anyway. It’s popular to say that there aren’t any jobs any more. But there never were many jobs. The biggest problem for MFA programs isn’t the lack of jobs: It’s the corporatization of education in America. The academics, from the French Academy to the contemporary academy, like to have everything clearly laid out. The academy loves to have it planned, justified and explained, balanced and pigeon-holed: a structure that basically is at odds with the entire creative process. Corporatized academic power structures look to other universities for validation and justification. Everybody wants to feel secure in the struggle to emulate the next guy up the food chain in order to replace him. That creates uniformity. It’s disconcerting to see a lot of the same work being done by different people in different places as young artists struggle to find a way to function in the boxes that have been created by the institutionalization of graduate level art education.
Then there is the fact that faculty who came of age at the height of the deconstruction theory wave of the 1990s are teaching what is naïvely called “cutting edge”, in other words a formula for looking radical, when radicality, which is the invention of something new, can’t be taught. The notion of progress by eliminating / deconstructing / appropriating / denying / disempowering that which precedes you was originally intended to be the antidote for the 19th century academy. Now this idea has itself become the 21st century academy, every bit as full of dogmatic navel gazing as any of the 19th-century European academies. There’s a lot of novelty but not much originality.
If I were looking for an MFA program today I would look for one that is as radically different from the others as I could find. I would look for a place that has something extraordinarily unique about it, a place that engages participants not just with the last 15 years but one that also includes everything from the cave paintings to the present. I would try to find a way to spend time with the history of my discipline in a first-hand manner by actually situating myself in other cultures. My ideal program would take place in a different country every semester. And there would definitely be no final thesis statement, because let’s face it, no one becomes an artist in two years. Rembrandt said about painting that you can’t separate a perfect conclusion from a perfect beginning. Coming up with a final thesis statement and exhibition in two years is just an academic security blanket. Working out a good beginning is all that can be expected in an MFA program.
BR: Who did you study with? What did you learn?DK: One is very lucky to have one or two great teachers. For me the stars were aligned and I had many more than that. I went to five different schools, but as I’ve said, the place that had the greatest impact was the Studio School of the 1970s. There I met dozens of artists, but the ones who had the greatest impact were the ones who had a strong conviction that art was the most important thing in the world, that the location of a mark on a piece of paper was a life and death struggle. They weren’t teaching me how to do what they did. Yes, they spoke a lot about form, space, pressure, structure – all modernist ideas, but they weren’t thinking of these things as art. They were each giving me a language. Gretna Campbell taught me a lot about light and movement, the endless battle that takes place in the chaos of nature. Nicolas Carone introduced me to the world of metaphysics. From Ruth Miller and Andrew Forge I began to understand something about the possibilities of form and content but even more about a belief in oneself, even if you are alone. Leland Bell was all about the pulse of color and movement (and I also learned a lot about jazz from him). George McNeil helped me to refrain from trusting my first efforts because “they are almost always too conscious, too literal, and too shallow.” He pushed me to understand the importance of delving deeper into a place where things can’t be conceptually explained. Peter Agostini talked about the power of concept and the ability to marry it to a form. And then there was Mercedes Matter who in her unyielding passion and total incorruptibility, taught me not to acquiesce to anything – that the slightest change alters everything else in a way that makes painting go on forever, a Sisyphean struggle which ultimately gave me permission to never stop exploring. And all of them taught me about the difference between the art world and the world of art.
Barbara Rose was a prominent American art historian and critic. Her first book, American Art Since 1900, published 1967, was followed by more than 20 monographs on artists, and many more books, exhibition catalogue essays and pieces of art journalism. She has previously been a contributing editor at Art in America, Vogue, and Artforum, art critic for New York Magazine, art editor at the Partisan Review and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Art.
Don Kimes’ work is on view 12/03/2020 – 01/09/2020 at Denise Bibro Gallery, 529 W 20th Street, New York, NY. He has given over part of the gallery to one of his former teachers, Gretna Campbell (1922-1987) in addition to his own exhibition.)
Volume 35 no 3 January – February 2021