A Conversation With James Siena
© James Siena and Figure/Ground
James Siena was interviewed by Julia Schwartz in person and via email in 2013 and 2014 in a series of conversations.
James Siena (BFA, Cornell University, 1979) is a New York based artist whose complex, rule-based linear abstractions have situated him firmly within the trajectory of modern American art. His artwork is driven by self-imposed predetermined sets of rules, or “visual algorithms,” which find their end-result in intensely concentrated, vibrantly-colored, freehand geometric patterns. Mr. Siena works across a diverse range of media, including lithography, etching, woodcut, engraving, drawing, and painting. His work is held in numerous prestigious public and private collections across the U.S., including Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. He is represented by Pace Gallery in New York City. His show at Galerie Xippas in Paris opens on March 22. We spoke in person and by email over the past several months, beginning with a studio visit in July of 2013.
Hi, James, thanks for doing this.
“Welcome to Cousin Talk. Always on Wednesdays at 8:30 in morning here in Iowa City.”
Okay, maybe we should clarify the cousin part: your dad and my mom were cousins. And I remember thinking that your family was pretty cool, although we didn’t get to see you that often.
I like your explanation of Cousin Talk. You should add, however, that that makes us second cousins.
See, I can never remember that stuff; I always have to ask my dad the difference between first cousin once removed and second cousin.
So, when did you know you were an artist?
I can remember when I was ten years old doing a little drawing in my notebook when I probably should have been paying attention to the teacher. And I was doing these kind of loopy pathways, where the lines wouldn’t cross themselves and they would just meander all over the page. And I remember looking at that thing and thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could just do that as a grownup? I could be like somebody who does those things.” And here we are……..
I made these. And I made a piece that, as soon as I made it I realized it’s almost exactly that same motif I did as a ten-year-old kid. Maybe not as good as when I was ten, but pretty good. And I called it “When I was Ten.” So that was one of those snapshot memories. We have these memories that we remember that are key instances in our lives, and that was one. I also played with plastiscine clay and I would arrange things on my unusually large, glass topped desk in this very ordered way.
I’ve since learned it’s called knolling when you arrange like ruler, pen, cup, T square on your desk so that everything is accessible and nothing’s laying on top of anything else, and it’s all laid out. That layout is called knolling. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know – I’ve only heard it used by one person, but they sent me a picture of Donald Judd’s desk. They said, “See, look how Donald Judd knolled his desk.”
I’ve never heard that expression.
Yeah. People, not just artists, have arranged their desks in this way all the time (maybe in some instances it’s just another form of procrastination). But I don’t think I was really willing to get in the trenches and learn how to communicate from my mind to my hand until I was 12 or 13, and I was taking little weekend drawing classes. At Stanford, there was a faculty wife – that’s the term we used, terrible, shameful to think of it now… her name was Mary Crosten, a really important figure in the Stanford brat child community because she would hold three hour classes on Saturday mornings. The mothers would pay $5.00 for their kids to go to these classes, and we’d do figure drawing, modeling for each other in leotards. She would go from short poses to long ones, just the way it’s done. And we were really into it. Some of us went on to take life drawing at the local community center, with adult models, and it was there that I met an artist Hans Wehrli, who had life drawing evenings in his studio in Barron Park. He invited me, a kid, to attend these evenings, no instruction, just drawing from the nude model, but he required a note from my father acknowledging that I had his permission. My father, a lawyer, wrote a very amusing letter about nudity and art… Wehrli loved it.
I remember another little Mary Crosten moment. It was one of the first things I did with the class, when she said, “Just draw whatever you want, we’re all interested. We’re all drawing.” And I was sitting, and she had a little cabin outside the house, so that’s where her little art studio was. It was the cutest little thing. Had a little tiny wood stove about the size of a small bucket. It would heat the cabin in those California winters when it got down to 35 degrees.
Yeah. Freezing. Well, almost freezing. And I started drawing a tree and I was just drawing every leaf on the tree. And she said, “You’re never going to finish that.” And I obediently tried to do what she told me to do, but in the back of my mind I thought, “I am going to draw every leaf on that tree. One of these days I’m going to do that.”
So, oddly, I’ve ended up making some things in which every detail, like every leaf on the tree, everything is treated the same. As I kid, though, I was unaware of the fact that this notion was pioneered in Flemish painting hundreds of years ago, the idea of treating everything equally in a painting. The idea of just – the reality of painting is more real than real experience itself because when you’re experiencing things in life, you’re editing constantly.
You can’t look, you can’t see everything. Well, if you take a couple of hits of acid, that’s when you go, “Whoa, now that’s too much.” You can do that for a few hours, and then you have to recover. Otherwise, burnout! Feedback loop overload!
Synaptic filtering. There’s no synaptic filtering in that kind of approach to painting. And when somebody draws a tree, they shade a little bit and draw a couple of leaves, and the shading stands for those 10,000 leaves right there, and then we do 8 on the edges, right?
So when you’re talking about that acid experience, you’re saying there’s no filter? Is that what you mean?
Yeah. Well, I don’t think I took enough acid to have no filter at all. [Laughter]
That’s a really interesting, an important idea. It’s like saying this leaf has as much value as that leaf. So why not give it its day in the sun?
Sure. Or this minute is just as important as that minute so if it takes you 20,000 minutes, every single one of those minutes is necessary.
Yeah. You just – – put in the time.
But time is an abstraction, anyway, kind of.
No. It’s an agreement. Time is an agreement between people, Well, Einstein proved that time dilates and contracts.
I don’t know.
I don’t know either.
So, okay. We agree. We don’t know.
Einstein didn’t know, either. He knew more than I ever will, but he knew he didn’t know!
But, what does this have to do with what is it to want to be an artist? I guess you want to make stuff. That’s what I thought it was, and nowadays there’s a bit too much emphasis on being smarter than the next person, no mysterious object in sight. That’s a little too transitory for me. I want to make stuff that’s just like a battery of mental energy that never runs out of power.
If you look at a great painting – you’re looking at something that launches the viewer into some other kind of perception, and as long as that thing is in decent enough condition to be seen and there’s light on it, it’s just, it’s always on. It works. It functions. The object, when you make an object is that highly charged. It’s really sexy. My way into this notion is through intricacy, and as I’ve described, I got into intricacy early on.
I remember going to San Francisco with my family. We’d go to this horrible tourist trap called Ghirardelli Square. But I thought it was the coolest place in the town. It was a shopping center before there were hardly any shopping centers in the world. Anyway, in the middle of these art galleries – I’m holding up scare quotes – and they sold this totally schlocky shit, but there were a couple of sculptors who would make things using wire and you could turn a crank and a little figure would pedal a bicycle and the bicycle wheel would make another thing happen, whirligigs, propellors, pointless movement.
Kind of like Rube Goldberg stuff, and I’ve always liked that. I was always attracted to that. I find it still very nourishing – not to the exclusion of other things, it was just kind of a tendency I have. Cause and effect. These days I refer to some of my works as two-dimensional machines.
So when you were making that piece “When I was Ten” and you found yourself realizing, “Oh, I am doing what I set out to do or what I thought would be really cool” when you had that thought at ten –
But it took me a long time to go back to him. I went way far out of field and –
So how do you mean?
I didn’t make that image again for years. I went to school and I learned to draw, learned how to print on a letter press and do lithographs, and etchings and silkscreens and I got into cartoons, more of like comic book art. But yeah, somehow I found my way back to that image. I’m trying to tell you what I – it may have been like when I was in my late 20s or something. It might have started doing things like that. Again.
And then I remembered that little moment, which felt – I remember now at the time when I was thinking about that ten-year-old I was kind of shook up by that. It almost was a premonition or something, but it was a cool drawing. I wish I still had it.
You don’t have it?
No. I don’t think so. I’m not good at throwing things away so maybe somewhere, but no. I don’t think I have it. I do have sketchbooks from childhood. But it was all over the place. I’m still all over the place, I think. I don’t think that what I do is all that – I mean, there’s a certain kind of focus. Every single work that I make requires a certain kind of focus, but is the overall focus from work to work consistent? I don’t really care if it is.
I just want to make the next thing and I don’t want to listen to an inner voice saying, “Don’t do that.” You’re thinking of something and if that inner critic says, “Oh, don’t do that. That’s not what you do.” But if you want to do it, and then you do it, it is what you do.
So I don’t want to limit myself.
How do you approach a work? When we were upstairs, when you came downstairs, Leslie (Wayne) and I were looking at your contraption–
Oh, my armrest?
Yeah. That’s such a great setup.
To keep me steady.
Yeah. That painting has all those sawteeth in it, and I’ve got to get them just – there’s a certain pointiness that they have to have or else the painting collapses. Right? So how do I – the question is how do I approach a work? I don’t – I just carry out a procedure.
Do you want to talk about your procedures?
There are different procedures for different works. To describe them is not that interesting to me. I internalize them these days. When I talk about the work publicly, I do tend to describe the limitations and legal and illegal moves as a way of allowing an audience to see my thinking.
Right. Do you know ahead of time?
Not always. Like the painting that’s on that table up there, I never expected the yellow or the blue to happen in that painting. I just had the red and the black in mind, and I started painting and it looked terrible. I just kept going and I said, “Well, wait a minute.” Now there are two reds. There’s a second – there’s two kinds of red, right? Yeah.
So the lighter red became lighter and I’ve done a number of sawtooth pictures and this one is kind of the most, the shrillest of them all. And they’re all kind of shrill, grating, you know. But the colors just kind of heat up. And lately I’ve been repainting. This painting has multiple coats in order to get the luminosity into the paint and be adequate. So –
You mean repainting the same painting?
The same color so I can do one pass with the red. It’s too thin. I have to do another pass.
Yeah. And then I make adjustments to the sawteeth if they’re not sharp enough, they’re too big, or too long, I can make them shorter. Just mechanical stuff, but it goes exactly to the point of the work is to make – the mechanics of the work is the way into it for the viewer, too. And when you cast your eye across an image, any image, you don’t want to be snagged on something inconsistent or unclear. Do you know what I mean? There’s a certain evenness of tone or a certain – but if the whole thing’s made up of snags, then it’s another issue.
Well, and the idea of incompleteness is no problem in contemporary art that’s no problem. Go ahead and start a picture, just stop it and it doesn’t matter. I’ve been interested in this idea of really crafting something so that it’s not utterly, utterly, utterly unimpeachably finished, but it has a kind of authority that comes out of it. It’s the attention paid to it.
Well, when you’re saying that you have to, you’re sort of, you’re checking with your eye if something is right or not right, if something’s – complete is an interesting word – finished, complete.
It is. Is it interesting in the interesting sense or the boring sense? [Laughter]
Interesting in the interesting sense! When you’re talking about the color being wrong or the paint being thin, is it just an eye thing? Is it a feeling thing? How do you know when it’s right? Is it just a color? Is it just off? You said “luminosity.”
I said “luminosity.” Yeah. I want the paint to really shine. I don’t want it to look like, “Wow. That needs more paint. That’s too thin. I’m not seeing the color because I’m seeing washy brush strokes that don’t look like they should be there.” So, that’s technical. But the technique is only there to serve the production of the work and what’s the work’s purpose? The work’s purpose is to move you. So there’s technical means by which we fuck with people’s heads. And so I want this thing to be attractive and repulsive in certain ways. I want it to pull you in, and for you to be dazzled by its – by its craft, attention to craft, and but then you’re also, when you look at how it’s puckered and contorted and kind of angry, that’s not so attractive. So yeah, pulled into looking at something really beautiful, and yet it’s not so beautiful.
There are painters that some people just can’t stand, like Ivan Albright. He paints these really intricate paintings that are really hard to look at, almost evil. But I think that they’re just as valid as a sublime Ellsworth Kelly that kind of hits you right between the eyes. In fact, I’m a little more predisposed to liking the more difficult work. Not to take anything away from Kelly, but just to acknowledge something about someone who doesn’t get the kind of attention they deserve. Or take for another example a painter like Mark Greenwold, who makes difficult psychological paintings. Artists love them, but many non-artists are afraid of them. They’re too honest. They’re too raw. They are the opposite of entertaining, but I find them utterly compelling.
Can we come back to your point about completeness?
Oh, okay. I think you’re still concerned with this idea of completeness- and what is completeness? To me I think it comes out of making smaller pictures, but I don’t think it has to do with smallness, per se, anymore. But I think craftsmanship is seductive and powerful. There was a prevailing idea that modernism was so much about doing as little as possible – seemingly. Now that we look at classic works of modernism, we think otherwise. There was enormous craftsmanship in cubism, for example.
And I don’t know that there is such a thing as modernism or there is such a thing as postmodernism any more maybe than a period with an unfortunate name. That period that is being pigeonholed as the utopian phase of modernism is over. But to name the period you’re in seems to be a bit bizarrely pretentious and wrong-headed. Just live the goddamn period. Just live and do the work and let other people decide what it is. I’ve gotten in a lot of trouble over the years when I give lectures about my work because I speak very frankly about the way they’re made and how I started with a curve here, and that generated another reaction, and this and this and this, and then step by step, the picture was made. And oftentimes people will say, “You don’t talk about what the work means. You just talk about what it was physically like to make the work.” But that is what it is. Meaning accumulates, and far be it from me to limit that with a narrow set of impressions. It’s not up to me to say what the work means. It’s my job to make the work. Do I have to do all the work? That’s what I would say to people, “You want me to tell you what it means, too?” I can just do the – I can tell you what I think it means, but that’s not your problem. That’s my problem.
Right. Right. Right.
And if you want to hear what I think it means, fine. And I do that. In fact, whenever I get criticized for that, I don’t say, because I don’t want to be too combative, and I don’t say, “You aren’t listening to the lecture if you don’t, if you can’t get any meaning out of this.” Intimate scale, craftsmanship. There’s got to be some sort of emotional attachment if you’re going to spend months and months on one work.
There’s obviously some sentimentality, the good kind. Just really loving what you do, loving the world and loving the intricacy of the world, for whatever it’s worth. But I’m not a theory head. I can’t make work that subscribes to a particular position in textual aesthetics, or fix the criteria regarding any given current way of looking at things in the whole wide fershlugginer world. There are tendencies that can be identified by critics, and I think that’s totally valid. But what we find, sadly, so often in artists that are starting out is that they try to calculate their work, rather than to just generate it.
Hmm. That’s an interesting and very smart way to put it.
But who am I to start whining about other people?
Well, if artists don’t let their minds, leave their minds alone to do the thinking, they’re oftentimes getting in the way of their own minds. That leads to that whole tired “crisis in painting”, too. In some contexts it’s forbidden to paint anymore. And if you do paint, or if you’re a realist, you’re retrograde and you’re pulling everybody down. It’s such an old story. In the sixties, Chuck Close had beer cans thrown at him – full ones –
As he tells it he went to the Club, the abstract expressionists were, yeah, they had this – they were policing themselves and everybody else. It was considered a crime to represent things! And while I have the highest respect for the best of that work, I’m really glad I didn’t live around that time. But I think they also led us to an overemphasis on branding in our work, where they restricted themselves… I remember hearing the word “territory” in this context.
How do you mean, they restricted themselves?
Well, like take Franz Kline, for example. He just boiled it down to black and white and big brush strokes. And that was the thing he did. And they were angular. Was there ever a curve in the Franz Kline, like a sexy curve?
That wasn’t Franz Kline’s bag! It was illegal. Kline made Klines, Pollock made Pollocks, there was a cult of personality that also led to branding.
Maybe it’s good that there was no sexy curve. And maybe that period was necessary, but I’m glad I didn’t live in it because everyone was trying to kind of come up with another, almost a product. And it’s led to certain tendencies that exist to this day, maybe not so many having to do with style, but with naked branding, branding in the name of an artist.
Maybe the other thing is, do we express our ideology through our work, whether we like to or not? I like to think that we don’t. [Laughter] I like to think that – say you paint a beautiful landscape. You’re Jane Freilicher, and you’re nearly 90 years old. How in the world is it in any way wrong for her to paint a landscape, even though she came of age in the ’50s with her fellow expressionists? I admire Jane’s work immensely, as she transcends branding and commodity, in favor of utterly real and open artmaking, as honest and clear as anything in this world.
We continued our conversation by email with some follow-up:
James, I wonder if you could expand your comments about the intimate scale of your work. I was reminded of Forrest Bess’ work being small and how Christopher Knight referred to him recently as ‘an intimist.’
I used to employ the term “devotional” for the work, as if there were some higher purpose implied, but in my atheism I’m increasingly uncomfortable with that. Craftsmanship carries some powerful meanings implicitly; verifying a work is exactly (or as close to exactly as one can get) as one imagines or wishes means there’s little or no ambiguity as regards the complete-ness of the object. This can be seen as referencing Minimal or Primary Structures Art, but is only part of the picture. David Humphrey, in a review from his book Blind Handshake, referred to the work as “Folk-Op”… meaning there’s a kind of handmadeness that evidences humility or empathy with the downtrodden…..or a sense of inevitability that comes with working joyously, overworking for the sake of loving the dignity of making. I also referred, as I recall, to the question “what does it mean?” as a sort of canard, in that those who ask me (of all people) this question would, amazingly, elicit an objective response! Perhaps the question would be better phrased as follows: “what do you want the work to do to people?”; making the issue one of effect and action rather than academic positioning.
When we were looking at your unfinished painting, I was intrigued by the sense of the white space suggesting the infinite. You were clear that the edges were meant to be painted to indicate boundaries, and something finite. I wonder if there is anything there you want to expand on, about infinite vs. finite space, complete vs. incomplete, white space, open space, and so on.
Painting space, in most of my work, particularly the non-objective, is boundaried explicitly and unambiguously. This is done in order to underscore the “thing-ness” of the work, and to eliminate any notion of “field” so common to Abstract Expressionist tendencies, and other kinds of gestural abstraction. This can be seen incorrectly as some defense of Formalism, a term I deplore, as it reduces non-objectivity to decoration and commodification. I consider non-objective work, also described as abstract, as valid research into aesthetics and visual language, phenomenological research, a sloppy science of the eye and mind. Boundaries are, as you can see, essential to my practice. The infinite? Not so much. Actually, for me, not at all…….see above reference to “fields”. Endlessness, continuousness, even complete-ness, those are aspects of something quite different than the quasi-spirituality of the “infinite”……..probably a question more of semantics than anything else. Spirituality……..overrated. Bill Maher asks rhetorically: “does spirituality have something to do with being a good person?”. I like that. Through mechanisms such as artworks, pieces of music, buildings, inventions, we arrive at a deeper understanding of reality’s slippery nature, its unpredictability and most of all, its complexity.
I’m glad you arrive at the importance of the “thing-ness” of the work. Also appreciated is how you differentiate between ‘infinite’ and ‘endless’, specifically wanting to remove any spiritual overtones (undertones?). (By the way, being moved by art- making it or viewing it- is as much of a religious experience as I ever have.)
Once your painting- which is unambiguously boundaried, a thing, well-crafted, and all the other terms that might be used– goes out into the world, then it becomes for the viewer both a thing and an experience, maybe a thing that creates an experience? Would it make you feel weird if people were having spiritual experiences while looking at your art?
It’s not up to me how viewers take the work. If it serves as Balm for their Gilead, who am I to get in the way? I’m also thinking about viewers not yet alive taking in these things and how I’m sending a bit of myself and my understanding of the world into the time-stream; continuing an interchange (however one-sided, since I will be dead) with a world yet to exist, albeit connected to our own. Spirituality is such a vague and misused term. Mindfulness, the examined life, these are terms I personally can support.
Can we talk about this painting: Dr. Michelle Carlson? Am I remembering correctly, is Michelle Carlson the surgeon who took care of your wrist? I think that part wasn’t on the tape. Do you want to say anything about that?
Yes, that’s her. The painting took on a significance hitherto unforeseen; I was working on it when the accident happened, and I finished it more than a year later, dedicating it to her for saving my hand. The injury was so severe that part of my wrist needed to be rebuilt, and two surgeries were performed. The image is perspectival, giving an impression of rushing forward, something that actually happened when I, during my morning run, was hit from behind by that cyclist on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Absolutely perspectival, dizzying, falling forward. James, it really comes through in the work. The bits of pink also seem so significant to me. was that deliberate, related to the accident and surgery?
The pink was the last move of the work. Very important. Took a while to conceptualize. I leave the meaning to others.
Conversation is one that I feel really drawn to- I think those colors have some alchemy. How did this one come about? A strange thing too, I looked at this painting for a long time before I saw the relative symmetry. I saw small areas within the field, like trees in a forest or something like that. I was surprised to see the whole image as a small jpeg and then see the pattern that I had missed.
Conversation is a key piece; the idea was generated in a CADD program in the late eighties, and that painting was seminal, led to many versions, distorted and warped. It involves recursion, a notion that’s important to my thinking. In that work, a sequence of moves lines drawn corner to corner, midpoint to midpoint, leads to a generation of copies of the original structure of the image, but at smaller and smaller scales.
What were the sources for the Edith Piaf painting?
That’s a drawing made in preparation for a backdrop I painted for a benefit in Brooklyn for artists whose studios were damaged/destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. Opera singers performed in front of backdrops made by artists. Mine was for a song by Piaf. I think of the work as relating to two entities coming together; like love…….I made a painting afterwards, which is the image you have. It’s related to nesting spiral and comb paintings, that you can find on Pace’s website.
I think it’s a great image for capturing the essence of love or relating, not mirror images but something more than that.
What are you working on now?
I’m making some sculptures, begun more than twenty-five years ago, and only now has the technology arrived to make them manifest in metal. They begin as diminutive objects and translate surprisingly well at a larger scale. I met Alan Saret early in my years in New York and was tremendously moved by his light permeable wire sculptures. These wood objects are partly in homage to him.
There is something so humble and human almost about them in this form- simultaneously fragile and sturdy. I think I love them also because they are spacious. For some reason, that is really important to me. I look forward to seeing them cast in metal.
How is the work with them going? and the fabrication?
The sculptures are coming along fine. We have cast two, and are working on casting three more……..very exciting. Will release pictures after the show opens.
I’m getting involved in sub-structures within the pieces lately: very time consuming and not entirely logical, but the results are promising.
James, I was glad you raised the subject of ‘branding.’ It has so little to do with the making of art and is really about the commodification and packaging of artists. Could you expand on this? How do you avoid the pressure to self-brand and therefore limit your own exploration in your work? Do you have any wisdom to share?
Artists who make varied works are oftentimes labeled Dilettantes; and that’s scary. One way to resist this is to work your ass off at whatever you’re doing, and be good at all the things you do, or at least as intense and passionate as you possibly can be in whatever you do. Is that wisdom, or common sense? As for commodification and packaging, there’s some logic in good presentation and professionalism in artmaking, but only in context of what the work requires in order to be delivered to the mind of the viewer. Craft, media, idea, must work in concert with each other.
Any advice for future or emerging artists?
I’m not crazy about imparting “wisdom” based on “experience”. Suffice it to say I have held onto some words by the poet Gary Snyder that have supported me through the years:
Stay together, learn the flowers, go light.
© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to James Siena and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Schwartz, J. (2013). “Interview with James Siena,” Figure/Ground. December 1st.
< http://figureground.org/a-conversation-with-james-siena/ >
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