A conversation with Judith Linhares
© Judith Linhares and Figure/Ground
Judith Linhares was interviewed by Ashley Garrett. January 2nd, 2014.
Judith Linhares is a painter living and working in Brooklyn, New York. Born in Pasadena, California in 1940, she earned both her BFA and MFA at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. Her work has been included in 53 solo exhibitions and more than 175 group exhibitions. Her awards include the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, the Joan Mitchell Foundation Fellowship, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the Adeline Kent Award, three National Endowment for the Arts grants, Anonymous Was A Woman grant, a Pollock Krasner grant and an Adolph Gottleib grant. Her work is in numerous public collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution of American Art in Washington, D.C., the San Francisco Museum of American Art, San Francisco, CA, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT, Berkley Museum of Art, CA, and the Frederick Weisman Collection, Los Angeles, CA. Linhares is represented in New York by Edward Thorp Gallery and in Los Angles, California by Jancar Gallery.
Special thanks to Brian Wood for his assistance with this interview.
Before we get to the questions I had a thought from seeing this vase of flowers—do you paint from life?
I do not make my work form life. I like to have a vase of fresh flowers in the house and I have cultivated a large flower garden in our farmhouse Upstate to get ideas about color and form. I’ve thought about this process of painting from life a lot when I started painting flowers I thought I’d just set up some flowers and paint them. That worked for a while, but then I just started making them up. The paintings made from inventing and constructing the flowers have much more intensity. Now I know every flower by heart.
I actually find that’s the case too, there’s some kind of real magic in remembering or imagining. And then you have the complete freedom to make up your own world and you’re not attached to the real world in front of you.
Yes, absolutely. There’s something about internalizing the form and repeating it that’s good. I miss that my students used to really like to work from the model, and now you can’t force them to do it. I would work along with them in this atmosphere of concentration. I guess I’ll have to hire my own model and do it on my own time.
They’re not doing it as much in school?
In the foundation class I have them paint from the model because it’s just required, and they’re willing to accept that idea as freshmen, but after that they’re really not interested.
So it’s the students that don’t want to do it?
Yeah. There were always at least a few people who would give me an excuse to have a model in the classroom and then I could sneak in a few little gouaches or something, but that just is not happening. I don’t think you can apply it generally to all schools, I think it’s particular to SVA. I mean, there will always be somebody who’s really interested in pursuing representational painting, but even those people now will get their own models or work from internet photographs.
Which class do you prefer teaching, Foundation or Third year?
I like them for different reasons. Directing people through a process and getting to know them is critical in the first year. I just really like the process, believe in working, and it’s a good way to spend your day. I don’t think these students at this time are really interested in working like that, they don’t see working in your studio and making discoveries in the physical process as a way to develop their work. Perhaps they will feel differently when they graduate and have their own studios.
Most of my second year class at SVA was based around the model, and the rest of the class was still life—particularly painting the skull.
I get so much guff from the freshmen who think art is all about the subject. I think it’s good for your character to have to paint from life —you learn a kind of discipline by sitting still and struggling in a gap between what you see and what you can actually make. It’s good for you; everybody should have to do it!
How did you know or discover that you were an artist? What was your first encounter with painting?
My grandmother raised me and she had this painting of a bucolic scene with cows by a lake. I still remember it, as it was the only painting in the house. We were quite poor, so we didn’t have a lot of paintings or books—we did not have a television in the house until my teens. Books with pictures really impressed me like Currier and Ives 19th century popular prints; they’re very kitschy. There are couples kissing in the forest and going for sleigh rides, as well as their political cartoons. The other book that we had with pictures was an illustrated Bible and some connection between the stories and the pictures was resonating within me. As far as discovering I was an artist, basically, I knew that I really couldn’t do anything else, ever. I was fairly athletic but nothing extraordinary. In the fifth grade, I was the only one who could draw a Conestoga wagon and I received some attention for this skill. I was constantly trying to improve my drawing skills by drawing the desert yucca plants or coping scenes from Wonder Woman in grade school composition books. The desert landscape is very deeply embedded in my roots.
I’ve heard that from other artists—that they were singled out to draw things in an early childhood class environment, and they decided that that’s their identity.
That’s right and my family was not in any manner traditional types. My grandmother was a musician. She went to a music conservatory and later in life enjoyed playing the organ in a retro movie theater to epic Hollywood Westerns shot on the neighboring rancheros turned film sets. My grandfather also fancied himself a writer—he would go camping with his dog Poncho in the High Sierras sometimes for six months typing these long letters about his experience. As they all had artistic ambitions of sorts, my discovered talent for drawing made sense to them.
So they were happy to hear that you were becoming a painter?
Well, mother had my life figured out for me—being a painter was just fine because I could become a high school art teacher and have the summers off, which would be really good, as I would be able to spend time going to the beach, because that’s what SHE liked to do!
Where in California did you grow up? Were you or your mother into surfing at all?
Southern California. First, raised by my grandmother in the High Desert town of Newhall where my great-grandfather arrived in 1900 as a blacksmith, then Manhattan Beach near Venice Beach when my mother remarried. My mother was involved in physical culture. Her boyfriends were body builders and she took me with her to Santa Monica where they lifted weights. My uncle was into flexing his muscles on the beach lifting me up into pretzel-like show-off poses. It’s funny–I’m hearing about all my friends going back to the Middle West for the holidays and remembering how repressive their childhoods where, my childhood was not repressed at all! There’s a goofy sense of freedom that goes on in California that’s about the enjoyment of nature. It is our birthright.
How did growing up in California inform your work?
Hugely, in all kinds of ways. I was a mature artist when I moved to New York and my roots show. Growing up in California has so much to do with my attitude on so many levels. One of them has to do with the fantasy of being a survivor in nature that every Californian entertains. People move to California to enjoy outdoors like swimming in the Pacific camping, hiking, hunting, fishing, and all of that. I think people in the east presume that if you’re an artist you’re just dying to move to New York, but actually Californians think very highly of themselves. Especially in L.A. where they do take care of their artists very well. It’s a different kind of environment and it isn’t the trading post the way New York is. There isn’t as much opportunity. L.A. is vast but there aren’t as many galleries and there isn’t this incredible commercial scene. Dealers often truck paintings to Hollywood homes for clients to live with before purchasing. Paintings compete with the views out the window. But people have been developing their work living outside of New York, remaining free from the hierarchy of the East Coast.
Living in Los Angles as an adult really wasn’t a possibility for me because my family lived there and I just wasn’t going to live in the same town. But as my parents were declining I spent a lot of time there, in the last six years I was there a lot, four or five times a year at least and all holidays. I really got to like it and how it sees itself, with the Modernist architecture and the ideal of living inside and outside at the same time. I grew up there in the 50’s when Modernism was just beginning to be entrenched in America. Design was a big interest in California, and I realized that the Eameses lived just up the hill from my parents. Modern design as a way of imagining the future and moving away from the comfort of tradition. In the big picture, I couldn’t imagine myself living there and having to get into my car every day, that part I don’t like but there is a lot to like. There’s something about the vast yellow hillside fields and twisted black oak trees, and, of course, my desert landscape, that enters you forever, so it’s always going to feel like home.
You’ve said that you’re interested in fairy tales and mythology in your work–depicting those figures in domestic situations, such as napping or cooking, often in an environment bathed with strange light. What is your attraction to the context of the domestic life?
One of my struggles has been—how do I make something that’s narrative or suggests a story so the viewer can enter it with their own ideas of what’s going on? So, I do not like to start with known fairytales in mind , my first interest was psychology. Carl Jung was interested in the original source of narratives and his ideas about the collective unconscious led to my interest in fairytales. I realized, with the help of Marina Warner, Anne Sexton, and Maria Tatar, who write about fairytales, that mythology is like the grand narrative and fairytales are oral reinterpretations after the myths, a lot of them are very parallel. But the difference is they’re not taking place ‘on high,’ they’re taking place ‘on Earth’ in these very humble circumstances. So I think it’s the humbleness of domesticity that I’m interested in—it’s sort of anti-heroic.
I used to paint a lot of narratives with skeletons. Everybody understands that the skeleton is a figure with a certain kind of meaning. I would see other work with skeletons and I would think, “Did I make that?” The skeleton was so general and anonymous; I realized that I had to get away from it, to paint the figure more particular, more sexy with flesh.
Can you talk a little bit about your process, do you add and subtract on the canvas? How do you know when a painting is finished?
I’m laughing because I hope they look like they were made with great ease, but they were not! I work a lot on paper and have literally thousands of small gouaches. Some of them start completely abstract and then I read into the painting and pull the figure or the subject matter out of something that’s just a few different shaped rectangles. So they definitely develop—that’s part of my issue with illustration, if it comes full-blown as an idea then you’re just illustrating something out of your head. It’s really important to me to have it come to life before my very eyes and surprise me. I guess I’m not really that ambivalent about the process but sometimes I wonder how I arrived at this process. Working from the general to the specific and then getting it more defined … a little more defined … a little more defined, and that’s just my process. My paintings evolve over a pretty long period of time. I had an epiphany around the work of the German painter Gunter Forg. His work is done mentally as he sets the stage with the plan in his head of what he is going to do and what he is not going do, then he just makes the work. It is what it is. I love that. I just love it! However, I want a picture … I want an illusion … I want specificity … and it’s just never going to happen that way in my studio.
I’m such an admirer of Hopper. I’m interested in the mythology around what it is to be American, and he’s so emblematic in so many ways. It’s interesting that he was influenced by the movies. This makes perfect sense the way every frame is really constructed and thought out as far as relationships of parts to the whole and what emotional effect those big empty spaces might have. At a certain point, I just realized I’m not Edward Hopper!
You’ve been in many group-painting exhibitions recently, including cross-generational shows where young painters are seen in context with well-respected and accomplished painters such as yourself. How do you see this dialogue developing and do you think it’s important for different generations of painters to speak to each other both through their work and in a social context? What do you think we can share with each other?
Well first of all, I like young people. I really enjoy teaching—it gives me access to people I’d never have access to if I weren’t teaching them. And I like the teaching context because I find it very moving to see people and their struggles to make meaning in their lives. It’s very life-affirming. I think that every generation has a different take, because you’re coming in to consciousness at different points in history. I’m interested in the shifts that happen in response to economics and social awareness. I’m interested how people feel about their lives at this moment in time and what is art for and who is it for.
I feel like the art world is really changing, especially over the past five years. There is a new idealism in younger people with a multigenerational effect as part of the desire to be inclusive. We live in a community of artists, and one of the great things we have is the ability to talk to each other. That’s got to be a good thing! I see the phenomenon of curators putting different generations together as part of the promotion of a dialogue. Some time last year I read Louis Hyde—he had a big article in the Times called “Who is Art For?” and I think especially in view of economic inequality this is the question to be asking. I came of age in the civil rights era and we were very idealistic. It was about seeing the future as non-hierarchical and people being really equal. I think art might be seen as captured by the elite in some way. Who is art for? is not a subject that gets much attention. These questions are now beginning to be asked and implemented by younger generations. I really get a kick out of this new job description for an artist—being both the community activist and the gallerist, I mean that’s pretty amazing. It reminds me of the alternatives that went on in California the 60’s then again in Lower Manhattan in the early 80’s where there was a lot of dialogue because the money issue was put aside.
You were included in the seminal 1978 New Museum exhibition “Bad” Painting curated by Marcia Tucker, who was saying that “bad” painting might mean freedom, ie:
“The freedom with which these artists mix classical and popular art-historical sources, kitsch and traditional images, archetypal and personal fantasies, constitutes a rejection of the concept of progress . . . By passing the idea of progress implies an extraordinary freedom to do and to be whatever you want. In part, this is one of the most appealing aspects of “bad” painting – that the ideas of “good” and “bad” are flexible and subject to both the immediate and the larger context in which the work is seen.”
What do you think of the term “bad painting” today? Do you think it still has currency or potential today?
Yeah, I think it was a really interesting moment. Marcia was definitely of the same generation I’m from and she and her parents were active in Civil Rights and feminism.
I think that her vision was to see the New York scene open up to changing forces—to invite in these artists from all over the country to decentralizing New York in terms of the generational flow of Modernist painting. Abstract Expressionism is fantastic, it’s still way up there in my mind as the greatest art ever made, but there was a kind of tyranny around it, where so many possibilities had to be repressed in order to execute the party line. And I think that everybody felt that. I was coming from California, the land of total permission, so I didn’t exactly know; I didn’t have a real feel of where she was coming from. I hadn’t experienced first hand the tyranny of this kind of Old New York School, but I think that’s what she was pushing against, or she could see the artists were pushing against it. That we could open the door and let in these other possibilities—it would challenge and topple the old authority. She started a wave of interest not only in painting but a dialogue with the individual artists. This morphed into the bad-boy styles of “Neo-Expressionism” and continues to re-merge in the work of young artists.
Do you think there’s something else that’s like “bad painting” that’s going on today?
There’s a lot of interest in ‘outsider’ work, and certainly that was going on in California fifty years ago! I was collecting, teaching at community centers with Vietnam Vets and at The Creative Growth Center, as well as participating in the 1967 San Francisco Museum of Art “Dia De Los Muertos (Souls and Spirits)” 1979 exhibition. Nobody had a problem with that. It’s great that there’s more people invited to the party. I think outsider work represents work that’s done spontaneously, it’s done with a certain compulsive urgency, and it’s mostly done with a pure heart because of the needs of the maker. This is a wonderful thing to keep in mind. I’m not sure that it’s important to aspire to, but it’s a nice kind of marker to keep in mind. When I see a lot of work made by outsiders, it makes me long to see a Matisse, it will make me long to see somebody who’s intellectually engaged.
Many of your paintings are of or have female figures in them. Do you consider yourself a feminist? What is your interest in the female figure? What does it mean to be a female painter right now?
I think I was born a feminist! I come from a long line of Amazons and the revival of feminism in the nineteen seventies was a very revelatory moment for my work—it gave a framework for my thinking. And it gave a context for my previous experiences, which were pretty horrendous. There’s still a lot of work to be done, I can’t wait for Hillary Clinton to run for president and see everybody go nuts!
The women in my work are just going about their business; they are really not posing. A young painter mentioned recently that my women look like they escaped from the Demosels’ de Avignon or a Cezanne painting and are now on leave pursuing they’re own futures. I think about their body language and what their appearance might signify in hedonistic reverie and how their presence is different than the presence of the female figure in premodern painting where it was presumed that the male gaze owned the women. In my paintings, the women own the real estate. Jennifer Riley described this idea about women and real estate in a review of my work, and I love that.
I LOVE the HBO show Girls! I think that show is revolutionary! The character Hannah [Lena Dunham], is always seen au natural and often scantily clothed, she is not trying to be an ideal beauty. I think she is making a case for “this is the way women actually look you deal with it” and one does not have to live up to impossible ideals off beauty. The territory of the idealized female form brings to mind the paintings of Lisa Yuskavage. Now that I think about it, Lisa is combining the idealized (the smooth skin conveyed by the wonderfully crafted surface that represents the women’s skin) and the poses that are less than flattering and idealizing.
There has been a conversation about postmodern or ironic painting versus an emerging desire for emotionally honest painting, sincere painting. Thoughts? What do you think about the role of postmodernism and irony in painting?
There’s a lot of art I like that is ironic. I think it’s fine to strategize ahead of time but it’s just not for me and I don’t know if I can make any blanket statements about irony. I will say being overly earnest and naive is not a good option either.
Seeing Christopher Wool’s show this fall was food for thought. He has a certain distance in his work that could be seen as ironic and it reminds me that a paint stroke doesn’t mean the same thing as it did in 1955. I quite like the results and the show at the Guggenheim. You see a mind working through thirty years of painting.
I like really risky work, work that’s embarrassing and makes you uncomfortable. And certainly his work isn’t embarrassing, it’s incredibly elegant I think one of the particular things that painting offers—is that it is visual and physical. I see the danger –if you’re a painter and you’re painting on a rectangle you have thousands of years of history to contend with. Your work will submerge in that history if you don’t do something to distinguish it. I don’t know how you address that. Certainly one way would be strategy.
Personally I like the confines of traditional painting. I think Poussin’s paintings are like miracles. I can get so many ideas and be so stimulated from this simple rectangle—it gives me hope that I could make something that good, or that significant.
I am not sure I know what emotionally honest painting is but there is an idea of working through the process little by little and not looking for short cuts. Developing your relationship with the work over time is present in all good art be it Sigmar Polke or Fairfield Porter or Leonor Fini or Frida Kahlo.
I remember getting a letter in 1972 asking for my comments on the death of painting. This notion has been around forever, that painting is done and let’s move on and it’s not a possibility.
But here we are and you’re still making still lifes! What do you think are the possibilities in figurative painting with “traditional” elements and structures such as the still-life and the nude?
I guess I’m just really confident that I bring something unique to it! Because it isn’t really just a still-life and I paint naked figures in action, not academic nudes.
I find the patronage aspect a little troublesome…the idea that the really wealthy get the first access to buy good paintings unless you’re really smart with a good eye! That is problematic. It’s so easy to commodify.
There was a big article in The New Yorker about Theaster Gates who has a Community Art Center in Chicago that is really brilliant. The artist’s work is actually changing his rust belt neighborhood into a new Eden, and bringing more voices into the conversation as an activist. I mean it’s amazing and really something to aspire to. He will not need to be alone for eight hours a day!
Do you feel the same way about Bushwick?
Oh yeah, it’s definitely an amazing phenomenon and it’s so great! All of these things are fabulous and I am pleased to be included in new gallery shows at Elgin, Heliopolis, and Fred Valentine’s gallery. I mean I actually thought about this when I was getting out of art school, because it was the time of civil rights, and I was teaching in Oakland public schools. I really felt like art could save people’s lives and wouldn’t it be great to just go around and give people art materials and show their work in Oakland, and how would you begin to do that? So I think it’s fantastic that there are these artist-run galleries that give their fellow artists an opportunity to show their work because it’s what is needed to make good work—it’s part of the process. And there were real forerunners like Pierogi. I mean there was a strong history in the New York 70’s and 80’s alternative artworlds operating with the ghost of money and the enthusiasm has spread with the Artists’ Space and White Columns philosophy to other venues like Zurcher Studio, Brian Morris Gallery, and Lesley Heller Workspace. Its great to see artist-selected groupings. So there are these Gowanus, Bushwick, and Ridgewood galleries with a community-oriented “y’all come” kind of thing. And the fact that these artists’ run galleries are so numerous gives it a certain credibility.
What advice would you give on how to develop and sustain a painter’s voice throughout a lifetime?
Well, I guess I’m not big on giving advice! You should do what you personally can do.
For me it’s important to make a mess every day. That’s kind of at the core of my involvement, as a process of working through poverty and single motherhood, everything is to make sure that I’m working, that I never stop working.
I have always relied on community, as the first line of being visible and finding encouragement. This started with the informal women’s groups in San Francisco. The move to the more intensely verbal and overtly competitive New York artworld has helped me develop my work and clarify my ideas. To be in an environment where every one believes in the importance of art really puts wind in my sails.
© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Judith Linhares and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Garrett, A. (2014). “Interview with Judith Linhares,” Figure/Ground. January 2nd.
< http://figureground.org/a-conversation-with-judith-linhares/ >
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