In Conversation

Suzan Frecon with John Yau

Photograph by Jamme

One Sunday afternoon last month at Suzan Frecon’s Hell’s Kitchen studio, Rail’s consulting editor John Yau spoke with the painter about her new body of work which will be exhibited at Peter Blum Gallery from November 17 to January 14, 2006.

John Yau (Rail): How many paintings will be in your show?

Suzan Frecon: Five to seven large paintings.

Rail: Will some be two panel, stacked paintings, which are like two paintings in one.

Frecon: Yes. They are nine feet tall. I was working on just half that format which is precisely geared towards the dimensions that generate the rest of the painting. Then I put one on top of the other because I was trying another idea. I found that this format coincidentally corresponded to the proportions of “carpet pages” of The Lindesfarne Gospels. I was delighted by this coincidence. It reinforced the format that I have been working with for maybe ten years.

Rail: What are the dimensions?

Frecon: They are nine feet tall by eighty-seven inches. It’s a measurement I like to work with—I’ve been trying to strengthen my form, but we’ll get into that. It’s a long explanation. I only use measurements for visual reasons, to try to impart strength into the composition of the paintings. They are visual measurements (not philosophical or theoretical or metaphorical or symbolic or anything). All my decisions are made for visual reasons. This double dimension that I am using has two sets of measurements, which have something to do with Chartres. The cathedral is mystifying with the multiple dimensions that go on and on. I never could really understand it. I don’t think anybody does, because there are so many things in it. I was playing with this simple one-two relationship. I’ve also tried rhythmic dimensions. I found composition the weak thing in most work. I wish to strengthen the painting and make it exist, so that we will want to continue looking at it and it doesn’t fall apart.

Rail: I remember, around 1980, that I saw a red painting in your studio that was four panels. The other day you said that is when you began strengthening your form.

Frecon: Oh, no. I’m happy you remembered that red four paneled painting because I would love to begin with color. That’s where my paintings usually begin, with an idea of color, and red is a long and integral part of them. At that time those paintings were four panels but they were not based on precise dimensions. I was trying to liberate the painting from the frame and symmetry. I always favored asymmetry over symmetry. I wanted to break up the symmetry and then recreate a balance through the paint. So those were among the first red paintings; they were cadmium reds at that time.

Rail: But they were mixed, right?

Frecon: They were mixed, yes. But I use whatever works. I use straight from the tube or I use my own mixtures of either oil and pigment or I mix them up. Whatever visually works; I don’t lock myself into rules. Anyway, those were cadmium-based reds pretty much. The reds evolved into earth reds or red oxide colors. When I traveled, I observed the vast beautiful range of red earths in paintings, in the land and architecture, varying from bright vermillion oranges to violet tones. The natural light enhanced the light/life in them. I wanted to bring that into my paintings.

Rail: But your colors aren’t meant to be symbolic or metaphorical.

Frecon: No, no. Visual reasons. But I like those associations and I like that red earth was used throughout time in paintings—it was one of the first colors people used. There is a line in a Clark Coolidge poem: “oxides are basic to all worlds.”

Rail: Let’s talk about this painting. The top panel has orange.

Frecon: That’s a mixture of cadmium orange and yellow ochre.

Rail: And the violet?

Frecon: The middle is an unusual color for me. My daughter, the poet, was reading excerpts from an ancient Chinese poem over the phone one day. One description read “purple forbidden enclosure.” It struck me. I felt, that’s a painting! I have to do it! I’ve done studies of “purple forbidden enclosures;” it’s a series

Rail: Do you think of your paintings as having some reference to architecture?

Frecon: I try to keep any association or image out of my paintings. I think they are most successful when they reach for the highest possible plane of abstraction, when you can’t say that they look like something. Certainly, I love architecture and I’m always fascinated with looking at it anywhere and it does influence my work.

Rail: It’s not a one-to-one, but it feels like the violets are being both contained and are pushing out.

Frecon: Good. I like the idea of empty space and full space. (Some people call it figure and ground) and I like keeping that tension, between full and emptiness, in the
painting somehow.

Rail: The violet could be the ground on which the other two colors sit, but then it switches the minute you decide that. The painting oscillates between the two readings.

Frecon: This painting is atypical. It is the most visually complicated, with the most colors. It was even more complex; I was going to have malachite green, which I was dying to use, but it didn’t work. I had to use restraint.

Rail: Sometimes, you use shiny and matte paint in the same painting.

Frecon: I wanted to go back to this series of paintings titled Point of No Return. I was entirely and obsessively immersed in them. I’d been painting more strokey paintings before that, and I kept going towards this quest of strengthening my form and getting involved in painting anchored by visual dimensions. Visual dictates necessitated sacrificing strokieness, and I got to a point when I couldn’t go back. I had to keep going forward with it. Also, the paintings were divided in half. Half of the shininess was going one way and the matte was going the other and it was switched in the background. So it was going back and forth like that (the point of no return). I also was integrating gold into those paintings. What I was trying to do was to set up this rhythm of reflection, matte and gold. The gold was negative and positive. When you observed it at in an angle, it was dark in the composition, and when you looked at it the other way, it was light in the composition. I had this idea that things would be wildly reflecting around but held together by the composition. I did many drawings and two large versions and then through them, a smaller panel titled “Hour of the Wolf,” I think it was the most successful.

Rail: I remember the big one with the arches. They’d go back in space, but at the same time they didn’t.

Frecon: Yeah, the arches started where my hand swept across the top of the painting. It was a curve. And so I started at that point with that measurement. The rest developed from that measurement.

Rail: The top curve is the sweep of your arms?

Frecon: At that time, that was how I started. I liked that the outside of the painting generates what happens within the painting and that’s where I started on that one. On these, I don’t start that way. I start with the outside dimensions and one leads to another. I usually start with a sketch and
then do a plan.

Rail: In your old studio you had sheets of paper on your wall with detailed plans of a painting, and I thought, they should be collected together someday. So it’s not intuitive but it’s not mathematical. I mean you are really figuring it out based on the size of the painting you are working on.

Frecon: It’s both intuitive and mathematical. I don’t go by just the mathematics because if I don’t like it visually then I keep working. But if I’m getting somewhere that works visually based on the mathematical, then I go with it. But you know, I don’t talk about those things. I just want the viewer to experience the painting. To me the important thing is your experience when you look at the painting and the painter, whoever the painter is, such as Cezanne, who builds that into the painting through hard work over many, many years. The work of painting is endlessly fascinating and complex. When I looked at the Cezanne and Pissarro paintings recently, they engulfed my whole being. You could experience how much these painters put into the making and building of their painting.

Rail: Yes, there was that Cézanne of the building with the pool in front of it, and the reflection and then the tree stuck right in the middle of it.

Frecon: Ah! That’s one of my favorites! [Laughter]

Rail: Gasp! I had to go back and look at it again.

Frecon: And it’s in a private collection.

Rail: That’s what I kept thinking, a private collection? You will never see it again!

Frecon: I cried the last day because I thought maybe I’ll go to Paris and see the exhibition again. I can’t say good-bye to these paintings.

Rail: I went on the last day and there were a lot of people there, despite the rain, but the catalogue was sold out.

Frecon: Yeah, but after you’ve seen the paintings, you want to see that light and color that they capture in their paintings.

Rail: So in this painting, you were talking about the indigo and the black.

Frecon: Well, it’s not black. Oh, I’m sorry.

Rail: No, no. It’s alright.

Frecon: It’s just the oil bled into the indigo so it looks very dark. But actually, I never use black for any of them. I shouldn’t say never, but I haven’t used black since—even when I mix the dark, I mix colors to achieve it. It’s just
not my thing.

Rail: And did you tell me yesterday that there would be no works on paper in the show?

Frecon: Yes. I was thinking of the show as having just these large paintings because you perceive them in a different way than the small paintings. I tried putting small paintings beside them, and I don’t have anything against that, but this time I want the full saturation of the big paintings. I conjecture that when you walk through the installation, you will just feel this experience of them.

Rail: That makes sense, particularly since your large paintings have mostly been shown in Europe, and I’ve only seen your large paintings in your studio before they go to some destination, like Germany or Switzerland.

Frecon: Yeah, that painting rack has a bunch of paintings that someday I want to show because they are important to me. I am so happy that Peter agreed to this. I was a little afraid that he’d want me to show the smaller ones too. But he said no, let’s just go with the big ones, and because of the space, we could do that.

Rail: Do you think of your paintings as being derived from nature?

Frecon: Oh, I think nature is a given. It’s impossible to say we aren’t from nature. To me, nature is everything and I don’t put it in those terms where you say they derive from nature but—I was always trying to figure out—I know how important the environment is to me, and I am always so angry against the environmental terrorists, i.e. the Bush administration who seems hell-bent on destroying it! I can never explain how important it is to art. One way is the experience of looking, walking in the woods, looking at a sunset, is comparable to the experience of looking at art or listening to music. It’s just so much a part of the soul of humanity. When you are looking at the Cézanne for example, or a Pomo basket, you just feel strongly about this captured feeling. I would love it if I could aspire to capture something comparable in my paintings.

Rail: You mean something fleeting that’s at the same time completely structured?

Frecon: It’s just innate. One painting that I am working on, actually I think the beginning came from that I grew up on an orchard and I was eating plums, and the colors were so intense in the summertime, inherent in plums, that I said I’ve got to do a painting finding something of these colors.

Rail: Can we talk about the geometry in your paintings? There are always straight and curved lines, it’s not like you prefer one to the other. I mean, this is curved and this is straight. You could be described as a geometric painter, but I don’t think you would describe yourself in that way.

Frecon: I always craved geometric solutions. They underlie so many things; architecture and old paintings that are informed by geometry, like Cimabue, Romanesque cathedrals, churches. You have the structure of the building and then you have the curves of the architecture and then within that you have the painting and within that you have the art. I like that, and Pomo baskets and Nigerian indigo cloth with light coming through. All those things left their powerful impression on me. I think those things have the influence of geometry. Years ago I was focused on trying to do geometric paintings and I didn’t have the confidence to feel that I was doing something worthwhile or unique. There were so many painters using geometry at that time in their work. I kind of went back to concentrating on colors and strokes. But I always wanted to come back to it. I think Hilma af Klint helped give me the guts to return and go further.

Rail: You saw her show at P.S.1?

Frecon: Yes, that show was very important to me.

Rail: Can you talk about your works on paper, because they seem on the one hand connected and on the other very different from your paintings?

Frecon: Perhaps it has to do with the dictates of the grounds and the form. The stretcher is a definite form and the paper is an irregular form, and putting a stroke on the paper kind of bleeds into the paper and I’m free to experiment that way, but I’m using the same ingredients basically, the color and the material.

Rail: Do you draw during the time that you’re painting or do you do one and then the other?

Frecon: Well, I haven’t been doing that many watercolors recently because I’ve been totally consumed by working on these paintings. It’s a question of having the time and energy and my instincts too, but if I have a drying period, I’ll work on watercolors. I find watercolor works best when I’m more focused on doing something specific with it. I often do watercolors from the large paintings. I like to do that.

Rail: Earlier, you mentioned being inspired in two instances by a poem. The Chinese poem that Marcella read you, and the poem you heard Coolidge read. Does this happen a lot?

Frecon: It seems a given that poetry and music are high forms of knowledge and vitally important. Science and mathematics are as well. The fields all seem interrelated. Many things inspire me. It all comes into the whole work.

Rail: And obviously you look at art a lot. You went to the Cézanne/Pissarro show a number of times.

Frecon: Mostly art comes from art. There were some powerful shows this year. One in particular was the Anonymous Contemporary India Tantra Painting Exhibition at the Drawing Center.

Rail: The one that Franck Andre Jamme organized.

Frecon: They were “it.” They came off the walls, stayed in your mind. I liked them so much and they’re anonymous which is nice. I like it that art is anonymous. I think all art could be anonymous [laughs] so that you just look at the art, there’s no story. Those pieces reached a high plane of abstraction. That’s what I liked about them. They were made to be meditation pieces, not art per se, but they succeeded in being art.

Rail: You’ve known Jamme for a while?

Frecon: Yes, I met him through Larry Rinder and we even collaborated on a small book. He introduced me to art that I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been to India and I’ve been able to experience this artwork and I treasure him for that, plus his poetry is wonderful.

Rail: You never use tape, do you? You make the edge yourself.

Frecon: When things in my work start to look like they’re hard-edged or cut out that bothers me—I want it to be substantial. That’s why I like this bleeding of the oil to set up another dimension within the color or pigment.

Rail: What about the bottom part of these stacked paintings? Your compositions are getting more complicated.

Frecon: Yes. I started off with a prototype and I was going to do the same painting and I go with what visually I feel like I need to do, what the painting wants, and originally I had this block. The measurement called for that, a rectangle, and I wanted to twist it to make it more interesting.

Rail: The painting oscillates in a different way on the bottom than on the top. On the top it oscillates between the color—what’s the figure, what’s the ground?—and this is like it’s flat, but you also read it like the whole plane is bending. It’s like it’s both flat and bending at the same time.

Frecon: Well I was trying to play the curves off of each other in a composition to make it more interesting.

Rail: Right. Because there’s that curve up there which is echoed in that echo. Does that make sense? Ahhgh, language is horrible when it comes to describing paintings. Then there’s that curve over on the far right which sort of connects to these.

Frecon: This one seemed a little too rigid. It didn’t seem to be working. Going back to what you said, I think the truth of a painting is the paint itself. All the explanations can’t change what that truth is. I was teaching in Chicago, and the way people talked about what they were doing dismayed me. The students kept explaining and explaining and I wanted the work to explain itself.

Rail: The thing with universities is they want the student, particularly in an art school, to write a thesis statement, to step outside of their work to explain it. I think that maybe we shouldn’t encourage them to step outside, but to stay inside and talk about it, even if it doesn’t make immediate or obvious sense.

Frecon: It’s like being a salesman. I’d see something and I’d say I don’t think you should you use photographs because it makes your work like an illustration or a computerized image and they’d say, ‘That’s the way I want it to look because I’m trying to convey blah blah. I love it when you see art work like the anonymous tantra paintings, or a Mimbres pot and you don’t know if a man or a woman did it, you don’t know when it was made, you just feel the art, the presence of the art, and you know the artist built that into the work. There is no explanation.

Rail: Do you think that’s why we sense your hand in the painting, but in no way do you fetishize it or make that the point. Does that make sense? You feel like somebody painted this painting, it’s not like you’re trying to mimic machinery. I think this is very true about your paintings, they feel like they’re handmade, but they don’t announce it. For lack of a better word, there’s a kind of built-in modesty. I can see the whole way you’re thinking about anonymous because you feel that someone made this painting, but at the same time it doesn’t say, "Oh look what I can do."

Frecon: I think it comes back to the reasons for the existence of the painting being visual. If I put the first layer of indigo down and it’s totally flat, I think, "Do I like looking at this? Is it interesting?" And then I think well indigo has another dimension, it has many colors within one color, so I’m trying to get that, trying to make it worth looking at. I think you explained it better than I can, but I’m just explaining it through how it comes about to this point. The upper blue I worked on, then sanded it off, and then put it back on, and I used many different colors before it got to that blue. Then I just liked the way it looked finally, so I left it. Some things I know right away. Painting is endlessly fascinating and unpredictable and when I think I know how some things are going to dry, how the mixture is going to dry, I either go with it if I like looking at it, or if I don’t I change it. I kept the orange kind of rough. Normally I would put more layers of Mars Red on it, but I liked it rough like that.

Rail: That would be the difference between that orange plane and the purple plane, which is more taut, right?

Frecon: I don’t know. The purple has several layers to it—I had to build it up. It didn’t work in one layer. And I like the paint. I like the substance of the paint to be interesting. To me it’s not interesting to look at a painting as just shapes, the interior of the paint is really important to me so that goes back to what you were saying about seeing my hand in it. I like seeing how the hand manipulates the paint, yet I don’t like to imbalance the suspension of the composition.

Rail: Speaking of suspension, did you teach fresco at one point?

Frecon: Well I taught a course called “Materials and Techniques of Painting,” and I wanted to incorporate egg tempera, fresco, and I started with encaustic. I wanted to go through the history of paint, starting with cave paintings, paint made probably with animal fat.

Rail: You didn’t make them do that did you? [Laughter]

Frecon: No, but we went back to encaustic, because we could go to the museums and see the Egyptian encaustic paintings and the mummies. And then we did fresco and egg tempera. I mean fresco goes back to wall painting.

Rail: But you don’t use any of them in your own work.

Frecon: No. I like oil best. I think oil painting is…

Rail: The cat’s pajamas! [Laughter] Are you working only for this show or are you going to show in Europe too?

Frecon: I’ll probably have a show at Lawrence Markey in Texas. I can’t do many shows because I work at my own pace, so I don’t like to over commit myself because then I don’t have time for painting. If I have to go to Europe and do another show right away, I don’t have time to paint. Oil painting takes a lot of time, as you can see when you look at Pissarro and Cézanne, they spent their lives painting, and it takes a lot of time to develop paintings for me.

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John Yau