Thursday, November 12, 2020

Let the Painting Build Itself: An Interview with Brooklyn Based Painter David Pollack


David Pollack with paintings from his Harbor series, in his studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Photo: Denise Sfraga

Let the Painting Build Itself: An Interview with David Pollack

by Paul Behnke

Paul Behnke: Well, let's start at the beginning. Would you talk a little about your background? What set you on the path your work is on? You have gone through several overlapping stages since I've been acquainted with your work.

David Pollack: Growing up my dad was a landscape architect but I think he wanted to be a painter too. He was an amazing draftsman and could draw anything. So, that's where my tree imagery comes from. He used to draw trees all the time and they used to hang in my house.

And he actually received a Rome Prize where you go to Rome for a year and they give you a studio set up.

PB: That's the prize Philip Guston was awarded. Right?

DP: That's what I was about to say. Guston was there when my dad was there.
So I was around it as a kid and I tried to draw like him. I would draw on anything; TV Guides- I would just doodle all over.

Then after high school, I wasn't very academic but I was always really good at art so I started thinking about going to art school. And in between my junior and senior years, I went to the Vermont Studio Center.

PB: And when you got into art school: was that in New York or Boston?

DP: That was in Boston, north of Boston. They had some really great teachers there and it was actually started by a bunch of Hofmann students. So we were learning all about plastic space and they had us draw from the figure so it was kind of a classical training. A lot of color theory!

PB: And then you went to Vermont?

DP: Yeah, I went to Vermont, and that kind of solidified me wanting to be a painter. Came back to my senior year then worked at the Vermont Studio Center for about a year after that. Right out of college and then came down to New York.

PB: Had you always thought of New York as a place you wanted to go to make art? What led you tthere?

DP: Well, that's where the painters that I was interested in, and in learning from, were living. So, that's why I came here. It was also that I was at an age where I was like, "If you don't do it now you might never do it." 

PB: How old were you then?

DP: I'm going to say around 24 or 25.

PB: What was your work like when you got out of school?

DP: In school I worked my way through the classical figure thing to abstract expressionism. You know, I was painting these huge paintings. It was the late 80s and everybody was painting large- a Neo Expressionist kind of thing.

I'll tell you who got me off of that - do you know the painter Andrew Forge? Well, I met his wife, Ruth Miller who also taught at the Studio School and had been friends with Resnick and all of the later abstract expressionists - she was a little younger.

Anyway, Andrew ran the program at Yale for a little while and he was doing these dot paintings - kind of like big landscapes. Not that you would read them as landscapes visually, but they had that feel - the way you walk through them.

That way of painting really hit me. He did a crit with me and one of the first things he said was, "How do you start a painting?" It was just a simple question but it made me think, and knowing how he painted at the time - it was like. "Yeah. Slow down."

And that really started the paintings that you know. I've stayed on that from my 20s until now.

PB: So you met Forge in Vermont? 

DP: Yeah, I met him in Vermont and Ruth brought him over to my studio. Then about a year later he came back and did another critique with me. In between those visits, I had seen a lot of his paintings and fell in love with the way he worked.

Between Forge and John Walker, who I also worked with in Vermont, and Bernie Chaet who was another Yale guy. Chaet was really into process and materials. He did these great little landscape paintings. And Marjorie Portnow - do you know her work - small landscapes. kind of Rakstraw Downesish?

When I first came to New York I subleased her place for almost a year. We had become friends in Vermont and she was going off somewhere so she gave me a really good deal on rent. The place was on Vestry Street in Tribeca across the street from Marisol so I got to meet her - she was great. Robert Willson lived on the floor below me. It was this great old artist building. John Chamberlain was there before I arrived. There was a rumor his son had almost burnt down the building at one point. It was just this old school artists' building, So, I really felt part of the art world when I came here.

PB: It was great that you had a few connections and friends through Vermont that helped ease you into the New York scene.

DP: Oh, very much so. Yeah.  

David Pollack, Three Last Days of March / Spring's Whisper, 2014, oil on panel, 15 x 14 in.

PB: When I first became aware of your work you were doing the pointilist paintings (for lack of a better description).

DP: Yeah, that's the work that started with Andrew.

PB: But you were also doing some figurative work - portraits?

DP: Yeah. I did a few self portraits then started a group of portraits of my friend, Hiro. I think I did about ten of them. It was a fun series; getting back into the figure. Stuff like that is always great because it reminds you how to see.

I learned that

painting was about everything.

A lot of times when I'm working on a painting I get studk. I start to feellike they aren't real - like I'm trying to paint my own paintings and it's not something that's just coming out. That's when I'll go and draw or make some watercolors. 

That's how the Harbor Series started but I always seem to come back to abstraction. I've always found drawing through color - finding how color draws the object. That's how I learned; the old Hans Hofmann way of finding all of the planes. You know? I was always a better draftsman when stuff was coming out of my head than from an actual, physical subject.

If I'm looking at something I see too much. I see the subject, but I also see what's next to it, what's next to that - what's on top of it. I learned that painting was about everything. That's the way it is with the pointilist work. You can't just lay down a ground and place a dot on it. Every dot of color has to be as important as the next. Every part of the painting has to be thought out.

PB: It all relates.

DP: Relates, yeah but as far as process goes it's just not enough to put one dot here and another there. Every morsel has to be considered, figured out or touched. Where with a drawing I can put a tree in the middle of the paper with no thought to what's around it.

PB: When you concentrate on the single object from your head - is that a more intense way of depicting what you are thinking? A more focused expression?

DP: When I started this I was thinking a lot about minimalism in a maxium way - or post minimalism. It's a way of taking me out of it. Who am I to decide what the painting is supposed to look like as opposed to letting the painting build itself?

And I always thought the best way to build it was piece by piece by piece. Then I realized that if I were just to put dots of color over dots of color the painting would start to build itself.

So blue dots, red dots, and yellow dots - then do that again and again until the painting tells you to put down green dots. It starts to think on its own. It's like raising a kid. You have to feed it until it learns to feed itself. Then it says I want green. Then it starts to really get smart - it becomesa don't touch me here, touch me there kind of a thing.

So when I think about how I do build a painting - that's my relationship to it and that's how I've found it over the years. Like you are raising the painting to go off on its own in the world - to have its own consciousness.

PB: The most interesting painters I know have stumbled onto their own, personal way of building a painting.

DP: I love that I start every painting the same way but they all come out different and end up with their own personalities. Even the Harbor ones - I start them at the bottom with the same color and they all grow seperately.

PB: To switch gears a little bit - I wonder how important nature and poetry are to the way you conceive of the work.

I think of poetry as a zeroing in on an experience that would be relateable to the reader - presenting that experience in a quickened, more intensified way. That's the way I read your work.

DP: That's a reason that I chose to work with the dots. It's a simplification. There is nothing more simple than a dot of color on a surface. But if you keep repeating that simple act of placing dot by dot the painting takes over and you don't have to worry about narrative but the experience is there.

PB: So do you see the finished dot works as tied to, or somehow depicting, nature or is it just paint on a surface?

...the best way 

to see nature

is by being as quiet as you can.

DP: That's the thing! It depends on when you ask me. It's hard to say because it's everything at once. But it's also about nothing because the only decisions that I want to make, until I'm at least three quarters through the painting, are color choices. That simplifies things. Like if you read Ad Reinhardt or Agnes Martin it's like this kind of Buddhist thing - you know - a painting is just a painting the way a dog is just a dog. So the painting grows on its own and if you leave out narrative and find the image you get to  - Wow, I was able to make a painting and all I did was keep putting dots on top of dots! And towards the end my actions are more specific as to where they land and the painting becomes a little more precious. Then the painting says, 'You can go away now.'

And back to poetry - the great thing about it is that it's just a breath - and a few perfect words come out. And that's like good painting. It's like walking inside of nature and the best way to see nature is by being as quiet as you can.

David Pollack, Summer Rainstorm (Ascend), 2020, watercolor on paper, 11 x 15 in.

PB: That's a beautiful way to think about it. That idea brings me to the recent watercolors - the rainstorms, stacks of firewood and burning trees.

Based on what you said earlier, am I right in assuming that these images come from your imagination rather than observation?

DP: Yes. They are from my imagination. I think they're colser to illustrations of ideas.

PB: But they still have that poetic quality; that sense of metaphor and that intensity of expression that leaves things very much open ended.

DP: They're driven more by emotion and finding image through metaphor. I just know that they are more like thought. I have an idea of what I want to find in it and I'm not always successful but something else will come out that I am happy with.

The watercolors are always trying to react to and deal with what's going on in the world around us. Maybe they are like the Jungian finding of the collective unconscious image.

PB: Maybe the term metaphor is inadequate but I think the idea of transcendence can be applied. The images transcend what they are and are open ended enough to facilitate many connections.

DP: I think a lot about what Farrell Brickhouse is doing. His stuff really touches me and I've been going up to visit him a lot to see what he's doing in the studio. There's something about the way he finds figures doing something - I always saw his figures as very Jungian. The images could be taken out of anywhere from anytime - like a timeless dream.

I think it's a Jewish thing -

finding beauty in tragedy.

PB: In relation to your work I keep thinking of the Southern artist, Walter Anderson. Only in that when he depicted the flora and fauna of Horn Island (off the coast of Mississippi) it was as if he were showing us their spirits or life energy. And I find that same cosmic autopsy of the subject in your work - it's the energy or the realness of the thing that you give us. Is this an element you think about?

DP: I don't know about the watercolors because they are so new. But with the wood stacks, the trees and stone walls - well, the wood stacks had a lot to do with death - almost like pyres.

PB: I think of Picasso's The Charnel House when I look at your wood stacks.

DP: I used to see skulls in the patterns of the stone walls. And the trees, of course, always became figures. These images are layered in the watercolors too. I'm just not as sure of what they are all about yet. I'm still finding stuff when I look at them - new things all the time.

PB: Is writing about your work important to your process? Do you use it to clarify ideas?

DP: No. Zero. I think about the work but don't write it down so much.

PB: Professors always told me writing is helpful, but I rarely do it.

DP: I mean do writers paint their ideas? No! It's not like they tell writers, 'That part's okay but paint three paintings about your idea.' No. Or, 'draw me pictures of what's going on in chapter 12.' No, this is our language. This is how we write.

PB: I think so too.

When did the submerged images begin to appear in your work? One of the first timesI became aware of them was in the sobering, black and white ink drawings of trees that you made in response to the shootings, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg in 2018, in which eleven people were murdered and seven were wounded.

In the drawings you placed the Star of David within the form of each tree. And it sounds like a contradiction but those drawings were such brutal and elegant reactions to that tragedy.

David Pollack, Seven Trees, 2018, ink on paper, 14 x 11 in.

DP: I think the embeded imagery had a lot to do with the making art during Trump thing. It's been so crazy with things like the Tree of Life shooting happening. There's a social part of me that really wants to shout about this stuff. But, there's also something in me that, as a painter, I kind of stay quiet - it's there if you want to find it in the work but I'm still making a piece of art.

Even the new watercolors with their themes of ascension and death are saying: Yes. This shit's going on but if you got COVID or some other tragedy happened - they are saying - this is how you would be taken care of. It's going to be okay. It's helping someone pass on, as well as just commenting on the horrible act. With the ink drawings in response to the attack I was conscious of the trees being victims but still being beautiful at the same time.

And in the new watercolors these people are passing on and there is a beauty in the storms. The idea is that wherever you're going, it will be okay. I think it's a Jewish thing - finding beauty in tragedy.

I think it's important to make a piece of art that can stand as a quiet thing and be meditated over. Then if you want to see something else you'll find it. It gets interesting when the viewer realizes, "Oh, and he meant it to be there." 

David Pollack's recent online exhibition, New on Paper Since COVID-19, was on view from October 11 - November 10, 2020 at Monklike Habits | online project space.

David Pollack grew up in New England and has spent the last 25 years in New York City. He currently works from studios in Red Hook, Brooklyn and Upstate, NY. Pollack has shown work in numerous group exhibitions in and around New York City in venues that include SFA Projects, Life on Mars, and David and Schweitzer Contemporary. He held his first one-person show in Brooklyn, NY at Stout Projects in 2016.

Paul Behnke was born in Memphis, TN and recieved a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting with a minor in Art History from the Memphis College of Art. Behnke's paintings have been exhibited widely in the Unided States and internationally. His work has been reviewed in Hyperallergic Weekend, The New Criterion, and the New Republic. Behnke's writings have appeared online at AbCrit: A Forum for Debate on Abstract Art, at The Painters' Table and in print in Gamut a Southern regional arts magazine, Number Magazine, and he was the co-editor of Shad Runn an art-zine self published in Memphis,Tn. Behnke has edited Structure and Imagery: A Contemporary Art Blog since 2011 and was the co-director of Stout Projects, an exhibition space in Bushwick, Brooklyn from 2015 - 2017. Currently, he is the co-curator of Monklike Habits | online project space. Behnke is currently based in Taos, NM.