The World Within the World: Simon Dinnerstein, NA, on His Mysterious, Beloved ‘Fulbright Triptych’

Simon Dinnerstein, NA,  The Fulbright Triptych , 1971–74, oil on wood panels, 79 ½ x 168 in., framed and separated. Click to enlarge.  COLLECTION OF THE PALMER MUSEUM OF ART, PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY

Simon Dinnerstein, NA, The Fulbright Triptych, 1971–74, oil on wood panels, 79 ½ x 168 in., framed and separated. Click to enlarge.

COLLECTION OF THE PALMER MUSEUM OF ART, PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY

It’s all there in Proust—all mankind!” Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer once told an interviewer. Breyer explained, “Proust is a universal author: he can touch anyone, for different reasons; each of us can find some piece of himself in Proust, at different ages.”

Those comments came to my mind this summer while I was at the Arnot Art Museum in Elmira, New York, standing in front of The Fulbright Triptych, a sprawling, astonishingly detailed painting that the Brooklyn-based artist Simon Dinnerstein worked on unceasingly between 1971 and 1974. Like In Search of Lost Time, it is a sui generis masterpiece, a world onto itself—and one that has earned a devoted following even though it has spent much of its life in storage.

Detail of Simon Dinnerstein’s  The Fulbright Triptych , 1971–74.  COLLECTION OF THE PALMER MUSEUM OF ART, PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY

Detail of Simon Dinnerstein’s The Fulbright Triptych, 1971–74.

COLLECTION OF THE PALMER MUSEUM OF ART, PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY

The work’s subject sounds simple enough: a view of the artist’s studio outside of Kassel, Germany, where he was living in the early 1970s with his wife, Renee, and studying printmaking on a Fulbright grant. The tools of his trade sit on a large black table beneath windows that look out onto modest homes, a tranquil, Ferdinand Hodler-like landscape behind them.

But Dinnerstein painted each element of the room—its roughed-up floor, its drab pegboard walls—with such humble care that the work stands as a kind of monument to close looking. It exemplifies how making, and even viewing, art can be a meditative act.

The 14-foot-wide and roughly 6-and-a-half-foot-tall work is, among many other things, a self-portrait and a family portrait. Dinnerstein appears in one side panel, stone-faced, with a big beard, about 30 years old, while Renee appears in the other, also deadpan, holding their young daughter, Simone, who was born in Brooklyn while her father was midway through work on the piece.

Dozens of little images and texts that line the walls of the scene are the work’s coup de grâce. They include Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s portrait of the beguiling Comtesse d’Haussonville from circa 1845, a classic black-and-white Larry Clark photo of a couple making out in the back of a car, an ancient Assyrian stone relief, and Jan van Eyck’s mysterious Baudoin de Lannoy (from around 1437) peering out from behind a quotidian houseplant. Still more artifacts include charming children’s drawings (one depicting the Dinnerstein family) and a famous snippet of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Altogether, they show Dinnerstein studying and celebrating his influences—everything that made him the artist and person he had become. He assembled his own personal museum in a single artwork, and it teems with connections between pictures, panels, and epochs. The longer I looked at it, the richer and stranger it seemed.

Detail of Simon Dinnerstein’s  The Fulbright Triptych , 1971–74.  COLLECTION OF THE PALMER MUSEUM OF ART, PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY

Detail of Simon Dinnerstein’s The Fulbright Triptych, 1971–74.

COLLECTION OF THE PALMER MUSEUM OF ART, PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY

Dinnerstein, now 75, told me in a phone interview last year that he hadn’t made a painting in years back when he began work on The Fulbright Triptych, and recalled the moment when inspiration came to him in his German studio. “I don’t know why, but I moved back and sat back about 8 feet,” he said. “I looked at the scene and it was quite striking and quite appealing. I saw it as a painting.”

“In retrospect, one wonders how you could actually do this,” he said of his ambitious project, which involved meticulously copying so many famed works from across the ages, experimenting with disparate styles and techniques. “I had moments of doubt, but I really was so obsessed with working it out that I was OCD—a candidate for a mental hospital.”

Chance had delivered Dinnerstein to that moment. He had originally hoped to win a Fulbright scholarship to Spain, to study with the painter Antonio López García, but instead was awarded support to travel to his second choice, Germany. “We had some really, really genuine mixed feelings about going,” he said, in light of his Jewish heritage. But he and his wife “took a deep breath and decided to go” in 1971.

At the time, the city of Kassel was still recovering from the devastation of World War II. “If the Allies had planes with bombs left over, they dropped them on Kassel,” Dinnerstein said. The triptych can be regarded as a testament to how culture and identity endure through trauma, and how histories and civilizations can be reconstructed through art.

After returning to New York in 1974, Dinnerstein kept at work on the painting, and one day the Manhattan dealer George W. Staempfli saw it and offered to pay him a stipend toward its completion. “It was like the gods sent a messenger, and so I had to do it,” the artist said, sounding wistful. “Every month this money came. I had a job working one evening a week, and every other day all I did was work on this painting.”

Detail of Simon Dinnerstein’s  The Fulbright Triptych , 1971–74.  COLLECTION OF THE PALMER MUSEUM OF ART, PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY

Detail of Simon Dinnerstein’s The Fulbright Triptych, 1971–74.

COLLECTION OF THE PALMER MUSEUM OF ART, PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY

It finally debuted at the Staempfli Gallery in 1975, and earned a rave from John Russell in the New York Times, who proposed that a museum should buy it. But it wasn’t until 1982 that it was acquired by the Palmer Museum of Art at the Pennsylvania State University, where it has sometimes been off view for stretches.

In 2011, though, that changed, with the German Consulate General in New York hosting the triptych in a Dinnerstein exhibition that also featured some of his later works—psychologically loaded paintings and drawings with doses of Magical Realism. In another rave, Roberta Smith lamented that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had not bought the work. That same year, he published The Suspension of Time, an anthology of essays on the work, and the painting has since traveled to shows in Columbia, Missouri, and Elmira, New York, where I saw it. It’s now on view at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno through January 6, before heading across the country for a show of Dinnerstein’s art at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey in Summit, which opens February 22.

Detail of Simon Dinnerstein’s  The Fulbright Triptych , 1971–74.  COLLECTION OF THE PALMER MUSEUM OF ART, PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY

Detail of Simon Dinnerstein’s The Fulbright Triptych, 1971–74.

COLLECTION OF THE PALMER MUSEUM OF ART, PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY

In mind of the newfound attention for his three-panel painting, Dinnerstein cited F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quip that “there are no second acts in American lives,” and continued, “For the last, I would say, seven years, this has been a second act.”

He sounded excited and fulfilled. Still, the work he completed 45 years ago in some ways eludes him, as it has eluded so many others. He spent countless hours making it, and he’s seen it in every show that it has ever been in. “Even after all of that, I can’t take this painting in,” he said. “It’s beyond what I can take in.”


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Donna Dennis, NA: Review of “Ship and Dock/Nights and Days or The Gazer”

Donna Dennis, NA, an internationally exhibited artist known for her architectural installations, created “Ship and Dock/Nights and Days or The Gazer” in 2018.

With its two perched houses and a sky that changes from dawn to star-filled night, it is about time, the transformation of energy, the final journey and our collective journey into the unknown. “Have you ever wanted to walk inside a painting, sit down and experience the work from the inside?...This mixed media assemblage…takes up an entire room and carries psychological power…This is a durational work because beyond the dock the projection of sky above the horizon changes gradually from day to night to day, from painterly sky blues to dark night with brush-stroked stars as a ship changes from white against the night sky to black against the daytime skies in the distance. Thus the elements of engineering and technology that exist here in a three-dimensional space, also includes the fourth dimension of time. And, though that horizon changes, it’s always night for the viewer with the stars shining behind us.” from “Passage” by Annabel Lee, art critical, June, 2018.

PRESS RELEASE

Help Restore An Iconic Sculpture by Garth Evans, NA and Bring It Back to Wales!

A Message From Hannah Firth at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff

We need your help to restore an iconic sculpture and bring it back to Wales.

In 1972 influential British artist Garth Evans, NA created a large-scale sculpture that was sited in Cardiff City Centre for six months as part of the Peter Stuyvesant City Sculpture project, which saw 17 new works placed at the heart of eight cities across England and Wales. The project was a significant chapter in the history of public art and urban space.

Garth chose Cardiff as the location for his work as he had very strong family connections with Wales and his Welsh grandfather’s tales of his time as a miner were hugely influential in the sculpture’s form – evoking both a hammer-like tool and the image of a mine tunnel that was as black as coal.

'I wanted to make something that would impact its location, altering and affecting the space and by its presence, create a new sense of place.' Garth Evans, NA

After the project, the sculpture was relocated to Leicestershire where it has remained hidden, neglected and unseen by the public ever since. The years have taken their toll on this important work and its condition is now rapidly deteriorating.

Your money will help us to save the sculpture by carrying out the specialist restoration that is so desperately needed to prevent any further and irreversible damage. In a truly unique project we will then be able to return the work to its original location in Wales almost 50 years after it was first seen.

Please support us by contributing as much or as little as you can and help us to rescue, restore and relocate this iconic work.

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STUDIO JOSEPH, Founded by Wendy Evans Joseph, NA, Wins 3 AIA New York State Awards!

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Honor Award—Adaptive Reuse
Larry Robbins House: Department of Management & Technology

University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA

This highly efficient 8,500 square-foot building is an adaptive reuse of historic infrastructure at the center of Penn’s historic campus. With emphasis on transparency and light, the design assembles places for students to gather, collaborate and interact with faculty. An elegant new glass and steel north facade provides natural light to public spaces and a seminar room. LEED Gold certification is the result of our emphasis on sustainability in all aspects of the design.

Other recent awards for this project include:
2018 Society of American Registered Architects, New York State Honor Award
2018 Society of American Registered Architects, National Design Award
2018 Chicago Atheneum, Global Architecture Design Award
2018 Architizer, International Competition, Special Recognition


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Design Citation Award
New York at Its Core

Museum of the City of New York, New York, NY

This permanent exhibition installed throughout the entire entry floor is the first-ever comprehensive telling of New York City’s history. The design integrates graphics, media and a wide range of interactive technology to create an immersive experience for all visitors.

Other recent awards for this project include:
2018 American Alliance of Museums, Exhibition of Excellence
2018 American Architecture, Chicago Atheneum, Global Architecture Awards
2017 American Institute of Architects, New York City, Honor Award
2017 Interior Design Magazine, public space, Design Award
2017 Architizer.com A+ Award for Learning and Architecture, Popular Award
2017 American Alliance of Museums, MUSE award
2017 Core 77, Design Award


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Design Citation Award
“Missing Voices” Project for Wilson Marker

Princeton University, Princeton, NJ

As President Woodrow Wilson’s policies of discrimination have come under stronger examination, Princeton sought to capture the complexity of his legacy through the design of an intervention in their central campus at Skudder Plaza. This submission to an invited competition proposes an incremental approach that integrates the voices of those unheard. 

Other recent awards for this project include:
2018  Chicago Atheneum Global Architecture Award
2018  Society of American Registered Architects, New York State Honor Award

Power 100: Artist Kerry James Marshall, NA Ranked No. 2 Most Influential Person in Contemporary Art World

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THE SECOND MOST POWERFUL person in the contemporary art world is Chicago painter Kerry James Marshall, according to Art Review magazine. The London-based publication issues an annual Power 100 list ranking the most influential figures in the contemporary art world. The list includes artists, curators, critics, collectors, and dealers, among others. Marshall is the top ranked artist on the list.

In 2017, Marshall was on the bottom half of the list at No. 68. Then he assumed the mantle of the most expensive living African American artist in May when his monumental painting “Past Times” sold for more than $21 million (including fees) at Sotheby’s New York, an artist record. Advancing all the way up to No. 2 this year, Kerry James Marshall’s ranking is the highest-ever for a black person since the Power 100 list was inaugurated in 2002.

Advancing all the way up to No. 2 this year, Kerry James Marshall’s ranking is the highest-ever for a black person since the Power 100 list was inaugurated in 2002.

Thelma Golden of the Studio Museum in Harlem was ranked No. 8 in 2017, which was the highest ranking at the time and marked the first year a black person had placed in the top 10. This year, three African Americans rank in the top 10—Marshall, Golden, and poet/critic Fred Moten, who is appearing on the list for the first time.

Golden serves as director and chief curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem where construction of a new building designed by architect David Adjaye is expected to be completed in 2021. She oversaw a recent charitable auction at Sotheby’s New York that, thanks to the largess of 42 artists who donated their works, raised more than $20 million for the building project.

Describing his regard, Art Review said: “Moten’s writing is an acknowledged influence on artists including Arthur Jafa, Glenn Ligon, Sondra Perry and Theaster Gates, with whom he shares a need to celebrate the radical traditions and rearticulate the contemporary experience of black Americans.” His trilogy, “consent not to be a single thing” was recently published.

[Fred] Moten’s writing is an acknowledged influence on artists including Arthur Jafa, Glenn Ligon, Sondra Perry and Theaster Gates, with whom he shares a need to celebrate the radical traditions and rearticulate the contemporary experience of black Americans.
Top right, Kerry James Marshall is No. 2 on the Power 100 List. | Photo by Broomberg & Chanarin; Above, Thelma Golden and Fred Moten rank in the top 10. | Photos by Julie Skarratt and Kari Orvik

Top right, Kerry James Marshall is No. 2 on the Power 100 List. | Photo by Broomberg & Chanarin; Above, Thelma Golden and Fred Moten rank in the top 10. | Photos by Julie Skarratt and Kari Orvik

ART REVIEW’S POWER 100 LIST is developed in consultation with an international panel of invited writers, artists, curators and critics. The unnamed experts consider the stature, standing and sway of candidates over the past 12 months. The barometer is “based on their international influence over the production and dissemination of art and ideas in the artworld and beyond.”

Art dealer David Zwirner tops the list occupying the No. 1 slot. With locations in New York and Hong Kong, his gallery represents Marshall and just announced the addition of Njideka Akunyili Crosby to its roster, which also includes Stan Douglas, Chris Ofili, and the estate of Roy DeCarava, among more than 75 artists.

The No. 3 spot on the list is held by the #metoo movement. Established a year ago, the phenomena appears on the list for the first time. The “viral international movement denouncing sexual harassment and the abuse of women,” is a unique selection on a list that ordinarily features individuals.

In addition to Moten, collector/philanthropist Pamela Joyner (No. 36), curator and critic Simon Njami (65), and artists Adrian Piper (49) and John Akomfrah (94), are also new entrants on the list.

Joyner is board chair at the Tate Americas Foundation and also serves on the board of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Her extensive art collection forms the traveling exhibition “Solidary & Solitary: The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection” which is being presented at the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame through Dec. 15.

Njami has greatly influenced the lens through which the world sees contemporary African Art. He curated the 2017 and 2018 Dak’Art biennials in Senegal and is editor-in-chief of Revue Noire, a French magazine devoted to African art.

A conceptual artist and philosopher, Piper was born in New York City. Her half-century survey exhibition is on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in partnership with the Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (through Jan. 6, 2019). She moved to Berlin in 2005 and refuses to return to the United States because, according to her reconstructed Facebook page, she is “listed as a ‘Suspicious Traveler’ on the U.S. Transportation Security Administration Watch List.” Piper received the Golden Lion Award for Best Artist at the 56th Venice Biennale (2015) and Germany’s Käthe Kollwitz Prize (2018).

The Institute of Contemporary Art Boston just announced Akomfrah will present the 2019 Watershed installation. “Purple,” his immersive, six-channel installation will make its U.S. debut on May 26, 2019. On view earlier this year at the New Museum in New York, “John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire,” was the Ghanaian-born, British filmmaker’s first American survey exhibition.

Four African American artists return to the list from 2017—David Hammons (14), Theaster Gates (30), Kara Walker (50), and Arthur Jafa (87). Exploring African American identity through contemporary imagery, Jafa’s extraordinary video “Love is the Message, the Message is Death” (2016) is “a testament to [his] profound ability to mine, scrutinize, and reclaim media’s representational modes and strategies.” Compared with last year, Hammons and Walker improved their positions on the list; Gates and Jafa fell several ranks.

New entrants on the Power 100 list include Pamela Joyner, John Akomfrah, and Adrian Piper. | Photos by Linda Nylind, Jack Hems © Smoking Dogs Films, and SN/APA (EPA)/Andrea Merola

New entrants on the Power 100 list include Pamela Joyner, John Akomfrah, and Adrian Piper. | Photos by Linda Nylind, Jack Hems © Smoking Dogs Films, and SN/APA (EPA)/Andrea Merola

MARSHALL HAS CAPTIVATED the art world in recent years. On the heels of his European exhibition “Painting and other Stuff,” when “Mastry,” his 30-year career-spanning survey opened at MCA Chicago in 2016, the show was universally praised and his stature rose significantly. In public conversations and catalog essays, Marshall speaks with authority about his own practice, the work of other artists, and the history of painting.

In the wake of “Mastry,” an increasing number of paintings by Marshall began showing up at the major auction houses carrying higher and higher estimates.

Following the record established by “Past Times,” Christie’s announced “Knowledge and “Wonder” (1995), a painting by Marshall made for a Chicago public library for a fee of $10,000, was set to come to auction with an estimate of $10 million-$15 million. When the artist, and many others, questioned the decision, the city heeded the outcry and reversed itself, pulling the painting from the auction.

“History of Painting,” Marshall’s first exhibition since “Mastry,” was on view at David Zwirner in London and closed yesterday. “Through its formal acuity, Marshall’s work reveals and questions the social constructs of beauty, taste, and power,” the exhibition release said.

Through its formal acuity, Marshall’s work reveals and questions the social constructs of beauty, taste, and power.

“Engaged in an ongoing dialogue with six centuries of representational painting, Marshall has deftly reinterpreted and updated its tropes, compositions, and styles, even pulling talismans from the canvases of his forebearers and recontextualizing them within a modern setting. At the center of his prodigious oeuvre, which also includes drawings and sculpture, is the critical recognition of the conditions of invisibility so long ascribed to black bodies in the Western pictorial tradition, and the creation of what he calls a ‘counter-archive’ that reinscribes these figures within its narrative arc.” CT

VIEW Art Review’s 2018 Power 100 List

FIND MORE about Fred Moten in this recent New Yorker profile

BOOKSHELF
Recently last year by Phaidon, “Kerry James Marshall” is a fully illustrated documentation of the artist’s career and includes a conversation with fellow artist Charles Gaines. “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” a comprehensive, cloth-covered catalog was published to accompany the artist’s 30-year survey. An extensive interview with Marshall is featured in the exhibition catalog “Painting and Other Stuff.” “Kerry James Marshall: Look See” coincided with the artists’s first exhibition with David Zwirner gallery in London in 2014.

Leslie Wayne, NA: Studio Visit With Barbara Takenaga, NA

Barbara Takanaga, Shadow Love, 2018, acrylic on linen, 54 x 45 inches

Barbara Takanaga, Shadow Love, 2018, acrylic on linen, 54 x 45 inches

Contributed by Leslie Wayne, NA / Barbara Takenaga, NA has been pitting her skill at painting pattern against the physical constraints of materials for years, and her skill has usually won out. For a long time, bodies of work based on the Mandala were her signature motif. She meticulously painted carefully plotted circular patterns with the devotion of a Buddhist monk. Then she abruptly shifted, not only in her approach to process but in size and scale. What has happened in the last three shows since she started exhibiting with DC Moore Gallery is a deliberate privileging of chance. This has not in any way diminished her labor-intensive process. In fact, labor in a way has taken on a greater role, though in such a sly and sophisticated manner that you would never know that, for example, she painted what you think is the background last instead of first. Does it matter that one is painted over the other? Not in terms of the work’s conceptual underpinnings. Only to Barbara, whose love of the labor itself is close to sacrosanct.

Barbara Takenaga, Black Shape on Red, 2018, acrylic on linen

Barbara Takenaga, Black Shape on Red, 2018, acrylic on linen

If you were to ask her what the overall conceptual framework was behind her painting, she would defer to process. She in fact calls herself a process painter, someone dealing improvisationally with order and chance. But based on this very commanding new body of work, I would suggest that powerful and durable emotional and intellectual forces, however subliminal, also play a role in her art making. These influences include her personal history and of the current state of national affairs. One doesn’t need to be truly old, which in today’s terms can verge on 100, to feel the weight of mortality and the pressures of time. One also need not be a bleeding-heart liberal to feel the intense anxieties of this political moment. Both these factors have converged on Takenaga, and the results are unexpected and arresting.

Barbara Takenaga, Cloud River, 2018, acrylic on linen, 45 x 54 inches

Barbara Takenaga, Cloud River, 2018, acrylic on linen, 45 x 54 inches

My recent visit to her studio gave us a chance to talk about these issues in anticipation of her upcoming solo show, “Outset,” her fourth at DC Moore.

Leslie Wayne: Barbara, I see how you’ve been slowly moving away from a centralized pattern over the years as the dominant characteristic of your paintings. And that’s true here too. But there are a couple of other things going on in this new body of work that are stunning. For one, your palette is much more restricted. For another, you’ve introduced in some of these paintings some singular and rather mysterious forms. What’s going on here?

Barbara Takenaga: Oh, yes, the palette is mainly black, white, gray and blue.  In fact, the first working title was “Blue and Black.”  I had been looking at a lot of books on Japanese and Indian painting and was enticed by the wonderful flat black shapes – a draped robe, elaborate hair styles, a winding river, the backs of elephants submerged in water.  The shapes became silhouettes, separated from their context, abstracted to a place where they open up to other associations. A black figure turned on its side becomes a menacing cloud or an island or a big weird fish.  And a lot of times the positive/negative spaces slide around because they’re less tied to a narrative.  Is it cloud, land, constellation or does the foreground flip to a river, net or monster? I like that in between-ness.  And I like that you called them “mysterious” because it enhances that aspect.  What is that thing?  For instance, the silhouette in the painting, Shadow Lovecame from a bit of peeling paint above the trash cans in my apartment building.  I would walk past it every day and I fell in love with that image.  It’s the absence of paint and a character.  And a random encounter.

I didn’t really answer your question about the palette, did I? I want the work to be elegant, a little disturbing, a little funny, and have some weight.  It didn’t initially occur to me that the palette was limited, but I think your thoughts about mortality and our particularly infuriating times in 2018 are in there.  I’ve always felt that the invisible core of my art making is a struggle with change, which is essentially death, successive little ones and big ones.  Between control and the passing of time.  A futile attempt to hold on and let go simultaneously. Stuff we all know.  I think about it a lot even though it’s not that apparent in the work. Wow, we really jumped into it all – in the first question even.

Barbara Takenaga, Rust Never Sleeps, 2018, acrylic on linen, 60 x 60 inches

Barbara Takenaga, Rust Never Sleeps, 2018, acrylic on linen, 60 x 60 inches

LW: Yes we did! So let’s backtrack a little. Your palette includes one other very prominent characteristic, which you didn’t mention – the use of interference colors. It’s very hard to incorporate those without taking on a kitschy quality, but to your credit, you’ve managed to use them in a way that mimics, or at least references the use of gold and silver in traditional Japanese art, particularly scrolls and screens. Were you aiming for that?

BT: Not in a conscious way, but I like that you pointed that out.  It’s definitely there.  I initially started using gold leaf in my small paintings in 2001 after a trip to Venice. That, plus an interest in how the Egyptians thought of gold, wanting to take it into the afterlife because it never changes, never corrodes.  The vampire of metals. That desire to hold still in time.  But gold leaf was tricky to paint on so I switched to acrylic iridescent paint.  Not nearly as visually seductive – gold leaf wants to sit up on the top surface and flaunt itself – but definitely more of our time.  And cheaper.  And a little goofier because of that kitschy aspect, it’s basically plastic.  I eventually moved on to other iridescent and interference colors because I liked the way the image would shift, according to the viewer’s position or because of changes in light from different times of day. The image moves around a bit, a little quiet animation, but stays the same.

Barbara Takenaga, The Edge, 2018, acrylic on linen, 54 x 45 inches

Barbara Takenaga, The Edge, 2018, acrylic on linen, 54 x 45 inches

LW: So the reference is there but not consciously. That’s interesting, and maybe I’m reading more into it than is really there, but I find that we become more ourselves, in spite of ourselves as we mature as artists, and that our intentions become increasingly subsumed by our personal history. So I’m returning to that, because I think this work, more than anything I’ve seen of yours in the past – and your recent career survey at the Williams College Museum of Art still looms large in my memory – feels unadulterated by convention. I’m reminded by the great Ann Magnuson, the performance doyenne of the 80s East Village scene, who I saw at a talk about a year ago. Describing her life and career, she said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that for years she climbed and climbed the hills and mountains of middle age and when she finally got to the top and looked over the summit what she saw was the valley of fuck it! And that’s what I’m seeing in this new work. A bit of fuck it. So I’m not sure which is at work here. Have you deliberately given yourself permission to just be yourself?  Or is your cultural and aesthetic affinity with Japan making its way into your iconography unbidden?

BT:  The valley of fuck it!  Perfect. I’d like to descend into that valley. And build a little house there. Right now, I think I’m still climbing to the summit.  Ha.

This is a great question because there are so many parts to the answer. The thing about the “mountains of middle age” – I have so many artists friends, particularly women, who have deep, long years of making art, we keep at it.  I love that.  I think one of the rewards of being an artist for a long time is that the work becomes more and more “you”, whether you push it there or not.  There’s more confidence in the work because it’s an old friend and you trust it.  There’s more fuck it now, at least for me, because I can’t do much about it, the work is what it is after all this time.  I show up, I work hard, the work shows up.  It’s a kind of giving up in little positive ways.  I give up trying to control things, I give up trying to be smart, I give up regretting.  Because of course, time is flying.  I don’t put away the Christmas ornament on my door because every time I turn around, it’s December again. The end time looms larger.  Not much time to not be oneself, to use a double negative. I guess this is stuff we all already know, just saying it again.

The other answer is that I started out as a printmaker and that has informed my work a lot.  My paintings aren’t painterly so when you talk of “not conventional,” maybe that’s part of it.  They’re flat and somewhat graphic and rely on a lot of processes like tracing, transferring, outlining, pooling paint, etc.

Which leads into the last part of your question. I never felt an affinity to Western art history.  It never moved me like it did for other artists.  But I’ve always had an interest in Eastern art and pattern. Was that a longing for a culture that was mine but not really mine, having been born and raised in Nebraska?  Is it something else?  (Sheila Pepe curated a show at the Bemis Center that dealt with some of these questions.)  So from way back, I always loved Japanese prints, tantric mandalas and miniatures from India, textile designs, those wild Samurai helmets, etc.  As a young artist, my favorite book and resource was Yoga Art by Ajit Mookerjee – which I paid for, five dolllars at a time on a layaway plan at the bookstore.  I think those influences, as well as my personal history, were always in the early work but submerged.  I didn’t want things to get too treacly or sentimental.  References to my grandmother were coded into mountain shapes (she was born near Mt. Fuji), images of a crow and a key were funny, private stand-ins for my mother’s maiden name Kuroki.  I used soba noodles as stencils versus Italian pasta, silhouettes of the structured robes of warlords, etc.  Lots of hiding and coding.  The whole series of dot mandalas from 2001-2009 were about my mother, sliding away into space. So the personal and Asian thing has always been there, but maybe it is more obvious now.  Maybe I’m growing into myself.  Ha. In this upcoming show at DC Moore, I laughingly thought of titling it “I think I’m Turning Japanese” from that old Vapors song.  Because I never saw myself as being defined that way. I told a friend that I was really surprised to find that my new paintings were getting very Asian-y.  She said, no, I hate to break it to you but your works have always been Asian-y.

LW: Okay, so fuck it, you’re an Asian artist! In a moment where the prevailing discourse is all about identity politics, that doesn’t seem like such a bad place to be. Particularly with the current immigration crisis mirroring the stain of WWII Japanese internment camps, honoring your Japanese identity feels like a statement of activist pride. But am I pushing this aspect of your work a little too hard here? Even though you say you’ve never felt an affinity with Western art, perhaps you mean Western as in Renaissance. But I do think you are an artist who is participating in the ongoing conversation about contemporary painting and the crossover of disciplines – in this case between painting and printmaking, and the complicated trajectory of postmodernism, including Minimalism and the Pattern and Decoration movement. Does that seem fair?

BT:  Yes, I do see myself more as a process painter, an abstract painter, a quasi-formalist, a female painter – more than in terms of noticeable identity politics. My personal history is definitely there but coded and submerged under other, more visible concerns – which is how I want it to be.  I feel fairly accepting and earnest in my choices.  Instead, I worry about entropy, I like visual ambiguity, I make an effort to be nonverbal and not think when it comes to making art – I’d like to be a better “grokker,” something I’ve chased since grad school.  (Heinlein, sci-fi, visual empathy…all good.)

And I used to have a much clearer take on that trajectory of postmodernism in the last part of your question. I gave lectures on it when I taught – horrors.  And of course, I love P&D, a movement that was a game changer. But while many artists are very conscious of the weight of the history of painting behind them and its influence on their work, that history is very quiet in my art thinking. It takes naps. My practice is fairly simple: I go to the studio and wait for something to happen, then I get to work.  Working gives me great pleasure, it’s the payoff. Which if probably true for most of us, right?

To be honest, the older I get, the more I feel that I know nothing. Me and Jon Snow. I know, it’s such a cliché.  But it’s good, it’s a good place. I’m okay with that for the moment.

Barbara Takenaga: Outset,” DC Moore Gallery, Chelsea, New York, NY. September 6 through October 6, 2018.

About the author: New York artist Leslie Wayne is represented by Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea. Wayne is an occasional writer and curator, and has received numerous grants and awards for her painting objects, including a 2017 John Simon Guggenhheim Foundation Fellowship and a 2018 New York Foundation for the Arts painting grant.