Voice of Reason: The Robert Feintuch Interview.

Robert Feintuch is that rare thing: a serious painter and a reasonable man. His work is figurative but is neither radical nor reactionary. It's marked by painterly concerns--incredible luminosity and complex explorations of perspective. His influences range from Fra Angelico to Philip Guston. His current exhibition at Sonnabend Gallery continues his exploration of loosely based self-portraiture. Men who resemble the artist are in various scenes of frustration and devolution, alternately aggravated and comic. Feintuch's career represents an intense examination of his own persona and serves as an assessment of what it means to be a thoroughly modern painter.

We spoke recently in Manhattan. (Interview below.)

How long have you been a subject in your own paintings?
The first time I used myself overtly was in '97.

Was that a big leap, or was it an inevitable progression?
It was a slow, gradual progression. I was trained to be an abstract painter. I was in school in the early '70s when minimalism was really powerful in New York, and while I had some figurative training, the idea always was that if you were serious you did a little bit of that on the way to becoming an abstract artist. I was an abstract painter, through the mid-'70s and began in the late '70s to make a very slow transition to becoming a figurative painter.

When you were making abstract or minimal paintings did it feel that it was an unnatural fit?
I think in images a lot of the time, but at the same time seeing a lot of minimalist work was great, because it taught me to look at things physically, and ask what does work do to the space in front of it; what's it like to stand in front of something, and how does the physicality of work affect viewers?

But I also really missed images. I saw those late Guston paintings around '72, shortly after he returned to painting figuratively, when I was a student and Dore Ashton brought him to Cooper Union to give a talk about his work. I was just knocked out by them. Guston said that the loss of the image was a serious loss, and that stayed with me. Also, I'm negatively suggestible, and working figuratively was so forbidden that it made it interesting to me. All my friends were abstract painters, so I felt kind of excommunicated. While I still love abstract paintings, an awful lot of abstraction came to seem to me like it was based on a kind of true faith.

Abstract painters used to be so rigid, it's like a religious monotheism--did they feel threatened?
I don't think so--abstraction was totally dominant. People who made red monochromes fought with people who made green monochromes for not doing the right thing. There were artists who worked figuratively, there were pop artists and figurative painters around, but in '73, '74, I remember going around to shows and what you saw were monochrome paintings. It seemed like it was illegal to put a mark inside a canvas. In retrospect it seemed like a closed world. I was convinced by it when I was younger. But I've always loved historic imagistic painting.

You've always been interested in Renaissance painting. When did the transition to more painterly work come, and how did that happen?
I've always been interested in how things are made, and I've developed a fairly eccentric process to make my images. Part of it came out of abstraction because I do think about the physical presence and surfaces of paintings. I can't say exactly how it happened, for me the painting as a made thing was always there. When I look at a historic painting, I put my nose in it. That's how painters look at things, you go up close to it, you see how it was made, you look at the edges. The magic of that, for me, the magic of illusion, which was absolutely forbidden, I like it--it's amazing to me still. Even when I painted reduced geometric paintings, I thought of them as body-like. Back then, when I used symmetry or asymmetry I was trying to make it felt in the body. But we think in stories, I don't think we think in large abstractions. The older I get, the more skeptical I am of ideas that are large abstractions.

How does drawing inform your painting process?
I've always drawn. Years ago it was more like a parallel process, but now I draw largely to get ideas and to get ready for a painting. I transfer a pretty evolved drawing to the painting to start.

Are they based on photographs?
I work from life, I use a mirror and I work from photographic material. I get different information from each, and then I try to put them together.

But you sometimes have an idea of an effect you want, that's not from the mirror, that's not from life, that you go back and then enhance somehow.
Photography lets me see from viewpoints I wouldn't ordinarily have, particularly when I use myself. A writer remarked on the viewpoints being kind of impossible - I have a history of painting myself asleep or seen from behind - and that has interested me over the years. But I don't know how important it is that it's me, frankly.

That's interesting, because if you see the caveman imagery, are we supposed to think about aging, masculinity, is it about being an artist? The fact that we presume it's you makes me think about all those things. Do you have a preferred viewpoint on that, or do you leave that up to interpretation?
I don't think there's a way you are supposed to think about my work. Whenever people respond to it and tell me what they think it all makes sense to me. But it's not the first thing I've thought about, the masculinity thing. I do like to laugh at things. Maybe some people see the aggression in the work as the sole province of men. But that's not my experience.

In 1996 I did call a show, "The Middle Ages," that was, I thought, filled with work that made serious jokes about getting older and about failure and stuff. So that might be why people have written about aging as a subject. Certainly, as I get older my viewpoint changes, I'm a lot more skeptical about things than I was, and I think that probably shows up in the work.

When do you know what the theme of a show or the next body of work will be? Is it a reaction against a previous work or is it something you realize after you've done half a dozen paintings and it dawns on you?
That's a good question because it's different at different times. Years ago, in that show with the dropped pants and the buckets, I think after I had made five or six paintings I realized there were connections between all the images. I had worked in associative ways, where I'd take an image, and I'd think, what would happen if I stick that in a painting with these other images? What does it suggest? Does it seem suggestive in a way that's interesting to me? I don't always know what it suggests, but does it seem interesting to me?

By the time I installed some exhibitions I saw something like a storyline through the show. I don't expect viewers to see that so much, it's perverse, because not many people look closely, but some do seem to get it. I like it when the relationships between the paintings in a show feel more like relations in a novel or poetry, where the associations between things are suggestive.

But you don't always know it ahead of time, you discover it as you go along?
I often discover it as I go along. Some of it comes from limitations I work with, the way I work with images, bringing things into the work slowly. For me, it is a way to think about things intuitively or to figure out how I feel about things, across time. I tend to reuse images, looking to see what happens between them. The club came in a while ago, and it keeps showing up. The chair has come in fairly recently. The Bacchus image goes back a way too.

Can you talk about the surface of the work and how you approach light and generate luminosity?
I like light on skin, I like skin to look like it's going to disappear. An early experience that knocked me out was seeing those Fra Angelicos in Florence in that cloister, because they look absolutely modern, they're big broad expanses of color, but the color's really pale and luminous. I like that everything's beautiful in Fra Angelico, even scenes of torture.

I just went back and saw that after many years, and it's one of the most incredible things that you can see. Going into the room gives you a space that you just aren't used to inhabiting, you have a moment of contemplation that doesn't exist in the world for the most part. And of course the paintings are incredible.
Yes, the way they're isolated in those small cells. The way that brings you up against the fresco itself, it's material and dematerialized at the same time, because you feel the plaster but you feel like you're looking at air. It looks like they're going to vanish.

John Currin said that when he was younger painting was a mystery to him, and he says now it continues to be to a certain extent because you're better at doing tricks maybe, you constantly develop. It doesn't stop, basically.
I'm still trying to figure stuff out physically, how to do it physically. It's one of the things that keep me going. There are years where I didn't know if I could do any of it. I'm a weird combination of patient and impatient, so I like to try different things, physical things that are about materiality somehow.

You said you're patient and impatient, does that mean you don't always know when something's finished? Does the resolution of a work present itself to you unexpectedly, or is it just the result of a long march that finally you're where you knew you would be?
I'm surprised at the end of them. They always look different from what I expect. I always think the next one will be different again, somehow, and I'll figure something else out.

Can you talk about how photography affects your work? It sounds like you embrace technology to a certain extent, but use it for your own devices.
It's just a tool to me, kind of like a sketch tool, in a weird way.

Is painting always going to be about painting, is it always going to exist on a point in a long tradition?
When I was trained as an abstract painter, there was a received idea in the air, that the history of art was a curse, that if you made something that related to historical work you failed somehow. When I look through painting's history I see an awful lot of stuff that looks contemporary to me. I admire those paintings as made objects, and I still love it when I can't believe a human made it.

I see lots of desires that feel contemporary. The desire to be beautiful, the desire to be powerful-- painting was a kind of advertising. The desire to present history and shape history, because painting was how history was represented. The desire to flatter patrons, the desire to piss them off. The desire to move people or remember them. Lots of sexual desire and the desire to have something beautiful. The grandiose desire to live forever.

I'm really engaged with Northern painting, and one of the things I love about some of it is that it's rooted in reality, very skeptical, and hilarious on some level. There's a painting in the Philadelphia Museum of the crucifixion, and in the background there's a guy taking a shit in the woods. That's a worldview that takes reality into account. The older I get the more I want the paintings to be about real life,

When you describe the reasons you like history painting are desire, and shaping history, these types of things. Those don't all exist for the painter who lives now, do they?
No, of course there are big differences. But some of the reasons people make paintings or look at them or want to live with them have probably remained pretty constant.

Well what do we think of someone like John Currin then? Is he playing against what we want from a painting and not quite giving it to us? Is he not quite giving us what we want?
He'd have to answer that for you. People don't want one thing. All these ways of working coexist now. I'm not sure that coexist is the right word but they're all around at the same time.

It's funny, earlier you mentioned Philip Guston, because a lot of painters I talk to, of many different ages, and the name I hear most often is Philip Guston.
That's interesting because by the mid 80's all the painters I knew, regardless of how they worked, loved Guston.

When you think about young painters now, or just the state of painting, are you skeptical? Do you say this is just the way the world works?
I don't think about the state of painting anymore, I don't think in terms that are that big. I prefer looking at individual paintings and being interested in them, rather than trying to group them. Historical work too; I look at the individual things, I look at what's happening in them. When I go to contemporary shows I always see work that's in modes, various modes. That's always been true, they're just more modes now, but some seem so familiar and non-specific that it is hard for me to make myself look at them closely.

You were talking about humor in work, that often people don't look at paintings thinking that they're going to be funny, so they're not looking for jokes. Do you have faith that the audience is going to find something funny, or do you even care if they do or not as long as you thought about that while you were making it?
I showed four of these paintings in a small exhibition at Sonnabend and people came who have been following my work for a long time. One woman said that the larger version of this painting, she couldn't bear to look at it, she thought it was so painful. And then another woman who had been following my work for twenty years came up to me, pointed to the same painting and said, 'You know, I think this is your funniest show yet.' I thought they were both right.

Robert Feintuch: Paintings and Drawings is on view at Sonnabend Gallery until April 30.