September 29 - December 21, 2016
Fraunces Tavern, the historic New York City tavern where George Washington said an emotional farewell to his band of former rebels and where bankers now chatter over the somber electronic tones of Radiohead was an apt setting for Morris Adjmi, Jimmy Stamp, and Lyle Starr to discuss Starr’s dynamic paintings, which present a similar layering of pop culture and Americana to evoke the anxiety and accessibility that have become the hallmarks of modern life.
Morris Adjmi: This show is a survey covering almost 20 years of your work, and even though each series is seemingly very different, it all works together. There are some motifs that are consistent across the work — the silhouette, color, imagery, this sort of play between the figurative and the abstract. There’s some consistent DNA. There’s an evolution.
Lyle Starr: I would reject the notion of evolution —
Jimmy Stamp: So you’re a creationist?
LS: [Laughs] Right. I’m a creationist. But I do feel that it’s a more recursive process, for lack of a better term. One of my studio habits is to just experiment. I don’t really know where it’s going to lead. I’ve always been very interested in developing a signature technique by finding a very discreet set of visual principles or constructs to be the carrier or mechanism for the work. I wanted to be a scientist at one point and I think of it like developing a formula. The essence here, in how it relates to science, is that it’s repeatable. If I make it once, that’s fine, but if I can’t repeat those results, it’s not good. It’s not real. Everything starts as a proof of concept. Once I get a result that I know I can repeat, then I can set its parameters and use those to develop a series.
JS: And you can change variables.
LS: Exactly. Each series is roughly developed along these lines, but then finds a different expression. Beginning around the time of Field Goal, I started collecting imagery from newspapers, catalogs, old books, and junk mail. Then, as a natural tendency, I started to organize and repurpose these materials. I collected around 500 images that I redrew and cleaned up and have used to create these paintings. Really, what I started with before the paintings was just an impulse to copy, to catalog, and to possess these images in some way to relieve the anxiety they cause. Over the years I used them again and again. I think one of the reasons they work together as a group is because I tend to disassemble the paintings into fundamental building blocks — line, color, form — and reassemble them each time I start a series.
MA: There are artists — painters, writers, musicians — who do the same thing forever. But then there’s someone like a David Bowie, who reinvents himself after every album. There are obviously threads that go through the work, but it’s all new. I think every series in this survey has a shift that’s pretty dramatic. And surprising.
LS: I’ve always been mystified and fascinated by the lore of the rock album and what it signifies in terms of the potential for artistic concept. The album as an art object, with a beginning, middle, and end. Each album a milestone in an artistic career that is mapped out in real time to create the history of a band and, ultimately, of a generation.
MA: Do you have a similar idea about the way you approach a series? In that each one is an album? You work out one idea then go on to the next?
LS: Yes. Absolutely. And the whole thing makes the career.
JS: But this survey is not just about the repetition of a mechanism or forms. There’s an emotional response to each work as well.
LS: True. The wood grain paintings are a good example of that. I figured out how to make them, but what they were doing visually was so interesting to me. There’s a distinct emotional tenor to the way they look and the way they make me feel. They tap into a specific memory from when I was growing up in New Mexico.
MA: But the nature of the way you paint creates an opportunity for some degree of interpretation.
LS: You’re right. I’m very interested in referring to the now, and therefore the real, as an entry point. There is a concreteness to them. They are specific spatially, but I would never prescribe meaning. I would never tell you what a painting is about or how it should make you feel.
MA: But you’re making a choice as to what you put together. Are you trying to encourage a specific interpretation?
LS: If you put two lines together they’re going to tell a story. I’m being deliberately evocative. Take a rock song, “Stairway to Heaven.” What the hell does it mean? I don’t know for sure. But it means something to the songwriter, and it means something very different to me.
MA: But there is a story there. And if you look at, say, the “wood grain” paintings and you have a butterfly with a wolf and inside there’s a vacuum cleaner on one side —
LS: A butterfly and a wolf rhyme. It’s analogous to songwriting. Butterfly and wolf rhyme visually.
MA: What? I’m not sure I get that one.
LS: Take any of my compositions. Bart Simpson rhymes with Captain America, rhymes with the Trix Rabbit . . .
MA: Rhymes in what way? Visually?
JS: What about thematically? Or conceptually? They’re pop culture figures that represent specific ideologies or archetypes.
LS: No! That has nothing to do with it. It has to do with how many prongs they have on their head.
JS & MA: [Laughs]
LS: I’m serious. It’s a formal consideration. Almost like an internal rhyme. Do these things work together? Do they have the potential to tell a story? I make it one of my priorities to make my work legible. Not necessarily to be conceptual, not to be only for those in the know, not to be difficult to “get.” I think the barrier to entry should be low. I want people who aren’t artists to respond to my work — even children. I actually have a deep interest in mid-century modern design through the very odd collectible art of Playskool tray puzzles from the 1950s. I think they owe a great debt to Stuart Davis and his early period paintings.
JS: The relationship between image, form, line.
LS: Right. And the prosaic subject! Some of my favorite puzzles are gas stations and airplanes — the tropes of modernism. An important principle in my paintings is to conserve line and shape and reduce or pare down to almost create puzzle-like qualities. Making your work explicit rather than esoteric is a conscious choice. But you can occupy both places at the same time without sacrificing either one of them.
MA: When I look at your work, I can clearly see the Stuart Davis connection. Numbers, signs, forms, it’s all there. But it’s not required to understand your work.
LS: Davis is one of the first people who declared that the banal could be interesting. He is a proto-pop artist.
LS: It’s more pure in a way. And Stuart Davis was a distinctly American artist.
MA: I always like the proto-movement better than the movement.
JS: Do you think of your work as American?
LS: I do. This is a very American thing. It’s a very concrete portrayal. Every space is located and found. That’s what Stuart Davis does. Look at his work, compare it to synthetic cubism. There’s an indeterminacy in European modernism that you don’t find in American modernism, which is so much more interested in planes and specific spaces and the location of color. One of the first artists I really looked at was Raymond Jonson, an under-known southwestern painter who lived in New Mexico. I think this kind of regionalism is the basis of American art.
MA: What about the “varnish” series? The references are figurative but more abstract.
LS: For me, that’s when it all kind of clicked. Because they are constructed to appear real but they are not. They are using translucency to create shapes and space. At that time, I was looking at Ellsworth Kelley and started bearing toward minimalism in a way, trying to reduce the elements. The basic formula is there but I figured out how to distill the chaos of Field Goal. To me, that was the real achievement, figuring out how to put color and complexity in a single plane. And with a kind of awareness about the modernist trope of flattened space and ambition of creating depth and indeterminacy by overlapping figures.
JS: It might be a modernist trope, but I think it’s very relevant, because you’re looking at something that creates and embraces indeterminacy. Seeing these layered forms that occupy the same space can either provoke an anxiety or acceptance of the fact that two opposing ideas can exist simultaneously. If there was ever a time to be able to do that, it’s now.
MA: Do you think seeing your work in a survey like this changes the individual readings of the work?
LS: I think so. That’s a great observation. That’s one of the reasons this is such an exciting show for me.
This interview has been condensed and edited.