A Conversation About Painting

with Joy Moser and Judy Burton, Director, Program in Art and Art Education,

Teachers College Columbia University

JB. First thing to say is that I really admire these new paintings of yours, I just love them. The first time I saw them they seemed like some kind of synthesis between your earlier style of paintings, your landscape paintings which were very cool and a little distant, and the cloud paintings which are so Constable like and expressive; it seemed as if you have folded these two styles of painting into your new paintings. Would this be accurate?

JM. You never know; you know what happens and you are never sure why it happens. I think I mentioned to you the more I look at these, first they failed when I started the series—I had two failed paintings which were about the Burgundy vineyards which I had once been fascinated with and was exited to do again. I did two of them and they were dead, so I started all over again and I brought in the water which I though uha, the water is really interesting, but why? Then I realized I had grown up along a river, the Susquehanna River, long ago in Pennsylvania, and it had been very important. I looked at it every day and here it was again in another country and in another way. So, I think the combination—you hit it, you usually do Judy—which was the interest in clouds that started three or four years ago after seeing the wonderful little Constable cloud paintings at the British Art Center in New Haven and thinking aha, I want to do that or something about that—also you gave me a beautiful Constable book that I spent a lot of time with that I loved. Then that series of cloud paintings began, and then our Burgundy journey last spring, and that waterway and now it’s the Burgundy waterway—the Burgundy canal.

JB. You know it always fascinates me how painting has this capacity for taking one back, for evoking very early memories and suddenly pulling them into the present. Do you often find that happening when you are painting—like your childhood memories of the river?

JM. Yes, its fascinating certainly, it’s subconscious; I never think I am going to paint childhood memories, but in the quiet when you paint and the lack of intentionality when you start, takes you to another place when you sometimes get back to a visual experience of long ago—just like you find with children working with a sensuous material. I think its true, absolutely.

JB. Yes, it is interesting that you find things like memories in the process of painting. You seemed to say, or imply, that you do not start off with an intention or perhaps you start with a loose intention such as: I am going to make a picture of a river scene, but that is as far as the image in your mind goes.

JM. Well, as you know, I have to be very honest, what I do is to take lots and lots of photographs and those are intentional. I take them because when I am interested in an image, instead of sketching I take photographs, and then discard and discard again. After I have printed and cropped and fussed with the survivors, out of these pictures come the paintings. They don’t always work but there is intentionality there, but it is what I select; I don’t know, what I’m going to select when I begin.

JB. So at what point do the image and photograph stay together, so to speak; how far does that take you before something else happens and you go beyond the photograph? JM. I hope I always go beyond the photograph. JB. Yes, I know you always go beyond the photograph, but do you have a sense of that happening?

JM. Well, a photograph is a very interesting thing, because the photograph tells you where to go, then when something bothers me about the painting, then I go back and look at the photograph and think, aha, this is where it really went, and this is why this image isn’t working, I didn’t go there. So it’s a wonderful kind of companion on this journey, so that I can go back and find things and also leave certain things out but the painting we’re looking at now goes way beyond the photograph—its been cropped, certain trees have been left out, pieces of the water have been left out to create that sense of depth and of ongoing mystery that was not necessarily in the photograph.

JB. So how do you make decisions about cropping, what to leave in and what to take out, to push the depth and how to give it that air of mystery—how do you make those decisions?

JM. I don’t think they are logically informed, they are almost felt, felt decisions; I think after a long time of working like this I know if I am interested in working square and I am working off rectangular images which parts I am going to crop. Also the square is a very interesting image to work off because it gives you a natural composition, it gives you the kind of depth that a rectangle doesn’t. It goes right down the center and beyond. In the square the depth is on going whereas in the rectangle the space spreads around.

JB. That is certainly true; if we look at your rectangular paintings there is a kind of panoramic depth that gives the sense of a rolling horizon, while in the square paintings you’ve got a sense of a very specific view point, vantage point, in the distance. But are all the decisions about what to leave in and what to take out formal decisions, or how much are determined by the demands of the content, or deeper meaning? You have in the past talked about mystery or the spiritual in meaning, when does that emerge and when does that ask you to make decisions that are not part of the formal demands of composition? 

JM. I don’t know about spiritual, but I think the word I have used at other times is mystery. If a painting is, and particularly if you are dealing with landscape, if it’s representational, you could be dealing with a photograph. That’s really boring; the issue for the landscape painter, and for me, is there has to be something beyond the obvious, a strange point of view, a mystery, something you can’t quite figure out, something maybe evocative, but the only word I am thinking of is cliché. I guess what I mean is something like you don’t want to look at again. I guess what I am getting at is you have to want to look again. What do you think that means, Judy, I am not sure, help me?

JB. Well, I don’t know either! All I know is that I have been doing some writing recently about art beyond sight, that which is present in a painting but which you do not necessary see, not can you point to. Obviously, a painting reveals itself to us because we look at it but so much of the meaning of a painting is not given concretely or visually in the painting itself, it is a construct, a consequence of what we as onlookers bring to a painting and what a painting brigs to us, so this creates a middle ground of meaning much of which is not given to sight but is nonetheless present in the paining. So I am intrigued by the notion of what is present and experienced, but if you had to point to it in a painting there would not be something you could actually point to.

JM. Well, you know, the cliché again of what works, works, but there has to be something…..

JB. I hate that, I hate that…I would ban it from our lexicon…what works, what does work mean?

JM. I hate it too. I’m not interested in that either, but what I am interested in is leaving something for the viewer, OK, whatever that is, and I don’t know what that is, but it is what makes you look again and again, and if you look away and never want to look back, the painter hasn’t left anything for the viewer.

JB. Yes, that’s absolutely true. But its not so simple as leaving something out, perhaps inviting one to find something is a stronger word because it suggests that the painting reaches out and pulls you in—it doesn’t leave the viewer any option—it kind of invites you in a compelling way.

JM. Yes, but you can invite someone in to a really bad painting too, and they say I recognize that and there’s somewhere I’ve been, or something like that. I have to go back to that mystery and even a dream; it evokes an unknown, and that is part of the formal issues in landscape painting and that has to do with the composition. I am always looking for a compelling point of view which I find more interesting than a straight horizon line; diagonals take you in other ways whether it’s a road or a waterway or whether it’s a sky. Now with the cloud paintings, there is a whole other set of issues because you do not have an horizon, you don’t have a waterway, but there you are looking at a particular quirkiness of shapes and color and a kind of arresting notion of clouds…I am not sure what it is, I know when I see it, it changes the way I look at the sky now. It’s rather judgmental…what an amazing sky, what a boring sky…what a great set of clouds. Now, I don’t think I ever thought about clouds like this before. The other fascinating issue is the whole thing of the coming storm. Its about a deep grey sky, the clouds are getting much closer…I started as an abstract painter, and they are taking me back to the abstraction of my early paintings but with another agenda behind them which is the world as it exists, not the world as it goes on in my head, and so you are absolutely right that a few things have come together in this group of paintings.

JB. Yes, I find that very exciting. All things have a purpose and meaning: styles coming together, memories being pulled into the present, going back and doing some appraisal of an older way of painting. I was going to say earlier, that these clouds seem to me to be reaching the nearest I have ever seen of you painting abstractly, so, did you paint abstractly one time?

JM. Oh yes, very much so. I’ve said in my earlier statement that I went from abstraction to geometric abstraction, especially when I was given a set of acrylics and they led me right to geometry—precise and wonderful. It was only when I was sitting in my office at NYU and I was looking at a painting that was geometric and abstract and someone said that it was very much a woman’s painting, a sort of vaginal form. I thought no, no, no, they were the mountains of Pennsylvania where I grew up, so from there I began to look at the landscape again, and then one thing led to another and…

JB. …that led you back to figuration?

JM. I began to be enormously interested that there was so much in the world to look at that that amazed me all over again, and it was also about color, color in the natural landscape. And now I am probably strongest as a colorist, more than anything else, and so I love finding those colors on my pallet that are out there in the world, the infinite variety of them, so that I began the whole landscape series and then in the landscape series came the European trees. I think I called them that because the European landscape was so beautifully constructed. The American landscape is a kind of a wild pastoral landscape and the European landscape was so man made in a good way. In another way, these (new) paintings are about Burgundy, Burgundy is a European landscape; so from the American landscape I am back to the European landscape but this time with clouds.

JB. It’s interesting that you are still doing figurative paintings in this day and age when, as we know, a great deal of the work we see about us is not figurative nor is it painting…

JM. …but much of it is representational; you have a number of hot young painters who are doing this but there is not much landscape painting, that is true. But, the painting that you do see, much of it is representational.

JB. So what do you see is the hold that representational painting has on peoples’ imaginations in that you can walk round galleries in almost any city of the world and you are still going to see a predominance of representational or figurative painting, why does that continue to have a hold on people in this day of photography and sophisticated digital imaging?

JM. I don’t know, I do think there is a lot of bad representational art, hotel art and bad decorative material; I have a strange feeling that everyone is now photographing people with digital cameras. You may get more figurative painting as people begin to look again, there are so many things you can do now, a range of possibilities. I do this because it gives me joy, pleasure, and interest. Trends and fashions do not interest me. I love to look; I am a big consumer of looking, and take great pleasure from all kinds of art. I like to look and look again and I am always informed by what is going on.

JB. We have just been obliquely mentioning photography, have you always taken photographs, did you sometimes begin with drawing? Why photography, what does it do for you?

JM. Oh, there’s that wonderful Cartier-Bresson statement which is why I think I take photographs; because you know it when you see it, and the only way you can capture the moment is when you see it in the camera’s eye. Now if you saw the Courbet show, you see the beginning of photography and notice how it influenced painting, especially the nudes. And I think it happens for Cezanne and Degas, there is the wonderful thing you discover in photography when you see great things out there in the world and it’s hard to remember, or stand outside to do plein-air painting, or if you had a great studio overlooking St Michelle. But to have the richness, particularly now you have digital. But I used my Nikon for years and I loved it, wonderful, and I took it everywhere, and out of many photographs I might just have two images that I liked.

JB. So you are interested in the moment…

JM. …absolutely…

JB. …the ineffable moment? Do you draw; do you still see a place for drawing?

JM. I see a place for drawing. But I don’t draw; I do these (paintings) completely with paint, I never draw. I map them out in chalk and then I paint.

JB. Do you paint with the photograph present of do you put it away?

JM. I do both. I pin it up then plot it out, then put it away for a while, then bring it back, so it becomes a sort of companion piece.

JB. I am always interested in your sense of space and distance; it’s distance that occupies the vastness of the interior of your canvasses. Has that been present in your work for a long time? You never go close up to things you always take a distanced view. On another tack, do you every include people in your paintings to reinforce the sense of space or is it important that the only person present to, or in, the painting is the viewer?

JM. Seldom because it feeds the old cliché of the problem of the person in the landscape. I was looking at Constable’s paintings and I found myself putting up my hand and blotting out the people because they almost seemed superfluous in contrast to the deftness of the landscape.

JB. Oh yes, Turner had that reaction to putting people in his land and seascapes and he really was hopeless at depicting people and very rarely put people into his work and then almost as afterthoughts and they are usually not really well done.

JM. Yes, that is what struck me with the Constables. I did it a few times and the paintings then became decorative, the people became afterthoughts, they didn’t look like they lived there, they became like extraneous objects. Turner’s interesting, but look at those Constables again and see what you think.

JB. Of course there was the expectation of the time when he and Turner lived that people should be in paintings, landscapes too. Without people, it strikes me that your work has an almost universal quality about it. I really like the small painting (propped up by the window) it’s kind of wacky and invites you in and gives you lots of room to play. I really like the place you have left in the middle where you don’t know if it’s actually sky or river, and you don’t know even if the painting should be turned upside down.

JM. Yes, a lot of the canal paintings do that, because of the reflection. That can also be tricky because reflections can sometimes be sweet. But these are not sweet!

JB. They are not sweet but they do have a kind of universality about them. I know they are Burgundy but you could actually plop them down almost anywhere in the world…

JM. …you could, and I think they could be the Susquehanna River. And I think the appeal of them is their narrowness. If you have a canal, it has angles and they are very interesting with diagonals that cross each other, they give you direction.

JB. It’s an interesting notion that you see a scene that lends itself to composition; do you see that as you walk round the world. Do you notice the world in terms of its composition?

JM. Only with a camera I think. Only that’s not true. Good question. I think you see certain things, I know you do because you have a great eye. You see something, like we are looking out of the window here in my studio and we are seeing three trees—they happen to be framed by a window—the ancient framing device of all painters, the window. Because of that framing you see the trees; the camera does that too, it frames and then you choose to save. So you see something, then you want to see it framed, and then sometimes it doesn’t frame; sometimes you get a false idea and you say no that’s not what I want, it’s not going to work, so its a back and forth issue isn’t it?

JB. I think it is. But then are some things you see unpaintable?

JM. Oh God yes! A beautiful sunset, no way; fall colors, no way. It’s the flamboyance that’s very dangerous I think. I guess I am always looking for the more subtle, the unseen…

JB. …that ineffable moment again, only the one moment that counts, and that is fleeting.

JM. And there’s another danger, painters who take the ugly and banal and makes them fabulous…My danger, what worries me is the word beauty because that can turn into banality sometimes.

JB. Yes, but it’s a hugely relativistic issue about what any of us mean by beauty and non-beauty. I was wondering about your sense of composition, which you have mentioned several times. I have recently been looking at the Poussins (MET) and of course everyone eulogizes his ability to create magnificent compositions, but I must say en passant that Poussin leaves me a little cold while I do appreciate the formal dexterity of his compositions. So what do you mean by composition, who do you look to as another artist who exemplifies a sensibility to composition that you share.

JM. Great question, I think I have often found it, in a strange way, in paintings that have people in them. I found it in Manet paintings, Cezanne, some Matisse’s, not all: the zigzag in Matisse, the diagonal, the palm tree that gets thrown in, in an odd way, the strange ground. Yes, definitely; something that’s not expected. You’ve certainly seen it throughout the years in Cezanne, the unexpected viewpoint one that is strikingly different than you expect.

JB. So it’s envisioning the world on the oblique, seeing it otherwise, in ways that are not conventional. Is this envisioning embedded in the paint, in the formal concerns of using the paint, or both? What is for you the difference between an aesthetic judgment and a formal judgment? Are they the same or are they different?

JM. They are very different, I think you can…the word formal almost sounds like mathematics, its problematic; we throw a lot into it from Clive Bell to Greenberg. I think the word composition is much bigger than that. I think its the way things come together or fall apart—don’t you? I think by compose its what we do it in music, in painting, it’s very much about how things come together. Saturday, April 4, 2008 In Joy’s studio