The Cooper Union
School of Architecture
 
 
 

EXCERPT FROM AN INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT SLUTZKY
BY EMMANUEL J. PETIT

Source Hollandays, 1958/74
I was taught as an art student that it was taboo to articulate the center of the painting in too strong a way. The center was a position in the canvas that didn't want to be made too perceptually obvious. As I began to become involved with Mondrian's aesthetics of Neo-Plasticism, I took that as a challenge. I tried to treat the geographic center of the painting as at once independent of its surroundings and part of the composition. Yet my painting is less about an opposition between center and periphery than an enactment of the perceptual forces of push and pull. In an early painting I did, called Source Hollandays, the center of the canvas is occupied by a red square. But because this shape immediately associates with its neighboring forms in different ways, the center ceases to read as a center, and the eye engages in a multitude of relationships in time. The black and white element brings the same idea into many other paintings of mine. This idea has stayed with me a long time, through most of my paintings of the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, and eventually it has become a kind of signature. I suppose it is an unconscious homage to one of my teachers, Josef Albers, to whom the center of the canvas was very essential in his exploration of the square.

Untitled no. 3, 1976
The central black and white element denotes the ideal condition of complementarity, one of the major themes that runs through my work. More metaphorically, it can be perceived as a window of light and darkness. The white is a field of light that seems to emanate from behind the curtains of color to expose the rear plane of the composition. The black, on the other hand, is an absence of light. It can be read as a tear in the fabric, a black hole that absorbs the light. So it has a kind of metaphysical presence.

In some paintings, I consciously thought of the black as the body and the white as the head, making geometry imitate nature. In other cases, this element reads as an axonometric solid. You can perceive a black roof above a white front facade. Incidentally, this reading is a violation of the Neo-Plastic avoidance of any scale references, of any allusion to real dimensions or representational relationships. Nevertheless, the possibility of illusion is key in my work. As you will discover, sometimes I paint this element in a very muted way – the white and the black look like lost travelers in a huge landscape. In other cases, they are energetic and very demanding perceptually; they become a perceptual irritant.

Grand fugue, 1974
I am attracted to the hermetics of musical structures. Music is an autonomous aesthetic language. It follows its own internal logic of instrumentation and composition. It has its own elasticity of tempo: it can slow down or accelerate in endless combinations. Of course you do have composers in the early and middle twentieth century who make montages, who take the sounds of the city and merge them into their compositions, as John Cage does in his performance pieces, for example. But I am much more attracted to J. S. Bach. I find his impeccable compositions lyrically complex, ever changing, mysterious. He produced wondrous structures of sound. For example, particularly in his keyboard music, there is a constantly engrossing dialogue between treble and bass, a dualistic interplay that Bach is a master of. He manages to weave treble into bass and bass into treble – you can think of the right hand being white and the left hand being black! To me, Bach's pieces have an emotional impact that opens onto a spiritual otherness. He liberates through the clarity of his musical structures. This clarity allows for lyrical interpretations by the performer and the listener, adding second and third levels of poetry.

Spiral no. 4, 1976
I regard painting as being as hermetic as music. Just as music is governed by its own compositional rules and not beholden to representation, so painting should be able to enjoy an absolute dissociation from the representational world. The latter is expressed through the illusion of foreground, middle ground, and background, the world of perspectival space. By excluding representation, an illusion of another kind becomes possible, which is the illusion of color and shape. This is a unique freedom that painting can enjoy; it is painting's "musicality." Just as much as sound needs time to evolve into a musical structure, so painting needs time as well, "aesthetic time." Aesthetic time is the time that is needed to activate different spatial constructs, and that is extendable by the viewer. I want the viewer to unravel the complexity of a painterly structure, and at the same time I want to give a thematically pronounced meaning to that structure. Of course, painting is a little more difficult to isolate from the world than music because it is visual, and we live in a visual world. Most of our perception of reality is gained through the eyes, and in a sense painting is always competing with the visual field of the real.

Sketch for Chromeclusters, 1974
I believe in painting's ability to choreograph color and form in infinite compositional variations. What I deal with is polychromatic geometry. Geometry is made to function in a supportive way to the color concept. Color also has an inherent structure of its own; this structure has been described in color atlases like the one developed by Albert Munsell, for example. Hue, value, and chroma are the three coordinates of color reference. They are like the Cartesian coordinates. They can be visualized as a spatial configuration that fits within not a perfect globe but an asymmetrical spheroid. At the very top of this spheroid is white, at the bottom black. The poles are connected by a spinal column of stepped grays, with middle gray residing on the "equator." The gray steps are designated as values. Light emerges both in the differential between values and in contiguous color relationships.

Chromeclusters, 1974
The color, value, and geometry of the painting therefore feed back into each other. This interaction is worked out in the actual process of painting, the proposition of which is constantly changing. I start many of my paintings with an initial sketch in which I notate color within shape. I transpose the sketch onto the canvas in a very thin, tenuous, and watery way. I then begin to alter shape, and a dance or duet between drawing and color guides the painting. I like to think of color as something contained in jars and tubes, to be released at the appropriate time, when the spatial structure calls for it. Color and drawing enter into a pas de deux, and finally each holds its own. Most of the time color generates the idea of the painting for me through its translation into geometry, its enactment of the three forces of tension, compression, and shear, the primary elements of Neo-Plastic painting.

Guadaloupe Boogie-Woogie, 1956
Mondrian articulated the aesthetics of Neo-Plasticism as a doctrine. He organized the canvas with nothing but horizontal and vertical geometries and used only a limited palette, all primaries. He insisted on this, and when Van Doesburg introduced diagonals in his own compositions, the two stopped speaking. It was a very dogmatic movement in Holland! But what I admire in Mondrian is not just the rigor of his Neo-Plastic sensibility, but his stamina, his patience, his search to enrich his own aesthetic structures. When Mondrian came to the United States in the early 1940s, he got turned on to the energies of New York City, as you can feel for example in his painting Broadway Boogie Woogie. The amount of spatial ambiguity and syncopation is incredible. The painting is very polyphonic. You can almost hear the painting in all its complexity. At first, Mondrian's paintings disturbed me a lot. I didn’t like them so much as a teenager. But when I began studying painting and drawing more seriously, I saw their virtues. My discovery of his unfinished masterpiece, Victory Boogie-Woogie, a square turned forty-five degrees into a diamond, was a major revelation, which in turn triggered my acceptance of Neo-Plastic aesthetics.

Study, 1953–54
So I developed a style of painting with clear Neo-Plastic references. This goes back to my three years at Yale in the first half of the 1950s. Rather perversely, given the strong influence of Josef Albers there, I chose to restrict my palette to Mondrian's primaries. Only in the early '60s did I begin to accept the totality of color.

While I was an art student at Yale I read a lot of Gestalt psychology and got acquainted with its terminology: figure–ground, figure–field, constellation, prägnanz, among others – I found these concepts very powerful.

A painting is about the dynamics of form on a two-dimensional surface. It is an act of energizing the two-dimensional field. In my early paintings, it was the adjacent relationship of colors and shapes in the horizontal and vertical dimension that created aesthetic tension. It had to do with one form functioning in two, three, or four different ways in the painting. This structuring of ambiguity is the kernel of the "transparency" concept that I developed with Colin Rowe in our Transparency essays written at the School of Architecture in Austin, Texas, around 1955–56. It has to do with the field being a thickened, finite, colloidal support for multiple formal fragments, and a release from the representational world.

Homage to Gris, 1973
I inherited my obsession with employing figural elements in a very fragmentary way not from Neo-Plasticism but from early Cubism – Braque, Picasso, and especially Gris. Juan Gris was responsible for a major pictorial invention, namely the hermetics of still-life structure, which he honed to a point of pure poetry after 1915. He developed a pictorial syntax based on diagonal symmetries, in which still-life elements engage the contained and finite matrix of the flat canvas. They function in a very different way from, say, Cézanne's apples and pears, which still refer to the infinity of illusionistic space. For Gris, finite space wins out in the end, although within his conception of space infinite geometric and metaphorical extensions become possible. The reason I mention Gris is that in the past I have called some of my paintings Homage to Gris. They are also gray paintings. This is how extrinsic references – i.e., to the history of painting – occasionally enter my work.

Untitled, 1994
Geometrically, the grid represents repetition and stability. In addition, the orthogonal grid is usually referable in my paintings to primary colors: red, yellow, blue, white, black. The geometry and the color structure negotiate which element is entitled at a particular moment to the position of verticality, orthogonality, or diagonality. I like to challenge the painting's stability, as suggested by the grids, and thus explore the instability of stable form As such, some grids do not appear to be plumb vertical in my paintings, although they actually are so. Only because of the sense of the stability of grids can any rotation, compression, or shear become perceptible.

Untitled, 1996
I often work with the inherent contradiction between the nine-square and the sixteen-square grid. The one has a void center and has to do with odd numbers. The other has an intersecting linear center and has to do with even numbers. The nine-square is more stable because of its central void, and it implies a sanctified inner space, a classic architectural courtyard or cloister. The sixteen-square is unstable and implies infinite extension. Ideally, a grid is dimensionless; it is an intellectual construct. By fattening the lines of the grid in some cases more than others through form and color, I give the illusion of distance or nearness; the grid becomes haptic. If you look carefully, your perception begins to evolve in time, i.e., you begin to unravel the mystery of the structure and, at the same time, possibly to indulge in metaphoric extensions of your vision.

Untitled, 1986
I do indeed believe in the ineffability of art. And I am particularly critical of theories that try to be descriptive of, or surrogates for, the work itself. To say that art is ineffable means to eschew interpreting visual stimuli in ways that must by definition invoke the representational world. Words tend to act pictographically, particularly when they convey metaphors. The metaphor all of a sudden corrupts the possibility of enjoying the painting free of any representational associations. At the same time, metaphor is an inescapable, if fleeting, by-product of vision. Only the most abstract language, like equational logic in mathematics, can aspire to total hermetics.

Untitled, 1986
By allowing drips to show in some of my recent paintings I am demonstrating the liquidity of paint and the receptive quality of canvas to the acrylics I use. The dripping of color exposes the thinness of the paint and the fragility of the plane. Sometimes I try to make my paintings look like decalcomany – as if you could peel the image off the surface. What is more, liquidity is very structural. Liquidity and absolute structure don't deny each other. They mutually enhance each other. Certainly dripping indicates the presence of gravity and prevents you from turning the canvas around (although I have deliberately violated this rule on occasion). But the painting's orientation also cannot be changed in my work because of way I weight form. I like my forms to be heavier on top and lighter on the bottom. The pull is important – it's like pulling down a window shade. My effort to flatten space and thus avoid deep space and representational space is aided by the top-heavy elements.

City, 1992
In traditional painting space consists of foreground, middle ground, background. The foreground is at the bottom, the middle ground is in the center, the background is on top. This is earth–sky thinking! I want to put the earth where the sky is and to put the sky where the earth is, because I believe in the autonomy of painting. I want to break with representation in this way, to interrupt the gestures reflexive to the outside world, to favor self-referentiality in painting. In this kind of painting, there should be enough power in the configuration of lines and color to keep the eye spinning within the structure, which is completely contained within the frame of the field. At the same time, within the contained field I try to imply an infinite extension beyond the painting's edges.

Untitled, 1963
In my diamond paintings, which I did in the mid '60s, and subsequently in my tipped paintings, of the late '60s and early '70s, I turned the canvas anywhere from 45 to 5 degrees in order to provoke a more active dialogue between the orthogonal figural elements and the field. The diamond paintings had a more stable (but still volatile) quality because of their right-angle armature. In the tipped canvases, the turning caused a thrust to the left or right, a haptic gesture. In both cases the edges became diaphanous, permitting the illusion of penetrations from inside out and outside in.

Untitled, 1999
In my two most recent series, rather than tip the canvas, I make some of the painted elements themselves nonorthogonal. Thus I achieve the earlier effects of destabilization and extension solely through the illusionism of paint. In these series I especially make use of ricocheting chromatic vectors. These implicate the edges of the painting, causing them to appear either taut and impenetrable or else soft and porous. The two series are interrelated. In general, the "pick-up stick" paintings are about activating large sectors of field colors and exploring relationships of brightness and value. The "puzzle piece" paintings involve a hide-and-seek game with three pairs of complementaries that continuously superimpose, undercut, and rescale each other. In the latter series the floating fragments make the paintings a little slapstick. They have a carnivalesque quality – jovial, buoyant, celebratory.

Slapstick, 2001
For me the motivation in painting is very similar to that in music. It is the desire to break free from representational images. I don't think you can name too many pieces in music that start out with the sound of kids playing in the backyard. Instead, music starts off in a "key" of some kind, then develops its structure at a certain tempo, then repeats this with variations. Music is about playing with a theme – turning it upside down and inside out, taking it for a ride.

I believe in the pleasure principle in painting! I think Bach believed in the elegance of sound in his preludes and fugues. For him it was instrumentally produced sound that generated pleasure. For me it is color that is geometrically structured. I am explaining to you the effect of aesthetic time. Which is to say, the longer you look, the more you find; the more you find, the longer you look. It's a nice reverse equation. Painting is perceptual music. It has to do with the retina. In music you need an ear for sound. In painting you need an eye for color within geometry.