Did you ever consider yourself part of the photorealist movement?
I never felt like I had much to do with the people who painted
tushies or trucks or something, but it wasn't that I just hated
all that stuff. No artist ever likes to be pigeonholed. And what
happens is that when critics begin to identify something that they
see as a tendency, they tend to write about what people have in
common. And what they share may not be the most important aspects
of the work. In fact, it's what makes each artist's work different
from the others which is interesting. But also I had trouble with
the word realism itself, because I was always as interested in the
artificiality as I was in the reality. It's the tension between
the marks on a flat surface, and then the image built, that interested
me. And I was always a dyed-in-the-wool formalist anyway. I think
process sets you free, because you know you don't have good days
or bad days. You just show up. You don't wait for inspiration.
You've said that it's the same ethic associated with traditional
Yeah, I love what used to be called women's work. There was a reason,
and again it has to do with my learning disabilities. I didn't want
to reinvent the wheel every day. I wanted a way to work so that
today I do what I did yesterday, and tomorrow I'll do what I did
today...and while I sign on to this process for a while I will eventually
make something. And you know when women make quilts or something
like that, it was something they could pick up or put down, and
go back to after they start dinner or weed the garden or whatever...feed
the baby. I like that. I liked knowing where I was going to be for
a while. And things that are made that way are different from things
that are made all over at once. It's an entirely different thought
process. It's much more akin to writing, actually, than it is to
anything else. I mean, if you think about a writer, you're going
to write a novel that takes several months, but there's never a
time you're doing anything more than shoving one word up against
the next. And clusters of those words make sentences and paragraphs
and a chapter. You just try to maintain the same voice and the same
attitude so it sounds like the same person wrote the last chapter
that wrote the first chapter. And you keep the whole in your mind
but you can't worry about the whole. You have to engage yourself
on this very particular level of just fashioning something big out
of a lot of little pieces.
I know your father worked in sheet metal and was always building
models, and even your bicycles, from scratch.
He was so competent that while he was alive I didn't try to make
anything. I just watched him make stuff. But when he died I inherited
his tools, and I think had he lived I probably wouldn't necessarily
have ended up as handy as I became, you know. But my parents were
both very supportive of the idea of my being an artist. I had trouble
in school and I think they wanted me to feel good about myself and
feel special, so when I exhibited interest in magic, they would
help me do magic shows, and puppets, and also they got me private
art instruction when I was about 8.
Now tell me how it came about that you took figure drawing lessons
at a local house of ill repute?
I'm assuming that's what it was [laughter]. It was
only later that I figured out what must have been going on, because
there were a lot of women in the house who would pose for me and
there were a lot of men knocking on the door.
Not other art students.
No...being able to draw from the model did separate me from the
rest of the kids.
And you also did artwork for your classes in school, for extra
Yeah, since I couldn't demonstrate that I cared about the class
material by giving them names and dates and all that stuff, I was
always looking for some other way of telling them that I cared and
that I was serious. I remember doing this huge mural of the Lewis
and Clark Trail for extra credit, or when we were doing poetry or
something I would make some beautifully illustrated poetry book
or something, and that sort of hauled my ass out of the fire. I
never found any way to do anything in math though.
I was thinking, what did he draw for math? Maybe grids?
People look at the paintings and they assume that I must be, you
Kind of mathematically inclined?
And I am so not. Here's the thing: Most people are good
at too many things. And when you say someone is focused, more often
than not what you actually mean is they're very narrow. And yet
if you put all your eggs in one basket and that's all you've got
to fall back on, pretty soon you distinguish yourself from the pack
by being more committed, more engaged, and caring more about it.
Because I wasn't athletic, I couldn't catch a ball, I couldn't throw
a ball, I had all kinds of physical limitations as well. So this
What's the best thing and the most aggravating thing anyone
has ever said about your work?
Well, when I was walking around I was 6 foot 3, and people didn't
tend to approach me very much, and one of the interesting things
about being in a wheelchair is it sort of cuts you down to size
and perhaps out of sympathy or whatever people feel much more like
coming up to you. I'm more accessible I guess down here. And then
people are also pulling for you. They like the idea you are able
to continue working or whatever. So it's been very gratifying to
have people tell me that my work has meaning for them. And you don't
really always know that, because you have this sort of ritual dance
you do in the studio and the painting is a sort of frozen record,
the evidence that the ritual took place. And then it goes out into
the world and you don't really know whether or not someone else
is dancing along with your piece, so it's nice to have them come
back and tell you that it was important for them. There are people,
some critics, art historians who have given me a way to think about
my own work and certainly have changed the way I think about the
work myself. And then of course there are all the negative reviews,
which also are incredibly important. I was going to use, as an example
of what's the best thing that was ever said to me, the most vicious
thing that was ever said to me, because it was a vicious thing said
by the right person. Hilton Kramer hated the work, and if he had
loved it I would have wanted to commit suicide, so. [laughter]
And I still remember to this day that he called me a lunatic and
he said the work is the kind of trash that washed ashore when the
tide of pop art went out...he took a whole page of the Times railing
against me. And I thought, Gee, if he doesn't like what I'm doing,
then I must be on the right track.