The Color and the Shape


Bradley RubensteinCan you give me a little of your backstory? I know you went to Yale for painting, but you have also been a sign painter and worked in movies and TV, and you are also a musician. How has all of that informed your work?

John Paul: In St. Louis I had solid training, and at Yale exposure to cutting-edge thinking.

The St. Louis years were dominated by the importance of Max Beckmann, who taught there after the war until the Fifties. His canvases were a part of a student's daily diet, lining a corridor between the schools of art and architecture.

In New Haven the lesson given was freedom! -- through hard work within the canons of modern art. Jack Tworkov and Al Held were the proponents -- and Knox Martin, a dynamic mind in the unlocking of intuitive power.

After a brief stint in teaching in New England, I went to California. There I met West Coast painters Elmer Bischoff, Joan Brown, and others in his circle through Yale classmate George Lloyd. The Pacific landscape was a welcome change in feeling, with a hidden benefit of being away from the hot contest of career in New York.

In 1972 I returned to New York and soon set up a studio as neighbor and assistant to Ilya Bolotowsky. My friend Larry Rosen owned an art edition press called Chiron, and I was able to meet Ilya and other famous New York artists. Larry introduced me to Alex Katz, Fairfield Porter, Jack Youngerman, Tom Wesselmann, Larry Rivers, Red and Mimi Grooms, and others. The Seventies were an exciting time, and I painted both in natural and pop veins. I adored the fast brush of Alex Katz, trying my hand at figure and portrait -- and some still lifes in the studio environment.

By the Eighties I was working in a sign shop, painting outdoor walls and billboards. This was my first commercial painting career -- a different approach to the city environment, perspective, and materials. In addition to covering acres of space as a commercial artist, I worked pro bono on art murals with my friend and sign brother Stefano Castronovo, who was a pioneer in New York art murals (Knox, an earlier pioneer). Stefano's motif was the Mona Lisa, with drunken red eyes. It wasn't in the cards for me to attempt pop collage like Rosenquist -- way too dominant and original to be a shared context. He also was going towards something very painterly but "non painting." That scared me. I didn't want to be a total grown-up, like Donald Judd or Dan Flavin. I could even concede that they were right. Just not right for me.

The Seventies was like waiting in Casablanca for the figure to return to art. When it did, that would include some old favorites like Raoul Middleman and Charles Cajori, and the landscapes of Wolf Kahn. It would also mean a return to the stuffy museum painting of the New York Academy and the English tea cups of artists like William Bailey (a fine portrait draftsman but an awful artist).

Music? That's a hobby, and if it ever gets into my work like it did for Romare Bearden, that would be natural. To play jazz means to wade or swim in a stream of heroes. There are no more exemplary artists than the players and composers of modern music. If you know a tune well enough to improvise, you have an inner reference and calm much like dreaming. Take that to the next level? Perform with others? You have to want that like the footballer wants to score a goal. It's another language structure -- free but with rules. You need to know the rules. I'll always be a beginner as a tenor sax player, so I concentrate on tone and sound. It's a love interest.

BR: In your paintings there are a lot of references to late Picasso, and maybe some of Chagall's more theatrical paintings. You create these narratives that are lyrical and oblique. What inspires them?

JP: Not enough can be known about Chagall. Picasso is said to have likened him to Renoir in his capture of light. He has a delicate but unconcealed hand informed by geometry -- an avid "doodler." I want my work to come out of drawing, out of the act of drawing.

I asked Knox Martin what it was like to be working in New York near de Kooning and Arshile Gorky, painting under the gun of a living Picasso in the pioneer Fifties, Sixties, and early Seventies. He didn't go down that memory lane but was always stunned and amazed by Picasso, especially the sculpture.

In those Mosquetero paintings, Picasso is baroque -- he identifies with the great Baroque painters like Rubens, Velázquez, Titian, El Greco, and especially Rembrandt, who also shared a theatrical and valiant interest in history. There are so many different ways that Picasso defies placement in categories and avoids redundancy.

Baroque? The paintings jump out at you as feats and exploits; the baffling formal solutions and graphic illusions are a circus, the metaphors invented and wrung through the shaping process before your eyes, with nothing concealed. Also noted, the freshness of the palate, the plenty and disposable quantity of the material. Working in the shop taught me to not be stingy about paint.

BR: There is a decorative aspect to some of them -- probably a size thing. They look like they could easily fit into the Lapin Agile or something. You are playing with the size that used to be called "easel painting" and working in an area that the Ab Ex guys kind of opened up. Has working on large-scale projects like painting a building or movie sets given you a broader range, or have you always aimed for this kind of "bigness" in the work? There is a great sense of drama in some of them.

JP: Big canvases were the thing in the Seventies, and I had a front-row seat with Alex Katz. A few remember that there was an ad hoc Sunday basketball game on the Canal and Thomson Street asphalt court. Larry Rosen, Herb Schiffrin, Peter Schjeldahl, Porfirio di Donna, Joe Zucker, and others played, for a season or two, a good-natured game of hoops.

In 1976 or so, Larry landed a show at André Emmerich on 420 West Broadway -- all raw canvas stained with Dalmatian spots. At some point he lost interest, and I wound up with a bunch of large stretchers. I copied what Alex was doing, blowing up smaller paintings to oversize. I used French ashtrays and duck decoys, liquor bottles, any handy thing. I didn't care that people called me a copycat. Alex himself didn't quite like what I was doing. He told me to stop using that size (and elementary color) as a format and to be more personal. It took me a while to work out of that mode. I think the fun and nastiness of the Eighties helped make that break.

When I was working outdoors, we would have to get up an image to fit a 14' x 48' or a 20' x 60' on a daily basis. So the idea of scale was totally blown. Actually Alex was helpful in getting me into billboards. I called him to see if I could work on his Times Square mural. He gave me the contacts.

You would have to be a scenic drop painter to know the fun of sketching forms bigger than your body, but that would be under the gun of the foreman, and the risks of mistakes are much bigger. Our mistakes were not artistic, and they could be fatal -- about safety and the lack thereof. I went to work in the morning promising my wife I'd wear the safety harness, but that didn't always happen. And the ropes we were given to rig with were more likely than not threadbare and corkscrewed from age. There was something very retro about our shop.

I "apprenticed" with Louis Concha, a Spaniard of Franco vintage; my eyes were opened: how to eliminate the fuss of detail and paint "for the distance." The optical length is a factor. You can kill a portrait, flowers, or a car by overly polishing. Louis showed me shortcuts, transparencies.

So what you see in Impressionism also happened in New York. There are academic realists who overdevelop forms and meticulously explain the container of each scene. Others simplify and abandon "depth" of that kind for a more personal impact. Katz is just one good example of that. Manet, for the Impressionists.

There's another factor that plays into depth for me, and that's my vision itself. I had an accident in art school while working for a doctor, bartering room and board for service as a domestic helper. One of the duties dealt with the doctor's wife's diet cola. One day a case of bottles blew up in my face, damaging my left eye. That led to a flattening of my "space" (and other more complex mental adjustments). The idea of seeing space in 3D became academic. This was at a time when Al Held went from his aggressive icons and shapes to the start of Baroque Neo-Constructivism. I was confused, but I could see lots of depth in paintings. This is because good paintings have an underlying or concealed geometric design, not just the schematic or standardized perspective.

To get back to your question: making painting bigger is as much a risk as keeping in a timid, amateur format. I feel comfortable with the mural idea and was thrilled with the Diego Rivera show at the MoMA. It could also go back to St. Louis and Beckmann. The dynamic and psychological size of Beckmann's canvas is exponentially greater than the literal measurements. And when he gangs them up as a triptych -- whoah!

So if I like a theme, and it comes from a concern that belongs in my world, it can go any size. Public murals are a definite interest.

BR: You just had a solo show in Brooklyn called Rain Check.

JP: The title was a form of modest expectation. As a "professional" my resume has huge gaps, and I have not kept many appointments with "destiny." But so many people showed up on a dismal blustery night, my comrades from many bars, many laughs and trials in their lives -- the show must go on, and I was extremely gratified.

It was fun and good practice to place a live bet on mostly current work. The umbrella series is from the last two years, all from "abstract" or imagination. The soft 6' x 11' panels were all done specifically to bend with the seventy-foot convex curved wall in the Salena Gallery. I painted all of them and two more between January and the end of February. That was like a contract deadline, and I felt pressure -- not an unusual feeling in my past business of outdoor signs. So the images wandered off-theme in three out of five: Spring Street, the Bathers, and Observation Car. Spring Street is an imaginary view of the spill-over crowd at my favorite pub, the Ear Inn.

I think there are reasons why I love "making" rain happen in my work. When rain comes, there is a disruption and urgency of a most innocent kind -- that's one. Also, it's an excuse to unify the figures and geometric shapes of the umbrellas with a soft diagonal bias. And maybe a nostalgia for the days when I prayed for it to rain all day. Then I could be excused from the job and make the early morning call: "Hey Joe, it's raining over here. Can I stay out today?" He'd be happy to save on the payroll, since the work was almost always outside. "That's okay, John. Stay in the house. See you tomorrow." Then I would be free to hang out in my studio with a model or go to the bar and relax. Rain meant freedom.