Rick Briggs is among the earliest artists to make Brooklyn his home, having lived and worked in Williamsburg since 1981. He's independent and quixotic, developing distinct bodies of work that reflect his philosophy of resisting signature style. His 2017 show at Ortega y Gasset Projects was occasion for initiating this conversation.
Bradley Rubenstein: This is a great place to start, with this painting (above)… (Shotgun Wedding, 2012). It is kind of like an index of the imagery and ideas that you are working with now. It reminds me of a kind of work, like Jonathan Lasker or Peter Halley, in a way. You have organized your gestures and process.
Rick Briggs: I began this painting with the vague idea of indexing different roller pan patterns. This happens when a relatively dry roller picks up the impression of the roller pan, which is then "printed" on the canvas. But I can never quite settle on a simple approach to painting, like cataloging a gesture or texture. It seemed too detached -- scientific even. I like to make rules and then break them. Besides, I'm more invested in the idea of transformation. And that's when the round canvases, and cutting into the surface, and making niches showed up, something I started doing in the mid-'80s.
A funny story related to this painting is that about a year after I made it, I saw a Sarah Cain show at Lelong. She had done this installation, and one of her paintings had a roller stuck to the surface and holes cut through the canvas. I was with a friend, the painter Harriet Korman, who had already seen my painting in the studio and we just looked at each other in amazement and burst out laughing. Here I thought I'd done something original, something I could call my own, and there was someone else on the other side of the country making a similar painting (in a way), and neither of us knew of the other's work. Collective unconscious? Zeitgeist? I don't know, but I do know painting is very humbling.
BR: These new pieces feel really right for the moment. After a period of "zombie formalism" and whatnot, it's interesting seeing paintings that are imbued with a kind of vitality to their gesture -- an "internal architecture" is how I think I first described them when I saw them.
RB: Thanks, Bradley. Vitality is important to me. I always think of Matisse saying, if you're not ready to go into the studio, go ride a horse. In other words, bring some energy, some verve. After all, we're trying to breathe life into these inanimate objects, and that's not easy. I also like the word "internal" because I'm not referring to any external architecture, but rather interested in finding a structure that comes from within. Rolled Structure was the first roller painting and was a breakthrough in the sense that the painting had previously been made up of all these cute little areas that essentially added up to nothing. It was failing miserably and I needed to paint the whole thing out quickly. I resorted to my house painting supplies, alkyd primer, and rollers. I knew from experience that these moments of failure and destruction are also ripe with potential for creation, and since the surface was still wet, I just kept working on it. A basic image appeared, but without the rhythm of the line, it's nothing. I've always had an affinity for the simplicity of the line paintings of Agnes Martin, early David Reed, or even Robert Ryman paintings composed of stacked, thickly brushed horizontal lines. In the early to mid-'90s, I did a series of work that essentially tried to wed the existential angst of Guston's late reductive abstract work of the early '60s with the horizontal line paintings of Agnes Martin, who seemed to have a Zen-like approach -- a collision of approaches, to be sure. With this new linear work I felt like I had circled back to those earlier concerns. Big Yellow (2011) reminded me of a painter's scaffold -- I think has something of Held's monumentality. And 44 (2014) was one of those where all the pieces just fell into place very organically, where it felt like the painting made itself. I like it when a big painting feels like a tossed-off sketch. I suppose the one that has the most kinship to external architecture would be Space Waffle (2011), which was perhaps an unconscious response to the anonymous corporate high-rises beginning to go up in Williamsburg. I like the idea of referring to high Modernism but by utilitarian means.
BR: Jumping back a bit, because I think it relates here, are the Painter Man groups that you did…
RB: The two Painter Man series came about after a long hiatus from the studio. I'd become disgruntled with the art world and my lack of visibility within it. So the two series were kind of a humorous embrace of the identity I was left with -- my day job as a house painter. My work has always had an autobiographical aspect, but with the abstract work it had never been so explicit. I wanted to tell a story, and it was interesting to think in terms of film, as much as art history, to draw on as models for imagery. For example, the paintings are flooded with blood imagery, but the inspiration is as much from Kubrik's The Shining as any painted depiction of a martyred saint. Also, since my background had been entirely in abstraction, the challenge of suddenly having to figure out how to represent stuff was interesting. But once I'd told my story and completed those two series, I didn't feel the need to keep retelling it. I'm not interested in repeating myself, which is why I keep moving. What became more interesting to me was the idea of transforming my everyday job materials into art. I liked the ready-made authenticity and spattered surfaces of my used drop covers and the physical, material nature of painting on them. This became the through line between that work and what I'm doing now, with my inclusion of stir sticks, drop covers, paint skins, t-shirts, which, in turn, connected me back to the work I was doing in the '80, attaching small canvases on object-like painting. It's very flattering when people tell me now how that '80s work looks so current.
BR: Your work reflects a kind of '70s aesthetic in a way. I'm reminded of someone like Blinky Palermo, who really broke down the barriers of what were proletariat materials, and gestures. He did a wall piece I saw in Germany where one wall was rolled, one was brushed. He was basically just painting the gallery white, but the gesture, the artistic gesture, of brushing the wall compared to rolling it was an aesthetic question…
RB: I don't know that Palermo piece, but the conceptual simplicity of it seems quite poetic to me. I went to school in the '70s, so of course that time had a huge influence on my thinking. I'm thinking now of movements like Process Art, Lyrical Abstraction, and Arte Povera, for example. Speaking of proletariat materials, I think people forget how radical Judd's plywood boxes were at the time, or Burri's use of burlap for that matter. I really like that attitude of making art with whatever's at hand. In art school in the '70s, there were people making squeegeed abstraction a à la Jack Whitten. I was scattering acrylic paint on raw canvas on the floor à la Larry Poons. I loved the freedom of mixing some paint in a bucket and reaching my hand in and grabbing the paint to toss. I guess the use of the paint roller is, in a way, an attempt to maintain that freedom.
The Abstract Expressionists were probably my biggest influence. I love that de Kooning and Kline worked as house painters and that, along with Pollock, they used house paint in their work. De Kooning's comment about, all he really needed was a gallon of black and a gallon of white and he was in business, really resonates. I switched to alkyd house paint from oil because I wanted to work large, and the cost is peanuts compared to tubed oil paint. Can you imagine squeezing out paint tubes to make enough paint to make one long roller mark? It's absurd. Plus, I like it's ready-to-go consistency.
BR: In this one (Black Sticks, 2014) you touch on Pollock's Blue Poles, and Miró, with the paint can skin. Your use of those reminds me of Frank Stella saying that he wanted the paint to look as good on the canvas as it did in the can.
RB: It's funny to think of my little painting in the context of the monumentality of Pollock's Blue Poles (1952). My "poles" are simply stir sticks, which function as line, but there is a connection there. The paint skins form inside the can, and I hated peeling them off and throwing them away. They become ready-made colored circles.
I once had a teacher who claimed Pollock wasn't that important because he didn't have any followers but Larry Poons is someone who certainly comes out of Pollock and Dona Nelson has been pouring paint for years. You can't avoid your influences, right? The only way past is through. Miro did a lot of weird things -- he may have been one of the earliest to pour paint -- I'm remembering seeing some pancake-like pools he poured on paintings. I love his playfulness and the buoyancy of his work.
Regarding that famous Stella quote, I love going to Janovic and buying a gallon of any color I want. When I open a can of green paint, I wonder why anyone would want to represent say, grass, with it -- it's so beautiful just as it is.
Thank you, Rick. I am by no stretch an artist or critic of works of art. I am always happy to learn more about a subject and this interview has lent me some more insight into a space I am simply visiting.