Rick Briggs is among the first wave of artists to make Williamsburg, Brooklyn his home, having lived and worked there since 1981. He's independent and quixotic, developing distinct bodies of work that reflect his philosophy of making art based on personal experience and out of his own working history. 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, similar to that of Jonathan Lasker or Peter Halley, in a way. You have organized your gestures and process.
Rick Briggs: I feel like Lasker's gestures are always in quotation marks, like he really wants that distance. I've always maintained my gesture as being more intuitive and direct, and about capturing a moment. That said, I did begin this painting with a vague idea of indexing different roller pan patterns. This happens when a relatively dry roller picks up the impression of the roller pan, which then looks "printed" on the canvas simply by gently rolling it out. 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 experimentation and transformation. That's where the round canvases and cutting into the surface and making niches showed up in this painting -- something I began 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,” and there was someone else on the other side of the country making a somewhat 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 (2010) 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 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 with her 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 and had a feeling of monumentality. And 44 (2014) (below) 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 ... tell me about the Painter Man groups you did.
RB: Many artists have to support themselves with a job. My two Painter Man series were a darkly humorous pseudo-autobiographical narrative of my life as a house painter. I needed to tell a story and thought: here's a way to empower myself and embrace this idea of the artist as workingman. My work has always had an autobiographical aspect, but with the abstract work it had never been so explicit. It was interesting to think in terms of film, as much as art history, as a source to draw on for imagery. For example, the paintings are flooded with blood imagery, but the inspiration is as much from Kubrick'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 '80s -- 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, and 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 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 housepainters and that, along with Pollock, 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 its ready-to-go consistency.
BR: In this one (Black Sticks, 2014) you touch on Pollock's Blue Poles (1952), 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. 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. Miró 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.
Stella once said, “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." I think of Stella when I go to Janovic -- I love buying a gallon of any color I want.