JH: How did you decide to become a painter?
RW: In August 1990, along with four other couples, we chartered a boat to cruise around Turkey. We invited Iris Love, the noted archeologist who knew Turkey well, to join us. I had the opportunity of spending the first day alone with iris in the archeological museum in Istanbul and then listened to her lecture during the next ten days of our trip. When I returned to New York I was so inspired by her ideas of art and culture that I began making collages and eventually began painting the backgrounds. I enjoyed the process but realized I knew nothing about painting, so I took a beginner’s course at the Parson School, and then a semester of Saturday classes of drawing at The Art Students League.
The classroom environment was too slow for me, so I found a teacher who would come to my home to teach me in an accelerated manner. The teacher was Ross Neher, who is an artist and also teaches in the Master of Fine Arts program at the Pratt institute. At first I was painting in our kitchen, but eventually my wife objected to the smell of the oil paint, so I rented a small studio apartment on 73rd street just down the block from our apartment. During the next three years Ross came once a month. I had recently sold my business so was able to devote almost full time to painting. In 1996 we bought a house in Water Mill, a small town near Southampton, and when my lease was over on 73rd street, I moved my studio to Water Maill where I have painted ever since.
I have learned a great deal from Ross during the past twelve years. When we started he gave me a reading list which included Ralph Mayer’s The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques, Rudolf Arnheim’s Art and Visual Perception, Richard Wollheim’s Painting as an Art, and others. He also advised me to buy and use Color Aid paper which I have found very useful in creating colors. I also have attended some classes at the National Academy School to supplement my education, especially in portraiture and still life.
Prior to 1990 I had little interest in art, although we had purchased a few paintings and had visited galleries and museums. Ever since starting to paint I have made a point of visiting museums and galleries in various cities in America and overseas including Paris, London, St. Petersburg, Rome, Basel, Cote d’Azur, Brussels, Barcelona and Copenhagen, and have read extensively.
Early in our relationship, I mentioned to Ross that I lacked talent; he said persistence is more important raw talent and practice is vital. I have an abundance of persistence, so during the past 14 years I have made hundreds of paintings, made thousands of mistakes, destoyed more paintings than I’ve saved, and learned by practicing. Also, I have a high degree of self-confidence, no fear of making mistakes, and no concern for the opinion of others, so I kept on making paintings until I reached a point where I now think I have some worth showing.
JH: Is there a relationship, in your view, between decision-making as a business executive and the decisions you make as a painter in your studio?
RW: Decision-making in business usually involves having a staff gather information, using market research, having a team discuss alternatives and then making an informed, rational decision. One never has complete or perfect information, so intuition and subjective judgement are required. Making a painting also involves intuition and subjective decision-making at every step: the size of the support, the type of canvas, wood or paper, the subject, the selection and mixing of colors, etc. Every stroke of the brush is a decision. To quote my teacher, Ross Neher:
…a successful painting is a record of decisions correctly made. The ability to make visual decision derives from the painter’s capacity to discriminate – to see a difference that would escape the layman. Taste is acquired by having to make subtle discriminations over and over and over again and justifying the decisions they provoke.
In business I am very comfortable making decisions. As an entrepreneur I am accustomed to taking risks, dealing with change, following non-traditional paths. These attributes have served me well as a painter.
Also, I believe there is no reason why painting or any artistic endeavor need be the exclusive province of those who come to through traditional means, that is, attending art schoo, earning an MFA-degree, building a track record of group and solo shows at galleris, etc. The need for self-expression and there is room for everyone.
JH: Compared to the life of a busy publisher of manufacturer of consumer products, the life of the artist working in his studio is a very solitary one. Has this been a difficult adjustment for you?
RW: A chief executive works with teams and many decisions are arrived at by consensus. However, there often are decisions which must be made by the top executive and the process of analyzing information and considering alternatives is done in private, so working alone is not new to me.
Painting is certainly not a team effort and I am very comfortable working by myself. My concentration is highly focused and often I lose track of time when I am “in the zone,” that is, totally absorbed by the work so that I lose track of time and awareness of my surroundings.
I maintain some business activities including serving as a trustee of a large trust and find I am able to easily from working on a business problem with a team of lawyers to being alone in my studio. Physically going from New York City to suburban Water Mill facilitates the transition from business to art.
JH: How do you go about making one of your paintings?
RW: Sometimes I make a small sketch on paper or rough painting on canvas to see what the final composition may look like but usually I being with just a vague idea of what I want to achieve. I will paint a ground color of two or three coats and let them dry before making the first marks. Most of the marks are added intuitively. The best analogy is improvisational jazz. It is the spontaneous, improvisational marks and their placement that bring harmony to the finished work. The nervous twitch of the artist, the emotion flowing through the hand, defines the individually and uniqueness of the work.
Working in oil allows changes to be made. Often I will paint over one color or a series of marks in order to achieve a better balance or a more harmonious look. Sometimes the changes are visible as pentimenti. I am willing to let changes show; I don’t strive for neatness or a smooth, slick look. Often a change of one color necessitates changes of other colors as each interacts with the others; because of this some paintings take months to complete.
JH: Does your work contain veiled references to goings on in the world around us, or is it a world unto itself, devoid of such references?
RW: Every artist in one way or another reflects his/her time but I am not consciously striving to capture the feelings and events of my time. My artistic concerns are about art itself and the way in which painting can communication emotion irrespective of current fads, fashions and events.
JH: I’ve heard you refer to the emotional aspects of your work. Can you talk about component in your paintings?
RW: There is an emotional component to every work of art, even the coldest geometric abstraction, because each is made by a human hand. There is an oft-quoted statement that an artist must use his eye, his hand and his heart. The eye can be trained, the hand educated by practice but the heart comes into the picture subconsciously.
I do not, I can not consciously strive to insert emotion into a painting. I do, however, paint compulsively, with a passion and drive that derives energy from my emotions. Whether that is perceived by the viewer is an individual matter.
JH: You readily acknowledge the influence on your work of a number of artists, as well as other types of visual resources. How would you describe more specifically your relationship to these influences? In what sense have these people and materials been influences to you, and in what ways are their presences felt in your paintings?
RW: In his book The Anxiety of Influence, published by Oxford University Press in 1973, Harold Bloom quotes Goethe: “There is all this talk about originality, but what does it amount to? As soon as we are born the world begins to influence us, and this goes on till we die. And anyway, what can we in fact call our own except the energy, the force, the will!”
Coming to art as a mature adult with a lifetime of experiences, my work reflect many influences. Born in New York City; spent my teens and attended college in Los Angeles; lived 18 months in Camp Zama, Japan, courtesy of the US Army; had two successful careers in business; lived in New York City for 45 years; been married 42 years; helped raise two children and now have four grandchildren; traveled extensively; survived cancer, so I know something about life. Artistically, during the past 14 years, I have studied at excellent institutions and with an outstanding artist, visited many galleries and museums, and made hundreds of paintings. How much of any of this appears in any particular painting or in the entire body of my work is impossible to determine.
I like and admire the work of many artists; some have had a direct influence, others less obvious. My favorite artist is Nicholas de Stael. For fun I sometimes emulate his style only to gain more respect for him when I compare my results to his. Others I admire are Chardin, El Greco, Soutine, Van Gogh, Seurat, Kupka, Leroy, Bearden, Schwitters, Jess, Mitchell, Delaney, and de Kooning.
I have also been influenced by the plates developed by Dr. Shinobu Ishihara as a test for optical color deficiency. These inform my smaller works. I have absorbed many influences, artistic and non-artistic, but it is my energy, my life force and my will that distinguishes my work.
JH: In the contemporary art world artists are often criticized for pandering to the tastes of the marketplace. Some artists are even accused of deliberately devising strategies of what work to make and how to make it, in response to the interests of dealers and collectors. As someone coming into this world as a financially successful businessman in publishing and the consumer products industry, are you better able to disengage from the commercially-driven atmosphere around the making of art in our time, or do you instinctively formulate strategies for producing work that will be broadly appealing and marketable?
RW: I have the luxury of being indifferent to the marketplace on two levels. First, I am not concerned about selling, although the gallery probably has a different viewpoint. Second, I don’t require the market for validation as I am quite secure and satisfied to enjoy the process of making art and sharing the results with a small circle of family and friends. On the other hand, a natural ego has impelled me to show to a wider audience, and after fourteen years I believe my work has evolved to the point where I do so with confidence.
Curiosity led me to study and reflect on the art market and I have concluded it is not one I understand. The driving force of the art market ultimately is taste. As there is no predicting taste, there is no way anyone can, by instinct or design, develop a strategy to produce art that is guaranteed to be accepted by the market. Those products that are widely sold, that are deliberately created to feed a market, are commodities, not art, sometimes designed by talented artists but produced by apprentices or reproduce by mechanical means.
I make art that reflects me as an individual and expresses my feelings. This may seem self-indulgent but I believe individualism is more important than any movement or school or other “ism.” In the final analysis, the work speaks for itself.
JH: Although there are figurative nuances in a number of your paintings, you have obviously chosen abstraction as your visual language. Could things have just as easily gone the other way for you?
RW: All figurative art is abstract and all abstract art has aspects of realism. I have done some landscapes and a few portraits but I do not have the drawing skill or the interest to pursue realism. I have done some landscapes and a few portraits but I do not have the drawing skill or the interest o pursue realism. Abstraction provides me with unlimited opportunities to create imaginative work unrestrained by what the eye sees. Sometimes deliberately or by accident, figures or patterns appear in my paintings, but they serve to enhance an abstract goal.
JH: The concept of the beautiful in art has come under heavy criticism in recent years. Are you concerned that your work is somehow antiquated, involved, as it appears to be, in achieving results that are conventionally beautiful?
RW: I don’t consciously strive for it although there certainly is nothing inherently wrong with beauty. There is no absolute standard; it is, as the cliche states, in the eye of the beholder. My intent is to enjoy myself by engaging in the process of art-making and to give tangible expression to my feeling, to create something others might enjoy looking at and living with, and to leave a piece of myself as evidence of my existence. If some find my paintings beautiful, that’s fine but not essential.
JH: Reading what you have written about semiotics suggests to me that you have always had a life apart from that of your business – one with a strong intellectual component. Was it required of you, as a leader in your field, as it were, to separate your professional life from your intellectual interests of did you find ways to reconcile, on the job, these potentially conflicting ingredients of your sensibility?
RW: My interest in semiotics was driven by practical business consideration, namely to help improve the process by which my company created and developed new products. It was a highly effective tool to understanding consumer desires and motivations. I approached it pragmatically rather than theoretically, but the more we used it the more fascinated I became. I attended an international conference on semiotics, wrote a chapter in the book On Signs, edited by Dr. Marshall Blonsky and a foreword to his book American Mythologies, met leading semioticians such as Umberto Eco and Thomas Sebok, and read works by Barthes, Derrida, and others.
I am certainly not an intellectual, just very curious. There is no conlifct in my mind between being successful in business and becoming a painter. The factor that links the businessman to the painter is my intellectual curiosity. Compulsive drive and disciplined work habits also help in both activities.
JH: In revamping your life, and becoming a painter – nearly full-time – have you had any role models for these dramatic transformations?
RW: In the catalogue for a show titled “The Eccentric Painters of Yangzhou” at the China House Gallery at the China Institute in America, Ginger Cheng-Chi Hsu wrote about “liberated literati…a new generation of education me in Qing society who believed that a true Confucian scholar could not be considered as having attained independence until he had achieved financial independence.” These men in the merchant class in southeast China in the eighteenth century studied poetry, calligraphy, painting and writing after having achieved financial independence.
I believe each of us has a need for self-expression and given time to study and practice, we can make it tangible whether through writing, composing, singing, painting, etc. If we are fortunate enough to achieve financial independence, we can pursue our passion. This is not a “transformation” in the sense of changing from a working person to a creative/feeling person because each of us inherently has this potential. Many never achieve the required financial independence; others who may acquire it are hesitant to take the first step toward expressing their passion.
I have not been dramatically transformed but rather have made a smooth transition from being successful and creative in business to being a “liberated literati.”
JH: Given your knowledge of semiotics, is there reason to suspect that the seemingly innocent, often playful markings, shapes, and colors in your paintings are elements of a constellation of signs, with meaning beyond their superficial physical characteristics?
RW: There certainly is an element of playfulness. Much of the attraction of painting is being able to revert to childlike behavior, to be carefree, uninhibited, unbound by rules, free to express joy unrestrained.
My art can be understood and enjoyed without a semiotic guide book to interpret the signs and symbols. For those wanting to read a deeper meaning into the work the raw material is there. It was not my conscious intention to express ideas or emotions through symbols, nevertheless certain symbols do have meaning. I would not argue with any interpretation nor would I agree with any other than my own, which I decline to reveal. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a circle is just a circle.
JH: Flaubert advises that an artist be bourgeois in his life, and radical in his art. Your thoughts?
RW: In mid-nineteenth century France when Flaubert wrote, the bourgeoisie was a merchant class, not the middle class we refer to today. Updating to today’s meaning, I believe Flaubert would advise artists to lead a life of moderation and to focus on work while being highly innovative; to live within the norms of society but paint outside them.
Some artists, not just visual artists, live well beyond societal norms. That is their right and if that drives their creativity, fine, but I believe it is not essential to live to art or dress in an unusual style in order to be a creative person. Neither is it necessary to make bizarre art to prove ones creativity or to stand out from the crowd. True innovation is difficult to describe, but knowledgeable people know it when they see it.