David Row (1988)
by Saul Ostrow
Ascan Crone Gallery

A Dialogue: David Row and Saul Ostrow

Ostrow: Beginning with the relationship of the present to its past, I think of your early Minimal paintings followed by the middle period like the playing cards. The present work collapses those two ideas creating an imagist abstraction using Brancusi’s column or the double helix.

Row: Making abstract imagery of the endless column allowed me to takeon the issues of non-relational painting which has been a concern since I started to make abstract paintings. It makes a lot of sense because it means that you aren’t stuck with making arbitrary decisions. It eliminates the idea of a very subjetive, aestheticized position. The cards were the first attempt to deal with images in that way. But taking a segment of an infinite image is a more open-ended solution.

Ostrow: So the double helix and Brancusi’s endless column as infinite images are like using ready-mades.

Row: Yes, Brancusi’s column really stays with me. The idea of it. You know, when you’re looking at it, that the object itself is not a limitless thing and yet the form gives you the sense that it is a manifest segment o a limitless concept. It’s a wonderful contradiction. And that’s very much what I’m interested in my own work. For instance, I could conceivably have a piece of a painting here and another piece of the same painting in Detroit.

Ostrow: I don’t quite know what your attitude was toward Greenberg and his ideal painting. Obviously these are very formal paintings. Yet they seem to be fulfilling Greenberg’s checklist and simultaneously undermining it.

Row: It may be impossible to make abstract paintings in the late twentieth century without having some relationship to Greenberg. But I remember when I first saw Marden’s paintings, the way the surface was treated and their monochrome aspect should have brought them very much within Greenberg’s ideal and yet those are incredibly romantic paintings, paintings full of light and air. So from the very beginning I have been suspect about Greenberg’s thesis. A lot of the forms I use have the kind of geometric quality that could fulfill his requirements but in the visual whole I see all sorts of spatial ambiguity. There is illusion if you want to call it that. Obviously illusion was a dirty word with Greenberg. But you can talk about “illusion” on a lot of different levels. In Pollock its the “illusion” of seeing him make the painting. There is even a certain kind of illusion in Judd, again not a representational illusionism. For example the exterior of the free-standing plywood boxes produce an illusory expectation about the shape of their interior spaces. I think you can talk about the visual presence of those objects as having other than purely formal qualities.

Ostrow: I tend to see Judd coming out of Newman. They both have a content outside of formalism. Newman talks about it as the presence of the viewer being aware of their own presence, the here-and-now of a painting. There’s a confrontation and a viewer becomes aware that they are right there, at that moment. You also make a place in your paintings for the viewer. There’s a perceptual problem that confronts the viewer. They are quite aware that they can’t focus. This aspect gives significance to the work.

Row: Significance is an interesting word to use because the notion of significance is very different now than it was for those artists. At a certain point people were able to refer to a master narrative about artmaking. I don’t think its any mystery that there isn’t that project anymore. People have to deal with whatever it is on their own terms. Its a scary sense of your presence in a kind of void. I disagree with a lot of what is said about the aimlessness of the postmodern condition. I actually think it sets up the possibility for something truly sublime. Whether that happens is another question. But when you think you know what you are supposed to be looking for then the sublime is impossible. When you’ve already decided what Newman or Reinhardt are all about, you are no longer talking about the sublime. You are in a much more removed intellectual position.

Ostrow: In terms of your attempt to open up that situation by articulating its uncertainty you’ve chosen not to use irony, cynicism, and so on.

Row: That’s true. 

Ostrow: A number of questions come up in relationship to your work. You seem to use fragments to reinforce the wholeness of something, the container to reinforce the infiniteness of the image and fried relationships to reinforce the variability of relationships. You know, all these contradictions are like talking around something. You use dichotomies to make a point.

Row: The paintings are definitely sets of contradictions. I’m always aware that whatever I do brings up for me the possibility of its being other, if not exactly opposite, something else.

Ostrow: Which is interesting in relationship to Yuma because here you have two panels separated by a space. They can’t be looked at simultaneously even though they exist not as a pair but as a single painting. It actually articulates the blank center, the expanse of wall, which is where you locate yourself. The fragmentation and expansion emphasize the wholeness of it.

From my own reading of the paintings, we are dealing with what ends up constituting a project, possibly not a priori, but certainly beginning to articulate the parameters of a project. Ambiguity can be a project too especially when raising questions of existentialism and the sublime.

Row: I’d just as soon let the paintings articulate that. One of the things in Minimalism that was very clear to me was that for many artists there was a program rather than a project. Often that program got people into a corner that they couldn’t get out of without dismantling what they had built.

Ostrow: If one functions within the modernist project of emancipation through self consciousness then it becomes a question of what one understands that to be. Let’s say somebody like Albers saw it as knowing exactly what the next painting was to be.

Row: For everything you get you give something up.

Ostrow:  Which brings us to the archaeology of the surface in your work. How in your paintings layers block previous layers so that the appearance of the painting is not its history.

Row: One of the things I’ve always liked is the idea of painting out. It serves a visual function. It also serves a personal function in the sense that I really know how I feel about something once it is painted out. There is no getting around it. I know how I feel about that thing once it’s gone.

Ostrow:  Does it become a question of either going back and trying to retrieve it or…

Row: … or going on to something else. That’s very much a part of my work. I envy somebody who can do a fresco where they set this thing up andbang, they hit it once and that’s it. Because I could never work that way. Putting things down, painting them out, is really a kind of honing process (visual thinking). It’s very sculptural. 

Ostrow:  There is speculation that, in his drip paintings, Pollock started with personages and autobiographical bits only to become horrified at what he saw there and started to cover it up. You, on the other hand, start with these brightly colored paintings. Blue and orange, reds and yellows. The paintings are worked into a sort of uneasy calmness and tranquility from something incredibly jarring. You leave hints either as scars on the surface or at the lower edge which reveal some of that process. You really are not willing to give it all up.

Row: This goes back to the point about contradictions. In the process of making the painting the surface takes on a weight, a hardness and concreteness, which is reinforced by the way I deal with the edges. On the other hand the bottom edge does something very different. Those remnants talk about time, change, and what the object really is.

Ostrow:  It becomes interesting as a formalist device because it makes the rest of the image into just a skin.

Row: Exactly. One thing that happens when that edge is painted out is suddenly it looks as though I’m saying I believe it to be something other than a painting.

Ostrow:  Once again it goes back to how one uses these devices. On one hand there are emotional issues such as doubt and finality and on the other, issues about what the object is. The viewer is asked to believe it is nothing more than an object in the world.

Row:  That places it very much within the modernist dilemma.

Ostrow:  I’ve never seen your work outside of that position. Exept in regard to the postwar preoccupation with making the last painting. You seem to talk much more about going on, without making the last one.

Row: I like the Beckett title: I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

Ostrow: I think what has happened is that we went through the first world war, then the second world war, and into the nuclear age, but emancipation hasn’t come. Everyone has closed the door on that expectation. It became despair. If you made the last painting it would represent the need for a new consciousness.

Row:  It would force that new consciousness out. I understand the strategy but more and more I’m willing to deal with what is and that’s different from the preoccupation with problem solving. It’s apparent to me that you solve one problem only to create others. That’s not bad or good or anything. It just is.

Ostrow:  That brings me to the paintings as abstract metaphors.

Row:  We talked about the infinite forms, of the idea that these paintings are segments, and that there is no hierarchy. I think this is very much within the realm of metaphor.

Ostrow:  Does it lie within the precept that no area is more interesting than any other, except by chance?

Row:  That, as well as in the subjective nature of seeing. For me chance is another possibility in non-relational painting. Working this way is still a freedom for me. When it isn’t I’ll discard it. I put two forms together and I gain something by their interaction. It is something I don’t have to invent.

Ostrow:  I’m looking at the paintings, thinking that there is an incredible amount of freedom that’s allowed the viewer, as well. The viewer is put in the position of constructing and reconstructing, of poking around in the dark corners of the painting, and of trying to figure out what they are confronted by, rather than having a painting delivered up and being told “this is it, take it or leave it.”

New York, September 1988