Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions
by Stephanie Cassidy | December 26, 2019
At what age did you decide to become an artist?
I began drawing at an early age, copying my older brother’s example. He was more skilled than me, but I persisted after he decided on other pursuits. When, at age twenty-one, I moved to New York City to study painting, I took the crucial step to consciously see myself in the role of artist, but of course, it was only the start of my journey.
How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
I don’t recall making a dramatic announcement, since from early on my parents encouraged my art-making. My maternal grandmother saved empty cardboard boxes for me to make sculptures from. Actually, when I was young, the two most famous American artists shared my first name: Andy Warhol and Andrew Wyeth. My parents likely brought this to my attention. The Roman saying “nomen omen” (“name is destiny”) may possibly have been planted in my mind then. I know they were concerned about my leaving Chicago for New York at twenty-one. I had little money, and I was leaving home for the first time without any expectation of monetary support.
Who are your favorite artists?
I have two sorts of favorites: artists who impress by their pictorial or technical achievements, and those whom I identify with because of their idiosyncrasies. Starting with the former: the genius of Velázquez is his ability to integrate and innovate. He began following Caravaggio before gradually incorporating Titian’s color and methods, but subsumed both masters within his own style, as can be seen in Las Meninas. Another in this category is Caravaggio. It took a long time for me to appreciate his approach. That didn’t happen until my first visit to Rome. The force of his personality and astounding ability to convey deep emotion immediately struck me. A few personal favorites are Ingres, Degas, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Balthus, all of whose work is charged with a latent eroticism and incomparable, unique drawing styles. Of course, there are many others I could add to this list.
Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
Richard Serra’s massive spiral steel sculptures are both artwork and experience. Walking within them is a powerful and unsettling event. I also find the work of minimalist painter On Kawara moving in the way it marks the finite temporal boundary of a human life.
Art book you cannot live without?
I have many favorite art books with beautiful photos, but a book that I found perhaps the most useful in helping me make sense of the complexities of the painting process is Art in the Making: Rembrandt, by David Bomford, Jo Kirby, Ashok Roy, et al. It is part of a series of catalogs on painting methods from the National Gallery, London. Unlike that museum’s excellent technical publications, this one is aimed at a popular audience without sacrificing any of their signature depth and quality. The chapters cover separate Rembrandt works, examining each in terms of materials, techniques and style, using both scholarship and advanced technology to unlock the master’s method in a way that is exceedingly helpful to any painter interested in traditional Dutch painting techniques.
What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
A certain consistency of form that makes the artist’s work recognizable. But not this alone: the sense of form is sustained over multiple works in a way that reveals the impulse driving the creator, in other words, it is an authentic statement, not a mannerism.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
I have since art school days. For a number of years I have used little Moleskine sketchbooks. Mainly drawing with Micron pens or color pencils, since a line drawn with these can’t be undone, so it forces me to be succinct and accurate.
What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
Very difficult to say. I nearly had an attack of Stendahl Sydrome, a kind of out-of-body sensation, in a room of the Uffizi Gallery. It was my first time there, and I walked into a room containing Botticelli’s Primavera, and the Birth of Venus as well as Hugo Van der Goes’s Portinari Triptych. The last painting was particularly stunning, given that Tommaso Portinari, (whose pendant portraits with his wife hang in the Met) was an Italian merchant who could have hired a Florentine artist to paint his altarpiece but instead hired a Flemish artist. The three large works hang opposite one another in the gallery room in a silent debate on the merits of Southern European vs. Northern European painting styles.
What’s your go-to NY museum?
Neue Galerie. Their programming is always compelling and allows for discoveries of works by twentieth-century German and Austrian artists, many of whom have not received the attention they deserve.
What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
In terms of a formative experience, the Met’s Balthus retrospective in 1984. The exhibition gathered nearly every important work by this modern master (except the scandalous Guitar Lesson) and was a revelation. It showed the arc of nearly an entire career, and how Balthus innovations in design and technique were the result of his love of Renaissance painting, whose ideas were recaptured and reinterpreted by this enigmatic artist for a new generation.
If I am allowed another just as impressive exhibition, it is Caravaggio: The Final Years, at the National Gallery, London in 2005. The exhibition comprised sixteen paintings from the last few years of his life. Each painting was more powerful than the last, and many of the works in this period astonish for their impressive scale and moving imagery. The show, with its sense of simultaneous triumph and pathos, left a lasting impression on me.
If you were not an artist, what would you be?
In retrospect, I would have liked to study architecture.
What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
I had very good training in art school and selected teachers who could fill the gaps in my understanding of painting. Nevertheless, there were things I learned after my formal studies were complete. Foremost would be a greater understanding of Old Master approaches to materials and techniques. That became clearer after my wife, Helen Oh, whom I met in art school in New York, began working with a prestigious paintings conservation firm in Manhattan that specialized in European painting from the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries. Working with a talented conservator, she learned exactly how master artists constructed their images from stretchers to varnish. This gave both of us invaluable insight into traditional practices of painters from across Europe.
What work of art have you looked at most and why?
Caravaggio’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt. I first saw the work in person on my first trip to Italy several years after I left the League. It was my baptism into a new way of thinking about how I should paint and marked a break with my student days. There is so much to admire: the graceful drawing, luminous color, great range of textures and stunning design all overwhelmed me. It was clearly a work of great quality, with the hallmarks of a Caravaggio, yet is stands apart from so many of his other works by its use of landscape and its almost meditative atmosphere.
What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
This isn’t secret per se, but it is something I don’t really discuss with others, since I assume they wouldn’t be interested, but I read books on the Second World War, a profound event for the generation of my parents and grandparents. I got interested while reading about the artists of the Bauhaus, a number of whom fled Germany and established themselves in Chicago. Some lost their careers under the Third Reich, and it is distressing to read how the authorities castigated their art then. But your question was about pleasure! I would say that in traveling back in time through reading brings back, in a sense, my parents, whom I miss very much.
Do you listen to music in your studio?
Rarely. I did when I was younger, but now I find it difficult to focus on painting problems. Instead I listen to radio over the Internet, podcasts, audiobooks, and CSPAN.
What is the last gallery you visited?
Gallery Victor Armendariz, which is my gallery in Chicago.
Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?
There are so many terrific painters who are not household names, but deserve more attention. Two late twentieth-century New York artists of exceptional quality are John Koch and Edwin Dickinson; the latter was an instructor at the Art Students League, though before my time studying there. I admire the works of nineteenth-century French realist Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, Italian twentieth-century magical-realists Alberto Donghi and Felice Casorati, and German early modernist August Macke.
What art materials can you not live without?
A painting knife made by the Japanese company Holbein. They are of superior quality to all others.
Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
No, as I split my time between teaching at local art schools. During most of my career, both in New York and Chicago, I have taught college courses either part time or full time and scheduled painting around school obligations. I also teach a few courses online. I teach a course called “Flemish Master Painting Techniques” through Bluprint.com and a graphic novel course online through the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
What is the longest time you went without creating art?
I am fortunate to not have any significant time away from the easel. Probably only extended travel has interrupted my work, and that would be at most two weeks.
What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
Actually I rarely feel inspired or “on fire” emotionally when starting a painting session. When this does happen, it is a joyful, intense experience. When work goes incredibly well, which is rare for me, it can also approach a nirvana-like state! This only occurs when everything lines up perfectly: the model, the light, the paint flowing well on the canvas, and my focus. I have to watch out that I don’t deceive myself, though, and get tunnel vision, so a sort of dialog takes place internally as I debate the way to solve each problem. It is important that the critical voice be allowed its say, so I don’t go down a wrong path. That sometimes happens and I end up removing whole passages later. As to subjects, I normally have enough to get started, but if not I look at my file of things. I also have numerous compositional ideas in my sketchbooks. And a museum visit nearly always stirs my creative energy.
What are the questions that drive your work?
What qualities in the human spirit are unchanging and compelling, and how can an artist convey these, building on the achievements of the past while innovating for a contemporary audience? How can I use the figure as a vehicle for conveying these powerful psychological and cultural forces? Can the figures I paint, within the context I provide for them, express a range of universally understood emotions in spite of not using movement or written or spoken language?
What is the most important quality in an artist?
If the question refers only to visual artists, I would have to say drawing. Whether a painter, sculptor, or printmaker, the nature of the artist is primarily revealed in the way they place a boundary between the subject and the space, in the way each delineates shapes of forms. Even within abstraction or color field painting, the artist sets boundaries within which to create.
What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
I haven’t yet made a large painting containing more than a dozen figures, which is something I hope to do one day. Also, I have been interested in resuming printmaking, which I haven’t done since etching class at the National Academy of Design. I hope to take some of the themes I have explored in painting and convert them to the printed image.
What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
Making the acquaintance of a great variety of practicing artists working in a myriad of styles, from across the world.
Andrew Conklin, an Art Students League alumni, teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago.