Artist Snapshot: Dan Gheno

Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions.

Dan Gheno Interview
Dan Gheno in his studio, 2021. Photo: Robin Smith

At what age did you decide to become an artist?
I was always interested in visuals as a young child. One of my earliest memories, probably from age four or so is reading a Golden book about Santa Claus and being fascinated by the bright blues that the artist employed in the cast shadows of the snow scenes. In grade school, I vividly remember being captivated by the smooth biblical renderings in my catechism books, and I was particularly enamored by the volumetric, dramatic renderings in the comic books I read during this time – and into my adult years. But it was when I saw The Agony and the Ecstasy staring Charlton Heston as Michelangelo at age ten that confirmed my desire, and I actively considered life as an artist as a possibility for me.

How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
I never announced it per se—but they were always aware of and very supportive of my interest in story telling and the visual arts. My mother took me to the local library to borrow art instruction books from the adult section. She often left me at the library while she shopped at the grocery store. I spent a lot of time in the periodical area of the library, reading through art magazines and issues of Writer’s Digest. My mother bought me my first anatomy book, and my father bought me my first book on painting. My older brother was also very supportive of my interests, taking me to movies that I wouldn’t normally have had access to as a child. Along with the comic books that my mother bought me, these mediums had a great effect on my visual tastes.

Who are your favorite artists?
If I started reciting a list of my favorite artists–those artists I found inspiration in or enjoyment looking at over the years—it would certainly run into the thousands of names. If you asked me in 1965, I would’ve quickly said painters such as Michelangelo and Rembrandt, comic book artists such as Steve Ditko and Dan Spiegle, and a couple of illustrators whose names I later learned were George Wilson and Haddon Sundblom—Wilson painted many of the covers of the Gold Key line of comic books in the 60s, while Sundblom painted the famous Coca-Cola Santa Claus ads. My list of favorites grew as I aged, went to museums, traveled to other cities and became exposed to more artists and disciplines. Today, I get great joy out of looking at all types of visual art, whether on a two-dimensional surface, sculpture or on the screen, ranging from ancient to modern, traditional to abstract, expressive or restrained classicism. Other than my own teachers, probably the one artist who has had the most influence on me in terms of my personal aesthetics, and the one artist I keep going back to for inspiration is Käthe Kollwitz. Among many reasons, I admire the way she combined her social interests with a visual inquisitiveness for form, dramatic lighting and psychological insight.

Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
Again, the list is large—I can’t really cite any single “unlike” artist as my favorite. I love looking at Hans Hoffman and reading his ideas about art along with the writings by some of his students such as the book on Cézanne’s Composition by Erle Loran that utilize some of his theories on picture-making.

In this “unlike” category, the artist who speaks to me most directly on the emotional level is probably Mark Rothko. I find enormous peace sitting quietly in front of any one of his larger works, letting their visual field immerse me into their virtual visual realm of the mind’s eye. 

Art book you cannot live without?
If I’m stranded on a deserted island, with a stick and sand to draw on, the one book I would find indispensable would be one on the subject of anatomy—most likely Goldfinger’s.

What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
The Renaissance spirit that most artists still have today: that desire to learn and expand one’s personal aesthetic and intellectual limits.

Do you keep a sketchbook?
Always! It’s important for me as an artist and my sanity to draw everyday, even if it is just a scribble on a tossed-away piece of paper. A sketchbook is indispensable when going to a museum. Sketching from a painting or sculpture is my way of “reading” an art object like you would a book. It’s not that I stop and sketch every painting or sculpture I find—I wouldn’t get past the first gallery or two of each museum I visited if I did that, but I like to periodically stop to sketch to analyze or better absorb lessons from an artwork that excites me or helps me solve a problem in my own work, or to simply prolong and absorb the enjoyment of a particular artwork.

What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
Each museum that is new to me becomes my “favorite,” at least for the duration of my first visit. However, The Metropolitan Museum has to be one of the best all-around museums I’ve experienced in my lifetime. It’s one of the main reasons I left California for New York City in 1979.

What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
I learn something from every new exhibition. Of the many that have influenced me, the Wayne Thiebaud retrospective at USC in the mid 70s stands out. Seeing his luscious use of colors and texture influenced my painting for years afterward and still to this day—as did the immense show of Scandinavian art at the Brooklyn Museum in the early 80s. The large Constable show at the Met in the early 80s with its huge sampling of quick outdoor sketches also had a sizable effect on my landscape painting and my ability to see large masses,–or as you might say, helping me to see the forest instead of the leafs. Likewise for the Barbizon painters in their own time, they were influenced by a big show of his paint sketches to work in the looser, broad manner that they are now so well known for. Then there are the many one person retrospectives that the Metropolitan Museum held for artists like Eakins, Velázquez, Michelangelo, da Vinci and Ribera, or the Rothko show at the Guggenheim and the Munch show at the Modern. All of them were a great source of food-for-thought, nourishing my ideas on composition, form structure and psychology. But I guess the show which had the biggest effect on me by far was the Abbott Thayer show at the National Academy Museum in the 80s. I derive great inspiration from the way he combined expressive line work and paint texture with a volumetric, sculptured sense of form, with rendering that varied between subtle, smooth transitions and rough-hewn, sometimes “unfinished” looking paint shapes and stabs of paint strokes.

If you were not an artist, what would you be?
As a child, I wanted to be a fireman… but I quickly found comic books and developed a love for story telling and drawing. I originally started drawing as an adjunct to writing, drawing out and dialoging my own line of comic books on typing paper. For several years in my teens and early twenties, I managed to balance a life as a visual artist and a writer, writing and drawing for a newspaper in Santa Barbara, California, and writing a few articles for a magazine here and there. I was also painting and exhibiting in shows in California at the time, but at a certain point I realized I would never be really good at either pursuit unless I emphasized one or the other. I decided to pick visual art as my main emphasis, knowing I could still tell stories or comment on society with imagery. But it’s likely that even if I had chosen the written word as my primary form of expression, I could never have given up drawing or painting the human form.

Did you have an artistic cohort that influenced your early creative development?
I’ve been very lucky to have studied with some great and generous teachers as well as to have studied along side some very talented and generously sharing fellow students. I met Daryl Cagle in one of my first painting classes as a teenager, studying with Harry Norstrand and Inge Drachmann-Norstrand. Daryl is mostly known for his political cartooning now—and while I don’t always agree with some of his political sentiments, at the time I learned a lot from watching him fearlessly slashing strokes of paint on the canvas and then scratching back into it with the back of his brush handle.

Later on, I met Jerry Weiss, Susan Mazer, Jo Ann Olivier, and Leo Neufeld while studying with Harvey Dinnerstein and Ted Jacobs at the League, and later with Dinnerstein and Mary Beth McKenzie at the National Academy. Drawing and painting from the same models in class, I could look over at their work to see how they were interpreting forms and learn from it. 

What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?I had a good introduction to perspective in my first couple of years at the Santa Barbara Art Institute, mostly due to the efforts of one teacher, Priscilla Bender-Shore. But I had to learn the subject’s nuances on my own, reading books about it and learning through my mistakes. And while I agonized over geometry in high school, surprisingly I really enjoyed reading about perspective, feeling the thrill of discovery that learning this geometry-like subject on my own gave me. This is not the best way to learn conventional, linear perspective, but perhaps my roundabout way gave me an unorthodox view of the subject that supported my own personal way of looking at the world. It gave me a great appreciation for the way artists like Cézanne and Raphael Soyer purposely distorted perspective in their work, or the way film makers like Fritz Lang and Hitchcock used lenses to do the same for psychological effect. I became very interested in the distortions that one can get from wide angle vision and multiple-point perspective. My Nightmare Triptych is an example where I purposely used this kind of twisted and distorted perspective for psychological effect.

What work of art have you looked at most and why?
All art interests me. But I go out of my way to visit museums that highlight figurative work, particularly collections of Renaissance and Baroque artists, or more recent artists like Eakins, Thayer, Soyer, Kollwitz and Munch, not to mention shows that exhibit any of my former teachers like Harvey Dinnerstein, Mary Beth McKenzie, and others. A deeper dive into some of the living artists who most influenced me is on my website.

If I have to pick just one artwork, perhaps the individual work that I’m most captivated by is Velázquez’s elegant Portrait of Pope Innocent X belonging to the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome. It hangs in a small room all by its self, behind a fence that makes it impossible to get close to it. Over the years of visiting Rome on many occasions and going back to study the painting, I’ve probably spent hours looking at it through my binoculars, staring at the delicate tonal transitions and the subtle, psychological inferences found in the way he rendered the subject’s features. It is a masterpiece of balance: vivid color without drowning out the volumetric rendering, and dramatic value contrasts that don’t overwhelm the subtleties of the lighter halftones.

What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
I love looking at gnarled trees, especially the kind of contorted oak trees that you find in Southern California, their limbs deformed and sculpted through years of climatic feast and famine, and intermittent fires. But then again, maybe this is not outside of art. Perhaps nature is the greatest artist of all.

Do you listen to music in your studio?
Almost always, unless I’m really having trouble with a work and don’t want to be distracted by the slightest sound. When all is going well or when doing quick sketches from a model, I can even listen to talk radio, but normally I like to keep all music or talk at a background level. I like all sorts of music from Renaissance to Disco. When I was a teenager, I used to play nonstop a reel-to-reel recoding I made of the Jesus Christ Superstar rock opera I recorded off of the radio. Then I started to listen to tapes of old radio shows like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy or the Jack Benny Show, and audio cassette tapes of old Marx Brothers movies and You Bet Your Life I recorded off of the TV. Later after moving to New York, I listened to whatever I could find on the radio with my walkman, particularly the Classical stations and WCBS FM. Later on with the introduction of MP3 players, my choices expanded in all directions, including the old radio shows and all types of music. And now that I have access to an echo device, I’m not even limited to my collection of MP3 files. As vast as my collection of audio files are, it is nothing compared to the rabbit hole you can go down just by asking Alexa to play songs by Donovan or music by Dr. Michael White. I mostly stream my musical selections now, including my most regular go-to radio stations like WQXR, KUSC and the streaming channels Rewound Radio and the Progressive Voices Network. When I’m in an unsure mood or need an energy boost to fight off ennui at the end of a painting session, I always go back to the pop music I listened to on the radio while I was a kid learning how to draw in the mid 60’s—comfort music such as songs by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and the Bee Gees among others.

What is the last gallery you visited?
The Frick Madison. It is a most wonderful experience seeing Daddy Steelbuck’s collection in a more neutral environment such as the Breuer building. I’ve been to the ornate and cluttered Frick Mansion hundreds of times, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the work so clearly as in its current temporary home with its sparse grey walls. The work is hung low so that us normal sized humans can actually see the work at eye level and up close. I’ve looked at the Holbein and the Bellini paintings with binoculars where they hung high up on their original walls many times, but I’ve never seen so much nuance as I can now see with my unaided eyes. This is true for just about every other painting in their collection. It’s really worth several visits before they move the paintings back to the renovated mansion.

Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?
At this point in our cultural history, I have to say that most living visual artists who use paint and canvas or sculpt with their hands are underrated. Today’s culture seems to have an infatuation with slick imagery, such as computer animated films and AI assisted drawings or color renderings done for a screen or monitor. Once you turn off the screen the art is no longer substantive. Conversely, physical paintings and drawings exist in the real world whether the room it is hanging in is open or shut or the light is on or off. The problem is that not enough people value physical artwork, and I fear that much of it done in our era may end up trashed after we artists pass away. I’m happy that so much money is going into museum building these days, but I wish some would be spent to at least store and stockpile artwork done by today’s artists—even if they don’t show it currently, so that not so much of it is lost to posterity when changing tastes might appreciate it again.

But specifically to your question, which “underrated artist should be people be looking at,” if we are speaking of any artist throughout history, I would say that Käthe Kollwitz is the most underrated artist of all time, deserving much more attention to her art as well as to her personal story of struggle as an artist, activist, mother, and human being living in stifling violent, chaotic times.

What art materials can you not live without?
At the very least, paper and pencils. If I had to pick one pencil, it would be the Stabilo brand “Original” 87/655 watercolor-based colored pencil. It’s sanguine colored and capable of being sharpened to a very sharp point, I find it useful to make very tight lines as well as to quickly sketch broad swatches of tone. I like to use it on smooth paper—bond paper if I had to pick only one type.

Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
I try to—but it is important to find balance in your life. I remember listening to an interview with an opera singer on the radio many years ago; She explained that resting before a concert was part of her job, that she had to schedule it in when she traveled to a town for a gig so that she could be at her best when she sang. I think the same is true for us artists. You have to find time to rest, to look at and enjoy other art, to spend time with friends and to play to recharge your creative batteries.

What is the longest time you went without creating art?
Not long, maybe a few days went by without doing at least some quick sketching—perhaps when I last had the flu or when I had my hernia operation. This is not to brag or utter better-than-thou sentiments—It’s just that I enjoy drawing and miss it when I don’t at least jot down a few visual notes even if I’m away from my studio traveling and/or visiting museums.

And then there is another motivating factor to draw a lot when I’m not working on a long-term painting: fear! Fear of getting rusty! As I explained in my book, Figure Drawing Master Class, as a child, I was surrounded by very creative friends who had strong eye-hand coordination skills. Me, on the other hand—I couldn’t even draw a stick figure with a ruler. I vividly remember one day at age ten when I decided I wanted to become a comic book artist, I showed my best friend a drawing of a house that I was very proud of. Trying to be helpful and spare me heartbreak, he told me I should give it up and concentrate on writing instead. Looking at the drawing a couple of years ago, I can understand his concern. He was well meaning, trying to spare me heartbreak. But, I’m one of those contrarians. It motivated me to work harder to improve my drawing skills, practicing non-stop. In the back of my mind is always the fear that I am an interloper in this world of art and artists. It’s irrational, but subliminally sits there nonetheless.

Therefore, skill maintenance is always a concern. I try to do a sketch group at least once or twice a week—something I enjoy doing just for the fun of it as much as for practice; and I’m always looking at and drawing from anatomy books to refresh my memory of a very complicated, hard to maintain and infinite subject.

What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
I usually have more than one project going on at a time, so if I’m feeling blocked or tired of working on one project, I’ll work on another. In addition, I’m married to a very creative artist, so all I have to do is look at her work hanging on the walls of our apartment to feel inspired and energized to work. Teaching is another source of inspiration—seeing what people are doing in class and talking and sharing with my fellow faculty members is a source of blood pumping. And finally, there are the museums. Many people ask me why I abandoned the paradise of Santa Barbara where I grew up for New York City. For one thing, New York has its own visual beauty in its architecture and parks, but the museums are pure paradisio for me, making it difficult to feel uninspired.

What are the questions that drive your work?
Just about everything that excites most artists whether conscious or subliminal: formal issues such as composition, color, paint quality and canvas/surface tensions, and psychology and social issues as depicted by direct visual representation and interpretation, or through metaphors. In addition, I’m motivated by a love of form, particular the volumes of the human figure and the challenge of creating a structural, 3D sense of form on a 2D surface. At the same time, I’m excited by textural paint and expressive line quality that reinforces the essential flatness of the paint surface, and I’m attracted to the surface tensions created when illusionistic rendering is paired with these flatter abstract shapes.

What is the most important quality in an artist?
On one hand, stick-to-itiveness. And on the other hand, knowing when to stop. Usually “good enough” is better than “perfection,” the blind pursuit of which usually ends up destroying or diminishing the quality of good work.

In my own work, I strive for a balance between expression and a sense of structure. I try not to overwork a painting and lose that balance. But sometimes it’s hard knowing when you’ve done so until things start going downhill with the painting. Struggling to recapture that lost spontaneity after you’ve overworked it almost never works—at least not for me. I try to catch myself and stop myself from over-rendering or over-correcting when I first sense a loss of momentum and before I take the painting too much further into irreparable stiffness. Failing that, I often find myself completely reworking the same passage several times before I feel I’ve recaptured some semblance of spontaneity– and almost always it never feels as free and fluid as it would’ve been if I had just settled for “good enough,” on that cusp of the painting going downhill but not yet ruined.

What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
I would love to paint Trump’s official portrait—preferably while he is wearing an orange jumpsuit. Of course, that’s unlikely to happen. But I have often wondered why all official portraiture always has to be celebratory—if you consider it as a visual catalog of past officials, why can’t it also be a critical depiction or interpretation? It undermines the credibility of public portraiture when the only statues and paintings of traitors like General Lee are commemorative and triumphant—and specifically in the case of Confederate “monuments,” meant to intimidate people seeking civil rights.

Another equally unattainable goal: I’ve always wanted to do a large, site specific, mural-sized canvas for a church altar or some public building. My interest dates back to my younger years in parochial school when I was captivated by the imagery hanging on the Our Lady of Guadalupe church’s walls and later the excitement I felt, seeing the spiritual work of Italian artists such as Caravaggio and Michelangelo installed in their intended devotional spaces. These artists along with more modern artists such as Rothko are lodestars for me, their works serving as perfect examples of authentic feeling spiritual art. But it’s not only the spiritual content that I find inspiring in such works: It is also the opportunity to create an immersive work that combines with and incorporates the specific site with all of its spiritual and architectural context—as long as I could follow my own metaphorical approach to depicting subject matter and loose handling of paint and form. I suspect that would likely be a deal breaker for most institutions.

What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
Not much!

In the 90s when the web was young, I naively thought it would serve as a very positive, democratizing force. Indeed, it served as a powerful tool of expression for musicians, writers, and artists to get their ideas and works known and disseminated. In particular, it was a powerful and inexpensive means to study art history and indirectly view art works by artists across the world. It still serves this valuable role. It’s so wonderful to be talking about a little-known artist in class and be able to instantly pull up hundreds of examples of the person’s work on my phone. It’s really saved my back in my old age—I can still remember the aches and pains that wracked my back in the late 80s into the 2000s from carting ten or twenty pounds of books in my backpack to class each day of teaching.

But the arrival of social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, et al have corrupted the whole tenor of the web—not just on the political stage, but almost as much in the cultural world. There were always curmudgeon big-mouths posting to the old CompuServe boards, but those forums were moderated and the bad vibes could be kept under control. Unmoderated venues like Facebook make it too easy for hit-and-run know-it-alls to pass judgment or cast aspersions on an artist’s work. This can cause a lot of damage to an artist who’s trying to be honest in his/her efforts, explore new things and push him/herself. While you can try to be rational about it and dismiss such unsolicited commentary as glib ranting, it’s hard to unhear it. To be true to yourself as an artist, you have to be fearless in the pursuit of your personal artistic vision—that becomes difficult to do if you have someone else’s voice in the back of your head undercutting your confidence. I understand why so many authors, actors and musicians refuse to read their reviews or shut-off their Twitter accounts after being flamed by trolls. This is one of the reasons I try to avoid Facebook—and why I mostly confine my internet presence to my own website.

DAN GHENO teaches classes in painting and drawing at the Art Students League of New York.


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