Frank O’Cain: An Interview

Frank O'Cain abstract painter
Frank O’Cain, Coupling, 2013. Oil on canvas, 52 x 48 in. All photos by Rudy Bravo.

Ira Goldberg: Your educational experience is connected with twentieth-century modernism, coming out of Hans Hoffmann, through Vaclav Vytlacil. You work with nature to derive its essence in studied observation without reflecting specifics on the canvas. Has this approach become outmoded by the advent of instant imagery?
Frank O’Cain: Well, it could be, if it stayed nature. But when I’m done, it’s about energy and form. The whole purpose is to use nature as an extension into another part of your mind. I believe that there’s a base built in its structure that gives you a premise—a place in which to push/pull your colors around. Nature just provides my imagination with a place to absorb. Once that’s done, there are certain things you will pick up, like the gesture of a leaf or the shape or the color of the foliage. As I start removing a literal depiction of it, replacing it with the relationship of the energy that comes through perceiving combinations of texture, movement, and water, I’m removing myself from nature. I’m moving instead into a personalization of the world in general.

IG: Where is it about a subject?
FO: That’s where you get into the specific. That’s when you’re saying, “I want to use the basic elements that I find in, say, autumn.” As an abstract painter, in the way I approach it, autumn really isn’t representing the season. It’s a metaphor for the whole human experience. When you get to autumn, the leaves are beginning to go, everything is getting ready for the next season, so something is left or dies and then is replenished.

Frank O'Cain abstract painter
Frank O’Cain, Solitude, 2013.
Oil on canvas, 52 x 48 in.

IG: That would be representative of autumn, but now you’re applying colors?
FO: That’s right: colors that are there in nature. So I use that. But every once in a while I get stuck because the shapes are too dominant and too lyrical, so I will go and draw spontaneously on a surface, hoping that my subconscious will bring something out. It usually happens, especially if I’m concentrating on that. Then I go and start my drawing.

IG: Do you still feel that you’re drawn to too literal a form that’s going to interfere with your ability to get that sensation across?
FO: That’s a continual battle because my approach comes out of understanding and not out of assuming. I don’t assume that whatever I do is naturally going to give me what I want. I’m constantly going back to the source and then fighting against that literal process to get to the essence of something.

IG: Are your paintings ultimately a reflection of your perception of nature?
FO: No, I think nature is a reflection of me. In other words, I’m using nature in the reverse. When you look at the very earliest paintings, all the way back to the cave, it was a struggle to become naturalistic. That lasted right up until Picasso, or even Kandinsky. And then, all of a sudden, we thought we found something else, something more personal and more developed that allowed the intellect, the emotion, and the spirit to survive. It moved beyond the realm of imagery.

Frank O'Cain abstract painter
Frank O’Cain’s paintings develop from sketches and other exercises that provide him with a physical reality to work for and against.

IG: Didn’t impressionism do that?
FO: No, impressionism was really scientific. That’s the difference between what I’m doing and what impressionism was doing. They were telling us how the eye is penetrating, how nature is giving us all these colors to work with, saying, “Look, we see nature the same way Corot, or Whistler, or Sargent saw nature. But we see the cobalt violets or the purples in a shadow; we see the movement of light changing every three minutes; we see the development of the soft shapes.” They were fortunate because they worked during a period with a broader palette. And they had a tube, which allowed them to prove their theory. Now, they weren’t the first ones to talk like that. I read that it was Da Vinci, though he didn’t have the material in which to produce it; he could only state it.

IG: Is there a point at which you realize you’ve departed from nature? In your work, I’ve always noticed a condensed observation of nature, distilled to an essence. As long as that was palpable to the viewer, the painting was successful.
FO: Well, that part is true. But here’s a crucial distinction: the work is not an imitation of nature nor a depiction of it in its skeleton. There is a sense of energy, of palette, and, often, of life force. That’s what I try to penetrate and get out of it. There has to be some sense that this is coming from something. Abstraction has the advantage of allowing the viewer to go beyond a painting’s premise the more you look it. It sends you into introspection. Hopefully, the viewer becomes open to other feelings, other demands, other necessities, other unknowns.

Frank O'Cain abstract painter

IG: Is this ethos something young artists can continue, or does today’s information overload get in the way of the creative process?
FO: Well, it would if I gave it to them, but I don’t. They can’t start with this. They have to start where I start. They have to start with their own ideas, with their own philosophy, with their own necessities. What they’re connecting with as my students is the root cause of structure and the necessity of structure more than anything else. The more abstract-oriented ones stay away from my abstractions. They move into their own concept of planes and shapes, so they’re smart enough not to take this on too early.

IG: Your students are working within a structure that stays away from the literal. Can that language thrive in an era where everything is about specifics?
FO: I think that’s the reason it will survive. The human spirit is striving to protect itself; it always will. You see it over and over and over again. Not allowing people to evolve is one of the problems we’re having. We’re seeing this when we get students.

Frank O'Cain abstract painter

IG: How do you translate that into not letting people evolve?
FO: We’re downgrading the traditional idea of art, not allowing students to understand that we’re standing on somebody else, no matter how individual our voice is. Art is a continuum. It doesn’t stop at any one position, and it doesn’t grow in just one vein. It grows universally, and expands universally and sometimes it shrinks to its original purpose and then moves on again. There’s no linear thinking in art. Linear thinking doesn’t function well because even looking at your own body of work you see yourself going in a direction and then all of a sudden stopping, going in another direction, stopping, and going back to the first direction. It’s a constant exploration.

IG: But aren’t you describing what took place during the New York School era when people had time to really consider the possibilities of art without representational form. Now we’re operating in a world that does not allow much time for meditation. Your mindset is rooted in a period much more conducive to this.
FO: First, the whole premise has been that the New York School was not as much philosophical as it was political. It also was struggling for identity, so that was a whole different world. Those artists explored different techniques—painting with a broom, using your elbow, throwing paint. That kind of thing came out of that period. Also, their focus was the simplification of form and the development of the physical energy of something, and how that controlled our eye and brought us into the painting. That’s why painters like Alfred Leslie, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline still have a real, strong power over us.

Frank O'Cain abstract painter
Oil studies in various sizes point the way toward a final painting.

IG: But didn’t they push the envelope? There is a lineage there that brings perception up to the current.
FO: Abstraction’s been around for 40,000 years, really, since whenever you distort reality, you’re beginning to travel towards abstraction. De Kooning never truly made that break. His best gift to the next generation—and I consider myself part of that generation—came in 1982, when he started the Line paintings. Shortly after that, it’s obvious that he went into a decline. But those three or four first paintings, if you stop and look at them, you see the difference, and yet the sameness, of de Kooning. It’s a whole new de Kooning; it’s a whole new painting. He’s left Picasso and he is entering Matisse. There is a sensuousness replacing a kind of brutality. That just shows the genius of de Kooning. He was always frustrated by complete abstraction.

IG: You’ve been painting fifty years. Did it take all this time to get to a level that allows you to penetrate yet another layer of art?
FO: No. You’re never comfortable. I have more courage, but I’m not necessarily comfortable. You have moments where you’re comfortable, you feel them yourself. You go into a studio, pick up a brush, and all of a sudden you have a painting. You don’t know where that painting came from; it was just one of those moments. If you’re smart you sign it, you frame it, and you say, “Hallelujah.” That happens once every thirty years. Most of the time, you’re battling your way through to find that moment where you say, “Ah, now you can begin to see it.” If I get it right, you will feel the power or the pulse of that idea in the painting and it will register somewhere. Now, you may have a different language for it because you have a different history, but the basic idea will be the same: you’ll feel a quiet and an excitement at the same time.

Frank O'Cain abstract painter
Frank O’Cain, Study for Autumn Pond, undated. Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 in.

IG: How difficult is that to say, “You know what? I love it…”
FO: “…But it’s gotta go!” Sometimes it’s awful, but you have to have the courage to do that to be a painter. To truly be an artist of any quality, you have to constantly push your own box. The only thing every painter has to hang on to is the thing that holds it together. Everything else is up for grabs, and that’s the point. If it’s taking away or it’s becoming too dominant, it has to go. So you have to let it go. Often I’ll take something I’m doing and I’ll put it on a sketch pad and I put it away, because it may fit or solve a problem somewhere else. I’m not one who believes I can contemplate my navel and get up and paint; I’m just not that kind of painter. I have to have something physical to work from, and then take it as far as I can without losing the essence of the painting

IG: Do you ever say, “Look, I don’t want to lose this altogether, the sensation of what I’m looking at is so compelling; how can I keep it without being literal about it?”
FO: I’ve done that, but I never considered it great work. I thought it was pleasing, but it’s repetitive. As an artist I want to push myself as far as I can because, let’s face it, you only have so much time. You want to make that statement so that someone can stand on it and evolve. That’s what I’m hoping for. I’m pretty sure at some point people will deliver themselves from this and move on to something else.

Frank O'Cain abstract painter
Frank O’Cain, Study for Spring, undated. Oil on masonite, 36 x 15 in.

IG: Do you worry about whether people will be able to see what it is you are trying to?
FO: No, I think that it may happen, but I don’t think that kind of thing lasts. You have to be careful. For example, in the seventeenth century, they used flowers, gloves, and all that and pretty soon we didn’t know what the flower and glove symbolized. If we didn’t read the literature, we would have no idea that they were talking about the Madonna when they put the flower in a certain spot. You have to keep the universals very wide, not so specific that no one will be able to identify them.

IG: The symbolism could be read by someone who was well-versed, but the essential charm of the painting was in how it was accomplished. Are you able to push the limits of your own perception because you understand, heart and soul, about how a painting should be put together?
FO: Yes. That always has to dominate.

IG: Do you think that ability to read is disappearing now that the poetic is being supplanted by technology?
FO: I think that probably won’t disappear because it’s part of art. Sometimes you will have fewer people, sometimes you’ll have more. There will always be a camp that will lend itself to the physical realities of life and no more. The other camp will look for the mysteries of life and much more, and will not trust science completely. Those are the human realities.

IG: As we come to rely so heavily on empirical evidence to determine veracity, can art, which is about truth as the expression of perception, be trusted in the same way? Can people still look at abstract art and sense the inspiration that gave rise to its creation?
FO: It will always be there for some individuals. Things don’t really ever get replaced; it’s a constant growth and development and combination as we live in it. That’s how you advance the language, and the language will change as our knowledge changes. Some young snot-nose will come along and say, “Hell, I can do a better image than that.” And maybe they can and hallelujah, but the truth is, when he’s older, he’ll say, “I could do it because I saw it.” Look at it this way: if I come directly from the studio and pick up a paintbrush, I’m dead in the water. I have to assimilate art in my head. Sometimes I go to my books to look at great art. I go to my paper and that’s where I do the little slops—the drawings and the sketching—and once I have the initial idea, I have something to work for and against, so now I have a physical reality. I’m constantly looking for things that will help me describe; something I can play with when I get back; something that will stimulate me. It takes lots of paintings to develop something. For example, collecting rocks is very important because often I get my palette from them. I stack them up and do sketches, and it’s very symbolic because it represents what we’re going through at the League. It’s the force of physical strength, which has to survive very turbulent weather. That’s how I think of things now.

Frank O'Cain abstract painter
Frank O’Cain, Study from Cornwall Cliffs 2, undated. Oil on canvas, 40 x 40 in.

IG: What kind of student should we expect to be seeing five years from now?
FO: Five years from now you’re going to see painters that have ideas but need to learn execution. I see evidence of it now. I have these young kids in my watercolor class with incredible ideas who couldn’t draw their way out of a pencil. So I immediately hand them a brush. All of a sudden, they start to develop a place for things. They’re not over-designing them; they’re just doing colors, and their whole being changes. Now, if they stay around the League, if they’re truly interested in developing, they change. They go to Joseph Peller’s class, they go to Gregg Kreutz’s class, they go to Thomas Torak. They go to all these classes and see painting done with real seriousness and real technique, and they begin to stop and think. Then, the figures themselves begin to change; the emotion of the figures on the surface begins to change, and they begin to evolve. The essential physical reality of who we are is always going to be the same. As long as we’ve got arms and legs and a mind, we will eventually want to express that outside of a machine. The machine will not make us happy. This necessity for the physical response to things is valuable. That’s why I’m a big supporter of the idea of workshops and history lessons, because that reinforces, re-develops, and re-introduces people to the physical strength of history in art. Those that get to a point where they realize that technology isn’t enough are the ones who will keep the human race nurtured.

Frank O'Cain abstract painter
Frank O’Cain, Study from Cornwall Cliffs (Cliffs, Wind), undated. Oil on canvas, 60 x 48 in.

IG: You think art is going to do that?
FO: Well, yeah, art will make you want to physically go, rather than be safe. We have this dilemma: a guy can draw a skeleton on the computer and the computer will correct it. There’s no satisfaction in that. When you make a painting, it’s not just the painting you’re making, it’s your complete mental, physical, and spiritual involvement with that work. That’s why you’re frustrated when it doesn’t work, that’s why you’re happy when it comes anywhere near working, and that’s the reality of the physical rush in painting. It doesn’t matter what you paint, I tell my students. A lot of people are under the illusion I have an abstract class. I don’t. I’m teaching structure. I say, “If you want to abstract, abstract.” And if you watch, the classes swing back and forth. Vaclav Vytlacil was exactly the same way. When you’d go into Vyt’s class, almost everybody was painting figures. All of a sudden, they disappeared and the abstractions came in. And Vyt just shrugged his shoulders and said, “That is the nature of the time.”   

Frank O’Cain is an instructor of painting at the Art Students League. His website is Ira Goldberg is the executive director of the Art Students League of New York.

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