Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions
by Stephanie Cassidy | November 12, 2019
At what age did you decide to become an artist?
When I was a tiny girl I loved horses, pretending I was a horse and also drawing horses. When I first started kindergarten, my horse drawing skill was rewarded: I was honored with the position of glue monitor. I had heard of horses being killed and sent to the glue factory, so I was nervous about a possible connection. I thought of myself as an artist in some way from that early time.
How did your parents react when you told them you anted to become an artist?
My mother was enthusiastic. She was a classical pianist with the highest level of training but a truncated career. She liked the idea of me being an artist even if she didn’t have a clear sense of what that might really mean, and I guess my father didn’t think much about his little girl’s future in terms of career in any case. From my earliest days I heard my mother practicing the classical repertoire without explanations, so I assumed she was making up the music as she went along — creating the great piano works of Chopin, Beethoven, Schumann. Why did she make the song go in that way. Why did the nice calm part become the loud stormy part? When I was a teen, my mother wanted me to go to Bennington College because that was where Helen Frankenthaler, a famous woman artist, had gone. So I went to Bennington early, after my junior year at the High School of Music and Art (now known as LaGuardia High School), thinking of myself as a professional from the start, knowing next to nothing. Bennington College, a key site of American modernism in the 1970s, was very good for me.
Who are your favorite artists?
There are the artists I’ve always loved and then I’m excited about work by a number of artists involved with contemporary abstract painting, who share my sense of on-going possibility in abstract painting. Since going to college, I’ve loved Barnett Newman, Ken Noland, Larry Poons, Arshille Gorky, Milton Avery, Matisse, Cézanne, Corot, Rembrandt, Titian, Pontormo, Masaccio. Over the last maybe two decades, I’ve come to love fellow abstract artists such as Thomas Nozkowski, Alma Thomas, Harriet Korman, and others who have forged a personal response to the history of abstraction, rigorously exploring and innovating the relations between color, light, and drawing in their work.
Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
German abstract painter “Blinky Palermo.” He dealt with the issues similar to those I paint about but from a different tradition and with different, anti-Romantic/Minimalist attitude.
Art book you cannot live without?
Matisse by Pierre Schneider. I used to read it but now dip into it to try and mentally re-enter a great period of modernism.
What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
It’s a balance of qualities: of openness to experimentation in concert with connection to past art, the visual world and the inner life.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
At certain times I have done so, and I often return to drawing from observation, but my current working process involves color studies. In my study process, the “image” of the painting develops out of the color work, not color after drawing. I do many collages with color materials.
What is your favorite museum in all the world?
I’ve been to the Prado once and the National Gallery in London a couple of times: those two are tied as favorites. The Velásquez and Goya paintings in the Prado and the Titians and Masaccio in the National Gallery are works that one can aspire to for one’s whole painting life.
What’s your go-to NY museum?
The Metropolitan Museum. As a young person I loved the Frick—if it had Cézanne and Matisse, it would be still be my favorite.
What’s the best exhibition you’ve ever attended?
Perhaps the 1977 exhibition at MoMA of Cézanne’s late works.
If you were not an artist what would you be?
An inventor—though I know it’s also a tough way to earn a living. I’ve invented a couple of things: a houseware item and a board game.
What do you feel you didn’t learn in art school that you wished you had?
I didn’t learn much about the reality of being an artist, but I don’t think it would have been better had I learned in art school about galleries, grants, and self-promotion: for one thing, it has all changed so much since then. Still, I wish I had somehow left school with a better sense of the kinds of challenges and choices ahead.
What work have you looked at most and why?
I love the big Barnett Newman painting at MoMA, Vir Heroicus Sublimus, and have looked at it a great deal — it creates strong relationships through color energies on an expansive flat surface. And I have looked a great deal at Rembrandt’s Polish Rider at the Frick, with it’s mysterious pictorial depth and complexity. Maybe I aspire to get something of both worlds in my work.
What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
I never tire of looking at trees—their forms, their branching, their being in the earth, the uniqueness of each.
Do you listen to music?
I listen for part of the day to classical music, usually chamber music, but take care not to allow my mind to marinade in music while working. I’m fussy about the particular recordings and prefer interpreters who are more analytic than romantic.
What is the last gallery you visited?
I saw the Dan Christensen exhibition at Berry Campbell, the gallery in Chelsea, who represents my work. A few of the paintings knocked me over and taught me more about Color Field painting, a kind of painting that I thought I knew inside out.
Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?
There are very fine contemporary abstract artists who are not so well-known right now. Three whose work I hold in high regard: Kim Uchiyama, Josef Zutelgte, and Eozen Agopian.
What are the art materials you can’t live without?
Acrylic pouring medium and well-made custom art panels.
Do you paint every day?
I paint five days a week; now that I’m teaching, two of these are shorter days. I love the consistency and need the expanses of time as my process is very slow. For much of my life I didn’t have this consistent studio time and I treasure it.
What is the longest time you went without creating art?
In my early thirties I had a business doing decorative painting to support my art and of course to support myself, but the business was very time-consuming, and it took me away from my own work for most of a year.
What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
There are many other important things in life: the people I care about, learning in so many areas, staying aware in the world. I’m happy to focus on other things, knowing that the studio is there, and I’ll get back to it. Studio inspiration comes when there’s balance of outside and time inside to continually develop ideas.
What are the questions that drive your work?
Does the work transmit the qualities, the kind of experiences and the intuitions I’m after? Is the painting transmitting the amazing relations of color and light, matter and formation, that painting is able to bring to our eyes and intuition? But the question is a wordless one and revolves around the history of painting: does the work push along that potential that abstract painting has made many of us feel over its one-hundred-plus-year history?
What is the most important quality in an artist?
An ability to balance inventiveness, visual, and emotional connectedness in picture making/painting.
What is something that you haven’t yet achieved?
I’d like to do a public commission at some point.
What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
I often see abstract paintings online (the art that most interests me) that are approaches I half-imagined, and there they are—someone else did the painting—in another country! And often people far away find and appreciate my work, people who would never have seen it otherwise.
JILL NATHANSON teaches “Abstract Painting: Future, Past, Personal” at the Art Students League