Artist Snapshot: Mario Naves

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

Mario Naves interview
Mario Naves in his studio

At what age did you decide to become an artist?
I can’t say that I ever decided to become an artist. I drifted into it, signing up to be an art major upon attending college—largely because I could draw a little bit and didn’t know what else to do. At some point—sophomore year, maybe?—the art bug stuck.

How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
My mother and father weren’t thrilled. Over time, they resigned themselves to my being an artist. 

Who are your favorite artists?
Edgar Degas, hands down. There are no lulls in his oeuvre, not a single dud. Max Beckmann is a giant, and Romare Bearden comes close. Early Netherlandish painters like Gerard David and Hans Memling are mainstays. I’m also drawn to outliers in the history of art, oddballs who don’t quite make the cut: Evaristo Baschenis, Pietro Longhi, Jean Helion, Gertrude Greene, Shirley Jaffe, and Edwin Dickinson.

Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
Joseph Cornell. Most found object art leaves me cold. Cornell is the rare (the only?) talent to invest the ephemera of culture with gravitas, ambiguity and resonance.

Art book you cannot live without?
Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists by Margot and Rudolf Wittkower: an immensely readable precis on the disparities between intent and outcome, personal travails and public triumphs. Other essential books include Hilton Kramer’s The Revenge of the Philistines, Nothing if Not Critical by Robert Hughes and Georges Braque & Others: The Selected Art Writings of Trevor Winkfield, 1990–2009

What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
Attention to form, and an engagement with both tradition and the broader culture.

Do you keep a sketchbook?
No; never have. My paintings are the result of improvisation. Preconception is anathema to the way I work. It makes more sense that I should draw after a painting is completed—that way I might be able to retrace the hills-and-valleys of process.

What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
I came to New York City for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and continue to take pleasure in its staggering collection. The Hispanic Society? A great resource. The Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens, Greece, is a recent and happy find, and let me mention Venice’s the Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, the most beautiful place in the world.

What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
That’s a toss-up between Zurburán, a 1987 retrospective at the Met, and Degas and The Nude at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, mounted in 2012. The recent Berthe Morisot retrospective at The Barnes Collection was an eye-opener.

If you were not an artist, what would you be?
A writer, I suppose, but I already write. No clue, really.

How did your early artistic cohort influence your development?
A community of like-minds engenders a sense of positivity, that what you’re doing has weight and meaning. And that’s pretty much how it worked out.

What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
The standard answer is how to survive in a field that is notoriously fickle. No amount of prep beats hands-on experience. 

What work of art have you looked at most and why?
As much as I’ve looked at Portrait of Juan de Pareja by Velázquez, The Lamentation by Petrus Christus or Hokusai’s Five Beauties, I likely haven’t spent as much time with them as I have with the work of my students. I get paid to do so, of course, and what I learn from them is considerable.

What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
Do vintage comic strips count as being “outside of art”? I am the proud owner of a 1923 Mutt and Jeff by Bud Fisher, as well as a sterling Pogo daily by the inestimable Walt Kelly. Original pieces by Chester Gould (Dick Tracy) and E.C. Segar (Popeye) are on my wish list. I likely couldn’t afford them, but a man can dream, can’t he?

Do you listen to music in your studio?
Yes, yes, and yes. I came of age during the advent of punk rock and its various offshoots, and the music continues to influence my tastes. Fast, abrasive and catchy do the trick. I have a particular weakness for The Fall.

What is the last gallery you visited?
I recently returned from Paris and spent time–but of course!–at The Louvre. It was a workout. The most memorable items on the agenda were Vermeer’s The Astronomer (1668) and the Nike of Samothrace (c. 200–190 B.C.). The line for Mona Lisa was too long. I settled for Veronese’s The Wedding Feast of Cana (1562–63) and Pastoral Concert (c. 1509) by Titian. Not a bad trade-off.

Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?
There are a ton of underrated artists who deserve greater attention. Where do I begin? Among historical figures I would say Giovanni Battista Moroni, Giuseppe De Nittis, Anne Ryan, Richard Lindner, and George McNeil. Contemporary artists whose work I enjoy include Sydney Licht, Laura Dodson, Karl Hartman, David Hornung, and Matthew Blackwell.

What art materials can you not live without?
An Ampersand panel, Old Holland acrylics, a #12 flat brush, my CD collection, and a sturdy chair.

Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
My teaching schedule won’t allow for it. Two or three days in the studio each week is the norm.

What is the longest time you went without creating art?
Three years. After my son was born, life (to put it mildly) changed–for the better, I should add. If there’s one thing parenthood taught me it is that there are more important things in the world than art. Talk about a liberating notion!

What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
Anyone who claims to be uninspired is lazy. Inspiration is engendered by work. Get to work. Simple.

What are the questions that drive your work?
What is there out in the world that I have yet to discover? Working in the studio keeps my curiosity fresh and my mind engaged. There are too many challenges to be met and too many pleasures to be experienced.

What is the most important quality in an artist?
Tenacity. Without tenacity an artist is sunk.

What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
My next painting, I suppose.

What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
I’ve steered clear of social media and can’t really comment on it.

MARIO NAVES is part of the Art Students League’s new program “Visiting Artists and New Abstraction,” a series of visits by prominent abstract painters who will speak about their own work, give students an approach for in-class work, and offer critiques of student work. Naves’ upcoming solo show, Losing the Cow, will open at the Elizabeth Harris Gallery (NYC) on April 4.


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