Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions.
by Stephanie Cassidy | February 16, 2021
At what age did you decide to become an artist?
Having painted as a child, with memories of making drawings at the age of one, I think I was an artist before I knew that I wanted to become one. But I did make a conscious decision when I was sixteen or seventeen in my senior year at the High School of Music and Art. Guided by traditional familial values, I thought I was headed for a career in engineering or architecture. I had been accepted to the first cut for Cooper Union’s engineering school and had taken architecture electives in my junior year in high school. The architecture class was so boring, I was determined to do something more creative. My request was to be transferred to a painting, sculpture, or printmaking class in that order. All the Music and Art superstars were in the painting class. Fate dropped me into the printmaking class. Though, by that time, I had already done a woodcut and linocuts.
The print studio at Music and Art was run by Miss Gertrude Pferdt. She was also the faculty advisor for the yearbook. Miss. Pferdt could have played a character from a Wagnerian opera, especially when she held a litho roller up vertically with one hand. She ran the shop asystematically in a way that could only be called controlled chaos. Everyone was working on something different. Some students etched, some did woodcuts, some seemed to just wander about aimlessly. One day Miss. Pferdt announced: “We are doing lithographs today,” and she had us grind litho stones on our desks with sand.
I worked in a somewhat self-directed way on woodcuts. While engrossed working on a woodcut one day, she took me by the hand (I have the feeling it might’ve been by the scruff of my neck) and dragged me into the painting studio, told me to make a drawing, announced that I was going to be on the yearbook committee and gave me a project to make two woodcuts for the yearbook. It took little convincing. I was already hooked making woodcuts! I printed 500 copies of each woodcut, and real art was inserted into the yearbook. I collaborated with a talented group of students, designed the cover, and met the art editor, Ann Schaumburger. It took a while, but we were married ten years ago.
I attended college across 135th Street at the City College of New York. It was convenient to drop in on Miss Pferdt and ask for advice; she was remarkably well-informed about the print world. I was frustrated with the system of academic requirements at CCNY because I could not take a printmaking class. She advised me to go to the New School and study with John Ross. When I visited her again six months later and was distressed because John’s class only met once a week, she advised me to go to the League and study with Harry Sternberg.
How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
By the time I arrived at Sternberg’s class, I had already done etching, woodcut, and even a lithograph. CCNY was free, and I had a NY State Regents Scholarship which paid me $500 a semester, I did not have to ask my parents for money to attend printmaking classes. But to test my father, I asked him to pay for my first month’s tuition at the League, which I think was about twenty dollars. He did not refuse. What I did not know then and learned some thirty years later over dinner with John Ross and Claire Romano was that, when my father learned that I had committed myself to being an artist, he had taken John and Claire to dinner and asked them if there was any future in art for me. These two artists were at the top of the art world, phenomenally successful as exhibiting artists, authors, and teachers. My father had to have been impressed with them and that probably minimized whatever concerns he had for me.
Who are your favorite artists?
This is tough because there are so many great ones. Goya, Rembrandt, Mary Cassatt, Manet, Hopper, Bellows, Will Barnet, and both of my painting instructors at the ASL, Joseph Hirsch and Edwin Dickinson. Utamaro, Harunobu, and Indian miniature painters are also favorites, to name a few.
Who are your favorite artists whose work is unlike your own?
Kandinsky, Braque, Stuart Davis, Mary Cassatt, Käthe Kollwitz.
Art books you cannot live without?
There are two: Édouard Manet by S. Lane Faison, from the Pocket Library of Great Art, and Les Caprices De Goya by Jean Adhémar. Manet is where I feel modern art begins, and Goya because his work encompasses so much we feel is still relevant in contemporary art: composition, flat space, concept, humanity. And both books are small enough to take anywhere!
What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
All the artists I’ve named have demonstrated a visual intelligence. For some it is more obvious than others, but all express their visual ideas in an intuitive or purposeful way of organizing space. For many, their work also reveals a restlessness wherein they are not content with early success and kept exploring new ways of expressing themselves.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
I have kept sketchbooks as well as logs in recent years. I now find it more fruitful to draw when I need to develop material.
What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
It is difficult to top the Met. Its collection is deep and diverse. But having covered the entire collection in one day on a couple of occasions to accommodate visitors, I limit my visits to only one or two exhibitions on any given day.
There are small museums like the Frick, as well as the Musée Jacquemart-André, Musée du Luxembourg, and the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris that are more enjoyable to view art simply because the scale is so much more human.
What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
Here again, I have to credit the Met for the Manet exhibition they put up in 1983. At that time I had not been to Paris. Seeing even some of the stellar Manets was very special. I must credit the Met also for the one-person exhibition they did for my former companion, Indian artist Y.G. Srimati.
If you were not an artist, what would you be?
I may have already answered that, but art history was fascinating enough for me to have seriously, though briefly, considered it as a career. I did not attend MFA programs in college, and art history was a major part of the MA program at CCNY and Hunter College. I took as many courses in non-Western art as possible and developed a worldview.
Did you have an artistic cohort that influenced your early creative development?
I have already mentioned Gertrude Pferdt. John Ross proved to be a role model for professionalism in the print world. He elevated my awareness to contemporary trends. At the Art Students League it was Harry Sternberg. He was challenging and stimulating. He also took an interest in my development. When I was in his class, I was also attending City College full-time. I thought college was a waste of time and expressed to him my wish to quit college and attend the League full-time. Harry convinced me not to leave college. Instead he proposed a fuller program at the League for me to study anatomy with Robert Hale and painting, which I did with Edwin Dickinson and Joseph Hirsch. Harry also advised me to get a graduate degree.
I ended up attending both college and the League full-time simultaneously. I would also say that every print studio I have worked in, but particularly at the League, has had a group of supportive students who shared information with each other freely.
What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
I would have liked to learn more about medium in oil painting. It took me about twenty years of looking at good paintings, reading, and trying things out to discover how to use medium in oil paint. Unfortunately, within about another ten years, I found that my sensitivity to turpentine forced me to change to water-based paint media.
What work of art have you looked at most and why?
Probably Édouard Manet, The Dead Christ with Angels. First to see it often, it would have to be in New York. Though, every time I am in Paris, I spend more time looking at Olympia and Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.
With the Christ, I am fascinated with Manet’s ability to compose an image that is strongly centered and turn it into a dynamic composition. There are classic triangles with tantric implications. The figure itself is a triangle; Christ’s head is darkened, which shifts the movement to the right over to an angel’s head. In total, the angel on the left creates tension with the larger triangle composed of Christ and the angel. Aside from that, there are parts of the hands and feet where the paint just looks plastered on; it’s neither slick nor fussy.
What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
Old movies and just looking at trees.
Do you listen to music in your studio?
Often. Classical, Indian, rock-and-roll, and folk.
What is the last gallery you visited?
Virtually, it was a Van Gogh lecture series at Yale University Art Gallery. In person, probably the Renaissance of Etching and the Félix Vallotton exhibition, both at the Met. The paintings were good, but the woodcuts were extraordinary.
Who is an under-rated artist people should be looking at?
How about Grant Wood? His American Gothic is pretty well-known, but his lithographs are easily passed over and are worth study. Roslyn Drexler’s work has eye-popping drama.
What art materials can you not live without?
Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
What is the longest time you went without creating art?
My partner’s health started to deteriorate in 2006. I became a caregiver. Those who have done this understand how difficult it is to take care of someone else. At that time, I had a great deal of support from a League colleague who lived nearby.
What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
I often go back to the basics of perceptual contour drawing. It’s important to take pressure off and relax. Just drawing helps. Bob Dylan, La Bohème, Nabucco, and Mozart all help.
What are the questions that drive your work?
I find myself drawn to the paradox of creating space on a two-dimensional surface. So, I find myself exploring this question.
Most of my images are sparked by vistas from my studio or home and also from iconic objects that are in my studio. One exception was a series of paintings that evolved from Thoreau’s writing. These works had a social context. After completing them, I started to think about how art could generate positive feelings in people.
What is the most important quality in an artist?
Just staying with it. Tenacity!
What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
Finding only one media that satisfies my interests.
What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
I am not a social media buff, but in the context of the COVID-19 epidemic, Zoom and the internet have enabled us to continue classes at the League and maintain some level of socialization. The internet has made museum exhibitions accessible, and we can research and learn about artists and their work. Michael Pellettieri interview
Michael Pellettieri ©