Artist Snapshot: Stephen Lack

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

Stephen Lack Interview
Stephen Lack and his young family in a 1984 photo intended for Life Magazine that never ran. Photo: Joe McNally

At what age did you decide to become an artist?
I think I was about three years old. When I was six or seven, I threw a tantrum and did not draw for about half a year. When I started again, I felt I had lost my edge and felt that way for about twenty years until I forgot or just evolved back into the magic place I began.

How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
My parents were very hip and they told me. Not really, I am being glib. I was taking night courses in sculpture and summer courses in stone carving at Columbia, and they covered it while I was in my undergrad years. When I graduated McGill after studying psychology for three years, I had lined up an MFA program in Mexico. After all those uninterrupted years in school, I thought I was entitled to a year off, and I was going to do it in Mexico and get a master’s degree at the same time. My father said, gesturing to our upscale living room, “Son, if you choose that path you may never have all this.” Fact was, I was no fan of the middle-class life, and I said to him, “Dad, you and your generation went through the Depression and World War II so that my generation could have what your generation did not have. Well, there is a linear trajectory to that, and I am opting for a non-linear path, one of unpredictability.” He understood but the lawyer in him said, “Son, I’m not sure that your logic works, but I will support you.”

Who are your favorite artists?
My favorite artist is a blind black blues singer, Ray Charles. The music is him, and he takes the license to use whatever idiom he feels is right to tell the story and inform the song. The range of his zones runs from guttural and dirty blues to orchestrating violins and chorale groups to back him up, singing songs from Broadway shows to country and western and hillbilly to duets with many greats. I use him as a reminder that doing the unexpected and giving yourself the license to do and use anything and everything is who we are at our best.

Of course you want to know the visual artists I admire: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Warhol, Picasso, Dali, Klee, Gaugin, David Wojnarowicz, Velázquez, Chester Gould (Dick Tracy), Barry Smith, Jack Kirby, Van Gogh, André Derain, Soutine, Milton Avery, Hopper, Matisse, Michelangelo, Bosch, Bruegel, Bernini, Arp, Giaccometti, Pinin Farina, Raymond Loewy, Frank Lloyd Wright, Henry Darger, Odilon Redon, and many more, depending on my mood.

Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
Paul Klee, he’s just so good and cerebral as well as emotional. Forrest Bess, too!

Art book you cannot live without?
I love the Internet, especially Facebook pages like Stephen Ellcock.

What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
Sincerity and congruence.

Do you keep a sketchbook?
I keep about three sketchbooks going at all times.

Favorite museum in all the world?
The Met

What’s your go-to NYC museum?
The Met

What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
The most amazing show was the GM Exhibit at Expo67 in Montreal World’s Fair in 1967. There were shapes and free-form sculptures and bright colors of the most Pop surfaces, covering the power that propelled America. Also, an exhibit of Henry Darger as the Galerie St. Etienne in NYC years ago.

If you were not an artist, what would you be?

What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
How to use classical materials. I had to figure most of it out myself, and I am still trying to catch up.

What work of art have you looked at most and why?
Almost any Milton Avery or any Jean-Michel Basquiat.

What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
Watching bugs, slugs, spiders, and staring at trees.

Do you listen to music in your studio?
Yes, but I play the same records over and over so that I am not derailed mood-wise; then I program in a surprise and either work with it or take a break.

What is the last gallery you visited?
Kasmin Gallery. Already forgotten what I saw.

Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?
Lucy Mink Covello, painter; Jedd Garet, painter; Joseph Podlesnik, photographer.

What are the art materials you can’t live without?
All of them, oil paints, micron pens, pastels, acrylics…. all fun.

Do you paint every day?
I try to work every day, often doing three or four pen and ink drawings before getting out of bed or before going to sleep. I eat and then stagger into the studio and work and nap and make calls and do chores and then get back to work with the improvements I have been mulling as I did the other chores. Sometimes you deliberately keep away from the studio to build up a force or frenzy!

What is the longest time you went without creating art?
I think I went about six months without drawing when I was six years old.

What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
I look at books or go online and look for work I wish I did and then I get inspired!

What are the questions that drive your work?
Is it as good as it can be? Have I taken it far enough? Is it relevant to our humanity? Am I really letting the energy flow through me?

What is the most important quality in an artist?
Honesty, even if it is only for a second.

What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
Still trying to make a great painting and to surprise myself. Don’t get me wrong, I have already done it a few times, but it is like sex: you want to do it again.

What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
I use social media to take myself out of the studio and take the opportunity to share the work with everyone. I generate a sort of magazine where I reflect on the day through work that may encompass the concerns as well as be just a painting separate from political or social concerns.

Beginning this fall, Stephen Lack will be teaching “Drawing and Painting from a Variety of Sources” at the Art Students League.


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