Aside from the artwork itself, the studio is the most important thing to an artist. My studio is in Chelsea in a former golf ball factory. The neighborhood was crummy back in 1998 when I was looking for a space. The building was just a big manufacturing building, one of many. I stopped by and they told me that there were some spaces. All of them on this floor consisted of one long rectangular room. I couldn’t take them because I would have nowhere to store the paintings. Only one, on the end, was an L-shape, with a sink and space for a painting rack. It also had a skylight.
I have a bank of south-facing windows at one end of the studio. For my generation, in the mid- to late sixties, when we were in our 20s, the attitude was no light. “Get the light out of here. Block the windows, literally.” All you wanted was electric light. The idea was you wanted the same light that you’re going to have in a gallery when you showed the work. Most spaces in New York don’t have a lot of light, so it is not a big issue. I had a second-floor studio on East 11th Street. It was bad light. So, I used warm incandescent bulbs inside. It is a tricky thing. You don’t want to show up when you are going to show the work and then deal with a totally different lighting situation, which can happen when you paint with natural light. The attitude was, “Don’t be fussy. We’re American. We’re how-to, straightforward. Give me the regular normal indoor light.”
I’ve moved away from that. It is a spectacular luxury to have light flooding in. In this studio, it happens that I can have too much light. That has been interesting for me to learn. A lot of times I have to pull the shades because it’s almost burning. I felt that often when I was standing right under the skylight painting. Eventually, I decided to have the painting leaning against the wall. I felt that I was painting with the light, like the light and I were collaborating.
I am immersed in my painting while in the studio, and I also think about the painting when it isn’t in front of me. I’m thinking, “What am I going to do? How could I get that better? I am going to work on that color. I’m going to try this. But it might not work.” I figure out, “Wow, I know what to put in there.” And then I try it and it doesn’t necessarily work. Then I stop. I don’t work on it past a certain point. That’s a very important thing, which I believe. You don’t want to overdo it on any given day. It’s better to underdo it than to overdo it. So you want to stop. You did as much as you could. That’s fine. Then you turn it to the wall. You think, OK, let me deal with this tomorrow. Timing and pacing is very much involved with the type of painting I do.
I am usually switching my attention between two canvases. What you don’t want is to overwork it on one painting because you have too much energy. So you have one painting, then you have a receptacle, another painting, which probably wouldn’t be as good. It’s fine because otherwise everything could become obsessive. You’re trying to set it up to alleviate your obsessions. From a long history of knowing yourself as a painter, you understand how to set things up to get the optimum quality from yourself that day. You have to be well-rested; you have to be in good shape. You have to know how to not overdo a painting. You have to know how to let it go. Let it go for a week. Let it go for a month. Come back to it.
I come to the studio around 9 or 10 a.m. I start working immediately and continue until 4 or 5 p.m. I take a few breaks. I don’t leave because it’s too hard. I have all that paint on me, so I have lunch here and I keep working. When I’m teaching, I can’t paint in the afternoon. So those are weird days. And I usually don’t work on Sunday. But all the other days I’m pretty much here.
When I’m blocked, I don’t usually stop painting. If I don’t know what to do, maybe I go to the museum or I just keep going. I have had some periods during which I didn’t do anything good, when nothing came out, and I just kind of went through having nothing come out for quite a while. Eventually something finally came out. Maybe I was in a new phase, or pushed to another place or something like that.
Painting is a political act. It now has a political element, which is, “I’m not giving in. Screw them.” What gets me up and to the studio every morning is that I’m very cheerful. I’m one of these people who just gets up and is in a good mood. I’ve always been like that. Not much deters me. It’s important to remember that, though certain businesses have been ruined by the Internet, like the music business or newspapers, they can’t ruin painting—at least so far. It’s a fascinating thing. You’ve got the one painting. They can’t digitize the painting. They could ruin painting by making it into performance or something like that. Painting is very old-fashioned and it’s still legitimate. And so is drawing. Look at drawing. They did it in the caves 40,000 years ago. They’re still drawing. It’s a human need. It’s fascinating. That’s interesting about the Art Students League also. People still want to draw. It’s a need, an innate human need—to want to draw, to want to paint—that so far nobody’s been able to really ruin. I don’t see in the immediate future that it could happen.
—As told to Stephanie Cassidy, who photographed Pat Lipsky and her studio on March 29, 2013.