Lewis Stein “Works from 1968–1979” at ESSEX STREET, New York
Lewis Stein and Alex Bacon in conversation
LS: I did lots of different things when I started making art as a student at UC Berkeley, but it all eventually crystallized in the work from the 1970s that I’m now showing at Essex Street. First I made boxes—I was influenced by Arman of course. I did a box of painted red peas, for example. That led to the hammers. Those came before the paintings, actually. I had the idea for the paintings in a two-dimensional drawing class. We did color exercises, which were helpful, and then we had to make a painting. I spent two of the worst weeks of my life wrestling with this problem.
AB: What was your solution?
LS: A small square canvas gessoed white, and tangent to the bottom a centered pink square. In my third quarter I got a studio in downtown Oakland. Daydreaming there I had the vision for the first series of paintings, like a gift from heaven [laughs]. But I didn’t put other things aside completely, especially not the object pieces. I always worked on paintings and objects simultaneously. I refined the paintings by developing a technique, randomizing the whole thing: numbers decided by the flip of a coin determined the placement of forms.
AB: Did you know about John Cage using chance to determine his musical compositions?
LS: Absolutely. I had read Silence. I was also aware of the Dadaists. Cage wasn’t the first person to use chance.
AB: You wanted to remove yourself as the author?
LS: Right, and accept whatever came up, because the paintings are more than just visual. A Kenneth Noland painting is visual, but these were something else.
AB: Would you call them conceptual?
LS: That’s a funny word. I’ve called myself a conceptual artist. But I don’t really like that terminology. It can mean a lot of things. But it’s better than calling me a painter.
AB: So you didn’t identify as a painter?
LS: Not at all. I was using painting to deconstruct painting. I wasn’t thinking of making fun of painting, but they’re funny paintings.
AB: Eventually you left school and moved back to New York?
LS: Yes. Brian O’Doherty came to Berkeley as a visiting critic and, through my professor, visited my studio. I told him I wanted to go to New York and he recommended I see the dealer Richard Bellamy. So in 1968 I did. I liked Bellamy. He never sold work or represented me, but he helped me a lot. He introduced me to Nick Wilder, David Whitney, and Rolf Ricke, who were my early dealers. Later that year I came cross-country with everything and put it in my parent’s garage. Then I went to Europe for two months. While I was there I unintentionally caught the tail end of May ’68 in Paris, which was exciting. I got back to New York in early August. Soon after I arrived I got a loft on Leonard Street. By the beginning of November money was running out. So I applied for a civil service job, working in the post office. I worked at the Church Street station. I had the 12AM to 8:30AM shift, with “lunch” from 4-4:30AM. It was perfect for me. School had gotten me used to working odd hours. It was during the Christmas rush and I was able to work at the post office at night and on my art all day and get a few hours sleep in-between somewhere.
AB: What were you doing at the post office?
LS: [laughs] Sorting the mail. But I didn’t work there long. Nick Wilder came to New York and saw Bellamy, who told him I was here. Wilder called me, and that’s why the post office was so good, because I could see him during the day and still work. He came and by then I had all ten of the first painting series completed. This was the end of 1968. Wilder called me after and offered me a show in Los Angeles for May of 1969. He offered me a stipend of $500 a month, and my rent was $125. $500 is maybe $2,000 now, so it was enough for me to eat and pay my rent and buy art materials. So I resigned from the post office the next day, just shy of having been there two weeks.
After that I got to work on the paintings for the show and I wanted to make them with no signs of handwork so I got a spray gun and compressor. I thought the first series in particular were important works, I wanted to preserve them by making five copies of each. Same size, same position of the forms on the canvas, everything. There were ten paintings in the series, and I made them each in an edition of five. Fifty paintings total. After I painted the new works I cut up the originals, since I didn’t want there to be any hierarchy.
My first show was that one at Wilder’s LA gallery in late spring 1969, and the next one was in New York with David Whitney that December. Andy Warhol came to the opening. It was a funny time of year, not too many other people came [laughs]. I also had a surrogate of myself there. I hired an actor and had him dress in black and lie on the floor in a way that was homologous to the way the forms lie on the bottom of the canvas.
AB: What did you want the viewer to get out of the paintings?
LS: This is going to sound really odd, but I think anxiety is probably the best response. If you get anxious with the paintings then you will get some insight into them. Marcia Tucker had an interesting reaction in the studio when she came to choose a piece for the 1969 Whitney Annual. I don’t remember the exact words she used, but something to the effect that the work seemed rational, but was in fact irrational [laughs].
AB: It’s interesting that you don’t reject your paintings. Many artists in this period started out as painters, earnest painters, before embarking on a conceptual or object-based practice and disowning the earlier paintings. But it seems for you that the paintings stand up to everything else you’ve made.
LS: Well the first thing that comes to mind, at the risk of sounding immodest, is that they’re great paintings, but they’re also anti-paintings. They’re great anti-paintings. They’re anti-paintings disguised as paintings.
AB: In a way, it’s a Trojan horse idea. To produce a beautiful, successful, seductive painting and then to have it be something else as well.
LS: Gerhard Richter’s work is like that, it produces a seductive surface, but it’s more complex than that.
AB: What artists were important to you?
LS: Duchamp influenced me, of course. Also Warhol and Ad Reinhardt. Reinhardt’s paintings are very different from mine, but the sensibility is similar I think. He was also an anti-painting painter [laughs]. I particularly relate to the paintings he made in the later years of his life. The square black paintings. One could say that these paintings are concerned with the subtle contrast of shades of black, but that would be totally missing the point. These works and the repetition of the making were a catalyst for a different kind of understanding and that cannot be adequately expressed in words. What is conveyed is a state of mind, or consciousness.
AB: Your second show with Rolf Ricke turned out to be the last of the paintings?
LS: Yes, well Ricke came to my studio next visit and I had completely stopped painting, and I was displaying the object pieces at that point and he had no idea what I was doing. He doesn’t remember. He says I was growing mushrooms [laughs]. Well I was growing beansprouts. But, you know, he did see the object pieces. I made a display of them for him in my studio.
AB: I’m so curious how he could miss them, because the object pieces seem simultaneously so intensely radical, but simple and direct at the same time.
LS: I think it’s the same thing that happened to Phillip Guston. People come to expect that if you’re an artist you do one thing, and you do it over and over again. That’s something I rebelled against from the very beginning. I knew I wasn’t going to go that route. It’s like marketing, it makes the work a recognizable brand.
AB: What about your contemporaries?
LS: Robert Morris would be the stand out. I saw a photograph of the Green Gallery show he did of the gray plywood pieces. I had an interest in the physical relationship to things, and I guess I understood that just from the photograph.
AB: Those works are almost like props. In a way they make me think of your object pieces.
LS: Those works of mine are concerned with how cultural objects and signs affect the body. Some pieces prohibit the body’s movement, while in others—like the buzzer, or the garbage can—a movement can be completed, but with no tangible result. These “work” for the viewer whether or not he or she presses the buzzer or opens the garbage can. They have a pull, they have a life, in a sense. Once the viewer sees the piece they are engaged with it. We see the world in terms of possibility, and the man-made world is constructed through human interaction, even the streets and sidewalks. But we take it for granted. This work is about not taking it for granted.
AB: What happens when we don’t take our environment for granted?
LS: We become much more conscious of our movement through space, and the things exerting force on us. I took a “primitive” art class at Berkeley and the take away was that the world was alive for those people. That is what I wanted for our modern world—to emphasize how we can make it alive for ourselves.
AB: How did you find the objects you used?
LS: I had to do research. Back then you’d use the yellow pages and the telephone. Everything would have its own trajectory. First was the vision, and then I tried to find the objects that would embody it, and eventually I did.
AB: Is the vision something like, an image of a stanchion pops into your head, and then you have to go look at stanchions and select the one that fits your vision best?
LS: At that point I only knew of one company that made stanchions and I don’t know how I found them. But I knew of directories for business supplies. Fortunately they were perfect, the ones that I found. There was more integrity in making good things at that point. The ones that replaced them were just about maximizing profit.
AB: Is the work supposed to be negative? Because one could read it as being about the toughness of New York in the 1970s. For example, one of the works is a billy club.
LS: The billy club was one of the first ones I did, in 1968. It was definitely related to the police violence of that moment, like in Chicago at the Democratic convention, where the police used billy clubs. However, I don’t see them as negative. There’s something common to each piece, but they each have their own aspect as well. Like the other object works, the billy club engages with the bodily, and potential use. It also has a political reference. But the viewer is not supposed to dwell on that.
Like the paintings, these works are also ultimately funny. In the installation at Essex Street the stanchions and railings render parts of the gallery off limits, you can ring the buzzer but nothing happens. The handles are something that would normally open a door, but here they mock you by not allowing you to do anything. They attract you but they don’t deliver, because you can only look at them. All together they establish a force field—you’re attracted and you’re repelled. All my works are interactive, but not obviously so. Mostly you’re limited. But, like the paintings in fact, if you stay with them, you can work through those initial disquieting feelings.