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CONVERSATIONS

The Pursuit of Happiness: Michael Venezia

Michael Venezia in conversation with Philipp Hindahl 

 

Michael Venezia has been at the center of twentieth century avant-garde, and yet he remains on its margins. At age eighty-three, the painter is still at work, as he has been for the past six decades. Speaking about his latest series of works, he explains why he has never abandoned painting like so many of his contemporaries and why painting is so obsessed with gesture.

 

“Nothing happened,” recalls Michael Venezia without disappointment, when he speaks about his time in London—where in 1965 the young painter, then in his early thirties, held a teaching position and had his first gallery. But, things were happening around Venezia. During that same period, the artist Gustav Metzger organized the Destruction in Art Symposium. Traditional notions of media dissolved, the arts became process-based. A term for the movement was quickly found: Fluxus.  Performance and video claimed their space in the galleries, as the social upheaval of the 1960s strove to make all that was solid melt into air. 

Painting, however, did not vanish; it just reacted to the challenges from other media and underwent rapid changes. Venezia came of age in New York, knew all the Abstract Expressionists. He was part of the nucleus of the movements that looked for the relevance of painting in post-war America. But, he later confesses to prefer the periphery.

It’s also not quite true that nothing happened for Venezia in later decades. He developed his stripe paintings in London, an idea he took from air-mail envelopes. He expanded on an idea of paintings as akin to tapestry borders— that a painting could be smaller than the surface it was on—a notion he took from Japanese scroll painting. Back in New York, he worked with spray cans on paper, prefiguring a process that would be popularized ten years later. 

Michael Venezia was born in New York in 1935 to a family of Italian immigrants. He now divides his time between the American East Coast and Italy. His most recent pieces are not on canvas, choosing instead to paint on palettes that could be readily bought in the arts supply stores in Umbria. “They are a metaphor for the point at which painting begins,” he explains while walking through a show of his most recent works at the Munich branch of the gallery, Häusler Contemporary. I add that the palette is also the thing that remains in the studio as soon as the work is done. “Perfect,” he says and shakes my hand as if to congratulate me. “That’s it.”

Some of Venezia’s palettes are covered in gold leaves, others in shiny silver. The pieces originate in Italy, in the vicinity of the frescoes by Giotto and Cimabue. In religious iconography, the golden background denotes a metaphysical space that lies beyond the material world. “I started as a Catholic,” says the painter. “Maybe you did, too. I am an atheist existentialist now; I believe more in Jean-Paul Sartre. I mean, Jesus Christ: I’m sure he was a good guy, but it’s not my path. The writer James Joyce said, ‘Once a Catholic, you can never leave.’ And to this day, I wonder where the lightning is going to strike.” Venezia is a quick talker and thinker who jumps from literary references to his background in Catholicism and from there to Ludwig van Beethoven and Béla Bartók. 

 

PHILIPP HINDAHL: When did it occur to you that you wanted to be a painter?

MICHAEL VENEZIA: I thought I knew what making art was; I thought it was graphic design, so I started by studying commercial art. In high school, I took art classes. I lived with my parents in Long Island, New York. Eventually, a friend and I went to the Museum of Modern Art. 

PH: What happened there?

MV: I saw Mondrian’s Victory Boogie Woogie (1944). And I thought, what the hell is this? This is not art. So, I apparently had some notion of what art is.

PH: Mondrian violated your idea of painting?

MV: He made more options available. 

PH: And then you became a painter.

 MV: I went to the Art Students League of New York, where Jackson Pollock had gone to school. I had a teacher who became a close friend, the only person I call my real teacher: Peter Busa. I lived at a time when New York was the center of the art world.

PH: Were you aware of it at the time?

MV: It was exciting. We found out where Franz Kline painted and yelled up, “Mr. Kline!”

“Meet me at the Cedar Tavern, boys,” he replied. But we couldn’t go. We were too young then. 

PH: How old were you?

MV: Maybe nineteen. Eventually, I met some of these people. 

PH: An intimidating experience?

MV: A lot of these guys were, not exactly violent, but physical people. They drank, they threw paint. I’m not really like that. But they were amazing, and they had a profound influence on painting. I was able to visit their studios. Painting was something you found. It was not something you already had a drawing for. It didn’t exist before. That’s a big thing for a young painter. And that’s where it began. Who would have thought that someday I would be in the same collections, this anonymous kid!

PH: How did you make a living then?

MV: I was able to become a mailman at the Museum of Modern Art. Dan Flavin was a guard; Robert Ryman, too. Sol LeWitt worked in the school. We became lifetime friends. 

PH: And they became some of the most influential American artists of the twentieth century. 

MV: They are all gone. Well, they are not all gone. I am still alive. Flavin was my closest friend, Sol and Carol LeWitt, me and Carol Venezia, we were like a family.

PH: Flavin and Judd eventually did other things than painting, but you…

MV: Judd said painting was dead! I always said, how well did you know it when it was alive?

PH: Why did you keep on painting?

MV: First of all, painting is a verb. It’s an action. How do you kill an action? You can’t. That’s why I stayed with it. Dan Flavin began as a Catholic priest, he then studied art history, and he left it. But he always loved painting. I think there were periods when painting has been sublime; Malevič, for me, is incredible. Seurat, Monet: They give me goosebumps. It’s like music. Is there music after Bèla Bartók’s last string quartets? Yes, of course. After Beethoven’s last quartet? Of course! If you stay with something long enough, it becomes an obsession.

PH: Is painting an obsession or a profession?

MV: Anything you do for more than one day is some sort of profession. Painting is part of human instinct. Its roots go back to this one guy in a bear suit with a piece of stone, scratching in a cave in Lascaux.

PH: Why are humans so fascinated by painting?

MV: Any move away from ourselves is a generous move, like giving beyond ourselves. My Jewish friends have this term, mitzvah, which means you give, and you get in return. Touch a surface with a brush, then you have already made outside contact.

PH: What about outside contact in your spray paintings?

MV: I’m not the only one who ever used spray. The same goes for anything, dripping paint or whatever. I chose the spray because I was interested in dealing with processes whereby you reduce the amount of gestural, painterly, brush-like procedures. 

 

In a hand-written letter from 1970, Venezia outlined the process of his spray paintings. The first page shows a sketch. A square represents the canvas, a spray can spits the paint. The instruction reads: “Spray metal powders into air before wall.” Venezia explains: “It’s about paint leaving the source, ok?”

 

PH: You did this in 1966. Things like using spray cans or geometric shapes—that were done by painters ten years later.

MV: Let it go. It’s always going to be like that. You know, Duchamp said sometimes forgotten artists are no longer forgotten. Carol, my wife, says I should never tell interviewers this, but I like being on the periphery. I don’t like being in the nucleus. Maybe it’s my personality, maybe it’s insecurity.

PH: Don’t you feel that you had the ideas just a little too early?

MV: It’s never too early. I don’t think that way. 

PH: And yet, you anticipated a lot of later developments. 

MV: I like contrast. The stripes are solid and clear, and then this ethereal, cloud-like surface. But, I really believe that all painting is historical.

PH: What do you mean by that?

MV: When you look at a painting, you look at who did something before. Because someone did something before.

PH: People in the art world look for stars, especially in painting. I’d like to hear your opinion.

 MV: Yes, they do, but stars come and go; they disappear in the heavens. I know some gallery people who use that word. I think it means young collectors are buying them.

PH: You talked about gesture, and I talked about superstars in painting. I have a feeling that the two have something to do with each other, because you always need someone who makes this gesture. 

MV: But who’s that someone? 

PH: The genius painter?

MV: That’s heroic painting. It’s interesting you mention that because for years I was not interested in Jackson Pollock, but I am now. Sometimes we come to things late. I think there is no competition; we all paint differently from one another. But, I have less interest in some and more in others. Pollock, for instance, remains with me. You might say it’s just drip painting, but it’s Pollock dripping.

PH: One more question about gesture…

MV: No, I don’t like that word!

PH: What do you use instead?

MV: [Laughs.] Gesture! I use it, but I don’t like it. The term implies someone wearing a cape, a collar, a cigarette holder. Maybe swerve is better. I only recently started using it.

 

For his series, Swerves, Venezia paints on oblong blocks of wood, and he combines several of them, sometimes three or four. “The less options, the more freedom. The thing is that I look for ways to engage myself with this narrow surface,” says Venezia. 

 

PH: The series that gave your current show its name, Swerves, is very much different from the grandiose gestures of Abstract Expressionism. They are relatively small, very economic…

MV: I know what you mean!

PH: There is also something ironic about it.

MV: I didn’t intend it, but I accept that. I am serious about what I do, but I don’t want a significance that is too heavy. I want them to survive as what they are. Hopefully joyful. In our constitution, you know the expression, ‘the pursuit of happiness?’ Unusual for a constitution. And you can’t even define it. It’s the best thing we Americans ever did.

 

at Häusler Contemporary, Munich
until 28 June 2019

 

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