On Painting and Rome: Interview with Jackie Saccoccio

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Installation view, Portraits, Eleven Rivington, NY, 2012.
Installation view, Jackie Saccoccio, Portraits, Eleven Rivington, NY, 2012.

Jackie Saccoccio was born in Providence, RI, and received her MFA from The Art Institute of Chicago in 1988. She is currently living and working at the American Academy in Rome, along with her husband and current Fellow Carl D’Alvia. She was a Rome Prize recipient in 2005 and was awarded a Guggenheim in 2000. She had a highly regarded 2012 show, Portraits, at Eleven Rivington, New York, and has forthcoming shows at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City later this spring, and the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Genova, Italy in 2014.

Kirsten Stolle's Only You Can Prevent A Forest on view at Halsey Institute through Dec 10, 2022

The following is our correspondence about her process, recent shifts, influences, and working in Rome.

Ridley Howard: As a viewer, it’s almost impossible to retrace your steps. For starters, how do you go about making your paintings? They can feel so disorienting, difficult to pin down visually.

Jackie Saccoccio: I use paint in varying degrees of liquidity and apply layer upon layer, with anywhere from 10-50+ passes. It’s an additive occupation. I mean, I cover things, but I rarely edit or wipe off. I want the canvas to record the entire passage of the painting experience, including whatever self-doubt and bravado that went into its making. I guess that’s my nod to Malcolm Morley. Using the trope of photo-realist gridding, he executed such tremendous temporal evocations, with each grid reflecting the gestural experience of the moment, so that the end product is as much a painting of a ship as it is a record of the daily shifts in expression/execution—a psychological form of cubism lain out in a grid form.

The disorientation may be initiated by my approaching the canvasses as sculptures. When making One to One (a site-specific 15’ painting at Eleven Rivington in 2010), I recognized a shift in my attitude towards the mark-making. I wasn’t developing passages toward a visually penetrable space, but building an object—a wall in that case. Despite using paint and linen, that adjustment in my intent altered the end result considerably. 

Rafael Soldi: A body in transit is now on view at the Frost Museum, Miami through December 4

In the Portraits series (beginning in 2011), the presence of the object, the canvas, continues to override pictorial space. Its amplified by the big central mass. And now in Rome with its abundance of sculpture, it’s being reinforced ten-fold. Odd, as I mean the sculpture has always been here, but my eyes weren’t open to it.

Installation view, Addison Museum of American Art,  Open Windows: Keltie Ferris, Jackie Saccoccio, Billy Sullivan, Alexi Worth, curated by Carroll Dunham, 2012.
Installation view, Addison Museum of American Art, Open Windows: Keltie Ferris, Jackie Saccoccio, Billy Sullivan, Alexi Worth, curated by Carroll Dunham, 2012.

RH: There appeared to be a shift in how you think about painting space in around 2009… and maybe a transformation of material and canvas. Like alchemy or magic. Do you see the space of your recent work as being more experiential, virtual, and illusionistic?

JS: Yea, you’re right. That’s when the interest in alchemy began. After the Interrupted Grid show, the marks became larger. I was more interested in what was happening within the space of the mark, than relating it to other marks, like zooming in. That led to more and more experimentation with traditional materials, which also coincided with moving my studio to the country. There I had room to set up the studio more like a laboratory, to push the alchemical. Sounds benign, but my studio in Harlem was a small box, so I was limited to one large painting at a time. I couldn’t let paintings percolate. I don’t know—besides the space issue, the patience required to make these works is not something I could find in when I was working in NYC.

RH: You called most of your recent paintings ‘Portraits.’ They do at times have central head-like shapes, but the reference to portraiture is more expansive, perhaps. Do you think about specific people, moods, psychologies? It wouldn’t surprise me if you were interested in the electricity of the brain or ideas of the self via string-theory.

JS: Hah— I don’t think reading Tuesday’s science section qualifies as knowledge about the brain, but it is interesting. As a starting point, I focus on portrait painting, mostly works from the 1500-1600’s. The original impetus was going through the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. The presence elicited by some of those portraits—Holbein, Correggio and Ghirlandaio in particular—just got under my skin. So initially, I make notes about their paintings and then try to translate them into an abstract language with color and liquidity. Once I get painting though, its improvisational. The portraits are like one mark zooming way in, and then through to another space, unrestricted and untethered. Maybe celestial or spiritual, definitely transcendent. By making them more material, they become more psychological.

Jackie Saccoccio, Portrait: Beast, 2013, 106 x 79 inches, courtesy the artist and Eleven Rivington, NY.
Jackie Saccoccio, Portrait: Beast, 2013, 106 x 79 inches, courtesy the artist and Eleven Rivington, NY.

RH: I love how unabashedly beautiful your work is, especially at a time when so much young abstraction deals in the language of the abject. It feels so joyous. The opulence delivers. I know you’ve used words like ‘rapture’ in recent titles. I’m curious about your thoughts on transcendence in painting, either visual or spiritual. It seems to go further than a play with painting traditions.

JS: Great questions, and interesting that you ask these together. I love these naughty issues of beauty, opulence and transcendence. Like the young painters that you mention, I went through great pains to eliminate traces of beauty in my painting, so as not to obfuscate the ‘serious’ nature of my work, or so I thought… The result was that I sent all the wrong messages, and the response was disheartening. Now, as I’m more accepting of this beauty thing seeping into the paintings, it’s not only not an issue, but viewers are more likely to bring up transcendence or ephemeral references, which has been my aim. The odd thing is, in those early years, I was making paintings with literal references to these. Now, in these portraits, with their mass and weight, they elicit ideas about impermanence.

In regards to seductive opulence in my painting, I am reminded of a point that Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt made at a lecture recently. He posited that the sheer beauty of the language in Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, may have been responsible for the poem’s clandestine survival throughout the centuries while it was publicly banned. It reappeared in 1417 on humanist Poggio Bracciolini’s bookshelf, going on to inspire many. One such mellifluous phrase from Lucretius (via Greenblatt) that continues to run through my mind: “Honey smeared on the lip of a cup to make bitter medicine go down.” I’d like to think that opulence could have such a noble purpose.

RH: It’s really interesting that your work engages Ab-Ex romanticism and post-mark ideas about material/drips as image and emblem. The two impulses melt into something else altogether. Vast swaths of color become shifting planes, drips like extensive and drawn circuits, a collaging of space that almost feels digital. David Reed and Frankenthaler both feel like antecedents…or Richter and Rothko…or Lichtenstein and Turner—you cross a lot of wires.

JS: I sway more towards Polke than Richter, but Lichtenstein and Turner…YES! Crossing wires does make for strange and delightful bedfellows. I think I’ve learned the most about Ab-Ex mark-making by studying Johns’ Green Target, and Hudson River School painting through Pollack and Charles Burchfield. It sounds generic when I list a lot of artists whose work influences, but it’s like mixing up some disparate—you never know what can happen—nothing or everything. Last month it was Laurie Simmons and Ghirlandaio. Next week, Courbet and Rosemarie Trockel?

Jackie Saccoccio, Portrait: Circus, 2013, 79 x 79 inches, courtesy the artist and Eleven Rivington, NY.
Jackie Saccoccio, Portrait: Circus, 2013, 79 x 79 inches, courtesy the artist and Eleven Rivington, NY.

RH: The issue of control seems important to your work—how to maintain and lose it. The paintings are ecstatic, but also orchestrated. It was perhaps more clearly present in early work from Interrupted Grid. I know you curated a traveling show called Collision. Can you talk about your interest in this idea? How do you navigate the construction of the paintings?

JS: Agreed. With works from Interrupted Grid, it was more about a hyper-mark, and examining the mark based on its relative placement. I assumed a lot more control. In the current paintings, I rely on alchemy to do a large amount of the organizing of information. I guide the drips and decide on colors, but once dry, which can take awhile, each congeals differently. The process continues long after I’ve walked away, and then I have to deal with that or not. Development like this is mostly a two steps forward, one step backward trajectory. Frustrating at times, but mostly exciting. Improvisation is no longer incidental, but imperative. 

Curating additive exhibitions like Blue Balls and Collision were eye-opening and, in retrospect, I realize they allowed me to break down my own working method. Inviting artists to works on-site, to consider the architecture as the first participant in the show, make or install as they pleased, gave permission to work atop or aside others’ works, to see each contribution as part of a whole.

RH: I know you’ve spent a lot of time in Rome throughout your life, and are there working now. I remember standing on the Gianicolo and marveling at the incomprehensibility of the city. It’s like an enormous, sublime god-brain. I wonder if Rome itself, being there, has influenced the nature of your work.

JS: Oh my god, yes! I assumed at the beginning of this year’s term that I understood all that was Rome, but I was so wrong. My fascination was initially architecture, and trying to decipher how architects, Borromini, in particular, could create objects that shift into space, like Tony Smith’s Moondog, as if the air is sucking them into a vortex landscape upward. I know that’s not as clear as it could be, but I bring it up as a counterpoint to how this city appears to me now; all these chunks of solidity, the walls, the sculpture, humanity as opposed to something very ethereal. The room of Roman busts in the Capitoline Museum sort of defines it all.

RH: We both share a love for Italian Painting. I see links to Mannerists like Pontormo or even Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. Are there artists you find yourself consistently looking at there? Anything you’ve discovered or were surprised by during this stay?

JS: Well, its not Italian, but I had Velasquez’s painting of Pope Innocence X as a screen saver for the longest time until Carl noted that Innocence was the spitting image of my father. That ruined it for me as a desktop image; but that painting, in the Doria Pamphilj Gallery, is the piece I’ve visited more than any other, even with the paternal weight. As for Italians, Annibale Caracci is a favorite. After years of taking in the buoyancy of light and clever plays of space along the ceiling and walls of Palazzo Farnese, I discovered its righteous narrative humor of this matrimonial commemoration, as in the pair of paintings depicting the fierce Polyphemus making a pass for Galatea on one side and going into a rage when he is refused on the other.

I don’t keep many books in my studio. The two there are Polke’s Three Lies of Painting and a Velasquez monograph. One serves as a reminder of not taking oneself too seriously and the other of how deep one can go into the alchemy of paint and its disconnect to imagery.  I forget which one serves which purpose, but both are astute reminders of a non-hermetic art making approach—synthesizing science, philosophy, history, social awareness and technology of the moment within painting.  Both are exemplary of artists leaving structure.  Velasquez painted light as it bounced over figures, a departure from his forbearers who relied on solidity and form.  Likewise, Polke took no twentieth century visual cues for granted and dissected all: pop iconography, historical painting, alchemy and advertising.  His end products were debouched evidence of the strength of intent, mangled and harsh.   His autobiographical musings from Early Influences, Later Consequences are enlightening, ironic, contradictory and poignant.   They belie the power of his images, seemingly incidental and flip, but oddly close to the heart.

When I return to the States, I’ll add Titian to those titans. He’s my new love this year. The Scuderie mounted a show that left me speechless. I’ve been bowled over by the Danae before, but the breadth of his ability to capture the most fleeting of psychological moments is staggering, especially given the opportunity to view works from early and late years. His techniques are extravagantly varied, from one period to the next, and convey such piercing evaluations of pathos all along and with such clarity.

Jackie Saccoccio's studio, Rome, courtesy the artist.
Studio view, Rome, courtesy the artist.

RH: Cy Twombly lived in Rome for years. I wouldn’t immediately think of him in relation to your work, but maybe there is a connection? A vastness of space, opulence of paint, enveloping scale…

JS: Twombly has been an enormous influence and inspiration. Seeing his red Bacchus paintings at Gagosian blew me away—definitely one of my top experiences with contemporary art. He is remembered for his connection to the ancient world and literature, but I value him for his contribution of channeling that with recent art history in a manner so eloquent and definitive. With very personal hand-painted marks he nods to gargantuan proportion (Rosenquist), repetition (Warhol, Johns), text without words (Wool), performative remnants (Yves Klein, Beuys), the sublime (Rothko), mark-making (Mitchell). In those red monsters, the movements become epic, wrist scrawl on steroids, initially dancing quietly and methodically on one side of the room, slowly culminating into an operatic frenzy by the last dense painting. Including the accumulated drip evidence of the canvas that was on the floor while painting (later stretched to include the floor portion) was the cherry on the top, forcing the viewer to think about the maker, perhaps wobbling on a ladder to get that statement out. Individually they were strong, but together, the entire room was electrified.

RH: In the age of art fairs and jpegs, the spaces where we experience paintings have become less of a consideration, or less controllable. I loved the way your work functioned in the gallery at Eleven Rivington last year. Is that something you think about from the outset? The workings of site-specificity are crucial to so much Italian art.

JS: Thank you, and yes, definitely. If it’s for a one-person show, I can make those considerations from the onset with the proportion of canvasses, quantity and order of paintings for the space. Otherwise I have pretty specific recommendations about installation.

RH: Most importantly, what’s your favorite place to get gelato?

JS: Favorite gelato? The list is long. My daughter has been relentless in her research throughout Italy.  Her top prize goes to Caffe’ Sicilia in Noto, Sicily.  For Rome, her fave is La Gelateria del Pigneto, a little artisanal hole in the wall with flavors like violet, rose and mango peach.  For chocolate – Venchi on via del Croce. 

Ridley Howard was born in Atlanta and is now based in Brooklyn, NY. He received a BFA from the University of Georgia, and an MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He has received awards from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the Joan Mitchell Foundation, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. He is represented in New York by Leo Koenig Inc.


Note: An abridged version of this interview appears in Huffington Post.


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