Under the Influence: Interview with Richard Roth

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Richard Roth, Fire Chief, 1988, acrylic on wood panel with fire extinguisher, 61 ½ x 69 ½ x 5 inches, courtsey of the artist and Reynolds Gallery, Richmond, VA.

Richard Roth was born in Brooklyn in 1946. He received his BFA from Cooper Union, and his MFA from Tyler. He is the former chair, and current faculty member of the Department of Painting and Printmaking at Virginia Commonwealth University. His work spans several decades and includes sculpture, painting, and ‘collecting.’ Roth’s current show Under the Influence at Reynolds Gallery in Richmond includes paintings from the 70s, 80s, and 2000s, and will run until February 23, 2013.

Nancy Friedemann-Sánchez’s Casta Paintings on view at Halsey Institute in Charleston through July16

I recently made a temporary move from Brooklyn to Richmond, where I have gotten to know Roth and gained insight into his ideas about art and teaching. We sat down and discussed his current show, the trajectory of his career, and his ever-evolving relationship to painting. 

Ridley Howard: It’s very interesting to see work in a gallery show that spans over such a long period of time, that deals with a similar language of painting…but in such different ways. Can you talk a bit about the work in the show, and what it is like re-approaching older paintings in the context of your current work?

Richard Roth: Of course, it’s a thrill to see the early work and the new paintings together. Bev Reynolds gave me a great opportunity to show the two bodies of work in adjacent galleries. For me, the most important thing about this exhibition involves my changing attitude toward painting. I painted for many years beginning around 1969, then in 1993 for more than ten years my practice became more conceptual—creating collections of contemporary material culture. I returned to painting in 2005 with a renewed and revitalized interest, fueled by conceptualism and informed by postmodern attitudes. Now, painting for me is like returning home. Consider this: you are married for twenty years then you get divorced, remarry another for ten years and divorce again, then you meet your first spouse, fall in love all over again and remarry—she is at once utterly familiar and an exotic stranger. That’s exactly how painting was for me in 2005—I knew so very much about painting, but felt like a complete novice—it was exhilarating! So, the show is a grand reunion with lots of similarities and differences.

RH: I love the sense of play, and the slight show of hand, which is unexpected at first glance. Can you talk a bit about how they happen?

Nancy Friedemann-Sánchez’s Casta Paintings on view at Halsey Institute in Charleston through July16

RR: The small 3D polychrome paintings are arrived at in a pretty traditional way; they evolve from the process of their making. I start painting on panels I use as prototypes—they are identical in size to the final paintings and they are quite roughly painted. I want to develop ideas as quickly as possible and the paintings change rapidly. I often use colored tape to change forms, whatever’s fast—things get messy and I usually just paint one side and the front, just enough for me to understand the painting. I follow ideas that mostly get painted over, but it’s a great day when I’m totally surprised by where the painting has taken me. I photograph every stage in the process and have quite a large archive of possibilities, things I don’t yet understand, and failures. When I find the painting, when it’s right, I repaint it carefully on a new panel. I don’t love this final part of the process—re-fabrication—but I believe it is necessary for the idea of the work to be read clearly and without any kind of nostalgic patina. The first step of the process is the party, the second step ­is what the paintings demand.

As to the “slight show of hand,” I see these paintings as humble in their very basic handmade-ness. They have to be clean, clear, and accurate as they need to be, but no more. I want them to be straightforward, not finish-fetish paintings. The pencil marks and slight deviations in the paint are like the squeaks made by the quick fingers of a musician playing acoustic guitar—simply natural bi-products.

Richard Roth, Under The Influence, 2012, acrylic on birch plywood panel, 12 x 8 x 4 inches, courtesy of the artist and Reynolds Gallery, Richmond, VA.

RH: Interesting to think about work from the 70’s and 80’s in relation to the discussion at the time. They seem to have a subversive jabbing humor that is different than the more self-contained spirit of the newer work, like the fire extinguisher in a Malevich-like wall arrangement. Not cynical at all. On one hand, they seem like a celebration of painting, but also maybe play with ideas of Painting’s death.

RR: Well, I can’t say I love painting above all. I love visual culture and so love painting as well. So many painters, and artists in general, love functional objects; as Robert Henri said, “They are so beautiful, so simple and plain and straight to their meaning. There is no ‘Art’ about them, they have not been made beautiful; they are beautiful.” We all learn from the straightforward beauty of the functional. In pieces like Fire Chief, I just riffed on those two worlds colliding. I don’t think the standard hierarchies of value are very useful today, and I think that attitude is evident in pieces like Fire Chief. Yes, perhaps you’re right—celebrating and mourning painting. I’ve always loved monochrome painting, but I’m not a believer of its doctrines, so this is my gently subversive monochrome. And when it ignites, the fire extinguisher may just save it.

RH: At one time, Minimalism was the highest of high brow…and now it is no big deal to correlate Judd, say, to Ikea shelving units…or retail store display. In some ways, it is a very accessible, middle-brow notion of style. That tension between the grand and the common, intellectual and accessible, seems very much a part of your work.

RR: Yes, I like that very much—the tension between the grand and the common—Judd and Ikea.

Though I love form and structure in painting, I don’t consider myself a modernist strictly concerned with the purity of form. I feel naturally aligned with more playful postmodern attitudes, enamored with product and package design, nature, architecture, masks, custom cars, and fashion.

RH: Funny, I do see you as a game-player, but the work also feels quite earnest and romantic, or hopeful. Do you think those impulses overlap?

RR: I think I gave up painting for collecting in 1993 because I expected too much of painting. Painting could never live up to what I needed it to be. At that time, I decided to steer far from painting, and instead study and learn from the world, the endlessly amazing world, through making collections. Anthropology teaches us that all activities and artifacts express a culture, not just the “highest.” Quotidian customs and rituals are as significant as exalted religious ceremonies. I love such things as custom cars, fashion, and the culinary arts, but in 1993 was embarrassed by the pretentiousness of my own culture—painting. It wasn’t until I could see painting as just another subculture, not as the culture, not as high culture, that I could re-enter it with full enthusiasm and without cynicism. Now I feel free to enter painting with all its complexity and contradictions. Doubt and certainty, playful engagement and tedium, breakthroughs and deadlock all coexist in the studio (as in life) and contribute to making simple gestures rich carriers. I can’t imagine a serious painter today who doesn’t have a love/hate relationship with painting. I believe, the poet James Dickey wrote, “love-hate is stronger than either love or hate.”

RH: In the earlier glass paintings, the visual intensity, fracturing of space, and optical buzz seems a bit more austere or maybe cooler in nature. I am very fond of both, but do you see the attitudes as being different?

RR: Yes, the attitude was different with the glass paintings, more modernist than postmodern—I feel like I’ve lived in both worlds. I remain interested in the optical but now the pop aspects and references are more integrated. (I remember when I first saw optical illusions, I thought, now this is what abstract paintings should look like! Sort of like John McLaughlins. Optical illusions are not about what they look like, they’re about what they reveal about how your brain works.)

Over the years I have vacillated between the force fields of Mondrian and Duchamp, closer to one sometimes, closer to the other sometimes. Now I want to be fearlessly retinal!

Richard Roth, Untitled (yellow corner), 1971, enamel paint, glass, 72 x 72 inches

RH: The newer paintings have such an internal and meandering logic. They invite you in and lead you around—shapes that overlap corners, surprising bands of color on under-sides, disrupted patterns. They almost function like impossible puzzles or unraveling games. Surprising in what appear to be singular objects.

RR: For me, the play of the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional is undoubtedly the horse that pulls the cart. My interest in the 3D polychrome universe (which includes pretty much everything!) offers me endless opportunities and delights. The paintings can be informed by such things as the form that results from slicing through a layer cake or a melon—red inside juxtaposed with a green skin outside; the rectangular hole in a concrete block; striped high-heel shoes with red soles. At this moment, that simple element—four-inch deep sides—played against the face of the painting, is simply pulling me along and pulling paintings out of me.

Richard Roth, Painter’s Block, 2012, acrylic on birch plywood panel, 12 x 8 x 4 inches, courtesy of the artist and Reynolds Gallery, Richmond, VA.

RH: So, do you think the limitations of the format—four inch box, paint, shape—are actually liberating? I’ve begun to feel that way about genre painting, and abstraction really. Maybe all painting. I always liked Hickey’s essay about basketball, where he points to the rules of the game as being necessary for creative freedom.

RR: I think making art should be a no-holds-barred activity, but, now for me, my self-imposed limits have released a flood of new and unfolding ideas. It has been a little over six years since I began my current body of work—the 3D paintings. When I first began making them, I was immediately excited but thought, “they are so small, so reductive, I will make five and run out of options.” What resulted was quite the opposite—every new painting suggested a dozen new avenues.

Yes, I like the Dave Hickey essay about the magic of basketball rules; this Stanley Fish quotation from How to Write a Sentence also says a lot about how I’ve come to understand my self-imposed boundaries:

“A famous sonnet by William Wordsworth begins, ‘Nuns fret not their convent’s narrow room, / and hermits are contented with their cells; / and students with their pensive citadels.’ Wordsworth’s point is that what nuns, hermits, and students do is facilitated rather than hindered by the confines of the formal structures they inhabit; because those structures constrain freedom (they remove, says Wordsworth, ‘the weight of too much liberty’), they enable movements in a defined space. . . . That is why Wordsworth reports himself happy ‘to be bound / Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground.’ It is a scanty plot because it is bounded, and because it is bounded, it can be the generator of boundless meanings.”

RH: I love work that doesn’t rely on common markers of expression or painterly personality, but is actually quite personal. “Personal” is an impossible thing to qualify, but do you see the work as a reflection of your personality? Maybe that’s an inevitability.

RR: To me, display of mind is the real “personal.” Today, as an indicator of the personal, the gestural mark seems to be an exhausted device. A Marcel Breuer chair, produced in a factory, is more personal than so many overwrought paintings. Intelligence, love, and a complete life’s sensibility are embodied in every Breuer chair’s form, materials, and proportions.

I agree that some of my paintings are humorous (and I love that) but if you asked me how a reductive abstract painting could be funny, I really couldn’t say. Maybe it has something to do with the unexpected. I imagine, personality seeps into work on its own, you know, when you’re not looking.

Richard Roth, On The Rocks, 2012, acrylic on birch plywood panel, 12 x 8 x 4 inches, courtesy of the artist and Reynolds Gallery, Richmond, VA.

RH: You’ve lived in New York, California, Ohio, and now Virginia for 15 years. I know you live and work in a small town outside of Richmond. Has location influenced the nature of your paintings?

RR: My formative years as an artist were in New York City and I think I’ve pretty much carried those early values wherever I ended up. On the other hand, living in rural Virginia has reintroduced the natural world in a very big way. Nature is simply the best. While it can never be outdone, it is an important new source for me.  Recently, I’ve been blown away by a book on Caterpillars

RH: Richmond is such a great food town—any recommendations?

RR: I am sure of this—we would not be able to attract important artists from around the world to come to Richmond to work with our students at VCU without Edo’s Squid, Mamma Zu, Kuba Kuba, and Buz & Ned’s. Then, of course, there is my divine panna cotta.

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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