© 2017 Joseph Keiffer. All Rights Reserved.

Interview

KINGSTON DAILY FREEMAN, APRIL 7, 2005 

Q:  Have you ever had a book published before?
 

A:  No, I haven’t. The only previous recognition I have had has been a lot of gallery exhibitions. I have been painting since I was 17. I went to the New York Studio School for four semesters in the mid-1970’s. They were teaching all Modernism all the time, and I came to realize that I was not interested in joining any of the stylistic mainstreams of twentieth-century painting. They struck me then, as they still do, as more style than content. I believe I learned a good deal more about the art and history of painting during the years I worked at Sotheby's than from the Studio School. You must remember that the Modernist revolution which took place in the first quarter of the twentieth century required the abandonment of previous technical knowledge, so by 1970 the “teachers” were effectively reduced to saying “Go out and do something we’ve never seen before”, and “That ‘works’”, or “That ‘doesn’t work’’’. So I learned more by looking at pre twentieth-century painting than from the teachers, who had already been deprived, or deprived themselves, of anything concrete to actually teach. Remember also, that recognition for visual artists is almost exclusively given to those who hew to the party line of modernism/abstraction – these are people who fit into the story the critics, historians, dealers, publicists and museum curators want to tell. Famous exceptions are Andrew Wyeth – more for being “dark” than for being a realist, and Lucien Freud, for being so very naked. Both are excellent painters, and fully deserve the acclaim they have received.

Q:  Were you always a realist?

A:  No. My first visual ideas were abstract. Now, they remind me of wallpaper, or fabric design. I had just spent a full year at the Studio School, where one drew from one or more figures all morning, and painted from figures all afternoon. The idea was to try to make a picture which abstracted from these motifs. The need to make a change became clear to me on a summer afternoon after the year’s course was over. I was painting outside on a terrace in Rhode Island, and I was painting a very free, colorful and entirely abstract picture, which in retrospect seems reminiscent of Hans Hofmann. I kept moving one shape around, and it looked good in many positions. Finally, I said, “Who would know or care where this shape or piece of color ends up? This seems very arbitrary, and if it is arbitrary, how can it have any more meaning than wallpaper?” That was when I realized that I was going to have to go over to the other side.

Q:  You have viewed and painted scenes that artists from the “Hudson River School” painted in the nineteenth century. Would you describe some of the thoughts and feelings you had in doing these paintings?

A:  The Hudson River artists went to the Catskills motivated by a religious awe of the works of God. I went to the Catskills motivated by awe of the works of the Hudson River painters. I had learned good things from copying older paintings, and I was hoping that by seeing their subjects I would learn what they knew, especially on the technical side. I had a great revelation one day when I was painting some rocks and trees, and I was constantly hampered by things which were not beautiful or graceful, but which were right in the middle of my study. It dawned on me that my deceased mentors were terrific editors: they were composing from nature, not simply recording it, though "natural" is how it appeared in the finished paintings. Thus, I shed my literalism.

Q:  According to your book, Sanford Gifford is one of your favorite painters. Why is that, and what have you learned from his work?

A: Gifford had the most delicious natural “touch” – the way he put the paint down – and the most poetry of any of his contemporaries. And he was a magnificent editor and composer. He tells you just what you need to know to tell his story and not more. This is not to belittle Church, who was truly a world-class talent, or Durand, whose feeling for nature in his studies from life has rarely been equaled. It’s a question of who I would be if I could be any of them, and I must admit that the answer changes from time to time. And much as I admire Gifford, I only wish I had his economy of means and fluency. On the other hand I attempt subjects he never saw in his short life.

Q:  You say that “Twilight”, a painting of your porch in the Kaaterskill Clove, is the most ambitious and complicated work you have done. Why?

A:  The drawing was complicated, but more difficult was the multiple light sources – natural, candle and electric – and their reflections. And the fact that the particular balance of those light sources as depicted, is only available for a short time – assuming good weather. This kind of subject, by the way, is not something any Hudson River man would have attempted; on the other hand, they had the wisdom to know what they knew and how to do it well.

Q:  What more would you like to share with readers and viewers of your paintings or your book, “Landscapes, Still Life and Interiors”?

A:  I wouldn’t want to be accused of promulgating any rules for artistic success, but I do suggest that would-be painters cannot find a better teacher than the world they see with their own eyes – not the world they see with their minds – or the world they see depicted by someone else’s eyes. This is not easily done, and I don’t claim to have succeeded in following this advice, but it is what I try to do.