Martin Mugar

AP When a painting gels, it seems like it is much more than just getting it
to "work." In a funny way it seems like it is put to rest on the one
hand and set it motion on the other. That point when everything comes
together and the fusion sets in and it jumps into a kind of hyperspace,
that whoosh, and the whole thing becomes so much more than the sum of
its parts that it is almost an understatement. At that point it is as though
the work is out of our hands, and in that funny way, ready to go, like a
child that grows up. I find that I like it when this maturation comes in
the natural process of painting; however I also enjoy the challenge of
finding that certain something which propels the work to that other level. The hardest ones are those that are so close and could be really great but the next
second crash and disappear forever. Does this happen to you? Those
paintings that come along and promise so much and never deliver? What
happens there? I get tight, I guess. Pitching a no hitter into the ninth
and then losing my focus and blowing it because the promise was too
great. I would have to say that most of my "best" paintings never made
it. What about those last few moments? How do you treat a painting at
that point? What sort of factors come into play? What does it depend on,hang on, how do we know?
MMWow!Where to begin.How a painting occurs and how it at its best can
correspond to some truth,not absolute,just an exhilarating correspondence
between it and some unknown part of yourself.I know the "dropping the ball"
sensation to keep with your sports metaphors or striking out as you put it
in the ninth.Someone said that the beauty of baseball is that .300 in
batting is damn good and as such corresponds to life.So the implication is
that you have a lot of failures for the few successes you have.I was
thinking that today in my studio that the last two days of new color,return
to brushes,lots juicy paint might not gel; I thought of the waste,but
recalled something from Robert Frost that waste is part of the
game.Something about butterflies destroying themselves as they gorge
themselves on milkweed nectar.All the little sperm that don't make it.
But I know also what you say about just feeling right about it doesn't mean
the painting works. Often I get sort of bogus recognitions in my work;for
example I'll see some contemporary philosophical principle at work."How
post modern of me""This is so intersubjective"I can rest assured that the
next day I'll wince at what I've done.The best work either is pushed over
the long term step by step piece by piece to a point where the whole goes
beyond the parts.(That is I sweat over the interrelationship of the
parts,back and forth,and may find by chance that the parts begin to resonate
unawares in a way that I may never have intended)(is this the hyperspace you
are talking about) or having just discovered some new realm I can knock off
a series of images within that mode for a few weeks..Until its novelty wears
off(obviously the new mental configuration is initially pleasurable)then
some new problem presents itself or the painting wants to be more.
I think that what I want most is the painting to be a presence that people
will keep coming back to.I said something to that effect in response to
Richard Tuttle's NYT interview.He said it was an American phenomena this
need to create an intense personal presence.Not to clobber the viewer but to
grab them maybe but give them so much complexity they can't let go.Bringing
complexity into our visual space.He said it should not be fast like signage
or ads.But I think at some level it should be fast and then slow.
I think most people are very clever,clever to a fault.They've got their back
covered, they never let down their guard.I think I am easily mesmerized by
the surface of things,the beauty of light,the candy in the store window.And
I get burned,taken advantage of,while you are dazzled by the candy,someone
is picking your pocket.Now in day to day life which is made up of
deals,negotiations over territory,what's yours and mine I suppose one had
best not be too naive.But in art I think it is an advantage to be
susceptible,to be open,to lose boundaries.This "promesse du bonheur" thing I
was talking about. It gets you into new territory like the promise of fertile
and rich frontier lands for the pioneer.
APWhat about clarity of purpose, intensity, conviction? For better or worse,
is obsession a must for the artist?
MMThose are the things you hear about as a student.At least I did at Yale.If
you say that you are an artist than you must act like one.You got to do
art,obviously to be an artist.I was that way especially in the beginning.It
was all or nothing.Every day every event had to confirm this self image.I
wasn't much fun and the girlfriend I had at that time bore the brunt of my
obsessive nature.Self narrowly defined constantly needing to have the
definition mirrored back.It is a trap.I was definitely an insufferable
type.I see things differently now.Focus, clarity in art is a mode I can
shift into.When I am there in the studio,I am totally there.I let go of it
all when I am out of the studio.There is so much else that makes you an
artist,like being an engaged human being,involved with others and influenced
by one's surroundings.Eric Bogosian has a new great monologue which includes
a bit on the narcissistic actor who seeks a reflection of his fame at every
moment of the day; for relaxation at night he watches himself on TV.You
aren't real unless you are getting that reflection. It is the danger of
teaching.A built in cast of fans.
Teachers are like football coaches.I heard the pep talks,from my parents
too.Self immolation is the only way to get that recognition.All or
nothing,your whole life has to be in it.But you know if there is nothing
else feeding you,then you dry up.You end up imposing a very narrow definition
of self that boxes you in.I like to be surprised to see how I can
spontaneously be redefined by my work. The "lived life" contradicts the
image you had grown accustomed to. It crops up in my paintings.
AP How did you get going as an artist?

MM As usual you ask some tough questions.My experience in the art world is that
people just don't talk about the life,the struggle etc.I think that a lot of
people I have worked with in academia over the years are happy to have a job
in the arts and their art is just a kind of passport to that world.If there
is a struggle it may be that there is a part of that world that is closed to
them.A gallery,NYC,critical acclaim etc.But the struggle with the work,the
split between what is and what you want never comes up.I don't hear that
very often.Except from you.I remember once helping to organize a symposium
at the Art Institute for a group of narrative painters.They showed their work
and then talked about it.The essence of what they said was a long whine
about rejection,not getting from the art world what they thought they
deserved.All of that is real ,no denying,but someone asked what about the
work,the joy the pain,the vision,the hope. Well your questions get to the
core of it all to that inner debate and struggle that keeps us moving and
I'm just an ordinary guy.I enjoy the different kinds of
weather,landscape.(Sounds like I'm putting together an ad for men seeking
woman)I get lost in my senses very easily.They are like clothing, a a garb
that we cloak ourselves in.They define us.Until something catastrophic
happens.The cloak is rent.This oscillation gets me going.

AP What do you credit for your love of art, and what lead you to
dedicate your life to it?

MM As for dedicating my life to it:The seeing just happens unless you shut you eyes.And all that seeing,the whole environment,other art,the people in it has to
be digested.I really often suffer from a sort of visual indigestion.It can only get processed through art.I remember having a clear sense of this at the end of High School>I had dedicated myself to academics quite successfully,beginning to master the world of words and their meaning when I became quite lethargic as though there were 18 years of images that had to get processed.At that point I was doomed to be an artist or else go crazy with this excess of visual stuff inside of me.And so it continues to this day.And a love of the language,like someone can love words. I like the underlying structure that keeps rising to the surface when I paint.

AP What do you think the kind of work you do has to offer the art community at large?
MM Thank god for other artists.Who else can truly the enjoy the games I play and the risks I take with the tradition. 
AP A lot of people think that twentieth century art will end up on the
trash heap, if it hasn't already. What contributions do you think will
last and why?
MM The severed Ear show I think established an interesting connection between pure abstraction a la Polk Smith and a more lyrical approach embodied in Joan Snyder for example. Abstraction was moving away from a scientific,reductive trope to becoming something like abstract letters that when combined into words can begin to open up the world of life and emotions.It moves out of a self reflexive mode into a life world of meaning.It is just beginning.I feel that I am part of it.
AP How does being an art educator affect you as an artist? What about
your recent experiences?(optional)
MM Just as my life as an artist is based on all sorts of assumptions,so was my teaching.Not everybody wants to buy into them.I tend to think that
as a person I am quite transparent: What I am should be clear to others.In fact So much is lost in translation. WE should all have spin doctors just to survive in academia.The most important thing in teaching is to remain at heart an artist,Everything should come out of that.That is what the students want to hear in any case.I think a lot of people to teach because they want to be needed.The student teacher feed back loop is insidious.

MM I was looking at Gorky's late work and thought of the importance of symbol and how he got this from the surrealists, Andre Breton... Miro. I thought how we as Americans, you influenced by Smith and me by Held, are more interested in paint and if there are symbols they aren't all that obvious and are not transcendent. What was this symbolism about where did it come from? Late 19th c was pretty materialistic with realists, impressionists; the first half of the 19th c was political: Delacroix, David, Courbet. I was thinking that I am interested in painting as language... nouns, verbs, objects, phrases, sentences, and if there is going to be any meaning it will be in the emotional application of the paint. But I can't conjure up any symbols. Forms with heavy meanings I can convey, yearning, desire, will ,all sorts of primary processes. But no strong ideational forms. I like where I'm at. But every once in a while it hits me what I am not.

APMy experience with symbols has been as abstract shapes that act in a certain way, but are free from the prejudice of "symbolism," at least in my own mind. The shape has been something like a lighthouse in the fog, something that calls me, something to go to, something which will help me when I find it. It is not something prescribed for me at all. If it was I couldn't bother. Once I get there I don't stay, it's on we go. Instead I find that this shape becomes a lens through which my inquiry takes place. The paint is the process.
Take the stripe/band paintings I am doing right now. They are not something I rationalize to keep them around. They kept coming up in the work, like someone you don't know but you keep bumping into: you're getting a message that there is a reason for this. One day I gave way to the stripes and there was a big yes in me. At last, I had listened. This was some place I needed to go, regardless of whether anyone else liked them. I've been learning a lot from these paintings, not just about myself, but other things as well. Something about the way things are, the way we want them to be, and what happens in between. If you go back twenty years in my work this business of the in between has been there.
Appropriated symbols for the sake of meaning are naturally meaningless. If I have appropriated a symbol it was either as a question or a gesture of irony. The cross for example. I wanted to see what it would mean for me. I found out it had meaning, although not the one people normally take. For me the cross became that thing in between again. In between crucifixion and standing up, arms outstretched, open and alive. For some reason I always see the cross as Christ alive on the cross, not dead. Dead it has no meaning. Alive it is the choice we make and accepting the consequences; living with them. The cross is very much alive and a part of the stripes. It is a personal affirmation: not martyrdom. Choices. He didn't cry about it; he knew it was part of his choice.
When I stop learning from these stripes I will move on. Something else will
call me, catch my eye. This is the balance between the "paint" and the "meaning." The poetry of abstraction.

July 1999

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