Interview with Diane Thodos
January 8, 2009
Neoteric Art: You say your current prints and paintings promise to be an intense emotional experience that reflects the turbulence of our times. Elaborate on that statement and also discuss your series “War and Storm.”
Diane Thodos: “War and Storm” was the perfect title to give this series because of the instability in our present world. America has been in a disastrous state for the last eight years. My work dramatically transformed following the traumatic events of 9/11 and the instability resulting from the propagandistic appropriation of that tragedy by the Bush administration for its empire and war driven purposes. There were Expressionist tendencies in my work beforehand, but the current destructive tenor of events awakened an explosive undercurrent in my work. An emotional groundswell gains momentum, impelling my work forward of its own volition. Forms move from fractious abstraction to figures and faces, and then back again into a kind of abstract reconfiguration. Immediacy of feeling is released into the work. Perhaps I felt this contemporary turmoil so keenly because my mother had lived through the Second World War followed by the Greek Civil War. War brings violence with chaos in its wake, where there is no rule of law and anything can happen. It is like the indiscriminate force of a hurricane that destroys anything in its path.
NA: What’s the difference for you in the working/thought process between making a print and making a painting?
DT: The two mediums were always in a dialectical tandem for me. We are living through a time when the mainstream artist is expected to produce art that operates by the rules of marketing, producing a “brand” name that cannot be tampered with. This is a profoundly stifling system. I have chosen the opposite route by giving my work an organic basis to develop a self-determining course. I do not believe in “anything goes.” I study drawing the classical human figure on a weekly basis and my work develops from the tension between the human body and my interest in Modernist abstraction/expressionism: if you will, the aesthetic basis of Modernism. Both my paintings and prints use some degree of automatic line drawing and mark making: a bequest that comes from the Surrealist movement through my study with Stanley William Hayter in 1984. The most important development in my print work came from studying the art of a German Expressionist group known as the Brucke who produced their most important works between 1906 and 1924. The drawing basis of my etching impels the linear dynamism in my painting forward, whereas the color relationships and size of my paintings encourage my prints to engage color and larger scale. My woodblocks have certainly influenced both my etchings and paintings because of the medium’s capacity for bold, graphic simplicity. A single image carries a life of its own originating in one medium and transferring a new energy to the next, generating a self-sustaining momentum over time. I have come to see my themes have a life of their own not unlike the way actors in a play interact to develop and deepen their character. From the buildup of these automatic lines and marks subconscious images emerge on their own terms, sometimes in fairly complex ways.
NA: You are also an art writer/critic and studied with Donald Kuspit (1987-1992). Give us some insight on why you wanted to become an art writer/critic, your experience with Donald Kuspit, etc.
DT: In pre-postmodern times when creative ability did dialectically find it’s social moment, the talent of the artist still remained only part of the reason that art movements ever gained social or cultural importance. In order for such movements to occur they also needed individualistic (even courageous) dealers, patrons, critics and writers, who were capable of putting some distance between themselves and the presiding cultural orthodoxy. When I studied with Donald Kuspit at the School of Visual Art in New York from 1987 – 92 I found him to be the most capable voice in the New York art scene because his writing embodied a deeper interpretive layer of analysis about what was going on compared to other critics. Kuspit was, and remains, exceptionally articulate in being able to strip away the false fronts of appearances in art in order to expose the deeper troubling nature inherent in the claims which art makes and what that means within the larger social/cultural context. Kuspit was a former student of Theodore Adorno from the Frankfurt School of Social Research, and through him inherited an important interpretive as well as philosophical acumen and perspective that is both rare and valuable to the current art environment, particularly regarding the marketing and commodification of art. Many of his best essays are in books of collected writings and are also regularly published on artnet.com. By contrast I have come to feel that a great deal of published mainstream art criticism (and art) is appropriated by the commercial demands of this commodity-based art market. I find this very narrow focus is similar to the way there has been a great reduction in the variety of journalistic news coverage in the popular press and on TV resulting from mass media consolidation over the last three decades. As we have seen this inevitably leads to a familiar kind of propaganda and groupthink. Kuspit has remained an individual voice that inspired me to become a critic and writer in an attempt to, in some marginal way, try to keep the social import of subjectively experienced and engaged art alive in these artistically and culturally depersonalized times.
NA: You recently got together with Donald Kuspit in NY. How did that work out?
DT: We had a very engaged discussion about the current state of affairs in the New York art world. We discussed what is happening in Chelsea, the district where the NY galleries moved when they left Soho in the 90’s. Aside from a handful of exhibits I found the district had a predominately cold, regulated, corporate feel to it. I noticed a strong sense of “formatting” in the art: a glorified “graphic design.” It did not resemble, for all it’s pros and cons, the more dynamic varieties of art and individual dealer’s tastes on display in the Soho galleries throughout the 80’s. Kuspit agreed to have a future interview with me for Neoteric Art that will go into depth on his views about the current state of culture and the art world. Time permitting, I am also interested in writing a blog page for your webzine. I would give interpretation on current events, artists, and exhibits (Art Expo for example) as I experience them or as they happen.
NA: Does being an art writer/critic change the way you see your own work?
DT: It certainly has helped me to see the patterns that occur and recur within the mainstream and to inquire into what is driving them. My skepticism caused me cleave more closely to my instincts and to attempt to hold the commercial art apparatus at more of a distance. By working for galleries and looking at great deal of art when I was in New York between 1987 – 92, I also became aware of artists whose work did not fit easily into the commercial pattern of art production. Often they were Expressionists though not exclusively. Sometimes finding strong individuals who had survived the postmodern onslaught surprised and enriched the themes of my own work. This carried over as I looked at more and more art in Chicago. There is a special tradition here: Imagism with Surrealist roots, figuration and personal narrative. I have found surprisingly fewer artists like this today than I did ten years ago. As a critic and writer I have tried to develop an active intuition that was capable of ferreting out the art that had some deeper point, while discarding the art that remained superficially codified, that is, following a repetitious pattern with other work that was being shown. Often this art constructed the “look” of other work, hopped on the trend wagon, without having much of any subjective motivations behind it: it’s raison d’etre. During the last historical period of art, the Modernist period, artists used to form into praxes which would give them context, engagement, support, and competition: a way to subjectively develop outside of academia and the cultural mainstream and emotionally survive the dehumanization inherent in modern life. These artist groups or praxes do not exist anymore. The best I can hope for is to be the kind of critic and writer that finds the few surviving islands of activity through which such possibilities once existed.
NA: What is your take on the art world right now?
DT: The artists of tomorrow are being formed in the art schools of today, and to understand today we need to understand how we got here. Over the years I have observed a gradual moratorium put on importance of skill and subjective content within art, whether expressionist or traditional. This had been happening since the 60’s in conjunction with the growth of minimal and conceptual art. In general these movements that had the effect of slowly repressing and freeze-drying emotion. I have noticed that Expressionism in particular, that most subjective of art movements, has been deliberately excluded from the art world since the early 90’s. The last artists to reflect this were the German and Italian Neo-Expressionists and Susan Rothenberg in the US during the 1980’s. Certainly not all Expressionism from the 1980’s lives up to the greatest tension which art is capable of, but the overview was at least a lot richer than it is now. This rigorous trend of banishing emotion from art persisted from the 90’s into the present. Ever more stringent and narrow models of influence, based predominately on Warhol and Duchamp, have been overwhelmingly emphasized in university art programs. This has extinguished the inherently intuitive and visual nature of art and replaced it with postmodern-based theory, fashion, design, entertainment, and kitsch culture. Like the political Neo Conservative labeling of “liberal” as a bad word, so has all sense of intuitive gesture or feeling, or even traditional skill in art been cleverly diminished through ideological browbeating and the misappropriation of French Deconstructionist writers as a power wielding rhetoric. Unfortunately the numbing the effects of this ideological power grab has made glaring problems of exclusion look invisible, indeed nonexistent, from within art education and the art establishment. The situation in some programs has become so ideologically extreme that several skill-oriented teachers I know have discouraged skill-sympathetic students from applying to their programs. They wanted to save them the considerable expense and grief of entering a very hostile anti-art, anti-aesthetic, anti-tradition, even anti-historical environment which would be against the teaching of the very subjects the applying students were interested in. Furthermore I find it hard to imagine that out of the hundreds of thousands of artists living in New York City when 9/11 occurred there has not arisen within the mainstream any kind art that is capable of expressing a profound reaction to this traumatic event, or its turbulent aftermath over the last 7 years. The difference is dramatic when compared with the Modernist response to their own era a century ago. This strange silence is testament to a real inadequacy within the art world, a sign of irreparable breakdown. I am concerned how that very insufficient world poses itself as a sterile model for our current system of art “education.” Arthur Miller had once stated in an interview from the early 90’s that great plays were no longer written was because the “good enough play” was no longer being written. Similarly the drastic (postmodern) attrition of, and undercutting of support for any basis of value on which to cultivate a genuinely creative art world has derailed the context by which anything truly significant can arise or even survive.
NA: Who have been your influences?
DT: Certainly the German Expressionists (1906 – 1924) have been important. These include the The Brucke (Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff) and the New Realists (George Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Beckmann). I am drawn to their innovations in printmaking. My good friends, Marcia and Granvil Specks, own a large collection of these prints that I have studied for a long time. I also like the work of some of the German Neo-Expressionists from the 80’s. I have an interest in American Abstract Expressionism, especially the work of Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky. I studied in Stanley William Hayter’s Studio 17 in Paris in 1984 where I produced an experimental printing plate under his instruction. This exercise practiced the Surrealist idea of automatism using gestural line. Hayter had instructed Jackson Pollock in the same etching plate exercise in 1945. This was an important contributing factor to Pollock’s drip paintings that eventually had a considerable impact on de Kooning’s work. As a regular exercise I have been drawing the figure on a weekly basis for over the past 25 years. Equally important were certain unforgettable experiences. One of these, as I already discussed, was having Donald Kuspit as a teacher for five years. Another was a 1985 visit to Andy Warhol’s studio in New York City that my university organized as a trip for graduating seniors. The disarming emotional vacuity of Warhol, his factory of sycophant workers and everything within it alarmed me. I left with an acute sense that something was disturbingly wrong in the larger art world and culture. This same intuition would direct my interest in pursuing art criticism and interpretation.
NA: Do you have any upcoming exhibits?
DT: This year I will be showing at the Hellenic Museum, 801 West Adams Street in Chicago from May 14 – Aug. 23rd. I will also have a show at the South Shore Arts Building, 1040 Ridge Road in Munster Indiana from Mar. 6 – April 26. And a third exhibit for this Fall at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wescott House, 1340 East High Street in Springfield, Ohio.
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