AN INTERVIEW WITH JOAN WALTEMATH
BY CHRISTINE DE LIGNIÉRES
Christine de Lignières: Your work is visually related to a high-modernist formalism that includes Bauhaus, De Stijl, Mondrian … to aesthetic movements, at a certain period in history. Do you feel a kinship with those artists?
Joan Waltemath: I don’t really approach my work stylistically in relation to Modernism because the kind of geometry that I’m working with is so old, and I mean mostly it’s been used in architecture. If you look at plans from Gothic and Romanesque churches, from the pyramids, the Ziggurats — these geometric forms obey certain mathematical laws of nature. That’s the basis of the grid I work on using harmonic ratios. The lineage of modernism is something that I’m obviously in tune with, but my focal point is more on the timeless nature of the geometry itself and how it’s able to open certain doors of perception.
When I was growing up in Nebraska, the things I looked at were the Plains Indian beadwork and painted hides. I remember that many people were really astounded by the beauty of the Plains Indian show at the MET a couple of years ago and for me that was also a great moment, but a very familiar one that had already impressed me. I could identify most of the pieces in the show, whether I had seen them before — or only in books and often I would know what museums they are in or what part of the country or world. The Plains Indian works and ceremonial objects are really my deepest connection to art. There’s a certain dichotomy between their apparent resemblance to modernism and their actual roots in a much more ancient worldview — and that is true of my own work to some degree as well.
I was reading your interview with Gordon Moore and he speaks of your obsession with right angles. At the same time, there is an element of painterliness in your work that reminds me of Rothko’s feathery edges where contours evaporate in a mist. A painterliness that accompanies and alters the literality of the line.
I find it funny to speak of ‘an obsession for the right angle’ since the orthogonal here is really about a decision to work within a number field and that is how it happens to be configured. My taste for or ‘not for’ 90 degrees doesn’t play a role, even though it’s easy to see how it might seem so.
But I want to go back to the point you made about classification, because this is something that I’ve worked on and tried to come to terms with for many years. I read Deleuze’s book on Bergson in the 90s, and got really interested in it. Bergson talked about how when you perceive something, the first thing you do is classify it as related to something you know already.
Often in seeing a work, there is a first association that comes to mind; this in and of itself begins a process of seeing. After apprehending that first association, you have the possibility of going further and seeing what the object actually is. Before that happens, before classifying it, you’re still within the realm of memory, and you’re not actually able to see what’s in front of you. That understanding of Bergson fascinated me.
Memory also means knowledge. It imports into your perception how much of painting you have seen, if you have never seen a Mondrian, you won’t have this association. Knowledge in that sense is very cumbersome it comes in front — it intercepts your vision … unless one chances upon a satori … which could be art’s very purpose.
I see the path as being through the knowledge; if you don’t know anything you look at it and “it’s just a bunch of squares and rectangles, it’s just a scrap of canvas.” So, if you don’t have any knowledge —
The trick is that you cannot not have knowledge, if not perhaps in a meditative state of mind.
But you can not have knowledge about art.
Yet still, back to Bergson’s point, I know with my work that the more you know about art the more the paintings become what they are as you look at them. since I’ve spent most of my life looking at paintings in museums all over the world, there are so many references or inferences packed into them, so it’s my baggage, it’s unavoidable that it’s all there, or somehow could unfold, but I think that’s what makes it. This is another idea about clearing the mind, by moving through it.
What about your Dinwoody series? I had never heard of the Dinwoodies!
The Dinwoodies are figures that are carved into the rocks in Wyoming. The white anthropologist who first wrote about them was called Mr. Dinwoody, so they were named “Dinwoodies.” They have nothing to do with him except that he was the first western scholar who wrote about them and so he got to put his name on them. There are other ones, and sometimes they’re named for the creek —
The Dinwoody group was something that I sought out when I was at the Jentel Residency in Wyoming. In certain sites where there’s a stream too — you look around and you can’t find anything, and then all of a sudden, you see a figure alone, maybe it’s like 5 or 6 feet high or something, pecked into the rock. After a moment you see, oh, there’s another one and another one. They can be from 10,000 years ago or more. I’m not convinced actually about the dating, it seems to change with the method used, so I would say nobody really can date them. The Dinwoodies are figures, but they are abstract.
In 2013, I did a show at Mary Judge’s Schema Projects with long, narrow graphite on mylar drawings inspired by seeing them. They have a similar kind of feeling as these canvas pieces here, but the canvas pieces are tiny, just 4 or 5 inches though they have a similar proportion.
I found out about them from the library the first time I was at Jentel, but I grew up around there, so I knew there were petroglyphs. I thought there was maybe one or something, so I went to research and I realized there are fifty to a hundred sites. They’re very hard to find though.
The carvings are not of humans; some people would call them aliens. My understanding of them is that they’re spirit figures. Because when you see them, it’s so elating.
Of course, I have many books that were published on the subject! I’ve been there a number of times to Wyoming to look for them. The last time I went there, I made sound recordings in some of the locations. I travelled in Wyoming for about four weeks to make these recordings — ambient recordings at sunrise — in these different sites. They’re really special places; they’re sacred sites — the mysteries.
At a certain point, I realized I need keep seeing this kind of work from the area where I grew up because it’s really inspiring to me in terms of the work I make myself. Even though I went to art schools, and I have been educated in the Western canon, the things that really touched me were more those things from where I grew up. Those rock drawings are a manifestation of a whole way of life, and that has a lot to do with my connection to them.
Because of the spiritual? What about spirituality in art?
I think spirituality is in people actually, and people respond to things in their own way. Spirituality is not something that you can really talk about, it’s a way of being and the way people understand what that is, is so different. I’m not convinced that you can transmit an idea that you have about it to anyone else, nor can you transmit it through an object.
Since phenomenology is such a preeminent part of your creative concern, I should have looked for the perfect quote from Merleau-Ponty …
Husserl is my phenomenology connection. Husserl wrote about geometry and about mathematics. And that’s where I come into it. I mean, I’ve read Merleau-Ponty but —
Is there a philosopher who has influenced your work, has been important to your work?
I love that you would ask me that question because in ruminating on it, I realized my connection to philosophy really comes through language. When I lived in Germany in the ’80s — for maybe 18 months, and when I started to speak German I grasped how philosophical German is— I mean it’s not a coincidence that Kant and Hegel were German speaking — but for me, it was understanding the construction of the language that let me see its philosophical aspect. For example, the word for “perception” is Wahrnehmung, taking the truth to yourself. As I came to think of looking at the world, Wahrnehmung, as meaning taking truth into myself, was a mind — blowing concept for me that the formulation of thought is imbued with a point of view. As I learned to speak German and I made my way through the language learning all these words, I saw how the language is a philosophical understanding through its nature and through its construction. And that was a beginning for me.
When I was growing up, a trace of German was still in my family. It’s the mother’s tongue of my father’s family, so my Dad’s still knew three words that he would use sometimes, so there’s just the smallest glimmer of that language left in my family.
When I started to study it in high school for the first time, I knew I had to learn to speak. When I started to speak German, I felt, that’s my language, and I could for the first time in my life express what I was thinking. That led me to philosophy.
Through which philosopher?
JW That was the prelude! So, who was the philosopher? Okay, so I read Baudrillard, Derrida, you know all the post-structuralist philosophers, in the late ’70s into the ’80s.
I could not really understand much of it. I read and I read. I didn’t have such a good grasp on the English language anyway, but I was reading it because I was searching for some way to talk about what I was doing in my work. I knew what I wanted to do, that part was already there when I was 17 or 18, but I didn’t have any way to articulate my thought. I was seeking philosophy to find a language for myself.
I began reading Baudrillard and Virilio. I couldn’t tell you anything about these books now, but I had great ideas reading them. I would write things down, and then I found Blanchot. When I read The Space of Literature and he talks about how there’s two books, there’s the book that’s written, and then there’s the book that writes itself in your mind when you are reading it. That was the first philosophical concept where I felt, I’ve got to read everything Blanchot ever wrote, and my library is full of Blanchot. I read Infinite Conversation. It took me three or four years; I doubt that I finished it or even got half-way through that book, but it freed me to really experience what I was thinking about when I was reading those different philosophies. And that enriched my life.
I don’t know, perhaps. It would be pretentious to assume that I have any kind of philosophical expertise. I didn’t study philosophy, I don’t know the history, I’m completely ignorant of a lot of things, but I’ve been using philosophy for myself as a way to become verbal because I grew up in the country with really no one to talk to. As a child, I had mostly communication with animals, which is a non-verbal communication. Through my early experiences I became very mistrustful about the misunderstandings that accompany words and so I developed a strong and sustaining non-verbal engagement with the world through movement —
You were muting yourself?
No, I wouldn’t say that — I didn’t even mute myself, I just never consequently developed language. When I was about ten I became convinced that language always betrayed you of something, so I just didn’t go there. I went somewhere else.
You didn’t engage in dialogue? You didn’t speak? Some kind of aphasia?
Of course, I spoke on a mundane level, but any idea I had or thought, what mattered to me — it wasn’t happening on a verbal level, so when I started reading philosophy, I had a certain part of my mind that had gone a really long distance in a non-verbal form, and I needed to find language to communicate what I was trying to achieve in my paintings. Philosophy was what helped me to be able to articulate what was going on in the other part of my mind, where I was making things, and understanding how form communicated, and looking at paintings.
My mother took me to Europe when I was fourteen and so I started looking at art when I was still young. I remember going to the Uffizi and the paintings I saw.
When I started teaching at Cooper Union in 1997 I had never thought about articulating what I saw going on in painting, or what I was doing. I read Adorno’s Aesthetical Theory to begin to find my way.
What class were you teaching?
It was going to be a studio elective at first and then by the time my appointment got sorted out I was doing a seminar for the first — year architects. I had never talked about painting before and that’s what Raimund Abraham and John Hejduk, wanted me to do, so — I did.
In art history, then … theoretical?
Not art history. They wanted me to talk on a formal level, like in a studio course about color and composition. Robert Slutsky had taught there years before, and I was asked to reconfigure as a lecture course what he had been doing. Theoretical and formal, so I started making these formal analyses of works that went on sometimes for 2 hours.
I think that … it’s a teaching tool, to start from ekphrasis, simply to describe what is happening there on a surface. Of course, when it’s about something like Veronese with a multitude of details, that can become a parlor game! And the semantic level of the narrative adds to the complexity.
JW I started working with Tintoretto because I had been in Venice for a couple of weeks that year and looked at a lot of Tintoretto. His work gave me a breakthrough in seeing how to enter my grids and get out of modernism’s two dimensionality. In class I would focus on describing the phenomenological experience that happens when you look at a Tintoretto composition — you see this, you go up there, then over here (tracing the air); that opens a space, there’s a void over there like this — so I wouldn’t describe the image, I would describe the structure that guides the movement through a painting. And for architects that was interesting because they could take the structural understanding I was giving them from painting as inspiration and translate it into architectonics.
I developed a whole syntax for painting that, in a certain way, parallels the architectural syntax that I learned while I was teaching there. I spent hours and hours sitting around listening to the great minds that were at Cooper at that time talk about architecture and critique architectural projects. Then I would build up discussions that would take that formal vocabulary and try to show them something in visual art that was dealing with a similar formal problem, but in a completely different way. If they could understand the nature of painting language, it became a metaphor or parallel to seeing possibilities in architectonics and that opened things up for them. It would take them far away from that kind of narrow building science mentality, and that brought their work into a kind of form/content or form/context dialectic. This was John Hejduk’s vision. He felt that painting was the true muse of architecture and he hired me in order to have that a central part of the 1st year program at Cooper.
Initially I think he was looking at the relationship between Le Corbusier and Amédée Ozenfant and how their dialogue informed both painting and architecture. He was interested in that. There are several of Hejduk’s pieces reconstructed in front of Cooper Union right now. There’s one grey cube and one black cube, and they have these spikes coming out, I mean they’re intense. In the black one the spikes go pretty much straight up, and in the grey one they move out.
Is it a sculpture?
No, it’s architecture. Since architecture has its own syntax you can make things that might be an architecture that’s theoretical, an architecture denies inhabitation to seek a form, to speak poetically. That is something Hejduk, Abraham, Aldo Rossi and others, who where part of a group in the Sixties that also included Massimo Scolari and others were into. Diane Lewis, who recently passed, was their student. Peter Eisenman, and [Elizabeth] Diller and [Ricardo] Scofidio, who were also there at the time, seemed to serve as a kind of counterpoint to them at Cooper, but that is my view.
Perhaps a desire on the part of the architect … an envy to do things that are not utilitarian, a lust for non-utilitarianism … multi-syllabic, it’s hard to pronounce.
I don’t know. I never thought of it like that. In a way it’s a contingency, because it shows the possibility for architecture, which doesn’t have the latency for inhabitation. It becomes a question of what function is being served. That group of people took a position, in particular, about architecture being a language — that’s why it was so useful for me to develop a painting language in tandem. That architecture is a language, that architectonics is the formal language of architecture means that you could do things that were architectonic — that had a program — but instead of a program for inhabitation, they would have a program that denied inhabitation.
A programme that wouldn’t be called sculpture?
No, no — it has different criteria and it’s made with a different intention — as a part of a discourse. It’s the same with painting. We get so involved in some crazy ideas — grids for example. Rosalind Krauss writes that grids are emblematic of modernism, and they represent the end point because they can’t be developed. That’s an idea and people can get all absorbed in it. Somebody could come and look at a grid painting and have a completely different idea — think representationally: “oh this is just a mechanical screen for a window, or an air vent or something,” and not understand what specific kind of discourse that object is carrying with it. That can be a problem, we talked about that earlier, about how much people know when they look at stuff.
Well “architect” simply means “builder” … and buildings can have infinite forms and meanings. But how come you have such a mathematical mind and you’re not a computer whiz?
Who said I wasn’t good at computers? [Laughs.] You mean because I often don’t know how my phone works? Well mathematics and technology are not the same thing. Whatever I’m doing mathematically is coming completely out of the nonverbal part of my thinking, because I’m not a scholarly mathematician, I just have a very intuitive capacity for understanding numbers.
My grandfather ran a lumber yard and sold all kinds of building materials and in seconds he could calculate volumes of materials translating between dimensions in plan and quantities of things sold, so I inherited that. My mom is like that, too. For some people, numbers are your dear friends.
So, what kind of algorithm do you use? Algorithm … I guess, it’s simply a process, and the formula of a process, reciprocally … what kind of formula are you using?
To explain what I’m doing mathematically with the square root of two by talking about it is very complicated because what I’m doing is layering all these relationships of ratios on top of each other until I get a dense matrix. I’m working to configure a volumetric condition that articulates a time/space dimension you can slip through when you see it. But it takes time to see it, you can’t just look at it and see it, what you see initially seems flat. If I try to explain that mathematical framework in language, which it’s a linear process where one word follows the other, it’s like a nightmare, especially for my mind. You can’t grasp it like that really — it must be seen — in time.
Your spatio-temporal explanation, this simultaneity of flatness and volume with and through a temporal dimension reminds me of the hyper precision of virtual reality … But what about musical harmonies, are they part of your formulas, of your algebraic alchemy?
Yes. It’s completely related. Recently, I started doing these drawings, it’s a body of work that comes after these torso paintings. I’ve worked with this grid for so long as a systemic or programmatic approach. While there are certain aspects of ‘system’ to it, I don’t think that system is exactly the right word, because the arrays of numbers are very fluid and permeable and can be articulated in very different ways.
In as much as it is a kind of a system or order, my interest moved towards the relation between different kinds systems or orders — and how they communicate with each other. I imagine these ideas stem from the understanding that the complete nature I grew up in operates with a whole different set of rules than those I slowly learned when I came to live in the city. When I was about twenty — eight that was a revelation to me, but it took a long time before I got there. Growing up with animals, it’s such a different world, and the way you can connect to animals in the wild and are able to be on that level where you don’t frighten them — that’s a whole different kind of sensitivity. So anyway, I became conscious that there were these different orders.
I became interested in how different orders or systems engage with each other or how they intersect, interface. Where do they override each other, where do they ignore each other, where do they engage with each other? So, I set up some grid drawings to explore that idea. I’ve been working on those drawings since 2012.
As I was working with this idea, I got an opportunity to do a piece in Hamburg with the art space/collective This Red Door. I wanted to do a musical piece, a sound piece. I’ve been working with harmonics — I’ve been teaching myself these roots — since 1988, and since I’ve been working with them for a long time now, and I’m going to start playing and see what happens. My friend Walter Steding had given me a squeeze box years ago that I used in a performance at The Kitchen. And so, I thought, well…
What’s a squeeze box?
It’s like a tiny accordion type instrument. I was doing a kind of rhythmic thing with it then, but I don’t know how to say I was playing. I listen to Cage and Morton Feldman all the time, so that was sort of my framework as much as Malevich and even Mondrian were for my paintings. But then Walter came and gave me this beautiful Italian black lacquer accordion! I started playing with Walter, and he’s a very accomplished violinist, so he was a little bit challenged by the fact that I didn’t know an ‘f’ from a ‘g’, and that sort of stuff, but I’ve been able to play with other people, too. I’ve been practicing since then.
We did the performance in Hamburg — it was very well received — you can listen to it [here] or on my website. The accordion is this instrument that breaths, so it’s like a body when air gets in it. I heard Pauline Oliveros, I actually got to see her last concert and realized that I’m playing a bit like her even though I’d never heard her before. I see she’s working with the air in the instrument. She’s not playing the musical scale as something that would be imposed, but she’s just making the inherent quality of that instruments speak. That is how I approached it.
It makes me think of how, in the vocabulary of Greek architecture, style and system are associated in a semantic conflation. Doric order vs. Ionic and the others … with a volute or not … Could you say that algorithms act as a style, as recurring elements in your composition, although invisible?
Style is such a problematic word. For me it has to do with the shoes I’m wearing, the pants I have on, my jacket.
So, you’re thinking of it as fashion?
Well fashion, I don’t know, but in that sense, I like style, I like certain kinds of clothes.
How do you apply to your work the algorithms that you select?
I work with harmonic progressions based on the relationship between the side of a square and its diagonal. I use a number of these progressions and they’re layered on top of each other, so they form a matrix.
But it’s always a root of two?
Yes. It’s just this very simple thing of the relationship of the side of the square to its diagonal.
In which way do you project the ratio around the room? As a numerical notation, as a line, a geometric figure, or the representation in perspective of a volume?
Well, to achieve this I collaborated with Andrew Tripp. I was working in the architecture school at that time and I saw Andrew had done this really interesting urban farm project in the third year. He was calculating harmonic ratios mathematically in his work, so I talked with him and asked him if he could develop a computer program for me that would generate the ratios I was using. I wanted to project them into a virtual room like in a CAD model and let the progressions grow exponentially so that they could wrap around the room. In the progressions as you get further and further out and you have a dimension of 1,034 inches or something that would fall outside of the room, but if the progressions could come back in to the scheme by wrapping around the dimensions of the CAD model they would form yet another layer in the dense grid matrix.
I started to work with him and we developed some CAD models. At first, I used the dimensions of the gallery spaces that I was going to show in for the dimensions of the virtual room. I would make drawings of the actual room measuring every single dimension of every detail and then Andrew would build a virtual model of it.
The interesting part was choosing a point to begin the progressions — the zero point. I would decide that when I was in the gallery space drawing. I would allow that the zero point would be at a certain height in relationship to my body, and it would be in relationship to the architectural elements of the room so the progressions are wrapping around the room a particular way. Maybe I had room where I had multiple zero points. The grid I’m working on now, I had four zero points in the room, so that generated this much denser network. Out of the elevations of that model, I could excerpt a little piece of the grid matrix to work with in a painting.
Like a fractal, where a piece of the whole is the same as the whole in a different scale? A geometric Mise en abyme?
Yes, that’s a beautiful analogy. In that sense, it’s easy to see how it’s both specific and arbitrary or random, in a way. The lines in a grid that I’ve extracted to work on could be from the beginning of a harmonic progression or they could be ones from further out that have come back and wrapped around the room. Where they land in the wrap is relevant to the dimensions of the room that has been modeled, it isn’t purely in line with the harmonic progression.
What is the random part in that?
Well, if the virtual room has a length of twenty feet, when a line in the progression comes back around it would land in one place. But if it was 25 feet, it would land somewhere else in the model, so this changes the grid.
Then it was not random, but a result of the dimensions of the room …
Yes, you could say that, but the choice of the rooms in different models I made are coincidental, so I tend to think of it as random. You are more precise. I was interested in this move because it gave me grids that had all different kinds of sizes of squares and rectangles in them.
If all the paintings use that method, does it mean that each painting corresponds to the size of an actual room, of a specific room?
Yes, ‘corresponds’ being the key here. For the torso group, after we made the virtual models with all these lines wrapping around them, I printed out the elevations of the room so I could look at them. They were nearly the length of the wall in my studio. And then I made selections of eleven separate grids, both vertical and horizontal within the model. Andrew created files for me so I could send them to a blueprint place and plot out a drawing that would be at any scale. I worked from those plots, redrawing them on different sizes of paper to develop my drawings for the torso series. All of the torso paintings, I think there are now 50 or 51 of them altogether, are all based on 11 different grids that came out of two different virtual models of wrapping the room. On my website, there’s an option called “grid wrap” and you can see the computer model and there is a text there attempting to clarify the process.
So actually, each painting is a translation of the dimensions of a room.
It’s more like a response to its dimensions since it is a little piece of that room taken out.
Could you reverse that process? Could you hang the painting at a certain point in that room by reversing that process?
Yes, I did that in Belgium at Knokke-Heist in 2003. Andrew made a model of the gallery space there and then I selected some grid formats that were printed on mylar that I drew into and then hung back in the room in their original locations. There was one where the zero point was captured, so you could see where it all started.
Did you repeat that setup?
No, not to that extreme. I felt like I got something from it that was interesting and I was really amazed at the correspondences that evolved in the room, but it wasn’t necessary to repeat it. There was so much involved in drawing the room and building the CAD model; it pushed me towards some thoughts about the body and the latency of the void in architecture, but I wanted to go forward to the experience of standing in front of a painting and where that takes you.
When I was working on that show, I was reading Husserl’s Crisis of the European Sciences on the plane on the way over and back. David Rabinowitch had told me to read it. Husserl is focused in the initial part with the development of equations and the scientific approach to the quantification of matter and life. He talks about how Leibnitz considers the incalculable as a necessary part of an equation, and how at a certain point that notion was let go. The philosophical shift away from an acknowledgement of the incalculable as constituent initiates, in his view, the crisis. I knew I was more interested in the incalculable and that I had the calculable represented in my grid matrix, so I moved away from more complex grid calculations at that point.
It was significant for me to be reading Husserl while I was doing that work!
This is an excerpt from the interview originally published by the Finch