Merv Slotnick from the USA is a retired teacher of art and a practitioner of his craft by profession. He dislikes being pigeonholed by appellations and offers us perfect abstract expressionist examples. He practiced his craft concurrently with Robert Motherwell, Rauschenberger and de Kooning, a period of rich developments in the history of American art carving its own niche and establishing its independence from the European school that marked the early American period through the 1940’s.
April 27, 2013
Correspondence between Merv Slotnick & Alex Nodopaka, Art Editor for VAYAVYA.
VAYAVYA: Merv, good to have you virtually with us in New Delhi! I'll first introduce you to our billion plus readers... chuckling... by listing some basic data about the general aura background surrounding you.
You are by definition an abstract expressionist artist and printmaker, born in Lansing, Michigan. You graduated from Adrian College, Central Michigan University, with additional work at Michigan State University.
I understand you did your first etchings in 1965 under Theo Wujcik at the Center For Creative Arts, in Detroit, Michigan and from 1974-1978 you were the Director of Art for the Elmira City School District in New York. In 1978 you were elected President of the New York Council of Art Education Administrators then you retired, moving to the beautiful and wild state of Maine.
Merv, speaking of your experience, you have seen American art leap 10 orders of magnitude from two-dimensional realism to live circus performance not to mention the art of public self-immolation and suicide… may they rest in peace! Chuckle!
Merv, many customary questions have been asked of you in general and specifically about your art. Instead of repeating these I’d like for your consideration a few questions of your own choosing. For instance, what questions have not been asked of you that you would care to expand?
I imagine since you retired from public office and devote more of your time to artistic pursuits and I assume much thinking I'd like to ask you what are your thoughts about what some artists do that is of notable mention and how does your art relate or fit in if at all? For instance let me overwhelm you with the following.
What do you think about your thinking? Do you ever paint with your eyes closed? And if you do, do you peek-a-boo? Do you paint with your opposite hand? Do you consider the archival quality of the paints or inks you use? Do you have any preference as from which corner of the canvas do you start painting? If you wrote an art manifesto what would be its main points? Do you have any preference as to what substrate to paint on? Do you have some of your own preferences? Are you active in your local art community or is it strictly retirement from the hustle bustle of big city life? Do you try to achieve visual harmony? Do you try to achieve disharmony? Is a painting about painting an anachronism? Are you a left or right handed? Have you ever tried ... etc, etc!
And let me put my foot in mouth first. Here're two of my proverbs: The path before each artist is straightforward but always leads to art. Mimickers hate to be corrected, so they stay away from apes by caging themselves.
MS: Wow, these are an earful! Let us begin with a few of my own questions. Since you know a little about me, and I know nothing about you, tell me something about yourself and what your interest in art is. I think that would be a better jumping off point than me asking myself questions. I'm not very interesting to myself. Other people are far more interesting to me.
However, presently I am consumed with a concept - IT IS WHAT IT IS. Far more interested in the objective as opposed to the subjective.
Also, I tend to think but not in words. I think in terms of space & images. I'm a right-brainer not a left-brainer.
VAYAVYA: Merv, I enjoy philosophizing and semantics. Your concept of IT IS WHAT IT IS, is as fluid as a sub-atomic particle. The moment you see it, it no longer is what it is nor is where it was or is in more than one place at the same time.
As to thinking in words it suits me fine. And right-brainer? Would that be similar to right-hander? I understand left-handers are supposed to be smarter but it’s us uprighters that hold up the world! So how do you go about starting your art and profession?
MS: In 1959, the year I graduated from high school I understood things that some younger people have not. Maybe they're better off for it, I'm not sure. I say this because I'm thinking about a younger artist that I've known for a few year. Shortly before he was 30 he emailed me as an introduction - one artist to another. What struck me about him was the "search" he was involved in. He was in the middle of trying to place in proper order/priority being married, first child on the way, and what does the whole "art thing" mean and how was he going to put it all together.
Back to me. I'm not a literary or wordy person. If I felt comfortable writing I probably would have ended up as a writer. As a painter and abstract expressionist, words seem almost foreign to me. Very little is pre-planned. Most of my creative output comes from the subconscious. Whatever comes out IS WHAT IT IS. I don't concern myself with "good" or "bad", not even "I like it or don't like it." A well-known artist William Baziotes who is considered like a stepfather to Jackson Pollock once said to him - artists shouldn't talk about their art. Writers and critics could but the artists shouldn't.
I lived through several decades evolving like everyone does. Someone wrote an article in ART NEWS about the aging process of artists. The thing I remember most from that was that once artists reach a certain age around 60ish they reach the age of I DON'T GIVE A DAME. That means they've entered into a "free period." They've, most, for the most part, stopped thinking about "MAKING IT" - stops obsessing about career management. This obviously has its benefits but there are dangers lurking about as well. In the end, for me it kind of comes down to the fact that an artist always has a responsibility to "their art" which simply means - make honest stuff. We could discuss what that means forever, and it will mean different things to different people, but honest is honest.
Finally, I'm from a generation where artist were looked down on if they openly self-promoted themselves. The cardinal crime would be to admit that you wanted fame. That all began to change in the post-modern era when in the 1970s all those hot artist reared up to say - not going to drag that baggage around anymore. Artists like Richard Prince, for example, scoffed all that old stuff off.
VAYAVYA: Merv, a bit off the subject, today was another momentous time for the world. I speak of the 2 cosmic events occurring within a day or so. I must say that despite the announcement not to panic and not dump our Wall Street holdings and art collections I had a moment of concern. If we didn’t expect the resulting effects in Russia from a 10-foot rock what of a 150-footer still closer enough to extinguish the daylights out of us! Well, I guess we’re still here.
To come back to your concept of IT IS WHAT IT IS and my subsequent commentary I think you’re going philosophically in an interesting direction that you need to develop. Preferably visually! Of course words alone may be enough but as a visual expressionist what you are considering has novel potential.
You may have to alter somewhat the media and by incorporating barely perceptible motion to your new artwork could be an artistic coup. Of course by now, 15 years later, after the advent of the PC and the various software and the HD thin screen monitor it all make it so much easier. It so happens I wrote back then such an article and even demonstrated it but lost it all I think during my various residential moves.
In re, and I quote you verbatim, I DON'T GIVE A DAME gave me a good laugh. I don’t know if it’s a typo or play on words you intended but it works perfectly well in all senses… including the sexual undertone. Pun intended! In terms of “making it” and “fame and fortune” frankly speaking is a very western idea. I am convinced that beneath the appearance the truth is that we need substantiation and validation for our doings. By extension even thieves and murderers desire their moment of notoriety though for the wrong actions.
Thanks for introducing William Baziotes. First time I hear of him but then I know museums basements all over the world are full of yet undisclosed masterpieces that periodically reappear to replenish museums coffers. Speaking of such it wouldn’t surprise me if you weren’t in that category. I mean I have a great deal of admiration for the execution of your art pieces. Of course some of them, to use the famous expression, “my kid can do better”, does apply and I write this as a compliment because to paint instinctively the way children do is what much of art should be about. I mean most of your pieces have a natural harmony both visual and spiritual. It’s an effect that one develops with much practice. I like to paraphrase the famous chess player Capablanca, “I think of only one move ahead but it is the best one” to which I add, and it took me 60 years to master! Not unlike your art!
In re the altered images I sent you, visualize the motion to be so slow as to be imperceptible over a day. i.e. the image parameters change but it's never twice the same. One can add many other animations including sound but what I tried to do back in 1994 was to add "invisible dynamics". Of course the software available then doesn't compare to what we have today and the process was much more tedious.
Well, that answers your question if I'm an artist. I’ve been doodling from the age of 7 or 8 but when I was 11 I started copying the Disney characters I remember how enthralled I was. Plus I had my father as a weekend painter. Here, in the US my dear friend of 27 years, George Hoehn, was my guru. He truly was a Renaissance man. He could care less about fame & fortune, he simply was preoccupied creating one form or other of art through traditional methods until I introduced him to the computer and then he couldn't get away from it!
By the way, I really like your art. There's surety, certainty in your brushstroke that comes through very clearly.
MS: Thanks for the links. On one of yours I read something about you and acting. Tell me more about that. Also - your comment about computer generated art. I’ve always found that interesting. BTW, for future reference when I use the term “interesting” it is sincere, not the negative use that artists sometimes hear when viewing an artist’s work. My ideas about computer art center around - its so easy therefore is it meaningful? You mentioned something similar. Then I think – what’s hard about my work? In the end I usually come to the same conclusion - that is - every artist is entitled to create what THEY want, or need to make, and make it as they want to. At the same time, everyone else is entitled and free to their own opinions about any art work, whether computer generated or the result of “studio struggle”.
Another aspect that you touch upon has to do with what I call “DIRECTION” - or SPACE as I like to think about it. All of us exist in a space, a timeline if you will, space behind us and space ahead of us. You and I, because of our ages, have lived through decades of change, esp. the computer age. I entered into that age in 1985, and even though early for home use, I’ve always remained somewhat behind. Ahead of most of my friends at our ages but behind in terms of technology in the 21st century. I realize the potential of Facebook, Twitter, etc. but have no interest in those what-so-ever.
What does this have to do with art? This is where the “expanding” concept enters. I see so many, too many possibilities to art making. This is good but one has to pick one when making art because you can’t do it all. To me it isn’t about pushing the envelope, making things that no one has ever seen before, its really only about “honesty” with myself.
As I may have mentioned before I am process driven not object driven. When I taught I’d usually begin a class with a question. What is art? Then I listen to student answers. Most of the time they gave similar answers like “a painting”. Later I’d say that ART is different for each person but that ART is not a painting, that a painting or drawing was an “art product” that which remained at the end of, or near the end of the art process, or what I call ART. You and I know that the art process begins in the mind and that many decisions are considered way before the brush touches anything. This part of the process is the most interesting to me, the end of the process, the end-product [painting] is least interesting to me. I could go on forever about process but will stop here only to say a couple more things Out of context here - its not unusual for me to look at a group of works I did a few years earlier and not remember making them. I could tell you about when I made them, and I would recognize that I made them but they’d look new to me. The reason is best explained using Motherwell as an example. From wiki “It was Matta who introduced Robert Motherwell to the concept of “automatic” drawings. The Surrealists often deployed the process of automatism, or abstract “automatic” doodling to tap into their unconscious. This concept had a lasting effect on Motherwell and on other American painters such as Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner and William Baziotes, whom he befriended in New York after a trip to Mexico.”
How does one remember doing things when they were done while unconscious so to speak? It is perhaps easier to explain it this way. When making a sculpture I don’t visualize the object within the block of wood, then clip away to expose it. I chip wood away to discover what is in there.
Therefore I usually don’t visualize the end product , the painting, it reveals itself. I may or may not like it - that is of little importance to me. My wife would sometimes ask me while at a museum when looking at someone’s work - do you like this? I’d say something like “Yes but I don’t think its very good.” Or, “No but its good art.” At the same time who do I think I am saying what is good or bad art? It only my opinion - shouldn’t be used by anyone else.
By now you are thinking - this guy is rambling and of course I am. Continuing on, all of this is intermingled with each other, I am reminded of a lecture once given to a group of sculptors I attended. To oversimplify he said - the message was - if you want to make large outdoor public sculptures don’t complain about all of the drawbacks of size and weight. Do it with yours eyes wide open - know what you’re involved in. If you don’t want to do all the stuff required making large pieces then make small ones. This, I say is what the process is all about. Color can be important when others view the painting of course. But then how does one explain Robert Rauschenberg’s use of color in many of his earlier more important works. He picked up near empty cans of house paint people threw away on trash pickup days, or he’d buy unopened gallons of paint from paint store, something I’ve also done. He’d open can and use that color until he needed another color, then open next can and use that color. He claimed he used whatever the color was - not making color decisions. He may or may not have been putting us on but he made the point. It was all process driven.
A brief comment about your work. First, thanks for exposing it to me. Here again, I could go on and on about proceeding sentence but won’t except to say thanks. Some I like and some confuses me, as it should. I see that the figure is important. After looking at everything one stood out for me. Title "Multidimensional painting". It comes very close to “what I understand”. I once did a white painting where I used an old pair of underpants on wood - painted the whole thing white - one of the first pieces I ever sold. Also small 12 x 12”. If one takes an actual object from the life and incorporates it into an artwork it tends to take on a different “weight”. I’ve done quite a bit of this. It autobiographical. Anyway, if I was jurying your work I’d give this painting BEST OF SHOW.
VAYAVYA: I enjoyed thoroughly your preceding note. I sensed you taking on the professorial hat and suspect you were an appreciated teacher. Thanks for qualifying ‘interesting’. I have in-laws that use that word the few times I took them to art events and every piece they saw was punctuated by that ‘how interesting!” expression not exceeding their personal opinion past my exclamation point.
In entering the computer age it sounds we both, like most others, had the same introduction. At first it was the leap from the rotary phone to the push button that introduced us to the digital age. Then I remember the fax I didn’t think I needed until my wife’s business necessitated it and by extension I quickly saw the advantages of rapid communication of ‘images’ between 2 points. She was in a business that required intensive art layouts so the fax became the sketchbook communication between artists and client... like the PC became my sketchbook but ended being my main art tool.
No, I’m also still very much from the old school except when it comes to correspondence where snail mail doesn’t cut it any more though I miss the handwriting. Often I am caught without paper and that’s when any piece of torn magazine becomes my notebook of the moment. So yes I still practice the soon to be lost experience of the pencil on paper I miss, in retrospect, the waiting time between the sending and receiving of letters gave plenty of time to think over one’s last missive before responding to it.
In regard small vs. large art it has always been a concern. Man was always into big starting with the Dolmens and Pyramids. Their construction also meant longevity and survival of erosion caused by time. My friend George was totally into archiving from the substrate to the quality of paint and inks and varnishes. It was always a point of discussion between us. I would tell him that let those concerned with preserving our work be concerned on how to do it, your job as an artist is to create. So way back in the ‘70’s I started making constructions out of toilet paper and bread, reducing it back to dough and using it as a sculpting material… though when dried I protected it with strong marine glazes after learning quickly that rodents appreciated my work to the point of gnawing it to nothing... an interesting process in itself by the way with no need of accelerated motion to see it’s reductive process except when mold set in and that took longer. Well, it was more interesting than watching grass grow which was not of my making to boot! Speaking of size and judging by what I have seen they are to me the perfect size but what do you say about that?
Thanks for your commentaries on my artwork. My torso sculptures were an exciting ‘process’. I loved the process of making them and the final resulting effect because I never knew once the assemblage was complete and the ‘Pourstone’ inside the torso was hardening what it would ‘exactly look like’ upon the final hosing out of the newspaper stuffing. I loved the ragged effects that the carefully wadded newspaper left after its being hosed out.
I used a plastic window display mannequin female torso as the main mold. It was compliant to deformation for one and its unifying same size ‘canvas’ was a plus. Second I would assemble the found objects and visualize their finished appearance inside the torso. I would wad newspaper and moisten the wads but still keep them somewhat stiff and it would buttress my goodies in the torso. Everything was assembled in reverse since the belly of the torso was facing down while I poured the fast hardening liquid. I had to pre-visualize its appearance from the exposed belly-front.
Ah, and my multi-dimensional extended to incorporating inside the sculpture windup musical or electronic signing flashing devices.
VAYAVYA: Judging by your eBay listings it seems you were busy painting, I also took the opportunity of reading again, I say reading because before I had to study ... lol a massive literature about the 1900-1920 art period in France, Germany, Italy and Russia. Got immersed far enough to be inspired me to do some work. Bought required material etc and the whole has been collecting dust since I decided instead to write a Manifesto about 21st century art. Consequently sat at the PC the last several weeks and produced artwork that I decided to submit to art and poetry magazines. For me it is an interesting venue to be able to publish either my writing or my art... neither pays any significant amount of money. The USA is pretty pathetic in that regard because the average citizen which represents 99% of its population is pretty uncultured because of the poor system of education.
I also thought of writing something about you and your art but you said you are too busy for such stuff. However, if you would like to contribute to our communication I'd love to hear from you.... and if not I'll write your unauthorized bio... lol
So anyway I really got into Cubism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Futurism, Constructivism & Suprematism to mention only a few because getting into Rayonism & Animism & Atavism would be more than I can handle at one time.
Merv Slotnick: Where to jump in on this - engineering. The very morning I received this I was talking to Kaye about ways of looking at projects and I mentioned engineers. Of course I know nothing about engineering but I tend to approach projects as if they are ax-number of steps - like this is a 10 step process from beginning to end. I also see everything in space........this is over there, that is over here etc. I tend to see most things from the right brain - much that most think is logical I see differently. Even though I tend to be optimistic much of what is going on these days is NUTS.
Its best when its a LABOR OF LOVE and fixation is healthy.
Writing something about me - that would seem odd to me. Not something that would interest me. Forgive me if I repeat myself but there are certain aspects of my thinking that have grown to be quite prominent - one being that what I think/believe is really of very little interest to me.....mainly because I already know it. I have an unusual interest in what other people think and do - and what someone chooses not to do. I’ve thought about this a lot and finally came to the conclusion that it has something to do with where I see myself in space in relationship to everyone else.
“ISMS” are of little interest to me other than it helps define my space for me, Parts of art history interest me and I think it was Robert Motherwell who said that all great artists carry the history of art around in their heads. This is where artists of our age have an advantage over younger artists - not that its important. There is an artist [abstract] that I met years ago thru Ebay. He was just turning 30 and asked me career questions. At first I was kind of stunned how little he knew, esp. since he had graduated from an art school. But I found it interesting. During the process I realized that I was telling him to consider doing this or that not because I did those things but because I wasn’t doing them. Of course the younger artists don’t have the self-imposed roadblocks that we place on ourselves.
Looking at your abstract work I am reminded of Cy Twombly’s work, which I’ve always felt was great. Not so much some of his paintings themselves but his approach to making them. Some of your abstracts also suggest, believe it or not, similar aspects of Richard Prince’s white paintings. His studio assistants would stretch and prepare the canvas, gesso it, then scribble lines, phone numbers etc. all over it. Richard later would paint over much but also left a lot of their marks showing.
Some day search Ivan Karp. His gallery is the OK Harris gallery. He was an important dealer who died recently. I knew him briefly - everything he muttered was profound.
Also, search Richard Huntington artist or art critic. Spent a lot of time with him, back in the 1970s. He’s alive and in a recent video he talks about being more interested in the illogical. He shares a studio with another artist who says Richard will be close to finishing a good painting and then he’ll paint over it - sometimes ruining 8 or 10 good painting. Richard was always interesting. He was always looking for something “odd” in a painting. He lives just across the border in Penn. and I asked him why he didn’t live in the state of NY. He said he would like to live in NY but owed $1600 in parking tickets. Connecting Karp and Huntington - once right after Karp had given a lecture on art collecting at a museum, Richard approached to shake Ivan’s hand and Ivan said “I know you. You know, if you hadn’t changed your style of painting you’d have made it by now”.
One could listen to Ivan Karp for an hour and almost every sentence that would be spoken was worth listening to, esp. for an artist.
VAYAVYA: Ok, Merv, I'll save his interview for next time but thanks for your graciousness in answering my correspondence for this interview. Some of my mumblings are simply a way to hear my thoughts on paper and a way of saying hello and right now a goodbye until we meet again.