Winter 2015
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V. INTERVIEWS

A Conversation with Duane Michals

Duane Michals by Abe Frajndlich, 2001

Duane Michals by Abe Frajndlich, 2001

Duane Michals does not have a studio (and never has) but instead works out of a mellow, furnished, basement library connected to his home, that also serves as a viewing room, archive, and place to meet strangers like me and talk. Attached to the large room one enters lined with books are several storage rooms that disappear into darkness and a florescent laundry, where he pulled me in to read over the sound of the washer at the end of the conversation. The rest of the time we sat across from each other in the main room between stacks of supplies and photographs in two Mies Van der Rohe chairs we struggled together to name. His partner of fifty three years, Fred Goree, was an architect, he explained, pointing to the chairs when we sat down. The situation of everything, the repose of the space and us talking, was what I expected from what I knew of Michals but was still utterly refreshing considering his success, his long career, and the pretentiousness that is out there, which he defined right away to contrast his way of life, way of working, and what he strives to achieve.

Michals was born in 1932 in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and began to study art at a young age at the Carnegie Museum of Art in nearby Pittsburgh, a city which has become a particular source of meaning for him over the years. He returns often searching for memories, musing on its idiosyncrasies, and mythifying his familial history through his photography and writing. This year, he made a small book of precise, dexterous rhymes, titled “A Pittsburgh Poem” as a kind of homage to its presence and character, which he gave me as soon as we sat down. The book represents Michals in a key way: Books and literature are as important to him as inspiration and expression as photography and painting. Since the beginning of his career as a photographer in the late-50s, Michals’ has also lived as a writer, producing lyrical texts that are both romantic and sardonic, revelatory and pointed. He reads and revitalizes the work of Proust, Joyce, Cavafy, and Borges, as much as he admires Magritte, Balthus, Picabia, and Picasso.

Essentially, photography serves Michals as a platform and surface to penetrate—a limit to expand if not dissolve. Since the 60s, Michals has been staging scenes to photograph, often using multiple exposures, and creating sequences (several photographs arranged linearly on one sheet) to express and explore the nature of time, mortality, memory, and experience. Onto photographs, Michals adds references to his life and past and other works of art and artists’ lives in hand-written titles, captions, and stories, and he often juxtaposes his photographs with chapter-long rhymes and prose in carefully designed books. He also has been oil painting on his photographs since the 80s, and now, he is painting on tintypes (19th-century collodion prints on lacquered iron) and employing found materials as framing devices and in collages. Michals’ current exhibition, “The Painted Photograph” (March 21 – April 27, 2013), at DC Moore Gallery in New York, highlights his new paintings which reference Cubism, Surrealism, and Constructivism through loose, fine-line wire frames and scatterings of geometric shapes. I tried to focus our talk on his taste in literature and these new paintings, but Michals graciously deviated, to talk about much more, including how he has evolved as an artist and his understanding of time, reality, and the enigma that is life:

I Remember Pittsburgh, 1982

I Remember Pittsburgh, 1982

AK: Thank you for having me here today. I would like to start the conversation by explaining the journal which you know nothing about. The writing is meant to be accessible—readable and fact-based, rather than theoretical and critical, and I try to write on art that is equally humane, for lack of a better word. It has to pertain to people, to culture in the grandeur scheme of things. It can’t only be self-reflexive. Does that make sense? The design of the journal corresponds to these ideas, as well. It will be printed at the end of the year as a book. I thought you may like to know this, because when I went to DC Moore to see a preview of the exhibition before the opening, the director you’ve been working with, Priscilla Caldwell, talked mostly about your preference for small-scale work over what you call the “museum photograph”. I see a connection there, and you’ve made so many books yourself.

DM: That does make sense. Everything I do is based on the one-to-one experience with things. I like journals, I like books, I like intimacy. I’m not into the 21st century. I’m a big fan of James Joyce, and I just found this little book which was a facsimile of a notebook he kept when he was in Trieste, Italy, teaching English and became enchanted with a teenage girl, 14 or 15 years old, whom he was tutoring. The notes were for a project that was never realized, but that’s even better to me—his raw phrases reveal the way he thinks. I want to know how people think. That’s what gets me excited. I just did a little book about Pittsburgh, which is my Dublin. As Joyce loved Dublin, I have a peculiar passion for Pittsburgh. It’s irrational and idiosyncratic, but I embrace it.

I hate large photographs. I say that we are now in the era of the “museum photograph”—enlarged photographs designed specifically for museums. They’re not photographs anymore, they’re expensive commodities that can only fit in museums or hedge fund managers’ apartments. Of course, it’s because America is all about bigger and better and more expensive. I just overheard a photographer say his work “holds the wall so well.” It’s appalling—and yes, there’s a land mine of art world jargon we have to be careful not to fall into.

AK: I understand what you mean about large works being created to fill large museums and galleries, which really doesn’t make sense since those spaces are often almost hostile, but do you prefer some museums more than others? How did you feel about MoMA when you had your solo show there?

DM: My favorite museum is the Morgan Library, and I like the Frick. My show at MoMA was 100 years ago. That was in 1970, and I was just starting out. It was an entirely different museum. The Steichen Galleries were about the size of this room. Now, when you walk into MoMA, it’s total confusion. It’s like walking into the lobby in the Hong Kong Hilton—it’s 630 thousand-plus-square-feet! I really don’t understand what happened, what thinking went into the design. An institution can get so huge that it becomes a like factory. So I love the Morgan Library and I love the Frick, in part because of the scale of work and the intimacy between the work and the viewer they support.

AK: When you were working as graphic designer were you concerned with how what you made was experienced? How did you view your commercial work in relation to your non-commissioned or personal photography and pursuits?

DM: Graphic design was something separate from my personal work, but I’m lucky in that I’ve been able to integrate all of my interests or instincts over time. Some kids are called naturals. Some have instincts for sports, some have instincts for mathematics, and some have aesthetic instincts, which is what I think I had. I took drawing classes at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and that sort of thing, but I loved books and magazines so I came to New York to get involved in graphic design and publishing. In high school, I was the editor of the school newspaper. It all came into focus when I went to Russia. I was 26 at the time, and then two years later, at 28, I officially became a photographer. Over the years, I’ve been able to call upon all of my instincts, my instincts for design, photography, writing, and now painting.

AK: Did you feel like a pioneer when you started writing on your photographs?

DM: No, I became a photographer without having gone to photo school. I wasn’t taught that Ansel Adams was what it should be. I didn’t learn all of that, so I changed the paradigm, without necessarily knowing it, to suit me. I always say that you are either defined by the medium or the medium defines you. Most people are first defined by the medium, then they have to unlearn what they’ve been taught—which is sometimes impossible.

Why Did He Burn the Letter?, 1980

Why Did He Burn the Letter?, 1980

AK: You also broke into new territory in the 80s by painting on your photographs. What made you start painting, and how did you start painting on tintypes?

DM: I’m an atheist and I believe in evolution, and I evolved to this point. I had been painting on photographs in the 80s, because I felt that was a space that nobody had investigated, and I also need to prove to myself that I could paint properly. I did that with the three peaches [in "Why Did He Burn the Letter?"], and I was so thrilled, but that petered out, and I always thought I would return to that when I was older. Now, I’m older, and I am back into it. A couple years ago, I started working with objects and found things, then I had a tintype and thought I would paint on it. I like the history of the tintype—it was an easy and very popular way for people to photograph, and I like the idea of reinventing it by layering it with a reference to another period in time. Cubism is one of my favorite periods because it came about so suddenly. There was Impressionism, then Cezanne came along, and almost immediately representation was abandoned by the avant-garde. I began to dig in to that, and now I’m developing my own vocabulary in relationship to the photograph. Everything about the tintype suits me. I like the scale, the shape of the brush, I like seeing the mistakes, the touch of the oils on the cold patina of the surface.

AK: There are a few layers to your new paintings. You have the tintypes and the oils, and you’re giving titles to the paintings that reference literary characters and people from author’s lives, as well as people in your own life. It’s almost as if you are connecting moments in time or erasing time, rather then telling a story, sequentially, as you’ve done in earlier works.

Guermantes Way, 2012; Photo: DC Moore Gallery

Guermantes Way, 2012; Photo: DC Moore Gallery

DM: I just finished a few works I’m very happy with. One is of two young girls I’m calling “Margaret and Eleanor”. My mother is Margaret and my aunt is Eleanor, and it reminds me of them when they were young girls. Another is called “Nora Barnacle” who was Joyce’s wife, and another is “Lucia”, his daughter. But besides Joyce, my favorite writer is Borges. He is the type of writer you can go back to again and again and again. “A New Refutation of Time” is terrific because I’m interested in time, not just as a vehicle to the past as Proust considered it—other titles reference “In Search of Lost Time” and “The Guermantes Way”—but the fundamental nature of it. That is what Borges was questioning and what I’m questioning.

Have you read Henri Bergson? I like his idea of Élan vital (the force that he saw as driving evolution) and his idea of Durée. I describe it like this: We both agree that this now. But actually this is really now. No, this is really now. The moment you say now, it’s not now. There is no now, because now is always in the past. I was born now, I went to the army now, we’re talking now, and now it’s now, and guess when I am going to die? I’m going to die now. Our lives are just one moment which we experience as a duration, but if you examine it, time is not there. Now is a sliver of time that can never be experienced, and I think death is that sliver, it’s falling between the cracks.

AK: What I like about the sequences is the missing information, too. In comparison to film, the sequences are distilled stories and the viewer is left to fill-in more information. They are open to multiple interpretations. I just read an interview with Steven Soderbergh. In it, he says he’s leaving film and picking-up painting and that your sequences are a major inspiration.

DM: I live very quietly. Although I love New York, I don’t go to parties. My opening was wonderful, but it was my opening and I had to go. I don’t like events with more than six or eight people. So when I hear about that, I am so surprised because I’m not in that domain. I’m not a celebrity photographer or a Cindy Sherman.

Photographs describe exquisitely, but unless the photographer brings insight into the photograph, it’s mere description. Take a picture of you: you have all the looks of a stylish woman of the time but looking at you, I wouldn’t know that you had studied architecture or all the other interesting things about you. This is why I began to do sequences, to expand the decisive moment of photography. I wanted to know what happened the moment before and the moment after, so I simply extended the decisive moment to the decisive moments. So then I had four photographs instead of one. I began to write on photographs for the same reason, because I was frustrated. Again, looking at you, I want to express more. How do I express myself? It’s not about the photograph or the medium, it’s about atmosphere. But you can’t express what atmosphere is, because it’s ambiguous. Photography may allow for an ambiguity that film does not, and I suppose that this is what is exciting to Soderbergh.

Chance Meeting, 1970

Chance Meeting, 1970

AK: I have one last question. In an interview I saw of you with Barbaralee Diamonstein for Visions and Images in the 80s, you talked quite a bit about Eastern philosophy and Buddhism, and I wonder if you go to literature and painting because Buddhism doesn’t explain everything for you.

DM: No, I go to Buddhism because of literature and painting ((laughs))! I also did an interview in the 80s for Bomb magazine, they recently republished it, and I realized a lot of the things I was concerned about then, I’m not concerned about now. I’m in a different position, or my reference is different. I think life is like a kaleidoscope: every decade you turn the kaleidoscope, and all the pieces rearrange themselves into a new configuration, so the configuration of my 80s is different than what it was in my 70s, 60s, and 30s and 40s. There’s a wonderful quote by De Chirico, or he said something to the effect of, “What else is there to contemplate but the enigma?” Buddhism contemplates the enigma, whereas most religions are simply political institutions designed to perpetuate themselves.

Untitled, from the series The Indomitable Spirit, 1989

Untitled, from the series The Indomitable Spirit, 1989

Now, I love De Chirico’s question, because that’s all there is. Everything else has fallen apart for me. All of the social and institutional structures that define reality: the church, hetero-sexuality, and all of the assumptions you make about yourself when you’re young have fallen away. Most people don’t change very much, but as you mature, if you mature, you begin to drop-off and you begin to let go, and at this point, I feel very naked.

I think that all of that, our consensus of reality, acts as a scrim. You know when you turn a light on a scrim on a stage? You look at a scrim on stage and you see a house on a field, then it’s lit from behind, and you can begin to see through it. For me, reality is like a scrim, and now I’m beginning to see through the scrim to the lights, to the mystery behind it.

AK: Does that happen through your work or through your thinking and everyday living?

DM: I don’t separate my work from my life. I hate when I hear, “I do my work on Saturdays.” That’s not me. I don’t go to a studio to do my work. I carry my work in my head. The photograph is just the tip of the iceberg. Producing is mentally digesting and eliminating, and by the time you make something, you’ve already done all the hard work.  I am the process, and I express myself constantly, which is like constant liberation. I am more free now than I have ever been in my whole life, and every day I become more and more free. Of course, included in that is the freedom to fail, and I’m not in a race against anyone.

AK: Thank you so much for your time, Duane. I think we are at a good stopping point, though I hate to conclude.

DM: Thank you. It was my pleasure. Come with me, and I’ll read a short chapter of “Photo folies” for you. I think you’ll find it very relevant.

—Ashley Booth Klein

 

DUANE MICHALS has exhibited internationally at museums including the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1970), the George Eastman House, Easthampton (1971), Odakyu Museum, Tokyo (1991), the International Center of Photography, New York (2005), the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography, Thessaloniki, Greece (2008), and Scavi Scaligeri, Verona, Italy (2008). The Carnegie Museum of Art will host a major retrospective of his work in 2014. Michals work belongs to numerous permanent collections including The Art Institute of Chicago; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Canada; The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, Japan; The Israel Museum, Jerusalem; and Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden, among others.

Publications include Sequences (Doubleday & Co., 1970), Homage to Cavafy (Addison House, 1978), A Visit with Magritte (Matrix, 1981), Sleep and Dream (Lustrum Press, 1984), Duane Michals Photographs/Sequences/Texts 1958-1984 (Modern Art Oxford, England, 1984), Now Becoming Then (Twin Palms, 1990), Eros & Thanatos (Twin Palms, 1992), The Essential Duane Michals (Little, Brown & Company, 1997), Questions without Answers (Twin Palms, 2001), The House I Once Called Home (Enitharmony Editions, 2003), Foto Follies (Steidl, 2006), and A Pittsburgh Poem (High Street House Books, 2013).