Helen Frederick, co-curator

Conversation: Michael Gross and Helen Frederick, October 3, 2008

HF:  I’d like to start with asking about your beginnings in Chicago, a city rich with art museums, galleries and a cultural life that has supported artists for generations. What or whom influenced you to be an artist?

MG: My parents, in different ways, were my greatest influences. My mother, an artist all her life, studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. For several years, we both took classes on Saturday mornings and would travel there together on the El. Later, she got her master’s degree in graphic arts—with a focus on photography and printmaking. She also became a fiber artist and needlepointer, publishing two books about her work. I saw her as someone who continually tried new things and tried to expand her perspectives as an artist. My father, an advertising executive, used to take me to his office in the Wrigley Building on weekend mornings. He would set me up at a drafting table with crayons and paper. I became very proficient at making Woody Woodpeckers and Donald Ducks. I loved being there near him, making my drawings and playing with all the materials in the art department. However, I did struggle in art class in school. I was always criticized by the teachers for drawing outside the lines and being expressive rather than following the rules.  I got my revenge in the 7th grade, when I went on a local kids’ TV show and got to draw an abstract image on camera, competing with two others. I won, not once but twice, and received a $500 savings bond. In some crazy way, I never forgot that. It gave me a sense of, I don’t know, confidence that I was good at this.

HF: How do you think these early influences helped you develop the drive and the open experimentation that you now exhibit in your work?

MG: Although I stopped making art during my teenage years, in college I minored in art history. I went on to law school and afterwards worked in the federal government in Washington. Very soon, in 1974, I began to felt quite confined by the legal thinking process and looked for a way to get some more expressive outlets into my life. I began drawing again — plants and landscapes — and it helped a lot. At that point, I met Bill Christenberry. He invited me to come to his studio on Connecticut Avenue on Saturday mornings. Hmm, this Saturday morning thing seems to be a pattern for me. Anyway, he would set up a still life and let me draw while he was at work on other things.  One example of the kind of thing that developed there was my watercolor painting of a rusted Tube Rose sign [p._], which is in this exhibition. By the following year, I was so engrossed that I took a leap of faith and quit my job to make art, signing up for courses at the Corcoran. While other classes helped refine my skills, Bill’s drawing course there, where he was and still is a professor, influenced me most.

Growing up, I was always surrounded by art and much of it was modern, but never truly non-objective. My mother simply had no interest in that kind of art. Her art had abstraction, but it referenced real-life objects. In Bill’s class, a model would move about and interact with sawhorses placed around the room while we made gestural drawings.  Through this, I came to have a profound feeling about the power of connecting the gestural marks of the model’s figure and the hard lines of the sawhorse. I found excitement and challenge in arranging the lines and shapes on the two-dimensional plane. I felt a real connection with the early abstract artists such as Kandinsky, Picasso and Braque and then the later ones, DeKooning and Pollock, Hoffman and others, including Diebenkorn.
HF: I’d like to ask you about your concept of space. It appears that you develop the canvas to explode the boundaries of the two-dimensional space. You obviously are not interested in formal perspective or other kinds of historical restrictions.

MG: I really never cared about Renaissance perspective in my work so, yes, I have been exploring the possibilities of space intuitively for many years.
HF: So the pictorial window, for you, even when you use an actual window format in a work, is finding a way to escape a boundary. I sense that you take a clip of a visual experience, perhaps a memory, and your image becomes a vibrant segment. It has nothing to do with the window as we think of it from the time of the Renaissance on. The viewing experience is a gestural survey of space, large galaxies and also a magnification of marks at the same time. I think your work lies in post-modern abstraction – it is totally about process, and is not wed to media or any concrete ideas that have been taught to you. Is that right?

MG: I can’t say I have never been influenced by the ideas of others. I have looked at and felt the works of the expressive abstract artists of the past. Nevertheless, I have not consciously tried to emulate them or improve or react to their work. For sure, their art helped open me up to the possibility of making my own way.

HF: In your early paintings especially, there are so many round shapes in your images. I can’t help but ask, when did they start coming and do they have a specific visual meaning to you?

MG: Actually, I’ve always seemed to gravitate towards mixing circles or circular shapes, soft edges with hard ones, such as straight lines or squares or rectangles. I think soft shapes are more inviting but, in trying to construct the space, I play off one against the other. I don’t think there’s a secret meaning here like reminders of my days as a Little League pitcher, but I do think the soft edges of those models in Christenberry’s class was where I first realized that the energy and dynamism was created by playing off those soft images with hard straight edges like the sawhorse.

HF: Tell me about your recent focus on black and other monochromatic works in the paintings, drawings and prints.

MG: Well, I think that there are two things going on that led me towards these works. One was my continuing interest in making gestural drawings where line was the crucial vehicle for creating an image. Actually, the opportunity to make etchings with Susan Goldman at Pyramid Atlantic with your help, Helen, let me experience pure drawing through the etching process. The other direction came from a method I’ve been using for many years in my paintings, which is to arrange various shapes on a canvas connected with under or overlaid lines.  I would put a white or gray against a black or dark blue, so that the contrast created energy. I wanted to fit all of this together in a unified work where there was a constant push and pull in the way that Hans Hofmann prescribed.  Before the black paintings, I made several called “Toward Black.” These had a substantial amount of black, but still had other shapes playing off against the black. [See “Toward Black #3”]. I got to where I forced myself to rid the painting of any of those shapes. Only black remained. At the same time, I made a painting “Toward Black #4”, which essentially was an oil painting of lines in the style of the linear etching works. This painting has black as well as other colors in it but no large shapes-it’s essentially a drawing on linen with oil paints. My black works bring together both of these strands: the removal of the shapes playing off one another and the inclusion of line in many colors underneath the black. The black paint covers over much of this colored under-painting, and I then use on the surface of the canvas over the black paint a wide variety of black lines of varying size, shade, intensity, glossiness, and flatness to arrange the entire two dimensional space. I also have made these works in colors other than black, using the same method to obtain the dynamism and explosiveness.

HF: It seems to me you create tension in your work activated by your inner workings. In a way, is the use of space a notation for your physical presence?

MG:  The play of tension and energy is a part of my everyday life. I suspect that is the case for most people. Learning how to flourish and experience conflicting forces is my goal. My art work is the product of translating my internal feelings to the two dimensional surface.

HF: The latest paintings have so much energy. You integrate or perhaps conclude with these small bright bits of color that are particularly significant in the play as we view your work.

MG: I love to find the right place for the red mark or the blue line – precisely placed bits of color — to help me with my space arrangement. It’s an exciting journey each time I do it, even when it fails and I have to rework it.

HF: And do you feel that you also integrate nature in your work by integrating abstract landscapes that you characterize as taking place in “the mind’s eye”?


MG: I have always been attracted to landscapes, “real” or imagined. For my abstract landscapes, I look inside myself and let it come out. Each image I make involves taking a very complicated mixture of line and color to make it come alive with energy and force, but in equilibrium. It’s that tension that holds it on the two-dimensional surface and it makes me feel as if I have control of my world for that moment and thus it is a record of that balance. I suppose it’s fortunate that soon that feeling dissipates and I’ve got to go after it again.