- By Sophie Arni
John Torreano (b. 1941, Michigan) is a painter known for his abstract canvases and has had a long career alongside some of the most well-known figures of modern American art. His paintings are delights to the eyes: his starking use of color and materials, including his signature oxygems create highly thoughtful and awe-dropping compositions. He is a poet of dark matter, an aesthetician of deep thoughts. A monumental figure, that I had the chance to interview only a few weeks ago in Abu Dhabi, UAE. He is indeed a practicing painter and professor at NYU Abu Dhabi (where I now study Art History), alongside a clinical professor of studio art at NYU Steinhardt, a position he has held for many years.
Sophie Arni: Thank you for sitting down for this interview. Your practice deals with the picture plane coming literally out of space. They push the boundaries of the physical world while fitting in a relatively flat, rectangular surface. What was your journey to this concept? Please walk me through your artistic career. John Torreano: I grew up in the catholic school system. My hometown, Flint, Michigan was an automobile industrial centre at the time. There was not much art around, but I was attracted to drawing as a child. When I enrolled in the first of my many art schools, America was shining with the golden timecenter of Abstract Expressionism. I continued and stayed in school, it exposed me to art and cultural differences - two things I was fundamentally lacking growing up. It was also my first time seeing any kind of socio-economical inequalities - something that will come up later in my practice. So I was studying and making art at Ohio State University. At that time, theories were invading how one would understand modern art. I remember the craze on gestält theory (perception) or Greenberg's take on Modern Painting and its essential flatness. There I was, at a crossroads. Should I go left into Color Field, straight to Pop Art, continue right to AbEx or go extreme right to Minimalism? To be honest, I didn't want to choose. I didn't want to be placed in a category. Under my first mentor, Richard Devore, I dabbed into Abstract Expressionism. In the late 60s and 70s, I compared how Old Masters and AbEx painters composed their surfaces. I was interested in Titian's techniques, just like Turner's, Pollock's and Rothko's. I saw the picture plane as a rectangular composition. I first experimented with the horizontal division of space. I also played with plaid motifs. I was attracted to geometrical division, to modernism at large, to modernist architecture. And only later did I start to think circular. A universal kind of composition. I did some dot paintings, and it suddenly all became more fluid.
I have this quote, from 1968. "Less is less, more is more. No less, no more." So I wiped out my dot paintings. I scrubbed their surface until only fragments were left. It was a very formal approach, a psychological way of dealing with art, and thus with the audience at large. These paintings became furniture for the eyes. I read that painting should be transactional, rather than telegraphic. I really stand by that statement. When the paint was wiped out of my dot paintings, I experimented and added gems. The universal concept was born. Around the 70s, I had my universal paintings; a curved spatial composition of visual stimulation and dynamism.
S.A.: When you start adding gems into paintings, you deal with a certain three-dimensionality. Do you consider yourself more a painter or a sculptor? John Torreano: Why don't think of it this way: the sculpture is a manifestation of painting. Differentiating 2D and 3D is about categorizing, again. What if you simply thought of painting as a sculptural object? Painting is the materialization of art. S.A.: With the development of post-internet art, innovations in digital art, screenshotting computer screens and collaging them on Photoshop, some people might speculate that 'Painting is dead'. What do you respond? John Torreano: It's like saying that poetry is dead. S.A.: Lovely response. Now let's talk about the gems. As a medium, they could carry associations with the glitz and glam of material culture. What is your stance about these diamantes? John Torreano: That wasn't what I initially intended. I don't consider my work to be Pop Art for example. Those gems, I found them in the South Hamptons. I call them 'oxygems', as they carry an inherent oxymoron of form and light. I work with the materiality of the diamond: as being a mediated, human-made, carved, hand-made precious stone. I elevate the process of making applied wood diamonds of elevated, shiny quality.
S.A.: Richard Artschwager described your works as "paintings that stand still and make you move." John Torreano: Richard Artschwager wrote about art as an experience vs. knowledge. I follow that approach: studio art is the core, the precious invention of all other meanings attached to it thereafter. In the studio, things don't particularly make sense and happen often times quite randomly, linked by experimentation. Once outside the studio cocoon, art seems to invent the language for its social sphere. S.A.: What about the word 'decorative'? Your pieces are carriers of acute composition and philosophical thought, as well as supra-decorative objects. John Torreano: To decorate is more of a verb. Existing as decorative comes from a quite active process. To merely 'be' decorative is more superficial I agree.
S.A.: And finally, for Global Art Daily, can you tell me more about how local and global issues affect your practices? You have been coming to teach in the Arabian Gulf for four years now, how did your stays in Abu Dhabi change your vision of the world and your works? John Torreano: Well two things stand out. First, I have gone diving quite often, as a hobby when I stay here. The underworld is fascinating, just as fascinating as the outer space in a contra-distinctive way. My new research is titled 'Above, Below, Below Below': it's about the different surface levels of nothingness (desert), thingness (the city Abu Dhabi) and the below below (black gold). Second, I started to experiment with photography. I find the city of Abu Dhabi to have an incredibly colorful palette. Street signs can be blue, green, red, yellow: these are bright, unmuted colors that make up the urban landscape of the city streets. I photographed these signs and also have been researching old photographs of Flint and comparing them to Abu Dhabi. In a coincidental manner, I was born and grew up in an automobile industrial town. My father worked with an automobile factory, whose production was 'fueled', quite literally, by the oil resources of this region. I have distant but existing ties with Abu Dhabi. Construction or deconstruction, you choose.
I work with the materiality of the diamond: as being a mediated, human-made, carved, hand-made precious stone.
All of the images are courtesy of the artist.