From The Artful Mind, interviewed by Harriet Candee
What’s a Bronx boy doing in the Boonies? Ok, it’s not the boonies the way it once was, actually its pretty cutting edge around here…
That’s a great opener. It makes me smile. It reminds me of the saying: You can take the boy out of the Bronx but you can’t take the Bronx out of the boy.
Actually, my Bronx-days encompassed Greenwich Village. My uncle, Alfred Crimi, a fresco muralist and easel painter, had a sky light studio on West 13th Street. I started apprenticing with him when I was a teenager. The Village became a home-away-from home until I eventually set up my own studio there.
My string of decisions over the years, lead me here to the wonderful “Boonies” of the Taghkanic Hills and Berkshires
where people are very well informed, kind, and have a let-it-roll sense of sophistication.
Can I assume that your uncle was an influence on you?
Yes…he was the Big Kahuna for me. He was my best friend, surrogate father, a wonderful thinker, and spiritual guide. He brought me the vibes of color through his formal training.
He’s no longer on this plane but I often get a deep yearning for just one more discussion with him about linear composition, color relationship, or how his
thinking earned him the great distinction of being the black sheep of the family. I’m proud that we were like-minded.
That must have been interesting, to have a family member be a fresco muralist?
It was terrific. Both Alfred and my father, Charles Crimi, executed murals through the auspices of the WPA…for the Morrisania Hospital, Harlem Hospital, Northhampton Post Office, as well as other public places, during the Great Depression, which, according to both of them, wasn’t so “great”.
By the time I was apprenticing with Alfred he was doing easel painting and was doing murals, but with mosaic chips, for New York City schools. (Alfred was a thoroughly accomplished artist, similar to the Renaissance artists. He studied at the Scuola Preparatoria Alle Arti Ornamentali, in Rome, which was the premier school for all aspects of painting, including the wet-plaster fresco technique.) I had the honor of helping him with cartoons for the murals…helping to layout his concepts on the large, thick rolls of paper. In his later works on canvas, Alfred created the sense of overlapping and transparent geometric planes through color mixing…very advanced stuff at the time. Even the mosaics have that feel.
My father and Alfred were very European…and very exciting. They were both born in Sicily and came to New York during their formative years. The richness of tone, brought by immigrants that populated the boroughs, in the early part of the century, was still very much in the air then. It was in the Village where they discovered their artistic inclinations and bohemian ways.
How did this affect you?
I was thoroughly awed by their accomplishments. This awe spilled over to another painter who was a major influence, Willem DeKooning. He just blew me away with what he was doing. It still excites me to think that going to parties at his loft on Lower Broadway and to gallery showings of his then recent paintings was a part of my life as an impressionable teenager. Like my family, his formative years were spent in Europe.
As a nascent painter I found myself between the blatant power of the Abstract Expressionism tidal wave and the long-standing calm and exquisiteness of the painting of the Old World. A lot of painters were caught between these two dynamics.
Alfred instructed me with the European approach to development while everyone around me was slapping, dripping, and plopping paint.
Knowing that Dekooning studied academic drawing in Holland, underlined what Alfred was encouraging me to do; making drawings in charcoal from the antique, the time proven method of developing an informed hand and discerning eye. When I visited fellow fledgling artists who were studying with Robert Motherwell at Hunter College, they were doing little Motherwells without learning how to draw.
They are marvelously serene structures, a Western icon that any Taoist sage would have loved to call home.
I love the freshness and brilliance in your paintings, Bob. Do you ever get bored of using color, and just break down to black and white!?
Once in a while, for nostalgia sake, I’ll use some white and black house paint to experience what Kline and DeKooning had. It’s an excellent way of developing and shoring up a compositional sense while implying color.
The excitement of a new discovery, no matter how minor it may be, can be the key to keeping the whole painting experience to continue. What have you discovered?
That I know less than I think I do.
What was one of your stepping-stones and great learning experiences you can share that relates to “You cannot live on Art Alone”?
My experiences have all been stepping stones. They’ve shown the importance of balance and the middle way…shown that detachment is essential to involvement.
Try this…take a piece of paper and a pencil and make a gestural line. Look at it closely and notice how really interesting it looks…how expressive it is. You really like it, don’t you? Now, tear it up. Do the same thing with paints on canvas. That’s detachment.
I know your studio is open for people to visit; are you learning simple, powerful ways to get people to respond to seeing your work?
That reminds me of a guy back in the 60s. He arranged a happening in a gallery and when everyone arrived, under the guise of “art”, he had someone shoot him in the arm…now, talk about getting a response. Ever since then, I use the word “art” very sparingly. Contrary to popular belief, “everything” is not art.
The open studio idea has always been around and is a viable alternative to galleries
and museum. Each has its place. Galleries and museums also seek responses but I don’t think there’s any simple way.
This is why anyone who is trying to make a painting or play cello or use their body as a medium should be encouraged…self-expression affirms our true nature and takes a lot of huevos.
When did your artwork take off and become the important focus in your daily life?
When I was about twenty-six. I was really sure of my direction then and became relentless with a dash of obsession. Sometimes I was distracted but never far from the nest.
What do you think it takes to be a full time artist?
If I were to advise a seventeen year old, whom I assume is still unhindered, with a strong impulse for self-expression, I’d suggest that they should use self discipline to be disciplined…I can hear the magazine closing all over the Berkshires.
I’d suggest: Don’t go to college, the debt will prevent you from maintaining low studio/home overhead. This is essential. Work part time or freelance at a skill you enjoy. Learn to be frugal.
Read everything that you can get your hands on about being involved in your chosen medium but believe none of it. Seek out older artists, ask questions and keep your eyes open.
Be self-subsidizing. Don’t look for patrons.
It’s essential that you be master of your desires. Don’t have children unless your well is filled to the brim with gold coins otherwise your dreams of making works of art could be curtailed for a very long time.
You bring your life to your work so design it for maximum clarity…since you are what you eat, don’t ingest alcohol, nicotine, caffeine or sugar.
Give yourself time to develop before exposing yourself to the undercurrents of the marketplace.
Attempting to make art, that mystical essence, doesn’t manifest easily. It’s not achieved through competition.
Embrace the change that always occurs in you.
Do what you want to, but be sure of it.
If you think that following your bliss will be exceedingly difficult…you’re correct.
Lets talk about your barns. Why express your art with barns?
Well why not? For the most part, they’re just forms and colors that I’m attempting to bring together as an aesthetic image. I’m inspired by the barn structure and, as I work, toggle between the emotions I feel for it and my respect for them as abstract forms.
Is there an actual history you share with the Barn? With the disappearing of them, are you keeping them alive by using them as objects of art to paint?
When I lived in New Paltz, I had a studio/home in an old farmhouse that was next to a barn with a gambrel roof. It housed white-faced cows, hay, and some equipment. It had a marvelous flying buttress beam structure that always held me in awe.
That barn comes into play in several paintings that I did at that time. Sadly, it has been deconstructed. In a way I’ve kept it alive.
My wife, Trudette, spent her formative years on a dairy farm in Ghent. Barns became part of her consciousness when she was young. We share the same quality of feeling for them.
What I was beginning to get into my paint box at the time, was the understanding that any manner of applying paint to canvas requires a strong foundation as well as a directed intuition. If your going to do innovative work then you need to have something to innovate from. Motherwell’s own work was very directed. He and the other terrific painters of the time, DeKooning, Joan Mitchell, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler and Franz Kline, took on the monumental task of dealing with formal aspects of form and color as a primary focus. Their works were emotionally applied but were intellectual in overall concept. They got rid of details and sentimentality…which is a good way to go through life. Instead of filling in linear compositions with color, they developed the composition intuitively as the paint was applied…with change always being at the finger tips.
You mentioned a directed intuition. What does that mean for you.
Intuition is our built-in navigational device. It always does me well. I go to it when I pick up a brush…like Zen and archery…keeping the intellect out of it…becoming the bow and arrow and, similarly, becoming the brush.
Did you ever give attention, in that seminal period, to other disciplines?
Well along with my studies with Alfred, were my visits to jazz clubs that were close to my studio…The Half Note, The Five Spot, and the Village Vanguard. The brilliant ideas and artistry of musicians like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Miles Davis were an essential part of my development. They, and their fellow musicians, were some of the most courageous, individualistic, innovative thinkers that I ever met.
It was spontaneous combustion in all the arts in NYC of the late 1950s and early 60s, very exciting, very compelling. Fabulous things were happening in painting, dance, music, prose, poetry and sculpture. It was a renaissance without patrons…no singular message was being enforced. It was truly an uprising of the creative spirit in what were very repressive and the very provincial times of the 1950s, most incredible. I have very vivid memories; watching Thelonious Monk’s fingers dance across the keys on the piano at The Five Spot; meeting and conversing with Jack Kerouac at The Half Note; laughing with Lenny Bruce at The Den in the Duane; or seeing and hearing the Jackie McLean Quartet in The Connection at The Living Theatre. I’m so glad now, that I made the effort then. It all captured my heart.
Does your focus on your style include an ongoing challenge?
I don’t focus on style. I let the style come out of the moment…change it up when necessary. Style is the last thing that I want to concern myself with.
It’s important for me to pay attention to what the colors are saying, to be intuitive with them and not try to bend them to my will or squeeze them into a formula. To keep my ego out of the process is the real challenge.
A signature style is a fabrication of the marketplace. It’s related to the artist as manufacturer, mass production, unification, and homogenization, concepts that come out of Western culture and were never a part of primal cultures.
I have tendencies in painting that may be considered a style but I don’t always use all my tendencies in the same painting.
If I’m a collector buying a painting, I’m going to buy it because it looks really, really beautiful not because the artist has twenty others like it. Having twenty paintings that look alike doesn’t give any one of them credibility. If it turns out that they have distinct similarities then that’s fine, as long as they each function on their own.
If I do a repeat a motif, and treat it freshly on it’s own terms, I’m not stepping in the same river twice.
Looking at your colors, the widespread areas of pure color and shape, I feel that they bring together a world of joy and excitement. What do you feel?
I’m delighted that they do that for you.
The use of oil paint is a major part of the impact. Pigments suspended in oil allow for a luminosity that isn’t achieved with acrylics. A layer of oil paint enhances the reflection of colors beneath, by allowing light rays to reflect through. It doesn’t block them out.
I lay paint on a blank canvas. I don’t use a preliminary drawing.
The process of working from impulse/intuition is one of finding balance between color, line, and form. They’re very powerful and mysterious forces when brought together. To reach harmony on the fly is a demanding endeavor, sometimes a bullfight, in order to extract something from the Mystery. The result can be viewed as an imperfect mystical manifestation of Nature.
It’s a free space that can be altered at any stage of development in order to achieve the desired balance and harmony
that transcends content.
The alterations create additional layers which add to the luminosity not subtract from it. Moving the forms around only enhances the surface effect.
Oil paint is a very, very low-tech medium that insists upon a lot of patience and a lot of time.
There’s apprehension as well as joy in returning to the easel day after day. I still find it extremely exciting.
While living a wonderful and serene life in the country, do you ever wish to drop everything and go back to the crazy city?
No…never…I find equilibrium and truth living in the natural world. It’s luscious to the eyes and palate.
Ever want to move far far away?
Do you mean getting away from emotions and the relentless flow of thoughts, the inner chaos?
I like being on this planet and in this area…being steeped in what we call “Nature”, realizing that I’m not an entity separate from it.
Reason doesn’t exist in Nature and that suits my primal self just fine. Reason has brought our species to a place of rock-ness and hardness.
Nature isn’t trying to get to anything. It has no objective. It just is. Isn’t that great? You know when you love someone so much you just want to hug them and break through…right? That’s the feeling…that’s the way it is.
How does your environment affect your persistence in painting?
That’s very astute of you to notice that I paint persistently…doesn’t everybody? The impulse to paint has been with me for a long time. It’s still a mystery to me. My present environment allows for that impulse to flow clearly, along with my diet, resistance training, bike riding, hiking, dancing, and love making.
How does one get around the survival / struggle with making money?
That’s not an easy question to answer…I guess…being conscious…staying on one’s toes…being agile and able to move quickly.
There’s been a lot of propagandizing and conditioning generated the Mad Ave industry, instructing us how to lead our lives, for most of us since birth. It’s a smoke and mirror game, establishing social mores that reek of consumerism. It’s a devious game that the corporations play with Television, and now the Internet, they being primary vehicles of control. If you want to struggle less and feel good about yourself cancel your TV subscription.
If you had to write a short story to go with a favorite painting, can you share that with me?
Well, here’s piece that I wrote recently:
A wide brush, loaded with soft breeze green, pounds
onto taut white canvas…as I age without being asked.
A fresh mark this one—a revolution at the flick of a wrist.
The time of my death floats like milkweed,
privy to chance and thermal convections
The pigments whisper as to
how they submit, how they
yield, how they serve
(me, all ears and heart).
These colors, these flourishes,
solidifying no place for me
in immortality…they’re just showing me a good time
How would you describe your work?
_______ • _______
Studios were often built with skylights for northern exposure.
My studio was built with windows allowing the life giving force of the sun to permeate the space, to saturate the floor and walls.
An easel holding a blank canvas sits on casters within this brilliantly lit environment, allowing mobility to the best illumination.
The white surface of the canvas reveals nothing but its warp and weft; and a sense of everything.
A paint-loaded brush of horse hair, wood, and metal, disturbs the surface; a first form.
It proudly vibrates; a strong, powerful pigment of the earth.
It sits complacent on the tooth of the canvas, letting go of some rays of the
spectrum and holding on to others; registering as color on our retinas.
Its existence is not tenable. It will struggle to hold its own amongst more strokes to come; mainly as essential underpainting.
The next stroke, if intuitive, will set off a dance troupe of colors seeking balance.
This choreography continues through unaccountable time.
Then—a single brush stroke sparks harmony.
Nothing further required.
_______ • _______
The digital images on this site are simulacra. They are backlit electronically. The camera lens used to photograph them is only able to capture the surface. The original oil paintings are experienced with reflected light. Unlike the camera lens, the retina of the eye is able to discern all its over-painting and depth of human touch.