Rick Briggs: I like that term “visual wit”, and I think some of those earlier paintings had some of that too. Paintings like One Liner, Red Studio, and Through the Cracks, for example, had this quality, with the later two expressing the idea of an art career gone awry. But I agree the humor was darker. That was the first representational series I’d ever made, so it was a major departure for me. It also followed a 2+ year hiatus from art making. When I finally got back to work, I knew it was an opportunity to do something completely different. I really needed to tell a story. On another level, I really liked the idea of presenting an image of the artist as worker during those go-go years of ever-escalating auction prices for art superstars.
Rick Briggs, Bright Yellow Room, 2006. Oil on canvas, 66 x 80 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Rick Briggs Interviewed By Katherine Bradford
Katherine Bradford: Bright Yellow Room and Abstract Painting—two of my favorites and classic Rick Briggs paintings. Let’s start there.
Rick Briggs: Two paintings that had 2 very different means of coming into existence. Bright Yellow Room happened very quickly; painted most of it in a day and came back and added the chair a day or two later. Abstract Painting took about 9 months to resolve.
They both come from a series that show a painter at work in the studio, as well as on the job. The paintings that feature lots of horizontal lines refer to a series of abstract paintings I made in the 90’s.
KB: Are these the Painter Man paintings from the series that gained you a Guggenheim, Pollock Krasner and NYFA Finalist?
RB: Yes, it’s been an amazing year! One of the other nice things to happen out of this body of work was to be invited by Rob Storr to participate in a show at Yale where I was asked to spend a week in their gallery space and was given a huge wall on which to make a mural. While I’d never made a mural previously, I did have a ton of experience house painting. So I turned to my house painting materials: latex paint, paint rollers, etc. While I was making it one night, a student poked her head in and burst out laughing at the sight of me rolling out a painting on the wall of a house painter rolling out a wall. I love that kind of reaction.
Rick Briggs, Abstract Painting, 2009. Oil on canvas, 40 x 46 in. Courtesy of the artist.
KB: And I think you made a nice move forward from the work you showed at the Brooklyn Museum in 2004 (“Open House: Working in Brooklyn”). Those Painter Man pieces showed a guy painting in a room but it was all about the tedium and frustration you felt having a day job painting other people’s rooms. Happily you changed both the statement and the tone of your work to be about your day-to-day life in the studio —which as we all know is full of joy and wonder. And now you found some humor that isn’t as dark as the humor in your original painter man series. In fact what I think you found was “wit,” visual wit.
RB: I like that term “visual wit”, and I think some of those earlier paintings had some of that too. Paintings like One Liner, Red Studio, and Through the Cracks, for example, had this quality, with the later two expressing the idea of an art career gone awry. But I agree the humor was darker. That was the first representational series I’d ever made, so it was a major departure for me. It also followed a 2+ year hiatus from art making. When I finally got back to work, I knew it was an opportunity to do something completely different. I really needed to tell a story. On another level, I really liked the idea of presenting an image of the artist as worker during those go-go years of ever-escalating auction prices for art superstars.
After I showed those paintings, I really felt relieved of the burden of that story. Narrative became less important. Changing the tone was a very conscious and easy decision for me to make. I didn’t think the earlier series reflected how I had always felt about painting, as you so nicely put it— as a place of “joy and wonder.” To that end, I lightened the palette and decided to incorporate my studio life into the mix. I really wanted to get back to making painting directly like I had always done before. I like what Guston once said about wanting to make images as if there had been no history to refer to. I wanted to make dumb straightforward images.
KB: During one studio visit with you in the 90’s—this was when you were doing big painterly abstract paintings—I spied a pile of drawings sitting on your flat file. They were line drawings that told the story of how you renovated your loft on Bedford Ave. You used stick figures, as I remember, and you invented signs and symbols to indicate the carpentry involved. Anyway as we looked through this pile together I was fascinated because at that time we weren’t using our daily life as source material for our art and we certainly didn’t use figures—that was for the “figurative painters.” Our heroes were artists like Tom Nozkowski and Bill Jensen—pure abstractionists—or someone like Elizabeth Murray who twisted her figures into huge bold shapes. These drawings had an urgency to them and we both wondered what the heck you’d ever do with them. It seems important to bring this up to all those artists out there who have piles of rogue work lying around their studios. Take note artists, this may be your “scout work” that’s gotten out ahead of everything else.
RB: That was actually the mid-80s and you’re right, I was recording all the things I’d done to my place: replacing windows, spray painting, repairing the floor, etc. They were the kind of goofy, embarrassing drawings I never would have considered art but they absolutely do make sense as presaging the Painter Man series. I heard Guston once say that painting was an opportunity to embarrass yourself. I found that so shocking. I do think of my going from a reductive organic abstraction to a Pop narrative series based on a painter, albeit a house painter/artist, was my homage to Guston’s challenge to “embarrass yourself.”
And you’re right, Kathy, that figuration and abstraction were two very distinct activities back then. Remember when the abstract shapes in Elizabeth Murray’s paintings first took on a figurative form? It seemed so radical then. Nowadays, it seems much easier to move freely between abstraction and representation. That’s an aesthetic position I fully embrace. So thank you Philip Guston, thank you Elizabeth Murray!