Sam Cornish: Can we start by talking about the grid, which, even if it is subverted or mangled, always seems to be an underlying formal structure in your work – could you say something about its presence, what it is doing there?
Cullen Washington Jnr: Let me give you a bit of an introduction – when I was a kid I didn’t want to be an artist, I wanted to be a scientist, because I wanted to understand my environment, to metabolise it, because I loved nature, and all the mysteries in nature, the universe, space. I’ve always been interested in the framework of what we see as materiality, the thing of reality. The grid for me is a metaphor for the scaffolding that holds the material world together. The word ‘stract’ means to take away. So when pondering abstraction, I think about it as the theft of reality, the stealing of reality, so when you see the squares on the painting they are peeled away, they are folded back or folded forward, a peeling away of materiality, and what is beneath it is blackness, the mystery, the cosmos, the universe – and that is what is holding everything together. The grid is both a compositional device and a philosophical idea.
SC: So the grid is a way of having the universal in your work – which I suppose is the role it plays in Mondrian, right from the beginning of abstract art. But with Mondrian, his grid, up until the very late works, is a complete grid, more or less. What is the role of your fractured grid, how is it different?
CW: I think there is a distinction between the grid and geometry – I view Malevich’s work and Mondrian’s as more geometric. When you use the objects of geometry the work will form a grid-like structure, it has to, but they wanted to purest expression of object-ness without objects. And that is a huge step – they used those pure, primary colours, and they used objectless form, geometric form. They were trying to remove subjectivity and be purely objective, to communicate an idea of purity. And that was the same thing that I was going for when I started reading about why they did what they did. I am looking for the same modernist idea of purity in my work – but I did chose to use the grid more so than the idea of geometry…
SC: And how does purity, universality relate to the scuffed, obviously material stuff you use, the canvas, or tape…?
CW: I think the environment informs my work a lot – I live in New York, in Manhattan, which is grit, asphalt, dirtiness…
SC: And is right in the grid as well…
CW: Exactly, I’m in the grid and I’m in the bowels of the city, and so I allow those things to come into my studio space – the colours I see around me inform my work. The grittiness and all the scuff is also about life, practically and philosophically. One piece I made – not in this particular exhibition – I made with my feet, I actually painted the canvas and scuffed it with my feet, and then cut out the scuff marks, and I used those as collage pieces on the work. But I also use black in order to reflect that the universe is dark and black, and I use certain monochromatic tones for aesthetic purposes, to contrast with the black.
SC: I think I saw the scuff work on-line. Is it one of the recent more organic works, and the grey scuff marks are placed over the top? Can you talk a bit more about the recent organic works in the relation to the pieces in the Saatchi show, which just precede them?
CW: When I’m making a body of work it is not about making art, it is more about asking a question, or solving a problem, or communicating an idea. So the question I ask myself was: ‘what if the grid was consumed by this organic-ness; what if the grid became organic?’ That is a paradox – the grid is X, Y axes, but what if it could be opened up by organic-ness? I made those works to answer that question, as an exploration. Because it is all just exploration. One of the pieces in the show here [the Saatchi] also answers that same question, so the lines of the grid butt up against each without being perfectly perpendicular, they adjust to the organic.
SC: What I like about the work is its freedom, the clearly improvised quality that it has. And one of the way that it is expressed, particularly I think with the better works in the show, is that they clearly begin in the middle and work outward, so that the boundaries are not imposed on the work. Could you say something, in a quite practical way, about how they begin? Or do they begin in all sorts of different ways?
CW: They usually begin with a mental image, and they carry on with a word. So I have a list of words, like ‘stack’ or ‘void’, or ‘mass’. One of my friends is an inventor, he is an engineer, and he is also into science, and we have these really interesting conversations about quantum physics, and of course his language is very different from mine, but I am able to pull out certain words which resonate with me. If I’m thinking what ‘void’ is, then I leave certain areas of the painting empty, so it sort of follows that word, such as the work here where you can see the wall through it. I try to define what the word could mean, as a noun and as a verb, because I am thinking it about it as an action, and as a thing.
SC: And so you improvise around that, the rest of the work is a reaction…?
CW: Yes, its reaction. And also I am thinking about this notion of surface, and the work seen in terms of the object-ness of a painting, and that can happen in the irregularity of the edges. What is concerned with the edges of the painting? This is an interesting boundary which other artists have challenged and so I follow suit with interrogating the edge of the painting; also the back of the painting.
SC: Yes, some of them hang slightly off the wall, so you can almost see behind.
CW: Yes you can see behind, or I’ll take the ends or take the back and fold it forward; painting is often seen as a two-dimensional thing, but for me why I use tape – tape is a very immediate material to use – it also serves as paint, it can be flat, but it crumples and you can use it three-dimensionally, and it can give surface to the canvas; the same thing with the string – in some areas the string is drawn line, and then it becomes three-dimensional.
SC: And the tape, as well as being a flat thing, or being a raised textured thing, is also a line that creates the illusion of three-dimensional space.
CW: Exactly. I also like the economy of using tape to make a line, and then taking the tape and using it as the line itself. So in order to create a guideline I would put on tape, and then paint, and then pull the tape away, and then use that tape also as a line itself. There is a sense of recycling, I guess you would say.
SC: And that relates to a guiding thing which you alluded to before, which is that the work is frequently concerned with opposites, with positive versus negative, black versus white, full / empty, these kind of things.
CW: Yes, definitely….
SC: Who do you see as your contemporaries? Within New York, or within the wider scene?
CW: I really like Mark Bradford’s work, or Leonardo Drew – and I have a little pantheon of my gods, like Rauchenberg and Antoni Tapies, Lee Bontecou, Salvatore Scarpitta, Kurt Schwitters, Braque, and Picasso (I saw his black and white show at the Guggenheim). And the reason I appreciate them so much is their strategies – particularly Mark and Leonardo – their strategies for making large pieces, what I call modulation. So a module is a component which is scaleable, and replicable, so you can make a piece as big or as small as you want. This also follows into the philosophical part of my work, with the grid, or with other geometric shapes; and so that they can be replicated as a small piece, or as large one.
SC: So you see the small ones and the large ones as essentially the same thing?
CW: Yes, the same thing.
SC: That relates to something which I was thinking about when I looking at jpegs of the very recent work. It occurred to me was that they seemed to use detail much more, particularly using line to describe quite precise detail, whereas the works in the Saatchi show tend to be more generalised, to be concerned with larger units. Though I’m not sure exactly how that relates to the idea of scaleable parts…
CW: Well, I remember being drawn to the these images of blown-up computer chips, at an exhibition at MoMA. They were so beautiful. There was one piece which I did at the Studio Museum artist-in-residence programme – and they ended up acquiring that piece – but, anyway, I saw this [shows image to SC on his phone] image of a blown-up computer chip by IBM, and its exactly what my work is about, its about modulation and all those things, and when I saw it, it was inevitable it would enter my work. It is a beautiful abstract painting. But I tend to interpret things, I’ll be driven by certain things – this [shows another image] is a stage where I am metabolising the image of the computer chip.
SC: You can almost get that that last stage was a computer chip – you said ‘metabolise’, how important is it for you to suppress or to change those initial images? Do you want it to readable, or do you not want it to be readable, or is there something else?
CW: I think it is about integration. I’m trying to understand my environment. For me it was so overwhelming because it was exactly what I was trying to communicate, so I thought, how can I communicate that myself? So it wasn’t important whether it looked like the computer chip or not, it was just my way of understanding what I had encountered. I mean, this room of things was saying what I wanted to say – can you imagine that? It was a fantastic experience to see these things which I did not create, and which were saying what I wanted to say in my work. And a computer chip of all things! But if I went to copy it, there was so much detail, so I had to just let it be this intuitive action, most people don’t get it, unless I point it out, but a few of them do…
SC: Of course I saw it the wrong way around…. So, could you say that it’s not about liking the visual quality of the thing?
CW: Well it is about that.
SC: But it begins with that, but then it moves to something bigger than the visual, or something like that…
CW: Yes. [laughs]
SC: And it all gets a bit difficult to talk about… I think that is probably enough, unless there is anything else you want to talk about? I was going to ask you if you considered yourself an abstract artist, but I know a lot of people get a bit annoyed by that question….
CW: I don’t know. I guess yes and no. I try not to use categories. I read somewhere that an artist called himself a plastician, his work was plastic, pliable, it could be pulled in any direction, and I really liked that, because it just said you can make what you want to make. But then, the word ‘abstraction’ as an historical standpoint has an arm, and from a making standpoint has an arm, so I would say, yes, I would like to connect myself to both of those. To my heritage of abstraction I would say yes, and to the making, I would say yes. I am definitely not a figurative painter!
SC: That’s the problem with the question I suppose. Because with everyone you might think of asking the question to, the answer, on an immediate level, is ‘obviously, yes’. But then when you dig beneath that, and try and work out what it means to be an abstract artist, if there are degrees, where you can be more abstract than another abstract artist then it becomes an interesting but unresolvable mess of different interpretations, of the word, of the work…
This interview took place earlier this summer, during the Saatchi Gallery exhibition Abstract America Today