Interview with Richard Bottwin, by Rossana Martinez

The following interview was published on MINUS SPACE in March 2004 in conjunction with Richard Bottwin’s spotlight exhibition.


Rossana Martinez: I would like to start our interview at the beginning of your career. You came of age as an artist during the early 1970s in and around New York City. What kind of work were you making at that time? Were there any specific artists, exhibitions, or events that had a profound impact on your early process and thinking?


Richard Bottwin: My work has always been about geometry and architecture. In 1968, during my senior year in high school, I happened upon Donald Judd’s first retrospective at the Whitney Museum. It spoke to me immediately and I still have vivid memories of it. Tony Smith’s work also caught my eye, although I was partial to the more horizontal, landscape oriented pieces. In 1971, I saw a large installation by Smith, entitled “Eighty-One More” at the Museum of Modern Art. It filled a gallery on the ground floor off of 53rd Street where the bookstore most recently resided. A very large platform in the shape of a triangle, incised with a diagonal grid, it had four-foot high tetrahedrons scattered on the grid. I was mesmerized. It was a plywood mockup and it was destroyed after the exhibition. That work informed a lot of what I did back then.

My undergraduate instructors at Lehman College (formerly Hunter College’s Bronx campus) were almost all involved with geometric abstraction, although it was mostly of the European — Max Bill and Neo-Plastic — variety. They seemed to be more concerned with making “sublime objects” rather than room filling, monumental, industrial constructions. As they were all showing in New York galleries, I had access to their output and it certainly affected me.

More importantly, though, I have been a rabid fan of architecture since I was a small child. I was building little flat roofed modern houses out of scraps of wood when I was six and, by the time I was eleven, I was well acquainted with the work of Wright, Mies, and Le Corbusier by way of library books. My family knew to call a modern building to my attention when we were speeding by one in our car. In the late 50s, my parents, low on cash, would take us on cheap Sunday afternoon outings to Idlewild Airport (later renamed Kennedy). There was a garden of fantastic pavilions being built there to serve the new jet traffic. I was in heaven every time we made that loop around the terminals. It was a very strong need to devour and reprocess architectural issues that fired me up. I was fortunate that when I came into adulthood in the early 70s, the predominant vocabulary of the art world was in sync with my predilection.


RM: For two decades, you’ve focused your attention on sculpture. Most recently though, you’ve been producing wall-mounted sculptural reliefs, which I find particularly unique about your body of work. The format is clearly challenging and wrought with contradictions. How did you decide to start making reliefs? What are the specific set of challenges that come with making them (versus free-standing sculpture)?


RB: I blame it all on gravity. I’ve made pedestal sculpture in the past, but I have come to despise the notion of that white column supporting a small work. The conventions that sculptors commonly use to keep their work from falling over, i.e., vertical poles (sculpture-on-a-stick), slabs and platforms (sculpture-on-a-pancake), disinterest me. By placing a small piece on the wall, gravity simply isn’t an issue. The mysteries created by the visual contradictions I construct remain intact.

With the larger, freestanding works, it often is my goal to make it look as is they could not possibly be standing on their own. Engineering this without hidden concrete anchors (cheating) can be a challenge. I try to devise structural systems that appear to be straightforward, but actually support in surprising ways. The reward is to seem to defy gravity when I have, in fact, just used it cleverly.


RM: In addition to your reliefs, you have also realized many large(r)-scale public art projects over the past few years. I am thinking about your installation at Bird Park in Philadelphia (next to Gallery Joe), and more recently, your bench-like sculptures at the Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park and Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. All were architectural or structural in nature and made from raw wooden timbers bolted together. When did you start thinking about your work outside of the gallery space? Can you talk about the interactive/participatory nature of your public pieces? What public projects are you currently developing?


RB: As stated before, my work is primarily about architecture and this informs my vocabulary. I have always planned large-scaled outdoor pieces and built my first one on the campus of Pennsylvania State University at Clarion in 1983. There was another pavilion-like piece in Fairmont Park in Philadelphia in 1987. When my work becomes architectural in scale (in other words, when it gets as large or larger than a person), I like it to function architecturally.

I have no desire to confront someone with a big abstract thing. I’d much rather that the viewer approaches my work thinking that it is a nice place to sit and get some shelter. Then, after it’s too late, they realize that the seat is much too high and deep, and they must pull their feet up and themselves into the thing, then I’ve got them! They will then see the world around them through my vertiginous geometry, and hopefully, try to make some sense of it all.

The next public project? I alternate the larger, quasi-functional works with the smaller indoor pieces that serve as research and development. When an opportunity for an outdoor piece comes along, I’ll be on the job.


RM: Your work possesses an aggressively conceptual quality that you describe in your statement as “paradoxical” and “disorienting.” A number of your relief works, for instance, such as “Square & Angle #10” and “Square & Angle #14”, appear to be sitting on a sort of white “shelf”, which is in fact part of the work. Describe how you create visual paradox in your work.


RB: It all comes from a physical problem. When I was three, I was treated for an unusually “lazy eye”. One eye being dominant, I never really developed full-fledged stereoscopic vision. Oh, my eyes might converge an image subliminally now and then for my brain to use, but mostly I get by with “relative depth perception” (collecting visual clues and making some sense of them). It works well enough except in low light situations where I might occasionally get mild vertigo and stumble a little (if you see me weaving around in a dark bar, it’s my eyes, not the drink).

Anyway, I have always amused myself by looking at things and alternating my perception of them by “flattening them out” and then seeing them in “3-D” again. To recreate this sensation in my sculpture, I distort the perspective in the forms in my work. This distortion interacts with the actual convergence that is occurring for the viewer and that interaction can create those paradoxes. I don’t see the shelves in the “Square & Angle” pieces as particularly paradoxical though. I simply wanted to have a square emerging from the wall at an angle.

A fellow artist and good friend of mine, Kevin Finklea, had used small white shelves in his work, so I suppose that this possibility was floating around somewhere in the back of my mind. I thought that I could support the square and create a comment about its angle to the wall by restating a variant of that information in the shelf. The shelf is also one of those architectural details I like to play with.


RM: Craftsmanship is not a word that is commonly talked about anymore. You take great care in how your works are constructed and finished. This is especially evident after visiting your studio. Your precision and deliberateness are some of your work’s most memorable qualities, at least in my mind. Please talk a bit about your craft.


RB: Being a neat and careful craftsman does not come naturally or easily to me. I also studied art in a liberal arts institution, not a professional art school, during the iconoclastic late sixties and early seventies. There was no emphasis on learning process and materials. You could learn to weld if you liked (I didn’t), but traditional modeling, casting, mold making and carving techniques never sullied my education.

Learning how to fabricate my sculpture has been a constant challenge to me, and I am still figuring out how to do it as well as I’d like it to be done. I was impressed early on that my ideas would not be credible if they were not realized in an appropriate way. I just do what is necessary to communicate the idea. The trick, of course, is to make the materials (especially when there are several in a single piece) look inevitable. At times I have veered too close to the decorative and have had to slap myself back to reality. I do find the process of making things by hand very important to the development of my sculpture. The physical act of manipulating materials and building things seems to stimulate the production of new ideas.


RM: I have a specific interest in your use of materials. In particular, how did you begin applying paint to your sculptures?


RB: I’ve always thought of the paint as a tactile material on the surface that just happens to be a specific color. At first, I used flat grey Rustoleum enamel because it was thick and smooth, and with the inevitable warm and cool shadows that would be cast in the pieces, it was every color and no color at the same time. When I started to use real color, it was in a very intuitive, painterly way. I used oils and an alkyd medium because of the alkyd’s even waxy gloss. I also liked the ease with which it could be used to apply glazes that modulate everything and bring the sculpted forms and paint into focus.

In the late 80s and early 90s, I was making very complex, almost “Rococo” wall sculptures that were painted and gold leafed. Going “overboard” in this way allowed me to collect enough information to really know what I was doing when I became reductive again. Later, I used oil paint and alkyd medium because of its versatility. The oil colors allowed me to vary the opacity and transparency in areas of solid color. That sort of manipulation is one way to make a single color interesting.

Now, I use acrylics because they are easier to handle and less toxic. Golden Paints has developed mediums and paint consistencies that are nearly equivalent to oils for my purposes.


RM: Although your works generally appear very straightforward, even factual, at first glance, upon closer inspection, they are in fact highly intricate structures consisting of shifting angles (rarely 45 or 90 degrees cuts); layers of sandwiched, exposed plywood and (sometimes) exotic veneers; polished, high value colors (always slightly off the primaries and secondaries); etc. They are activated to the point of being kinetic. What kind of effect are you seeking when you combine these various elements? How do you know when you’ve got it right? What kind of experience are you creating for the viewer?


RB: You’ve just asked and answered your own question. It is my goal to present something that looks easily understandable at first glance with perhaps just a few mysteries. When you walk around the pieces to figure them out, they change radically and present more questions. As mentioned earlier, I love to play with perspective and, if I get it right, the works might seem to twist and move as you look at them.

The experience? Well, hopefully not nausea. Best results: surprise and a moment of reflection about what we perceive. Oh yes, and humor. Laughter is essential to my existence and I feel compelled to share that.

Distorting geometry and pushing primary colors in weird ways also reflects my desire to subvert some of the dogmas that have grown up with geometric abstraction. The vocabulary I use has been around for almost a century. I am madly in love with the work of Tatlin, Lissitsky, Malevich, Rodchenko and the de Stijl artists, but I really don’t need to reinvent what they have already accomplished. A few of my purist college mentors from the 60s and 70s might be appalled with my heresies. Using what is left to us, but also rebelling and messing around with it, well, that’s what the next generation does.

Oh yes, for some reason I cannot explain, I am just very partial to 60° angles.


RM: You’ve had your studio in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood for over 10 years now. I am interested to hear your thoughts about the expanding Brooklyn art scene. How has it has evolved during your time in DUMBO? And what has been the place of reductive work in it?


RB: DUMBO has been a convenient, scenic, and once upon a time, cheap place to have a studio. The DUMBO Arts Center and its director, Joy Glidden, have been a terrific resource and stepping stone for many artists, including myself, so I’m glad that I’ve been there and that its been there for us. I really don’t see any specific relationship between the neighborhood and the content of my work. The great value has been the proximity of the many artists in the area and the productive professional connections that can occur with this kind of density. I imagine that a number of the artists on the MINUS SPACE web site have had this connection.


RM: You’ve also lived and worked in Philadelphia for a long stretch of time. Historically, both Philadelphia and New York have been hotbeds for artists making reductive art. How has the reception to your work been in Philadelphia? And how has it differed from New York?


RB: I’ve had some success in Philadelphia, and perhaps, greater opportunities exhibiting with commercial galleries there than in New York. I don’t know how I can quantify it with regard to reductive art. Perhaps with having lived and worked there for a while, some opportunities became available. Philadelphia, being smaller than New York, allowed some connections to be made a little more easily. My current gallery affiliation in Philadelphia (Pentimenti Gallery) came about from the dealer, Christine Pfister, seeing my slides at the DUMBO Arts Center in Brooklyn.

With regard to the notion of minimalism having a home in Philadelphia, it occurred to me that perhaps related to that is the fact that Philadelphia is really a city of architects. With Louis Kahn having having worked there and a great number of major firms starting out there (even if they have moved up and on..), it really has been the home and starting point of many influential builders. A short list is: Venturi & Rauch, Mitchell Giurgola, Kohn, Pederson, Fox, Davis, Brody and more… The PSFS building, one of the first international style steel and glass towers built in this country was built there in 1929. There is a perfectly circular wall mounted water fountain in the building that is said to be designed by a youthful apprentice, Louis Kahn.


RM: Finally, I would like to ask you about your thoughts concerning the general perception, appreciation, and support for abstract, geometric art in this country. What are your thoughts on this?


RB: It seems that art viewers in this country need a story that’s readily accessible or a moral that’s easy to digest. A non-objective, reductive, abstract narrative that’s not purely decorative still seems to be a hard sell, even though the genre has been around for over half a century. Of course, there are a handful of artists who have achieved fame, if not fortune doing this. I thoroughly enjoy their work, but sometimes the overbearing scale and arrogance of a lot of this sculpture leaves me uneasy. In a country that values things by how many millions of dollars they cost or how far they’d reach if laid end to end, it seems that making reductive art really, really big might gain it a wider audience.