The following interview was published on MINUS SPACE in December 2004 in conjunction with Linda Francis’ spotlight exhibition.
Matthew Deleget: I would like to begin our interview with a brief discussion of your background. You were born and raised in New York City (The Bronx). What was you first contact with the arts? Was visual art something that was understood and supported?
Linda Francis: At the time, one could get a decent education in public schools because there was still a social contract between government and the individual. Arts programs were not much in evidence though, but I do remember that my inattention very often landed me in the art room.
MD: You came of age during the mid sixties. What made you decide to study at Hunter College? Was your focus always on art?
LF: I didn’t go directly into college from high school. I really had no idea of what to do with my life. Finally, when I did go, I intended to major in the sciences, specifically biology and chemistry. I went to Hunter simply because it was a good school and free. I was able to work a couple of days a week to get by. One depressing New York City winter evening, I passed an art supply store on my way home. It was all lit up and somehow I thought to try to make a painting. Really it was like being hit by lightning. It seemed as though I had been looking hard at things all my life and didn’t know it. I transferred to the art department, which was run by Gene Goossen. A relatively small group of artists were teaching. I was so fortunate to have been there then — it was a wonderful time for the faculty. They were developing their ideas and beginning to exhibit them. The excitement was palpable. During that time Tony Smith had his first big show of sculpture in Bryant Park and MOMA mounted an exhibition called The Art of The Real curated by Goossens.
MD: You did your MA at Hunter where you studied with Tony Smith, among others. How did he teach? What were his major concerns in the classroom? How did he impact your development (or not)? What did you leave with?
LF: The program was small and intense. The same people taught undergraduate and graduate classes. I continued on to the graduate school because of Tony. My memories were generally of a one-to-one dialogue when he came around to my studio. We talked and talked, mostly about science. We always discussed the latest issue of Scientific American since we both regularly read it. Smith was kicking around mapping ideas like the ‘four color’ problem. For him there was no better way to engage the issue of flatness in painting. He had worked with Buckminster Fuller and was very involved with his ideas. We read D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form, which proved to be the book that probably had the most lasting influence on my thinking. At the time, I was painting sort of sci-fi looking things with color arrayed as that seen through a prism. Tony used to tease me saying that I didn’t want to paint, I wanted to make magic.
A few of us would often go out to Donohues bar after school hours and continue our discussions into the night. At some point Tony would open his beloved dog-eared copy of Ulysses and read aloud. After I graduated, I remember dropping in to visit him at Hunter one night. I tried to enter the room with the least possible disturbance as class was underway, but he spotted me. Tony turned around and fixed me with his profound stare, said something to the effect that he was glad to see me, and commenced reading Ulysses to the class for the rest of the hour.
MD: Who else at Hunter left an impression on you – faculty, etc.?
LF: Ray Parker, who had the sharpest eye for composition and detail in a painting. Lyman Kipp, an utter iconoclast. Bob Morris whose work could be understood by the assignments he gave in class. Ron Gorchov, Vinnie Longo, Ursula Meyer. I was never in Doug Ohlson’s class, but we became friends. I remember watching him hang his first show at Fischbach one night with Jane Kaufman and Tony looking on. I also have a memory of Twyla Tharp trying out a very beginning work performed for a small group of us at Hunter. It featured her husband, painter Bob Huot, a decidedly non-dancer. I took every class Leo Steinberg gave. Each lecture was an object of pure beauty.
MD: Who were some of the artists that you admired during this time. Were there any specific exhibitions or events that left an impact on your thinking and process?
LF: At the time there were allot of ‘happenings’.The idea of ‘performance’ was being developed along with improvisational dance. It was as though painting had relinquished some of its theater and became more a secret, alchemical process. There was a very amazing evening at the Armory with (I think) Kaprow, Rauschenberg, Morris, and Rainer.
I was very interested in Cage’s ideas too and remember making a poster for a concert by him in Town Hall. I was reading Causality and Chance in Modern Physics by David Bohm and Louis DeBroglie. To me it was metaphysics.
I loved contemporary music and did some performance myself in Town Hall and later at the University of New Hampshire with composer Gregory Reeve. To his Red Gongs scored for orchestra and two percussion sections, I made an immense blacklight painting on mylar with a brush wired for sound. Thinking about music led me to make some boxes that radiated light and some that radiated smoke.
It was as if all absolutes gave way to the experimental. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty perversely fueled the perception that anything was possible. It was also a time when a strong humanistic sense prevailed. I remember being part of the March on Washington for Civil Rights and some time later part of the Art Workers’ Coalition, an artists’ movement in support of peace and democratic ideals.
Some of the artists whose work I looked at with interest then were Matta, Lee Bontecou, Larry Poons, Jasper Johns, and Arakawa.
MD: After graduating from Hunter, you lived in Tribeca (downtown Manhattan) during the 1970s and 1980s. Tell me about the artists you hung around with and the places you frequented. Where did you go to see challenging work?
LF: It was a real community. Tribeca wasn’t “Tribeca”. Mostly everyone knew each other. Everyone went to each other’s studios, always visited, stopped in the street to talk, went to have a beer. There were many empty spaces, in Soho as well, and people used them to mount ad hoc shows, have events. The Tribeca milieu sort of resisted commerce. There were very few galleries in Soho then and none further downtown. Holly Solomon and Paula Cooper were first in Soho, I think. Bob Kushner and Tommy Schmidt were friends who were showing with Holly. Food restaurant was going strong. I remember seeing a performance by Joseph Beuys at Rene Block’s space. John Weber, Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend opened at some point. Mel Bochner was doing wall paintings then. I remember he was the first artist I asked to come over to my studio to formally look at work.
Walker’s was a basic burger bar which often took work in exchange for a tab. The Delphi known affectionately as “the Greek’s” was the one place where everyone met when a real dinner was needed. Brad Davis and Daisy Youngblood lived in my building. The door to my loft said “American Ballbearing Co.” Across the street was Suzie Harris and Gene Highstein, Keith Sonnier. Within a radius of a few blocks were David Reed, Judy Rifka, Richard Nonas, Susan Rothenberg, Ronnie Bladen, and many, many terrific artists. I saw Jon and Joanne Hendricks. There were Fluxus things going on. 105 Hudson Street was an office building with rooms that people started to use for exhibitions. I remember seeing a Louise Bourgeois sculpture there. She was relatively unknown then. Some time later The Dia Foundation bought the building and converted it for use by their artists. Hal Bromm opened a gallery in his loft on Beech Street, which he later moved to Chambers Street. The collectors Milton Brutten and Helen Herrick were often there. Hal did some terrific shows and put together many artists. It was there that I first met critics Tiffany Bell, Carrie Rickey and poet David Shapiro. Creative Time began a series of summer installations called Art on the Beach on the landfill, which extended the west side into the Hudson River.
MD: Between 1976 and 1980, you had 5 solo exhibitions and participated in several group shows at Hal Bromm Gallery. What issues concerned you at the time, arts-related or not?
LF: Hal’s gallery was a big part of the art scene in Tribeca. It was really an extension of the neighborhood and reflected its character. He showed many European artists too and did really nice group shows with all of us. All were involved with the abstract. My first show at Hal’s in 1976 was works on paper. One wall of 60 x 45 inch drawings, geometric structures using crayon on vellum, and on the opposite wall, brush drawings, which I did to relieve my wrist between crayon drawings.
At the time I found mechanical ideas like Sol Lewitt’s art by proxy drawing interesting, but the pronouncement that ’painting was dead’ for the millionth time bored me. The work I liked had an eye for ‘phenomena’ as opposed to the programmatic exclusivities of the Minimalists. Transparency of process was important to me, as I guess it was with them, but, for me, it was only about understanding. I was particularly wary of the ‘signature’ styles that were everywhere in evidence in Minimal art. It seemed to me that there was a great deal of work, which was defeated by its own program. I thought this work had the style of meaning, but very little intrinsic meaning. I was not opposed to style as a subject, but the Warhol direction was not for me.
I admired Bob Grosvenor’s work. He seemed to me to be one of a very few who was capable of engaging his materials in a totally poetic, but rigorous way. We met when I showed in Paris in 1978 at Gislain Mollet-Vieville et J. P. Najar at the same time that he was showing at Eric Fabre. During that time we also met Yve Alain Bois who was editing the critical magazine Macula with Jean Clay.
I was in Paris in 1977 too as the guest of Jean Paul Najar. I met many of the young French artists, but especially remember painter Christian Bonnefoi who took me over to Gallerie Jean Chauvelin to see a fantastic show of Russian Constructivist art. We went afterwards to the Chauvelin’s country house where we met the painter Martin Barre.
MD: During 1977 and 1978, you participated in two group exhibitions and a solo show at P.S.1, one of the first spaces in the country exclusively showing contemporary art and a defining force in the alternative space movement. What was happening there at the time of your exhibitions? What projects did you realize there?
LF: P.S.1 was a wonderful old brick and sandstone building in very bad condition. Alana Heiss had a marvelous vision for the place and it began functioning as soon as the doors were able to be open. The most successful works in the beginning were those that somehow dealt with the wrecked walls and the crumbling spaces. Most of the spaces were school rooms. In keeping with that, I mounted certain papers on the wall, the blackboard, and asked four painters to do something with them. I collaborated with poet Stephen Paul Miller. I had a painting in a large exhibition called simply A Painting Show. It was one of the first shows in the newly fabricated gallery space. The exhibition brought together most of the abstract painters working downtown at the time. There was a companion exhibition A Sculpture Show.
MD: In 1980 you designed some sets for “Harrisburg Mon Amour” by David Shapiro and Stephen Paul Miller with Taylor Mead at The Kitchen in New York. How did you get involved with this project?
LF: I went out by bus to Kutztown a few times with Stephen Paul Miller to make a print with him at James Carroll’s project space at the college. We met John Cage there who was making a print too. We all contributed to his print — my contribution was a coffee cup ring.
The bus route ended up in Harrisburg, the site of the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster. Recording one of their bus trips to the college, Stephen and David used the distant reactor stacks at Harrisburg as a counterweight to their two-hour conversation about anything and everything. Taylor performed the verbatim script. He read on until sense was overwhelmed by inanity and began throwing unread pages away in exasperation. Taylor was the perfect tragic comic. Laurie Anderson did the music. I made some very large backcloths with giant atomic bugs on them. The whole thing was a kind of hapless shriek.
MD: In 1981 you participated in the exhibition “Drawing Distinctions, American Drawing of the Seventies,” which originated at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen and traveled throughout Europe. How did this show come about? How did the show’s curator, Alfred Kren, define what was distinctive about Americans drawing? Who else was included in the show? What was the response?
LF: I met Alfred at Hal’s. It was in 1977 during a group show called Moving. I was doing a big drawing on the gallery wall that changed over time and required me to do successive overlays at night when no one was in the gallery. Unbeknownst to me, Alfred, newly arrived from Germany, was staying there and watched me do the large free-hand arc. He loved drawing. It united information and painting. It was taking up more and more space in the canon. In Europe it was still mostly seen as studies or notes, although there were some terrific exceptions in the work of Francois Morellet, Henri Michaux, and Norwegian artist Jan Groth.
Some of the artists in the drawing show were Artschwager, Borofsky, Grosvenor, Le Va, Lundberg, Sandback, Shapiro, Sonnier, and Tuttle. There was a very good essay by Carter Ratcliff in the catalog.
Drawing is by its nature more intimate and I think Alfred was looking for the definition of self in them. Yet these works were independent of other objects. They were complete and self-referential in the same way as is painting or sculpture. His view was not encyclopedic, although it encompassed a plurality of ideas. He saw the common underlying imperatives.
He was interested in my work for the way in which it positioned the “given” against the “interpreted.” In 1979, I made a breakthrough to the subjects and methods that continue in my work now. I began making work that took information — photographs of galaxies and nebulae — and attempted to recreate the images by using analogous processes. The goal was knowledge.
The press in the countries to which the show traveled were interested in Alfred’s thesis. The German press was somewhat skeptical though for a number of reasons, but I think largely because there was a growing consciousness that contemporary “German“ art was driven by different realities than contemporary “American” art. The curators at the Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich were very excited by the show, however, and made that very plain to me when I was there. I really liked meeting Arnulf Rainer there too and was impressed by his comments.
MD: Your work has been shown quite a bit in Europe, primarily in France and Denmark, but also in Germany, Switzerland, Norway, and Italy. Do you think the kind of work you make is better understood there than here in the United States? What do you perceive are the differences?
LF: Perhaps not better understood, just better valued. But abstract art is more significant to Europeans. They see it as a lasting language, after all it was invented there. Perhaps it is viewed less as a material enterprise. I don’t really know. Here it’s much like jazz and blues. That is to say, it’s the giant in the room that one sees when one is able to get enough distance.
MD: Let shift our discussion now to talking about your work – where it comes from and how you make it. Your work over the past 25 years has stemmed from a personal dialogue with science, particularly the laws of physics and astronomy. How did you initially arrive at this subject?
LF: I always was interested in the sciences. There is great beauty in the ideas and concepts about the physical world. Sometimes I see them as rational metaphors for the irrational. It is probably not possible for me to be involved in society in a more obvious way. I don’t admire it all that much.
MD: Every article or review I’ve read about your work tries to either prove or disprove your use of science, how your work is a manifestation of science or how it is not. Do you employ a scientific process in the studio –i.e., hypothesis, experimentation, and conclusion? Do you welcome this ongoing critical discussion of your work?
LF: I suppose the way in which I work admits to what one might call conjecture. For example, I ask myself questions like this — if everything is made out of atoms and atoms are always moving then what would a stable form look like? Or more precisely, how could a stable form arise? My working method is a kind of experimentation. That is, I limit the variables in the work so I can see if some transformation occurs as a result of my operations.
As for science, per se, I am most obviously not a scientist and feel happy when I am able to understand the things that I try to read. My work is really intuition even though I think that it pertains to some of the ideas in cosmology, string theory and the like. In 1982, I did a show in Copenhagen of very large drawings, in which I attempted to pick out the structures embedded in certain spiral galaxies. I called the show The Order of Chaos mostly because I thought it funny that the word ‘chaos’ is defined as ‘disorder’. I had been reading Pirogine’s description of chaos, which really pointed out how orderly it is. Predictability is a different case.
MD: Have you had the opportunity in the past to show and discuss your work with actual scientists, not just artists and writers. How have they responded to your work? How has their response differed?
LF: I have not spoken enough to the scientists with whom I imagine I would like to have a conversation. I’ve been shy about it, but would love to have the opportunity. My work does have an admirer in a German biologist though who can understand the work from the standpoint of what he sees through an electron microscope. Many years ago, in a fit of illumination, I phoned the string theorist Abhay Ashtekar and went on about baseballs and motion in all directions at once. He just nicely asked me to send him some pictures, which, of course, I was then too embarrassed to do.
There have been a couple of very positive responses from mathematicians who are familiar with the arts and are able to decode my quirky relationship to numbers and space. I felt particularly good when one of them recognized ‘the three body problem’ in a drawing.
MD: Are there other sides to your work or process that are deliberate and obvious to you that viewers rarely or never pick up on?
LF: I think one would have to know or understand the possibilities to which I am alluding in order to know or get pleasure out of seeing the impossibilities that come up in the work. Yve-Alain Bois is the one person who has talked about that aspect of it.
MD: Supersymmetry – a concept straight out of physics – is probably the best point of entry into your working process. Dealer Nicholas Davies described it clearest in relation to your work stating “every fundamental particle of matter possesses a ‘shadow’ particle, as yet unobserved, which holds a force, and vice versa.” Your work exemplifies the principals of matter and force. Please explain.
LF: When I first started using chalk and eraser in the seventies, I thought of the chalk as matter and the eraser as force. I understood that the way to account for form or mass was to look at force. The character of the form depends upon the type of force exerted upon it. That is how I was able to make chaotic patterns by moving around chalk with eraser in certain curved trajectories.
Supersymmetry is a two-paneled painting, in which I tried to show how the same structure might look quite different depending upon what elements were visible in each case. That is actually an idea which informs most of my work.
MD: The appearance of your work can vacillate between the macrocosmic and the subatomic simultaneously. How important are these shifts in perception, these exponential shifts in scale?
LF: They are very important and I fully intend them.
MD: You’ve consistently used a geometric vocabulary in your work – aggregations of circles, ellipses, triangulations, quatrefoils, and pentagons, as well as arcs, waves, and spirals. Straight(ish) lines haven’t made an appearance in your work in the last 25 years, except in the rectilinear edges of your papers or panels. Tell me about the shapes, structures, and systems you use.
LF: The structures that I use come out of motion in curved space and the idea that every point on a curve is the same point. You can sort of see the possibility for time travel when you look at a spiral galaxy and see the arms propelled symmetrically from the center, but corkscrewed in opposite directions. From the time that I first looked at a photo of the great nebula in Andromeda, I knew that symmetry and curved space were what I wanted to explore. I understood that three dimensions were a kind of brain trick to enable us to orient our bodies in space and to be able to move through it. At the same time, I was aware that everything depends upon how we decode information — that flatness in painting is not any more real than three-dimensional constructs are. I remember looking at a Ryman and thinking that it didn’t matter if the three little screws on the surface were dots or holes or photographs, or whether one was looking at a painting that took pains to be read as a wall on a wall and actually was seeing, of necessity, windows. ‘Flatness’ for its own sake was not interesting.
Those things, which add an element of psychological dilemma to reason, interest me. One thing I have been doing for the last ten years is equating a line drawn anywhere on a sphere with an edge or silhouette. The painting Pentagon is a good example of that. Also, Two Hexagons. This idea started with some drawings I showed in 1997 that came from thinking about the wobble of the earth in orbit and wondering whether one could actually translate that into a “flat” drawing. I did that in the drawing Equatorial Precession and a number of others. That was one of the drawings reproduced in Michael Brennan’s review of the show on Artnet.com.
MD: Smearing and erasing play a central role in your vocabulary as well. To me, they signal motion, vibration, resonance, or flux. Is this the reading you intend?
LF: Yes, but that is, however, the by-product of making and unmaking form.
MD: Do you see your work as entropic?
LF: No. That is, not as in the classical definition of entropy.
MD: Do you see your work as ironic or pessimistic?
LF: Absolutely not.
MD: Your drawings are almost always chalk on paper and are large in scale. Do you make preparatory studies for your drawings? How do you make a drawing?
LF: It would defeat my purpose to make studies. Really the drawings are a crap shoot. I most often don’t know what structure will come up. That is why I set limits in advance — a grid of spheres or circles for example. And then anything at all can happen.
MD: What role does the white paper ground play in the equation with science?
LF: A continuum. Or a convention — a piece of paper I can use to show you something.
MD: Although your works are largely black and white, you sometimes use specific key colors, such as red and blue. What are your concerns regarding color?
LF: Matisse said that you can tell a colorist by their use of black and white. It has been hard to see a use for color because my interest, for the most part, is in the structure. It seems that most color is either too naturalistic or too decorative. I use color when I think I can unite it with the structure, or when it can function as black or gray, or when I need to differentiate some part as one would with a word.
MD: Recently, you began making paintings again. Your paintings are exclusively oil on panel, which is undoubtedly a much slower process than your drawings. How do your paintings relate to your drawings, or not? What do they share in common? How are they different?
LF: I guess the activity of painting as opposed to drawing causes me to work differently. I am very aware of the architecture of the panels, the orientation of the horizontals and verticals in relation to external architecture, the palpability of the paint, the objecthood of the whole enterprise. I use a lot of diamonds because the oblique edge confounds conventional gravity-oriented space and seems to posit an endlessness. I like to play with their measurements against those of squares. I make a lot of what could be read as diagrams.
The structures I paint take into account the same givens as in the drawings and are, I hope, shown to the same net effect. Certainly the conclusions are the same.
MD: Your work, in general, seems to lie almost outside the realm of space/time, frozen snapshots of a cosmic continuum. In this respect, your work is a rigorous depiction of reality. Of course, not based on what we see, but rather based on what we know is true, proven through scientific inquiry. Do you think it’s fair to interpret your work as representational — yes, in the traditional sense, albeit from a completely different perspective?
LF: I remember once telling a realist that I was a realist too, if that is what you mean. But I was just joking. As in relationship to the idea of verisimilitude, it would be nice.
MD: Another interesting interpretation of your work was included in the review of your solo exhibition at Condeso/Lawler Gallery in 1997. Painter/writer Michael Brennan wrote “these drawings are elemental, not Minimal, nor reductive, and they function at the building block level of knowledge…they are constructed outside of any conventional rectilinear idea of art.” How does your work belong to art? How does it belong to science? Are issues of aesthetics part of your thinking, or not? Can scientific information be aesthetic?
LF: I was elated when I read that review. It was what I had hoped for in the work and was grateful that someone could perceive it that way and describe it so clearly. I don’t really know how the work belongs to art or science. I think of aesthetics — yes. But the best thing anyone can say to me is that the work is elegant. Perhaps in aesthetics that’s bad, but in science that is beautiful.
MD: I would like to talk to you for a moment about your solo exhibition – “Linda Francis: quanta” – currently on view at the University of Alabama, which features a lot of your recent work. How did you structure the show? Which works did you include in it? What ideas were you trying to convey? How did you arrive at the title?
LF: Quanta are units or parts. I like to think the work does some quantifying.
I suggested that we choose work that pointed up the relationship between the paintings and drawings. I’ve actually never had the opportunity to do that before because I work from a whole a priori conception that generates lots of simultaneous forms and ideas. I don’t think linearly. I’ve noticed anyway that the idea of a ‘series,’ which stems from Newman’s work, is often perverted to justify a commercial design exercise.
There were seven paintings in the show and ten drawings. We started with some work from 1997 and included work from almost each year up to 2004. Most of the older work had been shown in NYC, but three paintings and five drawings had never been shown before.