View of Gowanus Canal from MINUS SPACE project space
Michael Zahn: I’m looking at your new Knife Paintings, and they’re quite unlike anything you’ve done previously. The intersecting black diagonals are visually pretty swift. The drawing has a striking, highly stylized movement to it, and this palette has a gruff quality that feels like a quick crack in the chops. These two yellow and orange color planes are fairly terse and down to earth. There’s an optical weight and corresponding opacity to them suggestive of the dirt from which the pigments are made, and somehow I feel there’s the hint of a threat there, too.
Michael Brennan: My work is becoming more direct as I mature. The execution is immediate. I paint in the premier-coup or ‘first-strike’ mode. I’ve been deliberate with form and color. I also wanted to avoid any antiseptic associations with tape and geometry. If they’re somewhat more workmanlike, it’s probably as a result of my move to Gowanus. That’s not so unusual, I think. If an artist is paying attention, their work will change in predictably unexpected ways whenever they relocate. When I lived on the Bowery, my proximity to Chinatown was a kind of inspiration. All of those ideograms and red signage (Harmony Palace, Sino Carpet, even Lighting By Gregory) had a real influence on my approach to painting. I began reconsidering everything after moving to Brooklyn a year ago, since I did want to account for this unique environment somehow.
Bishop, Knife Painting #2, 2006
Oil, wax and alkyd on canvas
48 x 76 inches
Kentile Floors sign with F/G subway line
in background, Gowanus, Brooklyn
MZ: There’s a very definite quality to this part of south Brooklyn. It’s unlike other parts of the borough, or even the rest of the City. The window in Matt and Rossana’s space affords a view of some of it. There are the overbuilt and largely crumbling structures you describe in your ‘New Roman Times’ essay – the massive brick walls, the elevated trains and the expressway to the southwest, but there are also the tire shops and taxi garages along Fourth Avenue, the scrap metal dealers and the beer distributors on Third Avenue, the drawbridges, the loading docks, the water towers, and the chimneys, the decrepit coffee joints, the insular social clubs and the old wiseguy haunts like Monte’s and Two Toms, there’s the sweep of the sky, the ‘Il Furioso’ sunsets, and the proximity to New York harbor…I wouldn’t say it’s exactly picturesque, but it’s all very cinematic. I know film has been a constant point of reference for you. The neighborhood around the Canal is still a part of what I call ‘the dirty New York’ that’s seen in ’70s movies like The French Connection and The Seven-Ups, cinema which has a palpably brusque, existential violence to it. I see a bit of this in your Knife Paintings. I mean, that infamous Lincoln Continental loaded with all the dope was delivered to a pier not far from here.
Smith & 9th Street Station on F/G subway line
with Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in
background, Gowanus, Brooklyn
Subway tressel, Gowanus, Brooklyn
Photo by Michael Brennan
MB: I never tire of those two films, that silvery cityscape, or that era in general. The excitement of those films is a kind of fuel – all that visual velocity, the harsh cuts, the wheel-well views of a car chase. The cold reality of revealing the city just as it is, run-down, dirty, dangerous and dumb, is strangely liberating. There are fences all around this neighborhood that embody similar qualities. It begins as a normal cyclone fence in front of an empty, litter-strewn lot. Then there’s an addition that went up in ’77, when things got really bad, that doubles the height. But that wasn’t enough, so the top gets crowned with rusty coils of concertina wire. And you’re left with this menacing metal mesh of triangles and razors protecting nothing more than a patch of gravel, some empty plastic bags, and a derelict truck or two. This is not something to tune out. This is something to learn from. I walk by this stuff everyday; it had to enter my work somehow. Maybe we should debate the virtues of Lincoln versus Cadillac instead, like a couple of gavone in a social club?
New Roman, Knife Painting #1, 2006
Oil, wax and alkyd on canvas
48 x 76 inches
Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle, The French Connection (1971)
MZ: Well, what’s there to say? General Motors revamped the Cadillac’s image with some new sheet metal and a Led Zeppelin soundtrack. Ford continues to build bigger and more monstrous vehicles, like the Lincoln Navigator. These things relate to questions of style and taste, and to issues of novelty and obsolescence. But they also represent a staggering failure of imagination. Detroit was once the symbol of a powerful and creative industry, but today it’s probably even more fucked than it was in the ‘70s…We should mention we’re romanticizing the decrepitude that’s ubiquitous in certain parts of our environment, whether it’s observed on the street corner, encountered in the movie house, or tossed away as yesterday’s news. These subjective, aestheticized responses to detritus coalesce in a very modern viewpoint that’s first embodied in Baudelaire’s description of Manet’s painting, even as it pictured the emergence of a stylish class obsessed with novel distractions and amusing entertainments. This is asking a lot, but I rarely encounter contemporary painting with a fraction of the pictorial power and confrontational pose that something like Olympia possesses. Can painting still shake things up in that way? It’s curious that this period we’ve been discussing, the 70s, sees both the decline of American manufacturing and the moment where postminimalist abstract painting derived from the New York School experienced a major breakdown. Your paintings reflect this situation, and attempt to recover certain values from that time. Do you buy the current idea that abstraction is simply one style among many, and that its communicative power is diminished?
Still from The Seven-Ups (1973)
Edouard Manet, Olympia (1863)
MB: I never thought of abstraction as a style. To me it was always another breed of painting that offered an incomparable visual experience – that’s why, as an artist, I always found it so attractive. There have certainly been confrontational abstract paintings. Barnett Newman’s The Third comes to mind. I’m not sure Olympia makes for a fair comparison, but I do often think of how different things are now, especially compared to the 70’s. I like the new Cadillacs with their faceted front ends, but I never think of them as real Cadillacs. Once I was behind this giant, white Escalade that had the Cadillac seal stuck on its back gate. GM had puffed up the size of this SUV, but the seal remained the same scale as it had been on a ’73 Eldorado. It was a stock plate designed for what had been a regular-sized car. This Escalade looked ridiculous, like a fat man wearing a teensy hat. Anyway, there’s an image that represents the decline of American manufacturing in a nutshell. I also watched Bullitt the other night and I noticed that, with the exception of a few Volkswagens here and there, every car in every scene, whether Peter Yates was shooting in the city or on the interstate, was American-made – and that’s what seems totally ‘foreign’ now.
Still from Bullitt (1968)
Ford Motor Company Highland Park Plant
circa 1920, near Detroit, Michigan
MZ: There were, at that point, a lot of Americans around that used to make a lot of actual things. That’s an idea that seems totally ‘foreign’ now as well. The real blue-collar ethos that was a fundamental part of the ‘70s is today just about dead. If anything, its energy was absorbed into different subcultures like punk, no wave, and hip-hop, where it was manifested as an aggressively performative D.I.Y attitude. Those three subcultures are also products of the ’70s, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone now with half a brain who’d claim contemporary pop music is still challenging. That’s not to say, of course, that it isn’t entertaining…But I’ve sometimes heard it said, and it makes sense given what we’ve been discussing, is that this was what really happened to abstract painting: Around 1977, at least in New York City, it turned into music.
2007 Cadillac Escalade
MB: The fact that live music had all but disappeared from the City until punk came around is unimaginable, and yet two mainstays of that scene, CBGB and Continental Divide, just got priced out of their leases– perhaps that’s for the best? But I see the whole Minus Space project as very much part of the D.I.Y. ethos. That’s how all these scenes begin. I’ve heard stories about Franz Kline delivering his own paintings to his dealer Charles Egan with the work stacked in the backseat of a convertible. As far as a blue-collar ethos goes, it seems like you and I originally hit it off right away because we both actually made things, and that was very unusual, and kind of suspect, among our first New York crowd of people that we hung out with in the late’ 80s. You were always muttering ‘go home and make something’ at those parties on Elizabeth Street.
Barnett Newman, The Third (1962)
Michael Zahn working in studio
MZ: That’s when I was working in construction in New Jersey and in the City, and was up to my eyeballs in plaster and paint in these steel-cage death-match situations every day. The job sites were like bastard progeny of the Full Metal Jacket boot camp scenes bred with the frantic assembly-line parody from that I Love Lucy episode with all the cakes on the conveyor belt. But that was where I really did discover how to make things in an intensely technical, speedy, and highly polished way. I still use that knowledge today whenever I walk into the studio. My paintings are like paeans to that sort of hardcore craft.
Skeleton Star, Knife Painting #3, 2006
Oil, wax and alkyd on canvas
48 x 76 inches
MB: Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral is, in part, a love letter to Newark’s vanished manufacturing base. Roth goes on at great length about exactly how much expertise goes into making a pair of ladies’ leather gloves. It’s riveting. His main character, Swede, is constantly at odds with people who have never made anything in their lives, especially radical intellectual types. But Roth also knocks abstract painting as something like a catalog of dissatisfactions, which to me sounds more like a description of some of his novels.
F/G subway line with watertower
in background, Gowanus, Brooklyn
MZ: Swede is like an archetype of the guy who just wants to be left alone to do his work, but circumstances always intervene. I think that’s probably the dilemma a lot of abstract painters face. The dissatisfaction that occasionally arises might come from constantly having to defend the practice from what you stated earlier are unfair or misplaced comparisons. But Olivier Mosset once described this predicament in a typically straightforward way – painters solve painter’s problems, and not stockbroker’s problems or bicycle racer’s problems. That’s about as punk or as blue-collar as it gets, in my book. It’s unapologetic in its defiance, and upfront in its refusal to compromise, but at the same time it doesn’t idealize its situation. It seems to me that the very best abstract painting knows what it is, and knows what it’s capable of accomplishing. It takes a certain kind of pride in that knowledge, which is as varied and complex as the personalities of its makers, and each painting in itself is a record of that radical self-awareness.
MB: It’s not enough to just think about paintings, or the problems of paintings, their critical context, or whatever else. I tell younger artists this all the time. At a certain point, one has to make the painting and see what the issues are. Abstract painting, like life, is an art of never-ending adjustment.
Michael Zahn is a Brooklyn-based artist. This interview was published on the occasion of Michael Brennan’s exhibition “Knife Paintings” at MINUS SPACE project space, December 2006.