Abstract artist and musician Mark Dagley has been working in New York and Europe for over twenty-five years. Drawing from various postwar art movements and developments: Op Art, Washington Color School, Monochrome Painting, as well as European modes of art making, such as Support/Surface and Radical Painting, Mark has created a diffuse, yet particularly American body of work.
Last spring Mark retrieved a group of paintings he had in storage at his parents’ home in Washington, D.C. Although dating from 1986-87, the paintings look to me as if they could have been done yesterday. The paintings do not look like historical pieces, reflective of a specific time, and they would not look out of place in a gallery today. I’ve found in them pop associations to video game, skate board, and surf cultures, though they still preserve a tie to the aforementioned precedents.
DV: Let’s go back a bit… Mark, you studied at the Corcoran in Washington, D.C. Did you study with any of the Washington Color people: Leon Berkowitz, Gene Davis, Thomas Downing, Howard Mehring?
MD: I was at the Corcoran during spring and summer of 1975, taking night and weekend classes in color theory and painting, while still attending high school. Raymond Wilkins, my art instructor at Oakton H.S., suggested these classes, since my interest in painting and sculpture went beyond what he was teaching. So they let me in. Maybe he pulled some strings. I don’t know.
Ed McGowin, Children, 1969
Vacuum formed plexiglass, 10 modules, each 4 foot radius
I took classes with Ed McGowin, whose early vacuum form plastic pieces still look good, and with Lowell Nesbitt, when he was available. They pretty much let me do what I wanted after the first few weeks. I was painting geometrically, more or less, from the beginning f my studies. Not much has changed with my work since then.
I was very grateful–and relieved–that not only Wilkins but the Corcoran instructors had taken me seriously, even though I was only seventeen. They showed me a lot of valuable techniques and studio practice: from cleaning brushes to stretching large canvasses, to using masking tape and architectural templates and tools. Most importantly, I was taught how to apply acrylic and oils in different consistencies to get the effects I was seeing in the work of the D.C. color painters.
My teachers also pointed me to the essays, books and magazines that any young artist should be familiar with. I was brought up to speed fairly quickly, shown that this was a real profession with a living history.
Leon Berkowitz was chairman of the Corcoran’s painting department at that time. Gene Davis, who was quite a star then–about as big as a D.C. artist could be–was there too. Anne Truitt was still alive. Sam Gilliam and William De Looper were quite well known. Even as a student, it was clear to me that a great moment in painting had just passed in the city. Morris Louis had only died a dozen years previously. Color Field was still very much in the air. It was the official party line, so to speak.
Color Field Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum,
Washington D.C., Anne Truitt 17th Summer (left), Paul
Reed #1D (center), Gene Davis Wall Stripes No.3 (right)
P Street was still the center of the D.C. art world then. The Henri Gallery, located there, had a Thomas Downing or a Gene Davis on the walls up until its closing, in the mid-90s. It was run by an old school grand dame who called herself Henri, pronounced with a French accent, though she otherwise sounded–and most likely was–completely American. Things were still 60s cool then, or at least she was. She wore sunglasses and fabulous baubles at all times of the day. I finally introduced myself to her about fifteen years ago and told her about my teenage trips to her gallery. She ended up taking some of my paintings on consignment, but died shortly thereafter. She left her vintage glove collection to my wife, a fellow glamour gal for whom she’d developed a fondness.
DV: You also studied at the Boston Museum School. The Museum of Fine Arts regularly held major exhibitions of the Color Field artists. As an art student in Portland, Maine in the early 70s, I would come down to Boston on field trips and see Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Ken Noland, Jules Olitski, or Larry Poons at the MFA, as well as Joan Snyder’s stroke paintings and Katherine Porter’s early zigzags at the galleries.
MD: Yes, I did attend school there for a short while. I have to say that it was, in many ways, a grave error. The dialogue with working artists that I had experienced in D.C. was sorely lacking. While Professors Natalie Alpert and Sandi Sloan showed some enthusiasm for the dozen of so geometric paintings and the selection of wooden reliefs that my father had helped me transport in a U-Haul trailer, there was little other interest in Color Field or geometric painting at the Boston Museum School.
Wood, 23 X 38 inches
I couldn’t accept the school’s empty academic formalism. It seemed, in this environment, that painting as I had known it had been played out. Though I appreciated their positive feedback, I found Alpert’s paintings overly fussy and precious, and Sloan’s work at the time wasn’t very compelling to me. I missed the intrigue, the eccentricity, the cut and dry quality that is particular to the best of the D.C. painters.
Red Dog, 1961
It was big news when visiting artists like Alan Sonfist or Nancy Holt would arrive on campus. The students were supposed to assist them with a project, get some hands-on with a “pro.” I was the only one who helped Alan make 8-foot-high compost heaps in the school courtyard out of wet autumn leaves, lunchroom garbage and dog shit. I don’t think he liked the Museum School much after that. Neither did I. Guess I should’ve enrolled in the course they called “Winning!”
Didn’t receive much, if anything, in terms of practical advice. After being told by instructors whose work was provincial at best, artists without any professional experience, that I would have to begin again–”Slow down a little, kid”–I went my own way, moved my art materials out of the student classrooms and started painting in my studio apartment. I never went back to the painting department, or showed anyone my geometric work again…until I moved to New York in 1979.
The winter of ’76 was so cold that the water in my toilet bowl actually froze. That’s when I started to plan my escape to the Big Apple.
DV: You are also very active as a musician. While in Boston, you were in an art rock post punk band, The Girls, which released a single produced by David Thomas on Pere Ubu’s own Hearthan label. Later, after you moved to New York, you formed a blues-based punk avant garde noise band, Hi Sheriffs of Blue, which also had an acclaimed underground reputation.
MD: Luckily the Museum School had a small electronic music studio with a few decent synthesizers and some other good gear. I hung out there with the other misfits, stoners and rock & rollers. At least they understood that the place was a total drag. I also discovered the photography and video studios, and the performance department, where all the cute arty girls were hanging out. That’s where I learned about Acconci, Beuys, Nauman, the Velvet Underground, Kraut Rock, Eno.
I started going to the New England Conservatory of Music whenever John Cage gave a talk, also to MIT, which had the best videography department in town. Between 1976 and 1979, I met many of the artists and musicians I would later run into in the East Village: Pat Hearn, Mark Dirt, David Bowes, Nan Goldin, Jack & Dan Walworth, John Miller, Peter Dayton.
We would check out parties and events over at Massachusetts College of Art, which was only a few blocks away. That seemed more like the Corcoran–you know, a real art school. I remember being impressed that you could buy art supplies right on campus. No such luck at the Museum School. And Mass Art had an actual stage, a sound system, lights–the whole works. Many of the instructors were professional artists, like Peter Campus and Don Burgy. We would take our videos over and do performances there. Peter Campus would show his latest work along with the students.
By 1976 punk rock had entered everyone’s radar. I had seen Daved Hild, a classmate in electronic music lab, perform at the Museum School in gessoed clothes and white sunglasses with a woman named Pseudo Carol. Since I played guitar, I asked if I could join them. They said yes, but our band days were quite shortlived. Pseudo Carol moved on, and, after playing out a while as a duo, Daved and I set out to find some artists who wanted to start a Captain Beefheart/Kraut Rock type of group. Robin Amos became both our synthesizer and bass player, which wasn’t terribly convenient. We realized we needed a fourth on bass. Daved mentioned a guy named George, who was bringing his guitar to the T-shirt factory they worked at: a really good classical guitarist, funny as hell. A few weeks later, George Condo was in. We chose the most awful name we could think of that still sounded punk: The Girls.
The Girls, circa 1978
From left to right: Mark Dagley, George Condo,
David Hild, Robin Amos
Photo: Margie Politzer
David Thomas heard us perform about a year later and brought us to Cleveland, into the same studio Pere Ubu worked out of. He produced our only single, which he released on his Hearthan label in the spring of 1979. By November of that year, the band had dissolved.
George Condo and I left Boston for New York on an Amtrak train in late December with maybe $400 between us. After getting set up in the East Village, we started another group called Hi Sheriffs of Blue, modeled after the 1950s electric blues bands from Chicago and Detroit. We tried to play not only hard electric blues but punk, fake jazz, funk and rap. We were together for about three years.
DV: You continue to make original and uncompromising music today, often combining slide guitar and electronic effects with fractured rhythms. How does your music feed your visual art making and vice versa?
MD: I’ve been a musician since childhood. We always had a piano in the house, and music lessons were required from day one. I started playing the guitar when I was around eight years old. I was in garage and surf bands with my brothers in grade school, and then during high school in folk, rock and blues bands.
I try to keep whatever I’m involved with musically a little primitive, very clean and simple, but I don’t know if my art really informs it that much. The things I’m interested in doing with painting just don’t apply to my music. I have no problem with the formalist viewpoint: a separation of the arts may be a good thing.
DV: The paintings you are showing at MINUS SPACE were exhibited at Tony Shafrazi’s in 1987. What was going on in the art world at the time you made these? How do you think this body of work related to Neo-Geo or other painting trends going on in New York at the time? Can you tell us about when and where they were made and how you arrived at this particular look?
MD: Well, by 1981 or ’82 it was pretty clear to anyone living in the East Village that we were in the midst of some sort of art boom. Condo’s career took off, and by 1984 he was selling out shows with Pat Hearn, who we both knew from Boston. Soon after, he moved to Europe, where he enjoyed even greater success. Things were happening really fast, at least for him and many, many others.
As for me, it was difficult making contacts, meeting artists who did the sort of work I was interested in. I visited André Emmerich Gallery (which is where I thought I belonged) frequently, always with slides in tow, though I never had the nerve to show them to anyone. Finally, at an East Village exhibition, I saw a red monochrome painting by Olivier Mosset. It was tough and uncompromising, and it was one color. This I understood.
Acrylic on canvas, 100 x 100 cm
I introduced myself to Olivier, who then introduced me to Steven Parrino. I ended up sharing a studio space with Steven for seven years.
Around the same time–1985 or 1986–I met Alan Uglow, Li Trincere, Max Gimblett and Barry X Ball. We did a fine group show at The Mission Gallery in the East Village. Soon after that I was in another group show with Olivier and Bill Beckley at Tony Shafrazi’s gallery. Tony offered me a two-person exhibition with James Nares the same year. As he was doing brisk sales with my work, I guess he felt comfortable enough to offer me the entire gallery. I had my first solo exhibition there in September 1987.
While preparing for that show, I knew I would have to pull out all the stops, treat art like a full-time job. I was at the studio by 9 a.m. every day, building my own shaped canvases, working with enamel paints, fiberglass, stainless steel sheets and whatever scraps I could afford from the surplus shops on Canal Street.
I started to experiment with surfaces, polishes and varnishes. I tried buffing and sanding different types of paint, but had trouble achieving the desired result. I wanted to make something that had a surface like a custom car, a surfboard, or a piece of lacquered furniture. I craved a California fetish finish, like a John McCracken sculpture, but I wanted it on a painting. It also had to be a shaped canvas that was informed by classic geometric painting. Most importantly, it could not look the least bit cynical. This was a tall order.
My carpentry skills at the time were primitive at best, plus I had no real tools or workspace. I realized I needed to up the production level to get the results I envisioned. After a few weeks of material trials, I ended up finding the polymer resin material that restaurant and bar owners use to coat the tops of tables. It worked perfectly, drying to a sleek mirrored surface. I then found a good carpenter who could make the shapes exactly as I wanted, down to the smallest detail.
Mark Dagley, Work in process, 1987
I would plot the shapes out on graph paper, then make a small cardboard maquette. A few of the designs were anthropomorphic, but most were non-referential. Color decisions were sequential, sometimes random. I worked on the cardboard maquettes until the finished wooden structures returned from the carpenter.
After finishing three or four of these works, I realized I needed quite a bit more space. I ended up subletting William Burrough’s Bunker on the Bowery from John Giorno during the summer of 1987 and was able to complete the entire exhibition there.
Mark Dagley, Studio view, The Bunker, 222 Bowery, August, 1987
Photo: Beth Phillips
DV: Op Art has been getting a lot of renewed interest and visibility lately. Recent museum and gallery exhibitions have thoroughly surveyed the movement, from its quasi-scientific origins in the 60s, through its Post-Structural deconstruction in the 80s, to its current incarnation. You participated in Post-Hypnotic, a 1999 traveling exhibition exploring the resurgence of optical effects in the work of an international group of artists. When did you begin using Op phenomena as a model for making new paintings? How does it continue to generate new work?
MD: After the Shafrazi exhibition, I took a temporary studio in Cologne, Germany to prepare for an exhibition at the Hans Strelow Gallery in Düsseldorf. I painted stripes and dots on unprimed canvas, something I’d done a decade previously. I also started to make my own stretchers again.
Mark Dagley, No Title, 1989
Acrylic on unprimed canvas
Collection: Foundation Prini
I produced the dot paintings by standing on a ladder over the canvas, which was rolled out on the floor, and letting the thinned paint rain down on it: This produced an unintentional moiré effect. Though I found the results quite interesting, I never really pursued their implications, but I guess my involvement with Op Art started there.
After working through a series of eccentric handmade shaped canvases and a group of torqued monochromes (which I exhibited in New York, at Stephanie Theodore Gallery, following a second show with Strelow), I attempted to locate areas of surface and support that had been overlooked in painting. I wasn’t terribly excited by the properties of paint, as were many of the abstract and geometric artists I met in Germany. I had developed more of an affinity with Blinky Palermo, BMPT, the Zero Group and Concrete Art.
Mark Dagley, Radical Structures
Kunstverein St.Gallen, St. Gallen, Switzerland
21 August – 26 September 1993
The material qualities of the paint and its application became perfunctory for me. I really wanted that impersonal look, but, paradoxically, I wanted to achieve it painting by hand. Simultaneously–around 1990–I reduced my palette to red, yellow, blue, black and white. This was a little scary at first because, all the sudden, my work began to look like Mondrian knock-offs. But I could see ten or twenty paintings into the future, and I knew they’d never been done before, that this was unexplored territory.
I called these works Primary Sequences, as they were comprised of just that: a 12-inch red square, placed next to a 6-inch yellow square, then, next to that, a 3-inch square of blue, and so on. This led to a whole series of paintings based on sequences and systems. But one thing I felt was missing, or discarded from the foundation of 20th-century geometric art, was classical perspective, so I also started doing one-point perspective line paintings in primary colors. I immediately noticed that they had an optical effect. They reminded me of Raymond Loewy’s Shell logo and the shopping mall supergraphics I grew up with.
Redesigned Shell logo, 1967
In 1995, after completing dozens of single-point perspective line paintings, I turned my attention to the dead center of a square canvas. My Corcoran training came in handy here. I began tracing dots in pencil with a circle template, as one long, spiral string. I started with the smallest hole that a pencil point would fit into, figuring I’d trace dots up to 1.5 inches. I don’t think I ever got that far.
It seemed that the drawing more or less made itself. After about a week, I had filled a 74 x 74 inch canvas completely. Then I painted the dots in: red, yellow, blue, red, yellow, blue… I knew from the start that there would have to be three of these paintings: one in primary colors, one in secondary, and one in black, white and gray. I still have to complete the one in secondary colors. Though they’re not difficult paintings to make, they’re extremely time-consuming.
Funny, I never set out to make Op Art. As far as my work is concerned, I much prefer the term systematic painting. The opticality is just the sexy part, the by-product of the real issue at hand, which is structure.
DV: Lastly, tell us about Abaton Book Company, which you run with your wife Lauri Bortz.
MD: I had my own record label, Tweet, for a brief time during the early 80s, and Lauri ran an independent film company and a small theater troupe in the late 80s, early 90s. We met in 1994, through George Condo, and launched Abaton Book Company in 1997, with a volume of Lauri’s one-act plays.
I’d always wanted to produce limited editions and artist books. Knowing so many interesting artists made it a natural move. We released a boxed set of twenty-five artist booklets called The Five and Dime, in celebration of the new millennium. Titles by Alix Lambert, Judith Fleishman, H.D. Martinez, Steven Parrino and me followed.
We expanded Abaton, adding a record label in 1999, which features singer/songwriters Marianne Nowottny, Julia Vorontsova, and Corbi Wright; jazz chanteuse Devorah Day; Indian classical singer/musician Veena Sahasrabuddhe; punk bands Shell, The Girls and Fuzzy Wuz She.
In 2003, we converted our garage into an art gallery, aptly titled Abaton Garage. We’ll be launching season five with a photo exhibition by Alix Lambert. There’s usually live music at Abaton Garage openings, mostly by artists on our label. And lots of food. Lauri always cooks up a storm.