An Interview with Artist Andrew ChristofidesSeptember, 2008
Andrew Christofides was born in 1946 in Cyprus and migrated with his family to Australia in 1951. He completed studies in Fine Art in London at the Byam Shaw School of Drawing and Painting from 1974-75, and the Chelsea School of Art from 1975-78 where he received a BFA. He was awarded a Rome Scholarship to the British School in Rome from 1978-79, followed by a Picker Fellowship in Painting at Kingston Polytechnic in London from 1979-80. Christofides has had 24 solo exhibitions of his paintings since 1978, including in Australia, New York, London and Rome, and has participated in over 80 group exhibitions, including numerous museum and institutional exhibitions. He is represented in public, corporate and private collections in Australia and overseas. Christofides has lectured in Painting and Drawing at the University of Reading and Canterbury College of Art in the UK, and has been at the College of Fine Arts in Sydney, Australia from 1988 to the present and where he has been Head of Drawing Studies since 2003. Christofides lives and works in Sydney.
Julie Karabenick: Your painting has been inspired in part by your extensive study of European art.
|Family Group, acrylic on canvas, 51 x 51 cm (20 x 20 in), 2007|
(Images courtesy King Street Gallery and the artist)
Andrew Christofides: Yes, the history of Western art and my experience of it have always influenced my work. I would like to achieve an art that combines the simple monumentality and grandeur of the Italian Renaissance with the heroic idealism of the early European utopian movements—Suprematism, De Stijl, Constructivism.
|Aphrodite, acrylic on canvas,|
244 x 163 cm (96 x 64 in), 2007
I’ve been drawn to the quiet monumental and structured work of Renaissance artists such as Piero della Francesca and Giovanni Bellini, work that speaks of a classical, rational order rather than to the later, more dynamic art of the Baroque period.
|Pantheon: After Kurt II, acrylic on canvas, 213 x 244 cm (84 x 96 in), 2008|
I’ve always felt that one of the underlying ideals of the early Modernist movements was to create something akin to a spiritual experience.
|Revelation, acrylic on canvas, 61 x 46 cm (24 x 18 in), 2005|
Artists of De Stijl, Suprematism and Constructivism sought a universal language they believed would transcend the specifics of time and place, that would be able to reflect life in its deepest essence. They had the optimism to believe that they could make a difference in their world, and heroically pursued their ideas, often within a hostile environment. Similarly, I would like my own work to embody some of this idealism.
|Icon: for Malevich, acrylic on canvas, 51 x 71 cm (20 x 28 in), 2008|
JK: And like those early Modernists, you’ve found a vocabulary of elementary forms best suited to your aesthetic goals.
AC: I’ve always been drawn to an aesthetic of order, simplicity and elegance. I feel that the poetry and order that we feel in the world cannot be fully expressed through mimetic representation, as these qualities—order, simplicity and elegance—are felt and not necessarily seen. They are the rhythms and connections between things. And geometry is about order, precision and clarity—it has a kind of visual efficiency where nothing is superfluous.
|Kiera View, acrylic on canvas, 152 x 228 cm (60 x 90 in), 2007-08|
At first, like so many other abstract artists, I had the idea that geometric forms were neutral. That is, one could use them in whatever context one chose; they were not tied down to meaning. I think it was the Swiss painter, Max Bill, who said that an artwork should reflect its structure and its own making, not something outside of itself. I found the idea of the self-contained nature of geometric forms very appealing.
|Disengaged, acrylic on canvas, 35.5 x 50.5 cm (14 x 20 in), 2003|
Of course over the years, and especially since Postmodernism, peoples’ perceptions have changed. It’s no longer possible to look at an oval, a circle or a cross and believe they are neutral shapes. They have, by the history of their use, acquired meaning, which I think extends the possible range of their use.
|Turkish Delight, acrylic on canvas,|
152 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in), 2005
JK: You’ve favored simple geometric forms and structures across your painting career. However since the 90s, you’ve moved away from the more reductionist aesthetic that characterized your early work.
AC: I was never really satisfied with some of the arguments put forward by the Minimalists, particularly the need to reduce art down to the most minimal of elements and surfaces. Although I love visual simplicity and much minimalist work, I feel the reductionist tendency that seemed to overtake abstract painting during the late 60s and 70s became a bit of a sidetrack for painters. Given my respect for the history of painting—its complexities and subtleties—I wasn’t happy with this reductionism in painting, and I’ve always retained a degree of complexity in my work.
One way in which I’ve tried to oppose reductionism has been to introduce space into my paintings. At first, this was through the introduction of frames, which created a “window” effect. Next, I incorporated a greater degree of hierarchy and variation in scale. Some elements were made larger and more prominent by being brought closer to the picture plane, while others were made smaller and less prominent. Later still, I used the overlapping of elements and a more atmospheric handling of paint to generate greater depth.
|Echoes, acrylic on canvas, 40.5 x 60.5 cm (16 x 24 in), 2006|
I’ve also introduced my own expressive presence into the work via subtle painterly surface gesture, a more personal use of color and a halo effect around some of the elements, which I feel projects a sense of the spiritual or esoteric.
|Reflected Light, acrylic on canvas, 51 x 51 cm (20 x 20 in), 2006|
JK: And you’ve explicitly incorporated allusions in your work—for example, to your birthplace, Cyprus.
AC: Since my mother died in 2003, I’ve become more aware of Cyprus. Through her memories and experiences I’ve learned more about my own rich cultural heritage. I’ve increasingly used titles that refer to Cyprus, for example in Ancient World, shown below.
In Cyprus I’ve visited many archeological sites. The gridded elements on the right side of Ancient World II refer to the gridded excavations of ancient architectural foundations. The orange/brown field makes reference to the color of the soil. The checkerboard on the left provides a visual counterpoint to the elements on the right.
|Ancient World II, acrylic on canvas, 51 x 51 cm (20 x 20 in), 2006|
JK: These gridded elements have featured prominently in your work.
AC: Yes, checkerboards have been an ongoing favorite element for me. They initially arose out of the game sequence paintings of the mid 70s in which the backgrounds were divided into a gridded checkerboard, as in Untitled from 1977, below. They were later used as a way of visually activating open areas or spaces. They have since become visual elements that serve a number of purposes. For example in Keira View, above, the large central vertical checkerboard, by being right up on the picture plane, acts as a spatial device pushing the other elements back. In other paintings such as Echoes, above, the checkerboard has been used as a device to separate and divide one side of the canvas from the other.
JK: In your very early work, you adhered to a restricted palette.
AC: During the 70s I consciously used the colors of De Stijl—red, yellow, blue, plus white and black.
|Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 38 x 53 cm (15 X 21 in), 1977|
In my work from this time I used grey for the backgrounds because of its neutrality. My use of greys in the 80s and 90s was inherited from this earlier work. I wanted to avoid using color in a personal way or to make any references outside the work, so grey was once again suitable for its impersonal neutrality.
At the time, I was using a glazing process, which moved the underlying greys toward various colors; however by using many glazes, the colors weren’t completely controllable. Over time and with increased glazing, the greys began to read as distinct, albeit muted, colors.
|Grey Painting Number 82, acrylic on canvas, 20 x 50.5 cm (8 x 20 in), 1998|
Since 2000 I’ve been more willing to acknowledge my sources through the use of color. For example, in Mud Brick the choice of tertiary yellows and browns makes an oblique reference to village architecture, terracotta and the color of the soil of Cyprus.
|Mud Brick, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 2006|
Over the years, I’ve become more interested in color and its luminosity, and I’ve gradually increased the number of layers of paint that I apply to my surfaces. One is aware of the painterly surface and the hand’s touch. I use very thin glazes, which allow for previous layers of color to show through. This creates a very luminous surface in which the painterliness reduces the matter-of-factness of the work and opens up the possibility for reference. Luminosity reduces the inertness of the more matte color and creates a glow, which may be interpreted metaphorically. I feel the luminosity or the matte quality of colors provides a contrast to which one can assign subtle shifts in meaning, for example, lively or fresh versus dead or inert.
|Isolation, acrylic on canvas, 50.5 x 50.5 cm (20 x 20 in), 2006||Isolation detail|
JK: Turning to your childhood, you were born in Cyprus and immigrated to Australia at the age of five.
AC: My father had moved to Australia in search of work, and the rest of the family followed a year later. I attended school in Wollongong, about 60 miles south of Sydney.
JK: Did you enjoy artistic activities growing up?
AC: As a young child, I had always drawn and made things. I had a facility for drawing what I saw, and I remember copying images of exotic scenes and animals. In Wollongong there were no galleries or other places to see art. I used to paint images from the garden or local scenes. My first experience of the art world, provincial as it was, occurred when I was 14 and won a prize for designing a poster for a new film called The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.
JK: How was the art education you received in school?
AC: Art courses weren’t available to us at school in those days. And it would only have been acceptable for me to do something upon graduating that would help support my family. So after high school I got a job with a large steel-making company in Wollongong.
JK: Your exposure to art really began when, four years later, you moved to Sydney to study Economics at the University of New South Wales.
AC: Yes. In Sydney I visited galleries, saw films, went to concerts—all the things that weren’t available in Wollongong. In 1968 I saw a very important exhibition called Two Decades of American Painting featuring artists such as Rothko, Albers, de Kooning, Pollock, Gottlieb, and others. This was the first time this sort of work was seen in Australia, and it received very mixed receptions. The exhibition didn’t really have any direct impact on my work, and I’m not even sure I really understood the ideas behind it, but it did cause me to think a great deal about abstraction in painting.
In Sydney I first began working in an abstract manner—abstract, but essentially referential in the sense that a viewer probably would have seen a landscape or some other real world reference. I was very influenced by Paul Klee whose work I learned about from books. I was fascinated by his geometric paintings that simply used irregular checkered patterns of color.
I finished my degree in Economics and took a job with the Department of Taxation in Canberra. There I continued to paint, won first prize in an art competition and sold my first painting. However, I was increasingly frustrated that I hadn’t traveled, and I wanted to spend more time painting. In 1974 I quit my job, and a month later I was on a ship traveling to Cyprus where my father was living.
JK: What was it like returning to the country of your birth?
AC: Cyprus was a rush to my senses. The village life, climate and smells felt totally familiar. For the first time, I realized with pride that I was part of a culture that had a rich village life, yet was also part of a grander history that was at the core of Western Art. Being at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean at the crossroads of East and West, Cyprus has been one of the most invaded countries on earth, and as such, it has shared in the cultures and art of both regions.
JK: You planned to move to London to continue your study of Economics, yet your experience there would lead you to apply to art school instead.
AC: Never before had I been in such a large vibrant city with such a fast pace. The National Gallery of London with its superb collections, especially of Renaissance and pre-Renaissance art, astounded me. I had never seen such grand and powerful work. Instead of continuing in Economics, I decided to apply to art school, and spent two intensive weeks drawing and painting to prepare a portfolio. I was accepted at the Byam Shaw School of Drawing and Painting. After my foundation year at Byam Shaw, I attended the Chelsea School of Art.
JK: What styles of art were at the forefront at that time?
AC: In the mid 70s the prominent styles in London were late Modernism, Minimalism, Systems art and Conceptual art. I was attracted to the abstractness and ideas of Systems art and, to a lesser extent, to minimalist art. Visiting friends in Eindhoven, Holland, I saw my first Malevich and Mondrian paintings, including the terrific collection of Malevich paintings in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. I was impressed not only by the work, but by the idealism of these early European utopian movements. Their ideas have remained with me despite my greater exposure to more contemporary developments.
I also admired the work of the old masters in the National Gallery in London. At the end of my first academic year, I went to Italy to look at the work in situ, in particular that of Piero della Francesca. This trip cemented my great affection for Italian art, especially that of the period from the 1300s through Titian. This art continues to inform my work today.
JK: Your painting at that time had a strong foundation in mathematics.
AC: My work became totally abstract in 1975. For the next five years, I experimented widely, trying to generate images that seemed fresh and new. I sought images that were devoid of personal touch and avoided direct references to outward appearances. I saw the work of a number of artists who were experimenting with constructions, numerically generated images, and geometry in general. Systems art and geometric abstraction, especially that based on number systems, seemed to offer endless possibilities.
My work gradually grew more mathematical. Number systems and sequences yielded refreshingly new images that didn’t depend on intuition. As can be seen in Untitled from 1976, I set up gridded formats as backgrounds for small visual elements to traverse. The elements would begin on the left at a point determined by a throw of a die or by randomly selected numbers. These procedures and rules would determine the particular directions and distances the elements moved.
|Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 46 x 46 cm (18 x 18 in), 1976|
In paintings like Random Game Sequence below, I next introduced obstacles—here open boxes—that would stop an element’s progression across the grid. I felt these works were like life diagrams, suggesting that life was like a game dependent on particular rules, predetermined influences and random events.
JK: What function do the borders serve?
AC: The borders clearly indicate the area within which the elements operate. For example in my Random Game Sequence series, I didn’t want the irregularly shaped fields I used to suggest shaped canvas paintings. I was interested in directing the viewer’s attention to what was happening within the field and emphasizing the picture plane rather than the work’s objecthood as Frank Stella had done with his shaped canvas paintings.
|Random Game Sequence, acrylic on board, 41 x 97 cm (16 x 38 in), 1977|
Upon graduating from the Chelsea School of Art, I was awarded a Rome Scholarship and spent the next year at the British Academy in Rome. I had a beautiful studio and was able to work and travel extensively in Italy. I would have stayed for another year, but I was offered a Fellowship in Painting at Kingston Polytechnic and returned to London. After the fellowship, I taught for a year at Canterbury College of Art in Kent.
Things were going well in London. I had a successful first solo exhibition, took part in good group exhibitions and was invited to lecture at a number of art schools. Unfortunately this was during the Margaret Thatcher years, and the economy had collapsed, so my wife and I decided to move to Australia.
The first work I did upon returning to Australia in 1982, seen below, is an extension of the idea of elements moving across a field. Once again, I was using mathematical systems and procedures to break away from learned and intuitive aesthetic habits and to discover new visual outcomes.
I increased the work’s complexity by incorporating the three-dimensional. When a traversing element came into contact with shapes, these shapes became raised relief projections. I also introduced diagonal divisions, which gave the work a more dynamic, lyrical quality. This greater complexity was intended to metaphorically reflect the complexities of life.
|Untitled Construction, acrylic, card and wood on board, 64 x 203 x 10 cm (25 x 60 x 4 in), 1982|
Untitled Construction of 1983 is one of my favorite pieces due to its quiet stillness and simplicity. A single element crosses a field, and when it comes into contact with vertical divisions, the latter are activated. The divisions become visible either by being painted in—as seen in the lines in the upper field—or raised as small vertical projections, as in the lower field. The colors used in this piece were generated mathematically by using the three primaries and allocating numbers to each.
|Untitled Construction, acrylic and card on board,|
56 x 56 x 3 cm (22 x 22 x 1 in), 1983
The paint application in these constructions was always thin, flat and matte. There’s no feeling of gesture or trace of brushwork. This is in keeping with the character of the work, which, having been numerically generated, I saw as being matter-of-fact and not evocative of anything beyond itself.
In another mathematically generated relief, Untitled Construction of 1984, I used more three-dimensional projections. Because the field is divided by a triangular grid, the elements traversing the field constantly change direction and activate more areas as they encounter these diagonal divisions.
|Untitled Construction, acrylic and card on board,|
66 x 73 x 3cm, (26 x 29 x 1 in), 1984
|Untitled Construction detail|
JK: In subsequent work, you allowed intuitive decision-making into your process.
AC: I had come back to Australia when the full excesses of Postmodernism were at their peak, so my work was very much out of step. In hindsight I think I moved away from the severity of the constructions and mathematical pieces to a much more intuitive way of working in part because of that art climate—as a way of surviving the times. I have in essence worked intuitively ever since despite the fact that I use very rational looking elements.
The more important reason for moving towards a more intuitive way of working was that I realized, and still believe, that art—as with life—incorporates both the rational and the intuitive. My interest in a wide range of art and my breadth of experiences made me feel that art should incorporate both ways of working. To use just one mode of working at the expense of the other limits the possible range of visual results. Certainly more recently, I have not hesitated to use both modes in my work.
JK: One source of inspiration for your subsequent work would come from your study of maps.
AC: I’ve had a longstanding interest in antique maps and found in them a familiar aesthetic that I could use. Mapping—a schematic or diagrammatic way of representing the world—seemed relevant to my goals. As with my work, maps are non-mimetic representations of the world, which are to some extent geometricized by an underlying grid that gives a sense of cohesion. Maps also provided a rich source of visual elements that were already abstract and geometric in nature.
I began to make paintings that were intuitively composed, but whose elements were mathematically derived visual configurations. Simple grid elements often came directly from antique maps, and broken lines were taken from the divisions of temperature zones. Just as islands or land masses are scattered across a map, in similar fashion I began to place geometric elements across the canvas. I was still interested in making images that seemed fresh and new, and using map references was one way to achieve this.
|Untitled Construction, acrylic, card and wood on board,|
112 x 112 x 3cm (44 x 44 x 1 in), 1986-87
JK: These reliefs are quite shallow.
AC: My final constructions were almost as flat as paintings and read frontally as one would read a painting. Whereas one could appreciate the earlier constructions by walking past them and viewing them from the sides, the most recent ones were very shallow, as can be seen in the detail from Untitled Construction, below. In hindsight, these were a transition to the paintings that would follow.
|Untitled Construction, acrylic on timber and card on board,|
61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 1988
|Untitled Construction detail|
The mapping paintings that followed were larger, with some as large as 10 feet by 7 feet. These works are more diagrammatic than pictorial in the traditional sense. In mapping, space is not about depth—it’s about emptiness. My paintings that have their aesthetic roots in mapping strategies don’t have space in them so much as elements surrounded by emptiness.
These paintings from the late 80s are very gridded; that is, the elements relate very strongly to the edges of the painting. While there isn’t a grid drawn on the surface, one is very much aware of the grid as the underlying organizing feature. This very much keeps the pictorial elements on the picture plane and reduces any sense of space. One tends to read the paintings from side to side and from top to bottom rather than from front to back. This is in keeping with the tradition of late Modernism and was a way of keeping the work as abstract as possible.
|Untitled (Yellow Painting Number 2), acrylic and ink on canvas,|
163 x 194 cm (64 x 76 in), 1989