An Interview with Artist Astrid Fitzgerald

August, 2007

JK: And study of Perennial Philosophy led you to an appreciation of the Golden Mean (GM).

AF: For over 25 years, my work has explored philosophical geometry, including the Fibonacci sequence, the Pythagorean Theorem and, most importantly, the Golden Mean proportion. The GM proportion is a unique ratio preferred by nature as the most advantageous geometry for growth and energy conservation.

It never ceases to amaze me that this geometric marvel and its mathematical equivalent—the Fibonacci numbers—are found in nature from the DNA spiral to growth patterns in flora and fauna, including the proportions of the human body.

Construction 130
Construction 130, oil and gold leaf on wood, 86 x 145 x 4 cm (34 x 57 x 1.5 in), 1992

Use of the GM proportion results in a powerful sense of harmony and balance. This mathematical ratio was sacred, in particular, to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. In architecture it was used in the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Parthenon, the Taj Mahal, and the work of many Renaissance architects. In painting Serusier, Kupka, Itten, Schwitters, Mondrian and Rothko are just a few examples of artists who have more recently used the GM proportion in their paintings.

JK: And yet your work is not about the Golden Mean.

AF: Yes, I hope that it is more than that. The GM proportion simultaneously provides me with a substructure—the GM rectangle and the squares, arcs and circles it generates—and with infinite possibilities. As a matter of fact, I don’t recall ever starting a painting without some geometric configuration—a simple division, a square, a circle or a grid. The dividing and ordering of the support—be it canvas or paper—gives me a place to stand, so to speak, a scaffold from which to work, watching what wants to express itself.

Construction 127
Construction 127, oil on wood,
105 x 84 x 4 cm (41 x 33 x 1.5 in), 1992

JK: Turning for a moment to your formative years, you were born in Switzerland.

AF: I grew up in Wil, a medieval town in the northeast of Switzerland. As a young child, I was always the happiest when engaged in “serious” play—in making things, whether it was drawing on paper or river rocks, constructing amulets with twigs and stones, or fashioning a habitat for my live snail collection.

I lived on a street named Froebelstrasse at the head of which was my kindergarten where I played day after day with Froebel blocks. Friedrich Froebel was a 19th century German educator who created carefully proportioned shapes to help children learn the elements of geometric form, mathematics and creative design. Frank Lloyd Wright, who was given a set of Froebel blocks by his mother, said, “The maple wood blocks are in my fingers to this day.” I, too, feel they are in my fingers, and their forms and colors are in my mind’s eye. I also loved building structures with an erector set—whenever my brother would let me use it, that is.

JK: And your mother was an artist?

AF: My mother, known as a Rosen Malerin (painter of roses), painted still lifes and flowers in oils and botanical renderings of roses in watercolor. Her influence on me was not strong, however, and it wasn’t until age nine or so when my Italian aunt took me to a well-known sculptor’s studio in Zurich that I had a moment of realization. The smell of plaster dust and resins, the mysterious draped figures, and the colorful bohemian menage gave me a jolt—a flash of recognition. This is what I wanted! This place was alive and powerful, completely different from the sober, scrubbed Swiss homes I was used to. I carried this experience around like a treasure, not entrusting it to anyone.

Several years later, aware of my love for art, my aunt, who had been trained in an Italian convent school in classic porcelain painting, invited me to apprentice with her. Although I didn’t have much patience for this challenging, excruciatingly tedious craft, it instilled a sense of discipline and attentiveness in me that came in handy much later when I took up textile design and manuscript illumination.

JK: Did you focus on art in school?

AF: As a young woman educated almost entirely by nuns, it was unthinkable to go to the Kunstgewerbeschule—the only art school in the area. That place, according to my parents, was for hippies. Hence my informal art education came in fits and starts. While learning English at the Polytechnic School in London, I wandered through museums on a weekly basis. It was there that my desire to become a painter took root.

JK: Soon you emigrated to the United States.

AF: Yes. I became disenchanted with the lack of opportunities at that time for a young woman in Switzerland and decided to move to the US in 1961, settling in Manhattan. There, I studied textile design and worked for three years as a textile designer. I also learned the basics of drawing and painting at the Art Students League and studied printmaking at the Pratt Graphics Center.

In my first job I worked in the Seagram Building designed by Mies van der Rohe. There, I fell in love with the artwork in the famed Philip Johnson collection of abstract art that included masterpieces by Mondrian, Judd, Stella, Martin, and many others.

JK: When did you begin to paint full-time?

AF: My breakthrough to becoming a professional artist came in 1971 when I entered the New Yorker Theater mural competition and won second prize for my entry, Audience.

Audience
Audience, serigraph (based on a gouache, 1971),
51 x 71 cm ( 20 x 28 in), 1973

Working with geometry—here a half-circle pattern—was a natural outgrowth of my work in textile design. The composition is suggestive of an audience of many colors, befitting the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

JK: You were using quite saturated colors—in contrast to much of your later work.

AF: In this work and in other serigraphs of that period, there is a strong influence of the Bauhaus aesthetic. Many of my early paintings and shaped canvases were based on Goethe’s color theory, using his beautiful color triangle that showed primary, secondary and tertiary colors. And shaped canvases suited my aesthetic concerns with illusionism and color interaction.

Painting 18
Painting 18, acrylic on shaped canvas, 94 x 132 cm (37 x 52 in), 1972

JK: You continued to explore illusionism in a series of work from the mid-70s.

AF: These shaped canvases reflected an inquiry into the nature of dimension and illusion—an interest that later morphed into a passion for geometry, science, and ancient architecture.

Painting 54
Painting 54, acrylic on shaped canvas,
137 x 183 cm (54 x 72 in), 1975

With these works I sought to question the reality of matter, space and surface, alluding to the ancient Eastern statement that whatever we perceive with our senses is Maya—illusion. Spatter painted with thousands of tiny dots of acrylic paint, the surface of the painting, though flat, seems to shift, drawing the eye into improbable dimensions when viewed from a distance.

Working in a crowded studio in Manhattan in the early seventies, the scale of these large shaped canvases stupefy me to this day.

Atlantic Gallery
Astrid Fitzgerald with two of her shaped paintings at the
Atlantic Gallery, NYC, 1980

JK: Soon after this series, you began to use the Golden Mean fairly exclusively in developing your work.

AF: That’s right. In fact, a major breakthrough took place in 1984 when I began to use the GM proportion as the basic structure in both large canvases and works on paper. The GM, represented by the Greek letter phi—mathematically expressed as 1.6180339—is one of those mysterious numbers that seem to arise out of the basic structure of the universe.

In this series, the GM generates the parameters of the squares, rectangles and arcs. These paintings were for the most part symmetrical, suggesting portals or windows into space or into some other level of reality. The aim was always to create entry into a more harmonious place.

Painting 92
Painting 92, acrylic on canvas, 137 x 168 cm (54 x 66 in), 1985

Rather than being limiting, the GM proportion by its very nature is regenerative. By adding or subtracting a square to the length of the GM rectangle, a new GM is created. It is this quality that invites endless play and creation. Since we as human beings resonate with the GM proportion—and I’m comfortable in that knowledge—I feel a sense of freedom when I begin to paint or draw, obliterating lines, creating movement from depth to nearness and giving expression to emotions, energy, or ideas.

JK: So your starting point is order and structure.

AF: Yes, I seem to need order to feel free to create. Then I set up tensions between the geometric forms and the process of obliteration.

Painting 103
Painting 103, acrylic on canvas, 137 x 168 cm (54 x 66 in), 1986

Imperfections in the form of marks, drips and scribbles moderate an image of perfect harmony, bringing it more in line with human experience. I’ve made repeated attempts during my painting career at purely geometric, minimal art, but somehow I can’t stop myself from adding traces of my being, my life experience, my immediate state of consciousness. In this end, this seems more satisfying to the viewer as well as to myself.

JK: These marks also add energy to the work.

AF: Yes. For example, I often create arcs within arcs using energetic strokes. I develop areas that alternate between luminous space and the void. I particularly enjoy working with pastels, which I find more expressive and luminous than acrylic paint.

Works on Paper 621
Works on Paper 621, pastel on paper, 76 x 112 cm (30 x 44 in), 1987

In many of these early works I’m simply having fun with the GM, revealing and concealing its basic construction, but always adding mystery—in No. 501 by inserting lines that suggest a window into the blue yonder. These works on paper numbered over two hundred. Most of them ended up in corporate offices.

Works on Paper 501
Works on Paper 501, pastel on paper, 76 x 112 cm (30 x 44 in), 1984

JK: Still using the Golden Mean to generate forms and divide space, you began to further simplify your compositions.

AF: In 1989, I adopted a more modernist aesthetic that satisfied my need for simpler, more abstract forms without content. I began to work in a large scale with casein on paper. Casein is an ancient medium said to have been used by the early Egyptians. I enjoyed its smell and versatility, using a brush for flat areas, and a large calligraphy nib for gestural strokes. I continued to play with perception—near/far, solid/gaseous, ambiguous/concrete, and so on.

Works on Paper 741
Works on Paper 741, casein on paper,
112 x 112 cm (44 x 44 in), 1990

In these works on paper as well as constructions from the same period, I began using shifting planes to try to break away from the formal, symmetrical composition of earlier work. Rectangles, circles and arcs generated by the GM proportion seemed to want to take flight or escape a limiting border or frame.

I often used flat black areas to anchor the more dynamic ones—juxtaposing darkness and lightness, movement and stillness—and also negating the illusion of transparency of superimposed shapes.

Works on Paper 743, casein on paper, 76 x 107 cm (30 x 42 in), 1990

In No. 743, a perfect square is superimposed on two vertical GM rectangles. The illusionist transparent plane is contradicted by the irrational imposition of a black shape.

JK: The wood-based constructions you began to make in the early 90s presented you with practical difficulties.

AF: Indeed! Working with wood in a small studio without adequate power tools proved to be a tremendous challenge. In 1990, I moved to a larger studio without restrictions on size or methods.

Astrid working
Fitzgerald working on a new support using a router in her woodworking shop

Many of my early 3-dimensional works in wood were strongly influenced by an exhibition of Shaker design at the Whitney Museum in 1989. The beauty of the Shaker furniture, household objects and tools simply blew me away. To me, this was pure art—created by spiritual people for the good of the community, without affectation or pretense of any kind. I fell in love with the craftsmanship of their chests, the design of their benches and tables, and most of all, with their luminous natural pigments.

Construction 113
Construction 113, oil on poplar,
142 x 89 x 10 cm (56 x 35 x 4 in), 1990

In this symmetrical construction (above), four vertical GM rectangles float on a GM background. Inspired by the beauty of Shaker design, this work is a kind of tribute to their craftsmanship, especially their oval boxes. The lines were created using a router, emulating the fine beading of Shaker cupboards.

I love working with wood, something I found out during a five-year renovation of a 180-year-old farmhouse. I love its physicality and its resilient, yet yielding, nature. It’s the cutting and refining of the surface and the building of the constructions that I truly enjoy. In fact, I find it quite traumatic to apply a coat of gesso, obliterating the beauty of the wood.

In many of the early constructions made of poplar using casein or oil and gold leaf I created surfaces evocative of something ancient—perhaps even sacred.

Construction 133
Construction 133, oil and casein on wood,
41 x 48 x 2.5 cm (16 x 19 x 1 in), 1993

JK: In some of these constructions, there’s an interesting, even ambiguous interplay of planes and forms.

Construction 129
Construction 129, oil on wood, 86 x 137 x 4 cm (34 x 54 x 2 in), 1992

AF: In No. 129, I used incised lines, form and color to define or destroy the illusion of solidity. Although still using the GM proportion, I attempted to break loose by tilting the circles and rectangles in order to discover new points of interaction.

Construction 146, oil on wood,
76 x 89 x 13 cm (30 x 35 x 5 in), 1992
Construction No.146 detail

In No.146, the routered divisions are GM triangles that retain perfect GM proportions—a miracle!

JK: In the mid-90s during an introspective period, you developed a series called A View into Primal Forces: Meditations on the Qualities of the Unified Field.

AF: The ground state of being may be thought of as a self-referral dynamic of what the Ancient Wisdom Tradition calls the field of pure consciousness. It is the ground that generates the whole manifest universe by its process of self-observation. Certain attributes accrue to this field, such as infinite potential, infinite intelligence, infinite organizing power, pure awareness, perfect order, infinite dynamism, and infinite creativity, to name a few.

Quantum XXX
Quantum XXX, pastel on paper, 91 x 76 cm (36 x 30 in), 1995

The images arose while meditating, that is, “holding in mind” a particular quality such as boundlessness or perfect order—but not visualizing or conjuring up anything. Afterwards, I would begin to sketch whatever came flooding into my mind’s eye. The circle, figure eight, and Yin-Yang symbols came naturally out of this free-associative sketching.

Quantum IIIQuantum XVIII
Quantum III, pastel on paper,
91 x 76 cm (36 x 30 in), 1995
Quantum XVIII, pastel on paper,
91 x 76 cm (36 x 30 in), 1995

I started each work with the three classic geometer’s tools—the compass, straight-edge and pencil—dividing the space, creating a central point from which I drew a circle that begged for division and elaboration. The pastel strokes worked against the symmetry and unity of the structure, hinting at the unboundedness and infinite dynamism of the field of pure consciousness. The impressions from the pencil lines remained visible, suggesting an order or plan underlying the seeming chaos.

JK: It was also at this time that you wrote your first book.

AF: Yes. The actual writing of the book was preceded by a period in which I questioned what I was doing, looking to other artists for inspiration—to Kandinsky, Mondrian, Klee, Rothko, Nicholson, and others. I was struck by how eloquently they wrote about art—the purpose of art, the creative process and the struggle. This introspective period not only rekindled my enthusiasm for creating, but eventually resulted in An Artist’s Book of Inspiration—A Collection of Thoughts on Art, Artists, and Creativity (1996).

JK: This period was followed by work that was more austere, more minimal.

Construction 176
Construction 176, casein on wood,
61 x 61 x 7cm (24 x 24 x 3 in), 1999

AF: Yes, the work created after a period of searching and writing does seem to impart a greater sense of serenity and peace. Here, my goal was to convey—in contrast to the solidity of wood—a lightness, a simplicity of color, form and line.

Construction 177
Construction 177, oil and pencil on wood,
61 x 61 x 7cm (24 x 24 x 3 in), 1999

JK: You also wrote another book.

AF: Yes, another book that insisted on being completed. I wrote Being Consciousness Bliss—A Seeker’s Guide (2002) as a kind of workbook for seekers who choose to walk the spiritual path on their own. Part One discusses the current human condition—the “sleep” of ordinary life—and how we may begin to wake up from it. Part Two is a compendium of quotes I gathered during twenty years of studying the Ancient Wisdom Tradition. Part Three provides simple ways to put theses insights into practice in daily life.

JK: And you continued making more minimal constructions, now in encaustic.

Construction 261
Construction 261, encaustic on wood,
38 x 38 x 2.5 cm (15 x 15 x 1 in), 2005

AF: I enjoy switching mediums often so as not to get too comfortable with any of them. Made from pure beeswax and pigment, encaustic, like casein, is an ancient medium known to be extremely durable. I’m drawn to encaustic for its rich texture and luminosity.

JK: I’m struck by the symmetry and central focal point in these constructions.

Construction 265
Construction 265, encaustic on wood,
41 x 41 x 3 cm (16 x 16 x 1.25 in), 2005

AF: In No. 265, the symmetry arises from two pairs of superimposed GM rectangles. But it is the circle—symbol of unity and boundlessness—that brings the mind to rest in a single point of meditation. Upon closer inspection, the viewer will discover that the seemingly recessed dark areas are in fact on the same plane as the gold-colored one. Illusionism is an ever-recurring device in my work.

JK: In recent years, you have developed a number of series that focus on some of your diverse interests.

AF: I chose the imagery in a series entitled Icons of Exploration for its aesthetic appeal, but also to satisfy a desire to celebrate and preserve the vestiges of past cultures and bring them to light in a different form.

Encaustic 224Encaustic 214
Encaustic 224, encaustic and collage on wood,
51 x 51 x 2.5 cm (20 x 20 x 1 in), 2004
Encaustic 214, encaustic and collage on wood,
61 x 61 x 2.5 cm (24 x 24 x 1 in), 2004

For example, I was struck by the beauty and modernity of the “picture poems” written by Hrabanus, a 7th century German monk, and intrigued by his use of sparse symbols and a complex system of ciphering, which he invented to put his poems into visual form, thereby making religious concepts more accessible to the often-illiterate peasants. The picture poems are digitally altered and arranged in grids of 4, 9 or 16.

Encaustic 221Encaustic 241
Encaustic 221, encaustic and collage on wood,
43 x 36 x 2.5 cm (17 x 14 x 1 in), 2004
Encaustic 241, encaustic and collage on wood,
30 x 30 x 2.5 cm (12x 12 x 1 in), 2004

The above collages are from a series on mazes and labyrinths. The labyrinth in its many forms may well be the most ancient archetypal icon found in almost every tradition around the world. Not only is it beautiful, it is also a tool for transformation, symbolic of the earthly path and, in some cases, depicting cosmological order.

Encaustic 235Encaustic 236
Encaustic 235, encaustic and collage on wood,
46 x 46 x 2.5 cm (18 x 18 x 1 in), 2004
Encaustic 236, encaustic and collage on wood,
46 x 46 x 2.5 cm (18 x 18 x 1 in), 2004

The two works above are from a series entitled Cosmic Measures. In the case of No. 235, I was struck by the geometric beauty of Michelangelo’s ground plan, seen here in a grid of nine, for San Giovanni de Fiorentini, which follows the ancient tradition of the centralized temple plan. The symbolic relationship between the square and circle is that of the human and the divine.

No. 236 is a digitally enhanced image of a ground plan of a Buddhist temple. Its concentric configuration represents the cosmos.

JK: One of these recent series focuses on number.

AF: My series All is Number is a tribute to Pythagoras and ancient Egyptians who arrived at their cosmic and geometric measurements with not much more than compass and straight-edge. While modern mathematics and geometry begin with zero, ancient or philosophical geometry begins with one, with everything else considered a division thereof.

Encaustic 281
Encaustic 281, encaustic on wood,
30 x 30 x 2.5 cm (12 x 12 x 1 in), 2006

From early times, many different methods have been employed by geometers and philosophers to arrive at the squaring of the circle—making a square with the same area as a given circle using compass and ruler. None of these attempts are precise because circles are measured by the incommensurable value pi, while squares are measured by rational whole numbers.

The attempt to reconcile these two different geometric orders—the rational and the irrational—elevates squaring the circle to an icon of the union of opposing forces or the fusion of matter—the square—and spirit—the circle.

Encaustic 278Encaustic 275
Encaustic 278, encaustic, collage and litho crayon on
wood, 30 x 30 x 2.5 cm (12 x 12 x 1 in), 2006
Encaustic 275, encaustic , litho crayon and gold leaf
on wood, 30 x 30 x 2.5 cm (12 x 12x 1 in), 2006

No. 278 depicts order in the cosmos, showing the relative sizes of the Earth and moon. In No. 275, the fact that the base and height of the Great Pyramid built in 2480 B.C. also conforms to the squared circle epitomizes the sophistication of ancient cosmology.

In his book, Sacred Geometry, Robert Lawlor says that to these ancient geometers, “ … the tools of geometry and number represent the means to attain knowledge of both external and internal space and time.” I tend to agree with the Platonists who considered knowledge of geometry to be innate in every human being. Hence they regarded geometry to be the perfect means to express archetypal ideas—idea in Greek also means form—and to depict the unseen or metaphysical realm.

JK: A trip to Egypt inspired the most recent series, Eternal Egypt.

AF: Almost four years after that trip, what remains with me is the sense of awe at the great mystery that is Egypt. For example, none of the theories as to how the temples, pyramids and tombs were built in a scorching desert held up when I was standing in the shadow of the Great Pyramid, which occupies 22 acres. So, while trying to capture the color and light, the beauty of the hieroglyphs and temples, it was most of all the mystery of Egypt that inspired this work.

Works on Paper 960Works on Paper 961
Works on Paper 960, digital prints on handmade
paper, 30 x 23 cm (12 x 9 in), 2007
Works on Paper 961, casein and digital prints on
handmade paper, 30 x 23 cm (12 x 9 in), 2007

JK: Although the outward appearance of your work over the years has been quite varied, there are persistent underlying aesthetic and spiritual concerns.

AF: That’s right. And somehow my artistic work has always been closely aligned with my quest for the nature of reality. If there is one common thread, it has to do with a desire to preserve and symbolize the knowledge of the ancients and to create order and harmony in a world of discord. I have always agreed with Emerson’s observation from Nature about the quest. He said, “Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy.”

I have a sense that my life in art has always started with that trust and been concerned, ultimately, with asking questions and proposing, by means of artistic expression, momentary answers about the order of things.

Astrid Fitzgerald in her studio
Astrid Fitzgerald in her Hudson Valley studio

More information about Astrid Fitzgerald at astridfitzgerald.com

Interview images and text copyright©2007 Julie Karabenick and Astrid Fitzgerald. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright © 2005-2015 GEOFORM. All Rights Reserved.
All text and artwork reproduced by permission of the artists.

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