An Interview with Artist Marko Spalatin

December, 2007

 

Marko Spalatin was born in Zagreb, Croatia. He immigrated to the US in his late teens, and earned BS and MFA degrees from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Spalatin has been exhibiting his artwork for over 40 years. His prints and paintings have been featured in over 70 solo exhibitions across the US, as well as in France, Croatia, Canada, Lebanon, Italy, and Slovenia, and in numerous group exhibitions in 12 countries. Spalatin’s work is represented in many private, corporate, and public collections, including: the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, New York; the Tate Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK; the Musée d’Art Moderne and the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France; the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio; the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio; the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York; the Library of Congress, Washington, DC; the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; the Milwaukee Museum of Art, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; the Elvehjem Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL; the Rochester Museum of Art, Rochester, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, Belgrade, Yugoslavia; the Museum of Modern Art, Novi Sad, Yugoslavia; the Museum of Modern Art, Ljubljana, Slovenia; and the Metropolitan Museum, Manila, Philippines. He lives and works in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin.

Julie Karabenick: Your work has consistently been concerned with how color and light reveal the interaction of geometric forms in space.

Marko Spalatin: I am intrigued by both the relativity of color and the mystery of light, and I am constantly challenged to explore their potentials. In my prints and paintings, I use geometric forms in order to develop variegated color surfaces that capture light. Light falling on colored forms creates illusions of volume and space, suggesting a realm that could be entered.

Iridium II
Iridium II, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 140 cm (48 x 55 in), 1998

Initially, the viewer might be drawn into this realm by color sensations alone; however, upon entering, much more is revealed through sustained observation. The space is charged with the interplay of color and light, creating both tension and movement.

Meridian II
Meridian II, acrylic on canvas, 157 x 180 cm (62 x 71 in), 2004

I enjoy using minimal means to achieve maximal effects. It’s an arena where a series of relatively small decisions collectively contribute to the strength of the work.

Quantum V
Quantum V, serigraph, 74 x 64 cm (29 x 25 in), 1989

JK: You use familiar techniques to create imaginary spatial realms.

MS: I may use traditional perspective, but I will often introduce subtle distortions in order to affect the distribution of color or generate more movement. I may depict light in a classical way, but I also like to manipulate it. For example, I produce complex and often ambiguous spatial illusions by using multiple light sources, as seen here in Chiapas II.

Chiapas II
Chiapas II, serigraph, 74 x 58 cm (29 x 23 in), 1986

I like to create a sense of something beyond the ordinary. I want my work to resist the viewer somewhat, to provoke the question, “What is it I’m looking at?”

JK: And this sense of mystery is often heightened by close-up views that block our ability to see entire objects or their environments.

Module XXIPalancar II
Module XXI, serigraph,
76 x 64 cm, (30 x 25 in), 1973
Palancar II, serigraph,
64 x 76 cm (25 x 30 in), 1978

MS: By selecting a particular view of an imaginary environment with the implication of what is being excluded, the paintings do not easily capitulate to the observer. To me, it is this allusive and constantly changing answer that gives the work an enduring quality.

JK: Looking across your work, we sense the absence of a human or other familiar biological presence. The order created seems suspended in a timeless moment.

Akumal VII
Akumal VII, serigraph, 72 x 64 cm (28.5 x 25 in), 2001

MS: The absence of the ordinary biological world in my work dissociates the viewer from having to interpret the story. This feeling of absence accentuates the sensation of needing to interpret the light and space in an abstract sense, not unlike listening to music. The strength of the work is based upon restraint. The choice of relatively minimal forms is just as much about exclusion as it is about inclusion. These forms essentially become vehicles for the distribution of light. The movement of light ultimately becomes the subject. The light transcends the object; the light is timeless.

JK: We do sense the presence of familiar forces—gravity, attraction, resistance—even if we’re not sure precisely how they operate in these realms.

MS: My work is not designed to represent the natural world, but rather to suggest its sensations. Therefore, these forces might generate the sense of familiarity, but at the same time possess a degree of mystery. For example, my volumes are often separated as well as connected by a magnet-like energy. The force that holds them together also keeps them apart.

Module XXCube Station III
Module XX, serigraph,
76 x 64 cm (30 x 25 in), 1973
Cube Station III, serigraph,
76 x 64 cm (30 x 25 in), 1972

JK: Sometimes your unfamiliar objects clearly reveal their weight as they sit on some unidentified ground plane; at other times, they appear to float in an empty void.

MitlaModule X
Mitla, acrylic on canvas,
91 x 102 cm (36 x 40 in) 1986
Module X, serigraph,
76 x 64 cm (30 x 25 in), 1973

MS: Whether my spatial realms are associated with stationary objects or objects floating in space, in essence they both represent an isolated reality capable of capturing the movement of light.

In more recent work, the careful placement of small areas of saturated color against a backdrop of transitional grays creates an illusion of suspended particles. I find that these particles achieve an incredibly elusive depth of field that cannot be replicated by conventional means such as perspective.

Quantum III
Quantum III, serigraph, 74 x 64 cm (29 x 25 in), 1989

JK: The feeling of suspension recalls your many years of diving.

MS: In general, my work is fortified by real world sensations. As I’ve said, I pay a lot of attention to light. As you know, its quality varies tremendously—in the mountains, under the water, in humid areas, and so on.

My sense of color and light has certainly been influenced by many years of scuba diving in the waters of the Adriatic Sea and the Caribbean. Under the water, I have encountered many places that appeared untouched and unaltered. They seemed to possess a magical light and a wonderful sense of space, crispness and purity. Perhaps I found a need to be associated with the essence of these realms in my work.

Hydroid IV
Hydroid IV, serigraph, 64 x 76 cm (25 x 30 in), 1981

 

JK: Both the forms and the fields you create are quite symmetrical.

Uxmal IPulsar II
Uxmal I, serigraph, 76 x 64 cm (30 x 25 in), 1980Pulsar II, serigraph, 74 x 64 cm (29 x 25 in), 1993

MS: I’m attracted to symmetries—they are iconic, mandala-like, and plentiful in nature. In general my compositions are formal and symmetrical, poised to be set in motion by unexpected mutations of color and light. I enjoy the formality and stability of symmetry, but I also want tension and movement—so I refrain from absolute symmetry.

For example, Akumal I is perfectly symmetrical except for the lighting. Here, the lighting adds drama and disturbs stability. In Akumal V, multiple light sources energize the otherwise symmetrical form. I want things constantly moving, assembling and reassembling, so that what you’re focusing on changes. After all, life is about movement—if I’m not moving, I’m thinking about moving.

Akumal IAkumal V
Akumal I, serigraph, 72 x 64 cm (28.5 x 25 in), 2001Akumal V, serigraph, 72 x 64 cm (28.5 x 25 in), 2001

JK: Our focus also changes due to the interplay of spectral and tonal areas.

Catalana II
Catalana II, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 137 cm (48 x 54 in), 1998

MS: Tonal and spectral areas often fight for dominance in my work. I enjoy making “negative” space seem aggressive and active, so that you don’t always know what the subject is. Your focus switches back and forth between spectral and tonal areas. Typically, larger tonal areas are needed to balance the more intense spectral forms—sometimes remarkably small spectral areas are all that are required to accomplish this. It’s always a question of placement and distribution.

Cabuyal II
Cabuyal II, acrylic on canvas, 91 x 102 cm (36 x 40 in), 1998

I also use simultaneous contrast to maintain a sense of movement and disturb symmetry. For example, in Nebula V, all the modules are identical in size and are vertically connected by touching each other. In a literal sense, one would expect this to be a composition that is both symmetrical and static; however, by simply assigning a different color relationship to every module and its surroundings, visually they become no longer connected, each one existing on its own frequency, assuming its own identity. They no longer appear to be of the same size nor do they occupy the same depth of field. The symmetry also appears to be gone. Static composition has suddenly been replaced by kinetic motion.

Nebula V
Nebula V, serigraph, 58 x 74 cm (23 x 29 in), 1987

At this point, our perception is being challenged. We seem to be confronted with the simultaneous presence of two opposing forces: absolute and arbitrary, formal and informal, stationary and mobile. Ultimately, it is the light that unifies these opposing forces and allows them to coexist. Each module, regardless of its unique identity and placement, appears to be exhibiting an equal response to the source of light within the field, thus balancing the overall tension with harmony.

JK: Observing the intricacies of your compositions, one could easily assume that the work is assisted by the computer—yet you’ve never used one.

MS: My approach to the development of an idea is based on maximum retention of intuitive forces. To me, using a series of quick sketches on paper is the most direct, most creative, and by far the most satisfying way of reacting to an inner vision.

JK: You apply your paints in a flat, uninflected manner, using acrylic for your paintings and oil-based ink for your serigraphs.

MS: The principal aspect of my printing and painting techniques revolves around careful registration of precisely defined areas of color against one another. The pigment has to be absolutely flat and opaque. I don’t use transparent overlays. Each individual shade of color is painted or printed separately. In this manner, I can control the character of each shade and preserve its maximum saturation. The meticulous execution and the absence of visible brushstrokes or any other surface markings fortify the feeling I want to convey: an interplay of pure form, color and light.

JK: You’ve always done your own print editioning.

artist printingReviewing a print
The artist using a squeegee to apply ink to a printThe artist reviewing a completed print
from a limited edition of 70

MS: I enjoy the printmaking process, both the physicality of execution and the aesthetic reward as one witnesses an image emerge one color at a time. The portability of prints has always allowed me to explore certain themes or motifs in the form of a series, creating a group of images and presenting them as limited edition portfolios.

JK: There are large differences in scale between your prints and your paintings.

working on Talikos
Marko Spalatin working on TalikosTalikos, acrylic on canvas,
213 x 274 cm (84 x 108 in), 2004

MS: Due to its scale, viewing a portfolio of prints is an intimate experience. As you page through them one by one, each image carries a surprise as it is being revealed. There is also a sensual feel to handling the paper, examining the richness of the printed surface accompanied by the smell of fresh ink.

The physical presence of a large-scale painting, on the other hand, has an entirely different impact. For example, Synchros is a set of two separate 8′ x 22′ paintings.

working on Synchros
Marko Spalatin working on Synchros, the University of Wisconsin School of
Mechanical Engineering Building, one of two 8’ x 22’ paintings, 1998

These paintings are situated facing each other on the opposite sides of a large atrium, and they are integral parts of the surrounding architecture. When approached up close, one can experience their monolithic drama. When viewed from a distance, they seem to expand the existing architectural space into another realm. Aesthetically, my prints and paintings have lot in common; however, when creating them, the difference in scale and technique requires a significant shift in attitude and approach to problem-solving. I feel that over the years, switching from one to the other has always triggered fresh ideas, contributing to the overall exploration of new parameters.

JK: For most of your career, you’ve surrounded your images with a white border.

MS: The white border accentuates the illusion of a window looking into some other place. Not unlike the viewfinder of a camera, this window traps forms in space and time.

Center Section
Center Section, acrylic on canvas, 142 x 160 cm (56 x 63 in), 1975

The white border is an integral part of the painting itself, especially when the captured forms interact and actually break out, invading the viewer’s space. I prefer to round the corners of the field. This creates a type of a window that unifies the pictorial field even more with its own content.

Nautica IXModule XVIII
Nautica IX, serigraph,
74 x 64 cm (29 x 25 in), 1982
Module XVIII, serigraph,
76 x 64 cm (30 x 25 in), 1973

JK: Turning to your formative years, you were born in Croatia.

MS: I grew up outside the city of Zagreb, which was like a miniature Vienna—gothic structures, a very old medieval area surrounded by walls, lots of history. My father was a scientist who had a love for music, especially opera. My mother used her savings to buy us weekly tickets to the opera or symphony. I began to play the guitar at age eight, though I didn’t begin to seriously play classical guitar until my 30s.

JK: And you loved to draw.

MS: As a child, I was always drawing. In our schools, mathematics and the arts were very important. The study of classical music and the history of art were obligatory. I could draw better than most of my classmates, so I was always called upon to do illustrations on the blackboard. This resulted in an early awareness of issues such as size and proportion.

My older sister is an art historian. At that time, she already had an insatiable appetite for art history books, so I was constantly surrounded by art reproductions. As early as seven or eight, I was looking at the works of the masters from the Medieval period, through Renaissance and Baroque, all the way to the Modern. Interestingly, as I recall, my early appreciation always gravitated more towards underlying form and light rather than literal content For example, as much as the content of the works by Vermeer reveal an almost photographically accurate description of the subject, it is his breathtaking depiction of the jewel-like quality of light and color that to me transcends the narrative story and makes the paintings timeless.

JK: In 1961 your family left Croatia for Canada where you finished high school and continued to study art.

MS: In addition to studying art in high school, I also studied with a German watercolorist. I was struck by how he worked with light. Although his work was meticulously realistic, he was open to Modernism and challenged us with abstraction. I set up a studio in my basement and began painting on my own. I could accurately reproduce what I saw, but that never really excited me. I began simplifying realistic scenes, abstracting them. I was interested in how light fell upon objects to create the illusion of space, thus slowly moving away from literal content and focusing more on underlying form.

JK: In 1963, your family moved to the US.

MS: At the University of Wisconsin in Madison I studied engineering. I wanted to study art, but my parents wanted me to prepare for a viable profession. I studied nuclear engineering, using my elective credits to study basic design, drawing and printmaking. By the end of my second year, I transferred into the art school.

JK: You went on the pursue an MFA in printmaking at the University of Wisconsin.

MS: I was interested in serigraphy. It seemed the perfect medium to achieve the effects I wanted. I could get very intense and vibrant color, nice clean edges. At that time even as a student, I was regularly submitting my work to national juried print competitions. My serigraphs were not only selected for these exhibitions, but would also be awarded an occasional prize. This made me feel that I could make a living doing art. I started making my first mature prints and paintings in my early 20s. Galleries began contacting me, showing interest in my work, and I never looked back.

JK: You began using geometric forms early in your career.

MS: I felt that is was important to create an illusion of palpable space while still retaining a degree of an overall abstract feel. The solid 3-dimensional geometric forms provided the right combination.

JK: You did a number print series and large paintings based on cubes—like the form below that you developed years before Rubik’s Cubes flooded toy markets.

Magicube
Magicube, acrylic on canvas, 193 x 152 cm (76 x 60 in), 1970

MS: Initially, the idea of using cubes solved my dilemma of how to disperse form, color and light throughout the field without creating symbolic implications. I needed a vehicle that possessed both minimal associations with the familiar and maximum potential for color and form distribution.

In a literal sense, a single cube is a mathematically derived, absolutely precise geometrical form that in itself seems aesthetically benign. Its 3-dimensional identity can only be revealed if three of its sides are simultaneously visible. However, when these three sides are lit by a single source of light, they suddenly activate a three-tone relationship and begin to sing.

This tonal relationship can then be exponentially multiplied by the presence of additional cubes, turning it into full-blown orchestra. For example, Magicube, above, was the first from a series of large format paintings depicting clusters of cubes.

Conceptually, I was fascinated to discover how assigning a dominant role to a group of apparently inconsequential forms elevated their minimal assertions to monumental levels. At that moment in time, I also realized that the individual cubes in fact represented nothing more than enlarged particles of light, which suggested that their cumulative effect had the potential of being much greater than the sum of their parts.

Module XIICube Field I
Module XII, serigraph, 76 x 64 cm (30 x 25 in), 1973Cube Field I, serigraph, 76 x 64 cm (30 x 25 in), 1970

Vehicle and subject suddenly became one and the same thing. They were interchangeable, which in essence confirmed that I was very close to the realm I always wanted to explore: the realm that would allow me to study the intricate qualities of light.

JK: Throughout your career, you’ve explored many variations on basic geometric forms, though you’ve never wavered from your fundamental concerns—the relativity of color and the complexities of light.

MS: In spite of its acutely self-limiting boundaries, the period involving cubes was not only responsible for the creation of a number of strong prints and paintings, but it also cemented my commitment to a systematic exploration of spatial realms characterized by the use of other tangible geometric forms and shapes.

JK: Let’s look at several of your print series to see some of these thematic explorations.

MS: Silba is a portfolio of nine prints depicting my interpretation of the visual sensations encountered around the island of Silba off the coast of Croatia on the Adriatic Sea. This series is based on variations involving arrangements of forms capable of producing a wave-like movement of light from the center of the field outward, thus creating a distinct realm that includes both shallow and deep space.

Silba portfolio
Silba, a portfolio of 9 serigraphs,
each 58 x 76 or 76 x 58 cm (23 x 30 or 30 x 23 in), 1975

Silba IX reveals a conceptually fascinating element: the coexistence of both radiating and reflected light. The bright shape in the center of the print emits a strong radiating light, causing the shape to come forward, creating the illusion that this part of the larger shape is simultaneously attached and detached from the larger forms that exhibit only reflected light. Thus, the spatial realm becomes articulated by both the materiality of form and the opticality of color and light.

Silba IX
Silba IX, serigraph, 76 x 64 cm (30 x 25 in), 1975

JK: We see your thematic focus change as we examine additional print portfolios.

MS: Each portfolio represents a serious attempt to work out an idea—and it takes more than one example to tell the story. There is a dialogue among members of a series as each print opens up possibilities for the others. That’s the beauty of thematic exploration.

In the Parnasos series, each image contains a different combination of interlocking forms containing the same set of predetermined angles. Tension is established at the points where the forms touch the edge of the field. The movement projecting outward is countered by the physical presence of the white borders.

Parnasos portfolio
Parnasos, a portfolio of 8 serigraphs, each 64 x 76 cm (25 x 30 in), 1979

In Parnasos VIII, the lower forms appear to sit on the white border and project outward like an object, yet at the top, the same treatment creates a deep sense of space.

Parnasos VIII
Parnasos VIII, serigraph, 76 x 64 cm (30 x 25 in), 1979

In the Hexagon series, clusters of pyramids spin around to create an organic feeling. All the prints are based on the same structure, yet each one yields a different reading of the field of light and space. They appear as relief-like forms, partial views of potentially endlessly repeating patterns.

Hexagon portfolio
Hexagon, a portfolio of 8 serigraphs, each 74 x 58 cm (29 x 23 in), 1984

Hexagon III is pulsating between physicality of the form and opticality of color while neither one is privileged.

Hexagon III
Hexagon III, serigraph, 74 x 58 cm (29 x 23 in), 1984

JK: The interplay of tonal and spectral colors is central to the Prizma series.

MS: I wanted to see how far I could go in assigning a primary role to tonal areas. The main movement of light is established by the use of progressive tonal scales, while normally dominant prismatic colors assume a supporting role.

Prizma portfolio
Prizma, a portfolio of 8 serigraphs, each 74 x 64 cm (29 x 25 in), 1997

In musical terms, one would describe, let’s say Prizma IV, as a composition whose intonation is defined by the interplay of its melodic and rhythmic elements.

Prizma IV
Prizma IV, serigraph, 74 x 64 cm (29 x 25 in), 1997

JK: Some of your recent work calls to mind your experiences diving, for example the Akumal series was inspired by your time in Akumal, Mexico.

MS: The area surrounding Akumal reveals an overwhelmingly powerful display of natural forces: relentless ocean confronted by dense jungle. For centuries, Mayan Indians have worshipped these forces by erecting symbolic geometric structures and living in perfect harmony with nature. Today this balance is being threatened by overdevelopment.

Akumal VIII
Akumal VIII, serigraph, 72 x 64 cm (28.5 x 25 in), 2001

Akumal VIII depicts my interpretation of the coral reefs’ fragile ecosystem.

JK: Your continuing focus on the changing nature of light as seen through the colors and forms it gives life to is also a comment on the fundamental nature of our world.

MS: As John Yau wrote in a the catalogue that accompanied my retrospective held at the Butler Museum of American Art in 1995:

The natural world we inhabit (the one that lies both beneath and beyond all our social, familial, and political affiliations) is contingent, and our relationship to it is not inflexible. It is this continuum of change that constitutes our deepest reality; and it is to this reality that Spalatin is deeply attuned when he makes his paintings. Spalatin may not live in New York or Los Angeles, cities where many artists congregate, but the light and color he defines in his work is hardly local; it is the incessant, changing light one finds everywhere and anywhere.

 

Marko Spalatin
Marko Spalatin in front of Synchros

More about Marko Spalatin at markospalatin.com

Interview images and text copyright@2007 Julie Karabenick and Marko Spalatin. All Rights Reserved.

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All text and artwork reproduced by permission of the artists.

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