An Interview with Artist Vincent Longo

February, 2008

Vincent Longo was born in 1923 in New York. There, he attended Cooper Union from 1942-46 and the Brooklyn Museum Art School from 1949-50. Longo has had a long and distinguished teaching career, including at Bennington College, Bennington, Vermont from 1957-67, and Hunter College, C.U.N.Y., New York from 1967-2001, where he is currently the Joseph and Phyllis Caroff Professor Emeritus. Longo has exhibited his prints and paintings in numerous solo exhibitions beginning in 1949, as well as in group exhibitions across the US and in Germany, Japan, and China. Longo’s work is included in many public, corporate, and private collections, including: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; the Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY; the Whitney Museum of Art, New York, NY; the Library of Congress, Washington, DC; the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY; the Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit, MI; the Fogg Museum, Cambridge, MA; the Lyman Allyn Museum, New London, CT; the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; the Oakland Art Museum, Oakland, CA; the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA; the Robert Hull Fleming Museum, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT; the Washington University Gallery of Art, Washington University, St. Louis, MO; the Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA; the Yale University Gallery, New Haven, CT; the Bibliotèque Nationale, Paris, France; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK; the Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Bordhigera, Italy; the Karl Ernst Osthaus Museum, Hagen, Germany; and the National Museum, Stockholm, Sweden. Longo lives and works in New York City and Amagansett on Long Island, NY.


Julie Karabenick:
You work with geometric forms and gridded structures, yet your method of working is intuitive and spontaneous.

Vincent Longo: The forms and constructs I use are necessarily deliberate, regulated rather than predetermined, but I work with them relatively freely. Images and ideas are worked out rather than thought out. I hope to come upon something unfamiliar using common forms, repeating them and at times finding some aspect of myself hitherto unrecognized in them. Basic forms such as the grid are taken as given. They become a way of finding essence in the basic syntax of abstraction—what it might mean as far as my own artistic journey is concerned.

Untitled
Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 152 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in), 2006

From the beginning, I’ve been interested in archetypal patterns and habits of design that seem to project or fortify inner-directed subject matter and feeling. Whether or not certain forms have meanings that inhere to them or are projected onto them is less important to me than the clarity of conviction given them. Is a circle merely a circle? Can a square signify something other than its strict geometric four-sided limitation?

Untitled (Window Lattice)
Untitled (Window Lattice), acrylic on canvas,
127 x 112 cm (50 x 44 in), 2005

A few years ago in a New York Times interview, Terry Winters noted that he was more involved with immanent forces than transcendental forms. I try to come to terms with both. Getting at essence in the painting process requires working through the demands of craft by mastering techniques and methods to the extent that they become an almost subconscious flow of ideas in the work. The process becomes systematic almost to the point of being automatic and effortless.

Lattice: 3 & 4
Lattice: 3 & 4, acrylic on canvas, 152 x 168 cm (60 x 66 in), 1999

JK: An element of lyrical expressiveness has always coexisted with your geometric syntax.

VL: There’s a stylistic polarity between expressionist gesture and central balance that I’ve always struggled to resolve. It seems to be a question of how to find my own artistic signature. If my main adaptive mode is guided by feeling, I try to bring a more conscious thinking and logic into play. Centering to me suggests inwardness, gesture involves immediate action.

Untitled
Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 2007

I think of reconciling opposites: center and edge, gesture and stillness, back and forth. I hope to thereby mark and signify my particular artistic traits. The lyrical is countered by formal clarity when the whole seems to draw attention to itself, the parts automatically accepted as my terms. I try to keep room for emotional input by not ignoring touch, by avoiding dead-pan professionalism; rather, I embrace the problematic, the difficulty of finding new formal material to explore. I’m not concerned with perfection. I hope for rightness.

JK: From your early work on, you’ve explored both the calm of central balance and the energy of gesture.

VL: The center has to do with stillness, being quiet, perhaps holding back. Gesture is movement—brushy, calligraphic, spontaneous; automatic in 1950s New York, exquisite in Japan. When Lichtenstein commodified it, it signaled an end to Abstract Expressionism.

To Admiral Meaulnes
To Admiral Meaulnes, woodcut,
109 x 76 cm (43 x 30 in), 1961

In recent years, expressionist gesture finds an outlet primarily in my woodcuts to which it is well suited. Below is a recent example of what happens more or less in all my woodcuts—bringing the white of the paper into a dynamic role in the look of the print as a whole. Forms are found in the carving process. I try to maximize what simple black ink on paper can do. The woodcuts retain the gestural spontaneity of my image-making of the 1950s.

Untitled
Untitled, woodcut, 61 x 46 cm (24 x 18 in), 2005

JK: Your use of the grid dates to your very early work.

VL: I used a grid structure in early sketches. It eventually became the basic layout and starting point of all of my work. Center to edge is the way my grids are measured and laid out. All of the work begins and ends in this elementary manner.

Four
Four, etching, 45 x 45 cm (17 3/4 x 17 3/4 in), 1969
Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC, NY

The center points in four directions forming four quadrants and a central vertical/horizontal axis. As seen in Lattice: Flash, the quadrants are often divided, creating a grid, which is always the basic skeletal construct. Measured steps take me to the edges in all-over patterns.

Lattice: Flash
Lattice: Flash, acrylic on canvas, 91 x 76 cm (36 x 30 in), 2000

Window Mandala combines the main concerns of most of my work: frontal engagement with the viewer, color as light, gridded repetition, spaces between, and inward states. The all-over patterning also has a center out and away from which it is measured. The whole proceeds, grows out of the center which it surrounds.

Window Mandala
Window Mandala, acrylic on canvas, 193 x 168 cm (76 x 66 in), 1996

JK: Were you working abstractly back when you were a student at Cooper Union from 1942-46?

VL: In those days, abstract art was not a part of the curriculum. I came to abstraction around 1941-42 via Picasso, Klee, and Kandinsky. My interest in abstraction was spiked when my design teacher at Cooper Union noticed tendencies in my work that pointed in an abstract direction. She made special assignments for me, setting up still lifes that I was to interpret in terms of cubist overlaps in flat space.

JK: Lectures on the philosophy of art by Leo Katz, a former Cooper Union professor, also had a powerful impact upon you.

VL: In 1946, Katz gave a series of spontaneous lectures on Asian art to a group of graduates. He would speak only if someone asked him a question. I asked many questions because I was already familiar with the Taoism of Lao Tse. But it was the first time I had heard anyone refer to the mandala and its use in meditative exercises. That led Katz directly into Jung and his theory of personality types. I’m not a Jungian, but I read Jung because his source material was so widespread and encompassing, his intuitive understanding of visual symbol-making so profound. Jung was interested in art making as something more than the Freudian view of art as mere sublimation. He said abstract art was seeing what was not yet seen.

Most of my reading was eye opening and consciousness expanding: a reorientation of the psyche in matters of the spirit and philosophical stance. All Catholics, even failed ones like me, retain in some part of their being a sense that it is the one true religion. I guess my early abstract paintings and drawings had spiritual overtones, and the words of Lao Tse fed into that.

JK: You’ve also traveled extensively, looking at very early artistic creations.

VL: I’ve looked at cave art in France in the 50s, walked the Carnac allignments, visited the tumulus on the deserted Isle of Gavrinis in Brittany as well as the one that is better known at New Grange. In the early 60s I spent six months in Malta looking at Neolithic megaliths and the Hypogeum, a structure carved out of living rock thought to be the earliest oracular center. What drew me to them has certainly to do with abstract form’s timeless appeal to humans. I painted the small work below during my stay in Malta.

Untitled
Untitled, oil on masonite, 30 x 28 cm (12 x 11 in), 1963

I thought a lot about creation metaphors at this time. My response to New York painting of the 1930s and 40s consisted of central bursts—watercolors and oils of nebulous radiating and exploding centers that were metaphors for creative energy.

JK: We can see also see creation references in two recent serigraphs that are enlarged reproductions of small drawings you made in 1948.

Creation
Untitled
Creation, serigraph, 54 x 39 cm (21.25 x 15.5 in), 2002Untitled, serigraph, 46 x 33 cm (18 x 13 in), 2001

VL: Underlying these early steps toward abstraction—even the most gestural attempts at direct frontal attacks—was a concern with centering and with ascending verticality, as well as a propensity to create space by means of linear splintering. The image on the left is also a notation to deal with the picture plane in terms of vertical, horizontal, and diagonal divisions. As it turns out, that type of structuring device was to be fairly constant over the last few decades.

JK: The woodcut Imago is a very powerful creation metaphor.

Imago
Imago, woodcut, 81 x 48 cm (32 x 18 3/4 in), 1954

VL: Imago was a culmination of the central burst works. It was made from a plank of pine that had a long triangular gash from the bottom edge up to the center that I incorporated into a radiation from the center outward. I was trying for something primordial. The autonomous nature of images like that were more important to me than how they should relate to the 2D planar format they occupied. I wanted them to emanate—involuntarily—from some preconscious source.

JK: We often think of printmaking as a medium requiring a deliberate, planful approach.

VL: Printmaking is one of the least direct of the visual arts; my approach to it has always been spontaneous, without preliminary sketches or plans. I always think of printmaking as a relief from the inherently intense activity that abstract painting demands. Akin to drawing, prints are relatively simple and relaxing. They don’t seem to require much theorizing or mental probing, and, once techniques and processes are learned, they can accommodate very direct and spontaneous formal discovery.

Both painting and printmaking are key to my work, and are interchangeable in the way they have informed and affected each other.

JK: The energy of the central bursts was sometimes moderated—in this instance by a nascent grid-like structure.

VL: Green Light typifies early small paintings that were more cruciform in structure. It also has cubist and, as you say, grid-like traces.

Green Light
Green Light, oil on canvas, 46 x 36 cm (18 x 14 in), 1951

JK: In the 50s, you joined two important New York art groups—The Club and the American Abstract Artists (AAA).

VL: I joined The Club in 1954 and, like Georgio Cavalon and others, was active in both groups. My work was more Abstract Impressionist than Expressionist, closer to Guston and Tomlin than to De Kooning and Pollock—except for my woodcuts and my first attempts with etching that explored a fast calligraphic, brushy tendency.

Conversation Revised
Conversation Revised, woodcut, 50 x 109 cm (19 1/2 x 43 in), 1960

The Eighth Street Club was originally called Subjects of the Artists, a kind of school/seminar founded on the principle that what the artist chose to leave out was more important than what was included in the work—a slight exaggeration. I, all we younger artists, were intrigued and inspired by the intensity of the verbal exchanges as well as the humor. The Club met once a week, usually on Fridays. Non-members had to be invited by members. Discussions were in panel form and were often followed by drinking, at times dancing. I conversed, mostly listened, to Ludwig Sander and Landes Lewitton, painters who wrote as well. Those days in New York were particularized by an unusual free and easy communication and comradship between older and emerging artists. One day I was visiting a friend in his loft when Franz Klein happened in and conversed with us for several hours. Their generosity included exhibiting their work along with us in group shows.

JK: And the AAA?

VL: I was invited to join the AAA in 1956 or 57, sponsored by Alice Trumball Mason. The AAA was more laid back, mostly formed for joint exhibiting at places like the New School and the Riverside Museum. Both groups had annual shows; the Club had many at the Stable Gallery.

I was certainly not a geometric painter per se, but I was beginning to move more in that direction. Even my brushier work had a kind of soft, lyrical geometry to it, though it was not the hard-edged rectangularity of Mondrian’s followers. Hard-edged geometry would not become a motivating factor for me until the mid 60s, and even then it came in sideways via the grid, which insinuated itself gradually.

Stretch is a large painting from 1958 that presages later grid work and is an example of linear usage.

Stretch
Stretch, oil on canvas, 215 x 131 cm (84 3/4 x 51 1/2 in), 1959

JK: Your etchings of the early 60s are characterized by heavy linear cross-hatching. Their compositions in part suggest Eastern spiritual geometry.

VL: My work is obviously grounded in modernist reduction, though allusions to Eastern sources are evident. An important breakthrough for me came in the spring of 1964. Back from a sabbatical in Malta to look at its Neolithic monuments—actually proto-temples—I began a series of dark etchings that led directly to concerns about planar boundaries, screen/grid interchanges, and meditations on the center. Though strictly conditioned by the times and thoroughly motivated by present-day problems regarding abstract art, I found an abiding subject that motivates me still.

Though somewhat regulated and looking labor intensive, etchings like Centered: Radiating are quite direct and were developed intuitively. This dark etching is oriented to the center and contains lines radiating outward. Center to edge, edge directed inward; these are aspects of one singularity—the plane—a literal boundary to be breached and extended in perception and thought.

Center: Radiating
Centered: Radiating, aquatint and etching,
plate 46 x 46 cm (18 x 18 in), 1964

The etchings of this time are proto-minimal, the intent of which is best represented by a deeply etched, tipped square that is suspended on a very darkly hatched ground. The title, Keeping Still, is taken from the I Ching.

Keeping Still
Keeping Still, etching, 46 x 36 cm (18 x 14 in), 1964

The etching Dot is a variation on the Hindu yantra. Yantras are invariably abstract forms, usually with a dot or bindu at the center. The bindu—dot, seed, or drop—is a Hindu sign representing beginnings.

Dot
Dot detail
Dot, etching, 44 x 37 cm (17 1/2 x 14 3/4 in), 1965Dot detail

JK: Your etching Second Plan is more mandala-like.

VL: Most mandalas we see are Buddhist. The term “mandala” is Sanskrit meaning “magic circle.” Mandalas have an abstract square/circle format, but are figural in content. The square represents a palace, the circle the cosmos. Second Plan also alludes directly to Greco-Roman floor and ceiling motifs, which surprisingly predate square/circle usages in Asia. Such imagery, whether from Tibet, Nepal, China, India, or from Western sources like the Navajo, invariably stand for outer and inner wholeness. In Asia these geometric forms are used as aids in meditation.

Second Plan
Second Plan, aquatint etching,
45 x 37 cm (17 3/4 x 14 5/8 in), 1966

Etchings such as Second Plan employed masking tape as an acid-resistant medium. They moved away from etchings as simulations of pen drawings, and allowed an approach to prints that was more consistent with what I was doing in painting.

JK: Paintings such as Red Mandala.

VL: These paintings are stained grounds for a variety of circle/square centers that allude to mandalas and yantras. They are meant to be more about painting than about their symbolic overtones. They try for an existential and simple renewal of archetypal forms, which I thought had bearing on contemporary discourse.

Red Mandala
Red Mandala, acrylic on canvas,
171 x 137 cm (67 1/2 x 54 in), 1966

In these paintings, I was also trying to come to terms with the issue of the literalness of the frame and format, which was becoming central to Greenbergian criticism. However, my own views had more to do with one of painting’s chief characteristics—being illusory—that is, denying painting’s physicality and automatically drawing the viewer into its subjective terms. Their position had more to do with a painting’s “objecthood” —Michael Fried.

Yantra
Yantra, acrylic on canvas, 139 x 122 cm (55 x 48 in), 1965

Greenberg, on seeing one of these large stain paintings, remarked that Ken [Noland] had used up centering. I told him that I also had eighth century Tibet in mind. He said,” Yeah, the mandala” —a half-hearted acknowledgment of my interest in Asian art. He and I remained friends after I left my teaching postion at Bennington College in 1967. He and Noland wanted me to be part of their group, but I declined, knowing that my work could never fit with the brand of formalism they professed. Clem was always cordial with me and told people that I was the only artist he’d sometimes run into in libraries. A little like Harold Rosenberg’s remark about artists looking at books, but reading paintings.

Green Arcs on Yellow and Orange
Green Arcs on Yellow and Orange, acrylic on canvas,
66 x 66 cm (26 x 26 in), 1967

Green Arcs on Yellow and Orange is probably the last of this group.

JK: Its composition is recalled in your etching from the same year, Squaring.

Squaring, etching, 43 x 37 cm (17 1/8 x 14 3/4 in), 1967

VL: If one fixes attention to the center, the white of the paper comes forward to complete the square for which no straight lines are used; only concentric arcs are etched into the plate surface. A perceptual psychologist might call this a “goodness figure.”

My subsequent inclusions of yantra and mandala constructs would become more integrated with the grid.

JK: We see the grid full-blown in etchings and paintings from the late 60s.

VL: The etchings came directly out of earlier plays with hatchings that were now becoming regular in terms of grid patterning. The enlargements below show that these tonal screens—that is, grids that have been greatly reduced—consist only of lines. As they are reduced to screens, the grids become tonal textured areas, and their linearity is lessened.

Screen alludes to Ben Day screens used in mass printing, as well as suggesting a yantra while adhering to strict visual minimalist terms, that is, reductive, elemental, formal investigation. Minimal art was not yet a common rubric.

Screen
Screen detail
Screenetching,
plate 35 x 35 cm (13 7/8 x 13 5/8), 1967
Screen detail

Screen and Other Side led to paintings and prints that deal with regularity versus randomness and with making opposites interact, which, by the way, is a meditative goal of yantra and mandala constructs. I think of these all-over patterns as a kind of space itself, with its unseen dimensions, skeletal matter, configured energy and pure abstraction—spaces between, arbitrarily found points, flatness hinting at depth.

Other Side
Other Side detail
Other Side, etching,
plate 61 x 46 cm (24 x 18 in), 1967
Other Side detail

In Crossed Over and Plaid, masking tape is used to resist acid in a process called “open bite etching.” Here, no lines are etched, but the image surface becomes a low relief. In the process of inking and wiping, the ink holds to the edges of the raised parts of the plate. I invented this technique in 1964. Aquatints are added in Plaid.

Crossed Over
Plaid
Crossed Over, etching,
45 x 45 cm (17 7/8 x 17 3/4 in), 1967
Plaid, aquatint and etching,
46 x 37 cm (18 x 14 3/4 in), 1968

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