An Interview with Artist Vincent Longo

February, 2008

JK: You began making grid paintings in the late 60s.

VL: The small orange grid painting of 1967 is the beginning of the all-over repetitions that, in one way or another, continue in my painting today. The grids in these paintings are developed over stained grounds. Thus, although the grid is regular, the orange tones are not. When he saw it in my studio, Greenberg was drawn to it despite the fact that he was vehemently opposed to the grid or any composing method that might smack of a formulaic or systemic approach to painting.

Orange Yantra
Orange Yantra, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 30 cm (12 x 12 in), 1967

Once the grid becomes a decisive factor in my paintings and functions as a given, my work leaves relational composing and is more directly akin to late Reinhardt and Albers, stimulated by Stella. Behind that, of course, lurks Mondrian who would become a more conscious inspiration much later.

Orange over Green
Orange over Green, acrylic on canvas,
66 x 51 cm(26 x 20 in), 1967

As a working process, relational composing entails decision-making—major or minor—about what to put in a painting and where to put it, especially regarding tension and balance. The impulse toward minimalist reduction sought a more rarified and often purely systemic approach to getting at essence. In my case it became a matter of dealing with quadrants and lattices as containers of the work’s content.

Quarter Turn
Gray Grid
Quarter Turn, acrylic on canvas,
152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1967
Quarter Turn: Gray Grid, acrylic on canvas,
183 x 183 cm (72 x 72 in), 1968

Quarter Turn uses four colors identically arranged, but that turn on a central pivot—a kind of asymmetrical symmetry.

JK: You sometimes interrupted the grid.

VL: I broke the grid randomly as a way of acknowledging its insistent regularity. My use of random breaks in the grid is about creating an irregular indeterminacy of surface.

Broken Grid on Rust
Broken Lattice
Broken Grid on Rust, acrylic on canvas,
183 x183 cm (72 x 72 in), ca 1969
Broken Lattice, aquatint and etching,
36 x 37 cm (16 1/4 x 16 3/8 in), 1969

JK: In 1970, you had a print retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC that travelled to the Detroit Institute of Art.

VL: The exhibition covered 15 years of printmaking. Green Screen begins with a 1/2 inch grid as in the lower left, and is divided on the diagonal with a second grid. As the grids multiply, the spaces between decrease and become tonal shading, darkening toward the top. It’s a study of the most basic etching process. It’s also a visual notation on how I got into grids by making sketchy cross-hatching more rigorous and regulated.

Between is an aquatint that employs acrylic spray paint to create tonality and depth and 1/8 inch masking tape as an acid resist. It comes as close as any of my prints do to what my paintings are about.

Green Screen
Between
Green Screen, etching,
45 x 37 cm (17 3/4 x 14 3/4 in), 1967
Between, aquatint,
61 x 46 cm (24 x 18 in), 1969

JK: In your next group of paintings from the early 70s, expressive tendencies become more pronounced, though the grid structure continues.

VL: My large splatter and blot paintings are on grids that get more or less subsumed in the act of building surfaces. These works are part of what was called “lyrical abstraction,” an offshoot of Color field painting.

My particular interest was trying to deal with David Katz and his notion of “film color,” which, in brief, refers to color that is not reflected off a surface, but seems to operate as its own indeterminate surface and its own light source—such as the blue of the sky on a clear day. I became interested in painting metaphors of what Katz called “subjective visual gray” or color seen behind closed eyelids.

Toward Visual Grey II
Toward Visual Grey II, acrylic on canvas,
76 x 46 cm (30 x18 in), 1975

The grids in the splatter and blot paintings include diagonals and are often randomly broken up in the process of becoming visible. E19 is an 8 foot square consisting of 4 separately stretched modules, each painted with little reference to the others, but using the same colors. The modules fit together easily by virtue of the grid always having connecting lines at the midpoint of each side. It’s a kind of automatic composing I often rely on for larger projects.

E 19
E19, acrylic on canvas,
244 x 244 cm (96 x 96 in), 1973
On permanent loan at the Institute of International Education, Fulbright Sponsors

8 Triangles is also 8 foot square and consists of eight triangular units bolted together. Diagonals run from the center to the corners, right angles connect to form the sides. I wanted to deal with equivalents of feeling and meditations on the nature of immediacy and fluidity in art that I admired—Rothko, Pollock, early Sam Francis—as well as aspects of Asian art. All of these were done in the summer of 1974 and shown at Susan Caldwell that year.

8 Triangles
8 Triangles, acrylic on canvas, 244 x 244 cm (96 x 96 in), 1974

JK: You refer to paintings done in the mid 70s to early 80s as “layered grids.”

VL: Color field paintings that include random taping out are typical examples of layered grids. For example, over an initial square grid, in Red Point Pattern a diagonally gridded layer of tape was used to mask out part of the painted surface. Following a coat of blue, a second gridded mask was applied, covering the blue and tan grids and leaving a pattern of small lozenges that were then painted red.

Red Point Pattern
Red Point Pattern detail
Red Point Pattern, acrylic on canvas,
76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 1975-77
Red Point Pattern detail

Often the tape would be sealed with a contrasting color that would bleed under it in places.The blue in the detail of Forest Murmur shows this random color spreading that relieves the inherent flatness of hard-edge painting.

Forest Murmur
Forest Murmur detail
Forest Murmur, acrylic on canvas,
137 x 178 cm (54 x 70 in), 1979
Forest Murmur detail

Color spreading and the pixel-like color patterns produce a textured surface of broken color akin to Impressionism.

Untitled
Untitled detail
Untitled (Spreading Pink and Yellow), acrylic on canvas,
127 x 178 cm (50 x 70 in), 1978
Untitled (Spreading Pink
and Yellow)
detail

The color fields of the mid 70s to 81 stopped when I become bored with all of the taping they entailed.

JK: Just as in the splatter and blot paintings, we see an interplay of gridded structure and more expressionist tendencies in many prints from the 70s and 80s.

VL: Passing Through and Cutting Close are typical spontaneous, directly carved woodcuts shown at the Whitney Museum in 1981. Relatively large, in black and white, they are an attempt to resolve the opposing expressionist/minimalist attitudes always reflected in my work. I try to get as much variety as I can within the strict limitations of this old printing medium—examples of how graphic flatness can become tonally spacious, how regularity can be relieved, formally extended by random shading. The prints always mirror ideas and preoccupations that, for the most part, are dealt with in my painting, but they are always a kind of release.

Passing Through
Cutting Close
Passing Through, woodcut,
91 x 61 cm (36 x 24 in), 1976
Cutting Close, woodcut (3rd state),
89 x 69 cm (35 x 27 in), 1981

Syntactic is made with two basswood planks. It’s an exercise in white-on-black/black-on-white exchanges of figure/ground readings, wavy lines and curves moving and developing in a free-flowing left-to-right lateral progression. This print might look labor intensive but, like all of the work I do, is not tightly planned.

Syntactic
Syntactic, woodcut, 61 x 95 cm (24 x 37 1/2 in), 1982

JK: In subsequent paintings, painterly brushwork recalls the textural handling of these earlier prints.

Foliatrium
Foliatrium, acrylic on canvas and wood, 145 x 198 cm (57 x 78 in), 1985

Foliatrium had to do with a garden motif, combining painterly abstraction with the grid in laterally connected compartments. In a lot of work at this time, I was painting one strip at a time, changing the surface treatment from brushy to flat as the painting developed in sections. This was a transitional and more experimental time for me.

In subsequent paintings like Through the Lattice and Dark Radiance, the grids open up to include brushy passages. These works look back both to cubist overlapping space and to constructivist diagonal movement.

Through the Lattice
Dark Radiance
Through the Lattice, acrylic on wood,
183 x 122 cm (72 x 48 in), 1988
Dark Radiance, acrylic on wood,
183 x 122 cm (72 x 48 in), 1988

I wanted to end this series with something frontal, up close, and reductive. Three refers to triangularity, four to the square and plane. I thought of a still life dealing with a kind of folding, ambiguous space.

Of Three and Four 1
Of Three and Four 2
Of Three and Four 1, acrylic on wood,
122 x 91 cm (48 x 36 in), 1988
Of Three and Four 2, acrylic on wood,
122 x 91 cm cm (48 x 36 in), 1988

Tony’s Corner was done in homage to Tony Smith, the great painter, sculptor, architect, and close friend. All of Smith’s angular sculpture starts with an isometric grid that develops from connecting equilateral triangles. My painting also mimics volumetric pyramids with a few cylinders tinted bronze on the left—reminders that even abstraction can be subject to painting’s illusory qualities. The raised section on the right is actual. The 3D forms are painted to suggest volumes.

Tony's Corner
Tony’s Corner, acrylic on canvas and wood,
182 x 177 cm (71 3/4 x 69 3/4 in), 1987

Cross Up deals with spatial ambiguity. The diagonals cross above the central axis to further complicate the rectilinear repetition of the grid. I wanted the shapes to act as figure or field—or both—depending on the viewer’s attention and focus.

Cross Up
Cross Up, acrylic on wood panel,
203 x 168 cm (80 x 66 in), 1990

JK: Marker begins a new series in which a central grid is symmetrical.

VL: In paintings like Marker, sixteen squares are set into four larger squares that result from the initial central vertical/horizontal division of the canvas. The remaining space frames the squares. I thought of closer, more frontal elements in binary color changes diagonally connected. Thus the yellow and brown squares connect diagonally as do the red and pink, and so on. The “X” is a carry-over from the preceding group—reinforcing the diagonal color division, marking the spot.

Marker
Marker, acrylic on canvas,
153 x 133 cm (60 1/4 x 52 1/4 in), 1992

Tetract is also typical of most 80s and early 90s paintings. I was trying to free up the naturally tight regularity of the grid. This series also brought me back to a more conscious engagement with color. Glass beads are added to the acrylic paint to give it more body and a rough texture.

Tetract
Tetract, acrylic on canvas, 183 x 163 cm (72 x 64 in), 1993

The most recent development in my work was triggered around 1995. It was inspired by the great Mondrian show at MOMA. The viewing public was the most quiet and seemingly thoughtful of any museum audience in my experience; they were almost reverential. The work seemed to demand quiet participation. I think my response is a continuation of order that requires silent, wordless contact and intuitive communication. I’m still in that frame of mind.

Untitled
Untitled, acrylic on wood, 76 x 66 cm (30 x 26 in), 1995

I saw in late Mondrian what I had come to accept in Newman much earlier: a bare bones significance found only in powerful original, symbolic expression. It seemed to me that Mondrian’s late grids spoke to what was driving my own uses of similar terminology. My lattices for the most part become concerned with pared down symmetry, a concern for front/back motion, spaces between, and light. Despite obvious connections to Mondrian, my terms come out of my use of line as primary element, which goes back to early tendencies of my post-Cooper Union years.

Untitled
Untitled, acrylic on wood, 76 x 66 cm (30 x 26 in), 1995

JK: It appears that your latticed grids next became richer in color and often more structurally complex.

VL: These lattices reference Mondrian, weaving, ornament, and spatial overlaps that I tried to put into a personal idiom of abstraction. Color has a key role in all of it. All artists use color in personal terms. I try to stretch its common usage—being a matter of taste or embellishment—and try to think of it as having its own space and atmospheric presence to affect the tone and formal conditions of the work—almost requiring primary attention.

Lattice 3B, 3G
Lattice 3B, 3G, acrylic on wood, 81 x 71 cm (32 x 28 in), 1997

It was important to me to bring out spatial ambiguities—the stand-up frontal verticals modified by the horizontals—modernist allusions to ornament, but really about contemporary modes of visual communication and what painting itself might be about.

Lattice: Minos made me think of Minoan frescoes. It was hanging in my studio for years. It’s a good example of the conscious allusion to Mondrian via simple ornamental practices that occupy most of my work since that time. All of the slats of the lattice are an inch wide except for the orange, which doubles in width. This painting felt more Mediterranean than what was otherwise going on in my work.

Lattice: Minos
Lattice: Minos, acrylic on canvas,
152 x 137 cm (60 x 54 in), 1997

JK: Lattice: 4 & 3 is one of your larger lattice pieces.

VL: Yes, most paintings of this period are smaller. In these works, I vary the width of the lines as well as the intervals between them.

Lattice: 4 & 3
Lattice: 4 & 3, acrylic on canvas, 168 x 224 cm (66 x 88 in), 1999

I think about ambiguity, ambivalence, and how space is read: what it can do to one’s attention, how it’s seen differently at different times, and how color affects its changes. It’s a matter of finding.

Abstraction tends toward flatness, a trait in itself without value. Lattices consist of bands that are two-sided. Like windows, they allow light to pass through them. They are two-dimensional. Grids are made of lines, essentially one-dimensional, crossing and multiplying to become two-dimensional and also flat. I counter flatness by making breaks in the grids, changing widths and intervals in the lattices, and using a lot of overlaps.

JK: The lattices that followed seem more symmetrical, less varied in the widths of the crossing bars.

Lattice: Dawn
Lattice: Dawn, acrylic on wood,
122 x 91 cm (48 x 36 in), 2000

VL: Yes, I think of them as latticed frames and color bars laid over one another in spatially ambivalent situations; syntactical units that advance, recede, overlap, interlock in a spontaneous accumulation—a kind of blunt crosshatch. Window/portal, even their symmetrical layout, are mainly metaphorical, at times referring to an illuminated page. The geometric constraints hopefully do not rule out a feeling state of moving out as well as inward.

Lattice: Finestra
Lattice: Finestra, acrylic on canvas,
122 x 91 cm (48 x 36 in), 2002

Most are not that far removed from my early work that relies a lot on lines in space. Now it’s less painterly, more contained, and symmetrical. The symmetry is not so immediately obvious, not the first thing one might think of at first glance. These paintings never proceed from a set plan. They are worked out rather than thought out, and develop gradually layer by layer.

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

I sometimes think of what I’m painting now as fragments of a larger subject, a larger unified form. The symmetry, the all-over patterning and linear repetition can go on indefinitely. The framing limits of the canvas block and limit the work’s physical reach—as a thought, or pursuit—but symbolic connotations give it infinite extension, at least metaphorically. The work seeks singularity, but wants universal relevance and connectedness as well.

Untitled
Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 102 x 102 cm (40 x 40), 2006

JK: I’m impressed at how long you’ve found gridded structures fertile terrain for both formal exploration and, as you say, self-realization.

Untitled
Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 152 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in), 2007

VL: I hope to stay at the heart of what abstraction is about: formal discovery, beginnings. Finding the words for this process is like trying to explain what is really ineffable, but it has a lot to do with what Kenneth Burke called “symbolic action,” a need that is uniquely human.

We all aim for general qualities: beauty, formal rightness, contemplative rest, establishing a personal defining, lasting signature; the specific dynamics of a piece are harder to pin down. That seems to be the viewer’s part. A good measure of decision-making is intuitive. We wait for epiphanies, sudden autonomous invasions of insight, often unnameable. If a decorative motif or system is used, this doesn’t mean the result will be at all decorative. I think what counts is that an archetypal constant is used for contemporaneous effect—meant to have bearing on art now. Modern painting has been, at its best, mainly about art, but also about being just this side of silence.

My work centers on being: being an artist who leaves his particular traces that seem to me to be more symbolic than semiotic. Signs point to known things, symbols—according to Jung’s definition—are about things that can never be fully known, are at best only partially understood, and can be expressed in no other or better way. My work looks slow, but I want it to reflect instancy: as art and being in art. A favorite Taoist admonition is: Protect the center, spread the light

Vincent Longo in his studio
Vincent Longo in his New York studio

More information about Vincent Longo at vincentlongoartist.com

Interview images and text copyright©2008 Julie Karabenick and Vincent Longo. All Rights Reserved.

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All text and artwork reproduced by permission of the artists.

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