An Interview with Artist Michael Knutson

September, 2008

Michael Knutson has taught at Reed College in Portland, Oregon since 1982, and at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania from 1975-82. He received a BFA from the University of Washington, Seattle, Washington in 1972 and an MFA from the Yale University School of Art in New Haven, Connecticut in 1975. Knutson was the recipient of a postgraduate Traveling Fellowship from Yale University, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1982, and a Betty Bowen Special Recognition Award from the Seattle Museum of Art in 1995. Knutson has been exhibiting his work since 1972, including in 17 solo exhibitions and over 65 group exhibitions. A 25 year retrospective of his work was shown in concurrent exhibitions at The Art Gym in Marylhurst University, Marylhurst, Oregon and the Eric and Ronna B. Hoffman Gallery, Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon in 2006. Knutson’s work is in the public collections of the states of Oregon and Washington: in Multnomah County, Oregon, and King County and Snohomish County, Washington, as well as in the Portland Art Museum. Knutson lives and works in Portland, Oregon.

Julie Karabenick: You’ve worked with geometric forms in your paintings since your graduate school days in the 70s. It’s noteworthy that from that time on, you’ve avoided horizontals and verticals in your work.

Spring Coil Quintet 3
Sprung Coil Quintet 3, oil on canvas, 122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 2007

Michael Knutson: One of the conditions I set down in a “manifesto” I wrote in my first year of graduate school was that the forms in my paintings would not be defined by or echo the four sides of the canvas. Forms might flirt with the frame by bouncing off or brushing against it, or they might pass beyond it, but they would deviate from the gravity of the perpendicular, modernist grid. A youthful expression of rebellion became a longstanding disposition.

Crossing Oval Coils II
Crossing Oval Coils II, oil on canvas, 183 x 274 cm (72 x 108 in), 2004

The forms in my first abstract paintings were gestural and organic, but even after they became geometric—squares, rectangles, trapezoids, triangles and diamonds—they continued to avoid alignment with the edges of the canvas.

Double Sprung Coil
Double Sprung Coil, oil on canvas, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 2007

Although geometry is usually associated with rationality and order, I’ve tried to apply it toward something more animate, organic and restless. I’m probably an abstract expressionist at heart.

Double Coil
Double Coil, oil on canvas, 152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1999

My recent paintings embody my conflicting desires for order and slipperiness. Every inch of the surface is mapped, and each shape is set into the pattern like a brick in a wall, yet each shape is unique, skewed, and teetering. There are no stabilizing horizontals or verticals.

Blue/Green/Violet TwistedRibbons on Orange
Blue/Green/Violet Twisted Ribbons on Orange, oil on canvas, 150 x 213 cm (59 x 84 in), 2002detail

My work has periodically undergone convulsive changes over the years, but it occurred to me a while back that I’ve always been trying in various ways to wed order and slipperiness—in other words, structure and gesture.

Convoluted Coil
Convoluted Coil, oil on canvas, 163 x 213 cm (64 x 84 in), 2003

JK: A very important development in the structure of your work occurred when you began arranging the individual geometric shapes into grids or, as you refer to them, “lattices.”

MK: My first lattices in 1980 were really about organization, a strategy to herd the previously willful, free-floating shapes into a more decorous behavior. Ten years later I began working with a cubic lattice—a “baby block” pattern like those found in quilts and tile floors, as shown lower left. It’s also referred to in quilt making as “tumbling blocks.”

JK: Yet, consistent with your desire to avoid horizontals and verticals and with your attraction to gesture, you immediately deviated from the baby-block lattice.

MK: In the traditional cubic lattice all of the facets are the same size and shape, but from the start the cubes in these lattices were irregular—of different sizes and shapes, skewed and curving. The 1992 painting, Quarry, is about the closest I’ve come to the traditional form, but it’s still rather distorted.

Baby block quilt patternQuarry
Cubic lattice or “baby block” patternQuarry, acrylic on canvas, 244 x 305 cm (96 x 120 in), 1992

JK: The lattices satisfied your need for order and structure. What about gesture?

 MK: My conception of gesture has evolved a lot over the years, which probably accounts for most of the changes that have occurred in my work. An early approach to gesture was to set shapes and volumes on diagonals so they would appear to be teetering or skewing back into space. This was carried further in Inside the Whale where clusters of small shapes are tossed about inside ovoid, black and white fields, which are themselves being centrifugally spun beyond the frame.

Inside the Whale
Inside the Whale, acrylic, 213 x 274 cm (84 x 108 in), 1977-78

The gestures of the curved lattices in Current are more multi-directional, like a forest of kelp being pushed about by currents, hence the title. Actually, the process of interlacing the six lattices was like choreographing a ballet of octopi.

Current, acrylic on canvas, 244 x 305 cm (96 x 120 in), 1990

In 1998 I began to create radiating and spiralling gestures by draping the cubic lattices over concentric circles, ovals and spirals. I came to prefer the spiral for the underlying structure because it  appears to be passing through or disturbing the lattice. It is gestural, asymmetrical and open. In Recoil, two spirals originating from the same point near the center channel the cubes into two broad white and black arcs. Each spiral brushes near two edges of the frame before exiting, although one could also read the spirals as contracting into the center. That visual ebb and flow suggests an illusion of perpetual motion.

Recoil, oil on canvas 160 x 152 cm (63 x 60 in), 1999

JK: In the drawings below, we can see you draping cubic lattices over spiraling lines. Are these compositions designed with the help of a computer?

MKNo, I’ve never used the computer to compose my paintings, as I prefer to work things out directly on the canvas. I make rough preliminary sketches of the underlying spirals on paper, then enlarge and adjust them on the canvas. Next I triangulate across the spirals to form a hexagonal, “honeycomb” structure, which I subdivide further to arrive at the cubic lattice.

Skewed cubic lattice over spiral
In progress drawing on canvas of a cubic lattice draped over spiral lines
Close-up of above drawing
Close-up of above drawing
Tripolar Coils III

The completed painting: Tripolar Coils III, oil on canvas, 122 x 244 cm (48 x 96 in), 2008

JK: Spiraling lattices of tightly interlocked forms seem to be a perfect vehicle to achieve your goal of creating what you’ve called an “all-over enmeshed space.”

MK: In the late 90s, when the facets of the lattices became smaller and the field expanded, my attention shifted from the individual or interlocked cubes to larger events that were occurring in the structure. The lattices themselves had become the subject rather than just a way to organize the cubes.

Crossing Oval Coils V
Convoluted Coil II, oil on canvas, 213 x 213 cm (84 x 84 in), 2005

JK: These larger events or patterns offer viewers multiple ways to enter and negotiate these complex paintings.

Sprung, oil on canvas, 168 x 168 cm (66 x 66 in) 1991

MK: I began to see patterns—for example, crossing staircases, twisted ribbons, and galaxies of six-point stars —which had always been there, but I hadn’t noticed them. The color pattern in Sprung draws these patterns out.

crossing staircasestwisted ribbonssix-pointed stars
Detail from Sprung showing crossing staircasesDetail from Sprung showing twisted
ribbons of corner-touching diamonds
Detail from Sprung showing six-pointed stars

JK: There’s a strong sense of motion in these paintings.

MK: They’re not just kinetic, but animate. My attraction to manic liveliness can probably be attributed to the many hours I spent as a child watching old cartoons from the 30s and 40s on tv.

JK: The potential for multiple readings enhances this liveliness.

MK: Yeah, one’s attention is continually distracted by the commotion. But of course, appearances of instability and motion are forever incipient since paintings are static. However, one type of illusion—the Necker cube—actually does appear to move as one perceives the cube flipping between two orientations.

In Wheel 2, a related type of spatial ambiguity occurs in a field of interlocked cubes. As seen in the detail, every plane is claimed by two cubes which pull it into different spatial orientations. This occurance could suggest extended time. The spatial flip of a single plane might happen in an almost imperceptible instant, but when that flip is extended across the whole field of multiple planes, it might have more duration. Other patterns, such as the crisscrossing staircases and twisted ribbons, also suggest movement through passing time.

Wheel 2
Wheel 2, oil on canvas, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 1998Wheel 2 detail. Orange facet is
shared by 2 adjoining cubes

JK: Your paint handling supports both the organic and the animate aspects of your work.

MK: The surface of Fools Start  shows some of the process that was involved in making it. It is “distressed”—marked by the residue of paint on the cardboard templates I used to paint the lines. These marks suggest what I call the “narrative of process,” which is another kinetic and temporal illusion.

Fool's Start
Fool’s Start, acrylic on canvas, 175 x 229 cm (69 x 90 in), 1988Fool’s Start detail

My recent paintings are comparatively tidy, with little indication of how they were made, but they’re still quite painterly. Pulling in close to inspect the absurdly intricate shapes near their centers, one finds that their surfaces are surprisingly tactile. Although I earlier likened my process to bricklaying, it’s probably more like mosaic, in which I nudge the impasto paint into tiny shapes and tight corners. Sometimes the paint seems to be pressing through the lattices from behind. This interplay between the schematic and the sensuous is another way that I have thought of structure and gesture.

Crossing Oval Coils IXCrossing Oval Coils IX detail
Crossing Oval Coils IXoil on canvas,
152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 2007
Crossing Oval Coils IX detail

JK: The scale of your work is generally large, sometimes very large.

MK: For a long time I wanted to make paintings in which the scale of the depicted forms related to my body or were even a bit larger. Reading something Rothko said about the size of his paintings may have influenced me. The size of “serious” abstract painting in the early 70s certainly did. Working in relationship to the dimensions of my studio walls also became a habit. This has been moderated a bit by what I could get out the door.

It’s only recently that I’ve been able to make smaller paintings that have satisfied me. But several years ago, I was lured back to an impractical scale by an invitation to make a work for a show of very large paintings. Tilted Tetracoil was the result.

Tilted TetraCoil
Tilted Tetracoil (triptych), acrylic on canvas, 290 x 640 cm (114 x 252 in), 2000

JK: Turning to your childhood, what types of creative activities did you enjoy?

MK: It’s probably not surprising that I spent a lot of time playing with blocks and other construction sets—Tinkertoys, American Bricks, Art Deco skyscraper sets, Erector sets. When I was in first or second grade, my father brought home the ends of rolls of paper from work, and I filled them with drawings of above- and underground cityscapes. Dr. Seuss’ drawings of Whoville and McElligot’s pool were influential. In fourth grade, I started to draw characters from Peanuts comics, and was perplexed by how the circles I drew didn’t quite capture the shape of Charlie Brown’s head the way Charles Schultz’s did. By sixth grade, I’d discovered MAD Magazine, The FlashGreen Lantern and other comics whose pages I pored over like works of art.

I had two fine junior high teachers in San Diego who introduced us to modern art. In one class we made plaster sculptures in the manner of Henry Moore, designed and made models of houses after studying Frank Lloyd Wright, and made mobiles after Alexander Calder. I started going to the San Diego Museum of Fine Arts. Chardin was an early favorite painter, and I made numerous watercolors of fruit and old pots under his influence. In ninth grade, four of us installed a student art show that was featured in The San Diego Union newspaper, and I sold my first painting.

JK: And in high school?

MK: We moved north and I went to high school in Everett, Washington, which was then a sleepy lumber mill town north of Seattle. Watercolor was my preferred medium, but I also began to work in oils and made my first etchings and linoleum prints. By this time, I had become a committed Impressionist, having read John Rewald’s two volume history of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism cover to cover. I painted landscapes on my grandparents’ farms and wrote elegaic musings and free verse poems about orchards and gardens in winter.

After my junior year, I attended a summer program for high school students at the University of Washington. We drew at the Pike Place Market in Seattle, and the following year I’d ride to Seattle with my father when he was working Saturdays at a nearby shipyard, and be dropped off at the market at 6:00 am when the produce and fish sellers were setting up. I filled sketchbooks with drawings of the people and spaces and felt very bohemian.

JK: You completed your undergraduate studies at the University of Washington.

MK: When I arrived, I was wavering between art and creative writing, but I was told by my adviser that I’d have a better chance of getting into a drawing class if I declared a major in art. That pretty much settled my fate. My work continued to be representational throughout my undergraduate years. I started out as a Post-Impressionist, then appropriated the fanciful cubism of Klee and Feininger, and went on to have dalliances with the works of Matisse, Beckmann, Seurat, Morandi, and eventually Hockney.

In 1972, between my 4th and 5th years, I attended the Yale Summer School of Music and Art. It was my first trip to the East Coast. Chuck Close, who was already a rising art star, taught drawing, and in his class I made a series of watercolors of lawn chairs. These led to a series of large oil and cold encaustic triptychs of lawn chairs that had thick, scumbled impressionist surfaces. They were suburban pastorals wedding Monet and Hockney.

Lawnchairs 2
Lawnchairs 2, oil and cold encaustic on canvas,152 x 640 cm (60 x 252 in), 1972

With my mind set on Yale for graduate school, I made a dozen more lawn chair paintings, two of which I shipped to Yale for the second stage of the application process. In the summer after I was accepted, I started another series with a backyard theme—laundry hanging on clotheslines—also painted in cold encaustic in an exaggerated impressionist technique. One of these was hanging on the wall of my graduate studio when Al Held entered in the first week. He said, “Are you still doing this shit?” Being too timid to ask for specifics and not hearing anything positive from the rest of the faculty in the next few weeks, I spent the first semester in a tailspin, shedding all of the aspects of my work that might be offensive—first the subject matter, then the color and paint handling. By December, I was making heavily textured all black and all white paintings.

Jasper John’s White Flag, which was on loan to the Yale Art Gallery at that time, suggested a way out of my slump. Hovering between representation and abstraction, the size and shape of the flag corresponded to the size and shape of the painting. There was no figure/ground relationship—it could be seen alternately as either all figure or all field.

I decided that a pliable, paper-thin field would be both my medium and my subject. I began to tear, fold, crumple and tape together sheets of tracing paper and ran them through a Diazo blueprint machine. A single layer of tracing paper would print as light blue, multiple layers were darker and opaque shapes like the tape printed darkest.

In contrast to my landscapes, these blueprints couldn’t be entered as they occupied a space that coincided with the picture plane. The process was also a break from my previous work in that it was replicative rather than depictive. It involved impulse, playfulness and chance, the latter because I had little control over the image once the paper entered the machine.

Blueprint 1
Blueprint 1, Diazo, ~89 x 122 cm (~35 x 48 in), 1974

I next made over 70 watercolors based on folded, torn and taped sheets of paper. These were necessarily a return to a more depictive, trompe l’oiel  approach, but they did have some of the chance and impulsiveness of the blueprints. The irregular triangular forms and the shapes of the tape in Watercolor 4 (The Red Continent) were the beginnings of an eccentric geometric vocabulary.

Watercolor 4
Watercolor 4 (The Red Continent), watercolor on paper,
56 x 30 cm (22 x 30 in), 1974

Play and irony entered this work as I attempted to tape down something liquid—the large shapes—and to tape down the lifted triangular shapes as they threatened to float off. However, near the end of the second semester, I happened to see a show in New York of abstract illusionist works in which shadows were airbrushed beneath abstract expressionist brush strokes, making them appear to float off the surface. I saw my own work heading in a similar contrived and creepy direction, and I decided to shed my vestigial illusionism.

Trying to get back to the impulsiveness of the blueprints, I made a number of stick and ink drawings, and then paintings in which I used sticks to scratch through putty-like cold encaustic squeegeed onto black acrylic grounds. The Yellow Ear was made in a single session while the cold encaustic was still workable. The scratched lines, like the tape in the blueprints, were strategies to avoid drawing with a brush, which I saw as an additive process and old-fashioned.

The Yellow Ear
The Yellow Ear, cold encaustic on acrylic,
~76 x 91 cm (~30 x 36 in), 1974

When I came to my first abstractions—the blueprints, watercolors and scratched encaustics—I felt that the kid in me had broken loose. I was making images that aspired to be as buoyant and indifferent to logic as were the old tv cartoons that I Ioved as a child.

JK: This spirit continued in your next paintings.

MK: These paintings were heavily influenced by Duchamp. His linking of art-making to game-playing was appealing to me, as were the animate, geometric characters in paintings like The Large Glass. Rube Goldberg’s crazy contraption drawings were also influential.

The robotic, entangling forms in Cameo (Orange) referred to Duchamp’s painting, The Large Glass. The diamond-shaped stepping stones quoted the overlapping colored sheets of paper in his painting, Tu m’. The diamonds invited entry into the painting, but their path was complicated by the tangle of lines.

Cameo (Orange)
Cameo (Orange), oil on canvas,
~244 x 213 cm (~96 x 84 in), 1975

I was almost immediately dissatisfied with Cameo (Orange). Its thinly painted forms appeared to float in an indeterminate space. I wanted there to be interplay between forms and field.

JK: In Bent Ovals, shapes and space engage one another more emphatically.

MK: Yes. My simple solution was to make the forms closer in size to areas of the field and to pile more on. In Blue Ovals, I think I achieved a more satisfying interplay between flatness, depth and projection. That tension continues to interest me.

Bent Ovals
Bent Ovals, acrylic on canvas,
~244 x 213 cm (~96 x 84 in), 1975

Bent Ovals was also my first painting done exclusively in acrylics. I wanted to shed the tasty, seductive qualities of my encaustic paintings in order to emphasize “serious” concerns like shape and structure. Despite my serious intentions, the comical aspects of these paintings were almost immediately apparent to me. I started to see the forms in Bent Ovals as taco shells or sheep jumping over fences in a cartoon dream.

I left graduate school feeling a bit of an oddball, an eccentric. I wanted to make serious, smart paintings. I had a vague notion of aiming for “significant form” and “concrete” geometric fields. At that point and for years afterward, my work would be deeply influenced by Al Held. I thought his huge alphabet paintings from the 60s were more rigorous and assertive than any Minimalist painting I’d seen. His linear black and white geometric paintings from the 70s were more dynamic than any other late modernist painting. I chewed on aspects of Held’s work for years after graduate school.

JK: Aiming for “serious” paintings, you purged eccentric shapes from your compositions.

MK: My first post graduate works were black ink paintings of overlapping, regular geometric forms floating on the page. I wanted to see how little information was necessary to distinguish the shapes, and if oblique, free-floating shapes—trapezoids, diamonds, ellipses—of different sizes could create an illusion of depth.

Black Geometric Shapes II
Black Geometric Shapes II, ink on paper, 56 x 76 cm (22 x 30 in), 1975

I found the interaction of the foreground forms more interesting than what was going on in the background and decided to explore a shallower and more densely packed space.

JK: Shallower—yet you’ve said you never really sought emphatic flatness.

MK: Years after I had settled into my own fraught relationship with the picture plane, I read Greenberg’s 1955 essay, American-Type Painting, in which he  wrote about “a new kind of flatness, one that breathes and pulsates” in the work of Pollock, Newman, Rothko and Still. That’s what I had wanted to see—a pictorial space that was expansive, elastic, buoyant and restless.

Color clarified the layering of shapes in Hide ‘n’ Seek, but it seemed flat-footed, too easy to read. To reintroduce spatial ambiguity, I confused the layering by piling on more shapes and creating spatial contradictions. For example, in the detail from Hide ‘n’ Seek, the blue oval passes behind a large yellow diamond on the left, but reappears on top of it on the right.

Hide 'n' SeekHide 'n' Seek detail
Hide ‘n’ Seek, acrylic on canvas, 183 x 244 cm (72 x 96 in), 1977Hide ‘n’ Seek detail

After periods of working in black and white, I often edge back into color with red, yellow and blue. They’re similarly declarative, and I associate them with a kind of modern classicism referencing Mondrian, Miro, Leger and other early 20th century painters, as well as Pop art.

JK: In Toybox the contours of the shapes suggest three-dimensionality.

MK:  I crowded the background out of the picture. It must be a form of agoraphobia. Over the course of the painting, the geometry changed from planar to volumetric with forms cutting into one another. I painted the forms flatly without internal definition because I wanted their volumes to emerge after a bit of scrutiny or perhaps to pop out as a surprise.

What I thought were the most obviously three-dimensional and peculiar shapes were those in which the corners of cubes emerged through spheres, as seen in the top detail. I would use this form combination in my next two paintings.

ToyboxToybox details
Toybox, acrylic on canvas, 213 x 274 cm (84 x 108 in), 1977Toybox details

JK: In Microscopic and Telescopic you achieved your goal of a three-way tension among flatness, depth and projection.

MK: The layered and convex forms of Microscopic and Telescopic were made with Al Held’s painting, Mao, in mind. In Mao, a central, large white circular shape appears to be compressed into an ovoid by surrounding shapes. In these paintings, I stacked the forms to create pressure on the white spheres from behind to push them forward off the surface. The tiny volumes near the bottom center of Microscopic were my last forays into deep space for some time.

Microscopic, acrylic on canvas,
183 x 244 cm (72 x 96 in), 1977
Telescopic, acrylic on canvas,
183 x 244 cm (72 x 96 in), 1977

JK: In Man in the Moon you tried a different approach to eliminating indeterminate space, which you’d found objectionable.

MK: A summer trip back to the Northwest in 1977 led me to see Northwest Coast Indian art with new appreciation. The graphic clarity of its form language and its horror vacuui made a lot of sense to me and suggested a different tack. Rather than squeezing space out of the pictures, I would try to make the negative space in the paintings more concrete, to give it a physical presence equal to that of the geometric forms.

Man in the Moon
Man in the Moon, acrylic on canvas, 213 x 274 cm (84 x 108 in),1978

JK: As you also tried to do in Modernist Circus.

MK: Modernist Circus is a recycling of Telescopic. The large spheres of the earlier painting drop back to become circular white, yellow, red and blue fields. The small shapes are more eccentric, a compendium of 20th century shapes borrowed from Miro, Arp, Matisse, Kelly, Stout, Held, Feeley, Murray and others.

Modernist Circus
Modernist Circus, acrylic on canvas, 183 x 244 cm (72 x 96 in), 1977-78

JK: In Crazytown, fewer and larger intercutting forms once again crowd space out of the painting.

MK: Further evidence of my agoraphobia. The underlying shapes are larger and obstruct the uppermost shapes, so that when the latter are perceived as volumes, the only direction they can expand is outward toward the viewer. The title, Crazytown, comes from a Betty Boop cartoon of morphing, mutant creatures.

Crazytown, acrylic on canvas, 183 x 244 cm (72 x 96 in), 1979

JK: Next came a key structural development. You introduced grids or lattices to organize the individual shapes.

MK: Removing the spheres from High Kick or other paintings shown below would reveal stretched hexagons that touch at their corners to form a lattice, as seen lower right.

High KickCorner-touching box lattice
High Kick, acrylic on canvas, 152 x 213 cm ( 60 x 84 in), 1980Corner-touching box lattice with a
repeating interior shape shown in grey

Without the intercutting spheres, the boxes might appear to be flat shapes. Even with the spheres in place, the boxes may be hard to read as volumetric. But once again, I did want a bit of a surprise when what might at first be seen as flat shapes would pop out as volumes. And the lattice may not be apparent at all, but it did provide an isometric order that I needed after the prolonged shifting around of volumes in paintings like Crazytown. So, as I said earlier, the lattice provided a way to organize the boxes, and it also regularized the shapes of the spaces between them.

 JK: Your inclusion of interior box lines, as in Tango, strongly promotes a volumetric reading.

MK: Tango was initially painted as flat shapes, but I added the interior lines of the boxes the following year. I wanted to articulate the boxy volumes more and wanted the space to appear more built.

Tango, acrylic on canvas, 152 x 213 cm (60 x 84 in), 1982

JK: We see a dramatic reduction in the size of the individual forms in paintings like Red Sea and Silver Sea.

MK: Here, I briefly returned to smaller scaled forms. Since the lattice I’d created was similar to ones I’d seen in quilts, I decided to explore this further in a series where the elements where closer in scale to those of patchwork quilts. The small cubes form a sort of enmeshed “backfield.” The open borders also suggested a relationship to quilts.

Red SeaSilver Sea
Red Sea, acrylic, on canvas,
198 x 198 cm (78 x 78 in), 1980
Silver Sea, acrylic on canvas,
198 x 198 cm (78 x78 in), 1980

Although I liked the vibrations of the close-value colors in these paintings, the illusion of projecting and shifting forms seemed trivial at this smaller scale, so I returned to larger forms.

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