An Interview with Artist Michael Knutson

September, 2008

 

Although I was satisfied with the patterned alignment of the box forms, I wondered if the space in the paintings had become too decorative, too pat. I wanted something more assertive or impulsive. This took me in two directions—showing more of how the forms were constructed and a more expressionistic treatment of the surface.

In San Romano and Rio, the two directions merged. In both, the interior edges of the boxes are visible and their surfaces are covered with scruffy brushstrokes. Although the space in these paintings was illogical and un-enterable, the more defined volumes of the boxes made them appear too plausible, so I introduced multiple and nonsensical light sources, cast shadows and reflections. The lattice of boxes in San Romano is zigzagged; in Rio the lattice aligns the boxes on right-leaning diagonals.

 

San RomanoRio
San Romano, acrylic on canvas,
213 x 152 cm (84 x 60 in), 1981
Rio, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1981-82

In Temptations 1, I introduced interior lines to the spheres. These elliptical, latitudinal lines were intended to amplify their volumes and “explain” how they intercut the boxes. However, an unintended, but interesting, illusion appeared. Because I had treated the spheres as semi-transparent, some of their ellipses flipped from their spheres and became the rim of bowls.

Temptations 1
Temptations I, acrylic on canvas, 198 x 198 cm (78 x 78 in), 1981

Until 10 years ago or so, the titles of my paintings were suggestive—referring to cartoons, dances, music, other paintings, etc. The first three references relate to my interest in kinetic and temporal illusions, while titles like San Romano and Temptations 1 refer to historical paintings. For example, despite its cheery kid’s room colors, the agitated interaction of the forms in Temptations 1 appeared to me more sinister, and I thought of the demons tempting St. Anthony in Northern Renaissance paintings. I should say that these titles always came after the painting’s completion, and they sometimes would change over time until one stuck. Since 1998, however, my titles have been more factual, usually refering to the type and number of underlying spirals in the paintings.

After I arrived at Reed College in 1982, I decided that the hierarchy of boxes, spheres and negative spaces needed to be shaken up. In works like The Joint is Jumpin’, I started by drawing in waxy China marker around different sized hexagonal and circular cardboard templates to create a field of overlaid lattices. From this geometric tangle, I pulled irregular black and white shapes that were fragments of boxes, spheres and space. This was how I began my paintings for the next six years.

The Joint is Jumpin'
The Joint is Jumpin‘, acrylic on canvas, 168 x 168 cm (66 x 66 in), 1983

With Harlequin and Runner, I came to think again about quilts, particularly crazy quilts, which are traditionally made up of irregular scraps of cloth. Like my earlier Red Sea and Silver Sea paintings, these paintings have borders, but less regular in width than before. I wanted the ragged outer perimeters of the borders and the scrappy shapes to suggest they were thrown together, though finding the shapes in the geometric tangle was usually a slower process.

HarlequinRunner
Harlequin, acrylic on canvas,
244 x 168 cm ( 96 x 66 in), 1983
Runner, acrylic on canvas,
244 x 168 cm (96 x 66 in), 1983

Then a funny thing happened. Because I had created roughly concentric compositions—another connection to quilts—the shapes in the center became prominent. At the center of Runner, a small red man appeared running toward the left. I happened to be reading Greek mythology to my son at the time, and the running man resembled a pinched-waist figure on a Greek vase. I started to consider pulling characters and events from Greek mythology out of the geometry.

Odysseus & Calypso was the first painting to follow this whim. I’d sit and stare at the linear tangle with a particular story in mind until I began to see gestures, fragments of limbs, or profiles. It was a bit like looking for faces in clouds. I would often spend weeks painting in and out shapes of limbs, heads or torsos, unable to create whole figures. I wouldn’t allow myself to introduce new lines when I was stumped—the forms had to come out of the initial drawing.

Odysseus & Calypso
Odysseus & Calypso, acrylic on canvas,
305 x 305 cm (120 x 120 in), 1983

The number of colors in each painting was determined by the number of  box lattices I had laid down—from four to eight or more. The first paintings had fewer lattices and the anatomy of their figures was peculiar; with more lattices, the figures became more anatomically correct.

After finding the figures and other elements in the narrative, I added lines within their shapes that described the outer and interior edges of box fragments. These lines sometimes gave the figures a kind of skeletal three-dimensionality, but more often, they turned the shapes into a jumble of ragged negative spaces. The two Myth paintings below were among the most successful, I think, in achieving a balance between description and abstraction.

 

Fall of PhaetonApollo and Marsyas
Fall of Phaeton, acrylic, on canvas,
295 x 198 cm (116 x 78 in), 1984
Apollo and Marsyas, acrylic on canvas,
295 x 173 cm (116 x 68 in), 1984

In Pygmalian and Galatea, below, the view is from inside a grotto formed by the blue-black and Indian red shapes around the perimeter looking out to the blue sky and clouds and a steeply pitched yellow-green hillside. The cadmium red figure of Galatea stands in the center, her lower legs still contained by the rock from which she is being carved. She reaches with her freed left arm toward Pygmalion—the black silhouette in the lower left. He’s literally disarmed, dropping his tools and falling backwards.

Pygmalian and Galatea
Pygmalian and Galatea, acrylic on canvas,
305 x 244 cm (120 x 96 in), 1986

By 1987, I was running out of steam with the Myth series. Wondering if I might be a representational painter after all, and if the geometry and the insane process of the Myth paintings had been perverse self-impediments, I made some non-geometric myth paintings—none of them satisfying to me—several huge black and white still life paintings, and a series of 34 skeleton drawings to jumpstart myself.

But I needed to take a break. A trip to New York and MOMA in the spring of 1988 reminded me why I had tipped my hat toward abstraction years earlier, and I had a conceptual shift. I realized that in spite of the geometric premise of my work, for 15 years I had tended to resolve it in terms of the body. This began with my wanting the paintings to have a physical relationship to my own body and extended to the kinds of figural shapes and interactions I had sought. I decided to return to abstraction, but with a more disembodied aim. Rather than peering through and pulling imagery out of the latticed field, I would try to explore the spatial possibilities of the lattice itself. It was a shift of influence from the paintings of de Kooning to Pollock.

The first paintings continued to use the corner-touching box lattices. In Inside Up, I loaded the field with seven box lattices of different sizes and line thicknesses. I interwove the lattices to create a confusion of scale and space.

Inside Up
Inside Up, acrylic on canvas, 173 x 229 cm (68 x 90 in), 1988

Pressure Drop is a sort of geometric abstract expressionism, with its densely interwoven lattices over a ground of white and black patches. The interference powder that was added to some of the colors causes them to shimmer like a mirage, and the horizontal compression of the lattices creates an illusion that the field is rushing by.

Pressure Drop
Pressure Drop, acrylic on canvas, 175 x 295 cm ( 69 x 116 in), 1988-89

In some of these paintings, the fields were like old walls—heavily built up with sand, sawdust and modeling paste. The tactile surfaces provided a visual anchor for the squirming and entangling lattices. In other paintings, I adhered mirror fragments, inspired by glass and mirrors I’d seen embedded in walls in the Southwest US and Mexico, but here they took on more than a decorative function. The mirror fragments acted as distractors that led one to repeatedly differentiate between painting and not-painting in reading across the surface. They also, of course, reflected the viewer as well as the motion and light in the room, resembling, as one waggish curator put it, flattened disco balls.

Smoke & MIrrorsSmoke & Mirrors detail
Smoke & Mirrorsacrylic, sand and mirror
on canvas, 208 x 122 cm (82 x 48 in),
1989-90
Smoke & Mirrors detail

JK: The mirrors also reflect the artist.

MK: When one gets bored with trying to negotiate the lattices, one can scrutinize oneself in the mirrors. The mirrors also appeared to be peep holes into a space behind the painting, which led me to think about someone looking in from the other side. In Magician I cut out 1000 eyes from faces in magazines—most were models’ eyes, but Marilyn Monroe’s and Einstein’s are also there—and pasted them onto the grey ground before painting a red-violet wash around them and laying down the lattices.

MagicianMagician detail
Magician, acrylic and collage on canvas, 244 x 305 cm (96 x 120 in), 1988-89Magician detail

JK: Another key change in the structure of your work was to follow.

MK: Around 1990, the corner-touching box lattice, which had been composed of boxes and negative spaces, evolved into a cubic lattice of interlocked cubes that had no negative spaces. This lattice wedded my long-held, conflicting desires for solidity, a completely mapped pictorial space, and spatial ambiguity in which every plane was pulled into two orientations.

Cubic lattice
Variations on cubic lattice
Cubic or baby block latticeSix variations on the cubic lattice

Why did it take me so long to arrive at this lattice? I’d seen it for years in quilts, tile floors and mosaics, and I think I resisted it because it seemed a bit of a visual cliché and because I hadn’t invented it as I felt I had invented the previous lattice. But after doodling variations on it for some time, I came to realize its elastic potential, as seen in the sketch on the right.

JK: Interestingly, as was true when you introduced the corner-touching box lattice, you again distorted the lattice from the outset.

MK: I wanted to move it as quickly as possible from its conventional form and to make it more aligned with my idiosyncratic mindset. I had been working for so long with the regular and identical forms in the previous lattice that once again, I needed to cut loose. The planes and volumes in the first paintings were quite eccentric with curved and skewed edges.

In Swing, all of the planes and cubes are curved. As I’d done in the previous paintings, all of the lattices are interlaced.

Swing
Swing, acrylic on canvas, 229 x 330 cm (90 x 130 in), 1990

JK: You experimented with paint handling in these cubic lattice paintings.

MK: Alongside the wall-like, heavily textured and mirror-studded paintings, I made paintings that were more like rough sketches with ghostly traces of changes in the drawing of the lattice visible though drippy washes. I also made paintings, like Armillarium below, in which the lattices appear to be submerged in a translucent field.

Armillarium
Armillarium, acrylic on canvas, 173 x 203 cm (68 x 80 in), 1991

JK: With Shapeshifter, you introduced another distinct variation on the cube.

MKI wanted to complicate things further by having the four sides of each plane suggest a contradictory reading of it—as flat, curved, stair-stepped, notched or protuberant. Shapeshifter has only one lattice because I thought its peculiarities would be enough to grapple with. Shapeshifter is one of the paintings in which ghostly traces of changes in the lattice are visible through the washy field.

The primary black lattice in Ghostpalace has alternative red and green back sides. All of its planes are stair-stepped, although different zigzags on opposite sides of  the planes create contradictory illusions.

Shapeshifter       Ghostplace
Shapeshifter, acrylic on canvas,
183 x 170 cm (72 x 67 in), 1991
Ghostpalace (House of Mirrors), acrylic on canvas,
183 x 137 cm (72 x 54 in), 1992-94

It might appear that deep outer spaciness had reentered the paintings, which is what I’d been avoiding for years. But I didn’t think of these more open and expansive fields as “back there.” I thought of them as existing close to or coincident with the canvas plane, or in paintings like Armillarium or Ghostpalace, the lattices are suspended in the field like fruit in Jello. However, I did start to play with different ways to bring back solid colored shapes and volumes.

I reworked Nighttown over several years, changing its lattice from linear to planar and joining the blue and black planes into three-dimensional, zigzagged clusters. It occurred to me later that these three-faceted shapes were like the lawnchairs from years before. The tipping and crossing staircases also reminded me of the architecture in Dr. Seuss’s Whoville.

Nighttown

Nighttown, acrylic on canvas, 168 x 152 cm (66 x 60 in), 1993-95

Nambam Diptych began with a 17th century Japanese screen in mind. The screen represents a bird’s eye view of a port city, and the buildings, visible through breaks in stylized, low-lying clouds, are set on parallel diagonals. The structures in my version are, of course, eccentric and non-parallel, but I thought of the space in the painting as seen from a high and hovering point of view. Like in Nighttown, its solid colored shapes are grouped in zigzags of three planes. Some of the shapes seemed comical and animate—a reemergence of the figural impulse.

Nambam Diptych

Nambam Diptych, acrylic on canvas, 168 x 355 cm (66 x 132 in), 1995-96

JK: In paintings like Strike and Jade Lattice, the edges of the cubes are straight—much closer to the baby block pattern.

Strike

Strike, acrylic on canvas, 244 x 305 cm (96 x 120 in), 1992-94

MK:  After a couple of years, the lattices in some of the paintings became less eccentric. Quarry, which I’ve already discussed, Strike, and Jade Lattice are three examples. In Strike and Jade Lattice, I wanted to create more size differences between the shapes, expanding and contracting their lattices into small facets and volumes. The small cubes appear to be engaging in a tug of war.

Jade Lattice

Jade Lattice, acrylic on canvas, 130 x 208 cm (51 x 82 in), 1993

Labryrinth combined the drippy, translucent fields of previous paintings and the more planar, architectural aspects of others. When I completed it in 1995, I assumed it would be the first of several paintings in that direction, but right afterwards, several encounters changed my course.

Labyrinth

Labyrinth, acrylic on canvas, 137 x 213 cm (54 x 84 in), 1995

I left again for New York to see the Mondrian retrospective, and, after a couple hours of closely scrutinizing his paintings, I realized I had to go back to oil paints. The tactility of his surfaces and the clarity of his colors blew me away. Oils are like butter, acrylics are like margarine. I had switched to acrylics almost 25 years earlier because I had wanted to shed my work of tasty effects. Even after my work became more painterly again I stuck with acrylics, trying in various ways to make it appear less synthetic.

Still Life was one the first larger works done in oils. Although hard to see in reproduction, Still Life has a more impastoed surface, and I tried to do something a bit more subtle with its colors than I had in my previous paintings. They were painted opaquely, but white appears to push through the light colors and black through the dark colors, creating an illusion of transparency.

Still Life (for PHB)

Still Life (for PHB), oil on canvas, 168 x 168 cm (66 x 66 in), 1997

The differences in tactility and color were important to me, but perhaps more important, when I returned to oils, my painting process changed. Oil paints slowed me down. I spent more time within each shape than I had previously, and I think this has resulted in a more palpable field.

The change to a more precise underdrawing was prompted by another exhibition. At a Kandinsky show in Los Angeles, his early improvisations were shown alongside preparatory drawings. The drawings revealed that the compositions of his early works, which I had always assumed were proto-Abstract Expressionist, were actually worked out in great detail in advance. This seemed to me a bit quaint—not how proper modern paintings were made. But a year later, I found myself meticulously drawing out my compositions in pencil on the canvas.

JK: In Triplecross, its multiple possible readings produce strong and shifting kinetic effects.

Triplecross

Triplecross, oil on canvas, 168 x 168 cm (66 x 66 in),1997

MK: In Triplecross, I ran straight lines through the points where six shapes met rather than changing their angles as I had always done before. As seen lower left, this seemingly slight change created hexagons that contain six-pointed stars. This was also my first use of a color pattern in which each color recurs every third step in the lattice in three directions. As seen lower right, the black and white shapes also touch at their corners to create overlapping hexagons that compete for attention, producing a flickering effect. The color pattern offered new ways to read the cubic field.

Six-pointed star patternOverlapping hexagon pattern
Triplecross detail: six-pointed star
in hexagon
Triplecross detail: overlapping
hexagon pattern

JK: In Sargasso Sea, small hexagons and the stars they contain form small focal nodes—as we’d just seen in Strike or Jade Lattice.

MK: I expanded and contracted the cubic lattice, creating an undulating field of stretched shapes around multiple nodes like a restless sea. As usual, I was intent on avoiding equilibrium, so I displaced the nodes so that they didn’t line up along horizontal or vertical axes.

JK: You also reintroduced small shapes. You’d said earlier that engaging small shapes into the larger field has been a long-term project.

MK: The small shapes that appeared in my early paintings seemed to me to be out of reach, floating away in space or trivial relative to the larger shapes, like mice skittering around the ankles of elephants. The elastic lattice netted and brought them into play with the larger shapes. They’ve been in almost every painting since then, and at times, they’re insanely small—blobs of paint applied on the tip of an x-acto knife.

Around each of the small hexagonal nodes of Sarsasso Sea I began to notice orbits of six other nodes, which started me thinking about concentric arrangements of the entire field.

Sargasso Sea
   Six concentric nodes around small nodes
Sargasso Sea, oil on canvas122 x 244 cm (48 x 96 in), 1997Six nodes around a small node

Triangulation 1 was the first nine-color painting—black, white, four grays, and three yellows. As seen at right, in a third of the neutral six-pointed star convergences, a tonal sequence from white to black occurs; where they converged elsewhere the sequence was scrambled.

Triangulation 1
      Triangulation 1 detail
Triangulation 1, oil on canvas,
178 x 140 cm (70 x 55 in), 1997
 Triangulation 1 six-pointed star tonal progression

JK: Your observations about concentricity led to another major structural change in your work.

 MK: With Echo, I draped the cubic lattice over an oval-shaped target. After years of working with lattices that encouraged the eye to roam continuously and discouraged resting on any point, it felt weird—and wrong at first—to channel the lattice through a concentric format that pulled the eye toward the center. But it suggested many new possibilities, and I kept on.

After the first few paintings, I realized that the concentric and spiral understructures provided my work with a larger order. They afforded ways of playing the lattices against the sides of the canvas that my previous paintings had lacked. Even paintings that I had just made, like Sargasso Sea and Triangulation I, seemed static and fragmentary by comparison. The field of Echo was continually in motion, opening and closing like a bellows.

Echo
Echo, oil on canvas 198 x 305 cm (78 x 120 in), 1998

JK: Paintings like Echo suggest organic, even self-generating systems.

MK: These paintings’ resemblances to other structures in nature—such as spider webs, honeycombs, molecular or cosmic systems—or theoretical structures in math or physics—such as fractals or chaos or string theory—are often mentioned to me. I’m not uninterested in this—in fact I’m fascinated by spider webs—but I’m not illustrating them.

coil
Coil, oil on canvas, 198 x 198 cm (78 x 78 in), 1998

However, I’ve sometimes received comments that have led to significant changes. A former student saw one of the first concentric paintings and misread it as a spiral. The spiral’s New Age associations made me even more uneasy than the associations with targets, but once the spiral was on my mind, I tried to figure out how to triangulate across it.

Coil was my first painting with a spiral understructure, although the spiral is so tight it might appear to be made up of concentric circles. I liked its asymmetry and how it didn’t enclose the field, but channeled it instead. Since Coil, all of my paintings have contained from one up to four spirals.

Red Tetracoil
Red Tetracoil, oil on canvas, 152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1999

With the concentric paintings, I tried to avoid a corny “time tunnel” effect by placing the rings asymmetrically or de-emphasizing the center. To counteract a similar potential reading—or of water going down the drain—in the first spiral paintings, I made the distances between the arcs of the spiral uniform and the sizes of the shapes similar from the center to the outer edges. I wanted the spirals to act as disturbances of the lattice across a fairly shallow space. The nine reds of Red Tetracoil also push the space close to the surface.

In other paintings, such as Red/Yellow/Blue Twisted Ribbons Lattice, I opened the space up a bit by running twisted ribbons—strings of corner-touching reds, yellows and blues—along three diagonals. They intersect to form six-point stars.

Red/Yellow/Blue Twisted Ribbons Lattice
Red/Yellow/Blue Twisted Ribbons Lattice, oil on canvas,
152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 2002
Red/Yellow/Blue Twisted Ribbons Lattice detail

JK: In Warpt Coil, it feels like a powerful spinning force skews and elongates the outer shapes.

MK: By now it should be evident that periods of restraint in my work alternate with more unbridled ones. It was time to explore the more eccentric and spatial possibilities of the spiraling lattice. In Warpt Coil’s lattice, the small, fairly regular shapes at its center expand to large, distorted ones at the perimeter.

Warpt Coil
Warpt Coil, oil on canvas, 147 x 163 cm (62 x 64 in), 2003

In Warpt Coil, above, the spiral follows an eccentric path. In Crossing Oval Coil I, two spirals originate from the same point near the center and head outward along crossing diagonal axes toward the corners. They create a field of irregular, concentric cloverleaves.

Crossing Oval Coils I
Crossing Oval Coils Ioil on canvas, 152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 2003

By Crossing Oval Coils IX, which had a similar understructure, the spirals had come to seem more like armatures than disturbances, or elusive gestures like wind or rippling water across the field or ruptured topography.

Crossing Oval Coils IX
Crossing Oval Coils IX, oil on canvas, 152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 2007

In some paintings such as Tripolar Coils, two or three spirals originate at different points, and cross over and distort each other like multiple ripples in a pond.

Tripolar Coils
Tripolar Coils, oil on canvas, 170 x 152 cm (67 x 60 in), 2004

The alternating expansion and contraction of these spiraling fields is like the reciprocal representation of space in Renaissance perspective. The world is receding from the artist/viewer toward the vanishing point, or it is projecting out from that point—the eye of God—toward the viewer. Whichever way one reads the paintings, the spirals provide them with an internal logic and order.

Sprung Coil Quintet 1
Sprung Coil Quintet 1, oil on canvas, 122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 2007

When I first saw Monet’s large Water Garden murals at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I was amazed by how the thickly encrusted panels represented three levels of space—the surface of the water, rippling plant forms beneath the surface, and reflections of the trees and sky from above the top edge of the canvases.

Bipolar Coils II, oil on canvas, 183 x 366 cm (72 x 144 in), 2008

The intertwining hexagonal lattices in Bipolar Coils II and some of my other recent paintings attempt to represent some of that spatial complexity.

More information about Michael Knutson at: academic.reed.edu

Interview images and text copyright ©2008 Julie Karabenick & Michael Knutson. All Rights Reserved.

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All text and artwork reproduced by permission of the artists.

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