An Interview with Artist W.C. Richardson

June, 2007


W.C. Richardson has been making abstract paintings for over 30 years. He received a BFA in 1975 from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and an MFA in 1977 from Washington University, St. Louis, MO. He began teaching at the University of Maryland, College Park in 1978 and is currently an Associate Professor there. Richardson’s awards include four Individual Artist’s Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council. Since 1976, his work has been widely exhibited in museums and galleries throughout the U.S., as well as in Russia, Belgium, Turkey and Jordan. It has been featured in 18 solo exhibitions and included in over 100 group exhibitions. Richardson’s work appears in numerous public and corporate collections, including: the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; the Ackland Art Center, Chapel Hill, NC; the Federal Reserve Banks in Baltimore, MD and Richmond, VA; Prudential Life, NY; and The Washington Post. In 1997 Richardson was one of 26 national artists commissioned to do permanent installations for the new North Terminal of the Ronald Reagan National Airport, Arlington, VA. Richardson currently lives with his wife, artist Patrice Kehoe, and their three children in University Park, MD.

Julie Karabenick: You’ve referred to the geometry in your paintings as “impure.”

W. C. Richardson: By impure, I mean that the geometry in my paintings has always been intuitive and open-ended, rather than analytic or a closed system. Even in my later work where the geometry is based on tiling structures, I have always pursued odd elements that counter the system. I believe that it is often these deviations—or impurities—that bring the work to life. Although I begin each painting with a small drawing or plan, it is really the painting process that determines the specific nature of the work. The impurity I refer to derives from my emphasis on process and individual choice over plans and rules.

Unfolded Sphere
Unfolded Sphere, oil & alkyd on canvas, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 2006

In all of my work, there is a sense of mapping or charting, of circuitry and pathways, of multiple systems colliding to form complex structures that resolve the competing elements. I am drawn to a woven complexity that undermines a rational or pure reading of the work.

Around the Screen
Around the Screen, oil & alkyd on canvas, 196 x 196 cm (77 x 77 in), 2005

Though not strictly a formalist, I have always believed in the primary importance of the formal structure of paintings, whether representational or abstract. I love the idea that a work of art is a proposition of relationships that are resolved to a point of meaning.

I am equally interested in the way abstraction brings things to mind without specifying or depicting. Abstraction guides our consciousness poetically, stacking multiple meanings and references on every term. And within the realm of abstraction, geometric form offers a very fertile territory in which to do this. It converses equally well with the ancient and the contemporary, with both universality and the constructed landscape of post-industrial life.

New Shuffle
New Shuffle, oil & alkyd on canvas, 140 x 140 cm (55 x 55 in), 2004

JK: Your working methods allow order to emerge gradually.

WCR: Order evolves through the painting process; it is not imposed. The geometric armature is simply the starting point as a painting comes to life through the many-layered process of adjustment and resolution. I allow the intuitive to infiltrate the systematic and the systematic to influence the intuitive. With apologies to Arthur Koestler, I think I am dancing with the ghost in the machine.

I want each painting to be its own individual puzzle, relating serially to those that precede it and those that follow, but not providing a solution that can be generalized.

Passed Trackers
Passed Trackers, oil & alkyd on canvas, 140 x 140 cm (55 x 55 in), 2003

JK: Growing up, you certainly enjoyed a rich and varied exposure to art and art making.

WCR: My parents were both physicians who appreciated art, had art books in the library, and supported my inclinations. I was talented and spent a lot of time drawing and making things. During elementary school I lived in Oklahoma City where I took private art lessons, but it was not a very artistically sophisticated environment. We then moved to Cincinnati, and I attended a school that was strong in the arts. My high school art teacher was particularly good. Jim Dine had been her student, and she showed us a lot of Pop art and subscribed to Art in America. I remember reading Gyorgy Kepes’ The Language of Vision and responding immediately to fundamental 2-D concepts and the idea that one could analyze the formal structure of a work of art.

During my senior year in high school, I studied painting with artist, Paul Chidlaw, who had taught at the Cincinnati Art Academy with Josef Albers before Albers went to Yale. Chidlaw gave me color-mixing exercises right out of The Interaction of Color and opened my eyes to a lot of modernist painting issues. I also spent long periods of each summer on Hilton Head Island, where the University of South Carolina held art and drama summer workshops. There, I hung out in the studios of painters and printmakers.

JK: So you were doing a lot of serious thinking and reading about modern art even as a teenager.

WCR: My uncle sent me Katherine Kuh’s book, Breakup: The Core of Modern Art. Kuh’s clear writing provided me with my first sophisticated conceptual framework for thinking about modern art and how it reflected life through expression rather than depiction. It opened my eyes to abstraction and New York School painting, and introduced me to the idea of fragmentation and re-assembly. In the forward, Kuh writes:

“In trying to condense modern multiplicity into tangible form, artists have turned to certain shortcuts, to transparent, fragmented, reconstructed images, where two compelling illusions—speed and space—act as basic source material.”

However, even while learning about serious painting ideas, I produced a lot of bad, cartoony, psychedelic drawings—one part Zap comics and one part modern art. I also loved Op Art, and did a lot of obsessively detailed ink drawings.

JK: We can trace the general nature of some of your current aesthetic concerns back to your college days.

WCR: One constant for me has been an interest in the space created in abstract painting and drawing. In college, my understanding of the modernist idea of plastic space became much more sophisticated. The vernacular cubist/futurist space that I had begun to explore in high school became more complex. I liked that Cubism and Futurism spoke of space, time and simultaneity—the sense of dematerialization and interpenetration of object and space. I was also drawn to Hoffman’s “push-pull” ideas, and thought about space in painting as something one felt rather than understood.

I did a lot of printmaking and enjoyed the building of an image with a series of layers that covered or revealed earlier states. It was in print studios that I first developed my love of stacked and interlocking layers, of masking, and of the back-and-forth development of the edges of forms that are pieced together. Over the years, I have continued to bring some of this printmaking sensibility to my paintings.

Low Buried Wild
Low Buried Wild, oil & alkyd on canvas, 196 x 196 cm (77 x 77 in), 2005

JK: Grids begin to appear in some of your undergraduate work.

WCR: I did a series of paintings inspired by some graph paper and circuit diagrams. I was not using the grid as an underlying ordering device, but saw it rather as a sign for order or control. I subverted the grid with a gestural, painterly attack. I would drip the vertical elements and loosely free draw the horizontals.

Maya, acrylic & oil on canvas, 114 x 244 cm (48 x 96 in), 1975

JK: Your graduate school work foreshadows many of your long-term visual concerns.

WCR: At the time, I was looking at a lot of circuit boards, charts, diagrams, and maps. I was especially interested in photographs of trails left by subatomic particles colliding in bubble chambers. At the same time, I was looking at Navaho sand paintings, Tibetan painting, mandalas, and other non-Western sources. The stacked forms in Circuit were inspired by transistors and electronic elements, but were painted in a manner that related equally well to prehistoric cave paintings.

Circuit (SW), acrylic & oil on canvas, 122 x 152 cm (48 x 60 in), 1976

It was in this series of paintings that geometry and repetition structures, particularly stripes, emerged as a combined planar and spatial metric. It was also the first time I used stripes as veils through which underpainting would be partially revealed. In retrospect, I think I was beginning to synthesize ideas from Post-Minimalism and pattern painting that were floating around the art world at the time.

Batucada, acrylic & oil on canvas, 142 x 183 cm (56 x 72 in), 1977

In my second year in graduate school, I built paintings with many layers of thin liquid paint. I would develop an improvised geometric armature of lines snapped with a carpenter’s chalk box, and then allow small elements to accrete. I introduced geometric lines to give a subtle architecture to the atmospheric space. As I became increasingly interested in the architecture of space and its activation with small elements, the musical possibilities of geometry opened up for me.

JK: Musical possibilities?

WCR: From the very beginning, I often thought about my paintings in musical terms. I have always been very involved with music, particularly blues, rock and jazz. I became increasingly conscious of the connections among geometric, architectonic, harmonic, and musical structures. The orchestration of compositional components in a painting presents a kind of compressed musical moment where there is an interchange between the temporal and the spatial. Repetition and variation—always touchstones in my work—bring the musical to mind as well.

JK: After graduate school, you experimented with shaped pieces.

WCR: I think this is where my serious involvement with geometric structures took hold. I used a rectangle as a template, tracing around it as I moved it across large sheets of paper. I would cut out shapes that emerged as coherent forms, then activate the resulting shaped pieces with linear geometric structures and gestural elements.

GM-64GGM-64G detail
GM-64G, acrylic, charcoal, & colored pencil
on paper, 76 x 102 cm (30 x 40 in), 1979
GM-64G detail

These works were structural and lyrical, flat and dimensional—almost kite-like. I showed some of these in 1980 in my first solo exhibition in Washington, DC. I realized, however, that I was most interested in the poetic geometric space happening in the interiors. The horizontal and vertical axes of the rectangle proved to be a more fertile starting point for this space.

JK: Within a rectangular format you developed complex spaces.

WCR: In paintings like Quan B, the geometry was all diagonals within a crazy-quilted space—a mixture of transparency, opacity, converging lines, receding planes, and frontal forms playing against the edges. Gestural lines once again flew through the space, reacting to and animating the geometry. The resulting space was shifting and kaleidoscopic.

Quan B
Quan B, acrylic, charcoal & colored pencil on paper, 109 x 150 cm (43 x 59 in), 1980

JK: You continued these explorations in larger, more vibrant works on canvas.

WCR: I returned to large stretched canvases and oil paints. The material density and rich, flat color of the oils against the muted, atmospheric layers of acrylic pushed the space to new levels. The vectors of the sliding diagonals—some extending off and beyond the edge of the canvas and some bouncing back to form wedges that lock into the surface— became more pronounced.

Sked, oil, acrylic & charcoal on canvas, 168 x 244 cm (66 x 96 in), 1980

I would begin each painting with a fairly fixed line drawing and, through a painterly “quilting process,” develop geometric structures and juxtapose colors, values, patterns, and scales. This created an ambiguous, dynamic space that wanted to open up and flatten out at the same time.

Pin Vit
Pin Vit, oil, acrylic & charcoal on canvas, 198 x 198 cm (78 x 78 in), 1982

I had settled into a fulltime teaching job at the University of Maryland and occupied my first large studio in a warehouse in DC. Sked and Pin Vit are examples of what I consider the first mature period of my work. The web of elements that I had begun to develop in earlier work became more complex and fully formed. I also felt that I had found the right scale for my vision. The paintings were large, but clearly human in scale.

JK: Despite their large size, close inspection reveals a lot of fine detail.

WCR: I wanted to focus the viewer’s consciousness on the full range of experience, from the large geometric structures visible from across the gallery to the microcosmic world of pattern and detail visible at arm’s length, and have always felt that this experience is amplified in larger work.

Pin Vit detailPin Vit detail
Pin Vit detailPin Vit detail

Pattern and repetition were obviously very important here. The stripes measured and paced the planes and shapes they inhabited; the dotting and dashing of the lines did the same. The patterns and textures provided continuity and connections through the various spatial dislocations I was creating. I liked the woven, paradoxical space that resulted.

JK: How would you characterize your approach to color?

WCR: Color is one of the most intuitive aspects of my work. I build the color in my paintings through trial and error, responding to unpredictable interactions. I’m conscious of the spatial properties of different hues and values, and use their advancing and receding properties to locate them in space. I also use color to differentiate or connect elements in a complex surface. I commonly play intense, saturated colors against neutrals, with black and white used for emphasis and punctuation.

Sa Har
Sa Har, oil, acrylic & charcoal on canvas, 183 x 183 cm (72 x 72 in), 1982

I develop the early stages of my paintings with transparent acrylic washes, building up to denser, more opaque forms, solidifying the geometric structure, and setting the space. I feel guided by some sort of musical tone or harmony that arises from particular color combinations. This is really a multi-sensorial thing that I cannot properly put into words. Finally, in abstract painting, color is a strong vehicle for bringing things to mind. I don’t consciously choose colors for this purpose, but recognize it when it happens and work with it.

JK: Some of your largest work dates from this period.

WCR: I worked on a series of large diptychs—some as large as 12’ across. In each work, two equally sized paintings were set three inches apart, with some elements repeating and some elements carrying through both canvases. Paradoxically, as the flat geometric forms became larger, bolder, and more singular, the networks of spirals and resulting fields of particles grew denser and more frenetic.

Red Shift
Red Shift, oil, acrylic & charcoal on canvas, 198 x 310 cm (78 x 122 in), 1984

I sought a balance between trajectory and place. There is great visual tension as the viewer bounces back and forth between seeing one large painting or two sequential frames.

JK: The diptychs were followed by more centrally organized paintings.

WCR: I began to feel the need for the contemplative focus of the singular painting again and moved to square and near square canvases. The space became more frontal and centrifugal. My interest in the concept of the superposition of multiple states from quantum physics found form in these paintings.

AcceleratorAccelerator detail
Accelerator, oil & acrylic on canvas,
193 x 193 cm (76 x 76 in), 1985
Accelerator detail

I created dense fields of oil paint throughout the entire surface, and new possibilities opened up. The linear forms became bolder and more densely painted. Dots turned into squared-off brush strokes, and the segmented lines flickered percussively. Networks of spirals penetrated the single-colored grounds. With the thicker paint, my process of fitting and piecing together sections reached a new level of complexity.

Echo MoonEcho Moon detail
Echo Moon, oil & acrylic on canvas,
218 x 193 cm (86 x 76 in), 1987
Echo Moon detail

JK: After this series, your work began to change yet again.

WCR: The painting Fourth Flight occupies an important transitional point between major stages of development. While this is one of the clearest uses of quasi-illusionistic elements, it also shows a movement towards a flatter, more centralized and iconic form and structure. You can begin to feel the field pulling in and the geometry flattening out.

Fourth Flight
Fourth Flight, oil & acrylic on canvas, 198 x 213 cm (78 x 84 in), 1988

I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the obsessive detail that had characterized my work for some time. It began to feel ornamental rather than structural or evocative. I also questioned the illusionistic elements. I wanted to get a sense of dimension and space without perspective-related illusion. I found myself burying much of the initial complexity in later stages of the painting and moving towards flatter, more reduced form that had a subtler dimensionality.

Sending TimeNight Stops
Sending Time, oil & alkyd on canvas,
76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 1990
Night Stops, oil & alkyd on canvas,
76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 1990

Since my undergraduate years, there has been an oscillation in my work between an all-over field and more focused, centralized form. I think the early 90s was a period of consolidation—where the William James’ “blooming, buzzing confusion” of my earlier work pulled into more coherent, iconic figures that sat in and on a pulsing field.

JK: The differentiation between larger central forms and their surrounding space was becoming more pronounced.

Pressed MatterPressed Matter detail
Pressed Matter, oil & alkyd on canvas,
183 x 183 cm (72 x 72 in), 1994
Pressed Matter detail

WCR: In paintings like Pressed Matter, I embedded geometric figures in a ground of curvilinear lines of dense paint. I was thinking about the compression of spatial information—flattened, but with a humming potential for expansion. The sense of one painterly system passing through another harkened back to some of my work from the 80s, but the immediate punch of both the larger geometric forms and the density of the surface gave these paintings a muscular physicality that was new in my work.

JK: Figure-ground differentiation is also quite pronounced in this series.

WCR: I was very interested in the spatial tension between the flat forms and the thickly painted ground. As the more centralized configurations broke up and moved towards an all-over patterned field, I began using the grid more explicitly.The paintings became flatter, less hierarchical, and the figure-ground relationships hovered around a state of equilibrium, but never really settled. I found a new spatial value in the constant shifting and switching.

Edge, Wave, Time
Edge, Wave, Time, oil & alkyd on canvas, 183 x 183 cm (72 x 72 in), 1994

In the second half of the 90s, my work developed a stronger systematic base. I experimented with different grid scales and settled on the 11 x 11 structure I have employed since 1996. I used a straight edge and a compass to develop a variety of stacked and interlocking patterns based on tiling and tessellation structures. I explored the natural bias of the odd-numbered grid, sliding the patterns out of symmetry. The undulating, fingerprint-like ground of the earlier paintings evolved into horizontal bands of thick brushstrokes, usually painted in white with layers of color glazed over them.

CounterchangeCounterchange detail
Counterchange, oil & alkyd on canvas,
196 x 196 cm (77 x 77 in), 2000
Counterchange detail

During this period, I was using a lot of saturated primary and secondary color in the flat areas of paint. This added another level of optical intensity to the work. Here, the opposing areas weave or seep into each other. The tension between the unified canvas and the distinctly different paint handling is one of the driving forces in the paintings.

JK: You enjoy challenging the viewer with a shifting sense of space.

Gap Logic
Gap Logic, oil & alkyd on canvas, 140 x 140 cm (55 x 55 in), 1997

WCR: This challenge is central to the experience of my work. I have always sought an unstable, breathing resolution rather than one that is clear or final. I use a dialectical construction, developing the competing elements concurrently—always adjusting emphasis and seeking a kind of constructive interference that drives their organization. I like the idea suggested in a catalogue essay on my work that the resolution of each painting in this series “forms a third ground in the mind of the viewer.”

Punctuation, oil & alkyd on canvas, 112 x 112 cm (44 x 44 in), 1999

JK: Next, you gave up the thick horizontal bands of paint.

WCR: I found that this ground had become too predictable, that without it, spatial relationships became more dynamic and fluid. What was lost in physicality and a sharp figure-ground differentiation was more than made up for by the optical complexity of the newer work.

Jerry's Twine
Jerry’s Twine, oil & alkyd on canvas, 84 x 84 cm (33 x 33 in), 2002

The geometry here was essentially a mutated tessellation or tiling. I was reading Roger Penrose and looking at various ways of filling a plane with interlocking forms. I did this in a decidedly painterly fashion, giving “empty” spaces an emphasis equal to those that were filled. I also allowed the underlying field of spirals to percolate up through the geometry.The transparency and atmosphere in the flat geometry brought a more complex feeling of space to these paintings.

JK: The spirals and a feeling of circulation enliven these paintings.

WCR: Spirals have a natural spatial quality—they never really sit comfortably on the plane. Free-drawn and then repainted, these spirals challenged and energized the tiled structures.

Glimmer, oil & alkyd on canvas, 42 x 42 cm (16.5 x 16.5 in), 2001

The patterns in these paintings are structural—with a stronger relationship to mathematics or architecture than to fabric or decoration.The use of limited geometric forms—rectilinear or circular—had a distinct rhythmic nature.The rectilinear forms opposed, while the circular forms rhymed with, the web of spirals.

JK: Large areas of light or neutral color assume an important role in these paintings.

WCR: I introduced more areas of white or off-white to temper the saturated areas and add more ambiguities to the figure-ground relations. The atmospheric color of the less saturated areas felt suspended rather than brushed on and provided a space-producing contrast to the areas of flat saturated color.

Check Changes
Check Changes, acrylic & alkyd on canvas, 196 x 196 cm (77 x 77 in), 2002

JK: You often incorporated gridded arrangements of small dots that spanned the picture plane.

Many Worlds
Many Worlds, oil & alkyd on canvas, 196 x 196 cm (77 x 77 in), 2003

WCR: Like the dotted lines in work from the 80s, the small circles punctuate and animate the patterns, adding another rhythmic structure to the mix. Sometimes these nodes would be “in tune” with the geometry, though often I would place them in arrays that would subtly stray from regularity. Their understated independence, like the less controlled painterly elements of the underlying layers, form grace notes to the geometric structures.

Pale Array
Pale Array, oil & alkyd on canvas, 196 x 196 cm (77 x 77 in), 2003

JK: In some of your recent work, you move away from tessellation and tiling.

WCR: The contrasting colored shapes of the tiled forms were saying “pattern” a bit too firmly. I started a series that employed a more monochromatic ground, most often white or off-white. Shape gave way to web, as networks of linear structures combined to define the field. The tiling is still there, but in a more neutral, diagrammatic state.

Ice Runs the Corners
Ice Runs the Corners, oil & alkyd on canvas, 196 x 196 cm (77 x 77 in), 2005

JK: Small areas of contact or intersection punctuate these fields.

WCR: The most important change in my recent work has been an emphasis on the points or shapes created by the intersections of the various structural elements. Because the spirals are free-drawn, their interaction with the geometric structures is somewhat unpredictable. I am continually surprised by the living, dynamic field this creates.

Backbeat, oil & alkyd on canvas, 196 x 196 cm (77 x 77 in), 2005

My work from the past year and a half has continued to explore the constructive interference between different structures and networks. In paintings such as In The Foam or Phase, overlaid structures determine the shape and alignment of emphasized elements.

In The Foam
In The Foam, oil & alkyd on canvas, 140 x 140 cm (55 x 55 in), 2006
Phase, oil & alkyd on canvas, 42 x 42 cm (16.5 x 16.5 in), 2007

The dots in Nerve Net are placed at the intersection of overlapping rectilinear and scribbled grids. The layered ground obscures the underlying structure and the field sits at a tipping point between order and disorder. I am not sure where these dot paintings will go, but I intend to run a series of them to find out.

Nerve Net
Nerve Net, oil & alkyd on canvas, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2007

JK: Your paintings have showed great diversity over the years, yet your vision has remained quite consistent.

WCR: My paintings have always been the product of a multi-layered, dialectical dance. They are woven from rules, systems, analysis, intuition, impulse, chance, materials, and process. Looking back, one finds a continuous stream of very specific objects, each individually tuned and resolved. Together, they describe the trajectory of my consciousness as it weaves its way through myriad sources of inspiration, always mediated by that amazing, mutable substance: PAINT.

W. C. Richardson in his studio
W.C. Richardson in his Maryland studio


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Interview images and text copyright©2007 Julie Karabenick and W. C. Richardson. All Rights Reserved.

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