An Interview with Artist Dan Ramirez

June, 2014

DR: I enlisted at 18, but I was injured after only four or five months. Most of the men in my family drove trucks. When I turned 20, an uncle taught me how to drive his semi tractor trailer, and I hauled steel for 15 years. I worked hard by day and played music at night. But I also envied my friends who went off to college. I finally grew tired of driving a truck, and hauling steel was a very dangerous occupation. I knew I could draw figuratively and thought I might become an illustrator. I had gotten a GED through the Marine Corps, so I was able to enroll in a Chicago city college where I did very well and got an Associate Degree.

JK: From 1972-75 you attended the University of Illinois at Chicago.

DR: I couldn’t have picked a worse school given my youthful ambition to be a cartoonist! I wanted to make commercial art, but the Art department at that time was centered around a Bauhaus ideology, and many of the instructors had been taught in that tradition. It was an intellectually exciting environment that would have a lasting impact on me. I was introduced to powerful ideas, and I began to read a lot. Of course I learned about color and composition, but I was also quite affected by what I discovered about the more spiritual members of the Bauhaus—Kandinsky, Itten, Klee. I learned that abstraction could be about a lot more than design—that you could use it to explore ideas about spirituality and the unknown.

My first class was a design course taught by Robert Nickle, a collagist who was very well known in Chicago. He recognized that I was an older student who was hungry for information, and he took me under his wing. I was incredibly inspired by his commitment to his art. I think I still carry the effects of his teaching in the areas of scale and the power of the transformation of materials, as well as the depth of his appreciation of beauty. He was probably the most inspiring of my undergraduate mentors.

JK: Nickle had taught at the New Bauhaus in Chicago and was known for his subtle, elegant collages made from common materials and street detritus.

DR: Yes. He had a strong commitment to both his art and his teaching, and I learned a lot about how to deal with space from him. I was deeply struck by the way he worked. He would pick up torn pieces of paper and very deliberately move them around with his finger—kind of like a conductor conducting a symphony. It seemed almost mysterious how he could make his work look just right. My first time in an art gallery was when I went to see one of Bob’s exhibitions, and I was totally blown away by how he transformed materials into something totally different. That was the first time I felt really confident that I wanted to be an artist.

Robert Nickle, Untitled, collage, 1962
Image source:

Another major influence during that time was my teacher Martin Hurtig who introduced me to Minimalism and how to think about contemporary art. When Tony Smith’s steel cube—this large slab of steel called Die—was presented to me as a work of art, I was initially shocked. This was considered art? I thought, “This is more like what people do in steel mills!”

Tony Smith, Die, steel, 184 x 184 x 184 cm (72.4 x 72.4 x
72.4 in), 1962. Edition No. 3.
(Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, New York)
Image source:

Gradually I found that I did respond strongly to the Minimalist visual aesthetic. But I refused to believe that this type of artwork reflected nothing more than “the thing itself.”  I felt sure there was far more to it. And I knew that if I was going to make art, it had to be meaningful to me. I’m a dreamer. When I make art, I need things to inspire me, ideas or experiences to explore.

JK: If we look at your early paintings, we can see a remarkably rapid development taking place both in how you painted and how you thought about your work.

DR: My first paintings were basically spatial studies. I had never painted with a brush on canvas before, but I knew that Minimalism was all straight edges, and I felt that I could work like that. I could put down masking tape and make straight lines with no fuzzy edges.

In the case of Space Study #1, we had to work from a still life—a group of bottles arranged on a table—and I had to find a way to make one thing look like it was in front of another. I focused on solving a purely visual problem in a highly abstract way.

Space Study #1, acrylic on canvas,
71 x 56 cm (28 x 22 in), 1973

JK: Working with abstract geometric forms, your aesthetic goals continued to develop very quickly.

DR: With Space Study #2 I was depicting something that I actually experienced. It’s a phenomenological narrative, though I wouldn’t have thought about it in those terms at the time. The painting is a story about how I would walk to class through broad, open areas of campus carrying large canvases and battling the wind. I used tape to make lines and flat areas of color to create my own version of a stick figure tilting against the wind.

JK: With Space Study #3 you began to explore abstract ideas.

DR: I had read about and greatly admired Barnett Newman and Mondrian. Both had worked with geometric line and form to address spiritual issues. When I read what they felt about their art—their spiritual aspirations for it—I realized that I had similar sensibilities.

Space Study #2, acrylic on canvas,
106 x 81 cm (42 x 32 in), 1973
 Space Study #3, acrylic on canvas,
106 x 81 cm (42 x 32 in), 1973

I was thinking a lot about religion at that time. I had been raised a Catholic, had been an altar boy, and my father had been obsessed with religion. In Space Study #3 I decided to give line and form symbolic meaning. I used form to represent the body and line the soul. I outlined the shapes, then changed the colors and angles of the outlines and moved them away from their associated forms. In this way I imagined that I was “releasing” the lines from the forms—like releasing the soul from the body. This romantic notion allowed me to use abstraction to begin to focus on the spiritual. And in truth my mindset hasn’t changed a lot to this day. I continue to use Minimalist composition to fictionalize, to metaphorically explore the wide variety of ideas that intrigue me.

JK: You also did exercises in paint handling in which you learned techniques that you would carry forward into your mature work.

DR: Looking back I realize how much I was influenced by my Bauhaus-based courses. I took a color class from Eugene Dana who was a student of Joseph Albers and was familiar with the teachings of Johannes Itten. In a typical Bauhaus exercise, Dana had us make studies of 12 stages of gradated value from light to dark. Then we would do gradations in color, for example from orange to blue. I began I to refine this technique, and I use a variation of it in my paintings to this day.

Color Study #1, acrylic on raw canvas,
122 x 91 cm (48 x 36 in), 1973-74
 Color Study #2, acrylic on raw canvas,
122 x 91 cm (48 x 36 in), 1973-74

JK: You began to have solo exhibitions when you were just an undergraduate.

DR: Dennis Adrian was an art historian and important art critic in Chicago. He visited my studio and offered me a show. At the time of the visit, I didn’t really understand who he was and subsequently was told he was the art critic in Chicago! In 1974 I had an exhibition at Don Roth’s Blackhawk, a popular restaurant in the Chicago Loop area. That was the beginning of a series of solo exhibitions and favorable reviews in the press.

JK: In 1975, you briefly attended the Art Intitute of Chicago.

DR: I wanted to go to graduate school, and the Art Institute had a great reputation. The Chicago Imagists were associated with it, and as a young child I had taken classes there. I was admitted, but I had an instructor who made it pretty clear that he didn’t believe in me. I discussed the situation with my close friend Vera Klement who was an art professor at the University of Chicago. Vera helped me get a fellowship there. I received a great stipend and studio space. Vera—a friend to this day—has had an enormous influence on me. She believed in my work, and perhaps more importantly, she instilled in me the importance of believing in yourself.

JK: The University of Chicago would turn out to be a wonderful environment to nurture and support your developing aesthetic concerns.

DR: Yes, it was a perfect fit. My first contemporary art history class there was taught by art historian Richard Shiff. He had us read and write a lot and introduced us to artists like Richard Serra and Tony Smith. So once again I was confronted with Minimalism. I had to write about Tony Smith’s sculpture, Die. At that point I had a much more sophisticated response to it than I’d had as an undergrad. I could appreciate this work as a thing unto itself—and as so much more. I recognized, for example, that the steel would rust and the color and surface of the work would change—as would something organic. This, in turn, suggested to me ideas about impermanence and ambiguity.

Shiff was my mentor and MFA thesis reader, and we spent a lot of time together. He would listen to my ideas, discuss my work, and he gave me the freedom to go my own way. I also audited classes taught by art critic Harold Rosenberg. There I came to understand more fully how literature could open up avenues for me in visual art.

JK: Among your varied readings, one book in particular, Robert Rosenblum’s Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko, resonated strongly with your sensibilities.

DR: I was very attracted to the work of David Caspar Friedrich and to the idea of the pathetic fallacy, which means anthropomorphizing or attributing human emotions to Nature. I found that as I got better at manipulating space in my work, this allowed me to bring more and more ideas and references into my paintings.

JK: In 1976-77 you painted a very large and seminal work, one of several early works that are in public collections.

DR: In TL-P 6.421 I was combining Friedrich’s Romanticism with what I’d taken from Minimalism.

I liked illusion and decided to make some of my lines disappear into a mysterious environment, an apparently empty space that was physically large enough to invite entry. I was continuing to develop gradated wash techniques. I used a wide brush to apply white acrylic across the top of the canvas, adding lavender and then iridescent silver that has a sparkle to it as I darkened the paint toward the bottom of the canvas. I couldn’t completely control the color and value transitions, and the overlapping strokes led to a rolling, cloud-like effect that I liked. The painting was luminous, and I began to use this technique to explore a variety of ideas.

TL-P 6.421, acrylic on canvas, 244 x 305 cm (96 x 120 in), 1976-77
(Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Illinois)

The painting was inspired by Friedrich’s work, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, with its singular figure gazing out into a vast openness.

JK: We will encounter this Friedrich figure as well as abstract references to him again and again in paintings and prints across your career.

David Caspar Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea
of Fog
, oil on canvas, 98 x 74 cm (39 x 29 in),
(Collection of the Kuntshalle Hamburg, Germany)
Image source:

As an undergraduate you’d begun to read the work of Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, specifically his early book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Wittgenstein argued that the logical structure of language limits our ability to sensibly discuss many important issues—for example, religion, ethics or aesthetics—and that there are many things that cannot really be spoken about, only shown. You titled many of your paintings from the numbered logical propositions in this book, as in TL-P 6.421 above.

DR: I was fascinated by the Tractatus. To be brief, contrary to many scholars of the time, I believed Wittgenstein to be fundamentally concerned with spiritual and mystical ideas despite the fact that he was dealing with logic, mathematics, and language. For example, Wittgenstein spoke of the possibility of things being “other than what they are,” and I found this a far more intriguing statement than the Minimalists’ “What you see is what you get.” I found Wittgenstein’s courage, sensibility and lack of certainty about the very things he was writing about to be very poignant. This resonated strongly with my own desire to explore and ask questions and to accept ambiguity and uncertainty in my own work. It was inspiring and very liberating to me.

JK: Here’s another very large painting from this time.

DR: Again I’m using gradated washes and lines that seem to disappear into an ambiguous atmosphere or void. The vertical strip may have come from thinking about the work of Barnett Newman.

Untitled (Variation on TL-P), acrylic on unprimed linen, 243 x 314 cm
(95.5 x 123.75 in), 1976-77
 In 1978 I was awarded a fellowship to complete a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in the area of the History of Culture. I pursued that for about six months, but soon realized that what I really wanted to do was paint. During that period I had the opportunity to talk extensively with philosopher Stephen Toulmin who had been a student of Wittgenstein. He agreed with my interpretation of the Tractatus as bordering on the mystical. This experience added to the growing confidence of someone who had driven a truck for many years while his peers had gone straight to college after high school.

My successes and wonderful experiences in college helped me trust myself. In my art they allowed me to follow my interests wherever they might take me. This sense of great freedom was—and still is—tremendously important to me.

JK: Drawing played a key role in your next series. This body of work also foreshadows how you would continue to experiment with materials throughout your career.

DR: I have done many paintings with this trapezoidal shape. In these works from the late 70s, I painted the canvas with a coat of black latex. Next I covered the entire piece—except for the two black triangles in this painting—with horizontal strokes made with a soft pencil.

TL-P 5.6-6.41 and she had black hair-ALSO, graphite and latex on panel, 244 x
310 cm (96 x 122 in), 1978
(Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois)

In the case of TL-P 6.4211, the entire shape was again covered with black latex paint. To make the central and right-side panels I used a t-square to striate hundreds of lines in pencil. The detail shows the lower right side of the large central rectangle. In the darker area I made fewer horizontal lines, allowing more of the black latex to show through from beneath.

These works are very responsive to light in the environment, and I burnished areas of the graphite to make the surfaces glow.

TL-P 6.4211, graphite and latex on panel, 213 x 284 cm (84 x 112 in), 1978TL-P 6.4211 detail

JK: You’ve worked with a number of different types of printmaking over the years. In 1980 you completed a suite of black and white etchings that continued some of the formal devices of the latex- and drawing-based work. The prints were inspired by the music of the 20th century French composer Olivier Messiaen and were exhibited at and later acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago.

DR: These 20 prints were an homage to Messiaen who in 1944 wrote 20 solo piano pieces called Vingt Regards sur L’enfant Jesus or Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus. Messiaen said that he was looking for a musical language of mystical love. I tried to develop a series of  visual metaphors in these prints that befitted the sublime nature of the subject.

Contemplation of the Terrible Unction, etching, paper size
56 x 76 cm (22 x 30 in), 1980
(Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL)
Contemplation of Silence, etching, paper size 56 x 76 cm
(22 x 30 in), 1980
(Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL)

For example, in the Contemplation of the Terrible Unction I used a dark gradation on each side of a truncated pyramid to create an atmosphere of foreboding in the face of death. At the same time a black line disappears as it moves to the right, leaving an opening—like a passageway to the unknown.

JK: Messiaen had a type of synesthesia; he could see colors in his “mind’s eye” as he listened to music. Do you have similar abilities?

DR: I do have this type of sensibility. I’m a musician and played jazz professionally for many years. I find I can see a color or shape when I listen to a musical piece, or I can sense how thin or thick a line should be as I follow music’s rhythm or duration. In my paintings I try to create a sublime visual statement of what I “saw” and felt it as I listened to the music. I often find inspiration in the titles of music as well.

I believe that music—perhaps even more than visual art—can bring the listener close to a state of ecstasy. Certainly the devout Catholic Messiaen thought so. I’ve used Messiaen’s music for many years to help me into paintings, but unlike him, I’m not trying to communicate a specific message through a precise one-to-one relationship between visual elements and meanings. I work in a more open, fluid way.

JK: One of Messiaen’s Contemplations—Kiss of the Infant Jesus—inspired an etching and a large painting. In the painting you used strips of wood to mimic the actual depth found in your embossed print.

DR: At the top left of the painting, a thin piece of wood sits on top of the canvas flush with the picture plane. As the wood moves toward the center of the work, it protrudes about an inch forward from that plane. The line down the center of the painting is also a piece of wood that moves outward toward the viewer as it moves down the canvas. The wood helps call attention to the painting as an object in contrast to the nature of the metaphor it suggests—the kiss as both a physical and a spiritual experience.

Kiss of the Infant Jesus, etching, paper size
56 x 76 cm (22 x 30 in), 1980
(Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago,
Chicago, IL)
Kiss of the Infant Jesus, acrylic and painted wood on canvas,
244 x 310 cm (96 x 122), 1981

JK: Let’s look briefly at a second suite of prints inspired by the Duino Elegies written by the Austrian poet Ranier Maria Rilke. His emotionally charged lamentations contemplate the angst and isolation of the human condition.

DR: In my family angels were always considered beautiful and protective, but in Rilke’s poems, they are beautiful, but remote—even frightening. I called my prints Where Are the Angels Now?

JK: To this point you’d created actual depth with embossing and with wood. Here you create depth using collage.

DR: In these museum board and tempera collages, many of the apparent lines are created by light hitting the edges of the collaged surfaces. Once again I’m juxtaposing real and illusionary depth.

Erste, tempera and museum board collage, 40 x 50 cm (15.75
x 19.75 in), 1981
 Vierte, tempera and museum board collage, 40 X 50 cm
(15.75 x 19.75 in), 1981
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