The Casual Sublime

Conversations with Robert Kipniss

by Alison Armstrong

Forest Nocturne III, 2000During his long career, painter and printmaker Robert Kipniss (b. 1931) has moved from semi-abstract landscapes in saturated colors to figural images in black, white and grays. He achieves subtle tonal variations, at times augmented by pale reds, blues or greens arising out of velvety black.1 He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of American Graphic Artists, and his works appear in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
AA: A phrase you use in a recent Beadleston Gallery catalogue introduction intrigues me: “a casually sublime murmuring.” 
RK: Vision is more than just seeing; it involves your whole being. If you look with a view to understanding and slow down, you feel emotions when you look. My phrase captures what is casual yet so evocative. 
AA: You were an English major in college. In your writing, you also refer to “pictorial voices.”2 Did you develop as a painter because of your preference for looking, in contrast to the sounds and linearity of language? 
RK: I took it for granted that I could draw and paint. They did not seem to be skills worth developing. I loved writing. But I got caught up in painting. 
AA: Do you ever get “stuck,” having to work through a problem?
RK: That’s constant. But I never recall being stymied; a canvas to me is an invitation to understand the world you know by making another. There’s a wonderful phrase I heard recently: “People who are easily pleased with themselves don’t understand the standards.” But I keep building and learning and making corrections. Then I lean a new painting faced against the wall to let it sit for a few months. It’s a terrible mistake to finish a piece of work and send it out. Now, there are other kinds of painting—gestural painting, bravura painting that doesn’t allow for second thoughts, or doesn’t appear to.
AA: Right, say, with a middle period de Kooning, in which gesture is the content. You can see the energy of his strokes.
RK: There is energy in my stroke, but it doesn’t look that way because it is so finely wrought. 
AA: Are you hard on yourself?
RK: In 1961, I burned 600 of 750 paintings. I was starting to sell enough paintings to indulge in buying canvas. I stopped working on masonite. I hadn’t realized how wonderful it was to paint on canvas. It’s more receptive.
AA: Do you get a different feeling from reading and writing than you do from painting and looking at art?
RK: Yes, I do. I find it impossible to write about a painting. I can write about the process, I can write about my life, I can write about all the avenues I had to take to get to where I am…but to write about a specific painting? Someone I know said something fascinating: “An artist’s accomplishments are often peripheral to what he thinks he’s doing.” 
AA: So the intention of the artist doesn’t have much to do with the end result. 
RK: The conscious intention, that is. There are no accidents; I make plenty of mistakes, but there are no accidents. 
AA: Do you have an image in your mind when you begin to paint?
RK: Emily Genauer, a critic on the Herald Tribune, once said she “loved to see the marshalling of all the forces an artist has at his disposal…his intellect, his emotion, his imagination.” Gathering my forces…to this space, a canvas! I don’t know exactly what a painting’s going to be. But I have a theme, an atmosphere that develops as I work. I have something in mind.
AA: How do you see the relationship between drawing and painting? Do you experience the processes of making a lithograph, a mezzotint or drawing on paper differently from painting?
RK: Yes. I paint with volume, and I draw with line. I do a lot with chiaroscuro; I do things with pencil that give a sense of volume. Everything begins with drawing. That’s what Degas had on his tombstone: “He loved to draw.” Degas was a huge influence. He said that if he hadn’t had to earn a living, he would have done nothing but draw in black and white.
AA: Yet he’s remembered for his beautiful pastels. You once amassed a large print collection, which you sold, with a few exceptions including a Jasper Johns. What do you respond to in other artists’ work?
RK: Art that I’m most attracted to are works I can’t quite fully comprehend. I keep looking and learning from them. I had a Redon lithograph, A Child with Flowers in Her Hair. And it was hard not to keep looking, it was so compelling, so magical. There was always something more for me to understand from it.
AA: Despite the title, telling you its content?
RK: A title can’t tell you what it is. I use titles that only tell you what you are looking at; they don’t describe what it’s about. If I could, I’d use words. 
AA: We were looking at a work of yours of which someone said, “It looks back at the viewer.” A translucent vase with dark patches in front of a window…
RK: An eerie thing. Here: Vase and Leaves II, oil on panel, 2005.3 And yet this one on the opposite page is so sweet, Vase and Leaves I.4 I didn’t know I would achieve that effect. Compositionally, it’s not an accident. What is an accident, perhaps, is what I felt. 
AA: I’m reminded of a Zen idea in sumi-e, when the artist achieves a “con­trolled accident.” 
RK: Paintings take on a life of their own; some paintings seem to paint themselves, others are an incredible struggle.
AA: Regarding the illusions of translucency and transparency, of which you are a master…
RK: I love a certain opalescence that paint can give. It’s so rich, to paint light coming through objects not always delineated as solid. Light can pass through leaves; it can pass through trees, between dark shapes of branches. There’s a shimmer because everything is moving.
AA: Yes, light is diffused by the dark edges. Do you achieve this shimmer because you work from dark to light? 
RK: I do work from dark to light, but start on a middle tone, then lay in the darks and then the lights, usually negative areas, then more middle tones for various objects. But after I lay in the darks, the lights and the middle tones, I lay in the darks again, I rework the middle tones, and I rework the lights. 

AA: Is this done with thin glazes?

RK: I don’t use any glazes, I don’t use any medium. Just pure paint. 
AA: But that’s opaque, dense.
RK: The paint is opaque. But the translucency is not the paint. I don’t paint translucency, I paint the illusion of translucency.
AA: Do the contrasts between dark and light, and the gradations in grays, come to mind before you begin to work, or as you are in the process?
RK: A convoluted answer: my work used to be less dramatic, simply lyrical in early exhibitions, but then it became very dramatic, ominously so. In the 1960s, I was drawing a lot in Central Park. In the big tree shapes, there was a foreboding, a dark energy. As my work became more lyrical and complex, the drama remained—the dark and light—until quite recently. Now I’m working in the middle tones. 
AA: Your images are invitations to quiet contemplation, to partake in the process of the unfolding image. It takes time to look….
RK: It takes time, and it takes isolation. You can’t really understand what you are looking at if you are with somebody. A walk in the country with a companion is one thing. And a walk in the country by yourself is quite another. The process of being stimulated, of associating evocations while looking is more intense when you are by yourself. 
AA: Why are there no people in your paintings and prints? 
RK: You are the inhabitant. I am the inhabitant. I sometimes put in structures—houses—because they are human presences, but not a person.
AA: Because when there’s a person, there would be a “story?”
RK: Right. A person would take away the edgy, open atmosphere I look for.
AA: You wrote in a catalogue introduction that someone observed that you painted for five decades apparently oblivious to all the movements in the art world during those years.5 
RK: It was almost accurate. The fact is, I was not oblivious, but my work was untouched. Pop Art—well, it seemed like a nice trick for half an hour to look at. Lichtenstein, Larry Rivers, Rauschenberg—I just got nothing from their work. But Jasper Johns touched me. There’s a painterliness in his work, an authenticity that always moved me. I still have a little print that continues to intrigue me.
AA: Do you have thoughts on representation and abstraction? Do you think they are two camps at odds with one another?
RK: First of all, it makes no sense to me to paint like a camera. Just because something is representational doesn’t mean it is better than something abstract. I’ve seen abstract paintings that just floored me. There are wonderful de Koonings. I am totally intrigued by the paintings of Gorky, and his drawings that have some color in them are just astounding. I don’t believe in camps. There is art and there is not-art. Someone once said, “The only art that moves me is the art I can steal from.” Maybe Picasso said it. 
AA: Would you say that all painting is, in a sense, abstracted?
RK: Of course. All artists in all periods reinvent with an understanding that they are looking for the abstraction within their reality. That’s the organizing force in a work of art, the abstraction of a perception. Pure abstraction is valid, certainly. But the validity of certain works never struck me. 
AA: What are your thoughts on artistic integrity? In your opinion, does the artist owe anything to society?
RK: An artist owes only to himself and to his vision. If he is in touch with himself and his vision, that is his integrity. 
AA: Let’s explore further the idea that your images are about more than any literal content…a still life, say, or landscape.
RK: When a poet writes about a rose, it’s not about the rose—what was that line in Cocteau’s movie, “There’s enough light in a glass of water to illuminate the world.” 
AA: I know abstract painters who work from a theory, or conceptual artists whose art is theory.
RK: One great artist who, in my estimation, was overwhelmed by theory was Seurat. 
AA: The complexity of interaction between literal and abstract, the metaphoric—I see the mystery of the metaphor in your work. You mentioned the film Cocteau made of the legend of Orpheus. 
RK: That’s where that line about light in a glass of water is from. 
AA: Cocteau was enchanted by the capacity for photographic tricks in film, such as the double function of the mirror; it connects the above-ground life and the underworld; it is both reflective of life and a dissolving doorway to Hades.
RK: The dark and the light.
AA: Perhaps you’ve already answered this—is there a particular effect that you want the viewer to experience? 
RK: Yes. I would like him to become aware of his isolation in the landscape and of the intensity of his feelings. (I never confuse isolation with loneliness…totally different concepts.) And to be aware of the preciousness of the moment, in this great richness, this incredible universe, that’s within his own ability to feel and comprehend. This great gift of sight.
AA: Though approaching a certain age, your work is still evolving.
RK: I’m learning.
AA: When you’re working, do you have a sense of time suspended?
RK: When I’m working, I have no sense of anything except what I’m doing. When I begin to paint, the canvas is no longer two-dimensional, it is absolutely three-dimensional. I immediately buy into the illusion, and I’m in space. I’m not creating the world; my painting discovers the world that is there.
[During the following discussion, we refer to Plates in Robert Kipniss: Paintings 1950−2005.]6
RK: This early Self-Portrait of 1953 and Red Grass of 1955 were painted in a cold-water flat in Manhattan. You can see the progression; it flows. Then a departure: Large Trees at Dusk—a seminal moment.

Robert Kipniss, Self-Portrait:Petersburg, Virginia, 1957

AA: It is cropped so there’s no landscape, just diagonal dark branches.
RK: It’s a big painting, too. All of a sudden, there’s this huge step away into something else. It started right around 1961, when I burned all those paintings. 
AA: Self-Portrait: Petersburg, Virginia (1957) is probably the transition piece. It’s you, a human figure, not a tree…smack in the middle. If you take you out, that leaves the church steeple, some vertical poles, and the diagonal shadowy forms that appear in Large Trees at Dusk (1962).
RK: I’d never done anything like Large Trees at Dusk before, and that thrilled me because I found another country.

 Robert Kipniss, Large Trees at Dusk, 1962

AA: I’m looking at your new landscape here on the easel while listening to a robin’s song outside the window—with drawn shades so we can’t see out. That birdsong goes so perfectly with what’s there on the canvas.
RK: I tend to like my recent works. The paintings of mine that I like most are new doors that are slightly pushed open. That’s exciting.
AA: You walk through the doors that you open for yourself. You are always breaking the rule that the center should not be a dividing point. 
RK: I have no trouble breaking that rule. I’m convinced that these objects entice you to look around them…go further in. That tree is not marginally placed. It’s there. The greatest subtlety is in being direct.
AA: Many art critics do not have the experience of physically making, have no felt knowledge of being immersed in the artist’s process. 
RK: I know a lot of printmakers who never made a print! [Takes out several types of prints from his flat files.] With mezzotint, you start out with a plate that will print solid black. It’s roughened to hold the ink; the artist, with a burnisher or scraper of hard steel, polishes away the burr or roughness. If I polish a lot, I get white; if I polish a little, I get grays. And you can see that, by using a burnisher, I get a sense of the hand. 
AA: Yes, these vertical strokes look like… 
RK: …like drawings. 
AA: So this, the lightest, is the most highly polished.
RK: Correct. The really dark, I haven’t touched. Again, the way I do between the leaves is polished; where I do the branches, the trunks, is where I haven’t polished. I’ve called it “the art of darkness.” You start with the dark and your burnisher is a wand of light. You create the light that reveals the image. It’s absolute magic. I’ll bring out a couple.
AA: While you are burnishing a plate, you know with experience, I suppose, how much light and mid-tones you are going to achieve?
RK: I’m very good at reading the plate. You can’t pull too many proofs, however, on the way to being finished—for several reasons. If you pull seven or eight proofs, the blacks start to print gray. It is not the act of printing that wears the plate out; it is the wiping of the ink. Also, I can read the plate very accurately, almost perfectly. Usually we pull a proof, I make a few adjustments, we’re done. But if we pull a proof, I can no longer read the plate as accurately. It loses a luster, a sheen—something is polished away in the putting on and the wiping away of the ink. I have had a smooth area with a dark blemish in it that needed to be polished away after the first proof. So they wipe the ink off and give me the clean plate, and I can’t find it. It no longer reflects the light in the same way. So what I have to do is take a ruler, measure a cross section on the image to get the exact point where it is I have to burnish, then burnish there.
AA: You can’t work from an inked plate? It has to be clean?
RK: You can work on an inked plate, but it’s too difficult. 
AA: How thick is the ink in the absolutely dark places?
RK: Thick? It’s in the plate.
AA: Embedded in the roughed surface?
RK: Yes, it’s trapped. Mezzotint, of course, means “middle tones.” Between black and white, how many tones do you think there are?
AA: An infinite number.
RK: Correct. I’ve made a lot of lithographs. [shows color lithographs from the 1980s]
AA: That looks very labor-intensive.
RK: Of course, you have to have variety, have a pattern that’s a non-pattern…. Once you can fake spontaneity, you’ve got it. [laughter]
AA: It’s amazing how precise you are with these very thin deep black branches.
RK: These are the only two I ever use [holding up two thin steel burnishers], even on the large plates.
AA: How many years have you been making mezzotints?
RK: I made a few in 1990 and really got into it. And about 450 lithos.
AA: And it might take you days to work on one stone, right?
RK: A hundred and fifty hours. I think the smaller ones I could do in a week. Larger ones would take longer. And then there is drypoint, which is drawing with a diamond on a plate. You can also use a steel stylus.
AA: Do you have any preference?
RK: I like drypoint, but prefer mezzotint. 
AA: You can see the stroke of the hand in drypoint.
RK: Here’s a small lithograph. I can get soft edges—I draw it that way. Here are later things, obsessively refined. Each vertical tree is composed of thousands of horizontal lines. It gives a nice feathery edge, each branch and leaf is many strokes, to get texture, action. Now, when I want to do something really light, I take the stone, and I put two-by-fours, three on each side, and a one-by-four plank across that I rest on. I let the pencil dangle in my hand, and I draw with only the weight of the pencil. 
AA: It is shimmering, everything seems to be moving.
RK: Then one day, in 1990, I woke up and decided, I don’t want to do this any more. I get so caught up in these textures, now I’m finished. I went a year or so not making any prints, then started with the mezzotints. 
AA: Do you think the same will happen with making mezzotints?
RK: No. I’m too old to get tired of it. I like demanding new things of myself, finding different solutions. I was at Miller’s doing a big lithograph; the hardest thing to do in lithography is a large area of a flat tone with no variation. I was laying in this big wall on a 400-pound stone. I can do about four square inches every day. Chaim Gross7 came in with six plates he had drawn on and handed them to Burr Miller. (Gross’s father had known Burr’s father, George C. Miller, since 1950.) Chaim could have done those plates in a morning; they were detailed but not wrought. He never went far with his lithographs, although as a sculptor he achieved quite a bit of esteem. While Burr is etching, preparing to pull proofs, Chaim comes over to where I’m working and looks over my shoulder. An hour later he walks over, looks again, realizes how slowly I’m going; finally he comes over and says, “Kipniss, is it worth it?” 

1. See Seen in Solitude: Robert Kipniss: Prints from the James F. White Collection (New Orleans Museum of Art, 2005) and Robert Kipniss: Intaglios 1982–2004, Catalogue Raisonné, Introduction by Trudie A. Grace; Essay by Thomas Piche, Jr. (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2004).

2.“Style and Isolation,” in Robert Kipniss (New York: Beadleston Gallery, 2003).

3. Robert Kipniss: Paintings 1950–2005, Foreword by E. John Bullard; Essay by Richard J. Boyle (New York, Hudson Hills Press, 2007), Plate 97. This book is one of two companion volumes that catalogue the paintings and prints by Robert Kipniss that constituted the first show after Hurricane Katrina held at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 2006.

4. Op. cit., Plate 96.

5. “Style and Isolation,” Beadleston Gallery catalogue, 2003.

6. Robert Kipniss: Paintings 1950–2005, Plates 2, 3, 4, 7.

7. Gross was a professor of printmaking and sculpture at the New School for Social Research and at the Educational Alliance in New York City.

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2009, Volume 26, Number 3