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Interview with Steven Assael: Painting, the fullness of experience

The foremost figurative painter of his generation, talks about his passionate commitment to the art

Steven Assael is acclaimed as the most accomplished figurative artist of his generation, one that also includes a number of rather more modish figures who have returned to painting only in the last decade or so. By contrast, Assael has devoted himself to realistic rendering of the human figure since he was a child prodigy, and his long training makes overt and perhaps unfavorable comparison inevitable between the fluid expertise of his work and the still uncertain technique of more recent converts.

Assael works from a deliciously bohemian garret in the distinctly gritty garment district where he is daily visited by a variety of models who come to pose for his drawings and paintings. Assael never works from photographs or other sources and demands long periods of human contact and acute observation to build each of his images.

In the early 90s Assael became well known for depicting firemen, simply because a neighbour was a fireman and had great stories; firemen also have a lot of time on their hands. These paintings took on an unexpected relevance after 11 September, and thus received much renewed attention. Certainly Assael is conscious of not just the whole history of painting but also the deeper connection between the portrait and its subject’s mortality.

Assael was asked by the widow of Steven Jay Gould to come to his death bed, just after the writer’s demise, in order to draw a meticulous death mask. He has also created an astonishing full-scale portrait of his own father at the very moment of death. Assael may be far from a household name, or even a fashionable one. Instead he has a wide range of devoted collectors and connoisseurs, a richly varied fan club from the Walt Disney Corporation to Richard Brown Baker, Steve Martin or the art historian Arlene Raven. The cult of Assael threatens to go mainstream with his latest exhibition at Forum, where the subject matter, flamboyant youth from the extreme sub-cultures of America, has truly revolutionised his image.

The Art Newspaper: Your latest body of work features very striking young sitters, Gothic Punks and body-pierced Modern Savages, for example this drawing of an extraordinary looking girl…

Steven Assael: Yes, Amber is a performance artist. I guess you could call this grouping of people “Club kids” or Cyber-Punks. But Amber was a cabaret dancer as well and would come to my studio with the most elaborate costumes, different sorts of personae she adopted, which became interesting to me. In this instance she came in with a very tight red corset, this black bra, black wig and jester’s make-up. The first time she came to sit for me she started telling stories about her time in New York, she was laughing and smiling. I started the drawing and then she suddenly burst into tears, the tears rolled down her cheeks through the clown make-up right at the point where the black line is, and I thought my gosh, what have I got myself into? I realised that is why I draw from life and do not take photographs—the combination of all those emotions in that moment add up to something you could never get if you just took a photograph. A drawing has this fullness of time, of moments built up, while a photograph is over in a 30th of a second.

TAN: What is your attraction to this sub-cult of kids?

SA: I think it really has less to do with the specifics of who these kids are than the adoption of a persona and how that persona is manufactured by each individual. In some ways that is what we all do, we each create on some level a theatrical persona, and that objectification becomes like body armour or protection. Often that persona is characterised by a representation of evil or of hardness What these people are doing exaggerates that very basic human characteristic.

TAN: How did you come into contact with this group of people?

SA: I was introduced to Johanna by a former student who wanted to buy one of my drawings. I first saw Johanna perform at a club called “Mother” down in the meatpacking district; it was a private party, a eulogy for one of their friends from the group that had passed away. Their group was called “Blacklips” and they re-created some of the shows they had done in the past. There was this level of sadness and depth of emotion, something believable and felt mixed in with the theatre, the circus, this campy humour and exaggerated drama. This mixture of emotions was something I could relate to or make use of.

TAN: You always use drawings and paintings, not photographs or video?

SA: I think that every art form has its advantages and disadvantages. There are advantages in film that you don’t have in painting, and advantages in photography you don’t have in film or sculpture. What is unique about painting is the possibility to express the fullness of a variety of experiences in a single image, that large, big iconic quality that cannot quite be created in the same way by any other media. When you look at a painting there’s always that reflection that reverberates off the surface, a reverberation through history, with any luck.

TAN: Your images seem meticulously prepared in composition and detail.

SA: I often think of that quotation of Benedetto Croce that a work of art is not a work of art but merely a surrogate for the true work of art which is in the mind of the artist. All we’re left with is the shadow, the surrogate, the real work of art died. But at the same time there’s something else, the element of chance that enters into the process, the thing that you don’t expect, the thing that you don’t quite know you’re going to get. That evolves out of approximating the position of things, you start with a strategy, an idea, but the way the characterisation develops takes you by surprise.

TAN: Is the extreme body imagery of these people a case of sensationalism?

SA: Well, are there really any spectacular or extreme images left? Can any image still shock us? That modernist notion that we should strip away all narrative elements to get to some pure “form” seems redundant today.

That modernist notion that art history is somehow linear, progressive is no longer valid. That has played itself out these days. Even when you look at an older work of art, 200, 300 or 500 years old, it has this immediacy to our experience that gives it permanence. That’s really the function of what a work of art can be. It’s unfortunate the way we look at art history as one compartment against another, this negates a great deal of work. I think it’s more interesting to think of art history with everything existing at the same time, everything exists co-equally. A 13th-century Siennese painting still has that sense of permanence, relevance to us. There’s an internal language, even if we will never quite understand the specifics of the iconography. A great work of art characterises something human that carries over no matter what the language is. The Venus of Willendorf, the first sculpture, has this form, this shape which is immediately contemporary, as form and shape regardless of what it meant as a fertility symbol.

TAN: In a way, this was how modernist theory led into post-modernism.

SA: I’m fortunate the climate is more hospitable to using the past in any way one so wishes. I’ve been painting and drawing since a child and going to art school in the 70s it was very different, there was a very different view of any sort of figuration, everything was very formal, very Sol LeWit-orientated. It was great being a student then because you could really feel like a rebel. I had a group of friends and we did figurative work, which was considered really rebellious. You were almost required not to observe the figure and to go off on other tangents. We were really going against the grain, getting into lots of arguments, and, in a way, it was helpful to think clearly about my point of view, to defend myself. It was very hard though; there were a lot of older artists who were working figuratively in the 60s and 70s and they just had such a hard time of it.

TAN: What is the relationship between your drawing and the paintings?

SA: I think drawing is my getaway from the paintings. I find painting too difficult to do, because of the way paint is built up on the surface; there are so many possibilities. I know when I come to the studio and I’m doing a drawing, it’s great, I can relax, I can do a drawing and I don’t have to struggle. Drawing is almost like a dessert to the main course; it’s fun; it’s relaxing, meditative. Of course, some of the drawings do develop into paintings. But not to have to think, just draw, brings out concepts and ideas without forcing anything, without feeling the need to conceptualise what it is you are observing. I’ve always thought of skill and technique as being at one with content, that “seeing is thinking”.

Biography

Born: 1957, New York Education: 1975-79 Pratt Institute, Brooklyn

Currently Showing: Forum Gallery, New York (1 November-7 December)

Selected solo shows: 2002 Forum Gallery, New York, 2001 Forum Gallery, New York; Ann Nathan Gallery, Chicago 2000 Ann Nathan Gallery, Chicago 1999 Frye Art Museum, Seattle 1998-99 Forum Gallery, New York 1997 More Gallery, Philadelphia

Selected group shows: 2002 Representations: “The Art of Drawing”, Schick Art Gallery, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY; “A Decade of American Contemporary Figurative Drawing”, Frye Art Museum, Seattle 2001 “About Face”, Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock; “Identities: Contemporary Portraiture”, New Jersey Center for Visual Arts; “Tulsa Collects”, Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa 2000 “Re-presenting Representation”, Corning Gallery at Steuben, New York; “Drawings by 20th-Century and Contemporary Masters”, Forum Gallery, New York, “Drawing” V, Koplin Gallery, Los Angeles 1999 “New Realism for a New Millennium”, Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester, NY, “Indomitable Spirits: The Figure at the End of the Century”, Art Institute of Southern California, Laguna Beach