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Volume III, Number 140

17 July 2001
NEW! The Idler Press E-Books

Click here to download chapters from Finish High School At Home by Charlie Clark


The 4 Elements: Water (Oil on Linen, 1999)

Artist Nancy Grimes will show her paintings in October 2001 at the RC Fine Arts Gallery in Maplewood, New Jersey. Her career as a figurative painter has taken her from Indiana to New York City, always on her own terms. Since coming to New York, Grimes worked as a secretary; written art criticism for Art News and Art in America (about Eric Fischl, Jared French, and Robert Ryman, among others); curated shows for New York galleries and the city's Department of Cultural Affairs; and taught art at Yale, Parsons, Pratt, the New York Academy of Art, as well as the University of South Carolina.

In addition to showing in New York, Grimes has exhibited in New Jersey, San Francisco, Orlando, Houston, and Chicago. She took some time to talk about her art with The Idler.

IDLER: How did you end up as a struggling New York artist?

NANCY GRIMES: I grew up in Indiana wanting to leave it as fast as I could. So, I came to New York because I didnít want to rely on art magazines for information about contemporary art. When I lived in the Midwest, Iíd read the art magazines from cover to cover. I realized, however, that they presented an edited view of what was going on. I wanted to see for myself.

IDLER: Were you from a small town?

GRIMES: I'm from Indianapolis, Indiana, but I went to high school in a small, stodgy place called Greenfield, a town of about 10,000 where there was only one high school and everybody knew everybody else.

When you grow up in a place like that, you get bored and restless. So I was a rebel, and my greatest desire at that time was to be a hip, cutting edge artist. Indiana is pretty conservative and culturally deprived. If you have any imagination, you become rebellious. You also have a hunger for culture, so you look to the big cities.

Also, while I was a graduate student at the Art Institute of Chicago, I had access to a great art museum, and that experience made me want to be close to other great museums.

IDLER: Did your parents encourage your painting?

GRIMES: I come from a lower middle class background, but, luckily, my parents were intelligent. They read, they sketched. My mother was a housewife, but she had an interest in art. She hung cheap reproductions of Picasso and Henri Rousseau on the walls. My father had a variety of jobs--milkman, furniture salesman. He was also an amateur musician and played the drums in jazz bands. So they both had an interest in the arts that was passed on to me. They had a desire to make art that I was able to fulfill.

IDLER: How did you manage that?

GRIMES: I went to Indiana University in Bloomington. It was incredibly cheap, and, as luck would have it, they had a good art department. That's where I met my husband, he was in the music school. It was the late 60's, a time when people didn't want to teach you anything. So I canít say I learned a lot in my studio classes. The art history classes were better, so I took a lot of art history.

IDLER: Were there any teachers who influenced you?

GRIMES: I studied with Robert Barnes, who's a big deal in the Midwest. Heís a figurative painter who was influenced by British art, which made him different. Not too many Americans are interested in British painting. And he had an interest in British literature, which I shared. He received a Fulbright and lived there for awhile. He would show slides of the British artists who influenced him. I remember that Wright of Derby was a big influence. He made work out of an eclectic group of interests, and I think that made an impression on me.

IDLER: Any others?

GRIMES: IU had a figurative department. William Bailey was still there, and Bonnie Sklarski. They both had connections to the East Coast figurative painters, they exhibited in New York. I took beginning drawing from Bailey, although it was taught mostly by teaching assistants. Bailey would breeze through every now and then and tell them what they were doing wrong. His influence was definitely felt throughout the department. I took figure drawing from Bonnie Sklarski.

IDLER: Why figure drawing?

GRIMES: I was interested in figure drawing before I went to college and, luckily, it was a department which didn't question figurative art, it was taken for granted that it was an OK mode of painting.

IDLER: Did that lead you to Chicago?

GRIMES: I did one year of graduate work at the University of Chicago in studio art. I wanted to go to a place with strong academics, but left after a year.

IDLER: What went wrong?

GRIMES: I studied painting with Vera Klement, an abstract painter from New York. At Chicago I was confronted with questions like, "why are you doing figurative work, donít you know itís outmoded?"

This was mainly from other students. I finally realized that I couldnít study there. I didnít want to have to defend myself all the time. Besides, the other students werenít very good and it just felt wrong for a lot of reasons.

IDLER: Was there anything positive about that experience?

GRIMES: I did enjoy the art history classes. Both Joshua Taylor and Harold Rosenberg were there at the time.

IDLER: And so you decided to move to New York?

GRIMES: I had hepatitis, and was in bed for 6 months, and had plenty of time to think about what I wanted to do. Actually it was a very good period in a way, because I got a lot of things in perspective. After mulling it over for months, I finally decided that it was okay to make representational art. I ended up thinking, "Why not? There are no rules in art except the ones you make yourself."

I mean, I donít think that "figurative painting is dead" was etched in stone anywhere. Later I applied to the Art Institute of Chicago. They had large faculty and tolerated a range of styles. They weren't a predominantly figurative department, but they had a few figurative students and faculty there. It was great having access to the museum, and the students were more sophisticated, the faculty more interesting.

IDLER: Were they more tolerant of figurative painting?

GRIMES: When I started college in 1968, there was photorealism. It was the hip manifestation of figurative art. There was Chuck Close and Audrey Flack, and the artists that showed at OK Harris--Ralph Goings, Malcolm Morley, Robert Bechtle.

I wanted to do photorealism. I was also interested in Pop Art, which was still big.

IDLER: But you are not a photorealist, why not?

GRIMES: Then something happened. When I started painting more, I realized that photorealism and pop just weren't that interesting. I grew more interested in learning how the great painters made their paintings.

IDLER: Did that come from your teachers?

GRIMES: Ted Halkin was the most influential teacher at the Art Institute. He was helpful because he told me that I didn't know what I was doing.

Graduate school is always a trial by fire. You get negative criticism for the first time, and the challenge is whether you can take it or not. He just came up to me one day while I was painting and said that I didn't know what I was doing.

I was making big paintings of chairs, with stuff like televisions and umbrellas on them. They were flatly painted.

And after he said that I realized that he was right; I didn't know what I was doing.

I studied with him, because he criticized me.

IDLER: So Halkin offered constructive criticism?

GRIMES: I wanted to know what I was doing. I didn't want to just intuitively concoct some sort of image. There is a big difference between a painting that is an image and a painting that has plastic form. I didn't think in those terms at the time, but now I can look back and see that thatís what the problem was. The paintings had an image, but they were flat and had very little formal tension, no drama. The color was decorative rather than evocative. But the seeds of something were there. I wanted to get better, so I started studying traditional painting and paid less attention to the latest flavor from New York.

I wanted to find out why I liked the painters that I liked: Manet, Chardin, Vermeer, Zurburan. Now I know why, but it took a long time. They are great painters because they can manipulate form so that their images have meaning.

I also liked the sensibilities of these painters. I liked the way the paintings felt, their poetry. These artists were masters of the formal language of painting, and they were poets, each had their own individual voice.

IDLER: Why do you find still life so powerful?

GRIMES: It has something to do with being a woman. Iím not that interested in the great events, Iím interested in more intimate kinds of experience, which, I believe, are just as important as the big names and big events.

The kind of space in still life is congenial to me. Still life objects exist in a shallow space, the space in landscape is panoramic. Still life space doesn't extend beyond an outstretched arm. It's a space I felt that I could control.

IDLER: So after living in Chicago, you came to prefer traditional to hip painting?

GRIMES: By the time I got out of grad school, I had realized that hip is OK in clothing, but not in art. I did gain an appreciation for certain trendy things, like minimal art. But, for the most part, the kind of experience with art that I wanted just wasn't available in the fashionable galleries.

IDLER: And what brought you to New York?

GRIMES: One of the biggest influences on me occurred after I left art school. After I graduated I went to Skowhegan, an artists' colony in Maine. One of my friends in Chicago recommended it. There I met other figurative painters who were interested in art, the way I was. I spent about a month there and made friends with people who I'm still close to. Before that, I felt isolated. So as a result of that experience I decided that I should move to the East Coast.

IDLER: Was that difficult?

GRIMES: When we moved east, I worked full-time. I was a secretary at Cooper Union in the Humanities Department. I also worked at the School of Visual Arts as a secretary. I was used to being in school.

Schools had a more relaxed atmosphere than most businesses. They didn't mind that I had an advanced degree. They knew the score--recent MFAs have to take menial jobs.

IDLER: Did you take more art classes?

GRIMES: At the School of Visual Arts I could take classes, so I took a class in writing criticism. Jean Fisher, a British critic, taught it. She thought that I had potential, and introduced me to her editor at Art News.

IDLER: And so you became an art critic?

GRIMES: Writing art reviews was a real education. (I still do it occasionally). It got me into a lot of galleries, and I thought hard about a lot of different kinds of work. It also got my name out there.

IDLER: Was this a distraction from your painting?

GRIMES: You go through periods when other things in life take over. The biggest problem I had was finding time to make my work. We lived in a complete dump for 10 years. My goal was to get more time in the studio. We weren't starving, but we were struggling.

IDLER: How did this affect your work?

GRIMES: The things that had the most influence on me were negative things. I argued a lot with friends. Because of the arguing, I always had to question myself, to redefine my position. At Skowhegan I finally met artists who had values similar to mine.

IDLER: Are you part of the "Derriere Guard" movement in New York?

GRIMES: I have no connection to the derriere guard. Because I went to school in the Midwest, I didn't know that many people. The bulk of figurative art was being done on the coasts. I wasn't part of the figurative circle in New York. My work is different from theirs. I have slightly different values and goals. Many of those people are very pedantic and rule-oriented. They like to pat themselves on the back for doing traditional work. They think that it's enough just to carry on the grand traditions and don't really care about what the work actually means. Their work tends to be dry and academic. Not everyone's, of course.

In Chicago they like Outsider Art. I feel like an outsider here, so, I suppose, I got that from the Midwest. I always felt that painting had a moral aspect. My work has a moral aspect, even though sometimes it's ironic or black. Perhaps that's Midwestern.

There's a group of still life painters called Xeuxis. I was a member briefly, but I don't share many of their interests. They're a professional clique. A lot of them studied with an artist named Lennart Anderson, who is a very good painter who teaches at Brooklyn College. I love his work, but he's managed to unleash a whole group of painters who paint like he does, but aren't half as good. They're very interested in surface, the way the paint looks on the canvas--the delicious lick and crusty scab of paint. For me, surface is the least interesting aspect of a painting. I'm more concerned with pictorial structure, with making space in a painting. They're also anti-subject matter and gravitate toward fruit and flowers. They don't think it's really a painting unless it looks exactly like something that was done before. Their work tends to be conservative and tasteful, and I think their attitudes about still life reflect those of the figurative art community at large.

How people paint often depends on what school they went to. They often imitate their teachers. Often a clique forms around a certain gallery. For instance, Forum gallery shows figurative painting that is very meticulous and has a lot of detail. They show William Beckman and Gregory Gillespie--artists that I admire and have written about. But some of their other artists, although similar to them, aren't nearly as good--they're just imitators. I don't want to be an imitator.

IDLER: Is there anyone out there who does your kind of painting?

GRIMES: There's no gallery that shows work similar to mine. The closest is RC Fine Arts. We share general, as opposed to specific, values. None of the work looks alike, although most of it's figurative and eccentric. The show will have works by me, Ron and another painter, Donato Mancinci, who paints figurative tableaux based on growing up in Detroit and his Italian heritage. Although I think the works in the upcoming show are about New York City.

IDLER: Did you have any shows before this one?

GRIMES: Ron Cohen, the owner of RC Fine Arts, is also a painter. He gave me a show. I had previously shown in San Francisco at the Hackett-Freedman gallery. They sold a couple of things, but their clientele was not a perfect fit for my work. I still do catalog essays for them.

I had a show at the SoHo Center for the Arts. A Spanish couple bought a painting called "Temperance: The Spritzer." They were both professors, and they liked the painting's references to 17th Century Spanish still life.

IDLER: Did you ever study in Europe?

GRIMES: We never had the money or the time to live in Europe. I got married early on, we were 20 when we got married. We always had to work. But we traveled in Europe. We spent six weeks in England while my husband was finishing his dissertation -- on the critical reception of Tolstoy's work -- in England.

I just wanted to see as much painting as I could. He would be at the British Museum and I'd go to art museums.

We also went to France. In London and Paris I could see paintings that I hadn't seen before.

IDLER: Did it affect your style?

GRIMES: De La Tour was one of the later discoveries. My knowledge of painting grew gradually. I donít remember any epiphanies. We travelled in Russia, and I remember being impressed by how clean the paintings were, what good condition they were in at the Hermitage.

But we travelled mostly in England and France, although we never were there long enough.

IDLER: So there isn't much foreign influence?

GRIMES: Now I meet artists from other countries in New York. I didn't exchange ideas with artists from other countries. American artists don't really want to live in Europe anymore. It's the other way around--European artists want to live here.

IDLER: What about Young British Art?

GRIMES: I wasn't interested in looking at contemporary art, which usually just copies American art. I was more intersted in museums. I did like contemporary British art, however. Lucian Freud, Stanley Spencer, Francis Bacon, the School of London. I like them because they weren't preoccupied with idea of being new.

IDLER: Do you usually know who buys your paintings?

GRIMES: Dealers like to keep that information from you. They do not want the artist to have the names and addresses of the collectors, because they're afraid you'll start selling out of your studio.

IDLER: Do museums collect your work?

GRIMES: No paintings in museums, but there is one in a Queens restaurant called "The Water's Edge." It's a still life with glasses and plastic dishes in it and has a certain elegance.

IDLER: Why do you think a Queens restaurant would buy your painting?

GRIMES: My studio is in Queens, and the restaurant wanted art from Queens.

IDLER: Isn't Queens trendy right now?

GRIMES: There are a lot of artists in Queens and, of course, P.S. 1 is there.

IDLER: And your studio is in Queens.

GRIMES: Yes, I have a studio in Long Island City. There are about 15 other artists on my floor. It's a diverse group. People are drawn there because of cheap studio space.

IDLER: Do you feel a special connection to Queens?

GRIMES: Queens is important to me because it confirms my outsider status in the NY art scene. The work that I do doesn't fit in, a fact that I didn't like at first, but now I do. I like to keep a distance. In Queens there's a geographical and psychological distance from Manhattan.

IDLER: Have you never shown in Manhattan?

GRIMES: I have been in group shows in Manhattan.

In the late 80s there was a brief interest in genre paintings, and trendy galleries began to show landscape painting, post-modern landscape painting, of course. So I thought, "Why not still life painting as well?"

So a friend of mine and I organized some group shows. The Rosa Esman Gallery did a still life show that I was in, but I didn't sell anything.

IDLER: Any idea why not?

GRIMES:For a period of time I made Vanitas paintings--works with skulls and crosses in them, memento mori. I discovered that paintings with subject-matter about death didn't sell.

People who buy figurative paintings don't want subject-matter that is provocative. They want something that's easy on the eye and the intellect.

IDLER: Is there a personal story behind this choice?

GRIMES: I did the Vanitas paintings when the AIDS epidemic was in full throttle. I had a friend who died of AIDS about that time. I had an intellectual and emotional attraction to Vanitas painting. I haven't totally abandoned it.

IDLER: But now you paint different things?

GRIMES: I went from Vanitas to the Senses, then the 4 Elements. I thought about vices and virtues, but what I'm thinking about now is making a series of still life paintings based on the human body. I'm going to do one on the digestive tract with references to the different organs of the body.

IDLER: Is there a personal angle here, too?

GRIMES: I do have problems with my digestive tract, so, to a certain extent they'll be based on my own health.

IDLER: Why do you stay in Queens?

GRIMES: I have a house with a backyard, and you can't have that in Manhattan. We always had a garden. Now I'm gardening again. The sense of space in the Midwest is very different from the East Coast. It took me a long time to get used to the congestion in NY.

IDLER: What makes your paintings special?

GRIMES: I'm different from other contemporary still life painters, because I'm interested in allegory, meaning and reference. My still life setups are very artificial and staged. I don't go for the half-eaten orange on the breakfast table, the casual setup, or the delicate china cup next to a vase of flowers.

IDLER: Why not?

GRIMES: I think paintings should have meaning that is challenging. The greatest painting is about human experience and I think still life, even though its the most abstract genre, the most resistent to interpretation, should be about human experience.

IDLER: Where would you like to see your paintings hang?

GRIMES: The paintings are for homes, for domestic interiors, they unfold over time and need to be looked at again and again. There are a lot of layers of meaning in them.

IDLER: Do your Midwestern roots affect your approach?

GRIMES: I don't mind being from the Midwest. There are things about Midwesterners that I like--a matter-of-factness and a low tolerance for b.s. I don't know if those things are in my paintings or not. After 20 years of living in NY, I still feel like an outsider.


GRIMES: After Iíd lived in New York City for awhile, I realized that the art I was making didnít really fit in. Itís not easy to make a career for yourself here, and itís even harder if your work is against the grain. I thought that if I couldnít participate in the art scene as a painter, \I could as a writer. If youíre a representational artist like I am, it takes longer to develop your work. Representational painting is more difficult technically. It takes longer to master the formal elements because theyíre more complicated. And then you have to manipulate them to create meaning, you have to figure out how to make them say what you want to say. All this takes time. So, I needed to develop my work. It really wasnít ready to show and, besides, there was no place to show it. It didnít fit into the figurative galleries that existed at the time, and it didnít fit into the hipper, trendier galleries either. I did share with other figurative painters an interest in tradition, but I wasnít interested in tradition in a traditional way.

IDLER: Do you identify with Thomas Hart Benton, Jackson Pollock, and other Midwestern artists?

GRIMES: I enjoyed the film, Pollock. I thought a lot of it was funny, instead of moving, though. There were a few cliches, like when Lee Krasner says, "Pollock, you've blown it wide open". I was more interested in their relationship than his artistic development.

IDLER: Did you have an abstract phase?

GRIMES: I've done just about everything you can do as an artist nowadays. I made abstract sketches when I went through moments of self-doubt, but I never knew what to do with abstract painting, It didn't mean anything to me.

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