Denise Green has been working in New York for over 40 years. I visited her light-filled studio in Long Island City in late 2016. On the eve of a major retrospective of her work at the University of Queensland Art Museum (UQ) curated by Michele Helmrich, in her hometown of Brisbane, I was curious to know about her relationship to Australia.
After all these years away, what do you think you still carry with you from Australia?
When I was growing up in Brisbane I saw a lot of Indigenous art, not in contemporary art institutions but in anthropological contexts such as the Queensland Museum. I was much more interested in what I was seeing there than European painting, which just left me cold. You certainly didn’t see any Indigenous art in New York in the 1970s and 80s; it just wasn’t around.
I was intrigued by the idea that one didn’t relate to the imagery on a formal basis – there was a sense of sacred space, and of ancestral beings. That is what drew me to it. If you think of Picasso’s relationship to African masks, it was formal. He saw those works in terms of formalist aesthetics, but to the artists who created them and the cultures in which they are made, they are ‘magical’ objects. That whole notion of objects having other properties was dismissed within the critical discourse of that era, especially by Clement Greenberg and Walter Benjamin. Today it is a much looser and more open context and you can endorse and embrace that.
Let me add that, although my work does not try to stylistically emulate Indigenous art, I am inspired by Indigenous culture, yet I am very aware that Indigenous art and spirituality belong to Indigenous artists and storytellers.
Your more recent works feel like they return to thinking about Australia in a way that draws on your childhood there. Using photographs taken by your father, for example, gives the images a different cadence. How do they relate to your experience growing up there?
These collages work with photographs, many of them taken by my father during WWII and some taken by me of sites of WWII catastrophes. I am fascinated by Australia’s role during the war: I think I somehow absorbed some of my father’s trauma from the war while I was growing up. I juxtapose these photographs with abstract drawings. I want to introduce both media simultaneously, equally.
At UQ I have done a drawing on the façade of the building that combines photographs and abstract drawing but on a really large scale. There is something very exciting about jumping up in scale. And I think you do have to deal with the architecture because it floats in a nowhere land unless you anchor it to the architectural features of the site at which it is shown.
Your painting practice spans decades. Throughout this time, the popularity of painting has ebbed and flowed and yet you have stayed with the medium regardless. What does painting mean to you, as a material practice?
I took a stance that wasn’t very popular and it took me about 18 years to work out my ideas about it, which I outline in my book, ‘Metonymy in Contemporary Art’, 2006. When I first arrived in New York from Paris in Vietnam-era 1969 there was so much turmoil both in the art world and in the political sphere. At Hunter College, where I studied, there were some important older generation painters like Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell. And then there were post-studio practitioners such as Robert Morris and theorists Rosalind Krauss and Leo Steinberg. I had to do the conceptual work in Morris’ class otherwise I would have failed. But on the side I continued to paint. The conceptualists wanted to dismiss whatever was personal, all the issues related to the self and emotion, and to opt for ideas. Whereas I saw that there was another mode of thinking in painting, more related to emotional thought – it had its basis in poetry and literature, a world in which my then-husband was very involved. My priority has been tapping into some other state of mind and manifesting it with colour.
Macushla Robinson is a writer and curator based in New York and was recently awarded the John Monash Scholarship to undertake Masters by research at the New School.
University of Queensland Art Museum
Until 2 April, 2017