“Both a Point and a Line” is a show of abstract oil paintings by Jim Holl currently on display at Kingston’s Atwater Gallery. Although they are inspired by the smashing of protons in the world’s largest particle collider, there’s nothing technical or overly cerebral about these square-formatted works, which include smaller paintings on handmade paper. Instead, they are meditations in purely painterly terms, whose delicate color harmonies and tactile surfaces are both mysterious and seductive. Swooping linear networks and shapes are integrated into the colored ground, whose subtle undertones suggest a rapturous atmosphere. While suggesting infinitudes beyond the edge or within the pictorial space, each piece reads as a complete and harmonious whole pared down to its essence: a quality that yet defies stasis, instead beckoning the eye on a journey rich with epiphanies.
“A quintessence of painting is that it stills time and by this essence radiates forever,” Holl writes in the accompanying catalogue. This simple statement represents the apotheosis of a decades-long quest: When he arrived in New York City from his native Washington State in 1974, he aspired to high ideals, but it was to take many years of navigating through the contemporary “isms” of the 1970s and 1980s art world before he ultimately reached the goal of creating art whose “salient feature is truth.”
After graduating from the University of Washington, Holl spent a year in a cabin on Puget Sound, making art and reading essays on conceptual art. Once in New York, he earned an MFA from Columbia University, embarked on a career as a conceptual artist and meanwhile paid the bills by becoming a successful graphic designer, starting his own firm in 1981.
Holl created socially engaged works that utilized performance, audience interaction, installation and sculpture. He was among the first artists to show and have a studio at PS 1, and also exhibited at the New Museum and other seminal downtown venues. An example of a socially engaged art piece was a collaboration with architect Elizabeth Diller and performance artist Kaylyn Sullivan at “Art on the Beach,” a summer art exhibition funded by Creative Time held for several years on the expanse of sand excavated for the World Trade Center. Holl wore the costume of a harlequin, stationed in a booth erected before two hills of sand in which the trio had buried 100 Chinese slippers filled with their grant money, divvied up into small denominations. Audience members were invited to dig up the slippers containing the money and in exchange were given new shoes, donated by one of Holl’s graphic design clients, from the harlequin in the booth.
The piece’s intent was to reverse the convention of art as commodity (instead, the commodity – money and the shoes – was the art) and transform the passive viewer into an art-making participant. But as people requested returns in order to obtain better-fitting shoes, Holl became disillusioned, feeling like he was back at his high school job selling suits at J. C. Penney. “I had become a clerk,” he wrote in Jim Holl: The Landscape Painter: An Autobiography 1974-1994. “That day, I realized I couldn’t project my intentions onto other people.”
So, he began experimenting with narrative; in his installation at PS 1 called The Entourage, he based the sculptures that comprised the set and props, as well as the dialogue of three characters, on an absurdist text. Holl went on to critique consumerism in World Toy Company, an installation of faux toys and packaging that was exhibited in the New Museum’s storefront windows on 14th Street, before deploying more sophisticated fabrication techniques to create layered constructions of spray-painted forms cast in resin or plastic and combined with steel, wood and electric lights, in which he took on the role of director and designer.
By 1986, he felt that he’d reached a dead end. “I realized I was making art intended for an audience, not for myself,” he writes in The Landscape Painter. He began making constructions that emanated from a more meditative, felt response to form. Worried about the toxicity of fiberglass, he shifted to natural materials, such as wood, wax, cloth and plaster, creating sculptures of rough, simple forms that referenced figures and frequently suggested a narrative. In the mid-1990s, he and his wife, photographer Susan Wides, started spending summers in Bridgehampton in a rented cottage. “It got me into the sunlight and helped create the opening for painting,” Holl said. “I’d been going to my studio in Brooklyn after work for many years, working in the dark.”
Ultimately, his quest for an art that expressed “one’s synthesis with nature, an expression of the spirit or a transcendental truth” brought him to painting. “I prefer to consider the painting as a unique object, expressive of the maker,” he writes in the catalogue to the current show. “Within the definition of painting, I could emphasize form to allow viewers to bring their own associative meanings.”
Holl has shown at the Seattle Art Museum, the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art and other institutions as well as numerous galleries in New York City, the Northeast and the Seattle area. After many years of residing in a Union Square loft, he and Wides moved to Catskill in 2002. He currently is associate professor of Art at Marymount Manhattan College. He’s the younger brother of architect Steven Holl; an exhibition of his paintings in 2010 inaugurated the “T” Space gallery, part of a multi-interdisciplinary arts organization operated by the Steven Myron Holl Foundation at a wooded preserve in Rhinebeck (Wides serves as director of “T” Space, which is open in the summer and fall). Jim Holl has also designed, written and published a number of books. Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods recently interviewed him at his Catskill home and studio.
Both you and your brother have cultivated a purity of purpose in pursuing your creative impulses. Was there something special in your childhood that enabled you to preserve this sense of innocence?
Maybe it has something to do with being from the Northwest. We grew up in a small town on the Kipsap Peninsula, which was close to nature. My father owned a business installing residential heating systems. My brother and I went to the University of Washington, and because my folks dissuaded me from majoring in Art, I majored in English Literature. Nevertheless, it was here I heard the calling to become an artist.
Bill Vanderbilt was our godfather and a mentor of my father’s. We had a summer place near his place in Manchester, Washington. He had a library and a collection of Chinese artwork, and his intellectual curiosity inspired both my brother and me.
How were your conceptual and performance pieces received by the public?
I was always disappointed. There was all this cynicism. When I attended an event of Joseph Beuys and he was just standing there surrounded by people in costumes, it seemed such a pretense. I wondered, where was the authenticity? Innocence is grounded in one’s connection to the natural world. It’s a spiritual condition.
You experimented with the currents of conceptualism, interactive and performance art, anti-art, social commentary art et cetera. but write that you were a Modernist at heart.
Minimalism and conceptualism had been working off the Modernist premise of “Make it new and original,” but when I arrived in the mid-1970s this had been debunked, to my chagrin. Shortly after my arrival, I was impressed by Richard Tuttle’s exhibition at the Whitney, which made the aloof coldness of Minimalism personal and intimate. I saw that as a way to go forward, coupled with narrative.
You painted early on, but then gave it up for two decades. Why?
I always made paintings; I just didn’t show them. Painting in the mid-1970s had reached a theoretical crisis, so the answer was to go into three dimensions.
Your sculptural forms, which often involved painted surfaces, were in a primitive style, like folk art, and the painted surfaces in your installations resembled signs.
The idea was to be direct to the idea. Anything superfluous was unnecessary. Signs point to an idea.
Then you moved to making sculptural forms fabricated out of fiberglass, steel and other industrial materials.
It was a question of authorship: planning a piece out like a designer and having it executed, then using lights and motion for a high display. That work was a comment on commercialism and the idea of need that advertising instills in people. My World Toy installation, which included dancing figures I cut out of plastic, was shown at the New Museum, right before Jeff Koons’ stacked vacuum cleaners were displayed in the same space.
You turned away from this approach and went in a very different direction.
There is a cause-and-effect, the effect being to resolve yourself in the studio, re-center one’s response. This is very different than the role as director. Last time I made this kind of work was in 2011, with the installation Let’s Talk about Art, curated by Alan Baer at Byrdcliffe. [Holl shows the video, in which people take down hanging pieces of canvas, in an outdoor setting consisting of a podium and church pews, and write down what art means to them. The installation also was exhibited at Governors’ Island the following year.]
How did you make the transition from installation work to your first major series of paintings, the Indeterminate Landscapes?
The one thing I hadn’t tried was concentrating on one theme for a long period of time, which ended up being ten years for the Indeterminate Landscapes. In 2001, I flew in a glider above Joshua Tree National Park, which is a vast desert inhabited by unusual trees and large rock outcroppings. When looking straight down, I could not see the horizon line to orient myself in space. This changed my perception of scale. Our human scale in relation to the universe is indeterminate. The opposite of that is a “scalelessness,” a hypothetical in which everything little is big or everything big is little. It’s a philosophical idea you get out of looking hard. The kind of realistic painting that Gainsborough did is deterministic; it isn’t the way the world is.
That would explain the term “Indeterminate” and the fact that these paintings lack a horizon line and their scattering of rounded shapes don’t have a clear reference point. When did you start making these?
After 9/11, when we bought a house and studio in Catskill. Because of the drop-off in my business from the dot-com bubble crash and increase in rent, we also got a cheaper apartment in Hell’s Kitchen and later moved to a place in Harlem, where I stay when I’m teaching.
How long have you been teaching?
Since 1990. It was to supplement my graphic design studio income. I started out at Marymount Manhattan College as an adjunct because of my expertise in Photoshop, and in 1999 was hired to institute a Graphic Design curriculum and later an Illustration and Animation program. I love being a teacher. It keeps me concurrent with technology and youth culture.
Describe your painting process.
I look more than I paint. I have a dialogue with the painting. It has a voice, and responding to it is analogous to making a tune more harmonious. When the painting doesn’t speak back to you for a long time, it’s finished.
To start, I’ll put down a ground of a single color; then I’ll take a contrasting color and put another ground down. The paint builds up by adding and subtracting. The impasto technique is expressive.
In the catalogue, you describe the paintings in your current show as “impressions of the primary matter that creates the universe.” Could you explain?
The idea is particle point collisions, and the source material is photographs from the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, which smashes components of atoms called particle points. These are vibrating bundles of energy, both a point and a wave. They’re the essence of matter. I was led to that through a previous series called All the Living Things: paintings inspired by my hikes in the Olympic Mountains and very close looking at plants.
In a catalogue for a show of your particle point collision paintings held early last year at a gallery in Seattle, you write, “Images of particle point collisions show a trace and a point. The trace is a line made by the direction the point passes in time. All of nature at its most fundamental is dots and lines, points of energy passing in time.” Is the dot and the line then the organizing principle of these paintings?
In terms of painting, the dot and the line are the essence of what creates all form. A filled-in shape is a large dot, and a dot is static. A line is dynamic. They are opposite areas of contingency or graphic expression. Formally, they’re very related to the conceptually driven particle points. Dots and lines are points and waves. They’re not abstractions, but descriptive of what a landscape is, which is energy.
I also make painterly decisions. I want to hold your eye and also bring you into the pictorial space.
The depth is suggested by the color. Your color schemes, with their close midrange values and balance of warm and cool hues, remind me of Bonnard and Matisse.
There’s an analogy between music and color. Music is energy; we’re talking about a vibration, and sound can be elicited from color as well. You can make a tune out of color. Color is a transmitter of feeling.
The small scale of some of the works, such as the paintings on paper, and the sense of the artist’s hand convey an intimacy.
Intimacy is important. Another influence is Giacometti, who has a singular individuality. You can’t innovate in painting anymore. I’m not trying to make it new; I’m trying to make it real. It’s difficult in our time of alternative facts and facsimiles and simulacrafor authenticity to still be emergent or of value. You have to forgo the Modernist logic of deconstruction and embrace other essences of what art is. It’s a discovery of one’s aesthetic and sensibility being in the world. It’s sensual and spiritual and philosophical, aside from the contextual issues. You have to find your being in nature. The focus is the essence of nature.
Your paintings draw one in. While initially the language appears simple – networks of lines interspersed with small rectangles or circles against an absorbent color field – the more you look, the more you see subtleties of hue, tone and form.
You have to step away from literalness and be more associative, which allows the viewer in; you allow the viewer in by being evocative.++