FULL STOP: An interview with Alexi Worth   2005


Alexi Worth: When I walked into “Full Stop” at Caren Golden Fine Arts for the first time, the space felt so completely familiar, and at the same time, a little tricky, hard to locate exactly. It has the look of a classic Ab-Ex studio, but on the other hand it can't be--it's too garrett-like,  too modest. Some of the art books on the shelves are perennials from the fifties, like “Art and Existentialism,” but others are contemporary—the Fred Tomaselli monograph, for instance. 

Tom Burckhardt: There's something about the scale that's just post-war. One reason was that I needed to make the studio as cluttered as possible, to have the energy of the black paint drips everywhere-- so that the emptiness of the blank canvas in the center could feel stronger. Also, a lot of the research material came from that period, from the photographs my father, Rudy Burckhardt, took for ARTnews.

AW: I wondered about that. Like many people, I grew up peripherally aware of those pictures, the ones of de Kooning’s studio especially. They’re so beautiful. Those photographs really created the whole romance of the ‘50s New York studio. 

TB: He was one of several people that did them. They often took the same pictures. Every time someone went to Pollock's studio, they climbed up on the rafters to take that overhead shot. I don't know who invented it, but everyone did it.  He did this “artist paints a picture” series, so he had all these shots of clutter lying around. That was my original source material. But I collected pictures of lots of studios--Stuart Davis’s, Francis Bacon’s, all sorts of people.

AW: But it doesn’t feel generic; it feels strangely personal.

TB: I thought of it as a life mold. All this stuff has been touched and used and lived in. And then there's this big absence in the middle--a double absence. One is the absence of any creative work actually getting done. And the other absence is the artist.

AW: It’s a painter’s studio, and I think of you as a painter: what made you decide to branch out into installation?

TB: Well, actually until last year, installation was my day job for 22 years, working for Red Grooms. I had just "Retired", and I was feeling kind of frustrated with painting. Not really stuck; I just wasn't enjoying it that much. I wanted to use that as a subject. When I paint I'm meandering along, like a river in a way. I don't know how I'm going to respond from one moment to the next. I like that about painting, but I wanted to do something different. I wanted something more long-term, something to really sink my teeth into. 

AW: Did turning 40 have anything to do with it?

TB: It made me think back to being a younger artist and seeing older artists repeating themselves. I always wanted to shake these people and say, "This is insane." Why mimic yourself? I was talking to someone recently about Sean Scully. In those first stripe paintings, there was that incredible freedom and energy. They looked great. And now they look fundamentally exactly the same, but I'm so uninterested in them. I feel like they're dead. He didn't learn his lesson when he broke out. I guess that’s why I didn’t want to do another straight show of Tom Burckhardt paintings.

AW: For me the “Full Stop” studio suggests both those kinds of career moments. One is the young artist's studio, where there are so many avenues and you don't know which to take. You're paralyzed by all your own potential. You can’t really begin. And the other is the has-been studio, the artist whose momentum has petered out. The also-ran who’s had his run. Even if he doesn’t yet see that.

TB: That's probably who this person is. You look at old art magazines and there's ads for artists who seemed to really have it happening. Now they’re forgotten. They made a lot of work, and what is the afterlife of that work? Stuff just accumulates, and for what? What happens when those kind of implications finally come home to roost for someone? I had been very influenced by some classes I took in college about existential philosophy. “The only true decision is suicide or not” kind of shit. I loved it. I'm trying to find a way to whistle past the graveyard on a situation like that. .

AW: In a way “Full Stop” brings us back to the “Death of Painting”—which is, I think, the central mythology of the art world. It's our version of the crucifixion story--a giant melancholy narrative. But  you set it up in a colloquial, individual way that has nothing to do with theory. Instead it’s spare and funny and theatrical, like a Beckett play with no characters. The protagonist is avoiding the Big Realization, but it's palpable.

TB: This is the kind of person who never would have accepted the idea that "Painting is dead." And I feel like I’m that person too. What a ridiculous thing! My response especially when I was young was, "Hey, painting is dead, that's great. There's no place to go but up." That's what I value about painting: how little impact it has on the real world. As a painter I don't feel like there are serious consequences for succeeding or failing-- other than to myself. 

AW: But the installation seems like a critique of exactly that type of personalism. The feeling of someone writing in their journal, navel-gazing in their garret. “Full Stop” seems like a pretty harsh mocking of that "no consequences for anybody but myself" life-- as a life unlived.

TB: Again, it’s two sides of a coin. When you walk into it, as a viewer, there's a sense of wonder—and of ecstasy. The space is in many ways truly welcoming and warm and lovely. It's not a space that pushes you away, it's a space that invites you in. So there's this exciting aspect, a feeling of possibility.

AW: On the other hand, the blank canvas in the center has been sitting there for a while.

TB: Right, there’s actually some journal entries about that.

AW: The journal is a key point in the piece. The mood darkens when you read those bleak, funny entries: “Another bad day. No painting. Bagel for lunch.” The narrative becomes more pointed.

TB: Right. This painter is clearly frozen. The thing that's so strange about artists is that you supposedly don't retire. You just keep going until you can't do it anymore. Of course, the truth is that artists do retire. I know a lot of artists who have closed the door on making art. You spend twenty years living a so-called bohemian life,  of barely being able to pay your rent or whatever, and you're tired of it. So you have to make that decision.

AW: That crystallizes what I had felt: there’s a moment of decision here. It's not like a normal studio visit where the work is just moving along.

TB: Nothing has happened for a while, but some sort of choice is imminent.

AW: If this artist is capable of making it. One of the things I loved about “Full Stop” was the way it perfectly captures the insidious coziness of studio life. Not infrequently, I go into somebody's studio and feel , "It's too nice here." The books, the tools are all too perfect. Someone has created their own little luxury cell. Like that scene at the end of Kubrick’s 2001, the super deluxe bedroom to infinity.

TB: I know that when I look in art books, no matter how strongly I feel about someone’s work, the photographs of the studio are always the best thing, always. And, okay, that's because the works are meant to be seen in person. But the best paintings to me are impressions of someone's life, the life of the person who makes it. They let me commune with them off this inanimate object. That's what I really enjoy.  When I look at a Philip Guston painting I can feel him right next to me. When I look at the photographs of someone's studio, you're seeing all these other details that most artists tend to prune down—what kind of music they listen too.  It's all there.

AW: That brings me back to the overall change in your work: ten years ago it was entirely abstract, a kind of pattern language. Even before “Full Stop” it had gotten more and more referential.

TB: I'm just looking for ways to infect that syntax of abstraction. The new paintings grew out of the time I spent building a house in Maine. I was doing this grunt work with my little tool belt, carrying drywall and all, and I was thinking, well, what if contractors, not artists, were making paintings like mine? It’s the flip side of the dilemma of the artist in “Full Stop”: just fucking get on with it and grunt it into place. It's trying to pose a less esoteric problem about producing work.

AW: Which is totally apart from the whole “end of painting” thing. It’s a different kind of mockery

or goading, it’s about the luxury of indecision.

TB: Right.

AW: It's hard to resist thinking that in Full Stop and in the recent paintings, “work”  has become the central subject. There's a connection to your great-great-grandfather, Jacob Burckhardt, the Protestant work ethic guy.

TB:  I guess I am infused with that Calvinist ethic: get down to it and just do it.  The beauty of using your hands every day for something. I've come to think that this show is all about means of production--not in some Marxist way, but in the basic sense of what a workplace means, what it allows you to do.

AW: One of the things I loved about the piece was that it was so elaborated, but at the same time felt so distilled. It felt totally economical, and at the same time it had a zillion parts.

TB: Right. There's an implied effort to getting the cardboard to behave into these shapes. And then the painting could be kind of slapdash. It probably took me less than a minute to paint that staple gun there. Some areas had to have more inflection-- the books for instance. I wanted a place where you would stop and look longer. Whereas if I spent an hour painting the staple gun in some persnickety way, it wouldn’t actually matter much.

AW: The speed of the work had to be right. It's back to the work ethic. Good workers know how much time to spend.

TB: Right.

AW: The material, the corrugated cardboard, seems so crucial.

TB: I had done some stuff in cardboard many years ago with another artist, Andy Yoder.  We made decor for benefits for this organization--I can't even remember the name, but they build housing for the poor. Of course it's all run by rich people. And they threw this huge party for themselves. And so we made these huge Oldenberg-scale tools, and cardboard seemed the quickest thing to whip them out. So I had some experience with it. I just liked the speed and cheapness of it. I had originally thought that with "Full Stop" maybe I would tear it down the last night and just destroy it, or maybe give it all away. A kind of potlatch riot, a feeding frenzy. But when you work with a commericial gallery, that's not always possible. [laughs]

AW: Modesty, familiarity, populism, nostalgia, those notes seem crucial to the piece.

TB: I’m not sure about nostalgia: Is it nostalgic for someone's life to break down in this way? I don't think so, really. I think it's more of a talisman against it happening to me. Maybe it is nostalgic for an older way of making art. When I go to a Matthew Barney show I feel anachronistic. But I don't when I go to a Blue Mountain show.

AW: There's a computer in your studio, but “Full Stop” doesn’t have one.

TB: I actually have since made a cardboard computer, a laptop. The thing was open. All the emails are about trying to get tech help, get grant applications, and whatever. So it's not exactly an empowering object.

AW: You could have made him or her a blogger, whining about their own inactivity.

TB: But these guys aren't blogging. [laughs] It’s really about my father's generation—not him, his time. I was always interested in hearing stories about what it was like to be an artist then. He wasn't nostalgic and didn’t talk so much about that era. I learned a lot about him from the De Kooning biography, which was important to read before I did this project.

AW: I noticed that it appears among the artbooks.  What kinds of things did you learn?

TB: One interesting story was about de Kooning's $700 dollar record player. He supposedly bought it in 1939, a year when he sold one painting. The guy was eating dog food practically. And he sells a painting and goes and buys a $700 stereo. That's an amazing story. It's so emblematic of the commitment to being an artist. So I made that record player. I researched it and went online and tried to find a copy. I knew the brand, Capeheart. But I couldn't find it anywhere. In researching it I came across all these other stereos -- they weren't even stereos, they were high-end Victorolas -- from the era. They were very elaborate, very fancy, and the most you could spend was $150. And so I started to think that this story probably isn't true. But the thing that drove it forward and probably pushed it up from a hundred dollars to seven hundred dollars is the meaning of it, the way it illustrates his life as a bohemian.

AW: In your version,  there’s an LP on the record player.

TB: A Louis Armstrong record, "West End Blues" All those guys were influenced by that early jazz, certainly. And it’s one of my favorite records.

AW: Are there other objects in the studio that have particular stories that we might not know?

TB: The Jasper Johns Savarin coffee can is an obvious touchstone. Pollock's paint-splattered shoes. The telephone, for no particular reason, was one I saw in a picture of Francis Bacon's studio. One whole corner was basically from a photograph of my father’s studio in the 50s. My father passed away five, almost six years ago. Among other things, the whole piece is a way to process that, missing him. The pot-bellied stove was from a picture of Edward Hopper's studio. A lot comes from photographs of Red Groom’s studio, before I stopped working there: the easel, the sink, the stove.  Red is probably my biggest influence, simply by the force of being around him for so long.

AW: Did he have comments about the piece?

TB: Oh yeah, he came and he loved it. I didn’t feel any sense that I was stepping on his toes or anything.

AW: Are there are other installations in the back of your mind? Are you going to return to being strictly 2D?

TB: I have no idea about that. The whole time I've been an artist, I've never understood why I was going where I was going. I felt happy to go along for the ride because new avenues were always opening up. With the show at Tibor de Nagy in 2004, there were a bunch of things that were new -- using the figure, using these tropes of Asian art more openly. But that work left me nowhere to go. I had gone off on this interesting tangent, but I was left basically on a cliff. That was the lesson of that show for me: go ahead, go someplace that doesn't seem like it makes a lot of sense,  throw yourself into it. That's why I felt I should do this project, because it was new territory. But the basic idea was actually eight or nine years old.

AW: Where did it come from? 

TB: I was showing with another gallery in the late nineties, and they had this project room-- a room that had no windows except a big skylight.  I thought, what could I do with this? I had this idea to build a studio, using only that skylight, no other light. But the moment passed, and I ended up not showing with them anymore. I thought about a couple of other places, but the timing never worked out. This just seemed to be the right moment for me to do it. I was due to have a show of paintings at Caren Golden Fine Arts and felt I needed to shake up the routine- to have an intensive project that wasn't as safe and familiar. I started producing these objects. I knew in my head that the intensity of the whole situation was going to be key. So I just had to take a leap of faith, start making this stuff, and when I got enough critical mass, people would get it.

AW: Did the original idea include the narrative? The diary entries?

TB: No. It was simpler, it was more like, here's this fascinating studio that you get to go walk into. Which is certainly part of the experience now, but it didn't have this other side, this divided quality. To me, as it is, there’s something almost chiding about it, in the sense of, don't get so wrapped up in yourself, just go ahead, keep working. The way de Kooning kept on, maybe with only half his mind working.

AW: In the 1980s, the Alzheimer’s paintings.

TB: Yeah. I like the fact that he lost it and kept going. I still see so much life in those paintings. He’s running on his continued motor skills and work ethic. A lot of people don't like the late De Koonings.  I love that stuff but I have no defense for it, really. I can't say why it's so great, because it's really empty, and I acknowledge that; that's what I like about it. It makes me think you don't have to have a mind to make good paintings.

AW: [laughs]

TB: De Kooning and Guston,  they're painter's painters because they give people courage. They both had a lot of personal difficulties, and they kept on all the way to the end. That's what I like about this piece. It is very positive, really. It's positive about a negative kind of thing.

AW: I’ve always thought that your work in general has a rare shrewdness about tone. The tone is open. It slips from melancholy to funny. But it’s not fuzzy, it’s locatable.  Even the title has that.

TB: The title I really deliberated over for a long time. When you go in there, you're looking from place to place, and I worried that you might miss this fairly obvious thing in the middle, which is the blank canvas. So there are all these clues that lead you to it.  I felt like the title needed to err on that side, as opposed to calling it something more open-ended like "The Studio."  “Full Stop” is better.

AW: It's the perfect title.

TB: It’s a British phrase; I guess not everyone here recognizes it. It's nice because it's upbeat about its pessimism: Just in terms of the surface of the words, it's full, as opposed to empty. And it's a period in a sentence--not "The End" of a book. Things have ground to a halt, but the question of continuing is open.