A Conversation with Joan Watts about “Poems and More” at Charlotte Jackson Fine Art
This June, Charlotte Jackson Fine Art exhibited a new body of work by painter Joan Watts. Watts has been painting since the 1960s, and she has managed to successfully forge a singular path throughout the waxing and waning of art market trends and historical movements. Charlotte Jackson has represented Watts for several years now, and she is the rare kind of art dealer who supports the essential changes and developments of her artists.
This particular exhibition featured over twenty new paintings. The progression from previous work to this group of paintings shows a distinct progression towards a more dynamic aesthetic. For the last several years, fields of light and color have comprised her paintings, allowing subtle gradations of tonal values to create a transient light-filled space on the surface of the canvas. Similarly, these paintings are explorations of light and space, but there are some marked differences that move the work into new territory.
JH: How does this body of work differ from previous shows?
JW: It was in the last show two years ago in which I began to work with the partial circles. And that has been evolving ever since. The first series of paintings were 24 inches square. In the last two years, I’ve decided that I am still very fond of the square because of the neutrality and the equilibrium of it. On the other hand, I also decided to turn the square on a point and make it a diamond.
JH: What made you decide to do that?
JW: Well, it was a spontaneous thing. I did that in the studio, then I lived with one of them turned that way for a while. It took me a long time to decide that I would deliberately do a few that were diamonds because that is a very dynamic shape. The moment that you take a square and turn it on a point, it becomes very dynamic—a shaped canvas. I spent a long time living with the diamond on my studio wall to try and decide if I wanted to carry on with this shape, and eventually I did, of course. So, this show not only has the squares, but some of the diamonds. The show carries on with the partial circle concept, which I am very engaged with. I love the way in which the partial circle extends beyond the confines of the canvas—the way the viewer completes the form of the circle in their mind.
JH: You really get a sense that it is a space you are visually going into. There is something in the shadow, which presumably continues beyond the edges of the canvas as well, and then the light. It is your imagination that fills it all in. With your take on Minimalism, how do you feel about this imaginative aspect of your work?
JW: Well, I think that it’s interesting that you bring up the Minimalist concept. I would call myself more of—if I have to come up with a label—a Reductionist as opposed to a Minimalist. You know I was living in New York at the time of real Minimalism, and my work has a whole lot going on by comparison. At the same time, I am very attracted to reducing the means by which I create. Sometimes this word “Minimalism” is just thrown around, but as you know from art history, it really does refer to a particular movement in time. Also that work is more conceptual as opposed to perceptual. I feel my work has references, and the intent of my work is to engage the viewer and to draw them into the space. There are lots of ways in which I am attempting to engage the viewer. I don’t think that was really one of the goals of Minimalism. It is important to distinguish.
On the other hand, I have reduced the elements with which I work greatly, and that has been a process I have been going through ever since I moved to New Mexico in 1986 and began working with the landscape. You can see this work in my book with Radius Books. You can also see in the book that my work with the landscape became more and more reduced until eventually it was land and sky, then eventually the land disappeared, and it became all sky.
JH: We started to talk about how you have limited or reduced your methods. When did you start really enforcing these limitations?
JW: Well I think “enforce” is not a good word. In no way do I enforce anything upon myself when I am in the studio. My studio practice relates very much to my Buddhist practice, so it is very much a form of meditation when I am in the studio. One has to make certain initial decisions such as, “is it going to be a square? What size do I want it to be?” You have to start somewhere. If I am working on a piece with a partial circle, I actually use a blackboard ruler to precisely draw the circle.
JH: Right on the surface of the painting?
JW: Right on the painting. And once those technical decisions are made, I try to just let it fly. I just pick up certain colors to which I am attracted. My palette is a big table with lots of tubes of paint.
JH: I really like that you call those smaller paintings “Poems.” Could you talk about that a little bit?
JW: I would never have done those small 12-inch square paintings (a few of those are diamonds, too) had I not seriously injured my back about a year and a half ago. I was doing way too much hiking in the mountains. I was sometimes hiking all day long because it was such a beautiful Fall, and one day I sprained the ligaments in my lower back. It was very painful, and it has taken a very long time to heal. It really affected everything. I had to stop painting for a couple of months because I have concrete floors. I do a lot of walking around when I'm working. I paint both on sawhorses, horizontally, and up on the wall, vertically. So if I'm painting on the sawhorses, I am leaning over. I found that I just couldn't work at all, and I was getting crazy with that. So, I asked myself, “What if I start working really small, so there's not any real problem lifting it up and putting it on the wall or taking it off of the sawhorses?” I needed something I could manage and spend less time walking around on the concrete floor. So, I began these small pieces and became quite engaged with them. At first it was very frustrating because I had never worked on board before. These are masonite with gesso.
JH: The larger paintings are all canvas?
JW: Yes, I have always worked on canvas—sometimes on paper. I've never worked on board. There's no give to it. There's no texture to it. I didn't know what to do with it. I messed around a long time trying to figure out what I could do with this surface. Then at a certain point one of them worked. It's actually the one in the show that's called Poem I. That was the first piece I knew I had a breakthrough with, and I knew I could work with this.
The other challenging aspect of the small ones is—they're small! Small is cute. As soon as you put something small up on the wall—it can have nothing on it, it can be blank—it looks cute. I don't want to do cute work. It is quite a challenge to do very small work, which I didn't realize. I've never been engaged with small work before, and I thought, “Wow. I don't know if I can do this.” But because I had the back issue, I pursued it because that is what I could physically do at the time. Then I realized I could make something strong on a small scale.
The reason I go into length about this is because these pieces never would have happened if I hadn't seriously injured my back. Though I don't wish that on anybody, I can see something positive came out of it. At a certain point, I reached a stage at which I could continue with the larger pieces. I saved about 20 of the small ones that I decided were okay, but I stopped doing them when my back had recovered. I have no idea whether or not I'll ever make small pieces again.
That is also a part of my process— not knowing. Not knowing is part of my Buddhist practice as well. I begin a series. I have no idea where it's going. I have no idea how many will be in that series. If I'm lucky I get engaged. Then at a certain point it seems finished and I'll move on to something else.
Now this show [at Charlotte Jackson’s] was not intended to be as diverse as it is. We're talking about very small 12 inch canvases, and larger pieces that are 36 inches square, and also the diamonds. So there is a diversity which makes the work interesting, I think. And I didn't know that would happen. It was not planned. Nothing that happens in my studio is planned. There is a point in the studio in which I am ready to take a pause. It is at this point that I call Charlotte Jackson to come down to my studio because I enjoy her feedback. She has a marvelous eye, and we have a great relationship. We have great discussions when she comes to the studio. Most of the time I am working very much alone, and I am not interested in showing the work to other people while working. This is really important for me. I live alone. I'm solitary. I'm sure that is one reason why I settled on painting as opposed to a performance art, let's say. For instance, my mother wanted me to be a pianist like she was.
JH: How long do you think it took you before you got into a rhythm of knowing yourself and your process—knowing how you work?
JW: That's an interesting question because that, in and of itself, was a process. There was the student work, which was not included in the book. When I talked with David Chickey [Radius Books publisher] about the book, we chose one particular piece from 1965 to start. That was the first piece that started me working in a series. I was at the University of Hawaii for my graduate work, and I have been working in a series ever since.
JH: I was wondering about whether or not you had always worked in a series.
JW: No. I had eight years of experimenting with my work. I went to the Art Institute at the time. Abstract Expressionism was really the big deal. And then, as you know, there was a backlash in the art world against the gestural aspect of Abstract Expressionism. Then we have the introduction of the minimal and the suppression of gesture. That's an interesting point for me because, as you saw in the book, there are some early pieces that are hard edge. Now I am allowing myself to use gesture a little bit.
Jh: Yes, I noticed that there is a softness to the pieces. They undulate—they are diffused.
JW: My background was first in gestural abstraction, then in a rejection of it and moving onto hard edge abstraction in which gesture is completely suppressed. Now much later in life, I'm allowing gesture to return in a quiet way. It's a big deal for me since I suppressed this for such a long time.
JH: Was it mostly because of the stigma of painterly work not being taken seriously?
JW: I do think that was happening, and I think that goes back to your question of the evolution of a younger artist to a mid career artist—and now I'm an older artist. As a younger artist I experimented a lot, and I think that was very important. Then I was teaching for a while, and I wanted the students to do what they wanted. However the student wanted to evolve was the way in which I tried to encourage them as a teacher. That was the challenge, finding out together with the student what they would be doing. Not what I am doing—what they are doing. Then came a period when I was living on the east coast, and I began doing more and more paintings in a series. I gained more focus. It has been that way ever since.
JH: Why did you call the small paintings poems? Do you think of them in a literary way?
JW: Well, no. I choose a title for a series once I've begun a series. I don't know how many it's going to be before I finish a series. I'm really not into the literary in regard to the visualization of the work. Choosing a title is very difficult for me because I don't want to suggest too much. I want the viewer to be engaged from the perceptual and visual point of view. My work is not at all conceptual, although we can't turn off our brains. I mean, we're conceptualizing the work right now!
JH: Oh, yes. I go into a show like yours and my mind goes all over the place. I like that you say that your work is perceptual instead of conceptual. Anything in art that evokes an imaginative response, or gives us a sense of imaginative gratification, spins off of that first physical perception of the work. You mentioned that you were hiking too much and that your work is based in some way on the landscape. Do you just go outside and sit and observe? Soak it all in? Do you make sketches?
JW: People often ask if I do drawings. I don't do any drawings anymore. I used to, but now I just absorb the experience. For example, in January I went with a friend to Mexico. We got a cottage right on the ocean. There was a shelf where the waves were breaking. Unfortunately, you couldn't swim, but you could hear the waves crashing all day and all night. I listened to that for two weeks, and I watched—just watched. As you know, there's a wavy action in the work, now. I view waves as everything—particles and waves. I think waves are the essence of everything. It is wonderful that we can sometimes be by the ocean and see, feel, listen, smell and take in the actual, constantly changing waves. On the other hand, I can also look at the sky and watch the clouds that also have these wavy gestures to them. Waves remind me of light, sound and our inner beings. However, I am not trying to paint oceanscapes, wavy gesture or not.
JH: [laughs] Well, I don't think of them as being oceanscapey in the least.
JW: Well, good! I'm glad to hear that because I am a little afraid that when I allow these waves to appear in the work that people are going to say, “Oh, these are all about the ocean.” I view the wave gesture much more broadly and much more deeply.
JH: I feel like these spotlight paintings don't have the sort of slowness that the vertical pieces do—the ones that fade from dark to light slowly to the top. I imagine the light could move in a different direction at any moment. There is a quickness of movement to them that is not present in the vertical pieces.
JW: They are more active.
Joan Watts | Installation shot of Poem 20, 2011, oil on board, 12 x 12 inches & Untitled 11, 2010, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches
JH: In other words, my perception of these pieces is that time has sped up a little bit.
JW: Yes. It has a lot to do with the wave gesture that we're talking about here, and my allowing that wave action to appear. I mentioned earlier that I suppressed that for a long time. In the earlier vertical pieces that you're talking about, I worked very hard to not allow the gestural aspect of applying paint to come into the work. These new pieces are prepared with gesso in a different way. The earlier work was applied with rather thick gesso with the human hand that allowed a very subtle shake to the surface. A little pulse—not a wave, really. But on the other hand, the long vertical ones are six feet tall. I thought of them more in relationship to the human body, and I like them to be placed maybe three or four inches off the ground. They are like a door or something. Charlotte calls them portraits, and it's not a bad word because it's the relationship of an upright, vertical being in relation to something that's approximately the same size. Now I am more interested in the square now because it is so neutral.
JH: It's very harmonious and peaceful, and I think it balances the dynamic light shapes. When did you start thinking about your paintings exclusively in terms of light, shadow and shape?
JW: Very interesting question. When I think back to that piece, the first one in the book from 1965, White Circle, it is hard edge. It's a white circle, and its edges are black. Within that piece is that hard edge symbolism. You saw there was a whole period in which I was just working with circles. I would say the circle and the color white have always been a part of my work.
JH: Were you Buddhist then around 1965?
JW: No. That didn't begin happening for me until 1989.
JH: I think your work has always had a very spiritual aspect to it. Did you think of your work that way, then?
JW: I think I was looking for the spiritual. I didn't necessarily know that, but I was always wandering around in the painting surface looking for it. I'm still looking that way, but in regard to a practice, eventually I came to Buddhism. But you're right, and I'm glad you see that and feel that aspect of my work. From a very early age I was looking for something, and that could be related to the spiritual realm.
JH: Do you feel like being in New Mexico has been a part of that journey?
JW: Yes, very much so.
JH: What do you think it is about New Mexico? I love asking that question, because people gravitate to this state and this climate.
JW: I am originally from Florida.
JH: It really is so different here, and there is something about the sort of starkness that effects people, especially if you don't come from the desert.
JW: Well, as I said I was born and raised in Florida a long time ago when there wasn't any air conditioning, and there was something called “polio.” So my parents used to send my brothers away to camp in summer, and take off with a trailer. And I was quite a bit younger than my brothers, so I was hauled around since I was a baby every single summer. I saw a lot of the country. One of the places they liked to visit was Santa Fe. I never forgot that. Other places were Colorado, California, etcetera, but they came through Santa Fe often. As I got older, I began to take vacations out here. Then I had this idea that I'd retire out here, but I thought that would be later in life. Then I was in New York, and I had a loft in SoHo. I had a wonderful time in the ‘70s and ‘80s when things were just so. I moved here in 1986. Things had started to fall apart in New York. SoHo was becoming full of boutiques, Chelsea was becoming the place where contemporary art was. The art marketplace was taking over. In other words, there were lots of changes that didn't appeal to me. Rather suddenly, I decided that I'd had enough of that. Done. “I'm going to move to New Mexico.”
It utterly changed my life. What I didn't know was that I was going to be so impacted by the landscape and the light. That's why I stopped doing the circular canvases entirely when I moved out here. I actually have a lot of them sitting in my garage. I brought a lot of the circular frames with me, and I've never done one since. I moved here and it was all about the landscape and the light. I just had to deal somehow with this landscape, which as you know has a tremendous impact.
The light is so clear at this altitude, and in New York I couldn't even see the moon. So much that you can't see in New York was revealed to me here. It became about the sense of spaciousness and not being in canyons of buildings any longer. I guess I started off with the landscape, but it just gradually became—now I don't want to say minimal—“reduced” to certain elements. People sometimes ask me if I would make these paintings in New York, and I say absolutely not.
JH: Do you think it matters that you came from somewhere totally different from New Mexico?
JW: Maybe if I was born here I wouldn't understand the contrast as much, but that also means when I first came here that I had several years of frustration with my work. I knew I couldn't keep doing what I was doing in New York. It didn't have any relationship to where I had put down my new roots. I went through quite a few years of once again experimenting with this, experimenting with that, and figuring out where I was going to go in terms of my work. It has been a very gradual evolution. It eventually came down to the most important elements: light and spaciousness.
JH: I have one question about the Channel Pieces. I know these aren't in the show, but are these reminiscent of channels of water, electronics or wavelengths?
JW: There you are again with the wavelengths—I like that you introduced that. After a period of time of doing the verticals, I thought, “Okay, well why don't I just turn it horizontally. The moment you do that, it relates to the landscape just the way the vertical shape relates to the human body. So I'm back into landscape again just because of the shape. At that point I was involved in my spiritual practice, so I began to see that there's a channel of energy in all of us and in everything. That channel can go up and down in a vertical, but it also be represented horizontally.
JH: Technologically, the way we have come to think about wavelengths is by our visual representations of them, which seem to always be horizontal and from side to side.
JW: That's a very good point. The longer this evolves on some unconscious level for me, it takes someone like you to see it and discuss it with me to help me see, because it's not conceptual while I am working on it
JH: I think you solved the challenge of the horizontal landscape in an interesting way because the light fades in towards the center. I think it definitely creates more of a light continuum than a horizon line. In fact, it's not a horizon line at all to me.
JW: You're right, it is more of a continuum of light. But we can't escape the fact that there's an implicit kind of endless horizon. Just as the circles now go off the edge of the canvas, so I felt that these channels of light would appear to go out past the canvas. By collapsing the light channel to the middle, it creates quite a different perception, which was the challenge.
With each of these series, it is very important that I become engaged with whatever I am doing. I think, “Oh, I could try this for a while.” Whatever “this” is, if it begins to engage me and make me feel passionate enough to go into the studio each day, then it is successful. I am so grateful that after all these years I am still passionate about my work. I'm not tired of doing it.
JH: A lot of people burn out.
JW: Or they start repeating themselves. There has been a lot of variation in my work over the years, so I'm not making recipes, which is often what artists do after a while!
JH: A little dash of this element, a little dash of this element, and you have a genuine “me” work of art. There, that was easy.
JW: We see a lot of that!
JH: I think a lot of times some schools force people to work that way. You have to have a body of work right now, and you have to defend it with a few words as opposed to the work being able to speak for itself in a more complex way.
JW: I don't even bother reading about art anymore. The “artspeak” doesn't appeal to me. I'm very fortunate to be represented by Charlotte Jackson, who has been very supportive of all the changes that have occurred in my work over the years. I think in some cases, a gallery can get hung up on something you're selling, and they want that artist to repeat that because they can sell it. There's a lot of pressure on the artist to repeat the recipe because it's selling. I've known quite a few artists who have had to drop certain galleries because they had to make a body of new work that was no longer acceptable to that gallery. So I feel very grateful that I have a gallerist that is supportive of the changes that happen in my work over the last several years.
Joan Watts has been painting since the 1960s, and has had numerous solo exhibitions around the country since her first show in 1968. She has lived in New York City and Hawaii, and has made her home in the Santa Fe, New Mexico, area for over twenty years. Her work is held in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe, Charlotte Jackson Fine Art, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, among other institutions.
Jenni Higginbotham is an artist and blogger working out of Santa Fe, New Mexico. She makes graphite and charcoal drawings as well as prints, oil paintings and mixed media illustrations. She has a Bachelor of Arts in painting and printmaking with a minor in art history, and a Master of Fine Arts in studio art.