“That is What Painters Do. We Look for Subject Matter”: Clintel Steed in conversation with David Cohen
This summer, the artcritical media prize was introduced at the New York Studio School Alumni Association’s annual exhibition (on view at 8 West 8 Street through August 27.) A similar prize has run already for a few years at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, for their MFA program degree show. Each institution votes on an individual to be featured by interview in our pages. For the Studio School, I was delighted that guest jurors Walter Robinson, Irving Sandler and Robert Storr selected CLINTEL STEED for the honor as he is a painter I have admired for a decade or so now, since my days as gallery director at the School. (In the interests of full disclosure, I acquired a painting of his from a student show during that period.) Instead of looking for someone to talk with Clintel, therefore, I seized the opportunity myself.
In one respect, it might have been better to send a painter. Talking about Steed the other day with my associate Suzy Spence, who by coincidence also visited his studio recently, I heard second hand about his conviction that there is no such thing as muddy color, that arresting color can, and should, sometimes be found from the erratic mixture of what is at hand. Instead, a different kind of color dominated our discussion, as “Danagate” (controversy surrounding Dana Schutz and her painting at the Whitney Biennial, Open Casket, discussed at length here at artcritical earlier this year) was just then erupting again, in Boston. Some black artists there had called for the ICA to withdraw their exhibition of Schutz. Clintel Steed’s perspective as an impassioned, driven, truly independent African American painter is equally enriching, however, whether he is addressing his own dense, lively, intriguing paintings or broader issues of politics, history and subject matter.
We met at his Sunset Park studio and began by looking at large pictures of an Olympic swimming event, part of the series that includes his piece in the Alumni Exhibition. The painting captures the swimmers just as they take their dive.
CLINTEL STEED: I think there is something about that feeling of letting the body go that is pretty amazing, they can totally trust that. I wanted to paint this subject because I felt, watching the Olympics, that all the athletes are so in tune with themselves: it is the most Zen moment there can ever be. I just think there is something magical about that. I like that philosophy of trying to live your life everyday, in the moment, and trusting.
Everything depends on the moment: in one they are about to dive into the water, in another they are frozen mid-air. There’s a different kind of painting space, a different intensity: the figure floating on a plane. So each time you paint it, there is a different kind of time. You know the way time can exist in paintings? I watched the Olympics and took pictures with my phone of the TV screen, and then from those images I have made the paintings. I wanted to take the pictures with my own phone because that made it personal. My way of taking ownership of that moment. I didn’t want to go with the image that comes out later, taken by other photographers.
DAVID COHEN: When you look at these images do you feel that you are in the room or do you sense the artifice of the screen? Do you want the remoteness or intimacy? What is our viewing connection to this space?
I think as an image-maker I am always searching for an image that will be challenging that will have some of the elements that I find exciting in painting. When you find these moments, there’s the rhythm in the figures, right? I always liked Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie and the way that kind of moves around the rectangle. In my way, too, I’m always trying to get some sense of movement, some sense of time, some sense of rhythm. And these things allow me to make it in an observational way. I always need that sense of nature, and this is a part of nature in a way, these sports: human beings, in this coliseum, and I like it because it sometimes borderlines on some kind of abstraction, too. But it is not abstraction, it is something that always excites me.
We are looking now at a painting of a Taekwondo match: The fighters are like a readymade abstraction, because of the uniforms and the way they are blocked in, the cube-like nature of their moves.
That is the thing that is magic about the visual world, when you pay attention to things, that you don’t have to fight hard, all you have to do is pay attention and things kind of happen naturally. Shapes and forms interacting with each other. The thing is to be able to be open enough or aware enough.
Did you feel, in any way, that the exuberance of the Olympics and its appeal across boundaries took you away from the darker imagery you have explored in your work?
I think there is something about it, the way all cultures come together for this event; countries that wouldn’t ordinarily socialize or integrate are doing so through this thing. I am always trying to find some kind of subject matter. Sometimes I am just filling up the time, but with this, I just knew that I wanted to paint it.
That figure walking along there, a judge or an official, almost becomes a dominant figure in this composition. He is no less interesting than the fighters. There does seem to be a strong democracy across your surfaces: not so much of a figure-ground relationship. The way the background is fissured or broken up can make other kinds of figures out of things that aren’t figures.
I think about surface a lot. Relationships: relationship to the rectangle, for instance. I want these areas to be activated, to somehow have their say, too. Everything has to have an impact, and that gives it its all-overness. There is no hierarchy to me. It is how that dynamic symmetry or whatever starts to happen. You are being pushed or pulled. Even though this is a dead moment in the painting somehow it has weight to it; it is reacting to those figures; that yellow and that black are communicating to each other. This is something that makes the work dynamic, just visually.
I’ve known you since we ran into each other at the New York Studio School; there was almost a mythology around you. You already had all your degrees; you’d been a guard at the Met; some facts and fictions got mixed up in my mind. Run through your story.
I was born in Salt Lake City. I went to undergrad right out of high school, moving to Chicago, that’s where I got my BFA, and went to the Studio School right after that for the summer marathon and that’s when I met Graham. He offered for me to stay for the year but Susanna Coffey told me I needed to go to grad school, to get my degree, so I went to Indiana University. Then I came back to New York and applied for a Fulbright but I didn’t get it. I was working at the Met and I saw Graham and he said, come back to the School for a year and apply for it again, as they were exploring the idea of a PhD program. That never really happened but I ended up going back to school for four years.
It sounds like an addiction to education!
I had been challenged at IU, I’d been challenged through my whole education, but I think there was something special about being able to go back to the Studio School and study with Graham, with Stanley Lewis, Paul Resika, meeting Bill Jensen. These were great opportunities for me. It made me grow as a person and as an artist. I was able to revaluate what I had learned for those six years [BFA, MFA]. It is kind of intense to think about that stuff, but the PhD? People hated that idea. Somehow it was against the gods. I really respected Graham, so if he had asked me to do it, I would have done it anyway. He is a real hard worker and he respects hard workers. I think painting really is just about hard work and being consistent.
Much of your imagery before the Olympic series had to do with politics.
No, before the Olympics I was doing the boxers. Before that I had done the bills, and the Somali pirates. And then I hit this moment where I wanted to get rid of all that stuff. I got into the Beijing smog series: that’s the CCTV building. I painted it more than once. I just liked it as an idea. As for politics, being African American it is hard not to paint about that experience. But there are other times when I just want to paint for painting’s sake, to see a stroke next to a stroke or a color next to a color. Paint the landscape. Different subjects, not just politics. But as a painter you are always trying to find some kind of a subject. You are always looking for something.
I find your painting intriguing because it has amazing sophistication and awareness of what painting can do and the history of painting but it also has a very raw immediacy; an instinctive, “street” feeling as well. Are you conscious of that as a dichotomy?
Not all the time. I fight to stay myself. I do paint a lot of motifs sometimes, I do have a lot of things going on, but I’m always just searching for that purity. I am always trying to be affected by where I am at, where I am standing at the moment. I am using history, I am using my moment. I want to be a sponge in that way. So if it comes out, it comes out. Thinking about Van Gogh: when he was painting those paintings he didn’t know what they were going to be for us in a hundred years, but that constant searching, looking, making is what made him, so somehow that’s the way I want to be, constantly acting and making. Talking about things that are important to me.
What do you think of the Dana Schutz affair, in Boston?
I think it’s terrible. It is hard to exclude ourselves from race and stuff, but it is 2017. We have to drop some of these mental constraints that stop us from mixing and telling stories and sharing stories. I fall prey to that a lot because I feel at times the black community doesn’t pay attention because if you look at my paintings they don’t feel like they are made by an African American artist, it is not black subject matter. If I painted more of it, would people pay attention to me more? But I’m also human. I’m born and raised in this country, and I know there is a lot to offer in the world, more than just this burden of Twelve Years a Slave. As long as we are trying to fight these battles like this we are not going to make an evolution. For her, I think it is something that she did innocently. And that is what painters do, we look for subject matter. Her explanation of why she did it, that she can imagine it happening to her own child, rings true. And I didn’t even know the story of Emmet Till until this all happened.
Really? That’s fascinating because I have been on a panel where a black critic stated that there is no African American who didn’t have this story drummed into them as a child.
That’s the thing: The history that we talk about that we share sometimes is very limited. We don’t always know about our own past. That’s why they keep telling these stories, like Twelve Years A Slave, because the more you find out, the brutality of it, or you could walk down the field and there’s five black guys being hung, that’s kind of crazy, but at the same time when we are telling these stories it can’t be an isolated thing; the more people share and talk about it, the more the pain become real for other people. MLK wouldn’t have been MLK without Caucasian or white people standing next to him and marching on the front line. We need each other. Our stories need to be told. Look at Hollywood. The Color Purple was made by Spielberg. That’s one of the greatest black, African American films of that period but that wasn’t made by an African American. I would be more mad about the fact that we don’t tell our own stories. African Americans can be very ashamed of their histories, their family histories, their grandmother’s history, so things got buried up.
Did you grow up in a household that was very proud of its heritage.
We were very religious, so sometimes there is no space for history. The stories we told were sad stories about people, basically about the Devil lurking after you; they would talk about bars out in the woods with people drinking, very scary places, you didn’t feel like a good time was happening, people walking around with guns, getting shot. Religion is good, but it also makes you blind to certain truths. Talking about race, especially right now, is very intense. The sad thing about some of these people with Dana Schutz is that they should be uplifting African American artists, championing people who have gone to that other level. Why don’t they talk about Henry Taylor? I love his work. Nobody said anything about him. And that’s a problem. As long as we are fighting this battle, how are we going to give our own people that limelight? We need to be supporting each other. I think there was a fairly big amount of African Americans in that show; it was certainly very diverse. When we fight these battles we lose.
I mean, what would black people think about my paintings, I don’t even know. I don’t know what my own people would think if they saw these paintings. Because they are not like Kara Walker. I’m not putting black in their face. I’m not making a picture of a black male and pouring honey on it. If I did that would it be stronger? If I made black face work? [laughs]
But there are a fair number of black figures in your painting. I don’t know, because, I know you, I know you are black, and I look at your paintings. If someone showed them to me and said they were by a young African American it would make sense. because it does have a quality of rawness, energy, speed, a little bit of (in a positive way) aggression, physicality, athleticism. Athleticism is a better word than aggression. They are athletic paintings, they dance, they sing. Okay, maybe these are cultural clichés. (Actually, they are definitely clichés [laughs].) but these are of course black accomplishments.
That’s something we can’t deny. It has been there since the beginning of time. I don’t think you have to run from it. You have to embrace it.
But it is not that you are consciously cultivating a language that would feel in any way black, it is just that you are being yourself and you are black and it comes through.
Exactly. But if I tried to express my blackness all the time I would lose a sense of myself because there is that part of me where I just want to be able to experience the Olympics void my color just as a human being watching another human being doing something exciting and challenging at the same time without this cloak, without this war. Other people can use it as power and I understand that but I am searching for this very intellectual thing, I want to express this side of the mind that creates things, that makes stuff. To me the idea of Tesla is incredible. How can the human mind design such a car? That fascinates me, about being human. when you use your mind it can do great and beautiful things. [laughs]
You mentioned that you wonder how a black audience would view your work. Do you show in black contexts?
Most of the time I guess my work isn’t black enough. I went to the Studio Museum in Harlem and saw Rico Gatson, who does those halos of color around the heads of artists and musicians. He is a friend and I respect his work and other African American artists but I think, I’m not talking about what they are talking about. But I’d really like to have the opportunity to see what my own culture would think about. I know what my family thinks: they think it is just a bunch of abstraction. They believe if you can draw and it looks like something then you are talented. They don’t believe that red next to that yellow can be a thing. [laughs]