Donald Vega and I went together to visit Bruce Gagnier in his Brooklyn studio. My role as an interviewer, as I see it, is similar to Vega’s as a photographer. We are there mostly to witness and record. Vega’s photographs are only of Bruce and his studio, yet they embody Vega’s skill as a photographer and his eye as an artist. I hope my presence is as invisible and allows the reader to meet a very candid, soft spoken and generous artist.
Bruce Gagnier is perhaps the most dedicated artist I have ever met. He has crafted a life with single minded focus on his art. His studio is sparse, spare, Sanctum Sanctorium. His windows onto the Brooklyn street are papered to defuse light but seem to filter out time as well. The studio is populated with figures, life size and smaller, in bronze, in plaster, in clay. The walls are covered with paintings of figures. The flat files are full of drawings of figures, singular figures.
Bruce Gagnier: In the past I sometimes worked as a handyman. I could never afford the tools I wanted. Now that I can afford them, I buy them.
But you don’t have to do that work anymore?
I don’t do that kind of work, but I keep collecting tools.
That’s so funny. Are you going to buy a house someday and be your own handyman?
This is a beautiful space. Have you been here a long time?
Twenty years. It takes very little upkeep.
Where are you from originally?
I was there recently to see the show “Nudes from the Prado” at the Clark.
There are two great museums there. I think they must have affected me.
You went to Williams College?
Yes, I went on a full scholarship because I was from town and Williams was a land grant school. That’s been discontinued.
My father was a painter when he was young. He took me to the museums, which was not always pleasant for a young boy, partly because he was always giving lessons. As you know there is a Piero della Francesca in Williamstown at the Clark. My father had a good eye and he had good teachers, he would say something like; “See Bruce, the back foot of the Saint on the right penetrates the plane of the altar.” I would say “Dad, that’s a Piero della Francesca.” He’d say “No, no, look! It’s a mistake.” Years later I found out that this part of the painting was badly restored. Perhaps this episode and others like it explain in part my obsession with plastic values. He also felt that the Renoir nudes did not “seat.”
Your father was a painter, where was he from?
He grew up in Williamstown. He had a grocery store / butcher’s market with his father. We were immersed in a very colorful French Canadian community near the Gaevert Mill.
And he quit painting?
I thought the reason he quit was because he had children and he had to work at the store every day. He said “No, I had plenty of strength; the reason I quit was because I couldn’t tell if what I was doing was any good or not.”
Interesting. That’s pretty heartfelt.
He told me that just before he died. I hoped he would take up painting again.
How old was he when he quit?
He was in his forties.
Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?
No. Partly because my family wanted me to be everything else.
I got sent away to school because I was doing poorly academically. My father and mother made this great effort and sacrifice. They put me into boarding school in Vermont. That was a big change in my life. The discipline suited me. I did well.
Were you painting then?
I painted and drew with my father sometimes — not seriously — only occasionally, in his studio. As a child I was the model for his drawing group — sometimes posing in the landscape.
What was the spark that brought you to making art?
At the end of college I felt that I wasn’t finding myself in the sciences. I became very aware that it is was time to decide who and what I wanted to be. Art emerged as something very compelling. I had been taking some art history and design classes at Williams. I was really drawn to the life that I imagined was lived by the people who had made such marvelous things in the past. Aside from the great Romanesque sculpture in the Williams College Museum, there was a marvelous painting by Matta titled Rain that hung in the hall of the art history building.
At the end of my time at Williams, I asked one of my professors if he could recommend something in the way of an art school to me for the summer. He said there’s a place called Skowhegan, maybe you could go there. What luck! And, well, I did go. I think I was the only one there who paid.