Interview with Bruce Gagnier

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?

Williamstown, Massachusetts.

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.

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Interview with Ellen E. Rand

I have known Ellen for several years. It took me only a half hour to fall in love with her. She is a deeply cultured, intelligent, warm, humorous and candid person. I wanted to do this interview a year ago, but Ellen was ill and I never got to ask her. Now with the advent of her show at Randall Harris’ Figureworks Gallery, and Ellen having gotten through all her medical stuff, the timing seemed perfect. Aside from being a wonderful painter, Ellen runs her own gallery Art 101 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She comes from an intriguing family of women painters and has published a book centered on the life and work of her grandmother and family called “Dear Females.”

Let’s start by discussing the paintings in your show here at Figureworks.

This was a painting I did quite a while ago, (Ellen pulls out a small, orangish painting) and I put it in Randall’s self portrait show. See this shape: everything in this show is taken from this shape.

The shape is obviously the female figure.

Actually all my life I have been working with female torsos, the shape is almost abstract.

How did you begin working with that form?

From drawing the model I guess, then starting to paint. I’m not intellectual.  It all just comes along.

You are intuitive?

I guess so. These two paintings in the first room were done before I got my diagnosis and my operation. So, then I got the diagnosis in April, which was pretty severe. Had the operation in May, couldn’t work for a while. In June I met with the oncologist and he told me that this disease can come back in a year or two and kill you. I came home and thought well, I’m dead. That inspired me to schedule the gallery for the next year and to start to paint again.

That is so totally you.

I had some paintings started and I continued those and started some new ones. Something in me made me go and buy some wood, have it cut into strips, and put the strips in the middle of the panels thus separating them. I looked at the first one I did a couple of weeks later and I thought, “Oh, I did that because I was cut up and put back together.” I had these two which I was working on. I decided to keep them separate,  and horizontal. You see it’s still the same shapes, they are landscapes now.

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Morandi at CIMA

When I was 13 and just finishing my catechism classes, having been newly confirmed into the Catholic Church, I was asked what I wanted to do when I grew up. I replied without hesitation that I wanted to become a monk, one who took the vow of silence and was a mendicant. I was told just as quickly in response that because I was a girl I could instead be a nun. This is when I became an artist.

Giorgio Morandi has for me always been an artist whose work I turn to for inspiration, guidance, and to renew my vows, as it were.

We have so few opportunities in the United States to see an exhibit of Morandi’s work.

The Center for Italian Modern Art on Broome Street in New York City has just opened a fine exhibit, Giorgio Morandi, which runs through June 25th, 2016.  CIMA is a non profit research and exhibition center. On Fridays and Saturdays their fellows in residence give a guided tour of the exhibit (as well as a wonderful espresso prior). The viewing that I attended was peopled mostly by artists (mostly established), who I would bet we’re there for the same reason I was.

Giorgio Morandi looms large in legend. Exaggerated claims of his lifestyle; not traveling, not allowing anyone into his studio and being uninterested in fame or fortune.

He lead an exemplary life in that he seems to have made all his decisions based on his relationship to his work. He did a bit of travel, saw and appreciated the work of Cézanne, Giotto, Piero della Francesca and other artists, yet was basically content to stay in his family home with his sisters and keep the focus in his studio. Some exaggerate his steadfastness to extremes. I disagree with that characterization. Any artist knows when they come to that point in their work where something spiritual happens it’s a gift. We know not to leave the room, not to let anyone disrupt us, to forget about dinner and so on. The more we work, the more these times happen. I do think that Morandi was living his life pretty close to that state all the time and he was very protective of it, nothing more than that.

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Three Correlations: OUT & / or IN

Authors: Yuko Otomo  –  Christine Hughes – Randee Silv

There is something so special about this fair. It’s a wonderful way to get an overview of the field of outsider art, to see gems by masters old and new, find familiar faces and meet new dealers.

We think of outsiders as monastic in their endeavors. Creating a world of their own as either a way of communicating or an intimate, passionate act of self absorption. The way a conventional artist works in some sense, but without maybe the goal of fame or fortune.  If one ever has a chance to see the film Roger Ricco made of Williams Hawkins or the film of Jon Serl, there is not a word of explanation needed. This work is often visionary. By this I don’t mean fairies or outer space but a vision into a different kind of life right here. An intimacy in the work, missing the layer of academic gloss on most of what we find in conventional art. One feels as though they are breathing the same air as James Castle when standing in front of his work.

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Interview: Joseph Thompson (MASS MoCA)

CH MASS MoCA has been open for 15 years now?

JT This is year 15, but for me personally 13 was more significant because we had then been open longer that it took to get open to begin with.

CH Can you give those of us who have never been to MASS MoCA some background of the museum and how it got started?

JT “MASS MoCA One” exists, the idea of it, and it’s called DIA Beacon. DIA Beacon is a beautiful monument to mainly large scale, mainly minimal art of the 70s and 80s.

The original idea for MASS MoCA was that we were going to borrow works from Ileana Sonnabend and Charles Saatchi and Giuseppe Panza, works by Judd and Flavin and Morris and Serra, large works that required ample time and space, install them and leave them up for a very long time.

These buildings are gorgeous, a factory campus 26 buildings 600,000 sq. ft of floorspace, 16 acres, roughly a third of the downtown business district of North Adams. The former occupant, Sprague Electric, had closed in the mid 1980s when we first proposed this idea. It was simple: clean the buildings up and install these large bodies of work which were as much environmental as landscape in orientation.

CH So you were setting out to start a museum?

JT Absolutely. More of a fixed depot, a place where large monumental works came and were sighted for a very long length of time. It has relativity little to do with what MASS MoCA is today.

CH Kind of the opposite, isn’t it?

JT In fact it is.

In the early 90s, as we were trying to bring money, buildings, art, political support, philanthropic support all together at the same time we introduced several really important changes.

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Dialogue As a Verb

Everyone I know at some point during the past two years has approached me, as an ex-Detroiter and an artist, asking me questions like “Shouldn’t we all move to Detroit?” or “What is happening to the Detroit Institute of Art?” or telling me someone they know is going to Detroit for a “project” or to “study” what is happening there.

Of course we all know that Detroit, being the seat of the auto industry, has had financial trouble since the 1960s and 1970s. Some blame it on the difficulties between management and labor, some on corrupt city government, some on the importation of cars from outside the US. Whatever the genesis, the situation has worsened in past years to create a void both in population and infrastructure. Nature, hating a void, has filled it in with surges of people flooding into the city, each seemingly with his or her own agenda. What I am reading in the press is bizarre. Some seem to be drawn to cheap housing, some to the scene they read about is happening there, some to try and help, proudly buying someone’s foreclosed house for a pittance. Help? Hmm.

The question I keep asking is where are all the dislocated people? All the folks that lost their homes?

And what is the impact of this influx of hipsters-hucksters on what’s been a solid arts community and on the rest of the city?

The Detroit suburbs are strong and as stable as any others in the country. And although the city has lost an enormous amount of population and housing, there are and have always been real people there living very normal lives. Why then is Detroit ALWAYS portrayed as the ghetto? I feel as though the media treats it like a huge auto accident, portraying the destruction and playing to the voyeurism.

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In Walks: Considering Kiefer

Anslem Kiefer has been called one of the great artists of our time, Germany’s greatest living artist and has been on the scene larger than life since the 70s. I began asking myself what makes for a “Great” artist?

Is it the 10,000 hours of working at something that Malcolm Gladwell suggests it takes a person to become a master? Is it the volume of work, having a compulsion, a personal vision, a burning idea which one feels compelled to impart, an innate ability or a learned craft? Is it a taking on of the mantel of one’s generation or one’s country? Is it planned out as a strategy, which seems suspiciously like what some of our Big Box artists today seem about (and is that bad, or just big business)? What about intimate art? What about art that doesn’t bash boundaries but is innovative in its honesty?

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The Invitational

The American Academy of Arts and Letters’ “Invitational Exhibition of Visual Arts” opened on March 4th and runs through April 12th. The 250 Academy members look at contemporary American art and find about 150 artists who they nominate. These artists are then narrowed down to this year’s participants by a committee of 10 who choose those to be included his years show. 37 were chosen. The curator Souhad Rafey, then working with the artists, picks the work to be included based on their input and her own vision for the exhibit. – See more at:

Three Correlations WB 2014

Authors: Yuko Otomo  –  Christine Hughes – Randee Silv

By various estimates there are between 60 and 300 biennials worldwide, and the number seems to be growing daily. Each biennial (which is by definition a show of contemporary art) has at least one curator, usually more. Where are all these curators coming from? And what is their role in the current art market? – See more at: