Kim Uchiyama’s studio is located on a quiet, tree-lined side-street in Lower Manhattan. On a crisp fall day in mid-November over tea and brunch, I visited Kim in her Tribeca apartment. We spent the day looking at art and discussing her new painting series, her artistic development and influences, and the ups and downs of the creative life.
Her space is decorated in a minimalist, modern style, but is also intimate and warm–the perfect blend of Kim’s Iowa roots and vibrant life as a New York painter. The bedroom is the coziest room in the apartment with many personal photos, mementos, and artworks that have special meaning to Kim. The focal points of the living room are Kim’s marvelous art collection, her books, and the striking view of the Hudson River glimpsed through the windows.
The painting studio is in a separate room from the living space. It is tidy, but functional, and in many ways is the heart of the apartment. Bright canvases are stacked and spread throughout the studio; painter’s tape, paint, and brushes are close at hand. Postcards of favorite paintings and places are pinned to the walls.
For those of you unfamiliar with Kim Uchiyama’s work, a short introduction may be useful.
Patient, attentive viewers will find a lot to enjoy in Uchiyama’s paintings. Art works that could be mistaken for simple, colorful designs at first glance unfold into a deeper and richer experience upon close observation. Layers bubble beneath layers, colors recede or emerge from the canvas. Music is a useful parallel, since Uchiyama creates variations on a theme, much like a composer or jazz musician would–texture, rhythm, timbre, and harmony are integral to each piece. There is an exciting tension between order and variation.
As she explains in our interview, place and landscape are central to Kim’s work. Whether she is influenced by the light of southern Italy or the color of the sky or sea, her work is an expression of her own experience within a landscape. She is not trying to capture a place literally, as a realist painter might, or make some grand political or personal statement, but is instead, trying to convey something deeper and more mysterious.
When viewing an abstract painting like Uchiyama’s, it is useful to quiet the mind and let the senses take over. Only then can you begin to appreciate the complexities, nuances, and visceral pleasures of her work.
Uchiyama’s art owes something to Josef Albers’ chromatic interactions with concentric, colored squares and to Hans Hofmann and Nicolas Carone’s ideas about spatial illusion and color relationships. But the writings of painter Agnes Martin are also strikingly relevant:
It is quite commonly thought that the intellect is responsible for everything that is made and done. It is commonly thought that everything that is can be put into words. But there is a wide range of emotional response that we make that cannot be put into words. We are so used to making these emotional responses that we are not consciously aware of them until they are represented in artwork…
Beauty illustrates happiness: the wind in the grass, the glistening waves following each other, the flight of birds – all speak of happiness.
The clear blue sky illustrates a different kind of happiness, and the soft dark night a different kind. There are an infinite number of different kinds of happiness.
The response is the same for the observer as it is for the artist. The response to art is the real art field.
Composition is an absolute mystery. It is dictated by the mind. The artist searchers for certain sounds or lines that are acceptable to the mind and finally an arrangement of them that is acceptable. The acceptable compositions arouse certain feelings of appreciation in the observer. Some compositions appeal to some, and some to others.
Like Martin, Uchiyama’s earliest paintings were landscapes. (You can see two of Kim’s early works below). Both artists eventually found a deeper, more power expression through abstraction. After all, it is not the actual sky or ocean that interests these painters–it is more elusive qualities like light, space, and color, and the ways in which these visual sensations affect the attentive observer.
We’ve all seen a vivid, memorable sunset. The impulse to capture such a sunset through painting or photography is as much about capturing the sensation of being there as it is about capturing a beautiful scene. These perfect and elusive moments of awareness are an underlying force in both Agnes Martin and Kim Uchiyama’s work.
Kim has many fascinating things to say about her creative development and about painting itself. Enjoy the interview and this special tour of her studio…
(Click images to enlarge)
Michelle: How long have you lived and worked here in Tribeca?
Kim: I’ve been living and working continuously in Tribeca since the mid ’90s. Originally I started here in 1976, two blocks from the newly constructed World Trade Towers, before the area even had a name. Then came studios in Chinatown, the East Village, upper Chelsea and finally, back to Tribeca.
Do you have any particular work routine that is best for you? Is it difficult to live and work in the same space? Do you limit your computer and phone use while you’re painting or drawing?
Where possible, I prefer to wake up and start the day in the studio. Straight from sleep and not yet conversational with the rest of the world, I find it’s easier to become immersed in my thoughts and connect to the language of painting. I’ve had outside studios at various points, but I do prefer to live and work in the same space for this reason. Living where you work also facilitates some very off-the-cuff glimpses and sideways glances — sometimes in the middle of the night — at the work in progress, which can be really illuminating because you’re not expecting anything.
Did you grown up in an artistic household or did you have to make your own way as a young artist? You have a small image of Florence in your studio. Was Florence significant to your artistic development in some way?
My parents were physicians — scientists of the body. Neither of them were artists in the literal sense of the word, but my mother did have a great love of literature which she instilled in me. My father was a “rock hound,” studying geology in his spare time and traveling to various parts of the country to collect stones which he then cut and polished.
We lived outside of Des Moines, Iowa in some fairly flat and remote country. The sense of this landscape later became a large influence in my painting. I was always drawing as child and very much wanted to become an artist, though I wasn’t really sure how to go about it. Drake University had a program in Florence, Italy which I attended in 1975-76 with the idea of studying art history. Living there, and standing before the great originals I’d seen only in reproduction, inspired me to paint. I began my artistic development in Florence — what I mean is, I started to ask myself what I needed to do, what I needed to understand, to become a serious artist — and to start moving down that path.
I see that you have a fabulous Philip Guston print in your bedroom, plus a wonderful art collection on your living room wall. Who are some of your favorite artists (dead or living)? Which artists have had the greatest impact on you?
The Guston was such a wonderful thing to have happened! Right before he died, Guston designated a group of lithographs with his dealer that were to be specially priced for artists. I took every cent I had out of the bank and got one. I could never part with it now – living with it each day is a continual reward.
The Italian artists whose work and thought I’ve admired most were Giotto, Piero della Francesca and Giorgio Morandi. Of the Abstract Expressionists, I greatly admire the depth of spirit and emotional resonance of Mark Rothko. The perpetual innovation and fearless brilliance of DeKooning is astounding to me. Lately, I would have to add the work of Joan Mitchell to my pantheon. Her last paintings especially take me to places that I don’t think I was equipped to deal with before now.
You studied with Nicolas Carone at the Studio School. Carone belonged to the early generation of New York School Abstract Expressionists and was a student of Hans Hofmann. Can you talk more about how Hofmann and Carone’s ideas about painting influenced your own work and spurred your evolution from landscape painting to abstract imagery?
Carone was an important artist and teacher. He talked about metaphysical concepts as they applied to pictorial space. He had studied with Hofmann, whose ideas about the plasticity of the medium of painting profoundly influenced generations of subsequent painters. The picture plane – the two-dimensional, frontal surface which confronts the viewer – and the process by which a “third” dimension is perceived and transposed to paper or canvas – was an essential concept to Carone’s teaching.
Pictorial space, in his definition, had to compensate in order to differentiate itself from real space, and to reflect the movement and shifts that the eye observes over time. When drawing from the figure, Carone talked about not drawing the figure itself — but instead, drawing the space AROUND the figure –“negative” space. What is the shape of that space? I tried to see it, imagine its scope, draw it. Later, the introduction of color would further transform this pictorial space. Color could be used to “push” the painting space forward, or to “pull” the painting space backward. This idea of painting was about setting up a contradictory dynamic, the process itself by which a painting was made. It was a revolutionary concept to me, one that took my imagination in the direction of abstraction.
I always find a lot of compelling details to appreciate in your work–your unique use of color, your careful attention to the interval of each color band, your use of layering and texture, and the way you vary the edges of each band of color. Can you say more about how these elements come together to create a unique visual rhythm? As you work on a painting, what types of problems or self-created “rules” do you consider as you bring a painting or drawing to completion? How do you balance the push/pull between order and variation?
My choices in painting are intuitive. I spend a lot of time looking at the canvas I am working on. I will first “see” a color, and then depending on the color, I will have a sense of the shape of that color. Once I’ve started a painting in this way, another color/shape suggests itself as a way of continuing. The relationship and movement of these two color/shapes then necessitate a third, and these three then necessitate a fourth, and so on. At some point, working in this way, a particular rhythm seems to emerge within the painting. I do not make preliminary drawings or studies — I prefer that my paintings evolve out of this process itself.
Can you talk a little about your materials and process?
I currently use oil paint with a medium of linseed oil and damar varnish. Depending on what each painting calls for, and the timing of what I’m doing, I may work either on a dry surface or wet-on-wet. Usually I work on at least six to eight paintings concurrently. For me, the dialogue that develops between a group of paintings in the studio is the essence of their progress.
I find it useful to compare and contrast the various series you’ve created–the smaller paintings from Archaeo with their use of natural colors and geological titles like “Stratus” and “Geo” versus your newer paintings, which are larger, bolder, and exploring a new color palette.
Also, this is the first time I’ve seen these striking watercolor paintings in bright Mediterranean colors, plus this series of gray and black charcoal drawings. Can you tell me more about these different series? Do you have a unifying theme or title for these other works, as you did with Archaeo? Is watercolor a medium you turn to when you need portability?
Everything in my work originates from a sense of place. Light and color in my paintings are not arbitrary decisions. Instead, they are the organic result of something that I have experienced, seen, felt. In the Archaeo paintings, for example, I think I was trying to locate a sense of my own place, who I was within my own history. I revisited some themes in my earlier landscape paintings, which referenced elements of earth, sea and sky.
Stratum, Excavation and Site came out of my long standing interest in archeology, and in the process of working on them aspects of geology overlapped in my mind with aspects of geometry. Perhaps I painted these works in an attempt to “unearth” something of my own iconography as a painter, painting today. What does it mean to have been painting for 35 years? What exactly have I accumulated during that time? I was not the same person as my younger self — yet, here I was, addressing some of the same subjects that I was then – but in a very different way.
Perhaps my newest impulse towards color was prompted by time recently spent in Apulia in southern Italy on the Adriatic Sea, where I worked on a series of watercolors. I used primary color — red, yellow, and a range of acquatic blues — to convey the brilliant light and intense heat of that place. These function in a very different way than the oil paintings: the watercolors have a buoyancy, a lilt and sway, that distinguish them. Watercolor is a fairly unforgiving medium, one that doesn’t lend itself to rethinking or reworking. You have to be very confident, very decisive, about what you are doing in order for it to be effective.
The palette of my newest large works is distinct from any I’ve used before. I want the color to be much more saturated and “upfront”, but at the same time to convey a deep level of mood, reflection and resonance. I often think about large planes of light and shadow, particularly in architecture, and how vibratory color is contained within both. These works are still in progress, and some still untitled (I find that if I do use them, titles come later when I’m looking at a completed group of paintings and trying to understand the unifying themes that connect them).
Abstract painting is sometimes subject to the popular criticism, “My child could do that.” I used to encounter this attitude among some visitors when I was at the High Museum in Atlanta. While certain people might see only simplicity of form when viewing your paintings, there is actually a lot more going on than meets the eye at first glance.
Heaven knows you aren’t required to win over every viewer, but do you have any advice that might be useful to someone who struggles to understand your work? When a viewer approaches a piece of art that is incomprehensible or intimidating to them at first glance, how should they proceed? Are there certain questions that are useful to ask or particular elements of painting that are worth special consideration during moments of confusion?
Looking at a painting takes time — it doesn’t matter whether the painting is figurative or abstract. In order to understand any piece of art, the viewer needs to take the time to connect with it, to stand in front of it and let it infiltrate the senses. Experiencing a painting is a visceral — not an intellectual — moment. Stop trying to think about what you’re looking at, and reserve judgement. Be open and attentive. And then give the painting time.
You may be surprised at how much you can learn by doing these three things. I think it’s important for us to understand that we live in a society that doesn’t value mystery. We want everything to be absolutely clear and unambiguous because this makes us feel more comfortable. We’re often afraid of what is foreign or unfamiliar. If we don’t understand something right away, we have a tendency to want to put up a wall between ourselves and what is confronting us. Knowing this, and holding this thought in mind, can help us cultivate a more positive attitude towards experiencing art.
Can you talk a little about some of your own personal struggles as an artist? Have you struggled with balancing a day job with your art career, or ever suffered a creative block? What has kept you going during these challenging periods of your life?
Even when the rest of life seems like smooth sailing, being an artist is a difficult thing to do. So when life isn’t going well, it’s even harder. Under ideal circumstances, I keep a good balance in which I’m able to juggle studio time, a job, family and other committments. When that balance isn’t working, however, it can feel for me as if everything’s falling apart — even if that’s not the case.
I’ve come to believe that the well from which we draw our inspiration is always present, but that we may not be able to see it at particular moments. So when life seems impossible, or the well of creativity seems dry — in both of these cases — I’ve tried to focus on those things are life affirming for me. I’ve come to realize that it is the mental framework with which we approach the creative space that is the key to artistic practice.
I believe that when we work and wait for something to happen that it often will. I’ve also learned that if something I’m trying doesn’t work at first to try something else. It is often just as good. Or to go to the museums to look at paintings which have inspired me over time. Most years on my birthday, I try to visit the Frick to see that extraordinary late Rembrandt self-portrait, which has the greatest depth of pathos I’ve ever experienced in a painting. Whenever I see it, I am immediately reminded why I am here, and what I am supposed to be doing with my life. It’s a wonderful feeling.
This short video directed by Michael Feldman is a wonderful glimpse of Kim’s last show, Archaeo, at Lohin Geduld Gallery:
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