June Wayne- For Your Art (November 2009)
A. Moret: As the driving force behind Tamarind, you helped to revitalize printmaking in the United States. I’m curious to learn about the attitudes toward you as a woman artist in 1960.
June Wayne: Well, it was very interesting. The Ford Foundation had just entered the arts when by sheerest accident I had occasion to meet and have a long conversation with Mac Lowry. Now Mac Lowry is somebody who is largely unknown today, he’s dead. But he’s had more influence on the arts of the United States than ever the influence the Medici had on the Florentine states. He was the philosophic brain and spirit behind what the Ford Foundation did and that was to de-centralize the arts, all of the arts. He looked for people and incidentally had no hesitation about working with women which was a great blessing, because I never had to deal either with the gender problems that is women as inferior or gender as sex. The guy never made a pass at me or anyone else, we talked as equals and he was very an interesting man. I devote some attention to that because that is a very important book waiting to be written- the philosophy of Mac Lowry toward the arts as a democratic right of the people. He had been a professor of English Literature; he had been the head of the Cox Newspaper Chain in Washington during the War. He was an extraordinary man, and did I know it. I met him in a very odd way- he had sent a form letter to thousands of arts people asking them what they though the Ford Foundation should do, now that it was coming into the arts and at the moment it was just giving $10,000 grants, but he was looking and he had his own views, and he wanted the feedback of the creative people.
AM: So Tamarind was an effort to decentralize the art model that was already in existence.
AM: How was printmaking perceived before Tamarind?
JW: I don’t know how far back it went, but it was a bleeding nuisance because the whole point was to be able to do what you wanted to do, and if you saw fit to use or invent a certain technique, who are they to say that that makes it original or not? So that the milieu in which lithography in particular and prints in general worked was very restricted and tended to discourage adventure in the medium. I’m not one to argue for an arbitrary freedom that is producing so much of the garbage that we are subjected to these days and those days for that matter. But, for example the attitudes of the print counsel of America at that time had the effect of discouraging young people from recognizing the artisanship of a printmaking printer as a profession. It was very discouraging. You weren’t real. You were just somebody making a thing, pretending you were making art when in point of fact the relation of the printer to you is the same relation as the pianist to the composer and I wanted to create an attitude toward artisanship, toward all the peripheral skills that artists had easily in Europe but did not have in this country.
AM: When did you receive the letter from Mac Lowry?
JW: The letter arrived at my studio the day before I was leaving for France and I thought I might never come back to this country. I was pissed off and I wanted something else. But this letter arrived and I thought it was a form letter, probably was I don’t know to this for sure, but I wrote a letter back to him which was a little on the snotty side and what I had to say intrigued him.
AM: What was your meeting like?
JW: He traced me down to New York and I was going the very next day to get onto the United States, the big ship. And he said he’d like to talk to me before I left town. I didn’t know who he was, for all I know he could have been the doorman. I said ‘yes,’ and that I’ll come but I can only come at 8 in the morning provided he had some breakfast for me, because I had to be on the ship at 11. I found this guy, at that time Ford did not have their magnificent building, it was just a rented floor but he did have a corner office which should have told me something but it was a tiny office. And we went at it hammer and tongue about the problems of artist and I had already been exhibiting artist since 1935 and that was in ’56 and there was hardly anything that artists experience that I hadn’t experienced and then some because in addition to everything else I was a woman. I told him that I wanted to make a livre d’artiste, an artist book on the songs and sonnets of John Donne. Did I know he had been a professor of English literature? Most people have no idea who John Donne is, was, or why. I didn’t know that he knew and he asked to see it when I finished. He wanted to know if he could be helpful and I said ‘no, not unless you change the whole damn thing, so that I don’t have to travel 6000 miles every time I want to make a decent print. Because I need that kind of an artisan and we don’t have them and we should be making them.’ This clicked somehow into the larger view that he had and my idea that we needed all these collaborative skills for the visual arts.
AM: What happened when you returned from Paris?
JW: Well I came back six months later or something like, with the book in my hand and sent him a penny postcard I said ‘I’m back with the book if you want to see it, give me a call.’ I showed it to him and he was very impressed by two things- he loved the book, and he was impressed that I said I was going to do it and actually did it because most people go to foundations, have great ideas and then you never hear from them again. I learned that later. So he asked me then if I would put something on paper, this vision I had. So I wrote a plan, I did a lot of research, spent at least six months just trying to figure what would this thing look like.
AM: When you were creating the model for Tamarind what goals did you have in mind?
JW: Tamarind was an attempt to change ecology. It was truly an ecological effort, although we didn’t call it that. We talked about restoring the art of the lithograph, which was in deplorable shape in the United States. However to do that meant changing a lot of other things- attitudes, materials, locations, skills, above all we had to change certain mythologies.
AM: Change the attitudes about the process? About people who make lithographs?
JW: About art, about art. The print curators, the Print Counsel of America set the rules by which by the game was played so that in making of prints, you had to consider whether or not your work was going to be eligible for participation in major shows.
AM: It sounds like the separation of what’s deemed “legitimate” and “not legitimate’
JW: Yes it was a decision that many of the most important curators really believed in.
AM: When drafting the goals for Tamarind did you looks to other organizations and how they modeled their plans?
JW: Well, there weren’t any. There really weren’t any and where there were vacancies you have to imagine or figure out how to go about it. And the first plan that I sent in was reasonably constructed, there were lots of problem that I didn’t foresee and as time went on I had to address so we were constantly changing and adapting to the progress we made, but that was not a point of view or a goal that I tried to communicate to the world at large.
AM: You just had to put it into practice and make it work.
JW: Not only that, but a lot of people would be against it because people are against things whether they have a reason or not.
AM: Tamarind Lithography Workshop is named after your street, correct?
JW: Yeah, just simple as that. When I was looking for a name, many of my colleagues thought it was much too California, much too tropical, that kind of thing. I just paid no attention. It showed us where it was, it was a nice word, and nobody else was using it, why not?
AM: How did you approach artists to participate in the Workshop?
JW: We never spoke to anybody unless we were ready to invite them, and nobody could apply. Artists from many different places would get a letter saying ‘we’d like to invite you to come to Tamarind for two months, enclosed is an airplane ticket. You would have the following rights and if you would like to join us we would be very pleased.’ And we brought 12 artists in each year, one at the start of each month so that the artist already in residence would be well established and the group could turn its attention to the new artist arriving.
AM: How long was an artist’s residency?
JW: Two months. And they lived all within walking distance in this neighborhood or else where we could pick them up in the morning and take them home at night.
AM: It seems that Tamarind was characterized by artists teaching other artists.
JW: That’s right. They were there to make art and as a deliberate policy we covered the whole range of aesthetics. I got that from my experience on the WPA, because at that time there were also fashions. I remember very well when Pop, and Hard Edge came many of our enemies and there were many, said that we had no tastes because we didn’t stick to anything and it’s true. We deliberately, if we just had a Pop artist we would not invite another Pop artist. Why? Because we were training printers. The printers had to know how to serve every aesthetic and I can tell you that to make a hard edge and to make an abstract expressionist are at opposite ends of the technical pole.
AM: I want to go back to a point you mentioned earlier about Tamarind artists not having a particular style and I found an interview that appeared in the LA Times in 2008 called “June Wayne Isn’t About to Mellow Out,” by Suzanne Muchnic that reiterated that same point. In looking at your work from the “Dorothy Series” to your the tapestries, to “Cognitos” the work wavers between figurative to abstract. I felt that “Cognitos” might be representative of your style in that your work deals a lot with memory and perception. I noted also that you read Proust and one of your tapestries “Blue Tidal Wave” is similar to the Japanese paper mentioned in Proust. The way you applied the gesso and the paper onto the canvas how it was molten rocks, I found that to be like the recesses of memory, perception, and space. Can you talk about those works in “Cognitos?”
JW: All of my work is related. All of it is. It may not look similar but the concepts are similar in the sense that they are a part of the whole. You could say that they were ecological. My favorite writers appear in my work as an influence. The ambiguity of Kafka, the economy of Kafka, the florid expansions of Proust. This is also true as parallels in music. I am an intellectual. I don’t apologize for that. That’s where I get my jollies and the look of the pictures, if you are really looking over a period of time you’ll come back to this larger landscape of what the world is like, what it might become, the fragility of life, its meaning, all of those things, how tough these things are, and above all the ambiguity of everything. I find life very ambiguous. I am never more apt to be wrong than when I am certain I know what I’m doing. (Laughs)
AM: Going back to that ambiguity- I nearly missed Khastoo Gallery because the windows were blacked out. I was told that you wanted it the gallery dark to create an optimal viewing condition. The canvases weren’t backlit as much as the bulbs were on either side of the canvas and covered by a thin strip of resin. What was your idea there?
JW: I wanted them to look like pieces of planets that were in eclipse so the light would come from behind, from the atmosphere. In “Cognitos” most of them are really portraits of people. And I have a number of times tried to catch somebody without any direct reference that you could recognize.
AM: It’s a part for the whole to indirectly create the whole.
JW: Exactly. “Anki” My French friends called him “Anki” and they don’t pronounce the “h” and they add the diminutive so then it became “Anki” so it’s a portrait of Hank. The red one is a portrait of my daughter, Rob. One of them is a black one of me; I forgot what I called it.
JW: “Djuna” was a nickname that many of my friends would call me.
AM: The wild thing about “Djuna,” it was closer to the office and if you stood right in front of it, a large portion of the canvas was blacked out. I was constantly moving side to side and back and forth. I was very aware of the subtleties because the surface quality kept changing.
JW: Well all of them have the same thing. And there is one in front; it’s a beautiful little painting. It’s of Jules Langsner.
AM: I was checking the sides of all of the works and noticed there were these gradations and I felt it was like unearthing a stone. Is that referencing the limestone in the lithography, the cave of the gallery?
JW: Jules was such a multi-layered brain and we were very close friends. And we had going a daily conversation that went for years and they were all conversations, in a way the kinds of things we have been talking about here. He knew a lot more than I did, so I learned a lot from Jules. He had a way of connecting something happening in architecture to something happening at the same time in politics or art or whatever it was, so that almost anything almost anything after a while could spark ideas because of their related-ness. And so that one was a tribute to Jules.
AM: “Cognitos” took many years to complete, is that correct?
JW: I did them in maybe four or five years.
AM: Perhaps you clarify this for me- the gallery statement notes that you hired papermaker Douglass Howell to create large-scale reliefs to be used as topographical base maps and then you reconfigured them. It also says that you spent about 25 years working on them and they were completed in 1984.
JW: Well, I was busy with Tamarind at the time he was making them. He was very crabby with me because I was busy and not working on them and he wanted to see me address what he had worked on so hard. But I guess something can occupy a space only one at a time, right? I worked on them over a period of years. It was as though you were flying over a planet and that’s what it looked like. That was the base of it. Then I began thinking of less and less, how much recognition could you get out of less and less evidence? So I did these, very quite funny portraits of friends and it’s surprising how much of a personality you can capture with almost nothing and that’s the idea of less is more. I was always fascinated by the ability of Kafka to do something remarkable with very few words and I would go back over a sentence over and over again, and see where did he turn the corner? Which word suddenly made it in into something else?
AM: Do you have a favorite work by Kafka?
JW: I don’t have a favorite. During World War II I traveled quite a lot, it was an ambulant population. I carried with me both the “Trial” and the “Castle,” not much by way of clothes. Those two books are college education as far as the outside world is concerned. They teach you what to expect and how to survive.
AM: And in the case of the Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to find that he has turned into a vermin. There is no explanation, it just happened.
JW: Yes, which happens to you all the time, that’s what your life is and that’s how I happened to be sitting here at 91 and a half. I didn’t ask for it, I just failed to die. (Laughs) It’s actually a failure that keeps me here. I’ll take you out and show you some of the territory.
June leads me toward her living room where several works are hung on the wall including “Sects in the City” and “Kafka Symbols.”
JW: (Referring to “Sects in the City”)
That was my one political; actually everything that I do is political…
AM: But this one is a bit overt… This has the look of the collage, is this digital illustration?
JW: It began it as a litho and the color wasn’t right and it wasn’t clear enough. For this to work you have to be able to find your street. And then I did it as silkscreen and then I did it as a three dimensional work and I was afraid that the tacks would fall out and that some damn curator would not take care of it, so I ended up making it a digital print and I sent people out to take photographs. We literally located all these fractured churches, there are quite a few now.
AM: You can’t get anywhere near the Scientology building.
JW: They gave me an award for that the other night. I can’t remember what the name of the award is.
(Referring to “Kafka Symbols”)
JW: There are references there to Kafka stories. Here are the twins in the “Trial,” do you remember them? How exasperating they were. I wanted to make this page of words of as it were and then do a work of each of them on its own, I did one or two of them but I couldn’t. Too much happened. The problem is of course there are never more than 24 hours in a day.
(Walk into large studio space; I noticed an original metal sign from Tamarind).
JW: LA has never claimed its right as the center of the printmaking revival. They’ve never been smart enough and I think they should do that, damn near everything that’s happened found it’s origin here and not in New York and that made New Yorkers very angry.
AM: What do you think now that LA is the site of the new art scene and New York is paling in comparison to what is happening here. How do you feel about that?
JW: I think that kind of claim is always specious and trenchant, it does not hold up.
AM: Do you think that LA is still a viable art scene?
JW: Of course it’s viable. If you mean financially viably that’s something else. But I don’t think those kind of claims have a shelf life that amounts to anything. Finally a style or an idea emerges and takes over and you find reflections of it in all the art forms in one way or another, the same thing will happen here. But LA had the opportunity to claim itself because of Tamarind.
(June opens a door that leads out from the studio space to a back patio and two large offices).
JW: Now this was the pressroom and there were three presses in there, one for each artist. So that there were no phones ringing nothing, just the art was made. It was mine before and then as I went along designing, it became clear that was the idea of the place.
AM: I think what’s so important here about the space is about de-centralizing art and bringing it under one roof.
JW: What we did do we make everybody important and because we were small, we could cooperate with each other. Everybody could speak up. Could suggest changes and if the group responded well we’d say ‘ok let’s do it,’ and we’d do it then, which gave them a sense of power of not just talking to themselves as is the case generally with most problems in teaching that’s really a problem. They feel helpless; they feel they’re being told what to do. It included above all a very clear objective, and it included a table of organization where it was workable and everybody involved was very important and if somebody didn’t function well, how do you solve that? How do you get rid of them? It had to include excellence as a primary word, ‘that’s wonderful, that’s a wonderful print.’ Sometimes I’d walk into the shop and they would have done a print that was very difficult, but there would be a big smudge on the back. And I would look at it and say ‘great job of printing,’ and I’d tear it up and I’d say ‘now do it right.’
AM: Your work demonstrates a keen eye for perfectionism and everything is in its right place.
JW: Yes but some of it are gifts that the moment give you. Sometimes the medium says ‘gee, I’m going to cooperate with you, try this!’
AM: You and I are both in the same predicament; we’re both staring at a blank page. Whether it’s an unexplainable moment, the inspiration came to you somehow.
JW: Yes, it does come from you and the more you work, the more material you have for the next thing that you’re going. Because you get ideas that may not be right for what you’re working on, but you will remember it and you use it when it’s time comes up. I always felt that the more you work, the more you have to work with. It’s certainly true in writing. I feel that these disciplines are very close.
AM: I know that you’re a writer as well. It changes day to day and you have to be grateful for you get.
JW: You get wonderful ideas and then they sort of rot on the vine. Or there’s some critical piece missing and you don’t know what it is and maybe two years later, all of the sudden the piece you need appear by which time you may have misplaced the rest of it.