A sensual cacophony and a punchy, unexpected palette characterize the transcendental abstractions of New York painter Richmond Burton. His new paintings in the elegantly proportioned main space at Cheim & Read in Chelsea are like otherworldly veils of color, but veils that have rent asunder by some unknown force. As with the epic paintings of Jackson Pollock, Burton's surface is where the pictures come alive in a mesmerizing whirl of gesture and texture.
Born in Alabama, Burton came to New York in 1984 and began exhibiting his work soon after. This is his third solo show at Cheim & Read, and his work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and many others.
The artist sat down for a brief interview in a gallery backroom as his gorgeous canvases were being installed in advance of the opening of his show on Sept. 8, 2004.
Ilka Scobie: What has inspired this current show?
Richmond Burton: Certainly, my continued investigations into nature and my relationship to it. My interest in expressing my own experience and concept of what I find visually original, pleasurable, beautiful, not always understood before. In some way, really reflecting my recent experiences.
IS: Which would include living by the beach. . .
RB: Yes, thats been the case since I moved out to the Hamptons in March 1998. My experiences have shifted dramatically, based on world events. The three-year anniversary of 9/11 comes a few days after my opening. The events of 9/11 were a turning point. In my mind, at least, Ive taken on a more political position. Granted, its personal politics. The politics of perception and the experience of finding a unique expression, and securing the right to continue to do that. In some way, even if its just to myself, it does have impact in terms of what we are all going through.
IS: What are some of your current concerns?
RB: Freedom of expression. The Bill of Rights, for example. Art seems to be doing just fine; maybe it thrives in times like this. So many things weve taken for granted, in terms of our lives in America, are rapidly changing.
IS: How has living outside the city specifically affected you?
RB: The fact that theres so much to be learned and gained from limiting your input for long periods of time. Really enjoying peace and quiet, and letting your own inner voices emerge.
IS: Does New York continue to be an influence?
RB: Yes. After my initial move to East Hampton, I eventually fulfilled my quota for solitude and inner journeying and I needed what New York had to offer. New York obviously had gone though these massive changes, and I wanted to be more directly connected to them. I had learned through my years in East Hampton that I was still a New York artist and just living outside the city.
IS: Are you involved with the Hamptons art scene?
RB: Not at all. I've kind of reached out to it and its been a series of rebuffs, from my point of view. For instance, the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton recently put up a show called North Fork South Fork, and I wasn't included. So thats been a disappointment. There is a group show in Southampton right down the road from the museum that includes Donald Baechler, Julian Schnabel, myself and several other artists who were omitted from the Parrish show.
On the other hand, my relationship with the New York art scene seems more solid then ever. I'm living two and a half hours from the city -- I just hop on the jitney and get what I need. And I can invite my friends out here.
IS: What artists are you inspired by?
RB: So many. I've had an artistic dialogue with a group of artists who I've shown with several times -- people like Ross Bleckner, Philip Taaffe. Among my immediate contemporaries I think of Lydia Dona, shes having a show at Michael Steinberg. Also, Suzanne McClelland, Jacqueline Humphries, Dan Walsh, Charles Long, Fabian Marcaccio. The list could go on. I like artists who show with Cheim & Read, of course. Louise Fishman, Lynda Benglis. We share ideas about exploring the frozen gesture and coming out of Pollock in some way and finding something new in it.
IS: How did you come to the city?
RB: I moved here in 84 from Houston, where I went to school. When I moved to East Hampton in 98 I still considered it part of New York, I was shocked that I even considered moving. I took a leap and its been an interesting and complex journey.
IS: How did you end up in Elaine de Koonings house?
RB: Through John Chamberlain, who was there before me. My studio is a beautiful painting studio, but it doesnt work for sculpture. And for his sculpture, forget it. He only had maquettes in there. He decided he wanted to be closer to where he lived on Shelter Island. I considered different options. I wanted a break from the city, and John Chamberlain said, "Buy my place." So I did. It was kind of handed to me on a silver platter.
IS: Its a perfect place for a party. I remember that fabulous party you threw a couple of summers ago.
RB: That was one of my favorite moments there.
IS: Do you entertain a lot?
RB: Yes. Not this summer because it was a working summer. I generally tend to have people over a lot. I love to cook. Its a great place for having any size group, you can pour out onto the back deck. To me, thats one of the things the area offers. Most city kitchens, forget it.
IS: How does your current success feel?
RB: Great. Im loving it. It seemed a bit quiet for a few years. On Sept. 11, 2001, I was supposed to fly to London for my show at Hamiltons Gallery. So my first London exhibition was totally overshadowed. It opened anyway, my Mom was there. But I couldnt get there, there were no flights for three or four days. I couldnt even call.
IS: Do you show in Europe?
RB: Some, but Id like to do more, Ive had some stuff in Zurich and Turin and Im collected in depth by Max Mara. The company collects and features the art in its offices and design studios. Its in Reggio Emilia, not that far from Florence. And before Thomas Ammann died, I was heavily collected by him. I would like very much to show again in London and in Paris. And Im always looking towards L.A.
IS: What are you excited about at the moment?
RB: Something really interesting is happening right now. Im working on a project in a friends yard thats like a huge painting made out of light. Its 75 by 130 feet. Weve been installing it for the past couple of weeks. Its being documented right now. Its made of industrial lights. So you see my grid in different colors and with different imagery attached to it. But then, at night, it can become a staged light show in which different colors move. Its so exciting to me. Weve been documenting it; we've had cameras recording it from above.
Its an expansion of my artwork and, at the same time, its complementary and has its own thing to offer. And its outdoors, which is great. I think about planes flying by and I think about what it must look like.
IS: How did you become a painter?
RB: My grandmother Minalla Fulton taught me to paint. She was an artist, actor and local creative light where I grew up. We were always making stuff together. I never stopped painting or making art. Thats not necessarily as known as the fact that I studied architecture and worked as an architect. I did that for a couple of years. Theres no doubt that it has influenced my way of approaching art. Especially in terms of method, having a step-by-step process, how to make something or express it. It definitely helped a lot.
I graduated from Rice University in architecture and art. There were a lot of great teachers there. Most importantly of all, Dominique de Menil was there; she has been a huge influence in my life. I gravitated towards her immediately -- I was intensely curious about this wealthy lady whose family invented a way of drilling oil wells and who has art all over the campus and all over the town.
Her art collection was spaced out everywhere. She ran the Rice Museum on campus and I was working there part time. I helped install work by Rothko and the Yves Klein show, which opened there before it went to the Pompidou, and the Rothko Chapel. They were always having political speakers. It was a great way to have access to art, to see it. The casualness of it, leaning against a wall in a storage room, or touching it, or whatever. All the stuff that happens when you really get close to it.
The minute I graduated I moved to New York. I got a job in New York at the office of I.M. Pei and worked there for two years. I don't think I've abandoned architecture -- rather, I'm promoting the idea of doing more collaborative work with architects or site-specific art, inside or outside of buildings. No doubt, thats going to happen sooner or later, but it hasnt yet.
My first architectural commission came in 2002, and it was the biggest painting Ive made yet, 13 by 20 feet. Its in Birmingham, Ala., installed in the lobby in an office building downtown, One Federal Plaza, which was developed by the Sloss Corporation. It was the first time I was able to work with architects, and it went very well because I can read the drawings and talk to them about how to interface. It really succeeded.
IS: Any last thoughts?
RB: Since I was a kid, art was my private world, which then in some way was like my interface with the world and the public a way of perceiving things or improving my situation. That leads to ideas about beauty and the difficulty of finding that, or visual pleasure. Whats meaningful in terms of visual pleasure, or produces that experience or elevation, an impression of everything being connected, or an order to the universe even if we dont perceive it. Theres some way in which we are all in this together. Art has always diminished my doubts as to feeling like a resident alien. Of wanting more from life. So Ill go, look how fucked up the world is. Should I just quit? Why should I even bother? What should I do now? I think Ill go make another painting.
ILKA SCOBIE is a native New Yorker who writes poetry and art criticism.