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by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp
Roger Herman lives life large. His dark green house with the bright blue door towers above the bungalows of his Elysian Park neighborhood. It is one of the first residences designed and built by Los Angeles architect Frederick Fisher. Two huge dogs -- a bullmastiff and a Great Dane -- greet a wary visitor. Inside, the white walls are papered with nine-foot-tall woodblock prints of tanks, ranch houses and vases of flowers. In an alcove, glass cabinets contain dozens of Herman's rough ceramic bowls illustrated with his frankly erotic designs.
In a German accent undiminished by nearly two decades in Los Angeles, Herman cheerfully admits that he knows nothing about printmaking or pottery. "The weird thing is that they are both media that I always despised," he says. "They are two things I approach like a beginner so I have all the freedom in the world."
Herman is represented by Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, where he had an exhibition of new woodcuts last June.
Herman, 52, gained praise in the early 1980s for giant wood block prints made after celebrated paintings by Vincent van Gogh or Jacques-Louis David. "I used art icons that were loaded with meaning," he says. By 1985, Herman had earned the New Talent Award from the L.A. County Museum of Art along with a small show at the museum. He soon began showing his often enormous paintings in the vast rooms of Ace Gallery in L.A. and New York.
The woodcuts led to a series of monumental paintings of a blocky and balconied modern apartment building, a mundane subject Herman rendered hundreds of times in monotone grays or luscious shades of pistachio, chartreuse or pink, leading critics to compare his efforts to Claude Monet's renditions of the Rouen Cathedral.
"I started making paintings that are more about themselves, dealing with their medium as an issue. I'm not interested in big ideas and critical concepts in painting," Herman says boldly. "What is the critical concept in a Matisse interior? A painting can still be intelligent without a critical concept."
Herman was born in 1947 to a French father and German mother in the Franco-German town of Saarbruecken. (French when he was born, it became German by plebiscite in 1959.) He speaks both languages fluently. Yet, with his bright blue eyes, fair coloring and buzz-cut hair, he admits, "I feel more German, maybe because of the way I look."
His father was in a concentration camp during the war and died of cancer when his son was ten. His mother, who sent him to a French school, died when he was 19. In the late '60s, Herman studied political science before taking up art at age 25, when he enrolled in the Akademie der Kunst in Karlsruhe. A German DAAD grant brought Herman, his first wife Susan Wood and daughter, Jessica, to San Francisco in 1976. After his marriage dissolved, Herman decided L.A. was the livelier town for contemporary art. "It had this enormous feeling of a beginning," he recalls. "There was such an enthusiasm."
In 1998 he left Ace Gallery after a financial dispute with owner Doug Chrismas. The decision provided him with an opportunity to rethink the direction of his work and he turned as a novice to work in clay. Although he has been a professor in the prestigious UCLA art department since 1984, where he now heads the painting and drawing department, he opted to take lessons from one of his graduate students, Lisa Yu. She told him his efforts were "off-center but still in control -- just like you."
A self-described "binge-worker," Herman spent ten hours a day throwing pots and drawing pictures on them of women engaged in obvious sexual acts in the style of Japanese Shunga. "The students looked at me like I was some dirty old man in the corner," he says, laughing but not at all embarrassed. Soon, he had completed some 500 pots. "They are funny, not really that erotic," he says. The freedom found working in clay opened the way to woodblock prints, which he had not attempted for ten years. "It's good to take a break every once in a while," he says. "The pots, for me, were sort of a vacation."
Large sheets of plywood are stacked in his backyard. Determinedly low-tech, Herman first paints a design on both sides of the plywood panels, and then hand chisels the indentations that carry the various inks. The floor of his studio is littered with dozens of his initial attempts at printing castles, tulips and brides. "I didn't think of subject matter but of learning what was possible," he says.
The new works depart from the woodblock prints he did in the early 1980s, which were duo-chromatic -- black and one other color. In 1999 Herman visited Japan, where he saw modern woodblock prints called Shin-Hanga and was inspired to increase the number of colors so that each print seemingly vibrates with brilliant tropical and forestal hues. "I have the freedom of approaching something without a preconceived notion of technique," he explains. "Printmakers tear their hair out when they see them because the ink is rolled on too thick. But I don't have a roller." Picking a rounded piece of wood off of the floor, Herman says, "I just rub them with this."
The pièce de résistance is a German tank printed in hot pink, orange and green, executed on three panels to measure 8 by 15 feet. "It is closer to Warhol, more photographic than my earlier work," he says. "Right now, the paintings are jealous of the prints because they work," he says. "The prints have such a confidence."
HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is completing a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe for Alfred Knopf. She writes regularly about art and design.
Sponsored by AXA Nordstern Art Insurance Corporation.