A Conversation On Materiality Between Abby Leigh & Carter Foster

PARAMUS, NJ – 02-23-2018 (Press Release Jet) — AL: Abby Leigh

CF: Carter Foster


CF: I wanted to start with a thought that was expressed to me once by the artist Terry Winters in which he described drawing as “a haptic environment”. In other words, the environment of touch, which seems to me to relate to materiality, and I know that you’re someone who uses material – sometimes in an exploratory way – but also in a way that you derive content out of your work. Why don’t you talk about, maybe your approach to materials in general and then we could talk about specifically how it relates to this series.


AL: Well, I always think that the choice of material determines the direction the work will go in and that there are certain materials which are very compelling. The reason that I work with pigments when there are so many astounding paints available in tubes is that the pigments give you a nuance and range that you couldn’t possibly get. You can make a much more transparent surface by using pigments than you ever could from squeezing out a tube of paint, like toothpaste. These particular drawings are made with peach-black soot, and the reason that I used peach-black is because of all the blacks it is the most absent and the softest, and it seemed to me to be an appropriate metaphor for the subject. Some people view paints as what you use to make what you are going to make. But to me, the individual characteristics can open up a world of possibilities.There can be grape-black from grape seeds, there can be cherry-black from cherry pits, there is iron-oxide blacks.


CF: I have never heard of peche de noir. How did you discover this wonderful sounding material? It’s so interesting.


AL: I discovered it in a tiny family-owned art supply store in Montmartre Paris. I think that the store had been around since the Impressionists. I saw peach-black that, the peche de noir, and I thought what a great name for a racehorse. Since I wasn’t buying racehorses, I bought the tube and I loved it. I have never seen another tube of peach-black. It’s simply not on the radar. I thought when I started this series, let’s see if I can find peach black.


CF: So you could say it’s a type of charcoal because it’s a type of burned material in a sense?


AL: Charcoal is generally refers to ash from wood. This is soot from peach pits.  You can make black out of many sources, like cuttlefish bladder. These things are incredibly interesting to me. Why is cuttlefish bladder different than something else and how can I not find out?


CF: Starting with that material, did that lead to the beginning of this series in particular?


AL: No. I just had this idea. The drawing of this series, the graphite, is almost like a rubbing. I felt like the process of doing them was almost like doing rubbings where they emerge from the surface and where you have something, and you don’t know what you have until you rub it. That process really intrigued me. I took a small bit of paper, that happened to be lying around, and I tried it out.


CF: Which was this scale?


AL: This scale. And then I thought, well this is a good scale. It seemed right. So I kept going with it, and only after I got a few of them did I take a look at the wall and though these are memorial drawings.


CF: The scale gives them an intimacy that your work doesn’t always have, and your paintings can often be large and expansive, even if they are small they can have a monumentality. Of course, these were produced in certain circumstances after your husband’s death. You said that you realized they were memorial once you started working on them. I was very struck the first time that I saw them by the fact that they were a shift down in scale, and there was an intimacy. So why don’t you talk about them as a kind of meditation?


AL: Well, I think that it was the poet Marianne Moore who said, “The best cure for loneliness is solitude,” and as I was working with this, they started out as memorial drawings, but they quickly- I don’t mean that Mitch isn’t in them- as much as my work is about transparency, Mitch is a layer that’s there. But they became less about tearing my hair out and more about finding my center, and more about finding balance, and realizing what I had learned from Mitch, had taken from him, that is now in me and a friend said to me that she found this show an optimistic. I loved that comment because I am an optimist, and what I feel is gratitude. It is gratitude, which is cumulative and these drawings are constructed in an cumulative way.


CF: Black as a color is obviously associated with mourning and death, but it’s also the color of drawing and it’s the color of typography, and it has many, many associations. It’s also, it’s not technically a color I suppose, but one can think of it as a color and it allows an infinite range. Of course it goes into greys and whites in tonal gradation. It allows for a subtle range of form and shifting. You are a painter too, you are very aware of color, but your drawings often do something very different, I find.


AL: They do. I love drawing because it is spontaneous. It is the artist’s first reaction and being who I am, I tend to rework the first reaction, which for me, is gratifying. 

CF: Do you make drawings for your paintings?


AL: No. I make a scrappy sketch usually and that become the genesis of a painting.

CF: Your drawing are always a finished work.


AL: They are always independent projects. And again, I think that’s because I respond to mediums. The idea of translating a drawing into a painting is a very tedious one.


CF: Talk about selecting. I imagine the materials you use, correct me if I’m wrong, that it is some part selecting and some part discovery.


AL: Totally, totally. And there’s usually a reason that makes me select a given material.   For example, I  was intrigued to see if I could control the overall shape that the smoke would take smoke in the smoke drawings without without interfering with the natural pathway of the smoke.


CF: That’s interesting because Abby has these amazing smoke drawings. That is a very experimental material to use, though not totally unprecedented.


AL: It seemed interesting to me to try to make smoke drawings is if I could find some way to control the smoke. And not to bully the smoke, but to capture diagnostically the natural movements of the smoke on paper.  How can I freeze, how can I highlight what has already happened so that instead of being transient, instead of evaporating, it’s there and it remains stable. That’s an interesting idea to me.


CF: Like the smoke drawings, these drawings have both chance and extreme control…


AL: Totally. I started to work, the first work that I ever did was watercolor and I felt that the choice of watercolor, the first beyond crayons and coloring books and whatever, but watercolor is a very good medium for me because it’s transparent and because it’s sort of like walking on a tightrope to do. Whatever you do, you’re stuck with but it’s also cumulative. The way I did it I could go back, and rework, and heighten. I think the idea of transparency and layering has been in all my paintings and I think it’s related to the way I see things. I was very, very myopic. I don’t have depth perception, so whatever I work on, I see in layers rather than perspective. When I see something, I kind of have to infer where it is in space because it’s not evident. I can only guess exactly where it might be.


CF: I get the sense, especially looking at this body of work, that there is a sense of looking very, very closely at a very small area.


AL: Absolutely.


CF: That you are trying to come to terms with that. What about working serially? Did these become a series after you started them? I think of you as working serially all the time.


AL: I do work serially. Because if I find something that interests me, then I keep on going with it. Then when I feel as if I have come to the end of the natural evolution, I don’t want to repeat.


CF: I imagine as though there is a learning curve to some degree. That when you figure it out, you master it and then keeping going with it.


AL: Usually I am on the way to figuring it out. Then  I make it more complicated. Then I try to reduce it to the simpler essence again.


CF: How did you make these more complicated when you were working on them?


AL: By reworking them. First of all, one of the things that is terrific about doing these drawing is that sometimes they get messed up and when they get messed up, just like with watercolor, you have to figure out how you are going to deal with the unexpected. Sometimes you don’t do it well, but other times, because something happened accidentally, you incorporate it and discover something that you wouldn’t have.


CF: Do you throw a lot out in general?


AL: Not a lot from these, but from the smoke, yes. These drawings have a looser process.  Sometimes, I put up them on a wall, and they are not as satisfying to me.  Others grow on me when when I look at them and they make me want to go further with the idea.


CF: I said to you that when I first saw these, I think that there is a musical quality. In the history of drawing, one can pick out a history of drawings as scores, almost. In some cases, like John Cage who are literally using them as scores, and some cases choreographers who find out it’s a good way to work out ideas, to record something on paper that isn’t working spatially, but sometimes it’s more of a progression, a syncopation. A theme is picked up, it’s repeated somewhere else. You lived in a musical household.


AL: I lived in a musical household and I benefited from osmosis!

CF: There’s musical talent in your household.


AL: I would say that I grew up in a visual home. The musicality I soaked up from my husband and my kids.


CF: Were you aware of it at all while you were working on these? Did you feel like they had any musical aspect to them?


AL: You were the first one to say, “Oh, these are musical”. You said they were musical and I thought wow that’s a good comment and I know exactly what you mean, but there’s a conversation between them. A syncopation is a very good analogy.


CF: You said that you like to close things out. Have you finished with this?


AL: Nope, still going. My studio has a dozen more. I’m not at that stage yet. I mean, you don’t know until you are, but right now I’m still finding it productive and gratifying. I thought, Mitch died at 86, maybe I’ll do 86, but now I’m thinking maybe not. You can’t just stretch it…


CF: You’ll know when you’re done.


AL: Yes, I’ll know when I’m done.


CF: There’s something of weights and balances in these works and there’s something about the interaction of the support and the medium. Maybe you could talk about how that helped create the form.


AL: The form and the medium.


CF: The surface. I’m thinking about the interaction of the surface and the medium.


AL: I think that when I built it up, some of the surfaces are pre-smoothed.


CF: Is the paper fairly smooth?


AL: The paper is fairly smooth. I use to love harsh paper. The one that I loved for watercolor is bumpy, it’s rough, and I love that. Nonetheless, when you finish with harsh paper, the paper becomes a little grey when it’s photographed and looked at because the multitude of shadows all the bumps create.


CF: That’s interesting, yeah.


AL: So I wanted a hard surface, I wanted a clean surface and I wanted a reactive, a sharp contrast between what wasn’t the drawing and what was. This paper is Italian: it’s Fabriano extra white, heavy. The reason that I looked for the whitest paper that I could…


CF: Do you size it? Do you do anything to prepare it?


AL: I didn’t size it. The peach pit soot is mixed with rabbit skin glue. That was the basis for the blacks.


CF: What about the graphite? That’s…


AL: The graphite is in a bar, more like a stick, and the graphite is really, really soft. The thing about graphite is, at least the way that I use it, is that the harder you press, the more the graphite floats above the surface and I really like that. I mean most things if you press hard it goes deeper in, but with this you press hard and it separates.


CF: Interesting.


AL: I don’t know why that is. The drawing series that I did before, that I showed in San Francisco, that was also the basis. Realizing that the graphite stays on a different plane, at that point I used charcoal, that it’s never on the same plane. That’s what made me think it might be an interesting thing to explore.


CF: Graphite really is unlike any other medium. Artists like Ingres who were able to use it in this incredibly delicate way. It must be the fact that you can get this detail down to the eyelashes. You know working on incredibly, almost miniature-like way. No way you could do that with charcoal. There’s also almost like a liquid quality to it. It gets a sheen. You can tell graphite right away if you are trying to identify medium; it picks up light and shines it back at you.


AL: Ang probably used a very hard pencil. Like 9H, the hardest possible pencil to use. Let me turn the tables, Carter. Let me ask you about white paper. What made you intrigued?


CF: Definitely the intimacy and directness. There’s an absolute- if you study art history, you can pick it up. If you are a curator at a museum you can pick it up and look at it. The relationship you have to a drawing, if you are studying the history of drawing, is bodily. It’s usually flat on the table and there’s some different connection. I think it is the nascence of an idea, often. You experience it as a viewer that studies the medium. That’s why I mention scale. These are drawing scale and there’s a concentration in them. It’s not possible in painting in the same way. Even in a small scale painting. I have to ask: historically, Barnett Newman comes to mind, ‘Stations of the Cross’, those are paintings with a strong drawing quality, the weights and balances, there are some formal similarities. Were you thinking about that at all?


AL: I wasn’t. Yes they do, I like that. Here’s a bit of trivia: Barnett Newman was buried next to Mitch’s parents in the cemetery.The adjacent tombstones. I went out with Mitch to the cemetery and exclaimed “Barnett Newman is here.” He said, “What?” I said, “Look! You never told me Barnett Newman was right next to your  parents. Maybe in a very subliminal way. Okay, so, I think that black is something that I’ve wanted to get around to. There is something very compelling about black. I think I was attracted to the idea of rubbing and rubbing and rubbing. It’s a gratifying process especially when you affect the result. When you go over paint, all you get is a more three dimensional paint. With graphite the layers are so miniscule that you have the opportunity to build it up in a very different way.


CF: It continues to float and doesn’t get denser.


AL: Yes, exactly.


CF: So these are a combination of peche de noir and graphite.


AL: And the glue.


CF: And the glue. So you’re not mixing them up in some pot.


AL: The glue and the pigment get mixed, however the peach-black in the pigment tends to in a lot of them, sometimes I work it. In a couple of these drawings the peach-black and glue was wet, and I worked it into the wet. Most of them had surfaces that were dry and then I worked the graphite. I wanted to see what happened. For some I used graphite in a powder form. Generally the layers were isolated from one another, certainly the black layer. Then it was never mixed.


CF: Did your experiences working here with paper help you understand paper as a medium?


AL: Very much so. This place, for anybody who doesn’t know it, is an absolutely extraordinary place. It is the only place on Earth that artists can actually collaborate with paper makers and they can do whatever they want. The fact that a lot of the artists that work here have exhibited within the last five years in New York museums. When I came in the first time and saw rows of galoshes-there are rows of galoshes because it is a very wet process. As you begin to make paper you find the size that best suits your foot and you clomp around the studio in these galoshes all day. There was just something very different about it from printmaking. There’s almost something archaic, simple. You drain the paper. You watch the water drip. You’re working in a mold. Now I put things in the drying machine. What she meant by the drying machine was a stack of absorbent rags, followed by plywood planks. This was the machine. Just as I like archaic medicine and things before they figured it all out, there was something very seductive about this. It also opened my mind to the possibilities of what could be done with paper. This I did in my studio. I’ve done a number of projects and it opened my mind up to what paper could do and what it was.


CF: I think people that aren’t specialists in drawing or the history of art just don’t realize that the history of drawing and of printmaking too is the history of paper. It’s like black. The texture is incredibly important. Seurat found a way to draw without line because he found a way to use the texture of the paper, and that goes for almost every artist that works with drawing in a subtle way. It is really fascinating. You mention the book. We have this beautiful book in the Whitney that I love, that is also a serialized idea.


AL: In the book, it was actually a lithograph of powder, and in many of the drawings I dispelled it as a repellent and then tilted the paper around. The idea of the repellent- first of all you put it in something to spread the liquid and then put a repellant into it. There’s a certain observation of the natural process…


CF: It’s scientific almost.


AL: Yeah, but more like chemistry of room explosions. The idea of calculations on the computer has less allure then the experiments.


CF: Some wouldn’t want to get bogged down, but that is what you thrive on. I find that interesting. There’s an instinctive something going on.


AL: The physical labor is gratifying to me than move than a process where you’re many steps removed.


CF: You don’t always work abstractly. Sometimes you work with text and create an image or form that goes with that text. You have done image based things here, a series of paintings. Do you consider them separate bodies of work? How do they influence one another?


AL: When I started to work, because I was so nearsighted, the idea of painting something abstract, there are too many variables here. I have to get some variables out. It seemed logical to concentrate on something very small but I could see. That was fruits, vegetables. Then I realized this concentration on fruits and vegetables put me into a tradition that I didn’t feel a part of. It put me into a botanical tradition which was not where I wanted to be. I thought to myself, what would happen if I took something very small and I made it very big? Since this was watercolor it was hard to do 40×60 radishes because they had to be painted flat otherwise the water was going to run. As I got more confident, and as I got to know the materials better, I felt that I could do something more abstract but with a stimulus from life.example the paintings that I’m doing now are a series of subway paintings.


CF: With text.


AL: With text, with text. I did a series of maps with text on them. I like working with text, but I do my best to edit out, the phrases in the text are ambiguous. These paintings do not take a stand. They’re not didactic. It’s more the irony of language and the randomness of placement that we all have living in the city. You’re constantly exposed to random events. Bits of paper on the street. Signs that you see. Bricks that are chipped away on a building. Taxis that have an interesting scratch on them. You are just assaulted.


CF: But the natural world is also quite important. For those of you have been to Abby’s studio, she has a wonder counter that has a collection of all kinds of objects, many of which feel 19th century. Talk about the things that you collect and why.


AL: In my collection, nothing is super valuable. I think of it as things that interest me. I have a wonderful collection of eyes that I bought long before I was even working seriously. They were so mesmerizing, made of porcelain and they are hand painted. The first set was from Dublin and they went around the countryside, and anyone who needed an eye, they just gave them their choice. The person would stick in the eye. The beauty of the eyes…


CF: It’s interesting for an artist to choose to…


AL: Yeah. When I first started to work, I thought maybe I’d do something with these, and then I looked at them and thought this is it, this is already what it is, you can’t do anything to it. That will make it less than what it is.What intrigued me about it is here you have a series of ostensibly identical forms. Every eye is an eye and works within a given set of specifications to be a human eye. The incredible variation between them was very compelling to me. The detail, some of the eyes had veins that had been painted, probably with a single squirrel hair; that’s how thin the veins were. So delicate.


CF: Does one body of work usually lead to the next? After these do you have an idea of where you are going to go?


AL: I often have an idea, but it very often doesn’t. You have an idea, you start playing with the idea. Sometimes it leads to the next. For example the cityscapes that I was doing naturally lead to the subway series with text. That was a pretty seamless transition. When I finished the series that’s environmental, it was called “Undertow”, I thought that’s not a direction that I’ll go in. It was very interesting. What I learned from it is that it wasn’t a direction that I’d go again, but it enabled me to go back to my more abstract painting with a more concrete idea of what it was that I was going to do with it. I approached the abstract work differently after that.


CF: In the history of art, not necessarily in abstract painting, do you have heros?


AL: Everybody has heroes. In abstract painting?


CF: In general.


AL: Piero della Francesca. That’s the first one that comes to mind. Bacon. I don’t emulate his paintings but I am riveted by them and in awe of them. I really like medieval painting on panels.


CF: I think that awe is a good way of inspiring. It’s okay to be in awe.


AL: How about you? Let me turn the tables.


CF: I always say Michelangelo. I don’t know why, he’s just my favorite. I had experiences with his work when I was young and still like forming my ideas about art history- I really was in awe. My most favorite work of art is this piece in Milan, this piece that is unfinished in Costello’s Rondanini Pieta. It’s an incredible piece. That may be my favorite work of art ever and his drawings are unbelievable.


AL: I want to thank Carter, I know Sue did it before, but to come when the Whitney is on the cusp, here is really incredible. I also want to thank Sue and Jack for making this available to me and all of you for coming. Thank you.

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Sarah Tulowitzki is a financial reporter, focusing on technology, national security, and policing. Before joining Canadian Business Tribune she worked as a staff writer at Fast Company and spent two years as a foreign correspondent in Turkey. Her work has been published in Al Jazeera America, The Nation, Vice News, Motherboard, and many other outlets.

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