Contributed by Rachel Youens / While preparing for this conversation with William Eckhardt Kohler, who recently had a solo at Catskills Gallery in Tribeca, I noticed that in his earlier work, he occasionally portrayed figures who were sleeping or dreaming. When I visited the show, I realized how deeply the theme of the dream went through his work. We discussed Anne Carson, a poet who has written about how dreams operate in literature, the notion of paintings within paintings, men’s rituals, mythology, Jung, the symbolism of bird characters, and early twentieth-century painting.
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Rachel Youens: Lets start with the Barnes Collection. You have mentioned that it has been an important touchstone for this body of work.
WEK: Many of the paintings in this show were inspired by work at the Barnes. Yes. These past two years, I was spending a lot of time in Philadelphia, because my mother had been ill, and then she died in February. I was staying in the Fairmont area, close to the Barnes, so I bought a membership and made it part of my regular routine to go at least once or twice a week. I would draw and get visual ideas. Also, I would walk along the Schuylkill River and the parks behind the Philadelphia Museum, where there are some vistas and hills and you get some nice space down on the river and up the river a way, and the Laurel Hill Cemetery, which has got a lot of levels and inspiring shapes. So those three places were probably the major places where I was developing imagery and combining them in the sketchbook, tracing from page to page. Things would merge and change until it would capture some kind of essence of the feeling that for me, a straightforward naturalist painting doesnt always do, in my hands anyway. I want the viewer to understand that there is something else going on, underneath, emotionally and imaginatively.
RY: Yes, there is a real feeling of travel, and when I first saw them, I thought, oh, Im on the American continent, traveling though the rivers of the continent. The images are kind of old fashioned because they are lodged in art historical imagery but they feel contemporary. They also had a primeval feeling, the discovery of the newness of travel that early explorers might have felt, traveling by river. So I enjoyed that theme and the theme of water. The paintings are very kinetic and I felt like I had a birds eye view of the protagonist, propelled upstream or carried downstream. There is always the possibility of eithering floating or drowning.
WEK: I like the idea of the modernist or contemporary and primeval. Because I do want the paintings to have, and I think it is a core part of my sensibility, an elemental kind of feeling to them; and that started to show up in the work even in my late teens. When I was young I kayaked and canoed and had some great adventures but I am not a boater. The boat is more metaphorical, taking one into a dream state, which relates to the strong Jungian orientation in my reading history. I think about how dream, myth, memory and imagination are manifestations of the psyche in different ways, which in the Jungian sense is the domain of Soul. Not in the Christian sense, where the body and soul are separate, but in a murkier depth aspect. So images of the underworld, Charon crossing the river Styx, and looking at Greek pottery are an important part of my language and sources. They relate too, to my mother who had a Ph.D. in classics and comparative literature from Harvard. I witnessed her love of science fiction which at its best is about meta-levels. When I was young she would take me to plays, like Lysistrata or The Frogs and the experiences made an impression on me.
RY: The Frogs is a super absurdist, comedy right?
WEK: Yes, The Frogs is about Dionysus trip to the underworld to bring back Euripides, initially dressed as Herakles. In Lysistrata the women get angry at men for constantly indulging in warfare, so they withhold sex — a good plan.
RY: We need a womans caucus now to withhold sex against men waging war. The great poet Anne Carson touches on an idea about sleep, that there is something incognito, or hidden, or unknown in sleep; and that in crossing from wakefulness to sleep, the dreamer is finding or searching for something. In a quote from Keats, he describes sleep as a soothing element that is also connected with death. I believe that the Greeks were thinking about that also.
WEK: There is a relationship there. I want the paintings to be able to jump levels, and I think they do associatively or poetically. Death is a reality, a harsh reality, that we all have to confront or deal with in some way. And it is — without getting into thoughts of afterlife — what a strange thing it is, that a person isnt there anymore. Death is also metaphoric in our experience of life. We encounter many deaths, many losses. Death can be about loss, and change. Ive been involved with mens groups for over twenty years, participating in and leading weekends which are designed as an initiation into the mature masculine and include descent, ordeal, and ascent. I am engaged by the idea that historically or pre-historically, initiation served as a preparation for death, shifting one from an ego-centeredness to connection with community. There is a dying of the ego, which can happen in many ways in life. Ritual is part of that, so the rivers and the passage imagery that occur in a lot of my paintings, doors and openings, relate to my thinking about that kind of transformation.
RY: I want to get to the doors, windows, and mirrors, because they are interesting framings of images, at times portraits, that reflect back outside the painting and invite the viewer to walk back into a narrative exploration. In looking at the development of your work, you incorporate a lot of imagery that reflects back toward the viewer who is participating through the protagonist. Mirrors seem to reflect behind the viewer, as they move through spaces within the painting, while doors and spaces open out into various kinds of spaces, landscapes, and vistas.
WEK: First, speaking to the mirrors and doors, and to the paintings-within-paintings, I am thinking about that passage idea. As a formal device, passages provide an enormous amount of variability. I am amazed that I keep finding new ways to play with that. I am trying to think is it a mirror or a painting? I have a tumble of thoughts happening right now.
When I started making art, it was in a tiny little room. Id find mirrors in the trash and put multiple mirrors in that room. That is a core impulse. Think about how a mirror opens space and frames a complexity, an ambiguity, an interruption. Imagery that plays with ideas about illusion and opens up into ideas about artifice and also play. When I started putting paintings into other paintings, I found an incredible amount of freedom in it. Because sometimes my brain gets locked – I start thinking about what a painting should be. I found that when I put a painting into another painting, I could do anything I wanted because it is a painting, and it is a painting I want to make. Why arent I making those paintings, period, I wondered? So that branched out.
The painting-in-painting also operates as a portal and reminds me that looking at a painting could be a portal for the viewer looking in, through this invitation, to enter an imagined world. My older paintings, the dream portraits you were talking about, tended to have some illusion of space. But four, five, or six years ago, my paintings were claustrophobic and dense. Even though I was thinking about space, there wasnt enough space for someone to occupy it. In opening up space, I started getting more engaged with illusion.
RY: You mean allusion?
WEK: Allusion is always there, yes, but I mean illusion with an I. Allusion is major for me, always cooking, layers of reference or meaning, or possible interpretation or levels. For me, that is the poetic enterprise in painting.
RY: Something else that interests me is how your work has become more drawn and rhythmic, with strokes, shapes, and marks that allude to all kinds of different things, and readings in your paintings the way things can read as two things, as you mentioned. This seems to be a development from earlier painting which were more realist. Stylistically, you let go of the flesh and weight of things, and now your paintings reflect concerns of Kandinsky or Gabriele Mnter, and other early twentieth century artists, a development which does give you more freedom to represent places and spaces.
WEK: Totally, and I like that freedom. I tend to always find myself in the early twentieth century no matter what I do and Ive gradually learned to accept and embrace that. The early dream portraits you mentioned, sometimes feel more nineteenth-century, with a somewhat surrealist tinge at times. What I remember of those paintings from the 80s or 90s, when I was making paintings from observation, I thought I was talking about the kinds of ambiguities I am exploring now, but nobody was perceiving it that way. They just saw the material depiction, Oh, what are you painting today? It reminds me of the Kandinsky essay, The Spiritual in Art,” in which he said one can paint a boat and it can mean something else, but most often people just see it as a boat. Thats how I remember what he wrote anyway.
RY: So that was the challenge you were interested in.
WEK: When I was painting observationally, I would get more locked into appearances. Around 1990 I made a painting of sunlight on a building with a figure in the foreground, from life, and I thought that the sunlight on the building looked like sky, and I liked that doubling, but when I painted that, nobody saw it, because it looked too much like the brick.
RY: I think that everything in a painting should be doubled, at a visual level of symbol through shape. In a sense, that is what drove you you are really drawing with paint. I like your gestural short hand and those tree glyphs!
WEK: Drawing is big for me, as it is for most of us. For a while, I wanted to make paintings that were like my drawings, which tended to be line drawings, scrawly; and I was doing watercolors that were more linear, and I wanted to make paintings like that, as if someone like Brice Marden were painting representationally, more than he is. But that didnt work for me because I am messier than that, he is more controlled and self contained, so it never happened. It was an interesting thought experiment but it didnt work. It shows up now as one element among others in the current work. Then for a long time I suppressed line in my work because I was exploring other elements of the paint. When Kathy Bradford came to my studio and said, but your line is so good, I became curious, and I gradually began to open up and allow a playfulness, a directness. To draw with paint.
RY: Lets wind back to the classics. The centerpiece of your show Listen Well is also the most straightforward as a narrative scene.The viewer looks toward a curtained picture window where a young man is having a direct encounter with a raptor. Behind them is a blue sky with a floating stone-like figure. It evokes a Mediterranean light. Can you tell me about this painting and how it came about?
WEK: There are a couple of elements that converge here. First, I developed a preoccupation with a figure on a Greek vase of a young man with a cloaked face. I first saw the piece at The Met about 15 years ago and then spent years looking for it again until it reappeared a couple of years ago. The figure suggested someone undergoing an initiatory descent. Then, a couple of years ago I bought a new translation of the Odyssey. My wife Shauna and I were reading it to each other. A character named Mentor is charged with guiding Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, to manhood. I had not realized that the word mentor had derived from a character in the Odyssey. And then, beyond that, the words of guidance that Mentor speaks to Telemachus, are not his at all. Athena uses Mentor as a vehicle to direct the youth into the responsibilities of manhood. All of this interfaces with my participation and leading men’s initiatory weekends that include both being mentored and mentoring. I love though that it’s a feminine godhead that guides Mentor. It’s a bit unfashionable to speak of feminine and masculine nowadays but I think there’s a loss in the prohibition. For me there’s an implied integration in the entire constellation of this particular part of the story. The painting isn’t intended though as an illustration of The Odyssey. More like an associative riff, which is how I roll. The raptor (hawk?) I think came in because there was a hawk who was sitting for hours at our back window on the Upper West Side and I drew it. That drawing migrated into the painting.
RY: I am fascinated with the idea that an image, like your Greek figure, gestates for quite a while and is then surprisingly reactivated and recombined. You have all kinds of moving line all through everything. At the Barnes, what I liked connecting with when I visited it about a year ago, was the sense of touch in all of these older masters, you really felt their brushes touching the canvas, in addition to their imagery.
WEK: That is big time for me. When I look at paintings what I want to see is whats the paint like, what is the feeling of the paint. A lot of contemporary painting doesnt have that. There are a lot of people who dont paint well, but know how to technically make an image.
RY: Yes, they dont work with the paint. The material is sublimated.
WEK: Correct, to an image that is reproducible. That is what Eric Fischl is to me. When I first saw his work in reproduction in the early 80s, I thought this is what I want to do. When I saw them in person, I thought, they are so dead.
RY: His first paintings were crude, although I thought that was the strength of the early work.
WEK: Yes, I agree with that. Back to what you say about the Barnes, the museum is crammed with such a wide range of images, not so good ones and then great ones, relatively minor work by major artists, like Matisse or Renoir, and gems by barely acknowledged artists like Jean Hugo. All these things, both familiar and weird, are crammed together, and become again, like the disjointed and piled up experience of a dream. In the early 90s I started to do paintings that were more about imagined or psychic realms. Now, I find myself back in that world. About 10 years ago I veered away and got into other more formal and constructive ideas. A painting history is a bit of a cork screw, changing and then coming back around and finding myself in the same place, but also transformed.
RY: You mean, the idea of the landscape as a psychic reflection of the person, that you dont need an actual portrait but that the entire area is like a portrait. About the Barnes, I love that there were so many minor works. It gave me a feeling of the daily life of the painter. We are taught to look at the great things, but to look at the daily trial and error, and practice of the painter gives you more freedom, along with the cross-referencing of such a rich menagerie of artifacts. Lastly, Id like to ask you about birds.
WEK: So much of my source material is from sitting places outside, or inside, looking out my window, and birds are often there. They are so plentiful. They are personages in a way. I can also consider and engage with bird as symbol, ideally in a way that isnt too reliant on fixed and received ideas of meaning. It should be relatively open ended. Something more multivalent than oh, a crow symbolizes death, or a bird symbolizes freedom.
RY: They have many different roles, they are characters within the dynamic of the narrative and witnesses who happen to stop by. They are mysterious, they are such fantastic nest builders for their families, and sing in foreign tongues.
WEK: Before images of people started walking into my paintings again, the paintings were more oriented towards landscape, and birds were the figures; a lot of different species, cranes, jays, starlings, sparrows, crows. It is a rarity for me to do a raptor, but the one in Listen Well just came out. Birds are magical and I think painting should have an element of magic and mystery to it. I hope these do.
“William Eckhardt Kohler: Across The Threshold I Belong,” curated by Kyle Staver and Janice Nowinski. The Catskills, 368 Broadway Suite #410, Tribeca, New York, NY. November 2021.
About the author: Rachel Youens is a painter, writer, and adjunct professor at Parsons School of Design, The New School, and at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY. She was a Guggenheim Fellow in 2008-09 and exhibits regularly in NYC.