David Humphrey and Gregory Amenoff’s long conversation 

Gregory Amenoff, “Chords of Memory” installation view in the Carriage House project space at Pamela Salisbury Gallery

Contributed by David Humphrey / On a sunny August afternoon, I visited Gregory Amenoff in his Kerhonkson, New York, studio, crowded with paintings and a circular palette table piled with paint. I’ve known Gregory for years and our paintings have been talking to each other but we have never had a sustained dialogue like this one. It was a great pleasure to prompt words from an artist who has had ambitious art pouring out of him for half a century. “Chords of Memory,” a survey of five decades worth of Gregory Amenoff’s work, is on view at Pamela Salisbury through November 5.

Stander, through whom the earth’s pull 
Hurdles like drink through thirst.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, from Gravitation

David Humphrey: I thought we could start by talking about place, and its relationship to consciousness and interiority. I feel that for the entire arc of your career you have been conjuring places in your paintings that are saturated with subjectivity. Does that ring true to you?

Gregory Amenoff: Yes. The early paintings I made in Boston were wax, very minimal, thick and layered. They were simple and loosely geometric. I did a painting called Galva, which is the small town in Illinois where my father was from. I think giving that title to the painting represented the nostalgia I had being from the Midwest and feeling somewhat uncomfortable on the East Coast. To be honest after all these years I still feel a bit out of place so the paintings could be seen as replacing my actual place with a fictional or invented place where I am more comfortable. “Conjuring” that fiction is an accurate description of how I feel many painters establish an alternate space to the one they literally inhabit—a space that is more real to them. Many writers have found power in exile…that is a bit overly dramatic to apply that notion to me, but Bob Dylan said in the film No Direction Home “I was born very far from where I’m supposed to be, and so I’m on my way home.” I love that! Naming that early painting Galva was the first inkling I had that landscape would be a primary organizing principle to much of what was as to come.  

Gregory Amenoff, Galva, 1974, oil and wax on paper, 66 x 66 inches

In that vein, in the ’70s I started taking trips. I’d just go off, mostly alone, to places like Louisiana which was first on my list since, along with the landscape, food and music were at the center of both the culture and my passions.  Later I went to Texas, and then eventually New Mexico where I found my spiritual home. In the South I found a kind of intensity, an atmosphere of vibrancy, a certain fecundity of flora and fauna. For example, I spent some time in the cedar swamps in and around the bayous of rural Louisiana, ate the local fare and tracked down music venues which in rural southern Louisiana played Zydeco and the white French Cajun music. Then I’d come back to Boston, where I was living, and make paintings that were a response to the atmosphere and form I had experienced. I took pictures but I never looked at them. Again, conjuring is a great concept for this process…funnily enough I did magic quite seriously when I was young.  

After these trips I reconfigured my experiences in the most subjective way possible, trying to capture both the feeling of the place, often concentrating on the unseen part of the landscape. I came to think I was painting nature inside out.

DH: What I remember about those paintings is that they have kind of a skin, a density of surface that carried over into the newer, energized, conjuring of place. You somehow made a connection between a material presence on the surface and a vivid sense of imagined locations. I feel that the objects in your paintings, like the locations, are described as if they were there before you, which I think is an exciting paradox. The objects can look like branches or mountains but they can’t be named. They’re somehow saturated with the mind they issued from.

GA: Yeah, the surface was very important, and the wax enabled that. Folks used to say that the paintings were like elephant skin. I even inlaid a couple of them with gold leaf. Elephant skin with gold leaf! But it was a simple way of exaggerating and giving light and materiality to drawing. The physical quality for me always, and still does, make it real; it’s not just an image. I’m not a figurative painter, but I paint as though I am. The forms and physicality at that time had to feel like a body or have a reality to their presence. However, these paintings had no light—but later on, light became a primary concern for me.

DH: I‘m thinking of the way the past haunts location, that each location has a very rich and perhaps troubled or disturbing character. I feel like your paintings, in the way they tip towards the symbolic, are trying to give a sense of that past without naming it.

GA: Well, I stumbled into a symbolic language in the late ’80s, and it was a surprise to me. I started using a thorn shape, which was the first time I acknowledged that I was using a symbol, or something that had a specific connection to something you could name, that could be understood historically. That symbolic quality further developed a bit later when the thorn form led to an entire body of work. However. more typical of the mid 80’s was a painting called Radix, or root. It was a painting of the world that you don’t see, the under-world.  I did paintings with titles like Subterrain, paintings that grasped at something that is unknown, and yet still had a clarity if that makes sense. Most of the early work up until the very late 80’s had no symbolic character. That came in later work.

Gregory Amenoff, Night Moves, 1977, oil on canvas, 63 x 95 inches
Gregory Amenoff, Eleuthera, 1977, oil on prepared board, 9 x 16 inches
Gregory Amenoff, Radix, 1983, oil on canvas, 82 x 72 inches

DH: I think that makes sense. I feel that when you conjure an image, you are on the one hand laboring against language. I know you love poetry, and the way poetry has the power to ring associations. But at the same time you want to craft a vivid, almost hyperbolic presence, a specificity.

GA: Yes! I think hyperbolic is a good word, I never thought of it that way, but I think it’s true. I think that the hyperbolic comes from the excessive surface, and exaggeration has a performative element to it. That’s a part of who I am. The work at that time was assertive. That is perhaps the boldness of youth—not subtle but assertive.  For many years I looked back at that work it made me uncomfortable. After you leave it, the way that an artist leaves work, you look back at what you did a year ago and think, “That isn’t what I want to be doing.” Then later you start to see advantages, good decisions, but it takes some time to see the value of early work.

DH: Ideally, you want the work to be bigger than you. Your feelings about it may change and evolve, but hopefully the artwork has a capacity to be more than what you put into it. I feel like there’s something that happens on your surfaces in which every part is vying to come forward. The surface is energized so that backgrounds, foregrounds, and adjacencies are all asserting themselves with an urgency that pushes forward and produces the peculiar Amenoff buzz.

GA: Yeah, I often think of the elements of paintings as parts of speech—you have nouns and you’ve got adjectives, and you’ve got adverbs and you’ve got possibly even articles functioning as connective tissue., I don’t know if you have those kinds of words, letters, those kinds of thoughts. But I do, I’ve always gone back and forth; Sometimes the paintings feel very piecemeal, this is here and that is there. Sometimes I work for more unity. I go back and forth about what I expect from a painting. I like the way things can shove or jostle for position. I think that’s what you’re talking about.

DH: Yeah. The shapes insist; they nudge or shove against each other in a kind of dynamic sociability. 

GA: I remember talking to Chuck Close some time ago and I said, as part of a longer conversation; “Well, I don’t consider myself an abstract painter.” And he said, “I don’t consider myself a representational painter.” And I thought, “That’s perfect.” I painted things and he represented things but codified them. For me, Close’s small dots/shapes surpass the portraits in terms of subject matter. Hence, they were arguably abstract.

I think paintings have to do with believability. I had to believe in the forms and the world they suggested. The image was always secondary to the paint. Now I don’t feel that way. I can make a geometric form and can believe in it, but it’s a different thing. I needed to believe in it like the way you’re sitting across from me. I wanted that feeling. Or the way a tree is. Trees are fascinating because they’re the tallest things that grow on the earth; they’re mythic in many ways. You look at Casper David Friedrich, the solitary tree, those stumps, those kinds of presences. Those are stand-ins for the figure. I didn’t speak to that idea very often those earlier days. It seemed a very anti-abstract admission.  Now it seems like an ok point of view.  All those issues that create distinctions between approaches to painting seem silly. All the problems are the same for all of us regardless of style and content. When it comes down to it, I don’t believe in doctrines—not one bit!   

DH: I think one could make a case for your paintings that they articulate a kind of animism. They present the natural world as saturated with an almost conscious quality of life that you are channeling, and that maybe intersects with your own subjectivity.

GA: I think animism is a really exciting idea, especially today. Although it was and is a philosophical idea I was unaware of it until I stumbled upon it when I encountered the work of Joseph Yoakum, one of the great self-taught artists. I first saw his work at the Phyllis Kind gallery when I was visiting Chicago. This is late ’70s, maybe 1980. Despite the fact that I own several of his works I don’t think I’ve been influenced by it visually, but I think it articulates an idea of Gaia, a notion related to animism. You also see it in late 19th century American paintings, embodied in the work of the luminists. Perhaps that’s more spiritual than animist. The New England painter Fitz Hugh Lane portrayed light without a source, almost as an object. The luminists were a subtle follow up to the brash Hudson River school, who were activating light as a political element not as a presence.  Sorry to go off.

DH: That is dramatically evident in your paintings. This leads me to another question – I feel that your paintings are haunted. And they’re haunted not just by the life of things, but also by the history of the forms. I know that you care a lot about early modernist American painting, Dove, Hartley, Burchfield, O’Keeffe and the spirit that they tried to articulate. Their forms resonate into your work, but perhaps the individuals themselves have a presence.

GA: Yeah, it’s always been that way. I have told this story many times, but in 1974 or 75, I came down from Boston to see Barbara Haskell’s Arthur Dove show at the Whitney. It was the first of a series of shows that she did that were so influential because they elevated American art, which was ignored in academic art history culture. American art wasn’t acknowledged or discussed until Abstract Expressionism. Starting in the late 19th century—you’ve got Symbolism splits into Surrealism and Expressionism, all three are European movements, and then later Picasso offers another distinct movement…..Cubism which turned the art world upside down. Cubism was seen as a powerful strategy and ruled by a formal and conceptual theory. When I first saw Dove, in Chicago I believe, before the Haskell show, I compared him unfavorably with O’Keeffe. But after the Whitney show I felt he was more adventurous than O’Keeffe, with all respect to amazing achievements.  When I saw the Dove show, as per my affinity to the man himself I saw myself—almost literally. I saw what I understood as Americanness, which is not something you can easily talk about now, as its seen as xenophobic, but I used to talk about it a lot. When I was in college I took an art history class that used a very common book at the time by Werner Haftmann that was completely Eurocentric. I don’t think there were any Americans in the book at all. But at the same time the class was revelatory. I learned about the Blue Rider and about Kandinsky – another big influence. Later, Haskell did a Hartley show and then a Burchfield show. I think I told her one time how important it was to me, that it was like recognizing myself. Having shown a few times in Europe in the 80’s and 90’s I came to realize how un-European my work was and still is. 

DH: I think one of the things you share with those artists is an appetite to embody light, to have this ephemeral thing that we call light become thickened into a presence. Objects, as they’re illuminated in that light, become liberated from gravity to become a kind of embodied spirit. Perhaps that is a species of American spirituality. Robert Pincus-Whitten, in one of his interviews with you referred to it as “revealed religion”… something like that.

GA: Those American artists mean a lot to me but I do love enormous amounts of European work. The beautiful thing about painting is its unbroken history; you never run out of inspiration. Think of it: from the Sienese painters to Bruegel then to the Dutch and Spanish still life vanitas paintings then Vermeer, Chardin, Gericault, Delacroix and on and on… all these artists could be inspiring purely visually or  inspiring on a more interior level. What appeals to me about the American painters has to do with a lack of theory and a lack of guile. There was no strategy. Cubism, for all its value and how important it is, always had a discernible theoretical position. Even the structure of Impressionism can be defined in a way by language.

It’s harder to define that with Hartley, Burchfield, Dove, Alice Trumbull Mason or to a figure painter like Alice Neel. This direct view of the world extends to Canada with the Group of Seven and the best painter of that time up north, Emily Carr. It’s is less tangible, harder to find it there. The work of those artists doesn’t grow out of theory, it grows out of perception and mystery and longing – getting to an essence. Picasso is an incredible artist but I have no interest in him at all. A Bonnard or Joan Mitchell will suffice big time.

DH: Did you find yourself challenged in the ’80s and ’90s, when irony and theory rolled in and subjectivity was treated with some suspicion?

GA: Absolutely. I remember going away in 1985 for the summer, as I always did, to New Mexico. It was the heyday of Neo-expressionism. Though I didn’t consider myself working in that terrain, I had been connected to it by virtue of my penchant for the gestural.  So I went away in June, came back in September and the art world was upside down! Sonnabend Gallery had a very influential show of Peter Halley, Jeff Koons, Meyer Weisman, Haim Steinbach and Ashley Bickerton. I overheard a dealer say to a collector, “We’re not feeling anymore. We’re thinking.” That was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard anybody say. I couldn’t believe it. There’s plenty to think about in all kinds of work. I had no interest in chasing that theoretical monkey.

I’m serious about developing the work in different directions, and I embrace different ways of approaching it. I’ve read some French theory but history, science and novels are far more inspiring to me. My late friend, the linguist Geoff Nunberg, said that Jean Baudrillard told him, “I have no idea what these artists are doing or why they attach their work to my writing.” I came back that fall and suddenly I was considered a Neo-expressionist without having been in any of those figurative shows. What we call the art world for the last couple centuries, to use a metaphor, paints with a broad and sloppy brush.  All we artists can do is to close the studio door and make work that is true to our sensibility…the rest be damned. Chasing the proverbial art bus as it makes long stops of current fashion is a lost cause.

Gregory Amenoff, After the Gauntlet
1983, oil on canvas, 67 x 96 inches
Gregory Amenoff, Anima, 1984, oil on canvas, 80 x 86 inches
Gregory Amenoff, Pinion, 1987, oil on canvas, 88 x 78 inches
Gregory Amenoff, Retablo Del Infierno, 1989, rabbitskin glue, pigment on board, 46 x 46 inches

DH: I’ve always thought of you as a powerful empath, that your relationship to music is attentive and heartfelt. You are treasured and valued as a teacher. I think it has to do with your ability to look at somebody’s work and really empathize with it, to get inside of it and have a warm living connection to it. You’ve developed that into a sustained and rewarding pedagogy.

GA: I can’t lay claim to any particular approach with regards to my dialogs with students, but I think part of effective teaching is to understand where people are from, literally. The first thing I ask a student is “Where are you from?” And sometimes, “What do your folks do, and what do you read, what movies do you see etc?” I to try to get a sense of not just what their work looks like, but how they arrive at it, what’s on their wall and what strains of art/artists, in particular historically, do they find inspiring. 

DH: The living person.

GA: Exactly. That’s the pleasure of teaching. I think it’s an advantage to an artist to broaden their frame of reference. Teaching in an interdisciplinary program; I hate that word, but that is the reality of where I’ve been for nearly 30 years at Columbia. I’m forced to respond to things created by artists generations younger than me.  Its an exciting place to be.  I’ve been on many committees for grants, some of the big ones, and sometimes you work with peer artists on the panel that haven’t had to bend their ideas about art, having had little contact with younger artists and they are unable to say or understand anything that’s outside of their wheelhouse. I’m certainly more perceptive, more attentive and more knowledgeable about painting but it’s been wonderful to learn from other approaches to art. The beauty of working with young people is that it keeps your thinking young and less judgmental. We all have our tastes, but for me, rushing to judgement about forms of visual expression is stupid. It stops you from looking and thinking and looking again.

My approach to painting is definitely traditional. I am coming out of classical ways of thinking about painting. I heard an interview recently with Jacqueline Humphries, who I respect a good deal. She’s really pushing painting and staying in that groove. It’s not provisional and not about failure. She’s trying to make successful paintings but sideways and through the back door. The pleasure for me is understanding what she’s doing and realizing that it is not what I’m doing. I’m not trying to refigure the medium; I’m approaching painting through the materials, color, form and history and so is she, however it contrasts to what I do. I find it easy to jump to a judgmental framework but I don’t find that fruitful.  You miss the value and complexity of another sensibility. I think respect is a valuable framework when looking at artwork; taste can be crippling. I love letting other approaches to painting bounce around in my head. 

DH: My impression is that every painting for you is an adventure, that you launch into each one with a loose idea of what it’s going to be, and that the image emerges out of a process of making, marking, touching, revising and shifting. The vitality is connected to an improvisation that is crucial to your image development.

GA: I think it’s all about making; that word is so important. A need to make things is inherent to most artists whether the world is demanding their objects or not. You used the word adventure… what a great word to describe the surprises that occur in the studio. To allow those surprises, to inspire a move into territory that may be uncomfortable, but also provocative, is what leads to new discoveries, new paths.  My father-in-law, Paul Resika, is almost 95 and continues to enter his studio every day with hope and true curiosity. Each new painting is an affirmation of the commitment to making, and the joy of the possibility of that wild ride. 

DH: Maybe it’s connected to the hand, to touch, to this gooey materiality that you apply at arm’s reach, which has the power to transform into things like light, objects, space.

GA: Maybe; my work is very different from yours, for instance. You’re creating a novella with characters that are edited and refined, each one stands in for whatever it is and wants to be. There’s a lot of ambiguity, and that’s the beauty of it, right? No vagary, but a lot of ambiguity—with open ended meanings. To use your word—the gooey material itself is the key to its value. It is by nature an indeterminate material with no built-in point of view.  So the job of the artist is to coax that goo into some kind of a sense and cohesion while still retaining the possibility of other directions not taken. The GPS offered by the goo is somewhat broken and requires a lot of rerouting along the way. 

DH: I’m taking this as your religious credo. Perhaps. I’d like to talk about your altar project in Cologne. I’m thinking about the role of religious painting, historically, and your idea of making a fiction.

GA: Well, it’s pretty simple. I lived in New Mexico in the summers, and spent a lot of time there. I experienced going to the local small chapel. It’s now quite celebrated, but it was very simple back In the ’70s and ’80s. It is the Santuario de Chimayo, just north of Santa Fe. There is an atmosphere of the Spanish Catholic influence, a dark feeling of imagery/light in that chapel. There was a niche in the church with a sculpture of Christ with blood coming out of his hands, bloody and dark with brightly colored artificial flowers surrounding the cross. The beauty of that contradictory shrine was, and is, incredible and radically different from anything I experienced in Northern Illinois. 

I did some work that responded to elements in that chapel and was contacted by a priest, Father Friedhelm Mennekes, who saw some work of mine, and asked me if I was interested in coming over and making an altarpiece in his church, which functioned as an unofficial Kunsthalle. It’s a small church called St. Peter, but beautiful and really fantastic. I thought, “How can I even approach this?” I had made a drawing that had a thorn form, like a stem. The stem/thorn was framed by a form that was very much like a human body and it was strange to understand what I had made. When the stem form morphed into to a thorn shape I knew I was in a symbolic land, which was a new thing for me. I was no longer mimicking the natural world but had drifted into working with a body shape whose core center was the thorn. I mean, how charged is that?

Gregory Amenoff, Altarpiece for St. Peter’s Church, Cologne Germany (Left Panel)
1990, Rabbitskin glue, Pigment on Board
100″ x 61 3/4 inches
Gregory Amenoff, Alterpiece For St. Peter’s Church, Cologne Germany (Center Panel)
1990, Rabbitskin glue, Pigment on Board
100″ x 100 inches
Gregory Amenoff, Alterpiece For St. Peter’s Church, Cologne Germany (Right Panel)
1990, Rabbitskin glue, Pigment on Board
100″ x 61 inches
Gregory Amenoff, Alterpiece For St. Peter’s Church, Cologne Germany (3 Panel), 1990, Rabbitskin glue, Pigment on Board

DH: It sure connects to the Crown of Thorns. Graphically, I think of your thorns as dynamic triangles that have the power to cut into the space and, in a way, ambiguate that space; they do a dance with what they’re not. The angular thorn shape carves another thorn shape from the negative space. That particular dynamic seems consistent with the energy of almost all your work.

GA: I hadn’t thought of the negative space in that way but you are right as the image itself activates the field around it. I’m a very Northern-thinking person but as I had seen a good deal of Italian art I set out to see the altarpieces in the low countries. In Bruges I saw the Memling, and in Ghent, saw the Van Eyck altarpiece. Then I went south to see the most amazing one in Alsace Lorraine, in Colmar, Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece; which is breathtaking.

And speaking of energizing the space, the beauty of those paintings, and particularly in the Grunewald, you could look at any six-inch square of the surface and it embodies the whole story of violence and release.  If you follow the beam that forms the wooden cross itself you can see it torques and twists as it makes its way from the base up and out to the hands of Christ. The wooden beam itself is in a sense tortured.  So the most inert object in the painting is, in a sense, given life and a suggestion of death. Brilliant. 

DH: The timber.

GA: It shifts but adds weight. Its visual communication is totally linked to the content but is a simple thing, not an illustration. It’s an actual physical quality. It’s the root of Expressionism. The hands are twisted, and expressive, and exaggerated. They’re fully in pain and have a drama on their own.

DH: You’re saying that the painting itself embodies the content while, at the same time staging the body of Christ as a mysterious agent of transformation.

GA: Totally staged and transformational. I saw all that historic work and then spent some time in Cologne at the church. I made two trips then went back to the studio and thought about what to do. I used stand-ins for everything. The first image on the left uses a classical proportion, a hundred by sixty, with the flanking imagery. I plotted it out, probably a little lame, a little lumpy, maybe too crude and obvious. I did the crown of thorns as a face, huge. In this space I used distemper (glue and pigment) because it was watery and I could work into it. I didn’t want to make something that was expressive in my usual way. I wanted it to have light.

I made the center panel square which has the cruciform. And the pikes that taunted Jesus. But I painted forms within the cross that are in a state oƒ flux. The third panel is my attempt to speak to the Ascension;  what has risen, what it is to escape this world. But you know, people asked me at the time; “Why are you doing this?” It was the time of AIDS, and the Catholic Church was making a lot of mistakes. But the priest I was working with was very progressive, and he did a lot of amazing shows, too many to enumerate here. With his support and the long history of artists producing images of this story I went ahead to create my version. It was installed and remained up for several months. I think it worked.  I went in full steam and designed vestments to be worn for Good Friday and Easter Sunday– produced by the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia. 

Gregory Amenoff, The Starry Pole III
1994, Oil on Canvas, 96 x 70 inches
Gregory Amenoff, The Starry Pole IV
1994, Oil on Canvas, 96 x 70 inches
Gregory Amenoff, Arbor, 2000, oil on canvas, 60 x 144 inches

DH: Here’s another question that’s maybe related to your altar project. I feel like that your paintings are establishing a connection to what I would call the body of the world. You don’t have bodies or figures in your paintings, but you’ve brought a bodily presence to the world of non-human things. Do you feel that you are performing this in the shadow of eco-catastrophe. Does the environmental crisis have a place in the way you think about painting now? 

GA: It’s important to think about it, and I’ve thought about it. In the mid 2000’s I went off on a tangent for about six months and made 30 or 40 iceberg paintings. I was doing some monoprints at a print shop and ran out of color. I thought this might be a good time to move towards abstraction and away from the inorganic. I love the artist Rockwell Kent and his images of icebergs and thought they are perfect for the abstraction they provided as inspiration. They’re faceted, they’re geometric, yet there’s a color thing that happens when the freshwater hits the seawater. And so I made these small paintings.

DH: Icebergs can function as an emblem of climate.

GA: Exactly. I was contacted by a high-end environmental magazine called Orion, and they asked if they could use my painting to illustrate the end of the world. And I thought, “I get it, but wow, that’s the last thing I was thinking about.” So they used it in an article about global warming and now icebergs have a fatality implicit in their presence. I first thought of them as visually entertaining, but obviously that view has shifted. 

DH: But don’t we love the capacity of an image to adapt to new historic circumstances?

GA: One hopes so. I think of the paintings more personally, though, more emotional, more connected to the state of the world. 

DH: It feels like we are starting to need to correlate our relationship to the end of our own life with the end of human life on the planet. Maybe this is an anticipatory mourning or anxiety. The end is becoming  vivid.

GA: I think again of Philip Guston and how he is such a huge influence on many generations, ours in particular. His late paintings are profound in the manner they deal with mortality, and tragedy in our lives. 

This question of mortality is really what got me involved in the Dylan Thomas poem, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower and the second line… Drives my green age.” As the poem continues, that “green age” has slipped into inevitable decline. 

DH: I think a truly vital painting is one that can argue with itself. You’ve got the vitality reflected in making the thing, an energy that asserts an almost utopian desire to bring something new into the world. And then you can have the darkest possible content inside the picture that is still is underwritten by and maybe undermined by the radiant energy of making.

Gregory Amenoff, Labrador Sea XVI 2004, Oil on panel, 18 x 18 inches
Gregory Amenoff, Morning at Le Cannet, 2006, oil on panel, 38 x 42 inches
Gregory Amenoff, Light Trellis, 2006, oil on panel, 34 x 38 inches
Gregory Amenoff, Woodbine #1 (Dream), 2008, oil on panel, 19 3/4 x 19 3/4 inches

GA: I’ve made a lot of very dark paintings. I was looking over the titles of my paintings while assembling images for this book and noticed they’re so dark: Fatal Attraction, Lament etc. The titles are crazy. I think I was trying to assert content that I felt nervous about. Titles are difficult. I’ve often thought that finding good titles are almost as hard as making a painting.

Going back earlier in this conversation, it is a full-out affirmation of life to take a white canvas and start to manipulate it and build a world that is an alternative to the world we live in. There is a narrative by Albert Pinkham Ryder from the 1880’s.  He is a young man trying to copy nature and he realizes there’s no reason to copy nature but rather to engage in a translation of what is before him. He describes with sense of urgency mixing big piles of brown, green and white paint and laying it on the canvas with a palette knife. Then in a voice of wonder and realization sees that the painting was now “better than nature” for it was fresh and new. “Better than nature” has been often quoted because it aims at the responsibility an artist must accept…to construct a new world with power and perhaps a degree of transformative magic.

DH: Straight into punk rock.

GA: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It’s like, “I’m taking charge with these three chords, and that’s all you need”. The Ramones figured that out and the Sex Pistols copied them. Punk was an American phenom. 

Gregory Amenoff, Fin de Siècle, 2012,
colored pencil on paper, sizes variable 6 x 6 to 12 x 14 inches

DH: I think I said earlier that your early work militates against gravity; things are airborne, suspended in energized fields. Perhaps in some of your more recent representational work gravity is reasserting itself in a way that bears on this question.

GA: Isn’t what you are describing the challenge that we all are faced with? Gravity is always an issue for painters. After all our oldest pigments are oxides of iron. Those colors are heavy in every respect. But gravity as you point out is a metaphor. For me, we have religion and other spiritual practices to escape our “feet of clay” bound so firmly to the earth. There is a desire of human beings to elevate themselves, and to become weightless or as you say, airborne. I don’t have such a formal and institutional spiritual practice, instead mine is centered in painting. With visual art and certainly in poetry and music, you have the possibility to soar. Therein, you discover struggle, doubt and joy.

Gregory Amenoff, Solid State III, 2019, woodcut, edition of 12, 17 x 17 inches
Gregory Amenoff, Solid State IV, 2019, woodcut, edition of 12, 17 x 17 inches
Gregory Amenoff, Solid State V, 2019, woodcut, edition of 12, 17 x 17 inches

Gregory Amenoff, “A Survey of Five Decades”, Pamela Salisbury Gallery, 362 1/2 Warren Street
Hudson, New York. Through Nov 5, 2023.

About the author: David Humphrey has been the subject of 44 solo exhibitions including McKee Gallery, NY; Sikkema Jenkins, NY; Fredric Snitzer Gallery, Miami; and Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati. His work is in the collections of several museums and public collections including Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston as well as the Saatchi Gallery, London. He is currently teaching in the MFA program of Columbia. He was awarded the Rome Prize in 2008. Humphrey has had five solo exhibitions at Fredericks & Freiser in New York City.


  1. Great! Long overdue. Hindsight makes going there seem like outtakes that vibrate. Voodoo. It’s hard to gauge how much the blind spots influence a kind of confidence that it takes to spark these brilliant paintings. Artists on Artists used to be a thing. But we were young and just rolled with it. I wish this was on video.

  2. Such a wonderful exchange between David and Gregory. I feel it really goes to the core of the essence of art, it’s making, the adventures it allows one to explore through the unique beings of those giving us this gift. Yes this is what art is and this is what it can do!

  3. I have learned a lot from Gregory over the years, not only from his paintings, but also from his eloquence. His words give voice to many painters who are driven to “conjure” their response to an ever-startling and display of light, color, space, and form in the landscape. And David, thanks for asking the right questions.

  4. Best interview I’ve read in memory! I’m awed by both your articulation of experience and your paintings! Congratulations!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *