Fred Gutzeit‘s transition from his earliest explorations of pattern in the 1960s to his current output has it’s roots on the Bowery. He has the momentous ability to be both absurdly aware of his contemporaries while riding his own theoretical momentum. Gutzeit has always been one to mutate forms. Artistic triumphs and defeats are opportunities to realign his curiosity with his work, and this can often mean a completely new direction. I spoke with Gutzeit and attempted to acquire the understanding of where he’d been and where is going next.
Lynn Maliszewski: So what are you working on right now?
Fred Gutzeit: I am grappling with how to be the most natural in doing the SigNature series. I’ve frozen and stylized gesture in these paintings. I consider it a classical way of thinking, where you take something and you shape it to get it to some kind of ideal. I balance it out by working with a process where my line and thus hand gesture aren’t too controlled; the line is imperfect. Right now I’m concerned with what I call ‘color buzz.’ I’m working with color like a musical chord. I’m not concerned with the gestural, physical performance part of it. It’s not Richard Anuszkiewicz and it’s not Willem De Kooning. I’m falling between the cracks as far as what the process is, but I live with that because I have an idea of developing a statement with color and developing the forms. That trumps the gesture for now. That trumps the gesture for now.
LM: Your abstracted landscapes were the first works of yours I connected with. They were flat, amoeba-like renderings of energy, which has been a thread in your work since from the digital renderings to your current SigNature series. What role does self-control play in taming such wild moments?
FG: Making art is making things clear, so you have to control things in a certain way. Painting, for me, is organic and implies a kind of process where you can do something and change it and develop it in the spirit of Matisse or Manet. It’s not just creating the finished object. The finished object is important, but it’s that past of the finished object that makes it a painting. But there doesn’t necessarily have to be paint. The painting itself might be photographed, digitized, shifted around on the computer, looked at again, changed with more paint or by pasting something onto the canvas, whatever gets it to that feeling of completeness.
LM: What gets the creative juices flowing?
FG: A good night’s sleep, going out on a good date, being on vacation or reading something. When I sit down to paint I usually pick up right where I left off automatically. When I’m looking into it and trying to solve problems, I’m thinking of all kinds of ideas. Too many ideas come up when I’m painting. This has been the process for almost as long as I’ve been working in art. Extra ideas are kind of maddening because I can’t work on everything at once so I jot it down in sketchbooks throughout the years. There was a time when I would get in a state of frustration about what to work on. Ideas were all over the place. In 1994, I started a sketchbook, re-drawing pages from earlier sketchbooks. I’ve never written poetry, but I’ve had one poem I was trying to write for decades and it starts out, “Stitches, Bridges, Words and Vision.” That’s as far as I got, but I thought it might be an interesting group show. They’re like money in the bank and my process now is cashing in the bank account. I’m looking back at the sketchbooks and pulling things in.
LM: You’ve been a practicing artist for nearly 50 years, and you’ve embraced a number of styles and modes of production. Can you tell us a little bit about your train of development?
FG: When I first really settled in New York in 1967, abstraction was the thing to do. I really wanted to be hip so everything I did was voiding the figure in some way, but I implied the figure by including work gloves. That was the human element. I wanted to make a comment on industrial society and products and so forth. I would see work gloves as I walked down the street, either left there or thrown away, and it resonated. I thought my work gloves might refer to something that’s been done, an act completed. I had a whole collection of them and I did installations with them. The work glove was a product, but it was an anti-product. It was my idea of conceptual art. Believe me, nobody understood it. Then I started making objects out of the work gloves. I got a bunch of cotton gloves that I soaked in acrylic then built them up. Everything that I put on them was like an analogue for activities that had been part of that glove. I did a series of those in 1968, and then I did them again in 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982. I was teaching a course at the University of the Arts, then the Philadelphia College of Art, and it was everything but painting so I figured I would learn how to do installations myself. The work gloves were like building blocks I could mix.
LM: In certain incarnations they feel like amputated digits, paralyzed and useless. But you shifted them into this moment of positivity, where they were morphed into an object of beauty, a trophy of hard work. They also fluctuated, even in your own language, between being sculptural independents and painterly components.
FG: Right, the installations defined the space with objects and the gloves transformed when they were placed in different places on the wall, climbing up a column, or attached together to make a screen. Then I was walking down the street in the West Village and looked through this fence and saw a bunch of kids playing off in the distance on the playground. Looking through the chain link I saw bright jerseys and different colors, and became aware that that was all I could see. It started me on a whole series of painting the chain link which, at the time, was my way of being a Minimalist. It suggested an idea about society for me, where fences make good neighbors. I was working within severe limits and defining a space in a simple, geometric way. I would show one link in the painting with a different color or texture behind it. The link was like a neon light line. This implied psychology to me, Freudian psychology, where the link was the ego, the linear idea, and the field was the unconscious. I think it’s re-emerging in my way of dealing with a line. Now the line comes from people’s handwriting, taking the initial out of their signature and placing it on a field.
LM: The fence defines, and the viewer must then consider which side of it they are on. Sounds like an internal conflict many young artists must consider regularly. Without the line, you’re floating in ambiguity in relation to space and that isn’t necessarily the best thing.
FG: Right. I was talking about these things when everyone was seeking freedom. When I was working out these ideas trying to come out of Minimalism, I was thinking about limits. I thought that I was all over the place. I needed something to define my methods. Now I’m working with a line and I’m limited to the form that somebody else generates but I’m taking it and shaping it. I’m still trying to keep to the spirit of the person’s gesture and not change it completely. It’s my play on identity and simultaneously a newly created identity. I was thinking of these as having the same kind of truth and identity as somebody’s hair-do. You can take on a particular look and you can decide whether it’s somebody’s profound personality or not. Although we are really quite different, I kind of admire Andy Warhol for the identity he could create. Whatever he did, it seemed like it just unconsciously happened.
LM: The SigNatures feel conceptually similar in their flashy aesthetic that is really more of an obscuration of identity. The slickness fools you into thinking design, but it does more to make the subject ambiguous than it does to reveal who they are in the way graphic design might.
FG: Portraits are vehicles for commentary but can consider many different aspects. Chuck Close, for example, never referred to his work as “portraits.” He was at Yale and the spirit was abstraction, so he named them process paintings when he started out. What amazed me was how his process developed. In his film, he talked about his painting technique and I was recently struck by the sentiment. When he starts the painting it’s just kind of random colors. He’s not really fussy about it, he’s putting colors down he feels might work in larger blocks. You’re reading it like you would a Seurat at a distance, where the colors pulse together. Then he goes in and, on the colors that are there, say there’s a cerulean blue, he might go and take a light yellow blob over there, and they mix and make a light green from a distance. He’s nuancing the colors. He might take a color that’s totally wrong and add another color to it and make it right. I think this is a great painting process, where you have your idea at the beginning and you can kind of let it unravel, then work into it to bring it back into focus. I’m trying to apply it to what I’m doing. He’s working within this extreme limit for the portrait that he’s doing. You can’t make it go all over the place spatially, you can’t make it go all over the place as far as color goes. He managed to inject creativity into two naturalized techniques, generating these fantastic colors that ring.