Some paintings are verbs, some are nouns, and some are adjectives
R. H. Quaytman in a conversation with Herwig Kempinger
The Secession is opening an exhibition of works by American artist R. H. Quaytman during VIENNA ART WEEK. Herwig Kempinger, President of the Secession, spoke to the artist about her method, about the “hieroglyphic reading” of her works and about metaphors.
Herwig Kempinger: You work in chapters. Why is this reference to books?
R. H. Quaytman: Originally I used the metaphor of a book just as a way to describe an idea I wanted to enforce, which was that each exhibition is continuous and that there is a kind of growth and connection between ongoing exhibitions. I guess working in chapters implies that there is something that you’re not seeing in the exhibition, something that’s larger, and that word reminds you of that.
Herwig Kempinger: So each chapter is always a distinct show.
R. H. Quaytman: Yes, but as they develop. The subject matter begins making its own connections and repetitions, as if the book was zeroing in on something.
Herwig Kempinger: To speak about your show in Vienna, you have decided to research two baroque paintings by the Flemish artist Otto van Veen from the holdings of Kunsthistorisches Museum, and even supported their restoration. How did you come across these paintings?
R. H. Quaytman: It was a complete accident. I’m friends with an art historian in Brussels named Sabine van Sprang, who is close friends with Gerlinde Gruber, a fellow art historian and curator presently working at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Gerlinde mentioned to Sabine that she had discovered two paintings in an old, unused exhibition space of the museum. It probably took a female art historian to become interested in these very unusual paintings. Now, the funny thing is, I had been researching in previous chapters some of the issues also raised by these two old paintings, namely Persia, Amazons, sexuality and history as relayed by images. Also, I love going into those rooms of museums where restoration takes place and learning about the material aspects of paintings from restoration experts – how paintings deteriorate, how they’re stored, how they’re saved, how they travel through time … I’ve already made paintings based on x-rays, infrared, and thermography, first with Malevich’s “White Square” at MoMA and more recently with Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus.”
Herwig Kempinger: You change your focus of research depending on where the show is, but your means more or less stay the same. You work with painting, photography, silkscreen …
R. H. Quaytman: I would say the consistent elements to my methodology are the following: I always make paintings. They are always on gessoed panels with a beveled edge and their dimensions are interrelated. There are ten sizes I can choose from. The five rectangles are all golden sections that have five reciprocal nesting squares. Over time I developed a system to determine the installation of distances between paintings based on their hypotenuse. Also I sometimes put paintings in or on shelves.
Herwig Kempinger: If you put one painting before another on a shelf, is it a combination that always stays the same? Or do you sometimes change it completely?
R. H. Quaytman: It can be changed depending on the context. It is important that each and every painting “works” as a singular image or idea not depending on its placement perhaps in front of or behind another painting.
Herwig Kempinger: So it’s a temporary arrangement in a way.
R. H. Quaytman: Yes, unless explicitly stated or unless I have nailed one painting to another, which I do on occasion, the paintings can be hung separately or differently from how they were first shown. But I began to notice that sometimes collectors who had acquired several works were unsure how to hang them as a group. That’s why I started coming up with guidelines, because I started seeing my paintings installed together in ways that did not activate what I like to call a hieroglyphic reading. I found that if I used the internal geometry this problem was alleviated.
Herwig Kempinger: Do you sometimes tell collectors to rearrange paintings?
R. H. Quaytman: No. I usually have very little contact with collectors. And I understand that paintings have to leave, to do what they do on their own. What interests me though is how powerfully one painting is affected by its neighbor. This painting is different because of that painting next to it. Geometry never fails to ignite those correspondences.
Herwig Kempinger: Because the paintings talk with each other …
R. H. Quaytman: That’s exactly it. It’s like a sentence: some paintings are verbs, some are nouns, and some are adjectives. I suppose I can only speak about what happens through metaphors like these.