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Transcript: Wrestling With Artist Carroll Dunham

Guest Carroll Dunham

BY Charlotte Burns
executive editor of In Other Words

Published
In Podcast Transcripts

“There’s no goal. There’s no sort of: ‘A-ha, I finally achieved whatever.’ It’s a kind of lustful driving forward.”

“I’ve certainly had plenty of moments of wondering how stupid this is, and what a complete waste of time, and what a terrible artist I am, et cetera, et cetera. You know, that sort of goes with the territory.”

“I started realizing it’s such a horrible thing to do that you can’t really call it your hobby, because it’s just too horrible. It would be like having self-mutilation as your hobby.”

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Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns and joining me today we have the artist Carroll Dunham and Allan Schwartzman. Thank you both for being here.

I asked Allan before we began: “Is there anything you especially want to ask?” and Allan said, that to his mind, you are one of the greatest painters of the last 40 years. Allan, how long have you known the work for and how did you—

Carroll Dunham: You came to my studio and—

Allan Schwartzman: I went to your studio around ’82, ’83.

Carroll Dunham: Yes.

Allan Schwartzman: With Barbara Gladstone.

Carroll Dunham: Exactly.

Allan Schwartzman: I followed the work through the years. The more I’ve known it, the more confounding I have found it to be— meaning that what I thought I understood, I didn’t. So, each time I would look at various bodies of work, there would be more than I would get out of them.

As happens with many artists, there’s a moment where you realize that there’s a logic and reason and a true evolution, and you reach a kind of eureka moment.

The first time it happened with me with Tip’s work was the Integrated Paintings. It was so peculiar and uncommon for painting on the one hand, and yet it made a perfect kind of sense within its own oddball language.

My mind made a connection between those paintings and the earliest paintings that I knew of yours—I’m sorry, I’m jumping around here a bit. The earliest works I always saw as coming out of the way a Minimalist might think, but toward the goal of creating images. Meaning you started with an existing surface, that being a kind of wood grain, and then it seemed to me almost as though you were improvising or riffing off of the patterning—which then formed imagery.

And that created the base of your work, which distinguished it right away from the work of your peers: many of whom were making images, but coming to it from a narrative perspective; whereas your narrative was kind of internally generated by the medium.

Carroll Dunham: Yes, that feels right.

Allan Schwartzman: Then with the Integrated Paintings, that kind of re-happened again. I’m not sure if I can articulate exactly how, but it’s like you found an alternate way of making a painting that seems both eccentric and right at the same time. And they’ve always remained, for me, one of the most confounding bodies of painting, as Charlotte said, of the last 40 years.

Carroll Dunham: You’re the kind of audience that we all hope for, Allan.

[Laughter]

Charlotte Burns: How does—

Carroll Dunham: That was about 1990 that I made those paintings, I think.

Charlotte Burns: Is there clear progression from one body of work to the next?

Carroll Dunham: In hindsight, there is certainly, but in the event it’s not so clear. They don’t feel like decisions. My work has led me from place to place in a way that feels internally very logical and sensible. I never feel like I make jumps. The sense of it is of a continuous experience.

Charlotte Burns: Allan described some of the early work as he first saw it. You also have had bodies of work that have dealt more with anatomical abstractions, or there were in the ’80s those biomorphic forms, from which sprouted more figurative forms and faces. You had aggressive gun holding men in one body of work with noses that looked like penises; and then women who were almost pagan in their hedonism; now with the wrestlers over the last few years, men again and animals, which I have read somewhere that you said allowed you to bring in aspects of personality.

You have a show at Barbara Gladstone Gallery. Can you tell us a little bit more about it?

Carroll Dunham: A few years ago, I started working on a group of things. Initially it was drawings, very informal drawings, and then some etchings and eventually paintings around this idea of human males wrestling as a subject.

Somewhat to my own surprise, I seem to have backed into being someone who paints images of human beings—or my effort at making pictures like that—and I had wanted to make images that involved a number of people doing things either with or to each other.

Charlotte Burns: Is narrative something you think about in the work?

Carroll Dunham: Only in hindsight. The wrestling idea came to me when I was starting to think about wanting there to be men in my paintings and this idea of more than one man. I don’t know why these things come to someone, but a little light went off and I thought: “Wrestling. I wonder if I can figure that out.”

So, I started making these really horrible little drawings of guys wrestling. I wanted to try to find a male equivalent to the women that I had been drawing and painting, which I had thought of as being rather primeval in some way. The male equivalent seemed to be what we used to call a caveman. Kind of a strange term but you know, primitive humans. So, I started drawing guys with beards and long hair.

Allan Schwartzman: Do you see the battle between the figures or the psychological battle within a character that you portray as parallel to your battle with paint in the surface in how to make a painting?

Carroll Dunham: Not really. I have a really crude and rather dumb notion of what I’m making, which is pictures of men wrestling. But that’s just the way to try to make a painting that’s interesting to me to look at. I’m not claiming any special relevance or meaning for these things. They just allow me to keep making paintings.

I don’t mean to be disingenuous. I know that they are naked white guys beating the crap out of each other. That’s the subject. But it’s all in the interest of trying to make something that makes a painting seem lively and interesting to look at.

Charlotte Burns: Right. How do you get to that stage? Do you have drawings first, do you play around with—

Carroll Dunham: Yes. I make a lot of small drawings, many of which never leave my studio. I have flat files full of these things. I do a lot of printmaking, too, which sometimes I’ll use as a way to understand things I might want to paint. Sometimes I use it as a way to look differently at things I might have already made paintings about. It functions in different ways.

Charlotte Burns: I read earlier you assisted Dorothea Rockburne, who taught you the importance of using a spirit level to craft precisely.

Carroll Dunham: That’s not what we call it here, but yes.

Charlotte Burns: What do you call it in America?

Carroll Dunham: Just a level.

Charlotte Burns: A level?

Carroll Dunham: A carpenter’s level, but I like spirit level. That’s…

Charlotte Burns: It’s called spirit level in England.

Carroll Dunham: … kind of more …

Charlotte Burns: Just a bit more mystic.

[Laughter]

Carroll Dunham: … more of the point. It made my spirit level [laughter].

That was my real art school was working for Dorothea.

Charlotte Burns: How did that come about?

Carroll Dunham: A teacher I had set us up. I was on what we would now call an internship program. I was going to college up in Connecticut and an art teacher of mine who lived in New York, somehow he convinced Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut to let a dozen or so art students come live in New York for a semester. He rented a big loft down on Broome Street that we all used as a studio. All of us were set up with different non-paying jobs either for artists or architects, and he put Dorothea and me together. It was very fortuitous.

Charlotte Burns: Can you think of the take-aways from that, or was it a more amorphous inspiration?

Carroll Dunham: It was very important to me to see what an artist’s day was like, what it really was like to be that person. Getting up in the morning and figuring out how to get yourself going and working. Dorothea had worked for Robert Rauschenberg, and Rauschenberg made great use of assistants, so Dorothea had already had an experience of her own that was valuable, and I think she had an idea that she could use someone else’s body and interaction to help her creatively.

She was very much on people’s mind at that time. Her work was on the cover of Artforum magazine and things like that. So, I felt as though I was at the center of something. I met a lot of people, because we would work all day and then at 9pm or 10pm at night I would drive her to Max’s Kansas City and we would have a hamburger and a drink. So, I got to meet a lot of her peer group of artists. It was very inspiring and intimidating, I guess, but it certainly set me on a course of wanting to come back here and live and having some sense that the New York art world was going to be my project.

Charlotte Burns: Being very much by yourself with your work now is different than in the ’80s or ’90s where you were in conversation with more artists around you. You were in the same building with other artists; you would pop in and out. I was wondering what impact that has on your work being inside a conversation that’s something that you’re constructing with other people, and working in a rural area largely by yourself.

Carroll Dunham: I think about this a lot. I don’t quite know how to describe the difference. I live in a different circumstance. The world, and specifically our art community, is in a very different place in its own evolution, and I’m in my late 60s and I’ve been making paintings for over 40 years, which is a very different place to be than where I began, obviously. Things feel much more self-sustaining now. I’m not going to wake up tomorrow and become a different guy, a different artist, making a different kind of work. I’m trying to figure out how to go deeper and deeper into what I’ve already set up for myself.

I don’t know how you can be an artist my age who is trying to really work at the level that one would hope to be and also keep up with things the way I did when I was younger, and have so many conversations and go out so much and talk to my friends. I just don’t think it’s viable.

I mean, it gets lonely in a small town in Connecticut, I’m not going to lie, but also my wife is there. We’re both working all the time. We have friends there. It’s just a different kind of landscape, a different kind of dialogue, I guess much more with myself and with dead people. When I was younger, it felt important to be in a dialogue with my peers. That whole concept of peers becomes more and more elusive, for me anyway.

Charlotte Burns: In what way? Do you consider who your peers are?

Carroll Dunham: Well, I kind of feel like any artist I’m interested in between the age of 30 and 90 is my peer at this point. I mean, I’m happy to have a dialogue with anyone who I think is doing interesting things. I never felt like I was much part of anything, but I certainly don’t feel like I am now, so you kind of find it wherever you can.

I don’t know which is the cause and which is the effect or if that even means anything, but I think the turn my work has taken over the last 10 years has had a lot to do with my interest in earlier art and in trying to connect my work to something that isn’t only contemporary. I don’t take any special credit for that. I think a lot of artists as they get older probably feel like that.

Allan Schwartzman: So, what work is speaking to you in particular now?

Carroll Dunham: Well, when I started working on those paintings of women in the water, I had been doing a fair amount of writing during that time, or for some years prior to that, and I was very aware that I was deeply interested in late 19th-century French painting. Particularly this whole idea of the subject of bathers in painting, that the idea of naked people in the water in nature was such an obviously meaningful and useful subject to so many different artists. That was a source of encouragement to me when I started thinking about how I would approach something that actually might be called a figurative painting, and I derive a lot of pleasure and stimulation out of looking at these things.

Allan Schwartzman: With the most recent work, are there particular artists you’re thinking about or looking at?

Carroll Dunham: Not as much. I mean I remember when I was young and I was really going to museums all the time. I worked in Midtown, and I used to go to The Modern during my lunch hour a lot. The Cézanne painting that The Modern owns of the single male bather was something I always adored, and I never really understood why.

I also have gotten really interested in looking at classical sculpture. I’m not knowledgeable about it all, I just kind of walk around looking at all the nice marble statues. But I have been sort of struck in a generic way that how some of the things I’ve been doing in my paintings could be seen to look like that from a certain point of view.

Allan Schwartzman: Surely. Many of the figures feel sculptural.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Allan Schwartzman: Can you talk a bit about the presence of dogs and crows in the recent paintings?

[Laughter]

Carroll Dunham: No. [Laughs].

Animals seem to want to come in. If I’m honest with myself, even going back years and years ago when my work looked very different, the paintings Allan mentioned in the beginning—they’re called the Integrated Paintings—they were paintings I made with Styrofoam balls and paint, so the paintings are covered with balls. I got that idea and I thought: “This is such a horrible idea. I need to just make one and see that it’s horrible, and then I won’t think about it anymore.” I made one small painting with balls all over it, and I thought: “Well, it’s actually kind of great, and I’d like to make more paintings with balls all over them.”

The thing with the animals was kind of like that. Like: “Okay, you’re going to make paintings of women and nature. That’s bad enough.” I worked on those paintings for a long time, and then at a certain point I started to think that there could be an animal in the painting, and I started to make drawings of dogs and birds. And eventually, I made one very large painting of a woman on a horse [Horse and Rider (My X) (2013-15)].

But I had to start from the point of view of this is stupid and terrible, and I am going to lance the boil by making some drawings and getting it out of my system. Then once I’ve made a drawing, I’ve externalized this thing, which is part of my inner life, and it’s looking back at me. And in the case of the animals, quite literally, I start to think of it as another piece of my vocabulary.

So, at that point it’s got a life of its own, sort of. But it doesn’t start from any kind of urged illustrator to tell a story yet these kind of … they’re almost like language equivalents. Like the word “dog” came into my mind, and I thought that would be strange.

Charlotte Burns: You’ve said that whereas with the men and women, they’re more archetypes, they’re sort of less individual in their physiognomy; whereas with the animals, especially with the dogs, you had the sense of wanting to create an element of personality and that you found it kind of strange thing.

Carroll Dunham: I found it very oddly exciting. When I use the word “archetype”, it’s actually because I don’t know a better word to use it. I think what I really mean is that it’s a category of thing. It’s not a person. There is no woman. I don’t have women that I draw. I make these things up. They really are kind of like the word “woman”.

The animals to me are similar. It’s kind of the word “dog” and the possibility that a dog could look out of a painting and become something almost conscious or something that animates the painting because it’s a kind of witness to what do humans in the painting are doing.

Allan Schwartzman: That’s exactly what I was seeing in those, is that the dogs look out and they connect with you, and the crows are there. There’s something ominous and almost Hitchcock-ian about the crows, if they are crows that is.

Carroll Dunham: I don’t know what they are, Allan. [Laughs]. They’re a bunch of very simple shapes stuck together actually, but they could be crows.

Allan Schwartzman: But those dogs are so kind of deadly animated. There’s something about their kind of cuteness that’s sitting there that’s also somewhat sinister.

Carroll Dunham: Yes. It’s strange what you can project onto these things. As soon as they’re in front of me in a pictorial space, I start to project all kinds of stories onto them and all kinds of inner life that they really don’t have.

Allan Schwartzman: Is that how imagery evolves? That you make something and it says something to you, and that leads you in another direction?

Carroll Dunham: 100%. In a sense it’s all been just following breadcrumbs. I don’t work from reality. I try to make things up based on what my limited abilities will permit.

Charlotte Burns: Whenever people had compared your work to the influence of cartoons or mentioned your work in the same breath as the influence of cartoons, there was a phase in which you found that annoying.

Carroll Dunham: I was very defensive about it when I was first exhibiting my work.

Charlotte Burns: Why were you defensive? Did you feel like it was a judgment of some form?

Carroll Dunham: I don’t think it was that so much. People didn’t mean it critically. People thought it was kind of cool. The work Allan saw when he came to my studio in 1983, what I thought I was doing was trying to go back to an earlier point in the history of Abstract Modernism and pick up parts of the conversation that I felt had been left behind. My big passion back then was the late paintings of Kandinsky, for example. I wasn’t thinking about Donald Duck. I was thinking about late Kandinsky.

And it made me crazy to be compared to people like Kenny Scharf, who was an interesting artist. I mean, I look back on his paintings now and I appreciate them much more than I probably did at the time, but he was coming at this from a completely different direction. And I felt like my work had nothing to do with any of that, and it just seemed like sloppy thinking to me to impose a reading like that on my paintings. Now, I kind of feel much more like: “Knock yourself out, guys. Whatever you see, I’m interested in hearing about.”

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Carroll Dunham: And that’s a much more comfortable attitude to have.

Charlotte Burns: Right. Of course.

Carroll Dunham: I also happen to be much more interested in cartoons now than I used to be, which is kind of strange. Like, I actually love looking at that kind of drawing.

Charlotte Burns: That’s interesting in terms of the chicken and the egg, I guess.

Carroll Dunham: Yes.

Charlotte Burns: You write so well about other artists’ work, which is an unusual thing.

Carroll Dunham: Well, thank you. I always kept notebooks. I kept I guess what you would call a journal, but they were very uninteresting. They weren’t even about my love life. They were about things like what I bought at the art store and stuff. But I’ve always read a lot, and I love when I feel like writers really hit it with talking about art. But I didn’t see that as part of my business at all.

It really came up when Jack Bankowsky was the editor of Artforum. First, I think he asked me to write something short for a symposium they were doing, soliciting a group of artists to write their opinions about the big Miró exhibition that happened at The Museum of Modern Art back in the mid-’90s or early ’90s.

I was very interested in Miró, and I kind of thought I should give it a shot. So, I wrote 300 or 400 words about Miró, and Jack really liked it and I felt kind of good about doing it. Then the thing that really turned me, where I felt I had to turn myself over to it somehow was my friend, the painter Peter Cain, died and Jack asked me if I would write an obituary. And I love Peter’s paintings, and I thought I had kind of my own idea about what they were about, and I felt a kind of responsibility to do that. So, I did that.

And after that, I don’t know. They just kind of kept asking me about if I would write something, and I kind of thought yes, I guess I would. Then when Tim Griffin became the editor of Artforum, he was very enthusiastic about trying to get more artists to write. I was maybe one of the only ones who was actually willing to do it.

Scott Rothkopf was the senior editor at Artforum at that time. He was available to be my editor and we have great chemistry together doing that. So, I started getting more bold about it.

Charlotte Burns: Do you find it easy to write?

Carroll Dunham: No, extremely difficult. I used to try to talk about it in this glib way, like it was going to be my hobby. But then I started realizing it’s such a horrible thing to do that you can’t really call it your hobby, because it’s just too horrible. It would be like having self-mutilation as your hobby.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. You wouldn’t talk about that publicly.

Carroll Dunham: Right, but there is something extremely satisfying about finishing a writing project.

Charlotte Burns: I think that’s every writer.

Carroll Dunham: As I’m sure both of you are well aware.

Allan Schwartzman: The result is much more appealing than the process.

Carroll Dunham: Yes.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. Every time you think: “Well, that was great.” And then you forget about it and get onto to the hell of the next thing.

Carroll Dunham: Yes. I’ve just finished such an experience. It’s strange, I mean I don’t find art easy or fun, but I do find it extremely doable. And I find that—especially having given all the time I’ve spent organizing my life around it—it’s something that I can structure my days around, and it feels very comfortable and it makes sense to me.

I know that my friends who are real writers feel the same way about writing, but I could never feel that way about writing. It’s just a horror show all over again. But as I say, this idea that you’ve actually both said what you meant to say, and also surprised yourself by what you said that you didn’t know you thought.

Charlotte Burns: Right, so it’s helpful in that way.

Carroll Dunham: Things come out in language that you think you understand what you feel, but then when you realize that you have to make it work in language, and language seems to have sort of its own rules. It’s fascinating, it really is. So, I feel very lucky that it found me.

Charlotte Burns: As you write about other artists’ work, are there things that engage you about your own work that impact the way you think about your own work or inspire you?

Carroll Dunham: Well, that’s sort of the dirty secret of the whole thing is that it’s actually—I mean honestly, that was always what I thought was the most useful about teaching is I hope that kids I taught got something out of it, but even if they didn’t I would go home and [say]: “Well, you were saying that over and over again today, so you should apply that to yourself.”

It was useful, and I think absolutely if I look back—I mean, we did this [book with] Paul Chan, the artist who has this publishing concern. They put together a collection of my writing last year, and when we were going through it and deciding what would actually end up in the book, I realized that it was a kind of diagram of my issues with myself: things I was grappling with in my own work, or things that I felt other artists had taken on in a way that was sort of gutsy and true and that I had been dodging in some way.

Charlotte Burns: You’ve written about Kara Walker.

Carroll Dunham: That would be another example.

Charlotte Burns: I think you called it “an archaic libido” in her work, and I was thinking about libido in your work.

Carroll Dunham: If I didn’t, I should have.

[Laughter]

Charlotte Burns: Yes. We’ll just say that you did.

Can you talk about the influence of that on your work or the way you think about libido in your own work?

Carroll Dunham: Well, I guess I think that it’s sort of the driving engine behind creativity in the most general sense. I don’t mean it like there’s some Freudian myth behind everything that diagrams my motivations, but I certainly think that you’ve got to have some reason to get out of bed in the morning. You got to feel enthusiastic about things enough to actually get into things and really do things at a high level.

What I think of as libido meaning, I guess a kind of psychic source of energy that drives one towards ones objects of desire that is key to making art for me. Just in the simple fact of making it. Just doing it, continuing to drive ahead. There’s no goal to being an artist; you keep doing it, and then in theory one dies, so no reason to assume I would be exempt from that. There’s no goal. There’s no sort of: “A-ha, I finally achieved whatever.” It’s a kind of lustful driving forward is what it feels like to me. I don’t know. I can only speak for myself.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Allan Schwartzman: That’s a really interesting way to talk about it, because I think of so many artists who on the other hand go through—particularly later in their development—moments of crisis as to what to do in their painting or where to go with it. And it’s true: you’ve never been without drive moving you forward.

Carroll Dunham: Well, that’s not say that one doesn’t have really bad days or months or years. But something that I find really interesting about making things is that there’s a really large physical substrate to the whole thing. I have thought since I was young that painting is a kind of hybrid of philosophy and craft, and I think one of the things that’s drawn me to it and kept me so interested in it is that I don’t care about people’s ideas about painting. You can tell that from reading art critics. They sound like they’re talking about something really interesting, and then they actually tell you what they’re taste is, and you think: “Oh, my God. This guy is an idiot.”

I have to make things. I have to set my life up in such a way that I can make things. I have to have the tools to make them and the materials, a space to do it. So, even if it’s moving the deck chairs on the Titanic, I can always go into my studio and do something, and it takes me from where I am to another place. You’re kind of moving the physical aspects of reality, and that’s moving your work.

I’m glad, I mean, I guess I’m glad. It’s interesting to me that Allan would see me as someone who hasn’t had sort of moments of falling away. I’ve certainly had plenty of moments of wondering how stupid this is, and what a complete waste of time, and what a terrible artist I am, et cetera, et cetera. You know that sort of goes with the territory.

Allan Schwartzman: What I’ve certainly seen often in the work expressions of crisis of identity, but that’s always been—as I see it—a source of productivity for you. It’s kind of where you go is, to me, always compelling.

Charlotte Burns: Can you talk a little bit about color in your work? I remember when I walked into Blum & Poe Gallery in Los Angeles and saw the “Wrestlers“, I was so struck about the confidence of the color, and the choice of color, which was somewhat unusual. Is that something you think about, like when you’re choosing a lilac or a brown, what are you going for there? Do you have theories about colors, or are they more instinctive?

Carroll Dunham: I have no theories about color. I think color is like having a theory about what sort of people you find attractive. It is absolutely the most non-verbal and most emotional aspect of working on paintings to me.

Painting is really where that resides for me. There was a period of time when I thought of my ideas about color as being rather stupid. I mean, it was really coloring book stuff. It still is to an extent, I mean, the water is blue and the tree is green—it’s like that.

But there’s some other aspect to it, which is very hard to put into words. But there has to be some sort of, I guess, a heightened presence, and I’m not really very creative with it. A lot of the colors you’re mentioning like that intense purple, lilac, violet color that was in those paintings that I exhibited in Los Angeles, that’s a straight out of the tube color. It’s just that most people wouldn’t have the bad taste to make it be half the painting.

I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the perfect mixture of colors. I tend much more toward this—like what I was saying about the subjects—like labeling, Like: “Orange. Let’s see what we have in the orange department.”

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Carroll Dunham: I tend to change my colors much more through layering of transparent levels of color than I do with mixing colors, which is absolutely the influence of printmaking, mostly lithography on the way I think about painting.

Allan Schwartzman: You’ve got some pretty odd color in one of the paintings in this upcoming show. I seem to remember, it’s a large painting. It’s the only one of its type, at least of the batch I saw. There’s pink in the background. There’s some green in there. There’s a lot of color, and it’s an odd communing of color. But the painting as I recall has so much going on in the imagery and how those visual elements occupy the canvas that you almost, you accept the color rather than kind of take it in until you’re actually looking at it.

Carroll Dunham: Well that’s a really interesting example. I appreciate that you mentioned it because I know painting you’re talking about, and it’s a kind of summarization of a lot of the subjects that have been in my work for the last bit of time. One of the aspects of what I call this coloring book idea about color is that the more subjects there in the painting, the more colors there can be in the painting.

[Laughter]

So, the painting Allan is referring to has lots of birds and dogs and people and flowers and trees and water and grass, and all that stuff. All of those things need to have a color. It probably has 15 or 20 colors in it, even though they’re very contained within their boundaries. But the overall effect is kind of an onslaught. I realized that when I—not in a bad way, I mean I was excited about it when I finished the painting.

Allan Schwartzman: It feels very singular amongst the group.

Carroll Dunham: It is.

Allan Schwartzman: That’s part of what, what distinguishes it.

Carroll Dunham: It is, it is.

Charlotte Burns: What’s it called?

Carroll Dunham: It’s called Any Day (2017).

Charlotte Burns: We will post a picture on our website so people can see it, too. Or, obviously, they can go to your show if they are in New York.

When you’re talking now, you sort of follow a logical rationale: “I’ll bring in more color because I’m bringing more elements.” I was thinking about something kind of wonderful that I read. Someone had done an interview with you, and they visited you in your studio and you had nine different rulers there, and you—

Carroll Dunham: [Laughs]. Sad but true.

Charlotte Burns: After your time assisting Dorothea Rockburne, when you were using a spirit level, you were so impressed by the systematic side of Conceptual arts, the kind of rigor and restraint of formal artists like Mangold and Ryman that you felt stifled and got rid of all rulers from your life. Now they’re back, it seems, in a vengeance. What happened for you to carve out?

Carroll Dunham: Maturity, Charlotte.

Charlotte Burns: Maturity by rulers. I like that.

[Laughter]

Carroll Dunham: Well, I think a lot of artists—I mean, I’ve talked about this with my older friends who might have gone to art school when everybody wanted to be a 10th Street painter, like when Gestural Abstraction ruled the day. You’ve run like hell to get away from these things, and then you find there’s a sort of tidal pull that brings you back when you’re hopefully a more mature artist and person, so you can deal with them on your own terms.

I can remember there was a point when I realized that I saw a place in my own work for these ideas. It started when I started thinking about where the center of my paintings was. At least I think that’s when it started, at least consciously.

My friend, Mel Bochner, made a group of work in the early ’70s, or probably around 1970, that were based on the idea of the difference between estimating and measuring things. I always remember he made a drawing that was about estimating and measuring the center of a sheet of paper, so there is a dot made with a red pencil where he imagined the center was. And then he scribed the diagonals of the sheet of paper, and there’s a little tiny x in a number eight pencil or something, that’s the true center. I love that. I love that as an idea. I think it’s an amazing drawing.

Dorothea too, she was very involved with axis and connecting corners that gave her work a structure, and actually ended up being a form of drawing for her.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Carroll Dunham: At some point, I started to think a lot about merging what I was imposing on the canvas. Like, I’m coming at the canvas from out here with what I want to put on it; the canvas is coming at me from back there with its nature. And part of its nature is that it’s a flat rectangle; it has corners; it has geometric properties, And it’s interesting to me to take this rather aggressive subject matter and allow it to merge with this more platonic—if you will—or Pythagorean way of thinking about composition.

So yes, I have a lot of rulers. Some of them are for tearing; some of them are for drawing axis; some of them are for measuring things. I have a lot of tape measures too hidden around because people always steal those.

Charlotte Burns: They’re always the most valuable thing.

You see that in the work. I was looking at one of the male figures. You’re explicit in depicting the anatomy of the men and women, and often that anatomy is in a geometrically gripping location, whether it’s bang smack in the center or something like that.

Carroll Dunham: I find the merger of what might be seen to be these two different ways of thinking very exciting. Like finding the center of a large canvas and putting a dot there and having that dot end up being a woman’s anus is very interesting to me. I mean, it sounds crude to say, but I find it very beautiful.

These things have a kind of truth for me. I don’t know what any of it means exactly. They are constructed out of geometry. I mean, I’ve given lectures about my work, and there’s always someone in the audience who has an issue with my subject matter. It’s almost like the politics at the moment. People feel they have to talk about that, like it’s an issue: “Is this okay that you’re doing this?” I always try to stress that it’s a painting. It’s not a person. There’s no real person. You see much more provocative stuff on the side of a bus every day if you would just pay attention. But it’s amazing how disturbed people can be by an ellipse with a line in the middle.

Charlotte Burns: And what they think it signifies. It’s because it’s so stark. The way you paint things, there is such a confidence and there’s no sleight of hand, whereas in things you see on sides of buses are entirely based on sleights of hand.

Carroll Dunham: Innuendo.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Carroll Dunham: Yes. I don’t like that as a painting strategy.

Charlotte Burns: Well, thank you so much for being my guests. Carroll, thank you for coming in. Allan, thank you as always.

Carroll Dunham: Thanks, Charlotte.

Allan Schwartzman: Thank you. Thank you, Tip.

Charlotte Burns: Thank you.