An interview with artist Joe Fig, by Karen Zukowski
Joe Fig is a realist, devoted to taking first-hand experience and making art out of it. That desire led him to make realistic portraits of people he knows, especially everyday workers, including artists. Some of his portraits are conventional paintings, and others are small-scale sculptures. One of his best-known artworks portrays Jackson Pollock in his studio in Springs, New York, now a HAHS site. It is a sculpture that sits on a small table, and it depicts the entire shed in minute detail, from the asphalt shingles on the roof to the famous paint-splattered floorboards. The viewer can peer through any of several open doors to see the artist amid his paint cans, in a moment of contemplation as he works on a black and white “action painting” laid out on the floor. It is so realistic that images of the sculpture are mistaken as photographs of the artist. Joe Fig’s work is another way of getting at the reality of making art.
I had a conversation with Joe about his artwork, and why he visits studios.
How did you get involved in making models of studios?
I began my career as a representational painter. I made portraits of real workers, people I saw, like the mailman, and a grave-digger. I also made paintings of friends at work and groups of people, like poetry night at a local bar. At the Alice Neel retrospective at the Whitney Museum I was stuck by her nude self-portrait, where she is sitting in chair with blue striped upholstery. I made a model of her sitting in the chair that she had painted herself in, and I put the painting next to the chair. I did another portrait like that of Ivan Albright, another representational painter. After a while, I felt I was coming to the end of realistic portraiture. I wanted to figure out how to be an abstract painter. So, I began looking at the great ones, like Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still and Jackson Pollock. I looked at documentation about their art and their studios. First I made a model of de Kooning’s studio as a way of getting to know him and his art. Then Newman. It was unsatisfying to have only a few images to look at – I had to base my model on the viewpoints that had been captured by the camera. There was more information for Pollock – the photographs by Hans Namuth and his film of Pollock painting. Then I realized I could go visit that studio.
What was visiting Pollock’s studio in Springs like?
That was a really influential visit. My wife and I visited on a bright October morning. We mostly had the space to ourselves, and that was really special. The studio has changed since Pollock used it; Lee Krasner put up insulation on the walls, and used the studio herself. But it still looked a lot like it did in the pictures. It was like I could go from the pages of history into a real space. The photographs had made it seem like a big space, but it was really modest. But there were the paint marks on the floor, from Pollock. We went through the house, and it was great to hear the jazz that Pollock listed to. After that visit, I made the Pollock studio.
Have you visited other HAHS sites?
Yes, I visited one a long time ago, and one more recently. After college, I took a road trip with my brother and when we were in Kansas City we visited the Thomas Hart Benton house. Benton was already a hero to me, because he painted real working people. That house was great; it showed me how Benton lived. The studio looked like he had just walked away for a minute. The other place I visited was Winslow Homer’s studio in Prout’s Neck, Maine. We were able to go a couple of years ago, before the restoration was complete. The great experience there was being able to have a picnic on the rocks with the waves coming in. It was just like being in his painting of waves crashing against the rocks that is in the Portland Museum.
I know you have visited many active studios and interviewed artists in their studios. How did that come about?
It started when I was a studio assistant to Peter Dean in the late 1980s. He had a studio in SoHo, and even though all I did was stretch canvas and label slides, I was happy to be in a real studio. Later on I was in the studio of my friend, Michael Goldberg, a second-generation Abstract Expressionist. His studio had been the studio of Mark Rothko, and he showed me paint stains on the floor that were traces of Rothko’s famous paintings. I thought it was great to pass along studio space from one artist to another, and I loved hearing all the studio lore. Much later, after I had made the sculpture of de Kooning’s studio and Pollock’s studio, I came into contact with Chuck Close, who knew of my work. Chuck had a studio in East Hampton, close to where de Kooning and Pollock and Krasner worked, then I learned that he had modeled his own studio after the Pollock/Krasner space. Chuck invited me to his studio and I made a sculpture of it. And then I started looking at other studios on Long Island, and making works after those studios.
Does visiting studios illuminate the creative process?
Yes, for me it does. It is a part of investigating the creative process. When I make an appointment with an artist, I ask them to not clean up, to leave everything as it normally is. I go in with a standard set of questions. I ask about their daily routines, mostly pragmatic stuff. While we talk, I’m looking around and noticing things. I take some photographs. I feel like through this interview process, I get to know the artwork, and how it is made. So I take this information and use it as documents for my own artwork, which is the sculpture or the painting. I try to be very specific, down to replicating the labels on paint cans. But, I have to be creative myself. I have to know where to crop the view, how to compose details like extension cords on the floor.
Do you think that studios are portraits of artists?
Why do you make miniature versions of studios?
For a lot of reasons. Have you noticed that everyone loves miniatures? Maybe it’s the voyeuristic feeling you have when you can peep through a door or a window and see another world. You’re getting a God’s eye view, and that is a great feeling. Also, by making the studio small, I’m making it easier for me to grasp, for me to understand. I love that the small scale makes people get really close. Then, all the detail draws them in. If I made big paintings of studios, then the viewer would have to step away to see the whole canvas, to take it in. With the miniaturization the viewer is forced to come close, and I like that. There are ways to heighten the whole experience of the work. Eight pieces of mine are in an exhibition now at the New Britain Museum of Art, and they did a great job of lighting them. There are spotlights that make dramatic pools of light right on the work. In other places I have set up headphones next to the studios and played tapes of the interviews that I do with the artists; it’s another way of transporting the viewer right into the studio. I really like that when a group of my studios are all together in a room, you can go from one to the next really easily. If you wanted to visit the real places, there would be so much travel time and distractions. Wouldn’t it be great if you could take eight of the HAHS sites, and shrink them and visit them all easily? My work is one way to visit artists’ studios, and going to the real places is another. Both are ways to explore creativity.
This is an edited version of the conversation which took place on April 22, 2014, by telephone. Joe Fig’s work can be seen on his website, www.joefig.com, and through his gallery, Tierney Gardarin, in New York City. His book, Inside the Painter’s Studio, (2009) is a collection of interviews with artists in their studios discussing their work processes.