Merv Slotnick is one of my favorite artists. I own 57 of his works on paper and I love them www.ecbart.com. To me, he's a great abstract expressionist, but he doesn't like that title or really any titles. For our purposes, I'll simply call him, "Art Master." Read our chat and find out why.
MICHAEL: Hey Merv. First off, I must say that I have more of your work than any other artist. I love abstract expressionism and I'm not sure why. Perhaps because even though it's very conceptual, it also seems free and outside the lines. As an artist, what do you think?
MERV: Hi Michael. I didn't know that. I knew you had quite a few pieces and that always means more to an artist than they sometimes like to admit. Someone once said life should be lived with shared ignorance and blind faith. When it comes to my work, there may be something to this. I guess most people would call my stuff abstract expressionism, but as the years go by, I don't see it that way anymore. I like your use of the word "conceptual" as that's really where I feel more comfortable.
MICHAEL: What's wrong with abstract expressionism? It seems to me that your works on paper are the literal definition of it.
MERV: I'm not knocking ab ex, nor would I knock any other style or school. I'm not a critic. I like some art and dislike some, but I usually don't look at any art as good or bad. What I meant was that I don't think about making art as an abstract expressionist anymore. In fact, I don't see it as abstract any more. It may look non-objective to others, but it is realism to me. A line is a line, how much more realistic can anything be?
MICHAEL: Human beings have this need to categorize and then deconstruct things. I guess it gives us a sense of control and order. Do you think this has helped or hurt art?
MERV: Just hearing those words, "control" and "order", makes me a little nervous as a person, let alone an artist. As it should be, everybody creates differently and yes, some artists, I suppose, can use order and control to their advantage, but that's not me. We know that order and control are left brain. I'm a right brain person. I'm almost laughing as I say this, but something Charlie Sheen said today makes a lot of sense for creative people: "Don't live in the middle." To me, control and order are too close to "safe" and when you remove or lessen the risk factor, you begin to move in a direction away from art.
MICHAEL: When you're actually working on a painting, are you thinking or feeling and letting the paintbrush guide you?
MERV: Yes, of course, I'm thinking and I'm feeling because it's hard to do one without the other. I may actually be thinking about something other than what I'm painting, however. If I'm listening to the radio, music may help push the paint brush. If it's news or talk radio, it may cause certain feelings or thoughts and I might stop painting. I am inclined to think of this in terms of conscious versus subconscious. I don't really function that well if I think ahead too much when making art, unlike chess. Too much planning leads away from discovery. I think my best work is made when I am lost in thought and not thinking about what I am making. Too much pre-thought leads me to an ordered, boring place. This may sound strange, but today I can pick up something I painted years ago and actually not remember making it. And this isn't a "getting older" thing. It just means I made it in more of a subconscious state. I know I made it, I just don't remember seeing it before. And I think I could easily tell a fake of my work from the real thing. There are too many clues not to know. So, yes there's a lot of thinking and feeling, but as little planning and order as possible. Over the years, I've become aware of one exception to this rule and that's when, after a long period of not painting, I will sometimes straighten out, organize, clean up the studio. Can't explain why, but it just reboots everything and makes for better results. Even though I know it will help I don't do it very much though.
MICHAEL: You once said to me that you didn't necessarily believe that leading a "balanced" life led to meaningful accomplishment. Do you remember?
MERV: Yes, that sounds like something I'd say. What is "meaningful accomplishment"? I guess that would mean different things to different people. Even for an artist that means different things. "Balanced" seems to be in a different area than creativity, which is where "risk" is. I think risk is necessary to have a shot at meaningful accomplishment. What are you trying to get at with all of this order/balance discussion?
MICHAEL: Hmm, I'm not sure, but I guess what you say is probably true. In order to make an impact, we really have to be single-minded and focused on one thing ... often to the detriment of other priorities. You said earlier that you don't love the term "abstract expressionism." What artists, if any, would you say influenced your work early on?
MERV: Early on, there were two artists who I would say had a deep influence on me, Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline. Both dealt with black and white. Motherwell's lifestyle interested me. Two other artists were Andrew Wyeth and Leonard Baskin; Wyeth because of his daily lifestyle and Baskin because of his love of paper and ink. Later, I was heavily influenced by Robert Rauschenberg's approach to art-making and his philosophical ideas. Anything could be art if you thought it was art. The most recent influence would have to be the work of Cy Twombly. Aside from Wyeth and Baskin all of these guys were connected in some way. Twombly had studied with Kline and Motherwell and shared a studio with Rauschenberg. There are many others, but these were artists I was drawn to. You know that there can also be artists that influence you in a negative way. Recently this would be Richard Prince, even though I like certain things about his approach and his lifestyle he's basically a turn-off.
MICHAEL: Well, as the saying goes, "To Each His Own." You live in Maine, where many artists live, but it's far removed from the New York art world. What's the appeal of Maine and would you not want to be in the center of the art world in New York?
MERV: When you're a young artist, I think your priorities are different. You may feel that you want to be closer to the center of things. As you move on in life, the allure of the big party begins to fade and you look for ways to avoid being at the center. It is, I think, much easier to say why one wouldn't want to live in the city. Why do you think so many artists who go to New York City to "make it", move out to upstate towns or New Mexico as soon as they are able to? Answers to the NYC part of your question seem obvious to me. The "why Maine" is much more complicated. You're now in Indiana, so let me put it in the words of Jennifer from Bloomington, Indiana. She said "I don't define the "real Maine" as a particular place, but as a mindset about what is important in life; creativity versus consumerism. The energy in the real Maine is not about acquiring and showing off stuff, but rather it is about humanity relating to humanity by being creative." I think it's probably just easier to create living in Maine than it would be living in New York. Maine is ten years behind the times and twenty years ahead of the rest of the country. It's a place where people have to work hard, appreciate what they have, do more with less. I think of New York as one big gallery opening that never ends. I don't think that's what most creative people want.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. You know, there's something very phony about money, success and fame. I guess it's best to discover this once you have them! Still, all roads seem to lead back to creativity and independence. Is it possible to do good work without either?
MERV: Without creativity, you can do work, but I'm not sure about good work. Who says what's good work anyhow? I think creativity is what it's all about. Independence is altogether different and varies from person and situation to situation. I think it can be helpful if the artist is able to work out the money situation in their life. It's more complicated if you're married and certainly so if you have children. Too much of it can be harmful (alone on an island) and too little means being a prisoner to others.
MICHAEL: Finally Merv, what do you want people to see when they look at your work? Is there a message?
MERV: To be honest Michael, I've never really thought about that very much. When people look at art, each of them brings something different to the experience. I think it would be difficult for any artist to attempt to have viewers think the same. If I were to attempt this, I'd be like a conductor of music directing his musicians. Painting is a solitary experience. If there was one thing that I'd like to see when looking at contemporary art it would be "evidence of life" or signs of living; hand-made, mistakes, uncertainty, searching for something. The more fingerprints that show, the more honest the work is. In the end, it's not what I want that is important, it's what the viewer gets out of it. There is no message in any of my works. If somebody other than myself were to say that, then the message in my BODY OF WORK is simply - take something and do something with it or to it, then do something else and continue to do things again and again for a long time.
MICHAEL: Thanks Merv. This has been quite enjoyable and illuminating.
For more information about Merv Slotnick's work, check out www.ecbart.com.