Stanley Casselman. Red Tape

An interview with American artist Stanley Casselman

10 MARCH 2014
Stanley Casselmann Inhaling Richter #17, detail
Stanley Casselmann Inhaling Richter #17, detail

"Since Galileo shattered the long held paradigm that the earth was the center of the universe, those possessing the will to lift their blinders have found a wealth of information surrounding the truth to our existence. The who, what, where, why and how questions began for me in my childhood. Following these notions has opened pathways embracing limitless thought and combined with the deeply cathartic nature of the creative process I’m kept questioning, humbled and ever striving to discover the unknown through the only place I find absolute logic: pure abstraction". - Stanley Casselman

Mr. Casselman, Galileo was a revelation for you. Only such a symbol of freedom, of the crushing of the doctrine, of the search for truth could give you the intellectual strength to follow new paths and embrace limitless thought. When did Galileo arrive in your life?
Figuratively speaking through the astronomy course I took at Pomona College in 1982 with professor Bob Chambers. It was during that class that I came to the rather obvious realization that the physical universe or what we perceive it be was and is a whole lot grander than I ever could have imagined.

You were fascinated by the unknown just like Galileo while staring at the sky. Wheras Galileo used a telescope to discover the unknown in the sky, you used limitless thought combined with the "deeply cathartic nature of the creative process" to discover the unknown in pure abstraction. What do you think about this analogy?
Let me sum it this way, Galileo used an instrument to help define where we exist in space. Specifically he figured out that we were orbiting the sun and not vice versa. I use various techniques to induce or embrace random occurrence in the pursuit of revealing the unknown. So I would have to say that the parallel is a bit loose at best.

For you pure abstraction is the only place where it is possible to find absolute logic. Why?
Because "pure abstraction" is emotional freedom. Freedom from the bonds, ties and connections to our everyday objective reality. And within the space of emotional freedom is a higher order or logic. And the beauty to the logic within pure abstraction is that it has a different meaning to each who experiences it.

You decided to make the transition from the study of ceramics to painting. Why was this?
In part it was about the restrictive processes in ceramics (must be small enough to fit in the kiln, glaze and does one thing this week and another the next and so on), but it truthfully came about via a challenge from my ceramics professor David Furman at Pitzer. Out of the blue one day Furman announces to me, "you should take a painting class". To which I looked at him square in the eye and snapped back, "but I don’t know how to paint?". He sent me to have a chat with Alan Blizzard, the painting professor at Scripps and long story short, I never touched clay again. One important thing to note is that I did however, take the tools I used in ceramics to mold and shape clay and used them (and I still do) to make paintings.

And yet you use tools usually used to shape clay such as spatulas, sponges, string. For your Inhaling Richter series - your collection of works with Richterian elements - you introduced the flexible squeegee. Which technique did you adopt to create these works of pure abstraction reflecting your need to reconcile your own truth with the truths of time, space and consciousness?
My Inhaling Richter paintings are made with a tool that is referred to as a "squeegee", but when compared to an actual squeegee like one would use to remove water from glass, the comparison ends abruptly. Mine, which in basic design I copied from what I observed in the Corina Belz documentary "Gerhard Richter Painting", but yet I modified it to suit my practice. The basic design is the same, a piece of plexiglass connected to a wooden support, but mine differ in two ways. First is the thickness or flexibility of the plexi, mine are generally stiffer. And second, I added wheels to the sides of mine so that if I want to make straight lines top to bottom or side-to-side I can. Or I should say, I can with far greater ease and a much greater sense of predictability and control.

So yes, I'm using a Richterian squeegee of sorts to apply, remove and otherwise manipulate paint, but it's the process and my approach to it that make it a way to understand the gift of being alive. My interest is in searching for what's truly magnificent. Certainly one can make a living creating "good" paintings, but that doesn't interest me. I'm after what makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, riveting one in the moment and in some small way touching and adding to the collective in one's mind. Now certainly I fail in my pursuit (often), but again the process with it's inherent frustration and adulation is how in striving for the sublime, I reconcile my truth.

Your paintings heavily reference Gerhard Richter, Kusama, Rothko. Was Richter your Galileo?
Early on in my twenties it was Pollock. Then over time, my interest moved towards Rothko and Turrell for how their work dealt directly or indirectly with light. And currently I find myself deeply intrigued by the language that Gerhard Richter created.

Your Inhaling Richter series was inspired by a tongue-in-cheek challenge by American art critic Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine, after a work by Richter sold at auction for $34.2 million, challenged artists to produce a perfect Richterian-style painting for just $155! How did you go about this? And what was the result?
February 2012 Jerry puts out the challenge you mention on his Facebook page. The comments to his post ranged from ,"Jerry, you cheap son of a bitch, no one can make a painting for $155!" to "F you Jerry" and so on. I thought hmmm. The money obviously didn't interest me, but the idea of having one of the most important art critics in New York in my studio, did. However, I did not like the idea of copying Richter or anyone for that matter. I've always innovated in my practice, doing things that no one has before me. So, I sat on it for a month or so and then the documentary, "Gerhard Richter painting" came out. I saw it March 14th at the opening where Robert Storr introduced the film. Needless to say I was mesmerized by Richter's technique and having worked with squeegee's myself for 25 years it really got me thinking.

I sat on the thought of trying to "copy" Richter for another month or so and with the encouragement of Helene Forbes, a patron of my work and someone who'd known Jerry for 30 years, I thought what the F. So I went and saw the film again, but with the intent to garner as much detail about Richter's squeegee design, paint density and his process as possible.

The first two paintings were not very exciting, but by number three I was growing quite intrigued by the process. Three weeks into things I finished the eleventh. I thought it was quite strong so I sent it to Jerry privately on FB. I didn't want the public ridicule that I feared might ensue. However, to my surprise Jerry response was, "I don’t believe you made that?". From that point on our dialogue between us began and about two and a half months later Jerry was in my studio.

When deciding if I was going to go down the Richter path or not I thought if I were lucky enough to succeed in getting Jerry to my studio then immediately following I would go back to the work I was making prior. However, such was not the case as I fell deeply engrossed and as exited about painting as I'd ever been in my life by the limitless dynamics that are possible through this process. That said, by the time Jerry stepped foot into my studio I'd probably made thirty or so paintings. His words to Winter 1-3, that's a masterpiece Stanley". Jerry was in my studio for roughly two and a half hours at which point he threw out the suggestion of approaching his editors to do a story about me. December 2012, "How to fake a Richter" comes out in New York Magazine.

The ironic fact here is that indeed IR-11 ("IR" – Inhaling Richter) could somewhat pass as a "fake" Richter, but from that point forward I've moved to distance myself from Richter and to create my own voice and language through the process. To the naive eye my work could be confused for that of GR, but to anyone with a basic understanding of Richter's work, there's no confusing my voice with his.

Interview by Stefania Elena Carnemolla