An Interview with Kurt Moyer by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
An Interview with Kurt Moyer by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
ART SYNC: COLOR AND SPACE
An interview with Kurt Moyer
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain, 2022
Elizabeth Johnson: Realistic landscapes of farmland, forests, and streams were formerly your subject.
Landscapes from 2017 and 2018 seem to mark the transition to abstraction, especially the outliers Vista and Creek Walk. What entices you to paint abstractly?
Kurt Moyer: From the beginning, I’ve wanted to make something beautiful out of my experiences, something to share with other people. For many years this meant painting landscapes and depicting the nuances of light and color. These new abstract paintings still concern the light and my experiences in particular places. But now, without realism, they’re free to become something new. I feel I’m building a painting in real-time instead of making a recording of the past.
EJ: By “in real-time,” do you mean abstract painting is faster than rendering and better captures the immediacy and mutability of feeling?
KM: Abstract painting is often seen as existing in the present tense, happening in front of us right now, whereas realist painting is seen as past tense, a record of something that happened.
EJ: The blue/lavender haze in both the older works and present ones recalls muggy East Coast summers, and Monet’s landscapes in Giverny. Do you squint to see trees and landscapes as you paint? Do you have a process that dissolves images into a dappled cascade?
KM: That haze evokes deep feelings of pleasure and memories of beautiful summer afternoons. I’m not depicting any visual forms, so squinting or stepping back won’t reveal a picture. I want these paintings to be seen first and foremost for their abstract qualities. I want my colors to appear to be affected by light. But how I place them on the canvas relates to the space of the painting, and the neighboring colors don’t correspond to this or that object’s actual form. Hopefully, this frees me to make paintings that are inspired by more than just how something looked. They can also include the people I shared my experience with, or the way the sun felt that day, or anything else I associate with a particular memory.
EJ: Does focusing on color and light help you mix nostalgic and progressive impulses?
KM: I think that’s a good way to put it. For instance, I might spend the day hiking in the mountains with my wife and then use that experience to spark a painting. The result would likely be a personal memento of my experience but also an object of art that other people value. I don’t think the relationship between a painting and the memory or experience associated with it needs to be proportional. A smaller, or less significant, experience could germinate into a complex and involved painting, and vice versa. Every application of color shifts the painting’s form. It’s exciting because I never really know where the painting is headed.
EJ: Your realistic and abstract landscapes feature summer, sometimes spring, and both exude tranquility. Are fall and winter less engaging for you?
KM: In the past I worked outdoors only when the spring is in bloom and then I would return to the studio when the leaves start to change color. I see the beauty of the other seasons, but there is something deeply stirring about warm summer days.
EJ: Working on summer paintings in the winter exposes the relationship between memory and invention. How are the summer-made paintings different than the winter-made ones? Do the winter-made paintings ever seem more evocative of summer? Is perpetual yearning for summer a dynamic force for your work?
KM: I have a longing for a certain beauty that’s hard to describe, but it’s usually associated with summer colors. My desire for this summertime feeling seems inexhaustible, and though I’ve been trying for many years, I don’t feel like I am ever really satisfied.
EJ: One realistic painting, Bathers in the Glen, pays homage to Paul Cezanne, yet most of your former, realistic landscapes don’t depict people or animals. Do your current abstractions connect with the way you used to picture peaceful, mostly empty landscapes? What are you looking for now in landscape?
KM: I’m chiefly exploring color. But the associations of those colors are just as important. I never think of landscapes as empty: I’m always thinking about the air, light, and space that define these places. In the past, I made many bather-themed paintings. I was trying to achieve a particular feeling of sensualness about our bodies and nature. The literal reading of these paintings was unfortunately inevitable, and the paintings were put inside a narrative that I felt was detrimental to my purpose. Painting nudes is always political: viewers want to know how these images relate to our society. Of course, they’re right to ask these questions, but I wanted to paint something less tangible, and I often felt my work was getting redirected by its realism. Abstraction opens possibilities in this regard, and I think I can revisit––and keep––these sensual feelings while ignoring a narrative structure.
I’ve always admired Cezanne’s bathers––particularly the late ones––because he was able to transfer the sensuality of the nude away from the narrative and onto the overall sensuality of the canvas. Gottfried Boehm described this in his article, “A Paradise Created by Painting: Observations on Cezanne’s Bathers”: “. . . What we see in the Bathers is not an Arcadia that is independent of the picture; instead, the picture itself appears Arcadian. It is the organization of all the elements, components and parts, the approximation of bodies and objects, that together determine the experience.” I think this is what Cezanne meant when he said that “art is a harmony parallel to nature.”
EJ: Comparing your former realistic forests to the present ones, it seems that in giving up the illusion of depth you gained a depth of feeling. Do you consider your abstract work internal visual travel or creation of space?
KM: I would happily trade the illusion of depth for depth of feeling! Abstract painting really can be a vehicle for transcendence, for both painter and viewer. Many roads lead to great works of art, but if you don’t feel something in its presence it has little value. My personal connection can be about internal visual travel, in the sense that I revisit old memories, but I want to emphasize that the construction of the painting is completely about the physical relationship of color and space. The painting must succeed on its own terms.
EJ: Hilltown stands out to me, since the dark shadows that generally fall at the bottom of the forest seem to seep upwards. How does the dark dominant area function for you?
KM: The color choices and arrangement of lights and darks were inspired by the Italian town of Nepi that is perched on tufa-rock cliffs. I think this painting, while still abstract, exists right at the edge of coalescing into a recognizable landscape.
EJ: The dark patches in Spring Lights provide a structure for the subtle harmonies between varied daubs of color. Where abstract hunks of blue sky or dark shadows were formerly contained in your realistic forests, you’re now free to use individual bits of color to create space. How has abstraction freed your experience of painting outdoors?
KM: My former realism influences my current abstractions. Definitely. I couldn’t paint the way I do now without those years of working from life. I know that when the spring returns to upstate New York I’ll take my easel outside to mix color directly from the source. When I’m working, I try to decide what feels right, the sense of color and depth. I think the painting feels right when the colors achieve a kind of symbiotic relationship in which they appear to be giving and receiving light.
EJ: Color theory, your color associations, and prismatic effects seem to be bundled together. How does this “symbiotic relationship” fit with feeling sunlight on your skin, for example? Are you also talking about your experience of receiving and giving color/warmth/light as a painter?
KM: I feel that we see color all at once, in a pure visual language without theory or logic. I work empirically, trying to find relationships between spots of color that seem to animate one other. The colors all rely on one other to exist in a particular light.
EJ: Earlier you expressed the hope that you are “free to make paintings that are inspired by more than just how something looked,” and you gave great examples: people you were with, how the sun felt. Since you say that “the painting must succeed on its own terms,” do you prefer keeping the associations private so that viewers concentrate on the how the painting moves them? Or do you like to reveal the associations to see if you have communicated your feelings?
KM: This is a very important point to elaborate on. The ultimate goal of my painting is to be a vehicle of transcendence for others, not to express my particular personal emotions or memories. I’m thinking of Monet’s waterlilies. The experience of viewing one of Monet’s large waterlilies has little to do with his pond in Giverny. It’s much more about the feeling of immersion in color and the special kind of space he created. The subject, and the artist’s intentions, fall away and we see the painting as a magical object of man-made beauty.
Making art is one thing that connects me to the world. I feel inwardly connected when I make something that enriches my soul, and I feel outwardly connected when I present my work to other people. I think the great paintings of the past are truly a gift to humanity and I would love to contribute something to that collection of riches. I title my paintings with some reluctance because I don’t want viewers searching for images of “Matilda” in Arriving at Matilda’s. But it’s still important to give some information in the title so viewers know that the painting has some external meaning to the artist. I want viewers to find something for themselves in the work, to have their own relationship to the colors and spaces, and I fully expect those connections to be different from mine. If they do––regardless of my intention––then, yes, I have succeeded.
edited by Matthew Crain