Conversation with Keith R. Breitfeller
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Conversation with Keith R. Breitfeller
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Elizabeth Johnson: Your bio on your website connects your work to Impressionism, Modernism, and Pointillism. You say you use “figure to ground relationships to deliberately confuse subject matter, allowing the viewer to find him or herself in the artwork.” Do you mean that you dismantle subject matter into brushstrokes to confuse comprehension?
Keith Breitfeller: I use the surface brushstrokes and color gradation to obscure the underpainting. The viewer isn’t supposed to know what’s underneath, it’s there to interact with the surface. Appearing and disappearing in certain light and angles, it affects the surface color.
EJ: As I survey earlier series of your paintings, I note that your work has been through different stages, at various times exploring the square verses rectangle format, incorporating circle and triangle designs, experimenting with vortexes, aura-like shapes and borders, and arranging brushstrokes in a wavy layout versus a regular grid pattern. In the bio, you state that your aim is “to provide a place of peace and contemplation to the viewer.”
EJ: Are you a fan of Agnes Martin? Which Modernists or current artists influence you?
KB: My painting history has been a slow evolution, a matter of learning how to make smooth gradient color transitions. In the beginning, I was too insecure to depend totally on just color. There was always the feeling the work had to have more to hold it together, so I added subdivision and vortexes. It was a long process of dropping unnecessary subject matter. I’m aware of Agnes Martin’s work, but can’t say she was an influence. The people who consciously inspired me were Richard Diebenkorn, Mark Rothko, Warren Rohrer, and Robert Ryman.
EJ: Your work invokes art history through texture. I think of mosaic, terrazzo, woven fabrics, embroidery, and wall hangings. Was there an influence in your upbringing or education that stimulated your aesthetic of texture?
KB: My mentor, Myron Barnstone, based his teachings on Impressionism and Modernism. He used the Fletcher System to teach color theory, it’s very Impressionist based. His exercises involved mixing color and using small dabs of paint to create color transitions that explore intensity, saturation, and value. This was the inspiration for the basis of my paintings. At one time I organized my palette in the Fletcher manner, but now it’s a loose association.
EJ: As I understand it, Frank Morley Fletcher keyed color to intervals by dividing a circle with hue triads made of subtlety unequal triangles. His twelve-hued color wheel operates much like the way musical keys relate to a twelve-toned musical scale. It seems that the Fletcher System isn’t a rule or a recipe, since he doesn’t mention any ratios of pigments. How much does pigment purity affect your work? Do you favor a certain brand or ever buy loose pigment?
KB: The system is just a guideline. As I develop the palette before I begin, pigment purity isn’t a consideration. I mix brands based on need and availability, and I don’t use dry pigment.
EJ: Do you use black pigment or mix your darkest tone? Do you premix color or mix as you go? Do you start with one color, then harmonize to that? What’s your usual method?
KB: I mix the darkest tone. I start with a color combo in mind, mixing the first color of the gradient and the last, then methodically add the last to the first to build the gradient.
EJ: The Fletcher diagrams are based on a circle, and I’m guessing you paint line by line on a square and rectangular format. Is there a feeling of gears shifting when you visualize one, then the other?
KB: No, the transition on the wheel is linear, from one color to the next is a straight line.
EJ: What inspires you to work bigger or smaller surfaces? Are you working in square formats now because they are more peaceful and centered? Do you see your work as a balance between, say, scaling up in size and making larger or more vigorous brushstrokes, and modulating color?
KB: I’ve been working in the square format for a few years. I find the square a very calming shape. Working large or small depends on my need and the availability of space. I love working large but that isn’t always possible. Many of the very small paintings (12”x 12”) are experiments for future works. They allow me a bit of freedom to play around and fail. As for color, I’ve been intrigued with its properties from the beginning. I am interested in how light, color placement and background effects color, and how seeing and experiencing it makes us feel.
EJ: What failures do you encounter as you work? Is a failure anything that detracts from showcasing color?
KB: Because colors don’t desaturate at the same rate, I’ve had to learn to adjust for that difference.
EJ: Your current works succeed in how gestures add up to a plane of change that hovers over mystery, the top layer morphing gradually from one color into another. Are you striving to make a totality of two different kinds of transformation? Would three unrelated zones be the next step?
KB: I don’t know where the process will lead me next. This has been a forty-year evolutionary process. My early work was geometric, with no underpainting and very tightly controlled brush strokes. Small changes have brought me to where I am today.
EJ: I admire that you’re alive to incremental changes and seem to keep your mind close to your chosen surface. When you get ideas of how to change your process, do you break it into little steps?
KB: Yes. I have learned that working gradually is best. If I force a jump, I am doomed to fail.
EJ: The work recalls Mark Rothko’s paintings considered in a digital age. I think of the dramatic and expansive lighting of sunsets and sunrises. Do you connect the paintings to naturally occurring color or think of the transformations in purely abstract terms?
KB: My work is purely abstract and based on my fascination with color and light.
EJ: Do you think of your work as representing surfaces and space that continue past the edges of and into the painting? Is laying down the first layer of painting the most important step, since it directly influences the mood of your final layer?
KB: The underpainting is just a free, expressive, fun thing. In some instances, I control the types and amount of color, but basically, it is a free-for-all. The successive layers are more controlled and planned.
EJ: Do you prefer not to frame finished work, so that the tension between mark-making and underpainting near edges is more apparent?
KB: For the most part I feel my work needs no frames. A frame imprisons the work. I have on occasion, when requested, used a floater frame that doesn’t overlap the edges of the work.
EJ: In 2022 B Play, you achieve a shimmering light effect using reflective paint in contrast to using color interactions as in Neutralized #1. Do you prefer one or the other? Do chance occurrences or a meditative mindset play roles in your approach to painting?
KB: 2022 B Play, as the title suggests, was an experiment that may eventually seep into my more serious work. My rule was to make a small work in one setting with a gold or silver underpainting. I enjoy both processes equally, they add to the evolution of my work.
EJ: Knowing representation is something you push against, I sense two figures below the top surface of 2020 A, your largest piece...
EJ: ...Do you allow a hint of imagery to exist in select paintings to highlight the boundary between abstraction and representation?
KB: There are no figures in 2020 A, but many people see things. My underpaintings are very much spontaneous. Though, from time to time, things like gardens and landscapes seem to be suggested as the process evolves, and then I choose whether I want to pursue that thought or just let it drop.
EJ: I love 2020 E because steel blue, pale yellow and red take three very different roles, though they are a primary color triad. Can you describe step by step how this painting happened? The bits of color showing through feel random, but they may not have been.
KB: 2020 E was made when the COVID-19 lockdown hit. I felt that so much of life’s colors had drained out of our existence, I was in no mood to create cheerful colorful works. My choice of a muted pallet and intense underpainting reflects my inner mood.
EJ: With your sensitivity to mixing color, does experiencing a mood translate through paint into finding the right mixtures of hue, intensity, and tone that match the mood?
KB: Mood is frozen when I start a series, and I’m always referring to it. But most projects don’t start with mood but rather by setting up a problem to solve, such as, relationships between certain colors and their combinations.
EJ: Tiny shifts in color are related to incremental moods as you work through the sequence. Yes?
EJ: Could you be painting micro-moods within the whole piece?
KB: Maybe there are some, but it’s not a conscious thing. Paint is my safe place, my fortress. It’s not a reaction to daily chaos, it’s a meditation on a moment of inspiration and insight.