Interview with Nancy Willard

Shortly before Harry Roseman’s show, “Inside the Box: A Photographic Portrait of Joseph Cornell,” opened at the Davis and Langdale Company, he brought the fifty photographs over to the house and laid them out on the dining room table. I’ve had conversations with Harry about some of his other work: the luminous weave drawings from his 1989 show in New York, and the forty-foot bronze relief commissioned for the Wall Street Subway Station and installed there in 1990. And we’ve often talked about his other photographs: the body of work that emerged from a trip to China in 1987 and the series of self-portraits taken over a period of thirty-four years.

But our conversation about the Cornell photographs was bound to be different. Twenty-five years ago, Harry was Joseph Cornell’s assistant. The photographs and Harry’s account of the relationship that developed between the sorcerer of dreams and his remarkable apprentice lifted the curtain, for me, on a world as mysterious as anything Cornell ever created.

willard: Harry, tell me how you found the job working as Joseph Cornell’s assistant.

roseman: In the summer of 1969, I came down to New York, because Cathy [the painter Catherine Murphy] had enrolled in Queens’ College for graduate school. We were living in Massachusetts and getting ready to relocate to New York. In the late summer I came down to the city from Massachusetts to look for an apartment and do an errand for Cathy at Queens College. So I went to the office, and I was trying to get this little bit of bureaucratic paperwork done. Helen Schiavo, the acting chair, was the only person who could solve the problem and she wasn’t there. Someone in the office got her on the phone at home, and we got into this conversation. First we did the business part, and we really liked each other. We had this long conversation. How do I say this? Not being overly shy myself, at a certain point I felt comfortable enough to also ask her if she knew of any jobs. She told me she knew Joseph Cornell, and she thought he was looking for an assistant, and she could set up an interview. I was just thrilled. It was a couple of years after that terrific Guggenheim show, which I saw. So I said absolutely, sure. She said she’d set up an interview and get back to me and work it all out. So that’s how the interview happened.

She had organized a show of his at Queens College, sometime before. She told me a little about his mother and about his brother. She also said he’d probably know right away if he was going to hire me the minute I came in. And then she told me one secret. She said, however the interview went, I shouldn’t leave without an answer. This was the key: if I leave and he says he’s going to let me know, he’s going to have to think about it, I’d probably never hear from him again. So the key was, not to leave without a definitive answer.

She also told me about his reticence and his slowness to let you in, in any way whatsoever.

willard: What was the interview like?

roseman: After the interview was set up, I went out to see him. I knocked on the front door, and he said, “Come round.” He brought me round and we sat in the yard and talked for a little while. But there were a lot of planes flying overhead, so it was a bit hard to hear.

Then he said, “We’ll go to the porch.” He told me to walk around to the front of the house, and he went through the house and let me in, almost like starting again. And we sat on the porch, and he took notes while we were talking. We talked for a while and then we went into the house. He said, “OK let’s go inside and I’ll show you around.” I thought that was a big step. Then he showed me around the house and he even took me down to the studio. The interview went on for quite a while. At a certain point he said he’d let me know. That was my cue to say, Well, I need to know right now. What I said was, “I have plans to make and I really do need to know, now.” Which is something I would never have thought of saying. He said “Okay, we’ll give it a try, but don’t think you’re working in my studio on my work. We’re not doing that.” I think that was a way for him to make sure I didn’t want something from him he wasn’t willing to give. And I didn’t at the time think that that something was literally working on the work. He wanted me to care about his work, but he didn’t want me to come as some sort of fan, because even later on he talked about people who kept calling him to come and work for nothing. And he didn’t like that idea so much. Even though I think he probably didn’t pay all his assistants, he still wanted it to be professional. Maybe it was also a way of testing me, to see if I only had one thing in mind about this job: to get into his head, into his psyche through his work. And he said what I’d be doing mostly was correspondence, cataloging. I said fine.

willard: How long did you work for him?

roseman: I started in September 1969, and I worked for him until 1972. He died late in 1972. By the time he died, I was very fond of him. My guess is, all his relationships were complicated.

willard: Do you remember your impressions of the house? I don’t mean just what it looked like but your first impression of it.

roseman: I have a very clear idea about the house. I could probably describe every stick of furniture in it. But my sense of the house is a combination of first impressions and being there over a three-year period.

willard: When you visualize the house at this moment, what specifically do you remember?

roseman: I remember the darkness. It felt dark. Not that it always was. It just felt dark and it felt different than what was outside. There was this darkness and this quality of air, and there was something about spending the whole day in that house that made you feel you were in another time zone.

willard: Was it crowded with things?

roseman: Yes, it was crowded. I think of it as organized chaos. It looked kind of messy. I mean, there were piles of books and letters and papers, and plenty of furniture, which I assume was the same furniture that was there when he lived with his mother and his brother. So it was like a very cozy lower-middle-class house but overlaid with clues of something else, with piles of stuff and little special objects and collages leaning against walls and in boxes and a certain amount of messiness. It wasn’t neat anymore; it wasn’t like most people’s mothers would want their house.

willard: Do you remember the kinds of objects that struck you, over time?

roseman: Over time? Well, the whole thing was such a piece to me. Him, the house, the studio, time, it all kind of hung together. Some days I would look at one thing and some days I would look at another thing. But it didn’t separate. I worked a lot for him.

willard: Did you have a schedule?

roseman: Sometimes I worked four days a week. Sometimes three days a week. Sometimes ten till three, sometimes nine till four. Sometimes afternoon through evening.

willard: He’d call so you’d know the hours?

roseman: We’d sort of talk about them ahead of time.

willard: What kind of work did he ask you to do?

roseman: Strangely enough, when I started early in September, all we did for weeks was to work on his work. We went right down to the studio, and at one point I made some sort of reference to the fact that I had thought I’d be doing something else, and he looked at me like I’d made the whole thing up. So we just started in the studio right away. Sometimes he’d have me building boxes or putting background paper on boxes, and then sometimes he’d just come down the stairs and sit four stairs from the bottom and watch me for awhile. We started new boxes, and there were many old boxes around in different states. Out of the blue he’d turn around and say, “Bring that box from the shelf,” which had clearly been sitting there for years. And we’d go into it and then finish it.

Time was fluid, very fluid.

And others never got finished. But it was like he had put it down just yesterday. He worked in all these very tight series. My feeling about it is, it was a way for him to keep working on these series and not have them die to him, a way for him to be fresh about it and find a new way to go into it.

Eventually he’d send me down to the studio by myself.

willard: In the studio, what work would you do?

roseman: At first I kind of stood there while he worked and handed him things. “Oh, could you get me that?”

willard: Like a surgical nurse.

roseman: Yes, like a nurse. And then little by little he had me cut things out, paste things up. Sometimes I would mix these aniline dyes for him, especially this very intense blue that he used a lot. The blue dye came in this fine powder, and we had to mix it up with alcohol to dilute it. It was so potent and so thin that my tongue would be blue, and when I blew my nose it would be blue just from mixing it up, not even putting my face over it. Sometimes it would last for a couple of days. It spooked me. I had a feeling this was not good for me.

Early on, somewhere during those first couple of months, he told me about some assistant who he was furious at and never forgave because she broke one of the wine glasses he was using in a box. He got really angry even talking about it.

One day I was down in the basement by myself. I was working down there, and there was a can of aniline dye spilling on the floor, and I kicked it. There was this worktable that had a slatted bottom, and there were three collages sitting on the floor leaning against it. So when I accidentally kicked the can, it splashed against these collages, and this river ran like lava and started soaking up into the bottoms. I ran around and cleaned it up, and my heart was going boom boom boom boom, and of course that story of the idiotic assistant who broke a glass was looming in my mind.

I got my courage up and went upstairs and said, “I think you should come down and see something. I’ve had an accident.” So he comes down, and I’m standing there like a twelve-year-old boy ready to be admonished. And he looks at the collages, and he looks at me, and he looks at the collages. “I like it,” he says. That was so thrilling. I was so tense.

willard: What else did you do for him?

roseman: I did all kinds of things. I mowed the lawn. I replanted all his grass once. I raked leaves in the fall, and I shoveled the walk a little bit, and I made lunch for him.

willard: This has nothing to do with art, but I can’t help asking. What did Cornell like to eat?

roseman: It’s kind of a myth now, how much he loved sweets. Even the stuff he ate for lunch was closer to sweets than to food. Once in a while I’d make him an egg, but that was rare. Lots of times I’d make him frozen sweet potatoes, and then put tons of brown sugar in it so it almost turned to soup. And sometimes regular instant mashed potatoes—he’d eat that. I’m a person who tends not to instinctively eat well, but I was amazed.

I don’t think he liked eating in front of people. I think he thought it was kind of private, and sometimes when he was eating with me, he’d put his handkerchief up to his mouth when he chewed. He chewed very fast, very fast little chews.

willard: I think there are some cultures in which the act of eating is a considered a very intimate, private act.

roseman: Well, there’s a French bird you eat that way. You eat the whole little bird, and you eat the head, bones and everything, and you have to eat it behind a cover. I forget if you put a bag on your head or something in front of your face, but you eat it in private, while you’re in public. I don’t know the exact cultural history, but maybe the idea of watching someone put a whole animal into their mouths may be a little appalling.

So it was like that a little bit when he first started eating with me. Sometimes he also felt—one time he sat down with me and said, “I’m not fit to eat with.” And I didn’t know what he meant by that. Maybe he knew he had an odd style of eating.

willard: Cornell seems such a rarefied sensibility—it makes you wonder why he didn’t simply evaporate when he stepped out into the world. In all the photographs I’ve seen of him, he looks so pale.

roseman: Oh, he was very pale. Pale, pale, pale. He was the palest person I’ve ever seen. He was very gaunt and very white. He had no color at all, and he dressed in grays and blacks. He felt like someone in a black and white photograph. Sometimes he’d wear a brown sweater. I have some color photographs of him and some black and white ones, but the black and white ones feel more to me the way he felt in life.

I remember a long time ago there was a joke in The New Yorker that showed Proust at a luncheonette counter, and the whole thing was drawn in one way and Proust was washed in another way and it’s just how Cornell looked when he was out in the world. Like somehow he was made of something else, or the world was in color and he was in black and white. When we would leave the house and go on errands and we would be in the street, sometimes I would think of what we must have looked like, walking together. He wore this big loose overcoat. One time we went to downtown Flushing, and we had to meet in this place called the Hurdy Gurdy, which was like a junky food place. I went out and did some errands and came back, and when I looked up at him, he looked like an apparition.

willard: Apparition does seem the right word for him.

roseman: He was paler than anyone—I mean, it’s hard for me to explain how pale he was. There was something about being in his house with him—he felt one with that place in a certain way so it did not feel strange, but when I was out in the world with him I was struck by the image be must have made. We’d leave the house together and it would be like leaving a compound, leaving the safety of the village for the world.

He always wore his clothes very large. One time he sent me off shopping for him to get a suit. He was very very thin, and I think he asked me to get him 36 inch pants. He probably had a 24 or 26 inch waist. Not only was he apparitional because of his color, he was also kind of lost in his clothes.

willard: He anticipated present fashion.

roseman: And when we went out walking in the street, he would change his pace, just all of a sudden. Sometimes we’d be walking slow, and then we’d speed up for no reason and then slow down and then speed up again. It was like being led by a dance partner. And then sometimes I remember we’d walk to the corner to take the bus to downtown Flushing, for shopping and stuff. (I didn’t have a car at that point.) Sometimes I’d stand and he’d find a lightpost, and he’d lean on that. Then the bus would come and he wouldn’t move and then all of a sudden he’d make a mad dash for it, like he just got there.

willard: What about the times you arrived and he didn’t have any work for you?

roseman: Sometimes there was a lot of vagueness about my duties. He’d send me down to the cellar, and I was supposed to be working or straightening and I’d have to figure out what to do. And other times I’d be sent out to the garage, to the archives. That was fun, because mostly I’d just look through things. There was great stuff out there, and I would open boxes and look through old prints and old French magazines. And the leaves would blow in, and he didn’t want me to rake them out. There were parts of things that never got completed. Things got moved sometimes to take on another life in another place.

There was one corner of the garage where he used to talk about us making a kind of altar for his mother. There were old family photos up on the walls in the house, and there was a picture of him with his father, both of them as adults, which never happened, because his father died when Cornell was fourteen. It was a montage. And I said, “Was your father a nice man?” He looked at me and said, “Oh, no.” He was so firm about it, like it was impossible that his father would have been nice.

Sometimes we’d spend the whole day organizing. I think the main purpose was to turn the compost pile, so that what’s at the bottom comes to the top. It’s what lots of artists do: you revisit your material.

But that’s not what he said. What he said we were doing was organizing. Mostly what we were doing was taking some things that were in two boxes and putting them in one box, or things that were in one box into two boxes. We threw out very little. Every once in a while he’d say, “Oh, I don’t want this,” he’d give me something, but mostly it was kind of review, and it suited me. I liked doing it. I also don’t throw things away. It would probably make some people very edgy to spend day after day picking up things and making decisions about them that never really get acted on, and then putting them back again. It was a combination of liking to look at the stuff and the process itself—it was soothing.

You could make suggestions, but not a lot of them, and you had to flow with the whole thing, just move with him, with the slowness of time, which I liked.

Sometimes, just because of logistics, we’d all of a sudden be in the kitchen together, and it was very clear that he didn’t have anything for me to do. It would make him edgy, and I knew not to ask him what I should do because he didn’t like that. So I found that if I got quieter and quieter and calmer and calmer he’d start to forget I was there. It was an ability I worked on. It’s one reason that photographs looking out the kitchen window or near the kitchen sink are so particular to me, because that was where I would stand sometimes for hours and literally try to dematerialize myself. I would make my presence lighter and lighter and lighter—

willard: Two apparitions!

roseman: And I wondered, did I look different? I don’t know. It didn’t make me tired standing there. I mean, I’d stand there sometimes for hours, just looking out the window. It was a kind of meditation. And part of what I would do was literally to make my presence not felt. So it was a combination of my mind getting lighter and my mind trying to make my body lighter. I got very good at it. I should revisit it periodically now when I get tense because it’s very freeing.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d bumped into me, though he never did.

willard: Did you ever feel he was taking you for granted?

roseman: He wasn’t easy. Sometimes it went really well. Sometimes I was very happy to be there. Other times he drove me crazy, especially the first year. I don’t think he knew what he wanted our relationship to be. Sometimes he would treat me like a confidante and talk to me, not like someone who worked for him but like someone closer. And other times he was very abrupt, and very dismissive, and it hurt my feelings.

willard: Did he talk a lot?

roseman: Little by little he talked more and more. At first it was very professional. He gave me my work, I had coffee breaks, I had lunch breaks. We never had them together, at least not the first month. It didn’t take too long till he started joining me, and sometimes I would go into the kitchen and have my coffee break and my lunch, and he’d take naps or lie down. For lots of my lunches I ate peanuts and cheese. I think it may have had to do with what was in the house and the fact that there were birds and squirrels outside, so there were always plenty of peanuts around. And I really enjoyed it. I would sometimes eat tons of peanuts and a big chunk of cheese. And that was my lunch.

willard: And you didn’t turn into a squirrel.

roseman: I didn’t turn into a squirrel. And then little by little he started joining me. For breaks and for lunch. And sometimes we’d sit for a couple of hours and he would just talk. Sometimes he would take notes. He took notes all the time, as everyone knows, and he had all these dossiers and envelopes all over the place, with different categories. Sometimes in the envelopes there would be art reproductions or things that started to branch out from the initial impetus. Sometimes I’d say something and he’d write it over five times. I’d see him write it over and over again. He helped me hone my ability to read upside down. But his handwriting was very scribbly and very hard to read.

willard: You said you took notes. But not in front of him.

roseman: I didn’t take a lot of notes. I’m a disorganized person who has a desire to be organized. So my notes are very sporadic.

willard: Obviously he was aware that you were taking photographs. How did he feel about that?

roseman: I’ve been taking photographs pretty regularly since I was thirteen. I got into the habit of carrying my camera all the time. So it wasn’t unusual that I would have my camera with me when I went to his house for work. But at first I didn’t take any pictures. I started by taking a picture of the yard or the house and at some point I showed him some pictures that were kind of relevant to him. And then he got used to me having my camera and periodically he would ask me to take a picture of something.

willard: Something that he might use?

roseman: Yes. And then it evolved. For instance, he had me take pictures of food periodically. People would give him food; there was this really fancy birthday cake like a supermarket birthday cake with roses and white icing and stuff, and he handed it to me and said, “Oh, could you do something with this?” I took it out in the yard and I made some photos. One time he had this piece of sponge cake that was maybe a couple of months old so it had gotten rocklike, dried up and hard, like something petrified. And he said, “Oh, could you do something with this?” So I went out and took some pictures.

He had some flowers someone gave him, in the house, and they died. And he sent me out to do a series of photographs of this vase. It was a very fancy vase, crystal and silver. It was his mother’s.

I did a whole series of photographs of pears. The pears were really intriguing. There was a front door and side back door, and a mudroom. The light in the mudroom was very beautiful. So one day I came in and there were these pears on the window sill. And they were very ordinary, pristine, three perfect pears in a soft light, and I just took a photo of them. If that had been it, it wouldn’t have meant very much to me, because it was a pretty photograph, possibly too pretty. But over the next weeks these pears—sometimes there was one, sometimes there were three, they started to shrivel up. It was like this pear performance. And sometimes they’d be cut in quarters, and they had nails sticking out of them. He was doing this when I wasn’t there.

willard: Good heavens—crucified pears.

roseman: One time they were all shriveled up with the nails sticking up. They were really riveting to me. I took twenty photographs of this pear process. But we never talked about it. I didn’t show him these photos.

willard: It’s a story. They’re looking at each other, talking to each other.

roseman: They are narrative, but they’re so elusive. And it’s certainly about deterioration and time, but then there’s this strange intervention. The nails are what really threw me. The first day I got there and the nails started to appear I went wow.

willard: So you had already started the series when the nails appeared.

roseman: There must be at least four or five photographs before the nails.

willard: You must have wondered each day what new chapter would reveal.

roseman: Yes, and I think it’s one reason that I took so many photographs. Because in another situation I probably wouldn’t have photographed certain things. But because everything had this imbued quality everything started to look wonderful.

willard: Did he know you were taking them?

roseman: No. I’d get there in the morning and take my coat off in the mudroom. I’d take my pear picture. And then I’d come in and we’d go about our business. We never talked about it. I never knew what was up exactly, and I think he didn’t know I was documenting this pear thing, although other people theorize that he knew we were having this dance. Eventually it stopped.

willard: How do you think Cornell was using those pears?

roseman: I don’t really know. It seems to me it doesn’t have to have an explicable purpose beyond the act itself. Sometimes things would happen that were played out as a kind of story or dance, none of it self-contained, because everything meant something to him, and everything was about his work, and everything was special. I mean, he was someone who used things in his work that were sometimes esoteric and sometimes ordinary, but in either case once his glance hit it, it was special. In the kitchen, other things would start to take on an evolving still-life quality. He collected stamps. Sometimes I’d come in and there’d be different stamps stuck on the window in the kitchen. And then they’d come down, and other stamps would go up.

One thing about being there and knowing him and being with him is this: in how we respond to things we have a choice as to whether to keep our self-conscious coolness and our analytical ability or to go with something. To suspend disbelief. It’s a kind of faith, in a sense. I wonder if I’m as capable of it now as I was then, but there was something about loving his work, being so thrilled to be there, and maybe being young, I gave myself up to this in a big way. Maybe that’s another reason it worked so well.

So, for instance, a nail was not just a nail. Everything would take on this aura. And he would talk about things in a certain way, and his world—everything around him that he put his glance on that he incorporated into this fantasy or whatever you want to call it—took on a kind of specialness. And so I really got into it.

For example, outside in the yard there was a stone squirrel and a ceramic frog and these plaster rabbits, a big rabbit and baby rabbits. Then there’s the whole history of his brother Robert’s rabbit drawings. He told me once that James Thurber came over and really liked Robert’s drawings. So I started to internalize some of that. These plaster rabbits, which are just junky plaster rabbits that come from some nursery, were the only plaster rabbits like these in the whole world. When I photographed those rabbits, I felt like I was photographing something rather extraordinary. I wonder what happened to those bunnies. I wonder if anybody saved them.

willard: Can you tell me what it was like to work alongside Cornell in that basement studio?

roseman: One thing that always struck me, when we were down in the cellar, for instance, and we would be making these boxes, almost everything was kind of fraught with scarcity and not being obtainable any more. Even nails sometimes. We’d pick up nails and he’d say, “Oh, you can’t get nails like this.” And of course you could. He liked to make everything so—well, he seemed to be saying, I’m so lucky to have this particular nail. Everything became particularized. Sometimes he would pick something up and say, “This will have to do. Not that I’m compromising. But this will have to do.”

And a lot of things were like that. Everything was scarce. The electric saw broke. So we talked about getting it fixed, and he talked about his brother-in-law fixing it. He would say, “Oh, manpower is very scarce.” His brother-in-law lived on Long Island, and it would take a long time for him to get to it.

I’d say, “Well, do you want me to look into it and find someone to fix it?” This suggestion would not please him.

Other times I’d go out and buy frames for collages at the local frame store. The most ordinary frames. I’d just go out and get twenty of them. He’d stain them a little bit, he’d change them a little bit. The framing for the boxes—I think it was harder for him to go out and gather old wood to cut up for frames. Originally I think some of the forms for the boxes were found stuff, and then eventually he built them or had them made.

When I first started working for him, we worked on boxes that were around the studio. And then he sent me to the lumber yard with a box so they could copy it, because he figured he’d order a bunch. Sometimes I made new ones. On these new boxes he’d have old wood he had scavenged from demolition sites, and I’d cut them and miter them and make them into frames to go over these new boxes.

Sometimes he’d age them and sometimes he’d find them layered and aged enough. He had this one piece where he had three sides and he needed a fourth one, and my job was to replicate it. It was a lot of fun. I took this piece of wood and I just layered it and layered it and used different kinds of paint and filled in the cracks, and when I put it together, even I couldn’t tell which was the piece I’d made. So I was very pleased with that little dance.

willard: Can you look at a box of his and say, Yes, this is a box I worked on?

roseman: I’m not sure. They were made in such close series—a bunch of moon boxes, a bunch of constellation boxes. For some reason I didn’t photograph the boxes I worked on. I don’t even know which one I made the piece of wood on and probably will never know, and also partly because his dating was very vague. He didn’t like this hierarchy of a certain period of work being thought better than others, and I know that there has to be a lot of guesswork in dating his work.

So I don’t know. Which is strange. I remember some of the forms we worked on. I built a box within a box once for him. But there was a series of those. And this was twenty-five years ago.

One time he missed one of his boxes a great deal and he showed me a reproduction of it and said, “Please make this for me.” He’d sold it for a very small amount of money. He used to bemoan that a lot. “Oh, I shouldn’t have sold that.” He sold them for fifty bucks, a hundred bucks—this was a long time ago. This one box he wanted to have around. It was fun. I built this box from scratch. And then he signed it.

willard: So he got very attached to some of the boxes.

roseman: Oh, he did. And by the time I worked for him, he had as much money as he needed which was not a lot. He didn’t want a lot of money, so he sold just as much as he felt like. He didn’t have any regular dealer at that point. A woman named Jane Wade would sell work for him; she worked out of her house and she took very low commissions.

Once in a while he would let people come over to buy some boxes, either because he had a history with them or through someone. But usually he’d like people to come over when I wasn’t working, so in getting ready for someone coming over the next day when I wasn’t going to be there we went around and hid things. “Let’s hide these, let’s hide these, let’s hide these. Okay, we can show them these.”

Every once in a while there’d be a lot of activity. There would be a whole bunch of people coming over. Once there was a really spiffy-looking French couple. They looked like movie stars, and they bought a box, and he had them make out a check to some children’s charity. Sometimes he would sell things to give the money away, and sometimes he would sell things to live off the money, but he didn’t like to sell them a whole lot.

He was very frugal. He kept tea bags and used them over and over again. He’d use a paper towel and then stick it up on a nail and use it again. Because he was so frugal he hardly put the heat on all winter. It was a very cold fall that first fall I worked for him, and I was cold all the time. He walked around a lot with this big heavy terrycloth blue bathrobe on, and sometimes he’d put it over his clothes, and then he’d put the gas burners on and stand in front of the stove to warm up.

Every once in a while his bathrobe would catch on fire. One time we were in the kitchen and the bathrobe caught on fire, and I had to put it out. And one time I came in, and the belt to his bathrobe was on the floor, looking like a partly burned cigarette. I didn’t see the fire, but I saw the results of it.

And sometimes I took to standing in front of the stove for a little bit because I was cold. Eventually he’d say, “Are you cold?” I would say, “Yes,” and he’d turn the heat up. I felt that was a turning point in our relationship.

willard: Did you take many pictures of his studio?

roseman: I have a series of these studio pictures.

willard: Good heavens, the place looks like organized chaos.

roseman: Oh, yes, there were all these boxes of materials, and then these partly done works. These are the shelves with frame and dowels and pieces of wood. The stuff he put in his boxes—shells, fancy little things—were over there.

willard: How did he find the things he put in his boxes?

roseman: He mostly gathered them up. He’d go on expeditions. By the time I worked for him, a lot of the stuff was there already in the studio. In his work there is a dialogue between those kinds of things.

willard: The shelves look so narrow—and all those old pipes—

roseman: It’s just a cellar, very sparsely lit with hanging bulbs. This trunk was full of glorious boxes, just beautiful boxes, which were mostly hoarded. Sometimes I’d sit down there and look at those boxes.

willard: So many books, and so many records. Did he listen to music when he was working?

roseman: He listened to music a lot. Sometimes when we were down there he’d put records on. Classical records, a lot of Chopin, Debussy. He liked the French composers. He liked Satie a lot. Some of the records were never unwrapped.

willard: What’s this picture with the sheets covering up the furniture?

roseman: That’s what we did sometimes when company was coming and we wanted to make things neat. Things got draped, like in a house that is not being occupied. It was fun.

willard: I notice that a lot of your photographs were taken in the kitchen.

roseman: I know from things I’ve read that when he was younger and his mother was around, he always worked in the kitchen, until he got his studio in the basement. But even when I was working for him, I have a feeling he worked a lot in the kitchen during the night, because sometimes I’d get there in the morning and there would be this whole worktable set up on the kitchen table. He was doing a series of Rorschach collage drawings. The kitchen was also a work area.

The kitchen was painted this wonderful blue. He was a young adult when it got painted. He had to go to the store, and he wanted the kitchen to be Giotto blue. He told me he was embarrassed to tell this to the paint store man—he thought it was kind of affected—so he said to the clerk, “My mother told me to ask for Giotto blue.”

willard: Looking at your photographs of the interior of the house, I never once wondered about the color.

roseman: The house was so dark inside that it did seem black and white. Here’s another way of describing it. When I was in junior high school, sometimes my mother would stay up late and when I’d come home for lunch, she’d still be sleeping. So when I’d walk in the door with my key, the house had a kind of sleepy, dark, out-of-time-sequence feeling.

And that’s what his house felt like. Eventually he gave me a key, and I’d let myself in during the morning. Sometimes he’d still be sleeping.

willard: Did he use those glasses on the windowsill for boxes or medicine?

roseman: Those are for the little trinkets he would put in, a feather, or a stamp, or something. To keep it in view. This jar holds mucilage, that kid glue.

Then he had a calendar and a notepad and sometimes he’d make these diagrams which he’d set up, and they were kind of like schedules but not schedules; they were reminders for him. Then there’d be titles of boxes he wanted to think about like “Penny Arcade”and “Hotel du Nord.” In the middle of all these other lists, there are shopping lists.

A photograph like this is about light, and it’s about his place, and it’s about surface, and it’s about a certain time, but for me it’s mostly about what it felt like to be in that kitchen on a certain day, and the way time and light are there. When I look at this photograph it brings back the place but even more, it brings back the way it felt. The way it felt to be there.

willard: What’s the story behind that sign? “Attention family and helpers, all valuables have been removed to storage vaults.”

roseman: That’s the alarm system. It was supposed to throw the robbers off. He couldn’t just say, “Attention, robbers.” That would give it away.

He had a bedroom upstairs, which I have a photo of, but lots of times he’d be sleeping on the downstairs daybed, and I’d come in, and sometimes I’d just tiptoe around for an hour or so till he woke up. Other times he’d be clearly bustling around. I think he probably had sporadic hours, so sometimes he’d get up and work in the middle of the night. And then he took naps during the day. Sometimes when we were working, he would say, “Keep yourself busy. I’m going to go take a nap.”

Here’s the photo of his bedroom. It’s very monk-like, cell-like.

willard: I can imagine him making up his bed in that minimal room.

roseman: And you have this towel, and this sheet, and the curtains. You know how I go crazy for drapery.

willard: What a traditional dresser.

roseman: That’s partly because this house was not furnished by him. So there are all these vestiges of an older family style. Very little was changed. For instance, one time we were standing in one of the rooms, and he looked at the wall and up toward the ceiling. Everything needed to be painted. He saw a crack in the paint and said, “Oh, my God.” Like he’d never seen it before. And then he snapped out of it.

willard: What did the outside of the house look like? And the yard?

roseman: It was a very regular sort of Dutch gambrel 1920s rowhouse. His house and the one on the left were unaltered. But they all had these little square backyards. The backyard was very contained. I was there for only three Christmases, I think, and he would not throw the Christmas trees away for a long time. At one point we had two or three Christmas trees in the yard in different states of decay with a little bit of glitter and foil on them. And when the wreath came off the door, it went out to the backyard and lived there for awhile. A lot of things became characters, an extension of a world you can know and affect.

Behind the yard was a garden apartment complex. Everyone talks about this, but certainly there was something about the heightened specialness of him and the house in this absolutely regular environment which is unavoidable. The person who owns and lives in the house now organizes children’s birthday parties for a living.

willard: How did Cornell get on with the neighbors?

roseman: He talked to the neighbors on both sides, and they seemed to know he was an artist. I know he gave some work to the neighbor on one side.

willard: Though I’ve never set foot in the house or the yard, I do get a feeling for the place. I think the artist in his own setting is one of the subjects you’re dealing with.

roseman: I think it’s the major subject.

willard: Which is why your photographs give me a portrait of Cornell that’s unlike any I’ve ever seen. I still don’t know how you managed to take any candid pictures of him.

roseman: The pictures I usually took are interactive. When he was posing for me, sometimes it was my idea and sometimes it was his idea. I was very well aware, though we were comfortable with each other, that he didn’t like to be photographed all that much. He was reticent, and sometimes I knew if I made one wrong move he’d bolt, because his moods would go up and down very quickly.

They were nice moments, relaxed and intimate in a certain way, and the whole time I’m trying not to blow it, by just feeling what the parameters were, what I could ask him to do, how long it could go on, how calm to be. How invisible I could be.

In some of these sessions he was extremely relaxed and cooperative. It would be for me as much of a communing or being close as anything else we did, because I felt he was giving over to me something that he didn’t easily give.

willard: He doesn’t look as if he’s posing.

roseman: He never quite looked at you very often anyway, so in all the pictures he’s slightly looking down. His eyes were very inset in his head, and in shadow sometimes. Very rarely did he look at the camera, which felt like a kind of shyness. Someone did ask me if he was shy and I couldn’t answer, because “shy” doesn’t seem like the right word. I’m not sure if “shy” explains it.

Sometimes he became almost unaware that I was photographing him in the middle of photographing him, which was very nice.

willard: Did he like the ones you took of him?

roseman: The most he did was not mind some. He would never go so far as to say he liked it. He liked other photos that I took, and sometimes he used them in collages. But pictures of himself he wouldn’t respond to in the same way. Either he was horrified or he didn’t have much of a reaction.

willard: How long had you been working with him when you took these photographs?

roseman: 1971 seems to me the most active period of photographing him. I have none of him from 1969, the first year, which isn’t surprising. One of my favorite set of photos he hated—he shuddered when he saw them.

willard: With the mirrors and corners and reflections in your pictures of him, he becomes a figure in his own work. You found the right title for your show: “Inside the Box: A Photographic Portrait of Joseph Cornell.” You’ve really created a picture of him from inside the box.

roseman: Actually Cathy thought of the title. The show is about being inside the box, inside his head, inside my head.

willard: That makes the pictures different from other photographs of Cornell I’ve seen.

roseman: One of the differences might be this: taking those pictures was part of my everyday life at that moment, as well as part of his. It’s not like I had an appointment with him and had to arrive at his house at three o’clock and take a series of photos. They were done in the fabric of going about our business.

willard: Did Cornell ever do any teaching?

roseman: He visited a couple of classes at Queens College. He didn’t really teach. But he had all these ideas and schemes. Some of them were about a kind of floating classroom for making Cornell boxes. Sometimes we’d do a box or part of a box, and he’d say, “Oh, good, we can use that for an example for schools.” And so we’d put it aside. Sometimes the idea was about having people come in and run a school, sometimes it was about going out to a school. But it was always vague, and it always seemed to be about making Cornell boxes.

One time he said to me, “Make me a box [in one of his forms] that is not one of my boxes but your response to it, and we could use that for teaching.” So I made a box. I went home and built this whole box with fish and glitter and mirrors and stuff—it was a lot of fun—and then I brought it to him, and he said, “Okay, good.” And he put it aside.

willard: What happened to that box?

roseman: I’ve no idea. I’ve never seen it again. Unlike some of the others I worked on, I would recognize that box, because I made it. It was in a sense commissioned, a commission for some vague client. He was the client but the real client was this idea of a kind of teaching apparatus. My box was a way to show how someone might make a Cornell box who wasn’t Cornell but could bring their own thing into it. It would go in and out of our conversation over the years. Sometimes he’d ask me for ideas so we could push forward.

But he didn’t really want them. The few times I would broach anything like that, it wouldn’t make him happy at all. It was just a kind of thinking out loud, which I had to get used to: the difference between what was really being asked of me and what was being asked but not wanted at all.

There was a lot of that. Sometimes he wouldn’t be talking to me particularly, he would just be musing out loud. It might have gotten triggered because I was there, and then we’d disconnect and reconnect. Sometimes he would talk directly to me about some of these projects, and at a certain point it all became very abstract. Then it was like music, just something washing over me that was very pleasant.

willard: It doesn’t sound like conversation as most people know it. And yet it’s what I would imagine happening in this house. Getting ready for the show, going through the photographs, do you feel you’ve stepped back into that time and place?

roseman: It’s a compression of time for me. This is an old body of work and now it’s become a new body of work, because I’ve had to revisit it and reassess the images. There’s the connection between my present and that part of my life twenty-five years ago, and there’s the connection with him. He really dates back to the early part of the century, so I feel like it’s made my arm longer, reaching in and out of time. You look at people’s biographies, their birth and death dates, and you think about people who were born in the middle of a century and then died in the middle of the next century, or people who were born at the end of one century and lived through most of the next century, or people who were born and lived only twenty years. You think about that and all the ripples that go flowing back from that. Something about this project has woven those ripples together for me.

Recently I found a letter from him. I was away in Massachusetts, and he said how he missed my eye and my camera. You remember some things, you forget some things. It was almost like he’d said it today.

Interview with Carole Maso

In conjunction with the catalogue for the exhibition: Harry Roseman: Cloth, Sculptures, Photographs, Drawings at Davis and Langdale Company, New York City, 2003

May, 2003 The way the fabric folds, the way the sculpted curtain parts, blown by the breeze in the mind–and also in this winter studio, the actual fabric tacked to the wall blown by a small heat gust of mysterious origin. The way the drawings, some small distance away, yearn toward the cloth, (the way the artist folds his hands). The way the window, never seen, insinuates itself: something as we speak opens, closes a little, opens again. What is it that is just outside the range of our vision? I dream of flight, but the artist calls me back. Look: he puts his thumb to the clay for a moment to demonstrate. The mark of the human hand in its business of mark making. The way the mark enlarged can be detected suddenly everywhere–and the mark of the mind. The way the photos serenely watch both outside and inside the conversation between drape and pencil and clay. The space we enter together now at first a little tentatively. The work at once emotional and cerebral, simple and complex, mundane and transcendent. I feel in the midst of a great creative and intellectual and emotional inquiry. We sit in the shimmer of resonant, rhythmic impulses that have taken shape and weight. We feel the tug of gravity, the inadequacy of words. It’s all right. The way the fabric and the clay and the line and the gaze of the lens seem to mirror and double back on each other, to sing to each other, each informing and transforming the other until we are in a kind of music together. You are asking pressing questions about the nature of perception, yes? I think the work itself sets the tone. Though he is my good friend and ostensibly I know him, the Harry Roseman sitting before me among the various shapes, hoverings, traces, remnants he has created seems different: more humble, more careful, more attentive, as we witness the intimacies of the mind in its various stages of making and unmaking and making again. There is something in our talking, as flawed and mortal as it is that gets a little close from time to time to Roseman’s wordless, essentially mysterious intentions. It is gift like no other to be able to sit with him, close to all that matters most.

CM – Harry, this body of work: the sculptures, the photos, the wall drawings, strike me as addressing pressing questions about the nature of reality. Does this feel like part of the investigation to you?
HR – When I start out to make work it is partly because I am trying to explore the nature of the physical world, the relationship between the subject and the way it sits in the mind, the relationship between what is out there and how I see it. When I was quite young, I would often be struck by and taken with those moments when reality and experience shifted: those sunny late afternoons in winter when long shadows and odd light made the familiar totally new and odd. Also as a child riding on the elevated train, although it was only up a little bit, there was something about looking down on the people’s backyards and houses, where everything was just off enough from your scale – it was like a physical jolt to me. I was lucky enough to grow up within walking distance of the Brooklyn Museum, so when I got old enough to go there by myself I would do so regularly. It was mostly things like the Egyptian collection, and the ethnographic areas where they had models of villages and of temples that particularly intrigued me. My first visit to the Museum of Natural History in sixth grade was just thrilling – between the miniaturization and the life-size tableaus, the shift from three-dimensionality to compression to flatness. These very early experiences have certainly fed into my interest in the nature of reality, but even more surprising to me, although closely related, into my interest in the tension between the two- and three-dimensional worlds. These works, all referring to related subjects, deal with issues of reality tied to perception and to experience. In almost every sculpture in this show, it is clear the way the subject is anchored to a wall, they have a pictorial as well as a physical relationship to the way they hang on the wall. That made me want to use the non-physical aspect of the wall drawings to dictate the configuration of those drawings. Because of their ethereal nature I would depict them as free-floating configurations, in suspension. It is often unclear to me if my process tells me things I needed to know or tells me things I knew, but didn’t know I knew. It is probably a combination of the two, which certainly evolves over time. It is a coming together of layers of experience and knowledge. It is rather thrilling. The photographs bring another slant to this exploration of the nature of reality. In the context of and in dialogue with the sculptures and the drawings, the metaphorical aspects of the photographs are heightened. I think it removes some of their literalness as conveyers of information. I like the notion of slippage. The wall drawings are even further about de-materializing the image. In them the image becomes physically one with the wall and becomes part of the gallery structure, another kind of slippage.
CM – Can you talk about the spiritual quality of your work? Much of your work strikes me as the progress of a soul moving through the material of this world.
HR – It is hard to respond to a question like this without being overly self-conscious. At one time I was working extensively with rocks. I was looking at them, thinking about them and sculpting them. The more I stared and searched, the more I was convinced that there were secrets in those rocks. If I could understand this knowledge I would know a great deal about everything, the physical world and the spiritual. One of my concerns at the time was that if I really deeply understood what I was being shown, I might not need to make art anymore. I love making work. Anyway, here I am still making work. I have a related feeling in my dealing with cloth, that is, that I could learn a lot of essential things through this process. Both rocks and cloth are of course nameable: a rock is a rock, a boulder, a stone, a pebble, etc.; and cloth can be a throw, a sheet, a scarf. But they are things that are not quite objects in the same way a car is; their quality of abstraction, of both specificity and scale, is up for grabs. When you make cloth into a jacket, it is a bit more like a car. And so one of the things that I knew excited me about the rocks, and that excites me about cloth, is that there is a scale shift that happens very easily and often, where something can be either quite small or quite huge simultaneously.
CM – There’s a meditative quality I love.
HR – When I am working at an intense pitch, it is meditation, and at that point you’re not concerned with what the work will finally look like. It is existence in an extended present.
CM – Yes, and in that extended present there is a kind of attentiveness, a quality of mind that is so compelling.
HR – One of the paths into that particular experience of time is the incremental. I do get real pleasure and almost reassurance in the incremental. It is satisfying; I have done much work that was overtly incrementally repetitious. In collages I have worked with accumulations of images, and in drawings with accumulations of marks and weaves. In sculpture it is often manifested in the accumulation of pieces of clay, the adding, layering, almost weaving aspect of building toward a whole. In this exhibition, the newest pieces show that quite distinctly in their surfaces (Smallknot and Notknot). If you look closely you can see the incremental nature of those surfaces. I like easing up to the final forms, making small changes until it hums. It is not always how I work, but often. I’m also very drawn to certain kinds of repetitive work in other forms: in music, and in writing. I love Gertrude Stein’s Making of Americans. I had to go with it and give myself over to it. She takes a long time to tell a story, and it’s told through increments and repetition. I also loved reading Proust. Of course the way Gertrude Stein slows up time and narrative is quite different than Proust, but I respond to both of them in a related temporal way. The first time I heard Philip Glass’ music my reaction was both cerebral as well as physical. I grew up in an intense household. It was cacophonous. People didn’t sleep regular hours, there wasn’t a lot of space, and there were lots of extra people there from time to time. But I wasn’t uncomfortable there. It was often fun. It’s not like I withdrew from there to find another place of greater comfort. I was comfortable there with the comings and goings of my family. I enjoyed it. I was able to live on both planes, within myself and in the world.
CM – In this process you’ve gained a tremendous facility, I would say. Can you talk about your relationship to facility? I find in my own work it has come to be a somewhat dangerous thing.
HR – As a young artist I did not have a great deal of natural facility. There was a point in my development when I developed facility. I realized at that point that I could sculpturally do anything that I wanted to do. And that was a little unnerving, because part of that wrangle is what gave the work some of its visual voice, and when you get to a point where you have this ability then you have to decide that it means something different. When you are working with recognizable imagery the discussion between convincingness and believability and depiction is very complicated and probably more so with sculpture because it more closely physically parallels the thing you’re talking about.
CM – I am moved by your wall drawings. I find them poignant. They’ve got an ephemeral quality. I also am drawn to them as visible thought.
HR – I think of all the work as visible thought, visible thinking. The non-physicality of these drawings does somewhat shift the balance between the solidification of thought held in an object and thought in the other. Their temporary aspect does have a poignant quality, and I think the ephemeral quality is part of its poignancy. This has an interesting relationship to Curtain Drawing from 1993, the meaning of which is very much tied to the fact that it is drawn on cloth.
CM – In 2001 you completed Curtain Wall, a major commission for John. F Kennedy International Airport. It seems to me Curtain Wall beautifully embodies all of the things you are talking about. Can you talk about it in these terms?
HR – I had been working with cloth imagery in a number of ways prior to this project. Curtain Wall helped me to articulate some of my relationships to cloth and, in the context of this project, curtains. Cloth exists in the boundary between the utilitarian and aesthetic pleasure and has qualities both of depiction and abstraction. In almost all cultures cloth and weaving are inseparable from issues of identity, status, work, craft and structure. Curtains are enveloping, protective, celebratory and ceremonial. They are presentational and theatrical. Cloth and curtains both obscure and reveal. In Curtain Wall the depicted curtains speak directly to the wall of windows opposite, setting up a dialogue across the corridor and putting the viewer in the center of the work. At night the experience is transformed by the reflection of the curtains and the viewers in the windows. I wanted a conversation between the nature of the subject and the process, between folding and carving, the two states – the way the subject functions in the world, and then the process by which you talk about it. Another conversation between movement, fluidity and stillness, another between an evocation of lightness and the blockiness and heaviness of the sculptural forms, yet another between direct experience and metaphorical evocation. I wish this to be both a dialectical and seamless situation.
CM – It seems to me that coming from that dreamspace of the airplane like that you are just open in so many different ways that even the uninitiated viewer will be able to take it in.
HR – Right, in a sense your defenses are down and you are opened up.
CM – And it’s an abstract and concrete experience, like the whole process of flight. For the traveler, it’s this liminal, transitional space between air and earth, between dream and reality. And Curtain Wall acknowledges that experience. I like the way you speak of it as narrative as well–the narrative seems to me completely open-ended, a place for the traveler to enter in his or her own way. I’m interested in the set of ideas that came from Curtain Wall, and how they have found their ways into the latest work.
HR – One of the things I couldn’t have foreseen is that so many of the ideas I was dealing with in Curtain Wall have continued to be the focus of the work I am now doing. Clearly, specific issues of scale and context are quite different, since I am not currently working on a 600-foot sculpture for an airport. A few of the concerns that were brought to the forefront by Curtain Wall are the relationship between reality and style, as well as the intersection of classicism and the cartoon.
CM – Your friends know you as someone who always seems to have a camera in hand. What is the draw to documentation? What is the role of photography in your larger project?
HR – I started photographing fairly regularly from about the time that I was ten years old. Photography satisfies my propensity to save and collect. I was documenting so much that I felt I was slowing time down: I had this collection of time moments. As you know I am almost never without my camera. A number of years ago I stopped carrying a camera everywhere I went for about six months. People would ask me if I had gotten a haircut or shaved off a mustache. The photographic series Draped, Wrapped and Covered has a distinct relationship to my sculptural undertaking of the last six years. We have talked about depiction, permanence and temporality. The photographs, sculptures, and drawings depict implied movement, which is a temporary state, held in stasis. Another aspect of these photographs is a very concrete conversation about what its draped, wrapped, or covered over. One of the main rules for the series is that I cannot intervene. Photography is like hunting for specimens. I can be out driving along a highway on my way to New York City and an ordinary trip turns into a car chase (Highway Grid). I was driving around Somerville with my friend Michael Mazur. I spotted this construction site and asked Michael to pull over. I hung around with my camera, at first getting suspicious stares from the construction workers. In a short while, they ignored me. I took a few photographs, knowing they weren’t the ones. Then this guy picks up this large piece of lumber and walks towards this incredibly tall ladder. I hold my breath, he starts up the ladder, one hand on the ladder the other steadying the lumber on his shoulder. I couldn’t believe my luck. I watched him rise through my camera, holding my breath the whole time and at just the right moment I take the photograph, ecstatic. I felt like I had been preparing for twenty years to take that photograph (Ascent, Somerville, MA). © 2003 Carole Maso

Interview with John Yau

Harry Roseman with John Yau
by John Yau

On the occasion of Harry Roseman’s recent exhibit 100 Most Popular Colors at Davis & Langdale Company, Inc., which will be on view until October 20, 2007, the Rail’s art editor, John Yau paid a visit to the artist’s studio in Hyde Park, New York, to talk about his life and work. Self-Portrait in the Mirrored Door of the Medicine Chest. 2006

John Yau (Rail): 100 Most Popular Colors is a series of 100 drawings that you did on paint color charts that one would get at a hardware store when thinking about painting a room or wall. Each chart consists of 100 sample squares of color, right?

Roseman: Correct. Each chart starts with blush white in the upper left hand corner and goes to violet.

Rail: The colors are pale, with no bright or primary colors. The project was to get 100 of the same color charts and do something to each one. In the first one, you covered the sheet with diagonal lines, which remind me of pick-up sticks.

Roseman: I use the color chart, words and squares of colors as a ground. It’s very straightforward.

Rail: And you do different things in each drawing; you draw only in the squares; you use a brush, a pencil, a rapidiograph; there are some where you use a razor blade to precisely and rather obsessively cut an X through each colored square from corner to corner, and then there are others where you peel the color square back or off.

Roseman: Some transitions are clearly sequential. I made lines over the whole chart in the first drawing. In the second one, I made similar, smaller marks only in each colored box. It was a conversation about the various parameters that were possible once the thing itself was, in a sense, talking back. At first I got a couple of different color charts and decided to start with this particular one 100 Most Popular Colors because it was a very simple grid, the colors were low key, and it was a kind of partner for me to talk to. I did one, and then another. And then it was one of those moments where I kept seeing the title of the color chart, which folds over like a triptych, and it’s called 100 Most Popular Colors. It’s a folded piece of paper with 100 boxes of insipid colors that look like they’re left over from the fifties. And I said, “100 most popular colors, 100 boxes, 100 drawings.” It seemed clear to me that there needed to be 100 drawings in order to achieve a total balance between each one and the whole enterprise. 100 Most Popular Color #97, 11 24 3/4 inches, black acrylic paint on color chart. Courtesy of the artist and Davis & Langdale Company, Inc. 100 Most Popular Color #94, scored and peeled color chart with black acrylic paint, 11 24 3/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Davis & Langdale Company, Inc..

Rail: And you atomize time by deciding to do 100 drawings in which you keep talking to the grid of muted colors. There is a performative aspect to some drawings, such as when you make a perfect physical circle with a drop of paint.

Roseman: Right, they’re not flat and drawn, they’re physical blobs of paint.

Rail: You did this methodically, one after the other, and you couldn’t miss the square.

Roseman: My process and my ideas about much of my work seem to be incremental. I’m very interested in things that build up by mark or dab, and sometimes you see it and sometimes you don’t. With the circle drops it’s apparent. The first rule for 100 Most Popular Colors was that I’d do them sequentially, and when I finished one, and if I was satisfied with it, I would sign it and number it. There was no editorializing to make a point. I also allowed myself periodically to be thrown off the path by outside experience, so there are drawings that seem to come out of nowhere. Take the cutting you mentioned. When I realized that I could cut and peel the color samples, it opened up a lot of possibilities.

Rail: Many things occur to me. One is that you define a formal process where a different thing has to be done to the piece, and it stays formal but all this incidental stuff happens that you couldn’t have planned for. In one drawing it looks like you’re paying homage to Joseph Albers, and in another it looks as if a monochrome painter has perversely miniaturized his or her entire career into a hundred paintings. And you go from the optical and tonal to the linear and sculptural, because there’s the drawing where you have peeled all 100 colored slips and piled them in the middle of the chart. There’s a fluid interaction among the sculptural, linear drawing, and optical, as if to say that the relationships among these things are not as cut off from each other as art historians would seem to say.

Roseman: I love that!

Rail: That fluidity makes sense within the larger body of your work. You do shallow reliefs that are pictorial, and, historically, relief exists between painting and sculpture.

Roseman: Yeah, it’s already a form that sits in the interstices of things.

Rail: In fact, your work sits in the interstices over and over again, and you can’t say it’s this or it’s that, because it is often both this and that.

Roseman: There are people who work out of theoretical ideas and start with a kind of stance. I don’t do that. I do the work that excites and interests me, it brings me where it brings me and I keep my fingers crossed. And then, like you just said, I don’t believe in “this or that” very much. It doesn’t mean there is no room for judgment or that no choice is being made. I make a lot of very specific choices and assessments. Sometimes it takes me a long time to figure it out, and sometimes it’s clearer, but I want to be the kind of person who can find enough sustenance and meaning in a very small arena, and I do. And when I’m working on things that sustain over time in a certain way, I’m in a very intense present tense where that could conceivably take me through the next fifty years. But then when I leave my studio, look at stuff, talk to people, my mind is racing and I’m getting ideas so that sometimes I will somewhat reluctantly follow these things and leave other things behind.

Rail: In your twenties, you took photographs of Joseph Cornell, which weren’t shown for at least twenty years. You started photographing when you were ten, and you’ve taken photographs your whole life. And there are the weave drawings, which came later than other things, but which you’ve also been doing for twenty years. Then there’s the bronze relief sculpture, the huge public sculpture that you did at JFK and in the subway station down near Wall Street, the recent painted sculptures that are both sculptures and paintings, and there’s this body of drawings done on a color chart in 1993-1994, and it’s a self-sufficient body of work within your project.

Roseman: A distinct body of work that talks very much to the other drawings I’ve done. And in some ways the chart’s use of tonal gradation has asserted itself in some of my sculptures. So as much as it seems like an idiosyncratic body of work, its tentacles reach out very fully to other bodies of work. My work is elliptical and parallel. There are parallel things going on which retouch base elliptically. One thing going through my work is my interest in compressed space and viewpoint, and they culminated in that first big subway project.

Rail: How so?

Roseman: What happened was, I had these big projects that take a huge amount of time. The airport project took four years; the subway project took a year and a half. I’m working and working, it leads to this commission, and there’s all this other work sitting in the studio. One big thing about the subway project goes back to this idea of being incremental. I made this little model, 7 by 41 inches, out of bits of clay, and then I had to do this huge version of it when I got the commission, and I couldn’t figure out how to get from those little bits or marks to the big surface. So finally I broke that code and the little marks looked bigger. During that year and a half, I was as interested in the pieces of clay, which were overlapping to make the surface that would look reasonable at that size, as I was in the landscape. So that threw me. I said, “It’s these marks that are so goddamn important.”

Rail: How do the drawings fit in?

Roseman: The 100 Most Popular Colors came between the subway wall and the curtain wall at JFK, when I was drawing a lot and thinking about weaves, pattern, and mark-making, and trying to figure things out. It made a lot of sense at that moment, and it brought in other things that I couldn’t bring in through some of the sculptures, like my interest in How to Draw books, pattern books and sample books. So I said, Oh well I can bring in my interest in increments, mark-making, weaves and gradation, and have a conversation with all this other stuff that I had to put on the back burner. It was a way to reground myself, and in a strange way, bring me back to a place where I was twenty years before.

Rail: I also think that succinctness and linearity are really illusions. There’s a Romantic notion of the self as this goal-directed figure that possesses a certain number of self-defining gestures or actions, and my sense from your work is that you don’t buy into that illusion at all.

Roseman: For better or worse, I don’t!

Rail: I mean you say that you’re this self at one point and this self at another because you’re really saying, I don’t know the particular self I am because I’m many different possibilities and I want to keep them all in play at all times.

Roseman: You were saying earlier that I did photography, and I did these drawings; the thing about photography that I would like to say specifically is that, like a lot of people who become artists, I drew all the time. But probably a little more idiosyncratically, I have also taken photographs since I was a kid. That was something I always did, almost like breathing. I had a darkroom when I was a kid, so I did developing and printing. I don’t know at what point I went from thinking I was taking pictures to thinking I was making photography. At some point, probably in high school, I said it’s photography. But, it still was something I just did, like riding a bicycle. And then I was learning about becoming this other thing—an artist—and I went to Pratt and made serious art and stuff, but I was still photographing and taking it seriously; it was always…‘there.’ But, somewhere along the way when I was already making sculpture, and I was having a life as a showing artist, and I had worked for Joseph Cornell from ‘69 to ‘72, life intervened. You know, twenty-something years after Cornell died, Deborah Solomon got in touch with me because she was writing a biography of him and wanted to know if she could talk to me and maybe use some of my photographs for the book. That changed two things. The photographs became more public. And I had this exhibition of this body of work about Cornell. Now Cornell had been dead for many years. And there were two issues, one was photography and its meaning within my overall enterprise, and the other was the Cornell photographs. I thought very hard about letting Deborah use the photographs, and also about showing them, which had nothing to do with my going public as a photographer, and had more to do with my going public about my relationship with Joseph Cornell. I mean, I love his work, I was extremely fond of him, it’s not like I was embarrassed. I was just cautious about having too early an association with such an icon. But by the time twenty-five years passed, I was quite grown up, and also had enough of a place in the world on my own as an artist that it stopped worrying me, so I showed those photographs. And then the photography became more public. Some of the conceptual photographic projects I’m working on now—which is a big part of what I’m doing with my website—started quite early as cognizant ideas. I started doing self-portraits in ’68; I started doing the “visitor series” in ’71. So already, besides hoping to take some really good single photographs, I was conceptualizing the enterprise in a way that had to do with being self-conscious. Some of the projects are incremental, like the weave drawings. Taking a picture of everyone, including the UPS man and plumber, who comes to your house is about time; it is diaristic and incremental, like “The Bolt.” I’m making these bodies of work that build in a totality of one plus one plus one plus one, you know, 100 plus 100, etc, until the work starts to perk and make sense as a kind of undertaking with authority. I think that Mark Lombardi and I shared an interest in interconnectedness. Mine is more social and cultural, his more political. I think about those beautiful drawings of his that have this purpose of showing connections and I could see drawings like those talking about my group project. Even though I wouldn’t do it and it doesn’t interest me to do it, it’s another parallel way to think about how to present something. And talking to you, for the first time, I think maybe it’s a way I could think about my whole body of work; where you have these threads—like weaves (weaving is always such a great metaphor for all sorts of connectedness)—where you can make connections that show relationships.

Rail: That makes sense. Let’s talk about “The Bolt” because you mentioned it. You bought a good amount of muslin—

Roseman: Right, a bolt of cloth—

Rail: You’ve been drawing on it since 1989.

Roseman: Like my weave drawings on silk, “The Bolt” is a drawing that is also an object. It’s an incremental weave structure that is very depictive because it looks like a real weave, I’m just kind of metaphorically weaving while drawing and it is a certain length and I work on it somewhat every year. It will be another length eventually. It’s about counting minutes, and making marks, and making an object that exists as an object. It’s much more about process than a finite making of a thing. If I only worked on “The Bolt” for the next ten to fifteen years, which, as I told you, if I was a totally enlightened person, it’s probably what I would do, and then I would be humming all the time, and I’d be one with the universe and no one could ever talk to me because I’d be somewhere else, even though physically I’d look like I was here. But anyway, I work on it steadily, and when I die it will be done. Maybe not complete, but done. It is a very esoteric, and, in other ways, a very straightforward operation. Actually, the fact that I still work on it is a way for it to come with me, because I hate leaving things—when my work changes, as I told you, I get sad. No, I’m not making the milk carton still lifes anymore, why can’t I do that for the next forty years? Which I could, but I can’t. And so the fact that “The Bolt,” which I have shown a few times, and I’ll show it again, is and always will be a work in progress, I’m not secretive about it.

Rail: And then there are the collages you did at one point.

Roseman: You might recall, I did those tissue boxes, and they had this weave pattern on them. And then I started drawing these weaves and those overlapped with the subway project as well. And the collages were a little bit of an aside in some way but they led me to the weaves. How to Draw books were just something I liked and kept thinking that they could mean something, and they finally did when I drew in them. And they led me to the 100 Most Popular Colors. The collages just came out of the fact that—you know, we all do collages when we’re in art school or high school—I also had all this stuff! I had diagrams, books, boxes of stuff that had these images, and I think I made the collages as much to make things as really an excuse to cut things out; because I think there was probably a year when I just cut things out and wasn’t making collages. It was very satisfying.

Rail: Did you categorize them when you cut them out?

Roseman: Yeah, I have books and boxes of tools, pieces of cloths, cars…

Rail: Do you know Jess’s work?

Roseman: Yes, I love Jess’s work.

Rail: When I went to his house he showed me his drawers and drawers of stuff, and they’d be labeled like, Butterflies, Men Working, Cars.

Roseman: Yes! Exactly! You know there’s something, and maybe he had the same feeling, about looking at a book, or a whole picture, and extricating a thing. And the extricated thing might be flat like a drawing, or it might be three dimensional or photographic, and then it exists as a discreet thing. And so there’s the cutting, which is very pleasurable, and I used to say while I was cutting, I don’t see why anyone says they are bored, they could just cut things out. I titled one collage “Inventory” and another “More Inventory.” I did a really big collage, that I never finished, and which I may go back and finish, of hundreds of hammers tight together. Again, I think it goes back to that thing of, through the cutting, which is its own pleasure, the incremental, the additive, the building-up, to make something; like alchemy, more than the thing.

Rail: Okay, but then, just to go back, there’s this other side to you, like in this 100 Most Popular Colors. Somehow the serious never overwhelms the playful, but more importantly the playfulness overwhelms the serious.

Roseman: I think they’re simultaneous. The new relief sculptures, they’re very meticulous. I know I’m not talking about 100 Most Popular Colors, but they’re very precise, and elegant in a way, because of their singularity and simplicity. I’m having a conversation with Ellsworth Kelly and I’m having a conversation with cartoons. There’s something a little bit about the color, I mean they’re not really Kelly colors, but they are these soft simple shapes that are one color so I think of him a little bit and of cartoons.

Rail: Also a little like Richard Tuttle.

Roseman: Yeah, a little bit, in a way, yes, in my own, very different way.

Rail: At the same time you’re not being ironic.

Roseman: You know, I must say; one of the things I am really very rarely ever in my work is ironic. I don’t embrace irony in my work.

Rail: So that’s what you mean by a conversation, because irony is a judgment, and you’re not passing judgment if you’re making work that bounces off or has a conversation with—

Roseman: I’m not even making judgments about these How to Paint books. I’m not doing it as social satire, I’m doing it out of fascination. I mean, I look at those things. It’s a kind of love-hate thing; I think they’re silly, and I love them! And when they show you how to make these little highlights on things, there’s accomplishment in that. And even though what it results in is pretty bland, and you get to the same place all the time, it’s fascinating.

Rail: Yeah, I always thought there was nothing ironic to your work, but there is an immense amount of playfulness which I think is different.

Roseman: It is different. And I would embrace the playfulness, and be really upset if the work was ironic. Because I like meaning what I am doing and its value and the value of the things I’m referring to and the finding of value in all kinds of quirky places. Real value, not kind of winking-at-value. That doesn’t interest me.

Rail: It’s interesting that you mention cartoons and Ellsworth Kelly because you’re really talking about what was foolishly called High and Low Art by Kurt Varnedoe, and saying there’s a fluid connection, why make distinctions between them?

Roseman: I mean, again, there’s crap and there’s not-crap. I’m more than willing to make those distinctions. You know. But I don’t think that supercedes what we’re talking about. I mean on one level I can’t look at work by Thomas Kinkade, but at the same time I can see what’s in it that I can have a real conversation with. You know, just as I feel I can have a real conversation with someone who liked that stuff. What is that about? That would be curious to me. And when I choose to have a visual conversation in these drawings, boy, it’s not about poking fun. It’s about what’s in there that I can talk to that will change what I’m doing and change how I or someone might look at that stuff. Not to elevate it, but to just be open to the dialogue.

Rail: Right. And that’s how 100 Most Popular Colors came about.

Roseman: Right, and I collect more things than I will ever use and I never know what’s going to slip in and become a viable visual discussion at any moment that’s going to be exciting to me. And at a certain point, probably cause of my imploding from the subway wall, I got an opportunity to do this.

Rail: And the other thing that really strikes me about it is that it’s not arty, this piece. I mean you’re beginning with something—the material itself—and you’re making us look at something we don’t normally look at. And you kind of get us thinking are these really the 100 most popular colors. (Laughs)

Roseman: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s a little disheartening! When you are working with color charts the question of taste is naturally present. I find that taste is the thing unspoken. As artists, we are often propelled and embarrassed by the underlying impetus of taste, which fascinates me.


The nature of cloth, the fold, its structure, the ways in which it is thing and metaphor – The fact that its thingness is so slippery.  When cloth is not made into a thing, a jacket a dress, it’s thingness gets hard to pin down.  Its scale can shift at a moment’s notice, a handkerchief, a napkin, a sheet, a tarp, a sail.  I find the physicality of closely observing, of reinventing the world, touching through observation, internalizing  a curve, a fold, the material nature of our world, the substance of the thing itself and the substance of the stuff one can use to talk about the thing, a sensuous experience.  When two categories of material collide in the making of the object, the disparity of structure, hard/soft, rigid/fluid, self-contained/susceptible to their surrounding for their shape, I am interested.  These anomalous juxtapositions that transpose givens, that belie our assumptions in ways that are clearly “off”, but that convince as a new whole, a new probability, that is both straight-forward and uncanny.  In this installation/exhibition I seek to enfold the viewer both externally and internally. Harry Roseman, December 2011

The main part of the exhibition will be a site-specific black and white line drawing painted directly on the walls. Also included will be works linked thematically to the installation. The site-specific drawing will envelope the gallery in draping and folding cloth illusions. The two-dimensional soft flowing drapery as it winds through the space creates an idea of three-dimensionality. Fascinated by the dichotomy of opposites hard, soft, rigid, fluid, Roseman makes an exciting partnership between these contrasting elements. – Nancy Margolis Gallery Press release, December 2011