John Torreano, Yellow Bar, 1968. Image: courtesy of the artist.
John Torreano, Black Bar, 1969. Image: courtesy of the artist.
John Torreano, Gases in Omega Swan, 2007. Image: courtesy of the artist.
John Torreano, Double Spin, 1989-90. Image: courtesy of the artist.
John Torreano, A Star(s) is Born, 2007. Image: courtesy of the artist.
John Torreano, Tumble of Gold Wall Gems, 2015
John Torreano, Gifts Tower 2013, from the series 'Abu Dhabi City of Colors'
John Torreano (b. 1941, Michigan) is a painter and philosopher. He is known for his abstract canvases, and has had a long career alongside some of the most well-known figures of modern American art.
His paintings are delights to the eyes: his starking use of color and materials, including his
signature oxygems, create highly thoughtful and
awe-dropping compositions. He is a poet of
dark matter, an aesthetician of deep thoughts. A
monumental figure, that I had the chance to interview
only a few weeks ago in Abu Dhabi, UAE. He is indeed
a practising painter and professor at NYU Abu Dhabi
(where I now study Art History), alongside a clinical
professor of studio art at NYU Steinhardt, a position
he has held for many years.
Sophie Arni: Thank you for sitting down for this
interview. Your practice deals with the picture
plane coming literally out of space. They push the
boundaries of the physical world while fitting in a
relatively flat, rectangular surface. What was your
journey to this concept? Please walk me through your
John Torreano: I grew up in the catholic school system. My hometown, Flint, Michigan was an automobile industrial centre
at the time. There was not much art around, but I was attracted to drawing as a child. When I enrolled in the first of my
many art schools, America was shining with the golden time of Abstract Expressionism. I continued and stayed in school,
it exposed me to art and cultural differences - two things I was fundamentally lacking growing up. It was also my first
time seeing any kind of socio-economical inequalities - something that will come up later in my practice. So I was
studying and making art at the Ohio State University. At that time, theories were invading how one would understand
modern art. I remember the craze on gestält theory (perception) or Greenberg's take on Modern Painting and its essential
flatness. There I was, at a crossroads.
Should I go left into Color Field, straight to Pop Art, continue right to AbEx or go extreme right to Minimalism?
To be honest, I didn't want to choose. I didn't want to be placed in a category.
John Torreano (continued):
Under my first mentor, Richard Devore, I dabbed into
Abstract Expressionism. In the late 60s and 70s, I
compared how Old Masters and AbEx painters composed
their surfaces. I was interested in Titian's techniques,
just like Turner's, Pollock's and Rothko's. I saw the
picture plane as a rectangular composition. I first
experimented with horizontal division of space. I also
played with plaid motifs. I was attracted to geometrical
division, to modernism at large, to modernist architecture.
And only later did I start to think circular. A universal
kind of composition. I did some dot paintings, and it
suddenly all became more fluid.
I have this quote, from 1968. Less is less, more is more. No less, no more.
So I wiped out my dot paintings.
I scrubbed their surface until only fragments were left.
It was a very formal approach, a psychological way of dealing with art,
and thus with the audience at large.
These paintings became furniture for the eyes.
I read that painting should be transactional, rather than telegraphic.
I really stand by that statement.
When the paint was wiped out of my dot paintings,
I experimented, and added gems.
The universal concept was born.
Around the 70s, I had my universal paintings;
a curved spatial composition of visual stimulation and dynamism.
S.A.: When you start adding gems into paintings,
you deal with a certain three-dimensionality. Do you consider
yourself more a painter or a sculptor?
John Torreano: Why don't think of it this way: sculpture is a manifestation of painting.
Differentiating 2D and 3D is about categorising, again. What if you simply thought
of painting as a sculptural object? Painting is the materialization of art.
S.A.: With the development of post-internet art, innovations in digital art, screenshotting computer screens and collaging them on Photoshop, some people might speculate that
'Painting is dead'. What do you have to respond?
John Torreano:It's like saying that poetry is dead.
S.A.: Lovely response. Now let's talk about the gems. As a medium, they could carry associations with the
glitz and glam of material culture. What is your stance about these
John Torreano: That wasn't what I initially intended. I don't consider my work to be Pop Art
for example. Those gems, I found them in the South Hamptons. I call them 'oxygems',
as they carry an inherent oxymoron of form and light. I work with the materiality of the diamond:
as being a mediated, human-made, carved, hand-made precious stone. I elevate the process of
making applied wood diamonds of elevated, shiny quality.
S.A.: Richard Artschwager described your works
as "paintings that stand still and make you move."
John Torreano: Richard Artschwager wrote about art as experience vs. knowledge. I follow
that approach: studio art is the core, the precious invention of all other meanings attached
to it thereafter. In the studio, things don't particularly make sense and happen often times
quite randomly, linked by experimentation. Once outside the studio cocoon, art seems to invent
the language for its social sphere.
S.A.: What about the word'decorative'? Your pieces
are carriers of acute composition and philosophical thought,
as well as supra-decorative objects.
John Torreano: To decorate is more of a verb. Existing as decorative comes from a quite
active process. To merely 'be' decorative is more superficial I agree.
S.A.: And finally, for Global Art Daily, can you tell me more
about how local and global issues affect your practices?
You have been coming to teach in the Arabian Gulf
for four years now, how did your stays in Abu Dhabi
change your vision of the world and your works?
John Torreano:Well two things stand out. First, I have gone diving quite often, as a hobby
when I stay here. The underworld is fascinating, just as fascinating as the outer space in
a contra-distinctive way. My new research is titled 'Above, Below, Below Below'
: it's about the different surface levels of nothingness (desert), thingness (the city
Abu Dhabi) and the below below (black gold). Second, I started to experiment with photography.
I find the city of Abu Dhabi to have an incredible colorful palette. Street signs can be blue,
green, red, yellow: these are bright, unmuted colors that make up the urban landscape
of the city streets. I photographed these signs (see photographs below) and also have been
researching old photographs of Flint and comparing them to Abu Dhabi. In a coincidental
manner, I was born and grew up in an automobile industrial town. My father worked with an
automobile factory, whose production was 'fueled', quite litterally, by the oil resources of this region.
I have distant but existing ties with Abu Dhabi. Construction or deconstruction, you choose.