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Some Assembly Required

Some Assembly Required:
Tom Burckhardt and Alexi Worth in Conversation

On the occasion of his two-person exhibition at the gallery, Elmer Bischoff/Tom Burckhardt: A Dialogue, Tom sat down with fellow painter Alexi Worth to discuss the humor in Bischoff’s abstractions, "feeling figurative," and his Ikea Furniture Theory of Art.
 

Alexi Worth:    Let’s start with a word. Pareidolia. I learned it from you, but remind me what it means?

Tom Burckhardt:    It’s Jesus in the burnt tortilla, or rabbits in clouds: our tendency to construct figuration out of abstract phenomena. People tend to think of perception as just a matter of receiving information, like an antenna. But it’s not just that. Pareidolia is a clue to the fact that our brains are always projecting, interpreting. That’s what Rorschach testing exploits.

AW:    Right, so instead of just a meaningless inkblot, we see a moth or a face--an image. And likewise, in these new paintings of yours, we can’t help seeing “heads.” Maybe not right away, but after a moment or two, features appear: brow, nose, chin. They have a peculiar provisional quality. But they’re there. We can’t unsee them.

TB:    I'm trying to bring the paintings up to an invisible line, the watershed between recognizability and visual wandering, let's say.

AW:    What is it about that boundary that attracts you?

TB:    I want the viewer to create the sensibility around the work, and not have it be dictated to them. That's what I'm trying to hold on to, the ethos of abstraction.

AW:    Part of our hardwired responsiveness to heads includes social and emotional qualities. Heads are male or female, melancholy or goofy or malevolent. To what extent do you try to shape that?

TB:    What I'm interested in is this initial recognition of the structure of a human face. Before the questions of gender or specifics of emotion or even race. It's more basic and peculiar than that. The first thing we're trying to decide is are these actually human or not.

AW:    Maybe a trivial observation, but I couldn’t help noticing that all the heads face left?

TB:    After the first three or four I decided that was going to be one of the rules.

AW:    The shared orientation helps us read them, I imagine--helps confirm their identity as heads. Is that why?

TB:    Actually, it’s a little more random. One day I happened to see several different lines around the city, people queuing up at the start of the pandemic. One was for food. One was for a sample sale. The contrast seemed so New York. And a very stupid connection came to me: I began thinking of these figures as being “on line” 

AW:    So the gallery walls become a procession, like a line at the Post Office or the DMV.

TB:    And different exhibitions of them could make for shorter or longer “lines.” They even have abstract demographic possibilities.

AW:    The individual heads are certainly different from one another, almost virtuosically different. Each has their own distinctive color palette, their own architecture, their own dryly comic associations. At the same time, they have a roughly similar formal DNA. They’re made up of highly controlled lines and shapes. You’re a draftsmanly painter. Every curve feels deliberative.

TB:    What’s important to me is that I’m not thinking of any shape as shorthand for an eye, nose, mouth or anything like that. I try to preserve their representational innocence for as long as possible. I'm coming from a place of abstraction and I'm driving towards… figurationville. And I'm wondering if I will cross that border, or not.  It’s very important for me that the formal elements don’t have a descriptive role. I'm trying to hold that off until a last minute.

AW:    Why? Why hold it off?

TB:    What I admire about abstract painting-- or painting in general-- is the way that a viewer can find a personal story paralleling the maker’s. I like the idea that for the viewer, standing in front of my paintings, there’s a sense of recognition-- but it’s just starting to happen. The viewer’s brain is doing all this pareidolic forming. I want you to feel like I'm right there, only a step ahead of you. Not a whole lot of steps ahead of you.

AW:    So you’re ceding some authority?

TB:    I don't want it to feel like I'm controlling the pictorial situation. I'm trying to erase some of that didactic feeling.

AW:    How do you know when you've reached the right moment for the surgery that creates a face?

TB:    Well, it doesn't happen only once on any given painting. It can happen over and over again. Sometimes it just works;  other times it just doesn't. And you just keep moving with the paint. A lot happens towards the end where I do see the face, and I know what I'm dealing with. That’s the last maybe 5, 10 percent of the time. But until then things can change. I can turn something upside down, or get rid of something. Because it's not already holding its required place of representation.

AW:    In other words, “representational innocence” gives you more freedom too.

TB:    Yes. I’ve always tried to get to the ecstatic place in making work. To me ecstatic means you lose the rational thread. You forget what time it is. You forget that your foot’s falling asleep. Often I literally step back from a painting and see things I didn’t know would be there. That's what I love. There is a sense of yes, I made this but I don't know how I made it. They are done by me 100%, but there’s a throwing spaghetti against the wall methodology to them that I suspect is not quite the usual figurative model.

AW:    Definitely not. But it’s odd to see an “abstract ethos,” as you put it, yielding figurative results. When we were coming of age as artists, there was a pretty strong prejudice against anything in the zone between abstraction and figuration. The phrase “homeless representation” came up a lot as a dismissive shorthand. I remember feeling an artist had to be strongly in one camp or the other.

TB:    I never got that memo somehow. In fact, here's the thing, I've always been in this place. This slippery zone where things can fall off towards abstraction, or fall off the other side. That's what I've been interested in for all these years. I used to say that I wanted my abstraction to feel more like figuration. I remember saying that 25 years ago.

AW:    What does that mean exactly: to “feel” more like figuration?

TB:    To feel present. Not diaphanous. Not just obeying some cerebral otherwordly logic. To be here, in the world that we know. That's why I've always felt that my relationship to the physical support matters so much. The wobbly edges of these canvases for instance.

AW:    I’m glad you mentioned them. I love those wobbly, hand-shaped edges. Such a simple, suggestive subtlety! They’re like thought balloon contours in comics, as if the whole painting was someone’s “thought.” They set a tone. They pull us away from Serious Abstract Painting.

TB:    I've always felt that abstraction has a bit of a class problem, it can be pretty Ivory Tower. I want to try and undercut that any way I can. Through humor especially.

AW:    To me, that’s what connects you to late Bischoff. In some ways, you’re obviously very different painters, but the spirit of his 1970s paintings—their ambitious modesty, their humorous open-endedness—is an interesting bridge. You’re both natural anti-Greenbergians, allergic to anything programmatic or grand. His paintings may be big, but they’re about as far from Barnet Newman as abstract painting can be. They’re almost impish, with little dangling ungainly motifs everywhere, like constellations of pratfalls.

TB:    I keep coming back to one Bischoff painting, the one with the musical note along the side, “No. 44.” For me that note is the key detail because it’s unmistakable. And it’s rather hilariously climbing up the edge of the painting! There are even motion marks--it’s got temporal movement, the way an actual musical note has duration. It makes me flashback to that classic Peter Saul image, of a toilet running away. But you know there was a West Coast tradition of cartooning and ridiculousness and absurdity, so it’s not too surprising that Bischoff, who was a native Californian, should be connected to that. In the same painting, there are other potential images. I find myself wondering, is that a crucifix over there on the right? But without the musical note, I might not be so inclined to “read” them.

AW:    Oh, I see images everywhere! A little head with green hair, crutches, Superman taking a bow, a blue fan, silhouettes inside the crucifix…

TB:    See, I think that’s you. The musical note is the only thing that’s incontestably there. The other stuff…you can see it, sure. But another viewer might not.

AW:    Well, nothing is exactly spelled out, but “plausible deniability,” that’s part of the humor, right?

TB:    Ok, I agree with that. Everything is very “I don’t know what you’re talking about Officer.” And it reminds me of Miles Davis saying “It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.” He was a musician too, Bischoff, and I can’t help seeing something musical about these late works. They remind me of modal Jazz, where the solos are part of a continuous flow. They’re improvisatory and relaxed. There’s no hurrying. The white spaces are like pauses.

AW:    Compositionally, though, they’re pretty graphic. Quite a few of the little “incidents” include right angles, making me think of rebuses, crossword puzzles, Rube Goldberg cartoons, or even certain kinds of Roman wall paintings, with their linked garlands and putti.

TB:    I think of pages, enlarged pages of telephone doodles. They feel very subconscious, in the way that doodling is. Discrete little images. Your opportunity there is to ask, how do these fragments connect to each other? Sometimes they do; sometimes maybe they don’t at all. They’re casual that way. They never really build into the “thesis” of an overall image. There’s no hierarchy. Every fragment has a relatively equal voice.

AW:    Bischoff was very explicit about that. He said “I think of them as being democratic. There’s no big force saying ‘Hey you do this, you get over there.'” It was important to him to see the small elements as being in charge.

TB:    Yes, they don’t coalesce. They have this autonomy. They’re even a little chaotic.

AW:    I suppose we could connect that back to a California temperament, or just to a bedrock American egalitarianism? But the political climate of the 1970s was pretty chaotic. It’s tempting to imagine that they might reflect some of that.

TB:    Yeah, the 70s was not a great moment for political optimism.

AW:    There even seems to be an arc within the paintings, a trajectory towards more deliberate disorder. But that could be personal, rather than political.

TB:    To me, it’s very apparent that they are late paintings. They share something with the work de Kooning made at the end of his life: this spreading stuff out, leavening it with white.

AW:    I thought of late de Kooning too-- the airy paintings from the 1980s. But in fact, Bischoff began painting this kind of work a few years earlier. I wonder if de Kooning could have seen the Bischoffs? Or perhaps the same kind of idea just occurred to both of them towards the end of their lives. A sort of scattering. Shards of memory thrown up into the air. A letting go.

TB:    I like the idea of freedom as part of a “late style.” When I think about Bischoff and de Kooning, and also Diebenkorn and Guston too, they didn't let anything tie them down. They felt free to cross that figurative/abstract divide, despite all the partisan feeling. Just because it made studio sense. In one of his interviews Bischoff says it very simply, it was time for him to move to a different place. He could have kept on going in with those Bay Area figurative works. Everybody loved them.

AW:    I think of someone else who was equally adamant about that: your father, Rudy Burckhardt. Photographer, filmmaker, painter. He wasn’t going to be tied down to a style or medium.

TB:    True. The idea is to find a way to have maximum enjoyment. I really believe that some sort of telepathy happens in the surface of the work, embeds there, so there’s a kind of vicarious participation. You create something, but the viewer imaginatively recreates it, does the final assembling in their head. It’s my Ikea Furniture Theory of Art.

AW:    Maybe not the most highbrow analogy, but it makes a lot of sense.

TB:    God bless Ikea. I hadn’t thought of this before, but Bischoff’s paintings do have something of the quality of an Ikea instruction manual—the ones with no text, just page after page of little pictures with arrows to show where the screws and dowels go. A lot of people have trouble with the lack of text, I know. They end up putting things together upside down. But that’s what his paintings are like. An array of absurd parts. As if to say “Here, have at it. Build something for yourself.”

AW:    And your paintings too? You’re equally an Ikea-ist?

TB:    My paintings coalesce more. But that basic quality I do think we share. If you’re looking at my paintings, you’re waiting for things to lock in. And it hasn’t quite happened.

Tom Burckhardt in his studio, 2021.

Tom Burckhardt in his studio, 2021.

On the occasion of his two-person exhibition at the gallery, Elmer Bischoff/Tom Burckhardt: A Dialogue, Tom sat down with fellow painter Alexi Worth to discuss the humor in Bischoff’s abstractions, "feeling figurative," and his Ikea Furniture Theory of Art.

Alexi Worth:    Let’s start with a word. Pareidolia. I learned it from you, but remind me what it means?

Tom Burckhardt:    It’s Jesus in the burnt tortilla, or rabbits in clouds: our tendency to construct figuration out of abstract phenomena. People tend to think of perception as just a matter of receiving information, like an antenna. But it’s not just that. Pareidolia is a clue to the fact that our brains are always projecting, interpreting. That’s what Rorschach testing exploits.

AW:    Right, so instead of just a meaningless inkblot, we see a moth or a face - an image. And likewise, in these new paintings of yours, we can’t help seeing “heads.” Maybe not right away, but after a moment or two, features appear: brow, nose, chin. They have a peculiar provisional quality. But they’re there. We can’t unsee them.


TB:    I'm trying to bring the paintings up to an invisible line, the watershed between recognizability and visual wandering, let's say.


AW:    What is it about that boundary that attracts you?


TB:    I want the viewer to create the sensibility around the work, and not have it be dictated to them. That's what I'm trying to hold on to, the ethos of abstraction.


AW:    Part of our hardwired responsiveness to heads includes social and emotional qualities. Heads are male or female, melancholy or goofy or malevolent. To what extent do you try to shape that?


TB:    What I'm interested in is this initial recognition of the structure of a human face. Before the questions of gender or specifics of emotion or even race. It's more basic and peculiar than that. The first thing we're trying to decide is are these actually human or not.


AW:    Maybe a trivial observation, but I couldn’t help noticing that all the heads face left?


TB:    After the first three or four I decided that was going to be one of the rules.


AW:    The shared orientation helps us read them, I imagine - helps confirm their identity as heads. Is that why?


TB:    Actually, it’s a little more random. One day I happened to see several different lines around the city, people queuing up at the start of the pandemic. One was for food. One was for a sample sale. The contrast seemed so New York. And a very stupid connection came to me: I began thinking of these figures as being “on line” 


AW:    So the gallery walls become a procession, like a line at the Post Office or the DMV.


TB:    And different exhibitions of them could make for shorter or longer “lines.” They even have abstract demographic possibilities.


AW:    The individual heads are certainly different from one another, almost virtuosically different. Each has their own distinctive color palette, their own architecture, their own dryly comic associations. At the same time, they have a roughly similar formal DNA. They’re made up of highly controlled lines and shapes. You’re a draftsmanly painter. Every curve feels deliberative.


TB:    What’s important to me is that I’m not thinking of any shape as shorthand for an eye, nose, mouth or anything like that. I try to preserve their representational innocence for as long as possible. I'm coming from a place of abstraction and I'm driving towards… figurationville. And I'm wondering if I will cross that border, or not.  It’s very important for me that the formal elements don’t have a descriptive role. I'm trying to hold that off until a last minute.


AW:    Why? Why hold it off?


TB:    What I admire about abstract painting - or painting in general - is the way that a viewer can find a personal story paralleling the maker’s. I like the idea that for the viewer, standing in front of my paintings, there’s a sense of recognition - but it’s just starting to happen. The viewer’s brain is doing all this pareidolic forming. I want you to feel like I'm right there, only a step ahead of you. Not a whole lot of steps ahead of you.



"I've always been in this slippery zone where things can fall off towards abstraction, or fall off the other side. That's what I've been interested in for all these years."

Tom Burckhardt

Tom Burckhardt in his studio, 2021.

Tom Burckhardt in his studio, 2021.

AW:    So you’re ceding some authority?


TB:    I don't want it to feel like I'm controlling the pictorial situation. I'm trying to erase some of that didactic feeling.

AW:    How do you know when you've reached the right moment for the surgery that creates a face?


TB:    Well, it doesn't happen only once on any given painting. It can happen over and over again. Sometimes it just works;  other times it just doesn't. And you just keep moving with the paint. A lot happens towards the end where I do see the face, and I know what I'm dealing with. That’s the last maybe 5, 10 percent of the time. But until then things can change. I can turn something upside down, or get rid of something. Because it's not already holding its required place of representation.


AW:    In other words, “representational innocence” gives you more freedom too.


TB:    Yes. I’ve always tried to get to the ecstatic place in making work. To me ecstatic means you lose the rational thread. You forget what time it is. You forget that your foot’s falling asleep. Often I literally step back from a painting and see things I didn’t know would be there. That's what I love. There is a sense of yes, I made this but I don't know how I made it. They are done by me 100%, but there’s a throwing spaghetti against the wall methodology to them that I suspect is not quite the usual figurative model.


AW:    Definitely not. But it’s odd to see an “abstract ethos,” as you put it, yielding figurative results. When we were coming of age as artists, there was a pretty strong prejudice against anything in the zone between abstraction and figuration. The phrase “homeless representation” came up a lot as a dismissive shorthand. I remember feeling an artist had to be strongly in one camp or the other.


TB:    I never got that memo somehow. In fact, here's the thing, I've always been in this place. This slippery zone where things can fall off towards abstraction, or fall off the other side. That's what I've been interested in for all these years. I used to say that I wanted my abstraction to feel more like figuration. I remember saying that 25 years ago.

AW:    What does that mean exactly: to “feel” more like figuration?


TB:    To feel present. Not diaphanous. Not just obeying some cerebral otherwordly logic. To be here, in the world that we know. That's why I've always felt that my relationship to the physical support matters so much. The wobbly edges of these canvases for instance.


Tom Burckhardt in his studio, 2021.

Tom Burckhardt in his studio, 2021.

Elmer Bischoff, No. 44, 1979. Acrylic on cavas, 84 x 84 inches.

Elmer Bischoff, No. 44, 1979. Acrylic on cavas, 84 x 84 inches.

AW:    I’m glad you mentioned them. I love those wobbly, hand-shaped edges. Such a simple, suggestive subtlety! They’re like thought balloon contours in comics, as if the whole painting was someone’s “thought.” They set a tone. They pull us away from Serious Abstract Painting.


TB:    I've always felt that abstraction has a bit of a class problem, it can be pretty Ivory Tower. I want to try and undercut that any way I can. Through humor especially.


AW:    To me, that’s what connects you to late Bischoff. In some ways, you’re obviously very different painters, but the spirit of his 1970s paintings—their ambitious modesty, their humorous open-endedness—is an interesting bridge. You’re both natural anti-Greenbergians, allergic to anything programmatic or grand. His paintings may be big, but they’re about as far from Barnet Newman as abstract painting can be. They’re almost impish, with little dangling ungainly motifs everywhere, like constellations of pratfalls.


TB:    I keep coming back to one Bischoff painting, the one with the musical note along the side, “No. 44.” For me that note is the key detail because it’s unmistakable. And it’s rather hilariously climbing up the edge of the painting! There are even motion marks - it’s got temporal movement, the way an actual musical note has duration. It makes me flashback to that classic Peter Saul image, of a toilet running away. But you know there was a West Coast tradition of cartooning and ridiculousness and absurdity, so it’s not too surprising that Bischoff, who was a native Californian, should be connected to that. In the same painting, there are other potential images. I find myself wondering, is that a crucifix over there on the right? But without the musical note, I might not be so inclined to “read” them.


AW:    Oh, I see images everywhere! A little head with green hair, crutches, Superman taking a bow, a blue fan, silhouettes inside the crucifix…


TB:    See, I think that’s you. The musical note is the only thing that’s incontestably there. The other stuff…you can see it, sure. But another viewer might not.


AW:    Well, nothing is exactly spelled out, but “plausible deniability,” that’s part of the humor, right?


TB:    Ok, I agree with that. Everything is very “I don’t know what you’re talking about Officer.” And it reminds me of Miles Davis saying “It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.” He was a musician too, Bischoff, and I can’t help seeing something musical about these late works. They remind me of modal Jazz, where the solos are part of a continuous flow. They’re improvisatory and relaxed. There’s no hurrying. The white spaces are like pauses.


AW:    Compositionally, though, they’re pretty graphic. Quite a few of the little “incidents” include right angles, making me think of rebuses, crossword puzzles, Rube Goldberg cartoons, or even certain kinds of Roman wall paintings, with their linked garlands and putti.


TB:    I think of pages, enlarged pages of telephone doodles. They feel very subconscious, in the way that doodling is. Discrete little images. Your opportunity there is to ask, how do these fragments connect to each other? Sometimes they do; sometimes maybe they don’t at all. They’re casual that way. They never really build into the “thesis” of an overall image. There’s no hierarchy. Every fragment has a relatively equal voice.

AW:    Bischoff was very explicit about that. He said “I think of them as being democratic. There’s no big force saying ‘Hey you do this, you get over there.'” It was important to him to see the small elements as being in charge.


TB:    Yes, they don’t coalesce. They have this autonomy. They’re even a little chaotic.


AW:    I suppose we could connect that back to a California temperament, or just to a bedrock American egalitarianism? But the political climate of the 1970s was pretty chaotic. It’s tempting to imagine that they might reflect some of that.


TB:    Yeah, the 70s was not a great moment for political optimism.


AW:    There even seems to be an arc within the paintings, a trajectory towards more deliberate disorder. But that could be personal, rather than political.


TB:    To me, it’s very apparent that they are late paintings. They share something with the work de Kooning made at the end of his life: this spreading stuff out, leavening it with white.


AW:    I thought of late de Kooning too - the airy paintings from the 1980s. But in fact, Bischoff began painting this kind of work a few years earlier. I wonder if de Kooning could have seen the Bischoffs? Or perhaps the same kind of idea just occurred to both of them towards the end of their lives. A sort of scattering. Shards of memory thrown up into the air. A letting go.


TB:    I like the idea of freedom as part of a “late style.” When I think about Bischoff and de Kooning, and also Diebenkorn and Guston too, they didn't let anything tie them down. They felt free to cross that figurative/abstract divide, despite all the partisan feeling. Just because it made studio sense. In one of his interviews Bischoff says it very simply, it was time for him to move to a different place. He could have kept on going in with those Bay Area figurative works. Everybody loved them.


Tom Burckhardt's studio, 2021.

Tom Burckhardt's studio, 2021.

AW:    I think of someone else who was equally adamant about that: your father, Rudy Burckhardt. Photographer, filmmaker, painter. He wasn’t going to be tied down to a style or medium.


TB:    True. The idea is to find a way to have maximum enjoyment. I really believe that some sort of telepathy happens in the surface of the work, embeds there, so there’s a kind of vicarious participation. You create something, but the viewer imaginatively recreates it, does the final assembling in their head. It’s my Ikea Furniture Theory of Art.

AW:    Maybe not the most highbrow analogy, but it makes a lot of sense.


TB:    God bless Ikea. I hadn’t thought of this before, but Bischoff’s paintings do have something of the quality of an Ikea instruction manual—the ones with no text, just page after page of little pictures with arrows to show where the screws and dowels go. A lot of people have trouble with the lack of text, I know. They end up putting things together upside down. But that’s what his paintings are like. An array of absurd parts. As if to say “Here, have at it. Build something for yourself.”


AW:    And your paintings too? You’re equally an Ikea-ist?


TB:    My paintings coalesce more. But that basic quality I do think we share. If you’re looking at my paintings, you’re waiting for things to lock in. And it hasn’t quite happened.