Many Greenwich Arts Society members voiced interest in the two interviews with Dede Young we recently featured on our Feature Page concerning the selection of art works to be included in shows. We decided to continue the exploration of this subject this month with a conversation between Shauna Holiman, Website Coordinator and David Lund, New York City artist. We wanted to hear the point of view of, specifically, an artist who also teaches and one not connected with the Greenwich Art Society or this area. David graciously agreed to this live interview.
The works of David Lund, 81 years young, are included in dozens of museum and university collections including the Whitney Museum, the Corcoran Museum, The Fort Worth Art Center, the Johnson Museum at Cornell University, the Baltimore Museum, the Colby College Museum and a large number of corporate and private collections. He has exhibited nationally in major museums for over 30 years and has had many one- person shows in primarily New York and Rome. David was present and involved in the formative movement of the New York School of painting in the 50’s and was for many years represented by the Grace Borgenicht Gallery. During the Kennedy years, he was selected with a group of painters to exhibit at the White House and was part of the Embassies Program, allowing him to exhibit at embassies all over the world. A long-time teacher of art at the Cooper Union School of Art and Columbia University, he has also taught at Washington University (St. Louis), Parsons School of Design, Fashion Institute of Technology and the National Academy School of Fine Arts. He has lectured widely including at the American Embassy in Rome (in Italian). For the last 8 years or so, David has lectured for the 92nd Street Y at the Metropolitan Museum. He is a member of the National Academy of Design and a Fulbright scholar. He lives and paints in Greenwich Village in New York City and Deer Isle, Maine where he summers and is represented by the Watson Gallery in Stonington, ME.
Shauna: First, I’d like to hear a little about you and your work. I know that your work in recent years is figurative, often allegorical and that you consider yourself a “colorist”.
David: Over the past 13 to14 years, my work has tapped a both personal and mythological vein without using defined stories or narrative schemes. I have come to think of and relate to primal figures and images that have a mythological reference or overtone. These figures have a strong ability to evoke a specific and immediate sense of humanity, tangible elements of personality and to act as symbols in essential human situations, dramas or predicaments that cut across delineations of time and space. These themes have their beginnings in a time in my life when I became very involved with forms that possessed presences and a kind of enigmatic quality. At that time, immediately after college and the ensuing few years, I was in the process of forming the preliminary elements of my artistic vocabulary. I found my self drawn to both the metaphysical, and at the same time personal, as if I were speaking through a veil to someone or some presence on the other side. By personal, I don’t mean the everyday elements of autobiographical events but experiences that lay somewhere between the conscious and unconscious levels. At that time I found myself veering, like a compass needle, towards the surreal without at all being involved with the trappings and formalization of orthodox symbolism. A pivotal event in this regard was going to see my first performance of East Indian Dance given by Uday Shankar, a master dancer and musician and father of Ravi Shankar, the well-known sitar player. I watched the performance and listened to the music and was completely transported by the elements of rhythm, movement and music that seemed to embody the God of Dance coming to life. It was as if I were witnessing the act of creation.
I came into contact with my penchant for color a little later. This is an interesting story. I had been working with a very limited palette before I went to Rome on my Fulbright. For a number of years I had though that the basic thrust of my work was in structure and space. In Rome, I was invited to have tea with the prominent art historian, Lionello Venturi, whose first words to me were “You’re a colorist.” And it was true to a degree that I did not at that time yet know or even anticipate. His words were, in fact, prophetic. Over the years, I had two bodies of work, one in oils and the other in pastels, which developed in a parallel fashion and were influenced by each other. The pastels exerted a pervasive influence as in the case of Degas and his work. My palate began to expand considerably, in effect prompting, or forcing, my hand in the oils to keep up with the more rapid developments in pastel. The execution in pastel is more rapid and serves the purpose of drawings: bridging the gap between sketches of ideas and more developed resolutions. The relative rapidity (even though they sometimes they took weeks or even months) freed me to be able to strike a balance between what comes through contemplation and study and the more abrupt and emotionally charged moments of connection. I made a conscious choice to turn to nature as a source as I was repelled by the prospect of being limited by formal problems that don’t feed off of life. I did landscapes for many years – like a little Buddha sitting in the forest reaping the fruits of contemplation. Once I drew something from nature, its many aspects of light and structure were imprinted in my memory. Now, I compose with these elements freely and work primarily in the studio. The one constant in all these years has been light. Not external light but the inner, phenomenal, quintessential light of the thing itself as an element of both tangibility and of magic. For me, the key to this light was color. In working with color, even in New York City at a distance from Maine, where I connect daily with nature, the light comes forth to me.
Shauna: I am interested in your comments about your interchange with Venturi in that it has to do with your work being seen and judged by another. This, clearly, was a very seminal experience and Venturi’s comments helped to define your direction. Have you had other experiences where you did not go the way suggested and had to cope with a different kind of outcome?
David: I’ve had a handful of periods in my life where I’ve gone through dramatic changes in my work and in my outlook as an artist and human being. I think of myself as a younger counterpart to Phillip Guston who went through a similar process of having to reinvent himself and to finally accept impulses breaking through the skin of the work that start by being teasing and end up being urgent. When this happens to an artist, the path forward is clear and there is absolutely no stepping back. I utterly believed in the validity and authenticity of the new work and had to follow it. My interest then, as now, is in seeing something I had only dimly formulated as a possibility actually take on flesh and materialize in front of my eyes; the genuine life and sense of surprise and joy of it! The result of this “taking my own path” was that my new work was not acceptable to my dealer who wanted more of the older work. It’s understandable in that the older work had the ring of harmony and serenity about it. It was reassuring and accessible…and salable. The new work was, and is now, far more unsettling, disturbing, because of human reference and the fact that it provokes more than it resolves. I think that when your work is accepted or rejected, the only thing you should take away from the experience is a confirmation of what you already know deeply about yourself as an artist.
Shauna: Now I’d like to talk specifically about judging regional shows similar to the ones we do here at the Greenwich Art Society. (250+ works in diverse styles, media and content offered, roughly 30% selected and a dozen prizes awarded.) I know you have judged many such shows (and have had your work judged in many more on all levels) and I would like to talk about the philosophy and aesthetics involved in the judging process. First, describe for me the qualities that are inherent in your view of “an excellent show.”
David: Well, humm, that’s a tricky one because an excellent show involves not only a fine selection of work of the included artists but a kind of synergy and sense of vitality between the works. This is what really lights up a show. If one can achieve that, it’s quite good! The frequent problem in group shows, in terms of the overall look, is that there are too many incompatible voices all shouting for attention and the result is cacophony. Very often the quieter voices tend to get lost. Myself, I tend to be less responsive, much less responsive, to shows of mere pyrotechnics or flexing of artistic muscle. These strike me as being “baked in the oven too long.” I am much more responsive to a show that has an air of life, freshness and expression of truth, regardless of the sophistication level of the artists.
Shauna: How do you go about assessing a works of art for a show? What do you look for and how do you go about looking for it?
David: Very simply, I arrange all the works against the walls. At first, I don’t go one by one. I walk around the room to get a general sense – scanning the works as I go – and picking up whatever “magnetic waves” (at this point David laughed out loud) are coming from the various works. Sometimes something will hit me right away and sometimes only later on. Then I might go around 2 or 3 more times inspecting more scrupulously. I try to glean a sense of where the individual aritst “is at”. What I mean by this is that in any regional show, there are people of varying levels of artistic gift and development, some of whom are less polished but have more to say. Others have a more developed vocabulary, sense of form, line and color and have been able to hang onto their sensibility and develop it. Wherever somebody is in their development, I am most interested in the fingerprint of the sensibility of the artist that is in the work – that indelible quality of feeling and expression that results from the choices of the artist.
An artist knows these things almost instinctively when he sees them. There are times when a work is like a bell and the tone that comes from it is unmistakable. You are moved by the sound as if by magic. In visual art, it is that sense of the genuine and imaginative that gives a work its character, distinction and truth. One is moved by it. This covers a wide variety of approaches. A caveat: when I say feeling, I don’t mean sentimentality or a Hollywood display of whatever it is that is supposed to be motivating the work. The works that stay closest to my mind are the ones that persuade me in the way that art persuades. A work of art doesn’t have to be great to do that.
Shauna: You have spent many years working with and looking at art and have learned in various ways from many people – artists and otherwise. Do certain voices (and messages and images) stick with you and echo in your head as you try to assess a work of art?
David: Oh yes, of course! The things that stick with me are the things that have persuaded me – works that speak directly to the soul. The first thing that came to mind was great Chinese painting. Titian. Matisse. Cezanne. Morandi. The great painters of Siena - Simone Martini. The great figurative artists of Rome and Greece – the mosaics and fresco painting from the early Christian ages. The painters who worked in Pompeii. Did I mention Bonnard? Bonnard. Painting is like discovering how marvelous it is to see – and know intimately every nuance and dramatic encounter between 2 forms. It is always a world of discovery – like going down Alice’s Rabbit Hole. When you are in the Rabbit Hole, everything changes size and color. In judging an individual work, hopefully there is some innate visual sense in the work that embodies this concept and brings it to the fore. That said, I try to be as fair and objective as I can. It should be obvious that try as one might with all of one’s honesty and sensibility, the process is partial and cannot be completely fair to everyone. That’s just the way it is.
Shauna: Do you have any specific advice for artists entering shows?
David: Go with your gut. Don’t try to read the mind of the jury.
Shauna: And a last question: What do you think is the most important thing an art society can do for its members?
David: An art society or local art group anywhere should support local artists with all the force that it has. After all, the true vitality of a community’s culture rests on the local artists and artisans who, with all their love and belief, daily live their art and share it with those around them. Artists know that each individual’s attitudes and actions make a community what it is, one tiny bit at a time. We work hard at creating an environment in which we can work and thrive. It is well-known that when artists move in, real estate prices begin to climb. When they are forced out, the community stagnates.