Lester Goldman, Untitled, 1996, oil on canvas, 40″ x 40″, photo by EG Schempf
Lester Goldman: Flights of Fancy is at the Central Branch of the Kansas City Public Library, September 18-October 31, 2009. An event is planned for Friday, October 2, 2009: artist Glenn Goldberg and art historian Elisabeth Kirsch will take part in a discussion moderated by the library’s Sean Kelley.
Speck was an arts-devoted magazine printed in Kansas City in 2001. Only one issue made it into print. Publisher Dan Curtis is now in Texas, involved in a marketing solutions company, Speck Communications. He describes Speck as a ‘labor of love.’ The little treasure in that one issue, to me, was an interview with Lester Goldman conducted by a young Eric Sall. It’s been out of print for several years now. Goldman passed away in 2004. Sall left Kansas City and has become an amazing and successful painter. This month in Kansas City, art lovers have a chance to see exhibits by both artists—Sall has a show at Dolphin Gallery and the Public Library is exhibiting never-before-see works by Goldman. We thought that this would be the time to bring that interview out into the light of the world wide web. I want to thank Goldman’s family, Eric Sall and Dan Curtis for granting permission to reprint the interview.
ERIC: The first thing I wanted to ask you is where you’re from and where you went to school.
LESTER: I’m from Philadelphia, and I want to art school in 1960 at the University of the Arts in Philly—and then out to Aspen, Colorado, during the summers. I studied with a lot of people like Leland Bell and Larry Day, and a number of people that were excellent out in Aspen. Then I went to Indiana University, first going to Iowa University, then went to Indiana and got my MFA there.
ERIC: So then, had art become pretty serious for you?
ERIC: Even before that?
LESTER: When I was in high school, myself and another fellow were involved in art, just two of us, basically. And, we would take it as a major, and minor, you know—whatever way we could take it. And, even at that time we did like large murals out in the hallways and stuff. He was from a family that was in art. Mine wasn’t; mine was from business.
The other thing is my high school teacher was a set designer. And so, very early on I was invited to summer stock theater up in the Catskills. I went with her. And then we would work on set designs during the week and then the two of us would go paint landscapes during the weekend. And that was a pretty unusual experience for a kid in high school. One time I had to do a whole set myself. But the problem in summer stock is that everybody has to do everything. And I didn’t really want to act or dance or anything like that. I wanted to be behind the scenes. So set design was just perfect. Except in summer stock everyone has to do everything. So, I ended up having to dance and sing and all that stuff, and I hated it. Just hated it.
The Tale of the “I”, 1988, oil on canvas, 73″ x 53″, photo by EG Schempf
ERIC: So what brought you to Kansas City? Was that soon after being done with school, or was there a time inbetween there?
LESTER: No, actually, I went right into teaching from graduate school. It was simply—once I started painting, I basically never stopped. Like every summer, I would keep painting. I would have jobs and things, but I would basically just keep painting. And, so the only thing I ever asked of the situation was whether it would allow me to paint. And you know when Wilbur Niewald got hold of me, he basically invited me to come to Kansas City, and it was set up in such a way that there was never a problem with being a painter and teaching here.
ERIC: You didn’t need like another job, besides being a teacher?
LESTER: No. I never did. I never had to. Even thoug it wasn’t—I mean, it definitely wasn’t paying much, and if I had to tell you how much it was back then, it would seem like peanuts. But, we were very—I mean, we were pretty thrifty. And, we learned all kinds of ways of not spending money. And, all our friends didn’t have much money either. So you know, as long as your friends don’t have much money, everyone’s on the same level. So, you kind of just—you just do what you do. And, you’re able to have time to paint.
ERIC: What was your work like when you just graduated? Tell me a little history of what you were making at the time.
LESTER: At that time, either by accident or however it happened, I came into contact with a lot of painters who were reacting against the Abstract Expressionist form. It seemed as if somehow all the conventions of that mode had been broken down, and nobody know how to do it in quite a familiar way. There were some paradigms, some models, like Balthus or Giacometti, or Helion. But, they were mainly European. And, so there were a lot of struggles between the people that would look to Europe for influence, and the ones that would look to America. And, if you wanted an American form, it would be an Abstract Expressionist form; if you wanted a European one, it would be more figurative. And, the teachers that I met were passionate about looking at nature, and working, and maybe distilling or abstracting to some degree, but it would be very much connected to the natural reference.
Chuck and Joanna, circa 1970s, oil on board, dimensions unkown
ERIC: Do you think that was a Midwest thing or was that everywhere?
LESTER: No, actually, I don’t think it was that much in the Midwest. I think it was actually—the ones I’m talking about are like, from Alfred Leslie to Alex Katz to Philip Pearlstein, to Leland Bell—the whole seemingly alternative figurative tradition. And, they set up a very viable option at that time that seemed fresher or a little newer than the Abstract Expressionist idiom which everybody seemed to repeat. And, it was in around the 60′s that a lot of them actually changed. And so I was—let’s say now, probably in the early 70′s. So I started working directly. And, I would just have a model pose in front of me. And, then do the best I could.
ERIC: So, would you incorporate a narrative into the painting?
LESTER: That came later. I started getting very interested in Northern Renaissance painting. I started getting very interested in mainly Dutch genre paintings, still life. And also, I was interested in the idea of trying to paint and have a family at the same time. And, anything that seemed to be in conflict; I figure if I used it as my subject, I could handle it, because I could have it in front of me. So, I would paint these scenes of my family. Like around a table. They were relatively realistic and felt somewhat like Dutch paintings. And, I worked on that as long as I could, but then the scale—I wanted to get larger, it started to—the space in the painting became a lie. It was an illusion, in a way, that I couldn’t accept. and I actually had whole large paintings that I then scraped down completely, even though they looked finished and started rebuilding color abstractly in order to understand how to move from one color to another in a kind of conceptual way.
ERIC: When you were making these paintings, was there ever an audience that was intended for them—did you think about who was going to look at them, or were you more just making them and thinking about that afterwards? Was that part of your process at all?
LESTER: No. They were mainly involved in simple—like exhibition spaces, gallery spaces, to be viewed as painting. Also, I actually though that the positive thing would be for them to exist in people’s living rooms. And, they would basically be domestic paintings in that way.
ERIC: Was the change to abstraction a gradual change? You talked about kind of looking a the space and trying to figure that out. Did that come slowly or did that come overnight?
LESTER: It was gradual, with shiftings and doubting and back and forth and slippages—all kinds of stuff, where I may return to figuration, or I may take two steps forward, one back, or something like that. But, the other that started happening was that when I started putting my painting into other dimensions, like doing reliefs and doing sculpture, things like that, then the forms that I would miss in terms of its reality in nature, I then had substitutes in sculpture. So, the sculptural form gave me—helped give me a kind of a language to assess my painting. And, the sculpture never repeated or imitated nature quite the same way that I had skilled myself to do in painting. And, the sculpture never repeated or imitated nature quite the same way that I had skilled myself to do in painting. so then—and I had always admired painters that could think musically—that could think of a color as having a certain measure. Or that—the way in which one would touch a panting would have something to do with a particular sound.
Sweater form, 1982, mixed media on paper, 29″ x 23″, photo by EG Schempf
ERIC: Do you listen to music a lot when you’re working in your studio?
LESTER: Yeah, I always have something on. But, it’s pretty random. It may be Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, Terry Riley, which are some of the minimalists, but I also like Lester Young and Miles and—a lot of the earlier jazz artists. Thelonius Monk I like a lot. In fact, I saw him playing in Philly, when he was playing at a little club, and I’ll never forget it. There were just a few people there, it was a regular bar, and he was sitting playing in the back, towards the back, with his group. And, he started hitting these sour notes that were really—sounded like the piano was broken. And I was sitting, listening to this, and I said, “This guy’s awful.” And then I’d keep listening to it, because you’re drinking, you’re sitting there, and then I realized that he was picking up these dissonant notes and he was somehow making them work. And, I always though that kind of invention—like where at first you think it’s like bad, or it seems off-key, or something like that, that there’s always something fascinating about that, but you just—one doesn’t quite know how to integrate it yet or make it musical—musically correct. but, he had a way of hitting those notes that were absolutely uncanny. And very, very beautiful. So then you kind of like start to expect it, and you expect it at a certain amount, a certain tempo. And, I think that was a great innovation on his part.
ERIC: Then when you were beginning to make a transition into abstraction, did you find friends of yours in your peer group that were having troubles understanding what you were doing, or people in general who had a hard time looking at what you were doing and trying to understand how you got from Point A to Point B?
LESTER: Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. but, then I didn’t know how to get from Point A to Point B either, so—you know, it’s understandable in hindsight that other people wouldn’t either. I mean, when you’re in the middle of it, it’s hard to articulate. I think as you get a couple years back out of anything, you can discuss it a bit easier. But when you’re in the middle of it, it’s not so easy.
untitled, oil on canvas, 28″ x24″
ERIC: Here’s something I wonder about. What do you say to someone who doesn’t understand your work, especially if it’s a friend or a family member, and say it’s something that you are able to talk about, maybe you’re not in the middle of—how do you discuss and interpret your vision to somebody else.?
LESTER: Well, I don’t really have that much trouble anymore—talking about how I got where it is. Whether or not they want it, or let’s say, want to live with it or own it or things like that, is something else. But as far as its right to be, I mean, I don’t think that’s questionable. It’s not—there are very few images that literally question—or make people feel as if they shouldn’t exist or something. I don’t really think that there has been much of a problem for me in telling people how I got to where I am.
ERIC: Or the validity of what you do?
LESTER: Well, the validity, I don’t—that hasn’t even been a question. I don’t think. I mean, I’ve never heard anyone come up and say that you shouldn’t do that.
ERIC: You haven’t?
LESTER: No, no. How about you?
ERIC: I have. Yeah.
LESTER: Where? Where?
ERIC: Just family members that don’t seem to understand or think beyond traditional representational painting or don’t really know how to have a dialogue with anything that’s kind of unfamiliar with them.
LESTER: And, how’s that make you feel?
ERIC: It’s very weird.
LESTER: Yeah. But I mean, does that make you want to, let’s say, change what you’re doing?
ERIC: Not necessarily.
LESTER: but you would like to have some more understanding—some understanding or empathy, right?
LESTER: The main thing is, let’s say, most of those people, I would say, probably assume a certain role for painting.
LESTER: They say, “Okay, it has to look like what I see.” Is that correct?
LESTER: Okay, so if that’s the premise, then you see, it’s pretty hard to go past that. If they think only that, then—but actually, in a way, I could—in every form in my abstraction, I can show ‘em where it came from.
Mannequin’s Anxiety, 1993, oil on canvas, 46″ x 20″
ERIC: Yeah. Anyway. How has teaching changed the way you make art, or inspired the way you make art? It’s been a part of your art-making for a good amount of time.
LESTER: I think I was, in the beginning, a little more dogmatic about the things I would engage. Mainly because of the limitations of what I knew. And I think now, it’s like, in some ways I feel like I have so many ideas about what’s possible that it seems just as right for somebody else to do ‘em as for me to do ‘em. So, I really like sharing what’s possible, and inventing new—with somebody, or talking about the things that—well, gee, if you combine this with that, or if you find the essential meaning of this over that, what’s possible. And, all that, is, I think, a wonderful visionary way of dealing with things. So the painting—the only thing that some people, I think everyone might say, in a more ideal world, is that it takes time. So, it takes time from the time that I could have in the studio, or something.
ERIC: Was it easy to jump into and start?
LESTER: No, I think it was really hard. For me, in the beginning. And, I was angry. I used to be—I would get angry—and frustrated.
ERIC: At yourself or at students?
LESTER: Both. Both, yeah. But I’m much—I pace myself much better now. And, I’m better at letting things happen. And, not forcing them to do one thing or another.
ERIC: You still feel pretty positive about being at the Art Institute, here in Kansas City?
LESTER: Yeah, absolutely. My experience at the Institute is simply working with a very, very open set of students whom I look forward to seeing when I get in there, and discussing their work and sometimes discussing mine, and seeing what they think about that, and back and forth. The situation is set up where we find that the students go away to others schools come back, appreciating what’s there. And, I think over the long run, I think the quality of the students that come out of there is excellent.
ERIC: Is it pretty much a necessity for you, to have your studio right here at home?
LESTER: I did it because it’s just—it’s something that I believe about my family; I need to be available. And also, I like the idea of being able to come out at any time and work, instead of dividing it into, like, eight-hour days or something like that. Because things interrupt it at times that I can’t always predict. And so, I can work a little later at night, or I can think of something and come right out to the studio and work on it.
ERIC: I was wondering if you could talk about recently your back problems and how that—that kind of made a change in your art making or maybe putting a halt to it, in a certain way. And, how that’s maybe changed you or changed the way you’re making art right now?
LESTER: Well, the only—the simple thing is really mainly structural. I think the back was weak for a while. And so, for the last, actually, five years, I’ve ben slowly re-engineering all my sculpture. I used to work with heavy beams of oak that really weighed quite a bit. And, a lot of aluminum, and a lot of heavy, large-scale, 30-foot long constructs and things like that. And, I never thought twice that I couldn’t move this or get this from here to there.
LESTER: Since the back has been a problem, I’ve basically been using the resources I had as a kid, when I used to do model airplanes, and so I would use balsa wood and tissue paper. And, sit there for hours alone, just making these little models.
LESTER: So then, I’ve used bass wood and stuff like that in order to make some of the sculptural forms, and started to make them almost like a wing structure—very hollow and light, and then with foam, which is also light. so I think—structurally, that’s what I mean by changing some of that. Now, the other thing is, it may make me sit and look at something a little longer instead of always gettin gup and running around. And, that’s been actually probably good for me—I just look at a form, think about it a bit more, and maybe do a variation in a small way, and then come back. And, be a bit more efficient and get the timing of my decisions in the painting a little more accurate.
Our Lady of the Black Heart, 1990, oil on canvas, 42″ x 36″
ERIC: What do you think of someone like Jeff Koons who doesn’t really make anything anymore, but still conceptually is making artwork.
LESTER: I don’t really have a problem with that in itself.
ERIC: Can you still enjoy the artwork as his creation?
LESTER: I like some of them. I like the one—that big metal dog that’s blown up. I kind of like that—it’s not metal, it’s like—
ERIC: Like stainless steel or—
LESTER: Yeah, it looks like that, but it’s actually like balloons—they’re balloons or something. Balloon-like forms. I thought it was fabulous. And, then some other things that I don’t care for that much. But, it’s just the impact of whatever he does—it’s not necessarily the system. Because I mean, there are many, many paintings that have been done—murals and comissions and things like that, where a large part of it was done by somebody else, and I can’t tell who did what?
ERIC: So then, is the—do you think that the act of creating is more important or less important than the creation itself? Or, do you think that can be applied differently to different situations, different people, different art?
LESTER: Well, I don’t necessarily romanticize the hand. If that’s what you mean. I don’t expect it to have to be there in order to have the individual presence. I think—in fact, in some ways what challenges me more and more is to understand the conceptual rigor behind different acts. And, that may take on—whether it’s a performance, whether it’s film, or whatever—what I want to know is the temperament and the intelligence behind that form. What it means. And, a lot of times on ehas to know the history of what the person’s done before, in order to understand where they are in that particular piece. It’s not enough just to see one piece and make a judgment.
ERIC: How do you come up with titles for the paintings?
LESTER: That’s the most fun. That’s the most fun. That’s like the dessert. All the work in the painting is to get the painting to feel like it was done all at once, and to make the form simple and intricate at the same time. And, to get the drawing to just kind of slither around. [laughing] Like being able to move through the painting somehow.
ERIC: So, do you just make up titles or phrases, or are they pulled from any source?
LESTER: They always—I try—I’ll have it untitled if I can’t easily understand what the title is. Because it usually comes to me without any problem.
ERIC: And, that’s after the painting’s done?
LESTER: It’s usually toward the end of it, yeah, not the beginning.
ERIC: You don’t ever have a title that you would—
LESTER: Start with?
ERIC: —try to recreate into a painting?
LESTER: Rarely. I mean, I could start with it, but it usually changes. I always start with something, because I always start with some idea.
LESTER: So, any idea has a title, basically. But, it’s just—when ideas are in words, then they have a different—it’s a different media, so you can play with words that are leavin gkind of shapes and colors.
Otto’s Immersion, 1989, oil on canvas, 6′ x 7′
ERIC: Well, I know something I’ve been thinking about lately, because of, recent news and stuff, is how I feel about art making and my own validity, in a time like this, where we’ve been attacked. And, i kind of puts yourself in a perspective with everything that happens in the world, and your own little world in relation to all that, I think, is a very strange and interesting thing to think about. Do you think recent events will either influence what you make or, say, would you make pieces about what has happened or because of what has happened?
LESTER: One of the things is, and why my work has gone back and forth over 35 years, between, let’s say, a more direct representation and then the more indirect or direct abstraction, is because certain events have impacted themselves upon me in ways that I could not turn my back on. And, when I believe that there are certain issues that are so significant to a particular individual that, in order to function in the kind of vocation that they wish to, they have to absorb that, they have to be maybe a little closer to it than they might have wanted to ordinarily, or imagine their life to be. So that if war becomes a situation in which you doubt your own choice of vocation, on e of the ways to absorb it is to deal with it more directly. then the forms you are using may be interpreted totally differently because of the climate of events that are occurring at the moment. And, I think one of the great things about the artists that live in the 20th century is that you can see how it impacts on their life, changes them drastically. Helion—Jean Helion—one of the people I admire most—started out as part of Art Concrete, which was an abstract movement with Mondrian, and he was one of the great abstract painters of the early 20th century. He had to go to war—he had to go off to war in Europe. He came back a totally changed person. He was also a gifted writer, and he then embraced figuration in a very, very vital way because of a simple thing that happened. Having looked out the window, he said, “Everything out the window is 10 times better than anything in my studio.” And so, it led him into wanting to look at things in the world, think about resemblances and think about what things mean in order to see what they look like. And so, he then brought all the ability he had as an abstractionist to then defining figuration, defining past conventions of still ife and landscape and—he was a gifted painter, and quite brilliant.
LESTER: I mean, definitely painting is not going to feed anybody, it’s not going to clothe anybody, it’s not going to heal directly, physically, anybody. But, it does participate in a very optimistic expression of the human spirit, and I don’t think that is something that can be put aside completely for the things that immediately heal somebody. To me, when I—the museums and the music that I hear has given complete identity and meaning to my life. And, I don’t think it’s a small part of my reason for being. That’s a good question and a very hard one. Because it’s also based in a sense of—the sense of guilt, to some extent, of survival. Is you activity relevant enough and how come you get to do what you get to do and other people are being hurt?
LESTER: I think that’s good. That should be plenty.
ERIC: All done.
LESTER: That was painless.