The following interview is excerpted from the catalog accompanying Tom Green: Accident and Intent, the American University Museum exhibit closing March 14. The catalog is available at the Katzen Museum Store, located in the Katzen Arts Center.
Jack Rasmussen: I’ve noticed you have two different ways of approaching the work you’ve done over the last 40 years. One is more spontaneous, where you make use of chance and improvisation, and the other approach is more formal. I wonder if you agree with this observation. Tell me about the works in this show and how you’re approaching them.
Tom Green: It’s true that I’ve worked with these polar opposites, what I think of as accident and intent. I see these as two primary divisions in behavior and it resonates all through our existence. Starting back in the 70s, or even before when I was a student, I did some odd things with copper plates when I was a printmaking student. I took them out to the parking lot after I’d put the ground on them, and I threw them like skipping stones across the asphalt. Then I took them back in and I etched them, and then I would work on them with dry point or other techniques. I was taken with the idea that you could begin with totally random accidental activities like that and produce something that was coherent.
In the 70s, when you first started to know my work, I was coming out of my “picture” phase (which was based on tarot cards) and those were pretty deliberate and worked out in sketchbooks before I painted them on canvas. Later, in what I think of as “connect-the-dot” paintings, I was back to a random placement of dots and circles on a canvas, but I was always aware of a central axis, so they were in fact not so random. The dots were carefully placed so that the two halves were the same. But then when I would connect the dots with lines, I would try to loosen up and do some illogical kinds of connections and that, amazingly, produced images for me. These were instances where I had no idea what the work would look like before I started. It revealed itself through the process.
JR: You’re using black and white enamel in the “picture” paintings, and that’s a very “non-art” medium.
TG: I was thinking of myself as a sign painter in those days; I was not an “artsy” painter. I didn’t brush the paint on and try to create effects or inflections; it was more like I was a sign painter. I went to the University of Maryland, which is very open and free, and there was no University of Maryland “look.”
A lot of people came down from New York to teach at UM for one reason or another, so I got a pretty good strong hit of New York art, although I was paying attention anyway to my own self-education. But they supported me tremendously, they never questioned, I got no opposition to what I was doing. I was left to my own devices, which was wonderful.
JR: You have spoken of the influence of William Wiley’s work. It’s pretty much the opposite of what was going on in New York.
TG: I first saw Wiley in quantity at a show in Philadelphia. It was in the early 70s, and it was just about the time he was starting to get a lot of attention. He was part of that “Slant Step” group on the West Coast. That was in Art Forum in those days, and I started to pick up on that sort of zany, “why not?” attitude. There was that whole “Mr. Natural” kind of connection there. Wiley seemed to be so free and so “Why not?” and I had come out of a very highly disciplined period of very formal painting—geometric-shaped canvases and things like that. Even at that time I had actually done a series of work that was spray painting on plastic with magnets attached and mounted on tin so that you could move these elements around and reshape the painting. Again, it’s like I never believed that things had to be static.
I think one thing I feel compelled to say is that all my work, at least since then, basically comes out of my imagination. What I’m saying is that, although things come in from all different angles into my consciousness, I am not basing my work on observed things so much as either hybridized versions of observed things, or just trying to create a new lexicon of forms that I’m comfortable with.
JG: Tell me about the watercolors which are going on at the same time you are doing these black-and-white enamel paintings that seem so different.
TG: The watercolors were the most direct connection to Wiley. They were what I called my hobby, which is to say that although I was doing this serious painting in the studio, I had a table that was always set up where I was fooling around and dropping ink on paper and spilling gunpowder on paper and lighting it and seeing what mustard would do and things like that. It was my lab, in a sense. It was my creative lab, and I still to this day have things that I do where I could use that term “hobby.” When I talk to artists, I try to find out what hobbies they have because you need a release from that kind of straight-ahead thing.
JR: Your new, large paintings with a white background seem to be a kind of a throwback or a reference to the watercolors. That’s the first time I see the paintings move closer to the spontaneity and accident of the watercolors.
TG: About twenty-five years ago, I tried doing some large, really free acrylics on paper, and they weren’t all that successful, so I buried them for a while. They suddenly came back up; why not try working in the spirit of the watercolors but do something really big? It’s been fascinating doing that. I start with total accidental flinging of paint and I then construct an image or images from that. I use the term “construct” because that’s what I feel like I’m doing—particularly with the linear—the linear elements come in to do a warp and woof kind of thing in the space. I use the openness of the white areas as what I think of as a space in the imagination.