Two-Museum Survey Traces David Bates’s Nonconformist Career
IMAGE ABOVE: (detail) David Bates. The Deluge V, 2007. Oil on canvas, 60 x 84 inches. Private Collection. © David Bates
Dallas-based artist David Bates, who first gained national recognition in the 1987 Whitney Biennial, is the subject of a two-venue retrospective at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, which will emphasize his paintings, and the Nasher Sculpture Center, which will focus on his sculptures and works on paper. He spoke with Devon Britt-Darby about how art history, materials and places such as the Grassy Lake area of Western Arkansas and New Orleans have shaped his work.
A +C: I want to start with a wonderful quote from Nasher director Jeremy Strick’s catalogue essay. You said: “I always felt there was a club that included artists from Giotto through Picasso, and the American branch had members like Homer, Hopper, and Hartley. I had always hoped to be a member of that club. I wanted to be a part of that more than a part of what was happening at the moment.” What moment were you talking about?
DAVID BATES: I went up to the Whitney Independent Study program in the 1970s, which was priceless because I’d been here in Texas and was raised in a fairly conservative, fairly traditional education. I had a great teacher, Roger Winter, at SMU, but his work was very traditional, and the art history background was very traditional. Then when I went up there, there didn’t seem to be a lot of tradition. It was much more about the moment—either minimal art or video. And they said, “Painting’s dead; you should do video”—which, by the way, painting’s died so many times during my career I can’t even count them. Painting’s on life support constantly.
This was reel-to-reel—the Cro-Magnon version of video. I was there to learn, so I quit painting and started doing that, and then I realized the kind of pressure that New York has on a person to conform. There were definitely some rules, and I just didn’t see myself following those rules. And I also saw a long future of cooking pizza, perhaps, so I just decided it would be good to come on back.
I didn’t graduate immediately when I came back. I’d missed graduation, so I was there for another year and I just audited art history classes for a year, which was priceless. They had great people. Mary Vernon had an exquisite survey. I would just go to it anytime I could go, because it was always entertaining and informative.
Somebody told me one time if you like an artist, that’s cool, but then look and see who they liked, and then see who they liked, and when you follow that back, it’s probably going to end up at either cave walls or the Renaissance. And that is so true. I haven’t really gotten very far from the cave-wall mindset.
A + C: Your first “mature” body of work came out of your trips to Grassy Lake. Was that while you were taking all those art history courses, or had you already started teaching?
DB: I was teaching art history—and it was that survey class. Basically, I took Mary Vernon’s class and tried to do justice to it, with slides of everything from Renaissance to modern. Two times, one class per semester for eight years, I was reliving art—Renaissance to modern—so it got drummed into me much more than it did my students.
A + C: You told the Modern’s chief curator Michael Auping in the catalogue that Grassy Lake taught you learned “how to paint, how to render complex bits of information, how to organize them, but also how to be somewhat spontaneous.” Was it a matter of being immersed in that environment, yet backed up by all that history?
DB: Absolutely. There’s a famous Rubens painting (The Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt, 1615-16). It’s all these guys who find themselves on horseback being run over by alligators and hippos and all kinds of stuff. They’re just in the midst of all this stuff—it’s Rubens, you know. I don’t know that there’s anything like that (in real life), but what happened at Grassy was that I saw those kinds of compositions being played out and those kinds of life-and-death things—the beauty of nature and how it related to art.
There’s something about the appropriateness of how you work and the subject you choose. If you’re photographic I can go anywhere, but mine was always sort of rough, so if you found a roughness in nature, that’s what Grassy Lake was.
A + C: And that fit with how you work. You prefer playing colors off each other rather than blending them, for example, and you like the sensuousness of oil paint as opposed to flat acrylic.
DB: Oh, I love oil paint. I tried acrylic when I was in school and a fellow student said, “It’s plastic. You could eat dinner off that painting. You could eat a pizza or spaghetti off it and hose it off, and you’d never know.”
You know, that’s where I think the sculpture comes in, too—the viscosity of oil paint or the splintery-ness of chain-sawed wood or the amazing smoothness and grace of oil clay or the chunky, white mass of plaster, the metal armatures—all that stuff has its own beauty. That’s the greatness of sculpture. The material itself just has so much beauty, even sitting in a pile. Painting’s just this kind of white rectangle. You have to earn everything.
A + C: I understand that when you first started working with the foundry in Walla Walla, Wash., and really got into sculpture, you almost lost interest in painting for a while, and it was Michael Auping who suggested that you do painting, drawing and sculpture of the same subjects at the same time.
DB: At the time started into that sculpture, I dropped painting like a hot rock. This was so much more fun. (The foundry) was an artist’s playground. I don’t think anyone intends to reinvent themselves, but that’s kind of what happened. It was very, very different work than Grassy Lake or the coastal work. It just went somewhere different, and so I just went with it. I didn’t paint.
But then after a while, I said, “All I want to do is this sculpture; I can’t seem to paint,” and Michael said, “You should just have some canvases sitting around, and if you want to paint during (work on the sculpture), you might find that they’ll inform each other.” Now that’s all that’s going on all the time. I’ll do paintings for a study of a relief piece, or a study from a relief piece that gets painted, just to see what it’s going to do.
A + C: I remember riding around New Orleans with Doug MacCash, the Times Picayune’s art critic, a few years after Hurricane Katrina. He mentioned your Katrina paintings as an example of an artist going through a shift in his work and responding to the devastation in a way that was raw and deeply felt.
DB: I just felt like I needed to report on that situation. My friends were there; I probably had been going there for 25 years at that time; and it was a very important thing to try to work with.
I was painting them as I was watching the news. You couldn’t go down there at the time. I was taping CNN and watching it on another channel and doing drawings of the people telling these stories. Sometimes a subject—like Grassy Lake or even still-lifes, but particularly Katrina—is so strong that even if you think, “I can’t bring anything to what’s going on here,” but even that version is drawn from something so strong that it’s still pretty strong.
And then as soon as I could go, I went. That was another group of paintings that came from actually seeing the houses and seeing everything thrown around.
I heard an interview that Tyler Green did with Eric Fischl, who was talking about how much pressure he had from his galleries to produce those paintings he was doing—the adolescents with the nude woman and all that kind of stuff. And I’ve been very fortunate that things have worked out for me, but I’ve never had that kind of career.
There’s never been so much going on that there’s this pressure that “you must do this; you can’t just do a cardboard skull right now. You can’t just stop in the middle of doing these beautiful paintings and do these horrific-looking paintings of people’s lives shattered, surviving a giant storm where a million people have been displaced. We can’t do anything with those.”
That’s never been a deal, so I just did it. And I didn’t know where they were gonna go or if anybody was gonna see them or anything like that. It was just something that I had to do.