Pat Lipsky’s Boxes: A Question of Survival

Interview by Moira Hodgson in The SOHO Weekly News, July 10, 1975

Pat Lipsky’s last show at Andre Emmerich was in oils—layers of color, floating images suspended in space, painted in muted tones. This year it was boxes. Acrylic boxes.

The box is a familiar New York object—we live in them, drive around in them and even, thanks to the numerousfast food chains that have sprung up all over town, eat our food out of them. Joseph Cornell. Andy Warhol, Lucas Samaras, Robert Morris and Tony Smith have all done it in boxes. And now a young woman artist, Pat Lipsky, has added her own view of the ubiquitous box.

Pat Lipsky, 1975, by Thomas Victor

What led you to the boxes, so different from anything you’ve ever done before, that constitute your present show?

I had been doing line paintings, pouring on the lines with a cup. It was like Zen Buddhism, how the line would go down. I worked out the colors beforehand, as though I were writing music. Each line was an isolated color. I would work out five colors, and try to get perfect, harmony, like a chord.

Pouring the paint on, how it hits the canvas, is a lot about what painting is about. It is very important to me what the feel of it is.

I have had so much experience that I know beforehand what the effect will be—a certain milkiness of the paint will have one effect, wateriness another. I am very sensitive to the different consistencies of paint, they become part of my vocabulary.

What made you leave the lines for the boxes?

I went for a month to teach in California. I didn’t plan to work. I met Carlos Villa and he took me to an art store and we bought some paints. It was all very lighthearted. I didn’t have all the things I have in my studio, so I worked on watercolor pads making line pictures.

Then I went to the Berkeley museum and the Hans Hofmann room hit me very hard. I’ve always been influenced by him, and by Goya and Monet. But Hofmann’s combination of expressionism and formalism I’ve always found particularly remarkable. There was a painting over the stairs called something like “The Great Wall of China.” It was boxes. But it was not about boxes, it is as though he chose them because they were easy to do, and allowed him to talk about something else. Like Pinter, who has people sitting in a room, not moving. He is not talking about the living room. It is not like a Tony Smith sculpture which asks you, what is a box? It is using something easy to express something complex.

So with a ruler I began to make boxes on pieces of paper. They came out of nowhere. I didn’t ask why I was doing it, I just did it. I knew that it was something very important, but I didn’t know why. Then I bought canvas and painted. The second one I did, “Telepathy,” is in the show.

In some, the boxes are isolated and the white space creates a tension between them.

Yes, there was something very pure about the concept. The paintings were not about boxes but about color—where the colors came into contact with each other on all four sides, rather than two sides. That was a breakthrough for me. All the time I’ve been painting I only thought of color touching top and bottom. The whitespaces were very important because it was how the color went along the whitespace and how the next color came to it. It was the same thing I had been doing with the stripes except that it was four sides. I had a sense of sureness when I was doing those paintings which I don’t often have.

Some artists might say that uncertainty is important—that it is dangerous to be too sure.

I don’t feel that. I feel that the whole act of painting is uncertain. I don’t know anything at all at the time except that I’m painting. Sometimes I feel that what I am doing has real value and that I understand what it is—it feels right. I knew that these, paintings were coming from a place that had a lot of integrity to it.

When I was a child 1 used to fold paper into boxes and make drawings in each one. The experience of playing when related to art kept coming back to me. I was also reminded of hopscotch, drawing boxes on the ground, jumping over the squares or going along the sidewalks looking at the cracks.

These paintings had more to do with games, systems that I had fun with as opposed to my idea of what painting was before. For awhile it had been about suffering. I felt that I didn’t have to suffer that way any more.

When did you decide to show the boxes?

In February. I continued to paint but strangely enough the paintings that were done after that decision, with the pressure of knowing that I was going to have a show, fell apart. I had always thought I worked well under pressure, but now I’m wondering whether it isn’t better to get the work down and then have a show. I think that in New York it is a common problem—people paint for shows and it’s a terrible limitation.

Do you feel a lot of pressure as an artist living in New York?

The problem here is to keep who you are intact in spite of the pressure, competition and discussion. I don’t really want to talk to too many people about my painting. I know it by myself. If I can only hold on to it—that’s the hard part. Artist friends are the worst people to talk about my painting with. They are all as confused as I am.

Do you think you should listen to critics?

Gertrude Stein said that genius is knowing who to be influenced by. I don’t exist in a vacuum at all. I must accept that I don’t know about a lot of things. I did listen to people about what paintings to show. The show is not only about me, it’s about me and the people I know. Stanley Boxer and Joyce Weinstein came to my loft and made a couple of suggestions. If they hadn’t come’ over, a couple of paintings wouldn’t have been the same. That’s the fascinating thing about it. The core is me, but the randomness is what keeps my eyes open.

That is what art is all about. It always comes from the most random and absurd places.

Sartre said that when you ask for advice, who you ask is everything. In an unconscious way you know beforehand what the person is going to say. You are psyching people out all the time, who you hang out with is who you are.

New York Is a very “boxy” place. Did that Influence your paintings?

Yes. The whole city was my oyster. I started to look at subway tiles—I was down in the Canal Street station measuring them. And I copied down the patterns of the tile the Carmine Street swimming pool.They have gorgeous tiles there from the Thirties. I made two big swimming pool pictures, one of which is in the show.

Do you find it a problem knowing when to stop a picture?

I’ve always had a problem with that. Leftover canvas around the edge of the painted image has constantly driven me crazy. It’s like being in a restaurant and not being able to finish the food—you would like to, but you are too full. Because the canvas was there I felt that I should use it. I was going to allow the leftover canvas to serve as a border in the new works but something was wrong. I didn’t know what it was. Then I went to Phyllis Tuchman’s house and I saw that she had framed a small picture I had given her straight on leaving no space around the image. That was it! She had inadvertently told me what to do. It was a revelation. I went back to the gallery and re-stretched the others. You see, I had been taught by Tony Smith always to leave a border. Here I was, years later, still believing that.

Will you do more boxes now, do you think?

I don’t want to be pigeon-holed. The hardest thing about being an artist is avoiding traps—staying in the middle and not going over the edge. It is so easy to fall into the other place. I want the whole tension of “it is and it isn’t.”

What about Mondrian? Were you at all Influenced by him?

I was reading a lot about him. I was getting to the point where I could see what his works were about—they are very sophisticated. For years I couldn’t see them at all. Then, after the show, at the Guggenheim, I came through to something. I think I’m scared about Mondrian in a way because I feel that the starkness he represents has something to do with his life and it’s a place I don’t particularly want to be. I didn’t feel that type of painting was the place for me to go.

Painting is not only about what you put on the canvas, it is about what you leave out. It’s which way to go, how to proceed, what to do, what not to do. That’s defining yourself and I find it excruciatingly difficult. I think that what I’m talking about is the crisis of painting right now—I think that is why there is’a lot of painting that seems unresolved and undefined. This uncertainty drives me crazy. I think we all want to have a plan.

Do you work for long on a painting?

I usually do one in a day. It’s very sporadic, though. As soon as I try to make it happen it doesn’t work, but I have to just wait until it comes. I guess it is like that for everyone. That’s the difficulty.

Being a painter for me ends up being about surviving. If I get the canvas and the paint, then I have a chance. It comes down to seeing yourself as an artist. If you know you’re an artist then I think you can go through a lot of that.

How long were you painting before you took yourself seriously as an artist?

It’s tricky, because I know I am in a certain way. I never faced up to the fact, on a very deep level, that I was actually making paintings. I couldn’t connect to that reality. The stakes were too high. I was competing with the great painters of history and taking myself as seriously as I could. But I was always giving myself a way out.

Do you think that’s a woman’s problem?

Yes. Men are brought up to know that they are going to have a career. I was brought up to be helpless. And yet at the same time they were telling me to be the best in class. During this past year I finally realized that with these new works, painting was more important than anything else I did. All my life I’ve been completely involved with painting but I didn’t want to admit it. Now that I know it I have to ease up on myself a bit. There has to be some relief because it’s so very hard. I have to think about what I want from my life. I don’t think that the rewards will be that I’m a famous painter. I don’t care about that, I think I did before, but now all I want is to feel happy. I think that has to do with painting, but there are other things I need too.

It’s interesting to hear the word “happy” used in conjunction with painting. For so many artists it seems to be torture. Some, like Francis Bacon, for example, can’t work any other way.

But there’s Matisse, who is the other end of that.

Yes, he’s talking about Joy.

I want to make paintings about how happy I am. I don’t want to have a stake in my misery—it is such a drag. Matisse said that he wanted his paintings to be as comfortable as his armchair and he got tremendous flak for that. Painting to me is a celebration.

But I think it is something you have no control over. I think finding where it is coming from is the most difficult thing of all.

I feel many different strains in me as a painter. But the joyous direction is where I want to go. I don’t like Goya’s black paintings. I prefer his beautiful portraits. Painting is very aristocratic, it’s about relationships, harmony, music. I’ve suffered a lot, and I know that there will be more. But I want to limit my sufferings. I want to get as much out of life as I can. I don’t want to dwell on them. At the same time it is dangerous not to admit you are in pain. But I don’t see why that should be the subject of my paintings.

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