FOR THE ROSES

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AN INTERVIEW WITH BILL NEWMAN

by Leonard Haft, circa 1980

Bill Newman, well-known Washington artist, got his B.F.A. in 1971 from the Maryland Institute College of Art, and his M.F.A. from the University of Maryland in 1974.  He started his career early, showing in a group exhibition in 1971 at the Pratt Graphics Center, New York City, and in 1973, he was shown by H. Marc Moyens Gallery.  Mr. Moyens still handles his work and gave him his first one-man exhibition in 1978.  Bill Newman taught printmaking and design at the University of Maryland, and is presently teaching drawing and painting at the Corcoran School of Art.

Along with painting and drawing, Bill is an accomplished muralist; his latest work in that medium is a mural of the White House, which is in the Gerald Ford Museum, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Bill at the Corcoran this October, and what follows its an edited version of our talk; however, I have tried to be faithful to his way of expressing himself and not alter his viewpoint.


To get started, I asked him, "What is your interest in drawings and painting realistically?"

"I think it's to convey an idea, it's part visual, but not completely visual.  It has to be something beyond the visual, an idea that is impacted from the visual.  Somewhere, it divorces itself from the completely visual to more of a thought.  I'm interested in real images in a very abstract way.  Juxtaposing different images together is abstraction of real images, creating a different thought, and it all has to do with the visual portrayal of these images, and it has to do with thinking generally."

"But you feel you need realistic images rather than abstract shapes..."

"So far it is, there's other work I appreciate that isn't as realistic as mine, and I would like mine to be more spontaneous.  I don't have the confidence that I would get across what I want to if I worked as spontaneously as I would probably like to do.  My sketch books, which I keep for myself, contain images which I put down in my shorthand.  I know what these drawings mean.  As time goes on, I hope my work becomes more like that and it gets across to everybody.

"I don't understand why you don't trust your instinct."

"I do trust it, I don't know why I don't do it, maybe it's confidence - I don't know."

"You seem to use the figure primarily in your work, why not other real images?"

"If I use the figure, whatever I'm trying to convey will relate better than other means.  Everybody's familiar with the figure.  It is the easiest way to cause a relationship with others, or at least get them in the realm that I want them in. Sometimes you can set it up so everyone relates to the figure and then throw something else in, and it makes the whole thing work better."

"You have used the Madonna in one of your works.  What is that all about?"

"It might have something to do with my Catholicism, I am sure it does.  A lot of my work contains religious images.  I don't know if I was exposed to these images, and they have made a lasting impression, or if I appreciate the artists from the past who worked with these images.  At that time, before cameras or video, any visual look you had of anything, other than real life in the physical sense, was through somebody's drawing or painting.  Now we have a completely different arrangement.  Those artists would probably be making movies now.  I think of myself much in the outskirts of the visual game by being a one-framer."

"There is a work currently showing at Gallery K, that uses Errol Flynn and an Ophelia-like figure, what is that all about?"

"In much of my recent work, I have used images from the movies because I think they relate to my audience the way I want them to, because a great many of them have seen the motion pictures that have images I can use.  It's like using Flynn from the film "The Charge of the Light Brigade".  It was a popular movie with an unusually famous star, so most people that don't know anything about painting or drawing say 'Ah, that's Errol Flynn, I love him.'  They relate to this guy, so their immediate response puts them in the place of siding with this figure.  When they look at the other part of the picture they see the woman floating in the water, with her hands bound, they don't know if she is dead or alive, and they must make a decision whether to love or hate this guy.

I named it 'Motherhood' mostly because my mother was dying at the time I did the work.  It's kind of a portrayal of her, with Flynn more the father image, and she the repressed female, who grew up in a time when women had no other purpose than to raise the family and run the house."

"Don't stop there - what about the pair of pistols that Flynn is holding?"

"I thought of my mother as taking on much the same role as a lot of women in society.  I thought of her as repressed.  A lot of my creativity came from her.  She would, of the two of my parents, have sensed more of what I use as an artist, but not all of it."

"Are you telling me your mother was more supportive of your efforts?"

"No, neither of my parents were supportive.  The only piece I ever did that had anything to do with my mother was this piece.  The only reason I did it was she was dying, and deserving of attention in both my life and my art."

"Are there artists, or others, who have had an effect on your work?"

"My first influences were artists I appreciated for their ability.  Reubens, Vermeer.  All the Flemish artists, that had a real jewel-like quality to their work.  I appreciate what they did technically.  Vermeer at times went close to visually satisfying me, in a sense beyond just beautiful paintings.  Reubens was more spontaneous, and he had a bit more of that surface-directed type of painting.  At times, he would throw bizarre things in.  In a way he had that same sense of grabbing an audience by stunning them.  Today, people are bombarded with visual images, day in and day out, so what he did can be multiplied a hundred-fold.  What he was doing at the time is exactly what I probably would have been doing."

"You talk about technical ability, and one of the things apparent in your work is your skill in handling your materials.  What is important to you, the producing of the work or the idea?"

"In the beginning there was a need to get the craft to the point that I thought I could handle whatever situation prevailed at the time.  Now I have control over the craft, and it is no longer as important, I no longer have this driving need to perfect it.  Craft is not the obstacle it once was, so more of my energy has gone to the other side.

To keep my interest up, I have to make, not the doing of the work as important, as the arranging of what I am trying to do."

"Where else, aside from the movies, do you find these images?"

"Books, magazines, mostly from photographs.  Lately I am taking my own photos more and more.  I prefer photos rather than sketches because I know I can pick up more detail and more of the illusion I need to relate to my audience.  I have more confidence in the photo than in sketches or my memory.  I really don't have that much faith in my audience, from what I've seen, they can't relate to my most blatant images put in the most blatant mirror.  If they can't relate to that, I have no confidence that they can relate to more abstract images.  Every time I've tried that approach, I've had less success with my viewer's understanding or getting any meaning of what I'm trying to do.  It's a question of, how important is that?  I'm not sure it is.  I'm completely satisfied when I'm just sitting there creating these works, even though in my mind I'm conjuring up what the response is going to be.  That's the fun game of it.  Whatever happens with or to it after I've finished, really doesn't concern me too much.  By that time, I'm working on new pieces.  It's always a progress of new work.  

This is something my viewers criticize me for.  They want me to do essentially the same thing, have a recognizable image, so they can sell my work better."

"If I read you right, making art and doing your own thing is your first priority, and if it sells, fine."

"Pretty much, it goes beyond that though.  Maybe because of the way I was brought up or education, I do feel like I have a debt to mankind or society to at least have what I'm doing in record.  I don't think it relates now, to the way it would relate as a whole.  Someday, if it can be viewed as a whole, it will relate in the overall idea and what it was about will come across, and the perhaps the importance of its purpose will come across.  My work is not completely for my personal entertainment.  I'm fulfilling some sort of personal obligation to my being here.  I don't really know what that's all about, it's like who is God, it's like religion, it is hard to define."

"I may be jumping around, but let me ask another question.  Are you interested in the erotic which sometimes appears in your work?"

"Only because it works better than anything else as far as that image I want to create a reaction to.  It is probably the easiest way to get a reaction, maybe the most sophomoric too.  In the beginning, I overused it in order manipulate a reaction from an audience that, in retrospect, I wasn't that interested in getting a reaction from.  I am still affected by it myself, and still interested in using it, but in a much more subtle way."

"Where do you see your work going now?"

"I do have a concern with museums and how they relate to me - just in the fact that as long as I'm going to do art, and that's pretty much what I want to do for the foreseeable remainder of my life, I want my work to end up in the place where it is most protected.  Maybe it's also ego, but I would like to have it protected, and they do protect it.  My relationship with them now isn't as crucial as it will become, and I know now, I can't alienate them forever.  Personally at this point, I don't see the need for it.  I see it as a real long-term ongoing life problem that I can deal with as it becomes more crucial.  Should I die right now, it wouldn't really matter, because I haven't accomplished what I need time to accomplish.  It would be like someone writing a book and only finishing the first thirty percent - you could publish that, and say 'that was going to be really good', but it doesn't tell the whole story.  That's kind of the way my art-work has to be looked at now.  I don't think I've ever really taken control of my resources, and put them in one direction.  I still feel, a lot of times, like a student , still learning, still seeing.  I feel I'm about ready to put it more together and maybe at the same time, make a package that that my dealers, museum people and everybody else will be more pleased with.  They are in the money aspect of it and I am in the creative end of it - they can mix and form a good marriage, I think, but they can't be forced into it.  It has to happen really naturally."

"Motherhood" by Bill Newman
"Motherhood" by Bill Newman