Q: Do you feel you are part of some sort of artists lineage from the NorthWest School?
ReeL: Somewhat, due to my experiences as a kid, but by the time I was 15 I could render very realistically and then shifted when I took up pen and ink the next year. So I was progressing in a very different direction.
But my primary concern was with color. I was struggling with color–frustrated no end–and this lead me to look more closely at Klee and Matisse.
Q: But then you went to the University of Washington and the courses with Tsutakawa and …..
ReeL: But that was not the main thrust of my interest. By the time I was 16 I was troubled by my difficulties with color. At Washington, I lucked out on this score.
At the University of Washington back then they did something no one dares do now: they closed off upper division art classes to all but those who passed a sophomore portfolio review. Nowadays they’ll take anybody willing to pay tuition. Since I was coming in as a transfer from a Mathematics major, I submitted a portfolio.
They waived my first two years of coursework and waived my sophomore portfolio review requirement, but the counselor suggested that there was a special session of one of the first-year design classes that I might be very interested in taking: Dick Dahn, who had been a student of Albers at Yale, converted his design class into essentially the same class as the one based on Albers’ Interaction of Color book, which had just came out . I took it and it was a revelation and great help to me.
A couple years later, when I was studying with Rainer Crone, he introduced me to a curator who was putting on a big retrospective of Klee. We hit it off and he had full access to the Klee Foundation archives in Bern and other Bauhaus sources. He gave me translation transcripts of all of Klee’s unpublished notes on color and his courses at the Bauhaus., as well as some notes by Itten on color.
I already had a copy of Klee’s published work, the Sketchbook and so forth, and Itten’s book. I took this material and what I got from Dahn, plus the work of the Dutch color theorist Frans Gerritsen and put together my own color class which I taught for the next 11 years.
Then as I got interested in computers and realized that designers would soon be working with color on computers, I added a section on hexidecimal representation of RGB color and so forth– this was before there was any computer software for graphic designers, it was all still “blue line” layout.
Q: What’s that? What’s blue line?
ReeL: It’s not important. As you see, no one today has a clue even what it is. It’s how you did layout before computers. Anyway, the other instructors where I was teaching kept asking why I was doing all the RGB hex stuff, and I would say, because by the time these students get out they’ll be using computers, and they’d say, how do you know it’ll be done this way? and I’d say, well, it’s by far the best way to do it, if you were implementing this stuff in software.
Q: Was it?
ReeL: Yes,. I turned out to be right. And the switchover to computers came the next year, sooner than a lot of faculty expected, so a lot of my students got huge head starts over their peers. Ironically, I ended up being considered an expert on color, when it had started as a major problem for me.
Consequently, I feel there is more of an apostolic succession from Itten and Klee to Albers to Dahn to myself as far as formal training and background. A very different orientation than the Northwest School. That also turned out to be a much stronger preparation for abstract work and the kind of work I am doing now. Then, in this century, I did end up doing a series of Technicolor Tobey’s and here I am now exhibiting at the Morris Graves Museum of Art with work that has some degree of affinity with the Northwest School.
Q: Oh! You answered my original question. I thought we were off on a completely unrelated tangent there.