Black Mountain

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, Opus 1703, Brush Field, acrylic on paper

Q: There was one other University of Washington  faculty member when you were there other than Jacob Lawrence that was from Black Mountain: Robert C. Jones.  Did you study with him as well?

ReeL:  At the University of Washington at that time there was what some students called The Triumvirate, after the Roman political system. This was the trio of Michael Spafford, Michael Dailey, and Bob Jones, who were close to each other and their students and who, along with Lawrence, were considerably more open in their approach than the rest of the faculty. I tended to take  their classes.

I enjoyed the classes with Jones and Dailey, but I was drawn most to Michael Spafford. He and Lawrence were the only faculty members I kept contact with after I left the university.

Q: Cy Twombly also came from  Black Mountain. Before you jump off and assume I am going to equate your work, I must tell you that I once heard a curator at the Menil, who had put your work into one of his shows, brush off that comparison with a remark to the effect that “except for the difference in medium, context,  and approach, and that one uses historical references while the other eschews referentiality, and they are of two completely different generations and mileaus and that if you see their work in person there is no discernible resemblance, I guess you could say that there is something in common between Twombly and ReeL’s painting.”

ReeL: Like two faculty members?

Q; Were Lawrence and Jones at Black Mountain, too, while Twombly was there?

ReeL: I have no idea.  There is a shared interest in history between all four of us, albeit totally different epochs.

Q: I have a theory about your work and the Twombly thing: it seems to me that the  people who say your work looks like Twombly’s are people who have not seen one or the other’s or both your work live, in person.  In person you can clearly see that you two approach painting very differently.  In reproduction, it is very difficult to see this. How would you characterize the difference between you?

ReeL: I’d say topics versus topology.  Twombly is mired in referentiality.  He  restricts his work to having to refer to specific historical and personal events, topics, if you will, something outside the painting,  I reject referentiality; I stay primarily inside the painting.

But don’t get me wrong, I love Twombly’s paintings.

Q: What do you mean by “topology”?

ReeL: Topology, mathematics.  In terms of topology, mathematics, for the most part I use only open curves of genus zero and one, once in a while a genus two curve.  But I’m not sure this is a useful  way for anyone else to approach my work.

Q: How should we approach your work?

ReeL:  I have my internal approach, a well-developed visual language, underlying my work,  something entirely inside the painting. This is the technical ground for my painting; it is not necessarily how a viewer receives or could —or should– see and understand the work.

Q: How should one see and understand your work?

ReeL: By prolonged seeing, multiple viewings, taking it in, fully, with your whole being, without trying to figure it out with the narrow intellect.  Beware over-intellectualization.

Q: Ah, there is more to the world than our philosophy ….

ReeL: Yes.

Jacob Lawrence

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, Opus 1702, Winds of Time, acrylic on paper

Q: Didn’t you also study with Jacob Lawrence? How was Lawrence as a teacher? He seems to come from a very different world than the Northwest School and Tsutakawa.

ReeL: Yes, but he also was seeking to break out of the European art traditions.

Q: So you found continuity in a sort of form of rebellion?

ReeL: It was more a tendency to gravitate to the more philosophical instructors at Washington, and those that had a more technical training and depth to their approach.

Q: I wouldn’t have thought Lawrence fit into that category. I mean in terms of technical training. Wasn’t he self-taught as a painter?

ReeL: Lawrence was a truly educated man, self-taught or not. You know, when Gropius first formed his new school at Black Mountain after he’d been run out of the German Bauhaus by the Nazis, Jacob Lawrence was the only American on his first faculty. He said that Lawrence was the only American he felt who could teach at the level of the Bauhaus faculty at that time.

Q; I didn’t know that. Gropius was considered to have had very tough standards.

ReeL: Exactly.  I mention it more to emphasize how gifted  Lawrence was  as a teacher, a charismatic, natural teacher. I actually never took a formal class from him, but I was considered in his “group” so to speak.  He let us attend his critiques., come over to his place for these fabulous salons. There was a tremendously seductive confidentiality to  his manner, as if he were letting you in on age-old secrets handed down through the world’s cultures. We read Langston Hughes, history, read  poetry out loud.

Q: If you had to characterize Lawrence by a single event, quality, or characteristic what would it be?

ReeL: I hate questions like that.  Lawrence never tried to produce painters that painted like him.  In fact, as far as I could tell, he actively discouraged it, which was fine by me since we had very different orientations technically.  I was drawn to him  because his approach was more  philosophical, plus we shared a strong interest in history.  Besides,  he was an exceedingly likable human being.


Sumi-e and Tsutakawa

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, Opus 1701, Psychic Fire, acrylic on paper

Q:  At Washington, you studied with George Tsutakawa. What was that like?

ReeL: Yes, in the required water color class we had the choice of either the usual British and American water color society approach, which I found consummately boring, or Tsutakawa’s class, which was a formal “way of the brush” traditional sumi-e, or classic Japanese ink-paining class.

Q; You chose sumi-e.  Hadn’t Tobey also studied sumi-e?

ReeL: Yes. This brush technique was a core part of the approach of the Northwest School painters, especially the “flying brush” techniques, where a bold, broad scumbled-like swath of color was  sought, and  transferred well to the heavier Western paints. It was more of a mentality, not a strict application. Tobey was formally trained in it, but when you look carefully and at the full breadth of their work, you’ll see it is there in the brush work of Morris Graves, especially in his work in the 40s, and in the mature work of Guy Anderson and Kenneth Callahan, and of course in the work of the second generation with Tsutakawa and Horiuchi.  None of these artists was interested in preserving any sort of tradition. They were looking for ways to break out of the formal languages and approaches of the American and European art schools.

Q: So they looked East to non-Western sources.

ReeL: In part, yes. But in a way, Seattle is very close to Northern Asia., it’s part of the Pacific rim. One has to remember that for me, growing up in Seattle at that time, in casual conversation when someone said “East” they meant Asia, not New York.  New York was the “East Coast” — if you didn’t add the word “coast” people would assume you were talking about Tokyo or Singapore or something like that.

Q: So to go to the East, you went West, and the West was East of you.  Growing up and coming from the Bay Area, I can appreciate that.

ReeL: Yes, for us the East was West, and the West was East.