Conversation with John Zurier

John Zurier: Lynn, I want to start by asking you a question about yourself and your childhood and your earliest experiences with art. Do you remember when you first sensed what art was and how it was different from other experiences? 

Lynn Glaser: My mother studied art and was also an art photographer. We had prints of famous paintings in the house and a few art books with good illustrations to peruse. My strongest memory, however, was of her friendship with a sculptor, Jan de Swart, and his family in Los Angeles. I got to tag along on her visits and was completely mesmerized by his studio and his work. Then, when I was a music student at the University of Southern California, the Los Angeles County Museum opened. I went there occasionally for chamber music and new music concerts in the Bing Auditorium. But the real discovery for me was original art in the museum and the difference between it and the reproductions I'd seen as a child. The paintings looked like astonishing accomplishments to me, and I remember thinking that if I could learn to do this I would be an extraordinarily lucky person. I realized at that time that creation of visual art was something quite different from the "recreation" of being a performing musician. 

Tell me more about your involvement with music. How did you come to realize the difference between composition and performance? 

In college I majored in performance and musicology but was especially interested in composition. Unfortunately, there were very few women composers of "classical" or serious music at the time, and we certainly weren't encouraged to study composition. But I loved the process of creating music, more than trying to figure out a composer's intentions and interpret his notes. Maybe after you have been playing others' music for a long enough time, it's natural to want to compose your own. 

Were you painting when you were studying music? 

Not at all. I started painting after my formal music education was complete and I had worked in the field professionally. I began my second career by returning to UC Berkeley to the studio art department. My plan was based on five-year increments—if I made sufficient progress to my standards, I would continue. 

How do you think your musical career has affected your development as a painter? 

For the first half of my life I was a musician studying keyboard instruments, mainly piano and harpsichord. When I returned to school to begin painting, my years of knowing how to practice and the expectation of slow progress were extremely helpful. Music has also had an enormous effect on my visual aesthetic and my appreciation for non-representational art. Most non-vocal music is, after all, abstract in that it is not bound to a subject—except in the most peripheral way. In my art I am trying to create the type of abstraction that I find in music: the representation of reality through sensation. Additionally, some of my paintings are very influenced by what I'm listening to. While working on the Wanderung series, I had been learning some of the big Mahler symphonies and song cycles, which I think inspired the grand gestures and scale of those paintings. Recently I've been listening to Messien, and I'm certain that it is affecting my visual ideas with a sense of looseness and improvisation in my current work. 

I think the slow progression you've mentioned in learning and making painting can't be stressed enough. We've talked a lot over the years about the necessity as painters of being patient in developing our eye and hand, something Matisse, also a musician, spoke about so clearly. But there's another reason Matisse comes to mind for me now. He wrote eloquently about a painting being a "condensation of sensations" and his need to summon up energy to give a feeling of lightness. What struck me when I first saw your new paintings was a feeling of lightness about them. This feeling hit me before I even began to see what the forms were, or how they were painted. My immediate impression was that there has been a change of feeling for you, a change of expression, with these paintings. I wonder does this ring true for you? 

It was a very deliberate effort, one that I'd been thinking about for quite a while. The quality of the light in Iceland made it a perfect place to begin the experiment. When we were there in July 2004 it was overcast much of the time, which produced the most beautiful, diffuse light. It muted colors and softened edges; at times when looking out to sea I couldn't locate the horizon line. The large rock and lava formations looming out of fog or the sea and the changing color of the ice is wondrous. 

How do you start your process? Do you work from photographs, from drawings, from memory? 

I begin with remembering which are the most intense experiences, and I use my photographs to refresh the sources for myself. But the most important help for me is my journal, in which I write about the excitement of a particular space or light, sometimes with specific images that I continue to develop in words. This writing is usually fairly abstract, with references to musical compositions that have particular associations for me. 

It sounds like you don't begin with a preconceived image in your mind, or from a specific photograph or drawing that you want to explore. So I'm wondering—do your paintings start out abstract and then evolve into the image of your landscape? 

I think they both happen at the same time. There are specific sensations that I think about relating to a particular landscape—like the sensation of breathing cold air. These aren't specific images, but they give me a place to start. After I start the painting, formal compositional considerations begin. 

What artists do you look to for inspiration? 

The paintings I studied most in the beginning were late Turners, especially for his fairly thick paint that somehow produces amazing light. For the work of living, breathing painters I've seen, I'm most enamored of Kirkeby, Richter, Tuymans and recently Uecker. The first three because they employ tensions between pure abstraction and reality in their work, and this speaks to me directly. Uecker because he is a wild experimentalist, especially with materials, and from what I’ve seen has been very successful in his efforts. 

Let's return to Iceland and the inspiration for these new paintings. What does the title "Letters from Iceland" conjure up for you? 

I think of the paintings as the kind of description I'd like to give friends and family about our travels if I could do it in words. I would talk about light and color. 

I was there a few years ago and like you I was knocked out by the quality of light. I associate the light I experienced in Iceland with a certain cast of blue. It was not exactly a twilight but a situation where I felt I could see forever, travel vast distances, as if my eye, my vision, could swim out from me into the air and over the land. It was exhilarating. I see so much attention and care to the atmosphere in these paintings. How did this trip inspire and affect your approach to color and atmosphere? 

We circumnavigated the island and so for a majority of the trip the sea was in view in addition to the land. The light quality was one in which color would change quickly because of the atmosphere over the water. Capturing this required a translucency of paint, with subtleties that emerge to the viewer only after they look for some time. When we went inland, I was more focused on intense color and form. As in many landscapes with short summers, the greens are rather pale but dense in value: peculiar nickel yellow greens, chromium oxide green and cadmium green with intense black outcroppings of rock. 

I was wondering where the shape of the obelisks came from and how you came to make them. They reminded me of the old trail markers I saw there that were made of stones stacked in a pyramid. I particularly like how your shapes hover above the plane of the floor and how I can't see the tops of them.

For a time I had a desire to get my paintings off the flat plane of a wall. I found that the shape of the obelisk freed me from some of the formal concerns of a traditional canvas. Because of the form and materials, I was forced to find a new way of working. Unlike the springy surface of canvas, the hard wood produces more resistance to brushwork, thereby resulting in thinner paint. I was again striving for a lightness in these works, and I found that thinner, multi-layered paint was best suited to my purposes. Incidentally, you’re right about the trail markers. Proof that the unconscious also works on visual business. I've decided to name the obelisks in Icelandic by the points of the compass: Nordur (north), Sudur (south), Austur (east), Vestur (west)—not yet painted but in my head. As I think about it, perhaps the idea of making obelisks is also related to the rock formations such as the upright "post poles," which are part of the relatively recent upthrust geology of Iceland. I chose the obelisks for their graceful shape. I think the natural formations are graceful, as well—sometimes as geometric shapes, like the post poles, sometimes in fluid formation from lava flow, such as worn rock arches and other shapes rising from the sea. 

You've told me that it was important for you to be able to see two sides of the obelisk at once. Can you tell me more about that? 

I wanted the experience of looking at continuous and discontinuous composition at the same time, thereby covering more ground, so to speak. At first I thought that they could be four separate paintings that had no continuity, but then that just seemed silly and I had to face the fact that these pieces are actually painted sculpture that needs to feel unified. 

In your new paintings the paint seems leaner and the brushwork softer than in your earlier works. What can you tell me about the painting July 20? It has a lyrical quality that I like very much. 

This particular painting has to do with an inability at times to see the horizon line at sea because the light was so translucent in covered skies. The only way to imply that sense of insubstantial light was to make everything very thin and even let the linen color show through occasionally. I didn't want the painting to feel heavy in quality or quantity of paint. 

Yes, and what I find interesting is that a sense of airiness can be felt in some of the darker and more thickly painted canvases, especially in the one I see with its slate blue/black color, July 15, and the light-filled and light-toned one, July 21. Also, your brushwork is doing very different things in these paintings. I'm very curious about how your touch affects and corresponds with the mood and feeling of each painting. How do you consider these differing energies in your work? 

If I were to look at these two paintings in a strictly technical way, I would see the following: the sense of lightness in both of these rather densely painted pieces is from seeing multiple layers of paint in almost any section of the canvas. One can nearly reconstruct the process of making them. As to brushstrokes, July 15 is very dependent on long vertical strokes for power and multiple drips at the top of the piece to reinforce downward motion, which counterbalances the strong upward movement of the lower half. In July 21 I used shorter, softer horizontal strokes and only a few drips to break up the horizontal feel in the large unified color areas. I think that these two paintings are polar opposites of each other in feeling. July 15 is very powerful and strong in showing the initial force of the geological forms. July 21 is a soft piece having to do with the effects of changing light at sea. As a result, the energies of these works differ, because they evoke two very different experiences. My goal in all of my landscape paintings is to reproduce the sensation of being there.

John Zurier is a painter who lives and works in Berkeley, CA and Iceland.