Carroll Dunham on New Works and Talented Daughter Lena
“Seeing so much of my work in one place was a chance to take stock, but it was unsettling and knocked me off my pins for a while,” says artist Carroll Dunham, who last mounted a major survey of his work at the New Museum in 2002. “Having to confront what one has done makes going forward difficult. I purposely committed myself to other projects that forced me to go back into the studio, which turned out to be the healthy thing to do.”
When it came time to move forward with his next collection of works—on display this fall at Chelsea’s Gladstone Gallery—it’s easy to imagine that the New York–based artist had myriad sources for inspiration. Dunham, a former member of Time magazine’s art department, is married to artist and photographer Laurie Simmons; their daughters, Lena (Girls’ creator and leading actress) and Grace Dunham, are rising stars; and his inner circle includes sculptors Mel Kendrick and John Newman and painter Terry Winters. Here, Dunham speaks with Jennifer Stockman, Guggenheim Museum board president, about this latest work, the possible controversy surrounding his paintings, and why he won’t be part of a “movement.”
Jennifer Stockman: What are your near-term plans for new work?
Carroll Dunham: Right now I have two trains of thought in my work: One is images of trees, and the other is an extension of the “Bathers,” which is morphing into something less Bather-like, but still involving the subject of a naked woman in nature.
JS: You have said that you have no desire other than to make abstract paintings, so how do you explain the use of figuration, especially the naked female body in your latest work?
CD: I did say that, but what I meant was that my original interest was in the history of abstraction, and I wanted to take that forward. I started to see that “abstraction” wasn’t a pure condition, that there were embedded disconnects, and it was inadequate to hold strictly to an idea of “no subject matter.” My recent paintings of women are not really paintings of women. And my trees don’t resemble any trees in our universe: The trunk is a brown rectangle, and the top is a green blob. However making a painting of a tree, or any subject, allows me to do anything I want within a structured arena. I’m sure there are psychological reasons why I’m drawn to certain subjects and metaphorical associations, but that has nothing to do with representing the real world.
JS: You have been called a surrealist, modern cartoonist, neo-expressionist, and abstract painter. Is there a movement in art history where you would place yourself?
CD: I’m too old to be part of a movement; they are for young artists. I embrace the idea that there is American Painting and a “New York School” into which I might fit. We like labels and think we know what we’re talking about, but reality doesn’t conform. I have no idea where my work fits into the larger diagram of the art world today.
JS: Your paintings have been sometimes described as offensive, demeaning, vulgar, and even disgusting. Are you trying to be provocative and disturbing?
CD: I’ve been chosen by painting to work in its service, and it needs to feel true, honest, real to me, and I can’t know how it will hit someone else. Part of me grew up thinking provocation is interesting, but compared to the world we live in, painting never rises above the threshold to be deeply provocative. I would hate for people to think that my work isn’t sincere or is ironically detached.
JS: You have an extraordinarily talented family. What do you talk about at dinner, and does anyone’s career take priority?
CD: Our family doesn’t work that way. We talk in general, going over the day, gossiping, and the stupid stuff that everyone talks about. Maybe more now than in the past, Laurie and I share work thoughts. Our kids are mostly not home, so we can’t bore them. We’re more vividly aware that as you get older, the audience that “gets you” is relatively small.
JS: Did you ever censor or purposely make G-rated work when your kids were younger?
CD: No, and I always let them in the studio and never dodged questions. Sometimes they found my work embarrassing, but I never thought I was doing anything that had to be hidden or censored.
JS: Death seems to be a frequent subject for many artists. There’s darkness in your work, but your colors are so vibrant and joyful that it somehow diffuses thoughts of mortality.
CD: Anyone not thinking about death is not thinking very much. It’s the biggest mystery, yet it’s obvious that the universe is rolling along just fine. I’d rather that my work be inclusive of that idea than not. I don’t see bright colors as cheerful. Life is vivid, and I want to get that across, but that’s not good, bad, sad, or jolly—just the way it feels to be alive.
JS: What do you see as your main contribution to the world of art? How do you want to be remembered?
CD: If anyone cares about my work after I’m gone that would be nice. Beyond that, it beats me. I look at art by dead people and think it’s interesting that someone not born yet would look at mine, although I don’t think it’s now important to Matisse that I’m excited about his paintings. Carroll Dunham’s work is on display November 10 through December at the Gladstone Gallery, 515 W. 24th St., 212-206-9300
photography Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels