Diane Burko, The Per Contra Interview with Miriam N. Kotzin
PC: When did you start making art?
DB: As a child I was drawing and painting. The first paintings I did were paint by numbers sets, but instead of following the numbered diagram, I just did my own thing on plain cardboard.
PC: When/how did you realize that art was going to be at the center of your life—assuming that if it isn’t the center, it’s close to the core?
DB: I was ambivalent about being an artist professionally. I began taking art classes at the Brooklyn Museum in the third grade and continued doing so in MOMA in junior high school. In high school I returned to the Brooklyn Museum as a monitor in the night painting classes. I then chose a college that would provide academic options and a strong art department: Skidmore in Saratoga Springs, when it was still a women’s college.
It was there that I decided I would devote my life to being an artist. I had a mentor named Arnold Bittleman, who studied at the progressive Black Mountain College and then Yale and was a protégé of Albers. He was a Jewish man from the Bronx whose father was a butcher. He gave me permission and courage to be an artist.
PC: How did your double major in art history and painting? What periods did you find most congenial to your own vision? Did you ever consider becoming an academic and teaching art history?
DB: By taking academic courses over the summer I was able to double major in art history and painting. I was particularly attracted to 19th and 20th century art, American and French.
Oil on canvas
84 x 60 inches
March - May 1990
PC: What artists do you particularly admire?
DB: I definitely owe a great deal to Courbet, Manet, Bonnard, Van Gogh, Cézanne as well as Augustus Vincent Tack and Winslow Homer, Ryder, and Burchfield who provided me with my landscape/paint legacy. As a student, and even today, I look to these masters.
Each reinforced for me the importance of searching out a vista, of sticking to a motif in order to understand through paint, their particular mysteries of light color, and design.
Of course, being an artist in the 21st century is quite different from the 19th when artists were confronting vistas, such as Edwin Church looking at Cotapoxi for the first time, without seeing previews in National Geographic or on the Discovery Channel.
Gorky, Philip Guston, Joan Mitchell, Susan Rothenberg, David Hockney and John Walker are more contemporary inspirations.
PC: Who were the teachers or artists that had an influence on your work? What have you done to keep their influence but develop your own style? Was that conscious?
DB: Arnold Bittleman who studied with Joseph Albers had the strongest influence on me. He introduced me to the magic of color. That’s when I fell in love with Gorky Matta and Bonnard.
When I arrived at UPenn graduate school I was accepted on the strength of abstract work. Therefore I begrudgingly must acknowledge the influence Neil Welliver. I began to draw from nature, paint outside and develop a strong affinity for the landscape, which provided content that allowed for abstraction and the manipulation of paint.
30" X 3O"
Archival ink jet Print
PC: Sometimes people use categories for artists: an American artists, or women artists. How do you feel about these tags? Are they a nuisance?
DB: Categories for artists can be helpful when making a political point however ultimately one’s practice speaks for itself.
PC: You've used aerial photography for a number of paintings (The Grand Canyon, Pennsylvania's Waterways). How does that point of view from above, affect your paintings?
DB: I became fascinated with aerial views that I first collected from magazines like Arizona Highways and National Geographic. It wasn’t until my 1977 flight with Jim Turrell over the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell that I first took my own photographs, and then there was no turning back. I have been flying over and recording landscapes for nearly 30 years!
Flying is exhilarating. Looking down over the landscape has always been my preferred perspective, perhaps because I find it more abstract when the horizon line is gone. I enjoy experiencing and presenting a disjunctive, unexpected spatial point of view. That becomes to me more abstract, less traditional and allows for more invention.
The most dramatic experience I ever had was in a small helicopter flying with David Okita (who flew for the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory) over Big Island. Strapped in but with the door removed, I was right there hovering over molten lava spilling into the sea, with clouds of steam rising up, and over deep skylights (openings through the hardening lava crust), and smoke coming up from Kilauea. Some of my Iris prints capture that flight. Then there was my three-hour, breathtaking flight from the south of Iceland, Hofn over Jokolskarlon, Vatnajokull glacier, Askjar and onto Myvtn in the north in 2002. The vast empty plains of lava and glacial ice were mind-boggling.
Early work, aerial farms, Grand Canyon, Waterways, all had a long view from above in common. I think this method fed my need for abstraction. However it seems more when intimacy entered my life in the 90’s, other points of view were adapted. My residency in Giverny, and then in Bellagio where closer encounters with the landscape, along the pond, or on an Etretat cliff, out my studio window along Lake Leco or in a vineyard presented other viewpoints to experience.
PC: How do you use photographic references in your work? Has your use of photography for painting changed?
DB: In the seventies my sources were National Geographic, calendars, Arizona Highway magazines. After flying with James Turrell over the Grand Canyon I realized my own photographs could become my own source material.
The photograph is an essential tool for me to record experiences. In the studio, when I have returned from some adventure, the photograph also serves as a reference. Over the years, I have developed a method of taking hundreds of slides on site and then reviewing them in the studio. That process entails my discarding a majority of them. I then consider scale of images and sometimes take pieces from them to combine in a composition. I project the slides onto the canvas and paint directly, loosely positioning elements in terms of shapes of dark and light. Then the projector is turned off. I do make a scan of the slide so I have a print for reference, but the colors and even the position and shape of the elements change as the painting progresses. Ultimately, the painting takes over.
(Readers can find examples of the photography on
PC: When did you start to use projected images in your work?
DB: Some from commercial airplane windows 1970, but then more seriously in 77’.
PC: You work in the studio, but sometimes, I believe, en plein air. Do you have a work where you'd be able to show us the progression from sketch or source photo to the finished painting?
DB: When I have the luxury of time at a location, I paint en plein air. Giverny and Bellagio were the most extended times I had to develop series of small on site work. For the most part my paintings are developed from source photography.
PC: Many of your landscapes (the volcanoes, for example) require travel. Do you ever say, "darn—or some variation—I wish that while I was there that I'd..."?
(October Flight, 2000) #5
Oil on canvas
60 x 96 inches
DB: I enjoy geology, the history of the earth, exploring the unknown. What I value most is the concept of wonder. To stumble upon something that truly surprises and puts one in awe. Sometimes that exploration means flying into craters, or over Denali, the Aleutian chain, or climbing 5 hours up Stromboli to watch lava fireworks or to going to the edge of cliffs, such as Etretat on the Normandy coast or the edge of Vesuvius’ crater in Italy. Those experiences didn’t leave room for wanting to acquire more than that.
I am always looking and consequently faced with a visual surprise when I travel. In retrospect I realize that I most fully engage with views that take my breadth away. I seek landscapes that challenge my imagination and skills- they demand to be painted. My methods of documentation are adequate to carry the vision to the canvas.
Palami Pali (October Flight, 2000) #5 - Detail
PC: You've done a number of paintings and photographs that are series. What's the attraction of working like that?
DB: I believe I have always been a “serial painter”. Meaning that painting for me is not just about making an image, but more about the process of contemplating an idea of a subject. Developing and structuring various aspects of that is what’s of interest?
An example of this approach would be the recent Matterhorn Icon Series.
PC: Some of your paintings are diptychs, others triptychs. What is the significance of that choice?
DB: In a series of diptychs of historical visual comparisons – I am contrasting past and present situations of glacial activity.
PC: I suppose the largest of your paintings is the mural for the Marriott Hotel in Philadelphia (2004, 12' X 32'). What should we know about the size of your paintings, or your grouping a series together (Matterhorn) so that, in effect, the viewer is invited to see them as a single work?
PC: You've said about your photographic work, "Photography allows me the freedom to create unconventional views of natural spaces. With the lens I can closely examine the multifaceted, intricate structures of nature’s ambiguous detail and capture movement and light in real time.
Such opportunities result in more abstract, mysterious and magical interpretations of natural phenomena in our environment."
Do you want to expand on that statement, contrasting with painting?
DB: I have always used photography as a tool to capture the memory of a landscape. I now employ photography as a stand alone medium in contrast to the images serving as catalysts for my paintings.
I am intrigued with the subtle digital manipulations of color and design. The series of Iris prints (Iris being the name of the particular digital printer used) represents that history of exploration from my first flight with Jim Turrell in 1977, up to my most recent flights in the Pacific Northwest in the summer of 2004 over Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Rainer, and Mt. Baker.
My paintings are basically abstractions. The landscape becomes a vehicle for me to explore formal juxtapositions such as scale - in terms of color, shades of grays and browns with slivers of whites and silvers; contrasts of surface, flat areas to squishy, thick impasto ones to large blank areas all in one painting.
Aside from the physical and scale issues, I enjoy the ambiguity and interchange between the ideas of abstract space versus real space. The landscape provides this tension for me. The landscape also provides a level of romance and meaning.
I enjoy the painting activity as well as the search for the image. I enjoy the materiality of the paint as well as the materiality of the water, lava, rock and mist. I enjoy presenting a vista as well as implying the history of the earth.
Using the photograph as an intermediary keeps the abstraction in play with my experience and my memory of the encounter.
PC: You have inkjet prints of your photographs and you've made monotypes. I believe you've done some lithographs (e.g., Ile au Haut, 1989). Did you do your own lithography?
DB: I am not a print maker, however over the years I have been invited to collaborate with master printers. First in Tamarind NM in 1980’s then in ASU. More recently at the Brodsky Center in Rutgers New Brunswick.
PC: And one last question, maybe too complex for this interview, regarding your photographs and the prints you make. Do you see the work of art as being the image in the computer, or is it not complete until it is on the paper? Certainly the size of the print and the type of paper are variables and decisions that affect the work? What do you think?
DB: The computer is a tool used to mediate the production of a photograph and its final printing.
PC: What do you think the artist's role—in particular, your role—should be in relation to political issues?
DB: Politics of Snow is currently an on-going series where my practice as a painter serves to document the rapidity of change in our natural icons such as the Matterhorn, as well as the shrinking of glaciers in America and Iceland. In a series of diptychs of historical visual comparisons – I am contrasting past and present situations of glacial activity.
I want to seduce the viewer with my painting of the landscape and then subtly engage them in contemplating its survival. Beauty and desolation, life and death all conflate for me at this moment in time as the concept of mortality personally and globally dominate my creative impulse.
POLITICS OF SNOW EXHIBIT: LOCKS GALLERY February 2-March 13: QUADTYCH:
GRINNELL MT. GOULD,
#1, #2, #3, #4
Oil on canvas
88 x 200 inches
Quadtych OC, 88" x 50" each (88" x 200"), July - October 2009
Grinnell Mt. Gould #1: 1938, after TJ Hileman, GNP Archives
Grinnell Mt. Gould #2: 1981, after Carl Key, USGS
Grinnell Mt. Gould #3: 1998, after Dan Fagre, USGS
Grinnell Mt. Gould #4: 2006, after Karen Holzer, USGS
Politics of Snow Exhibit: Locks Gallery Philadelphia, February 2 - March 13,
PC: Your current work involves collaboration with scientists. Would you tell our readers something about how that collaborative project came about and how it has developed?
DB: Seeing a painting of Grandes Jorasses done in 1976 juxtaposed in an exhibit of recent works based on Iceland and Volcanoes was a revelation. Thirty years had changed me as an artist and person and I knew there were changes to that Alpine peak. I began to read and engage in more serious research on snow and ice and glaciers. Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change had just come out. Although I had read her pieces in the New Yorker - this was a very important book for me. With the aid of the Internet I was able to reach out to a vast network of glacial geologists who taught me about “repeat photography” which is the practice of recording in geological time the physical change of a particular site. Their records go back to the 19th century.
Through discovering the National Snow and Ice Data Center and their “Glacier Pair Inventory” with the help of their librarian, Kara Gergely, I found amongst others, Matt Dolan, Bruce Molnia and Lonnie Thompson and Henry Brecher to aid me in my project.
© 2005-2010 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas