Carroll Dunham is an American painter whose work is defined by its indefinability. While he may have a recognizable style, he plays with abstraction, figuration and surrealism but never seems to settle firmly within any of those school’s confines. Glenn O’Brien is a writer on the subjects of art, music and fashion, also known for his role as GQ’s “Style Guy.” The two old friends stopped by NeueHouse Madison Square to discuss Dunham’s career — how he formed his artistic identity and established himself in New York’s art scene.
Glenn O’Brien: How did you get the name “Tip?”
Carroll Dunham: I’ve had it since I was a kid.
GO’B: Who gave it to you?
CD: Either my brother or my cousins. I’m sure I would have ditched it if I hadn’t been stuck with a girl’s name.
Artwork: Carroll Dunham — LEFT: Terrible Sun 2011 Mixed media on linen 95 1/4 x 75 1/4 inches 241.9 x 191.1 cm | RIGHT: Bathers Eleven (Night Run) 2011 Mixed media on linen 78 1/8 x 66 1/8 inches 198.4 x 168 cm
GO’B: In England it’s not a girl’s name.
CD: It’s the kind of name you take a lot of crap about growing up, so I kept “Tip.”
GO’B: Was it like, there are a lot of famous Carrolls, but no famous Tips?
CD: There was one guy on death row called Caryl Chessman when I was a kid. That’s the only “Carroll” I knew about.
GO’B: He was the most glamorous murderer of our time. So, when you were becoming an artist, it was not really a time for painting, right?
CD: No, not in the way it became a bit later.
GO’B: I mean, it was kind of declared dead by various conceptual artists. So, did you become a painter just to be perverse?
CD: Partly, I think. The idea that painting isn’t really something you can do in a relevant way has been around the whole time I’ve been an artist. This was something I resisted. I liked the idea that painting seemed to have limits. I like the idea that there’s a place to operate that seems to have a kind of definition and, within that, you can really do anything.
Artwork: Carroll Dunham — LEFT: Next Bathers, two (dead tree) 2012 Mixed media on linen 61 1/4 x 78 1/4 inches 155.6 x 198.8 cm| RIGHT: Late Trees #2 2011-2012 Mixed media on linen 88 x 68 inches 223.5 x 172.7 cm
GO’B: Was there an artist that got you excited about art for the first time?
CD: In my case it was Salvador Dalí’s melting clocks and things like that. I always thought I was excited by art, but I didn’t know anything about contemporary art until I came to New York. I can’t really say that environment specifically encouraged me to make paintings, but there were definitely inspiring examples.
GO’B: Anyone in particular?
CD: I worked for Dorothea Rockburne for a couple of years. The people that she was sort of in dialogue with were interesting, like Robert Ryman. The whole post-minimal aesthetic and approach were the things that got me thinking about my own approach to art and how to make it original.
GO’B: Was abstraction a big influence on you?
CD: That is all I was interested in. I came to New York in the early 70s, as you did, and there was absolutely nothing going on in representational or figurative painting that was of any interest to me. It was all abstraction, and I actually couldn’t even philosophically believe the idea that you could make representational paintings that would have any relevance or teeth at all. No one would be more surprised that the younger version of me to see what I’ve eventually ended up doing.
GO’B: There was this late abstract expressionist generation that kind of went the other way, like Phillip Guston.
CD: I was living in New York when Philip Guston first exhibited his, at that time, very controversial late paintings, and I didn’t understand them at all. Most of the older artists I knew were very dismissive of them and confused by them. I just thought it was really fascinating that a 65-year-old man, like Guston, could be that annoying and controversial to people. It wasn’t until quite a bit later that I found a use for those paintings in my own thoughts about art.
GO’B: It always seemed to me that there was a connection because what you do is very abstract, but it’s almost like it’s within a representational or quasi-representational context.
CD: You look at my paintings and you know that this is a tree and that is a bird. When I started making paintings, we saw art as a kind of demonstration of some set of principles. Abstraction is a word the has become pretty impoverished.
GO’B: So what was the first mode or way of painting that you felt was really yours?
CD: I made some paintings in the mid-70s that I felt were my work, but I had a full-time job and psychologically it was hard for me to be alone and work. I might have made 3 paintings, but I felt like I was connecting to something and they would give me an idea of how to continue.
GO’B: How about your work on wood?
CD: I think my wood panels were where it finally clicked that I could use a different kind of drawing vocabulary. The premise was that the painting was an object and it interested me a lot that there could be an illusionistic space that covered the surface of what was clearly an object. The wood veneers seemed to make that really ambiguous and they almost became pictures in themselves. So it reinforced what I was trying to do pictorially and it added this whole new dimension to it.
Photography: Harris Mizrahi for NeueJournal