New York Modest in scale, moody in atmosphere and sumptuous in surface, the paintings of R. H. Quaytman are confections for the eye and puzzles for the mind. Quaytman makes smart, philosophical work, layered with modulated autobiographical content. Edges are a preoccupying theme and a recurring motif. Neither boundaries nor divisions, Quaytman’s edges instead conjoin, hinging one perspective, one kind of experience, to another.
Born in 1961, Quaytman grew up in the New York art world of the ’60s and ’70s. Her mother is the poet Susan Howe, and her father is the late painter Harvey Quaytman. Fittingly, her work blurs boundaries between text and image. Though viewers need not follow every reference, those willing to do a little sleuthing will uncover a lode of fascinating information that only adds to the paintings’ manifest pleasures.
Quaytman paints on easel-size plywood panels, all of which receive some amount of hand work. Most panels are then silkscreened with photographs or other images gathered from archives of all kinds—art historical, institutional, personal and scientific ones in particular. Each painting can stand alone, but all are made in series, called “chapters.” Individual chapters include a variety of painting styles and motifs, held together by formal and narrative relationships that become slowly evident. Quaytman’s production is guided by an elaborate program—a “system,” she calls it—that determines the paintings’ content. One unvarying rule is that each chapter relates to the site where it was first exhibited.
Taken as a whole, Quaytman’s work suggests a many-layered novel or film—a text in space and time. In her work, past and present, depth and surface, meet, but the distinctions between them do not collapse. Each reference maintains its identity. Afforded no ultimate resolution, the viewer is set in motion, going from one complex, intriguing visuality to the next.
Quaytman has been making and exhibiting paintings since the mid-’80s, and has a lengthy résumé of solo and group shows in the U.S. and Europe. Her ideas gathered force in the late ’90s and since then, in part through her participation in the collaborative gallery Orchard on New York’s Lower East Side, and as a result of a series of well-received one-person exhibitions—notably a show at Miguel Abreu in New York in 2008—her work has begun to reach a larger audience. Last winter Quaytman had a solo project at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, followed this spring by a room-size installation at the Whitney Biennial. In the fall, she will exhibit “Chapter 17” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and then have a comprehensive survey—not a retrospective, she insists—at the Neuberger Museum of Art, in Purchase, N.Y. Since 2006, she has taught in the MFA program at Bard.
Quaytman is married to the filmmaker Jeff Preiss, with whom she has a 14-year-old son. She lives in New York, and her Lower Manhattan studio is an orderly, well-lit space. We talked there for several hours one mid-March afternoon.
STEEL STILLMAN Do you know how your parents met?
R. H. QUAYTMAN They met in the late ’50s when they were both studying painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. My mother is from an established Boston family: her mother was an Irish actress and playwright, and her father was a law professor at Harvard. My father, on the other hand, was from Far Rockaway, in Queens, and was the son of Jewish immigrants. I was born in Boston, but we moved to New York, to SoHo, when I was about three. A year later, my parents broke up—their relationship was strained by a lack of money and the difficulties of loft living at that time. Soon afterward, my mother and I moved to the West Village with the sculptor David von Schlegel, who later became my stepfather.
SS Did you spend much time with your father when you were growing up?
RHQ I spent weekends with him and my stepmother, Frances Barth, first on Grand Street—Brice Marden lived in the same building—and then in a loft on the Bowery, right next to where the New Museum is now. I have vivid memories of SoHo in the mid-’60s. For instance, I remember seeing Janis Joplin walking down the street, wearing a pink boa, as I played with Barbie dolls on the fire escape. She would practice with her band in a building across the street, and I’d hear them at night as I was falling asleep.
SS Have you always wanted to be an artist?
RHQ I’ve never wanted to be anything else, though there was a brief period when I thought about teaching the blind. When I was young, I loved to draw—I’d get lost in it. I think that’s how most painters get their start. On weekends, I’d hang out with my father in his studio, doing projects. We started a print collection, and did bookbinding. We’d also take long walks on the Lower East Side during which I became more aware of my Jewish side. Later, when I was going to high school in Connecticut and trying to fit in—my stepfather David was teaching at Yale—my father was afraid that I might turn into a WASP.
SS Was it difficult to reconcile these different parts of your background?
RHQ Back then, my parents were two of the most opposite people you could imagine. As a result, I developed a kind of lenticular perspective—I was able to shift back and forth between their points of view. Probably my urge to make different kinds of paintings and put them together is related to that early experience.