Interview with Richard Heipp and Laura Randall
in his Gainesville, FL studio on February 18, 2018
Laura: Congratulations on your upcoming show. It’s really tremendous how much you’ve accomplished to get to this point and I am really impressed by how much you’ve augmented your body of work in the past few years. We are looking at your new series of works, I immediately see you have these large beautiful paintings after Beuys.
Richard: Thank you. Well there’s the “Reflections on Beuys” paintings from the Dia Museum and then there's this series of “Cultural Masks”. I call them masks paintings, but they are not all masks, they are representations of the head that become surrogates for portraits.
Laura: One thing you’re interested in is the way we are inundated by images today, especially in the digital age. Do you think that inundation affects to the way we explore museums today? We can only focus on quantity instead of quality.
Richard: I think that’s the inherent crux, if you want to call it a problem, some would say it’s just a shifting paradigm.
Laura: An evolution in seeing.
Richard: That’s the thing about today, seeing so many images all the time, images from billboards to magazines to our devices. It all goes back to when mechanical reproduction happened. It soon became the main vehicle for selling goods, creating commodity, then they started blanketing images everywhere. And now there seems to be a total democracy of the image. Most people don’t look at a work of art as capitol “A” art. It’s all just stuff. Now it seems it always has to do with contextualization.
Laura: That context being in an artist’s studio, a museum or gallery.
Richard: Yes, I think it has to do with looking at things through the institution. Right? The thing is in a way you might say artists are intending to sell ideas, where advertising images are made to sell products. I think artists try to make things to get people to think and feel. Some artists approach things more through the thinking mode others a mode of feeling. Certain artists try to enter first through your brain, others enter directly through your soul, and some do it simultaneously
Laura: It’s a slower relationship; it takes time to build your relationship.
Richard: It requires more of the viewer to engage at a level that’s not superficial. I frequently will tell students, imagine what it was like to look at a painting in the 17th century prior to mechanical reproduction. Most people didn’t have books in their house, there was no TV, and there were not images everywhere. When you saw a great painting, it was like going to see a high tech Hollywood blockbuster film at the theaters. It was state of art visual technology and story telling at the time. In the 17th century you might see a very limited number of images in your lifetime, today we see 100’s in less than an hour. It’s just like pollution. It’s everywhere.
Laura: Your art is about art.
Richard: My subject matter is art. I think that comes from teaching. It’s the way I’m always thinking. But also there’s a long tradition of artists copying other artists.
Laura: Which beings me to Beuys. He seems to have been a big inspiration for you.
Richard: I’m not sure I’d agree that he is a big inspiration for me. I have always been fascinated by his work. He represents that mystical aura that art can have to change you, like when I saw one of his felt suits. Taking students to the Dia: Beacon museum every year, you can feel that change. In 2015 they moved and reinstalled the Beuys’ installation and his photos. I now had access to these images for the first time. The images of the Beuys performances didn’t fully interest me until I saw them through my camera at the DIA. They become as mystically reorienting just as Beuys the artist was for me. The way they are displayed they become entangled in this magical place, the DIA museum, and they become transformed like jewels.
Laura: Right, he was deified.
Richard: Yes they are deified and filtered through the institution. Then there’s this series of the Electro psychology drawings, which are from photographs taken from a 1862 de Boulogne collaborating with the photographer Adrien Tournachon that were originally intended as scientific documents. So there’s like 14 or 15 of these drawings. What’s interesting about these is that most of these pieces have aspects of how the institution of display affects our reading of the work. These were all taken originally from a series of photographs I took at the Met, from a portrait show that featured some of these images, and there were these dots of the reflection of lights in the glass.
Laura: From the gallery lights?
Richard: Yeah, from the gallery lights. And each one of these images has different ways the lights became pinpoints of lights shining on top of the images
Laura: And how big were they?
Richard: Just a little smaller than my pieces. They originally come from the set of plates that have been published a whole lot. They are from a book that was on his theory that there are just a couple of facial muscles that control all expression. So his idea behind this was that if he triggers these muscles, you get this genuine emotion that’s not affected by psychology. There is also that larger piece that depicts, the scientist (de Boulogne) with this guy (his subject) and his machine, an electro magnetic machine that would put these electric charges into the guy’s face. This intriguing guy was one of his patients with no teeth. He had a condition where he couldn’t feel anything in his face, so he couldn’t feel the pain of these electric shocks.
Laura: Well that’s ideal, your perfect subject. He was contending that this was a genuine emotion…
Richard: That was part of his contention at the time. There was a lot of study in the 1800’s surrounding physiognomy that involved the reading of the face and the different expressions of the face and the construction of the face that they wanted to relate to things like intelligence. I just thought the photos were kind of beautiful bizarre things.
Laura: And it was a larger group exhibition that these were in?
Richard: Yes I think it was photographic portraits.
Laura: Can you walk me through your process? Even these Joseph Beuys, they are so striking and beautiful. Walk me through the process of when you go to the Dia: Beacon or the Met until the final work is made, until it becomes a painting.
Richard: When I’m visiting these museums, I’m walking around with my camera and I’m looking for things that I think will make good paintings fitting into certain categories of subject matter that I’d been working on. Prior to working on these paintings done from photographs that I was taking in the museums, I was constructing all my paintings through still lifes that were actually constructed on a computer scanner. After I stepped down as Director of UF’s School of Art and Art History in 2015, I decided I really wanted to do something else, something less constructed. One of the things that have been consistent through almost 40 years of my work is a layering of the picture plane. I’m interested in how these different layers affect the reading. There’s this layer of the display, then there’s this system of vision that some of the other work has addressed more directly. We are always viewing the world through some kind of viewing system, visual or cultural
Laura: Right, the representation of the glare from the gallery light adds another layer?
Richard: Right and I think that also reinforces that it’s not the original, like an index of the index. So it’s once more removed from what the original was, representing a kind of sign for that.
Laura: And a completely different medium.
Richard: Yeah, but part of the notion of all of these is that there’s a deception in the illusion of the medium. When you look at them you don’t initially think, okay I’m looking at something that’s handmade, a painting. There’s so much in that trope of what we are used to seeing in the machine-made image. I was actually thinking as I was going through all these images I have made over the last 40 years, how different it was to do a photorealist painting in 1977 or 1979, when there was almost no way to make a big photographic print. I remember going to the first photorealist show I ever saw at the Cleveland Museum of Art. It had these big giant photo based paintings that blew me away, while I hadn’t really started painting yet, I immediately thought, that’s what I’m going to do.
Laura: So like Gerhard Richter?
Richard: Chuck Close was the main person I admired, and the show included artists like Richard Estes and Don Eddy. I never had seen anything like that before. At that time the paintings were much more sensational then they might be today, because now you take it for granted and we see big photos as digital prints all the time. I think it’s really changed the way we read work now. I always try really hard to make my paintings look as photographic as I can.
Laura: Sure, there’s not much trace of painting here. It does looks like a print.
Richard: Yes. I always say my work really has more to do with photography than it has to do with painting. They are really handmade photographs. What I think is interesting is the kind of impression you get of when you look at them. The casual observer assumes they are just photographic, but I am interested in how the experience changes the way you think and feel when you realize they are actually handmade and every single mark, every move is a decision? I think a different kind of switch flips on.
Laura: It causes the viewer to do double take. And doesn’t that also come out of stopping to read the wall text and see the medium?
Richard: It does if people stop and read the wall text, most people don’t.
Laura: You’re interested in slowing things down.
Richard: Yes, I think that’s the thing. I try to make them have a certain kind of sensationalism to them. So you can just think; oh that’s a stunning image. But I think it really changes when you look deeper. And that’s part of what I talk about in what I refer to as the difference between looking and seeing. From just looking superficially at something as opposed to taking the time to slow down to really see and investigate. There’s an interesting relationship with painting and time. It takes a long time to do these paintings and I think to really see them as paintings, it also takes time. It takes time to digest. In today’s environment they don’t even look like an analog photograph, they look like a digital inkjet print. In fact, my tool, the airbrush is really just a handheld inkjet device.
Laura: Right but no machine, the computer is your brain sending that signal out to your hand; it’s analog printing.
Richard: It’s a very material process and the difference between seeing a photographic print and seeing the painting is subtle, but it’s pretty profound in that the paintings end up being somehow more tender, more loved in a way. Ultimately the decisions of what I decided to play up and put down in the image always has to have the quality of the photographic index, it has to look like the original source so you’re not quite sure what you’re looking at.
Laura: So these reflections on the mask would be an index of the photograph?
Richard: More than that is depth of field. Because our eyes don’t see depth of field like a camera does, our eyes will automatically refocus. In looking at a painting, your eye wants to focus on it and can’t focus. But that’s the photographic language; it’s really a result of the lens.
Laura: Right, that’s even more deceiving. I didn’t realize that. What about your personal experience of walking through the Met or seeing this medieval armory? What makes you stop and think twice about something like this? Is it your own personal experience? What draws you in?
Richard: An analogy might be listening to a piece of music that has a good beat and you can dance to. I know there are certain tropes I use all the time that I like to paint and that are fun for me to paint. I also look for the reflection. It relates back to the picture plane and shows you something that’s actually not in the objects picture plane, but it’s in the picture plane out here, in another space.
I might be walking through the Invalids Museum in Paris where there are halls filled with shiny armor. Looking through my camera, I am looking for subjects that have interesting color, interesting light, form and an interesting surface. I will take multiple shots of a single object, perhaps 30-40 photographs to get one usable image. I then go back and look through them all and say, this image can be the subject if a good painting.
Laura: Wow! That’s quite a process within itself, that’s you as a photographer and selecting.
Richard: Right, there very much about photography. For this particular set of Beuys paintings, I took maybe 100 photographs that resulted in seven or eight paintings. I have five or six more I’d like to do from that set. Its part of the way painters, once we started looking through the camera, used it like a sketchbook. The camera changed the vary nature of the way we look at and see the world.
Laura: The style has changed, the aesthetics have changed. Why is this more appealing to see that there are elements of technology here in the blurred background, versus something in focus by the human eye? You are almost looking at it through the lens of technology because you are trained to at this point.
Richard: Yes. The camera changes things. The camera doesn’t see the way we see with eyes see, and the way the camera sees what I call lens vision, and the way a computer scanner sees. Most people see in a three dimensional way. I see in a more of a two-dimensional way because of my vision problems. The 50-millimeter camera lens, try to average what the eye sees but it’s always a monocular view with a fixed focal point, whereas our eyes are always shifting the focal point.
Laura: How long do these recent airbrush paintings take you to make?
Richard: When I am working on a painting full time, maybe working 60 hours a week might take me from as little as one to several months to complete.
Laura: Wow, that’s a significant amount of time. Even the way you frame the edges in white reminds me of the digital print.
Richard: I would say that represents the index of the photograph -to remind you that what is comes from a photographic source. I came up with the term photocentric instead of photorealist.
Laura: Can you explain the difference?
Richard: Photorealism suggests that the photograph is representing reality, the real, and its not. Photorealism implies simply paintings made from photographic sources. The re are painters that are really committed to painting from life and their works are very different than photo based painting. The idea of using the term centric is that it’s not just about what the photograph looks like, its about what the photo represents in terms of image capture and it’s role in society not realism. We often think of a photograph as a surrogate for truth, or at least we used to, but it’s actually only a surrogate for the image. And that’s another thing that has changed with images in the digital age
This series titled Cultural Strabismus dealt with vision and how we see. It questions if how we see is actually true. When I was a little kid, I was really cross-eyed. When you are cross-eyed, your eyes don’t work together and you see double. So your brain selects one eye to trust. That eye becomes dominant to the point where the other eye virtually shuts off. It in essence becomes an eye that looks but cannot see.
Laura: When did decide that you wanted to make art?
Richard: When I was a kid I drew all the time. When I look back on it, I see that I had some advantages because I could just always draw.
Laura: Your advantage was your visual impairment, some would say a disadvantage.
Richard: It’s an advantage to be able to see things flatter, but not everyone that has strabismus recognizes they can draw. When I was a kid, that’s all I did, draw all the time. I wanted to be a cartoonist. I had zero interest in school. Later, I learned I had pretty severe dyslexia but we didn’t realize it at the time. After my mother passed away we found an envelope containing my school records, When my wife and daughter, who are both educators, looked at my teachers comments on my report cards from elementary school, they were like “its so obvious you had dyslexia, and it’s also obvious that you had ADD.”
Then in 1964, once the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, I immediately wanted to be in a band and make music like the Beatles. They seemed so revolutionary. I still drew all the time, and still had no interest in school, just music and drawing. So I went to a vocational high school, there was no college prep at all, I never wanted to go to college, and I just wanted to play in bands. I was in the architectural drafting program at this high school, so I was still drawing. But the draft was on for the Vietnam War, and you could get a college deferment so I went to a community college. I was still thinking about being an architect when I took a drawing class because I thought it will help me draw trees and stuff like that. It was in that class that the world just opened up. People could actually recognize what I could do, and it seemed I was really good at it. I discovered art could actually be a career. Because both my parents were factory workers our home was not an academic or artistically informed environment. My mom worked in a sweatshop, my dad was a tool grinder, we never had books in the house, and nobody in the family ever went to college. Through the encouragement of this very good teacher at the community college, she encouraged me to believe that I could actually be an artist.
Laura: You had no idea what that meant at that time, that, it was beyond being your being able to draw and paint well.
Richard: Basically I thought an artist was a cartoonist. When I was young, probably about 10 years old my parents recognized that I had a “talent” and took me to the Cleveland Art Museum for Saturday drawing classes. I knew what the museum was, but art just didn’t seem like something anybody did for a living.
Much later, after a year at that community college, I went to Ohio State, I was originally going to go into their architecture program, but at that point I had already decided I was going to be an artist. When I got there I quickly found out that there were no art classes open, the classes were all full. Looking for an art class to take, I was wandering around in the basement of the art building and discovered the ceramics area. I looked in a room and there was only 5 students sitting in there. I didn’t even know what ceramics was, I thought we’d be making jewelry. So I went into the class and the instructor came in and said, “Who are you?” I said, “Oh I’m a transfer student,” and he said, “Well do you have the prerequisites for the class?” I said “yes I think so.” It turned out the class was a senior level hand building class and after the first class I went up to him I said, “listen, I don’t know what you are talking about, I don’t know anything about this.” He said, “Are you interested in learning?” I said yeah . He said, “because I need you, if you’re not in this class we have to cancel the class because we have to have six students.” That opened up another world.
Then when I sat down in class, whatever the student next to me was making I would just make a version of it, based on what they made. I was kind of like a savant mascot of the class.
Laura: Well that part sounds exactly like art school, this persons copying me.
Richard: I was so naive and enthusiastic. I would make little changes to their work, but they were all amazed I could just mimic what they were doing making instant art.
Laura: Without having taken any classes?
Richard: In this situation I was making “art” right away and then getting lots of rewards for it. For a whole year I was a ceramics major. I was making 3-D forms that were basically covered with two-dimensional elaborate decorations. There was a big movement at the time I think they called California Funk Ceramics, so things were very cartoonish and brightly colored and very much like a sort of 3D painting.
Then I decided I really wanted to be a painter, but I didn’t quite know what that meant. So I transferred to Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA) on a ceramics scholarship but never took another ceramics class again. My first year at the Institute I saw that photorealist show and said, this is what I really want to do. I hadn’t had a painting class yet. I went to the library, got a book on how to stretch a canvas, stretched a giant canvas, took a photo out of a National Geographic magazine and started copying it in oil paint.
Laura: Doing what the masters did.
Richard: I entered that painting in our student show. At CIA at they had an independent student exhibition. No work could be made in a classroom. So I did this big painting on my own, from a photo of an old Indian man’s head.
Laura: How skillful were you at the time?
Richard: If it was just copying something - I could always do that. It’s like what we did in bands too, we tried to sound like the original. That sense of mimicking is what I’ve done my whole career. At the time it was surprising how much that painting looked like a big photograph. I entered it into the student show and won best of show in the student exhibition.
Laura: Nice! So it was pretty good. No one was teaching you really, you took a couple classes but…
Richard: At that point I hadn’t had a painting class yet. It was a fairly limited palette. I had a book on painting, on how to figure things out, and I had done some drawings where I was copying photographs, so I knew I could make things that looked like a photograph. The interesting thing was at that time I didn’t even know what an airbrush was, but I knew what airbrush paintings looked like, so I made these oil paintings which looked like airbrush paintings.
Richard: And people saw this and thought they were airbrush paintings.
Richard: I would take these fan brushes and just soften everything and remove all the paintbrush strokes.
Laura: You’re always using these mediums to copy other mediums.
Richard: Yeah, pretty much all I do is copy stuff. At the time at the Institute there wasn’t anybody doing that. So suddenly I become the big photo painter guy at the school. The main aesthetic at the CIA at the time was rooted in a minimalist, reductivist, constructivist approach to painting. So what I was doing didn’t really fit in with what was happening. I discovered had to, in order to get validation for my work, find validation outside of school. I started making these big paintings from photographs that were oil paintings that looked like airbrush paintings and entering them in other shows outside of CIA. I started getting into all these really good shows. Before I graduated from undergraduate school, I had already been in two museum shows.
Laura: So your peers are looking at you like maybe I should make work more comprehensible.
Richard: The other thing is that at the time then I had to make sure conceptually that I could conceptually validate them. I was fortunate that I was in some shows with my faculty that students were not usually included in.
Laura: How did they respond? How did they feel about that?
Richard: Well, it was a little awkward because the Cleveland Museum of Art, which was located right across the street for the CIA building, had a show big called the May Show, and it was a competitive show. It was almost unheard of for a student to get in that show. But I was doing work that looked right for the time. And there was nobody else doing that kind of work. I actually won a several awards at the May show.
Laura: I know exactly what you mean. I’m looking at that collaged wall you’ll have in the model of museum for your show at the Polk, with the neon cross. It is so in touch with the time in which it was made.
Richard: I was getting a lot of attention outside school so then the school had to give me some recognition for it. I was getting validation for what I was doing. Then right when I graduated from undergraduate school, Ivan Karp who owned OK Harris Gallery in Soho saw my paintings. He was one of the people that were responsible for establishing and promoting photorealism; he was one of the champions of it. He was our commencement speaker and saw my work at the CIA. We had to put up a big thesis exhibition. That early large portrait painting titled “ Sharon” was in that display.
Laura: Right, the painting of your friend’s 14-year-old sister?
Richard: At that time, I had also done a big painting of reflections a chrome sculpture from the Hirshhorn Museum in DC. Karp saw that painting at CIA. He was also curating a photorealist show in Cleveland that included Chuck Close, Richard Estes, Duane Hanse n, and Janet Fish. To my surprise, he put me in the show. And so it was me, along with my heroes right when I graduated from undergraduate school.
Laura: You don’t have to go into grad school at that point.
Richard: I didn’t think I’d actually ever go to graduate school then. But then some interesting things happened in my career, and I ended up getting this opportunity to go out to graduate school at UW in Seattle on a Ford Foundation scholarship. Now, looking back, it seems I am doing the same thing now as I was doing in school. My new paintings are much closer to what I did in undergraduate school.
Laura: It’s like reverting back.
Richard: It’s interesting. I wouldn’t have thought that until I went back and looked at all this stuff for this retrospective and you know, I really haven’t changed much since undergraduate school.
Laura: It’s funny. These pieces are very different because there are different concepts behind them now. Of course, they’ve evolved.
Richard: It’s still making painting, mimicking photographs and painting art about art. The consistent threads in my work have been: my interest in the picture plane—that the painting is an illusionistic surface—and in that space that exists in classical paintings is the window into the world—and in modernist painting it’s the wall. So I wanted to make paintings that were a synthesis of these two things. It’s the window and the wall simultaneously. That idea of the picture plane, the surface of the reflections outside of the plane, and re-contextualizing other people’s art really fascinated me. I’ve been careful not to want to call it appropriation, because I think appropriation has different politics to it, involving a different kind of cultural critique.
Laura: Right, you’re not just appropriating this medieval armory or photographs that Beuys took.
Richard: The thing about appropriation is it questions the originality of it. These paintings are more an homage to the original, rather than a political critique of them. My critique tends to be much more about the institution of how we look at and display images.
Laura: It’s a commentary on your experiences as an artist, and the viewer visiting these museums, seeing other artist’s works. Looking at these Beuys paintings, I have a strong response to them, and it’s not just because there’s this aura of Beuys or these photographs, these photographs are really interesting and they are haunting. But I think it’s the way that they’re painted, and the way you bring Dia in and you bring yourself in, and this sort of layering. Like you said, it’s about the mediation on it first, and then the feeling. And I think you really accomplish that with these paintings. They’re really incredible.
Richard: If you don’t know what they are and how they are made, and are just looking for the first time, you just assume these are big photographic prints, but then on closer reading you realize no, these are handmade images. I hope there’s a fulcrum there that causes a shift to happen in the way you look at them, to cause you to think and feel differently about them, about how and why they are made.
Laura Randal is the Registrar, Archivist, and Scholar in Residence at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, FL. She received her MA in Art History from the School of Art + Art History at the University of Florida.