The following is an edited, excerpted conversation between Gerard Mossé and Lilly Wei in his SoHo studio on July 28, 2018
Lilly Wei: Would you talk a little about your current series of paintings? I know you prefer to
work in series.
Gerard Mossé: Yes, I do because each time I begin to paint a painting, I have too many
questions to make just one. As it is, in a series of eight or nine paintings, I work and rework
them endlessly. I’m only satisfied when I feel I’ve tried to address every possible question
that I could have asked. And, in the end, the main question I ask myself is: is the painting
alive yet? I want to make it alive as I can.
LW: And other questions?
GM: I ask myself, often thinking in musical terms, is the painting singing yet, are the notes in
it clear, are they too loud, too soft? But much of that isn’t articulated verbally.
LW: And are you looking for a certain color and light?
GM: I’m looking for a certain kind of intensity—that can be lived with. If there’s a fierce
storm, it’s intense but you don’t want to live in it. I’m looking for an intensity that is combined
with deep pleasure. But it’s also not just pleasure because that’s not enough. When I first
began to paint, I needed to ask myself: what is painting, what is a painting? I needed to
understand what I was after.
LW: And this was in the 1970s, even the 80s, when the future of painting seemed
GM: Painting was attacked all over the place but it didn’t matter to me. I wasn’t part of any
school. I was just a mole, burrowing in. I was aware of the issues but it didn’t affect my
decisions, at least not that I was conscious of. I had been working in other mediums, in
ceramics and making sculpture and installations but in the end, I committed to painting.
LW: What were some of the reasons for that?
GM: I can’t understand them all, but my choice of painting, to the extent I can articulate it, is
because it is what moved me most deeply, the way music does. In my imaginary museum,
there are three sculptors, including Giacometti—although it is Giacometti’s paintings that
affect me the most profoundly, leaving me weak in the knees. It fascinates me how much
power his paintings have. They show me what art can do, the power it can have.
LW: You said that they fascinated you because they were so alive.
GM: Yes, I’m looking for the life in the materials, the kind of life Giacometti achieved. My
palette by now is pretty settled and it is a full one with the exception of green. What I'm
working toward is the moment when color becomes light. That’s where the life is. It’s a
question of how, not what.
LW: So representation is secondary for you?
GM: Yes. It’s the light that I’m searching for. And I find myself transported to earlier periods
when art was more about ritual objects that helped societies connect to something beyond
the phenomenal. Without going into superstition, they nonetheless offered a path to
transcendence. Again, that’s a tricky word and I’m self-conscious using it. This is the
problem with language for me. You think you are having original thoughts but the words
sound so overused.
LW: Well, religion comes from religio which means to tie, bind, connect…
GM: Yes, that’s its Latin meaning. And that’s what I hope from painting, what I want from the
art I make, a kind of transcendence. It’s a pure idea of art.
LW: You told me that you attended Claremont and your MFA show was figurative.
GM: At the time, I was painting images taken from my dreams that I thought were
particularly resonant. I was deeply interested in dream analysis. I kept books in which I
wrote about my dreams. Sometimes, an image from a dream was particularly compelling
and I used it to begin a painting. But then you come up against form, placement, scale,
colors, textures, luminosity, all the visual aspects that comprise a painting so even if there is
a representational aspect, you are still dealing with formal concerns.
LW: How did you become a painter?
GM: When I was in Los Angeles—I was raised in France and went to California from there--I
worked in the film industry but I wasn’t completely at ease with that. As a boy, I was always
drawing, painting although I was strongly discouraged from making art. But something
compelled me. When I came to New York, now 31 years ago, I had already committed to
painting. I had somehow gotten the courage to become a painter. I was acutely conscious of
time and how it passes. I was doing well in film but it was the awareness of mortality that
really gave me the courage to pursue the life I thought I should be living, as a painter, as an
artist. I still have a very acute awareness of the passage of time. It’s very precious and I
know it will end. When I make a painting, I want to capture as much beauty as I can while I
can. The awareness of death that I had at 23 has returned but in a different way. I have a
vocabulary now. I have tools at my disposal to seize the moment, to seize time. If I’m looking
at the ocean and the endlessness of it, light playing across its immensity, it moves me. Then
I go to my studio after looking at something that is miles high, miles wide and I see a canvas
that is maybe three by four feet. On that surface, I will try to distill the enormousness of the
feeling I got from that endless space I was just looking at. And now, I have certain tools at
my disposal to do it, or at least a semblance of it, I hope.
LW: And when did you switch to abstraction?
GM: When I came to New York. It occurred naturally. It wasn’t something I thought about. I
was making self-portraits and they started to become more gestural, more abstract but I kept
a sense of the volume, and a sense of the psychology, my palette dark and light. I started to
crop more and more and without planning it, the lines stopped representing eyes, nose,
mouth and started to be themselves, but I kept the pictorial space. That continues to be
important to me. If I can get a sensation that a shape is floating in front of the canvas while
others are deep inside the canvas, then the viewer can literally be projected into the space. I
find that vital to the emotionality, the expressiveness that, in the end, is what I’m after.
LW: Would you talk a little about the evolution of your imagery?
GM: When I was doing representational works and self-portraits, I was concerned about
how light falls on an object and how that gives it form. Gradually, however, I was no longer
interested in that. I wanted the painting to generate the light; I wanted it literally to come
from the canvas. I didn’t want to represent light falling on an object.
LW: It sounds like the kind of distinction that Leonardo made between lume and luce—the
first was depicted light, the latter was actual light, if I remember correctly.
GM: And I’m more and more interested in actual light. I’m also more interested in the making
of the painting than in the finished painting. It’s not just me impressing an image on a blank
surface so that it refers back to me. It’s the process, and it is transforming.
LW: So you wanted to paint light…
GM: When I wanted the painting to generate its own light, I took it very seriously, not as a
metaphor but as an actual transformative act. Metaphor is what I wanted to get away from. I
want to arrange paint in such a way that the painting is generating its own light. Two things
strongly influenced my development. The first was, and we are talking about more than two
decades ago, I wanted a color that was so saturated that it would hit the eye as light. So I
went to Kremer and bought these little bags of pure pigments and put them into jars and
built rows and rows of shelves and placed them there. And this was revelatory. I stopped
thinking about color as a name. It became powder between my fingers, an unmediated, pure
material. And this lasted two or three years.
Then, for a period of time, I couldn’t be in the studio as consistently as I wanted so I began
to work with watercolors. And I learned about the magic of transparent colors on a white
surface. It was a different way to make the eye think it was looking at light, different from
saturated pigment. But it was fascinating, like building a house of cards. At a certain point, if
you added a card and it’s one too many, it all collapses. The same is true with watercolor;
that’s the edginess of working in it, one stroke too many and the color would turn into mud
instead of light.
LW: And from there, you went to oil? Your paintings are classic in that regard: Belgian linen,
GM: I brought these expectations to oil when I returned to using it. It gave me the ability to
fuse pigment and watercolor—body, dense surfaces with translucency and tangible light. It
broadened my vocabulary.
LW: And your geometric figures, tell me about them.
GM: I started with rectangles and then used circular shapes through which light traveled. But
I was dissatisfied. They looked too celestial; I wanted the paintings to be more self-
referential and not so fixed. So I started to make tall vertical shapes to echo the edges of the
format I was using. Over time, I found that rather than limiting me, this simple motif allowed
all kinds of possibilities.
LW: You work very slowly—months, sometimes years on a particular painting.
GM: Yes, I do. Because every time I come back to a painting, I see something that I hadn’t
seen before. It’s about relationships, how each element affects the others. I always see
LW: And for this exhibition, you will have paintings of both multiple and single images, and
the multiples are the earlier ones?
GM: Yes, after I made the multiple shapes, I asked myself what would it be like to work on a
single shape, on something less symphonic. Again, I think of it as parallel to music. If after
working on a symphony, what if I made something for a piano solo? How differently would I
introduce complexity into it? But complexity is something it seems I’m stuck with. I have just
spent three, maybe four years on the single-shape paintings. I thought with single shapes, I
would find simpler resolutions but in the end, what I found was a complex way to deal with
single shapes—because that’s what holds my interest.
LW: And talk a little about the pictorial space in your work.
GM: Well, I’m not afraid of pictorial space. The minimalists’ notion that pictorial space is a lie
is too literal. I like minimalist work but they don’t suit my visual thinking. Because where
would that leave me? It seems that I would need to become a sculptor. I said then that I was
going to use pictorial space in my paintings. After all, it has been part of the experience of
art from its inception.
LW: You also talk often about the poetry in art works. Would you elaborate?
GM: That’s about relationships too and what kind of poetry the materials have. To go back
to my imaginary museum, Brancusi’s sculptures are there, they are about the poetry in
materials, and they make me weak to look at them.
LW: Would you say you gravitate toward sculptors?
GM: It is more about individual works. Others in my museum are Fra Angelico, Bellini,
Bonnard, Pollock, Morandi, not all their works, but particular ones. For instance, the way
Rembrandt painted Judith at the Banquet of Holofernes, 1634, brought tears to my eyes. But
then, there was an extraordinary show of Sol LeWitt’s stacked cinderblock installations many
years ago at Ace Gallery when it was in New York on Hudson Street. From cinderblocks, he
created one of the most poetic shows that I’ve ever seen.