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Meet the Neighbor, and Artist: Fred Gutzeit
One of the goals of exhibiting art in our library is to highlight the talents of local community residents. Fred Gutzeit is not only a frequent library patron at the Mulberry Street Library, but a vibrant visual artist who wanted to contribute his work so that other library-goers could enjoy and contemplate art during their visits here. Fred's been making art in this neighborhood for over 40 years. Much of his work has been heralded by the press, and exhibited in galleries in SoHo and the East Village. I spoke with Fred about his work.
Your work brings to (larger than life) what one might say are 'ordinary' objects—a discarded glove, a leaf on the ground, gravel-like texture. What provides the inspiration for highlighting these often overlooked objects?
After a failed bout with abstraction (I've been struggling with it all my life), in the 1970s, I returned to representational painting. I had been working with "found objects", and making paintings out of unlikely "art" subjects—discarded work gloves, chain link fences, industrial leftovers. My idea was to use them for "art problems." So, the four large paintings in the lower level are about:The Leaf was a way to get at "real" color, Twine and Torn Paper was a play with pattern, The Work Glove was a human note on industrial society passing and products made, and Sunshine Neon was about doing line as light and text, and all were a play with and against flatness.
How did the series of dog portraits come about? Do you have a dog, too?
The "Dog Paintings" represented by the prints in the upper level (done about 20 years later than the "discard" paintings), were again an effort to get in touch with our immediate world—and the dogs, themselves, were viewed as "found objects" just sitting there. Some I had just come upon in the neighborhood, others were friends' pets. My idea again was to put them "in context." In my constructing the paintings, the background was a kind of a felt, intuitive match (they weren't the settings that I had found the dogs in). They were instances of things I had come upon and didn't know how to cast as paintings–how could I paint graffiti or a scene of lower Manhattan? They were found objects, but not inanimate things; they represented, in a way, "states of being." They were about "feeling" in painting, and dogs don't react to things intellectually. There was also in the '80s and '90s art world a lot of "big painting." My dog paintings were watercolors, which is an intimate medium at a small size: 13 by 10 inches. I never really had a dog. I thought that my 30 or so "dog" paintings were for people who didn't have pets and would have the paintings instead. The reality was that people didn't particularly want to own a picture of someone else's dog. They wanted a picture of their own pet.
Who are some of your favorite artistic influences?
When I was in art school a young painting teacher taught me the painting techniques of Willem de Kooning; I liked that. But when I settled in New York for good in 1967, Claes Oldenburg was the most interesting artist for me. He was my kind of "Pop Artist." I liked his worldview and transformation of the everyday, and the emotion–humor of it. Another artist, who is a contemporary of mine, that I've thought of through the years is Chuck Close. We met when we were students in summer school–exchanged studio visits when we met up again in New york. He says his work is about process; I experience this as a transformed kind of realism. I think of myself as a "realist" (not a classicist or romantic). Well, Chuck liked Willem deKooning when he was a student and deKooning has been an inspiration to me all my life. At this point in my life, it is his late work that moves me most. Johannes Vermeer, for the solitude and spiritual presence in his paintings, is my guiding old master. But I've also loved Pieter Brughel the Elder all my life–and made a special trip to Detroit to see his "Wedding Dance." I must mention two more artists whom I have been most interested in. I did a tribute installation in Bushwick in 2008, to Lee Lozano, who affected me deeply in 1970. Her painting then had evolved through sexually-charged tools, through psychological machine parts, to painting which was tracing of her own physicality, mathematically expressed ("Wave Paintings), finishing with her abandoning painting and disappearing from the art world. And currently, a young artist whose painting I always look forward to seeing and get a charge from is Dana Schutz.
When did you start painting?
As a child I liked to draw cars, and my elementary school principal told my mother that she should take me to the Cleveland Museum for art lessons. My mother did, but I wasn't interested—not until I was 14, and my junior high school art teacher got me to take summer watercolor and Saturday figure drawing classes at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Then, I did my "first paintings," and these were watercolors of the old neighborhood outside of the art school then. From those, as a teenager I went on to where the steel mills and ore boats were in Cleveland and there, did watercolors on my own and sometimes with teenage painting buddies. I'm still doing watercolors and am teaching watercolor and figure drawing at City College.
You are also a teacher of art, what do you try and instill in your students?
In teaching, I try to share my experience as an artist, but there are ideas that moved me when I was a student and I like to pass those on. In figure drawing (and watercolor I have to treat a bit differently), my idea is to "draw from the inside out". This idea came from my printmaking teacher, Carroll Cassill, at the Cleveland Institute of Art in the early '60s. Two aspects of this idea in figure drawing are to express the "dynamics" of a pose and anatomy study. With watercolor, it is understanding it as a form to work with: Watercolor is to oil painting, as writing a play is to writing a novel. Over-all my goal is to teach how to "think with materials."
Why did you want to show your art in a public library?
I was thrilled when the Mulberry Street Library opened around the corner from where I have been living and working on the Bowery for 40 years, and cherish the opportunity to show my work there. Especially this work which was influenced by the neighborhood—early 1970s on the Bowery and then 1990s including "Little Italy" (now Nolita). I think the library is a wonderful place to show artwork–akin to showing in a museum. It is a serious place for contemplation. I love the library, It brings me books, films, music, things I need for my artwork or life in general. I feel that the public library is the city and society's most vital resource; you need healthcare, transportation, and other services, but over all you need information. I'm glad now to be able to make some small contribution by sharing my artwork with the library community. Thank you.
The Mulberry Street Library thanks YOU, Fred Gutzeit, for your inspiring images and words!
Fred's work will be on display through the end of August 2013.