Joe Danciger, The Per Contra Interview with Miriam N. Kotzin
MK: When did you start making art?
JD: Like a lot of artists, for most of my life I responded to the world with the art impulse.
I have a space ship control panel I made from old buttons and clay that dates from my third or fourth year. I found a note on it my mother wrote back then identifying it.
We had some actual oil paintings at home, mostly landscapes that ‘were from’ my Uncle Dan, an imposing figure. When I was seven I used to climb up on the furniture when no one was looking to get a better look at them and maybe touch them. I learned that a painting is different from a photograph or print--and that I could get away with climbing on the furniture.
I had a keen interest in art but no clear examples of living artists, since I spent my first twelve years on a ranch outside the small Texas town of Cedar Hill, near Midlothian and Waxahachie.
Although some visitor might occasionally draw JFK from memory, I saw mostly leatherwork or fancy carpentry. The Encyclopedia Britannica was one place I could find some pictures and illustrations. I especially liked the chapter on masks. It had lots of illustrations.
The ranch was set on higher ground overlooking Fort Worth, about forty miles distant. The ranch blanketed part of a wide horseshoe shaped limestone ledge, miles long and maybe several hundred feet high, so it was flat uphill and hilly lower down with barely any dirt on top of white rock above and rich black land below. In between were miles of gullies and woods of fragrant Juniper and oak. Huge ancient pecans had been solemnly bowed like huge bonsai by the frontier gallows they had made.
There was wildlife, including snakes and lizards. Herpetologists visited and were pleased to bag about one hundred twenty five rattlesnakes in a day. Paleontologists stored dinosaur bones in gunnysacks in Dad’s office from a new pond site. He leased a little piece of land to the new Texas Instruments company, useful because of the height and remoteness on the ledge.
I spent a lot time roaming around.
My first oil painting that I can remember making was done using the remnants of paint from a nice kit an older art collector had given my Mother years earlier. That was probably the first time I made an artwork. It was of a wolf howling at the moon. The wolf was modeled on my collie. (I sent the painting to a Japanese businessman who owned a soap factory who’d come to look at bulls on the ranch with his colleagues.) It was children’s art, but art nonetheless.
MK: How did you decide to make a life as an artist?
JD: I was in high school when I decided to become an artist. It was sort of a gradual discovery, though.
After the ranch was sold and my parents had divorced, I attended Arlington Heights High School in Fort Worth, Texas. I did well in science classes, and I was invited to join the science club.
My frog color preference project never got anywhere, so I was asked to resign as I was not progressing and was a distraction to the more diligent. Mr. Arseneau had seen the heavy copper enamel 60’s beads and repoussé medallions I made, wore, and sold in Dallas boutiques and even at Nieman’s. (I’d learned how to make these from the Encyclopedia Britannica.) He pointed to them and said, "You’re an artist, not a scientist."
Then I was sent to a boarding school in Vermont, Woodstock Country School. I was not very happy about this, but I was up for a change.
The school had a progressive educational point of view and the students were sophisticated far beyond my comprehension. The school had been a riding stable and all our classrooms were barns and chicken coops, retouched. The newer buildings respectfully kept this code of appearance. There was a dance loft and an art loft. The other schools I had been to had only offered shop.
MK: Who were the teachers or artists that had an influence on your work?
JD: Besides Mr. Arseneau, of course. Fran Rohr, an apple-cheeked, silver-haired woman, ran the art department at Woodstock Country School. She was a daughter of Robert Flaherty, the filmmaker. (Nanook of the North, 1922, and many acclaimed others). She was my first encounter with a person who had “The Art Spirit” like in the Robert Henri book. She had known Aldous Huxley and called him an “intellectual bastard,” and that from personal experience. I was sixteen then and very impressed.
Later John Semple, who painted and made prints in a realistic, Winslow Homeric way took over.
Both of them were dedicated artists, I spent a lot of time in the art loft until I graduated. By then I had decided to be an artist.
When I started my art-education odyssey, pluralism was not the trend. Instead there were camps, opposing strong feelings regarding the picture plane and modernity. Let’s put it this way: one person’s soup can is another’s cabbage.
In my teens I would often walk into a gallery or school and ask if someone there had classes, or I’d pose questions about the work displayed.
That was mostly around New York and Boston. I would use the print and study rooms at the Fogg Art Museum in Boston, examining Dürer prints and Ingres. The Museum of Modern Art had Dali and Ivan Albright. Between 1967 and 1990 unbelievable resources were available. I was young but knew enough to be credible, and I had the whole place almost to myself.
My first college art class was at Southampton College in the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. That was a big step from wandering around begging information from strangers and reading books. The teacher was Jim McWilliams, who was also teaching then at Cooper Union. He introduced me to the performance artist Charlotte Moorman and video pioneer Nam June Paik. Everyone respected Charlotte’s classical music training. I decided then that I was going to learn my scales in the visual arts, just as a musician might with music.
In art school and college I would get permission to sit in or to find out if I could learn something in that class. I liked Robert Samuelson’s drawing class. He was a straight talker and occasionally brought in some of his work. It had something in common with De Kooning and Larry Rivers.
When at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, I discovered Arthur DeCosta’s class. I liked his approach to art. Some teachers at that time in the 1970s expected students to look at the big art magazines and emulate them. De Costa gave permission for study outside of that, and he was unconventional. He could deconstruct an old master painting, and had the old master techniques at his command and taught them. He was a great artist and helped a lot of students. I learned a lot of approaches to painting from him, and also that my own direct painting, or alla prima, could serve me well.
Neil Welliver was another very renowned artist I studied with. He was a big help in getting my direct painting reconciled with the time and observation elements. By that time I could put down paint directly. From Welliver I got the practical aspects of painting, as well as and having modern theory and practice issues resolved. He had a way of getting you through a problem.
MK: What made you decide to paint landscapes?
JD: My early roaming around in Texas gave me an almost animistic feeling towards landscape. I feel bonded to the subject. I am also of the Walden Pond generation.
When I was in high school I took a course in Buddhism and got interested in oriental landscape scrolls. I did a few ink wash drawings at that time.
I was also very interested in Vermeer, and I learned that Vermeer may have had a camera obscura. I ordered lenses and mirrors and built one myself. I set it out the window and did some paintings on panel. In that way I got very interested in landscape as a subject, a vehicle.
I also found an old 16 mm Bell and Howell movie camera and repaired it. I filmed streams and melting snow, with Eric Satie’s “Gymnopédie” as the soundtrack. I made a little film about a landscape like parts of The Louisiana Story. Painting the landscape is something I always come back to.
Note to Readers: Click on any picture below to see a larger version.
Above the Delaware
Peonies in Painted Vase
Woods in June
All Images © Joe Danciger and are used with permission.
1 - 2