December 2008 – ArtSlant writer, Catherine Wagley, discussed form, process, history and practice with L.A. based artist, Steve Roden via email.

Interview with Steve Roden


Catherine Wagley: When we talked the other day, you said that your interests are as impure as your work. I love that idea. What if your art is tainted by the history and cultural layer it interacts with, but tainted in an enticing sort of way? How do your wide-reaching interests in everything from Rimbaud to techno infect your art-making?

Steve Roden: when i talk about the interests and the work being ‘impure’ i am talking about a variety of things coming together that generally would not seem to be connected or happy together. i think it’s probably clear to most people who know my paintings that there is a connection to painters like alfred jensen or lee mullican, but it would be less clear how the paintings approach agnes martin, or rudolf steiner, or r.m. schindler, or john cage, or morton feldman, or saul lewitt, or max bill, or robert bresson. i am fond of saying that if i got all my heroes into a room together they would get into a fistfight, because they were all committed to a certain kind of purity, be it minimalism, conceptual art, chance, or what have you. my own working process is as ‘tainted’ by the drum brush drawings of tom marioni as my aesthetic is “tainted” by a pastel drawing by redon. i tend to relate to the processes from history that were kind of anti-object or more cerebral, and to the objects from history that were kind of anti-process. i also tend to find my own way through things, sometimes wrong or not exactly in line with an artist’s intentions – such as being in love with the aesthetic of duchamp or the straightforward beauty of much of cage’s later compositions in spite of how or why either were made.

it’s funny you mention techno, because, in terms of my sound work, i am invited to perform at a fair number of festivals where the majority of artists are using laptops, and i am there with a pile of analog gear, homemade microphones, stones, a lap steel guitar, a bowl of dried leaves, etc. and of course, other artists look at my gear and wonder how i could possibly make my work with these tools that are so foreign to their own aesthetic – an aesthetic where the sound, tools, and process fit cleanly together. i don’t feel that much of what i do fits together in this way.

in terms of how people tend to view my overall practice, i think here too, someone looking at it from the outside is confused a bit by this impurity – particularly someone that has a kind of allegiance to certain mediums. sound artists are reluctant to embrace paintings by a sound artist that do not reflect the culture of sound art, and painters are reluctant to embrace the work of a painter that exists as speakers on the floor with technology running through them (for in terms of tactility, the ‘sound painting’ is an anti-painting).

CW: You structure your work around these seemingly restrictive systems, like the 12-page musical score that informed your recent body of paintings. When did you start doing this?

SR: i was in grad school in the late 1980’s, when people were very into baudrillard and ‘the simulacrum,’ and i was kind of getting my butt kicked for making intuitive abstract paintings and reading rilke. at the time, i wasn’t really interested in imposing any kind of conceptual process onto my practice. i was reading a lot of poetry, and agnes martin’s writings, as well as looking at painters like brice marden and terry winters. after two or three years in the studio simply making work, i kind of hit a wall. it wasn’t that i was unhappy with the paintings. they were actually going along fine. the problem was that the process and the thinking was always the same. i felt like i was simply refining things, almost like an abstract mannerist, and i felt as if i would be making the same painting my entire life, which scared the hell out of me.

when i was in school, i had done a few things like taking a poem and trying to make a painting for each word, but it was still completely intuitive, and the relationship to the text was very loose. i worked with stephen prina at art center, around the time he did that show of green monochromes related to the size of every painting manet made. i really loved that piece, because the system generated a framework, and the individual works themselves were also quite wonderful to look at. it kind of opened my eyes to how process could potentially be used to generate a relatively awkward or difficult stage for an intuitive process to then take place. so i started a painting with a ridiculously stupid idea – taking an issue of art in america and building an image using the first letter of every name in an advertisement for an exhibition, in the same font and same relative scale. it was the kind of thing i would have reacted against, so i tried it. it was incredibly frustrating, even boring at times, but also freeing. i started to make works using found letter structures within books and texts to see what might happen – what was i gaining and what was i losing by following such a process? i wasn’t sure, but both the process and the finished works were more interesting to me. this was around 1991 or so, and i worked with text in this visual way for about 8-10 years until, again, i felt i needed to find a way to push things further.

sometime during the year 2000, i basically stopped painting for a year and worked with drawing, sculpture, and a long writing project, all dealing with translation; it wasn’t until i started to translate the letters into numbers and the numbers into scores, that the process sort of became my own, and really expanded. my relationship to the source materials became much more intimate and complex. the sources started to determine how i built images rather than simply existing as part of an image.

CW: I tend to be drawn to the intuitive lapses and breaches that interrupt your systems. Are the systems, in some ways, vehicles that allow you to really get close to the interruptions that keep life incomprehensible?


SR: well, i think the purpose of the systems is twofold. one is so that my relationship with the text, or material that sparks the piece, is continual and exploratory; the other, which is even more important, is how the system influences the way i work intuitively. it’s basically as if you had a giant box of legos and started to build with them without a plan. each part is pre-determined, but the overall form these parts will make is unknown. architecturally, it could collapse with every move. at first, there were no lapses, and i could point to every single thing in the work as being connected to the system (“see, this mark is an A, this one a C, etc.”). for me, this made everything feel a bit too comfortable, too art-like, and too much about potential decoding. these early pieces became too much ABOUT the systems.

it became kind of necessary to free the work from being able to be broken down and translated back into words cleanly. so i began to stray. this wasn’t very difficult, because with anywhere from 60 – 200 notes being used to score a painting, i make mistakes, get lost, lose track, etc. again, because this process includes mistakes, it becomes, for me, more honest and human.

i use the visual situations generated by the systems to create a space for purely intuitive responses, so there is a lot of back and forth between rigidly following the score and intuitively working against it. there are moments where i’m kind of making early sol lewitt cube pieces, as well as moments when those cubes suggests a response that comes from openness and non-thinking – a purely intuitive responding to existing visual forms, perhaps like improvising music.


when you mention the incomprehensible, it is again about honesty. i want the paintings to evolve, even for me as the maker, through a sense of wonder and perception – that same sense of wonder i find in things of the world. i don’t want to understand every move, nor do i want to be able to ‘comprehend’ the final form in terms of its relationship to the sequence of numbers that birthed it. in terms of a building process, it’s closer to alchemy than architecture.


CW: Though your work always reads as historically conversant, it’s relation to the past is neither contentious nor nostalgic. As an art-maker, how do you view history’s role in the present?

SR: well, first off, i’m a fan – a geeky, love infected fan – of most of the histories i converse with. there is no irony in my relation to history at all. i feel challenged by history, and i like the struggle of trying to somehow pull it forward. re-inventing painting or drawing or even sound art (which kind of has a shorter history if one pretends to ignore musical history) is less of a concern than trying to give these things a vital role in the present – to make traditional works that feel relevant in a time of hyper technology, saturation, gadgetry, and spectacle.

i do believe that working with mediums of the past is also a comment on the present. one chooses to work with painting in certain ways as an alternative to commercial or popular culture, as an alternative to the kinds of images and languages one is confronted with daily. in terms of making work that follows a tradition, certainly one has to ask his or her self if the world really needs another object in such a traditional form. of course, i think the answer is yes, but that doesn’t mean i don’t spend a lot of time with the question.

the kaprow project i worked on in april challenged a lot of these ideas for me. the idea of re-creating something so deeply tied to a specific moment in art history (kaprow’s 18 happenings in 6 parts) seemed almost impossible, as well as potentially uninteresting, unless one could find ways to make it a relevant experience now. fifty years later, many of the elements seemed disconnected from the present; but it was really the language more than the ideas that were locked in time. so we found many ways of carrying it forward, keeping a lot of the important conventions of the piece intact. it wasn’t about ‘jazzing’ the thing up; in fact we embraced much of kaprow’s aesthetic, not because we wanted to replicate history, but to present a kind of DIY situation, where the performers and invited artists fabricated most of the elements themselves. this was important to the original ethics of the piece. what we focused on were how kaprow’s ideas could be explored by a group of artists today so that neither an audience nor the participants would be stepping back in time as much as they would be given an experience that related to the human condition today. we researched history meticulously, but that was only the starting point or framework. a respect for history gave us the freedom to move forward, inserting ourselves into the process and determining the outcome, without letting go of kaprow’s core intentions. 

CW: When I saw your exhibition this summer, I realized I didn’t know how to engage the visceral, viscous experience of paint and the higher-tech experience of video and sound as autonomous parts of the same conversation. Now, in retrospect, I’m struck by my own inability to look at the different mediums without making comparative value judgments. How do you ultimately want viewers to interact with the mediums you use?

SR: well, kind of the same. i want all of them to be first and foremost engaging primary experiences – not mediated ones at all. a painting is about looking at a static object, a sound piece is about listening (perhaps with eyes closed) and about the space of time, a sculpture is generally about looking while walking or moving around the object, and the video piece about looking and listening at the same time – the work moving, the receiver static. in all of these i want my ideas to fall away, so that one is confronted with a situation and is able to build whatever meaning from these experiences that they can.

everything and nothing are given at the same time. everything in terms of the tools, but nothing in terms of a specific trajectory towards a single meaning or gesture. i want the works to be able to transcend my intentions, to be potentially more than i could have imagined. i want the experience for people to be intimate, so that my own presence does not get in the way. it should simply be the person and the thing conversing. my intentions should be invisible at that point, because the work is not my own anymore, it becomes the viewer’s. it’s a somewhat romantic and modernist ideal, but i believe in the potential of such quiet moments.

i would also like to mention that when i first read your review of the show, i was surprised you were critical of my placing each medium in a separate space. this decision was, of course, quite intentional, so that a sound piece would not get into the space of a painting, etc. but the more i think about this, the more i question this idea of separation. i think that the strength of the objects’ individuality could probably handle more of an installation approach without damaging the integrity of the parts. it could also potentially create even more tension between them. i tend to like things that are unresolved, as they feel more experimental, and seem more open. for years, i wouldn’t allow a sound work to have a visual presence, and then one day i simply broke the rule to see what would happen. i discovered there is something convoluted and wonderfully unresolved about a sculpture with speakers hanging from it with sound emanating – neither one supporting the other, but both birthed from the same score. does one simply look or simply listen? what kind of experience do these things offer as they are forced together and yet still pull apart?

CW: Do the differences between various mediums cause tensions for you as you work, or are they liberating?

SR: i mentioned some of this above. but there is a bit of both. painting is the sun, the thing i work on as a kind of daily practice, a discipline. the other mediums (the planets), i work in less regularly, and more as projects or series. painting is the most difficult and thus when i am really struggling, and can slide over to a soundwork it can feel liberating simply because the formal struggle is different, as is the physical process (although the conceptual part is almost the same). this moving sideways at times can kind of nudge an opening of eyes or ears that had been bogged down in one medium. in terms of a working process, they all feed off of each other. tension comes mostly from getting myopic about a work and not being able to see beyond it. moving through various mediums can be a rich kind of disruption.

CW: I interviewed artist Ryan Taber a while ago and he said that “making decisions about making work is like making decisions about eating and sleeping.” If you eat badly, for instance, it’s going to take a toll on your body. I have a hunch that you are also interested in how your methodology as an artist relates to the way you live. Are you?

SR: honestly, i don’t view the possibilities of life inside the studio and life outside as being the same. i’m much more comfortable in the studio than i am in other aspects of life, and thus i can approach making work in a way that i cannot approach a social situation or even perhaps decisions related to eating. discipline and control exist for me much more in the studio than in life, and i am more willing to expend energy towards discipline while making work than in choosing what i eat. this doesn’t mean i’m not incredibly picky about food, but i would compromise on eating decisions without nearly as much guilt as art making decisions. certainly making art is consistent with eating and sleeping in terms of things that are simply part of my life, but only because, like breath, they are all necessities – but they are not equal, and there is a hierarchy. i have compromised many aspects of the way i live in order to be able to have the kind of studio practice that i want. in terms of decisions and their impact, well, certain things affect life and certain things affect the studio practice, and certain things affect both. they are all entwined of course, but if i must do one thing badly, i would rather eat badly and have it take a toll on my body than compromise the work or working process. i seldom feel like i have the resources or the time to worry about every second of every day.

in terms of methodology and life being entwined, i agree, there is much in my life and work that is connected, because i can find as much inspiration in the design of a menu as i can in a poem by holderlin, as much in a daguerreotype as in a grocery list, as much in the color of a leaf as the sound of a broken air conditioning unit, etc. this goes back to the idea of “impurity”, and how one can live with a kind of openness to allowing things to enter the realm of the work regardless of its pedigree. cage talks about the composer or listener determining what can be music, and in this way i think he is talking about possibilities – everything is not music but anything can be music depending upon how you hear it.

– Catherine Wagley

(Images from top to bottom: “Installation View”, 2008; “when sun is like rain. when rain is like sun”, 2008, Oil and acrylic on linen, 72″ x 72″; “the same sun spinning and fading…”, 2008, Oil and acrylic on linen, 35″ x 42″; “turning music into mountains”, 2007, acrylic, plaster, cloth, wood, 28″ x 24″ x 17″; “continuous moment”, 2006, collage, ink, watercolor, pencil on paper, 44″ x 47″ (framed); all images courtesy of the Artist)