Duane Zaloudek in his Manhattan studio.
In August 2019, we visited artist Duane Zaloudek in his Manhattan studio and discussed his life and work as we explored works on paper in his flat files and viewed his newest painting.
RHC: Your early biography is practically right out of the Americana central casting office and includes being born in a boxcar in Texhoma, TX in 1931, growing up on a farm and riding your favorite horse to a one-room schoolhouse. Are there specific experiences you can remember from your childhood growing up on your grandparents farm near Enid, OK that have a direct bearing on your work today? Or do you remember any experiences from that time that sparked your desire to study art or become an artist?
Zaloudek: As a small boy my mother died and I was raised by my grandparents. My father's two youngest brothers were teenagers, and still at home. The youngest, Clair, was especially close to me and because of my admiration for his inventiveness and creativity I decided when I was nine years old that I wanted to be an artist.
Duane Zaloudek, Untitled, 1955, Oil pastel on paper, ©2019 Duane Zaloudek/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: When and where did you study art and which artists or teachers have had the most impact on your thinking as an artist?
Zaloudek: Just before the Second World War my father remarried and I went to live with them. In 1943, we moved to Portland, Oregon where I started high school. I was fortunate in my second year to have an art teacher who was a recent graduate of the Chicago Art Institute. She took me under her wing and nurtured my interest in art. I graduated from high school in 1948 and that fall, entered the program at the Portland Museum School via a scholarship. It was a bit of an extended time before I graduated from the program at the Museum School due to a four-year stint in the US Air Force. Among the faculty there, the painters Louis Bunce and Mike Loew probably had the greatest influence on me. I finally graduated from that program via the GI Bill for education in 1956. During those last few years, I was introduced to a lot of different ideas, primarily through books. Perhaps one of my greatest influences came in the late 1960’s with Georg von Bekesy's writing on sensory deprivation and his experiments with the black box at Harvard. Patricia Failing, in her essay in the book published by Mark Muller Gallery, explains this much better than I can. About this time I also discovered the work of musicians like John Cage and Morton Feldman. Also, in the early 60’s a book by the English art critic David Lewis about Constantin Brancusi was doubly influential as it also introduced me to the book Tibet's Great Yogi Milarepa; A Biography from the Tibetan.
Duane Zaloudek, Marlona, 1957, Oil on canvas, 20" x 20" (50.8cm x 50.8cm), ©2019 Duane Zaloudek/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: You mentioned being in the US Air Force...you were first stationed at Thule Air Force Base in Greenland. Did the severity of that landscape remind you of growing up on the prairie and did that environment factor into your work you were doing then or later?
Zaloudek: The different environments that I have experienced have probably had their influence on my work, however not so much consciously, as much as the fact that I am a composite of all my experiences.
Duane Zaloudek, Lornar, 1958, Oil on canvas, 36" x 34" (91.4cm x 86.4cm), ©2019 Duane Zaloudek/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: After being honorably discharged from the Service in 1954 you returned to the Museum Art School; then after graduation you moved to New York City for the first time…what was the experience of coming to New York at that time like and how did it effect your work?
Zaloudek: In 1956 after finishing my studies I moved to New York City. I had a studio space on Broadway at 11th Street adjacent to Mike Loew, who I had studied with during post-graduate work at the Museum School. This was my first studio in New York. The downtown art gallery scene was just beginning and still very small and through Mike I met some of the artists who were active at that time. I am sure the experience was of importance, however it did not show up in the work I was doing at that time.
Duane Zaloudek, Dellynn, 1958, Oil on canvas, 20" x 22" (50.8cm x 55.8cm), ©2019 Duane Zaloudek/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: How would you describe your work from the late 50s?
Zaloudek: Probably closest to Abstract Impressionism, which described abstract painting without the expressive gestural quality of AbEx.
Duane Zaloudek, Untitled, 1959, Pastel on paper, 36" x 24" (91.4cm x 61cm), ©2019 Duane Zaloudek/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: In 1959, you returned to Portland, OR where you had finished college and began teaching there. What caused you to leave New York?
Zaloudek: I returned to Portland, as my future wife no longer wanted to live in New York. We married soon after and had two beautiful daughters. All the while during that time I continued to work in my studio. I occasionally taught night classes at the Portland Museum Art School, and Portland State College. I also for a short time initiated the beginning of an art department at Portland University.
Duane Zaloudek, Gide, 1961, Oil on canvas, 75" x 70" (1.9m x 1.7m), ©2019 Duane Zaloudek/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: Your work changed remarkably once you were set up in Portland and you moved from a more painterly Abstract Impressionism as you called it to hard-edged shape oriented abstraction. What precipitated these changes?
Zaloudek: Like most young artists I was searching for direction, and the abstract impressionism thing seemed a bit too easy. I was searching for something more challenging. There were not many hard edges until the Milarepa series.
Duane Zaloudek, Untitled, 1963, Oil on paper, 28 1/2" x 22 1/2" (72.3cm x 57 cm)
©2019 Duane Zaloudek/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: How did your Trask series develop out of these changes?
Zaloudek: There was of course the natural transition from one to another, over a period of time, and many works, now many destroyed, have illustrated those moves. Starting in 1961 there were a number of works starting to simplify with large forms grouped close together. The Trask works are usually predominately black and white.
Duane Zaloudek, Trask XI, 1964, Oil on canvas, 75" x 70" (1.9m x 1.7m), ©2019 Duane Zaloudek/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: Was your Milarepa series influenced by Buddhist thinking?
Zaloudek: Most likely there was some influence, however after reading that Brancusi was influenced by Milarepa, I read the book Tibet's Great Yogi Milarepa: A Biography from the Tibetan. It was a chore to find a copy of the book, but I finally found it at the Seattle Public Library. Brancusi commented that the book nearly made a hermit of him. That appealed very much to me as I was a bit of a loner by nature. When I was very young I was always considered shy. Perhaps that was the beginning of my reclusiveness. Of course many of the ideas of Buddhist thinking was appealing to me, however I never considered myself a Buddhist. I have trouble following an organized religion.
Duane Zaloudek, Milarepa XI, 1965, Acrylic on canvas, 68" x 60" (1.7m x 1.5m)
©2019 Duane Zaloudek/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: You also mentioned the influence of Georg von Bekesy's writing on sensory deprivation and his experiments conducted at Harvard. How did this change your thinking about your work?
Zaloudek: That book probably was my greatest influence. I figured that if reduction of audio intake, as he found, made you mentally aware of the physical functioning of your body, it made sense that reduction of visual intake would make the individual more aware of the physicality and spirituality of vision. That’s been my direction in making paintings ever since. Of course it took some time before I was able to work my way up to that point.
Duane Zaloudek, Milarepa IX, 1967, Acrylic on canvas, 40" x 32" (1m x 81.2cm)
©2019 Duane Zaloudek/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: How did John Cage and Morton Feldman impact your thinking?
Zaloudek: I guess it basically was a confirmation of what I deduced from the von Bekesy writing and of course it was a confirmation by John Cage of my passion for collecting edible mushrooms.
RHC: Jetsun Milarepa was a 12th century Tibetan Buddhist siddha (or “one who is accomplished) that in his youth was a murderer and later turned to Buddhism, going on to become an accomplished Buddha; thus overcoming his past. Milarepa is generally considered one of Tibet’s most famous yogis and poets. What appealed to you about him and his writings that intrigued you enough to create a whole new body of work different from your previous work?
Zaloudek: I suppose the appeal was the general basis of Buddhism as a philosophy, and as I said before, the temptation of becoming a hermit.
Duane Zaloudek, XII, 1968, Acrylic and Rhoplex on canvas, 68" x 60" (1.7m x 1.5m) ©2019 Duane Zaloudek
RHC: The shapes and colors in your Milarepa series are suggestive to some people. Do they reference anything in particular and has anyone ever taken offence to them?
Zaloudek: Of course the obvious opinion of some folks is the possibility of sexual content. However, it seems to me that the sexuality comes from the mind of the observer. I cancelled the first exhibition of the work because someone whispered to the nuns that the work was inappropriate for a girls’ college. However, the nuns in charge there were not even vaguely aware that they might be “dirty”…there is also the possibility of the influence of harvesting mushrooms, which I was initiated into at about that time. I frankly cannot remember any conscious thoughts or ideas about either at the time.
Duane Zaloudek, Twenty, 1971, Watercolor and acrylin on canvas, 72" x 68" (1.8m x 1.7m), ©2019 Duane Zaloudek
RHC: When did you meet Dick Bellamy and did he help your career?
Zaloudek: I met Dick in Portland in the late 60’s. He was visiting a prominent local art collector, Ed Cadauro , who owned a couple of works of mine, and seeing the work at Ed’s, Dick asked to meet me. (Dick had sold some early works from the Green Gallery of Donald Judd’s to Ed.) Consequently Dick mentioned my work to the Director of the Whitney at that time; this was also the first time the Whitney decided to send the curators out across the country to attempt to include work in the Annual from less well-known areas. It was a bit fortuitous and I was lucky.
Duane Zaloudek, Nine, 1972, Watercolor and acrylic on canvas, 72" x 66" (1.8m x 1.6m), ©2019 Duane Zaloudek
RHC: As you began to incorporate the ideas of von Bekesy into your work how did this influence manifest itself in the work…in other words…how could the viewer see what you were thinking?
Zaloudek: I am not sure if there was any attempt on my part to explain what I was thinking. I was evolving and the work at that time was perhaps a bit of a mystery even to me. I just knew that I wanted to head it into the direction of reductiveness, but was not sure how to do it. There was lot of trial and error.
Duane Zaloudek, One, 1973, Watercolor and acrylin on canvas, 72" x 66" (1.8m x 1.6m), ©2019 Duane Zaloudek
RHC: In the early 80s you made a series of paper hats…how did these come about?
Zaloudek: I was experiencing a minor problem with my eyesight and an eye doctor gave me a prescription for glasses that somehow made the paper I was working on appear to look like the inside of a barrel…consequently I began soaking the paper in water and made some paper hats. Fortunately, I found that drug store reading glasses work just fine and I was off again in my painting pursuits.
Duane Zaloudek, The First One, 1980, Formed watercolor paper, Dimensions vairable, ©2019 Duane Zaloudek
RHC: Over time from the late 60s through today your work became more and more reductive…at first white on raw canvas or white on white compositions, then more texture to a heavy impasto and now very flat, smooth white surfaces with very difficult to see lines of grey watercolor. How did your thinking about von Bekesy’s ideas lead you through these different periods?
Zaloudek: An exhibition at the gallery at Portland State University, where I taught night classes in life drawing, was the beginning of the idea of white on white works. A short time later I was a guest artist at UC Davis where I taught off and on for three years. The works at that time started to come back with some color, but with watercolor instead of oil or acrylic. I showed those works in 1972 at the Reese Palley Gallery in San Francisco. In 1973 I returned to New York. There were many failed attempts until finally I again started to eliminate all color. I also for some time worked only on watercolor paper with occasional grey watercolor and pencil. In the early 90s I started to work on unprimed cotton canvas using watercolor and clear Rhoplex. In about 1990 my friend Olivier Mosset introduced my work to the director of the Museum in Aarau, Switzerland. A short time later I also began to work with Mark Muller Gallery in Zurich. That was a wonderful encouragement, with some sales.
Duane Zaloudek, 10, 1988, Oil on linen, 18" x 18" (46cm x 46cm), ©2019 Duane Zaloudek
RHC: Your current body of work is titled Nomad Songs, which seems the perfect metaphor for experiencing the work. Nomads wander with no fixed home and our eyes have to wander over your paintings to find anything to see. A song is basically a poem set to music. Both words together imply a sense of wandering and emptiness, not unlike the landscapes that nomads travel, that mimics the process of looking at your work. With this in mind do you feel you have effectively communicated the ideas that compel you to make the work in the first place?
Zaloudek: In the year 2000 I started to work with watercolor on linen canvas primed with white gesso. That was the beginning of the Nomad Songs. I am not sure if I gave much thought to the meaning of titles. I was looking for a title without a lot of baggage. Perhaps my interest in poetry led me to that title. And of course I was searching for a solution to make it possible for the viewer to realize the rewards of sensory deprivation and the spiritual and physical pleasure of vision.