In February 2019 we paid a visit to Jerry Walden in his Rock Hill, SC studio to talk about his history, his influences and experiences. We'll explore these and other topics in our three-part Studio Visit interview.
RHC: You were raised and educated in the southern United States.
Walden: I grew up in east and central Alabama. Mostly in small towns or out in the country, including a couple of years in Montgomery, the capitol. I received the BFA at Auburn University in 1968 and the MFA from the University of Georgia in 1971.
RHC: Are there specific experiences you can remember from your childhood that have a direct bearing on your work today?
Walden: Drawing, or any kind of marking and coloring, came easily and early, as it does with most all young children. I don’t think it’s a stretch to mention the fascination I had with cars, planes, tanks, ships, and the like. Imaginary, fantastical wars…not really fighting or explosions…but preparation, getting ready for wars. Extensive fortifications above and below land and sea. Airborne stuff, too. I outlined mountains in pyramid-like shapes and those diagonals also went into deep valleys and up for an opposing mountain...the enemy, and running a horizontal line all the way across the page for the water line. Then dissecting them with meandering tunnels, caves, submarine pens, elaborate constructions, all full of soldiers and equipment. And, here and there, a cannon would pop out of a hole and shoot down a helicopter, or something. What fun it was, to be rather obsessed with the minutia of those drawings. I couldn’t put enough little images in them, as I remember. I wish I still had some of them. And, as the class artist, I enjoyed a small fan base...I still enjoy a small fan base.
Jerry Walden, First Abstraction, 1965, Pencil, watercolor and coffee stains on paper, 5 3/4"x 4 1/4" (14.6cm x 10.8cm)
RHC: Well, a dedicated fan base whatever the size, I'm sure! At what point or was there a specific event in your life when you discovered the desire to make art professionally?
Walden: There was a specific occurrence and, yes, as an epiphany, it was. While always involved in art making of various sorts growing up, I never was exposed to anything contemporary or historical of importance. All I had was a little art class in grammar school, one 6-week period, a not-cheap illustrator’s correspondence course...which I quit from boredom halfway through...and Norman Rockwell’s autobiography. So, later on, employed in a textile plant, already a military veteran and starting a family, I met a new hire [at the plant] who happened to have recently received his BFA. He was an abstract expressionistic painter.
Walden's first large painting: The Chapel, 1965, Casein on illustration board, 39" x 28 1/2" (99cm x 72.4cm)
Walden: As I got to know this person, I watched him draw abstractly and intuitively. I laughed and ridiculed this, and he said, here, you try it. I did, imitating his manner and technique, and I immediately discovered I liked it and I could do it! This changed me, right then and there. Soon I was painting, and my new friend and I entered a nationally competitive show...I didn’t know they existed and I was 24 years old. I was juried in and my friend wasn’t. I thought, this is easy. Ha! I changed my college major to art. Essentially, I discovered there was such a thing as modern art by doing it.
RHC: What ideas or compositional elements, if any, can you identify in these earliest pieces that are still evident in your work today?
Walden: The 1968 painting Indigo, was my first attempt to paint non-objectively without gestural, painterly application. I can remember my thinking as I just added paint, slowly, deliberately and with a bit of trepidation, the lines, shapes, and planes. Although I was determined but cautious, the painting seemed to paint itself...It just happened along. I experienced a careful control I had not known before. I liked that. Also, for the first time, I applied ruled lines with colored pencil for what might be, intuitively, a visual relief or complement to the geometry. The shifting planes of very slight color differences I still employ. My painting professor at the time complimented me on this little painting, a little breakthrough he said. I liked that, too.
Jerry Walden, Indigo, 1968, Oil on canvas, 44" x 34" (1.12m x 86.4cm)
RHC: You were schooled in a traditional academic method heavy on drawing…especially figure drawing. How does that training affect or influence the hard edge formalism you are making today?
Walden: The essence of the human figure in art is to make the torso “breathe”, the sensation that there is life, and you have to draw from the inside out. Otherwise, it’s stillborn, no matter the skill at reproductive copying. Drawing the figure from the outside in, from the appendages to the torso, smothers it.
Jerry Walden, Model Resting Between Poses, Feet on Globe, 1984, Vine charcoal, 16" x 15" (40.6cm x 38.1cm)
Walden: So, I want my paintings to breathe. And, the process is in two steps, first, cover all over with controlled, smooth application of painting stripes, shapes, directions, not quite arbitrarily but close. I preset hues, tones, widths, directions. Then, when done, I set the painting up and look at it if it’s somebody else’s work, and ask myself, what can I do to make it into a painting, to make it breathe. This stage is where the adventure is and the risk. I know when it’s done when I see it.
RHC: What is the significance of the triangle and diagonal in your work?
Walden: Well, it’s where the action is for me. The diagonal has more inherent tension because it leans or slants, as if falling or climbing. It’s not vertical or horizontal but joins them, more or less, establishing triangles and the like. Related to human movement or gesture, the diagonal may be its distillation abstractly. It’s like an arm, hinged at the shoulder, reaches out, up, down, across in something of a slanted direction. It does this so the hand can do something—draw, shake someone’s hand, open doors, etc. By stacking or repeating, locomotion is suggested and really the whole body is in arrested motion, or “tension in repose” as Michelangelo tagged it. Years ago, I painted crucifixions, depositions, and ascensions this way…the tall vertical format with diagonals, like X’s or Y’s, with little if any depicted body or body parts.
Jerry Walden, Self-Portrait as Combat Artist, 1976, Acrylic on canvas, 96" x 33.5" (2.44m x 85.1cm)(Collection of the Meridian Museum of Art, Meridian, MS)
Walden: My work has included X’s and Y’s…contrasts or harmonies of the up and down and the round about, in various iterations since my MFA thesis. I’ve gone off the deep end a few times looking for whatever but have always come back to start over. I’m at it now, since starting over in ’06 when I retired from the university and built a studio.
Jerry Walden, Slices of the Company Pie, 1971-72, Acrylic on Canvas, 96" x 33.5" (2.44m x 85.1cm)
Jerry Walden, Untitled, 1968, Ink on mat board 6" x 8 3/4" (15.2cm x 22.2cm)
RHC: What art historical movements have affected or influenced your thinking and way of working?
Walden: Abstract Expressionism including Abstract Impressionism (Color Field), Post-painterly Abstraction, Op, and Minimalism. Especially Minimalism upon seeing “The Art of the Real’ at MoMA in 1968. And, High Gothic or International Gothic in the form of my favorite painting, not for influence but just to look at it, Gentile da Fabriano’s “Adoration of the Magi” in the Uffizi. Why?…because everything seemingly possible is in it, and oh so sweetly painted. And, I like all the zigzag.
Jerry Walden, Table Scraps, 1975, Lithograph, Image: 14" x 20” (35.5cm x 51cm), Edition size 6 with 4 A/Ps
RHC: In the 1970s you ventured very far afield from the minimal hard edged paintings of your graduate work and explored more objective representational work and the figure. What led you in that direction?
Walden: As I’ve said, Abstract Expressionism was my first love, and it was instantaneous. Soon, after a couple of years in the BFA program at Auburn, the second love came along - Minimalism…all the rage in 1968, but it seemed to be a natural fit for me. These two loves have dominated my interests since, as a tussle back and forth, and gradually there were new influences. Rather than abandoning what I was doing, I added them as layers on top of what I was doing. The figurative, often as imagined self-portraits, was painted over hard edge planes, stripe patterns, or colored fields, as well as, the gestural marks, spills, and splatters. I came to think more was needed, and then more. The figurative, often biomorphic as you say, was blurry, blended, feathered in, coming and going visually, there and not there. Less was not more, more was.
Jerry Walden, Embryo Self-Portrait Before Birth, 1982, Acrylic and metallic powders on canvas 96" × 48" (2.44m x 1.2m)
RHC: By the 1980s you seem to travel two parallel tracks figurative abstraction and non-objective abstraction but this body of work could be described as biomorphic. Both more expressive than conceptual. How long was this body of work made and what zigged you back to the hard geometries of your present work?
Jerry Walden, Figure Study 1, 1985, Acrylic on Rives BFK, 17” x 6" (43.2cm x 15.2cm)
Walden: Well, yes parallel, more or less. Painting became entirely process, that is, what was found or what developed as the painting was painted was what the painting came to be, as a record. The painting was about its making. I came to develop something like an acrylic paint—raw acrylic emulsion and dry pigment including metallic particles used in automotive paints, mixed together in an electric food blender. Buckets-full with lots of froth, poured on canvases on the floor, plus adding objects that dried and glued themselves to the canvas with the emulsion. Since the painting was about the making of the painting, these added objects were materials used to actually make paintings—wood stretcher and framing strips, hanging wire, nails, screws, brushes, rulers, and fragments of same. When all dried, I would take a ball peen hammer to it, breaking it up, splintering, destroying, and patching the canvas back together where cut through. Then heal the wounds by washing all over thinned metallic paints—golds, silvers, bronzes, blues, reds, etc. After all this embellishment, exaggeration, and gilding, narrow columns (called wings) of stretched canvas or wood planks mostly painted flat black were bolted to the main stretcher—this for visual balance and contrast…resting places, to calm…thus, the parallel tracks. I overdid, trying to make a one of a kind, and after a few years pretty much almost stopped painting.
Jerry Walden, Red Delta, 1986-96, Acrylic, metallic powders, wood, metal and plastic on canvas 56" x 48" (1.4m x 1.2m)
Walden: Upon retirement from the day job in ’06, my long time stewing over my embarrassment and loss of confidence in much of my painting of the 80s and 90s turned to action…I started over by painting over those old paintings. I did so with geometric shapes painted directly and intuitively with a knife. The geometry and the knife seemed the most direct and convincing way to purge, to simplify, and to reclaim.
Jerry Walden, Deconstructing Jerry #1, 1985-2006, Acrylic and paper collage on canvas 33" x 59" (84cm x 1.5m)
RHC: Earlier you mentioned going off the deep end and in search for a new or a different direction in your work at times over your career…can you cite any work that would be a good example of that fall?
Walden: What I saw in Italy rolled me (the first of many visits was in 1976)…what do I do now? The crucifixions and such [I'd] done in the 70s and 80s, essentially take-offs on important historical works and on minor works by major artists…an example would be the series done taking-off on St. Nicholas Saves a Ship From Wreckage by Gentile and Fra Angelico and others…works that just struck a chord on first viewing.
Jerry Walden, Ascension, 1986, Acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 96" x 48" (2.4m x 1.2m)
Walden: Back home, I painted in remembrance but aggressively, intuitively, with stenciling and collage pulled up and put back multiple times while wet. Most of these went nowhere, they fell flat, and are now painted over. However, the series of about 16 works from Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Blind Leading the Blind was to my liking.
Jerry Walden, Blind Leading the Blind (After Brueghel) V, 1986, Acrylic, metallic powder in polymer emulsion, paper collage on paper, 19 3/4" x 27 1/2" (50.2cm x 69.9cm)
Walden: A quick drawing, Study for Resurrection, is an example of a plan for a large work, which didn’t come about. Those large works I did do were destroyed or painted over and no decent photo exists now, thankfully. It’s evident I suffered the fairly common affliction known as The-Assistant-Professor’s-20-Foot-Paintings-Syndrone.
Jerry Walden, Study for Resurrection, ca 1980s, Felt-tip pen on paper, 3 1/4" x 4" (8.3cm x 10.2cm)
Walden: Not being religious nor employed to paint a didactical cause nor restrained in any way by expectations, I felt free to see what I could do, inspired to find the experience of it.
RHC: This process of taking work to its logical conclusion and then starting over reminds me of Picasso…at these times of uncertainty what, who, or … how did you get back to making work you feel good about?
Jerry Walden, X Painting, 1986-1996, Acrylic, metallic powders in polymer emulsion, wood, metal, and string on canvas,
120" x 120" (3m x 3m)
Walden: Artists often question themselves about the validity of their work even when on a roll, not wanting to slip into self-coping. And, life has regular variations and changes, large and small, always coming along…moving to a new job, illness, retirement, etc. Multiple re-locations and several trips to Italy over time resulted in major changes in my work, reflecting absorption of influences that were intentional for the possibility of improving my work. More than once I made changes in my work by getting angry and staying angry, deliberately ruining it, to see if there was something there I could make use of. At other times, I just let go of what I was doing….I just let it go. And, after a while, things leveled out and felt right. The work became better because it started looking better.
Jerry Walden, Portrait 012419, 2019, Acrylic on tung wood panel, 24" x 24" (30.5cm x 30.5cm)
RHC: What is it about your work you are currently making that makes you feel so certain about it and where do you see it going?
I’m having fun again. Shorter durations of time-consuming, tedious, careful application of paint turns rather quickly into the act of painting that employs risk of ruin at every touch. If I change something, everything changes...always wrong or seemingly not right until it does seem right...until the complexity is simplified. The disorder becomes order by coalescing into completeness. Then, if it seems to breathe, it is born and exists on its own plane. I see the paintings going larger.