Where did you grow up and when did you become interested in making art?
I’ve lived in NYC my entire life and from the time I was quite young, music, dance and art loomed large in my life. I was fortunate to grow up near the Henry Street Settlement (on Manhattan’s Lower East Side) where I was a serious student of classical music, taking violin lessons along with music theory and history. Saturdays were filled with modern dance classes and orchestra rehearsals (also at Henry Street Settlement). At some point, I also managed to squeeze in art classes at the nearby Educational Alliance art school.
By junior high, art had fully replaced dance as a major activity for me. I attended classes at the Art Student’s League for several years and I think it was at that time that I was first conscious of the joy of making marks on paper. The smell of turpentine was intoxicating and even the chore of cleaning brushes was somehow special to me. I was the kid who painted the team banners at summer camp (instead of playing volleyball) and illustrated the playbills for theater productions at my high school. Painting and drawing, alongside violin lessons and chamber music, were activities that I enjoyed—with no thought of pursuing either professionally.
I began college as a double major in art and music. However, it quickly became clear to me that I was obsessed by art—drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture, looking at art, reading about it, running the student art group—there weren’t enough hours in the day to satisfy my hunger. The art department at the college I attended had some fine teachers but offered little in terms of practical career advice, so the very idea of earning a living as an artist seemed preposterous. Few of the people I studied with had active careers outside of academia. I just knew that painting made me feel good and that I could spend endless hours at it, so somehow I was going to keep at it.
After college, I worked full time for a commercial printer and painted at night and on weekends. A few years later, I did a month-long residency in Woodstock, reveling in the freedom to paint 12 hours a day. At that point, I knew for sure that this was what I had to do with my life. Not long after the residency, I had the audacity to show my paintings to a couple of NY art dealers and found there was some interest in my work. After that, there was no looking back.
Do you have other jobs besides making art?
Except for a short period in the late 1990s when art sales were booming, I’ve always had part-time (and sometimes not so part-time) work outside the studio, often in fields unrelated to art. And I’m grateful to have that second income stream when times get tough in the art market. Both my husband and I (photographer Harry Wilks) have kept our feet in two worlds—pursuing our careers as artists while juggling other work to pay the bills.
Studio progress shots, June 2011
What was your early work like?
Before turning to abstraction about ten years ago, my imagery was primarily that of invented landscapes. Throughout my formal art education I studied almost exclusively with figurative artists and had little if any exposure to abstraction (a rather incomplete education, to say the least). When I went to museums and galleries most of my time was spent looking at landscapes, portraits, still-lifes, so I began by painting what was familiar to me. Since I never enjoyed working directly from the subject, I rapidly turned to making invented landscapes, generally with a palette quite disconnected from reality. I continued in that direction for about twenty years but became increasingly preoccupied with the areas of the image that were most abstract and not about the landscape. At museums and galleries I was increasingly drawn to the work of Diebenkorn, Scully and Marden. Although I periodically dipped my toes into abstraction, I kept returning to the familiarity of my invented natural world. That finally changed for me when the pull of abstraction was stronger than my fears about where it might take me.
10x10, oil on panel
What is your current work about?
I see my current work as an exploration of rhythm and movement. The Broadway series mirrors how I experience my surroundings—intense engagement in small areas of activity set against a quiet field. These paintings are in part a reflection of the music I listen to, particularly jazz and salsa, with themes and improvisation occurring across the series. It is critically important to me to find the just right balance between paring the image down to reduce the amount of information and having enough complexity to keep me engaged. My goal is to take the viewer on a bit of a journey. Another series I’m working on right now is called Fermata (fermata is an Italian word used in classical music which means pause). The Fermata series began with my desire to slow down the image by stepping in closer. Fermata gives me an opportunity to be more contemplative and think more deeply about the layers and surface, rather than focus on activity.
16x16, oil on panel
Can you describe your process?
Although I begin each painting with a general sense of direction, the images emerge slowly through an organic process of exploration rather than by using a system. Of course, all artists establish rules, consciously or not, but what I want to convey is that my images are driven by looking and reacting, rather than through a preconceived program. I begin by layering in broad areas of color to have something to work against and after several painting sessions, the geometry and palette begin to offer clues about where the painting is heading. I’m always open to accidents, such as stumbling across an unexpected patch of color that can make the image sing. To work against the compositional formality of geometric abstraction, I scrape and coarsely sand areas to reveal some of the history of the making of the painting. I also rotate the paintings from time to time—which can reveal dialogues between different areas of the painting that I might not have noticed.
More studio progress shots, June 2011
Do you ever get stuck and how do you remedy this?
Is there anyone who doesn’t get stuck? Getting stuck and failing are both part of the routine of making art. But there is always jumping back in the next day with total optimism that on this day, the image will sing. There is getting stuck when you know you are onto something good, but don’t yet know how to get there. And there is getting stuck when you know in your gut you are moving in a fruitless direction, but you keep going. It continues to surprise me just how far I can go in the wrong direction, frustration and helplessness growing, until I get so angry (or filled with self-pity) that I finally get myself to STOP. Sometimes I look to other pieces in the studio to help me understand why I’m struggling, more often I start flipping through art books and find solace in the work of others. Sometimes I’m stuck because I’m working around and around a wonderful small moment in a painting that I desperately don’t want to lose. On a good day, I’ll put the painting aside until I understand why I am so in love with that one area. It is only when I’m ready to risk painting out that small moment that I get unstuck.
24x24, oil on panel
Who are the artists whose work has most influenced you?
There are so many I could mention and of course some of the artists that loom large have changed over time. But these artists consistently top my list:
Morandi: I was introduced to Morandi through his etchings, which I admired, but was speechless when I first saw his paintings. I was immediately pulled in by the way the forms are in dialogue with each other; the deliberateness with which he placed the objects and the way he could make muddy colors look so passionate. The show at the Met a couple of years ago brought me to a state of nirvana. It is Morandi who I turn to most often when I’m stuck.
Cezanne: Cezanne’s still life paintings are deeply satisfying -- apples and pears on tables that are distorted to such perfection, table corners that tilt up instead of remaining flat, distended plate rims. I’m also drawn to the odd portraits of his wife—she is often seated quite awkwardly and framed by sculptural drapery.
Diebenkorn: I gravitated towards the paintings of Diebenkorn long before I pursued abstraction or had a conscious understanding of the vocabulary. The vigorous gesture of his brushwork reigned in by the geometry of the paintings was enormously appealing. And there is so much going on in the perimeter of his paintings. Although I first became familiar with his Ocean Park series, I also very much enjoy his earlier work from Albuquerque.
Scully: Sean Scully is another painter whose work I started to follow many years ago when I was still deep into landscape. Although I didn’t understand why the paintings appealed to me, I knew I had to keep looking at them. I find that his paintings have a powerful structural certainty but also incorporate a sense of questioning and unknowing.
Some of the other artists whose work I keep going back to include Bourgeois, Heilman, Marden, Serra, Puryear, Manet and Goya as well as medieval Spanish ivory carvings.
Do you have particular habits that support your art practice?
Looking, looking and more looking. Going to gallery exhibits and museums shakes things up—helps me to break out of stale patterns. In the studio, the first thing is always a cup of tea. It helps me to sit quietly rather than impatiently jumping in (usually a mistake when I let that happen). I need quiet time to find my way back into the paintings, to see what needs working on that I missed the day before. Since I have several paintings in progress at the same time, I generally start with the one I am least afraid of destroying and build up my courage as the day progresses. I try to end my day in the studio as it began, by sitting and looking for a while—looking for an opening of where to begin work the next day. And I need to leave the studio neat and orderly. It totally throws me off if the studio is a mess when I first walk in.
10x10, oil on panel
How do you develop a sense of community with other artists?
Apart from a small handful of friends who are painters, I‘ve tended be fairly isolated in the studio. This certainly is not a good thing in terms of building community, but I’m slowly coming out of that isolation. Through Facebook and by following blogs, I have developed connections with more artists. Although I’ve only met several of them in person, the online dialogues have often been very satisfying. A residency at VCCA several summers ago also provided a wonderful experience of being immersed in a community of visual artists, writers and composers and I look forward to more of those nourishing experiences.
Where do you want to be in five years?
Taking more risks in the work and experimenting with new materials, connecting with more artists, participating in group exhibits, and possibly blogging. Of course the greatest challenge is finding time for it all.
Do you have shows upcoming that you would like to mention?
This summer, two paintings from my Broadway series are at The Painting Center (NY), in the Grey Matters exhibit, from June 21 – August 6.
Where can your work be seen?
The best place to see an overview of my work is at www.tamarzinn.com. I also participate in geoform.net, Julie Karabenick’s wonderful compendium of contemporary geometric abstraction. My work is available in NYC at Kathryn Markel Fine Art and at Swenson Fine Art in California.