AN INTERVIEW WITH PATRICIA LAY (2016)
By Patterson Sims, Independent Art Curator, Writer and Consultant
Originally published in Pat Lay: Myth, Memory and Android Dreams
Aljira, A Center for Contemporary Art, Newark New Jersey
This dialogue took place in 2015 over the course of several meetings at Lay’s home/studio in Jersey City, New Jersey, and Sims’ loft in New York, New York. Their initial conversations were transcribed and then expanded and refined in numerous email exchanges.
SIMS: What would be useful for others to know about your family and early life as it impacted on your wanting to be an artist and you art?
LAY: I come from a family of artists. Both of my parents, my father’s father, and my grandfather’s father were all painters. When I was a child my father built a new house for us from the foundations up. He did this evenings and weekends for about ten years. From him I learned how to build things. He would let my brother and me participate in the process.
I remember digging in the mud, wheeling a wheelbarrow filled with concrete, and learning how to use a hammer. Before he started building our house he designed and built sailboats. He loved working with his hands. He was also a painter, but he didn’t have time for it. He studied painting at Harvard, earned a BFA, went to Yale for graduate courses in painting, and took classes at the Art Students League in NYC. Then my brother and I were born. During World War II he had the choice of going to war or working at a job for the war effort. He worked at Remington Rand, a defense industry plant in Milford, Connecticut and studied engineering at night. This led him to a life-long career as a production engineer.
My mother was a role model on many levels. She grew up in New Haven, Connecticut and studied painting at Yale University and received her BFA in 1936. After my parents married they moved to New York City and continued their study at the Art students League. When I was still very young in Connecticut my mother’s friends would commission her to paint their portraits. She would set up her easel in our living room, and they would come for sittings. This continued until I was in third grade. When I was nine my mother worked as a draftswomen for an electronics company, later she became a designer of solid-state circuits. I remember her showing me drawings with layers and layers of tracing paper with lines connecting the dots. They were plans for electronic circuitry. Recently a friend suggested that my mother ‘s rendering may have sparked my present interest in circuit boards.
The summer of 1962, between my junior and senior years at Pratt, my mother and I took a nine-week road trip to thirteen European countries. We drove from city to city visiting nearly every important art museum. The highlight of the trip was the Spoleto Festival in Italy. David Smith’s sculptures were installed in every square of the city. It was so thrilling to see his sculptures interact with the city and at this moment I realized that I identified more with sculpture than painting.
SIMS: When did you first know you wanted to be an artist?
LAY: From my family’s influences, it was clear to me that I would become an artist. I spent many hours on my own making drawings and paintings, and both my parents were very supportive of my passion for art. At ten years old I started painting lessons with a local artist, but I never felt successful. I felt that my parents were much more talented, and I was trying to live up to their achievements.
I knew I wanted to go to art school. My parents suggested Pratt Institute because it was highly respected. My grandparents knew the Pratt family in Brooklyn and my uncle had studied there. At Pratt I primarily studied painting and drawing, my professors included Phillip Pearlstein, Stephen Pace, Ernest Briggs, and Jacob Lawrence. I studied art history with the painter George McNeil and philosophy of art with the art critic and historian Dore Ashton. The painting that was going on then was dominated by Abstract Expressionism. Pratt offered very limited opportunities for women to study sculpture. It was a macho department. They didn’t allow female students to weld, so I worked in mostly clay and plaster. I was in my senior year when I realized that I was much more comfortable and successful working with three-dimensions and sculptural materials than with paint.
SIMS: What role did teaching and your later academic career play in your art? Was it help or a distraction?
LAY: Early on I realized that making art was not a secure way to make a living, and that I would have to have another profession to have a stable economic life. Teaching on the college level was the obvious choice because it’s not a nine-to-five job. As a teacher you are expected to actively pursue your specialty: art making is built into the job.
I always liked the give-and-take with students, a mutual questioning and conversation. I learned from the students and they learned from me, especially the MFA students. I started teaching at the college level when I was 27. I realized that the students saw me as a role model, and I worked hard at my career as an artist to earn their respect and trust. The academic environment also expanded my knowledge of art history, philosophy, the art world, technology and new processes.
But teaching had its distractions. It was difficult to carry through on a studio project. Many times experiments in new directions were left unresolved. The studio work would be sabotaged by an academic report that needed to be written or a grant that had to be submitted.
SIMS: How did your participation in the 1975 Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial exhibition impact your career as an artist?
LAY: Well, I guess it didn’t, really, though I thought that it would open doors. This particular biennial was large and included many emerging artists, and I was one of them. Marcia Tucker was the specific curator of the five who choose my work. The show got some decidedly negative press, but that is pretty typical for a Whitney Biennial.
SIMS: Did you have a gallery going into the exhibition?
LAY: No, and I did not have a gallery as a result of the show. It may have led to other shows, but it was not instrumental in establishing gallery representation. I was ill prepared to deal with the business of art. It was not something that was discussed at Pratt or graduate school. We were all purists and idealistic and felt that it was the gallery’s responsibility to promote our work.
SIMS: Though the grid, immaculate execution, and formalist abstraction prevail in your art, your work has gone through several phases. How might you highlight its overriding characteristics and issues?
I look to art history for structure and content. In that sense I am a formalist. In the late sixties my fired clay works were geometric, abstract, and concerned with the repetition of form. The Primary Structures show in 1966 at the Jewish Museum was an important influence. In the 1970’s the grid gave to a more open structure. I became interested in the visual discourse between nature and geometry as manifested in the Earth Works movement and formal Japanese Zen gardens. In the 80’s I introduced welded steel in combination with fired clay and incorporated sculptural elements influenced by David Smith and Brancusi. These works were abstract yet suggest a figurative gesture and scale. In the 90’s African and Oceanic art were my primary inspirational sources. Starting in 2000, I combined and hybridized human elements and technology. This work incorporates fired clay, steel, mixed media and ready -made computer parts. In my 2014-15 scroll pieces the structure is formal and incorporates the designs of printed circuit boards. The content, processes, and materials are intrinsically post-modern with the infusion of Persian and Tibetan influences
SIMS: Initiated with that trip you took to Europe with your mother in 1962, you’ve traveled extensively, going in the last twenty years to China, Africa, India, and South America. How have these travels impacted on your work and ways of thinking?
LAY: My European trip with my mother made me realize that to be a good artist it is really important to know the history of art. Now I travel with my daughter. We have focused on visiting Asia, Africa, and South America. We primarily visit museums and historical sights. It is the art, architecture and differences between cultures that influence my work. In Thailand, Cambodia, and India I was struck by the impact and spiritual beauty of Buddha and Hindu deities and in the power emanating from idealized human form. As a result of these trips I started to use the human head as an androgynous, hybrid, post-human form.
Travels to Egypt, Istanbul, Rome, and Peru have added new resource materials to expand my ideas and imagery. The statuary of Pharaonic Egypt, the colors and patterns of the Turkish carpets and tile work, portrait sculptures from ancient Rome, and pre-Columbian clay figures in Peru have had a profound influence on my work.
SIMS: Your travels have clearly opened you to art history and what can be learned in museums. You have not traveled to Tibet, yet Tibetan thangkas have clearly been instrumental to your recent works on paper and larger wall works.
My foreign trips have made me more appreciative and motivated to visit NYC and other area museums. Visiting museums has become an important and integral part of my practice. The African Art wing at the Metropolitan Museum has been my go-to place for inspiration for many years. My embellished head sculptures from 2001 to 2011 were influenced by Nkisi n’kondi/Minkisi power figures of the Kongo peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The DADA show at MOMA in 2006, occurring when I was making both sculptures and two-dimensional works, helped me question and better understand the paradoxical relationship between human consciousness and technology. Raoul Hausmann’s The Spirit of our Time, 1919, which was in the exhibit, encouraged me use readymade forms and mixed media.
Another new series of works were inspired by an exhibition of Persian miniatures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few years ago. The miniatures’ patterning, border designs, and asymmetrical structure shifted my focus from sculpture back to works on paper.
At Rubin Museum in New York City I came to appreciate the power of Tibetan thangkas. I realized that I could work with paper in a much larger scale, up to 96 x 48 inches and turn a religious icon, the Tibetan thangka, into a contemporary aesthetic abstract composition that serenely captures our world of technological advancement. At the same time the scroll format was a practical way to make large works easily portable. Meditating on the past, present, and future, my scrolls and mixed media figurative sculptures question and critique our paradoxical relationship and obsession with technology and what it now means to be human.
SIMS: Many of the artists you mention as influential are men, are there artists who are women you have been influenced by?
LAY: Louise Nevelson was an important role model in the late 1960s when I was in graduate school, as were Eva Hesse, Beverly Pepper, and Barbara Hepworth. More recently, the bound leather mask heads made by Nancy Grossman from the 1960s through to the 1980s have intrigued me and influenced my work
SIMS: Let’s talk more about gender in your work and how that might have played into your artistic practice in the 1960s, 70s and ‘80s, and where you are now on some of those issues.
LAY: I was definitely in a different place in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. I got married in 1963 when I was 21. My husband, the artist Kaare Rafoss, and I felt like we grew up together. We were at Pratt Institute at the same time. While he studied painting at Yale Graduate School, I had a teaching job, and then he taught while I did my graduate studies at Rochester Institute of Technology. We were equal in our relationship. We both had the same degrees, and we both took college teaching jobs after graduate school. We felt very independent and yet shared everything. So there was no gender issue or bias for us. Yet in the art world women and their art were considered less important and respected.
Kaare and I moved to a loft on Broome Street in SoHo in 1969. Soon after that I became a member of a women’s consciousness-raising group. While the women’s movement in New York in the 60’s and 70’s had a political agenda, my focus was on making art that was personal and less concerned with social issues.
SIMS: Are you conscious of aspects of your work that address your gender and address issues of sexuality? Do you think someone could look at your work and say a woman did this work?
LAY: I don’t think my work particularly addresses issues of gender or sexuality. I think it’s very formal. Due to their palette and delicacy, some of the recent scroll works might seem to some people more feminine. For most of my career I consciously tried to make work that was not gender specific or feminine, as I felt it would be dismissed. Now I see male artists whose work looks very “feminine.” It’s just not an issue any more: I and others do what each one of us wants.
SIMS: You talked about being married since you were 21, having a happy marriage, and never feeling in any way that your life is compromised in that relationship or in the bond of marriage. What is it like to not only have parents who are artists, but to have a husband who’s an artist?
Kaare’s artwork is very different from mine, but we’ve also come closer in terms of our art and its characteristics. I’ve learned and taken ideas from him. He’s taken ideas from me. For instance, I’ve been using the grid for many, many years. I went away from the grid for a while, and then I went back to it because Kaare began using it, and it became clear to me that it was a structure that I wanted to work with again. We try to stay out of each other’s studios while we are working. But sometimes I will ask him to critique the work. I also frequently ask him for technical help. We have had opportunities to show together in a two-person show, but Kaare is not interested in doing that.
Recently we have been sharing a studio assistant. Szilvia Revesz has worked for us for about 12 years. Originally she was Kaare’s assistant and in the past six years she has also been working with me on my works on paper. Szilvia is a talented artist with a high level of technical skill and knowledge. She is an essential component of my studio practice.
SIMS: You have lived, worked, and now are having a major career survey in New Jersey: does living and working in the state play any major role in your work?
LAY: I can’t say that New Jersey or its art world per se play a role in my work. We lived on Broome Street in SoHo for twelve years before moving to Jersey City in 1981. We moved to Jersey City when we realized we could afford to buy two connected buildings and an adjoining open lot. It gave us large living and workspaces. It is quiet and has lots of light. We have a garden, which is very important to me, and we can park our car in front of our house. My daughter and her family now live in their own apartment in our buildings. I can go sailing a few minutes away from where I live.
When we moved to New Jersey, I had already been teaching in at Montclair State University for almost a decade. The moment I started teaching and then assuming a more administrative role at Montclair State, where I worked from 1972 to 2014, I was thought of as a New Jersey artist. I had a solo show at the New Jersey State Museum in 1973. I was in a biennial exhibition at the Newark Museum in 1977. In the ‘70s I was submitting proposals for New Jersey’s very active public art commissions program. Forwarding my career was much easier in New Jersey than New York. That went on through the ‘80s, by then I felt I had shown in every museum in New Jersey, yet sold very little art and hadn’t achieved any lasting recognition. So I thought now what?
New York City is the place where things happen. Our friends are all artists, and everything that we do socially and professionally has to do with the art world. For us and others here, Jersey City is effectively NYC’s 6th borough. From our neighborhood in Jersey City it takes us literally five minutes to get to downtown Manhattan. If we have a reason to go to NYC more than once in a day, we do so. I don’t feel like I ever left Manhattan.
SIMS: You have been considering this survey of your work for some time; what have you learned about your art and yourself that you did not know or acknowledge before?
LAY: I have been working on my archives in preparation for this show. It is interesting to see the threads that carry through all of the work. The grid was important to me forty-five years ago, and it is still the structure that I choose to work within now. Another constant is art history, which I have continued to rely on for inspiration.
I have also learned more about my family history and the central role that art and creativity have played. It has all been like putting together the pieces of a puzzle.
SIMS: Given the distinct chapters of your art, as you look back with the organization of this survey, how has your attitude about your work and its developments changed? Do you see unity or disconnection? What has been the impact of having to look back when so often you’ve looked forward to the next chapter of your work?
LAY: Those are hard questions to answer, maybe I will know better when all the work installed at the gallery. I do know that when I get to a certain point with a body of work, that I’m finished with it, and I want to introduce something new. So I look out for what will be the next thing.
SIMS: You probably have had colleagues, artist friends in the New York art world, who have had significant success. It hasn’t seemed to discourage you that you haven’t had that much commercial success. Do you think that economic and critical success strengthens a person or an artist or is not really that important?
LAY: I am confident that I am doing good work, but it is important to me to get some art world recognition. Financial success from selling the work is not so important because teaching gave us a very secure living, we were able to buy in Jersey City the space we need to live and work.
I always thought the ideal situation would be to have one’s art support itself. But financial success can make artists turn their work into a business, and in the process they loose the freedom to change and evolve. People expect certain kinds of work and so you just keep making it. It’s hard to move ahead with new ideas because you can just keep producing and producing.
SIMS: Now that your teaching practice has ended, has more time and the full focus you can have freed or opened up your art making and thinking?
LAY: Yes, I can focus. I don’t feel pressure to rush the work. I have time to experiment. I have thought about working with paper pulp, but I have never had the time to experiment with it. While teaching I felt that I didn’t have the time to deal with the business side of being an artist: self-promotion and networking. I chose to go to the studio rather than promote the work. Family, teaching, and art making always came before self-promotion and socializing. Now I try to structure my time so that more time is allotted for the business of art.
SIMS: How does being older impact on the role that art has in your life and that you now are looking back on the whole span of your career?
LAY: I am not done yet. I will continue to make art as long as I am able. I am happiest when I am working in my studio.
It remains very hard to get a NY gallery, but it’s remains the best way for my work to be placed in collections and preserved.
I would love to say that I would have chosen not to teach and just be a full-time artist, but I know I could not have done that. We have so many artist friends that are in economic distress at this point. They can no longer afford to live in New York City. Many have no retirement income or health insurance. Basic good luck and the choices we made have allowed us to feel financially secure, which makes me feel good about how I have lived as an artist.