WD: Are there examples of direct influence of the Los Angeles landscape on your work?
WB: Yes, certainly. In the fifties I was working on land and sea images. I used to go to the top of Mulholland Ridge and work directly from nature. At that time it wasn’t populated, and it was not uncommon to find fossils. The terrain was mountainous, a great dinosaur spine spilling into the sea, primordial and tenacious. The bushes cantilevered from the side of the hill with the ground eroding, the roots grasping and holding on; all of that fascinated me. I am told that we are losing the live oaks because of over-irrigation; because they are indigenous, they are used to a more arid condition. Anyhow, at that time local color was an issue for me, and I was really interested in the color of the earth—parched, gold ochre, umber and sienna. And there was the panorama. I visited Big Sur and gradually I realized I was seeking an image in which I could incorporate the proximate and the distant—in film terms, like having the sensation of a close-up and a long shot simultaneously. I gathered fragments from nature and incorporated various sites in order to invent a landscape.
WD: You talked once about trying to achieve the color of rocks.
WB: Oh, yes. When I was painting the small paintings of sea rocks, one of the qualities that intrigued me was that the color was inseparable from substance. If you broke a rose rock it was rose all the way through. And I remember painting those small paintings by layering color over color with a palette knife. I was interested in how those rocks were formed; perhaps initially they had been torn from the land and had been smoothed and eroded slowly by the sea.
WD: So you were interested in the cycle.
WB: I don’t think I was conscious of it at that time, but subsequent work tended to clarify some of that. When I first started to work with roses, the flowers in the garden, I wasn’t aware that I would become involved with this cyclical imagery. But it revealed itself as a central issue and then it involved me in a relationship of temporal changes. Not in the sense of Impressionism—although I love Monet’s Rouen cathedrals, his transformations of atmosphere, his extraordinary sensitivity of perception.
WD: But were you not also involved with the changes of the forms of the flowers?
WB: Certainly, and also with the contrast of qualities, the rose, the petal, and the thorn.
WD: You mean jagged and soft.
WB: Yes, visual experience is complex. We respond to texture, substance, color, light, form, space and dimensionality simultaneously, and artists are selective in the priorities of their responses.
WD: It is interesting that through the history of art there have been artists that have certain similar qualities as their primary interest. I think of Piero della Francesco when I look at your work, or the Greeks…
WB: Well, those are some of my sources, certainly. I still have a Piero reproduction on the walls of my studio.
WD: Your space is very shallow, almost like a stage set.
WB: Well, my works now tend toward frontality and do not have a great deal of overlapping. I have come to feel that composition is not so much a matter of visual organizing, but rather an equilibrium in tension, a composite in which formal and associative values are synthesized. I want to engage and hold concentration. Relationships always occur visually, and each artist finds his own measure, a particular tenor of expression.
WD: Do you think art always builds on previous styles?
WB: Yes, but there is also the need to create work which confirms the reality of one’s existence, permits discovery and revelation. We are always working in a changing context and attitudes change about what we make. Someone attributed to Titian a comment about a red robe he had painted. He said that the red was as good as he could make it, but it would really be right in thirty years. Now, I don’t think you would find many of us thinking that way, and perhaps artists today are more valued for their involvement in the creative process than for their ability to perfect an object.
WD: I am curious to know what someone like you, who has taught for thirty years, and has been a working artist for at least that long, how you see some of the things that have been going on recently? There are artists who call themselves “appropriation” artists, who are at a loss for creating their own images and have a feeling that there is nothing left for them to do but to make a statement about that fact. There seems to be a frustration with the object itself.
WB: If not with the object, with the values that relate to the accumulation of objects. But, you know, my feeling has always been that I would accept any artist’s rationale if it was useful to his creative process.
WD: If you sensed an integrity.
WB: Yes, I mean, so much of the time the question arises, is it art? I would rather think, is it important to me? Do I care? Can I be involved with it? Is it revelatory? Is it affecting? If it is those things, the high probability is that it is art.
WD: Of all the movements that have come and gone—Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Op, Conceptual Art—which ones, if any, have fed your own work?
WB: It is impossible to be innocent, to be uninformed, today. I mean you would have to work awfully hard at it. Provincial or regional styles, I think, have disappeared. The Neo-expressionist thrust we see today is an international activity. I would not have been able to prophesy the way art would change, but as a teacher I recognized that a graduate student working in that period of extensive refinement just prior to Neo-expressionism, had to try to find his or her way. Something had to happen. An artist is actually dealing with his or her survival as an artist from painting to painting. I remember one time seeing a television interview with Jacques Lipschitz. They were discussing the evolution of his work toward increasing simplification, and he said, “I was taking out, all the time I was taking out, and I realized that I had come maybe to a perfect zero, but that I had left too much of my life out of it.”