artist spotlight: Bill Kolb
fields is proud to pair with Austin's Little Pink Monster Gallery to bring you the artist spotlight series, a collection of interviews conducted by the folks at Little Pink Monster, working in tandem with our editors to showcase some of the most interesting visual artists here in Austin and beyond. Some of these artists have exhibited with Little Pink Monster, and as fans of the wonderful women behind the LPM Gallery, we are excited to be able to provide a platform to introduce them to a wider audience. This week's interview was conducted by LPM's head curator Annie Wells, who spoke with artist Bill Kolb.
A visitor looks at one of Kolb's works.
Bill Kolb was born in Wisconsin and grew up in New Orleans. He has been painting for more than 50 years.
How, and at what point in your life, did you become an artist?
BK: My dad got a summer job with UNESCO in London, so the whole family spent the summer in London. But only he had to work, so the rest of us went to museums, and we went to the UNESCO building and I saw a bunch of modern art. I thought This is a really neat idea, but these guys are no good, and I had been looking at painting since age seven.
What age were you when you thought these other painters were no good?
BK: I was 16. And so I immediately bought an oil set in London and realized it was a little tougher than I thought it was, and I’ve been trying to improve on that painting ever since.
And where is that first painting?
BK: I threw it away.
How would you describe your current process?
BK: I have several current processes. Upstairs I make smaller stuff, and I recently—not for terribly long, about six months—I’ve been cutting out wooden shapes and then gluing them together and painting the shapes.
Okay, so that’s how you describe your work upstairs. How are you describing downstairs?
BK: Downstairs I would say is the more demanding painting, and I specifically built the downstairs studio with a high enough ceiling that I can paint tall paintings. Right now, I think the tallest I’ve gone is 10.5 feet, but as soon as the upcoming show is finished, I’ll start building at least one, and then if that’s successful, I’ll start building more that are 12.5 foot-tall paintings. And I’ve got some ideas of new ways to apply the paint faster. One of the things I know I’ve mentioned to you before—I don’t know when this will happen, or even if it will happen—but I’d like to make some automatic painting machines or some painting robots that can be told, “Follow these instructions and let me know when you’re finished.” And it’s just because each of my paintings has about 70,000 dots on it, and I place each dot myself, by hand. And I would like the robot to put down maybe 60,000 dots according to my instruction and then, if I need to paint over some of them, I have no problem with that, but it means I can get a lot more paintings done more quickly. And because I’m less worn out, I’m hoping they will even be better than the ones that I did solely by hand.
I like the collaboration concept with the robot, especially knowing you have a background in microelectronics. That’s really amazing, because first, you’re making the robot. That in itself is a work of art. Then you are creating a second work of art in the algorithm you program. Finally, you are having those two works of art go to work for you in creating another work of art. I think that is multiple depths of being an artist. And I love that. I think it’s special that you can approach a project from that space. There are not many artists who could create at that level. Not everybody could do that. That’s very special.
I want to ask about themes recurring in your work. Now that I’ve experienced your work in person, I’ve seen firsthand the range you possess as an artist. From the very geometrical shapes we showed during [the Little Pink Monster show] “Superprism” that you’ve had success selling in the Dallas market, to the almost pointillist style of the downstairs big pieces, and then you also create a kind of structural collage work. Though each style is very different, they are all recognizably yours. Can you speak to the themes of your pieces?
BK: Well, the first thing to say (and it’s pretty obvious) is that I almost never paint representational painting. I’m a totally non-representational painter 99.9% of the time. On a rare occasion, just to amuse myself, I’ll play. A little while ago I found a plastic cowboy with his legs cut off and glued him to a painting. Now, every time I walk by that painting, I think What is he doing on there? So someday he may disappear, but he’s there right now. It’s been a long time since I’ve been a representational painter, though I did get into art school with a self-portrait.
When you tell your family story, you mention that you did have access to the arts. Were you raised in a creative sense? Was that a part of growing up in your household?
BK: My family was not so actively creative, but two things came into play. My mom thought it would be good to have us exposed to art, my sister and I, though I don’t think my sister really ever mentioned that she thought paintings were neat. The second thing that came into play, and remember I was a young man then, I could sit around the house all day and look at Renoir. Renoir is amazing for a couple of reasons. One, he could paint like a son of a bitch, and two, a lot of his paintings were naked ladies, and I could look at them without getting into trouble, and I really liked that. So my mom would bring home these folios from the New Orleans Public Library… There were a lot of libraries around town, branch libraries, but this one really seemed to specialize in really sort of upscale reproductions and stuff like that. So my mom on a regular basis would bring this stuff home, so I was looking at it probably from age six or seven. And it became more and more important for me—not just for the naked ladies. But I grew up looking at Gauguin and all those guys from that time.
You mention in your bio that Gauguin, Renoir, Monet and Pollock really influenced you.
BK: Well that’s true, from my childhood except for the Pollock. That’s one thing I wish my parents had thrown in was Pollock. I didn’t know Pollock existed until I was 18 or 19 years old, and that kind of makes me mad because by then he was dead. And I just wish… For a long time I saw this modern art swirling around, and I liked some of it and not some of it, just like anybody would. But it wasn’t until I saw Pollock that I was like Here’s the center of the hurricane, and all these others are swirling around, but here’s the man that made it happen. I’m not saying there weren’t others leading up to Pollock, but Pollock, without geometry, without sarcasm, without anything, made these really big important paintings that were totally non-representational, and that was a big breakthrough. And it created a gigantic tension. All the abstract expressionists were like Am I going to make images show up? Am I not going to make images show up? De Kooning went back and forth on that. Even Pollock went back and forth on that. And after he invented probably the most revolutionary painting of the 20th century, he started drinking again, and he wished he wasn’t doing it any more. I believe it was in 1947 that he first showed the non-representational paintings devoid of any reference to anything outside the painting.
Of the list of artists you mention that have influenced you, I hear you speaking with the most enthusiasm about Pollock. Is that because you discovered him later in life and so had a stronger art vocabulary? Or is there something about his work that strikes a nerve for you?
BK: Well, I think we are still in the post-Pollock era. Pollock led to [Frank] Stella, for instance, and also kind of just freed stuff up. If you go back and look at how people were painting before Pollock became known there’s, to me, in most of the work there is a stiffness. And Pollock just burst out of the other side of that stiffness. And we never know where the next explosion is going to come from.
So, let’s go back to your youth. You grew up through junior high in New Orleans. Can you tell us more about that experience?
BK: I was two blocks away from the Newcomb College Art Gallery, and I would walk over there on my own on a regular basis. I was so unorganized then (like I am now) that I didn’t even know when the next show would be, it never occurred to me to ask to get on a mailing list or something. But I lived only two blocks away, and it was a nice walk passed morning glories on this little bitty back road that was paved with cockle shells. It was fun to go over there barefoot.
How old were you?
BK: I probably started doing that around age 10, and it was mostly because the place had air conditioning and a Coke machine and nice people, but pretty soon it was like Wow, some of these paintings are really good, and some of them are really bad.
So, this is 10-year-old barefoot Bill Kolb walking to the museum by yourself? Were you accompanied by anyone?
BK: No. My dad taught at Newcomb College, we lived two blocks off campus, there was no danger to speak of. It was my backyard. I went further than that to play with my friends. And it was safe. There was nothing to fear.
You had this amazing natural exposure and curiosity that was fostered and never pushed down. Would you consider that a lynchpin to your creative growth?
BK: A lot of people run away from home to be creative. I didn’t have to do that. My parents didn’t think I was necessarily going to be an artist, but they did always say, “Be what you want to be.” I think part of that was that my father had a giant fight with his father. His father had decided that my father would be an attorney, but my father wanted to be a college professor, so my parents were very determined that they were not going to do that to their children. No pressure around being who they thought we should be. Only who we are. Be who you want to be.
So, tell me about your process.
BK: Like I said, it’s a given that it will be non-representational. It’s usually based on something that I’ve learned recently that I felt I almost got to in the last painting, so I’ll start again. But it’s very not thought out. There’s usually some idea, but one of the things I’ve learned is, in the big paintings, since they are all dot paintings—the big ones anyway, not the geometrical ones—first I decide if the surface needs to be lumpy before I start. And most times I decide, yes, it needs to be lumpy. So I’ll smear on some of what they call gel, just to build up the surface. And it’s very intuitive. I’ll smear some here and I’ll smear some there and I’ll think That kind of looks awkward, maybe if I put some over here it will look less awkward. And by the time you’re done, most people don’t even notice whether I put the texture on there or not. I mean, after I put 70,000 dots on it, I’m not sure it’s obvious that I put texture under the dots or not. At the end of the day, I can’t stop working for the day if the painting looks awkward. And so, generally, there will be something I like about it before I stop. Unless I’m just exhausted.
Tell me more about that. This is particularly curious to me because I think so many artists work differently. Is there a flow to when you work? Do you create every day? Is there a schedule according to which you paint?
BK: I don’t work every day, but I feel like I’m building a muscle that allows me to work more often and longer than I used to. In fact, I know that’s true by far. And I want to continue doing that because if I can produce 20 important—to me, I want to say to me because, hopefully, they will be important to the world—but for now I distinguish between the pieces that are yucky and maybe one day I’ll change them from the ones I don’t want to change. The ones I don’t want to change are the important ones. I feel it’s more important that they are important to me… I’ve spent many years when I only created one important piece that whole year. When I was busy in Silicon Valley designing high-speed chips, I made zero a year. What I want to do is build the muscle where I almost take it for granted that I’m going to make 20 paintings a year that are important to me. And I’m not there yet, but I’m getting closer. And a lot of what I’m working on is the mundane. How much am I willing to spend on assistants, or how much non-art stuff could I spin off to other people. And could I create a machine that could get a painting halfway there before I have to start painting on it, based on an algorithm I create, it could get a painting to a certain point before I take over. All of that is valuable.
Earlier you said your work is 10.5 feet tall. Then, later you mentioned you might be moving to an even larger scale. Can you tell us more about that?
BK: First of all, the studio has ceilings that are 14.5 feet tall. So creating a painting that is 12.5 feet tall is not arbitrary, because I’m thinking I want to hang it with a foot of white wall above it and below it. I mean, I guess I could make one all the way from floor to ceiling. It could be hard to lay down a painting that tall so I can work on it. I would have to remove the ceiling lights.
Would you say then that you are limited by the space? And, if given the opportunity, would you work on an even grander scale?
BK: Well, if I ever reach that point, I’ll build an even bigger studio. I mean I have an acre not too far outside of Austin and I have space there that I could build a studio if I needed to. But I’m kind of thinking that 14.5 feet tall is large enough.
I think a lot of people would agree with you.
BK: Also, there are certain times a year that you can paint outside in Austin, so maybe I’ll save some of the even larger ones for June, July and August or something. And they’ll be sweat paintings.
Interview by Annie Wells. Photography by Orlando Sanchez.