In 2010, the Connecticut-born artist James Welling began a series of photographs inspired by the paintings of Andrew Wyeth. Welling is known for numerous experiments with photographic mediums, from Polaroids to photograms to Photoshop, often pushing the boundaries between representation and abstraction, and the Wyeth series is no exception. To mark the completion of the series, the Brandywine River Museum of Art, which showcases works by three generations of the Wyeth family, among other artists, has organized an exhibition along with a newly commissioned work. Drew Sawyer caught up with Welling before the show opened last week.
DREW SAWYER—You began making photographs inspired by Wyeth’s paintings in 2010. What initially attracted you to the subject?
JAMES WELLING—When I was 14 my parents gave me a catalogue on Wyeth. I’d already been looking at Wyeth’s work at the local museum in Hartford and like a lot of adolescents, I was drawn to his moody depiction of figures in landscapes and his technical prowess. For a few years I took art classes with a local art teacher who introduced me to Giacometti and Van Gogh. But on the side I taught myself to paint like Wyeth, and I would venture in the suburban landscape and paint my own versions of Wyeth’s paintings.
DREW—So, by the time you began to formally study art in college you were a painter?
JAMES—By the time I got to Carnegie Mellon I was already interested in abstract expressionism and had moved beyond Wyeth. So I went to CMU intending to be a painter.
DREW—And now you’ve returned to Wyeth, through photographic means.
JAMES—I became more interested in Wyeth’s work in the mid 2000s. I was surprised to learn that he was still alive and making interesting paintings. When he died in 2009 I realized that I could make a project about him. So I went to Cushing, Maine and begin with the Olson house and the project took off from there. I had just completed my photographs about Philip Johnson’s Glass House.
DREW—I was going to ask you if you saw a connection between these two series since you started the Wyeth series after completing your Glass House project, in which you photographed, using color filters, Philip Johnson’s iconic house in Connecticut. Johnson founded the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, where you worked as a freelance photographer in the 80s. Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World, probably one of his most well-known works and, for some, one of the most beloved American paintings of the 20th century, is also in MoMA’s collection—although usually displayed in interstitial spaces outside the painting and sculpture galleries. Both series seem to explore, in some ways, alternative narratives of Modernism.
JAMES—Sure, with the Glass House I was going up to New Canaan, Connecticut and using it as a laboratory to investigate color, transparency, and the idea of architectural photography. I’ve been fascinated by architecture and have made other projects about the subject. In Glass House I was using Johnson’s 40-plus acre site with its dozen buildings as an area to experiment and make photographs. So the idea of a site is transferred into the Wyeth project. I am making a body of photographs around a tight geographic locus.
DREW—You’ve returned again and again to subject matter in New England and you mentioned that you grew up around Hartford, so I’m interested what that region means to you, especially given your time in Southern California.
JAMES—When I lived in California in the late 70s, I would travel to the East Coast and I began a project called Diary/Landscape: landscapes of Connecticut and paired with photographs a 19th-century diary. I became aware of New England as a subject more intensely when I was away from it. The same thing happened when I moved to Los Angeles in 1995; I began to make work about the East Coast partially because I wasn’t there fulltime. I was able to see the layered cultural past of New England via California.
DREW—Speaking of landscapes, the Brandywine River Museum of Art, which showcases the work of the Wyeth family, commissioned a new piece in conjunction with the exhibition. How did that project come about?
JAMES—In 1985, I made a drawing for some painted panels sampled from colors in the landscape. The project lay dormant until recently. I began to use gradient maps in Photoshop to add color to some photograms in 2010 and for the Brandywine I have decided to let the color gradients stand alone. And beginning in the 80s I made a series of Rothko-esque images called Degradés, where one color flows into another. Those are made in a dark room using an enlarger. So this sculpture project called gradients at the Brandy Wine is related then to those early dark room experiments and also reference tools available in Photoshop.
DREW—I’m curious to know more about the process of the Wyeth photographs. We often think of Wyeth as a great American realist painter of the 20th century but there is this hint of the surreal as well. Your use of Photoshop seems to be similarly playing with the idea of realism, but in photography.
JAMES—You’re absolutely right. There’s a surrealist leaning in Wyeth and that’s where his work should be classified art historically. He is known for having a very limited color palette, somber tonalities. However, as in the case with Renaissance painters there’s an underpainting of a very vibrant colors in Wyeth. After discovering Wyeth’s use of colored underpainting, I began to think about using gradient maps in Photoshop to introduce new colors or substitute colors in my Wyeth photographs. Gradient maps map colors onto a grayscale image. In a number of my Wyeth photographs, I replaced colors with my chosen colors in gradient maps.
DREW—And then that’s the connection to the commission piece at the museum.
JAMES—Exactly. I was using gradient maps in the photographs and the gradient sculptures evolved when I was asked to do a sculptural installation in the landscape of the Brandywine.
DREW—Over the years you often work in series, whether the Glass House or now Wyeth, and before that the Light Sources. Why are you interested in this approach to art making? Are you usually interested in exploring a specific question or problem?
JAMES—When I start a series, the conceptual parameters become defined as I go along and then, a few months in, are fixed. With Wyeth I just go out in the landscape, make pictures, and follow the program I have set up. That allows me time to think about other works. One of the things that the Wyeth project and Glass House project got me thinking about is color. Color in photography and color in perception. Thinking about color has been heightened by the monochrome quality of the Wyeth paintings. My response to this colorlessness has been to change the color, remove color, add color in my Wyeth pictures, and to deconstruct Photoshop and make inkjet prints in a new way.
DREW—Is the time frame of a series usually set from the beginning as part of the parameters? How do you decide when a project is finished?
JAMES—Often there is a show. Wyeth is concluding with the show at the Brandywine.
DREW—Can you tell us about your new work?
JAMES—I’m working on new photographic composites combining dance, architecture, and landscape. I’m tinkering with the color channels in Photoshop and while it’s very remote from Wyeth the new photographs continue the work I was doing with gradient maps and to some extent ideas of site and place.
Thinks Beyond Resemblance: James Welling Photographs is on show at the Brandywine River Museum of Art until November 15, 2015.