By Fred Camper
Walter Andersons could be the typical thirtysomething Chicago artist. Armed with a bachelor's degree from the School of the Art Institute, he works in the shipping department of an art museum. He has little money. Sales of his paintings--in the low thousands each year--don't even cover his expenses. He goes to openings and lectures and cofounded a rock band.
He lives in the same dumpy apartment he's had since school. Plastic covers his windows because there's never enough heat. His clutter of books and artworks and reproductions is quirkily arranged--here, a mass of objects; there, a single postcard on a bare wall. On the inside of his front door he's posted some old coins, a paper mock-up for one of his paintings, a Japanese candy wrapper, a letter from artist Dennis Kowalski to the Reader decrying neighborhood gentrification, a 1973 Michigan dog license, and a crucifix ("to ward off evil," Andersons explains). He speaks of his artistic heroes--including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, and Pablo Picasso--with immense knowledge of their lives, work, and writings.
Other items reveal ties not only to the world of modern art but to a troubled past--ties he seems reluctant to break. Sitting on his desk is a calendar from Saint Paul's Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in Farmington Hills, Michigan. He hasn't lived in Michigan for nearly 20 years, but he's still a paying member of that congregation and, yes, a believer. His paintings--reproducing handwritten or typewritten texts or, more recently, replicating black-and-white photocopies of color paintings--are consistent with postmodern rhetoric about representation. But their roots go deeper, back to the mix of affection and abuse he received from his family in suburban Detroit. Perhaps that's why Andersons's paintings are far more emotional and affecting than a simple account of their style and content would suggest. He is an enormously talented and original painter who counts among his fans some of the most respected observers of the Chicago art scene.
Northwestern University professor James Yood compares Andersons's paintings to other Chicago artists of "tremendous pictorial skill," from Ivan Albright to Jim Nutt, before concluding "his work isn't like anything I know." Referring to Andersons's paintings from photocopies of art reproductions, Yood says, "It would be easy enough to do Xeroxes and put the Xeroxes up. The fact that he engages in this obsessive, ritualistic, and almost archaic practice of trompe l'oeil painting can leave the viewer vaguely concussed. His work dazes me; part of his allure is the sheer wonder of how can you make paint lie down to resemble photocopying. But he's right that most of us experience art through art books, grainy reproductions. And Andersons's work is a kind of deadpan investigation of what it is to make art and what the art world is in all of its various mechanics--many of which are ripe for flaying."
Yood's enthusiasm is shared by Mark Pascale, associate curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute, who calls Andersons "easily among the top artists of his generation in Chicago, perhaps even threatening an older generation for the depth of his thinking. There's a print fetish component in it, which appeals to me as someone who studies prints, but he turns it into a painting issue."
Museum of Contemporary Art associate curator Dominic Molon sees Andersons as part of a "conceptual bent" in Chicago painting, connected to other painters "who have taken elements from everyday life and abstracted them. I've always felt that Walter is really underrecognized because his work is so understated; it doesn't push some more trendy buttons."
Judith Russi Kirshner, dean of the college of architecture and the arts at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says Andersons's work is "mysterious and intriguing. For me it was almost rhyming with a lot of the art-historical and art-critical baggage that I carry around. It's indebted to the recent discourse of postmodernism that says the only access we have to that work is through reproduction and mediation. Not only is the work visually very articulate, but his use of language is unusually considerate and even occasionally poetic." Comparing his concerns to those of Belgian painter Luc Tuymans, she suggests that Andersons's art should not be seen only in a local context.
His skill is evident in the 14 paintings that make up his latest show at River North's TBA Exhibition Space (the show is up through March 18). There's something strangely optimistic about the six canvases with austere brown stripes; in part an homage to abstract expressionist Barnett Newman's vertical bands, or "zips," they reflect Andersons's belief that past painting styles can be "retrieved." Of the eight large canvases that reproduce photocopies of artworks, seven are based on black-and-white copies of paintings known primarily for their vibrant color, such as Henri Matisse's The Red Studio, or paintings known for their lack of color, such as Ad Reinhardt's black grids. At the opening I spotted Mike Langlois, a young artist who paints trompe l'oeil architectural murals as a day job, peering at one up close to try to determine whether it was a photocopy transfer or actually painted. He concluded he was looking at paint, but the fact he had to examine it closely testifies to the success of Andersons's "trompes."
Andersons is a bundle of contradictions--he talks about wanting to readily communicate, though to fully understand his paintings requires time and knowledge. "I'm obsessed with making sure that people get what I intend from a show," he says, "almost to the point of being pained if people miss something as subtle as I think some of the points are." Yet his artist's statement explains only a tiny fraction of his intent, and he allows that diverse, even contradictory readings are acceptable. Art should "communicate," but his idea of communication isn't simple. Indeed, looking can be a challenge. It took him years to figure out that the letters "ITLKSEZ" in a Stuart Davis collage were the artist's shorthand for "it looks easy"--a phrase Andersons then used for the title of one of his own paintings.
Many of the painters whose work he admires use grandiose language to describe their paintings, but Andersons describes the utility of art in very practical terms. Just as a store sign conveys useful information, "all art is useful," he says. "Painting exists in the tradition of the picture window, a view into another life, but there's another way of looking at it--as a physical presence, an object, a thing." Of Barnett Newman's solid-color canvases punctuated only by zips, Andersons says, "They let me understand architecture, understand my being in a room." Reinhardt's black paintings allow Andersons to test his ability to look at tiny variations of color. "One of the first shortcomings of bad abstract painting is not involving that sense of an experience," he says. "Good abstraction continues to be evocative. It's not that you're going to find a sunset that looks exactly like a Rothko painting, but maybe looking at a grand sunset or the colors on flower petals, there is a link to those paintings. Anybody who seriously looks at paintings ends up becoming fine-tuned to all looking. Understanding a Barnett Newman painting makes me much more savvy on the street, to not be hit by a passing CTA bus. It invigorates my senses."
Andersons's work is a complex response to the paintings he loves as well as a reaction against the excesses he recalls among some of his peers. "One of the things that pushed me toward making art that was far more conceptual and less emotive was seeing painters who would be as coated with paint as the canvas. I had friends who made great paintings that way, but most of the time it was sort of like playing around with feces." In the present show, "I subtract some of the romance of painting out of it. I remove gesture, color, variety. The aim for me is making painting less an immediately pleasurable thing, therefore a more demanding and loaded thing. I'm thinking of a different kind of pleasure, not an overtly emotional pleasure like saying I paint what I feel, everybody enjoy my emotional splay across the room in a dozen canvases because I am the great Walter. In a roomful of paintings I've removed most of the distraction and included some things that are kind of puzzling, that are meant to sort of flip the boat." If one viewer thinks the primary impulse behind his Untitled: Red Studio Panel is to capture a bit of Matisse's art, while another thinks that the painting is about paying attention to the qualities of a photocopy, that would be fine with Andersons. He's even happy if viewers wonder if they've understood it, "because in part I want someone to come to the show repeatedly and I also want, if someone does buy a painting, that they have an active future with it."
Andersons often uses the phrase "paying attention." This can refer to viewing art or making art, and doing either can help you to deepen your perceptions and understanding. He was already familiar with Walter Benjamin's famous essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" when it was assigned in a college class. "Dammit!" he recalls thinking. "I've read this a couple of times. For me to just skim through it now would be a waste of my time." Instead he proceeded "like a monk" to transcribe it word for word. "By transcribing it I caught some qualities I'd missed." Similarly, copying Matisse's The Red Studio is one way of getting to know it more closely. "When someone looks at a reproduction, they're glossing over it just like anyone could in an art magazine or an art book, just like I'd be guilty of. But what I'm trying to do is really look at it, and also trying to match the imperfections in the photocopy, trying to present the tone and some of the marginal blips."
In his photocopy paintings he reproduces whole pages from art history books and exhibition catalogs, delicately adding layers of white to get some sense of the actual photocopied sheet set off against the painted background. He also carefully duplicates the captions and plate numbers--these are painted with as much care as the pictures. "I wanted to experiment with this idea of an equalization; I want people to have a heightened awareness of all those elements, and I want them to be equal and honest on the surface of the painting." Using paint to precisely replicate the look of various fonts has made Andersons more aware of printing and the tiny imperfections on a printed page the casual reader might miss.
Jasper Johns, whose paintings are famously difficult to interpret, is his biggest influence. Like Johns, Andersons consciously works in the wake of the abstract expressionists. Deflating some of the grand ambitions of those earlier painters, "Johns not only made paintings that were very demanding, but I think that he was always very honest about the thingness of them. Johns's quest is philosophical--it's deeply disturbed about the lack of control in language or communication."
Andersons once based a painting on a Post-it note he found at work on top of a stack of old phone books. The note read "Do not know were to take theme." Someone had apparently meant to write "Do not know where to take them," but to Andersons the misspelling suggested the dilemma of a blocked artist. He faithfully reproduced not only the text but the slight variations in the lines left by a ballpoint pen. "It was a tag to discard something, but also its broken English was endearing to me. Here's the duality: there's a concrete feeling to seeing that Post-it, the yellow color and the scale of it. The message is part of it but it's also a real thing in the world."
Andersons's parents are now deceased, and his knowledge of their early lives is spotty--some of my questions actually led him to do research. While both were born in the town of Ainazi, Latvia, in 1925, his father, Hermanis Andersons, didn't meet his mother, Waltraut Sterfeldt, until the mid-1950s in Germany. His father's name indicates Swedish origins; the final s is a masculine suffix in Latvian. During World War II his father fought in the Latvian Legion, an anti-Soviet force allied with the Nazis. After the war both of his parents lived in displaced-persons camps. His father later trained as a landscaper and also worked in textile mills in England. Marrying in 1955, his parents came to the U.S. a year later, when a Lutheran organization offered them positions as live-in servants for a Kentucky family. In 1957 Andersons's father got a job as a tool-and-die maker in Detroit. The youngest of three siblings, Walter was born in 1965.
Latvian was "the language of the house" in Oak Park, Michigan, so Walter spoke both Latvian and English at a young age. Today he still speaks some Latvian, singing portions of two folk songs for me. He says his youth was split between two worlds: the English-language life of the public schools, and the Latvian emigre culture of his family, church, Sunday school, and Boy Scout troop. Latvian scouting was distinctive, "a very rootsy kind of thing in terms of fundamental respect for nature and learning how to live in the woods." Sunday school included Latvian-language instruction, with homework several nights a week. There was Latvian folk dancing, theater, and traditional music at the church. Walter loved some of this, but by junior high he began to resist.
"I found a dilemma in this whole ethnic project," he says. "The children were being raised with the language and geography and history of Latvia, and I understood the intent was to return someday. But the more I knew about what was going on as I came of age, the more I realized that everyone who had left was comfortable with their situations and would not be so enthused about returning. I felt there was some hypocrisy. Plus I'm a huge fan of poetry, but I never really found Latvian poets that got beyond the descriptive agrarian-patriotic model. As an early teenager I'd much rather have read Kafka than read any Latvian writer because I felt like I didn't want to read another poem about elm trees." He was disciplined for erasing homework assignments. "I was challenging my father in a way, and I think it caused him a lot of pain."
Though an outsider would never guess it, Andersons's past is echoed in his paintings. In the dance festivals he attended as a boy, the girls would wear bright colors particular to different regions of Latvia, but the boys all wore identical colors--gray, white, black, and brown. His palette is "eerily close" to that costume. He also traces his attitude toward language to the unfulfilled dream of return: "I realized how language is easily a failing endeavor."
"There's something about that immigrant culture, coming from Eastern Europe when it did, that was in a sense halted during the era of black-and-white photography," he says, "which makes me far more attuned to black and white. Also, while they did try to do it as thoroughly as possible, it was only a copy of the real culture." The immigrants took "copy" literally, making miniatures of traditional buildings, such as smokehouses. "My father made tiny spinning wheels and a miniature beer stein of wood with a Latvian sun symbol on it. One of his projects in the Cub Scouts was to assemble this little diorama version of a Latvian well. My father was fastidious in producing the parts and giving everyone several parts to assemble."
While the Latvian connection provided some sense of community, in other ways Andersons and his family were isolated. They had no other close family members in the U.S., and the kids quickly realized they didn't quite fit in. Walter watched TV shows like The Brady Bunch for cues as to how Americans should live. Their home furnishings were up-to-date, but the kids' clothes were a little bit off. "My brother was a few years older, but he and I would be dressed alike--brothers shouldn't be dressed alike, and we got teased. My parents resisted the idea of dressing us in jeans; we didn't have tennis shoes until later.
"It seems like a very easy argument to say children of immigrant families do their best to erase their parents' ethnic ties and become these kind of all-Americans, but in a sense they're pushed to do that, responding to this second text of fear." The fear was not irrational: Walter was "bullied for being slightly different. I was a goofy kid, pudgy, dressed in slightly more formal than normal clothing, academic rather than athletic. I wasn't really liked, and I was picked on heavily, and I certainly didn't have an older brother who could kick butt, so I had to fend for myself a lot." But the taunting didn't just affect the kids. Their mother rarely went to church with the family because "she felt like she was being judged, or her kids were being judged. I remember once someone made a comment to her about my physiognomy, saying, 'Your children look like Mongoloids.' My mother was near 40 when I was born, and there was this popular myth among the Latvian women that children born to older women had more Mongoloid attributes."
There were occasional visitors, but his parents tended to wall themselves off, as if they were afraid of the world. They gardened; Andersons's mother rarely ventured far from the house. After the 1967 Detroit riots his father went downtown only when necessary, while his mother never set foot in the city again. "My mother hated to travel, which sort of got instilled in me. It's probably why I've stayed at the same job for ten years and why I've lived in the same place for fifteen. I have a hard time sometimes with change, because I learned that from my parents, who had change forced down their throats. People died from the changes they lived through."
When Andersons tells the story of his family, he at first uses the cliche "dysfunctional." He calls his father a "stern disciplinarian" who "sometimes whipped us with a belt," though always for specific infractions. Vague references to his father being "abusive with my mother" are accompanied by admonitions that this information is not for publication. The truth emerges in pieces: "domestic abuse," "their fights happened," "abuse became a normal thing in a terrible way," "he'd hit her," "my father beat my mother." Finally, Andersons says, "He'd be smacking her, trying to drag her across the room by her hair, and I would be afraid that it might get so out of hand that he'd start beating her to the point she was unconscious. I would wonder about her surviving these kind of battles." A couple weeks after revealing this part of his story, he agrees to put it on the record.
"My mother was as sharp and smart as my father, and she knew how to fan his anger. He would hit her and she would talk back, crack on him, and he would hit her again. In trying to comprehend my father's violence, I felt sort of helpless. I would start asking, who can we tell to get this to stop? But I was just a leaf at the end of a bad branch of a crazy tree. I didn't have any power over them, and it gave me even more of a sense of estrangement, probably from everyone. I do think that my father's abuse of my mother was a form of communication, but it's in no way a model for communication."
Andersons says his family's interactions were "curt." They rarely did things as a group. The kitchen table only seated four, and his mother used that as a reason not to eat with them. He remembers large holiday gatherings: "My mother also enjoyed speaking at these parties, and sometimes my father would interject, 'No, no, no, you don't know what you're talking about.' But they were still functioning domestically. My father had the money for groceries on Friday; my mother made sure there was dinner on the table. And I did see them being affectionate. There were ways in which they were on the same page and collaborated wonderfully, such as on furnishing the house--and I admire them, and I miss them terribly, actually."
Among his siblings, Andersons recalls, he was "somewhat favored for getting good grades. It was both a survival strategy that kept me away from discipline and an investing strategy--I got their praise, but I also became more independent because of it." His brother, on the other hand, was actually called "meathead," like Archie Bunker's son-in-law. "My father was fond of the show; he sometimes took Archie Bunker as his role model. But he only gave my brother low self-esteem with his criticisms, instead of any sense of direction." The two brothers fought often, and after Walter left some of his artworks in the attic his brother "spray painted over them. At first I was furious, but I realized that he had legitimate reasons to be so disappointed in himself. I think he loves a certain kind of power and cruelty that he was raised with." Today, with both parents gone, his brother and sister still live in the family home, though they're estranged from each other. They're both single and working at low-wage jobs. "They've taken some of my parents' worst habits," Andersons says.
He remembers his own interactions with his parents as mostly positive. From his father he learned meticulous craftmanship and the proper use of tools. "He was somewhat of a perfectionist. Let's say I wanted an awl to force a hole into Plexiglas; he would suggest a better tool. I spent so much of my life trying to be the opposite of him and realize now there are things we are alike in." When Andersons describes "the philosophy behind" his own trompe l'oeil paintings of mysterious notes and photocopies, he says, "There's never an issue of competence in getting it done--it's always an issue of what and why."
His parents helped send him to art school, paying what wasn't covered by financial aid. When Andersons's father was dying in 1992, he arranged to pay off his son's student loans. His father reminded him, "We sent you to be an artist and we want you to do that." Even if he didn't completely understand what his son was doing, Andersons says, "I never doubted he believed in my vision. This was one of those rare bits of communion between my father and I that have had a very specific weight."
Most of Andersons's important early art-making experiences occurred in school. "Growing up in the Motor City, it would have been expected for me to take machine shop, automotive shop, and welding. Though I did take wood shop, I was really trying to dismantle the whole macho thing, so taking art classes was natural. I ended up taking a home ec class too." In the first year of high school he fulfilled a still-life assignment by doing "an analytic study of coins. I drew them one and a half times their size." He was pleased by "the ability to render something that also existed in everyone's experience."
An instructor passed out a mimeographed copy of a Picasso drawing of Stravinsky sitting in a chair. They were to "draw it upright, put that drawing aside, then turn the Picasso upside down and render it again. The idea was that the one you render upside down is more accurate, because then you're looking at shape over what you know about the chair and what you know about the body."
Drawing from this mimeographed Picasso was a turning point--it led Andersons to a book on cubism in the school library. "I started doing cops of some of the cubist portraits. I'd invent Picasso still lifes that I hadn't even seen. I was also searching out Picassos with a passion. The Detroit Institute of Arts had a great collection but it didn't have a lot of examples of the artists I was interested in, so I found myself going to libraries. That was my main access, and I became really fascinated with monographs on artists; they were in a sense the museum that I had access to.
"By the time I graduated high school I was already a studious young man painting on material like roll-up blinds and fabric I could get in thrift stores. I was making my canvas stretchers out of found lumber, so some of my things are stretched on cut-down hockey sticks. My father had this industrious habit of saving bent nails, and I remember spending Saturday afternoons straightening out nails and reusing them." He remained almost painfully shy and had only a few friends. "I was the kid who didn't go to any of the dances. I was a strict wallflower--I come from a family of wallflowers."
For college, Andersons knew he wanted to leave Detroit and "not get sucked into the whole Detroit aesthetic, something that I didn't want to be a part of almost as much as I didn't want to be a part of the Latvian aesthetic." Visiting the School of the Art Institute, "I walked through the hallways and was immediately struck by the filth of it--the dirty paint lockers, the scraps of busted vine charcoal on the floor. This was what I wanted, a studio that was like my idea of what it would take to be a New York School painter--to produce a mess and to be rigorous with it. I wanted to be with young artists and be able to talk actively about what we were doing."
He started to spend time in the Art Institute galleries. One summer, with no student ID to gain admission, he relied on the museum's suggested-donation policy. "It became a game for me to try to walk around the block and see if I could find coins that would get me into the museum. Then I would plant myself in front of the Jasper Johns target or de Kooning's Excavation and sit there for hours." He tried to discern how they were constructed. Later he would spend time working out the order in which the stripes had been painted on a large Barnett Newman.
For Andersons, the School of the Art Institute's relatively unstructured approach, allowing students to experiment in a variety of media, was "the absolute best thing. I could have gone to Cleveland--there is an interesting five-year program there, more structured; it could have been a great school for me. Except it didn't have the juicy messy energy that Chicago did."
He recalls his studio time there as "quite a wild ride." He took classes in ceramics and sculpture and made film an unofficial minor. In his first semester he saw experimental films by Bruce Conner, Stan Brakhage, and Gunvor Nelson and thought, "What a wonderful way to use film." In his second semester he studied filmmaking with Melanie Berry and Tatsu Aoki and film history with Ernie Gehr. Not completely happy with the discussions in some of his painting courses--"about rendering subjects and maybe trying to be like the recent art stars"--he found the film discussions "more refined."
"I was interested in how if you were working in time, you could twist it and bend away from a linear way of presenting something. I couldn't say where you should look first in a painting, but I could show someone something at the beginning of a film that I wouldn't show at the end and control the pace of things. It was just a really wonderful way to control images. It caused me to think very critically not only about film and time but also about the nature of exhibitions. In a funny way I think my current show carries the same feeling for me that the way I was assembling film does. I'm interested in having someone drift between works."
Andersons started to emerge from his shell, making friends. He met a graduate student, Howard Seth Miller, who was ten years older and so voluble he taught Andersons to assert himself in conversation "in order to get a word in edgewise. I had to learn how to devise long sentences with no punctuation to get my point across without being interrupted. He represented a real intellectual commitment too; he and I would talk about photography and literature. He was really interested in Yeats, so we read Yeats intensively."
For a time Andersons lived with a group of students in a loft at 555 W. Adams, a building that has since been demolished. It became a live-work space for six or seven--"a motley crew of bikers and extreme neoexpressionist painters. I was trying to manage some sort of clean living in this loft, making an effort to carry the trash out on a regular basis. Another friend was doing an art project with smoked chub in a Plexiglas box, to watch it decay and see how many fruit flies could survive through the summer. His duct-tape seal wasn't that effective, and fruit flies sort of mingled with everything."
Andersons and another resident, Eriks Johnson, bonded over their common Latvian heritage. Soon they became best friends. "Being Latvian was a special thing," Johnson says. "No one knew where Latvia was. There was this old-world sensibility too. I remember Walter getting drunk at a party for someone he had a crush on and insisting on walking home. It was a thing of honor with him or something. I was sympathetic; for everyone else it was melodramatic. When he decided he had to walk home, he spoke to me in Latvian, saying something like 'Leave me alone, countryman.'"
The residents began to build separate sleeping quarters and studios. "Walter and I would go into Dumpsters in the Loop and pull out these boards with nails in them, and hammer them together using the nails that were sticking out, creating a huge bundle, which we would carry for blocks and blocks. We laughed at the time that only Latvians would do this, and we started making Latvian jokes.
"One time he came in and critiqued a painting I was working on. I actually think that it caused me to lose confidence and overwork it. He fucked with my head a little bit. Sometimes he could be really critical, but he could also say, 'What you're doing is really great, no one does that,' and convince you of it. He liked taking on students that were maybe falling by the wayside, and he would take them seriously. I think he instilled confidence in a lot of fellow students.
"When I was in school, Walter seemed one of the smartest people there. I felt like he was one of the more constant bouncing boards for ideas. He was always the much more responsible one. I was the carouser, and I put a lot of effort into trying to get him to loosen up a bit. I think he did. We were also looking at artists and their work, reading stories about artists, and living our own stories--as we still are. But at that age you're just coming out of adolescence. All your emotions are really dramatic; you feel like you're on fire and you're going to take the whole world by storm."
Andersons had discovered poetry in high school. A Detroit public radio station had a program called Radios in Motion that mixed music with the work of local poets. It was broadcast after his bedtime, so he would listen secretly in bed. Soon he was writing poetry himself. In a class at the School of the Art Institute, he was impressed by the William Carlos Williams poem "This Is Just to Say," in which the poet leaves a brief note explaining that he'd eaten the plums someone had probably been saving for breakfast. "It's a good example of why the American culture of letters appealed to me--it's very concrete speech," a concreteness echoed in his own text paintings.
His interest in language served him well during class critiques. When faculty and students ask questions, an inarticulate response is considered unacceptable. "By my freshman year I realized that what you learn there is not just your visual language but your critical language. It's important to learn how to speak about your work." Later Andersons started making paintings so complex that they took a great deal of time to explain--partly, he admits, as a defense to take control of the critique. His convoluted explanations "overwhelmed most of the students, confused some of the faculty, and left little room for dialogue. In a sense I was trying to be the instructor." The stripped-down subject matter of his recent shows is in part a reaction to his earlier tendency.
Andersons also encountered theory. "At a certain point I realized I had to get over the slide-show art-history talks. Whether I could place a Georges Rouault painting at 1910 or 1911 wasn't so central to where I was going. I felt like I needed to force-feed myself on more advanced notions, and I ended up being drawn into the whole vortex of deconstructionist theory." One teacher, Maureen Sherlock, "turned me on to the sort of curriculum--Foucault, Baudrillard, Derrida--that was essential to the work I wanted to do. Most of the time I was furiously scribbling notes; the definitiveness and severity and anti-Cartesian thing of deconstruction was liberating for me. It was, 'Aha! We're antiromantic now, and no more of this goofy sensitive stuff.' I trained hard and fast. Sherlock had a way of introducing readings that were counter to everything that she did, which I was really comfortable with because that's how I think. Almost like planning a chess move, I'll consider the countermove to the point of one of my paintings."
His two most important painting instructors were Michiko Itatani and Ray Yoshida. Yoshida introduced him to the work of John F. Peto, the 19th-century American trompe l'oeil painter. Another instructor, Connie Fox, told him, "Look, if you're going to do this, really do it; don't just have a semblance of it. Look carefully, copy the thing, and make it work." Andersons says, "I'd been talking until then about the merits of this type of work without really putting the evidence out. She inspired me to demand a lot more of myself.
"I do believe that painting can express something, but I don't like the rant that 'I paint what I feel.'" It was a common defense at critiques, but Andersons found it applied too liberally, so that "everyone was expressing themselves. I think that it almost intends to say, 'I am, I do this, celebrate me,' whereas I like to think that I'm interacting with the real and leaving some kind of evidence. I also do not want myself to be overly emotional--so in a sense the work actually does express how I feel."
In Andersons's photocopy paintings, a labor-intensive process produces images of extraordinary vibrancy. The outlines of the source material, including the type from the original pages, are captured via multiple tracings, so that by the time Andersons transfers these outlines to the canvas he is drawing everything a third time. Painting in multiple layers, he sometimes finds he has veered too far from the look of a photocopy, and then "a thin veil of a murky glaze brings everything down to the same plane again. Also there's something to the thingness of paper that's hard to get. It's not as easy as simply sectioning off the area and painting it white. Sometimes I'll give them a wash or surface treatment in some clear medium with just a slight amount of white, to diffuse the intensity of the black and bring the paper back again, to make that paper seem to exist on canvas."
He employs different techniques to reproduce the works of different painters--one reason why these small gray pictures, reproduced in the exact size of the photocopies, look so vibrant and so different from each other. For Morris Louis, who poured his paint directly on the canvas, Andersons fastidiously "drags paint with the smaller brushes in the direction of where the flow would have been." Frank Stella's black paintings have bands drawn by brushes "just the width of the bands he was painting," so Andersons makes his smaller replicas using the same method with smaller brushes. "I've used alternative tools, like miniature rollers."
The Red Studio image was painted in five main steps. After plotting out the image, followed by a graying step to approximate the look of the photocopy, he "almost sculpturally analyzes the little islands of toner, making everything sort of relate in an intimate way, applying small brushes to the tiniest slivers." Then, to get "as close to the photocopy as possible, which is almost like dumbing it down in order to push a general even tone, I actually sort of atomized paint across the surface to try and add incidental sharp brights and deep darks to kind of fuzz it out," flicking a spray of paint with a toothbrush. Finally, "I had to go in again and salvage some of the losses, removing the white splatter from the dense blacks, for example, using a brush and an X-ACTO blade." Much effort was put into margin splotches and photocopy ghosts.
Andersons is less interested in imposing himself on the viewer than in leading the viewer on a perceptual journey. "The painting isn't necessarily an ending point, it's more like a camera, it's simply a means. My painting on the wall is, I'd like to think, the equivalent of filmmaker Stan Brakhage using his camera as part of his way of understanding the world. I want the viewers to come through the gallery thinking that they're being returned to their bodies and their senses, and also placed into a bigger narrative of consciousness and responsibility."
Almost immediately after graduating from art school, Andersons got a job at the Art Institute, and he's worked there ever since, as an art installer, packer, and shipper. "It's helped me look outside of what I knew and think about cultural output as a bigger canon. My first experience was handling European decorative arts, and then installing shows of textiles. I now have a high regard for Asian art and African art." Currently he designs and builds crates. "I get a chance to interact with things in ways people never would, like packing a Joseph Cornell box and isolating and securing the loose parts in collaboration with my boss. For someone to design the crate that would allow something to be transported without harm is a particular kind of caring."
Andersons took up music. Though he had no formal training, he was able to perform with a sure grasp of his limitations. He played cornet, bass, and drums in a free-jazz group called Etaoin Shrdlu, and then started a loose rock band with several of his old schoolmates. By 1992 they had formalized the arrangement under the name Mint Aundry, selected by Andersons for typically elaborate reasons-- the name reminded him a bit of the band Mink DeVille as well as of country singer Hank Williams's wife, "Miss Audrey." The word "Aundry" came from a burned-out laundry sign he saw in Pilsen. Andersons says he thought of Hank Wiliams's "raw poetry" while writing lyrics. As for musical influences, he cites Otis Redding, Bing Crosby, the Stooges, early Motown, Talking Heads, and Shrimp Boat, another band started by SAIC students. Mint Aundry played in clubs around Wicker Park and elsewhere and put out two CDs before disbanding last year. Once again, Andersons's expenses were greater than his share of the band's income.
In 1993 Andersons began to be represented by Joel Leib's Ten in One Gallery, which gave him four shows over the next seven years. "Joel told me he was interested in 'warm conceptualism,' which I felt completely happy with and I felt I had something to contribute to," Andersons says. "'Cold conceptualism' to my mind would be purely academic--we've seen the white cube, now let's see the red cube, now let's see the blue cube, now let's see the transparent Plexiglas cube, and now let's fill the room with them--versus work that had an austere formal language but also had a sense of play. But I have to stay clear of overtly witty reads of my work, even though there's a sense of self-effacement and a sense of humor in some of it."
Andersons has accomplished a lot in the last decade, but his low-income existence has started to wear him down. A few weeks ago he was dining on soup mixes, waiting for his Friday paycheck. Unwrapping a large painting, he worried about minor damage that resulted from the fact that he couldn't afford a crate to ship it in.
He remains a conspicuous supporter of the local art scene, a presence not only at openings and lectures but also at benefit auctions--as both a donor of works and an occasional buyer. At an opening of a student show, I saw him engage the artist in a long dialogue.
Andersons has found a lot to like here. "There's something about that goofy term 'warm conceptualism' that does explain a bit about what happens in Chicago. I think it explains some of what I do. It explains the sense of humor of people like Tony Tasset as much as it explains Tom Friedman, who did his early studying here. I think it explains the seriousness, but also the sincerity, of work by Julia Fish and Richard Rezac; I think it explains the abstraction of Rodney Carswell.
"After my visits to Los Angeles and New York, I am continually struck by the soulfulness of artists out of the midwest and how much deeper in terms of studio practice they are. There's a self-effacing quality to work produced here. The rewards are less, but there is an opportunity to be away from the bullshit, and that produces a deeper kind of art. I've got heroes in this city." He's taken the trouble to be an advocate for artists whose work he admires; he reviewed a 1998 Paul Kass show in the New Art Examiner, for example. But the gallery closings of the last decade have not helped the scene. And Andersons gives the two major museums mixed reviews: "I enjoy what happens at the MCA, but I'm confused about how they're training this particular community to think about modern art. The same is true of the Art Institute."
His feelings about the Wicker Park art scene are even less positive. The neighborhood was a hangout for him and his bandmates in the early 90s--they met regularly at the coffeehouse Urbus Orbis, they played at the Czar Bar. Ten in One had moved to a storefront right at the center of the action in 1994--and to New York in 1999. By then both Urbus Orbis and the Czar Bar were closed, the area had become thoroughly gentrified, and Andersons's dream of a neighborhood like his fantasy of Greenwich Village in the 1950s--where artists lived side by side, listened to the same music, and purchased art from local galleries--seemed ever more unattainable.
Joel Leib recalls Wicker Park in 1994. "I liked being in the neighborhood where most of the artists that I worked with lived." But the area he left last year had become a place where "people go directly from their taxicabs to the restaurants" without noticing what else may be on the street. Leib's original five-year lease was with Sophie Madej, the owner of the diner up the street, the Busy Bee. She had a "heart of gold," but then retired after 33 years of running the restaurant. The new owner, Leib says, was "strictly about making tons of money" and let him know his lease would not be renewed.
Soon to be 35, Walter Andersons is seriously thinking about leaving town. His first choice is New York, his second Los Angeles. "I've gone through a number of professional and personal changes in the last two years." He mentions the breakup of a decade-long relationship with his former girlfriend, "writer and visual artist and teacher" Ellen Steinberg, "who was a profound influence on me." Several good friends have already left Chicago. When artists Gary Cannone and Sarah Whipple moved to Los Angeles, "I started to sober up about people leaving." The band broke up, his gallery split, "and here I was getting my ten-year-anniversary award luncheon as a packer and installer. As charmed as I was by that, it made me wonder whether I could see myself adding another five years until the next luncheon."
He says he's torn in two directions. He has the "stubbornness and steadfastness" of his parents, who remained in the same roles and locale for decades. But he also remembers his deathbed promise to his father: "He told me, aside from the music and all these other things, 'We sent you to school to be a painter, and that's what I want for you.' Well, I can continue to paint on Sundays and evenings and work at the Art Institute and grow old in Chicago and meet his criteria, but he knew that I knew that I wanted to do more than that." In New York he'd be able to see firsthand the art that continues to influence him most. And he's afraid of getting stuck. He mentions that in the last few years he's worked on larger canvases in part to avoid being typecast as the "little painting guy."
"I've always presented a way of seeing, so I want people to say not you're the guy who's doing the big paintings or you're the guy who's doing the little ones but you're the guy who's dealing with language, dealing with space, and dealing with it in an installation that rewards the viewer's attentiveness."
Andersons knows moving to New York is no panacea. He's aware of the minuscule spaces many live in, and repeats a joke told by those who have gone before: "Leave the potted plant at home." Still, when it comes to culture, Chicago remains second--and increasingly third. "I remember talking to a friend who is a fashion designer about how it is nearly impossible to try to succeed in Chicago because for women's clothes they expected to pay 50 percent less here than they did in a New York salon. And men's clothes, forget about it--guys are not going to spend money on suits here."
Similarly, it's well-known that many of the top collectors in Chicago buy mostly from New York galleries. None of Andersons's nine paintings sold in his inaugural Manhattan show at the transplanted Ten in One, but both he and Leib say new galleries and new artists take time to establish themselves. They're prepared for that. Leib recalls, "I didn't start selling to Chicago collectors until they started to believe I had a good eye. You also have to create a buzz." Andersons points out, "There are more art periodicals in New York. Look at Artforum or Frieze: they have how many reviews of New York shows, and how many from LA and London, and one review from Chicago." He admits "shallowness is rewarded in New York," but thinks "depth is also given its chance."
Leib is encouraging Andersons to move. Andersons refers to Leib not only as his dealer but as his "good friend and a confidant who understands the work." He's reached a point where he feels he should take a more active role in promoting his art, being around the gallery and talking with collectors. "The art world has always been a playing field that's made by people with the passion to be the squeaky wheel. I'm a huge eye and not enough of a squeaky wheel." James Yood agrees that Andersons "doesn't seem to be a careerist, an art world machinator."
Leib says he'll give Andersons another solo show in a year, this time in the larger of his two spaces: "The dynamic of being a successful artist is so much entwined with relationships. The work is excellent work and can stand up against any contemporary painting being done today. It's a question of gaining awareness and having people meet Walter. Walter is such an engaging, unique person; he could do a lot for his work here. It's not that he can't have a career as an artist in Chicago; it just won't happen as quickly."
Should Walter Andersons move to New York? "No!" responds Judith Russi Kirshner. The day after attending a slide lecture he gave on his work at the University of Illinois at Chicago, she reflects, "Obviously that disappoints me. I want him to participate in Chicago the way that he did yesterday. Everybody, across generations, was very impressed; it stayed with me until this morning. I think that there are more conversations that he can have here with other colleagues, gallerists, and other artists." But when I pose Andersons's question to her--"Can Chicago support painting?"--she points to her own prolific faculty at UIC, a response that probably makes his point rather than hers. There are precious few painters here who live off their work. Artists here tend to teach, much more than in New York, but Andersons, who would likely make a superb teacher, never earned an MFA, usually a requirement for a professorship. When he graduated, "I felt that my studio work was already on a very steady course."
Yood won't opine one way or the other about Andersons's move, admitting New York's many advantages while offering that Andersons will "win the war of attrition. If he were to stay here, he's probably poised for greater success in every sense of the word. I always argue that a career is a marathon, not a sprint."
He'd never say it directly, but Andersons is disappointed with his art career. TBA has sold one of the paintings that didn't sell in New York, but that's the only painting from his current show that's sold thus far. He apparently hoped he would be living off his art by now and painting full-time. Wandering around, he looks through windows at the bare walls of the new town homes that have sprung up and says, "I think about when these people are going to start buying paintings. I think at least some of my work has been designed to feel comfortable in the modern home."
Still, Andersons has made it much further than the typical art-school graduate. His paintings are in "some really good collections, probably a dozen in all," Leib says. His exhibitions have been favorably reviewed. When he says, "What I dream of is a community that actually takes what I'm doing sequentially and seriously," it's hard to know just what more he expects. He admits a moment later, "It's ego talking."
Ego must account for the most curious moment in our many hours together, the only time when his calm, measured, rational, and deliberate manner turned emotional. He still gets angry about the only negative review of his work, when Carmen Vendelin wrote up a Ten in One show three years ago in the New Art Examiner. He says, with some exaggeration, "She basically espoused her concept of Baudrillard and then took a few sentences and said, 'Walter Andersons paints from photocopies and reminds me of artists who do this better.'" (Actually she wrote "work that I like better," but never mind.) "It really wasn't a review," Andersons says. "It was her posturing as a grad student. She panned my 1997 show, which then ultimately was written up well in a number of places, including the Reader and Artforum--so there!" A weirdly uncharacteristic conspiratorial suggestion follows: He says he never quite cracked the "old guard" of artists that the Examiner supposedly favors, ignoring his favorable 1995 review there. And he asks, "Does Chicago have a priority for painting? I don't think it does, and that for me is sort of disheartening. The fact that I got that review from Vendelin, that chastised me for reminding her of artists who did this better without identifying them, meant that I was getting a bum rap, because this city doesn't spend enough time taking painting seriously to have someone take a hit like that for a painting show that really tried hard like that show did. And I still stand by the '97 work, and I still think she was an idiot for what she wrote."
At first I was surprised. I thought, it's one negative review--get over it! But Andersons returned to the write-up more than once. "I don't think this city has a prerogative to understand painting," he goes on. "It's got a prerogative for outsider and folk art, but I think all art has a hard time being taken seriously here." He seems to naively assume that a short Examiner review is written as deliberately as he makes one of his paintings.
I reached Carmen Vendelin at her home in New Jersey; she's now a PhD student in art history at Rutgers, concentrating on European art from around 1900. She was an SAIC graduate student when she wrote the review; it was assigned by an editor. It was the first time she'd seen Andersons's work. She believes she visited the gallery twice but isn't sure. Those other artists who did better work included some of her fellow students and friends. Ultimately, she says, she wrote a negative review because "the work was not that interesting visually." One can disagree with her, but James Yood, who wrote the favorable review in Artforum, once told me, "The first time I saw Andersons's work I didn't know what to make of it. It took me a couple of shows, or seeing work here and there, before I got a handle on it."
Many accomplished artists--and quite a few lousy ones--believe in the greatness of their own work. Andersons recalls hearing that Picasso, managing to place some of his paintings temporarily in the Louvre, was pleased to conclude they held their own alongside the masters. Many mature artists probably have to see their work on this level; the ones who don't will be unwilling to endure the cold apartments and tedious day jobs and soup-mix dinners that are a part of Andersons's life today.
Andersons hopes to one day see his work hanging in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, home to much of the work that's inspired him. "That's a dream of mine, like saying I'm going to be President of the United States. In the unlikely event that MOMA gets bombed in the next 50 years, not that my black-and-white will be the only version of The Red Studio, but I feel like my semipermanent painted version won't fade like the red printed postcards and calendars might." In painting Picassos and Rothkos and Matisses, does Andersons also wish to be these painters? Well, yes, but "I know I'm not Picasso." Isn't he comparing himself to Matisse? Surely he's suggesting that he can capture some of Matisse's magic? Yes, Andersons admits, but there's more to it. He says he'd like the viewer to walk away from his painting saying, "Oh, Matisse is a great painter--and Walter's pretty good too."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.