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Nature’s Course: An Interview with John Newsom (Part 4)

John Newsom, Nature’s Course, 2021-22. Credit: Oklahoma Contemporary Museum

Combining realistic representations of animals and vegetation, Abstract Expressionism, and hard-edge geometry, John Newsom’s paintings explore our intricate and complicated relationship with nature. I spoke with John about his origins, his practice, and his upcoming exhibitions – a mid-career retrospective at the Oklahoma Contemporary Museum and a two-person show with Raymond Pettibon in Palm Beach.

Continued from Part 3

John Newsom: So I want to go back just for a second to some of the references you made. It’s interesting because it's a plethora of artists that you've mentioned, and those cornerstones are in the work, but they're kind of existing simultaneously, and I'm just going to make a quick observation on something there that goes back to the idea of collage. Collage is so central, I think, to the language of painting in general in the last 50 to 60 years. Collage is the most important development of painting in the 20th century. It didn't occur before that period. Collage was new. Collage was very, very important. So you look at painters like Picabia, Rosenquist, David Salle. These are really great painters. But if you study their surface structures and you see how the pictorial elements are arranged in relationship to collage, for the most part, you're going to find the kind of break in the images within the canvas. Whereas in my work, I was kind of always attached to the overall picture plane. I mentioned Marden earlier. That's one painter I really admire, just the overall sense of the big picture. You know what I mean?

John Newsom, Beyond the Horizon, 2008-09. Credit: Oklahoma Contemporary Museum

Nathalie Martin: Yes, generous with every inch of the canvas.


JN: So in my work, you're going to see that fragmentation happen in layers. Like when you're making a bed – the sheets to the blankets, it's all tucked in, but it's over one complete surface. So that's why when you're reading it – and you mentioned Mitchell or Pollock, Pollock more so – but for the most part, it's like, that's the modern picture. That's the overall picture. And then you mentioned somebody like Audubon or Kahlo or something. I understand it, but I'm not really

conscious of those painters when I'm working. You look at them because my work does have a pastoral side to it. That's what I think you're seeing, this pastoral element, but it's happening across the entire surface of the painting. Then there's this hard-edge geometry that acts as a foundational structure in some of the backgrounds. If you're listening to this and you’re with one of my paintings, if you've noticed, more times than not, the backgrounds and the elements within it will be painted last. You can't see that in a reproduction. If it’s a reproduction that you're looking at, you're not going to get that. You have to see it live, to see the paint in the flesh. And that goes back to another important aspect that is intrinsic to the experience of viewing a painting. It has to be done in the flesh; you cannot read a painting over a screen. That's why painting will always remain autonomous, because the lived experience is so important. It's like an opera. You gotta go see it. It will always be like that. There's no way to make that transference, and I have a lot of friends who are involved in new conceptual mediums, which is fantastic. It's interesting. My son loves this kind of new tech stuff, but it's not painting. So don't say it is.

NM: That's what I say, call it what you want, but it's not painting.


JN: But it’s not a big deal. There are artists who are using painting to expand other conceptual ideas, and it's super cool, but painting is paint. That's why it's called painting. So look for the paint. I don't want to dwell on that because it's ridiculous to. What I want to say is when you're with one of my paintings, check out what happens around the edges of the forms. When I go to The Met here in New York, I'm looking at how something is painted. I get up on a Manet or a

still-life, and all of a sudden you start realizing what's happening within the brushstrokes, the touch and the medium, the form of what's happening. What's positive is negative and what's negative is positive. Then you see an articulation of space occurring, and now you're getting into the language of form and you're getting into the articulation of how these things work in space. So that's something I wanted to give a focus to, because the way the fragmentation, or these kind of collage aspects that happen within my work, it's all over. It's not contingent within a certain area of the painting, you know? I think that's an interesting part of my work.

John Newsom, Dense Armor, 2008-09. Credit: Oklahoma Contemporary Museum

I'm not obsessed with making a “new” type of painting, but I am interested in presenting what my interests are to develop a painting that’s intrinsically and closely tied to that individual vision as much as possible. Because if I'm doing that, it's going to be new. Somebody asked Jay-Z who's the greatest rapper of all time. Jay-Z said Biggie Smalls because he was the one that could tell his story in the realest way. That means the clearest way. That's what that means. I think if you look at a Morandi painting, and you're looking at those bottles, it's like, they’re just bottles. But it's magical because it's Morandi. It's like the articulation is so there, that it's inescapable, and you become transfixed on those bottles and those paintings just because he was so in tune with it.


So that's what I'm trying to get to. I've laid out a little bit of my influences and my early foundation experience and all that. It's very American. I feel like for lack of a better word, it actually does have a quality of “Americanness” to it. One of my good friends, the German painter André Butzer, who I've known for a long time, he's an incredible painter. I highly admire his work ethic. We kind of came up together, showed together. I really respect him, and there's the Germanic quality to his work. He moved to California and he was living in Altadena for awhile. He's interested in aspects of American life and he let that into his work. So his work has kind of a different type of feel to it. This is interesting because, for me, I'm a big fan of German painting. So when you're mentioning people like Pollock and Mitchell – yes, they’re great, but I also look at people like Markus Lüpertz, he’s just an incredible painter, and more obvious references like Kiefer and Baselitz, things like that of the eighties. Big, fantastic paintings. But I'm not German! So sometimes you got to lay down Thor's hammer and be like, “No. That one isn't for me, I got to pick up this new thing.” You just have to embrace what it is you're about, and really try to do that. If I had to give advice to a younger painter, that would be it. Keep doing, keep exploring. Keep making trials and errors and get to a point where you're getting closer to your original voice, and then just “BOOM!” From the mountaintop, scream what it is,

you know? That's kind of how it has to be.

Combining realistic representations of animals and vegetation, Abstract Expressionism, and hard-edge geometry, John Newsom’s paintings explore our intricate and complicated relationship with nature. I spoke with John about his origins, his practice, and his upcoming exhibitions – a mid-career retrospective at the Oklahoma Contemporary Museum and a two-person show with Raymond Pettibon in Palm Beach.

Continued in Part 5

Upcoming and Current Exhibitions of John Newsom:

Nathalie Martin

About Nathalie Martin

Nathalie Martin is currently in her last year at the Gallatin School at NYU, where she is studying Art History. Her focus is on examining the history of art and its often overlooked contributors. She is passionate about excavating the stories of artists who have been left out of the historical canon, and how this space can be reinterpreted for emerging artists today. Nathalie lives in Brooklyn, New York where her surroundings inspire these acts of story-telling every day.