Interview via Zoom by Ryan Maciel (Publicity Manager) and Vivian Jiawei Wu (Undergraduate Director)
We are so thrilled to share the interview with our Alumna Naomie Kremer, who works successfully as an artist in paintings and video arts for the past 20 years in our Interview with the Artists Section. In this interview, you will not only read about Ms.Kremer’s amazing approach to art and her path of becoming an artist but also find out what was it like to study at U of R in the 1970s! Ms.Kremer also gave out precious advice for young artists and how to stay artistic as she goes through a few of her creational process in detail.
Ryan: We have a range of questions, so if you would like to introduce yourself that will be wonderful.
Naomie Kremer: I am Naomie Kremer. I’m currently in Berkeley, California. I also have studios in Paris and NY. I attended the University of Rochester in the early 1970s. I took the safe route and majored in history because at one point I considered going to law school, but I minored in Art. I worked as a graphic designer and had a graphic design business in the 1980s. In 1989 I switched my focus to full-time art and started to paint. Two years later, I attended CCA (California College of the Arts) and got my MFA in 1993. Since then, I’ve been a working artist. My areas of focus are painting, but I also work extensively with video. Some of my paintings include video projected on their surface — I call those hybrid paintings. I’ve also done a fair bit of video for performance — opera, theater, dance and concert music.
R: Why did you focus on Abstract Expressionism when you were doing your Master’s Degree at Sussex University?
The mark making and the fullness of space in Abstract Expressionism really spoke to me—particularly in the work of Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell and Willem de Kooning. I like the way their work seems to emerge from its own logic and process. It has informed my method of working — following impulse, building mark upon mark, so that the activity generates the content of the work and creates the subject matter. One step leads to the next, rather than trying to envision an outcome from the beginning.
R: Can you talk a little about what inspires you to create?
NK: My inspiration comes from many different sources. It comes from life. It comes from reading. I went through a period when I read a lot of poetry. In fact in one painting I even stamped some words from the poem The Joy of Writing by Wisława Szymborska, the Nobel Prize winning Polish poet, onto my canvas. Except I substituted the word painting – The Joy of Painting… Her poem was about the power of the poet to create worlds. I had a teacher once who said “you paint your world.” I also work a lot to music. I’m also inspired by my travels. As a visual person everything I see around me affects me, including films and performances.
R:Your paintings and stage works are large in scale. How do you think scale affects your creative process?
NK: In order to make work I have to enter the work, and a small painting is harder to enter. Working large involves the body — a large piece surrounds you in a way that a small work can’t, filling my peripheral vision. In the beginning I couldn’t make small paintings, but eventually as my ideas came into better focus, I figured out how to work small too. I now like to work at all different scales.
R: How did you start to make hybrid paintings?
NK: In 2007, I was commissioned to do my first video backdrop for an opera — Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartók (See Figure 1&2). In the process of working on the video I created many hours of footage—way more than I ended up using. Around the same time I was going to have an exhibition of my video works, in fact my text animations, in NYC at Knoedler Gallery. I found myself thinking “but I’m also a painter” and wishing I could also show that. One day I pointed the projector onto a painting, and was amazed by how unique it looked – the perceptual experience of seeing video projected on a painting looks like nothing else, and it really fascinated me.
The other reason I started to work with video was my frustration with the short attention span people now have for looking at painting — people spend a few seconds looking at a painting that takes months to make, and think they’ve seen it! Once I started making hybrid paintings I noticed people would stand in front of them for a long time – they become engaged by the movement. The videos I project are loops, sometimes quite short, but they capture attention much like a fire does – it’s hard to look away.
Vivian: Do you think your modeling experience in the UK influenced your figurative work?
NK: I always loveed drawing from the figure. I had a good friend at the U of R who did nude modeling and she used to talk about it as something very meditative and centering. When I was living in London in the mid-70s, I did some nude modeling for drawing classes at the Camden Art Center and understood what my friend meant. I found it challenging to pick an interesting pose I could hold, balancing, figuring out how to center myself. The fact that I did life drawing myself helped me understand what an interesting pose might be.
Vivian: Can you talk more about your more figurative works?
NK: For the past two years I’ve been creating a body of work called Incarnation ( see figure 3&4). It’s a series of nude video portraits on which I overlay content that complements the subjects, whether from nature, my paintings, or video manipulations. I became very interested in how people behave when they aren’t clothed — their relationship to their own body, how they interact with each other, and with me. All the participants are people I know: individuals, couples, families, including a family of three generations of actresses — a daughter, mother, and grandmother. It was extraordinary to have these three women posing together nude.
In 2019 I had an opportunity to exhibit these in an installation at a beautiful art-deco swimming pool in Paris. Every year at the beginning of October there’s something called Nuit Blanche, with art installations throughout the city from 7pm on Saturday night to 7am on Sunday morning. I edited together some of these moving portraits and projected them on three windows that formed a triptych at the back end of the pool. You can see it in this short video link.
R: Do you feel your painting and your work identifies with political and current issues at all, or do you feel that they are more insular?
NK: First of all I don’t think the opposite of political art is “insular” art. (The definition of insular is “ignorant of or uninterested in cultures, ideas, or peoples outside one’s own experience”.) There are many subjects available to an artist, and I think it’s important to work from one’s own experience. In fact, NOT doing that is now sometimes attacked as “appropriation”. It’s actually a broader topic — does an artist have the right to address issues that are outside her own personal experience? For example, there was a lot of controversy at the 2017 Whitney Biennial over the painting Open Casket by Dana Schutz, of the body of Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old boy who was lynched by two white men in Mississippi in 1955. There were calls for the painting’s destruction because Dana is a white artist.
Everything that moves me informs what I do, but in an organic fashion. Of course I’m very aware of the news and current events, but I don’t know whether or when they will influence my work. My work tends to come more from my personal experience. For example, the nude video portraits began after I had a brush with breast cancer, which led me to videotape myself nude. Once I did that I realized I was interested in exploring this further and filming other nude subjects.
Years ago I made drawings and a video piece called ShtetlSee figure 4), based on my personal family history of the holocaust. My parents were both born in Shtetls (the name for the small Jewish towns in pre-war Eastern Europe). The shtetls were all wiped out by the Nazis. So you could say that was a political/historical work. Obviously, the coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement are hugely impactful and important issues today, and many artists will make work connected to that. Perhaps I will, one day.
R: What is your process of installing your work?
NK: Installation is its own special challenge, very different from the making of a work. You have to look at how the works speak to one another, how they interact in terms of content, color, scale. It’s important to remember that more is not better—to give the work breathing room and think about the experience of the audience. This is especially true of painting. The curator is often better at this than the artist.
In my recent show at Modernism Gallery in San Francisco I showed paintings but also had an installation of the nude video portraits. In this case the installation was part of the work of art — I was constructing a story. This is a link to a walk through of the installation:
R: How do you keep your audience engaged with your work?
NK: Don’t overdetermine the experience, leave room for your viewer. To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, in his book A Movable Feast he wrote that if you don’t spell out everything for the reader they will be more engaged. You could say that’s contradictory to the way I paint, which is so much about the fullness of space. But I also like the contradiction! As I see it the artist is her own first audience. I assume that if something is interesting to me it will be interesting to other people. And the opposite is also true.
R: What kind of role is music playing in your works? And how do you work with composers?
NK: I love working with music, and to music. Music creates a fabric that weaves everything together. In film they say 50% of the work is the sound. For the Incarnation installation at the swimming pool in Paris I worked with a young composer, Adam Gottesman, who lives in London. We didn’t even actually meet — I just sent him the video and explained what I wanted. We exchanged files, and it worked well. I used his soundtrack in my installation at Modernism this summer.
Last year I did a video backdrop for a new composition by Paul Dresher. Again, we were not in the same place – he was in Berkeley and I was in Paris. He sent me music, I sent him video, and we had a pretty extensive back and forth until the work was done. We were both very pleased with the results. It’s called 342 (See Figure 5) – this is the link on Vimeo:https://vimeo.com/470789797
R: You are constantly immersing yourself in new mediums and projects, how do you encounter the opportunities to do so?
NK: By meeting people and engaging! My current projects came out of my activities this summer — I was in Marseille for the “Manifesta” biennial, for which I made a video work about Alma Mahler. (See Figure 6) (This is a link to that video with subtitles. in the installation the text was on a different wall://vimeo.com/423881013 ) A classical music producer saw the piece and loved my work, and we’ve now started collaborating on a few projects, including a video backdrop for a concert of Gustav Mahler’s Song of the Earth at the Marseille Opera House. A lot of things open up through experiences like this. Sometimes the venue or the opportunity itself might not be that exciting, but if it stimulates new work that I’m interested in doing, it’s worth doing. One thing leads to another. I try not to close doors.
R: What was your experience at U of R?
NK: First of all, I had wonderful art teachers: Lynda Benglis, Michael Venezia, Thomas Bang. Michael Venezia took us on a field trip to Wendell Castle’s studio. It’s a memory I still cherish. He was a furniture artist — in fact when I visited the U of R in 2017 there was a fabulous exhibition of his work at the MAG. His furniture is like sculpture.
The U of R had an incredible studio set up for the students. (I think it’s even better now.) I got a job as the studio assistant, opening the studio for the students and locking it up at night. I spent more time there than anybody else. In fact a lot of the time I was there all by myself — it was just extraordinary. The other amazing thing is that the University used to supply canvas free to students. This led me to discover my obsession with working big — something I could not have afforded to do otherwise.
R: Were you able to interface at all with that overlap between Studio Arts and Art History or were you not involved with that at that point at U of R?
NK: I did take art history classes, definitely. Art history helped me find my direction. We build on what we know and we create from what we know. My work starts from my own physical, psychological, and intellectual interests, but that gets nourished through what I learn, what I explore in the world.
V: Did you find the Mag very helping when you were here? Did you go there often?
NK: Yes, I did – it was on campus when I was at U of R. Now it’s off campus, much bigger and more impressive — a great resource. I believe it’s very important for an artist to know what’s going on in art, and to look at art. Getting input is so important. But ultimately the most important thing for an artist is to figure out what helps you to make your work.
R: How do you keep going as an artist? And what are your tips?
NK: The thing that keeps me going is curiosity. Curiosity about what would happen if… what if I try this… what if I mix this with that. The most important thing is to not bore yourself. That doesn’t mean you should quit when things get hard. There are moments when you really need to persist and work through difficulties. But don’t be involved in a whole thing that bores you.
When I taught I would tell students: go through the doors that are open to you, don’t bash your head against a closed door. If there is a medium that you find easy and it attracts you, start with that. If you stick with it, your experience will deepen, and it will become harder, in a good way. But start from what you can do.
The other important thing is that you have to find the satisfaction in your work — not in its success out in the world. That is of course wonderful, but there will be long periods of time when you don’t get feedback, or opportunities. If you persist they will come, but the need to make the work has to come from inside.