Peter Flaccus: a Studio Interview with Daniela Salvioni

DS: You started out in Montana, lived for twenty years in New York City, and ended up in Rome. Is there anything of Montana left in your paintings?

PF: I was lucky to grow up where I did. A childhood spent on a sunny hillside in western Montana has undoubtedly left its mark. There were long days exploring fields and gullies, excursions in high mountains, horses, fishing trips in the wilderness, work on ranches, clearing ski trails, fighting forest fires. Even though I've spent my adult life in cities, Montana gave me a permanent connection to nature which isn't absent in my paintings, abstract as they have always been.

DS: How did you get started painting?

PF: I saw my first exhibition of contemporary art at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, an important show of late abstract expressionism, early Pop, and early color-field painting that had all the energy and authority of American art in that moment. Ignorant as I was at fourteen years old, I was very impressed. Although I went off to college without any idea of what I would study, I ended up obsessed with painting. I was lucky to spend a summer at Skowhegan, the art school in Maine, where the faculty consisted of famous artists from New York, and where I met seasoned art students from "the City" – very intimidating! Before that experience I had thought of a modern painting as being a kind of pronouncement, dignified and authoritative. That summer I realized that painting meant continual, questioning dialogue, argument, and adventure. Skowhegan sealed my ambition to be a painter, and pointed the way to New York.

DS: In those years conceptualism, pop, minimalism, as well as figuration were going strong. Did your schools teach or promote any particular line?

PF: Not at all – this was the '60's – no doctrines of any kind. At Amherst College I had exposure to a lot of art history, and enjoyed autonomy in the studio; this was also true in graduate school at Indiana University. Art students always learn a lot from each other. And now as a teacher, I think I should, yes, put some nourishment on the table, but then kind of stay out of the way.

In the early 1960's and 1970's, painting in New York still had the glamour of the heavyweight arena. I used to go regularly to New York from college or graduate school to visit the galleries; I still remember for example the famous 1970 Phillip Guston show at Marlborough.

DS: Those first cartoony Ku Klux Klan paintings...

PF: Exactly. Big scandal. Of course it soon became known as a revolutionary exhibition that showed a lot of painters a way out of the impasse of an arid minimalism that was current. Although the 1960's and early 1970's signified an exhilarating new sense of freedom in all directions, I also remember there being lots of rigid, doctrinaire, even angry positions within the New York art world.

My work developed towards a gestural, painterly abstraction, avoiding, I hoped, the self-importance ingrained in earlier styles. I loved paint and believed in it and looked for a kind of silent poetic impact in a work that rendered words unnecessary. I liked the discipline of the flat plane of the canvas; it's like a tennis court, or a chess board, or a piano keyboard – anything is allowed, but the playing field doesn't extend in all directions forever.

DS: Tell me more about your years as a young painter in New York...

PF: I lived in New York from 1972 to 1990. In the early 1970's, if you can believe it, "art" and "painting" were still nearly synonymous, and "high" abstraction, while under attack, had not been wholly discredited. New Yorkers had few doubts that they were in the center of the art world. The big cheap Soho lofts that we artists renovated and lived in were still illegal at the beginning. Personalities emerged and there were events that changed the art world. I should say "art worlds," because of the numerous groups of friends and allies. I showed my work principally at the Zabriskie Gallery and also at Monique Knowlton. I received some support from public grants (which no longer exist), and I made important friendships at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. I began teaching at various universities, including Bennington College, where I curated a multi-generational and international show of paintings, with artists as different as Louise Fishman and Eugène Leroy. The exhibition was called Belief in Paint, and summed up an anti-conceptual aspect of painting that I admired.

DS: In the 1980's, European painters, especially Italian and German, shook up New York with their neo-expressionism. Did that inspire you to move to Italy?

PF: No connection – it wasn't my kind of painting, and I moved definitively to Rome much later, in 1993. I felt there was much to learn here and I was right.

DS: How does living in Rome, or even here in Trastevere affect your thinking as an American artist?

PF: Well, in Rome we are concretely in daily touch with a lot of our history. You know, the Mediterranean doesn't belong just to the Italians and the Greeks – it's all of ours. Living abroad doesn't make me less American. Painting is always a dialogue with past as well as present artists, so living here widens the dialogue.

As to Trastevere, where I live and have my studio, it's Rome in microcosm. Mixed with the tourists and students are Romans, foreign residents, artists – an authentic community based on very natural relationships. The Roman rhythm of life involves small pleasures, conversations, the market, the cinema, neighborhood encounters. And it gives importance to the very un-puritanical concept of bellezza. Walk across Ponte Sisto in the early evening and look up the Tiber with its reflections of the gold lights and the pinkish cupolas peeking over the trees; it's a spectacle that doesn't get old even for Romans. In exchange for the ferment of the New York art world I got another kind of stimulus.

DS: Did your work change in response to being in Rome?

PF: In the 1990's, after I had moved to Rome, my work took a new direction that has proved to be very fruitful. I began using encaustic as my painting medium. I discovered endless possibilities inherent in wax, which is malleable, partly transparent or very opaque as one wishes, very physical, very permanent. Painting with liquid wax is cumbersome, but the fact that it slowed me down turned out to be an advantage, as each step necessarily became more deliberate. One difference between this medium and others is that you are not looking only at the most recent layer of paint covering a surface, but rather you are looking into a solid material, like a piece of marble, and as you scrape it away carefully, new forms emerge.

DS: In other words, there is a physicality, even sculptural quality to encaustic: Is that important to your particular mode of abstraction?

PF: Definitely yes, particularly in the sense that the medium invites endless technical experimentation, so I never run out of ideas. But, whereas there exists a kind of cult of encaustic, I don't consider myself a member. It's true that the medium is demanding of handcraft, but don't forget, a painting is a mental artefact that happens to exist in a physical container. It's the embodiment of ideas – ideas, not theories – made to be looked at. In my view, a painting is a sort of natural phenomenon, like a tree, which doesn't need a theory to stand up and wave its branches in the wind. I'm interested in what a painting does, not what it means. It's a machine with inner workings, or better yet, it's a living organism. It has the spark of life. People who love art know what I am talking about – they have the instinct to distinguish between deadness and aliveness in art. When it functions, a painting starts to breathe and hum with life. It invites you to open your eyes, it rewards contemplation and reveals surprises.

DS: Many of your recent paintings consist of sparse, fanciful lines hovering over a monochrome color field. How did you arrive at these images?

PF: They came specifically from ancient Roman wall decorations, frescoes with white, red, or black grounds. I was struck by the way broad areas of empty wall could be energized and structured by only a few simple lines. My lines are very very fine – you couldn't paint them, you have to construct them like I do by filling incisions. Sometimes they are fast and tense, and sometimes they are slow, like the track of a bug crawling across the surface. Lines are intrinsically artificial, they hardly exist in nature; they are abstract, mental, metaphysical.

In the ellipse paintings, the lines lead the eye around the painting, looping in and out of space. Whereas circles in paintings tend to be static and block movement, when viewed in perspective they become ellipses, that is, dynamic. Ellipses are ideal mathematical constructions, conic sections, the shapes of orbits in gravitational systems.

DS: The ellipses are the Apollonian element, which sets up a dialectic with the earthy Dionysian matrix.

PF: That's one way to put it. On the contrary, these new "color" paintings would be purely Dionysian, according to you, less intellectual and more sensual.

DS: In those I see a mechanism of structured flow, color channelled in part by accidental effects. The tension is between control and non-control.

PF: Color equals energy, and notice how the forms seem to continue to expand even after the liquid wax has solidified and is no longer moving. A picture's boundaries always have enormous compositional force, but especially here, as the liquid wax literally moves up to, and then runs along, the little border that holds it on the support, and then rebounds back into the center of the painting. I'm trying to make each work a new experiment, because a painting that already knows where it is going before it is made just never seems to take flight. It needs uncertainty, yes, the relinquishing of control.

DS: How long did it take you to make this painting here?

PF: Forty, fifty years... all my life! I've been painting with hot, liquid colored wax on a rigid support since I was twelve or thirteen years old.

DS: You mean you were making encaustic paintings when you were a boy?

PF: No, no, I was preparing skis for ski racing! If you strap one of my paintings to your feet and head down an icy mountain, you will go very fast, I guarantee!

Rome, 2012