This conversation between Paul D’Agostino and Marie Peter-Toltz took place in Bushwick in May, on the eve of Peter-Toltz’s MFA Thesis exhibition, Je suis le tigre dans la montagne, at the New York Studio School (closed May 25). Peter-Toltz will participate in the group show inaugurating Wagner Contemporary’s new space in Sydney, Australia, opening July 2. D’Agostino, who was the subject of a solo exhibition earlier this year at Life on Mars in Bushwick, is included in that gallery’s farewell exhibition, “An Occasional Dream,” on view through July 31.
PAUL D’AGOSTINO: As an artist, you very fully identify as a painter, and you very fully imbue your paintings with your identity, but not necessarily with you. Your paintings are not portraits or self-portraits, really, but I see them as portraits of you as a painter. What kind of identity is it that you want your viewers to see? Which Marie is it? It is not simply, “Je suis Marie.“
MARIE PETER-TOLTZ: Walt Whitman says, “I contain multitudes,” and Rimbaud wrote, “Je est un autre.” That would be my answer. Let me be the four billion people I want to be.
Four billion? That’s a suggestive number, a crucial number. It relates to your thoughts about painting as history, this patriarchal aspect of, or backdrop to, painting that we’ve talked about before. It’s a backdrop that is relevant to your work, and to your act of painting, but it doesn’t have to be relevant. Or you don’t have to want it to be. But in a way, you do want it to be. You want to acknowledge that there is a patriarchal history to painting, and to acknowledge that it never goes away as history. But your belief is that it can be transformed in a contemporary setting. In this sense, rather than working against it, you are using the painting process and the imagery to speak through that tradition.
Yes. I am hoping to give the viewer another understanding of painting, taking it outside of these old binaries dividing men and women, or male and female artists. In the same way, I want to challenge the binaries of whether you define yourself as a figurative painter or an abstract painter. I don’t think it belongs to the contemporary artistic conversation, although it is always brought up as an issue. Ultimately, it’s about painting, and hopefully we can go beyond this binary thinking.
My problem with the figurative “versus” the abstract issue in painting is that it is such an old one, and that the conversation is kind of tired, and it’s always blurred, and so there’s not much of substance to say about it.
I’m not even sure that it’s still an interesting question. We’re talking about a couple of generalizing adjectives. We can use them to describe an abstract or figurative work. But you already know which it is when you look at it. And how often is it simply both? You can label ‘representational’ a painting that is geometric abstraction, if for example you find out that the triangle in the painting is the artist’s perception of a mountain.
That’s a good example.
How would you describe a still life with a bunch of fruit? Figurative? Or is it not figurative? What if you were to find out that a series of twelve still life paintings of fruit were done before an artist died alone in her studio? Let’s imagine a painter who painted geometric abstraction for decades, but the last twelve paintings she made were these still life paintings of fruit. Is it interesting to say that late in her career, or I guess at the very end, she turns to figuration and representation? Isn’t the genre and subject matter much more compelling, conveying through her final twelve paintings something about life, loneliness and quietude? Maybe that’s not a fair example. Maybe I love fruit far too much.
So here you are bringing out the relevance of autobiographical elements into the artist’s work.
Yes, so maybe it’s not fair. But it does go back to the patriarchal backdrop to painting as we’ve discussed it in your work. If a backdrop is known, if that knowledge is not lost, then it’s there whether you want it or not, whether you agree that it’s relevant or not. If it can inform the viewer, then why not address it? Looking at your paintings, we can certainly acknowledge the biographical elements, which become clearer the longer one looks at the paintings.
In this latest body of work, I was telling a story without a narration. They’re more like the metaphorical landscape of someone’s intimate journey. I am hoping that the viewer is able to enter the painting without having to understand the biographical facts. Narration is something I was doing more of in the past. Narration as a means for painting.
Prose as opposed to verse?
So the more you move away from prose, the more you enter the symbolical or more deeply metaphorical realm of poetry.
Maybe more like the difference between a novella and a fictional diary, for example. Maybe something like The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, because it can be opened in the middle and understood.
Pessoa, yes! And this is an interesting idea with regards to painting: looking at a painting as if it’s what you’ve found on the page of a book opened up to wherever, accepting what you are presented with.
In the films from the Nouvelle Vague, the story unravels in a way that each character depends on the other to help the story unfold. With this exhibition, the personnage principal is a satellite for the others. Jean-Luc Godard or Philippe Garrel would choose actors organically, depending on their relationship with one another. Once I had my lead actrice in one of the paintings, I could continue and make the others. I struggled to find her.
Which painting was it? Or which actrice?
L’Éternel Féminin. My female yellow Christ.
One thing I find quite remarkable in the show is how challenging your colors are.
They’re very difficult colors to deal with or even imagine in successful paintings. A huge yellow painting. A huge orange painting. Not easy. In your works, I gravitate more toward those with darker palettes. But when I look at the others, I don’t come away with the sensation that I was looking at the big yellow one, or the big orange one. They engage the viewer on a completely different level. The thing I like a lot about your centerpiece painting, Je suis le tigre dans la montagne, is that it remains vague, dreamlike, nocturnal. Its ambiguity makes you want to keep looking and discovering. You keep looking for that thing that is there but isn’t. You have taken the symbolism a step further in that one, and you’re taking the viewer with you by making such a move. We’ve talked about how the mother and the child figures in your work connect to the history of Madonna and Christ representation. But here the mother takes on, or you take on, the image of a tiger. It’s a challenge to your viewer. You have to find the mother to comprehend the child. Going deep enough into this nocturnal landscape allows one to locate a history. You’re taking the symbolism further into the realm of poetry.
This is what I wanted. Once I could get away from the word ‘mother’ in this one, or the obvious “mother” figure, then I felt I could convey her more honestly. How was I to communicate this? It was difficult. And ultimately, who is our audience?
With whom do you communicate in your work?
Oh, I don’t know. With myself, to begin with, and with history. This isn’t unique. It is probably true for all artists or writers. In some way, we would like to communicate as an echo that goes both ways, forward and backward. As creative agents, we are using the backdrop of the things we have absorbed in the past to reverberate something new into the future. We want to absorb, convey, transform. Echoes.
Or we transform ourselves, then even the viewers, in some capacity. My paintings can be like my creation of transformation through painting.
These paintings transform you?
I think so.
This must be something you have been thinking about for a while. How do you imagine a painting can change a feeling of self?
By expelling oneself onto the canvas.
So let’s imagine that I have been doing self-portraits for a decade, and then one day I come to the realization that I don’t recognize myself in these representations. I realize I want to convey my “self,” not myself. And perhaps I decide that my “self” is a very small turtle. So I start painting my ‘self’ as such, and that would transform how I think about myself even outside of the paintings. Is that what you mean?
Yes. And a turtle, how liberating that would be! You have a turtle.
Yes, Cecco. He can be a bit boring, and he’s always stuck in his shell. So yes, I can totally identify with myself as a turtle. But anyway, going back to your idea of being transformed by your paintings, one could say that being transformed by one’s art seems like a dramatic exaggeration, but on the other hand it can be utterly true.
Someone could think that Painter A is lying by saying, “I so love the material of paint, and when I paint time goes away, and I lose myself in the process,” Etc., but everyone who paints knows that there’s a truth to all of that and can relate to the idea of time flying by, to the love of the material. So in a way, your feelings about the transformational aspects of painting also have this quality of seeming like dramatization or exaggeration, but also being real, actual, true. The more you identify with the transformed aspect of self, the more it becomes metaphorical, and eventually even more transformative.
And more transcendental.
Like passing through something.
Getting away from the literal depiction.
Creating a portrayal, not a portrait. A conveyance.
If you think of wild animals, you think they are dangerous, feral, destructive, but they’re also nurturing and protective. So with the tiger, I’m conveying with paint how it feels to nurture and care while being feral. The allegory of the tiger became an implication and depiction of my ‘self.’
How can you convey “caring” in a painting? Like, without simply portraying ‘caring’ faces or something? That’s a really interesting idea. How can one actually express, in a painting, that one cares? There’s something else there too, because when you really care, you always worry.
I know. I worry about my paintings!
You worry about them, great! It’s invigorating to care and worry. It can make you feel alive. Maybe that’s an exaggeration. But speaking of exaggeration, we’ve talked about your fondness for Baroque art and the Mannerists. What do you find interesting in them?
My inspirations are fluid and constantly changing, from my painter friends to Michelangelo! But I did live in Vienna, so the Baroque churches and the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s collection certainly impacted my aesthetic, even subconsciously.
A major element in Baroque art is the attempt to convey, materially, transcendence. Baroque uses exaggerated details, decoration and exuberance to suggest that things can transcend. Is that what inspires you?
Yes. And the fullness, the rich colors, the general intensity of Baroque paintings has always inspired me.
The colors, yes. On that note, why is your “yellow painting” yellow?
If you are interested in the psychology of colors, yellow connects to hope and joy. So that painting is “the hopeful female crucifixion.”
You must be eager to see where the paintings will go, how much more they might continue to change you as they also change.
It is more about how much further I can take it. The process of transformation has to happen intrinsically. Making art is ultimately about improving as a person. There is nothing more humbling than trying to make a great painting. You carry that into the world. In the same way meditation is transformative, painting is transformative. It changes you every day.
And sincerity seems crucial. It has to be a sincere transformation, or a sincere pursuit if you want to communicate more, and communicate better.
That’s right. For example, a lady I didn’t know came to the opening, and she cried while looking at the paintings.
She cried in front of your paintings? Broke down in tears?