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ENGLISH TRANSCRIPT OF STEINMETZ’S TV INTERVIEW WITH ART JOURNALIST KSENYA EGOROVA, NOVEMBER 2009.
ANCHOR: We are going to introduce you to the artist Leon Steinmetz, whose works grace the permanent collections of major art museums of the United States. Why did this American artist dedicate his first solo exhibit in Russia to Nikolai Gogol? We shall find out now.
K.E. Our guest tonight is American artist Leon Steinmetz. Drawings inspired by a genius writer are very different from mere illustrations. At least with the art of Leon Steinmetz that’s precisely the case. Though his exhibit is called “Contemplating Nikolai Gogol,” the texts for Steinmetz are but initial dots, from which spring extraordinary lines, scratches and splashes, both figurative and abstract. Steinmetz’s solo exhibit at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts is the continuation of the Russian public’s introduction to American art, which started two years ago with the comprehensive exhibit called “The Art of the New World” in the same museum.
K.E. Leon, why specifically has Gogol inspired you for this exhibit?
L.S. Well, Gogol has always been very intriguing to me—both his writing and his personality. You see, he belongs to this pantheon of semi-gods of classical literature, along with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Pushkin, yet he is an incredibly modern writer. He was a surrealist a hundred years before this term was coined, and as a surrealist he is much more sophisticated than Breton or Dali, and as an existentialist he is more interesting than Sartre and Camus together. This exhibit is called “Contemplating Gogol”, but thinking back, I believe a more appropriate title would have been “Contemplating with Gogol.”
K.E. You are often called a poet of the line. They say you have a special method of working. What is this method?
L.S. It’s not exactly a method. It’s just that a while ago I realized that the most important thing is not to be afraid of a blank canvas or a blank sheet of paper. A blank sheet generates fear, which is very natural. I think it’s the same with many writers. So, when you overcome it, when you feel complete freedom—that’s the secret, and that’s where it all begins. Of course, one must have a reasonable technical ability in the craft, along with this feeling of freedom, in order to express and say what one wants to say. Because if it’s just the latter, the result will be but a senseless and pretentious mumbling, which, unfortunately is often the case. But then again, as one great artist said, “to create something you have to be somebody.” Well, going back to my “method” you’ve asked me about, I’d call it—controlled spontaneity. This sounds as an oxymoron, but it’s true. This is why I destroy so many of my works. For instance, when I work with a brush on paper. A particular sheet might take literally fifteen minutes, yet in order to achieve what I want, I might spend a week on it, discarding one sheet after another until every dot is on its proper place. Thus, in the series “Poprischin’s Diary” (“The Diary of a Madman”, created jointly with John W. Cataldo) there is a lot of collage there. Because while working on it, I’d be creating those spontaneous dots, lines and splashes, then, suddenly, I’d see—no, it doesn’t work here, or it doesn’t work there. Then I’d have to either discard the sheet, or put a collage over that particular spot. You may ask, what’s the big deal—a few dots—what’s the difference where they are? But there is a great deal of difference. Everything should be perfectly balanced. That’s what I’ve just called controlled spontaneity.
K.E. Leon, you represent American art, yet your first language is Russian. Which culture is closer to you?
L.S. I can’t say really. I’d say both—equally. You see, purely chronologically I have spent more time outside of Russia than in Russia. Most of my works were created in the United States, yet my very early works were acquired by the Pushkin museum. This is why this exhibit is such a pleasant return for me. A wonderful circle.
K.E. I know you write as well, that I can actually hear in the way you speak. So, what is your writing about?
L.S. Well, I’ll reply to your short question with a somewhat extended answer, if you don’t mind.
K.E. Of course not.
L.S. You see, I was involved in art, had solo exhibits—one was in a highly regarded art gallery in Manhattan, called Poindexter—got a prize in Biennale in Latina, Italy, etc. In short, was involved in art extensively. Then, all of a sudden, I completely abandoned art for a considerable time—fifteen years or so. It happened because I became very interested in writing. Writing in English. And I started writing. Short stories, I mean fiction. And also non-fiction—essays on art, culture, history. Quite a few, in fact. They were published. I also collaborated with filmmakers. I never attempted to write a novel though. At one point I was very interested in writing a revisionist biography of, believe it or not, Marie Antoinette. I was on the verge of signing a contract with a big New York publishing house. But that’s a different story. Anyway, one time, while still involved in writing, I started re-reading Dante’s “The Divine Comedy—the Inferno”. Probably, the tenth time in my life. And while reading it, I was doing drawings—canto one, canto two, etc. Actually, I was not drawing, but almost meditating with a pen in hand. When I finished “The Inferno,” I counted the drawings. There were forty-three of them. But when I attempted to continue, to do “The Purgatory” and “The Paradiso”, I realized that it was impossible. I felt that while it might be possible to depict light cutting through the darkness, as in “The Inferno,” it’s totally impossible to depict light cutting through light, as in “The Purgatory” and “The Paradiso”. In any case, this was the beginning of my return to visual art. Incidentally, now this series, called “Dante Meditations,” is in the permanent collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
K.E. Thank you.