In the East Village during the late 80s, Li Trincere was making Non-Objective paintings and exhibiting them in small storefront galleries such as Mission Gallery and White Columns. The aesthetic back then was Scatter Art and Graffiti street-type Art.
However, there was also a small group of reductive painters, Alan Uglow, Olivier Mosset and Ward Jackson, to name a few, exhibiting together in group shows. At that time, all the other galleries were focused on figurative work. Li continues to make tough reductive paintings, and I had the chance to ask her about them.
Li is represented by David Richard Gallery, NYC.
Brent Hallard: How well did you know these other non-objective artists, and what did it feel like living and working at the center of the art world, NYC, yet out there on the margins?
Li Trincere: Between the East Village scene and Soho’s more polished venues, there were openings five nights a week and if you showed up you became very familiar with who was around. It didn’t matter if you were just starting out, or had been hard at it for 60 years, the talk would inevitably center around the activities in our studios. The non-objective painters, including myself, were interested in the materials and formal properties of paint - stuff like, what was the brightest cadmium reds, or which brand had the deepest matt black.
I remember being stunned by the material presence and sense of space of Richard Serra’s heavy oil stick black drawings and I recall having this conversation with Allan Uglow about them. Brice Marden lived just around the corner from me, on Ave C, and we had this great conversation about the flat waxy grey paintings he’d made in the 70s. It was just all part of the daily trade.
BH: So, what was informing your work at the time?
LT: The New York City urban environment fueled the shaped paintings, with constant structural elements that were continuously in my field of vision. Julian Pretto had a storefront on Thompson Street in the late '80s and was also into reductive abstraction, so it was there that most other young, new, hard-edge painters met, Kretchmer, Levine, Walsh, Mosset, and Parrino. And ideas just bounced around.
BH: For the shaped paintings, you needed to pretty much have the structure there before you start. How would you organize that?
LT: I would work on a number of drawings every year, formatted all the same, 22” x 30” on BFK white paper with caran d’ache wax crayon. The opacity made them flat, immediate, and that’s what I was looking for. I have close to 800 now, and they are all in sequences in conjunction with the paintings produced at the time.
The drawings were almost a prerequisite for the paintings, as it allowed me to define the space of the internal dynamics as well as the external parameters in the wider field; the literal shape of the canvases, some of which were symmetrical, others skewed to five or six sides.
BH: And you continue to work this way with drawings first, then the paintings? What I see in your work from the eighties, and all the way through to now is a solidness and strength. The decisions you make are clear, and, as you say, there is both stasis and motion. Sometimes it is the internal component that is still, while other times it’s the support that holds us there.
LT: Traditionally, I was interested in neoplasticism and the work of Mondrian and Van Doesburg, which has more to do with formalist principles and not symbolic meaning, so the early paintings I was making were symmetrical and austere, using mostly black and white in a proportionate manner.
Making shaped paintings came out of '70s influences such as Kenneth Noland, and Leon Polk Smith with figure/ground and structural perimeters being my concerns, along with elementary construction.
BH: Your early works, T/B1 and T/BL2 are engaging because of a visual logic—they are dynamic, and within that there is a calm. I also see Ward Jackson’s boldness, simplicity and scale in these two early pieces.
LT: The early black and white paintings were all shown at Galerie Rolfe Ricke in Cologne, Germany, and I continued to show with him until he retired and closed the space.
Very early on, I worked with Japanese printmaker Yoshi Higa who showed me the fluidity of working with ink and how it allowed me to draw right on to the litho-stone and print iconographic solid blocks of areas that were pure and uninterrupted pigment.
When I loaded the heavy inked-up roller over the surface of the stone and seeing the opacity with each pass, it was that dynamism that was transferred to the canvas.
The research was recorded each day while exploring relationships, seeing forms and applying them to painting.
I was dividing and dividing areas with numerous layers of paint in order to negate any weave in the canvas, much like a print. Some are more reflective with a high gloss as to indicate a flat reflective space and combined with matt paint for a deeper space.
Making all the paintings in a small East Village railroad flat the New York urban landscape showed itself in the paintings. I was looking at archetypal shapes such as the "X" and crosses which came from street signs and signals that were outside.
There were also studio decisions such as when to start and end a painting, the degree of the angles, the width of bands, color proportions and amount of elements. And when I was working in sequences, if I reconfigured the shapes slightly it would appear as new and not a duplicate. It was just another painting.
BH: A reductive practice is sometimes thought of as making a fuss over slight differences.
LT: The paintings are a process of elimination with certain non-objective principles that I’m working with. Making the shaped paintings is more of a pure effort to eradicate all the spontaneous mark-making and strokes of an abstract painting; no sketching, no designs, no tricks with rags or scrapers, but more of a systemic and formulated process. Each piece exists in my mind before I make it.
Leon Polk Smith said: “you can use any two colors, as long as the proportion is right”. I've put some unusual colors together and his theory of proportion of color was key to getting the painting to work. I've been making these paintings for the past 25 years with the same sensibility using layers of thin acrylic with taped edges to achieve a flat existence of just form. Drawings would start the idea for new shapes, and then I’d fabricate them into larger pieces. The literal shape and the internal depicted shape had to work for the painting to function. Sometimes it changed slightly, but that was a rare occasion. The newer shaped paintings are more arbitrary. There is a greater focus on space and figure-ground awareness, as well as an increase in the work’s speed and velocity. And, in that sense, I’m looking beyond the given perimeters to take in the space around the painting. This way, I’m less interested in simultaneous contrast or optical conclusions, and it’s more about using the colors, diagonals and their placement as components for a total vision.
BH: The current work is strong and bold, as usual. What has been added is a new toughness – an aggressiveness that comes with the bars and peepholes jostling with the shapes of the canvas. Each component that contributes to the sum total of the painting is making a bid for dominance.
LT: I started looking at the zig-zag as a series. And while keeping with the structural elements that I was working with, I decided I could take a few chances. By using a repetition of the diagonals, which, in turn, forced the spatial forms to move, the painting became more activated. As I divided the elements further, adding seams to separate the chromatic areas, and using combinations of gloss and matt mediums, I found the visual sense I was looking for – that of rapid movement, tension and weight.
BH: In the paintings, BL/W1, and BL/BLUE2 , there is also a bending, or a receding in space: in effect, you are creating a model of a space that we could inhabit on a 2-d surface.
Li: So, without getting metaphoric about the elements in the paintings, I thought that the interactions and exploration of the means of color reveal their own characteristics through saturation, weight, hue, etc. I think in reductive work there’s only a few key things you can think about at one time to make the painting work, so when I started repeating the bands of color I had to look at their relationships as a whole, not just looking onto the surface. This way, in the viewer’s space the painting can also exist as a complete experience.
Featured images: Li Trincere in the studio, 2019. Photo by Michael McAuliffe, courtesy the artist; Li Trincere Installation views, David Richard Gallery.