July 5, 2011 | by Daisy Atterbury and Lily Swistel
Dan Walsh’s elevator is like the inside of a lunch box, a room coated with a loud, almost orangey mustard. The artist moved to his Williamsburg loft before Kent Avenue became, as Walsh calls it, “like Miami Beach,” when he could only see the skyline, the bridge, and the Domino Sugar refinery. And even though the view has changed, Walsh has stayed put. In our interview, Walsh tells me that he’s interested in exploring a space where the perceptual meets the symbolic, where meaning is created outside of historical codification. He is known for his large-scale geometric paintings that play on repetition, grids, and blocks. Lately, he has been creating artist books, which explore repetition, progression, and layering on a more intimate scale.
Space is important to me—you could say the minimalists organized the space and what is in-between. Historically, minimalism rejected “pictorial space.” I am using the formats of minimalism, but not following the goals. As matter a fact, I always regarded the space in a painting as the soul of a painting. I’m working to find a space I can interact with on a day-to-day basis, something neutral and malleable: one of the goals of minimalism was to experience qualities of materials, forms, colors and remove psychological space. I have always tried to put myself in the best “place” (be it living space or painting space) to think clearly—to make the next decision.
I make books now, one or two a year. The books are definitely labor intensive, but as long as a I can continue to afford it, I plan to publish more. My recent books are an attempt at something more physical—something that you feel—something like my paintings, more optical, affecting the body. When you get into a big painting it’s about the body in some way—the human scale, as in the famous human scale of American painting, whereas bookmaking is intimate.
When an abstract painter makes a book, the book doesn’t have a narrative per se. Sol LeWitt is a good example. One tends to gravitate toward progression—or maybe variation is a better word. The full two-page spread is important to me. I sew loosely, so the book will sit flat. It’s not like a regular book that you flip through—the seam is everything. This is one of the reasons I publish my own books. I’m the Moody Studios, named after my favorite band. There are rewards to being self-taught. It’s not so much that it’s about craft as that it’s about making a lot of decisions that end up mattering. And I like that; that’s a meaningful thing.
I’m trying to find simple phenomena. They could be seen as frames for new ideas and sensations. The books stand on their own. Now I’m particularly interested in transparencies, which you can see in my paintings. This book with the empty center is about the viewer’s projection. When an artist offers less information, the thoughts of the viewer are more active. The opposite of that would be, for example, the painting “Guernica.” In a minimal situation, you have less information—especially narrative qualities—and are left with a few elemental forms. It is funny to talk about this, because I call myself a maximalist now: getting the most out of the least.
I have always spoken about the “use value” of my painting—the grid is very user friendly. My early work often looks like agendas or display cases, inviting interaction, accessible. I wouldn’t call my paintings classically “reductive” or “purist” (much geometric painting describes itself this way). The idea has been to make a vehicle for concentration, but also a place for my concentration and my studies.
In a funny way, all of my painting in the last five years has been a way to solve my problem of the application of paint. I was a little embarrassed by how I painted—everyone else had a style, a schtick, a way of applying the paint, using tape, for instance. I wanted to be more direct and searching, find a method that would allow me to do this, while remaining historically codified. Over the years I’ve found that the shorter marks are less about style, less about the expressive. This has been a good way to be really involved with painting and to be hands-off at the same time, to find ways of fitting together the pieces.
I feel sometimes that my paintings are a little too beautiful. But I embrace the method: transparency and inflection, ways of getting different experiences out of painting, painting very simply. I mean it’s very complicated, but it’s really very simple.