Peter Nadin’s exhibition “The Distance from a Lemon to Murder” is on view at Off Paradise until June 23.
The painter Peter Nadin was born in 1954 near Liverpool, the son of a sea captain whose family roots stretch back centuries in northwest England. Nadin studied art at Newcastle University and moved to New York in 1976, a time of deep, consequential flux in the city’s art world, when the dominant movements of Minimalism and Conceptualism were giving way to new forms of experimentation, including a rebirth of interest in painting. Nadin plugged almost immediately into a downtown art scene that included young peers like Christopher D’Arcangelo, Daniel Buren, Louise Lawler, Richard Prince, Jenny Holzer and Lawrence Weiner. Along with D’Arcangelo he founded the collaborative art site 84 West Broadway, an anti-gallery exhibition space located in his own Tribeca loft, in 1978. And he later became a founder of an unlikely artists’ collective called The Offices of Fend, Fitzgibbon, Holzer, Nadin, Prince & Winters, whose members—including Peter Fend, Colleen Fitzgibbon, and Robin Winters—offered up their talents as critical thinkers to solve real-world problems for clients. It was a social-practice practice many years (too many years, as it turned out) ahead of its time.
When I first met Nadin, in 2011, at the insistence of the gallery owner Gavin Brown, a fellow Brit, he had already become something of a myth, having dropped completely out of the commercial art world for almost twenty years. He had become dissatisfied with the machinery of galleries and the limitations it imposed on his work. Instead of showing, he simply kept painting, mostly on a farm that he and his wife, the entrepreneur Anne Kennedy, had bought in the Catskills. Nadin also taught for many years at Cooper Union, and became deeply involved in the life of his farm and of the people who lived around it. I first visited him there to write a profile for The New York Times Magazine. The conversations that began then have continued with some frequency for more than a decade now, mostly in the summers, in the Catskills, looking at paintings, sculpture, plants, animals, mountains, ponds, and sky. After many years of rebuilding his thinking about painting through cycles of conceptual work, Nadin recently returned to what he called “painting from life,” the works heavily grounded in the greenhouse and immediate environs, much of the painting done during a concentrated period of pandemic isolation. A selection of the paintings is the subject of an exhibition now on view at Off Paradise gallery in Tribeca, titled “The Distance from a Lemon to Murder,” open through June 23. Nadin and I recently sat down in the living room of his home in the West Village to pick up the thread once again.
More than any other artist I’ve ever met, you seem to look at the very big picture of the art-making, the long story, about how we are animals and have, like other animals, evolved to do certain things. Plants do certain things, and animals do certain things, and among the things that Homo sapiens have always done—in fact, we now know it predates Homo sapiens and goes much further back—is make art. Your work is deeply knit up with the history of painting but seems even more knit up with that thinking, about how our species creates culture as a function of what we are, the same way bees make honey.
I certainly think the biological process is central to our art-making. That comes both from the experience of the body and the visual process. I’ve always been fascinated by how one constructs reality from principally visual experience. It’s really curious that it’s not the eyes that do the seeing but the brain. But in the brain, there is no space. There is no image. There is no word. So there is a point of interaction between the perceived visual world and the stored knowledge of experience in the brain, where those two meet. I’ve always tried to figure out where reality lies, because purely ocular reality is a construction. The boar that we used to have up on the farm for years in the Catskills, old Abe, he’d construct his reality as a pig. We’d construct our reality as humans. Our experience of the world is really contradictory and paradoxical. Because even though we know that the world doesn’t exist as we see it, and there are no colors, for example, we still create them in the visual cortex in the same way Abe would create his own sense of the world.
You withdrew from the commercial art world, and yet there’s never been a time when you’ve stopped making work. You’ve also run a working farm in the Catskills for more than twenty years now, and I’ve seen how parts of the farm form parts of the work, obliquely and sometimes in a very straightforward way—as when your boar, Abe, all seven hundred pounds of him, became a subject in a series of paintings. Over the last six or seven years, whenever you’ve taken me up to your studio on the hill, we never go into the studio first. We always go into the greenhouse, which seems lately to be the focus of your work and as important to you as the studio.
Well, no, it’s not as important because I would be making my art whether I had a studio or not. Whereas if I didn’t have the greenhouse, I couldn’t be grafting citrus trees. But they are completely integrated, and one thing leads to the other. My daily routine is to go up to the greenhouse, see what’s what, and then go to the studio, do some work, then maybe go to the greenhouse later. And during the summer months, to be in the garden, and then to go to the studio later in the day.
The paintings that you’ve been making recently are a lot about citrus and the art of grafting. When did you start learning grafting?
Five or ten years ago I became curious about the differentiation between the grafted scion and the rootstock. You can’t take a lemon seed and grow an edible lemon. There are many different varieties of mutations, and there are mutations that we as a species have found to be desirable to eat. Yet other species may not like them at all. It’s just to our taste. So create the kind we like. Once you have the mutation, be it a Villafranca lemon or a Marrakech Limonetta or a Yuzu, you maintain the mutation through the process of grafting a small part of a tree onto a lower portion of another tree.
What drew you to grafting?
My interest initially was purely practical. I wanted to be able to grow my own citrus like we grow our own lettuce and we, for a while, had our own pigs. Then I became fascinated by the process and the delicacy of it. There are several different methods, but if you do a bud graft or a cleft graft, what you’re trying to do is to line up a very small microscopic layer underneath the bark called the cambium layer with the rootstock. You try and put those two things together, and wrap it with a little bit of tape, and then it takes a month, maybe two months, to see if the graft has taken. And then maybe another two months to see if a bud will form. So it requires a great deal of discipline and provokes a great deal of anxiety. You don’t know if it’s going to work or not. I found that process to be fascinating, but also I found the metaphoric aspects of it interesting. You have this point of connection where the life of the rootstock meets the genetics of what’s been taken from another tree. It’s like where the ocular, perceived world, meets the interior world of experience. And this produces a very different fruit, if you like. That’s where these recent paintings began. I was painting the graft, painting the process.
I remember there was a young Argentine artist, Eduardo Navarro, who once did a piece in which he asked a performer to try to experience time in the way a tortoise experiences time. This might sound comical, but he was deadly serious. He was trying to conceive of the ways in which the world would be different if we experienced time the way a tortoise does. Cultivating the patience to wait to see whether a graft will take seems, to a degree, to be you getting on plant time. And some of what I’ve experienced in these newer paintings of yours is a different sense of time.
As we were talking about earlier, we construct the reality that we’re obliged to construct as humans, and Abe is obliged to construct his own reality as a pig, and the citrus is obliged to create its own sense of itself as a plant. But there isn’t really a hierarchy. One of the things I find questionable is the idea of a hierarchy. When you spend time with those different species’ constructions, I think it’s inevitable that you realize that it’s just one of millions of constructions species are obliged to make.
Why do you think we as a species began to make objects and put lines and shapes and colors on walls?
Young children from anywhere, from a very young age, begin to make marks and to represent their experience. That’s how they create their worlds. We create our worlds ideationally and we also create them through representation. Drawing helps set up the cognitive processes that make us human. This idea that kids play through making work–of course they do, but in doing so they’re also forming a sense of spatial relationships. So that in later life, for example, when they hold up their hand in front of the landscape and it appears huge, they realize that the hand is actually very small, even though it takes up an enormous amount of the visual field, and the landscape is very large even though it appears to be the same size. We learn from making representations of our spatial experience.
There was a psychologist and educator in the Bay Area named Rhoda Kellogg who became obsessed with the art that children made. She traveled and eventually collected millions of examples of art made by young children from around the world. And she found commonalities in the ways children started to understand how to visualize a human body or a structure or what a house looked like across very disparate cultures and economic levels.
In a sense, we come to the same conclusions. By repetition, children figure out that the most efficient way of putting the water from the jug into the glass is by moving the hand a certain way. There’s an analogy to the beehive as well, because within a beehive, bees have many different roles, and there’s no central controlling force. The queen does not control the hive, except by her pheromone. If the pheromone is strong, the bees will, for whatever reason, be able to adapt to the different roles. So if there are dead bees, the undertaker bees will take them out. Or the undertaker bees will change roles to become nest bees if that’s needed, or guards or, if the hive gets too hot, air conditioner bees who cool it off with their wings. But if the pheromone of the queen becomes weak, then the social structure of the hive begins to collapse. It’s fascinating because the bees don’t know it’s the pheromone of the queen that creates social cohesion. It does make you wonder if we really understand what creates or fails to create our social cohesion.
All of this makes me think about when we use terms like good or bad or quality when we talk about art. I was just on vacation with my family in Rome and Venice and London, looking at Greek bronzes and Renaissance art and medieval art and prehistoric art. And it strikes me that when you go to a museum and look at a broad enough historical swath of art and you think about the term quality, it seems to be a strange word to use. What you see instead is that there were various needs met by what the artists were doing during the time in which they were living, and some artists, of course, met those needs in more highly-skilled and accomplished and interesting ways, ways that other artists couldn’t or didn’t. But those judgments were deeply bound up with the needs that people had, or that the church had, or patrons had, or a religion or creed had. And such judgments are still bound up with our needs, even though the needs—what we want from art and what it can do for us—have become a lot broader and more complex.
I agree with you, and it comes back to paradox and contradiction. Because the kind of theologies being expressed by most of those artists are ones most of us now don’t believe in. And yet paradoxically, the expression given to the misconception can be extremely beautiful. We don’t know where Raphael stood on the question of belief. Maybe he was a true believer. Who knows? I’ve also wondered, if you were in the workshop of Phidias working on the Acropolis all day, for years and years, then what kind of art did you have in your house? What did you want to look at? Were those guys making little pieces that looked like what they made in their day job? Or did they think, “I’ve been working all day, and I’m sick of this shit, and I’m going to get a couple of pieces from the market that just make me happy to look at,” something that might have been considered the kitsch of its day, but really who knows? Maybe it would look marvelous to us now.
I’ve been reading Leo Steinberg’s The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art. And he argues that one of the reasons that the early Renaissance, from Giotto on, began to move toward what would conventionally be called verisimilitude was, in part, to stress Christ’s existence as a flesh-and-blood man, a fact essential to the mechanics of the salvation theology. It was one way to counter heretical beliefs that Christ had a spectral divine body, not a corporeal one. So all of that beauty and technique and accomplishment and visual poetry, which continues to awe us, might not have come into being in the way it did if it didn’t do so in service of specific needs, in service of a particular theology.
I think you’re right. And the irony is that as it seemed to be more real, it became more ocular. But actually, ocularity isn’t anything like the full reality of our visual experience. So a lot of the art that was made by cultures that were once considered—that terrible word—primitive, actually expressed a much more sophisticated and grounded understanding of how we experience the world. But of course, if you moved away from ocularity or the ocular in Catholicism, it could smack of heresy.
You’ve talked about this next question with me before: Do you have any desire to think about portraiture again?
I’ve been working on portraits for many, many years. It’s a real challenge because, again, you come up against visual representation but also how that representation actually exists within the mind. So if I’m looking at you, I have ocular input, but then if I turn the other way, how do you exist? You don’t exist in an ocular fashion, but you’re still there. I can hear you, but I also assume that I can see you. The thing that I’m working on now is how to access and represent, if you will, that invisible world, which is as real as the ocular.
The show at Off Paradise is called “The Distance from a Lemon to Murder,” which, you’ve told me, derives from that kind of thinking, about what a lemon “looks like” and how you think about what it looks like and how the idea of a lemon relates to other things in the mind, even things as disparate as murder. It’s such a great, weird title. Where did it come from?
One thing I’d forgotten that must have been in the back of my mind is that I read a biography of Stalin maybe ten years ago. And it turns out that Stalin was a real devotee of citrus grafting. I don’t know why I didn’t remember this for practically a decade. But there is an extraordinary scene in the biography, describing how Stalin would spend a lot of his time in Sochi where he had a citrus grove and he’d be working on the citrus, grafting the trees, taking gentle care of them as you have to do. And then he’d be given lists of all the people who were to be shot. He worked on his citrus. He signed the lists, pages long, and everyone on the list would soon be dead, as Stalin kept working on his trees. That difference between the actions, the careful grafting and the mass horror, I realize now, must have been in my mind without knowing it.
And do you sense any totalitarian aspects in yourself as you’re sitting there grafting away, grafting your lemons? [Laughs]
Well, there is that part of being an artist in which you have the power to construct a world just as you want it, without contradiction, without paradox, without having to understand the basic nature of things. So there’s a kind of doctrinaire aspect, a godlike aspect to it, that probably relates deeply to things that were in the mind of Stalin and others of his ilk. I haven’t been handed the list thus far. And if they give it to me, I hope I’ll say, “You know something? I think that we should tear the list up.”
Let’s let them all live?
Let them live. And let them all loose.
Randy Kennedy is the editor in chief of Ursula magazine, published by the gallery Hauser & Wirth, and the author of the 2018 novel Presidio, published by Simon & Schuster. For twenty-five years, he was a reporter for the New York Times, many of those years writing about the art world.
Off Paradise will host a conversation between Peter Nadin and Randy Kennedy at the gallery on Wednesday, May 25 at 6:30 P.M. The conversation will also be streamed live on the gallery’s Instagram account (@offparadise), and available later for viewing on offparadise.com.
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