Gallery 224

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May, 2018

Featured ArtistRichard Taylor


A Conversation with Richard by Don Niederfrank

Richard and I met on a Thursday morning at Studio 224. Our conversation was conducted as he worked on a series of prints. He thanked me for being willing to visit with him while he worked, and we began...

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in New Berlin. I was born in Milwaukee, but grew up in New Berlin, which was rather rural with farmlands all around our house with lots of corn fields. I biked on country roads with very little traffic, hiked in the forest, walked along streams.

Do your parents still live there?
Yes. They still live in the house where we lived.

Do you have siblings?
Two brothers and a sister.

So you're working on printmaking now, but printmaking hasn't always been your medium.
When I was in graduate school many years ago, I majored in painting, drawing and printmaking. I really enjoyed printmaking a lot, and the printmaking I was doing then was primarily etching, primarily working from real life. I was doing a lot of figurative drawings, where I was drawing a lot of people. I was enjoying studies of people and what those studies may have told me about their lives, how you can read people's lives through gestures and expressions. That was a big part of my painting also. Since then my professional life as an artist has been mainly in sculpture, abstract metal sculpture, which I enjoy doing a lot.

I haven't really done serious printmaking in a long time. Then I saw the opportunity here for the residency, and thought I should really get back into it again. And yet I did dip my toe in the water recently, a few months ago. I was in a show at the Villa Terrace Museum in Milwaukee with a printmaker named Barbara Manger ( She quite a well-known printmaker. I love her work. She had a workshop in conjunction with our show, so I signed up for her workshop. I was doing monoprints in which each print is unique. Which seems counterintuitive because printmaking was developed to mass produce etchings—Gutenburg's Bible and music—So I did this workshop with Barbara and thought I'd really like to do this again.

Ironically, the press I'm using here used to be my press. I live on the east side of Milwaukee, and years ago I bought this monoprint press and put it in my basement. I was doing linocuts where you cut into linoleum. And I was never really happy or successful with the prints that I made at that time. And I worked on it for a couple years, and I just couldn't get into it. So I lost my interest in printmaking to the point where I sold the press to Lynde Uihlein who bought it for people to use in her home. So I delivered it to her home. At some point she donated it to Studio 224. (Richard and I moved this press at that time!)

This is fascinating in a way because in my sculptural work I'm doing a series of what appear to be almost broken circles that are wall sculptures. They're very painterly. The theme in that series is experiences in life that are almost full circle. Thus the break in the circle. And there's a physical reason or benefit to having a break in a sculpture also. But there's a thematic relevance because these are events in my life that are almost full circle.

I can give you an example. When I was in graduate school at UWM we were in what was called the Kennelworth Building, an old building south of the campus. And years ago that building was owned by General Motors. My father was an electrical engineer and he worked in that building. Not only did he work in that building, he worked on the fifth floor. And not only did he work on the fifth floor, his office to his recollection was almost exactly where my studio was on the fifth floor of the Kennelworth Building. That's an example of my almost full circle life experiences which make into this series of Rings, I call them. And now another Ring is going to be about this printing press. Another almost full circle experience where ironically or luckily here I am using what was my printing press in this beautiful surrounding of Studio 224.

So these pieces that you are doing—I'm assuming that each piece doesn't have a little narrative.
No, they're totally abstract. There's  title and then there's a story. And of course I like to tell people a couple of sentences. Not as much as I told you. I want them to use their imaginations and bring what they want to the piece.

Frankly I think there's way too much art that is accompanied by way too much explanation. And beyond explanation philosophical underpinnings and great reasons as to why it's important. To me, if you can't see it in the work with just a  brief description, I just don't care. I really want the work to speak for itself.

I'm a retired clergy person, so for me it's just the opposite. I work in a lot of words. I don't want to leave it up to Well, whatever you think I said.
Yours is a very different discipline.

So one of the things I like about art is the letting go of control, but often I will read artist's statements and I think I know what this is and I want to congratulate the person on getting their MFA because you hate to have all that vocabulary and never get to us it. But I also think it's not always helpful. Matthew Lee's statements are very clear.
Often I read an artist's statement and all I can think of is “obfuscation.” You don't have to impress with the fact that you had to take some philosophy to accompany your MFA. We all did that.

So these broken circles are there for the observer, and most good art is pretty evocative on its own.
It should be. One of the things I ask myself on my art is Does it tell me something new. Does it force me to think in a new way or think of a situation through a filter I haven't used before. It has to stimulate me in a new way. And of course I ask that of other people's art. It should blaze some new territory in even a subtle way, shouldn't just mimmic other people. We could go on all day about what art should and shouldn't do.

Because I was a philosophy major and liked precision, I used to think there was a clear bright line about what was and wasn't art, but the more I learn the more I realize it's really very difficult.
There's a connection between philosophy and art, and I've become an amateur student of philosophy in the last few years. An interesting story. I had a helper in my studio, a young woman who was doing grinding and other tasks. She asked if she could use the studio to make a cross for her church. She did a very good job, brushed aluminum with a patina on some parts, and I helped her deliver the cross to her church and helped her install it. And in doing so I met the pastor of the church. Lauren and I had talked about a lot of things, and she knew I had an interest in philosophy, so when she introduced me to the pastor she mentioned this. He asked what I was reading, and I told him I was reading a compendium of 20th century philosophy. He asked if I would like some recommendations, and I said Sure. He recommended Fear and Trembling by Kierkegaard, a very Christian philosopher and the other was Nieztsche, an atheist. Now I'm rereading Fear and Trembling for the second time and discussing it with the copastor, because Chris the pastor got in touch with me about a year ago and said they were starting an informal philosophy discussion group and would I care to join. I said Sure, thanks for thinking of me. It's dwindled to two people, and I'm flattered and amazed he spends the time with me he does to discuss the books we do. It's been a really interesting time. I'm really thankful for that connection and experience.

I think there's a lot in Christian existentialism that makes sense. Here's another question as you're working. Do you know what you're going to do? Is the piece of art your working on determined before you begin?
No. I have a framework. I have a vocabulary, and my vocabulary is these (two-dimensional) shapes. They are all found objects I've collected when I walk anywhere—a leaf or a watch band or a key. Most of them are just shapes of metal or plastic. Personally, I think they all have a story of a person or Mother Nature who left them there. I find them fascinating. When you put them together and start creating compositions with them some really interesting things begin to happen. I cut all these out with a laser thanks to Berel Lutsky. What I do is take these shapes and move them around on this polycarbonate plate and run it through the press. I get infinite variations of color and composition and the relationship between these pieces. You can see the end result in these photographs. I call the series “Jazz” because to me it's very much like improvising in jazz. In jazz you have a chord structure and an instrument, yet there is an infinite number of improvisations in following those chords with that instrument.

I have an area of paper and shapes and a palette which changes every time I'm here, and who knows what's going to happen. So I call the series “Jazz” and I just give them a number. I think I'm up to 190. It just keeps growing.

Do you still play saxophone?
I do. I'm taking lessons and playing with an adult combo at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. It's a humbling experience, but I enjoy it a lot.

So let me ask one of my standard questions. Did you do art as a child?
Oh yeah. I was always one of those kids drawing during other subjects, just scribbling on the page. I always did art. But in high school I joined the band and played the saxophone and really enjoyed it a lot. But that took up all my time so I never took an art class, which now seems really weird. It retrospect it seems like a big mistake. But now I'm friends with a person who was the art teacher at my high school years ago. I tell him You're the art teacher I wish I would have had.

When you went to college did you go as an art major?
No, I had a very twisted path to getting to where I am now.

(What followed was an interesting accounting of Richard's life for the next decade or so involving college, dentistry, the navy. You can ask him for the details. :-) ) ...and went to UWM for a masters in fine art. But I also had a wonderful opportunity where I had this great job as the artist in residence for Quad Graphics. I did that for eleven years part time working directly with Harry Quadracci. He hired me to work with him in designing and painting murals in their workspaces. I really admired him because he wanted to bring artwork to everyone in the company not just the white collar workers. My job was to bring art to the workers on the printing presses and binders. So I painted these huge murals—they might be two hundered feet long and eighteen feet tall in these huge football field size rooms that had the printing presses but didn't have any windows. Harry said These people should have something to look at other than white walls. So that was my job.

Are they still there?
Yeah. They're in many of the plants—Sussex, Pewaukee, Lomira—I went out to Saratoga Springs, New York and painted murals at their plant there. One of the wonderful things about that job was that I could use any facility in the factory that would help with my art work. In graduate school I never took a course in sculpting. Quad Graphics had a fabrication shop, a place where there were a bunch of skilled guys that were welders and metal workers who repaired the presses and made guard rails and anything out of metal. And I said to Harry We should do some sculpture. I had an ulterior motive to learn to work with metal in the fab shop. And Harry said We have a fab shop! The guys there will teach you how to work with metal. So there was a project where I worked with metal for the first time. The guys there taught me way more than I needed to know, which was great. They were great guys.

So Harry wanted metal wall sculptures in many of the lobbies of the plants, which was fine with me. So I got quite conversant with working with metal thanks to the tutelage of the guys in the fab shop.

Did it feel like doing art or just making designs for walls?
Oh yeah. Well that could be a life-long conversation, because we could look at a Donald Judd work—he was a true minimalist working with metal in the 60's and 70's. And he might do something as simple as an aluminum box that's anodized one color that's hung on a wall or a series of them. Anyone could look at that anodized box and say That's art? And someone who appreciates the Minimalist Movement could argue Of course that's art and give a three hour lecture on why it is. So where's that line between art and design?

There is art that has left creativity like Thomas Kinkade. It's appealing but not art. It's neither evocative or provocative.
Well, I think you characterizing it in a way that's more sophisticated than you think, which is great. And maybe that cycles back to what I mentioned earlier about art telling something new. If you look at a Thomas Kinkade painting that's a sweet, drippingly sweet rendering of a little cottage, and there's some deer grazing and the moon's out and reflected in the pond and there's a candle in the window, Does it really tell you anything new? Does it move you at all?

Maybe it's reassuring to someone who needs some comfort, and everything being maintained as we've always known it. I know people like that.

Yes, it's like the Lawrence Welk show.
Yes. I'd probably give Lawrence Welk more credit than Thomas Kinkade. But someone else whose art was easy to look at was Norman Rockwell, but Norman Rockwell had a mild social commentary.

People can easily laugh at Norman Rockwell and have for decades, and yet in an odd way he's undergone a resurgence of legitimacy. I think there is more to his work than many people give credit. There are truths and revelations there, things we can learn. I'm not a champion of his, but I've told myself, Wait. Maybe we should look twice at this guy. We deride him because it's so easy; he's such a pop culture icon.

That's the other thing. If someone is revered in the pop culture world, it's almost a given that they're going to be damned in the aesthetic world.

And the opposite can be true. If someone is not known, then it has to be art.
I know what you mean. We all have to bring our tastes to that question. Myself, I admire native American visual work more than their music. That's just me personally.

So let's go back to where we left off awhile ago. The question I have is when you were working for Quad Graphics, is that when you identified yourself as an artist? Or was there another time in your life where you would have said: I'm an artist.
Yes. I make that distinction in a couple ways. In a practical way and in a spiritual way. I did reach a point where I thought I only have so many years to live, and I saw these older guys who were dentists—You can take anything—and they weren't happy. They might have made a comfortable living, but to me there's more to life than a comfortable living. Were they really spiritually nurtured? Could they express themselves through their profession? And some people are born to do that, but I asked myself those questions and realize I really wanted to do something beyond that, more expressive. So I did have to tell myself, in answer to your question, I'd like to think I'm an artist and I need to leave this other profession behind. I did come to a crossroads.

When you went to school for your MFA, did you stop practicing dentistry then?
I did. I sold my practice. Then I had another decision. A friend of mine ran the dental clinic at UWM where I was going to school. They had a small dental practice in the health clinic, and he asked me if I wanted to be the dentist. Then I had another choice to make. Am I going to set foot on that campus as both an artist and a dentist? It just seemed like the two sides of my brain would have been at war or something. I said Thank you very much, but I'm going to decline. I breathed a big sigh of relief when I decided.

How much difference did it make to get paid to do art?
That was a huge affirmation but confusing, because I look at someone like Van Gough. I don't think he ever made any money from his art. I think all of his sustenance came from his brother Theo. So is money really an affirmation? Yes and No. When I was in school there was an instructor who was very adamant about not doing work in the arts that was other than fine arts. He looked down his nose on students that were studying graphic design or interior design. He really had a bias about the only artist is a fine artist and the only way you make money from art is by selling your fine art. So it's noble to flip hamburgers to support your fine art. And that to me was a huge contrast to a saxophonist that I knew who said one should play at every opportunity.

Does good art have an edge?
Some artist try so hard to be edgy. There should be an edge in the sense that you're blazing some new territory. And yet is there a necessity and innate positive in having an edge? Should you have an edge for edge's sake? And I think there's a lot of art that all there trying to do is have an edge. And I don't see an image I want to look at or I'm just not engaged visually.

I guess that's one of my biggest complaints about the current art world. Very seldom am I engaged visually for a meaningful length of time. There's so much art that is like a one liner—Oh, I get it. And after you get it, do you want to keep looking at it? So I'm hoping that my work is something people will want to revisit and look at repeatedly and meditate on and have different reactions at different time in their lives.

I think that's true for good writing too.
Yes, for any art. You hope that it keeps giving in various ways to the reader or listener or observer.

Yes, good art continually speaks in different contexts.
(We then wandered into an interesting discussion about Kierkegaard and other things which are probably not relevant here.)

What do you think people who don't do art don't get, don't know about art?
That's a good question. When I encounter someone who doesn't know about art and is puzzled by it, they often have a negatively challenging edge about art. People like that used to kind of upset me. Now I kind of feel sorry for them. My first reaction is that people are hostile or ambivalent about something they don't know about. So what I'm getting is maybe not a reaction to my work as a reaction to their own feeling of shortcoming. They might not be thinking it consciously, but unconsciously. The lack of familiarity may show itself in hostility.

So the thing I ask myself first is Is this more about them than about the art? Are they feeling challenged and uncomfortable in a situation with something they don't know about. Which is true for all of us. We can all be in situations where we're unfamiliar with the language or whatever, and we feel less than comfortable or ignorant in front of other people. In those cases I try to educated them in a gentle sense. Not in a pedantic sense but sort of fill them in on what's going on.

Then my second reaction is wondering just how much these people are in touch with themselves. Any good art, writing, music is unlocking something in ourselves, allowing us to explore something of ourselves, and maybe these people are not in touch with themselves—and what does that mean—are not able to ask themselves questions about themselves. And art can be a mirror. Their discomfort with art is more with their discomfort of self-examination.

It's amazing how often art can elicit discomfort in certain people at certain times. I am much more pleased when someone instead of showing impatience or just blowing me off says, “Oh, could you please tell me about this work. Tell me why it's important or what are you trying to say. What does this say about your life. I don't see anything there than layers of paint and shapes and that doesn't say anything to me. Why does that say something to you.” I'd much rather have someone take that approach than just feeling perturbed about it.

What's the hardest thing about doing art?
I think the hardest thing is being objective. For me the hardest thing is seeing my work through objective eyes. I'm so close to what I”m doing, as is any artists, I can tell myself why this is this and that is that and why I choose this palette and this material, so I think I see a lot of things in my work that others don't. The hardest thing is to step out from a piece and look at it objectively and wonder if I'm communicating what I want to communicate. Because I've told myself in the process of doing this what I'm doing and what it's supposed to say. So I've influenced myself and almost created a smoke screen of sorts that I can't see beyond. Because I know this piece, and yet no one has that perspective except me. So the hardest is to see through someone else's eyeballs. And it's impossible. I'm completely biased because I've made this piece, and I've assigned it a meaning. And just because I've assigned it a meaning does't mean others are going to see it with that meaning.

The title is a clue and a brief explanation can help but beyond that I'm not doing my job as a visual artist. There are people who write paragraphs and pages about a work.

Right. Then you're making a powerpoint presentation.
I baloney. If you can't say it in a sentence maybe two, then the art's not doing its job.

If you didn't do art, what might you do? And I'm not sure that's even the right question.
Well, here's my answer though you didn't quite ask the question. My wife and I are in our early 60s so we have friends who are retiring or thinking of retiring. Now and then someone asks me, So and so is retiring; when are you going to retire? And I always say Never. Because if I retired, if someone gave me a pension, I would wake up and do art work because I like to do it, I'm compelled to do that.
Yes, the people I've interviewed who are artist are defined by that. Artists cannot not do art. Everyone I've known has said, I'll stop doing art when I can't physically do art. Going back to metal sculpture, do you do outside work, commissioned pieces for outside?

Is that seasonal then? At least in Wisconsin.
Sort of. I'm done some large outdoor pieces for various places across the country. For the city of Atlanta, for Portland, Oregon and other out door pieces. Some of them weren't commissioned but they went to outdoor places.

If you had a choice of media, what would you like to do?
That's a good question. I make my living selling my art, and I'm very thankful to do, but I ask myself, what would I work with if I didn't have to make a living selling art? What would my work be? And I think I'd go back to painting. I would do printmaking. I'm really enjoying printmaking. And I would do small abstract sculptures—table top, indoor sculptures, which I really like doing.
In metal?
Yes, in metal. I sell them in galleries around the country. I really feel spiritually nourished doing that kind of work. I probably wouldn't do larger, outdoor commissions. Though it's gratifying, it's exciting to change the landscape and I feel a sense of pride when I see an outdoor piece I've done that obviously changes the landscape by its inherent size. But those pieces don't feel like the most expressive of my work. In some way, these prints that I'm doing feel as or more expressive than big outdoor sculptures though a lot of people attach much more significance to them. Because it's a big outdoor piece compared to little print. But honestly I might find as much or more satisfaction aesthetically and spiritually in doing a little print than a big outdoor sculpture.

I can see that, because this is a quieter and more intimate task
Yes, and I'm by nature a quieter, interior person. It's funny. A lot of the sculptors I know that do larger outdoor pieces are outgoing, gregarious, extroverted people, which is really not how I would describe myself. I'm sort of humored being in that world sometimes. At the same time it's a neat challenge, and I enjoy all the kind of nerdy engineering and all the stuff that goes into calculating the base, the wind effect, the transportation, how much does it weigh, do we need a crane, are their power lines... All those things are fantastic.

It is actually wonderful coming here and working mostly by myself.

You don't work with music?
No, usually I do. Classical, 21st century or jazz. I like modern and free jazz. Sometimes I find it distracting. At a concert I really want to hear some new jazz, but I might prefer to listen to Vivaldi, Telemann or Hayden or Bach or Mozart something more predictable and calm. Not to demean the other; I just can't subject myself to the distraction.

When you made up this palette, when did you make the decision about this particular palette?
That's a good question. I made it last week. Today I'll probably make a decision about next week's. I think about it all week long. I've had other weeks of going through grays, and I find if I use those blacks and grays the prints start to look muddy after while. Because what I'll do is put color on the entire plate, and then start to build up back ground. I like to start with just these spare images themselves, but if I'm not careful the images can start getting muddy. The images build up and overlap each other. So now I'm using a palette with colors that are more optimistic, more joyful somehow.

Let's say we were looking at your work fifty years from now, would someone look at these prints and say, Well this was a time in Ricard's life when he was basically a happy person, and it shows in the colors he chose.
Possibly. You have to be careful about reading too much into it. That happens so much. In music—it's ending on a major chord, does that mean she's happy because she ended on that chord or what?

So the choice of palette is that they just seem like the right colors?
That's the other thing. The colors have to work together.

Oh, yes, that's true.
Not only that, but as you build up the background you get latent images of other prints that I like because there's a real richness and depth to them. If you saw this whole day of prints—which is probably fifteen prints—you'd see this getting grayer and grayer in the background. I want to avoid that so that's why I limit the grays and blacks. Not that I don't like gray. There are a million grays.
I haven't seen you throw anything away.
No. But often the first print goes in the wastebasket, but that has to do with setting up the press correctly, the right pressure. It has to do with the viscosity of the ink. Usually when I throw it out, there's a technical problem, but now and then I'll look at a print and say, I just don't like that. Then I might add to it and run it through a second time with over lapping inked shapes. I don't do that too often. I usually get something I like.
Have you read Art and Fear?
I haven't.

It's not a book I'd recommend because you need to read it, but you might enjoy it.
Isn't that funny how we recommend things that are like us? I mean, it could be affirmation, and then it could be us spinning our wheels and Why should I read this if I know this? Shouldn't I be reading something that stretches me a bit? I do like movies that stretch me, but they need to be made really well.

I was talking to my mom on the way up here, and she said she and my dad had seen a good movie called “The Architect.” I said, Oh, I've got a piece of artwork in that movie. I had a show in Seattle some years ago, and they were filming a show in Seattle at that time starring Parker Posey, one of my favorite actors. Someone came in this gallery and saw my artwork and said, Can we borrow a piece of artwork for this movie. The gallery called me, and when they said Parker Posey, I said Sure. So this movie was made and they said, We're not paying you anything but we'll give you a credit at the end of the movie. So I have to see this movie, but I've kind of forgotten about it. But they did send me some stills, and in one of them Parker Posey is sitting next to my piece adjusting her hair in between shoots. I thought How cool. I never thought I'd do a piece of artwork and have a picture of Parker Posey sitting next to it. The art world works in unexpected ways.

Visit Richard's website at

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