Clifford Ross: ‘I indulge in extreme photography’
He is always looking for the fullest expression of his conception and will follow it past any sane point, he says of his astonishingly ambitious exhibition, Landscape Seen & Imagined, now at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art
by LILLY WEI
New York-based multidisciplinary artist Clifford Ross (b1952 in New York City) doesn’t do things by halves. Neither does Joseph Thompson, the longtime director of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in the Berkshires, the sprawling art complex that is almost a city-state in itself. So when the two came together, the result was inevitably and astonishingly ambitious, matched to MASS MoCA’s outsized real estate. Landscape Seen & Imagined, a mid-career survey of Ross’s oceans and mountains, is divided between two buildings (and six galleries). One structure has not been used before and was cleaned up especially for this exhibition. A huge courtyard has also been annexed for a giant 12-screen video sequence with sound. Called Harmonium Mountain (2015), it is a dazzling display of colourful projections that are presented at night with a soundtrack by John Colpitts (AKA Kid Millions). The standout, however, might be the hyperdetailed 114-ft long, 24-ft high [34.75 metres long, 7.3 metres high] photograph on grained wood, Sopris Wall I (2015). But then again, it might be the hyperreal Hurricane Waves, their force flash-frozen, checked, but seemingly about to crash outwards into the space of the gallery. Or, for that matter, it might be the digital waves on the LED walls that are so accurately, so acutely depicted that they transform into abstractions, into a resonating, particulate reality. Challenging each other, Ross said, the exhibition was the fortunate result of his collaboration with Thompson.
In addition to Landscape Seen & Imagined, Ross’s recent exhibitions include The Abstract Edge: Photographs, 1996-2001 at Ryan Lee (14 May – 27 June 2015) in Chelsea, New York, and Water/Waves/Wood at BRIC House (9 July– 16 August 2015) in Brooklyn.
Lilly Wei talked to Clifford Ross about Landscape Seen & Imagined in his West Village studio. The following is an excerpt from that conversation.
Lilly Wei: You called the show an experiment?
Clifford Ross: Yes, basically Joe [Joseph Thompson] offered me a laboratory as much as a museum. It is a once in a lifetime experience, but I suppose I won’t really know until the end of my life, will I? It turned into a survey of the future since, making a guess, 80% of the show is new work.
LW: How did it come about?
CR: Jock Reynolds [director of the Yale Art Gallery] has been a supporter and friend for years. He called Joe and physically brought me to Mass MoCA to see the facility. Joe knew my work, but I showed him other things I was working on. By the end of the meeting, he had adopted the project and me.
LW: So Joe curated it himself?
CR: Yes, I was lucky. I’m 62 years old at a time when artists are having major exhibitions at 25. But it’s terrific to be discovered later.
LW: I’m not so sure you’ve only just been discovered, but tell me something about your trajectory.
CR: I came out of a formalist aesthetic, out of abstraction and [the art critic] Clement Greenberg. I had no particular interest in art as a child and was studying political science and philosophy when I got to Yale. I had a heavy course load so I wanted a gut course – do kids still call it that? –something that I could enjoy and wasn’t much work. I took a sculpture course that was a crazy conceptual version of sculpture. It was the beginning of a love affair. What happened at Yale was the beginning of an accelerating curve into art. I also had an instinctive love for art history. The first art history class that I took was taught by Anne Coffin Hanson. It was on postimpressionism and she was tough, brilliant – and the first tenured female professor at Yale.
LW: Who were some of your other influences?
CR: My aunt, Helen Frankenthaler. Helen was considered a bit of a black sheep in the family, a bohemian.
LW: You see her as a bohemian?
CR: She was radical, an uptown girl with a downtown soul. I had a father who was extraordinarily erudite and involved with political philanthropy, so it was Helen who opened the door to a different experience. Helen and Bob [Robert Motherwell, her husband at the time] showed me another kind of life. It was very exciting. Art was a way out of a narrow track.
LW: And others?
CR: There is no question that Helen and her world had the biggest impact on me, and I’m now the chair of the board of her foundation, but Paul Cézanne is my hero and Northern Sung painting is another passion.
LW: And the stunningly beautiful panoramic photograph of Mount Sopris in the Rockies in the Tall Gallery, would you talk about that? That seems to show the impact of Chinese landscape painting, as well as a disconcerting back-and-forth slide between realism, the impressionistic, the postimpressionistic and even the postmodern.
CR: I hallucinated a photograph almost that scale printed on wood within seconds of seeing that enormous wall. There is no acceptable viewing distance for it. You need to go back about 30 feet, even much more, to view it properly. The scale was powerful and matched my experience with the mountain. I wanted to capture nature’s power, but also its intimacy, the big forms but also the thousands and thousands of details: the leaves, the bark, what was underfoot. People are constantly walking up to it and touching the wall – which I adore.
LW: Most museums are wary of that, even if artists are not.
CR: Joe suggested stanchions or tape on the floor to keep viewers at a certain distance, but the whole point of the wood as the support is the dynamic between the depicted image and its grain and colour. They are at odds with each other, the image strong enough to pull viewers past the flat pattern, but the pattern is also engaging. The experience of working at that scale enabled me to acquire new knowledge about wood and what it could do. That’s one instance of MASS MoCA becoming a lab for me rather than just a museum.
LW: And you have said that you were reluctant to show the Hurricane Waves at first?
CR: Joe wanted to show them. I had installed 14 of them in Hangzhou, China, in 2014, but that was the only time. I sometimes hold back work for months, even years, because I need to come to terms with it. He said we had to have the Hurricane Waves, but since there was no space available in the main building for them, he showed me Building 12. It was a disaster, a ruin with an unholy stench. It only lacked a dead body, but I took one look and said: “Wow.” I love the dialectical and this would be a double whammy: still images in one room and moving images in the other; the roughest space and the most advanced imaging.
LW: The Hurricane Waves, 6 ft high and from 9 to 11 ft in length, seem to fit between the columns of the wall as if the intervals had been measured for them. It’s a tremendously dramatic installation.
CR: It just happened, but it was remarkable and it sets up a wonderful sense of rhythm, as if they were in motion.
LW: And the Wave Cathedral, the other installation in the building?
CR: That space was even more derelict, like Piranesi’s Carceri. We modestly renovated the entire 12,000 sq ft floor – cleared it out, painted and lit it. Originally, I had a different concept for this installation, to create a cathedral of sorts, going from artwork to artwork as if from chapel to chapel, like an updated Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross. We developed a library of waves, and prepared a handful of images for each chapel screen. I went to [event technology specialists] WorldStage in Secaucus, New Jersey, to select the screens we would use, since how the viewer experiences the image is determined by the screen and the projector. Like using different papers and supports, such as cotton duck, burlap, or linen, the results will vary. When we got there, I noticed a large 14 ft x 24 ft LED wall. I usually hate LED walls like the ones at Times Square. This one looked like the black monolith that was dropped from the sky in the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I asked: “What’s that?” Then I asked how hard it would be to throw our images on it. The people at WorldStage started to laugh because they knew me and had already prepared one of our videos for it. It was like being hit by a shotgun. Its sculptural power was a notable departure from the usual LED wall. The lyricism of the video worked, but it was also about power, a match for both the lyricism and the force of hurricanes and waves. We redesigned and ended up with two LED walls. I also wanted the image to have greater crispness. I wanted each pixel to have its own LED bulb and WorldStage did it for me in one day. They created software powerful enough that every pixel was one LED bulb.
LW: You’ve been called Mr Digital.
CR: I’m not; I’m also not Mr Technology. I don’t understand technology, but I use it. I drew a pixel into the analogue world: one pixel, one light bulb. I use it based on a need for expression. I am always looking for the fullest expression of my conception and will follow it past any sane point. Over and over again, invention is part of creativity.
LW: And that applies to your Mount Sopris images also?
CR: Yes. I first saw it in 2001 and was overwhelmed by its beauty. I took out my 35mm camera like any tourist and came back with little snapshots that I taped together to make a panorama. I loved them, but it was my memory of Mount Sopris that I loved. If I wanted to deliver my experience to others, I would have to do better than that. So I learned something about colour film and went out with a 4 x 5 camera. But the prints were terrible, as they also were with an 8 x 10. I stood there staring, absorbing the countless details. I realised that I had to deliver those details as well as the atmosphere and light. I wanted to up the reality quotient. I wanted to compete not only with painting but also the real world. No available camera could do that so I figured out a camera that could and built it. That was the R1. It took about a year and a half. I went to Chicago to learn from Bran Ferren and others; I drew on a lot of experts. I learned from reading about the Wright brothers, John Harrison, who invented the marine chronometer, and others. They made lists of problems and constantly rejuggled them, solving one problem at a time.
LW: The Wright Brothers crashed a lot, but were determined.
CR: Yes, they never quit. Once the R1 was built, there was no other camera with a higher resolution. And the R2 came from that, the highest resolution video camera. It’s like extreme sports. I indulge in extreme photography. The extremes that I go to, and they are extreme, have to do with my desire to present the real, although I also have to deal with my passion for art history. That desperate desire to create accuracy of expression drives me to invention, to find the means to make my art in my own way by any means necessary.
• Clifford Ross: Landscape Seen & Imagined is at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art until 17 April 2016.