Wide Horizons and Inspirational Moments in Time: An Interview with Ray Burggraf
Visiting with Ray Burggraf in his studio was quite a treat; during the interview I became immersed in his art. His studio, a roomy well-lit space at Tallahassee’s Railroad Square Art Park, had quite a few of his large colorful paintings hanging on the walls. Ray’s paintings are also permanently installed in many buildings on FSU’s campus including the Student Wellness Center and the new Psychology Building. For the interview I brought along some notes and a copy of the “Ray Burggraf” catalog from his 2006 retrospective at FSU’s Museum of Fine Arts. I also visited his website at www.rayburggraf.com. It offers a wealth of information with some great images of his work, its evolution, and his working process.
On his website I found biographical information that defined the foundation of his career. In short, Ray grew up in Ohio and first earned a BS from Ashland University, then he taught in public schools. Later he “dropped out” to become an artist and got a BFA from Cleveland Institute of Art. After his undergraduate work he followed the 60’s westward migration to California where he obtained an MFA from UC Berkeley. Two years later he moved to Florida for a faculty position at Florida State University. He never expected to stay, but ended up being a professor of painting at FSU for 37 years.
In light of all the information he has made available on his website, I decided that I would restrict my questions to what would expand our knowledge of Ray, his long experience
as a professional artist and teacher, and his ongoing work in painting.
ALISON SCHAEFFLER-MURPHY: Hello Ray, it’s so nice to be here in your studio with you today. Your work is fantastic and I’ve been an admirer of it for a long time! The first time I saw your work was at the Brogan here in Tallahassee. I’ve also enjoyed seeing your paintings exhibited throughout FSU’s campus.
Knowing that I was going to be coming here today I visited your website. One thing that’s interesting about your site is that it offers an inside view of the progression of your work. I also learned a lot about your process…your techniques. I would imagine that by showing your methodology a lot of questions about the actual fabrication of the pieces are answered for people. Since you have been so open about this, today I am going to try to ask you some different questions. Before we get to all that, I’d like to know if having such a great website has paid off? Do a lot of people visit your site? Has the website helped sales of your work?
RAY BURRGRAF: Thanks, Alison. The number of visitors to my site are typically somewhere between 50 and 200 per month. Right now I don’t have a commercial dealer and am more interested in doing public art projects. The challenging work I have done for FSU and other public spaces is more interesting to me then gallery sales.
ASM: What is it about public art projects that intrigues you? Is part of that responding to the space?
RB: Exactly. I enjoy architecture and I like to work with the challenge of blending painting with architecture. Some artists would find it restricting, but I find it generates new ideas. I’ll give you an example of the visual problems it presents. For this most recent public art project that I did, which was at the Wellness Center at FSU, I showed the selection committee several options. One was a painting done in 1989 called Sailboat Disguise which was 40” tall, a vertical painting. The space they had in mind for this work was two stories tall. When they selected Sailboat Disguise, they asked me to make it 12 feet tall. That was an enormous challenge. You can’t just take something that small and stretch it because boredom soon sets in. So I imitated some of the design motifs that I’ve done in the past and invented some new ones to make an expanded painting that fit the idea they had selected.
ASM: The fact that you had to respond to and rework an earlier artwork relates to a question I have about working in artistic series. Can you discuss the reasoning behind working on a series? What motivations are there? Did you encourage your students to work in series?
RB: I find working on a series of similar paintings to be very helpful. Likewise, I always encouraged students to repeat, to expand, and improve their ideas. I believe it gives an artist the opportunity to improve their skills with practice and to make more informed decisions using comparison.
ASM: I know that being an artist involves working at the subconscious level as much as working at the conscious level. I’m wondering if when you are working on a series and when you are seeing two pieces together and comparing them …if working in this way tells you where you are going with something?
RB: Working in a series is almost always helpful but it doesn’t always have a positive outcome. You can clearly see similarities and differences and you might say: “time to move on.”
There are three paintings in the studio now I thought might be the beginning of a jungle series: Jungle Arc, Jungle Botanical, and Jungle River, but the series didn’t work out.
ASM: Do you ever change the titles of your work?
RB: I usually title the work after it’s finished and try not to change it. The title is just a handle for a painting. It helps to identify it in the first place and, in the second place it gives the viewer clues to their understanding of it. Hopefully, without restricting their ideas too much.
Titles and the ideas behind them are certainly important. An example is Fire on the Water here in the studio. I had an FSU class visit last week that asked me why it was organized with a fluorescent-painted Plexiglas oval at the bottom with the painted wood units at the top. My explanation had to include that, at the time that it was created in 2010, we had a huge oil spill in the nearby Gulf of Mexico. One of the things crews did to clean up the mess was to put circular booms out to contain the floating oil so they could set it on fire. That visual situation really fascinated me, but I would never think of doing a realistic image of it. More important to me is the translation into my own technical/aesthetic world with the glowing yellow-green fluorescent plexi lit with black light at the bottom and yellow and red brown units at the top with full-spectrum lighting. The round shape, the fire and the water are suggested, but shapes, color and light win out.
ASM: So you were responding to world events. This brings up another question. I’m wondering if you set aside a time to sketch or do you have a moment when you rush to your sketchbook when you have an idea that you just have to get down? In other words, do you allocate time to sketch to present yourself time for new ideas or do they just come to you?
RB: My ideas come from lots of places even including manipulating some scraps from the wood I have saved because I like the shapes. Once I start, I begin to see things in them. With Fire on the Water I saw a suggestion of stylized fire in some wood shapes. After rejecting one sketch that was multi-colored and kind of pretty, I thought “no that’s fire and smoke.” So the whole thing developed in that direction.
ASM: You didn’t know that you were going to be responding to something going on in the Gulf?
RB: Absolutely not. When I’m working with particular materials and the paint, or working small in a sketchbook, I begin to see things in it. I realize that when I look at those sketches and shapes and colors that I am doing landscapes that I have seen. I realize after the fact that there is an event behind it. For example, we have banana trees in my backyard so that’s why Jungle Arc looks like banana trees. Strangely enough, I only realize that it’s a landscape image that I have been using after I do it.
ASM: Oh, I see. So you realize the source after its been created. You just sort of go: “Wow, this is where this came from?” That’s tremendous!
Somewhat connected to realizing sources of your creations relates to that somewhat famous story about how you were on sabbatical in Washington D.C. in the late 70s and a fellow painter visited your studio and commented about his preference for some color studies that you had lined up. I’m wondering what exactly the fellow said to you? How did you process his comments?
RB: It was a shock at first because I had these color studies; they were just little boards made from crate parts with color-tests on them that I didn’t take seriously at all. I was just kicking them around and some had been lined up leaning against the wall. An art professor friend came by for an open studio event and looked at all of my paintings. They were the big, optical, and hopefully impressive finished works and he said: “I like the little studies better.” At first I thought this was terrible. But, it was only a few weeks later that I began nailing the little boards to the wall. I started lining up the centerline on each board and it made a kind of horizon line. That set me to working on the series of wide horizon landscapes with a much larger “family” of colors to work with than the Op paintings I had been doing. After organizing them, one of the first things I did was to shape the ends of the boards.
ASM: Shape them? You mean you rounded them?
RB: Yes, I rounded and shaped them because the colors seemed to ask for it. They looked confined by being on a rigid looking rectangle with straight edges. Later all the units become sinuously shaped panels that fit together.
ASM: I think what you did with a situation that was potentially negative exemplifies how to take something like that and move on. As an artist, I expect that you have to remain open to other people’s comments and critiques. Once your work is out there it’s available for criticism. What others say about your work can’t be controlled. You can’t control what they say, nor can they control what you do with that information. I think it’s important to recognize this.
RB: Right, I could have easily gone another way. I could have easily rejected that and stayed into the rectangular canvases with the optical color comparisons.
ASM: There’s another interesting piece of yours, it’s from the 80s and it seems to also signify a turning point in your painting career. This one lacks the curvilinear qualities and use of colors that you had been working with in your earlier Op art. It’s significant because not only did you use black minus white, you were also working with shaped canvases. The piece, Phantom from 1985, relates to that transition that you took during your sabbatical but it’s totally black, it lacks color. Phantom’s pure blackness reminds me of the work of Louise Nevelson without the relief dimensionality. I’m wondering if you could discuss this piece for a bit. Did Phantom, in fact, signify any type of turning point? Why did you go back to solid color?
RB: I did a series of monochromatic paintings around 1985 in different colors. Phantom was the most successful. So that is why I put it in the retrospective at MoFA in 2006. It’s a very simple solid black serial design with a graphite line for the horizon. At times I am a minimalist.
ASM: So Phantom was done in 85 but by 87 you were working on Sailboat Disguise. So it almost seems to me like there was another turning point when you began to work more curvilinear.
RB: Phantom was a regression. I went back.
ASM: So what about going back and re-exploring something and bringing it back in? Do you think that this happened because you weren’t quite done knowing or experiencing what you were seeking?
RB: Yes, you haven’t finished doing what you had been trying to do in that earlier series so you go back and re-explore it from your more educated and more advanced position.
ASM: Eternal Now, one of your early Op art pieces is quite unique. This painting on the title page of your retrospective catalog is very different from your other optical work. Although it’s symmetrically balanced like your other 1970s Op paintings, Eternal Now’s assymetrical balance almost defines a curvilinear quality. The tiny patterns coming from the top edge of the canvas look like they’re coming from over a barrel and then they sequentially grow in size toward the bottom of the canvas.
RB: The thing that I was particularly interested in doing with Eternal Now was exploring the effect of unit size and my own skill. I challenged myself to see how large and how small I could work and I put it all in one painting. Up at the top you can see the smallest I can paint which is about a half inch. Toward the bottom of the canvas the gradations are maybe eighteen to twenty inches. These large shapes appear to be nearer to the viewer and they gradually get smaller and step back in space. The dichotomy is that they are also attached to one another at the edges, which means that you have the push-pull kind of aesthetic. At that point I may have been responding to Hans Hoffman. He was a well-known artist and teacher that did the push-pull in his work and taught that abstract aesthetic.
ASM: You have obviously mastered a technique of creating subtle value and color gradations that so effectively create an intense tension in your work. I wonder… can you discuss your painting process in a bit more detail?
RB: My process is painstaking and it involves something I was taught not to do in art school. You are supposed to blend the colors on your palette and then brush them on the canvas. But I don’t do that; I blend right on the paintings. The way I do it is to mix a jar of one color and a jar of another color so I have plenty of it. Then I use a wide soft brush and I blend it together from dark to light. I try to get it even so that its an equivocation…is it blue or is it green?
I do my painting by hand. There are several reasons why I do that. One is because I like thick juicy paint and I think that really gives my surface a quality that you would never get if you used an airbrush. Another is the fact that there is a little barely visible brushwork there. You can’t really see it but you can sense its presence. There is a vibration to it. The colors in the center become indefinite and hover in an in-between state. The indecision about one color becoming another is something that reminds me of the perception issue where vibration of a color that has a particular wavelength is how it is seen.
ASM: I can see how difficult this is! In looking at Jungle River I would image that going from a violet to green would create a mud-like effect.
RB: In Jungle River the violet blends with a #44 green which is a Derwent colored pencil color to…I think it is #47. So I’ve blended three colors to keep each color more pure. I’ve made a gradation from violet to a kind of a warm green and then I go to the yellow green.
ASM: So how long would it take you to do a small little portion of that subtle blending with a three-color blend?
RB: Acrylic dries in three minutes so I have to work fast. If I make a mistake and I get some streaks or splash some water on it I have to start over and then I hate myself. A good gradation looks like light, it looks like the sky, it looks like atmosphere, and it looks like air, that’s what I am trying to create.
Colored pencil is another story. Doing my drawings and working in my sketchbook is very slow and painstaking so I tend to work smaller.
ASM: Your gradations are beautiful and so subtle. What you have described makes me want to discuss your Wide Horizon series more. As you explained on your website, this series involves your response to the wide open spaces and straight horizons so dominant in so much of Florida. On the website you state: “these paintings horizontally suggest slices of time passing by in space dominated by a calming horizon.” Although, I have my own interpretation of what you have said, I am wondering if you could expound on this statement a little bit. Could you explain why you’ve made some slices longer, some taller, some thinner, some wider for instance?
RB: My paintings are not a window kind of picture that you look into or through. However, the gradations make an atmospheric type of color/space in every individual piece. But when you put a number of them together you automatically start to read them from left to right and back again along with the depth of each one. So, they’re read across like you would read music.
ASM: So what is happening in each clip, though?
RB: Each clip is a different situation. It’s a moment in time. Some times things are very big and expansive and long and sometimes they are short and fat. That is just the way events stack up for us.
ASM: So you think that this relates to moments in our lives, events that stand out more, and things that don’t and how it all blends together… how we remember it?
RB: I believe an important reason we remember something is because it is within a situation with similar moments—a similar piece of time and experience. I try to make all the units in the painting to be enough alike that it makes a coherent piece—but different enough so that each individual event, represented by shape and color, is unique.
ASM: What you are saying makes sense to me. We don’t remember every single second of our vacation we remember the highlights…and even some of the lower moments. But still they are just that clip in time. The way you have expressed this concept is excellent!
In getting back to how you provided “clues” on your webpages. As we discussed, for your Wide Horizon series you described clips in time. I think it’s fun that your website offers clues to viewers. Can you clarify your motivation behind “clues” a bit more?
RB: What I tried to do on my website, in-script and off to the side, was to provide some clues as to what I’m thinking and responding to as an artist while I’m working on my paintings. It’s an attempt to expand what the viewer gets from looking at my work.
An example of the “clues” I have on the site is from a trip to Washington State and my visit to the Museum of Glass in Tacoma. This is a wonderful place because not only do they have exhibitions, they also have a theatre where they are shaping glass live on-site. I was so impressed with the work there that I am attempting to put some of the fluid qualities and glowing colors of glass into my own painting. While working on my website I thought: “Why not tell viewers what I was responding to so they can look for it.”
ASM: So, you finished Jungle River after your visit to Tacoma?
RB: I finished that Sunday. In fact it is not quite done. It’s not varnished.
ASM: The individual shapes do look like vessels, too! Your responsiveness to the experience of seeing glass blown leads me to want to inquire about the difference between being responsive to your work but also having to go through the process of mechanically fabricating your finished product. As you explained earlier, you spend a good deal of your time designing in your sketchbook. I’m wondering how much inspiration goes on after the drawing stage? Once you blow up your design and you are putting the color on, is there any spontaneity?
RB: No, there isn’t much. Once I get the idea in the sketchbook and I commit myself to it, photograph it, blow it up large so that it is wall size and start cutting the wood, there is a lot of labor in it. There’s a lot of attention paid to the craft of it…I have that love of craft and woodworking and I get to do that, I like to do that, I enjoy that, it’s relaxing.
ASM: So, in closing I have two more questions for you. I think these are valuable because you have taught for so many years. You’ve actively achieved so many levels of success as an artist. You’ve had numerous solo exhibitions, public and corporate commissions, and so many students! First, I can’t help but wonder if you’ve followed up on any of your students? Have you seen any of “you” in their work? And, have you had any students that have said: “Ray Burggraf was my mentor”?
My second question is: given that so many FSU art students are likely to visit this Art on Campus Initiative website, would you please offer some advice about finding your creative voice and achieving success as an artist?
RB: As far as former students go, I can at times see my influence in their work but I haven’t had students that copy my style. I wouldn’t encourage that. Developing their own artistic voice and giving them technical advice is what I always tried to do. I do have students who have seen me as a mentor. They keep up with me even
though their lives have scattered them all over the world. Many of them are still connected to the visual arts in some way and some are even professors, administrators, or curators; much like the faculty at FSU. Of course some are independent artists, teachers, designers, art dealers, etc. I applaud their success.
In answer to your second question about creative voice, I think that people sometimes tend to sell themselves short. Artists have these interesting lives, interesting things that they do, and places that they go. That personal experience needs to go into their artwork. I think that if artists do that, I think their work will be unique and they will be making an important contribution.
ASM: Well Ray, I’d like to thank you again for this interview. I think that between a visit to your website and this interview viewers will have a very good understanding of your creations and you as an artist. I’m sure that readers will get a lot out of this interview because I did, so thank you!
This interview was conducted by Alison Schaeffler-Murphy in March of 2013.