Russell Chatham: In defense of difficulty

David Briggs
PEOPLE: Russell Chatham, who descended from turn-of-the-century California landscape painters, said he grew up associating art-making with poverty. “I had to grit my teeth and accept that I was going to be dirt poor my whole life,” he said.  

When I met him for this interview, Russell Chatham—painter, printmaker, author, fisherman and restauranteur—gave me a short piece he wrote titled, “Advice for a Young Artist,” which recommends that aspiring artists reject institutions, especially those that claim to teach or promote art. It also urges artists to remember “that you are a sworn enemy of the state and all manifestations of the Establishment.” And though he writes that the number of people in America who can appreciate real painting is about equal to the number of wild condors in California, he is now trying to do something to change the understanding of art through an upcoming documentary and a new gallery in Point Reyes Station. We talked about a lot of things, but I tried to begin with his own rich history here in the Bay Area.   


Charles Schultz: Which painters inspired you?


Russell Chatham: The first painter I found, besides my grandfather, was Albert Ryder, because his work had a spiritual and emotional quality that I identified with. Also a couple of friends of my grandfather in California, who both lived and worked down in Carmel and Monterey. One was Armin Hansen and the other was Clayton S. Price. I didn’t know about any of the artists from the East until I went to New York. 

I’m writing right now about the experience of going into the Frick. I was in New York selling a fishing book to Doubleday. The publisher was a fly fisherman so he took me on a trip around New York in his limo. I was 34 and I had never been on a plane, never been to New York. When he drops me off he said, “Why don’t you keep the car for the rest of the day.” I thought, ‘Why? I don’t even know where I am.’ 

The night before I had dinner at Elaine’s [owned by the eponymous New York restauranteur]. She came over and she starts grilling me, “Who are you? What do you do?” I said I’m selling a book tomorrow, but I’m also a painter. “You any good?” Someday, maybe. “Well, alright. Tomorrow, you do two things. I want you to go to the Frick and I want you to go to the Whitney. When you get to the Whitney, ask to see the director and demand he give you a show!”

Anyway, that next day, I’m alone in the limo and the driver asks me where I want to go. So I said, “the Frick.” I didn’t know what the Frick is, not any fucking clue. So he pulls up to what looks like somebody’s mansion and he tells me he’ll wait outside for me. In those days hardly anyone went in there, not like it is now. For years when I went there I might be one of three people. Man, when I walked into that place, seeing Vermeer, incredible Rembrandt, that big Corot, Veronese, I had never seen anything like it. I couldn’t stand it. I was shaking. I had to get outta there. 


Charles: How did you learn to paint?


Russell: My grandfather [Gottardo Piazonni] and his brother were artists. My grandfather was dirt poor his whole life. I never associated being an artist with making a living. In fact, I assumed it was impossible, because I never knew anyone who did. Growing up in the Bay Area, none of the artists, especially those before the turn of the century, made any real money. A lot of them survived, barely survived. 


Charles: You mention Monet in your “Advice for a Young Artist.” Most of his life he was miserably poor. 


Russell: When I started painting as a kid, you have to remember there was no T.V., there were no diversions. Down on the ranch, we didn’t even have a radio. I just loved painting, and never thought of it as a profession. When I began to think, “This is what I am going to do,” I had to grit my teeth and accept that I was going to be dirt poor my whole life. “If that is not okay with you, you better not do this.”


Charles: This idea that if you want to have integrity you have to prepare to be poor is lost, more so somehow as the economy declines. Arthur Miller said the Great Depression made everyone more voracious. The less there was, the more bitter the contest for it. 


Russell: No, they’re not prepared to be poor. And, quite frankly, it was an absolute fluke in my case. I’m not a businessman. If any money crosses my path, it is gone faster than butter in an oven. I have no savings, no retirement. I have whatever’s in my wallet. To a lot of people that would be frightening. 


Charles: The level of fear is amazing. I grew up around poor people as well, so it helps me not be so scared. Is that what you got from your grandfather? 


Russell: Absolutely. He died when I was 5, but I have plenty of good memories. They aren’t talking memories. And that acknowledgement of poverty made me realize two things: the price of a painting has nothing to do with its value whatsoever, and you don’t do this particular activity because you are going to make a living out of it. The artist has absolutely no safety net. 

My aunt and uncle, who taught my cousin and I, didn’t “teach” us to paint. They just gave us a paint box with some paints and told us to go paint. As the years passed, they had educations from the 1920 and ’30s from the California School of Fine Arts, so they knew how to stretch canvasses and what mediums to use and what paints to use. You could ask them questions and they’d tell you. Plus, there were very good books you could buy, books of materials of the artist. You could read about it all. It isn’t that complicated. It has been made complicated because today when you look at an art store, or art materials catalog, you see 80 colors and 40 kinds of medium to mix with them. That is all a lie. It is just companies marketing crap. There aren’t 80 colors. 


Charles: People aren’t learning to mix their own colors?


Russell: Exactly. They have been misled by the manufacturers who want them to buy all these goofy colors. It is chaos. You can’t paint that way. You need red, yellow and blue. The discipline is gone now. Well, there are probably some places with teachers. But as I said in my “Advice for a Young Artist,” I don’t know where they are. I don’t live in that world. Learning how to paint is different from being an artist. Learning what the pigments are, what they’re all about, how to mix them, how to draw. You can learn how to draw by doing it over and over and over. That’s all gone now. I’ve been to some of these art departments and schools and it’s horrifying. 


Charles: What do you see?

Russell: You see students being told to brand themselves, to find a dealer. That’s not studying art. 


Charles: Tell me about Robert Hughes. He is sometimes regarded as an opponent of contemporary art, but he really wasn’t. 


Russell: He was contemptuous of phonies. You know anyone can do anything they want, as long as they believe in it. That’s the key. Insincerity is the ultimate sin. The problem is the contemporary art world lends itself so much to insincerity. 


Charles: Fairfield Porter writing for Art News back in the ’40s and ’50s made a point about art requiring two elements: that it communicate and that the artist have a moral commitment. I think back to what you said: “They have to believe it.” 


Russell: It’s your own personal code of ethics—your honesty with yourself. You don’t confront that very much in the mainstream art world/media complex. They don’t talk about that, especially about any artist who has been pumped up to the point that they are being sold for millions at auction, an auction that is supposed to reflect the value of that work of art. But at that point they aren’t interested in a critical assessment of artistic merit. Where there are hundreds of works by an artist, perhaps living or more probably dead, which are worth half a million dollars or more, there isn’t going to be a critical discussion. There is too much money involved.


Charles: Hughes said this created a “blinding effect” that prevented one from seeing the object because of its monetary value.


Russell: That’s a good way to put it. People are so impressed by money, the price of things, that they are blinded. Somebody wrote a check for that?! I saw something, oh, 15 to 20 years ago in Chicago, when they used to have a big show at the Navy Pier. Artists came from all over the world. I used to go to Michigan to hunt with Jim Harrison, but I always stopped in Chicago for this show. Well, for a couple of reasons: the Art Institute, and Midwesterners. You can’t sit down in a bar there for more than 30 seconds before one of these guys is talking to you and asking who you are. They are curious people, and there is great food and music. But the Navy Pier show would have plenty of good things, and some not so good. A mix. 

Anyway, I’m walking down this hallway and this guy has got his booth. He’s got a gallery in Chicago I think, and he’s got this painting, maybe five or six feet square. It was just this completely nondescript abstraction, and not a known artist—not that I know everybody—but not a famous artist at all. There was a woman standing there, and the guy who had the booth is explaining why this was a great painting. I thought, “I gotta hear this.”

I pretend to be looking at something else, while he goes on and on and on. And I am thinking, “You gotta hand it to this guy: this bullshit is really pretty convincing.” He is talking about its museum-quality status, and it is the dumbest painting I’ve ever seen. Well pretty soon, this lady is putting down her purse, taking out her checkbook, and she is writing a check. Oh my god! So they complete the transaction, and go off and sit down together at his desk. And I went up to the painting and looked at the sticker: $600,000.00. Boy, he had the gift, I tell ya. 


Charles: Haha!  


Russell: You could buy a Winslow Homer for less than that! 


Charles: What about the museums? I remember going to the Hirshhorn as a teenager, which has a lot of great pieces, but they highlight a lot of real junk as well. It seems almost against their will. There has to be this room piled up with some conceptual somethings in the corners, or draped off a hook.


Russell: Oh god, yeah. Well I tell you the one that shocks me locally. I suppose now it was five, six, seven, eight years ago—time gets away from you. The Oakland Museum was traditionally a historical museum. Its function was to exhibit California art work. You had beautiful work from the 19th century, turn of the century, a fantastic collection, mostly on display: Arthur Mathews, Xavier Martinez, great stuff. Then they did this huge remodeling, and I had occasion to go over there. And all that work was gone. The galleries were filled with contemporary art.

I thought, wait a minute. We already have a contemporary art museum—two! One in Berkeley, and one in San Francisco. It is alright to have a contemporary gallery, but the whole museum? You take down all the historical work? 


Charles: What is this fear of history, of depth? We want to go into other aesthetic traditions, the Far East, that never refer back to our own history, probably because it comes from industry and empire—not pretty. Or there is a lot of, instead of history, historical reenactment—not the Civil War guys but millennials pretending it is the 1970s. And those original ’70s people were pretending it was the 1870s. Double make-believe—same beards, though. 


Russell: I saw a comment in the Chronicle a few months ago, when this director for a new museum said—and I had to reread it several times to understand it—that “we are hoping for strong attendance, and there is no reason why we shouldn’t get it because you know the art that we feature (contemporary art) is simple. It is easy for anyone to understand. If you want complicated art, go back to the Renaissance and look at altar pieces. Anyone can walk in here and understand something.” Wait a minute?! He’s saying there is no deeper meaning to any of this art. It is as dumb as it looks. 


Charles: I have a friend in upstate New York who is a painter and a fisherman. When I asked him about you years ago, he immediately said that you were the first to write about fly fishing with libido. Not, “Oh nature is so beautiful, how peaceful I feel,” but a hard-partying bunch of guys fishing.


Russell: It is funny. There is a whole fly fishing world and a lot of people write about it. But it is a pretty dipshit thing when you take it apart. There are aspects to it that are nice, but it can really get touchy feely. You know, “Oh, I just like to be out there all day and listen to the birds and smell the roses in the air.” Fuck that! I’m out there to catch fish. If I’m gonna go bird watching, I’ll take my binoculars and go bird watching. I’m not gonna go fishing. When I’m fishing my mind is on one thing and one thing only, and that is where my fly is. 


Charles: This same friend hated a film from the early ’90s, not on its merits necessarily, but that it caused a phenomenon. Every banker in New York City put a “Trout Bum” sticker on the back of his Lexus, drove north and invaded all of his streams. 


Russell: It changed the face of fly fishing. It was called “A River Runs Through It.” It was based on a very good book by a guy called Norman McLean, who was from Montana. The movie was filmed in Livingston while I was there. It created a fly-fishing hysteria. Suddenly, this thing that was pretty personal—nobody went fly-fishing unless you were crazy—now, as you said, every stockbroker was a fly fisherman. It crowded things up pretty good. When I saw it, I couldn’t believe it. These people really don’t understand fishing. They aren’t naturals who started when they were 8 years old. They haven’t been crazed and insane about it their whole life.

On the Madison River, where I normally didn’t fish, didn’t need to, I drove over one day and couldn’t believe my eyes. I saw, on a stretch of maybe 20 miles, a thousand parked cars. The guys were fishing as close as from me to you, five, six feet apart. Not only that, but most of them had hired guides. So there are two guys—the guy and his guide! And the guide has a boat, which bounces down through the rocks, and then they stop and fish. That’s not fishing. Nobody’s catching anything, or when they do, it is tiny. Do they actually think this is fishing? Fishing is a solitary activity. It is a big deal. This ain’t it. 


Charles: What about environmentalism? We accept industry and empire as given, and then weep over trivia. 

Russell: They’re not environmentalists—they’re assholes. You could blame that criminal destruction of the oyster farm on this “environmentalism.” A lot of these people live in cities, and drive out to the country once in a while. They don’t know what is going on here. They look at nature out of the car window as they are driving by it. That’s just another form of watching T.V. 

All this talk about the restoration of creeks and rivers, restoration of salmon: it is never going to happen. For example, the wine industry dried up the Russian River. Are we going to reverse the wine industry? They have too much money and are too big. The wells have dropped the whole water table. When you do that in a valley, you drop the water table up at elevation, too, which causes your tributary streams to dry up. And that is the end of your steelhead and salmon. 

They had this problem on the Eel River. The dope growers dried up the whole river. Nobody could believe it. It is an “illegal” activity, but nobody is doing anything about it. There is no enforcement. Of course, they were also focused on how “bad” marijuana is. Nobody ever O.D.’ed on it. 


Charles: I see it differently. I know lots of people in West Marin—you do too—who have their few plants. But we’re talking about industrial agriculture up there, with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It is also commodity agriculture. 

Russell: Sure. Well, I don’t like it because I don’t smoke it, but if I did I’d be growing my plants right here. But law enforcement is afraid of them up there because they are all armed to the teeth. You can barely walk into these areas as well. Not only is it steep and dangerous, but you could stumble on someone’s operation and get shot. 


Charles: One thing I was interested to learn recently was that marijuana is cheaply and readily available in North Korea. I think about how we use drugs to make the intolerable tolerable, and I worry that coastal California is a little too stoned for its own good.


Russell: It has been described as the great grease slick of laidback stoners. “Everything’s okay. What, me worry?” It is especially true in bucolic West Marin. People that grew up here are so soft, they see no reason to do anything. They’re floating.


Charles: I talked to an artist who told me that some don’t like it when you compliment their technique. 


Russell: But that’s what it’s about. They’ve lost the idea of degree of difficulty. And we oughta get it back. It is one of the reasons I am so obsessed with music. When you watch these professional musicians, pianists and violinists, cellists, you can’t believe what you’re seeing. 

I saw Yuja Wang [the Chinese pianist]. I was so stunned. I thought I’d faint. I’ve never seen anything like it. You think, “How does anybody do anything that hard?”  


Charles: Ellsworth Kelly wouldn’t make any sense to my generation, the generation of Microsoft Paint. His creation of these discrete, clean shapes and even fields of pure color—we grew up being able to do that with a mouse in five seconds.


Russell: The idea in our time, particularly in the visual arts, of intense skill is basically gone. You see people whom the establishment calls “minor” artists trying it, but it often fails. Whether because they haven’t studied enough, or paid enough attention to what real paintings look like. If you want to know what great paintings look like, you pretty much have to go to Europe. That’s where painting comes from, at least Western painting. 


Charles: Does all this printing and computer design breed a contempt for technique? Few people learn the difference between a picture done in paint and a computer print-out. Doesn’t that cause us to be contemptuous of painting?

Russell: I’m doing a documentary right now—I’m not very far into it, but hopefully I finish up this winter, into the spring—of creating a painting from start to finish. The reason I’m doing it is exactly what you just said. People do not know how a painting is made, absolutely no concept, none. I am going to take them through the steps, the 20 types of canvas you can buy. Why would you have 20 types of canvas? Because the weave is different on all of them, and all lend themselves to a different type of painting. You have to decide which is the right one for the subject you are working on. Then stretching it and sizing it, and then imagining what you are going to put on it. Starting in with a piece of charcoal. Pulling something out of your mind. Making a mark on a piece of canvas. 

The average person asks, “How do you know what you are doing?” Well, you don’t know what you are doing—that’s the whole point. You do and you don’t. Creating is an experience. It is not a given that step one will be followed by two, three, four, five, six, then you’re done. You have no idea the order. You may repeat steps, you may have any sequence. I think it will be fun to see that. 


Charles: It is nice to see the apparent disorder draw into focus, in a society with a conception of man as a machine with a computer for a mind. 


Russell: I agree, but computer technology is so sophisticated now. This gallery I’m gonna open, hopefully in May or June, mainly what I’m gonna sell are computer-generated images, because I can’t paint paintings for a gallery. Here’s the value of it: these reproductions are so good. If you have a good photograph or even a transparency, the machine is going to reproduce it exactly. When you see it—and I’ve shown a lot of people these sample prints—they can’t believe it is not a real painting. You can see the three-dimensional qualities, the textures. But it is a computer-generated print on a piece of paper. It does not have any intrinsic value; it is not going to increase in value over the years. It is worth nothing now; it is going to be worth nothing 10 years from now. It is only worth what the owner perceives it to be. 

What the art dealers have done is taken that technology and they’ve tried to fool the public into thinking it is a new art form. They say, “Oh, it is a giclée, and it’s $2,000.” Well, they are charging you for something that is not worth 20 cents. I am going to do the unthinkable: try to reach a class of people the art dealers don’t want. I want them. I am going to figure out what the true value of these prints is. What will my conscience let me sell them for? I want to be able to hang a computer-generated print that’s beautiful in a beautiful, affordable, frame. And I want to be able to shock people with the price.