James Siena

The artist discusses his early career in New York and the joy of supporting and guiding the younger generation of artists.
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Photography by Jae Kim

There is something radical about James Siena’s work. The intricate patterns fill each composition through an algorithmic process. The intimate process that requires close attention seems mechanical, but there is a fluidity in motion, which the paintings gain their sensual autonomy. I have been an avid fan of Siena’s work ever since I have encountered his work, and recently I had a chance to visit his Brooklyn studio. During our conversation, which lasted more than two hours and continued over e-email, we talked about his upbringing, early life in New York, and teaching career. 

 

PLUS: James, I’m so happy we’re finally able to have a conversion in person! Something I always like to ask people is about their origin story and how they got into loving art.

James Siena: My mother studied Japanese brush painting when my father was in Law School at Stanford from’ 59-to ’61. We then moved to Washington, DC, and she, at one point, took us all to the Corcoran to view a Kinetic Art exhibition, which spurred her to take us all to the town dump to scavenge for art materials. Nothing came of it, but I remember my older sister and I making an Op Art show in our basement using construction paper. When we returned to Stanford for him to work in the Administration, she continued her brush painting lessons. I remember her brushes, her sumi-e ink stick, and the stone used to make the liquid ink, and I was fascinated by the exotic nature of her painting tools. I was fortunate in Palo Alto to go to two public schools that had their own art buildings and teachers. In fact, the High School had a ceramics studio, a jewelry casting studio, and even offered a course in Photography as Art. I think that was where I first thought that art could be a way of life. I also took lessons starting in seventh grade on Saturdays in a bit of outbuilding in the faculty housing section of Stanford’s campus, taught by Mary Croston who was married to a music professor. 

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James Siena’s studio, in Brooklyn.

P: You previously mentioned Mary Croston as your influential mentor, and curious if there are others as well. 

JS: Yes, she did influence me in many ways but there are certainly many who I also would like to add such as Peter Kahn, Wolf Kahn’s brother, and both students of Hans Hoffman in the forties and fifties. Peter had a very focused approach to teaching; he was an artist who taught in the Art History Dept. at Cornell and was full of stories. I also was allowed to audit a graduate course in contemporary art history taught by Robert Hobbs. Years later, Robert and I reestablished contact, and he went on to write my first catalog essay, and we are now friends. I count him as a strong influence as well. We did life drawing, posing for each other wearing leotards. I later took up life drawing with the nude model at the Palo Alto Cultural Center; I also studied welding with Hans Wehrli at PACC; he took a liking to me and invited me to his studio for his own private life drawing sessions.  Which he did, writing a letter that only a lawyer could write, defending my adolescent right to look at nude adult women (which they largely were at Hans’ studio).  And I learned to draw the figure properly. 

 

P: Oh, wow. 

JS: Around that time my parents got interested in buying art; they ended up buying three prints by Roy Lichtenstein, Sam Francis, and Ernest Trova. I grew up with those works in our living room.  We would routinely visit a couple, John and Nancy Merryman, who, aside from John being my father’s former law professor, were serious private art dealers specializing in prints, and visiting their home was also very influential. I saw works by Hockney, Oldenburg, Rauschenberg, Johns, Frankenthaler, Stella,and many others. 

 

P: And in 1975, you moved to New York to attend Cornell University and encountered many people in the local art community. What were those years like?

JS: The local community in Ithaca was very small. I spent a lot of time with the local musicians and fell in love with the lead singer in one of the two top bands in town, who was a very adult 26 to my 19. Our torrid affair lasted about a year, but while I was amid these very skilled and creative people, going to gigs all over upstate, I documented some of their shows photographically, and the singer, Jill, and I would drop acid and romp around the countryside photographing and developing the photographs in my home darkroom, toning the prints in psychedelic colors.

I also frequented the etching and lithography studios a lot at Cornell; having seen a tremendous Jim Dine print show at the Johnson Museum in ’77 I was determined to work on copper, not the required zinc, and had to learn the recipe for Dutch Mordant, which is as poisonous as it sounds, not permitted at the school but somehow, I just ignored the prohibition. I have Jim Dine and the Merrymans to thank for making me a printmaker. Also, Phyllis Thompson, Steve Poleskie, and Arnold Singer who taught etching, silkscreen, and lithography, respectively. 

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P: Around this time, you also worked at a frame shop, right?

JS: In Ithaca, I worked in a shop called Printers Gallery, which sold posters and did the framing. In 1980-81 the owner, Michael Baum, started a clothing line that involved printing across whole t-shirts, and I basically did all the production myself on a large silkscreen table that was padded; the squeegee would then glide over the seams of the shirts without too much “squish.” I also did framing there, and when I moved to New York in 1982, I got a job at the place that sold us the hardwoods we used to make simple stem molding frames.

That shop, Bark Frameworks, [which exists to this day], had a significant effect on me and my approach to artmaking, mainly drawing and printmaking. I design my own frames at Bark nowadays and occasionally make my own frames.

 

P: While many might recognize you for your paintings and sculptures, you were also a performance artist.

JS: I did performances all over New York, mainly in the nightclubs in the early to mid-eighties, stopping in ’88, when my son Joe was born. My first wife, Iris Rose, is a true original; she developed a hybrid theater/ vaudeville/ anthropology style of performance that was very dense and powerful. We performed together and then with five others in a group we called ‘Watchface’. The density of the performances affected my visual art. At the same time, we created works that overwhelmed the audience with information and overlap; I aspired to overload the viewer with visual information, albeit primarily abstract. 

 

P: Tell me about the gallery project you ran, Sometimes (Works of Art). 

Sometimes (Works of Art) was a project that ran for a few years in my studio building in Chinatown. I wanted to give artists who had been overlooked a venue. None of the artists I exhibited were under forty years old, and most were over fifty. The name referenced the occasional nature of the exhibition schedule, and also the other meaning “sometimes we………help each other……..sometimes……..we take matters into our own hands……..” Most openings also had a live musical presentation, a kind of absurd undertaking given that the space was minimal and the band would take up half the room. The rest of the audience would stand in the hall. But I was able to get some work into good collections, including the Metropolitan, which purchased two works by the conceptual photographer Tim Maul.

 

P: That sounds really exciting, and by doing so, you were also creating a community.

JS: There’s a long tradition of artists helping artists; Adam Simon and Mike Ballou ran an artist’s forum/gallery in the ’90s called, ‘Four Walls’, in which artists curated one-night shows followed by a panel discussion with up to two hundred people sitting on benches made by Mike, a sculptor/project artist/filmmaker/impresario. In ’91 I participated in a show called the ‘Painting Project’ curated by Amy Sillman, and a couple of years later, I curated a show called ‘The Beauty Show’, which coincidentally happened at around the same time Dave Hickey put out ‘The Invisible Dragon’, a book about beauty that included some of Mapplethorpe’s most shocking images. 

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Lovvellaacecceaddaell, 2019
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Heptesserast, 2019-2020

P: Now let’s talk about your teaching career. You currently teach at the School of Visual Arts and what would be your guideline when it comes to teaching your students? 

JS: As a general rule, I try to identify what the student needs to do to realize their vision. This usually involves building a vocabulary of forms, techniques, and concepts and deploying them in a wide range of output (art) in the two years of an MFA, providing a foundation for making significant post-graduate work. I also urge most of them to draw as much as possible, in spite of, whatever else they do, because, among many other things, it saves time.

P: How do you think teaching influences you? Or doesn’t it?

JS: The range of perspectives, approaches, and practices is vast, and it fascinates me as a teacher. Do I learn from my students? Hell yes! I never got an MFA, and quite frankly, although it’s too late technically, I feel like I’ve been working towards one, a big one, for the past 23 years since I started teaching in graduate programs.

P: And, any advice for the younger generation of artists?

JS: Some clichés:  If you can’t handle rejection, you’re in the wrong business. Don’t throw your work away; keep working on it until it works. Work as hard as you can, then work harder. Support your peers by paying attention to them and their work and learn how to talk intelligently about it. If you’re interested in a gallery, show them you are interested in their program by seeing all the shows and if you are lucky enough to get them to visit your studio, don’t lose heart if they don’t offer you a show on the spot—sometimes it takes more than a couple of visits to bring them around.

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"When artists look back on the arc of their lives through their works, these objects serve as milestones that connect them to a previous iteration of their mind and hand. Recognition of this fact adds to the complexity and richness of an artist's corpus," Siena says.

P:  The term ‘artist’ is becoming vague in the current society, and curious to know what it means to be an artist for you?

JS: Anyone who says they are an artist, whether they are good or bad, prolific or not, should be taken at their word. It takes courage to say one is an artist, and it takes hard work and a lot of research (and soul-searching) to be successful. I don’t mean “successful” in a financial way or even in terms of recognition. I mean “successful” in the internal workings and language of any given artist’s work and practice. I’m very moved by the solutions artists devise to make their work; Bruno Jakob, who works with water and energy to make his work largely invisible, has been making thrilling artworks for decades, for example, and the team Cool/Balducci work immaterially in large part, sometimes even refusing to document their work, but the work has resonance, logic, and beauty approaching the sublime.

 

P: You recently moved to a new studio and I find it really interesting how the space is filled with archives and historical objects. What is it about the collective memories that are significant to you?

JS: My parents died relatively young, so I think I’m compensating since there’s no family archive or homestead to anchor my life for quite a long time (over thirty years). Archiving my work is simply practical and sensible; everyone should keep records of the most meaningful things to them.

I also like machines that don’t take electricity, like bicycles, typewriters, and mechanical calculators. I want to think of my works as visual machines, activated by looking. I also love connecting to the past; when you hold a Roman coin from 35 BCE, you own something a Roman held in their hand. Something like that sends an electric shock of recognition right through me. On a personal note, I still have the bicycle that I built from parts as a fifteen-year-old and rode from Barcelona to Italy, then Barcelona to Paris, in my twenties and thirties, and to think this object, activated by an earlier version of me, is still in my life provides continuity and perspective. It’s said our entire body’s cells are changed every seven to ten years, but we remain “ourselves.” When artists look back on the arc of their lives through their works, these objects serve as milestones that connect them to a previous iteration of their mind and hand. Recognition of this fact adds to the complexity and richness of an artist’s corpus.

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