A few months ago, I visited the SFMOMA to see the Lee Friedlander retrospective. On impulse, I wandered into the architecture and design gallery, where I encountered Peter Wegner's Guillotine of Sunshine, Guillotine of Shade. Imagine an expansive wall, covered in hyper-saturated color. The wall shimmers and undulates, a mirage, but with more heft, more body. Turn the corner, and the wall continues -- only the cool, Mediterranean colors have suddenly turned hot, and the deep blues and rich turquoises are now hot pink and acid yellow. Shade and sun. Sun and shade. I liked the piece so much, I decided to play "10 Questions" with the artist.
1. Let's start with the idea of using stacked paper. When did you first begin creating pieces using stacked paper? Why?
Peter Wegner: In 2004 I exhibited Floor-to-Ceiling Blues and Wall-to-Wall Reds at The Bohen Foundation in New York. They were simple stacked pieces, just a few colors each, spanning the architectural planes of the exhibition space. Later that year I made a stacked paper sculpture that was itself a wall dividing the space of Henry's (Urbach, SFMoMA's curator of architecture and design) gallery in Chelsea. By the following year, this body of work had grown to include a labyrinth of stacked paper walls that split the difference between a garden maze and the maze of Manhattan. Lever Labyrinth, occupied the glass lobby of Lever House on Park Avenue all summer.
As to why: I'd been working with color for many years. In the '90s, this took the form of paintings derived from paint chips. I had stacks and stacks of paint chips lying around the studio. And I'm sure it also had something to do with the Color Aid paper used in Josef Albers' famous "Color" course I took as a Yale undergraduate. But these are just conventional explanations. Reasons are something else. I'm not even sure they make themselves consciously available to us. They're fugitives, rarely seen.
2. When Henry approached you for Cut, what drew you to the project? Did you see the other pieces in Cut before you began your piece?
Peter Wegner: Great exhibition concept. Great exhibition title. Henry is that rare curator who combines great intellect and great intuition. So he feels comfortable taking on an unusual degree of risk. Early on, he showed me some of the pieces eventually included in the show, but I had already figured out what I wanted to contribute. Or at least where I wanted to begin.
3. Let's talk a little about your use of color. Again, what came first? Did you want to do a piece using the spectrum, or was there something else, some other trigger?
Peter Wegner: Because color is contextual, you can create a rich palette simply by varying the rhythm of a few different colors -- six sheets of this color, ten of that. That's how I'd worked in the past. People would tell me the piece had nineteen colors, or eleven, or thirty, and they were all correct.
This new work is not a full spectrum because that would be impossible to embody in material form. But it's one representation of a spectrum. I'm often drawn to systems that are in some sense encyclopedic, systems that purport to deal with all of something. That impulse is irresistible and futile in equal measure.
In Guillotine, I was interested in using some of the same yellows on both sides of the wall, then bending that color until it becomes something else ? blue, say, or red. The way Coltrane bends a note, the way Ashbery bends a word. It's a chromatic continuum interrupted by the wall.
4. Guillotine reminds me a little bit of a "technocratic" Seurat. It's very sensual. Henry described it as a visceral piece. Guillotine is certainly a very aesthetic piece, almost painterly. Do you seek that aesthetic impact?
Peter Wegner: I want to make work that's both fast and slow, monumental and ephemeral, simple and complex. I want it lush and I want it austere! I want it to be painting and sculpture and architecture! I want it to be tactile even if the guards won't let you touch it!
5. The "how" part always fascinates readers. So... how did you make the piece? Did you do it alone? Or did you have help? What is your process? Where did you find all that paper?
Peter Wegner: The paper is from many different companies in the U.S. and Canada. I began by making a small-scale maquette, working with color quickly and intuitively. Then I had to break it down, count it out and scale it up, up, up. The installation itself was a massive undertaking that eventually came to involve forty people from the museum, with a core group of ten working twelve consecutive days. On the weekend, even my teenaged sons pitched in. Everybody helped -- curators, conservators, administrators, interns, professional installers. People in different departments would hear about the project and come lend a hand.
Everyone would work on the same row at the same time. People would bring me prescribed sequences of color roughly mixed. I did the final mix to impose a loose uniformity before it was installed. But part of the poetry of the piece, I think, is that it still contains traces of the signature efforts of so many.
6. Tell me a little about the title of the piece. I've heard all sorts of speculation, but most people describe it as "poetic."
Peter Wegner: "Guillotine of Sunlight, Guillotine of Shade" is a phrase borrowed from a poem by Charles Wright. One day while I was making the maquette, I pulled his collection, Negative Blue, from my bookshelf to read over lunch. Guillotine seemed like a good name for a work made of 1.4 million sheets of cut paper, each a little blade, for a show called Cut. And just as Wright's phrase describes two sides of the same blade, my piece occupies two sides of the same wall. "Sunlight" and "shade" are also close to the inspiration for the project: light, especially natural light, is a long-standing obsession. (It's why I had to move back to California after a long exile in Brooklyn.) Natural light is what makes seeing possible. Also us: it makes us possible.
7. I just have to ask -- Do you like T.J. Clark's writing?
Peter Wegner: I've never read him. But when I googled him just now, the ad that appeared on the right column said "I quit TJ Clark. Now I make $30k a month." So maybe I should read him in order to stop and make some cash.
8. OK, let's backtrack now and talk about your biography. When did you decide that you had to be an artist?
Peter Wegner: I grew up in South Dakota. You couldn't be an artist in South Dakota. And yet that's who I am. You just catch up with yourself, and that's who you turn out to be. Several years ago I wrote a book called The Other Today that included this line: "It's the other way things couldn't go." In that case, I was referring to the art, but it's also a good description of the artist.
9. First piece of art work that made an impact on you?
Peter Wegner: I recently visited the Jasper Johns exhibition, Gray, at the Met and had a vivid memory of seeing one of his gray number paintings when I was fourteen. It stopped me in my tracks. I didn't know what to make of it, but I couldn't stop thinking about it. I still don't know, and I still can't get it out of my mind. That same year I saw a show of large abstract paintings at the Boston Museum. The scale, the color -- I remember feeling that this was a language I spoke.
10. What are you working on now?
Peter Wegner: The United States of Nothing, a work in wall paint and neon. It will be on display at SFMoMA beginning in September, 2008. It's about the act of naming, the desolation of the American landscape, redundancy, cartography, boosterism, bad luck, the void, and what happens when you put a spark of electrical current through invisible gas.