An Andy Abstract
Retracing the work of retired faculty member Andy Spence, by Briee Della Rocca
Andy Spence does not display his own work in the office, except for one piece: an 8 x 4-foot test sheet. Kraft paper with a superimposed slide of an older painting he had blown up and silk screened. It looks like a large “M,” crossed out, retraced, crossed out, retraced. “M, like mistake,” he says smiling. It is a backdrop to other work— including several student mimics of his own work—haphazardly cluttering the edges. The permeability of the piece within the landscape of this small but voluminous, studio-like office makes it inconspicuous, so that if not for the paper’s size you might miss the draft idea altogether.
“It’s very Warhol-like, not in the image but in the quality of the print. Those big splotches you see are enlarged pieces of dust or something. All of that becomes part of this painting,” he says, examining the draft he made 21 years ago when he first came to Bennington. “I did five of them. I didn’t know what I was going to do with them, but now I use them as a ground for other images.”
There is a linear quality to the way Andy Spence retraces his career—a rational, clear progression that, at least in the distance of hindsight, seems designed. He started working after graduate school. He had a studio at a used auto lot in L.A. and a paying gig through an artist connection at Cart and Crate, where he packed and conditioned art with other aspiring artists by day so they could make it at night. “It was the real beginning of my education,” he recalls. He learned how art was placed outside of exhibitions, delivered work for dealers and collectors, familiarized himself with contemporary artists, and picked up lessons where grad school dropped off.
“I realized no one ever told me how to find an art dealer. No one in art school was talking about how to show your work. People didn’t think of it as a career; back then they didn’t call it that.”
He started to make connections with better-known artists, art dealers, and curators, and at night he kept going with his own work—the thing that drove his day jobs.
“It’s funny, because whenever I would get more work, I’d just want to use it to buy more time in my studio. I wasn’t really interested in getting rich or famous. I was just really focused on what I was doing in the studio, trying to make paintings I really liked.”
When the work at Cart and Crate was slow he took odd jobs painting homes, and was unexpectedly influenced by the insistence on precision and neatness. Intrigued by facades and prefabrications, he explored surface on canvas for several years. His approach appealed to Nicholas Wilder, an art dealer, who followed his progression in the studio for several months before deciding to show Spence’s work in his gallery.
Spence’s work from the 1970s deals a lot with process. In fact, he says, process was his subject. But in 1977 he moved from L.A. to New York, where his monochromatic facade paintings did not make sense. He didn’t see a place for them in the city. “They didn’t have prefab stuff, they didn’t even have condominiums at that point. It was much more about refurbishing what existed.”
For the burgeoning artist this was a critical moment. It took a few years but he found his stride in objects’ abstraction—paintings of things he wanted but could not afford. If he wanted a chair, he’d paint an abstraction of it. He painted tables, wind chimes, windows, dixie cups, everything from the elaborate to the mundane.
“They became more non-representational formal shapes. The surfaces changed,” he explains. “They were painted heavily—the way a lot of abstract expressionists painted—but my paintings were very hard edged and geometric.”
It caught people’s attention. He was showing and selling pieces, making breakthroughs in the New York art scene, and getting lush language reviews in major publications. The descriptors “wit” and “playful” came up a lot—and still do.
“Not all things that I wanted looked really good,” he laughs, remembering one object in particular. “I mean, how do you paint a sunroof on a car, which I did. It was very awkward. But I guess sometimes it was the awkwardness that made it interesting.”
In 1993, a year before being awarded a Guggenheim, he was at a party when a colleague, Rochelle Feinstein, announced she was heading up to Bennington to give notice after getting a professorship at Yale. At the time, academic positions weren’t appealing to Spence. He belonged in the studio and the art scene. But Feinstein suggested Spence apply anyway. If he was going to find a well-matched home, it would be at Bennington.
Why not, he thought.
At the faculty exhibition last year, Spence showed pieces that were taking another, obviously new direction. If his L.A. period was about process, building surface, and figurative work, and his New York period found something in object abstractions and formal shapes, his Bennington period—at least last year—appears to explore collage, layers, revision, and form. Some pieces sandwich discrete works, transforming verticals to horizontals, others open the canvas of previously considered “finished work.”
Spence talks about his new direction as coming, in some ways, from the challenge of space. For the last year and a half he’s been preparing to move four decades’ worth of work from Vermont to his Brooklyn studio. In other ways, as he describes the paintings, it is difficult to ignore what seems like an obvious metaphor even if he’s not underlining it. For someone with a clear sensitivity to landscape and place, the work that he’s generating now—or regenerating—seems to draw from Bennington’s cultural, philosophical landscape pushing students to come back to their interests, to find connections in their work, to seed something that they will continue beyond campus. Spence’s new work is recreating, reexamining work he’s done over the four decades of his career—coming to, in some ways, an essence—or as Spence characterizes it, an abstract. “I got to a place where I just decided to re-combine a couple of my paintings and their multiple parts. Foe example, I opened up a diptych and inserted a skinny painting that’s not even quite the same height. It’s totally abstract now.”
Here he talks about another piece exhibited in the same show that was cut up and reassembled. “It was sort of like a jigsaw puzzle and appealing to me. It was funny. It looked like a painting that exploded, or like what happens to airplanes when they crash and all the pieces get reassembled in a warehouse. That’s what this painting looks like.” He laughs recalling it. “I mean, it’s put together with push pins.”
Again his work has shifted. Now he is on to duality, or fiction/nonfiction themes, “I know that is a literary term, but I see it as relating to paintings, in that the fiction part of the painting is the illusion, and the nonfiction part is the objectivity of it. I like what happens when the painting looks like a floor and a ceiling, a floor and a wall, and then these lines come down and go across the floor in different perspectives. There is an illusion, but it’s also very object-oriented.”
In some ways you can use that same framework to think about Spence’s career. The foreground and background shift depending on your reference point. “I knew about Andy’s work when I took classes with him. It was clever and silly, like him. A sort of hilarious, smart joke on hard edge abstraction that I always really liked,” Anne Schaffer ’11 remembers. But what was front and center, she says, was his teaching. “He didn’t take himself too seriously, and he let us be really creative and full in our approach to our paintings, without letting anyone get away with making b.s.”
Fellow painting faculty member Ann Pibal has looked to him as an exemplar of someone prioritizing student exploration, open structures, and providing students with individual space required to follow first impulses and to develop original ideas. “Andy truly models the Bennington ethos, of teaching by example,” she explains. “He is an original, profoundly interesting artist, ultimately dedicated to his own studio practice; his example to students has never been one of conceptual or aesthetic vantage point but has been continually and simply made through the vitality of the life he leads as an artist.”
“Students appreciate in particular his skill in leading critiques,” says Isabel Roche, dean of the College. “He has a way of guiding them to see the themes and patterns at play in their own work and the work of others.”
President Mariko Silver sees that as coming from his own practice as an artist. “That old saying ‘those who can, do; those who can’t teach’ is turned on its head. Here is an artist whose work is represented in nearly every major public art institution—The Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Center, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Carnegie Museum of Art,” Silver recites. “And he brings that into the classroom, to his students. There are many talented teachers who tour students through the great works lining our cultural institutions, but it is different to walk those halls with someone whose work is a part of that very lineage.”
And then there is this perspective from the College’s design coordinator, Erin McKenny, who has worked alongside Spence for years on building, conditioning, and exhibiting the College’s collection. She sees a master curator, recalling how the Abstract Expressionist show in the Usdan Gallery recently took shape. “It was all Andy. He had this vision and put it up exactly as he wanted it on first imagination. There were almost no changes. It is just so natural for him, like he’s been planning this all along.”
It’s easy to see Spence curating a show of seminal works from memory alone. Conversations with him are like this—in the span of an hour Spence will walk through decades of contemporary artists and what they added to the field, how they’ve given him perspective on what he’s doing in the studio. But now, at the end of our interview, he comes back to his work without the references to others but to his own body of paintings and prints, now four decades full. His curatorial impulses are in high gear. He is “thinning out” his massive portfolio—donating pieces to the College, to museums, to friends and colleagues—and removing work from his website that he is re-evaluating. In other words, everything is on the table. Spence believes that has to be the case when the goal is to come up with a body of work you love. Nothing is finished, he says, until you stop working it.