Don De Mauro: Interview

09 March 2015

JOHNSON CITY, NY — This unpublished 2012 interview with artist Don De Mauro was conducted as research for an essay in conjunction with De Mauro’s Retrospective @ Spool MFG., Ruptures & Sutures – Don De Mauro at 75: a Retro/Spective, during the same year. We publish the interview in anticipation of the essay, Don De Mauro: Process & Practice, by john ros, which will publish on later this year.

Interview with Don De Mauro by john ros: 17 june 2012
Ruptures & Sutures – Don De Mauro at 75: a Retro/Spective
18 May – 08 September 2012

@ Spool MFG., Johnson City, New York, US


john ros: Part of me doesn’t even know where to begin – I mean obviously you have been so busy. You have created all this new work. It seems like you spread out through spool (Spool MFG., arts space) too. I mean, spool has become your studio space in some way, in preparation for this show.

Don De Mauro: Yeah, it did. It’s because nothing was going on. The other thing was that this show was the finger in the dike, really, it was the 75th birthday thing, but I am almost on to 76 by the time it happened… but still it was a finger in the dike for spool to try to buy a little time. And it’s on until September 8th … which is ridiculous. And then we have to operate in this other way, you know it’s not even open, but the two things we did, Jake and Hakan were worth it (separate music events by Jake Lear, blues guitarist & Hakan Tayga-Hromek, a cellist with the Binghamton Philharmonic). The Hakan thing was mind-blowing. He is made for that space. It resonates. It’s like a cello around a cello it resonates. It sounded so good. I wish you were there – you’re the person, the cellist person who would know – really know what they were getting, but so many people were appreciative.  But there weren’t enough people.

jr: I mean that sound from the cello and then the resonance of the building, but also the resonance off your work as well. You are so in-tune to that type of sound. There is so much I want to get into. Collage is one of them. Not only actual, physical collage but also how you collage yourself. It seems your process is put together this way – the way you assemble material as far as intellectual material. You are always into politics, you are always listening to the news, I remember the Bach book you were reading some time ago, The Cello Suites, by Eric Siblin. There seems to be this accumulation of material at the ready.

DD: And I still only read part of it… I actually just uncovered it in my studio yesterday and I’m gonna start again.

jr: But its this idea of all these things sort of coming into one thing. I think that one thing beyond your practice is your life and how the two intertwine so seamlessly… and I kind of want to start there. It’s so complex, can we begin to tackle it?

DD: It’s so big, but its inescapable too, I suppose. That’s the enigma – there’s an enigma within the enigma, there is another thing. There is no escaping it and…

jr: Well, I think so many people still think, or at least with many of the people I experience, there is this sense that the art practice is separate from life, some how. I mean, you go to work and have this thing and you actually have this separate life, your personal life. That is a reason why I have always been so attracted to your practice, not only your art practice, but also as a professor, you brought us in because you lived and breathed this and at an early age you taught us to live and breathe it too. I think that’s why I have always had a strong connection with you and why your work is still so pertinent to me. I think about you often in my practice and how your practice – and your projects, spool is an example of that this – represent life as art. This is everything.

DD: I’m trying to write a mission statement right now for spool because we are looking at becoming not-for-profit. It seems like the time has come and is the necessary alternative because, unless we’re naïve we’re gonna have to find ways to function and fund and bring things in. But it goes to all of that. Defining, it is located within the artist cooperative or the artist collective idea which is something I can’t escape – which comes back to what you where saying about the way I choose to live. I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, I don’t have any pretension about that, but I mean spool is a mirror of this, interestingly, in some way, in terms of your conversation, because there is that choice, how does it become a living organism? How is it rooted? I certainly don’t want to be an administrator, even if I was at MOMA, I don’t want to administer MOMA, I don’t want to be curator, administrator.

There was a really interesting long – you know it’s impossible to answer our questions probably because it all becomes convoluted in the best way – I was thinking of Tom McDonough. He’s an important figure in the Art History Department (@ SUNY Binghamton) and there was this long article in the New York Times on the castle and on the documenta and he’s there delivering the paper and he’s going to be the chair of the Studio Art Program which I take as a good thing… I mean, he’s rooted in some kind of practice idea and in studio art as practice. But you know, I think making anything, living your own life with some sort of intensity or making this organic is tough. It’s political, and it’s there and not there. It’s a hall of mirrors probably, life itself is a hall of mirrors. So… your own illusions…

But trying to find, you know, I’m in the end rooted in a liberal progressive notion because I think there is always the hope of the ideal. There is a negative idea to the utopian ideal but I think one is always driven. For me personally, something that is a positive is the fact that I exist with a clear sense of purity and impurity. We’re always in search of purity, but we are always grounded by impurity and to not recognize that is very dangerous territory. I think one has to know where one is in the moment and where one – and also the past – it’s interesting, conservative, liberal, I don’t want to go too far– I think there is a very important aspect to the past, the past plays a very important role in the future. Past, Present, Future. Critical.

jr: It’s really interesting because I just updated my artist statement. Something that has come up in discussion have been ideas of utopia versus dystopia idea. Critics wanted me to choose one. I couldn’t firmly plant my feet in both. In today’s industry you have to take a stance and be that stance and there is almost no room for this livelihood that you are talking about – this sort of in-between.

DD: But in reality you have to negotiate that. Politics is really that negotiation. It’s literally that negotiation, you are not able to – again, it’s the absolutist mentality that we are fighting against in some way – and it creates this very difficult, and maybe that comes back to collage, it creates a very difficult relative landscape. One is always forced to be thinking and making decision and informing oneself, our politics right now is getting informed to a very specific absolute. Dogma, which determines everything, and democracy, to me, would signal the opposite. It’s a day by day negotiation, being informed in real terms and having to make decisions out of that real sense of being informed somewhere. And this is very difficult. The other part of that is, I’m not a romanticist, I don’t think there is a romanticist in me. I am not…

jr: It’s survival just out of pure gut, not out of anything…

DD: I don’t mean to turn this conversation into a kind of – it just goes that way. I am of a certain age and because of that age, because of where I appeared on this globe, I am an existentialist. Existentialism, and not in the way it became a more structured philosophy, but as a kind of inherent sense of thrown-ness. And in that thrown-ness, again, this is an important thing, we are just thrown in time, that is separate from this sort of religious or patriotic absolutism. All my philosophical interest is in infinity and randomness.

jr: Right, you said to the news when they were here to interview about the show, (“It also takes intuition and improvisation. Because you’re in search of something. You’re not just illustrating something that you pretentiously know or think you know.”) You said something along the lines of: not about knowing anything, its intuitive and procedural, and brings things together. It’s not about thinking you know things, it’s about knowing you don’t and finding the answers as you go. And I bring that up only because you are talking so much about absolutism and it also seems like, thought is the new progressive liberal and this absolute is the new conservatism. And it’s in politics, it’s in art, if you look in New York everything is absolute, it is in the industry, people want an answer because we can’t think about that anymore. No one has the time or the desire.

DD: It’s interesting, the reason I mention that great long article, it wasn’t a great article actually, it was a long article, but the end was very interesting. They said at the end, in a very strange little paragraph, they said, “this comes back to the curator thinking they are god.” And again, it is in the best of ways, politically correct all of these – and that’s the other end of something that is very difficult, a progressive thing. Because again, that goes back to purity and impurity. I think that purity insists on the ideal and won’t acknowledge its own impure ground. I think the key lies in there somewhere, in that sort of dialectic between purity and impurity.

jr: There is a lot of polarity, in any decision-making that lies within that polarity that you are talking about its neither this one or the other, it is a constant dialogue between yourself and any information around you.

DD: Yeah, it seems to me, I am not being humble, you know, I look around and recognize my fragility and a certain sense of, again, being thrown here and what’s possible and what the choices are and what you can want. What desire is.

Part of that train of thought has to do with being thrown, you start with being thrown. We’ve all been thrown. In your thrown-ness you look around, you sort of blink and look around and you are confronted with your own context. A crazy father, a saintly mother, or this or that. And searching with ways to navigate this. There must have been that with you, maybe yours is a little more direct? For me there is a methodology with navigating being enlifed and art offers me a way of navigating that and also asking all the questions that seem essential to ask. I think an interesting thing, just personally for having gone through this for so long, is that delicate place. I think there is a very delicate place that has to do with all those questions, with this and that which comes back to religion and absolutism and their determination or determinance which – it’s kind of an interesting thing in that I think I feel comfortable, this is almost conventional sounding – but with the questions unanswered. It is the questions themselves that provide the kind of substance I need. The answers are closed, they are a sort of closure. The questions are an opening and the questions are gathered in what I come back to, and again philosophically, infinity because we are going to have to negotiate with infinity and we never can close that down. So you are endangering yourself when you put that sort of trap and we do it over and over again. You look around at the political landscape and the arguments are just so silly as to just be nonsensical. And then we get carried away with all the intricacies of all of these crazy things. I look at you because I think of gay marriage. Its like, discussing and arguing something so – there is no answer because it is beyond, it exists in the primal space and you are not. That’s one good thing I can feel I escaped, being born Catholic, and I escaped the tendency, but part of it is looking. There’s a lot of personal biographical stuff that is built into everybody’s life story, or whatever.

For myself as a kid, trying to look around and figure out what’s what, I think, on my mother’s side they were very very secular and at the same time they were, not in our terms, progressive, but my mother was a democrat. And there was more accepting kind of idea in that secularism than there was on the catholic side there was a very judgmental condition constantly thrown forward. And again, you a young, 3, 4, 5, 6 year old kid looking around and trying to figure this landscape out. And I think other people, born into a liberal or conservative thing and you are configured by that. You can’t escape that initial because that is a safety valve, probably another type of absolute too.

jr: And since you bring it up and something I didn’t realize until recently, you were born in Mt. Vernon, New York. For some reason I didn’t know that. Did you stay there long?

DD: So much of this biographical information – it’s more interesting than you know and who the hell gives a crap – that’s the interesting thing, who really gives a shit about my story? But on the other hand, one of the things I love is literature. Literature does a better job then physiology in understanding human nature. I was born in Mt. Vernon, New York. So many things are going on. Our Catholic background, a mother who was quite ill, she had a lung removed – I don’t know, maybe I was eight or nine years old – at St. Vincent’s hospital in New York when that must have been a huge kind of operation, and that had a huge effect on me. My father was diabetic. We went to California, again, this is life, life doesn’t happen because of logical or rational or reasonable things. We spend a lot of time, because of illness, with my grandparents and my aunt. There was my grandmother and grandfather and their daughter, my aunt who lived with them for all of his life, she was quite successful worked for readers digest and ran the kitchens.

When I went to art school I was almost catatonically non-verbal. I probably hid in that, sort of thing. You know, looking at my show, were does it arrive from, it’s just a struggle to answer questions over time and recognizing the critical nature of that and the good sense of meaning that has for our lives. A way to live… a way to be in the world. But you know, everyone has those little… it’s amazing really the world is made up of these minor stories.

jr: It’s true. You sort of mention about history and its funny because, personally, I had been looking at the past too much and not living in the present. Then I was looking at the future too much and it’s really this now space, in-between. Again, it’s that absolute idea, this present is that negotiation between past and future and what happens there is this exciting thing that is represented in the studio practice or in life in general.

DD: An interesting thing for me too is that time always out-runs us. There’s a necessary slowness to all the stuff we’ve been talking about the political, the aesthetic, trying to resolve all those kinds of questions in time. And again, I think I’m defined a lot – Mt. Vernon, how we ended up in California, you know, a lot of my life is defined by Watergate, Vietnam, Korea, when I think, and now I am struggling, a big overwhelming obsession with me is drones. Drones, because I just don’t know how we got to this. I mean, I am a World War II person, who, that was the war to end all wars. And somehow we managed to make unending war totally part of the landscape.

jr: Right, with a less informed public. The public is not involved any more where they were involved before so there could be almost this effort to end. I mean, the military doesn’t even have to be involved because of these drones – how far removed are we going to be – at what point …

DD: What part, you know… how are you? I am constantly dealing with this, and I should have dealt with it before, and I am not naïve, I have a list of complaints. I am always going to call the white house. I have this list of complaints, they go on and on and on. But if Mitt Romney is elected president – and it raises a question, and Obama does too – just paying your taxes. That seems as important as making this. I make this, but I don’t stand up to the tax collector really. There are all those issues at work constantly. And again, there are realistic choices on each side, nothing is romantically easy because I see you can be a tax objector and fall into a hole at the same time. I don’t know.

jr: That sort of leads me to where I want to go with this. The idea of appropriation and the appropriation of media. One thing I am remembering, it’s an old piece – and I know Reagan effected you a lot – it was this piece with Reagan cut out. It was a later work. And the new work has this sort of…

DD: Wait a second John (Don pulls out an image our of the pile next to him) there it is, and again, its ready-made it’s not me. People make this. You know? It’s so bizarre as to be unreal. And it’s not me making that, it just exists. And it’s something I am trying to interpret. How could I ever interpret this? And again, this is the world I am thrown into.

jr: I love the Jeff Koons bunnies.

DD: The Jeff Koons bunnies. But that’s another big part of my questions, because we’re here, there’s always a normalcy, at least for us Americans, there are places in the world where… you know… we’re always speaking – and that comes back to purity and impurity – always speaking through what seems to be a kind of normalcy and yet, that is collage again, scattered all around us. Debris of the worst kind.

jr: It sort of seems silly, but I want to ask specifically about the Mona Lisa only because she comes up several times. This idea of the Madonna or what religion plays, what politics plays? It’s interesting here mostly because she is present with us a few times in there.

DD: I haven’t thought, this is something, just because you ask the question that way it comes to mind, but maybe it’s my mother. That’s probably my mother. I don’t romanticize her because, what I value in her – but again, we are struggling with that purity, impurity idea and that represents. And I think it’s interesting because you struggle around with art history and I think I’m in the breach, I think I am in a ground where I think to some degree I fail because I fail the classicists and I fail the avant guardists because I have to keep a foot in each space. It seems, I was just looking, there was a little article on Caravaggio, and I have this book – I look at Caravaggio and I think, oh my shit, I haven’t done…, I better get busy. I mean it’s just mind-blowing. You know, it’s just mind-blowing and there are these other times.

The Mona Lisa again, maybe represents that Renaissance, Catholicism, which is such an enigma, primary sort of enigmatic space for me, to try to come to terms with, just because I come out of that ground. I just finished a book, I could go on and on. You raise the questions that are unanswerable. I just read a book, a couple of books, The Swerve, (by Stephen Greenblatt) which got the Pulitzer prize and, God’s Jury (by Cullen Murphy). The Swerve is about the scribe in the Vatican who finds and preserves Lucretius, the Latin poet, who everybody talks about, the physicists, everywhere I go everybody talks about Lucretius. But that was grounded in all of these strange phenomenon. He went to monastery, and I forget the name of the main character in the book who was this scribe, but he went to all of these places finding this stuff and this all took place, things that seem incomprehensible to me, because he would bounce around monasteries, these books were preserved, because of scribes, and they were antithetical to the catholic position but in a way, one of the little facts I read, in the monastery they would take one of Lucretius’ text and read it, and he would read it to 20 people who scribing or illuminated this that was their technology at the time, but they wanted that technology, they wanted twenty copies. Somewhere they recognized they wanted twenty copies instead of one copy.

The next book was God’s Jury which was on the three inquisitions which is an incredible book. I mean, I just can’t. I could go on and on and on with this topic, and again, it goes back to the church and the horrific, and it goes from, I think one of the huge, important things for me in that book was the sense of time again, because the inquisitions ran up to Goya, the late eighteen, early nineteenth century. Goya, it was still happening then, I mean, John, Spanish Jews were called Conversos, I think, and they, as late as the nineteenth century, had fled through that Spanish configuration down through South and Central America and up into New Mexico and were still in the nineteenth century being found out and persecuted, I mean it was so incredibly persistent in the strangest way. Then the strangeness, cause these were Conversos, people who had converted to Catholicism, but that was their problem, because then that conversion was completely mistrusted and almost taken almost as opposite and they were then persecuted. And again, this time, everything I read, the nuns who were just persecuted by the Vatican for writing this book on sexuality. And there’s a title of a place still in the Vatican and it has this name, I wish I could remember, and the guy thats the bishop there is the one who attacked this nun and said she couldn’t… you know, what could and couldn’t be done with this book, but the Vatican space that he occupies is still under the same name as in the time of the inquisition.

I mean you know, we have this sense of liberal progression, but really we come through the nineteenth century, and there was the enlightenment, Voltaire, or you couldn’t read, you know. And then between that enlightenment really which led to probably abstract expressionism and those kinds of ideas and existentialism was involved. And then Watergate scandals, I mean the 60’s to me, as an ex-hippy, signal that kind of Jimi Hendrix, not just art, but there was just so much ferment of the kind that I follow in life. But Watergate signaled that kind of – and we’re still in that because of all these characters, Pat Buchanan and these characters are still out there and it’s just – I don’t know. And the 40th anniversary is upon us and they are just finding out all this stuff. I had just read this book on Nixon, and again, because I am from all that and it’s so important it was a really good book, Nixon’s Darkest Secrets (by Don Fulsom). This guy was a White House reporter, but now I just today on a show, 40th anniversary and they are just coming up with Nixon involved the mob in trying to assassinate Castro, I mean, this was all in this book, Nixon and the mob were totally in all of this together and that goes back to Kennedy and the assassination and all that, which I am enthralled by because this novelist I love – know I’m gonna forget, when I try to think of something it goes blank – don’t get old John.

The interview continues a bit and turns mostly to personal conversation. Transcribed at 40 minutes. The conversation lasted a little over an hour.

The essay, Don DeMauro: Process & Practice, by john ros, will be published on late 2015.
Video by Stephen Schweitzer about Don De Mauro & Spool MFG.
Video by Brian Murphy, At Work, about Don De Mauro’s practice.