Simply abstract: A conversation with artist Ray Wittenberg

A shorter version of this interview was originally published in the July 16, 2014, edition of Sync. 


In between his time spent working at Oxford American and playing in a couple of local bands, Ray Wittenberg finds time to paint. His career as an artist dates back to 2000 when he and his wife, Tina Turner, moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Stuck with a case of writer’s block, Turner suggested Wittenberg take a drawing class to clear his mind. At the recommendation of a mentor in Santa Fe, Wittenberg headed to New York City in 2002 for a year of intense training in drawing and painting at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture. Counting music, minimalism and his time in New York as major influences, Wittenberg has been painting more than ever lately. His first exhibit, “So What!” It’s the Least I Can Do …, is currently on display at the Historic Arkansas Museum.

What was your experience like at the New York Studio School?
It was a great, exhilarating program for me. I mean, it was incredibly frustrating because there were a lot of good artists that were in there, and I was kind of this old guy who’s doing something, but no one could really figure out what. But I just went there to make art. Of course it was great, living in the city. We went to all the great museums, studied all the great art that was up in New York. They would take us to gallery shows so we got to see all the contemporary work that was coming out. And that was really inspiring.

How long were you in New York, and what did you do when you moved back to the South?

That lasted about a year in 2002, and then I came back to Little Rock and really just kind of holed up for a couple of years in the studio. Just painting every day. I had some space in the old Gazette building, which is now the eStem school, but for a while that whole building was abandoned and I was the only person in it. I had this big studio with all this work, and that was great. I’d never shown anything. The Studio School’s direction is painting from observation, so that’s what I did. And then I allowed myself just to paint from my imagination, and I got a couple years into it.

I went back to work at the Oxford American and that began to take up a lot of time, so the painting kind of went to the wayside. … I was still doing the same kind of stuff but it was off and on, doing this and that. That’s always the question for any painter, is what to paint and how to paint it. I had really stopped painting entirely until about two years ago, and I got a smartphone. I downloaded this app called Pollack. and you can make these cool little painting-drawing type things, just very small on the phone. I started doing that and I just got all turned on again about the whole proposition.

So I set up some studio space below my house and started to paint and then went through a series of paintings, outgrew that space and got some space downtown. And began to work larger. And then ended up with a lot of different experiments with color. Just the basic elements of painting — line and space and color and shape. And then I hit on this motif. I was really looking for a motif that challenged the notion of the painter expressing themselves and making statements and all this angst and what do I paint and all that, and I came up with this. I was just sort of captured by the motif, just the idea of  a solid background and a single line that loops through the space.

Ray Wittenberg's current exhibit hanging at Historic Arkansas Museum through Sept. 7.

Ray Wittenberg’s current exhibit hanging at Historic Arkansas Museum through Sept. 7.

At first, I thought, you know, it was maybe stupid, and I began looking around and I couldn’t find anything that really was like this. I was reading a lot about Matisse and his notion of making work that people could enjoy being in front of. At the end of the day, relax and sort of contemplate. And as I started to make these, they began to be more contemplative, for me, personally, and I just enjoyed them. And I know there’s something really frivolous about them, and superfluous, but that’s OK. I though they were attractive enough to where it held up under that scrutiny. And then the more I looked at them, I began to see different allegories in them. Like if you’re looking at this one, it’s simply a black background with a simple line drawn on it. But maybe it’s a river or maybe it’s really figurative. I began to realize that I could think about all the things that one thinks about in a painting looking at these. So I started thinking, maybe they hold up.

I think the size, too, is a big part of that. 

Yeah, and I was keying off of work of the minimalists. People like Ellsworth Kelly and others. And, of course, [the minimalists] were a reaction to the abstract expressionists. They calmed it all down and sort of made fun of it at the same time they created some beautiful work.

What was the experience of opening your first art exhibit like for you?

It was fun [in the gallery] on opening night. All the paintings are basically the same, and they’re all different. But I was overhearing people saying, “Which one do you like best?” Like there was a competition going on. And I think that has a lot to do with color and people’s interest in color, and how they have an emotional attachment to color. … A year ago, Donna Uptigrove, who’s the new curator [at Historic Arkansas Museum], said, “I’ll give you a show.” And I said, “Are you serious?” And she said “yes.” I kept saying jokingly that I was kind of waiting for a phone call saying, “I’m sorry Mr. Wittenberg, we’ve made a terrible mistake.” Because I’ve never shown my work. I’ve auctioned off a few pieces around town, sold a couple to friends … I still can’t believe it, that they’re up. The opening, that Friday, standing up here, I’ve never felt that way before. And I couldn’t even really describe that feeling.

So this is a big step in your artistic career.

Well, I can’t believe it. I still can’t believe it, that they’re up.

When we first talked about doing it, Donna came over and looked at the work.  I have a lot of other work — more abstract styles, some are more objective, some figure work and whatnot — and she looked at all that and then I didn’t hear from her for quite some time. Then it got to be last spring and she said, “OK, let’s start talking about this show. It’s going to go up in June.” And I said come on over, let’s look at the art again and you can see what you want. And before she got over there I decided, you know what, I really want to do just these. Have 10 of these and make a statement with these paintings. And these paintings are, you know, I’m not trying to use any artist mumbo jumbo here, but these are really as much my thoughts about painting as they are about the paintings themselves. After studying for over 10 years now, reading, thinking, painting, I got to this one thing. And I really love them.

Did you have in mind a whole series of these when you started the first one?

No, not at all. As a matter of fact my first thought was, let’s put two lines, then I was going to put three lines, and how many lines could you put on and what would it morph into. Eventually would it be this fragmented thing with all these colors in it. And I was getting sort of carried away with the idea rather than stopping and exploring this. So when [Donna] came up and said “I’ll give you the show,” and then came back, I said this is what I want to do. Let’s just take this one motif. Let’s replicate it. And let’s see what they look like. And I think they did a good job of choosing what ones to put next to which.

Tell me about how you came to the name of this exhibit.

“So What” is a famous jazz song by Miles Davis. That’s on his Kind of Blue record, which was a pretty seminal record in the late ’50s. Kind of changed the whole nature of modern jazz. So that “So What” song, I always listen to that before I start painting. It just puts me in the right place. “It’s the least I can do,” that’s a minimalist statement that I’d heard, and I thought, I like that. It just seemed like a fun idea to give the show that title.

You’re in a band, correct? How has music influenced your painting?

I’m in a couple of bands. We back Stephanie Smittle, so that’s The Smittle Band. And then we back Heather Smith, another female singer. She’s just getting ready to come out with her CD later in the summer. It’s funny you mention the music, because people that know me know about my music, and they’ve felt like there’s an affinity to the music. When you’re a drummer, your job is to just keep the beat going at the right tempo. And there’s certainly a tempo I think to these [paintings], if you wanna think about it like that. If you want to think about them as being musical.

What do you listen to while you’re painting?

All kinds of music. There’s always jazz. Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, and just the giants of jazz. I love all that music so much. But then I’ll put on some Nirvana. I love all that Seattle grunge band music from the ’90s, and then whatever else is sort of up, popwise. Working at Oxford American, we have such a music franchise — we do this annual music issue — so we’ve got to be really up on what’s new, what’s going on.

When is your ideal time to paint?

Whenever I can. Late at night, on the weekends, all that. I typically get a lot of work done on the weekends. If the band’s not playing and I’m not too tired. But I’m in and out of that studio space all the time. Of course, there was a big push to get all these ready. We had to to make the frames and get everything stretched and then make all the paintings. That probably took me about a month. I knew what I was doing.

I bought the canvas at Hancocks, I bought the paint at Home Depot. Hence the names, the titles. You know those kitchy names for paints? Granny Smith Apple on Red Geranium, Canary Song, Sweet Baby Blue … When Donna said, “You need to give these titles,” my first idea was to run a piece of string down the line and then stretch it out and measure it, so it might be “4-foot-7-inches” or something. Then I thought, well, that’s kind of stupid. Then I thought, no, what you need to do is come up with names of your own for these colors. And then after 10 minutes of trying to do it, it’s impossible. Then it occurred to me, they had all these crazy names, and I thought why not just name them that? So there’s something kind of humorous about it, and frivilous, and that fit in with the overall show, I think.

Do you think your work is more influence by your time in Santa Fe and New York than your time in the South?

Yes. Oh, completely. So much of looking at other art gives you permission to go ahead and try it. And what I got out of living in New York, more so than Santa Fe, certainly, was just the whole art of painting from the beginning. … It’s OK to try anything. I think that’s the whole shtick of modern painting, is it’s OK to try anything. Anything goes nowadays. And these are a little in response to that anything goes, because these are so simple and straightforward in their way. I don’t have any agenda with them. I mean I do, I guess I do. I do have an agenda. But this was just an exercise in using this motif. New York was such an eye-opener, and I don’t think I would make these — these would never have seen the light of day — if I hadn’t spent some time in New York and been around other artists who were making art.

See more of Ray Wittenberg’s work here. “So What!” It’s the Least I Can Do … is on display at the Historic Arkansas Museum through Sept. 7. 

Syd Hayman is a beauty, entertainment and pop culture fanatic who enjoys trying different metro restaurants that satisfy picky eaters. Tweet her at @TheSydRichi.