Long time painter, drawer, and sculptor with numerous public art commissions
Alan Neider has been making art for over forty years. His paintings, drawings, and sculpture have been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions at museums and exhibitions spaces across the country, including The Lowe Museum, Governors Island, Henri Gallery, Nancy Lurie Gallery, Jan Cicero Gallery, Local Projects, and Brian Morris Gallery. His work has been reviewed in Art in America, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Artforum, Art New England, Hyperallergic, and Two Coats of Paint. He has completed numerous public commissions, including a freestanding painting, “Lake Dance,” installed atop Chicago’s Navy Pier. Neider was awarded a CT Commission on the Arts Grant, and a Robert Rauschenberg Change Inc. Work Grant. He received his MFA from Washington University, St. Louis, and his BFA from California State University, Long Beach.
Can you talk a little bit about your recent work? Specifically, your engagement with negative space?
I don’t see the cutouts as negative space. Not negative in a negative way. They’re just a really strong positive force within the paintings. For example, the paintings that I did previously to this series are geometric shapes, and they’re cut out. The big form, the painted form, is an organic form. The series that you just saw is the reverse of that. The organic form is now the cut out. What I’m really interested in is having that fight, or dialogue, between the painted surface and the cutout shape
You hold a BA and an MFA. What do you think the primary benefits of a formal arts education are?
It gives you time to think. It gives you time to work on stuff. In some of the classes I took—and this is negative—I had interactions with teachers whom I didn’t think knew what they were talking about, and I felt like I knew more than they did. In that sense, maybe an education isn’t that important. But, I do think it buys you time. It gives you a way to experiment. However, I’ve always been a little bit stubborn and gone my own way no matter what other people said.
I have friends that I still associate with from graduate school. But, right out of high school I went to El Camino Junior College and that was a major influence on my life. It changed me completely. The art department was wonderful. It had a great graphic design department and a good painting department. I met some really incredible people and my entire life changed in a matter of months. That was the most influential education experience that I had. It opened my eyes to the world and to art and to beauty. Once I got over the issue of beauty and classical music, I started finding other artists who were painting and doing crazy things, and I got involved with them. That was a big influence on me too.
You’ve said that making art is a way of “connecting…to viewers/participants in a real or imagined way.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?
You hope that someone looks at your work and has a connection to it; wants to stand in front of it for a while, wants to have it, live with it, and be with it. If someone has a piece, I want them to be able to live with it and enjoy it; see it every day for a long time and continue to interact with it. When I look at my new paintings, the word “packed” comes to mind. I want them to be packed with information, with images, shapes and colors, so that a person can discover things in them over and over again.
Do you think the ubiquity of digital technology has changed the way that artists can market themselves and network?
Being able to show the art on my site in a matter of moments to anyone is a major plus in terms of ‘getting the work out.’ Placing jpegs of new paintings on Instagram, for instance, and receiving positive responses from people all over the globe is a very cool thing. Being able to communicate with other artists is another plus based on technology. For example I wrote to Ashley Bickerton and he wrote back.
You’ve produced a number of public commissions over the course of your career. Do you take a different approach to these public works than you would to other projects?
I tend to spend a good amount of time in the space I am to work with. Further, I generally make models of what the art will look like and present it to those folks who need to OK the project.
The art produced in the studio is more intuitive and spontaneous. I am interested in process of studying and learning from each successive series.
For example, the columns that you mention: on State Street there was this series of buildings designed by Mies Van der Rohe. They were big, black, ugly boxes and I really didn’t like them. So, when I was asked to do a sculpture in that area I chose to wrap five columns in order to soften and bring color into the space. I wanted the art to have a conversation with the architecture. I wanted my art to ’humanize’ the Federal Buildings.
One of the biggest pieces I ever did was on top of Navy Pier in Chicago. It was 110 feet long by 24 feet high at its highest point. It was up for six months. It was a very personal painting for me, even though it was public. When I was in Chicago I was in a program called CETA. It was an Artist-in-Residence program, and my job was to create a large sculpture for this park on on the lakefront. It was cement and paint. It never got built for many reasons, but it came close. If it would have been built, it would have been the largest sculpture in the United States by volume. I was very involved with paint, and the issue of permanence. That would have been a very strong sculpture.
What are some resources that you wish you’d had access to, or known about, as a young artist?
You read all these articles in magazines about artists getting to know important people, though not necessarily all famous artists. I wish I’d had more of an opportunity to do that. I had interactions with some people. For example, in graduate school I received a Rauschenberg grant. That was a big deal, but it would have been wonderful if I could have known Rauschenberg better. I did meet him one time. This was in the late sixties. I went to Long Beach State. They had a great lithography department there, and Gemini would hire printers right out of school. They hired a fellow named Jim Web, a good friend of mine. I ran into him and Rauschenberg on the streets of Hollywood and we went up to his apartment and got drunk.
You’ve studied and worked in many parts of the country. Can you talk about the creative communities that you’ve encountered during your career, and their influence on your artistic practice?
There wasn’t a real big scene in LA, and I was in school, so I didn’t even know if there was a scene or not. However, I remember friends and I would go to openings on La Cienega. We saw the original Warhol cans of soup, and people were fighting each other, screaming and yelling, having a horrific time—is this art? Yes it is, no it's not. How much that influenced me, I don’t know. I went to Philadelphia for graduate school for a while. I didn’t finish because I was doing my conscientious objector work then and there were too many conflicts. So, I wasn’t involved in any kind of scene there. In Chicago I was very involved in the scene. I had dealers, I was selling work; people knew me. I was a medium sized fish in a fairly small pond. I would have a show every year at least, sell work and be commissioned for public art. I was written about and reviewed in Art Forum. I decided to try and move east because I felt I had exhausted the opportunities Chicago had to offer. My wife and I never made it to New York and have been in Connecticut since 1982. We do go to museums, gallery openings in the city and have met a number of terrific artists and dealers.
The art scene in Connecticut is small. The opportunities here are limited. We have Artspace in New Haven that is very supportive of the artist here. They tend to focus on the community and social issues, however. There is one commercial gallery in New Haven.
What advice would you give to someone hoping to pursue a career as an artist?
You have to really know people. That’s why everyone’s trying to get into Yale, or RISD, so they can network and meet the people who can help them with their careers. I was lost in graduate school. I got into Yale from California. I had heard of Yale, but I didn’t know Yale was ‘Yale’. I had no idea. I would have had to wait almost an entire year, a whole cycle, to actually start. I didn’t want to wait, so I ended up at Washington University. But, had I known what Yale was, I would definitely have waited. That’s one of those mistakes that you look back at and say, if only. So my advice is put yourself in a position where you can network and further your career, as opposed to doing it yourself.