Studio Visit with Karen Schifano

The viewing wall in Karen Schifano's Williamsburg studio
I visited Karen Schifano’s Williamsburg studio in September. I knew her work from the Minus Space website, and from group exhibitions around town, including the summer group show at the Minus Space Gallery in Brooklyn the month before.
Schifano's studio is a large, well-lit square of a space in a work-only commercial building. To orient you, if you were looking at a floor plan, I entered at the bottom left of the square. Facing me was a wall with large windows. To my left was a viewing wall, and on that wall were the two paintings you see above, with that little row of maquettes between them. Karen and I sat on chairs facing that wall.
A door-size work, with maquettes of new projects
With artists who work minimally I’m usually careful not to make associations—an acute angle is just an acute angle—but looking at these paintings, which are twice as long as they are wide, I’m thinking door, doorway, hallway, passage, the unknown, maybe even escape. These “doorways” are only slightly “ajar,” with what appears to be a shaft of light. Like I say, it could be just an acute angle, but I’m free associating despite my intentions. There’s nothing about them that says “welcome,” and indeed those “shafts” have an almost menacing shardlike quality. .
Yet when I step away from the associations, the cool geometric formality of each work invites closer viewing. In that light, it’s simply about what’s happening at the edge in relation to the rest of the field. Shape and color. And Schifano has a quirky, Truitt-like sense of color that maximizes her minimalism.
Apparently I'm not alone in the door association. “It’s true, they kind of loom and cover the walls here,” allows Schifano. “I think I’ve been in a transitional space mentally for a while, and so maybe they keep me company, support me in this. I think I’ve envisioned my life changing, the world changing. The paintings in hindsight have been ways of keeping that desire going without necessarily conjuring up an answer. Then again, I so also just look at them and see what works, what doesn’t, what could come next in the series.
“I couldn’t continue the series at one point because I was unwilling to see them as figurative. When I got over that, it all became easier.”
The maquettes up close
The maquettes are similar but different. Up close I see that these paintings are more sculptural. Where Schifano implied a foreground in the large paintings, here that space is physical, extending out to meet you. The space pours from the wall to the floor. And since I’m making associations, it crosses my mind that those floor elements function conceptually as, well, welcome mats.
I’m thinking about all of this as we’re talking. And we’re talking not so much about art but about ourselves—we have some commonalities: Italian American daughters, with language and familial connections to the Old Country; we’re of the same generation; and we both work reductively.

Perhaps because of the less-is-more sensibility, we're both neat. You can certainly see that here. "I can't seem to think straight unless their order in my space," says Schifano. "I sometimes rearrange the furniture as a way of clearing my head." I can dig it. .

The space opposite the viewing wall...

At the opposite wall, shown above and below, there’s a work table with a freshly gessoed canvas the same distinctive size as the others. On the wall itself there are some small relief works: monochromatic panels whose space is bisected by a flat orange line that continues on to the wall.

I ask: "How much of you is a minimalist and how much is a conceptualist? How much of you is a painter and how much a sculptor?" Of course I don’t expect numbers, but I am curious to know how Schifano places herself in the scheme of things.
“I think of myself as a painter primarily, who conceives of paintings as objects as much as illusions." she says. "I think I’ve come into my own in a reductive way. I’m now more interested in getting to essentials, in being direct and clear, saying what I can in as strong a way as possible while still being complex and sensitive. I have a strong analytical streak, so my working in an intuitive way as a painter—even while preconceiving my pieces more or less, I can keep my brain and gut in synch.”

On the wall near this just-gessoed canvas are small sketches that she had completed during a residency at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center a few weeks earlier, along with a number of images of space that has been divided by one kind of line or the other.

Stepping back a bit, you can see the wall of sketches, above, and . . .
. . . continuing to the right, images that make connections between the spaces she sees and the spaces she makes.
Karen Schifano in her studio

On the window wall, there’s another grouping of images and sketches—mundane but graphically interesting stuff like crosswalks and painted curbs—that seems both tangential and essential to Schifano’s work. Seeing their abundance, I realize why she conceived and curated (and, disclaimer, invited me to participate in) Bulletin Board: Inspiration Information, a Minus Space Viewlist project that asked artists to talk about what germinal images were on their own studio walls.
“Funny, I thought I had a sparse collection,” Schifano says when I remark on the large number of sketches, photographs and images that she has altered to define the space with her colored line. “There’s not always a direct connection between what I see and what I do. Architecture definitely plays a role in my mental/emotional stew.

“I also like to look at other artists’ work: Ellsworth Kelly, Blinky Palermo, Stephen Westfall, Donald Judd, for example. Seeing all that stringent work feels supportive and jogs me into being brave enough to take more chances.”

Inspiration information: the wall of images that both contribute to and reflect the artist's visual thinking

Schifano mentions a picture of her father—the man in the winter gear standing next to a large sculpture in the top right corner of the image above. “He’s almost 85 and still working on welded figure-size pieces after a long career in advertising. His favorite artist is Ellsworth Kelly. My mother, who was an art teacher, loves Barnett Newman. Good heritage, no?” Indeed.

I didn't want to take up all of Schifano's studio time on this afternoon. She works four days a week as a painting conservator, so studio time is precious. I thanked her (taking, with her good wishes, the rest of the salty chocolate bar she'd put out during our conversation). This is the view of the way out, below: A third elongated painting on the viewing wall and a cogent definition of space via the small wall/floor piece.

Above, the view on the way out of the studio
.Below, a few blocks away: A hint, perhaps, that the universe has been listening in on the conversation and is trying to communicate?

Want to see more? Schifano will be part of a two-artist show at Blank Space in Manhattan (with Paige Williams), April 1-30.


cathsheard said...

I really enjoyed this post and seeing Karen's work. Being oriented to the building added an unusual extra sense to reading for me. And I love that final photo!

tony said...

Thank you for this post, Joanne. Karen has an extraordinary abilty to keep the work going perceptually after its completion - 'life after death', if you wish. Some would say that that is no great thing but when one uses such reductive means I believe it adds up to an achievement of the highest order & your text did it justice.

Matthew Beall said...

Excellent. Good stuff!

lisa said...

Great studio visit-thanks Joanne!!

Visual said...

This is what you call the "real deal". It's a pleasure to know Karen. The work she does is always about risk and inquiry to settle it there. I truly love the new body of work, and I'm glad that you, Joanne, found her... were lucky enough to organize a studio visit, and especially to record it to bring to your blog and share.

anne mcgovern said...

Complex simplicity at it's best!


Oh Wow I just love this - a great post - thanks so much!

Anonymous said...

I just saw the documentary about the art collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel last night and it made me re-appreciate minimalism. Karen’s work fits right in!
But most interesting for me was the description of the studio. The way it is clear and, well, minimal. Mine is driving me crazy because it’s too small. Or I’ve got too much going on at the same time and no storage space. Joanne, have you done a Marketing Monday about studio space? It’s not really marketing, but I would love to hear about other artists studios.

Joanne Mattera said...


I haven't done a post about studio space, and probably won't, but there are several good blog posts on the topic. Lisa Pressman and Pam Farrell both have/had series on the topic, and Nancy Natale has a post about her studio space that's up now. Their URLs ae all on the sidebar of this blog.

Also, PS 1 has a series of virtual studio visits.

(I have a MM post on the Studio Visit coming later this month.)

elizabeth said...

Karen, your work looks amazing. What a great post. I really enjoyed it very much! x E

Lady Xoc said...

Thank you Joanne, What a treat to go for a virtual visit. I've got a bit of cabin fever in my own rat's nest lately and I am inspired to clear the decks after seeing your great pix. That is, after I finish the thirty-five thousand projects I've got going. Minimalist I will never be. But, as others here have remarked Karen Schifano's work and studio-style is admirable (Of course, we know she cleaned up for your visit).

* said...

Great visit, Karen & Joanne. Thanks for sharing it. I like Karen's new work a lot, and somehow those little maquettes really just get to me...

--ken weathersby

Stephanie Clayton said...

This is enlightening. Thank you, Joanne, for providing this type of accessibility to others' workspaces. This is more of a treat for me than I can express in words.

Even as informed artists, we are still conditioned, in a way, to make references. I think of it as an attempt to understand and relate.

Karen's maquettes really moved me with their small size and scale when shown next to much larger paintings.

heinz said...

Wonderful to see Karen's studio, provides an glimpse into her process, the spatiality of her thinking.

James Lourie said...

Very nicely done interview and write up. Thank you. I am getting it, slowly understanding minimalism. It has a way of getting one to the core.