Daniel Herr is a painter’s painter. He was born and raised in California. He received his MFA in Painting from Boston University and is represented by M23. I met him at a neighborhood Mexican restaurant in Crown Heights where a confused hostess sat our two parties together at a single table. I bumped into Dan at openings later that week and often since. That was about two years ago, and now we’re talking painting in his East Williamsburg studio over iced tea and doughnuts.
When there’s text, I can’t help to read first and then look. So the text in this painting: What is “PB in NY”?
It stands for “Palm Beach in New York.” I think of this painting like a cheesy advertisement that’s selling all the comforts of suburbia right in the city, and selling a kind of art that’s somehow an extension of suburban comfort. You can have the beach, your mall and movie theatre, your textured plaster walls, and your Starbucks. It’s that sense of comfort and security that is sold to you because you can afford to buy into it. It’s comfortable because you’re accustomed to it. It could also be “Peanut Butter in NY”—that would be good too—“Skippy in NYC.”
I mean I still love New York, but it’s becoming more like the sales pitch than an actual place where people live.
But your work also takes a lot from your relationship with the city?
I still feel very attached to this place, and I think the painting always takes on what’s around you. Yeah, the energy or the attitude—the aura. Especially in a city like this there’s layers of energy and activity, and also the obnoxious people and sounds—so the paintings themselves can’t be too nice. The art has to be a little obnoxious.
What do you mean the art has to be obnoxious?
I think New York is pretty obnoxious. Even when you’ve lived here awhile and you’re used to it, still you wake up to some cab blaring its horn at 7 am in front of your apartment. I have a painter friend who always says painting should be “irreverent.” Maybe that’s close to what I mean. I prefer “obnoxious” because it implies absurdity and goofiness—two things I’ll take with me to the grave.
Do you feel that way about California?
When I visit California I always think how peaceful it is there. The weather is perfect, the street is clean, the people are nice, the food is wonderful, but I don’t feel like painting there. That’s how I grew up, but I can’t work that way.
What do you find motivating about being here?
Being in New York, you wake up and you always feel like you’re running late—I have to be somewhere, I have to meet this person, I have to work on this painting. My first studio in California was like this one, with no windows. I would sit in my studio and paint these little black and white abstract paintings while it was 100 degrees and sunny outside. I was trying to get away from the California thing.
Were you reacting against California painting?
Well, no. There’s a lot of good painting being made in Northern California. Wayne Thiebaud is a great painter. Dave Hollowell is pretty insane. I love Diebenkorn, Bischoff, Park, Joan Brown. But I was interested in the East Coast, the authoritativeness of it.
It’s strange; I was always drawn to this kind of painting even when I was in California—though there’s not really a legacy for it there, aside from the Beats. In New York, there is such a strong legacy of painting and abstraction, and you don’t have to do anything to be a New York painter. That’s what you are, because you are here painting.
You mentioned that your father is a California painter.
Yeah, my dad (Doug Herr) paints landscapes where he lives. He was a big influence on me. He taught me that painting was a regular activity. His work was all over the house. He would paint right there at the dining room table. He makes amazing, extremely detailed landscapes that I would never have the patience for. Although I probably spend the same amount of time as he does on some paintings, it’s just a different way of working.
But all painting is good. I feel like most painters can go to a museum and appreciate a really good painting made by anyone. And it’s more than just the craft aspect. It’s also about the initiative and concept to make something with the material that’s interesting. There is really no bad style. Picasso or somebody said that, I think.
Then how would you want your paintings talked about?
I mean, how is contemporary art being talked about? Right now, I feel like it’s being talked about mostly in terms of the market—around investments and global capital, flipping, and 24/7 art fairs. And what is Contemporary American Art? Is being an American artist really different than being a German artist or a Japanese artist when everyone is looking at everyone’s work online and seeing it at fairs? And if an artist is showing here, chances are they also have representation in Europe and in LA. We all come out of our own value systems, but so much is shared. I’m interested in what it means to be an American artist, but I’m not sure what the answer is.
I guess what I mean to say in my work is that pictures still have intangible value—the medium still matters to me. It can still be genuine and not cynical.
You seem to start a painting with an idea that moves you, and enjoy being in a place that pushes you, aggravates you even. It’s not the serenity of landscape painting.
Well, some of them actually just start as a crude drawing of a figure, or a crude object, or a word, or I’ll have a picture I took some place to begin with as a compositional set piece. There’s kind of everything in every painting. It’s sort of absurd. I will start with an idea, and I’ll try forcing and forcing it, then I’ll just abandon it, and ride the wave to somewhere else. Ultimately, it becomes a different thing. The way I work has always been restless. And yeah, I tend to like the pictures that are the hardest to make, the ones that resist me. They say “NO WAY.”
What about all this intense patterning?
Sometimes I do something because there needs to be some sort of bridge or patch. It’s like Photoshopping in real life.
So overtime there’s all these layers of different intentions. I guess that’s true of a lot of painting, but exaggeratedly so here. The images are constructed from these different ideas and areas patched together.
There’s probably too much pattern in some of these. I just change my mind. It’s rare that I use a single idea from start to finish unless it’s a joke painting. Like this one was supposed to be about a strictly nighttime feeling. It’s a city kind of like Miami—a street scene. But there are passages with daylight and blue sky. So I get to have both. I get to do whatever I want ‘cause it’s my picture.
Tom Butter saw my work once, and he had a really interesting observation. He pointed out that nearly all the elements in the paintings get negated as if there were an equals sign with a line through it. Everything nulled. There’s no fully completed gesture or shape or recognizable or definite form, because everything has been interrupted.
That sounds like the city too.
Yeah, you can only push so far before it all pushes back.
That sort of interruption relates to collage somehow—the sense of different and multiple sources pasted side by side. Do you think of your paintings in terms of collage?
Well, paint and the interaction between two wet colors has always been what I’ve been most interested in—the “chord changes.” That said, I’m really into the way of thinking associated with collage—the randomness, the everyday, Dada, stream-of-consciousness, disorienting subject matter, and turning something on its head. And then there’s the political legacy of collage undermining war efforts and creating a kind of anti-propaganda—so there’s a lot to work with. And lately I’ve been reading these political essays by George Scialabba so I have that on my mind.
I used to do a lot of actual collage, but I don’t like the texture. I don’t like moving my brush across the surface and over this piece glued onto the top. I like working on canvas, and there isn’t a good way to work with the materials I use to make it really seamless, and to not mess with the integrity of the surface. It’s difficult to keep collaged elements from becoming the central subject of what’s happening in the picture, but I like to have a lot to look at.
Also, with collage, there’s always an edge separating one source from another as opposed to painting where everything is knitted down to a common surface. There are no seams anymore.
Yes, with collage, it’s defined. It has a complete edge. I do think of my paintings as a continual layering process—they’re always malleable, always moving. You don’t always know where the edges are.
It’s clearly knowing what’s on top and what’s on bottom really that gives collage a sort of grammar, but your paintings seem to be using a sort of confusion between contexts and have a sense of simultaneity.
That’s the big thing with De Kooning’s work. I remember when I was a teenager looking at those paintings for hours and not being able to figure out how he did them. You can’t read what was done first, then second, and third. Everything is immediate. And he consciously made it look like that over the course of months and months. Well, some of his work was actually very immediate. But the ones that weren’t—he had so many tricks that you notice if you look at them long enough.
What kind of tricks?
I can’t tell you. They’re too good! You have to just find them. It’s all about tricking the viewer as if it were all instantaneous.
Trade secrets. Well, how do you come up with these titles? They are very literary, i.e. A Fisherman’s Dream of Hot Plastic (2013) and Rip Monte’s Venetian Room Beside the Gowanus Canal (The Electrician’s Less Than Ideal Living Arrangement) (2014).
Well, sometimes I don’t know what to name them. I’ll work and work, searching for a name for what I’m doing, and then a phrase will just stick in my head that I just have to make a painting for—whether it’s something from the news, a quasi-gibberish phrase, or something somebody texts me. I did a series of paintings off lines from a Bill Corbett poem once. I just like finding something new and unusual.
You’ve been making these text paintings that I’ve never seen before.
I made a few small paintings with ink on trash bags. They were kind of trashing the idea of Zombie Formalism and playing at using trash to scam someone. The bags crinkle up as the ink dries. But David Hammons did that a few years ago. So I guess they’re Zombie David Hammons.
And this one (small painting) has a crazy story to it. I was almost a victim to a cashier’s check scam where this guy was emailing me saying he wanted to buy one of my paintings. He claimed that he would send me a cashier’s check that included shipping, but I would wire him the shipping charge ahead of time. I knew this was a scam but I kept going along with it anyway. I actually went as far as having him send me the fake check, and then I kept writing gibberish to him—but progressively more delirious and rambling. It was funny, but then I was thinking that I would actually send him this painting (FUCK YOU ASSHOLE!, 2014). It would be totally different than what he ordered, but I would actually still be sending him an original painting.
It’s a cared for painting. There’s honest work put into that.
He could’ve had it for free! The problem is that the address he gave me wasn’t real. I google mapped it and it was just some alleyway in Glasgow.