Tom Prochaska, who turns 73 this month, began his career with an intense involvement in printmaking, both as an artist and as a professional fine art printer. During the last two decades his main focus has become painting—paintings in which scenes and figures seem to slowly emerge from a fog of small brushstrokes.
In his current exhibition, “The Boxer,” at Froelick Gallery, through March 31, Prochaska includes paintings in a new circular format, as well as several papier-mâché figurative sculptures. Tom Prochaska will be speaking about his work at the gallery on Saturday, March 10, at 11 am.
You do painting, you do sculpture, you do printmaking—do you think of any one of those is being your primary medium?
My primary right now is painting and it’s growing and more that way. I know where the sculpture fits. Printmaking—I was printing for other people. I was trained in Switzerland and Pratt Institute. A lot of that was the way I was making a living, printing for other people. I would include learning from that into my homework. So, people view me as a printmaker, but I’ve always been a painter.
Yes, I think that’s the way I came to know your work. How long have you felt that painting is taking the lead in your work?
The last 15 years. As I get older the printmaking becomes more challenging physically. I used to print 50 prints for somebody in a day, and I would print for myself. Now, for example, I have a show in Switzerland of just prints in September and the editions I’m printing are five because I can handle that physically. I did a portfolio as a tribute to a group of people I know. I’ll do those kind of things now, but it’s not the driving force. I would say for the last 15 years I’ve been centered on painting more and, like that painting back there [on the far studio wall], it might take me a year to finish that. I don’t have any idea where it’s going right now. It’s going a bunch of different places, but I’ve slowed everything down a bit. I’m being more patient.
You don’t need to be in a hurry.
No, and I don’t need to fill the world up with a whole bunch of stuff.
You’re saying that printmaking is physically taxing. What about it is physically taxing?
Well, first of all I have Parkinson’s and that makes it more physically taxing. Just the fact that you have ink all over your hands, you’re doing a series of activities, inking the plate. wiping the plate, handling the paper, drying the prints, curating the prints, and cleaning them up, figuring out which are the best ones, particularly if you’re printing for somebody else—so all of those activities are challenging physically. Since I’ve slowed down a bit I can look at a painting and I can go at a painting and I know that that’s where my energy’s going—into that painting.
Yeah, there’s a lot of handling of stuff in printmaking on a constant basis where with painting you can sit in your chair and figure out where the next brushstroke is going.
Right, and I can have my brushes on the right, my paint on the left, my paint-to-be on the table there and my world is reduced down to this room.
How did you get into being an artist? Were you an artist in high school?
Yeah, and I was always getting strokes for it. You know, you can play the “aren’t I unusual” thing, too. Athletes have their image, artists have their image. I liked what the world brought to me.
So you took art classes in high school?
Was that something you thought about before you went to high school?
I can go all the way back to fifth grade [Prochaska grew up in Chicago.] There was a guy named Paul Garzoni, my fifth grade teacher. He would put up giant pieces of paper in the back of the room for me, and he would give me black and white chalk and say “go draw,” and I would draw for an hour. He would let me do that once a week.
Do you have an idea of how he decided that you were the one that should do that?
He had an interest in drawing, an interest in the fine arts, and I think as he was watching different people draw in class during art time he decided that maybe I was something special, and he should give me more time. I don’t know how that sat with the other students.
So then you studied art after high school? Where?
University of Wisconsin. I was an art major, 1963 to 1968.
That’s where Portland painter Stephen Hayes went to school.
Yeah. Where [Dale] Chihuly went to school. It was a great place to be. I mean…I don’t know if you’re old enough to have a great affection for the ‘60s like I do.
I was in high school and college in the ‘60s.
Wisconsin was alive and political, students coming in from New York and causing trouble a little bit, but also adding vitality to the university. That was the time when everybody was saying “go for the arts, put money into the arts.”
Then you studied in Switzerland at some point?
No, then I got a ride to Pratt Institute. A Midwestern boy got a chance to be in New York for five years.
How was that?
It was great. Pratt was a good school. It was Pratt Graphics Center, which was a well-known print center in the city. Pratt Institute is in Brooklyn. I ended up teaching some classes and I did printing for a place called Bank Street Atelier, which was a printing house for lithography. There were European printers there. I loved New York for four years, but I’d had enough. Then I got a job at University Wisconsin. I had a girlfriend in Switzerland, and she said, “come be with me,” which I did. I quit my job.
There’s a lot of that kind of decision making.
I always laugh about that. Students will ask me, “Did you make this big powerful decision in your life, this romantic decision?” I said, “No it has to do with the relationship or running toward something or running away from something.” Going to Switzerland was running toward something. It didn’t work out.
Were you a printmaker at Wisconsin, or did that happen at Pratt?
That happened at Pratt through getting a job at Bank Street Atelier. All of a sudden I was immersed more and more in printmaking. You know people encourage you, ask you to do things. I was actually a painting and print major at Pratt Institute. Then I went to Switzerland and this little print shop. The girlfriend and I broke up, she took off with her French boyfriend. I stayed at the print shop. I worked there for two years printing other people’s work every day, mixing our own inks, and I learned an incredible amount from these impassioned French printmakers that were working there.
You were really immersed in something and you were doing all day long. That’s how you actually learn stuff.
I can appreciate school, but I also hugely appreciate [the experience of] making fine art prints for painters and other printmakers. It was great.
So were you making paintings all along or was printmaking such a focus that you didn’t do painting?
At that phase of my life I was making prints. I wasn’t painting hardly at all.
When did you really start painting again?
Fifteen or twenty years ago.
What was the impetus for that?
More and more I realized that I couldn’t be around chemicals. I didn’t have the energy for it. I got the studio and I started moving into painting more and more, and letting the printmaking shrink down and get smaller. It just happened naturally.
Is there a difference in approach between making prints and making a painting?
Yeah, paintings are layered, layered, layered. Prints for me are time-consuming. I paint by showing up in my studio first of all, going at what I’m not sure the thing is going to be. And for me etching, printmaking didn’t hold on to me that long. In fact the etchings that I make now are just these painterly marks. But the language that exists—maybe a printmaker would not agree with me—but paint is so complex particularly if it’s color. If you reduce it to black-and-white, it’s like these luscious drawings. Paint can be thick, it can be thin, it can be glazed. You know if you’re exercising the medium, that’s what interests you, then you’re testing all of those things, seeing where it takes you, where the painting takes you. Does that make any sense?
You say this big painting on the wall could be there for a year? How will you know when it is finished?
It has been there for eight months. How will I know when it’s finished? I’ve tried to explain this. It’s the situation where you work and work and work and the painting starts to get pregnant. You can feel it’s going to deliver you something and it starts telling you what to do. And you take it to a certain point. And you go, “This thing is pregnant. This thing is loaded. I’d better stop because if I make one more mark it’s going to destroy it. It’s going to create a new avenue for me to work on.”
That’s the point where one more mark is going to release the tension that makes the existing painting interesting.
Will eliminate the tension, and the tension is an important part what you struggle to come to. It’s the abstract dialogue in the painting and you’re lucky if there’s a figure in there.
I came to know your paintings in much smaller sizes. Now you’re working on this one which is about five-by-seven feet?
Bob Hanson did that to me. When he quit painting, he gave me four stretchers. That’s how I started doing larger paintings. It seemed to me that I could do the small paintings, they weren’t as demanding, I can get through them faster, but I wanted to have something up that had a longer life, something that would be a challenge to me. I just started painting in circles.
How did that come about? With no corners to work against that makes it a different challenge.
You know a rectangle and square are two different things. There is that language. I was at the lumberyard picking up boards to paint on. There were these three-quarter inch plywood rounds that they were selling for $10. I thought I’d get one and see what it’s like to battle through no corners, no sides, and so I ended up doing seven of them.
Well, that’s what artists do, they try to figure out how to keep things from being too easy.
Keeping yourself off balance a little. You have to practice coming to a point in a painting where you’ve got that tension just right. You’re surprising yourself. You’ve got some place you’ve never gone before—doesn’t happen unless you practice. When you practice you learn your own possibilities, your own dialogue. You show up every day or every other day, put in the practice, put in the periods of pulling your hair out a little bit, and then hanging in there. I always think of the same thing when I think of football where the receiver practices catching and catching the ball, catching over the shoulder, and then in one game to make this incredible catch—everybody says, “The guy’s got magic, how did he do it? How did he do that?”
Are there paintings in the Portland Art Museum that you make sure to see when you are there?
There’s a painting by Charles Heaney, just a road that goes off into the distance. I actually took a trip with Christy Wyckoff down that road.
What do you think it is about that painting?
That it is just honed down to exactly what its interest is, and it’s abstractly beautiful. It’s this series of bands that go into the distance, a stripe down the middle, simple sky. They have a Philip Guston that I like, one of his bean heads. There are a couple landscapes I always go to.
Speaking of favorite painting are there other artists past or present whose work you connect with?
Yeah, Goya as a compositionalist. Ensor. Courbet because I saw so much of him in Switzerland. And I mentioned Guston, who I knew when I lived in New York. Anselm Kiefer as a sensuous painter.
In a lot of your work I cannot quite put my finger on what I think is going on, narratively. I think that’s what allows me to be drawn in to the painting.
Well, that’s it working on the abstract level, and maybe the figurative level. It is almost like it’s pregnant—don’t go any further.
So do your paintings just sort of grow organically? You don’t have an idea when you begin?
No, but I know who I am, and I know what my influences are. Sometimes I have to avoid them and sometimes I invite them in.
In some ways it’s like being a novelist—you have a character and it’s going to do something, but you don’t know what.
This last show I could’ve named it “windows, doorways and stairways.” They’re all things you can look through or look into, or a stairway can take you down or take you up. For some reason in this last show the stairways were repeating themselves and the windows are eyes and the doorways are mouths.
Robert Ryman said that he thought painting was about pleasure, that the pleasure of looking at a painting is the best thing you can get out of it. Does that ring true for you?
I think it’s the pleasure of looking at the painting, but it depends on how exercised the person who is looking at the painting is. You know, a painting can be just a picture. If somebody likes a duck and there’s a duck in it they can get joy from the painting. But somebody who knows the activity of painting, the struggle, the orchestration, like good music that’s beautifully orchestrated, but has a tension to it, the same thing exists in a painting—and you would hope that those people, and I don’t even want to put that in an elitist way, because I think people with just a natural animal understanding of painting can understand the painting. You don’t need to intellectualize it.
I think it’s that apprehension that keeps people from allowing themselves to enjoy a painting, thinking they need to do something else—don’t ask about why a great piece of art is so great, just experience it—not asking a question about it that it can’t answer.
I just thought of another thing, why we can so easily appreciate abstract music, music without words, and we have a harder time appreciating an abstract painting, where I think they both don’t have subject matter.
Do you work on one painting at a time or do you have several going once?
Usually with the smaller paintings I’ll have several going at once. Then I have got that big one. I just got rid of 12 small paintings. I’m going to breathe some air and spend more time on the big painting. I don’t want to get distracted by smaller paintings. I want to see where I can take that big painting.
When you begin a painting do you have an idea of how you want to begin, or just put a brush mark on it?
I just start marking the canvas. I know the paint has to reach a certain quality, a sensuous character so I’m pretty aggressive putting paint on.
That’s what Mel Katz told me when I was a student: “The paint’s gotta sing.”
Yeah, the paint’s got to talk to you, it’s got to sing. It will tell you if you listen and don’t be afraid to put it down with a palette knife, or a brush or with your hands.