University of Texas Press, 2015
by Claiborne Smith
Artist Dan Rizzie has lived longer in Sag Harbor than he ever did in Texas, but he still, at the age of 63, after countless exhibitions and having his work in many prominent places (including the Museum of Modern Art), can’t shake the rap that he’s a Texas artist. It’s not that he minds, exactly: Dallas is where he got discovered (by a New York curator) and Austin is the location of Flatbed Press, the printshop that he most calls home. The colors in Rizzie’s images of simple houses, basic geometrical shapes and botanical images don’t just pop, they fluoresce (even though he doesn’t use colors we think of as fluorescent). His art brings a simple, startling joy to the world. UT Press’ retrospective book of his career, Dan Rizzie, is a clear testament to his prodigiousness and the range of his ideas. When Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol came to Dallas in the 1970s for an exhibition titled Poets of the Cities: New York and San Francisco, 1950- 1965, Rizzie spent time with them and learned, as he says in the book, “how to be vague when it was appropriate. I learned that you don’t always have to talk about your work; that the work can speak for itself.” For all the value of that insight (and it is a very useful thing for an artist to learn), Rizzie was perfectly open and voluble when we talked recently about his career and the new book.
What was it like for you working on this book? It feels pretty comprehensive.
I approached it as making it a work of art in itself. When I started making artwork, I don’t even think FedEx existed. You’d take a slide and take it to whoever developed slides back then and you’d mail them and if you were lucky, you’d hear back from somebody in a month. [Creating the book], we started out looking at slides that I took of my work as an undergrad and translated them to digital and it was a piece of work. UT Press’ designer Lindsay Starr helped me maintain and inevitably produce this vision I had in the book and I think the book exceeds the vision. When I look at it, I marvel.
But working on the book required you to go far back into your past. What was that like for you emotionally?
I’ve had such a diverse and complicated life and career in the sense that I was the son of a Foreign Service officer and we were constantly on the move. I spent eight years in the Middle East as a child. That was weird. My friends back at home were running around in Roy Rogers boots and playing with guns and I was listening every day, several times a day, to Muslim broadcasts over loudspeakers. It couldn’t have been a more different situation, but you maintain this down-home sensibility. My mother and father both came from blue-collar backgrounds; their families on both sides were farmers. I think one of the most interesting things, though, having lived in India and Jamaica and the Middle East, to this very day, people go, “Oh, you’re the artist from Texas.” Of all the brands I’ve gotten, of all the places I’ve lived . . . there’s a joke I know that I don’t want to go in print so I won’t say it but it’s about a Greek sheepherder. That’s as much as I’ll say.
Has it been difficult for you to break out of that Texas reputation?
I never walked into a house in Dallas where 1) I wasn’t offered sweet tea and 2) I didn’t see a framed botanical image on the wall, so I thought, “I’ll try my version of that.”
I was a very young impressionable artist. In a nutshell, I graduated from high school in India and I wasn’t on great terms with my father who was pretty adamant about what I did when I finished. I wanted to stick around and travel for a year and he quickly made it aware that wasn’t an option.He thought I’d spend $25 a night on hash. My father gave good guidance but when I told him in high school I was interested in art, he said, “That’s a hobby, not a career.” My father hoped I would stay in the Foreign Service and to be honest . . . I didn’t want to keep living that way. Art was always an option to me. I wasn’t a big stud on campus but I could always do art. I could draw pictures of girls and that made girls like you. I ended up at this little liberal arts college, Hendrix College, and from there I went to SMU [for graduate work] and fresh out of SMU [in 1975], I was showing art. Marcia Tucker was a curator at the Whitney and she wanted to do an exhibition, Cowboys and Indians, but they told her she couldn’t call an exhibition that. She founded the New Museum. She had a strong interest in regional art and I remember her coming to my studio in Dallas and I was so nervous. I hid art from her I thought she wouldn’t like. I had a garage studio in Dallas on Velasco St. She went through everything, including the closets, and said, “What about this?” [Tucker included Rizzie’s work in her exhibition Outside New York at the New Museum.] I did kind of realize back then that there was a bigger picture. It’s hard not to look at New York (particularly having been born there) and think, “That’s where I should be.”
Tell me about how you came to Flatbed Press in Austin in the early 1990s and what being there has meant for your work and career.
So many of the prints you see in the book were generated at Flatbed. I’ve worked with printshops all over the country but my home would have to be Flatbed. I love the relationship we’ve had over the past 25 years and I really, really love Austin. If I had a choice to come back and live in Texas, it would be Austin. And my wife, born and bred in New York, she went to UT Press and studied printmaking there. So it’s a very incestuous situation—in a good way.
You’ve said that printmaking appeals to you because you’re impatient and “not good at waiting for something to dry.” Is that really the only reason?
No. But that is a big part of the way I work. I am very, very impatient. There’s a tendency to work my way through something as opposed to very methodically working through it. I pursue that idea in a very efficient manner, which sometimes means steamrolling through it. It’s a collaboration, and you’ve got people helping you, and even though the process of making an etching or woodblock is laborious, that workload is distributed among four or five people and I’m able to move on very quickly. The success of my monotypes—you paint directly on metal or Plexiglas, painting with printmaking ink—say you spent an hour on the painting and boom, there’s your image and then somebody puts it on a rack and dries it and the next time you see it, it’s framed. That kind of immediacy is thrilling to me. The collaborative element is so fascinating to me. Any artist that’s being honest with you who doesn’t mention collaboration as a big element of making a print is leaving something out. It’s a really good way for me to work.
I like your use of imagery that everyone can immediately recognize, whether it’s the basic depiction of a simple house or the appropriation of images from 18th- and 19th-century illustrated books, as you do in Artichoke. It seems like every upper-middle class home has somewhere in it a framed botanical image from old illustrated books. They’re so common they’re almost stale, so why do you use them?
I think I did it out of criticism I got. Originally somebody wrote something about me in Dallas having this skewed sense of Cubism, not an authentic [artistic style]. So I thought, “Just wait till you see my next work! I got some wallpaper out of my grandmother’s house.” All the great Cubists used found objects. I never walked into a house in Dallas where 1) I wasn’t offered sweet tea and 2) I didn’t see a framed botanical image on the wall, so I thought, “I’ll try my version of that.” I bought some books on botanical illustration and bought a book on William Morris wallpaper and a lot of images to this day come out of that. And I thought, “What better place to get ideas? Ideas come from everywhere!” I was reading about Julian Schnabel, whom I met when I was in Texas, and we used to discuss the experience of seeing something we both love, Venice. I had to see it so I could use those colors; where and how you get your ideas is part of the fascination and mystery of the whole experience of making art. That’s what has to make it interesting, is a bit of the humor, sadness, weirdness, whatever, in the works. I show things like artichokes because there’s a certain oddness to it. As fascinating as that very object is, there’s also for me a bit of humor involved that it’s right there. Most of the imagery in my work comes straight out of the fact that I saw something last night.