Studio Visit

James Cullinane

April 2019
James Cullinane

James Cullinane in his studio.

In March 2019 we visited James Cullinane (b. 1955, Washington, DC) in his Queens, NY studio to discover more about his past, the evolution of his work and what explorations await in the near future.

Part One:

RHC: Having grown up in Annapolis & Baltimore, MD is there any specific experience or event that you can remember from your childhood that has a direct bearing on your work today?

Cullinane: I can recall being sent to a strict military school and forced to stand at rigid attention in the hot sun. As an act of rebellion, I tensed every muscle in my fourth grade boy’s body, and forced the blood up into my head until I passed out. It took two more years to get expelled, but I knew I would fight the system from then on. Making art as a logical extension of rebellion against the prevailing social order of Baltimore (and straight America) would happen later.

James Cullinane, O Felix Culpa, 1984, Pencil, ink, gouache & stamped letters on paper, 38” x 30” (96.5cm x 76.2cm)
©2019 James Cullinane/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: You received your BFA in 1978 from The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Art and Science. What attracted you to making art as a other words was the decision to pursue art making as a profession a conscious one? How did that develop?

James Cullinane, Two Shirts, 1985, Ink on paper, 16” x 17” (40.6cm x 43.2cm)
©2019 James Cullinane/Robert Henry Contemporary

Cullinane: There was never a conscious decision to pursue art making as a profession. At age 16 I started going to the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art on the city bus at every opportunity. I remember seeing Rauschenberg’s Inferno series at the Baltimore Museum as a life-changing event. I loved the Walters…in particular, I was fascinated by Jean-Léon Gérôme’s, Duel After The Masquerade, with its mortality wounded harlequin dying beautifully white in the predawn mist. I did many collage variations on the work. Being an artist was a lifeline, and coming to New York was the only thing that mattered.

James Cullinane, Duel After the Masquerade (After Jean-Léon Gérôme) 1-6, Collage on found postcards, 6” x 4” (15.2cm x 10.1cm) ©2019 James Cullinane/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: What aspects of your work, if any, can you identify in your earliest professional work...or even things you made as a child that are still evident in your work today?

Cullinane: I would say that there has always been a certain kind of arabesque, a specific energy of drawing that is only mine. I titled a drawing I did a few years ago, “My Book of Kells”. I was referencing the intricate line and light that arises when one sets about constructing a specific world that is unknown, but becomes revealed in the process. It’s not THE Book of Kells, but MY book of Kells. It’s not imitation or homage, but taking that bit of something that is truly yours (or truly no ones) and daring to make something with it. I understood early on that making a painting was as serious as your life. I saw painting as a way to try to understand the world.

James Cullinane, My Book of Kells, 2015, Ink on paper, 28" x 18" (71cm x 45.7cm)
©2019 James Cullinane/Robert Henry Contemporary

Part Two:

RHC: Your "My Book of Kells" drawing is a good place to discuss the interplay of expressionism and conceptualism in your work, which your work vacillates between. This “struggle”, if you will, between expressionism and conceptualism is basically, it seems to me, a visualization of emotional needs versus, or maybe in addition to, a need to make rational sense of things...a sense of control essentially. How do you see these two strains of thought playing themselves out in your work?

Cullinane: By the time I got to NY in 1975 as an 18 year old kid Rauschenberg had already erased a DeKooning drawing, John Cage had published “Silence”, and Ad Reinhardt & Frank Stella had completed their Black paintings. In other words…the paradigm of the lone abstract expressionist hero stepping into the arena of a large blank canvas was entering into it’s nadir. The reigning style musically & visually was minimalist. The artist working like a jazz soloist making unique overtly “expressive” paintings in the wake of DeKooning seemed bankrupt. By the time you first gave me the opportunity to show “Little Hands Clappiń” at Walden, I had essentially eliminated paint, canvas support, gestural incident and permanence in my work. I was interested in deconstructed historical images being projected onto the walls and built out of tens of thousands of nails. I was getting into a temporary construction that was part Gesamkunstwerk, part Navajo sand painting. There were even wall mounted speakers playing a sort of sonic Rorschach sound loop of Skip Spence’s Little Hands Clappin' forward and backwards.

James Cullinane, Little Hands Clappin', 2000, Carpet tacks on wall, 12 wall mounted speakers and sound recording, 8'h x 8'w x 20' (2.44m h x 2.44m w x 6m), Installation view at Walden, New York City
©2019 James Cullinane/Robert Henry Contemporary

Cullinane: Things had gotten very far from painting. I thought I’d never make a painting again, but I was mistaken. After a decade of large installation work I decided to see if I could make a painting that was any good. Mr. 9x9 was the first one that I didn’t destroy from that period. When I did “My Book of Kells” I felt that I was building a genuine vocabulary for how to work. I had this idea of trying to work with the same intensity and focus that was part of the large scale installations, but concentrated into a drawing or painting format on a much smaller scale. It was trying to make something by hand and by the book. My own book of cultural bricolage .

James Cullinane, Mr. 9x9, 2009, Paint and paper on panel, 21”x 17” (53.3cm x 43.9cm)
©2019 James Cullinane/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: Historical references in art, and especially literature and particularly poetry appear and reappear in your work. Who are the writers that have had the most influence on your thinking and, other than the titles of your works, what is there influence on your work?

Cullinane: There are a handful of painters that I feel have deeply affected my life, and whose greatness is unquestionable. First in the Pantheon is Cézanne. His dogged persistence of “a law of harmony”, his belief in “realizing one’s sensations”, his pursuit of the laws of impressionist painting to very different ends. Picasso said,” What forced out interest is Cézanne’s anxiety-that’s Cézanne’s lesson. I also think that Velázquez’s Las Meninas was the single greatest painting I have ever studied. The hours I have spent in front of it at the Prado was a life changing series of encounters. By way of Vélázquez (and Manet) I came to understand how profound the black, grays and ochres of Spanish paintings are. I felt that the gray was the only color. Johns, Giacometti, Goya, Marden, Rothko, Malevich all led me to a belief that with grey and black were all the color one needed.

James Cullinane, Goya Clot , 2016, Ink on panel, 12” x 12" (30.5cm x 30.5cm)
©2019 James Cullinane/Robert Henry Contemporary

Part Three:

James Cullinane, Blue Juju, 2019, Sumi ink & gouache on paper, 40" x 22" (1m x 55.9cm)
©2019 James Cullinane/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: Where do the titles of your work, like Blue Juju for example, come from?


Cullinane: The titles of the latest series of drawings all come from classic jazz or blues cuts. So What is famously from Miles Davis. Lime House Blues was recorded by Fletcher Henderson and many others and references an opium den in East London frequented by musicians. The titles were a kind of inside joke. It was like, well, if you’re going to just give in to improvisational drawing, you might as well use titles from the greatest American improvisational artists.


James Cullinane in front of Stone’s Throw, 1997, Silver and black pushpins on wall, 25’ x 16’ (7.6m x 4.8m) at The University Art Museum at University at Albany, NY.  ©2019 James Cullinane/Robert Henry Contemporary


RHC: The Ink on paper drawing "Sardanapalus" made in 1999 has a direct relationship with your current work. At that time you were heavily involved in large-scale installations of children playing made of tacks or pushpins directly into walls and making collages and drawings with related imagery. “Sardanapalus” seems like an anomaly at that time...yet, you’ve circled back around to it.


James Cullinane, Sardanapalus, 1999, Ink on paper, 50" x 38" (1.27m x 96.5cm)
©2019 James Cullinane/Robert Henry Contemporary


Cullinane: Sardanapalus…First a word about the title: Delacroix did two versions of The Death of Sardanapalus. The 1827 version in the Louvre is the CinemaScope grand salon version. There’s also an 1844 version in Philadelphia as well. I always loved the maelstrom of swirling brushstrokes and writhing bodies engaged in the business of extravagant death. So that’s the first thing about that drawing. It was not done with that painting in mind, or even as an homage. The title just had to do with correspondences I felt with a painting I know and love well.

RHC: Your work in recent years has been the most expressive, visually speaking, your work has been for some time. What lead you in this direction and did “Sardanapalus” have anything to do with it?


James Cullinane, Limehouse Blues, 2019, Sumi ink & gouache on paper, 40" x 22" (1m x 55.9cm)
©2019 James Cullinane/Robert Henry Contemporary


Cullinane: To your point though, yes, I circled back on that drawing as an example of drawing with
no preconceived ideas. Drawing without thinking. Drawing in the present. Letting go. I would agree that Sardanapalus was a kind of harbinger of where the current work seems to be headed.


RHC: That leads us to one last question...given the two directions of your work, the non-painterly and the painterly, where do you feel your work is headed?


Cullinane: I think the new drawings relate to that earlier piece, though who I am, and how I work
is different and deeper. I used to think through systematic derangement of the senses and filling the studio floor with lots of high speed ink drawings... one could find one drawing or parts of a drawing worth keeping. I found the photos of David Smith’s Bolton Landing studio encouraging. Now, I believe more in a systematic honing of the senses, though velocity and following the flow of the materials is still important. The new drawings are kind of strangers to me, as if someone else did them. I think not knowing what to make of one’s work may mean one is onto something. I don’t think it’s clear where things are headed, but theory always follows studio practice doesn’t it? The first thing is surprising yourself with something essential in it’s beauty. It seems that I am ready to paint some new paintings come what may.


James Cullinane, Mongo Blues, 2019, ink & concert posters on Indian handmade paper, 40” x 22” (1m x 55.9cm)

©2019 James Cullinane/Robert Henry Contemporary


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