I recently interviewed Drumheller and asked him more about his background and his approach.
While earning both your BA and MA at Boston University you had some superb mentors: Philip Guston, James Weeks and Reed Kay. Can you tell me a bit about what you took away from each of them?
I was a sponge at BU and found the entire challenge of learning to draw and paint both delightful and painful. I was taught by a number of gifted faculty including those you mentioned. Jim Weeks drummed two dimensional design into me the most. I asked him if I could bring paint to class because I hadn't had him as a painting instructor, and I would do a three hour painting on paper twice a week. for a year . He wasn't a big talker but would give me pointers that really expanded my color. Things like "...put some colors in that black ", "...don't paint the individual forms just the 2 dimensional shapes: think of the early Greeks!" Then he'd pull out photos of the Parthenon Pediment friezes and show us how inclined they were to positive and negative parity. He tried to explain triads as a color notion to me, which I took a long time to understand. He really was aware of the materiality of light -- a sort of Californian sensibility -- whereas BU has a strong tradition of Cezanne structuralism.
I got a Fulbright to live in Florence for a year and he cupped my cheek and said, "Good work, but you must live in Rome!" He wrote me a lovely letter to the then director of the American Academy in Rome to get me digs but they were full up with their own. He died shortly after that. I think his greatest compliment to me was during a critique. My studio mate was making hyper-realist paintings of skies and gas stations. He looked at me and said, referring to my tumbling and writhing figures that "when the revolution comes, they'll put her in charge of making the posters and you"ll go to prison!" I was recently at the Academy as a visitor and he came back to me in vivid ways; the specimen trees and sculptural fragments, the sense of scale and sky were in all the Roma paintings.
I began painting still lifes of groups of toy animals at my feet on the studio floor, like big migrations. I had also spent some time in Rome filming from the 4th floor window of our hotel room in front of the Pantheon- all the comings and goings at various intervals. I guess the idea of painting that view also came from painting some of the large ruins in Rome with the inevitably small figures next to them. Then the next step was skipping the obvious monuments and just focusing on the figures and the paintings took off. I remember a time when I turned 21 and my parents celebrated with giving me a trip to the beach in Mexico. I took a parachute ride and as I rode up in the air the point of view was that of a bird. I find that the curve of my vision is often something I want to convey and not just the "crushed" space that one is familiar with from telephoto lens photography. So the dynamic of perspective and foreshortening the figures plays some part in the way I construct the paintings , also the geometry of the reserve -- what's behind and around -- and how it interacts with the verticals of the figures is an issue. I move the elements around a lot before things settle into place.
I painted mostly from memory for twenty years, inventing figures in narratives. I was pretty comfortable coming up with a gesture and my work from life complimented it. Sometimes the generality that ensued from invention needed to be better informed through observation and vice-versa; the drive in a gesture is a powerful dramatic element that is not often obtainable in the figure from observation. I became frustrated with work from imagination when I wanted to express something very precise, such as when my mother died and I spent two years painting self portraits, some wearing her effects. It was a very valuable experience. The large invented paintings of figures on beaches or in cities use both memory and observation.
I was born in Davis, California and remember as a baby lying on a blanket in the fragrant strawberry field behind the house. Whoever said babies don't have memories: don't believe them.
Titian had it all: color, drawing, composing, and his transitions are unmatched in art. The other strange greats such as Bellini, Chardin, Picasso, de Chirico, Degas, Vuillard, Watteau are painters I look at: I have their cards over the sink. Contemporary art is hard to comment on; I feel like I am swimming among them. I will say that painting is both unique to itself and an art of its own.
"Grant Drumheller: New Paintings"
530 West 25th Street, 4th Floor New York, New York
May 19 - June 15, 2013