Elaine Longtemps: My work is linear and my line is painted rope. I paint all sizes of rope, from heavy clothesline and the thick cotton flex used in upholstery to mason line, cable cord, and thin polished-cotton twine. In some pieces, I’ve used stiff venetian-blind cord, and also experimented — unsuccessfully — with sisal. In my current work, I try to use as pure a cotton rope as possible. With the exception of cotton flex, I wash my rope in the washing machine to remove the stiffener, then stretch it tightly around the posts in my cellar so that it dries straight.
EL: I have used up to 1200 lengths of rope in one piece, so depending on the number of lines I need, I measure and cut the dried rope, mix up big storage containers of Liquitex, which has just the right consistency for my purposes, and then paint the ropes, three to six at a time. In some pieces, I create gradations of color on the ropes, which means I have to paint each rope individually to blend the color.
EL: When I do a large hanging piece on canvas, I make a hole in the canvas and push one end of the wet rope through the hole to the back, holding the wet part out of the way while I do that. After I knot it in back, I press the wet rope against the canvas, and it offsets the paint onto the canvas, giving me a double line, in effect: the rope and then the pressed image of the rope. I often mask off areas where I don’t want the wet rope to offset.
EL: With the twisted pieces, I let the rope dry overnight and do the twisting dry but coated with wet Elmer’s Glue. It’s a sloppy process: the ropes get whipped around as I twist them. Working with wet rope is generally a messy process.
TSGNY: Other than the mess, have you found that working with rope poses any particular challenges? If so, how have you overcome them?
EL: Working with painted rope has given me some unexpected challenges, the most important being gravity. In the twisted pieces, the pull of gravity presents a lot of problems. A piece might be sticking up straight and very full when completed; but over a period of time, it will droop from the pull of gravity.
TSGNY: What kind of artwork were you doing before you started working with rope?
EL: I was painting large canvases with oils, doing fine line pencil drawings, etchings and intaglio. You could describe my work as proliferating biomorphism. I literally studied nature through a microscope. I was very influenced by the drawings of Arshile Gorky. But I was never very happy with my “brushstroke.” I could never find a way of painting that really pleased me. I was always painting forms that seemed to be leaving the canvas, or wishing that I could attach something to the canvas. When I finally came to rope, it seemed to be the solution I was seeking.
EL: Working off the canvas in the twisted pieces has also been very challenging, because I have to consider it from all sides; and there is always one side that looks better than the other. Sculpture should not have a back and a front, but making it “work” from all views is really difficult for someone who worked two-dimensionally for so many years. Also, I like to work large. I thought I would be able to make large, twisted pieces; but I find that there is a limit to the size I can work in with the twisted rope. Rope is also very heavy. Moving and storing the large pieces and the crates they require has been extremely challenging. Lately, I have a new challenge, and that is finding the rope I need. Rope is not being manufactured as much in the USA, and I no longer have a local supplier.
TSGNY: Did you discover the rope in an “aha” moment, or was it more of a gradual evolution?
EL: I would say a series of “aha” moments. The first was a fiber exhibition at MOMA in the early ‘70s. It was more exciting than any painting exhibition I had ever seen. Unsatisfied with painting, I started doing things like inserting strips of torn bed sheet into my canvases or cutting the painted shapes right out of the canvas. I experimented with layers of sheer fabrics and deconstructing canvas by removing some of the weft, sewing some of the pieces together and stuffing them with cotton batting, adhering them to the walls with glue and pushing the loose strands of canvas into place with my hands to become part of the wall. I experimented with cardboard, window screening, chicken wire, wood. At the same time, I had this idea of creating a visual music. I drew a grid on heavy vellum and inserted black threads at certain intervals. Then I tried the same thing by painting string and inserting it in canvas. That was around the time I had my next “aha” moment, when I climbed a flight of old wooden stairs to a dumpy little back room gallery to see the work of Eva Hesse. Her work blew my mind. I went out to Amalgamated Cordage in Long Island and bought cases of wash line. My final “aha” moment was after seeing a small exhibition of dance notation at Hunter College, after which a friend took me to see a show of new music notation at the Metropolitan Opera House. I realized then that what I was trying to do was not impossible.
TSGNY: Can you talk more about what you were doing with musical notation?
EL: I’ve always been fascinated by the “calligraphy” of music, the notation itself. When I began studying the new notation of musicians like Bussotti, Cage, Kagel, Lutoslawski, Schnebel, and Stockhausen, to name a few, and the dance notation that I saw at Hunter College, it struck me how visual this notation was, how the music notation was a graphic art. So why couldn’t the reverse be true – why couldn’t graphic art, or any visual art, be notation for music? I believe this question was the basis for Wassily Kandinsky’s drawings and paintings. The grid that I draw is actually very much like weaving. The horizontal lines, the weft, represent the measure of time in the music. The vertical lines, the warp, represent the notes in the music. For every horizontal line representing a measure, I record all the notes from the original score that are within that measure. I select music that is related to the subject I have in mind and then, measure by measure, plot out all the notes on a pre-printed grid and enlarge it on vellum. I might throw the grid into perspective or not let it show in the final piece at all.
TSGNY: So would you say your intent changed as a result of working with rope?
EL: If anything, it has broadened as challenges came along. The twisted pieces are very spontaneous; but the hanging pieces on canvas are carefully planned and thought out, since their underlying structure is based on specific music notation. I have never lost interest in the underlying music structure of the two-dimensional pieces but along the way, I realized that my passion was not just the music, not just the materials, but communicating a message. I really feel as though some of my best pieces have been the ones where I have communicated with my viewer in some way, although often not in any way that I could plan or anticipate. If a viewer comes away with an emotional reaction — happy, sad, angry, thoughtful — then I have communicated. My titles are an extremely important part of my work, and are a clue to my meaning. For instance, I did a piece a long time ago called “No, It is Not Sleep, That is Merely The Outward Seeming ….” and goes on to quote a line about wheat and how the grain is silently developing inside until it bursts its envelope – that piece was really about motherhood and being an artist, about not being able to get to the work because of the baby’s needs, but how ideas are forming inside the artist’s head until they just burst forth like the wheat from the grain. Very subtle; no one got it. Even the music series, Inversions, has to do with infinity, how things just go on and on, repeating themselves over and over in a different form.
TSGNY: Some of your pieces with words seem like a more direct, or political form of communication.
EL: I think a piece like CORKGUN communicates even without the words. Cross By The Side Of The Road does the same thing. I wish I could say the same of all my pieces! I never really thought I was making political statements when I started to add words. I never really give an opinion; I don’t make a judgment; I just tell a story.
EL: It’s important to me that pieces like CORKGUN or Fracking America are based on careful research. I am very careful to have accurate information and to document my sources. I research newspaper articles, magazine articles, online articles and documents for each subject I’m looking into. I can end up with piles of information. Then I take bits of that information from here and there and just start typing in a large format, say 24-point type, and changing typefaces as I go along. I cut these apart and select the ones that interest me the most, retype it all and print it on fabric. Then I cut it all apart again and reassemble it, gluing or stitching the fabric strips together.
EL: I end up with a jumble of facts and quotes that, hopefully, end up telling the story. All the stories are real. I don’t make them up; they really happened.
TSGNY: Finally, who are some artists who inspire you whose work you think we should know?
EL: I find inspiration in the work of my fellow artists at TSGNY and in our speakers, the drawings and paintings of the late Arshile Gorky and Wassily Kandinsky, the works of Sheila Hicks, Dale Chihuly, Julie Mehretu, and Jim Dine, the colors and imagery of the Apocalypse tapestry in Angers, the quilts of Faith Ringgold and the paintings of the late Charles Wysocki. One recent exhibition that truly impressed me was the Sheila Hicks retrospective at ICA in Philadelphia a few years back. One would think that I might have been influenced by her, but I had never seen Hicks’ work before that exhibition. When I walked into that show and saw her work for the first time, I cannot describe the excitement I felt. I think I actually exclaimed out loud. I have also been particularly inspired by three books: The Art Fabric: Mainstream by Mildred Constantine and Jack Lenor Larsen, Notation in New Music by Erhard Karkoschka, and Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter.
TSGNY: Thank you, Elaine. You can find more of Elaine’s work here.