The work of Denise Green AM came to prominence in 1978, when her paintings in the exhibition New Image Painting at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, were recognised for their spare yet resonant visual language. Born in Melbourne, Green grew up in Brisbane and studied in Paris and New York. She settled in New York City in 1969, where she continues to live and work. Denise Green: Beyond and Between – A Painter’s Journey will reappraise her 40-year career and celebrate the major gift of works that Denise’s husband Dr Francis X. Claps made to UQ in 2013.
We talked to Denise about having a retrospective exhibition staged in the city where she grew up, some of the key moments throughout and influences on her artistic practice, and her philosophy on philanthropy.
Q: This exhibition provides a window into your significant career spanning more than 40 years. For you as the artist, can you describe the experience of revisiting artwork that reflects so many important moments and milestones in your life?
A: For me, to see an early example of my work is more about enjoying the process and the ideas that I was exploring at that time. Of course, it is difficult to answer this question prior to seeing the work in situ. However, I am thrilled that Dr Campbell Gray and Michele Helmrich supported bringing into The University of Queensland Collection these key pieces that represent the historical path that my work has taken.
Q: At age 21 when you were studying at Hunter College in New York, at a time when conceptually based art practices were popular, you referred to painting as being ‘under attack by the avant-garde’. As a young artist, whose strong desire was to be a painter, how difficult was it to hold true to your course during this time?
A: I was studying with inspiring figures, painters like Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell, as well as Ralph Humphrey, a brilliant teacher and artist. These experiences reinforced my sense of direction. And I was also writing about art, including reviewing shows in New York galleries and museums. This engagement with what was happening in the art scene bolstered my sense of confidence during that period.
Q: In your book An Artist’s Odyssey, you talk about how important periods of time spent travelling influenced your life and art. Was there a particular place that provided a greater influence than any other on your work? Do you think it’s important for artists to travel in order to grow?
A: Yes, I think it is important to travel as it opens up the mind. At different periods, places like India or Italy have been inspirational or important to my work. Most recently, I have been drawn to landscapes in the UK, Belgium and Germany. However, I would have to acknowledge that since the early 1980s, the Australian landscape, in particular significant Indigenous sites, such as Ku-ring-gai Chase in New South Wales and Laura in northern Queensland, have exerted a strong influence on my thinking.
Q: This exhibition reflects the various nuances of your practice and its movement between mid-twentieth-century abstraction and the figurative, explorations beyond Western philosophy and culture to those associated with Asia and Australia’s Indigenous peoples. Have these shifting influences and mediums sustained your longevity as a practising artist?
A: What sustains me is the energy of new thought. My practice has undoubtedly been strengthened and informed by a range of philosophical and aesthetical movements. What comes to mind in particular are the writings of Philip Fisher in his book, Wonder, the Rainbow and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences, and A.K. Ramanujan, ‘Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?’ And the approach of Australian author, social historian and critic Peter Timms as found in Australia’s Quarter Acre: The Story of the Ordinary Suburban Garden and What’s Wrong with Contemporary Art?
Q: Over the years you handpicked works from almost every exhibition you held to form an outstanding personal collection. You subsequently worked with your husband Dr Francis X. Claps to divide this work between three institutions in the USA, Germany and Australia (UQ Art Museum). You’ve been a New York resident for 47 years yet your relationship with Australia endures. Why was it important to gift part of your personal collection to an Australian institution and in particular, a university art museum?
A: The gift to UQ Art Museum evolved through my relationship and respect for the museum. For me, its uniqueness is its educational mission, and interest in Queensland art. I also admire its active engagement with scholarship and ideas.
There were various motivations for my husband, Frank and I, when doing this gift. But without question the overriding consideration was because of my early beginnings. This was where my odyssey began.
People feel good to give back. It seems counter-intuitive to say that giving away something that you have created or earned gives great joy. Having lived in the US for so many years, I have learned a great deal about the values and attitudes here and many people, especially Colby Collier, have mentored and guided me on the philosophy of philanthropy. It is one of the truly unique parts of the culture. There are large numbers of associations, cultural organisations, universities, health-care institutions and religious groups that are supported by and operate with private monies through philanthropy. To be able to share and have the pleasure of making this gift during our lifetime is a truly gratifying experience.
Denise Green: Beyond and Between – A Painter’s Journey opens at UQ Art Museum on 25 November 2016 and runs until 2 April 2017. RSVP to the opening event and public program on Thursday 24 November 2016 here.