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Walton Ford: A Wildly Creative Life

With the natural world as his muse, painter Walton Ford brings wild tales to life in resplendent color and drama. Celebrating a show at New York’s Morgan Library & Museum, the artist speaks with Dan about his humble beginnings, his comparisons to Audubon, and why the legend of King Kong isn’t the story you think it is.

Photo: Charlie Rubin


With the natural world as his muse, acclaimed painter Walton Ford brings wild tales to life in resplendent color and drama. Celebrating an expansive show of his studies at New York’s legendary Morgan Library & Museum, the artist speaks with Dan about his humble beginnings in the art world, getting discovered by the late Paul Kasmin, his frequent comparisons to John James Audubon, how he conceives his highly imaginative works, and why the legend of King Kong isn’t the story you think it is.

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Walton Ford: The way that we portray lions, even if it’s to puff them up and make The Lion King, it’s bullshit. There’s no imposed aristocracy in lions. This is a total creation of ours. And does the lion no good. It couldn’t be less interested in being the king of the beast or our idea of nobility or our idea of anything.

Dan Rubinstein: Hi, I’m Dan Rubinstein and this is The Grand Tourist. I’ve been a design journalist for more than 20 years, and this is my personalized guided tour for the worlds of fashion, art, architecture, food, and travel. All the elements of a well-lived life. In so many polite, upper-class homes, you’re bound to see innocuous, elegant, and sometimes mysterious works of art. A racehorse, a landscape painting, perhaps a taxidermy deer head even. These odes to nature are quite the tradition, but my guest today turns the genre of natural history painting on its head and inside out.

Painter, Walton Ford, raised in the Northeast and trained at the Rhode Island School of Design, Walton initially resisted his calling in natural talents, but after a horizon-expanding trip to India in the ’90s, he began to find ways of using natural history painting, think Audubon prints of fanciful birds, as a way to be subversive, allegorical, and mesmerizing at the same time. Ford often takes long-forgotten stories from the past regarding animals in the natural world and paints scenes from them that are just as meaningful today, without knowing their backstory.

One might feature a rhinoceros running from a wooden ship or merely a flock of birds lumped together in an orgy of flapping wings. Some of his works are so massive their size quadruples their power. For a series in 2011, he created large-scale portraits of King Kong’s face in various moods, staring directly at the viewer, crying, scared, angry. Fans of Ford and his expressive works can now get a more intimate look at his process at New York’s legendary Morgan Library and Museum. A recent gift by the artist of dozens of his sketches and studies comprised the current exhibition, Walton Ford Birds and Beasts of the Studio, now on view until October 20th.

I caught up with Walton from his home in New York to discuss how field trips to the wilderness with his unpredictable father made quite the impression, how he uses animals to express notions of very human trauma, his memories of his late gallerist Paul Kasmin, who discovered him and how he got over, for a while being an artist viewed as uncool.


I read that you grew in upstate New York in some places I see, say Hudson and others, say Westchester.

Well, yeah, I mean we moved around a little when I was a kid, but basically it was Westchester County. And some of it was spent in the [inaudible 00:02:53] Larchmont area, but then my parents got divorced when I was 11. After that, in high school we moved, we were over in Croton, which is on the Hudson River, which it was a little more wooded area, the Croton River, which there’s a reservoir there that’s watershed for New York City. It was the first dams and aqueducts that were built in the 19th century. And so, there’s this sort of cool ancient rock dam there and there’s this beautiful gorge. And so there was fishing and swimming and you felt like you were in the countryside in spots in Croton. It’s quite pretty in spots, so I preferred it. So I identify more strongly with Hudson Valley.

And I read that you had an older brother who was given a book of Audubon’s Birds of America that you kind of copied and sort of devoured as a young man.

Yeah, my brother and I both were budding artists growing up, and we both were also sort of amateur naturalists. And my brother has actually, he still, he paints natural history subjects himself, primarily fish for many years, but now sort of general, and his efforts by the most part… His name is Flick Ford for the most part, it’s sort of taxonomic almost. They’re sort of portraits of fish and they’re very against a white background or a minimal background, but he’s starting to make more scenes, but he doesn’t create a fantasy narrative like I do. He’s more interested in a sort of faithful rendering of the animal.

And when you got that book, birds of America, what do you remember your brain, where did your brain go as a young person?

Well, we had a lot of books growing up and that was one of them. But my father worked for Time Magazine and he was an art director there, a sort of in-house art director there, and he ended up knowing so many creatives in New York in the 1960s and ’70s. So he knew this guy called Walt Kelly, who had a comic strip called Pogo Possum, which was highly political, and he knew all these guys that were the artists at Mad Magazine that started Mad Magazine and DC Comics, a guy called Jack Davis who was one of his best friends and who was an artist there. He knew Gordon Parks was very close friend of my dad’s, who made Shaft and was just a great photographer, a civil rights photographer, and just an all around genius. And these people were in and out of our house when we were growing up. And so, this idea of being a creative was something that was encouraged. The idea that you could make a living being artistic was not alien to our household. And then, he brought home those Time Life books. I don’t know if you know this, but-

Oh, I do. Yeah.

But there’s a series of illustrated books. They’re quite lushly produced, beautiful things. So between, and they had ones on nature, and prehistoric men and dinosaurs and all this kind of stuff. So we had all of these books in our house. Audubon was part of the mix. I think it’s a slightly overemphasized in my bio, because it seems so close to the beginnings of my work, but Audubon has ceased to become a major influence on me for many years now. I got started because I wanted to paint a sort of twisted inner-narrative of a dream, hypnagogic nightmare that maybe a person like Audubon would have. And I felt like he was kind of a terrible guy.

Was he?

Yeah. Yeah, A lot of, he was a very arrogant, very pompous. He was a serial liar. He would talk about himself as being descended from the Dauphin in France, if he was in America and if he went to Europe, he would say he was some backwoodsman, and he just would create this sort of artistic persona that suited the moment.

And also he was like, a brutal hunter. People say, “Oh, he shot the birds to draw them” and stuff, but he shot birds off the deck of a ship, or he shot animals just for marksmanship. And he talks about raking a pile of birds that they shot on the shore together into something that was as big as a haystack, and it wasn’t with any guilt at all. So my early project was to investigate the sort of inner mind of somebody like that. What kind of dreams would he have? So the early Audubon knockoffs I did were like that. The impulse was that; to investigate a character who I actually didn’t relate to, except artistically to some degree. Well, when I drew as a kid, I was just copying stuff but not actually strictly copying because my brother and I had rules about that.

It was like you could riff on it. It was like jazz. You were allowed to look at the thing, and then you couldn’t copy it. That bad artists copied, but you could draw something like it. And so, very early on actually, I started to develop a sort of computer program that could rotate things in space in my head, because I’d look at something in a field guide or something, and then I want to draw it at three-quarters view if it was profile. And I would do that. And I could start to do that when I was quite young.

And so there’s drawings that are, because I was sort of in the footsteps of my brother who was six years older than me, I felt like I got a sort of precocity. I was trying to keep up with him and he would make a 12-year-old discovery, and as a six-year-old, I would try to copy it but not copy it; riff on it. And so we were in, this was a mentor that got me started. By the time I got to RISD, I felt like I could draw better than most of my professors.

And I read in The New York Times that you talk about memories of field trips to the wild and in Canada with your dad. And you said that your father was, “A violent, charismatic southerner and very Hemingway-esque,” which sounds so appropriate for your story, but it sounds also terrifying in a way to-

He was both those things.

“Lion of God” (2023) by Walton Ford. Photo: Courtesy Kasmin

A New Yorker like myself. Tell me about those trips.

Well, yeah, so the trips were combination of the most magical thing and the sort of forced march, because we would portage. He had some friend who was a member of a fish and game club up there called Turley. It was a place that Winslow Homer had fished and painted. And this place was a wilderness area that had been sort of a land grant from the Queen or I don’t know what the hell, some kind of crazy ancient place. And these lakes, it was sprinkled with these ice-cold, crystal clear lakes that were full of brook trout, which is a sort of dream for a sportsman surrounded by dense spruce forest, there was moose and there was all of this kind of stuff and there were no roads. The thing was like, I don’t know how many… It was huge, hundreds of square miles and no roads at all. So you would paddle across the lake and there’d be a little foot trail. You’d pick up the canoes and the packs, and we had guides as well with us, and we didn’t have a lot of money, but this was a way to get into the wilderness without a lot of money and mostly because it was sort of gifted to my dad because he was such a character that people liked.

But anyway, we’d paddle across this lake, carry the canoes and the gear to the next lake, paddle across that lake, carry the gears, go lake, lake, lake, lake lake until we were in… And then we would end up at a lake that had this cabin on it with no roads. And we’d stay there for two weeks. And this is before cellphones. I mean, there’s no electricity in these things. There was an outhouse, there was no running water. The lake was crystal clear and you would just drink water out of the lake, that was unbelieve… There was actually springs on these places, pipe springs and things. So you would drink out of that. But I watched my dad drink out of the lake. The whole thing was unbelievable. But the marching in and marching out part was like bootcamp. And he’s a guy that, he didn’t kind of… The idea that you would be in pain or you’d be uncomfortable wasn’t indulged. That wasn’t something that was of interest. It was just to be ignored.

Which doesn’t sound like an art director to me.

Yeah, he was born in 1927 in the South. When he was 19, he went through a windshield driving to a still with a bunch of friends of his and had his whole face had to be reconstructed when he was 19 years old. They flew him to an army hospital because they had more experience with plastic surgery because his face was completely trashed and they actually put him together pretty good. He didn’t look too monstrous after that.

And he also grew up during the Depression, if I’m doing my math correctly.

After he went through the windshield, both of his parents died and then he was drafted and he was in the occupation in Japan. So this guy comes back with the GI bill and he goes to the Art Students League. And because he loves to draw, and he tries to sell cartoons to single panel cartoons to the magazines. And I remember one that shows a gorilla hammering a sign in his front yard and it says, “Primate property.” “Primate property” instead of, “Private.” So it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t as funny as he was. He would kind of choke when he made a one panel cartoon. Because he was hilarious, but the cartoons weren’t.

So he ended up as an art director. He was a sort of frustrated cartoonist and at home he would draw caricatures of people and he was still keeping his hand in it. So I grew up with, there was a drawing board, there was watercolor paints, ink. You learned how to use that stuff when you were a kid because my dad just had it around. So I was very uniquely positioned to sort of have a mini apprenticeship, which was quite lucky. And he encouraged my art. That’s one time when I felt like he wasn’t going to hit me or something is he was super affectionate and loving, but he was also, he had a violent temper, so you didn’t know what you were going to deal with. And he didn’t really think that corporal punishment was something that you had to avoid. I mean, those guys were just like, he went through a windshield, whatever. He would get in fist fights as an adult, defending the honor of the woman he was with or something. He would grab people, in fender benders, he would try to drag someone out the window of a car. I watched him go off on people. So I always knew you got to tiptoe around this guy. You got to keep your cool. He’s going to lose his shit.

He was like 6’1, he was a big version of me, because I’m like 5’10 looking back, I don’t regret any of this stuff. It’s just that it was… Because my mom was incredibly encouraging and sweet, and after my dad left when I was 11, she kept an eye on me. And then when I was old enough, she got money together and sent me to Rhode Island School Design Summer Session Program.

And I read that you had a summer session and the work there prepared you to actually get into RISD and go to school.

It turned me from a juvenile delinquent, high school dropout, angry kid into somebody who thought, “Oh my God, there’s a whole institution there I’m going to do.”

Of other dropouts. Of other painters.

Yeah, and I get to go in these departments. I’m going to print photographs, and make videos and I’m going to do a bronze sculpture. I don’t know what, I just thought, “I’ll do it all.” I thought, “This is exactly what I’ve been waiting for.” So suddenly, all the things I was good at that are not valued in American High School. Let’s just be frank. You’re growing up in the Hudson Valley and an American high school where the football team is going to win the bowl game. And I wasn’t even on it. I was like, I just left school and went fishing all day, and had a girlfriend and didn’t do any of that stuff.

So you graduated from school, and you’ve got this career and you’re doing, maybe there’s a little bit less narrative in some of your early work. And what were those kind of first five years of your career? How would you describe that time?”

Well, there wasn’t any career at all. So I graduated in 1982 and I moved to New York and what I have is a bunch of craftspeople who graduated from RISD who are in New York City doing things like, one of the guys I worked for had was they were the company that installed and cleaned up the Frank Lloyd Wright room in the Met. It’s like a skilled… They’re churning out these kids, and these weren’t even kids, they were people who had graduated ahead of me like many years. So in New York already. I knew the Talking Heads were there, like they had been at RISD and then they were in New York. And so the idea of like, “Oh, they’re all going to New York in the early ‘80s, that’s where people are going to be.” So I go there and then there’s all these RISD people.

So I get hired doing something like grinding wells. We’re making clothing racks for Charivari clothing stores, and there’s some architect that went to RISD or something that designed the racks. And I’m grinding wells, and I’m working with bikers who are doing the wells. It’s amazing out in Bushwick. And then the next gig is couple of years in the Dakota taking the paint off of all the beautiful woodwork and refinishing it so it’s perfect. It looks like a piano or something, like the most perfect finishes. So I learned how to do that. I’d get hired because I had a good eye, I had good hands, I could do whatever they asked me to do and it would come out well; I’m a craftsperson. So I did that for a job, and when I got really good at that stuff, I said, “I’m working four days a week and that’s just it. I’m not here Friday. I’m going to go home and paint all weekend.” And they couldn’t fire me, because I learned all the skills I was going to… And look, give me a task and I’ll finish it before the week is over, but you’re not going to keep me here.

So I started digging my heels in early on. It helped that I was part of the punk era because everything was about selling out. Everybody thought you had to… Now everything that young people do feels like would’ve been a sellout in those days, and I don’t judge it at all because also the rent I paid in Williamsburg, Brooklyn when I moved there in 1982 was $350 a month, so I can shut up about the kids at today and what they do to make money or whatever. Or their social media nonsense and all this stuff they do. It’s like, don’t judge it. You have no idea what these kids go through, and if they’re still being artists under these conditions. Unbelievable. The conditions I had to deal with was that every time I left the apartment, it was a war zone. It felt like a war zone on the streets of New York. It was absolutely not safe. It was the opposite of that. It was like people getting robbed, brought to rooftops, getting robbed and then thrown off the rooftop. I remember when I first arrived in New York, that was in the news, it was like, “Nice, welcome, welcome.”

And one of the things you said to PBS in a video once is that maybe you struggled a little bit early on with your work not being seen as cool.


Can you expand on that and how did you kind deal with that? Because you’re dealing with these beautiful, very mature works that are quite stunning, but if you don’t know the story behind them, perhaps, it might just look like a beautiful bird with a fly-fishing lure in its mouth. There’s a piece in the [inaudible 00:19:22]-

Collection, I didn’t understand how the world was changing, but when I went to Rhode Island School of Design in say like 1978, a lot of the teachers would’ve come out of a sort of endgame, linear narrative of modernism. And what would’ve been taught is that once you get to someone like Robert Ryman, for example, who’s going to make a painting about paint, and this is going to be the only honest painting made, in a sense, every other painting is about artifice. So every other painting is about tricking the eye into thinking that you’re seeing something that you’re really not. If you’re Robert Ryman and you’re making a painting that’s primarily white, but it’s made out of paint and the narrative, and the subject is about the making of a painting out of paint, then they started to almost pitch that as an idea of like, “It’s over now. Done. You put the cards down, move on.” So you got to come up with something like Robert Smithson or something. You got to start doing something different, otherwise you’re not bringing the narrative forward.

The idea that out of teachers who might be teaching that, you would get someone, me or John Currin, or Lisa Yuskavage, or Carol Walker or any of the, it made sense that of course… Or Cecily Brown or something, that you would say, “No, I don’t buy that this is over. You’re telling me we can’t paint narrative pictures of figurative pictures?” And the young artists naturally came back and said, “Yes we can.” Because every generation is going to kind of react.

Did you find it hard to be accepted by the art world in the beginning?

Well, I carried insecurity there. I don’t even think anything even happened to me. I think I just had the regular struggle that any young artist has where you’re not recognized because you’re just not in the right place at the right time. And maybe it just doesn’t feel like the zeitgeist or whatever. I took it personally, I think, and maybe even recently in interviews talked about it that way. The more I get older and more I realize it’s just how it unfolded, and the things I was interested in, which was how, even just that question; if Audubon went out and shot 350 birds, what were his dreams? What did they look like?

And if I look back at the ’80s, I realize, well, what the hell was David Lynch doing for example? Exactly that. He’s like, “Oh, fear of parenthood is what Eraserhead is all about. I am a dad now and my infant is deformed, and hideous and is a monster that’s taking over the whole apartment. This is a terrifying scenario.” And there are real feelings in that, and that’s why that is a successful work of art. Or Mulholland Drive; like, young actresses go to Hollywood every day and go nuts. They lose their mind. And that’s a portrayal of someone with mental illness, imagining that she’s going to go to Hollywood and be a star, and that’s the result. So he knows what he’s doing.

And I didn’t recognize that there were this groundswell of this kind of narrative coming up. And so I felt alone, and I felt ignored and all those things that you would think and not taken seriously. “An illustrator” was a great insult back in those days. And like, “Why are you painting a National Geographic picture and why are you illustrating things? What is that? That’s old,” and that’s been discarded as a mode of representation that has any validity today. And, “Why use these tricks of illusion?” Why not? It didn’t feel like the right moment.

And then I must say the preoccupation in New York in the ‘80s was there was more about fashion, there was more about music being cool and being cool was a big deal. So you would have Keith Haring, and Basquiat, and Kenny Scharf and the Mud Club and all this sort of stuff. “We’re riffing on the Jetsons now and we’re making fun of American culture in this kind of pop art way that’s got a spin on it.” And it all felt like stuff I wasn’t interested in at all. I’m like going home, and going to paint about a tiger or a lion and nobody gives a shit. So it didn’t feel like it was the right moment at all to talk about these things. It seemed like I was kind of depressing or something, people.

And one of my early shows, Peter Schjeldahl noticed the humor in the work, which was very encouraging. And he said that that was the best part about it, was that these paintings were graphically strong and funny. And I was like, “What a relief.” And then he kind of picked apart, he said, “I don’t want any self-righteous messages.” And he was quite right, that that was maybe a flaw of some of the early work that was trying to pack in some sort of message. I wanted to tell you what to think.

And what were those Friday and weekend paintings like? That work when you were-

So that work was narrative work that started out being about my rather rocky childhood that we touched on. Because once my dad left, my brother and I figured out that we could sell weed out of the house, and then we could maybe have a nice… He could buy a motorcycle or I could buy a nice 10 speed bike or something. We could have the things that the other kids in Westchester had. And there really was a very smart survival except that we lived across the street from the elementary school. So in my mind, starting at 11, I thought, “Any minute, some SWAT team type thing is going to come and take my mom away and all.” I had these paranoid… So there was an edgy… But the people that came in and out of the house were pretty sketchy and a lot of things that I saw when I was young, I probably shouldn’t have seen.

So I painted about that. So I made these narrative paintings that looked like Trescento paintings. They looked like they were painted by somebody like Cicetta, or Frangelico or something, but they were about a kid we knew that slit his wrist and then changed his mind and came to our house all bloody. So they weren’t easy paintings to look at. And I had a show of them, and Marcia Tucker of the New Museum saw them and thought they were amazing and put them in a show. So people like that. Bill Arning was at White Columns, and he saw them and thought they were cool. And Paul Kasmin had noticed me and he was the first gallerist that, much later took me on.

But this early stage I passed through childhood trauma to family trauma, which was basically, I’m descended on both sides, both my parents are descended from people who had plantations in the South and they moved North; they were not bigots and they grew up in this bigoted world and they were like, “We’re moving to…” Dad got this job at Time Inc. like I said, friends with Gordon Parks and stuff like that, my mom. So they were like liberal Southerners who left the South, moved to the North, like found a milieu that they liked and friends that they liked. And it was a diverse group of people of mostly artistic and interesting people in the magazine world, primarily. And my dad knew the Maysle brothers, for God’s sake, who made Gray Gardens. It’s crazy. And I interned there for a summer when I was like 16, and then they found out I didn’t have a driver’s license yet and they were like, “Come back when you have a driver’s license.” They had this big Cadillac and they wanted me to drive it to the airport. And I was like, “I can’t do that.”

So when did that early part of the trauma paintings evolve into back to the animals and nature? Was there a shift?

What naturally seemed to happen was when I started painting paintings about plantation life, and some of them were, say equestrian paintings, they looked like a Stubbs painting and it would have one of my ancestors on horseback losing control of the horse with slaves observing that, like, this is the loss of control. And there might be flies all around the plantation owner’s head, and they’re like this, and the horse is starting to buck, and some of the slaves would have things like sickles in their hands. And this impending revolution is about… I wanted this underlying tension in these equestrian paintings. Because the whole idea of an equestrian painting is that it shows mastery. If you’re on horseback, and you’re in control of the horse, therefore it extends to the viewer, “I’m in control of you and the whole world around me, I dominate you and the world around me.” Cops on horseback are really intimidating for that reason. They don’t even have to do anything. And it’s a kind of useless policing tool except that it’s intimidating.

So my idea was to remove that intimidation, and the horse would sometimes be rearing up or it would have a hard on or something. It would be out of control. And the plantation owner’s about to fall off. And I liked those paintings. They felt like just getting back at this background that I had felt great resentment towards. Because when I was young and I would go down South to visit relatives, they would promote this idea of being important because we came from these families that settled Nashville, or did all these things back… Because my family actually built a house where Nashville is now in 18-something. No, 17-something, 1750-something. They built a cabin and then made it into a plantation and it became Nashville, Tennessee. And so my family name’s Donaldson, is one of the family names. They’re all over the signage down there. So I found it all very creepy and I wanted to make creepy paintings about it. And I didn’t want to turn away from it. I was like, “These people had my face and they did these things.” You know?

And when did that creepiness kind of go, “Okay, what about a bird?”

Shift to animals. It seemed like those houses… If I went down South and saw relatives that still were sort of holding up this idea of themselves as being important old families, Audubon was one of the visual languages of their whole culture. This idea of the bird print on the wall. There’s often a room with guns, there’s a gun room, and in the gun room are painting a bad painting of ducks flying over a marsh or something. And maybe the only good art in one of those houses is Audubon. The only thing that I could look at and say, “That’s cool because all this other stuff is garbage,” but it’s like some portrait of my great-grandmother or something that was painted by some journeyman painter. But the Audubons were actually cool. I was like, “Well, that’s actually really an interesting object.” So to me it was the most interesting visual language of my culture. So I owned it. I felt like, “This is the difference.” You know what I mean? “This is the opposite of cultural appropriation. I am not appropriating anybody else’s culture. I am coming from the point of view of the expansionist European culture that is trampling the planet, and just going wherever they want, and extracting, and taking, and figuring out how to dominate and what can we get out this, out of these people and out of this landscape, and out of these animals, and how do I do that?”

And so it started out that way as an exploration like, “I can use the very language of conquest to talk about it, in a way… Give it Tourette’s syndrome, make it say what it would never say. Make it say the most embarrassing things about itself. Tell the worst stories you have about how you interacted with this world that you work in the midst.” And that became interesting for a while and now it’s become everything. It’s nothing. If I read that Virginia Woolf saw a fox on her birthday, I want to make a painting about it. It has nothing to do with conquest or anything. Actually, the painting I did about Virginia Woolf seeing foxes on her birthday became about mental illness. It became a painting, allegorical painting in my mind, a metaphorical painting about mental illness. So I’ve gone away from any idea, but the impulse initially was to interrogate the sort of language of conquest, visual language of conquest.

That was the beginning, but now it’s evolved into, it can be highly personal now, and it just has to do with how we imagine animals. How do we look at these wild creatures that we share the planet with, culturally and in our dream world and in our fantasies or in the reality of like, “Oh, this is a giraffe that was shipped to New York in the 1830s on the deck of a ship with 11 other giraffes and all of them died, but two. And two giraffes arrived in New York in 1830 are displayed on Prince Street.” I got two paintings out of that so far because it’s just an incredible story. And the surrealism is hardwired right into the painting. Because if I just paint what actually happened, it looks like it’s not possible.


“Leo Dei” (2023) by Walton Ford. Photo: Courtesy Kasmin

And how is your studio set up today? I’ve seen pictures of you in a studio painting these enormous canvases maybe of King Kong where you have a ladder-

They’re not canvas-

They’re not canvases, they’re.. Excuse me?

They’re not canvases, they’re paper, they’re water color on paper. That’s an important distinction.

What is the biggest water on paper? Because my question was you were painting in oil at a certain point and you kind of gave it up and kind of focused on watercolor. And so, how did that happen and how was your studio set up today?

First of all, I saw Giotto frescoes like I talked about. And when I learned about how they were made, it’s a water-based medium, and you make a mark on the plaster while it’s still warm, while it’s still wet. You plaster an area that you can finish within the day or within a few hours if you’re making a fresco. So you plaster, say an area with a few heads and then you paint those heads in, and then you plaster the next area where you might paint the drapery and each day you plaster just as much as you can paint that day. And I knew that it was doable, that these things were made that way and I could make things similarly. The impulse to do watercolor on paper was first, to do look at natural history art like Audubon. There’s other people like Edward Lear, and Bodmer and other people that were influences on me. But that tradition is a watercolor tradition. And for the very reason that when that first stage of exploration happened, say Dürer started painting rabbit of that hare, the famous hare that Dürer painted, is basically watercolor and gouache on paper. It’s a very good way to record fleeting moments. It’s like a Polaroid camera of those days or having a pocket iPhone.

So explorers brought artists, and the artists brought watercolor sets and they painted all these animals that they’d never seen that way. And that started the whole tradition that ends with Audubon and people like that. And before photography comes, this is the way you recorded the natural world, if you were a curious Westerner. So I said, “I’m going to use that language.” But then in India, one of the things I saw are these big, they were actually water… They were sort of maybe, I’m not sure what kind of paint, but paint. They were painted on fabric, but they were paintings of tigers, life-sized tigers that some Maharaja in Jaipur had portraits of the tigers he shot, painted on these big sheets, life-size. And they were like 10 feet long, these beautiful paintings of the specific tigers with their markings. So instead of having it stuffed or taxidermy, they would have it painted. And I thought, “I want to paint a life-sized tiger like this” after I was in India.

So it was like one thing led to another, and I knew it was possible because I had studied fresco. So when I got back from India, I started painting these paintings about my misapprehension of what I saw when I was in India. I didn’t understand, I’m this completely clueless, not exactly a tourist, but just sort of living in India for six months straight and totally leaving knowing less about it than I thought I knew when I showed up. I mean, just it’s vast, and endless and so varied. There are 30 languages there. There’s no way you can say, “I know all about India.”

So yeah, so the studio now just accommodates these large projects. I had to have a big doorway. Because when I did the King Kong painting, like you said, I did these paintings about King Kong, I wanted to make his face, “Life-size” as if it was a nature study like Audubon painted the bird’s life-size. So then I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to paint King Kong life-size, but it’s just going to be his head.” And the painting is like 12 feet by nine feet, and there’s three of them. And he’s in grief because he can’t have… It’s an exploration of grief. He can’t have Faye Wray. It’s not a love match that’s going to work out for either one of them. And in the old King Kong in 1932, it’s a stalking, it’s a horrible thing. It’s like an extended, almost a rape. It’s the worst kind of thing for her and it’s his dream come true. It’s this weird dynamic. Later they try to make it all PC and she makes friends with the ape. And I think that takes all of the interest out of the story of King Kong. The minute she becomes an environmentalist and cries when he gets killed, it’s the worst, the most unrealistic book. It’s just nonsense. It’s nonsense. And it doesn’t tell the truth about the way that relationship is. It’s a terrifying relationship in the first one, and I’m way more interested in it.

And actually, it was great time to bring up the late, great Paul Kasmin, and how many people he discovered and what an impact he had on the field. Can you tell me a little bit something about him and your memory of him?

I guess it would’ve been about 1996. I had moved to, my first move in the Berkshires, Julie Jones, she was my first wife. She was an artist as well. And we moved to Hillsdale, New York, right on the border of Massachusetts, and rented a little cottage. It was quite a pretty little cottage. And I had a studio there and I was painting, but I was trying to find a job. And we had just moved there. And he calls me up on the, and just says, I guess he had been at Irving Blum’s house. And Irving Blum had bought a bunch of my watercolors out of my studio. He had seen them in the slide collection of White Columns, which used to be a way people would see art, 35 millimeter slide sheets, 20 slides on a sheet, and you would submit to these slide libraries, and then galleries would come and look at the slides from time to time and see who was coming up. And so he saw my work and was interested.

Blum came over to my studio and bought a half a dozen things, got me started and put him up in his house in Long Island, and in his apartment in Park Avenue back when he lived on this side of the continent. And Paul saw them and was like, “These are interesting.” So he came and saw my little studio he drove, he called me up and he goes, “I’ve been hearing quite a bit about you and I thought I’d give you a ring.” And he’d just gotten his Beamer, and he drove into my driveway and he came into my studio and he’s like, “I like everything I’ve seen.” And he just offered me a show. And that show, I worked very hard on. And he also, as I was making the paintings and he saw my work ethic, he was like, “You should quit all these carpentry jobs and just devote yourself to this and I’ll send you money.” And so, he covered my expenses. He sold things out of… Before I even had an exhibit to friends of his who… He just got it moving.

And I was able to put a show together because with a day job, you can’t do that. And he bought things himself. I mean, he just did what a gallerist should do for a young artist. And he made my money problems go away for a while while I put a show together. And then when I put it up, I was like, “What are we going to do? What are we going to do if none of my paintings sell? You’re not going to be able to make your rent.” And he just laughed and brought me in the back and he had a drawing by Andy Warhol, a drawing by David Hockney, and a photograph by Man Ray, and he’s like, “I sell one of these. Don’t worry. You’re not the only thing I’m doing.” I didn’t understand how anything worked. He just took the weight off of my back of thinking I had to do this by myself and that there was no way to make it work.

And his favorite phrase for me, I would present him with some crazy problem, even like, “Oh, there’s a house up here. I don’t have the down payment, but it seems like it would be the perfect house for me to raise my family.” He was like, “Okay, here’s what we’ll do.” He would just come, he’s like, “We’ll sort it out.” That was one of his favorite phrases. “We’ll sort it out” and I would move forward. And it was astounding. And it’s not to be repeated. I recognize now, I have relationships with galleries, but that was something different, that’s like talking about your high school sweetheart or something. It’s a memory. It’s not something that you could ever have again. And I talk to other artists and they’d be more successful than me making more money, but they’d be like, “I don’t have anything like that. I don’t have my best friend…” He doesn’t have to be my best friend if he sells the pictures. And that’s more of the way I feel now. It’s like whoever I’m working with, it’s like it’s a perk if we get along, but I don’t need to search for that ever again because that was just such a fluke.

And when he was dying, I would go over there and just bring him chocolate and beer because that seemed to be the last thing he could eat. I’d get in bed with him and we’d watch Film Noir and I’d just tell him how much I loved him. I mean, it was just a beautiful thing to have this kind of a relationship with someone who was on your side, trying to sell your work that way. And the only jealous thing, he was a bit possessive. He wouldn’t like like it if I showed with somebody else, even if it wasn’t in New York. I had a show with Gagosian out in LA, Beverly Hills when I was still with Paul, and he didn’t like that.

That seems pretty universal for a gallerist, I would assume.

He didn’t have a gallery in LA.


I’m like, “If you had a gallery in LA, I would show at it, but you don’t have a gallery in LA.” And I liked working with Larry. It was great. And it was good for Paul. I mean, there wasn’t any downside to it except that he just wanted to hold on.

And fast forwarding till today, you have this beautiful show coming up at the Morgan Library. It’ll be open by the time this comes out.

What a dream.

And it’s centered around a gift of yours, I believe, of 30 something sketches and studies of your work.

I think it might be more. That gift was bigger, but-

Well, the show itself will be more.

Well, yeah, I gave them more than that, but it doesn’t matter. But I get to choose 30 things. I think the number 30 came into your mind because I chose 30 things from their collection that I curated for the show and then wrote wall text for. So I get to not just show my own stuff, but show the stuff that sends me, you know?

And why the Morgan Library? Why did you decide this gift?

It’s the most perfect… Most of my art is research-driven. Almost all of the paintings I make are based on something I’ve read. My library itself is ridiculously vast, and kind of idiotically cumbersome and just, I don’t even know what I’m doing. I don’t do Kindle. I don’t have books on tape. I read physical books and they’re all over the place. And so, I am drawn to libraries, and I’m drawn to archives and I’m drawn to all of that. Everything that the Morgan Library specializes in, like old master drawings, and they have plenty of natural history stuff, and beautiful old books, and printed matter and works on paper, that’s what I do. Everything I do, everything I love about… The stuff that’s in the Morgan Library and the stuff that they tend to show, more than any contemporary art program that you could ever talk about. So much more interesting. They’re drawing on hundreds, and hundreds and hundreds of years, and this guy, Morgan had an unlimited budget. Now they obviously have to think about what they buy, but there’s no comparison. To me, it’s quite sad that old masters don’t sell anymore and that people are so… That they think something like Banksy is good.

Banksy is someone who makes statements and that’s fine. But it’s much more related to Norman Rockwell than anything else because he gives you an image and he gives you one way to think about it. And there’s no mystery in any of that stuff. And so, there’s just this sort of punchline, “Do you get it or don’t you?” And people love that because it’s Instagramable, and it’s digestible and you don’t have to ask a bunch of questions about what it means. And so, that’s what people like and that commands tremendous attention and money. But the sad part is all this nuance, subtle, crazy stuff from history, it takes too much work to get to know. You feel stupid if you haven’t done a little research. And that’s partly the art world’s fault because the cultural way that they talk down at everyone. I try not to do that in my work. You’re looking at something that you don’t need an art history degree to grasp, and I’m interested in that. I think you can make a really great work of art and it can also be a pop song.

What do you want people to take away from that show when they leave?

Well, my impulse to do the show and to make the gift, I do so much drawing and preparatory work before I make a painting because the watercolor is so unforgiving that by the time I execute the watercolor, I’ve had to go through this sort of very gestural, expressive, creative parts, like rough drawings, and quick watercolor studies, and then detailed drawings at the Museum of Natural History, a fur and anatomy of an animal or something like this. So there’s all of these steps that go into making them, and they create this pile on the floor of my studio of just material that I just gave them a whole bunch of it. And so, it shows a process, a very old tried and true process of making art.

But I think I just wanted to show that it’s not so anal as it looks like, I’m not sitting there… I have to sit at one point and paint fur detail and do repetitive work. But what led up to that is very expressive, and very passionate, and very rapid sometimes and all of that is… So I did want people to see that. I just wanted to be like, I have a certain virtuosity with my draftsmanship that is not on display when I finish a painting. And it took me a while, I had a humility about my process just thinking, “Well, this is the way people have worked in the Renaissance and they’ve been working like this.” It’s becoming increasingly rare, this type of studio practice. So the museum found it interesting because they are bridging the gap.

You want to bring contemporary artists into these older museums just to get the audience. Like I said, people have taken their eye off of… The Mets still packed. So I don’t really despair. You can’t get a ticket to have these things. So people are hungry, they want to see this stuff, but it’s sort of funny; the market is different. The market is very, very superficial and very focused on the latest thing. But museums like the Morgan are the ones that can fall between the cracks. So I think as a contemporary artist, it’s good to kind of… Every artist I know has enthusiasm for those kind of museums, no matter how… And I just say, did a take down of Banksy, but I bet you he could make a really erudite and intelligent list of the kind of work that inspires him. Every artist I know, even the ones I don’t like their work, can talk very intelligently about the things that came before and what led to their practice. And I can only, honestly, if the guy was in the room, I would ask him what he was inspired by and he would probably tell me some very interesting stuff I didn’t know. And it would help me understand his work better. And I would appreciate it more, based on what he loves.

And one of the studies that I believe is in the show is what became a painting “Leipzig 20 October, 1913,” which is my favorite. It’s a lioness that’s in a city landscape, very misty, and it’s pawing at a bowler hat, like it doesn’t know what it is. It’s about to tap it like a cat wood. Can you tell me about this one particular piece and how the study and the final work kind of came together?

Exactly, it’s a good example of how I work. So I was reading a book called Animals in Captivity. It was by a zookeeper with a last name, Heidegger, I think he might’ve been related to… Anyway, it was written in the ‘50s, and one of the chapters was on escapes. Animals that escape from zoos or menageries. And it told a story very briefly, just maybe less than a paragraph. It said, I forget what it was about 1913, I think, a circus was coming into Liebzig, it was a foggy night and a trolley hit the cart, this sort of zoo cart that was carrying the lions. There was eight lions in there, and they all got loose. And so, they were loose on a foggy night in Liebzig in 1913, there were like eight lions wandering around.

And the sad part that the zookeeper was pointing out is that the police were mobilized and they shot all the lions. And it was totally unnecessary because lions like that will want to go right back in the cage. They were terrified. And if you gave them some sort of shelter to run into, they would’ve run into the shelter. They were loose and they were freaking out and they were scared, but the thing about lions is if suddenly they’re in a traumatic accident and they’re free on the streets of the city, their first impulse isn’t to go out and kill a bunch of people. They’re not interested in that. That’s not the MO of a lion is to go out and kill human beings, especially ones that have been in zoos and circuses. They’re going to be scared, and they’re going to be lost and they’re going to be confused. And that was what the article is about in this book.

So I thought taking this zookeeper Heidegger seriously, and I thought, “Well, what did it look like?” So I looked up pictures and every painting, it was a lot of paintings done of it in the newspaper, and it would show people running and the lions going to attack them, and their hats were falling off, their bowler hats as they’re running away, and their top hats are falling off and people are dropping their umbrellas. You know what I mean? And it shows this panicky, turn of the century, people running away from lions that are trying to kill them because they just got loose. And it’s absurd.

So I thought, “The first rule for my paintings is no drama, no growling, no leaping, no vicious. These animals are disorientated.” I love taking the moment that the stereotype image of the animal is going to be it leaping at you, growling and make it the opposite, like it just woke up from a nap or something. Animals spend most of their time doing very little. That’s why it’s so boring to go to the zoo. The animal’s asleep. You go on safari, everybody takes pictures of the animals, they’re all laying under a tree. Come on. Grazing. They’re not doing cool stuff, growling and leaping or anything like that, or charging. All of the nonsense. And then even the way that David Attenborough video is edited is somebody sat in a field blind for seven months, and then they get the 30 seconds that he got where something actually happened. The rest of it was like the animal is sleeping, and the animal is gone somewhere in a den or whatever. And we know this is true.

So I like showing those moments that are non-moments, kind of. Like this is not a lion doing anything that lions are known for. It’s not the king of the beasts, it’s nothing. It’s a female lion for one, lioness. And she sees, the guy ran away in a panic and it dropped his bowler hat. And she’s like, “What is this thing?” And it’s the fog, so she has nothing else to really see, and she doesn’t know where she is. And she’s kind of settling into the fact that she’s lost. So she’s not in a panic, she’s not running anymore or trying to get away from anything. It’s a quiet moment in the streets of Liebzig, in the fog.


Thank you to my guest Walton Ford, as well as to everyone at Kasmin gallery and the Morgan Library for making this episode happen. The editor of The Grand Tourist is Stan Hall. To keep this going, don’t forget to visit our website and sign up for our newsletter, The Grand Tourist Curator at, and follow me on Instagram at @danrubinstein. And don’t forget to follow The Grand Tourist on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen and leave us a rating or comment. Every little bit helps. Till next time!


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