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Q & A with John D'Agostino The Editors

The story and history surrounding this series of photographs, Empire of Glass, is really fascinating and involves generations of D'Agostinos as well as an interesting connection to artist/designer Louis Comfort Tiffany. I wonder if you could tell our readers a bit more about the personal history of this work and how and why you are so drawn to using glass and photography as your medium.

I had a very organic and personal understanding of what artwork meant to me because as I kid I grew up around my grandfather's art collection and my Dad's work as an abstract painter. Art was not some unfamiliar "alien" thing to go see at a museum, but quite the contrary, something to really live with, to "be" with. Something to meditate on. Our house was always chock-a-block with an overgrowing art collection that never had enough room, because my grandfather never realized his dream of building a manse to house all that art. And then my father made the situation even worse by making his own artwork to add to it all. Of course, Tiffany did build his 'Xanadu' if you will, Laurelton Hall. So I think both Tiffany and my grandfather saw life the same way - they both believed in creating an entire environment where everything in the home was meticulously chosen, from the furniture, to the sculpture, to the fixtures, to everything on the walls. I've been told an old story of how my grandfather as a child was very impressed visiting a Baron's house Sicily at the turn of the century before he came to America that very much impressed him. That's the kind of vision he had.

So, I basically grew up looking at abstract painting and Tiffany glass my whole life. We didn't need to light up a Christmas tree for example, because for years it was our tradition to light up a Tiffany lamp or stained glass window instead. Looking at these amazing illuminated objects in the dark was always a very powerful experience for me. You could argue that perhaps that's where my fascination with light - and photography, as a medium of light - began. And now it's funny, because in hindsight Empire of Glass has become very matter of fact, very obvious. Oh of course, John is shooting his grandfather's glass! They're my photographic negatives now. But it took many years of me doing other kinds of commercial photography and my experience looking at abstraction for some 20 years for it to really all come together. It's still the most demanding and challenging kind of work to create - both technically and creatively - I think. They're really impossible images. And in their impossibility, their willful stubbornness to become something else, anything but glass it seems, they keep me on my toes.

I love that your family lit a Tiffany lamp or stained glass in lieu of a Christmas Tree! It sounds like a childhood not simply around art but in art - as though your home was a kind of installation created by your grandfather and father. So it seems not simply inevitable that you entered this "empire of glass," it's essentially unavoidable. Nonetheless, you've also found your own way and your own medium that is quite different from your father's abstract painting and, really, profoundly different than the Tiffany designs your grandfather seemed enamored with. Your works seem deeply interested in not only representing and rethinking, time, light, and space, but also in arguing ideas about beauty, nature, meaning and consciousness. For example, you note in your artist's statement that you are particularly interested in the "abstract sublime" and what you call "the search for supernatural content disguised in the remnants of natural phenomena." Can you elaborate more on your pursuit of the sublime through abstraction?

Since I've been making abstract pictures the past few years, I've been fascinated, transfixed, and plain humbled by the process. I found abstraction to be both instinctive and sensual, and yet, conversely, also incredibly intellectual and rigorous. These were the best images I had ever made, and I wanted to understand them, decode them, deconstruct them. I wasn't just content to make good pictures, rather, I wanted to also know what made them tick. As such, while I create pictures, I am also actively writing, reading, researching and looking at anything I can get my hands on. Now in this pursuit of the underpinnings of what made my abstraction work, I came across the Sublime, maybe the greatest of all aesthetic ideas. And most memorably Robert Rosenblum's Abstract Sublime, which was a revelation for me. It was a eureka moment, because I suddenly realized this had been my aim all along - even in all my old bodies of work - to capture the Sublime in some sort of visual form. The Sublime had an incredible legacy and tradition, going back throughout hundreds of years, and it turned out that many artists before me had been just as hooked as me.

The Sublime speaks to a timeless human ambition - the desire to be overwhelmed. Not just to enjoy something, or find it beautiful, but rather, to be completely and totally overcome in the process, to be moved. To be in true awe, real wonder. It's a desire to experience something off the charts, something so indescribable and great that it sort of blows your circuits out, like a punch in the eye, if you will.

In this sense, the Sublime is a convenient placeholder, a rhetorical device if you will, of any ultimate experience that we cannot properly describe. Much like with the Tao in the Tao Teh Ching, or what certain mystics experienced, like say Gurdjieff, Blake, Traherne or Ramakrishna. By nature it is a spiritual kind of desire, and that's why Rosenblum likened the great Abstract Expressionists to sort of secular spiritualists. They were making grand idols, works to be revered, to be submitted to. They tap into an instinctive desire in us. That's why when you walk into the little Rothko room at The Phillips Collection, without any proper instruction or idea of what to do, you just sit down on the little bench and start to stare at these glowing walls. And before you know it, you're imagination is really going, and you're practically meditating of sorts. It's probably the same experience a Medieval pilgrim would have had after a long journey to visit a small chapel. A place that's like a stitch in time, somewhere else, someplace different, than the rest of the world. A place that is asking something different of you. So you finally walk out of the Rothko room, dazed, confused, and you suddenly realize - you were just in a chapel! There was no overt religious iconography or instructions, and yet the feelings were exactly the same. For a moment, you were outside of yourself.

So this is the great thing about abstraction. First and foremost it is about the experience, so it's very Zen, all this talking about it can't equal being in the presence of it, like the Zen master saying nothing but pointing at the moon. And yet we are still compelled to write about these pictures, talk about them, analyze them, even though we know those attempts will always fail. It grasps our imagination, and doesn't let go of us. The Sublime and abstraction go hand in hand, like partners if you will. Abstraction, by nature being nebulous, mysterious, and ripe with possibility, is sort of pre-loaded for the Sublime, because abstract pictures can be anything, often more than one thing. Literal, representational imagery can only be one, very limited thing. They're too practical. They're all finished. Abstraction is all unfinished. The viewer finishes it so to speak with his own feelings and ideas. The Taoists and Buddhists sometimes talk about a reverence for the uncarved block of wood. In this pure state, it is not yet a statue, or a walking stick, but rather, everything and nothing at the same time.

As you describe it here, the feeling of the sublime for you, it seems—and perhaps what you hope to invoke in the viewer—is one that has the potential to be profoundly spiritual and overwhelming in a mostly positive sense...Except I suppose your metaphor of the punch in the eye! At any rate, throughout history from Longinus to Edmund Burke to Immanuel Kant to Jean-François Lyotard, or with artists like Caspar David Friedrich, J.M.W. Turner to Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman, sublime joy is almost always coupled with something painful, even terrifying. I get a sense of this darker or more disturbing aspect of the sublime in pieces like "Dark Domains," "Nietzsche's Mirror," and even in "Nostalgia of the Infinite." How do you account for this more ominous side to the sublime in your work? I mean, I wonder what brings it on or how it manifests itself. Do you access this or encounter it because of the uncertainty and mystery you spoke of earlier or is it something that seems to reveal itself while immersed in the creative and aesthetic process?

Darkness is a metaphysical fact. It is as unavoidable and as important as the light. There is indeed a dark side to the Sublime, a sinister side. The self-described "forgotten poet" Antonin Artaud once said that he carried the Void within himself, and that we should learn not to fear it, but rather, learn how to take pleasure there.

Of course, the Burkean notion of the Sublime is famous, but I think it is better formulated by Friedrich Schiller, who recognized its schizophrenic aspect. The Sublime is always double: dread and reverence, attraction and fear, together. Gods and monsters. Like Dostoyevsky's Underground Man says, even if they did not exist, man would still invent them. My other body of work, "The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium," explores this sinister Sublime, whose beauty is more technological and alien. They are my monsters. I felt they needed creating.

The Sublime isn't just all light and air and joy. Sometimes it kicks us in the ribs. Simon Schama wrote that artwork mugs you and assaults you in an alley. Why else would Roland Barthes call it the punctum? Because it punctures you, that's why. Francesca Woodman called it the "wounds of image making." Colonel Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now called it "The horror, the horror." H.G. Wells: The Mind at the End of Its Tether. All these great artists, like Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf, carried within them a great capacity for suffering. Rothko, Pollock, Blake, Van Gogh, Nijinsky. They all suffered greatly, and that pathos comes out in their work. All sublimists. Light and dark.

That is why Nietzsche says the Abyss gazes also. We gaze into the Abyss - and it gazes back out at us. Or like in David Lynch's Lost Highway, when Bill Pullman walks into the black hole lurking in his apartment corridor, and comes out someone different. Darkly Dreaming Dexter calls it our Dark Passenger, who rides along with us, sometimes taking the wheel. These dark feelings are inside of us, they're a natural part of us, so let's not deny them. Let's embrace them. Artaud wished to reimpose what he called the supernatural. I second this idea. I am not afraid of the dark. So I extend my hand from out of the darkness, and offer it to anyone who wishes to explore the crawlspace with me.

Once, in college, I actually did this. Me and my friends discovered an amazing labyrinth of underground passageways beneath my apartment building, that connected the basements of every other building in town. But to get there first, we were impeded by a dark passageway, quite literally a Void, about only one foot across, where you had to turn sideways just to squeeze through it. My friends thought I was crazy, so I was the first - and only one - to go in. But what I found on the other side was worth it, and they all followed me, eventually . . .

Sounds very Dante-esque. . . And, I do think this question regarding the degree to which art is quintessentially an expression of human suffering is an important one. Though, there's a part of me that doubts the idea of the "suffering artist" as somehow more authenticate than any other kind of artist. (And, I don't mean to suggest you are arguing that point). It's really more of a Modern conceit I think. You mention Roland Barthes, for example, who kind of begins as a Modernist philosopher but alters direction and becomes essentially Postmodern. I think of his notion of "jouissance" and the pleasure derived in the text itself as a rather different approach to aesthetic experience than the Sublime. The same could be said of the canvas or the photograph I suppose, but in different ways. Anyway, I don't want to belabor this point, because I think your answer is a compelling one, and thorough, so perhaps we shouldn't dwell in the macabre for too long...could get stuck or lost, after all. Don't want anyone to lose an ear. So, a bit of a change in direction. . . I'm wondering a bit about the material and physical process you use to create these works, and what kinds of technology—from manipulating the glass to lighting to actual photographs to processing—go into these creations? And, in a related question, how have new technologies—photographic, sculptural, digital, or otherwise—shaped your aesthetic as an artist? I suppose this is a bit of a form/content question: how have the forms and materials themselves, as well as the physical process of creation impacted and shaped your creative, imaginative, and/or intellectual process?

In terms of the actual materials I employ, there are only very few I really need. Light and darkness, certainly. Color, texture and materiality are important to me. And the ink that makes up my prints, and the pixel, that acts as intermediary. The great thing about the pixel is that it is totally free. In the digital darkroom, the pixel can be made lighter, darker, or change in hue. It is beholden to nothing. It can be anything it wants to be. It's like DNA, it can be re-made into almost anything. This is very different than the film negative.

In terms of my method, I see photography itself as the interpreting of a negative of some kind. In this case, Tiffany's Favrile glass acts as my glass negative. Glass is made for light, and photography is the recording of light, so there's a natural relationship there. I am a big believer in what I call the art of sampling. Joseph Cornell, for example, was a master sampler. He used Rennaisance paintings, magazine ads, even junk lying around - and then re-layered them into completely different artworks. Some recording artists sample James Brown, or Led Zeppelin or Bob Dylan. Well I sample Louis Comfort Tiffany. In a sense, my work is very much a synthesis of many different artistic periods and styles. Yes, I may be using glass made in the age of Art Nouveau, but because I am a photographer and not a painter, I can have many different styles - all at the same time.

Tiffany used glass to challenge painting in ways that I think my photographic work does as well. I mean, let's be honest, Tiffany started out as a painter, but turned to glass as his technological advantage. He was a pretty darn good painter in fact, but "glass" was his technological innovation on the genius of painting. In glass, he directly utilized light that painters could only simulate. Now I take this advantage one step further, and use the medium of photography to further innovate just how the light is combined with the glass. So it's essentially an innovation, of an innovation, of an innovation you could say. Now that's evolution. So for me, I think all this recent digital technology is just essential. With some light, Photoshop, and the best glass ever made, I have mastery over every little nuance of color combination that many a painter throughout history would envy. So I do have an incredible palette to work with. Someone suggested to me once it would be like finding some of Rembrandt's pigments in the basement and then just deciding to use them. And maybe that's indeed the case. A friend of mine joked once to me that it took many artists say some 20 years for their work to go "dark" - whereas it took me about 3 years. So the evolution in my work is seriously sped up. This is I think because digital technology practically calls out and begs for experimentation. As long as my work in Empire of Glass keeps on growing, changing and evolving, I will continue to make pictures. When people ask me, Is that really the same glass? - then I know the work is indeed still fresh and worthy of study.

This sounds similar to what literary-types call intertextuality; a kind of "interocularity" perhaps. Your process seems to involve appropriation, adaptation, deformation, convergence, pastiche, borrowing, sampling and more. I wonder then, if you would say that your work is as much a response to and about other art than to reality, inner psychic experience, or direct sensory experience? I'm thinking, of course, about your materials (i.e. rescued fragments, etc.) as you just described, but also your overall conceptual framework. To what extent would you say your work is fundamentally art about art?

Yes, I would agree that my work is about art, and that in many ways it functions as almost a kind of artistic 'supertext.' Like say a hyperlink on the web, where each image or 'hypertext' can link to, or evoke other artworks, histories and genres. After the picture is made, I find each image needs time to be mused over, and eventually, written about. (hence my essays The Strength to Dream, or The Abyss Gazes Also). I very much like making things that expand outside of their original content. These linkages sort of ooze out, even if I don't want them to or initially realize them at first. Many of the things that interest me now, like say transformational composition in classical music, were actually suggested to me by other people when looking at my pictures. Because the work seems to synthesize so many different genres and styles so fast, this reminds me of the notion of 'hyperspace' in science fiction, where you can travel at much faster speeds than normally possible. I find my work seems to really 'move' and evolve pretty darn fast, it is a shark that never stops swimming.

But, if my art is fundamentally 'about' art, or functions as such, it is not initially so, or at least in a reductionist way. I don't sit down and pre-conceptualize all this stuff beforehand, looking to reference this artwork or that one. I just let these things happen, organically. This is what in my opinion has led to all the over-intellectualized, dead, unfeeling conceptual artwork of nowadays, because you cant "add-in" real feeling afterwards - especially if you've pre-conceived it all the night before on a cocktail napkin. You have to authentically 'feel' the work, only later can you try to think about it, or even attempt to understand it.

To paraphrase Barnett Newman, man's first scream as he sloshed around in the muck and mud of the prehistoric was a primordial one - a poetic outcry of sorts to the Void, not a demand to communicate. Eventually - much later - that became language. Despite the ingenious intellect that he and the other AbExers obviously had, I would argue he's a sensualist - first and foremost, like I am. I believe in sensuous, instinctively powerful work - that also has the capacity to embed and generate important ideas, conceptions and intelligence. My individual works are really just direct responses to my immediate surroundings and feelings, sort of a mental record of my sensibilities at the time. I think these connections are even more fascinating then, because all I am initially trying to do is just express how I feel. That's it. That the work can eventually evoke all these other things from such a simple, almost even humble beginning, speaks to the power of art. So, if I had to be questioned by St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, I would point to my pictures and say - "That, right there, that is exactly how I feel about everything." These pictures would be my own 'summation' so to speak, my reply to Colonel Kurtz. There is no other way to say it. As the great Italian photographer Mario Giacomelli once said, each picture only expresses a tiny part of my feeling, that's why I have to take so many.

Giacomelli is interesting here, because I think he might be the first photographer you've mentioned in this discussion. Clearly you are very informed and influenced by painting (especially Abstract Expressionism) and other disciplines like philosophy, music, film, literature, etc. So, I wonder if you feel somehow constrained with either photography as a medium or perhaps if not that, then with the label 'photographer' and any aesthetic, cultural, or historical baggage that it might carry? Do you feel your work has been influenced more by the other arts or have there been some significant photographers who have helped shape your aesthetic?

Partly, it seems to me that 'pure abstraction' is a somewhat uncomfortable fit in the world of photography, while in painting, sculpture and film—although each with its own unique history—have all had a fairly lengthy and celebratory relationship with abstraction. Yet, in photography, I often get the impression that there remains a deeper connection to representation; i.e. some kind of unwritten rule whereby the subject or object being photographed must retain some element of its actuality, its connection to material reality - even if obscured, altered or distorted. I wonder if this is something implicit or inherent in the medium itself. . . . I guess first of all, would you even agree with this analysis? Then, perhaps you can contextualize your own pictures in "photographic terms"? Do you see your work as subversive; i.e. challenging or undermining the conventions of Modern photography? Or do you see yourself working within and transforming existing conventions? And, finally, in a somewhat related question and perhaps a good one to close on: where do you see your work headed next and in the future? What projects are you currently working on?

I am certainly not constrained by the medium of photography. Quite the contrary. I see it as a very free, experimental place to be. As I use it, its possibilities are endless. Walker Evans is a big influence for me, say his Torn Movie Poster, or his Polaroids and abstracts, which are very underrated. Actually, so too Roger Catherineau, and his photograms. And a lot of other artists used photography well, Edgar Degas' photography for example is wonderful, especially his accidents and solarizations.

However, the Orthodoxy of "Fine Art Photography" and its conventions, cliches, and proscriptions? Now that's a different matter. Yes, those are absolutely constraining, frustrating to me as an artist. I mean, think about it. Imagine telling a painter he can only paint with these 3 approved media, or a sculptor he must only use marble, or a filmmaker that he can only make documentaries? Only photography, out of pretty much every artistic medium out there, is hamstrung and conventionalized to such a silly degree. Told he can do THIS, but not THAT. Or only in THIS style, but not THAT way. Pretty much every year, a new "Fundamentalist" of sorts comes along with his proscription for what the "Real" photography is. It's just as bad as Sarah Palin's notion of the "Real America." As Stephen Colbert joked, pretty soon the whole map has been crossed off, and the only 'Real' patriots are living in a small town in Alaska.

The irony of course is that Photography is actually a very promiscuous medium. It is completely a technological medium, and so chemicals, cameras and styles go in and out of favor, Daguerreotypes, brownie cameras, polaroid film, dye based inks, etc. And yet, despite this, the Orthodoxy of Photography has always had its Fundamentalists, its conservative die-hards. This is because photography has typically been the little red-headed step child at the dance. The great Modernists finally succeeded in creating a "Separate Department of Art" for Photography with what they deemed its "appropriate" conventions, cliches and rules. Even to this day, the great Pictorialist photographers of the turn of the century are still marginalized, because the high priests of this orthodoxy still jealously protect their little photo ghetto down the museum hall, away from its bigger brothers, painting and sculpture. Thus a photograph can never be "too much" like another medium, not because of legitimate artistic decisions, but because they might then lose their special department financing, or their political reasons for being. "Separate but Equal" is sort of their rallying cry. Photography needs its Brown vs. Board of Education moment, where it's finally secure and confident enough to take the table with its siblings as a true equal.

Unfortunately, your question presumes all this orthodoxy. Abstraction is an artistic choice like any other. It should be no more, or less appropriate, for any artistic medium out there. But in this context, then yes, my work is probably very subversive. I am essentially saying to this mainstream, look at all these great things I can do with the medium of photography that you say cannot be done with the medium. I am suggesting that photography does not need to be confined to only the 3rd floor at MoMA. Isn't it funny how even floor layouts make subtle hints at photography's "place" in the artistic universe?

So yes, photography does indeed have a somewhat deeper connection to reality, I agree, because it is more 'exposed' by reality itself and physics & chemistry, as opposed to being hand-drawn by a human being. My pictures for example utilize natural forces, such as gravity and decay, light and dark. But photography has no 'special' relationship with representation, that's just another one of those conventions, that's those high priests and their PR talking again, trying to convince you why photography is such a 'special' little precious child in the corner who needs his very little 'own' Art Department. Again, if photographers like me choose to eschew representational conventions, then our choice should be no more or less valid.

In fact, the very first photography was hazy and immaterial, and happily so. Go look up Joseph Niepce's View at Le Gras, the supposed "First" photograph of all time. You will find many reproductions, but you probably won't find one that is true to the original. Rather, you will find the "official" reproduction made in 1952 made by a man named Helmut Gernsheim, who had the audacity to retouch the heck out of the original. What was, as expected, something hazy and wonderfully abstract from 1826, he touched up with watercolors, and guess what? He made it all nice and clean and identifiable, basically, way more representational (and boring) than that first, wonderfully mysterious relic. And to add insult to injury, Gernsheim even "forbade" any of those hazier reproductions to be seen at all, even though they were technically more accurate, showing what the "real" original photographic plate looked like. Just think about all the high irony here. Someone essentially painting onto a 125 year old photograph just to preserve some twisted, purist notion of what The Photograph "should" look like. Some "truer to Reality" photograph. That never existed!

This anecdote should tell you all you need to know about the Grand Inquisitors of Photography, their politics, and the length they will go to impose a very specific kind of history. Their history. But maybe all art history is this political and we just don't want to admit it.

As for future directions, some degree of abstraction will probably always be a major element in my work, though not necessarily completely. My next two projects will fuse abstraction with more recognizable subject matter, one a new series of portraits I am excited about, the other, with food elements. I hope to re-energize these two genres and break outside their typical conventions.