Squeak Carnwath is an artist and “dedicated Trump resister” who lives and works in Oakland, California. A Professor Emerita at UC Berkeley, she has been awarded two Individual Artist Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Lee Krasner Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation; in 2019 she was inducted into the National Academy of Design and Art. Carnwath’s large-scale paintings feature her personal vocabulary of faces, vases, candlesticks, sinking ships, blocks of color, and constellations, while placing written messages squarely in front of her viewers. Notably, Carnwath also scrawls the titles of her paintings down the left and right edges of her canvases which she always displays unframed, something I wanted to learn more about. I spoke with Carnwath over the phone in February 2020—prior to COVID, protests, and fires—with her dog Vermeer barking occasionally in the background.
Amanda Gluibizzi (Rail): I visited Jane Lombard Gallery when your show was up in 2015–2016 and noticed that you wrote the titles of your paintings on your edges.
Squeak Carnwath: It’s so I can find them easily. In the racks, you can just read the sides of the painting. I like no labels, though nobody agrees with that, then people know what the title is without having to read a small label if they don’t want to.
Rail: That is something that I was struck by at the show: that I didn’t have to walk around with an image sheet or the press release but could just approach the paintings themselves and see what they were and what you intended them to be.
Carnwath: It makes them accessible. I think that’s really, really important.
Rail:When you approach your paintings or other people’s paintings, do you often look at the sides of them?
Carnwath: I do because I’m curious whether they have stretched them afterwards or whether they were willing to get them dirty, or yeah … if there’s fingerprints…I’m curious to see how thick the paint might be on the edge. Because I think we should try to figure out how they were made! For instance, students ask me how I make the paint look like graphite because everything in my paintings is made with oil paint, and I say, “I went and stared at paintings by people like John F. Peto and other people like that, and I tried to figure it out and I looked closely, and I feel like I invented it.” I wouldn’t tell them how I did it because they should figure out their own way, and artists should be kind of forensic about how other artists make their paintings because then they’re inventing how they think someone else would do it. I think it’s a very important thing to do. And I think that art historians should do that, too!
Rail: Do you feel that the titles on the edges can kind of act as almost a frame for you?
Carnwath: Yes, and the thickness of the stretcher bar. I want them to have that thickness so that they’re kind of an object. But because a painting isn’t an object—it isn’t sculpture, you can’t bump into it, it can’t walk across the room or be in the room; even if it’s two-sided like a Dona Nelson, it still exists mostly in our brains and what we see and how we perceive it. But I want it to appear that it has physicality, even though it’s a thin film of dirt and pigment and binder and isn’t really a thing. I like that about it a lot. I think, for me, painting is more a philosophical object, much more than sculpture, because it doesn’t exist in the world that we inhabit, it exists in a world we can make or adopt; it exists on all sorts of levels. We can make ourselves small and be in it: it can envelop us. Scale makes a difference about how we respond to it, and for that reason, it can’t even be photographed because a photograph loses all of the tactility that the material has on its surface because paint is very tactile, even when it’s really smooth, and it has layers of color that are never going to show up in a photograph. They just don’t, no matter how good the photograph is.
Rail: Someone said that the best photographs are the worst about that …
Carnwath: That’s right. A good photograph can make a bad painting look really great, and then it’s disappointing to go and see it.
Rail: Do you intend for people to notice that the titles are on the edges, aside from when they look and see that there’s no tag?
Carnwath: I think they could; they’re not required to. People’s awareness is … people are aware of a lot of different things and a lot of nothing, too. Some people don’t notice quite a bit.
Rail: I asked that question because at Jane Lombard, that was the first time that I had ever seen your paintings in person, and I didn’t realize that you write the titles on the edges because nobody talks about that.
Carnwath: Yeah, nobody does.
Rail: But the way that they were hung, the way that you walked into the gallery, the first thing you noticed was the title of one of the paintings. I was really interested in that: almost that the painting met you first and then brought you around the corner to what the “real” painting was.
Carnwath: It is kind of like a little fence that opens a gate, yeah.