Richard Maxwell is a playwright with connections to the art world in New York. Called “one of the more adventurous theatre artists that this country has produced in decades” by the New Yorker‘s Hilton Als, he has presented numerous productions at the Kitchen arts space in New York’s Chelsea gallery district and also featured in the 2012 Whitney Biennial. He is also represented by Greene Naftali gallery in New York.
In late February, Maxwell made a surprise move by opening his first-ever show of paintings at Six Summit Gallery inside the city’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. On view until April 5, the exhibition includes large-scale paintings (the biggest is six by eight feet) hanging “behind glass, between Dunkin’ Donuts and Frames Bowling alley, on the second floor of the south building at Port Authority,” as described in an announcement that Maxwell sent out.
All made since the pandemic locked the city down, the paintings pay tribute to the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, where Maxwell lives and walks his dog, Goldie. On the phone with ARTnews, Maxwell talked about coming to see his surroundings in a different way and transferring his visions to canvas.
This is your first time showing paintings? What occasioned such a move?
It started off conceptual. I’ve been using a friend of mine’s studio in Hoboken since back in the fall. I’ve been a Hell’s Kitchen resident for many years, and I know Port Authority, but the building where the New Jersey Transit busses are I didn’t know as well. On my travels, I happened to notice there was an art gallery there, which struck me as odd. In fact, I was coming back from the studio once and there was an opening with people in masks and kids hanging with skateboards and the like. It had a nice energy, especially with the number of vacated storefronts in Port Authority.
What was the inspiration for the paintings you made?
I took photos during lockdown while I was walking my dog, and like a lot of us, I was impressed by the empty streets. I was going to write about the sensation of walking among buildings and being alone in a neighborhood I have known for so many years—and have complained about for so many years. I never really feel in my skin in Hell’s Kitchen, with the amount of tourism and stuff going on. But I started to really commune with the buildings, thinking about the energy they gave off and what properties it might have. I found it really compelling to measure the whole experience of my neighborhood through these buildings, and, as a consequence, they took on a figurative aspect. I was going to write about it but then realized, Oh, no, this makes more sense as a painting idea. I started painting a few years ago in earnest, mostly portraits. But I’ve never entered into the “painting show” realm, and it did—and still does—feel weirdly like a theater show.
What made you start painting when you did?
I got a review for one of my plays like 20 years ago: It wasn’t a really good review, and it happened to mention in passing that I would be better off as a painter. That stuck with me because I feel like it had a point, with how important composition is to me and how static an image can be for the viewer. I really liked the idea of oil painting and looking at masters like Corot and Degas and Manet. But the whole process was intimidating, so I took a class at the Art Students League and that got me over the hump. I had to find my feet quickly and just figure it out as I went. After that, there could be like a process.
What about the process intrigues you?
I hadn’t realized how forgiving oil paint can be. Painting with it kind of felt like rehearsing, where you can make mistakes. I make a lot of mistakes. But the tricky part of these Port Authority paintings is that in acrylic. I had to paint faster than I was used to because it dries so fast.
Why did you use acrylic instead oil?
Because somebody gave me a bunch of acrylic paint. [Laughs.]
Walking around your neighborhood’s empty streets, what did you become most consciously aware of?
In a lot of ways this project was a way for me to come to some kind of acceptance with where I am. I moved here in the early ’90s and used to work at this cafe called Paradise on 43rd Street. You could get a cup of coffee for $0.60, and all kinds of people would come through, all walks of life. All the colorful characters who would come through there felt like a community, at street-level. But I’ve watched that facet of the area diminish over time, with all the tourism and commercialism and development that has happened. When I didn’t have a dog, I was kind of in denial. I didn’t have to encounter with it. I could just pretend it was like it was and just stay my apartment, not really having to deal with the changing environment around me so much.
What about that could painting capture that writing couldn’t?
Writing in general has been really tough since the lockdown began. I think it’s because as soon as you feel like you have a footing, another day comes along and you’ve lost that footing because new information has come along. If you think about the early days of the pandemic, first it was don’t wear masks, don’t wear PPE, wipe down your groceries. It was constantly changing, and our life patterns were changing as a result. And then George Floyd’s death caused a radical change in our thinking. It felt like—and still does feel like—a series of cultural shifts in ways of relating to each other. A sense of footing is still elusive to me, and it also seemed like an opportunity to reckon with something that was really constant: buildings and the landscape.
How much or little do you think of painting this as theatrical, and vice versa?
Like rehearsing, you leave one day feeling, Oh yeah, I got it, that’s it. And then you come back the next day and realize you don’t have it and try to figure out what went wrong or what needs to change. One of the questions I keep coming back to is the question of fidelity to reality. That’s a fascinating conversation to have with an actor, and I’ve enjoyed appropriating that conversation to the canvas. What do you leave out? What’s necessary? Those are refrains in rehearsal with the people I work with, and now I’m having that conversation with myself and whatever I’m trying to capture. That’s compelling to me: filling in gaps to help in terms of communication but then, also, [avoiding] getting into explaining things. When you cross over into explaining, it loses energy.
Have you gotten to see people interact with the paintings in their setting? It’s obviously very different than a gallery in Chelsea.
Right away. As soon as we were loading in, custodians were banging on the glass and giving the thumbs up. That right there, that made it all worthwhile.
Thinking about your more typical work, how do you feel about the future fate of theater? Have you started imagining the prospects for staging plays again?
It does cross my mind. I’d like to think that we’ll be better able to measure what theater does, having not had it for so long. I think there’s a lot that we take for granted about being in a room together, watching something. And the fact is that when theater does come back, it’s going to be at greatly reduced numbers. The stuff that has impressed me since the pandemic started has been really, really small-scale, like when you’re an audience of one dealing with an environment. Quality comes into focus more than quantity. The quality of your engagement and the intimacy of it, I think, will become more of a factor when it comes to people getting back into rooms again to share an experience. But it’s hard to measure and hard to articulate what happens when you sit down in an audience and watch something live. I think this experience is going to is definitely going to shape that—and shape it differently.