Live from the Red Carpet: An Interview with Artist Alexander Kaletski

Artsy Editors
Nov 16, 2014 12:02AM

A highly successful actor and secretive underground singer in the Soviet Union, the versatile Russian-American artist Alexander Kaletski merges his reflection on personal history and keen observation of the American celebrity culture in his latest series of work Red Carpet. The following interview is conducted with the artist by COCA Art Media. Alexander Kaletski’s Red Carpet is on view through December 20, 2014, in concurrent exhibitions at Anna Zorina Gallery in Chelsea and Mary Boone Gallery at 745 Fifth Avenue. 

COCA Art Media: Why did you choose ‘Red Carpet’ as the theme of the exhibition?

Alexander Kaletski: I escaped from Soviet Russia and came to the United States about 40 years ago. Back then in Russia, red was everywhere – in propaganda posters and flags on the street. I got frustrated with the color. I hated red. Coming to America was a great relief for me, because there was no red color any more! A lot of colorful advertisements, not just red. Until one day, I watched an Oscar nomination and I saw the red carpet. Instead of being all around, the red carpet was underneath, like a background. At that moment a fantastic idea hit me: Why not make an interesting and comic series, in which the red color would not be used as a dictatorship color, but in a funny, sexy and American way? It took me about six years to complete, and here is this new series Red Carpet.  

COCA: Which piece in the show initiated the series?

AK: The first painting of the series is simply called Red Carpet-Hollywood, which is displayed at Mary Boone Gallery. It started as an abstract painting with only a red shape and white background. Also, among the first few paintings is Big Shot at Anna Zorina Gallery. You can easily detect the resemblance in composition between these two paintings. In this one, the figure is a powerful man, who in America is called a ‘hot shot’. He’s a little guy, but his ego demands everything big – a big umbrella and the biggest limousine he could get.  

COCA: Another painting in the exhibition It’s Lonely at the Top also has a male figure holding an umbrella, but the tone and ambience of that painting are different from that in Big Shot.

AK: Yes. It is an American expression –  “It’s lonely at the top”. Climbing to the top, especially in America, is so hard. Many people dedicate their entire life to the process. The view at the top may be wonderful, but it’s also lonely. Along the trip, you may lose friends, a sense of reality, and the ground to which you were born. 

COCA: Do you have the same feeling sometimes?

AK: (Laughs) I’m not on top yet. But for me, official success is secondary. Climbing and reaching the top is not important. What I truly value and cherish is my relationships with the people who have supported me through all these years. I would never jeopardize my friendship and my love for being number one. I don’t care. 

COCA: The creation of the Red Carpet series spanned over 6 years. Tip of the Iceberg and Red Magic Carpet in particular took you 14 years and 12 years respectively. Were you surprised by any turns this series has made in the process?

AK: A lot of surprises. Surprises and accidents are an inseparable part of my working process. If I am not surprised, it is boring to me. If I just carry out exactly what I planned at the beginning, I wouldn’t even paint. Oftentimes I start with a general idea, and then I look for the unexpected. For example, Tip of the Iceberg did not actually start as a Red Carpet piece. I was simply fascinated by the mixture of bodies and the intertwining composition. And the original tone of color was brown and grey. It was a good painting, but a bit depressing from my perspective. For about two or three years afterwards, it was just hanging in my studio. As time went by, I became tired and even angry towards it. One day I just sprayed it all over with black paint, almost like an attempt to destroy the painting. After I did that, you know what? It actually looked good! It became stronger, but at the same time even more depressing and full of negative emotions. It took me another five years to gradually reanimate the figures by adding different colors. Little by little, they became alive again, and the black paint could only be observed in traces. I left it for another five years, until I started to work on the Red Carpet series. “What a great idea it would be to put red, instead of brown and grey, on the background!” I thought. And because of all the layers underneath, the red turned out to be rather rich and deep, as you can see now.

COCA: The backgrounds of your paintings in this series have delicate and unique textures similar to the works in the ‘White Rain’ series. How would you explain the connection between ‘White Rain’ series and ‘Red Carpet’?

AK: I used this technique of creating a cascading white background when working toward the exhibition titled White Rain, which featured a series of white minimalist paintings with no figures. I experimented with different tones and shades of white by blending white with other colors. The resulting texture of each painting was unpredictable – sometimes drippy, sometimes stripped, other times amazingly even. I created about 20 different variations, until one day a thought suddenly came to me “Why not add a red carpet to the white background?” So in the Red Carpetseries, each painting starts as an abstract form composed of the white background and a red shape. However, I think deep down I am a figurative artist and so I began to add figures. For example, Still on Top and Red Carpet - Hollywood had remained abstract for a couple years before I decided to add Charlie Chaplin and the blimp on them respectively. The figures make the paintings more interesting and more me.

COCA: Your figures are depicted with various levels of detail and highly energetic brush strokes. How do you find the balance between figuration and abstraction, freedom and control in your artistic creation?

AK: This series actually represents my philosophy of art. I combine premeditated compositions with technical spontaneity. Once I start to work on the painting, I just let it be. The painting dictates what will happen. For the Red Carpet series, I would have general ideas about the paintings, each beginning with a black background. I splash a mixture of white paint and oil on top of the background and let it run down the canvas. The next three days – while the white paint is still wet – are crucial. I have to incarnate the actual shape of the red carpet into the still running white. To do this, I have to be very quick and very decisive, because if I failed to control it in the first three days, I would have to throw it away and start all over again. This is interesting and improvisational: I do have a general idea of the initial shape, but the features evolve in time. I have about one day to scratch a figure out of the white background and red shape, with my fingers or a paper towel. Finally, after about two weeks when the paint is dried again, I add extra touches to the painting, like the bloody smoke coming out of Stalin’s pipe in Siamese Dictators. The entire process may take several weeks, two months, or sometimes three years.

COCA: Did you face any particular challenges while working on this series?

AK: It’s always fun in the first few days. It is exhilarating to be responsible for bringing life to something that wasn’t yet in existence. The real struggle comes when the painting is dried after several months and I start to see things that I want to change. I begin to add extra things to balance. This is a struggle that takes time and bravery. Because the freshness of the painting is very important for me, I only add a little bit so that the painting is not overworked. It is dangerous to put something on top of what already is kind of interesting. You don’t know if the little extra detail would destroy the painting or make it better. When I was a young artist, I was cautious and intimidated by situations like that. Now, I will just paint another one. It is more interesting to follow what the painting tells me than to force my idea upon the painting. Oftentimes, the painting knows what it needs more than I do.

COCA: What’s your advice to young artists?

AK: Never give up and follow only your own feelings and your heart. Don’t adopt a style, just because it’s “correct”, successful and fashionable at the moment. By doing so, you will always be behind. You will be chasing something that has already been done.  So just keep going your own direction, sooner or later things will fall into the right place, your time will come, and you will be leading the trend. This may take a long time, but that’s what makes you a real artist.


Interview/ Lu Jia                   

Text/ Lihui Xi

Photography/ Zhiyue (Will) Wang, Ping Wang

Artsy Editors