John Torreano, Dark Matters Collide with Doradus, 2012, acrylic paint, gems, and wood balls on plywood panels, 7 x 7’’.

John Torreano is a New York–based artist and curator. He has taught in New York University’s studio art program since 1992. Torreano’s “Dark Matters Everywhere: Paintings, Prints & Sculpture” spans over twenty years of his gem-based works and is on view at Carl Solway Gallery in Cincinnati through March 23, 2013.

BEFORE THERE WERE GEMS ON MY PAINTINGS, there were dots. At the time I was working in the style of lyrical abstraction and wanted to push against Greenberg’s idea of painting’s essentialism. I was painting dots to create additional illusions of space, to emphasize contradictory aspects within the work. The dots looked like stars, but I thought of them in a formalist sense, like shapes in an amorphous, chemical space. Larry Aldrich—who actually coined the term lyrical abstraction—saw these works and hated them! He said, “John, you make these beautiful paintings, and then you put these dots on them. It’s like pimples on an adolescent boy!” Eventually I got rid of almost everything except the dot. By the early 1970s, I had replaced the dots with gems.

I should specify that I use the terms jewels and gems interchangeably and that both words refer to different kinds of plastic and glass. In 1972, I was an artist-in-residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and was making plaques by stretching felt over plywood. I liked the material contrasts between the glass jewels and the felt. I was distributing the gems in random patterns across the plaques. And that was what did it for me—that was the spark! Unfortunately, most of those Art Institute works are now gone, though I believe Lynda Benglis and Jennifer Bartlett have one and maybe Joel Shapiro.

The column paintings emerged from a desire to get more space in the studio by making “thin” paintings. At that time I was making paintings that had giant quarter-round moldings on the edges. The molding served to bulge the painting out toward the viewer, like an expanding universe. I wanted the gems front and center. When I envisioned the idea for the column paintings it was, “Oh, I’ll just eliminate the canvas and join the two-quarter rounds together to make a half round column.” I liked the column shape for painting because it was another way of attacking the idea of painting as a window that contained information—or painting as a container of meaning—and put it into a more transactional space. The rounded surface bulged out toward the viewer from the wall in a 180-degree curve from the wall, which in essence meant each person in the room could have an equal transactional relationship with painting. With these “paintings” there could be no hierarchical point of view. There was a 180-degree equality for the viewers. Yet, at the same time, each viewer’s location was marked particular by the specific reflectivity of the gems.

When Lynda Benglis first saw the columns she said, “Well John, you’re really making crosses because of your Catholicity. Why don’t you just make crosses?” Her comment caused an epiphany. I thought, Oh my God, she’s right! I had always viewed my use of the gems through a highly intellectualized, highly formalized framework and all of a sudden I was challenged to think of them in terms of content. Suddenly the inlaid gems in the columns could reference the syphilitic wounds of Christ, as in Matthias Grünewald’s fourteenth-century Isenheim Altarpiece, and the sparkles from the gems were like vigil lights, and so on. I had to own these iconic readings. From that point on I began to see form and content as inextricable—you can’t have one without the other. I took up Lynda’s challenge and made a whole series of crosses, which were controversial in themselves.

— As told to Alex Jovanovich