Visiting Artist Profiles

R. H. Quaytman

By Patricia Maloney March 15, 2012

The Visiting Artist Profile series, which highlights some of the artists, curators, and scholars who intersect with the Bay Area visual arts community through the various lecture programs produced by local institutions.

This article is part of the Visiting Artist Profile series, which highlights some of the artists, curators, and scholars that intersect with the Bay Area visual arts community through the various lecture programs produced by local institutions. R. H. Quaytman will speak at 7:30 pm on Monday, March 19, at the San Francisco Art Institute.


Chapter 12: iamb (Fresnell lens), 2008; diamond dust, silkscreen, and gesso on wood; 32.38 x 52.38 inches. Courtesy of Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York.

The stance of the painting is the profile.1

In offering an introduction to R. H. Quaytman’s work, Chapter 12, iamb, (Fresnell lens) (2008) is a good place to start.2 The silkscreen and gesso painting on panel is encrusted with diamond dust; from beneath the sparkling blue surface emerges a faint image of what might be a lamp, reflected light, or perhaps the Fresnel lens of the title. Originally used in lighthouses, Fresnel lenses are divided into concentric rings of very thin, flat, glass prisms that refract more light over greater distances than conventional lenses do. Similarly, Quaytman’s paintings, composed of sparse, abstract silkscreened images in muted palettes, obliquely bend information so that we perceive their subjects as if a door has been cracked open, revealing only a sliver of light that expands toward us from far across a room and draws us in.

Quaytman creates series of paintings she calls chapters; each is numbered consecutively and thematically relates to the venue where it is first exhibited, orienting viewers to a particular site. The orientation is concurrently optical and linguistic, spatial and historical. One encounters shimmering and dizzying abstractions adjacent to or overlaying silkscreened photographic images; they cohere through overtly formal and underlying narrative relationships. Each chapter illuminates a history that becomes visible at the intersections Quaytman creates between institutional archives, personal narratives, science, art, poetry, and architecture.3

Such intersections are evident from early in the artist’s career; personal and architectural lineages collide in “The Sun, Chapter 1” (2001). During that year Quaytman produced forty paintings for an exhibition at the Queens Museum, in New York, the only extant building from the 1939 World’s Fair. Quaytman’s grandfather and great-grandfather were killed driving home from the fair when a railway signal failed and a train struck them. Pairing these narratives—the World’s Fair and the men’s deaths—produces another in which the grand aspirations of the modern world are contrasted with its tragic limitations. It also reflects, as do the other chapters, what she calls her “lenticular perspective.” The daughter of poet Susan Howe and painter Harvey Quaytman, the artist notes that a childhood split  between suburban Connecticut and the East Village gave her the ability to shift back and forth between radically different points of view.4

Quaytman’s adult life has largely centered on the New York art scene, though after graduating from Bard College she had brief sojourns to study painting in Dublin and at the Institut des Hautes Études en Arts Plastiques, in Paris, in 1989.5 In 2010, she participated in the Whitney Biennial. The series she created for that exhibition, “Distracting Distance, Chapter 16,” mines both the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Marcel Breuer–designed building that houses it. Quaytman focused on the trapezoid-shaped window in the gallery where her paintings were subsequently installed and on the Edward Hopper painting A Woman in the Sun, from 1961, the same year she was born. She photographed artist K8 Hardy posing in the gallery; silkscreened images of her nude figure recur throughout the chapter. In one painting, a beveled

tromp l’oeil wood strip bisects the panel in front of Hardy’s bare back. Hardy bends away from viewers and toward the trapezoid that frames her and that is in turn contained within an angled white square. The wood strip plumbs the pictorial space that otherwise skews upward to the right, seeming to level the image against the actual physical space of the gallery. We can either stand firm outside the painting or enter a more off-kilter interior realm within it.

In this image, as in many of Quaytman’s paintings, orientation is really an act of reorientation and disorientation. She employs various optical patterns that play with perception of depth, space, and surface. A recurring motif is the scintillating grid, in which white dots are superimposed at the intersections of orthogonal gray lines laid over a dark background. When looking at such a grid, black dots seem to rapidly appear and disappear at random intersections. As part of a chapter, such paintings become markers by which Quaytman continually reexamines the tension between our willful perception and those images that intrude on our vision. As the writer David Lewis noted in his review of her 2009 exhibition at the Miguel Abreu Gallery, in New York, this tension “attests to the nature of Quaytman’s metaphorical systems, in which vision and disappearance, or blindness and insight, are inevitably intertwined.”6

There are no simple dichotomies of what is visible or not, as Quaytman deliberately creates blind spots and mirrors that confront and interrupt the course of looking. The “iamb, Chapter 12” paintings shown at Miguel Abreu Gallery build from the motif of a painting lit by a lamp; the resulting images convey glares, streaks of light, and haloes while playing with notions of illumination. The double implication of the chapter’s title, “iamb” as an assertion of identity (I am) and a metered rhyme (iambic), also comes into play with the self-reflexive repetition of an image of a painting in several of the works.7 In many of her chapters, the viewing space reverberates with echoes of itself in the paintings, the illusion of space reflecting the space in front of it.

But Quaytman just as frequently flattens that space as creates a mise en abyme. She will coat the surface of a panel with diamond dust, resulting in a push and pull of attraction toward a work that more dynamically asserts its presence as an object than it serves as a mirror of the room. Each work in a chapter makes an individual claim on the space it occupies and on its existence as a painting. The narrative(s) that we might construct from viewing a series depends equally upon how we might encounter each work.

Essential to this encounter is Quaytman’s claim that “the stance of the painting is the profile,” which, as she describes it, is determined by a viewer’s movement past it. Starting in 1991, when she won the Prix de Rome, Quaytman “began to think of paintings as objects that you passed by—as things that you saw not just head-on and isolated, but from the side, with your peripheral vision, and in the context of other paintings.”8 To look at a painting head-on is a deliberate gesture, but more frequently we come at a painting from an angle, drifting from work to work. In the same way that a scintillating grid wreaks havoc on one’s peripheral vision, Quaytman upends preconceptions of what is visible in her work by inviting viewers to look at them askew. By doing so, one finds that what plays at the edges of awareness comes into full view.


Distracting Distance, Chapter 16, 2010; screenprint, oil, and gesso on wood; 20 × 20 in. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchased with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee.



The Visiting Artist Profile series is supported by the San Francisco branch of the Kadist Art Foundation. Kadist participates in the development of society through contemporary art by collecting and producing the work of artists and conducting various programs to promote their role as cultural agents. The foundation also supports the work of curators, academics, and magazines internationally through its residency program and by hosting public events on Wednesdays and a Saturday Reading Room at its space at 3295 20th Street in the Mission.



1. Steel Stillman, “R.H. Quaytman,” Art in America, June 2010,

2. In the title, Fresnel lens is incorrectly spelled.

3. An exemplary example of the multiple threads that the artist weaves into her chapters is her recent exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, New Work: R. H. Quaytman, on view from October 22, 2010 to January 16, 2011. Curated by associate curator Apsara DiQuinzio, the included work, “The Eyelid Clicks / I see / Cold Poetry, Chapter 18,” was inspired by the San Francisco Renaissance poet Jack Spicer. For more information, see the January 6, 2011 Open Space blog post by Kevin Killian, 

4. Steel Stillman, “R.H. Quaytman.”

5. Quaytman was a founder and the director of the short-lived but highly influential gallery, Orchard, a collective located on the Lower East Side from 2005 to 2008.

6. David Lewis, “R.H. Quaytman,” Frieze, February 2009,

7. See Joan Waltemath, “R. H. Quaytman Chapter 12; iamb,” The Brooklyn Rail, February 2009,

8. Steel Stillman, “R.H. Quaytman.”

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