Pastel Self-Portrait 3 (from www.charlespfahl.com)
Charles Pfahl is well known as one of the foremost representational artists of his generation. Whether in pastel self-portraits or complex depictions of savagely beautiful “archetypes,” his work is charged with dreamlike intensity intensity and splendor. He is the recipient of both the Isaac M. Maynard Prize and the Andrew Carnegie Prize from the National Academy of Design, among many other awards and honors. His paintings can be found on his website (http://www.charlespfahl.com/) as well as in institutions and collections across the country, including the Winterman Museum, the Columbus Museum of Art, and the private collection of Oprah Winfrey. In a recent conversation with The Abbeville Manual of Style, Mr. Pfahl recalled his background as an artist, dissented amiably from our tentative interpretations of his work, and touched on subjects as diverse as Caravaggio and the late Tim Russert’s eyebrow.
AMoS: What are your preferred materials and techniques, and what first attracted you to them?
CP: My grandmother studied painting. When I was 12, she sent me to her teacher in Akron, Ohio, and I was introduced to oil painting and it has been my preferred medium ever since.
AMoS: Which works are your personal favorites? If you had to salvage one of your works from a fire, flood, locust swarm, etc., which would it be?
CP: Archetype is my favorite; however, it is way too large to salvage in an emergency. My second favorite is The Offering but because of the weight of the frame it would be much too heavy to carry.
So, if there were a fire, or other disaster, I’d grab my wife, my cat, and my dog.
AMoS: Which of your past works would you do differently if you were attempting them now? Any old works that you “disown” completely?
CP: I try to mentally disown all of my past works—or I would never be able to part with them.
I suppose I would do many of my early paintings differently now, but there is no painting in particular that I would want to go back and change. In retrospect, there are always paintings that I am not happy with—but at the time I painted them, I didn’t feel that way or I would never have shown them to anyone—and I certainly would never have sold them.
AMoS: Many of the images from your “Childhood” series feature baby dolls and stuffed animals experiencing various forms of suffocation or decay. In these images, are you exploring your childhood in particular or the nature of childhood and memory more generally?
CP: In Childhood the plastic represents water, not suffocation. And to me there are no (intentional) images of suffering in the painting. That is not what I saw when I painted it. The images in Childhood have more to do with design and color. I think the suffering is in the eye of the viewer. I can’t help what other people see in my work.
Childhood is an exploration of my childhood combined with the general nature of childhood and memory.
Childhood (click through for larger image)
AMoS: The toy motif from “Childhood” also recurs in “Archetype”, a grotesque and powerful work akin to a Crucifixion. To whom does this “Archetype” belong? Your own imagination? The artist’s imagination? The collective unconscious?
CP: Archetype is part of the collective conscious. For this painting only, there is a detailed explanation of its meaning posted on my website because I wanted to remind—or inform—people that The Great Mother appears in all mythologies, and that the fish head itself is specific to Native American mythology. The painting has religious undertones, but the image is entirely mine as it relates to the Great Mother in her many different forms. (I feel that a website image does not convey the true beauty of this work due to its size.)
Archetype (click through for larger image)
AMoS: In a couple of your self-portraits you look neither happy nor tormented, but rather grimacing or vexed. Can you tell us about what aspects of yourself these portraits express?
CP: I chose a particular expression of wonder or surprise in the self-portrait Anubis.
Usually, after staring at myself in a mirror for a long time, an expression just appears, and I go with that. As I am not too concerned about how I look in my self-portraits, I try not to force an expression—and I wonder how many people know what their expression is at any given moment? In any case, I am not looking at myself as me. I am just the model.
(To me sometimes the late Tim Russert’s lifted eyebrow seemed to indicate that he was angry. He was probably unaware that a raised eyebrow indicated anger to some of his viewers.)
AMoS: Which artists have had the greatest influence on your work? Which artists do you admire but feel distant from?
CP: John Koch, Caravaggio—and many other artists—were major influences in my early work.
I admire the work of Antonio Lopez Garcia.
Another favorite is Louise Bourgeoise.
(Everything I see influences my work.)
Artists who work in a totally different medium—like Joseph Cornell, Charles Burchfield or Rodin—are different but I don’t feel distant from them.
I am inclined to connect with a particular painting or work rather than the artist.
AMoS: As an artist, what is your work routine like?
CP: I usually work every day. I get up and go and work till the end of the day. My work is limited only by the amount of daylight there is and my desire to paint. As I get older, I work harder because I have fewer distractions.
I have a simple routine: I get up, drink a couple of cups of coffee, take a long walk, and then I go to my studio and work. (Of course, I rake leaves when that is needed and I do other things around the house, but my focus is always my work. I am more inclined to stay home and paint than to go out into the world unless it is absolutely necessary.)
AMoS: We’re told you sold a painting to Oprah. Which one was it and how did you react to that?
CP: Oprah Winfrey bought Prometheus, and I was delighted.
AMoS: Finally, when you hear the word “style,” whom or what do you think of?
CP: I think of Armani or Aston Martin. I don’t think of style in relation to painting.
We didn’t ask Mr. Pfahl whether he thinks of it in relation to independent publishing companies that also happen to begin with “A,” but we do thank him sincerely for his time and insights. Our next interview will have more of a literary bent, as we trade witty, allusive bon mots (well, so we imagine) with Raymond Hammond, editor of the poetry journal The New York Quarterly. Stay tuned!