Emerging in the mid-1960s when the definition of art was a constant argument, David Novros adamantly pursued painting, pushing it in new and unexpected ways. For over sixty years he has steadfastly engaged abstraction and its integral relationship to the conditions of architectural space. His “portable murals,” as he calls them, comprise modular, geometrically shaped canvases with uninflected, monochrome surfaces that directly incorporate the wall, as do his permanent frescos. Shortly after moving to New York City from Los Angeles in 1965, Novros’s work was presented in some of the most significant galleries of the time, including Park Place, Bykert, and Dwan, as well as in the landmark exhibition Systemic Painting, organized by Lawrence Alloway at the Guggenheim Museum in 1966. Since then, Novros has resolutely explored painting in place while never veering from his initial path.
I had the great pleasure of working with you on the occasion of my exhibition A Minimal Future? Art as Object 1958–1968, which I organized at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), in 2004. That exhibition sought to explore the emergence and foundations of Minimal art in the United States. Though Minimal art was more associated with sculptural production, the exhibition included the work of a number of painters, including Jo Baer, Ralph Humphrey, Robert Mangold, Agnes Martin, Brice Marden, Paul Mogensen, Robert Ryman, among others. Did you feel your work was aligned with Minimalism? Did you feel that painting was accepted into that discourse?
I had thought that the word Minimalism was the invention of writers, curators, and so on. I never knew any painters or sculptors who thought of themselves as “Minimalists.” The word is used to describe work by a disparate group of people—including painters. I thought that the idea of painting being “dead” was just another piece of nonsense being pushed by people who had little idea about the past and potential of painting.
The works we included in A Minimal Future? were three large-scale modular works from 1968, all from MOCA’s collection, that were first shown in an exhibition at Bykert. At MOCA they were each presented on a separate wall in a room and together functioned like a triptych. Those works, comprising right-angled-shaped monochrome units in rich permutations of primary colors as well as browns, blacks, and grays, were produced with sprayed lacquer and dry pigment on fiberglass, which gave them an uninflected and lustrous surface. Thin and very flat to the wall, the units had a distinctive object status and systematic approach, and were also exemplary of your relationship to architecture, incorporating the negative space of the wall into the composition. You have described your works as portable murals. Can you speak about these works and your engagement of architectural space and place? How do you locate the work on a wall?
When I made the paintings that were shown at MOCA and elsewhere, I was making wall painting without having a permanent place to have them installed. Ideally, I would have painted all of my work directly on the wall, and that is still the case. But the commercial structure surrounding the use of painting in our culture made that impossible, so in the mid-1960s I began making “portable murals.” I have tried to make these paintings respond to the architecture, light, and use of the places where they were hung. I used thin fiberglass panels because they were the least obtrusive and allow the image to be as close to the wall as possible. To that end, I made a hanging device that would keep the semi-flexible panels on the same plane as the wall. All of this was done to insist on the “paintingness” or “anti-objectness” of my intentions. My belief in the continuing power of painting was shared by my friends Brice Marden, Paul Mogensen, Bob Duran, and others; and instead of questioning painting’s relevancy, we acted on our belief in the power of this ancient activity.
In 1970, you produced a fresco for Donald Judd’s home and studio on Spring Street in SoHo, which is now the Judd Foundation. Can you talk about your relationship with Judd and how that commission came about? Can you talk about your early interest in frescos and murals? Was the mural a natural evolution from the earlier works of the ’60s? I believe that the work in the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection, Untitled (1969), was produced just prior to your first mural?
I have never thought of painting in terms of the art-school language of “positive” and “negative.” Rather, I thought about the image and its relation to the wall—or the site. I began drawing and making studies for the paintings with that in mind. At first the “place” was a gallery; then with the mural I painted for Judd in 1970, I began a series of paintings in place and was able to conceive of the work as it responded to the conditions I encountered. I was naive, and I hoped these conditions would exist “permanently.” The concept of permanence that accompanied all my thinking about painting of the past proved to be illusory. Commerce and real-estate interests have pretty much demolished this idea. That became clear to me when the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) tore down the fresco wall I had painted for one of their “projects” shows in 1973. I offered to donate the painting, thinking it could be covered by a wall instead of being destroyed; but I hadn’t thought that, very shortly, this entire part of the museum would no longer exist. You see, in my mind a museum was a place that protected painting and gave it a home. I never thought there would be a time when you wouldn’t see Paul Cézanne’s bather in the first room of MoMA, and I never thought there would be a time when museums would charge an admission. I’m saying these things to give you an idea of the moment in the ’60s when I first came to New York.
Your first three exhibitions were at three legendary galleries: the artists collective Park Place, together with Mark di Suvero in New York in 1965; your first solo exhibition at Dwan in LA in 1966; followed by a solo exhibition at Bykert in New York in 1967. Can you talk about your experience with those galleries, your peers, and the art world of that time? What was the impact of the inclusion of your work in the 1966 exhibition Systemic Painting at the Guggenheim?
I was lucky to be given places to make and exhibit my work in the ’60s and early ’70s. Park Place was, as you say, an artists’ collective. The sculptor Frosty Myers brought Mark di Suvero to my studio, and Mark, in turn, asked me to show with him. Following that exhibition, the next year I asked Carl Andre to show with me. The gallery was supported by several people to whom we gave work. One of these people was Virginia Dwan, and she asked me to make an exhibition in her LA gallery in 1966–67. I had grown up in LA and painted since I was a child. Although I continued to paint, I went to the University of Southern California primarily to study film because at that time I wanted to be a director. It wasn’t until 1961 when I went east to the Yale Summer School that I turned my attention entirely to painting. Then when I graduated I went to Europe, and I saw things that deeply affected me: the Alhambra in Spain, the mosaics of Ravenna, Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel, the Fra Angelico in San Marco, Florence, and so on. Much of this was mural art, a kind of painting that would begin my own thinking about what I wanted to make. Bykert Gallery allowed me to make my portable murals visible, and Klaus Kertess was a good friend. Marden, Mogensen, and Duran also showed there and were my close friends as well, so it was a very happy time. In addition, I had a couple of shows with Riko Mizuno in Los Angeles. Kertess, Paula Cooper, Mizuno, and Dwan were great helpers, and I was very lucky to have them as dealers. Now I am once again with Paula Cooper, whom I have known since 1965 when she became the director of Park Place. I love Paula and share her commitment to political justice, literature, and an extra-commercial view of the arts.
The notion of the portable mural and its relationship to place appears to be a throughline in your work of the past sixty years. How has your work evolved? What have been the concerns of your recent work?
My work has evolved painting by painting, including the many mural projects I have made and a series of paintings that relate to a building that I have never been able to make. These paintings are in my studio, and I work on them every day. The most recent mural work I have made includes a “boat house” that I designed to house a three-walled mural painting and a large painting for the Wiesbaden Museum, Salidas (2012–16), that was based on studies I made in Catalonia.
The paintings I am showing now at Paula Cooper Gallery are an extension of my work since the ’60s. They come from watercolors I began making at the beginning of Covid and reflect my interest in ninth- and tenth-century Asturias painting and architecture. The work that I saw in Oviedo and other places reminded me a great deal of the kind of paintings that were made on the walls of Ravenna, Rome, and Herculaneum. This anti-literary painting, with its strong connection to place, can only be understood when seen in the place it was painted in order to understand the profound integration of the architecture’s virtual space with the space of the painting. These are some of the concerns that still animate my work.
Ann Goldstein is deputy director and senior curator at large at the Art Institute of Chicago. Prior to joining the Art Institute in 2016, she served as director of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and as senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.