This holiday season, we’re excited to introduce Pomegranate, a publishing and printing company that offers its customers “art you can bring home.” In celebration of Pomegranate’s commitment to inclusivity, we’re proud to spotlight some of the brilliant women artists in their catalogue. Read more about Pomegranate below.
Painter LC Armstrong takes a twelve-minute ferry and a quiet, reverse-commute bike ride to her studio every day. Recently, she moved to a bigger studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. She takes advantage of the nearly empty building to sing while she paints.
Armstrong’s work is delightful and full of surprises. She talks about the “thrill” of subverting expectations as a child, by drawing on the wall. You’ll see for yourself when you read the interview, but here’s a little preview. When she was musing on the triptych behind her (roses on fire in a coil of razor wire), which had taken her two years to complete, she said, “Nobody does full frontal roses. When artists paint roses, they usually turn them to the back, they turn them to the side, they do maybe one full-frontal… This is, I think, sixty-something full-frontal roses.”
Armstrong generously showed me around her studio. She showed me some of her iconic paintings, like “Sunrise in the Garden,” where animals drink from shining water behind vibrant tropical flowers in the foreground. She showed me a more somber piece with white flowers in an abandoned garden. Several of her pieces lately have focused on existential challenges. One painting about climate change shows people—famous people, neighbors, Armstrong’s family—carrying the items they would save from a flood of Biblical proportions.
Below are selections from my conversation with LC Armstrong.
AEL: How has your art practice changed throughout your career?
LC Armstrong: I’ve switched [materials] several major times in my life. I started out as a sign painter because my father had a neon business in Venice, California and he had me working there as a child laborer, very Dickensian. I worked my way through art school by painting signs, customizing cars, so I’ve got those skills. Then, at Art Center [ Art Center College of Design, Pasadena] I earned a degree in illustration. That was the only department at that time where you could take classes in figure drawing, color theory, and perspective (classical artist training), because the fine arts department was focused on minimalism and conceptualism.
I came to New York in the early ’80s and worked as an illustrator, making a ton of money, but I absolutely hated my life. My then-boyfriend, an industrial designer, wanted to move to San Francisco, and I wanted to go back to art, or fine art this time. When we arrived in California, I cried for three days because I already missed New York. I enrolled in San Francisco Art Institute where I received a degree in fine art. It was a hotbed of conceptual art, especially the video/performance department, which was my major, along with sculpting. I learned to weld there, but at the very end, I was drawn back to painting.
When I came [back] to New York, [I was] working as an artist assistant for $6 an hour for Tishan Hsu. I built the infrastructures of his pieces and learned to tile them. I also worked on his paintings which were process-driven. From making almost $100 grand my first year as an illustrator to making $6 per hour as a studio assistant was difficult! But that’s how I met the most important people who helped my career. At that time I was already 35; I met a writer, Kirby Gookin, through Tishan and he brought a German dealer to see my work. My first real show was in Cologne, and Sophia Unger’s gallery, she put me in this fabulous group show with great German artists, all women. Then a year later she gave me my first solo show, and the year after that I was in the 42nd Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting. I had met the curator through Pat Hearn. Everybody said, “How did she do that? How did she go from nothing?” But I was a very ripe tomato, let’s say.
AEL: Was there a point when you decided to be an artist?
LC Armstrong: I remember it the very first day I drew on the wall, I was three years old. I also knew that I was not supposed to draw on the wall. Maybe that’s why it was so exciting.
My mother was trying to raise the three of us kids on a hairdresser’s salary. I had the smallest box of crayons, only five colors. But I was the best artist in the classroom. The other kids used to give me their broken crayons and in exchange, I would draw them a picture. I kept the crayons in a box of cigars—how ironic, it was a Dutch Masters Cigar box!
AEL: Has the pandemic changed your art practice?
LC Armstrong: Everybody must think my life is horrible because nothing changed when Covid came. I mean in the initial lockdown, yes, because I wasn’t going across the Brooklyn Bridge to my studio, which was then in Brooklyn Heights. During the height of Covid, I sold my studio, as I was given an offer I couldn’t refuse. My new studio is in an almost empty building and during Covid, very few people were there. But it’s a great place to work and it’s much bigger than my other studio. So I’m very happy here. But no, Covid did not affect me very much because that’s how I live. I’m alone most of the time and cook at home every day. People have asked me if I want to retire, and I say no, why would I? What do people do when they retire? They start painting.
AEL: Do you have any advice for women artists who are earlier in their careers?
LC Armstrong: Oh boy, I don’t know. I’ve made every mistake in the book. Get your teeth cleaned once a year at least. That’s very important, to take care of your teeth. And be nice to everyone.
One thing that women do which is a big mistake is that they often don’t appreciate the skills they’re actually good at. They often think that they need to be somebody else, change, because “whatever I can do is not that good,” and I think that comes from not getting enough attention early on. There was an obit in the New York Times on the artist Hedda Stern. She is the only woman in a famous 1951 Life magazine photo of Abstract Expressionists — Rothko’s in the front and you know all the big guys, de Kooning, Pollock, et al — and she’s standing on a table. She still has her coat on and is clutching her handbag. She barely made it to that photoshoot because nobody told her until the last minute. You should look up her New York Times obit.
The obit angered me because her own dealer said, “She kept changing her style.” Well guess what: men do it and they’re called geniuses, right? If a woman artist changes, “She’s fickle.” How many times did Picasso change his style? Nobody cared, in fact, they lauded him for it. Women have to trust themselves and stand by their guns and change if they want to. But don’t change because they don’t believe in their own work because nobody else has told them that it was any good.
It is possible to have children and be an artist, but it makes the career much much harder.
I recently ran into my first dealer at MOMA. We had just seen the fabulous Louise Bourgeois exhibition. Louise was a great artist and she had two sons. This dealer said to me, “Women artists should not have children.” And I had to bite my tongue really hard because I wanted to say, well, Louise Bourgeois had children and she’s the greatest artist ever, right?
So you know, those rules are not hard and fast. I don’t like the double standard that guys can have children and be artists and women can’t. Most of the male artists I know are great fathers and I’m sure they feel the time strain, just not the condemnation by society. My daughter and I have a loving relationship even though I worked very hard during her childhood. I was working the day she was born and was back in the studio two weeks later.
But yeah, [having a child] really did change my work. Color came into my life and joy! The work always reflects where I am psychologically. The first paintings I made after my sister’s and mother’s deaths in 1994 were very dark, like Goya’s Black Paintings. Like Goya’s Black Paintings, I’ll probably never show them. I think those are some of my best, but they’re not something you’d want to put on your wall.
AEL: Living in New York, where do you get to see flowers?
LC Armstrong: It’s probably the lack of flowers that makes me want to paint them, especially in the gray and black of the winter here. The greatest colorists were the Dutch Still Life painters during the Golden Age (17th century). Because — if you’ve ever been to Holland or Cologne, Germany has the same weather — you’ll see that it rains almost every day and it’s gray and it’s gray and it’s gray — they value the tulips. The Dutch craved color. […] If I actually had a garden all year round and was surrounded by color, my palette might become more subdued.
[…] I had this terrible year and I met my now-husband and I was pregnant at age 40. […] He had an apartment on the Upper West Side and I would go for walks past the community gardens. They were fascinating, so much more interesting than designer gardens where everything is the right height with tall people in the back, short people in front, analogous color schemes, you know. Overly designed gardens can be too predictable. Here people planted whatever they fancy on their tiny plot of earth. The gardens reminded me of a raucous New York cocktail party where people from everywhere and all ages and races mingle in brilliant conversation. It occurred to me that if I was paying so much attention to these flowers, there’s something in it to explore artistically.
And five years later, I think, “Oh, duh, I was pregnant and started painting flowers.” My art mirrors the trajectory of my life: I don’t even know why I’m doing something until later. And, when I look back it’s so clear. I made a sculpture that was a bed of nails, which were actually silver pencils. At the time, I thought it was about communication or lack thereof, but it was made during my divorce, so…
AEL: Well, I’ll be interested to find out what the stuff you’re working on now means in five to ten years!
LC Armstrong: Yes, it will be easily read at least by me in a few years, hindsight you know.
But I think it’s more important what the painting means to the viewer. I leave the meanings open so that everyone can bring their own concepts to it. Painting should trigger the viewer just to think about things.
AEL: Tell me why you love New York so much.
LC Armstrong: When I came here, I felt like I’d come home. […] I love the freedom of the place. I love the many different types of people, and that wherever you’re from, whoever you are, you can find your clan in New York.
A new LC Armstrong 2022 Wall Calendar is available for purchase on Pomegranate.com. Check it out here! Please note that more of your money goes to the artists if you purchase directly from Pomegranate.
© Amelie Lasker (11/18/21) Special for FF2 Media, ® LLC
(click on the image above to enlarge)
Remember: When you order directly from Pomegranate the artists receive a larger percentage of sales.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Images from Pomegranate’s 2022 L.C. Armstrong’s calendar have been provided by Pomegranate and are used here by FF2 Media with their permission. All Rights Reserved by Pomegranate.