Though born and thoroughly brought up on the Upper East Side, artist Pamela Talese found her first significant subject matter on the other side of the river in Brooklyn and Queens. She spent, and still spends, her days cycling around the boroughs, working on site to document through her paintings places like the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Coney Island. Drawn to what she saw as humble places of honest work and a receding way of life, cranes, piers, docks, tugboats, old signage and graffiti on old limestone structures are all observed without nostalgia. If there’s melancholy, then there is also a sense that these things were and still are vividly worthy of our interest. Several trips to Rome as Visiting Artist at the American Academy have resulted in a series of paintings revealing certain undersung modern urban realities of the city, such as the Flaminio sports stadium and underpasses designed by Pier Luigi Nervi, the Italian engineer known for his innovative use of reinforced concrete.
Much other work includes rural landscapes and visual responses to her concerns about the environment, the criminal justice system, wastefulness … and, well, lots of things—there was no shortage of stuff to talk about. “The toxic froth of the metropolitan striver,” she said of her own conversation. Isn’t that a great line? She said she made it up just for me. In an alternate life she says she should have been a stand-up comedian, using her parents, Gay and Nan Talese, as material, although she kind of is, and kind of does, anyway.
I don’t know if you thought it a bit glib but I did find this description of you online as being a painter who “works at the intersection of the manmade and the elemental” – did you like that?
Where was that?! I didn’t say but I love it!
So is the on-site work still the thing that marks you as a painter?
I think so … but it’s not all I do.
Yes, I saw the still life work and the work [entitled] “People”.
Now there’s this new [work] called “Opinion”.
And that concerns itself with the prison system and incarceration in the form of a kind of board game [“The Cell Game”], right?
Yes. I had just read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and it had been bothering me. I have friends who have family members who are incarcerated and it’s all really about money.
Is this the way you channel anger?
Maybe … or just the sort of intellectual curiosity … I mean anger … well, I’m pretty pissed off.
Is there a distinction between your activism and your art?
I think activism comes about as a way of burning off the anger. Maybe you’re right there. I remember one person saying to me, “You’re sophisticated enough to know that this is hopeless but your painting isn’t hopeless so why don’t you focus on that?” Even so, I’m somebody who keeps trying to figure out how to solve the problem.
Well let’s get back to some beginnings. Did you flounder around in your twenties like most people?
This is what happened. I didn’t know really what I was doing with my life—post college—I had no idea. I knew I wasn’t going to be a writer. I was going to be a magazine designer—that was the plan. In the summers I had been interning for different magazines.
And how was school?
I just drifted through school. I daydreamed. I had pretty much no idea what was going on. I know that I thought numbers had different personalities. I was at a bilingual school … the daily humiliation of French classes was too much for me and as my father put it, “Just get her to speak fucking English.” Once I learned to read it was great. I read Moby Dick when I was ten—and I loved it.
Where did you go to college?
I went to Smith College. I double majored in English and Studio Art and then I was going to be a magazine designer. What I really, really wanted to be was a designer and illustrator for record album covers. But then after college I decided I was going to move to France.
What were you going to do there?
I had worked as a copy kid for The New York Times because my father wanted me to. It was a very valuable experience but I didn’t want to be a reporter—occasionally I look back at my life, at these wonderful opportunities that I’ve had because of who my parents were, but I just ran away from them and made a hash of things … ugh … God what a mess! [laughs]
Yes, recognizing opportunity is a skill in itself—but go on about why you went to France.
I knew I had to leave the country because if I didn’t my father was going to make me go back and work for the Times, so I found an art junket that would get me to the south of France—I’m amazed how enterprising I was to find something. I packed up my bags even though I was in love with somebody in Massachusetts, but I said [puts on a melodramatic voice], “I’m leaving to find my fortune in France.”
How did things turn out?
It turned out to be an amazing art residency—there were artists there like Ruth Miller, William Beckman and Gregory Gillespie and dingbat me didn’t get it. I was being pathetic and missing the man I had left. I remember one night staring up at the stars and someone standing behind me said, “Do you think he sees the same stars?” Nevertheless I wasn’t going back … The [artist’s] model [who worked there] came to me … I think I was trying to hang myself in the olive grove or something … said that I could come and stay in her apartment in Paris. She was a bit of a nut but I thought if I don’t get in the car with her then I have to go back. I basically lived in the Long Island City of Paris.
What are your memories of that then?
I was working for Vogue as an intern. It was kind of great but we didn’t sleep. There were these vitamins (they were called Pharmatons—I think they were vitamins) that we would all take and we would all drink too much. I just remember at one point running across the Tuileries with a lot of Jean Paul Gaultier—you know how gravelly it is—because Polly Mellen had said, “I need this and run!!” And I remember I used to dance at the Bataclan all the time. But after being in Paris for about a year and a half, I had to make a decision about whether I was going to dig in and become an expatriate or come back to New York, where I knew I could get a job.
And was this when you started work as an interior design or started to become a painter?
Due to some other romantic and dramatic things, I decided to go back to New York. I was in a very depleted and shattered and heartbroken state and my mother said, and she had never asked this question before, “What do you do when time stands still?” And in my weepy manner, I said, “Well, I draw, I guess.” So I eventually went to the Art Students League and painting finally made sense. My mother was getting a little impatient, like, “When are you going to have a show?” but I said, “Look, I thought I had discovered an island but it turns out it’s a continent.”
I know you got all these quite glamorous-sounding jobs as a result of your parents’ connections, but to what extent is it a double-edged sword—what’s the pressure there?
Well you don’t want to bomb out. One of the lines I have is that being their daughter opened as many doors as it closed.
Yes, when I was researching you, you’re so frequently referred to as “Gay’s daughter” or “the daughter of …” How is that for you? We interviewed Edward Mapplethorpe and he said something along the lines of never really being reconciled to being “brother of”.
That’s a very good way of putting it. One of things I do is to ask people about their parents—just change the subject. But it’s hard not to talk about my parents because they are so funny. I really should have been a stand-up comedian … it’s not too late?
Well, you’re funny in your own right. What about growing up in a household with your parents and their friends, all of whom most likely have very strong opinions. I can see how easily see how it might drown you out …
I think we all, including my sister, have very strong opinions—even the dogs. My mother will make this claim that she doesn’t have a strong opinion. It’s totally not true but she does like to maintain this fantasy.
I don’t mean to go back to your parents but are you like your dad—all the finery and so on?
Yes. Look at the hats. [A row of extravagant black hats and hatboxes line the top of a bookcase] I love clothes and I love style, anything that’s really done well. I’m big on skill. My grandfather was a tailor.
So the apple doesn’t fall so far from the tree.
There’s one thing my dad did say, which was, “You know, you got your artistic talent from me. See how I decorate all of these folders? See how I use different colored pens?” Yeah, dad.
Okay, that’s enough about your parents. It strikes me as interesting that you have worked as an interior designer, which is all about a controlled aesthetic and the subject matter of your work is often decay or the neglected edges of things, of places.
There’s something romantic about that but there’s also tremendous precision like in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where these ships that come in and are restored. And in interior design and fashion, there are a lot of hysterical meltdowns—it’s all about being liked. In the Navy Yard, where things can be life or death, I never saw anybody lose their cool.
To what extent are you interested architecture? I thought you were more interested in the environment.
It’s always been about neighborhoods and buildings. Architecture is aspirational. It’s also propaganda. It’s trying to send you a certain message. What is interesting about Renaissance architecture, or with structures such as the Colosseum or the churches, any of these massive structures, the message is: “Be in awe.” In any of these modern glass apartments the message is: “You will be sleek and design-y and happy.”
There’s something about engineering that seems to intrigue you. I read your bike geek interview, well some of it, until I got bored.
I just like seeing the way things work. I’m kind of tightly wound …
How do you bring your need to problem-solve and work things out to your painting?
Well I’m wondering if, when I’m painting on-site, especially with this new Rome series, I’m learning about what I see by drawing. I’m learning about what I’m looking at over time, and also by making comparisons. There are two different neighborhoods that I’m focusing on in Rome. One is late 19th century/early 20th century and the other is a 1950s neighborhood. One is very open and organic and the other is very closed, reflecting the populations that lived there—so that’s the sort of thing that interests me. Is the design still holding?
So interior design became your day job and you were painting on your own time.
I was trying to paint in the evenings and on weekends. I wasn’t doing the urban painting then but had it not been for Parish-Hadley, my first series on Brooklyn and Queens would not have come about. It is in reaction to the life on the Upper East Side and me living in Long Island City before there was anything going on there. I had a boyfriend in Williamsburg and what links Brooklyn and Queens is the Pulaski Bridge. One evening I was standing in the middle of the bridge looking at the deeply polluted Newtown Creek and at the skyline across on the other side, thinking, “Okay, which side of the river are you going to be on? You’re born on that side. But [you’re] not relating to it.” The things that I saw in Brooklyn and Queens were important. This was my subject matter. This was what I was interested in. I left Parish-Hadley after a year and my boyfriend at the time helped me write my resignation letter including the line “Your management style inhibits my best work.” [Afurther career in interior design was continued, working for David Kleinberg]
What was it that clicked about Brooklyn and Queens?
First of all the materials are better. You have these beautiful old banks that are made from marble and limestone, a lot of Beaux Arts buildings and then there’s the industrial architecture. There are places like Coney Island and things like old signage. There was a sign that I painted a couple of times called the Eagle Electric sign—it was hand painted and had fantastic neon but it didn’t always work and the logo of the company was “Perfection is not an accident.” Apparently this wasn’t always true.
I have to say I just find so much of Brooklyn and Queens ugly.
It is ugly but it’s useful. What I was looking at with [the] “718” [work] was a society that was more humble and that was receding.
And then you clearly loved aspects of interior design, which is all about a whole other aesthetic and glamour, I guess. Which part of interior design was the most satisfying?
Oh gosh, beautiful, beautiful fabrics … beautiful crafts and beautiful furniture … going and seeing the very best possible creations. I loved working for David [Kleinberg]. I loved his aesthetic, so elegant and he reads. He’s very cultured.
So when you go to Rome to paint, what’s your plan of attack?
Well I have bicycle there and I have a wonderful friend whom I met when I was there in 2012 and who has an extra room and I [sometimes] stay there but for the first three years I was Visiting Artist at the American Academy. It’s not a big prize, it’s just a month-long stay and I went first there with this idea that suddenly New York felt tired to my eyes.
Had you never been to Rome before 2012?
I first went to Rome in 1982. My father didn’t want to come to my high school graduation because he said he “didn’t want to sit with a bunch of orthodontists’ wives.” He was in Rome and he said, “Why don’t you come visit me?” So he sent me a ticket. I didn’t see much of him during that time … he sort of palmed me off on to other people. What I remember was landing at Fiumicino airport and looking at the rolls of baled hay just next to the runway and thinking, “This makes complete sense to me.” And when I went to Rome, I just felt that I absolutely understood it and it’s where I belonged.
It must have been thrilling.
It was wonderful. I was this really awkward … I mean probably looked like Laura Ashley or something. I remember there was this young woman my age who was the daughter of a diplomat—she was blonde and looked very American but she spoke fluent Italian. There was one day where we went out and we had Chinese food and then we went to a movie and then we were out all night, just the two of us. It got to be around three or four in the morning and she said, “Oh, if we wait for about fifteen minutes the bakeries are going to start loading up the trucks and we can go get some pastries.” So we went and got pastries—bunches of them—and we went to the Piazza del Popolo. I just remember sitting there, completely dusted with sugar, watching the sun rise.
Well those are really the moments that define us aren’t they? How do you feel when one of your shows opens?
It’s funny because reading the Vanity Fair piece [the recent profile of Nan Talese in which Pamela is described as “intense” and “darkly wry”] made me aware that I was really tired because it was just after the two-day private view that I had for the show called “North & South” on the work from Rome and Ireland. I don’t remember seeming so truculent but apparently … at the end [the journalist] says I was “raw”. I was just pretty fed up.
Yes, the “years of therapy” that were mentioned … but that’s not special. Lots of people have therapy.
Which is sort of part of my stand-up routine. My web designer said to me because I said you were coming over, “Let benign graciousness be your guide.”
No! I don’t want you to be benign or gracious.
Well I’m a little tart-tongued. I can’t seem to hold my tongue, so there’s that.
You said you were a bit introverted.
I am well-socialized. It’s not that I don’t enjoy going out … it’s just that it’s not always comfortable. I can’t stand fakes. But with my work, it takes a long time to focus and then to go out and be charming … it’s really tiring. I don’t dislike people. As you can see, I can talk forever … the toxic froth of the metropolitan striver—there you go—I just made it up for you.
Thank you! I like that you’re serious. But you could have led a high society life, couldn’t you?
It’s my parents’ great regret. GT would have been really happy. He was happiest when I working for Vogue.
Why do you call your parents “GT” and “Nan” or “the Nanster”?
Not to their face—I call them “Mom” and “Dad”. It’s only when I’m talking about them [to others] … it’s because he’s such a character.
How did he get all these strong, intelligent women like you and your sister and your mom running around and doing all this stuff for him … the poached eggs at 11 am and the donuts in the early morning and so on?
When we were children we really didn’t have any say in it—that was our job, before we got actual jobs. We would do the laundry and the housekeeping because my mother was working in the city. But we also followed my mother’s lead because as was described in the Vanity Fair piece, she made a deal. In Anne Roiphe’s book Art and Madness, it really helped me understand that particular generation of women who wanted to be the muses and supports to their narcissistic, egomaniac, alcoholic husbands and boyfriends.
It’s extraordinary but maybe it still is that way, just less obviously so.
I think for that particular generation of men who came of age after the Second World War and were able to have an impact, this was the end of American humility. The United States came back the winners with lots of money and great self-esteem and programs to lift the middle class. There was this idea that we could do no wrong. It was men. It was white men. The world was all for their taking. And anybody who went out and did something, they could have tremendous impact because media had changed. I said to my father—we were having dinner and he was being a jerk—and I said, “You know if you came back today, you couldn’t be Gay Talese. You simply couldn’t do it.”
Except that is sort of what you’re documenting in a way, that whole period, isn’t it?
But those weren’t the winners. Those were the working class, the support infrastructure.
Is climate change going to be the focus for you now that things … have changed? I’m referring to Donald Trump. Do you see actually see yourself as an activist?
I think I have those tendencies. I mean I’m not happy. There is a contradiction though because a lot of the ships I paint, the big ones, they’re carrying natural gas and I’m against natural gas.
So after all these things that you do, what do you want to be when you grow up?
I want to be a really, really good painter and for people to collect my work. That’s what I really want … you’ve brought up a lot of contradictions …