We Talk Contemporary Art
an interview with Michael Corbin

April, 2017

MICHAEL: Hey Sheldon, I love your work, but first of all, let's start with your newly-designed website. I think it shows off your work much better. What do you think? Did you enjoy updating it or was it a headache?

SHELDON: Hi Michael. Thanks for taking the time to view my website, again. I’m glad you like it. I agree that it’s a big improvement over the old format. I’ve added a number of installation shots, got rid of the watermarks, added some additional published articles (more to come) and made it easier to navigate.

I had to do some searching for some older photos and slides, which was an adventure, since I’ve moved a couple of times in the last three years. The search had its joys (reliving some old memories, and seeing the improvement in the website) and frustrations. I’m pretty good at labeling containers, but I’ve yet to find some of the photos from my New York days. I suspect they’ll turn up eventually. I also had mixed results when I scanned some of my old slides. I had to leave out some of my older work, because of that. I’d like to share some of that work when I’ve solved that problem.

MICHAEL: Your New York days? Where are you now? Why are you no longer in New York?

SHELDON: I left New York the end of May, in 1981, to help my father with his business. He was getting on in years and wanted, very much, for me to move back to New Haven, my home town, to help him out. My father, in fact both of my parents, had been very good to me. As much as I wanted to remain in New York, I felt that this would be an opportunity to do something for him. Also, the loft where my wife and I lived was in the Fulton Fish Market part of lower Manhattan, near the Brooklyn Bridge and the East River. The South Street Seaport development was about to begin, and with it, the gentrification of the neighborhood. (We were only paying rent of $325.00 a month at the time.) We had put a lot of work into that space, so we didn’t let it go without getting back our investment.

We spent twenty-three years in New Haven, then another ten in Santa Fe, NM, which turned out to be a difficult environment for my wife. Now, we’re living just outside of New Haven, in Hamden, CT.

MICHAEL: We'll get to your work in a moment. How do you feel living outside of New York? I know you're not extremely far
away from New York. Yet you're far away enough for it to be a bit of a hike. Is New York City still the center of the art world? Do you feel like you're missing out on something?

SHELDON: The New York of today is not the New York of the 1970s and early 1980s. When I was going to art school, in
Philadelphia, I used to be able to have my choice of parking spaces in Soho, on a Saturday! Gone is the affordable loft with a view of the Lower Manhattan skyline. Now, the sidewalks are packed with people looking down at their iPhones.

Of course, New York is still an arts center, but now there are many centers. The art fair phenomenon and the internet have
altered the marketplace, but New York is still the Big Apple.

Do I feel I’m missing out on something by not living in New York? Yes. It’s not as convenient for the “movers and shakers” there to view my work. Also, I don’t always get to see some of the exhibitions and other cultural events I’d like to see. There’s also a perverse mind set that many people have: Somehow, you’re more genuine if you’re a “New York artist”. Of course, that’s a lot of B.S. Lastly, New York is too hung up on fashion. “What’s new in the galleries for this season?” I’m not interested in creating for “this season”. I’m about plugging into that which is timeless.

MICHAEL: Which brings us to your work. Interestingly, your work is timeless. I love your minimal abstracts. They're neither in or out of style. They're both or neither. I think that the whole fashion approach gives so-called experts a sense of control and a way to elevate themselves as authorities and make the approach to contemporary art "contemporary" and quantifiable and marketable. It certainly gets people talking about art. No? I mean, we're talking.

SHELDON: It’s important to me that we’re talking, because you responded positively to my work. That’s what’s important. The work spoke to you in its own way - the language of art - which in terms of my art is a visual language. The marketplace often requires a verbal argument to make the sale. It could be eloquent or crass. I’ve overheard both, in some of New York’s high end galleries.

There are talented critics and curators who write eloquently about art, and have respect for artists. Peter Frank comes to mind.Sadly, some critics have egos that rival Donald Trump’s. Some years ago, one such prominent critic was speaking to some MFA candidates at Yale. I decided to hear what he had to say. He described artists as being low in the pecking order. He said that he wouldn’t consider viewing the work of an artist until at least three people he knew had recommended a visit to the artist’s studio. It’s amazing to me how so many non-artists who make their living in the arts, have so little appreciation and respect for the very people who make their occupation possible - the artists!

MICHAEL: Yes, but you know what Sheldon? This will continue until artists decide to band together and take their power back. I am constantly writing about what artists can do to promote and market themselves through various means. So many artists seem to be asleep to me. Of course, they want to spend the bulk of their time creating which totally makes sense. But can you complain with credibility when you continue to give away your power and outsource things? No one is an expert, but don't we all have to learn things along the way?

SHELDON: You’re absolutely right. I’ve always found promoting my work to be a difficult balancing act. Sometimes I find that balance, sometimes I fall off the wire, and (too often) I haven’t gotten on the wire. Now that my website is greatly improved, I’m determined to be more focused on getting the attention of people who may consider my work for exhibitions or purchase.

As for artists “taking their power back” in some kind of organized way, the law of supply and demand is not in our favor. I remember, when I was living in New York, I started to see galleries that showed (what I considered to be) some really low quality paintings. These were reputable galleries. I surmised that the gallery system concluded that if they lower their standards and come up with some rationale for the work, they’d have more work from which to choose. Someone even coined a name for it: “Bad Art”! It became a movement. Some people will buy anything, if it’s sold by the “right” galleries, and written about by the “right” critics.

MICHAEL: Let's talk about abstract minimalism. You seem to have a strong affinity for it. What's that all about?

SHELDON: Aren’t words fascinating? I’ve always gotten a kick out of how artist’s styles get labeled, then other writers on art jump on the bandwagon and the label sticks. I do appreciate your description, but I should mention that what most people regard as “abstract”, I think of as the most “real”. Let me explain, and then I’ll tell you something about the origins of my work.

If I have a bowl of fruit in front of me and make a painting of it, I’m abstracting something of what I see before me. No matter how “real” that bowl of fruit may look, it’s an abstraction. I can’t pick up that fruit and feel it. I can’t taste it. Now, let’s consider one of my paintings. It is what it is. That, to me, is more “real” than the painting of the bowl of fruit, no matter how “real” the bowl of fruit seems to look. By the way, I have nothing against anyone who wants to paint bowls of fruit. I’ve had a great deal of academic training and appreciate good painting, regardless of genre.

I began on the path to which you referred in late 1974. Basically (this is the condensed version) I was searching for a visual/physical essence in my work, and realized that the essence I was searching for was the particle. That’s when I began to do sand paintings. My drawings evolved into a visual vocabulary that was compatible with the sand. Soon after, my oil paintings, and later,my acrylics did, as well. I was always interested in the nature of perception. I wanted there to be an awareness, when viewing my work, that one was in the presence of a physical object. That’s one of the reasons that I often use multiple surfaces for the same painting. I think of them as both micro and macro, simultaneously, a continuum.

MICHAEL: Your sand paintings are quite elegant. Some of your works on paper have the same aesthetic, but I would not guess that sand works on paper. No?

SHELDON: Thank you Michael. I hope you get to see some of the sand paintings in person some day, not just on an electronic device. I don’t use the sand on paper. In nearly all of my sand paintings, I’ve adhered the sand to stretched canvases, usually in multiple layers, by means of an acrylic polymer emulsion.

MICHAEL: You seem to like order, linearity and juxtaposing colors. Is this simply a function of the paintings currently on your website or is this a natural affinity - order, line and juxtaposing color?

SHELDON: That’s an excellent question, because I can only display a relatively small percentage of my work on the website. Some of the choices are limited by the availability of adequate photographic documentation. I’m working to expand the offerings to include even some of my very early work, and some of the more difficult to photograph.
I do have an affinity for order, that’s for sure, and for harmony. Also, edges.

Where does one thing begin or end? To me, that’s a basic question. I may have some notion of what I want to do, before I begin a painting, but once I begin, once that first bit of paint makes its way to the surface, I know that the painting will reveal itself to me over time. The choices of color and their juxtaposition are a part of that evolution, but also the macro and micro
that I mentioned earlier.

By the way Michael, I don’t mean to be so critical of other people’s work (“bad” painting or otherwise). I know that everyone’s on their own journey. I’ve done some work in years past (especially early on) that I wasn’t pleased with. I just didn’t offer it for public consumption. When I see paintings that don’t appeal to me, it usually makes me want to get into my
studio and paint. That’s a good thing.

MICHAEL: When did you first become aware of yourself as an artist? Why art? What does art do for you?

SHELDON: I can go back to at least kindergarten class. I was the only kid in my class who would draw an outdoor scene with the blue sky meeting the horizon. I was puzzled at how everyone else would depict the sky as a band of blue at the top of the paper, and draw a band of green for the land at the bottom. What was that blank space in between the two? When I was in first grade, my teacher entered a poster that I made into an international poster contest. When I received a fancy certificate, (from Canada) for my entry, my father had it framed. I didn’t come from an artistic family, but I was
always drawing as a kid. I drew portraits of baseball players and presidents, and I would draw on the white shirt cardboards that my father would get from the dry cleaners. I just naturally drew.

By the time I was in junior high school, the Yale Art Gallery became one of my favorite places to hang out. I’ve always loved communing with quality art. When I was in high school, I was one of the cartoonists for the school newspaper. I would like to have gone straight to art school after graduation, but my parents wouldn’t let me. It wasn’t until a few years later, when they realized that my going to art school was a matter of life or death, that they acquiesced. I was born to create. I need that life sustaining connection. It’s my preferred way of expressing myself.

MICHAEL: What do you think needs changing in the art world? If you could, what would you change? What needs to be done?

SHELDON: Perhaps the answer to those questions could be the basis of your next book! Personally, I think that the economics of the “art world” are obscene, in nearly every way. Think about it. In most school districts, when budgets need to be cut, arts education is often the first activity to be axed or downsized.
When most people aren’t exposed to quality arts education, they are less inclined to appreciate how art can enrich their lives. The artists who live in their midst, and the work they produce, are then less likely to be supported, financially or otherwise, by their community. In an ideal world, arts education would be a core subject.

The high end of the art market, which includes the big auction houses, is probably the largest, unregulated market in the world. The manipulation by dealers and investors, and the prices paid for some works by hedge fund billionaires, has placed too much emphasis on art as monetary investment. The ridiculous prices paid for some works of art make it to the evening newscasts, so that by comparison, the average artist’s work seems rather unimportant. Again, education could help to change that perception. Art, for me, is a way of connecting with, and manifesting, that which is infinite and timeless. It’s not (primarily at least) a commodity. In fairness to galleries, they have to pay the bills. They have rent, utilities, salaries, etc., so they are inclined to prefer artists with a proven track record, or go with what’s “hot” (or what they think is “hot”). If the audience for art were to grow, because more people understood art’s true value, more artists could prosper.

At the other end of the spectrum, are activities that cheapen the idea of what “art” is. You can get out of the house for the evening for $40.00, be provided with some wine, a small canvas and some paint. You go home with a “work of art”. Really?

So, it all comes down to what we value in life. If I could, I’d create more of a balance between, and respect for, all of the parts and pieces that are a part of the “art world”.

MICHAEL: Sheldon, I could chat with you forever, but I'll make this our last question. You've been an artist for a long time and have lived through many things. What advice do you have for up and coming artists or creative people in general?

SHELDON: Michael, I very much appreciate your thoughtful questions, your interest in my work, and your prolific writing
about art, and life in general. It’s been a pleasure getting acquainted. In no particular order, I would suggest that aspiring young artists get the best training that may be available to them. College can cost a small fortune these days. There are specialized schools where one can take courses that may be a more affordable option for some. Also, you may admire the work of an artist who lives in your area. That artist may be amenable to helping you with your artistic development. You get professional help, and a local artist makes some extra income. Both of you benefit.

Keep your ego in check. There’s nothing wrong with being confident, but I’ve found that the most important thing I can do, to keep the creative juices flowing, is to get out of my own way. If you’re a student, no matter how talented you may think you are, be open to learning from your instructors and from great works of art. Be curious and determined to learn. If you’re serious enough, with the right teachers, you’ll make progress.

Don’t be timid about asking for a favor from someone you know well enough, if you believe you’re worthy, and that person’s in a position to help you. Just make sure that you’re respectful.

If you think you’re ready to exhibit your work publicly, do your homework before approaching a gallery. Is your work a good fit? Is the gallery reputable?

Learn to recognize when opportunity knocks. It can come and go before you’ve realized what just happened.

Learn a trade or get certified to teach art, whether it’s a state certification or an MFA, because you can’t count on making a living as an artist by selling your art. Respect yourself and your work. If you don’t, why should anyone else?

Lastly, remember the Golden Rule!

MICHAEL: Thanks Sheldon. Great chat. I love your work!