Artist Insights: Vera Klement


*An edited version of this interview was orginally published in the May-August 2014 issue of Chicago Gallery News.
Top Image: Vera Klement, Sibelius, 2012, oil on canvas, (triptych) 84" x 160"

I met one of Chicago’s most revered painters, Vera Klement, on a brisk day this past spring when the 84 year-old had just returned from an afternoon yoga class. Inspirational yet humble, philosophical yet witty, Klement welcomed me into her home and studio, where the high walls of the loft were dominated by her large canvases. Over the course of a few hours, I eagerly absorbed Klement’s rich history as an artist, educator and active member of Chicago’s art community.

Born in 1929 in the independent German Hanseatic city/state of Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland), Klement moved with her family to New York in 1938 to escape the encroaching Nazi government. She developed an interest in art and studied at Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture. In 1964 she moved to Chicago with her then-husband. She taught art at the University of Chicago for 26 years until retiring in 1995. 

Klement’s work is included in many prestigious collections, and her resume boasts numerous awards and recognitions. Today the artist is as prolific as ever and continues to produce engaging, thought-provoking work that references themes of historical grandeur while maintaining a certain approachability. 

Klement lives and works in Chicago and is represented by Zolla/Lieberman Gallery.


LM: Do you recall your first artistic aspirations? 

VK: I came to New York City at the age of nine and was sent to school not knowing English. When my teacher told the class to paint a clown, I was at a loss. The last years of hiding and turmoil in Europe had made education impossible. I felt humiliated by my ignorance and went home, took a cardboard from my father’s laundered shirt and a pencil with an eraser, and I worked and re-worked the drawing until a clown appeared on the board. Three years later that gift enabled me to pass the entrance exam to the High School of Music and Art where I studied art.

When I was 11 my father, an amateur artist, gave me a watercolor set and helped me make my first painting. I understood then that no one could ever take away the world I had created through paint. I knew then I would be an artist.


Did you work with your father a lot?

No; he had little time.  But he did help me create a portfolio for entrance into the High School of Music and Art, and I recall painting a green pepper under his supervision.


What has sustained your creative drive throughout the years?

I don’t know, but it’s never stopped. I’m amazed at the amount of work I’ve produced. 66 years of paintings and works on paper – a huge amount of stuff. I feel some guilt at clogging the environment with it. I work on one piece at a time, and when I’m lucky I get an idea for the next project as I’m working on something else. Sometimes I have to wait until a new idea comes to me, and I live with the anxiety that the flow might stop, but so far that hasn’t happened.

How was your transition from New York to Chicago?  

Very hard. I was married to the composer Ralph Shapey. We had a 4-year old son and little money. When my husband received an offer from the University of Chicago to teach and conduct a group to play contemporary music, we came here. As an artist I found myself on someone else’s turf. I was labeled a “New York painter” in a community hostile to New York. I thought I’d be able to transfer my early success in New York to Chicago but instead found myself in Hyde Park working in silence for my first 7 years here.

Two things saved me: through Participating Artists of Chicago (PAC), a loose group of about 100 artists that held exhibitions in store fronts and college hallways, I met two artists, Larry Salomon and Martin Hurtig, who also felt their work was incompatible with the current Chicago taste. We decided to form a group and added Ted Argeropolous and the architect Laurence Booth. We formed The FIVE. We worked together for about seven years and had annual exhibitions of huge site-specific works in the lobbies of Chicago’s great buildings. I was the designated writer for the group and wrote a manifesto for our first show’s announcement, in which we decried the regional climate here. Franz Schulze wrote a page-long article in the Daily News about our manifesto and we became notorious for that, but no one responded to the work itself.


Did you feel like you wanted to return to New York?

I didn't think of it that way.  What I missed was not a place, but rather a time - which was gone forever.


How did you get involved with teaching and the University of Chicago?  

The New York art critic Harold Rosenberg was a friend of mine.  He would come to the University one quarter out of the year.  At a meeting of the Art Department he learned that Max Kahn, a painter who had been teaching studio for years, was retiring.  Rosenberg suggested me by saying he knew someone and they could have her cheap.  Midway Studios was very informal then. I went down to see Harold Haydon who was the Director, and he suggested we try it (teaching) for a year even though I held no degrees.  A few years later, the program became professionalized.  I was there for twenty-five years and gradually became a full professor. 


What did you teach?

We were a small faculty of five and didn't have separate departments for painting, sculpture, etc.  We all taught undergraduate and graduate students.  I taught undergrad classes in Visual Language 101, Painting, Drawing and Color Analysis and I was assigned a number of graduate students. As a group, the faculty handled everything that came along - the serious and the ridiculous. 


Do you miss teaching?

No. Not at all. When I retired in 1995 I had a great surge of energy.  I started a project in which I translated poetry from Russian and German into English. The images in those great poems provided me with images for my paintings, and in 2002 I began work on a memoir. I divided my time between painting and writing.


Did you finish your book?

I'm more or less finished but each time I look at it, it seems as though a poltergeist got into the computer in the night and rearranged things. I once read how Flaubert would fuss about each sentence and I'm afraid that's what I do. But I know I have to let it go at some point.


What is the book about?

It's about my life and my work. It's not linear, and chapters are of varying length and can be in different ways of writing. In that way it resembles my paintings.

How and when did you first start exhibiting in Chicago?

I began having solo exhibitions because of the Feminist Movement in the early seventies. A call went out to women artists to meet in order to start a Feminist cooperative gallery. The turnout was so great that two groups formed: one became Artemisia Gallery and the other ARC. We did all the things that we had been taught women could not do: carpentry, electrical work, business, and making decisions. It was a fabulous time. We were mutually supportive and showed whatever work we wanted to. No one was there to tell us our work was not sellable.

When the women's galleries opened the art climate in Chicago changed. We invited artists and critics from New York and L.A. and that opened up this claustrophic atmosphere. I was with Artemisia Gallery for about three years until Marianne Deson, a gallery that showed contemporary, international art, picked me up.


Do you have a personal collection of art?

No. I don't like collecting anything. I try not to have many things and as I get older I try to have fewer things. I try to get rid of things, but then people give me gifts and they add up again. We all have too much stuff.


You’ve been an active member of Chicago’s art scene since the ‘60s. How has the landscape changed over the years? 

I think it became more open, aided by the formation of three cooperative galleries: N.A.M.E. and the two feminist galleries, Artemisia and ARC, as well as the New Art Examiner. At the time, in the ‘70s, there was a major (silly) argument in the art world between Imagism and Abstraction. There were panels; discussions and the New Art Examiner stirred the pot of controversy. I can’t tell you what fervor there was about that. It was great fun, like putting a grain of sand into an oyster to produce a pearl. It created a sense of community that was lost when corporations began to buy art and each artist turned to their own career. It’s difficult now. I’m fortunate to still be exhibiting in a climate that looks to discover emerging artists – I’m not emerging. I’m rather submerging. It’s hard to be an old artist in a novelty-seeking culture.

The Chicago art world seems to open, to become more inclusive, and then some force shrinks it back. Perhaps because it's a small world it has remained in the hands of the few who seem in key positions for years on end. In that it resembles the Supreme Court whose ancient members continue to pass down judgements.


Your paintings are typically large scale, often with multiple panels. Do you enjoy the physical aspect of building your blank slates? Do you have help?  

I’ve never had a studio assistant. I used to enjoy making my own stretchers because it helped me imagine the space I had to work with. But it’s getting hard. I now have someone else build them for me, and I’ve had the last few canvases stretched as well, but I still feel the need to prime them myself.

My large scale comes from New York. In the late ‘40s to early ‘50s, it was thought that the canvas size should relate to the human body, one-on-one. You had to be able to extend the full length of your arm to make a gesture. Once I did that, there was no shrinking back. 

The first show for The FIVE was in a beautiful Mies van der Rohe building on the UC campus. I planned a 10’ x 20’ painting to relate to the lobby wall and then realized it wouldn’t fit through the door. It would have to be broken up into sections, so I decided to use the breaks as part of the formal concept, the way bar-lines function in a musical score. That painting consisted of eight pieces that could be bolted together and taken apart for transportation. I built everything myself even though I’m not a very good carpenter – the holes for the bolts had to line up perfectly. I liked the new complexity of the breaks so much that I kept that format even when I no longer needed it for size or space reasons. In time, that morphed into separate canvases. I realized that a single seamless fiction on canvas couldn’t represent my experience of life, which is abrupt, disjointed and fragmentary.

I began to think that the concept of the breaks and putting different elements together had more resonance with my life. I found that I could push the differences and tried to see how far I could push them and still retain unity. I began to use different techniques, materials, collage elements, colors, subjects in one work. I make them hang together by force of will; by a formal severity.

Vera takes me to the wall-easel she set up and a large workbench / paint station she built herself. She explains that installing her easel was the first thing she did when she moved into her space decades ago. 

I will put the canvas on the easel, which can be raised or lowered, and I'll stand on a ladder to reach the top section. Or I lay the painting on the floor and throw paint on it, sometimes from the height of the top of a ladder to make the paint spread.

Standing in her work area, Vera points to a connected room full of large, neatly arranged, wrapped canvases.  

The question is, what will happen to all this work? 

My friend Peter has a house in the woods in Wisconsin where I have a small studio to do works on paper. Some years earlier there had been a severe storm that did a lot of damage to the woods that surround his house. Many trees had come down. Trunks and limbs were strewn about. One day in the winter of 1993 we were walking in the woods after a snowfall. The trunks, partially covered in snow, looked like corpses flung about on a battlefield. These were powerful images. Although I had never been attracted to photography as a medium, I felt only photography could capture these scenes that looked like documentary war photos. I borrowed Peter's point and shoot camera and began to take pictures as we walked along the little path in the woods. The more I shot, the more images needed to be recorded. I had them developed at the local drug store adn selected the ones I liked best and had them enlarged at a photo lab back in Chicago. I made collaged drawings and turned them into diptychs with the photos that I had thought of as ready-mades. I returned to the woods the following autumn and had a similar experience and photographed the limbs buried in the fallen leaves. To my surprise the two series are now in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) at Columbia College.

Vera shows me a rubbing from an old wood print she did.  

I often recycle my own work and re-use elements of discarded drawings or woodcuts in collage form. I think that collage was one of the great inventions of the 20th Century. It speaks to disruption and fragmentation as well as disjunctive relationships. It is an important working method in my drawings and in my paintings as well.


Compare your earlier and recent work.

That’s hard because as it is each of my paintings looks different. I follow a strict rule I invented that will prevent me from cranking out a brand product; it prevents me from painting by rote. The rule is that if I paint, let's say a tree, one of my favorite icons, I can't paint another tree for at least a year, by which time I will have forgotton how to do it and will be forced to re-invent it. The rule would apply to color relationships and formal resolutions as well. I don't work in series. As a result each work is unique. I'm happy with that. I have a small vocabulary of icons that I paint in a variety of combinations and they also follow a strict rule: they must be images that are recognizable by any and all, and they cannot be time-bound. For example, figures can't be clothed. I can't paint a telephone or other objects from a given period of time.


Do you find that your style has changed?  Do you have fewer inhibitions? Are you more laid back?

I went through different styles until 1980 when what I would call my "late style" was formed. Since then I do feel that my paintings have become more sure, and as a result, less loose. I think the mind is essentially conservative. It likes order. I try to disrupt that order, to be poised on the edge between the paint looking like paint at the same time that it looks like the icon I'm depicting. But before I know it, the image tightens up. That's the paradox of my painting. I want it to look spontaneous, as though it occured by accident, and at the same time I want it to look exactly as I envision it.


How much time do you spend on a piece?  

That's hard to say. I paint fast. But when I walk by a painting hanging on the wall I see things that need changing and I find myself reworking it, sometimes even several years later.


Your art often references other artists, poets, and musicians – what inspires you? 

I like to see myself as a link in an ongoing chain. I am a link to the past as well as to the future. Many of my ideas come from artists of the past whom I admire and my work is a form of homage to them. Ideas come also from literature, poetry, and music. I am attracted to images in Renaissance art, ecstatic saints, exalted madonnas, gestures of intense emotion.

The first icon I painted after leaving abstraction was the vessel. I chose it as a female image; a fecund form, one that contains, shelters, nurtures. It's rounded, like a pregnant belly, like the world. It was likely the first art object formed, probably by women kneeling in the mud on a riverbank.


Your work, while powerful, has a certain approachability to it because of some familiar imagery. How important is it for you to maintain representational elements versus pure abstraction?

I rarely have pure abstraction on my work. All the elements have a reference. A rectangle is a door or a window. Abstract splotches will form a landscape as light and color create the near and the far.

Ideas come from poetry or other readings. In 1995 I had a fabulous project involving my translations of poetry. I chose the poets carefully - they had to be 20th Century great poets who had lived under totalitarian rule - either Soviet or Nazi. While translating a poem I would envision what the poet might have looked like without ever looking at a photo, and I would paint their imaginary portraits based on images from their poetry. I painted a series of poet poems. Then my rule prevented the painting of a series.


Before your rules kicked in...

That was an exhilerating project. The translation was exciting and imagining the poets' likeness was an almost mystical experience.


What are you drawn to working with?

I like oil paint because it’s an old medium, and it doesn’t call attention to itself, unlike unconventional or new media. Oil paint, charcoal, pastel and graphite become invisible and subservient to the idea even as they create it.