An Interview with Raquel Levy
by Serge Gavronsky
Raquel Levy was born in Gibraltar. She has been co-founder and director of Orange Export Ltd. As a painter, she has exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, in the U.S., Germany, Italy, and most recently, a large one-woman show in Venezuela. She has also been the topic of considerable critical attention including catalog work by Marcelin Pleynet.
SERGE GAVRONSKY: For the past many years you’ve not only been a painter, with numerous and important shows and catalogs, but you’ve also been, as co-founder and director of Orange Export, Ltd., at the head of one of the most important presses in France, reading manuscripts and, as artistic director, interpreting these texts which you have illustrated. On top of all of that, you’ve also assured the mise en page and the selection of typographical characters for your hand-letter press. Given these activities, this vision of the works of poets and prose writers, could you comment on the possible connection between the written word and that other ‘text’ which is yours, and which also appears on the page? How would you describe this collaborative work between two types of expression, your own ‘ecriture’, if I can call it that, and the literary one which finds itself next to it? And perhaps you might say something concerning the possible determination of your own painterly vision through this familiarity with poetry and prose?
RAQUEL LEVY: First of all, it’s a reading, it’s something like music. There may be an aggressive relationship, currents, something which exists as a correspondence, an answer. It’s always a dialogue. It’s always a head on meeting of two things which theoretically are incompatible.
SG: I like that! How refreshing to admit incompatibilities!
SG: It’s in the discourse since what appears in your own work has a distinguishing signature, and so, to place it in relation to a form of writing other than your own is, on the face of it, incompatible but in the succeeding moments, something interesting does happen: what you do is evidently not the same from text to text and there goes the dialogue between two silent partners!
RL: That’s it! That’s what makes it interesting. It’s right there. Every time to connect with something different and strange.
SG: When you were evaluating manuscripts, were you always conscious that you were going to accompany the text with your own art work? Was that something you knew from the start?
RL: That depends, not always. Sometimes, a text made me want to do something. There were others which bothered me. I placed silence there because they were too talky.
SG: Then it really was more than a dialogue! Perhaps a dialectic relation
RL: No doubt. It involved a game played out by two persons. I remember how we were having fun with Mathieu Benezet who had given us his text and had, in fact, designed it himself. That is, he had placed a few words on top and on the bottom of the page and then on both sides, and hardly visible, and I don’t exactly remember what I did, but you see, his was a form of provocation and we had a lot of fun with it! I responded in the same way.
SG: If you had to define – what a curious question! – your poetics in terms of your own art work, if you had to describe to a reader unfamiliar with your work what you did, how would you go about it? What would be the characteristic traits which might, clearly in a limited manner, translate your work in verbal terms?
RL: I often answer that in my paintings, there’s nothing. What interests me is silence and thus, in general, this means an effacement.
SG: Do you think that in the group of poets and writers published by Orange Export, that particular definition of your work partially determined the selection or, as a second possibility (though not a mutually exclusive one), at a certain moment in time, both you and the contributor worked through the question of silence, of absence, of nothingness, the ineffable, the void rather than opting for the monumental, the lyrical, the play on subject? Might that transcultural pact have even preceded the dialogue?
RL: Well in the beginning, since I worked especially with Hocquard, we worked in perfect harmony. Our work was similar. We were working in the same direction, confronting similar problems. Later on, I worked with people who were very different one from the other and very different from myself. I never wanted to make of our small press something of a closed thing. Besides, I was the one who always threw things into a state of disorder! I always came to break this sort of harmony that we had finally come to discover among a group of friends. It was truly marvelous. We talked endlessly but I loved to open things up and since everything was always mixed up together, intermingled. I remember parties where I invited people who were all completely different! That’s what I was interested in.
SG: When you look back on your work, the work which appeared on the facing page, or in the center of those beautiful little pamphlets, apparently independent of the work in language, could you say that your work as an illustrator bore some relation, had a certain influence on your own painterly research?
RL: Yes, yes there’s no division there. Absolutely no separation. One leads to another and, for example, I’d be painting in my studio and I’d remember there were gouaches I had worked on and which were on the floor and Emmanuel would come in. He would immediately feel the need to write down a text about them. He wrote them. A book came out of that. And later, I painted as a result of that. As you can see, it was always intermingled. There was always a sort of dynamics between the two. A going from one to the other. I never felt a division between them, my painting, and all the while what I was doing for one of the books. They indeed represented a different type of preoccupation, a different way, but they never existed apart.
SG: You’re talking about content, and perhaps even about a certain metaphysical interest, but in the case of Orange Export, there was also a very deep commitment to typography. There’s a splendid aesthetic preoccupation evident not only in the way the page was designed but in the very typographical characters selected which raised, on a visible plane, the scriptural presence. And next to that figured your own interpretations. One might even say that, in a given book, there were always two levels of the visible: the legible and the visible
RL: Absolutely! That’s a very difficult but perfect relationship to find. In the same way, I could say that when I worked on my diptychs, at a certain moment, there was something which assured the music of both, where the two sides were in communication. If not, then there were two distinct paintings. And there, the text plays in the same way and so does typography. I remember when I was working on Marcelin Pleynet’s book, I had changed the original typography because I really didn’t like the spacing and I had asked – just to be perfectly sure (I usually don’t do that’) – but Marcelin has an excellent eye and, therefore, I wanted to, and I said: ‘It’s not working. How do you see it? What are your suggestions?’ And he did exactly what I had proposed, to the millimeter! He chose the same characters and the same spacing. That’s just the way it had to be because it was the right choice. And that is a fascinating thing!
SG: Which reminds me of a discussion I had with Marcelin a number of years ago about the way reproductions of details of paintings are presented in catalogs and art books. The very nature of the painting is tricked when the detail appears as a full-page reproduction! That really shows a blatant ignorance of the meaning of the whole! In the case of most books which you’ve published, though I’m certainly not familiar with all of them, there seems to me to be a preference for a reduced format.
RL: That’s right.
SG: While your own canvases tend to be monumental.
SG: How then do you see yourself, without being redefined, operating with a restrictive space, a space which reduces the size of your vision?
RL: It really is a question of proportions. That’s true. I’m most at ease with large canvases, the larger the better! Certain of our own books gave the impression…
SG: All the while being diminutive…
RL: Yes, they gave the impression of size! I really don’t know how to put it into words, but I know how to see it. There’s no incompatibility at that level.
SG: Even though your canvases tend to be monochromatic (though not always, and certainly not all the work in the books themselves), they are all rich in color. Color is a primordial concern of yours: they do not only figure as element of form, but color. ls there a relationship which can be established between the written text, the poem, and what you suggest on the level of color? You previously spoke about music: can you be more precise about that? Is there a way of putting into words something which appears to me to be nearly impossible? Is it a pure non-transmissible sensation? A reaction which tells you that, in this particular instance, black or white shall dominate?
RL: There are texts which are colored: and therefore, you can highlight that, place that into a color relief which might be seen as an absence of color (in the poem) and which can be brought out.
SG: What do you mean when you speak about the ‘color of the text?’ Clearly, you’re not talking about a poem, like Eluard’s, which begins ‘The earth is blue like an orange.’
RL: Of course, I’m not!
SG: Then how do you explain this highly accurate matter of the ‘color of writing’? It’s not only a subjective decision: you don’t say to yourself, ‘Today, I’1l select this or that color’ Something in the text speaks out at you and there, the adequation occurs.
RL: Isn’t that a sort of vibration?
SG: I’m totally in agreement, but how can we go further and explain this vibration? I realize how difficult it is to put into words two systems of figurations one verbal and the other one pictorial.
RL: Things have got to be properly threaded together or the work rejects it. It really depends on the type of writing facing you.
SG: When you arrive at a solution, adequate to your own aesthetics and desires, do you ever consult with the poet or the writer or does he or she remain outside of this eventual collaboration?
RL: Outside! It remains a surprise except at rare times, such as when Emmanuel and I worked out the thing together.
SG: Proximity seems to play its part!
RL: We had fun making texts. We looked for something and we fabricated it together but, in general. the poet was not consulted. Not at all.
SG: When you look back again, touch, see, think about those books, do you still feel the same ‘vibrations?’ When you look at what had been your own decision, do you still say: ‘That’s fantastic. There weren’t any other possibilities.’ Or do you ask yourself other questions later on? Does the retrospective glance play its part in the critical perception?
RL: It’s no longer my book. It came out of me an: then I look at it as something else, which can surprise me astonish me or again appear to me to be indifferent.
SG: During the time when you were working on those texts, were you conscious of certain verbal echoes? I’m not speaking about the themes of the texts, obviously, but were there resonances emanating from the text, from certain words able to suggest images, colors? As a painter, you don’t necessarily have the same response a reader might have when he or she approaches a text and looks for ABC. Can you describe that? Is it the blankness? The lay-out?
RL: There’s never a mise-en-page beforehand. I received the text and then I defined its placement on the page.
SG: But what happened when the poem, as it is most frequently the case, already contains its spatial definitions, if the surface of the page has already been sensitized by a topological distribution.
RL: That’s what occurred with Benezet but it’s very rare. And with him, there was a high degree of complicity since we worked closely and thus when he threw his conundrum at me, we were both able to work it out! That may have been the very first time something like that ever happened. In general, I would get either a written or typed script. Of course the poem has its form. Usually, there were five little texts. But as far as I was concerned, what interested me was the difficulty. I panicked in the beginning but then it came! There’s no other way of putting it. It’s there. It’s not a highly thought-out process, but that’s the way it happens.
SG: There’s an authenticity in that reply! When I said there were colors in your work, you mentioned the existence of the colors in the verbal works, too. Can the same thing be said in the reverse, that is there a verbal tenor to your colors? When you paint, do you verbalize your topics? You mentioned at the beginning such words as absence, nothingness, but this nothingness is obviously rich in words.
RL: At times I begin a canvas with an extremely colored surface, with a great sense of movement and then I suppress that, I place everything in order until I reach the void. During my last exhibit, I had fun showing some of these preliminary stages, showing canvases which hadn’t been totally finished. That was fun since it represented the nether side of the final work.
SG: The palimpsest of the canvas! But those were elements you kept in a perfectly lucid decision. You were having fun and you wanted to leave a sort of testimony: ‘this is how I work’ type of statement! Let me now ask you a final question. When you look at what is being done today both in writing and in painting, how do you react?
RL: Quelle horreur! I mean, it’s difficult to say, of course and there are things which are happening, that are rising to the surface, but what’s being done right now seems to me to be horrible!
SG: Well, we’ll end on that definitive note! Thanks Raquel.
WITZ. Volume 1, NO 3, Spring 1993.