Excerpt from interview by David Pagel, June 4, 2010
David Pagel I understand that you went to Pomona High School with Roland Reiss.
Tom Eatherton Well, actually, he graduated before I got there, but we knew each other. I remember both of us drawing the model at a night-school class. I think it was in a park in Pomona. He was a friend of my family, too. When I was in high school, I went to Claremont a lot, to night-school classes at different colleges.
DP Just to sit in on them?
TE Oh, no. I was enrolled in extension courses. I was in a drawing class with Roger Kuntz and a painting class with Bob Frame. Other people, too. When I went to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), which is where Roland also went, Craig Kauffman and Ed Moses were there, too. They were graduate students. I was an undergrad.
DP But at that time you already knew that you were an artist?
TE Earlier. Always.
DP Did you think of yourself as a painter or a sculptor? Or simply an artist?
TE Only as a painter. I still do.
DP Even with the installation work?
TE Yes. I think painting is a tradition. Even calling it painting is kind of slighting it, you know. Paint is what you make it with. But it’s much greater than that. It’s a whole dialogue across the centuries.
DP A way of looking or thinking about things?
TE Well, you know people made those things. When you make a thing, an object, it’s not like acting or performance. It’s not like writing, where you may have several editions. Most often it’s unique. You make it, and it goes out in the world. It has its own existence. You are its first viewer. You have a vision. And you try to make the artwork as close as possible to that vision so that it will trigger a response—an experience—so that hopefully the viewer will have that experience as well, or something very similar. And I just think that’s too profound to be called painting. It’s like calling writing typing.
DP Before you made Rise at Pomona in 1970, you made more traditional paintings?
TE Yes. In 1958, I actually did some Abstract Expressionist paintings, and they really meant a lot to me. Abstract Expressionism…those artists just really totally turned my head around. Because all through high school and college I was grappling with lots of figurative art attempts, trying all kinds of different solutions, experimentations, and so on. And then about a year or two after I got out of UCLA, I did this series of Abstract Expressionist paintings. I’d been trying to understand that ethos. Those guys were so committed, and they were so rigorous. For me, it was very clarifying. It burned away the irrelevancies. So, I actually got brave and did some myself.
DP Your paintings from that time strike me as being structural, as stubbornly built.
TE It was conscious. They were consciously made on the grid, but with the painting gesture. That’s just where I was at, at the time. Later, I did clearly formalist paintings, geometric abstractions, and works of that sort.
DP And these led to works like Rise?
TE In 1966, I was doing another series of paintings. Most of them were four-by-four feet. A few were six-by-six feet. And I did one that was only about two-feet square. It was painted on unbleached muslin that I didn’t size. I didn’t paint it white first; I masked the points right on the muslin and I painted an opaque black or dark blue surround. It was little and I was playing around. For some reason, I took it home. I was married at the time, and I took it to our apartment. We had a breakfast nook and I propped it up on the table in the breakfast nook. I went away and I came back later. The sun was shining through the window and it was shining through that muslin. And these points were lit up in my painting.
DP An epiphany?
TE Until then, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Besides making these paintings, I had been making these little corrugated cardboard maquettes. They were just geometric forms. I said, “You can see that form clearly because you’re looking at it from the outside.” After looking at these things for a little while, I realized, “I don’t want to look at them from the outside. I want to look at them from the inside.”