Pasadena-born and based artist Walter Askin has accomplished many things in his expansive career, including publishing six books, countless acclaimed museum and gallery openings, and he’s archived in The Smithsonian Institution. His most recent project, True Fictions, is a paperback book full of his art and insightful musings.
“[True Fictions]’s about the foibles of the visual art professions. It turns out that there are a whole lot of them,” Askin says with a laugh. In a lot of ways, he is a reflection of his work: warm, welcoming, and eager to crack a smile. “As an artist, since you can’t do anything about these things, you might as well enjoy them. Everything I do is done for the joy of it, and that book is a part of that. Aesthetic experiences can do a terrible thing to a person.”
Read below to hear more of Askin’s process and the inspiration behind True Fictions.
What drew you to creating a book form of your work?
When [people] go to an art show, it’s on for 6 weeks or on for a month. When it comes, that’s it. It’s great to put up shows. It’s a drag to take them down. People can only go to see them when the gallery is open. You can have the flu and it could be 2 in the morning, and you can open up the book. Reactions to art are not fixed so that what a work means to you one day can mean something different a week later or a year later. A book provides that fix.
How do you bring humor into your work? Is it a natural element to your art?
Yes, it is. It’s a natural flow. I didn’t start out with humor in my work. Nobody did work that had much sense of humor. As a matter of fact, if you wanted to find dour art, you’d find it in Southern California. Even when I went to Berkley, people did serious art. Serious art is sort of sour apple art. It took a long while, just working. The humor just comes out. It just starts to happen.
There’s underlying seriousness underneath anything humorous. I mean there’s a real issue at stake. But the way to sell the idea, the state of mind you want to impose on people, depends on your being able to make people look at it or to make it desirable for people to look at it. Humor is one of the best ways to do that. When you start to think through the things you remember, it’s the things that were humorous that I think stick over time.
When did the switch from serious art to art with elements of humor happen for you?
It’s very gradual process. You don’t always have many supporters, other people who are interested in the same kind of thing. As a matter of fact, you have to do it in the face of the fact that a lot of people denigrate humorous art. And so, a friend of mine from USC and I started something called The Visual Humor Project. The idea of the project was to give a platform for people to understand what humorous art was about and to give some validation to it.
What inspired you to work on True Fictions?
I’ve always written ideas down. I have drawers full of notebooks and so I keep track of ideas that I use. I’d done all this visual work. It just came together. I had all these ideas about critics and docents and museum trustees. I’ve been a museum trustee. I was a trustee of the old Pasadena Art Museum from 1963-68. I then went over and became a member of the Board of Directors at LICA, LA Institute of Contemporary Art. It preceded the Museum of Contemporary Art. LICA went out of existence when the Museum of Contemporary Art was created.
Then I was on the board of the Graphic Arts Council at the County Museum of Art. Finally, I was on the Board of Governors at the Baxter Art Gallery at CalTech. I was President of the LA Printmaking society and helped start that too.
You work with so many different elements and mediums of art: painting, sculpting, and printing. Is there one that you’re drawn too most often?
Visual art is a language. If you have different things to say, you select the medium that’s most appropriate to that. The things that are in a sculpture cannot be translated easily into flat, painted paintings. Even some of the drawings can’t be extrapolated and put in to a painting. Printmaking has a transformative quality about it. You pick the medium that works. You have inklings or ideas or an interior, unconscious idea of where you want to go. You don’t always know exactly where you want to go, but you feel your way through to the kind of thing that will work at the moment.
Is that something that can be taught, or is that an artist’s natural gift?
Yes, it can be taught. I taught for years. You’ve got to be open. You’ve got to, first of all, look at the class and see what they’re about as well as what you’re about. You don’t just impose yourself upon it. It’s a collaborative situation. It takes a while before you start to become compatible with students. When you’re talking with them, you don’t try to give them one solution. You try to give multiple solutions so that they’re always thinking about what is the intent that they’re developing in their work or, what are the ideas that are most relevant or most satisfying to them. You cannot make predictions. You cannot tell exactly where things are going to go.
How has Pasadena influenced your work? Has it?
Oh yeah, sure! I’m indigenous. I was born here in 1929. It was a totally different world than now. I went through the public school system here. They did have art at that time. I got a work up on the wall in kindergarten that depicted a float that was in the Rose Parade that year. To be visible like that! And to be recognized was wonderful! That affected me.
In junior high school, it was during the second world war, and a lot of teachers were away at war or were involved in the defense industry. I had a couple of one-armed art teachers. People who were sometimes put in there to teach art and didn’t have a whole lot of experience. But they always had art classes, and I always took them. They let you go ahead and work. I remember mentioning the renaissance to my seventh grade teacher, and apparently it made a big ripple there! “This little kid is talking about renaissance art!”
True Fictions is available for purchase at The Huntington Library, Norton Simon Museum, LA County Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art, Pasadena Museum of Contemporary Art, and Art Center College.
photos of Walter Askin work courtesy of the artist.