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Allison Katz on Pierre Bonnard

interviewed by Barry Schwabsky
Articles / Interview • 11.05.2023

Allison Katz (b.1980) FIG.1 is a Canadian artist based in London. Since the completion of her studies at Columbia University, New York, in 2008, her work has been presented internationally, including participation in such major exhibitions as the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022. Her recent solo shows include Artery at Nottingham Contemporary and Camden Arts Centre, London, in 2021–22 and Diary w/o Dates at Oakville Galleries and the MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge MA, in 2018. This interview between Barry Schwabsky and Katz began life as part of Schwabsky’s research for an exhibition catalogue essay for Bonnard: The Experience of Seeing at Acquavella Galleries, New York FIG.2.1 Instigated by a chance encounter, the conversation delves into Katz’s fascination with the French painter and his influence on her work.2

Allison Katz (AK):
When I was installing my exhibition Diary w/o Dates at the MIT List Visual Arts Center in 2018 FIG.3, I kept in mind something Pierre Bonnard said: ‘I’m trying to do what I have never done – give the impression one has on entering a room: one sees everything and at the same time nothing’.3 I was trying to unpack what that meant, and I think it means that when you enter a room, you have this overall feeling of colour or an impression; it just hits you. And then you go through the pleasure, or the work, of looking and figuring it out. It’s true in a way, it’s almost absent-mindedness – when you walk into a room, you kind of see it and you don’t at the same time. This logic of seeing and not seeing at the same time stuck with me. I thought that’s what Bonnard really understood and articulated: that it’s okay to not see while you’re seeing.

Barry Schwabsky (BS): I think that also has a lot to do with why his painting is so centred around domesticity, because that happens more in familiar situations. If you’re walking into a strange place, then you’re alert and looking from the get-go, whereas when you walk into your living room, you don’t actually look at it, it’s just there. You’re more registering it than seeing it until something comes into focus.

AK: I always thought it was interesting that Bonnard wasn’t intimidated by this idea that, at first, you don’t know what you’re looking at and that things coming into focus isn’t a problem. It’s kind of the point that you’re distracted or lack a specific focus, and then, slowly, you come into that. I think that other painters took this up in their own way. If you think about it, Francis Picabia’s transparencies are doing a similar thing. It’s a completely different visual language, but you begin with a visual overwhelm, where you can’t actually see the totality of what you’re looking at. Then you modulate your attention and break it up into parts, go in and out of the layers.

BS: That’s interesting. In my recollection, there’s usually a dominant image in each element of Picabia’s paintings, but I suppose this is in terms of how you put it all together – it takes time.

AK: It’s not a traditional composition, let’s say. Despite the fact that Bonnard’s paintings can appear very traditional, I don’t think they are. Partially, that must come from the fact that he didn’t know where the edges were until the end, so he’s painting in a sort of limbo. I have always thought that the four lines of the canvas stretcher are really crucial – those are the first fixed lines you have to work with, whereas Bonnard refused that convention, as if he wanted to be disoriented, or limitless.

I became very inspired by Bonnard’s turning of these fixed lines into edges, into entrances and exits – as if you could pass through a painting, and then come back around. Bonnard would look at his wife in the bathroom, for example, then walk the few paces to the room next door where the canvas was and lay down the mark, and walk back. Look, walk, make a mark, and so on. He would stretch out the act of observation, which seems maddening as a process, but also seems to relate to this game of entering and exiting. He treated a painting as both a physical and psychic site that you have to be able to go in and out of, and that accruing of doubt becomes the image itself.

Although my paintings don’t look like his, that’s one of the lasting impressions I had of how I might conceptualise a painting – that it’s a bigger space than implied, and edges are really important for seeing. And by extension, I thought about it in terms of the image itself: that it can be an entrance or an exit too. The types of things I paint, have to be, in my mind, something I can go in and out of; I’m not trying to stay in there all the time, I want to be compelled to return.

BS: Also when you look at Bonnard’s paintings, unlike, for example, an Impressionist painting, you don’t necessarily feel that you’re in a stable spot from which the scene is being taken in. You’re part of the motion, the viewpoint is unstable.

AK: I think it’s because he’s not looking at photography as much as other Impressionists, and he’s not painting from direct, sustained observation. He’s putting in these strange impediments, such as putting his subject in another room, as if he is deliberately trying to make it difficult for himself. I think he understood the value of constraints on creative expression. His paintings are quite weird but they sometimes seem to get mistaken as just being pretty. Maybe this is also because he gets confused with Édouard Vuillard, whose later works shifted towards conservative, naturalistic society portraits.

BS: Apparently Bonnard had a period like that too, when he painted a lot of portraiture that never gets shown. His gallery, Bernheim-Jeune, Paris, was pushing him because they catered to a certain society. But you never see those paintings. Maybe it’s just a rumour!

AK: Well, the length of Dostoevsky’s books was apparently dictated by the fact that he got paid by the word. Economic and social pressures are a form of creative energy too. But in Bonnard’s case, the works fall apart consistently masterfully. They are not stylised at all, and their decorative qualities are destabilising. Nothing is adding up. A friend and I used to spend a lot of time looking at The Terrace at Vernonnet FIG.4 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. There’s a woman in yellow next to a purple tree, and all the other figures take their time to come in and out of view. We would even start thinking we could see other figures. We would start to doubt our own eyes: are we seeing something that isn’t there? Similarly, last summer I was looking closely at Bonnard’s Paysage du Midi et deux enfants (Mediterranean Landscape with two children) FIG.5 at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, when I noticed a third girl FIG.6. She’s undeniably there, if only just a few strokes. I marvelled at how that directly contradicts the title and wondered if it was done on purpose? Or if that was even his own title? It’s as though Bonnard deliberately uses disorientation, camouflage and pattern to hypnotise the viewer, to question substance and difference altogether.

His drawings function similarly in terms of obfuscation. When he drew, he had a code. In her essay for the catalogue Pierre Bonnard: The Late Still Lifes and Interiors at the Met, Dita Amory explains that his marks implied different colours: zigzags became red and green, for example.4 Just as marks mean something, colour was also very cryptic for him. It doesn’t matter if I know what it means, but that density of hiding things in plain sight is really a very psychological way to think about colour.

BS: In the same catalogue Jack Flam points out that the peculiar thing about Bonnard’s paintings is that you don’t always see the figures again after they come out. It’s not like once you see it, you always see it.5 The next time you go back to the painting, you still start out by not seeing it. I wonder how in the world he did that, because it doesn’t seem like something you should even be able to do.

AK: Or want to do. Picasso insulted him by saying he created ‘a potpourri of indecision’.6 But I think Bonnard’s indecisiveness, in a really fundamental way, is what makes him contemporary. He shows another side of what colour can do. It does not necessarily have to align with clarity but can instead manifest too-muchness. It reveals and conceals. His use of colour betrays matter. It’s about something much more ephemeral and ghostly.

Sometimes the works even feel mixed up in their conveyance of senses, like the smell of food, the texture of clothes, the glare of sunlight – as in The Bowl of Milk FIG.7. All that gets mediated by awkward hues and inversions of tone. There’s something very odd that he does with colour – I’m still trying to figure it out.

Also, this painting was renamed three times, and there’s a different, fourth title on an old label on the back – Bonnard isn’t even fixed in his titles, which makes perfect sense. Language is alive and mutable, like colour or an edge. It’s only convention that requires one to stick to a title. It’s a rebellious thing to do, changing it later on. It demonstrates what we already know to be true: that looking itself is unstable, one’s relationship to one’s own paintings is unpredictable and that it can take years to find the right title. And also that a painting might never really be finished. I should add that it’s not entirely clear to me who was doing the renaming – so many of them have multiple titles – it could be that others were also renaming them, like his dealers, but the idea that they would feel entitled to do so is perhaps a feature of their inherent ambiguity, their un-fixedness.  

BS: Can you tell me a little bit more about how you use these ideas in your own work, such as the idea of the room and going in and out.

AK: I guess the ‘going in and out’ is something that happens both within and outside of the painting. The painting can direct the room and project what it needs outwards, which leads to architectural interventions in terms of display. It’s not imposed from the outside, like with a specific curatorial conceit, it’s more of a conversation – something about mirroring the freedom or desires inside the painting. So this could mean quite literally that I make doorways or walls, to frame or block or guide. For example, for Artery at Nottingham Contemporary FIG.8 and when it toured to Camden Art Centre, London FIG.9 FIG.10, I made lots of different entrances and exits, as though the room itself was a kind of painting. Encouraging a choreography of going in and out of the space allows the viewer to move through the paintings in the same way, even if it’s only unconsciously.

Certainly, I also share an affinity with Bonnard’s odd use of colour, or colours that are not necessarily aesthetic. I love this line by Virginia Woolf: ‘I like to be very mixed’, which the poet Richard Howard threw out during a semester-long course that I took at Columbia University, New York, about nonsense. That line is about life, but it’s also about what you can do with colour. It can express emotional states through matter, like transparency or opacity, which are bodily feelings too. Something about the way Bonnard gave himself permission to think about colour as a material of the mind, where it’s okay to be mixed up, has been an influence on me.

And I think a lot about edges. I do still like the constraint of the four lines – I wouldn’t want that freewheeling approach of painting right to the edge. I think Bonnard was really an abstract painter in that sense. I like the constraint, but ever since I read about the way he worked, I always think about his lack of it. For example, in my paintings of cabbages FIG.11 there’s always the shadow of my husband’s profile coming in from the right edge. Half-realised presences often have more bearing than if it was a whole figure. I’ve also made paintings where a limb might jut in, or something partial or half-realised like that. This definitely comes from thinking about those entrances and exits. You don’t have to give the whole form, you can give a part of it.

BS: There’s so much figurative painting being shown in galleries now and, for me, it’s almost like there’s some dividing line between those that are willing to leave a figure unfinished and those that have to define it as a totality. I’m most interested in the ones that leave it unfinished.

AK: Yes, the figure already is too much. A body is very similar to a painting anyway: it’s a skin that conceals. If you depict it in its fully enclosed state, you forget that it’s not the point of re-depicting it – for me anyway. The point is to somehow leave it open in some way so that the viewer continues it or finishes it with their own body.

When Edgar Degas began using photography and cutting people off, it seemed very different to how Bonnard was cutting people off or showing half presences. With Degas or Édouard Manet, I often feel there is an aggression to it, something random, industrial. Bonnard feels more like an auteur in his cuts, they are cinematic.

BS: Yes, the temporal aspect of looking at a Bonnard painting and the fact that you never feel like you can see it all at once makes it cinematic. With Degas, there’s movement in it and, of course it reveals itself over time, but there’s an initial all-over perception that you start from. Bonnard doesn’t allow that because he really emphasises the temporal. It makes me think of a film that had a big impression on me a long time ago, which is House of Games (1987) by David Mamet. It was his first film. Towards the beginning of the film, there’s this long shot FIG.12 where the female protagonist, played by Lindsay Crouse, who was Mamet’s wife at the time, goes into a bar. The camera follows her and she seems to be in an almost empty space, then gradually figures emerge from the darkness. It made such an impression on me because the cinematic movement was not primarily the movement of the figures in the frame, nor even the movement of the camera, of the frame itself. It was really this coming out of the shadows.

AK: I see some Bonnard paintings almost as a scroll – you imagine there’s a lot that you’re not seeing, because for everything you do see he somehow manages to imply the phantom of what isn’t there: the ‘nothing’ that he wants to see in the ‘everything’. This is not to say that those works are better or worse than a Degas or Manet, it’s just with those it can seem as though they’re snapshots or clear compositional statements. Bonnard has a rolling, wave-like passage: you have to roll something up to push something out.

There’s a movement at the edges as well. When you scan to look at one side, all this other stuff is massing or rushing in, but you can’t see it. There’s some strange ghosting when you’re not looking – almost like colour after-effects – from the phenomenological impact of all the pigments, which are less ordered than in, for instance, paintings by Georges Seurat. In that sense, it relates to colour field painting.

I think that the scale of Bonnard’s paintings is also important. There’s a photograph of him in his studio FIG.13, with different-sized canvases on the wall and they’re butting up against each other. He was often going from one painting to the next. That’s another thing I took from Bonnard, although I’m sure a lot of painters paint this way. I’ll work on at least five different paintings at once and, even though they’re unrelated, the brush will skate over to another canvas and back again. I end up with stuff that’s connected but they look nothing alike. They were made, in this sense, with edges that, although they are resolutely there, become arbitrary. It’s actually quite fun.

BS: That’s interesting, because for me, in writing, it’s very easy for a bit that started out in one poem or essay to migrate into another one. I think for most painters that’s not something that really happens, unless they’re using collage. For that to also be possible in the act of painting is an interesting thing.

AK: That’s a big part of how I work, that migration, or cross-pollination. When I saw how Bonnard worked, I’m sure it gave me a kind of permission that things are assigned by time rather than by subject. If you’re making multiple works at the same time, then they’re going to be united in some way. I’ve always been driven to make things look very different, but to paint them right next to each other at the same time.

BS: When you make a show, is it typically things that were made in that kind of togetherness, or do you also combine from different times?

AK: I think the grouping in an exhibition context is as important as the single image. There’s something bigger that happens when the group comes together. There’s a sensibility, a colour preference or a way of thinking that gets released, almost despite itself. 

I love how chaotically Bonnard worked, with hardly any space between works on that big, tall wall. It’s interesting to me that these paintings get categorised as placid Post-Impressionist domestic scenes. He was painting in one big moving colour field: it could be his wife in the bath FIG.14, a still-life or a weather pattern, but it was all of a piece. He was very radical about a lack of centre or a lack of cohesiveness and decision making. It’s not a huge leap from him to, let’s say, Jackson Pollock.

BS: In Alex Katz’s memoirs, he writes something like ‘in New York around 1950, serious painting was black and white, you couldn’t use colour. Then there was a show of Bonnard in 1953 and by 1954 everyone was using colour’.7

AK: People often say that Bonnard is a painter’s painter. Perhaps you have to have something at stake in the making process to recognise his innovation. He seems to speak for all those who are tortured and seduced by overwhelm, indecision, sensuality. I don’t know if people love Bonnard as a general rule.

BS: You mean the general art viewership? I don’t think that he’s the first name that comes to mind. I agree, I think that part of the problem is that, in some people’s minds, he’s fixed in that 1890s moment of Les Nabis, but really, his great work came well after that. Another artist who I think of here is Edvard Munch – he’s the same generation and likewise, gets a really strong start when he is young, and so is seen as an artist of the 1890s and the creator of The Scream (1893). Not taking into account art-historical scholarship, only a few people outside of Norway seem to notice that he kept painting until the 1940s and produced amazing works all along.

AK: Munch is also someone who used colour from a very esoteric and emotional position, although it seems like he went even deeper into the scientific and occult developments at the time with references to aura maps, radiography and X-rays.8 His own eyesight became content too. He suffered from some serious eye problems, which produced interruptions and shapes in his field of vision but he integrated these into his paintings. One is titled Disturbed Vision (1930), which is a perfect title I think, because it shows how vision was flexible and symbolic for him. It was the same with mark-making – he made it clear that it was about something else beyond what could be looked at.

BS: I remember I was visiting Montreal in the 1990s and they had a huge exhibition on the Symbolist movement at the Museum of Fine Arts, which included Munch. He was so different from all the other painters. Every time I would walk into the room, if there was one painting that just came out and grabbed me, it would always turn out to be a Munch. The force of his colour came out and grabbed you before you even saw what it was. That was why I realised that, yes, he did create these symbolic images, but that really wasn’t the heart of his painting.

AK: Recently I’ve been rereading the exhibition catalogue for Warhol After Munch at the Louisiana Museum of Art, Humlebæk, which I saw in 2010, to look again at Warhol’s silk-screen prints based on Munch’s motifs.9 It’s an enormous series, made only three years before he died, and in a number of them, there’s at least fifteen layers of oil silk screen. The colours are incredible; they really reaffirm Warhol as a colourist. It also makes Munch seem so generative, which he is. Not everyone can lead to that next stage. A lot of the time, you look at work and that’s all you can do, but some work propels someone else to keep making it. You’re not copying, you’re expanding, but it’s a kernel inside the work itself that makes this possible, plus some chance encounter. This is a really specific generosity and energy that Munch has. Warhol saw this potential, even though by the 1980s the overwrought-ness of Munch was considered cliché, but somehow he managed to make it about something else. 

The one thing I was blown away by in person, thanks to Warhol’s colour combinations and the density of so many flat printed planes of oil, was the way that the silk-screens produced a really unique surface vibration. This is another thing that Bonnard created, although in a totally opposite way: a vibration that you can’t get in reproduction. I think that Bonnard, like most artists, suffers from reproduction, but in particular, this abstracted noticing, this coming and going, is somatic, bodily: you have to be in front of it for it to unfold. It’s almost a deception to look at his work on a postcard, or in a book, holding it in your hands, because you rightly might think you’re seeing ‘everything’ – but, to come back to how we started – his ‘everything’ includes the ineffable necessity of ‘nothing’ too. There’s a reminder, in all his paintings, that stability is a dream, but you need to be awake and alive with the objecthood of the painting and your own perceptions to send you on that trip.


About the author

Barry Schwabsky

is the art critic for the Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books of poetry are Feelings of And (2022) and Water from Another Source (2023).


  • B. Schwabsky and S. Whitfield: exh. cat. Bonnard: The Experience of Seeing, New York (Acquavella Galleries) 2023. footnote 1
  • The author is grateful to Yuri Stone, curator at Glenstone Museum, Potomac MD, for drawing his attention to Katz’s interest in Bonnard. footnote 2
  • Pierre Bonnard quoted in R. Burnam: ‘Intelligent seeing’, in D. Amory, ed.: exh. cat. Pierre Bonnard: The Late Still Lifes and Interiors, New York (Metropolitan Museum of Art) 2009, pp.69–77, at p.71. footnote 3
  • D. Amory: ‘The presence of objects: still life in Bonnard’s late paintings’, in idemop. cit. (note 3), pp.3–30, esp. pp.14–15. footnote 4
  • J. Flam: ‘Bonnard in the history of twentieth-century art’ in Amory, op. cit. (note 3), pp.47–59. footnote 5
  • Pablo Picasso quoted in Amory, op cit. (note 4), p.3. footnote 6
  • A. Katz: Invented Symbols: An Art Autobiography [1997], New York 2012. footnote 7
  • See A. Lampe, C. Chéroux and F. Albera, eds: exh. cat. Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye, London (Tate Modern), Frankfurt (Schirn Kunsthalle) and Paris (Centre Pompidou), 2012–13. footnote 8
  • M.J. Holm, H. Dedichen and P.E. Tøjner: exh. cat. Warhol after Munch, Humblebæk (Louisiana Museum of Modern Art) 2010. footnote 9

See also

Alex Katz: Gathering
Alex Katz: Gathering

Alex Katz: Gathering

23.11.2022 • Reviews / Exhibition

Mixing It Up: Painting Today
Mixing It Up: Painting Today

Mixing It Up: Painting Today

08.12.2021 • Reviews / Exhibition