Nikolai Buglaj / Artist Interview
Interview with Nikolai Buglaj
“… Art in itself, if you just pursue it all the time, is just career building.
Anybody, who is building a career is going in a straight line to nowhere, in my opinion.
I learned that from (John) Cage, (Sari) Dienes, and others….”
By Josè Rodeiro and Christie Devereaux
July 19, 2012Nikolai Buglaj was born in Polish Belarus in 1942 and came to the United States as a nine-year-old child of WWII. Buglaj is a master draftsman. Over the past forty years, he has managed to establish himself as an acclaimed and noted fine artist in a unique way without compromise and always on his own terms. After receiving a Masters of Industrial Design from Pratt Institute, Buglaj worked for famed industrial designer George Nelson and also worked on the Seville World’s Fair and Motorola Museum. In 1979, he exhibited a major thought-provoking installation at P.S. I titled “Four Identical Rooms.” In the early ‘90s, Buglaj decided to devote himself primarily to the fine arts. He generated a series of intellectually intriguing drawings based on the concept of perceptual illusion while exploring varying topics, such as cultural, political, economic and racial illusion. His current work proposes a 3-D installation that facilitates the viewing of the environment by incorporating the environment’s milieu into the illusion. Therefore the environment becomes part of the illusion. His art delves into an essential question about our perceptions that will leave any rational minded person, when looking at his art, asking, “Is this cultural illusion or merely perceptual illusion?” At present, Buglaj lives and works in Manhattan. The below interlocution between Buglaj, and New York City artist Christie Devereaux (see Ragazine.CC Volume 8, Number 3) and Dr. José Rodeiro occurred in Madison, New Jersey, during a visit to Rodeiro’s quaint and charming Tudor home (against the backdrop of the monumental whitish-gray structure that houses the New York Jets’s indoor training stadium, which resembles an architectonic “Mont Sainte Victoire”).
CD: In general, artists want to share their work with the public. What is the rationale for not wanting to show your work?
NB: Well, I don’t look at my work as single paintings or single works of art. I never saw it as putting up paintings or sculptures, etc. That process never hit me. My work is about bringing out what is within your perceptions and keeping what is hidden out in the open all the time. My work claims that illusions, cultural illusions, hide perceptual illusions, or vice versa, perceptual illusions hide cultural illusions. If I bring attention to them, then they pop out. Thus, the distortion in what we perceive makes reality become more visible. Hence I am saying that the work of art is distortion itself.
I don’t want what is being distorted to be the main goal of my art or my art process. Hence, my pieces are extremely simple, almost simple minded. They get to the point, because in my art there’s “no art” attached to it; for that reason, I desire that no poetry be attached to it, because people are over preoccupied with poetry and art. One reason I don’t show is because people hunger too much for art. They don’t hunger for the process itself that underlies art; instead, they want ART (as a finished object). With the process of distortion itself, they always want to attach an image to the distortion, consequently, the big issue in my work has been to just stay with the distortion itself without getting sidetracked by what is “being distorted.”
CD: Would you say that the process is more important than the product?
NB: The process is more important because the product is what goes on the wall. The process is constantly more important. So in a way, the process between two paintings or sculptures is what is more important. The two paintings or sculptures are two illusions. One could be a sculptural illusion or a cultural illusion or a sexual illusion, etc. The other one could be purely a perceptual illusion and both are end products. The push/pull in-between perceptual illusion and cultural illusion is far more important and exciting to me than the tedious concept of ART.
CD: If perceptual illusion is the underpinning concept for your inspiration and work. Why does the topic intrigue you and how does it relate to your personal history and experience?
NB: That’s an interesting question because I’m Mr. White Man. I’m not the underdog. When I consider the friends that I have and my environment, I’ve been privileged in many ways. Poverty is not an issue with me. I’m lucky. I was fortunate to be born with certain innate ability to experience that awareness. Thus, there is something in my mind that’s open to people who have not experienced that and are not as lucky as I am. So I picked up right away on it as a child. So, it was important for me to over-exaggerate the magnitude of my being rejected and diminished, etc. This opened my mind and made me more aware of what’s going on in the world. The truth is that in our society, we are the freest people on earth and richest, etc. And, I know underneath it all that this sense of rejection is a basic cover up for the real stuff that is going on deeply within.
CD: Therefore it is a perceptual illusion.
NB: Now a very, very clear example of the illusion at work is “Three Men in a Room” (Racial Optical Illusion). It’s so clear. There’s almost no art to be seen there. But it’s like that on purpose. There are three guys in a room, a white man, a black man, and a brown man. The room, which is actually created by the U.S. flag, is exaggerating the size of the white man, which is perceptual illusion at work, because he is in actuality identical in size to the other figures. That perceptual illusion is so clear in the drawing that it almost hides the cultural illusion. The cultural illusion is basically the intermingling of class and status, which is hidden. One of the first people of note to notice that message in my work was Dr. Henry M. Sayre. He later wrote about it in the book Writing About Art published by Pearson-Prentice Hall. Some of the other illusions, the illusion of progress being hindered by the actual progress, which is going sideways is illustrated by thirteen men racing sideways in which racial progress and class progress are actually going sideways. When I say “class progress,” in my case, I have a subtle reference to “class” by using the color of people’s shirts to indicate their societal status, such as the blue collar and white collar, so that you have class denoted by the actual color of their clothing. People’s race is denoted by the color of their skin. In reality the mobility is all going sideways and nothing is going forward except for the illusion of people seeming to run forward. It’s a complete contradiction to what is actually happening. So you have all these various conflicts of illusions layered one on top of the other. One thing opens up and the other thing is hidden. The hidden portion is opened-up and something else is hidden. I bring to the viewer an open process that unwraps (opens) more and more, so that nothing is ever closed up.
JR: When you were starting out 40-50 years ago, you were very much attracted to the art of Ad Reinhardt. You focused on his work especially the Black Paintings where he used lamp black, ivory black and other different types of black all in exact squares. You kept saying, “This is what I want to do.” Then you ended up doing this art that appears to people that are not alert that you are doing representation, but in actuality you’re distorting representation in order to do a kind of Reinhardtesque thing.
NB: Oh yes. The allusion to Reinhardt is very clear in one of my drawings where there is a slum area and superimposed is a black rectangle. To see the poverty that is inside the black rectangle it takes time. It takes time, in a similar way, it takes time for your eyes to adjust when you move from darkness to light. In like manner, your mind must adjust to see what’s going on in society. Ad Reinhardt’s painting is the same way, because it requires time to truly see what is going on in the black rectangle, which, in my case, isolates poverty. Therefore, I call the piece “Poor Timing.” It’s a play on the term “time,” but, in that context, the black rectangle is inside a white neighborhood. Reinhardt’s concerns were more formal, while mine are iconological.
JR: Yes, that’s very much like Reinhardt.
CD: Can you tell me about any other defining moments in your life that influenced your particular artistic path?
NB: I can tell you one thing. I studied Industrial Design and that was a defining moment for me, in a way, because it pushed me towards fine arts. It’s not as though I was attracted to something. That was clearly pushing me in a direction. Also , the society as such, growing up in the ‘60s and going to school in the ‘60s, it opened up all of those perceptual doors for me to pass right through, because it was such a beautiful and interesting “open” epoch in history.
JR: As a follow up to what Christie was asking, what were your experiences as a child growing up during WW II. What was it like?
NB: I was born in ’42. I was passed around by my mother’s sister, my aunt, who died about five years ago. I didn’t know my mother that much because she passed away. My experience, I was born in ’42, as a result, I would have been three years old at the end of the war. Basically, I was passed around by these people until I met my stepmother, who married my father in around 1948.
CD: And where was that?
NB: That was in Germany. So my introduction to a stable family life was sort of late for a child. I guess, I was around six years old at that time.
JR: You were in displaced-persons’ camps (“DP-camp”) at the end of the war?
NB: For a while, in the beginning.
JR: Then your father found you?
NB: Then, I guess, my father found me. I was too young to remember. I don’t remember my real mother. She died young.
JR: You were about five when you were in a displaced persons camp?
NB: I think so; maybe . . . four or five.
JR: At what age did you arrive in the United States?
NB: I was nine years old. I went toNew Jersey outside of New Brunswick. It’s a small town, so I got exposed to small town life in the United States, seeing the USA, for the first time, through the eyes of a nine-year-old kid living in central New Jersey. I never was exposed to blacks or minorities of any kind. Accordingly, the reality of what was going on was completely beyond my parameters until my parameters slowly started increasing, once I started going to Pratt Institute, Brooklyn. Then slowly I got hooked on the new things that my parameters were attached to, like art, etc.
JR: During the height of the Viet Nam War you entered the military.
JR: Talk about how you rose to officer status in that organization, the U.S. Army.
NB: Well, I wound up in the military because I didn’t want to be drafted as an enlisted-man. So in reality, I went into ROTC and went in as an officer.
JR: And that was in high school?
NB: No, no, ROTC was done at Pratt. They had a ROTC program. I don’t know if they still do. Once I got into the army, I quickly formed friendships with basically pacifists, people who were pacifists in the army. I remember once when I was stationed in California I was exposed to this middle-aged gentleman, who happened to be a colonel from San Francisco. At that time, he was visiting my post for summer training. He told me that he was a pacifist, while I was having breakfast with him. We spotted each other right away. I spotted that he was not the regular military guy. He was a member of the Society for Democratic Society or something like that. I don’t remember the exact terminology; but, it was quite obvious that he was already on to the pacifist side of the military experience.
Now at the time pacifism was happening on many levels. I remember also that when I was in the army, General Gavin, who during WWII was the head of the 82nd Airborne Division, was one of the most outspoken generals against the war, etc. So there were quite a few military men that were openly against the war. I was leaning towards that. That was the beginning of my period of social consciousness. But, then I started to realize that it doesn’t stop at politics. I mean, the distortions that go on inside our brains happen in every field, in every experience that we have. So it almost doesn’t pay to produce art that is purely political in nature, because no matter what field you choose, you’re going to be dealing with the same problems. Human problems are not just “political” in nature; although, they are structurally all the same. There is something wide of the mark in human beings that can’t be fixed politically.
JR: What rank in the military did you ultimately reach?
NB: I went in as a 2nd Lieutenant and then was a 1st Lieutenant. At the end of my reserve period, which was about four years, I guess I was a Captain. So I went out the door a Captain.
JR: And, then you went back to Pratt for your MFA?
NB: Yes, it was paid for by the Army – surprisingly. Then it was a Masters of Industrial Design. Now, it is an MFA program.
JR: You worked for some of the biggest firms.
NB: I worked in the 1992 Seville World’s Fair, the Motorola Museum, and for George Nelson. He’s in all the museums as one of the pioneers of modern industrial design. But my basic industrial design stint was only a few years and then I started drifting away from it.
JR: And, you stumbled on to people like Oscar Nitzchke, John Cage, and people like that.
NB: I stumbled on Oscar Nitzchke through a gentleman who gave me my first show, Hans Lindblom. He is long dead now. But Hans was an architect and he was a protégé of Oscar Nitzchke. The interesting thing about Oscar Nitzchke was that he was the senior architect under Le Corbusier. Oscar Nitzchke is like a slice of 20th century art. He was at the same table when Picasso and James Joyce met. He was Bunuel’s roommate in Los Angeles when Bunuel was a pauper. In Harlem, he knew Basie and Ellington, the whole group. He knew everybody. He used to drive around with Peggy Guggenheim in her pink Cadillac throughout the United States. So he had contact with the whole crew. In his pauper years, he would borrow money from Calder. Calder would give him little works of art that he could sell for money. From Satie he would get original manuscripts that he would turn into money. In that sense, he was an interesting guy. When his hearing got bad, people refused to hire him. But at age 80 or 83, his old students from Yale University got him a show at Cooper Union. Once he got the big show at Cooper Union, Cooper Union produced this fancy catalog of his work. The Museum of Modern Art bought his drawings and put them on display a few weeks later.
JR: And, he still has work there now?
NB: He still has work there. He died about ten years ago. When he died I was looking through the New York Times and there was a big write up about his death.
JR: How did you get into the entourage of Sari Dienes, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham?
NB: I got into that entourage through Hans Lindblom and Sari Dienes. Hans knew John Cage. They lived roughly in the same area. John had an apartment on 109 Bank Street. He also had a house up in Stony Point. Also, Rauschenberg had a place there, and I think Jasper Johns had a place there. Sari owned all these works by both of them. The interesting thing was that Sari was also close friends with Yoko Ono. So one day Hans told me that he went to Sari Dienes’ house. Do you know who was there? John Lennon and Yoko Ono and John Cage. Apparently Sari told me that John Lennon tried to give John Cage a gift. John Cage refused to take it. I don’t think Cage took Lennon seriously as an artist.
JR: So from that period of hanging out with Sari Dienes and John Cage, what did you learn that had an effect on your art that you’re doing now?
NB: I learned from all of them that art is not everything. I learned that you have to get away to see the other things. Art in itself, if you just pursue it all the time, is just career building. Anybody, who is building a career is going in a straight line to nowhere in my opinion. I learned that from Cage, Dienes, and others.
JR: That’s true. John Cage’s real passion was identifying mushrooms.
NB: He had multiple interests. He was interested in far eastern thought, Zen Buddhism. You can see from his works that he was connected to universal themes in a totally different way.
JR: For a while, you were involved with what would be considered Photorealism. You knew John Baeder, Malcolm Morley, Tom Blackwell and other people like them.
NB: The realism itself never interested me except if I saw it in Velazquez, of course, a Vermeer. I’d be interested in it. But on the whole it didn’t interest me. Personally, it interested me only from the viewpoint that it was a tool to get to something else. In my case, I have to use realism to portray illusion. Otherwise you wouldn’t catch the meaning.
JR: You have no real attachment to representation?
NB: No, none whatsoever. I’m not into realistic or realist art. It doesn’t interest me. Even Morley outgrew it.
CD: If it’s not important to show your work in venues, who do you want your audience to be? Tell me something about your publications.
NB: No, I have no answer as to who my audience should be. Hopefully, it’s an audience that sees what I am aiming at. With my numerous publications, since it’s not involved in “selling pieces,” it’s easier to spread the message – as such. That’s why I’m more oriented towards publications. For me, it’s the course of least resistance. I have no idea who the audience has to be. In a sense, I guess I will be open to the whomever my audience is — provided that they are open to what I am doing. Like anybody, everybody wishes that there is an audience for what they do. That’s about it. I’m not pinpointing anybody. That audience could be anybody. It’s not predictable.
JR: You’ve known practically everyone in the contemporary art world to one degree or another. You have been ubiquitous in exhibitions and you go to openings. You know everyone.
NB: Yes, I went through a period like that until age 35, or so. Then, I got tired of the art world because to me the message was “move on.” I stopped pushing it. You see, I’m a total atheist and that includes art. I don’t pray to it, nor am I going to pursue it. In fact, the less people pray to it, the less their egos are involved. All this killing right now is people’s ego. People kill for religion. You could switch art for it. You could wind up killing people for art. In fact, that’s not too far off. There was a riot in 1830 in New York between two acting groups. That eventually turned to violence. Twenty-two people got killed in the process. It’s a famous riot over art or attitudes about art and religion. After a while I change channels. I don’t want to listen to it because I’ve gone through it – the crucible of art – so much. There is no originality in worshiping art, even when you’re worshiping original art. There is originality in art. You must just put the originality back into your art, and see it for what it is and nothing beyond it.
CD: Tell us something about your publications.
NB: Yes, I was fortunate enough and lucked-out in some of my publications. I would say, it occurred thankfully because of a friend of mine, who is now living in Bolivia, Kristina Suarez, who is the wife of the Bolivian poet, Nicomedes Suárez-Araúz. Through her and her contacts, she was able to get me in touch with various Pearson-Prentice Hall publications. In fact, it cascaded and I guess it eventually wound up with me being on the cover for a publication at the University of Texas at Dallas. All of these publications are really superb publications.
JR: And, they are read all over the world, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and everywhere.
CD: So that becomes your audience?
NB: That’s my audience, the readers.
JR: Did your parents encourage your creativity?
NB: No, they discouraged me absolutely. I have been discouraged by my parents and also by my friends. I’m just going my own way. In fact, most people don’t think that I have any talent whatsoever. The most interesting thing is that originality is not produced by talent. It’s produced by people who don’t have talent. Originality of vision only occurs among those people that really are capable of removing themselves from what’s going on around them. Real genius and real originality derive from people who live in his-or-her own world. It might be painful; but, that’s where people find the utmost originality. They don’t find it in what’s going on in the various art worlds, nor politically in society, because anything that is too popular is probably wrong.
JR: You’re speaking of artists like William Blake, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, and Jackson Pollock.
About the interviewers:RAGAZINE’s Contributing Art Editor, Dr. José Rodeiro, is Coordinator of Art History, Art Dept., New Jersey City University. You can read more about him in “About Us.” Christie Devereaux is a contemporary artist whose works and career are explored by Rodeiro in Ragazine Volume 8, Number 4, , and in the artist interview.