Arts Review

Four Decades of Triangle: A Memoir

2015 Workshop artists Denise Treizman (Chile), Andres Carranza (Costa Rica), and Jill Trappler (South Africa) in the ceramics studio. Courtesy of Triangle.

It all started sometime in 1981 or 1982, when the British sculptor Anthony Caro began hunting for a place to store sculpture outside of New York City—close enough that collectors, curators, and critics could visit, but far enough to be affordable. His friend Robert Loder, a collector and publisher, formerly with the British Council’s international arts program, had connections in Dutchess County and helped with the search. Nothing suited Caro’s needs, but in Pine Plains, the empty barns and outbuildings of a former dairy farm, now a private fish and game club called Mashomack, sparked another idea. Several years earlier, Caro had taken part in a session of the Emma Lake Workshop, a program for artists held in northern Saskatchewan, Canada. Stimulated by daily critical exchanges with the other participants about works in progress, Caro made more than a dozen large-scale steel sculptures and some close friends. Why not organize something similar in the unused buildings of Mashomack?

Twenty-five painters and sculptors from the U.K., Canada, and the U.S. were invited to spend two weeks of August 1982 making art in improvised studios in Pine Plains, along with Caro and his wife, the painter Sheila Girling; I was a visiting critic. Triangle Artists Workshop, named for the first three places of origin of the participants, was born. Conceived as a one-time experiment, Triangle was intended, Caro said, to counter the loneliness of the studio by allowing serious, dedicated artists to work side by side. Since artists learn from artists, the larger aim, he often said, was to help good art to become better art. Everyone found the two weeks of concentrated work and discussion so exciting and beneficial that a second session, with different participants, was organized for 1983. Last August, Triangle celebrated its fortieth anniversary. The quickly cobbled together one-off event has become an established, highly respected, competitive program with alumni from sixty countries, selected from applications by changing peer juries. Triangle says it was global before global was invented, not only because of its international participants, but also because of its sessions in Barcelona, Marseille, the World Trade Center, Brooklyn, Upstate N.Y., and Governor’s Island. The workshop has been described as a nomadic art program; usually, when the two weeks of intense work are over, they load up the camels and move on, but for the past two decades, they have had a permanent presence and a year-round residency program in Dumbo, Brooklyn. In addition, alumni have been inspired to organize their own versions of Triangle in Africa, Asia, Great Britain, the Caribbean, and the U.S., an affiliated residency was established in 1995, in Marseille, and Robert Loder was instrumental in founding sister organizations in South Africa and London. Today, the Triangle network of independent, loosely related programs links every continent except Antarctica, although a British alumnus, Simon Faithfull, took part in a British Antarctic Survey project that sends artists to their research station and asks them to make work about the trip.

I’ve continued to be part of Triangle ever since that first version four decades ago, as a visitor, resident, and board member. (Tony Caro was very persuasive.) Each session has been different, but the essential format has remained unchanged. Choose the most interesting and varied of the applicants (excluding students and amateurs); give artists ample individual, but open, studio spaces, without doors to close, to encourage conversations about evolving work, cross-fertilization, and sometimes collaboration; free artists from daily concerns by housing and feeding them (but make them pay their own bar bills); and invite established critics, curators, and artists to visit occasionally, for critical discussion. At Mashomack, painters worked in former dairy cattle barns, sculptors in what was variously called a creamery or a sorghum molasses factory, with a large concrete pad in front. Later in Triangle’s history and elsewhere, of necessity, we became expert at creating workable studios with minimum intervention, in such unlikely locations as a derelict home and school for orphans in Barcelona, a ski lodge in Monroe, N.Y., and a vast, unused office space on the 91st floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Rendered homeless by the events of 9/11/2001, Triangle found workshop spaces in Dumbo, from 2002 through 2013, and residency spaces, from 2003 to the present, through the generosity of Jane and David Walentas of Two Trees, the firm that created the lively Brooklyn neighborhood. Brooklyn is now too chic and desirable for the workshops—there are no available empty floors with spectacular views, like the ones we colonized twenty years ago—so the camels are loaded, and we’re seeking a location for another two-week session next year.

Kaarlo Stauffer: On the Grass (2017). Oil on canvas, 150 x 200 cm/59.06 x 78.74 inches. Courtesy of Galerie Forsblom.

As the aims and desires of committed artists have changed over the years, so has Triangle. The first workshop included such now well-known figures as the American painters Jill Nathanson and Sandi Slone, the Canadian sculptors Catherine Burgess and Clay Ellis, and the Irish sculptor John Gibbons, along with the “senior” American painter Walter Darby Bannard, all abstract artists who knew each other or each other’s work and shared a common aesthetic. Clement Greenberg, known as a supporter of abstract art, visited the studios for discussions of work, as did Frank Stella and Helen Frankenthaler, among other luminaries. Since then, visiting and resident critics and artists have included Michael Fried, William C. Agee, Robert Storr, William Tucker, Alison de Lima Greene, and Louise Fishman, to name only a few. The second workshop was similar to the first, enriched by the presence of the French sculptor Pierre Tual, who worked in welded steel, like his colleagues, but in a more conceptually-based way, beginning each sculpture with a single sheet of metal, slicing into the sheet, and pulling the still joined elements into open, three-dimensional structures. New excitement was added by the distinguished South African painter David Koloane, whom we awaited impatiently as the apartheid government delayed his visa. Koloane’s abstract, layered, tissue paper collages explored territory unlike anyone else’s.

Since those first aesthetically rather homogenous sessions, Triangle has become far more unpredictable. Abstraction is only one of many wildly divergent approaches, and painting, drawing, and sculpture co-exist with video, photography, and performance. Participants have worked in an unclassifiable range of materials from the ephemeral to the permanent—thread, straw, recycled plastic, clay, steel, tape, recycled clothing, and more, in addition to paint on canvas—and drawn in the earth with oversized tools. A recent residency included the Finnish painter Kaarlo Stauffer’s intimate paintings of elusive, everyday narratives; interactive updates on classical mythology enacted by virtual reality characters by the video artist Eva Davidova, who was educated in Bulgaria and Spain; and a lyrical installation by the Cuban-American multidisciplinary artist Stephanie Acosta of generous, ravishingly colored abstractions on fragile sheets of paper, like an uninhabited stage set for an unknown performance. Triangle’s workshops and residencies continue to bring together artists who might never have met because of geographical distance—one Brooklyn workshop boasted participants from Egypt, Latvia, Sri Lanka, Germany, Iraq, Japan, Ireland, Pakistan, Switzerland, and Korea, as well as from the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Artists who might never otherwise have spoken because their work was so different find themselves in close proximity. As a result, some are encouraged to experiment with new possibilities, while others find clarification in the experience. After spending two weeks working near a Catalan conceptual artist, a Canadian abstract painter told me that the confrontation with radically different ideas about art “confirmed that I really want to work the way I do.” Lasting long-distance friendships often arise from these encounters, even among artists with dissimilar approaches. That vibrant international network may be Triangle’s most lasting contribution.

Liberated from daily domestic chores, artists at the workshops put all their energy into work, at least before dinner. Evenings were usually given over to passionate debates about art, dancing, and other diversions. (Greenberg was an enthusiastic dancer but always half a beat behind the music.) Post-studio time at the Marseille workshop was fueled by astonishing amounts of “le pink,” a mediocre but avidly consumed rosé provided by a generous wine sponsor and made memorable by the critic, gallerist, and writer Bernard Plasse’s repertoire of French 1930s music hall songs, a supply as apparently endless as the bottles of le pink. At Mashomack, more sober evening entertainment sometimes took the form of drawing sessions, with a local model who was a Maillol from the waist down and a Lachaise from the waist up. (When a Pine Plains resident complained about being able to see naked women from his house—a remarkable feat, given the sightlines—and demanded that we stop, Robert Loder defused him by deploying his plummiest accent and a “my good man” construction.) Caro was so fascinated by the model that at one workshop, she posed exclusively for him, as he modeled in clay a series of odalisques, reclining, standing, and seated on chairs. Asked about this apparent departure from his usual constructions in steel, Caro said, “I’ve never stopped being an abstract sculptor, but I like working figuratively from time to time. It refreshes me. I don’t have any hobbies. I only like making sculpture.”

Alumni describe Triangle as life changing. Working in a sheltered environment, among peers, without distractions, creates an atmosphere of freedom and competitiveness that stimulates experimentation. Triangle has been compared to a pressure cooker, with a contagious dedication to intense art-making. At Mashomack, amid cornfields, there was little else to do but work, while reaching the 91st floor of the World Trade Center took so long that leaving was discouraged. (And the changing light was so alluring that it affected everyone, no matter what the artist’s approach or medium.) In Barcelona, the first morning of the workshop was spent in the reconstructed Mies van der Rohe Pavilion, listening to speeches, meeting the mayor, and posing for photos, followed by a festive lunch at the studio site. One of the Catalan participants, who included such well-known figures as Joan Hernández Pijuan, Albert Ràfols-Casamada, Susanna Solano, and Jaume Plensa, told me that he was astonished when the American, British, and Canadian contingent, all alumni of previous workshops, rushed through lunch and started working, instead of lingering over the wine. But at the end of the session, when Pijuan’s and Ràfols-Casamada’s dealer visited, he said he wanted to send them to Triangle every year, because they’d never been so productive.

James Little: Stars and Stripes, Big Shot, and Exceptional Blacks (2021). Courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta.

The residencies, which have been termed “workshops in slo-mo,” can be similarly transformative. Just as international as the workshops—at least before Covid, although we’re getting back to a more normal mix—the residencies forge similar enduring connections among participants, while Triangle’s large, well-lit, high-ceilinged Dumbo studios have allowed many residents to work in new ways. Slinko, a Ukrainian multimedia artist, expanded a video project about the persistence of improvised flea markets across Ukraine—a leftover feature of the economic collapse of the post-Soviet ’90s—and the notion of exchange. She transformed fragmented details from the video into a vast wall-drawing, as temporary as the markets themselves. One of the first Brooklyn residents, the British painter and sculptor Helen Brough, who had been working on her kitchen table, was able to return to her preferred generous scale for the first time in years. The Walentases were so struck by her ample, richly colored constructions that they commissioned a site-specific ceiling piece for the lobby of the building, when the former residency studios became living lofts. (The studios were relocated a few blocks away, where they remain.)

During the workshops, I tour the studios daily and try to visit the residencies regularly, always discovering something new. My conversations with Triangle participants about their work, the state of the art world, and the properties of materials have been an important part of my education as a critic. I’m often confronted by work for which I have no context by someone I’ve never met, so I am obliged to look hard to try to understand the artist’s intention and find some way of discussing the work. At the Marseille workshop, with its mix of French, British, Canadian, American, Spanish, and Japanese artists, that effort was compounded by having to translate. At one point, I was so addled by a day of switching languages and testing my art vocabulary that I listened attentively to the comments of the French painter Alain Clément and then repeated them, in French, to the baffled monolingual American whose work was being discussed. Many other studio experiences were equally memorable. When Larry Poons announced he was stuck and didn’t want to keep working in the Mashomack painting barn, Carol Sutton, an American/Canadian painter, thrust a bowl of paint at him, with three colors loosely swirled together, floating on the surface. “Here,” she said, “try this. Let’s collaborate on something.” “If we could only make paintings that look as good as the paint,” he said. Intrigued, he joined her at work on a canvas spread on the ground and then went back to his own project. He recruited a group of us to throw chicken feed—there was a lot of it in the barn—at an immense, still wet canvas, to provide texture. (Poons collectors can be assured that all added materials are completely sealed by acrylic paint and gel.) I’ll never forget Helen Frankenthaler’s advice to Sandi Slone, who was using unconventional tools to make the sweeping, overscaled gestures with which she constructed her energetic abstractions. Frankenthaler was enthusiastic about the paintings but cautioned, “Don’t get too attached to the push-broom.” And as she left the studio, added teasingly, “And you shouldn’t do floors or windows either.” Caro always was interested in responses to his work or, more accurately, responses to the pieces he was not happy with. He never wanted to discuss works that I thought were outstandingly good but demanded attention to the problematic ones. As he did when I visited him in London, he made me work hard in the Triangle studio, asking for suggestions that were immediately tried by his assistant, sometimes with me holding the end of a piece of steel. “No, no. I don’t like that at all. Take it away,” he’d say. Or, high praise: “It’s getting clearer.” If I have written anything intelligent about sculpture, it’s largely because of those intense sessions.

Hew Locke, The Procession (2022) © Tate/Joe Humphrys.

Perhaps the most complex of the American workshops was held at Mashomack in 1987. The event was sponsored by Caro’s friend Peter Palumbo, a champion of modernist architecture who, at the time, owned Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, near Chicago, and was trying to build a Mies tower in the City of London, a project derailed by Prince Charles’s preference for banal tradition. Lord Palumbo, as he became, suggested a workshop that combined artists and architects. Three full-sized projects were realized, in keeping with Caro’s habitual refusal to make models but always to work at actual scale, “to make it real,” as he often said. Caro’s old friends Alison and Peter Smithson supervised the installation of a wide range of interventions throughout and on the roof of the concrete creamery/Sorghum molasses factory, uniting sixteen artists from the U.S., Canada, U.K., the Netherlands, Australia, and South Africa. William McDonough had a freestanding pavilion built, with some consultation with resident sculptors. Reluctant to have his conception contaminated by art, he allowed the American painter Susan Roth to flank the pavilion with an enormous painting, placed about five feet away, facing the structure. The height, length, and angled supports of the painting were echoed by an open steel construction by the American sculptor Rodger Mack, on the opposite side. The Canadian painter William Perehudoff placed overscaled strokes of color on the bottom of a shallow reflecting pool; when the water rippled, the strokes seemed to move, like extremely elegant fish. Caro collaborated with Frank Gehry on a loose-limbed, plywood “sculpture village” of linked, enterable “rooms.” When Gehry left after a few days because of being awarded a major project in New York, Caro continued to work with Gehry’s assistants, shaping the “village” to his wishes. Sheila Girling added color. In the following years, Caro continued to explore the idea of sculptures that had to be entered to be fully understood and used the Triangle “rooms” as the basis for several very large, memorable works, which evolved into to a series of inventive constructions about enclosure and barriers.

Some of the founders of Triangle and people crucial to its early days are no longer with us. We’ve lost Anthony Caro, Sheila Girling, Robert Loder, and Rodger Mack, among others. We think they’d be proud of Triangle’s having weathered the last two years of Covid-related difficulties, when all the European and Asian artists selected for residencies cancelled because of travel restrictions, depriving us of sponsorship for their sojourns. But we reopened promptly, with strict health protocols, drawing from our acceptance list of artists on this side of the Atlantic, and international participants are starting to return, as things loosen up. For several years, we have been invited to Governor’s Island to host an alumni residency in one of the former officer’s houses. Since we are required to open to the public on the extraordinarily well-attended weekends, Triangle has reached the general public more than ever before. For the art world, our alumni have been notably visible, recently, in many other contexts. Jon Isherwood’s uncanny stone flower sculptures were installed in New York’s Broadway Malls for most of 2021. James Little’s five abstract paintings are high points on both floors of the 2022 Whitney Biennial, “Quiet as It’s Kept.” In London, The Procession, a vast, mixed media installation by Hew Locke, fills the Duveen Galleries of Tate Britain until January of next year, overlapping with Foreign Exchange, the artist’s controversial challenge to imperialism and colonialism at the Birmingham Festival 2022; after September 16, Locke’s Gilt, a series of works in dialogue with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, will be installed on the Met’s façade. In New York, solo exhibitions in New York galleries by Al Loving, Carl E. Hazlewood, Nanette Carter, Jonathan Silver, and Walter Darby Bannard were featured and enthusiastically reviewed. What better way to celebrate Triangle’s 40th anniversary? And there’s more to come.