The Shaping of an Artist

Mr. Liss was selected by Ned Smyth for the Parrish Art Museum’s recent “Artists Choose Artists” exhibition
Rick Liss in his Amagansett studio Morgan McGivern

    A conversation with Rick Liss, a painter and filmmaker from Amagansett, involves poking around in the dusty corners of history, specifically the cultural history of the East End and New York City over the past 60 years. Some artifacts have disappeared; Mr. Liss lost 30 years of work when Hurricane Sandy flooded his loft building in the South Street Seaport area in 2012.

    But even that work was all but unseen for many years. “When I came out of art school in the mid-1970s,” Mr. Liss recalled, “there were so many artists who had no financial security. I decided the starving artist condition was something I had to avoid. I realized I could make a living in the film business and maintain an art practice, but probably wouldn’t have time to promote myself as an artist.”

    So he became a propmaster, joining a union that represents virtually all behind-the-scenes workers necessary to the functioning of the entertainment industry. “I was extraordinarily lucky to work in movies,” he said. “I worked on features and commercials during the day, made nonobjective paintings at night, and built lofts in SoHo the rest of the time.”

    Not long after he turned in his retirement papers last year, Mr. Liss was selected by Ned Smyth for the Parrish Art Museum’s recent “Artists Choose Artists” exhibition. He has also made his first film since completing “No York City” in 1983. “When I was working in the film business, I had no desire to shoot film. All I wanted to do in my creative life was paint. As soon as I retired, I picked up a camera for the first time in 30 years. Film was finally fun again.”

    The new film, “Costa Rica>Munich>Amagansett,” is a seven-minute travelogue that reflects the filmmaker’s admiration for the experimental, or “personal,” cinema of the 1960s. “I see it as plein-air filmmaking,” he said. “For the sake of purity it was important to do each scene as one take, and with as little cutting as possible.”

    In 2011, Mr. Liss decided to digitize “No York City,” and Jesse, his 28-year-old son, put the film on YouTube. “It went viral,” Mr. Liss said with a disbelieving smile. “Before that, if I Googled myself, there were no results. Suddenly reviews were popping up on Huffington Post, Salon.com, and a bunch of other sites.” Laughing Squid, an art and culture blog, called it “a wonderful six-minute film that combines fast-motion images of the sights and people of 1980s New York with humorous sound dubbing and a driving electronic score by Laurie Anderson.”

    Mr. Liss’s studio is filled with recent work. In the Parrish exhibition he showed three paintings from his “No Parking” series, which are executed on the backs of No Parking signs. The surface is sanded, primed, painted with acrylic, and then mounted on a mirror, which reflects the reversed image of the original sign.

    “I’ve always loved the graphics of signs,” the artist said.

    He is also enamored of maps. “To me, maps give you a cubist view of the here and now, which your brain recognizes immediately. ‘Content in a glimpse’ was how de Kooning put it. I feel that way about puzzles, too.” On a work table in his studio are wooden prototypes for puzzle pieces, created by a set shop in the city, which, when produced in quantity, will be assembled and painted, like the signs, so that “no color gets more time and space than any other.”

    Mr. Liss has been connected to the cultural life of the East End since he was born, in 1951. His parents, Sam and Terry Liss, who adopted him at birth, were economists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture by profession and political radicals by nature. During the 1930s, Terry Liss raised a substantial amount of money for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight Franco in Spain; she remained a national activist into the ’70s.

    By 1951, both parents had lost their jobs and were blacklisted. Having to start over, the family moved that year to Amagansett. Sam’s brother Joe, a successful young writer for television, was already immersed in the South Fork’s creative world. His best friends were Arthur Miller and Harold Rosenberg. Before long, Sam and Terry Liss counted among their friends and acquaintances Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, and Jimmy Ernst, to name just a few. “I remember sitting on Pollock’s lap playing horsey,” Mr. Liss said.

    The Lisses’ plan was to start a children’s camp. The only suitable property they could find was the Elm Tree Inn, just west of the Amagansett firehouse, which had 30 cottages on five acres. The camp never materialized. Instead they opened the Elm Tree as a bar-restaurant with a French chef and Larry Rivers’s jazz band playing on weekends.

    “The Elm Tree was open to everyone,” Mr. Liss said, “gay, straight, white, black. It was a who’s who of the art world, show business, and politics.” Its popularity with celebrities both gay and straight had its downside, though. “The townies would hang out on weekends and shout and scream at patrons as they were leaving. Eventually my parents were framed for serving liquor to under-age drinkers and lost their liquor license.”

    Rick Liss went to the Amagansett School — Larry Cantwell was in his class — but when he was in fourth grade the family moved back to the city. Recalling his adolescence, he said, “I couldn’t read. I had dyslexic issues. My mother used to show my drawings to Saul Steinberg, and he’d say they should keep encouraging me. Since I couldn’t read, she was happy I could do something.”

    During the summer of 1965, when Mr. Liss was 14, his mother took him to de Kooning’s studio in Springs. “I didn’t know who he was. My mother hoped I could apprentice with him, but he was obviously reluctant to have to deal with a teenage boy in the studio.” A friendship gradually developed. “Over the next 15 years, I would go over from time to time and hang out with him.”

    After graduating from the High School of Music and Art, Mr. Liss attended the Rhode Island School of Design for two years, then spent a semester in Manhattan at the Studio School. He was living in SoHo and doing loft construction when he enrolled at Cooper Union. He graduated in 1976 with a B.F.A., focusing on both painting and film. His film instructors were D.A. Pennebaker, a pioneer of cinema verité and a longtime Sag Harbor homeowner, and Hollis Frampton and Jonas Mekas, two important figures in the underground, or avant-garde, film world.

    “My takeaway from Cooper was meeting these guys up close. Hollis put a lot of ideas on the table, including a definition of avant-garde as ‘inventing a new language to discuss a taboo,’ and I’ve lived by that. Doug Sanderson taught a drawing class and brought in people like Brice Marden, Al Held, Agnes Martin, and Dorothea Rockburne. My years there were extraordinary.”

    He eventually moved from SoHo to the South Street Seaport and, making a living in the film business, stopped building lofts for other people. “I had it made,” he said. “I had a job, I had health insurance, I had a great lease on a big loft in the shadow of Wall Street, and I was painting.”

    Then Sandy hit. “The water flooded my ground-floor studio and wiped me out. It was the darkest moment in my life since my parents died.”

    Disaster grants from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the Joan Mitchell Foundation, and the New York Foundation for the Arts enabled Mr. Liss to focus on recovery. He is selling his two lofts in the building “to fund my retirement.”

    In addition to his new film and studio work, the artist is embarking on the renovation and expansion of his house and studio in Amagansett, which his mother built in the early 1950s, just east of the Amagansett firehouse. Models and floor plans share studio space with his recent paintings. Retirement for Rick Liss means leaving the film industry behind, but marks a new and productive chapter in his career as a visual artist.