Tom Krumpak (part 2)

This is part two of a conversation that took place in Tom’s faculty office in the Fine Arts 4 building (FA4) at CSULB on September 2, 2015. Read part one here.

Tom Krumpak has exhibited internationally since 1976. He earned a Master of Fine Arts Degree from California State University Long Beach and a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from the San Francisco Art institute. He has been a professor of drawing and painting at California State University, Long Beach since 1983.

All images courtesy Tom Krumpak and Jan Simonovic.

Glenn Bach: Going back to San Francisco…I’m sure we’ve talked about this before, that you have very strong ties to Mar Vista, and a house with your mom, and that neighborhood…if the position here at Cal State Long Beach did not happen, might you have settled in San Francisco rather than in Los Angeles?

Tom Krumpak: I don’t think so, no. Because I didn’t come here for this job. I left San Francisco because of a love affair gone bad, you know, a long-time love affair. So, the city is a weird place. It’s changed now, but it’s not a big place, physically, right? And, people have their ruts that they’ve grooved through the city, if you’re a lawyer or a doctor or an artist. So, the city wasn’t big enough for the two of us. Basically, that’s why I left.

Literally, every day that you get on a bus or public transportation, you see, within the mass of the public, similar faces over and over and over again. I just knew that city, which I loved deeply at that time…I loved the cracks on the sidewalks, I loved this house on this corner…as we talked about, you know, my place for coffee, my place for drinking at night. I loved the music in the jukebox at this place, you know, only opera on this jukebox in this bar on a particular night. I loved living in the Italian neighborhood. I loved living in the Haight, in the post Haight-Ashbury time, by the park. I loved that city. For me, that city was another body. I really loved it.

I was educated there at the Art Institute, too. I matured…I guess you would say ‘mature.’ I lived in a commune. In our Victorian flat, there were nine people paying rent, and at least another nine or ten people who were hanging on. There were terrible moments and great moments, but, man, it was in the moment. Some of us were musicians, and we played in one part of the flat, even with all those people in it, and we painted in another room in the flat, and we lived in between them. We threw wild parties, and it was all good. I really loved that place.

But, when my personal life fell apart, it was time to leave. I don’t think I would have stayed in San Francisco. Matter of fact, I did try to go back after living in L.A. for a while, and tried to think about doing it again, and I stayed two days, and that was it. I knew I had been changed. My life had been altered. I was living in L.A. now.

The other place would have been New York, of course. It would have been New York. I think I could stop mourning for San Francisco, and all the intimate things that I loved there, the places and the stuff, when I went to New York. I saw that New York magnified San Francisco at that time, maybe six or seven times, and I felt like there was a big world of other stuff. I love sitting there. I could live there. So, I contemplated that for a while, which led to going there a couple times a year for the last thirty years.

Coming to L.A. was kind of the default. I could come here, and I could scrounge off my family and my friends until I got my act together. And then, down the line, I came to Cal State Long Beach, because John de Heras saw a show of mine in Hollywood, and he came to where I was working, my day job, and said, “You should be teaching at Cal State Long Beach.” I didn’t have my MFA degree, and he said, “Well, I’ll just be the chair of your committee; you should come here.” And I did. Then, after that, I started getting teaching positions, and here I am. Academia…I was thrown out of high school. Academia was not, for political reasons, in my purview. I was as surprised as anybody.

Bach: We live the life that we end up living, right? You can have these relationships with these cities, these deep, connected relationships with these places, but you don’t have to actually live there. San Francisco is part of who you are. You will always have this passion for the city, but you don’t have to actually live there. Go visit a couple times of year.

Krumpak: Have good friends there.

Bach: Good friends there, and you get your fill, and you see all the things that you want to do, and visit your people, and go to the places and drink the coffee, you know. Then you leave and you come back, and then it’s like, “OK, now I need to get my New York fix, so, I’m going to plan a trip and plan a week or week-and-a-half there,” and, then, down the road, “I think it’s time to get overseas again,” or whatever.

Krumpak: Sure, back to London.

Bach: Back to Italy or back to London. You accumulate these place relationships over the years that shift in importance in your life, or sometimes you have a falling-out with a place, like when I moved to New York, I thought New York was it. I’d experienced major cities…Rome was my first major city. New York was its own thing. At that time, I didn’t think very highly of San Francisco. I mean, I enjoyed San Francisco, but I thought, “Why would you want to spend time in San Francisco when you could be in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and there’s so much there?” It wasn’t until much later—actually, with Sharon, when I spent more time going up there—that it kind of shifted. I don’t think less of New York now, but San Francisco became something different for me, and I soon had different ways of accessing the city. Headquarters, I called them, the Tenderloin, that became these centers of intimacy and good memories for me. For you, there’s a wide variety of these places that function as extensions of who you are.

Krumpak: Right. I think that the idea of teaching and exhibiting in different places is really important, because it means that you’re doing something real there, not just ‘tourist-ing’ it or even sensitively walking around, which is fine too. But, you’re actually doing a job with other people who are doing a job. I think that’s really important.

And the people…if you’re lucky enough to meet some really great people in all these places…I’ve always valued the people in these different places. Maintaining those relationships, going back to ‘water’ them, you know, and to find out what’s happening with their lives, and to just slip into their lives a little bit for dinner or an evening of chatting and drinking or whatever. Or, seeing their show, flying back for an opening in New York for Josh [Dorman]’s show, or whatever. That’s really, super important. I really count on those people. Psychically, they’re in my head. They’re in the locations, and that charges all that stuff you’re talking about.

When I need to know something and I don’t know it, I call them, and I say, “Hey, I need to understand the pricing of my artwork, and I’ve been in this business for a long time. I don’t get it. Give me your advice. Just give it to me straight. Tell it to me the way you want. I’m listening.”

I just called Chris [Cook] in England, and I said, “I haven’t seen you in a long time. I need your poetry.” So, I just got a new book hot off the press. I wish I could see them in body more often, but at least we are still creatively and psychically in touch with each other. So, yeah. It’s like those places and their population of friends and creative people are super, super important. They humanize the whole thing.

Bach: Yes. So, Mar Vista.

Krumpak: [laughs] OK. The little burg.

Bach: You’ve been in that house…

Krumpak: Yep, over thirty years.

Bach: Your studio has been associated with that house for just…

Krumpak: Fifteen years.

The house in Mar Vista, California

Bach: That has an effect on, obviously, who you are and where you live. Having your studio in the place where you live, ten steps away, or twenty steps away. And, having your practice on the West Side, in Los Angeles…it’s a construct, right? Los Angeles is a construct. You’re part of this Southern California thing, but you’re also part of a neighborhood. There’s Los Angeles as a whole, then there’s the West Side as a smaller subset, and within that there’s Culver City, Marina del Rey, and within that there are these smaller neighborhoods like Mar Vista and Del Rey and Palms. There’s this sort of neighborhood reality that is different than in other neighborhoods. Maybe you could talk about what it is about Mar Vista that keeps you going and that keeps you frustrated and inspired and…

Krumpak: I grew up there. I came here from Ohio when I was ten, and we lived near the Santa Monica airport with my grandmother for a little while. My parents bought a house. I grew up from the age of 10 through 19, or whatever, in Mar Vista. That house, where my mother still lives, is five minutes away from where I live right now. She’s 90 years old. It’s a very unassuming neighborhood. It was a working-class neighborhood. Now, it’s an increasingly wealthy neighborhood up on the hill. It was always very regular. By that, I mean that people kept to themselves, and it was clean, and it worked.

My father built a business three minutes away from where he lived, and he would walk to work. He built his hardware store from scratch. He had somebody build the building for him, then he opened the business. He had been in business in a hardware store in Ohio before that, for many years, partnering with my mother’s sister’s husband.

We were really close and tight. The property that I live on now was the eccentric uncle’s house, who worked for the film studios. When he passed away, the sisters inherited it. It was rented for three years by a man who was a curator for The Getty, and then we purchased it. 1950s modernist house, slab-on-grade, glass at the back, kind of Japonisme on modern, which is a current interest in my work. So, you can see, there’s a lot of crossover going on here.

The original house (right) and the newer house (left) designed by Jan Simonovic, circa 2015.

We raised both of our boys in the house with practically no heat, because we couldn’t afford it. We had one wall furnace that barely worked. When it rained, water came down the walls on the inside and we mopped it up. It became a clubhouse, because their friends, as they got a little bit older, grade school or whatever…all the stuff they couldn’t do at their house, they could do at our house, because it was completely indestructible, because it was all messed up. They could ride their bike in the front door and go straight through the living room and right out the back door, and nobody cared.

Bach: [laughs] Right.

Krumpak: They could run laps through the house and through the back yard and around the yard. It housed a lot of great memories. My wife Jan’s family also lived five minutes away, so, our children never had babysitters. They had the care of their grandparents. In that way, Mar Vista takes on a very personal geographic importance. It’s more than the place. It’s this proximity of family that is very important. When I left to move to San Francisco, I never thought in a million years I’d ever come back to L.A. Literally, never come back. I was as surprised by circumstances as anybody, especially that I’m this close.

Jan grew up five minutes away from where we live now. She never thought she’d live in L.A., either, let alone five minutes away from where she grew up. She was born in Long Beach, at the hospital there, and then moved to Venice, where she was brought up in what was a very working-class, post-war, small-house neighborhood that was very integrated. There were people…it was an international enclave. Up on the hill, where my parents were, is mostly white.

Where we live now, we live four blocks from a housing project. The street adjacent to us has become restaurant row for the new hipster overflow from Venice. We have literally four new bakeries. We have ten new restaurants within a five-minute walk. We have a place to have a beer, and everything else you can imagine. It doesn’t mean that my particular neighborhood up close is gorgeous, but it’s certainly not awful. Actually, it’s becoming very, very desirable for young people in the tech field now, because Playa Vista is, again, five minutes away. It brings thousands of techie people, for the good or the bad, to our neighborhood.

About ten years ago, L.A. did a survey of arts concentrations to figure out what kinds of arts resources should be allocated for the future needs of different neighborhoods. Ten years ago, Mar Vista had the densest concentration of artists of any place in the city. Who knows now. Because it doesn’t look like that, like Venice used to…which is, you know, way gone now. But, there are screenwriters and composers and musicians, like professional touring musicians…the guy who plays with the Kinks lives at the edge of my street. And painters, and people who go to work in all the movie studios in Culver City, and a lot of them are ten minutes away. So, it looks like Iowa, in a sense, but, in fact, is just chock full of intellectual, visual types, and musical types. It’s a camouflaged zone, in a sense.

The new studio in progress, circa 2015

Krumpak: It’s changed. It’s taken twenty years—more than twenty—for it to kind of wake up. When I moved in, there were people across the driveway selling drugs on their back patio every night. There was a pool hall down at the corner that was another dealing spot, every day and every night.

That’s all gone now. When I moved in, we were the youngest people in the neighborhood. Youngest white people in the neighborhood; it was very Hispanic at that time. It still is, largely, but it has a whole other element now as well. Good or bad. Now, it’s flooded with young people jogging, walking their dogs, hanging out in the cafes. It has definitely flipped over from one way to the other.

It isn’t so much that I have an allegiance to the geographic place, although I have to say, being ten minutes’ bike ride from the beach—we ride bikes a lot—is really important to me. I could never live any farther. Not ever. I would never want to live any farther than ten minutes’ bike ride away from the beach. I grew up on Santa Monica Beach, Venice Beach, my teenage years were there. I have fond memories of it. Both my boys are surfers and musicians; you know them. They grew up on that beach, so that’s another generational thing passed on, the beach that Jan was born next to. We have lots of memory banks of that particular geographic location that go back through both of our families, and through the lives of our children. They continue to use that history. As I said, they just…both of them could not live far from the beach. They just need it. It’s in their DNA. If they’re not in the water, both of them, they’re unbearable [laughs].

I have my studio there [in the original house], which we are redoing now, and we have the band’s rehearsal space that adjoins my studio, so we have young musicians flowing in and out all the time. They’ve become part of our extended family. They sit around our kitchen table drinking a glass of wine, having a beer, talking. I hear about their escapades. One of them works and travels around the world with Dave Foster, setting the stage for Stevie Wonder, and things like that.

I get to hear all about that stuff. I hear music from them practicing while I’m painting in the studio. I listen to their CDs or their working tapes from recording sessions…that, plus other music. They’re always bringing music to me, loading my iPod. You know, my youngest son, Miles, is a completely esoteric jazzophile, besides being a rock drummer, so, he’s actually playing in that studio six hours a day. On those set of drums, playing.

That house was owned by my eclectic uncle. The house we live in now was designed by Jan. And the new building that we’re building was designed by her as well. How many people, working-class people, can say that they live in a house? That they live in a neighborhood that has personal history, in a building that one of them designed? Next to a room where your son’s band practices?

Bach: It’s pretty remarkable.

The studio, designed by Jan Simonovic, 2018.

Krumpak: Our immediate place is very, very, very important to us. It props up that whole idea of an integrated approach to art-making and teaching. The relationship of being the artist to the making of the product is all propped up by that.

Bach: Sometimes quite literally. I remember…I’m not sure about the paintings that you’re doing now, but there was a series a while back where you were asking architects and painters and creative people, “Let me have access to your studio, let me have the scraps, let me have the little castoffs, the objects that are in your studio. If you’ve done some construction, I want the spare wood.” Those ephemera became the literal shapes that you would put down and trace around, and they became these reoccurring motifs. So you were bringing your connection with…I can’t remember his name, the architect.

Krumpak: Michael Folonis.

Bach: Folonis. Bringing stuff from his studio into the painting.

Krumpak: Yep, his blueprints. Everything.


Bach: Your relationship to not only your immediate place, but your connections to your friends and their places, becomes a direct connection in the work and how you make the work itself.

Krumpak: Absolutely direct. Totally direct. Phil [Mantione] and Alysse [Stepanian], who we both know, composers, videographers…the plans for their house in New York, in upstate Delaware actually, I guess it was. Their whole plot plan, and those all became actual shapes and forms within a work. For a while, you’re right, I would be working with architects who were doing projects, and I would be using the verbatim plans, overlapping them to create geometric forms or compositions based on real architecture. That was really important, that it be a real place and real architecture. Nothing in the show that I have up now, for instance, no matter how many patterns are in them or pieces of geometric juxtaposition of forms, there’s not one single thing in any of the work that is made up. Even in the large painting, little floating teeny inch-high silhouettes are tracings out of a catalog my father used to order hardware for his store. The color, sometimes, is an indigenous palette to a particular place. Sometimes, the color runs free, and is just an expressive choice. But, the actual composition within the work is never made up. I like that concreteness of attachment that you’re talking about.

tom krumpak-1
STUDIO/HOUSE, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 36×36 inches
Composition created from plans for studio, overlaid by tracings of covers of DWELL magazine and torn and traced selected pages grouped together from each issue, overlaid by geometric outlines of previously highlighted passages from Hemingway’s Movable Feast

Bach: For the casual viewer, he or she might see something recognizable, like a familiar shape or interesting juxtapositions of triangles and rectangles in an interesting way, and maybe there’s an architectonic feel to it. But, for the people who know you, and specifically the people whose material you’re drawing upon, it’s like, “Ah. That was interesting how you transformed that…”

Krumpak: Yeah, they have an inside track to it. I ask people who look at the work, “How much do you want to know about the work? Because I can tell you a little, I can tell you medium, or I can tell you a lot. How much time do you have?”

Bach: “And, do you want that kind of relationship to the work, or do you just want to have your own…”

Krumpak: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I don’t impress that or don’t load it on it. Almost always, when they say they do want to understand something beyond the visuality of it, they say, “Ah, that’s great!” Not that I’ve chosen something great or that I’m great, but that it’s so much more fun for them to actually look at the work now that they understand all the different sort of things that have been ciphered down to create that particular work of art. That it’s reaching from all these different places, or a single site. That information really does seem to bump up their enjoyment of looking at the work. I love that.

Bach: There’s a simultaneity and a complexity going on in the work, because there’s this relationship of the shapes having this very real connection and purpose. There’s this connection to your relationship with the people and the place, but at the same time, it’s a painting. The painting takes a long time to make, sometimes a year, maybe longer. There’s the act of labor in the studio, night after night, weekend after weekend, this slow progress, seeing the painting slowly take shape over the course of a long time. A painting is a painting. But, it’s also this relationship to your friends and to these places, and it’s also this conversation that you’re having with the process of painting. So there’s this complexity and simultaneity going on, that you as a painter are making a physical painting. It’s ‘abstract painting,’ but it’s not abstract. It’s this, and it’s also this.

Krumpak: Yes, yes. That’s exactly right.

Bach: And, it’s also the music that’s playing. It’s also the wine that you’ve had that night. It’s all of it.

Krumpak: Yes, right. Thanks for saying that. That’s the idea. The process of making these paintings for the last eight years, these very slow, ‘they take as long as they take’ kind of paintings, is to allow…well, you know this. When you have a real span of time, say a year, a lot of life happens in that year. It invites that intervention in there, right? The process, by its nature, painting slowly and meticulously with very teeny brushes on big, sometimes very big canvases, allows there to be a lot of conditions that can subtly alter the result of the work. Who knows what makes you choose this color or that color. I know that there’s a level of finish that I’m looking for that is needed to house and compress that stuff you were talking about into a viable thing called a painting. Then, there’s the stuff that happens in life, moment to moment, day to day. Circumstances that help you make subconscious choices. Things like the color, or the amount of layers of paint that should be on this part of the painting, or on all of the painting. That’s the decision. You have an aesthetic goal for the quality level in terms of visuality, the way the edges meet, how consistent the surfaces should be so that there’s a democracy across the surface. That speaks to the connectedness of all aspects, because they’re all painted with exactly the same amount of paint. The edges are all the same. Sort of a Cézannesque way of thinking about the democracy of a surface. That applies then, philosophically, to the democracy of the information that goes into making the painting. That’s something I’m very interested in.

tom krumpack-4
“Shakkei” 2017, acrylic on paper, 30×22 inches
Composition created from photos of Lil’ Tokyo storefronts, in downtown Los Angeles before WWII , elements from Japanese woodcuts , tracings of torn paper; also calligraphic shapes traced, rearranged from sumi ink and acrylic paint gestural drawings done in the studio

But, I had to slow down. A lot of the earlier work was about setting up intentional conflict to increase drama within the work. Whether it was color conflict or source information conflict, geometry versus gestural mark-making, it was all to set up a change of pace, quickened moments and quiet moments. It was an antagonistic situation, a yin and a yang, that I was interested in housing in a work to make a certain kind of ‘rocking’ quality. When I started this work, about seven, eight years ago, I asked, “Can a painting be successful without internal conflict? Can it ride on a multi-layered, complex discourse, a median conversational level, and be successful? Or, does it need those things which are easier to rely on?” Black against white, red against green. Sharp against diffuse. Those are ways that people have always created dynamics. But, what if you let that go? Will it become boring, or will it become more subtle, and perhaps have the ability to house more?

That’s what I’ve been trying to do. That was a big shift in my work. The work is about a connection between Japanese domestic architecture, where intimate things happen, and mid-century modernist architecture, which was post-World War II. I was born in 1949, so, that’s me, and that’s the kind of house I was living in, that I am working in now, soon to be changed.

Again, there’s the multi-level connection that I’m drawn to. How can I take those two aesthetic positions in architecture…what do those pieces of architecture mean? When they’re fused together…because they look ‘Pacific Rim,’ and they’ve somehow influenced each other. You start pushing those philosophies of real architecture and space that is lived in. That’s important to me. It’s not commercial space; it’s lived-in space. When you join those forces together and let them…what does that do? It’s about cadence and rhythm, and about a poetic locking and unlocking, hopefully. It’s about setting up a kinetic thing, which is not about loudness. It’s much more about…there’s this thing in Japanese garden landscape, right, which is to allow things to be what they are, but use them.

That’s what the work has come out of. How do I take these things that come from these components, and then lace in literature and poetry and song lyrics and things like that that are also close to me? How can I make them come together within the work to make distinct, different paintings, so that they don’t all look alike, and let them be what they are but hang out together? That’s what’s run this work. That was a big shift for me.

Bach: And, I think it’s probably connected to the work that you’ve done on the house over the years, and living in a place that’s had disruptions. Right? You haven’t had a domestic situation where everything stayed the same, everything was already set. You were always tinkering with the structure, and building the new house, and then changing the new house, and trying to get the city to sign off on the studio and the wall and the…all that stuff has been, for better or for worse, in flux.

Krumpak: Yeah, it has. It has. For a long time.

Bach: The boys, growing up, graduating, moving on.

Krumpak: Coming back.

Bach: Coming back. All that, I think…whether that informed the shift in your work or it coincided with the shift in your work…

Krumpak: Interesting.

Bach: Or the shift in your work influenced the…

Krumpak: It’s in relation to that shifting chaos, or whatever you want to call it. Yeah, that might be. Who knows? That is an interesting notion, too, in another way. I think when I left San Francisco…that whole thing changed when I came to L.A. I never got back to being…in San Francisco, it’s a city of domesticity. It’s an interior city, gets cold a lot, it’s foggy, it’s atmospheric. You sit in places. You read books. Ferlinghetti’s bookstore, City Lights, all that stuff. When I came to L.A., I don’t think my life ever went back to domesticity. We do very domestic things. We raise children, and eat dinner together…but, I never believed in it anymore. I never believed in it anymore. I never desired…I desire some sense of order. I enjoy things being in their place. It just doesn’t happen very often. But, I don’t believe that everything in its place means I’m OK, or it’s a signal that I have…

Bach: Matured.

Krumpak: I’ve matured, or that I understand I’m an intellectual, or that we are a good family. Those things never came back together. I had my dose in San Francisco, and that was over. I think L.A. is like that. It’s shifting, and it’s wide open. Sure, there are a lot of things that are happening that make it about apartheid, economic apartheid, and we all know that. But it’s a horizontal place. Things slide all over the place. San Francisco has a vertical pecking order. You understand your place and you hone it, buddy.

New York is a city of learning rules, right? You learn how to sit on a subway car, how not to look at other people’s faces. You learn how much personal space to take, or not. You learn what pace to walk on the street. You have to learn a lot of rules to just wake up and go to sleep in New York City. And then, you pride yourself in doing them well. That’s what a New Yorker is.

But in L.A., for me, it’s a horizontal, non-domestic situation. I never tried to internalize that in my close-in space. But I do bring that kind of working…I like your analogy. It’s like a ‘working man’ kind of process to making paintings. You go in the studio, and you work. You work for as long as you can, and then you shut off the lights, and you shut off the music, and you leave. The next day, you come back and turn it all on, start the music, drink that coffee, and start again. I think it can feel very genuine and very comforting. At the same time, it feels like a racket and discipline, and it feels like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m going to sit in there and work, stand up for six more hours with a teeny brush in my hand.” But, there’s a love for that, too. You start the painting, you ‘middle’ the painting, and you complete the painting. Go to work. I’ve never shied away from work. Neither did my father or my mother or my wife. We are a working family.


Bach: Right. And now, you have two sculptures in the show. You may have done sculpture before, but I’ve never seen any sculpture from you. The two pieces, in the time that I’ve been able to spend with them at the opening, are very intimate. Very personal and playful and rich and complex, but not fussy. It’s just this celebration of interesting, cool, meaningful stuff. “Here it is, I’ve put it together in this sort of compartment that you have to…”

Krumpak: It’s a place.

Bach: Yeah. It’s like a closet of curiosities that you’re seeing some of it, but there’s other stuff that you can’t see. That has come…

Krumpak: Relatively new. Yeah. When I was in San Francisco—and I was very, very, very young—I made sculpture like what we now call ‘pathetic.’ Provisional. It was very not sculpture. I made it out of birds’ feathers from my own bird, you know, and bead work that an Indian woman showed me how to do, and I would collect. I made sculptures and three-dimensional objects out of rhinestones, and by buying glittery fabric and sewing it and stuffing it like a pillow and putting rhinestones on it and mounting it on the wall by pins. Very not traditional…they were like objects of oddity and seduction, you know, because I didn’t know how to do sculpture. So these are, in a way, related to that. They’re not obvious, traditional sculptures.

Bach: And I don’t think of them as sculptures. I think of them, in a way, as three-dimensional paintings without a whole lot of paint in them.

Krumpak: Right. That’s right.

Bach: It’s the stuff that normally would be traced and made into a painting, but, now, it’s just the object, and it’s just a different arrangement of it.

tom krumpak-18
“3516 Centinela,” 2016, mixed media

Krumpak: Right, yeah. I think that’s right, and I like that, actually. Thank you for saying that. The idea of tracing is that, as you just said, you take the object and you stick it down and you draw around it and then you paint it in. I don’t paint it illusionistically, I leave it flat, with the trace.

Bach: Yeah, the shape.

Krumpak: Yeah. Now, the idea is to just move the object out, take it out of the closet, and just let it be what it is. That gets back to that Japanese landscape idea. Let it be what it is, but, put it in a context that makes it more than what it is, or at least contextualizes it and opens up new possibilities for what it is. Keep moving it around, just like you would with anything, painting or your music or whatever, until it doesn’t want to go anywhere else. Then, that becomes its position in the piece. The damnedest thing in making those sculptures is, when you start making that kind of sculpture, with found objects and handmade things that you make, and you ‘collaborate’ them together…as soon as I start making these three-dimensional things, everything

Bach: [laughs] Yeah.

Krumpak: …in the world, every single thing that I walked past, I was thinking, “Well, gee, I could use that. I could put that in there.” And, I was doing that in the studio. I put podiums in the studio, and I’d just start throwing stuff on them, pulling stuff off, and screwing things together, and then taking them apart and attaching something else. And I realized, wow, man, anything…you can just do anything.

Bach: I just thought of the way you would make the still lives in the drawing classes and painting classes. You’re describing exactly what you would do when you would build a still life for the first time. You would put stuff on there, and take stuff off, and put it there, and let it sit for a while, and choose something else. It’s that same spirit.

Krumpak: Exactly. It’s training for it. I thought of that when I was making them. I thought, “I don’t know anything about making sculpture.” I honestly had no criteria. “Don’t fake it; I don’t have any.” But, then I thought, “I’ve made still lives for years, and this is like making a still life,” so, I totally agree with you on that. Once I got that, that this is a place, it’s a location, it’s a still life that I’m making, and I’m making it out of stuff that I’ve been saving for God knows why…so, I’m going to put it together.

Bach: And who cares?

Krumpak: And who cares? I’m going to put it on a pedestal, and then people can come and see it, and…great. I don’t have any defense about it. I’m not protecting it at all. I don’t think it about that way. It animates the exhibition it’s in, and it offers another opportunity for a dialogue between the paintings and the three-dimensional objects. The flatness of the painting and the dimensionality of the objects, and that is just a nice conversation to have happening in the room.

I think another thing that, when I was making them, I was thinking about Matisse, and I was thinking about Matisse’s hotel rooms that he would decorate, and the way that he would hang patterned fabric, and have the odalisque sprawl out in front of it or sit in a chair in front of the window, and have pattern on pattern. Just the joy of the Persian harem tent in a hotel room that was cheap, and what a wonderful fakery that was. So I thought, “This is like that. I should just enjoy decorating and that logic.” And, when he says that “decoration is expression,” I thought, “Yes, I am expressing myself creatively here.”

tom krumpak-8
“Dim Dim,” 2016, mixed media

A wonderful assemblage sculptor I know, who’s also a friend through jazz, we’re both jazz fiends. He’s a sculptor, makes wonderful assemblage and one-of-a-kind standalone sculptures, and is a painter. We’d see each other at jazz things, and I’d say, “Oh, God, I don’t know what’s going on! I have no idea what I’m doing!” And he would say, “Tom, yes you do. Just calm down. Just think, ‘I am creative, and whatever I make, therefore, will be OK.'” You know, that’s easier said than done. But, he was really wonderful. He just was so sweet, that it made me think, “OK, I’ll just do this thing.” And, I had a deadline for the first sculpture, so I had to hit that deadline.

Bach: To get it photographed?

Krumpak: No, to go on exhibition in downtown L.A. It toured for a year of locations in downtown L.A., the one with all the stuff and junk on it. Then the other one, my deadline was for this exhibition. I knew there was a finish line, and I knew I had to get them done, and I knew I could mess around for only so long and live in indecision, and then I had to start making some decisions: “OK, this form is basically OK, and I can change these things,” or, “This is staying, and so I’ve got to find something that’s more compatible than what I have.”

Bach: Right. And, you know, the work is never completely ever finished, right? We’ve talked about this in painting classes. It’s like, a painting or drawing or a piece achieves an equilibrium. It achieves a sort of plateau that, OK, I guess if you stop now, you could call it done. If you add something else, then it upsets that equilibrium, and you then have to go in and go further. So, you came to this point where you had to let it rest in equilibrium. It may not be done the way you thought it was going to be when you started it, but who cares? It is what it is, and…

Krumpak: Yeah, and let it be. Let it be. Make sure, like you would with any kind of musical composition that you’re writing…I mean, you have a criteria level that you’re looking for to feel justifiable for somebody to witness it, right? Somebody other than you. So, you have to bring it to that level, where you feel this experience would be at least worth it for somebody to encounter this thing. Then, once you feel that’s OK, you can just let it be.

And, you know how it is. Well, it’s different in music, certainly, than in visual object-making, but things exist in their time. As soon as you finish them, they start disintegrating. They just do. Paintings gets old, the paint gets crusty. Rust stains appear on the back of the canvas. What I liked about these assemblage sculptures is that I had to assemble parts of them on location. Some parts are welded together. But, then I had to open the drawers and stuff the drawers with things, and take stuff out of the drawers if I had to move it to another location, or put it in storage, or whatever. In the meantime, life can happen, and you say, “Oh man, this would be great in the drawer instead of that.”

So, every time this sculpture would travel from one location to another over the year, downtown, and before it went here, I switched things up. It didn’t have any static state, just the basic format stayed the same. Or, I had the box sculpture, and I had to take the drawers out from the utility boxes, put them on the base that I made. Then, I had to open the other boxes. “How much should I open the door? This way or this way?” There’s no right way. Each time I can modify it, or take the scroll out of it and put another one in there. I’m not going to let anybody see them anyhow, so they’ll never know, but I will. That’s part of dealing with the inevitability of…things do reach a peak, and then they start falling apart. But, you can have fun playing with that reality.

Bach: There’s a freedom, and a sort of lightness. Not that I’m saying your paintings are heavy, but that there’s a lightness to that process in the sculptures, whereas in the paintings, you put a shape down, and you paint it, and you put the next shape down. You’re putting these shapes down in these relationships, and once the painting gets to where it’s done, you’re not about to go in and sand all the stuff off and put another…it becomes done and you move on, right? There’s a limited amount of adjustability and flexibility in how the painting can function, right? But with these sculptures, these assemblages, whatever they are, there’s a playfulness to them that could be a whole new…

Krumpak: Yeah. It leaves the circuit open. After Fran [Siegel] went to see the show, she sent me an email, and she said, “Oh, the show looked great, but the sculpture,” she said, “those are the closest thing to your interest in jazz of anything you’ve ever done. Because they are so jazz-like, because there’s a sense of playfulness and immediacy to them, yet there’s structure behind it, and there’s also this thing of creating a kind of poetic juxtaposition of things.”

Bach: That’s different every time.

Krumpak: And it can be different every time, but it’s the same core or spine.

Bach: Which is jazz. Taking a standard or whatever, and the improvisation that happens upon that structure. Any performance is going to be slightly…

Krumpak: Yeah, exactly. I thought that was really interesting. She’s very smart, so for me that was very insightful, like, “OK, I don’t play in a rock and roll group anymore, but I’m still making music” [laughs]. So, maybe this is a way of doing that.


Tom Krumpak (part 1)

Tom Krumpak has exhibited internationally since 1976. He earned a Master of Fine Arts Degree from California State University Long Beach and a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from the San Francisco Art institute. He has been a professor of drawing and painting at California State University, Long Beach since 1983.

This conversation took place in Tom’s faculty office in the Fine Arts 4 building (FA4) at CSULB on September 2, 2015. (Part 2 can be found here.)

Tom’s office in FA4, CSULB

Glenn Bach: I was going to start with the studio in Mar Vista, but since we’re here in your office at Cal State, let’s start here. Let’s talk about the office, the second floor of the FA4 building. How long have you been here? How has being here affected your work as an educator and a painter in Los Angeles?

Tom Krumpak: Well, I’ve been at Cal State Long Beach for thirty-one years, and, in terms of credited time, probably longer than that, because I was here first as an MFA student. I got my MFA degree, and then I left and taught, as you know, at a bunch of different places. UC Santa Barbara, Art Center College of Design, in England at Plymouth College of Art and Design. I taught at Skidmore in New York, where we taught together that summer as part of the Summer Six program. And I’ve lectured at many, many other universities. But, I have tenure here, and this is my thirty-first year. So, that’s a lot of time to cover.

Bach: And you’ve been in this office for…

Krumpak: Actually, I was in an office around the corner and down the hall for a while when I first got here, and then I moved into this office with John de Heras, who was my officemate and absolutely one of my very best friends, and a special person on the planet. And who I’m still very good friends with. I just saw him yesterday, as a matter of fact. And, so, I’ve been in this office for probably fifteen years. I’m sitting in his old chair right now [laughs].

Bach: [laughs]. Because when he retired, you took over the combination of the two offices, because you were in the front…

Krumpak: I was in the front and he was in the back with the window. He was the window guy. One of the great things about being here with John was that when we had to go to faculty meetings or a variety of meetings across the campus—and they were completely absurd— we’d come back to the office with a double cappuccino and a pastry and slam the door and go, “Oh, my god!” [laughs]

Bach: [laughs] “Can you believe that?”

Krumpak: We’d laugh and see the absurdity of much of it. So, I would say that in my time with him, over many years, I don’t think we ever had one serious disagreement. And it’s not because we always saw things the same, but because he was just a fantastic person to be around. Creative, smart, compassionate to his students. He is just a great guy. So, this office has good memories in that way, for sure.

As you can see sitting here, we’re surrounded by almost every imaginable art-related thing on the planet. There are stacks of books, of course, which are laying in the wrong direction, but I know where everything is, sort of. There are paintings from past and present, and the beginning stretcher bars for future. Tons of equipment, rolling carts with sound systems on them, which I roll into my classes. I never do a class without music.

Tom’s office in FA4, CSULB

There are carts with slide projectors, which is very analog [laughs]. And there’s a laptop that I use, badly, to do PowerPoint lectures. There’s music, albums, tons of CDs. Every drawer you pull out has hundreds of CDs. Drawers of student work from the past or exhibitions that I’ve mounted for students. There are paintings, drawings, framed drawings of Chinatown. Which, by the way, I’ll be taking students out to photograph this Saturday in downtown again.

Bach: Oh, great. Nice.

Student drawing, Chinatown project

Krumpak: So that tradition continues, and from those photographs, you know, they make these drawings or paintings or whatever. There are bags at our feet that look like they are not sorted out, but in fact they are. They are all different lectures, not for classes here, but lectures that I present at other universities. Sometimes on my work, but mostly on the work of contemporary artists I’m interested in. And, those are often made into PowerPoint talks with soundtracks, the whole kit and kaboodle.

Bach: That whole process has changed, right, because in the past when you were building a lecture on artists, you would collect slides.

Krumpak. Right. Totally.

Bach: And you would have these carousels, and you would go through and shuffle the order, and these stacks of carousels would be your lecture. It was this physical, hands-on, curated selection of images, but now artists don’t really send you slides anymore. They send you a jpeg or a link to a series of images.

Krumpak: Right.


Bach: So, it’s probably changed the mechanics of how you put a lecture together, but not really the spirit?

Krumpak: Well, no, I think it makes it all very different. I do still have stacks of lectures in carousels, but they aren’t static, they still keep changing, because we do still have hard-copy slides here [at CSULB]. But I don’t get slides from other artists anymore. Those are lectures that I’ve changed depending on what I’m trying to get to, within the greater idea of what’s in that carousel, but it is different. It’s different in a lot of ways. I like the manual quality of the slide projector. That’s why I still use them a lot, and it calls attention to the work…if the quality of the image is okay. The students are so wigged out by seeing a slide projector that it makes them wake up a little bit.

Bach: Yeah.

Krumpak: But, it does change it in the sense that I always felt I could arrive with a backup projector anywhere and I could make a presentation happen. But now, with the laptop, because I’m not that electronically savvy or motivated, and with the equipment that’s on location, with the projector, the sound system…no matter how tricked out or complex they are, they often seem to fail. So, you have to be prepared to do a lecture without any visuals. Which I have done. That’s something interesting to work towards: how to do a visual art lecture with no visuals and for people who don’t know the material. You really have to be the song and dance man, on stage, when you do that. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not

Bach: [laughs]

Krumpak: …depending on the audience. So, that does change it, because the certainty of being able to really just hit it. I like the set up. I just like the mechanics of it.

Bach: And the planning process itself, of talking to artists, doing studio visits. “Hey, send me a half dozen images, I’m putting a lecture together and I’d love to take you to coffee and see your studio…”

Krumpak: Yeah.

Bach: That process was a way for you to really, first of all, meet a bunch of great people and great artists, but also to explore these cities in different ways.

Krumpak: Sure.

Bach: Because you’re not just setting out and wandering the streets and going to a museum or whatever. You’re making these concerted stops in Long Island City or wherever. Because of that you make these plans. “If I’m going to Long Island City, I’m going to stop in this cafe before and grab a cappuccino…”

Krumpak: Right.

Bach: So, it becomes a different way of mapping…

Krumpak: Totally. I often think about the process of forecasting, especially with images, and what that does to the final experience the person has of the artwork. For instance, everyone wants me to send out electronic images, which is easy and fast, and I can do that, but then they see the image and then the question is, “Is there a need to see the painting?” People are so geared towards receiving an image now, and when it sits in their house electronically, on their computer, they feel that they own it. And, in fact, they do own the image. They can then disperse it to others. I’ve sent images confidentially, and all of a sudden they’re on Facebook and a million people are looking at them. When I send images for exhibitions, often the exhibition space will put those images online for an upcoming show. So that the people who go to that website, yes, they get to see your work, and I guess that’s a good thing, but then they come to the show, and the opening, in a way, is a kind of strangely deflated or morphed creature, because they go, “Oh, yeah, that looks just like the image that I saw online. That’s really a great painting,” instead of just, “That’s really a great painting.”

Bach: Right.

Krumpak: When you’re talking to students, too, because they’re so full of images now from Instagram or whatever, they’re not impressed by images. So, even if it’s not the real thing, when you show them an electronic image in a lecture, it’s like, “Oh, it’s another electronic image.” It could be a picture of somebody skateboarding that they took yesterday, and they’re just as interested in that painting image or that skateboard image, or if they’re just shooting randomly. In other words, it has deflated or stolen the ability to decipher and appreciate images because they’re so readily available. That makes teaching really, really hard, because the students’ attention spans are a lot shorter, and the way they approach knowledge in image form has changed a lot, too. So, instead of feeling that you’re giving them something unique or special in a classroom lecture, you’re just giving them some other image.

Bach: Yeah.

Krumpak: You really have to deal with it. It’s a funny thing. It’s affected the art world. It’s affected the way people see your hard copy, real paintings, that you spent a year painting. It’s affected the way you teach, because there is just a stream of stuff now, and people are just sampling it. So, you’re just a fish going upstream. Just like everybody else.

Bach: How do you, as an educator, as an artist talking to other artists, and to young artists, how do you get them excited about the primacy of the image? Whether it’s a painting or an installation or a sculpture, the real thing, how do you get them talking about that?

Krumpak: I think you have to be peripheral. Right? Because, if you go right down the middle, they don’t pay attention to it. When I’m doing a lecture, or I’m in the studio class where it’s a hands-on “doing” class, I show them something that I think houses the ideas or the theories that I want them to learn. I’m trying to use the image, then, as a kind of prop that we can work through. It’s not about the image any more, as much as working through it, a vehicle for me to explain the ideas that I want them to learn and incorporate in their artwork. You have to constantly bolster young art students with the idea that their own individualism is the ultimate goal, but that they also need an array of tools in their tool belt to be able to express their individuation. I really don’t think that many people even talk to them about that. Not many broach that notion, but I do. It’s constantly a kind of ping pong about this image or that artist’s work that houses these ideas. This is part of the process that they use to mature and to create their image. We’re using the image as a mirror and going behind it, and then pouring that knowledge back into the individual student and trying to bump up their integrity and their feelings about expressing themselves. That’s really tough for some students. It’s a confrontation, because they’re coming out of all sorts of past history of education where they’re told exactly what to do. Told how to be a good person, and how to succeed in this particular class under these circumstances. And I’m telling them that I have no interest in dominating them in the classroom whatsoever. But, I am interested in having them access quality material, and that they’re probably a lot more capable of housing that and understanding that than they probably think they are. I try to create, with the music, as you know, and visuals or monitors with films playing in the classroom, a contextualized portable environment of sight and sound that allows them to let down their defenses a little bit. I’ll even talk about the difficulty of using certain art materials for a particular project, and that I understand how difficult it is. The risk and value of trying something new in public, of sitting in a classroom with other people, and screwing up. I have to tell them that 90% of this learning mode is about screwing up, and it’s the only way toward unique results. But, for them, the idea of unique, or innovative, or singular voice, or a kind of compassionate curiosity with what they’re doing, is, for whatever reason—no guilt assigned to any particular sector here—it’s just not a discussion they’re having with themselves or with other people in quite that way. I grew up in a time when there were defined heroes you could find in the world of art. Maybe you’ve seen their work at the Whitney or any other great museum, and you said, “That’s what I want to be.” And the baggage with wanting to be an artist was to learn the lifestyle that went along with that, and in turn, the making of the work meant that you were sincere and genuine. Time in. But, I don’t see that people are interested in that model now. They may be interested in celebrity, or they may be interested in one artist over another artist because of personal bias or interest or style or whatever, but I don’t see them wanting to understand where that person came from or what the role of an artist is and how one should proceed to build the “Frankenstein” of themselves.

Bach: Right.

Krumpak: They don’t want to stitch together parts and assume anything, so I think it’s just a generational shift.

Bach: They’re not really thinking about their practice in the context of lifestyle, or in the context of where they are.

Krumpak: Right.

Bach: The activity of making art as an intellectual, creative practice grounded in communication with other communities, other traditions, other places. We were free to create our own tradition through our community, through our peers, through our mentors. I think part of it is a natural aspect of going to classes together, going to openings and that whole thing, but who knows, I’m not that age anymore, so I don’t know what they think of community and what it means to embody the lifestyle of the artist or creative person.

Krumpak: I think the environment has flat-lined. Nothing pops up as more desirable than anything else. They know what hurts, and what causes pain for them, and they avoid it. Beyond that, I think that everything has an equality to it. When I was younger and playing rock and roll, before I was a full-time painter and educator…you were in a band, and you were loyal to that band, and that band either made it, or you went down the tubes. So, you would quit and start a new band with other people, or with some members from the old band, and then you were loyal to that band. I’m not talking about rich and famous. I’m talking about real musicians playing rock and roll. Playing club dates, bar dates, going into the studio to record, and that’s not happening either. There’s no loyalty, people are in for four or five dates, or the band can go a month without a practice, and then they start practicing two weeks before their next gig, and everyone is okay with that. We would have never housed ourselves in more than one band at a time. That would have been so bad. And if you weren’t practicing at least three or four nights a week with your band, you weren’t a real musician. So it’s that kind of thing in a weird way that I’m talking about. There just isn’t that hands-on attachment to the role. Furthermore, students don’t really know whether their education is pointing them towards a career as a visual artist or becoming any kind of expressive, creative person. They think it does, and they can’t think of anything else that would replace it. They’re going through it with best intentions. But they’re not really going to drink the Kool-Aid and believe that it’s going to aim them toward real success. It might, and they’re young, and what else are they going to do? I think it’s smarter and it’s better that they do it, but I was just dumb enough in my youth to think that my education was preparing me for a successful, creative life, you know? And I think that it did. But now I don’t really know whether it does, and whether or not there is any direct connection. It may just be a kind of simultaneous…two things that are in same ballpark that may contribute or may not. And I think they understand that. It changes the dynamic.

Bach: But, as an educator you still have to keep plugging away and try to get them to…for instance, the Chinatown project. As an educator, you have these assignments, or these approaches, these tools to get students to think about making work by translating their experience into practice. And sometimes, it’s a new idea you have, and other times it’s a very ritualized thing. And the Chinatown project was one of things that you had been doing for a while. I remember doing it, and remember seeing the postcards you would make with a group of students ten years after I’d graduated. There’s this beauty to this sort of project where you turning again and again to this rich source in Chinatown, a very rich source of visual and sensory data. It’s a perfect assignment, because it gets them to spend time in a place that they may not have been to before, or may not have spent time critically in that space, and you get them to slow down and spend some time in this place, and then come back to the studio with the raw material that they’ve collected and make something from that. It gets them to make those connections about their art’s relation to that place.

Olvera Street, downtown Los Angeles (image by Bri Joy)

Krumpak: That’s absolutely true. I think it’s a good example of how…people are amazingly parochial. They may come here to Los Angeles from everywhere on the planet, but they’re amazingly parochial once they get here. They really don’t have the knowledge, the hands-on knowledge, of a place that’s ten miles away. They literally don’t. They live within five miles of the school, perhaps, but they don’t have experiential knowledge, and there’s nobody telling them that they should. Or, there’s nobody telling them, “Look, I’m going to take your hand and make sure that you can experience this thing without a lot of trauma. But we are definitely going to put our feet on the ground. We’re going to smell the air. We’re going to touch the walls. We’re going to go in the shops. We’re going to listen to the language. We’re going to try to understand the cadence and look at the condition of light, realize that there are certain colors occurring in one part of town versus another part of town. What is the indigenous palette of a place? How do we become aware of different things that are already obvious to the person who is really looking or hearing? And the things that are un-obvious, to come up and meet it with our sense of self awareness so that we can use it as an artist.” Whether it’s Chinatown or Grand Central Market in downtown L.A., or whether it’s the new, very hip Spring Street scene that is happening, or whether it’s MOCA‘s stamp on J-Town, or myriads of other kinds of places, churches, meditation spaces, all that kind of stuff we find in downtown L.A. The idea is to get young artists on the ground, to the firsthand experience. Then, to find a way to document that experience through photographs, or by walking around with tape recorders and creating soundtracks, or through discussions and dialogues at particular lively corners and locations so that the peripheral noise invades it. We’ve done all sorts of things to capture the sensory apparatus. All of it is designed to get them to realize that there is more information, more ideas, and more everything that you can possibly, possibly, possibly need or use to make their artwork, or to make their life exciting, and therefore, become better contributors to the world around them, not in the Catholic sense, but in terms of aliveness.

Student drawing, Chinatown project

That’s another part of this that you brought up before…in the teaching of art-related stuff now, I never try to achieve one thing in an assignment. It’s always a bundled experience. A guided, bundled experience with room for a singular voice, because I think everything has to be wraparound now. The idea of being didactic and singular in a learning experience is over. You have to cause the mash-up to happen, in various ways and not in the same way. So, whether it’s taking them to a location or bombarding them with sight and sound in the classroom, or meeting people who have been your past students, for instance, for a beer and having a discussion about their career, and about your career, their youth and your age. And we can laugh about it, but sincerely enjoying spending time together is part of the ongoing education. Jan and I have been very lucky in that we have so many past students that are very good friends.

Bach: Yeah.

Krumpak: I see students all the time, for coffee, for beer. I get a call or an email, “I’d like to see you; I’ve been thinking about you or something you said.” The painting show I have up now in Santa Monica [Built & Placed] was curated by a former student of mine [Jesse Benson], right? I think twelve years ago, and now he’s a curator, an incredible painter and teacher. And it came out of the blue. “I’ve been thinking about your work for a long time now, I have a spot, and I want to show your work.” The generational turnover and the transition between them being young and your student, and then being older and being your student and then not being your student anymore, then realizing that you’re both students for each other? That’s what it’s really about. Then eventually working together. So, that is great. That’s a great thing.

Bach: This is something that I’ve always known to be true about you—and it may not be true for other people—is that there is really no demarcation between who you are as a painter, as a person, as an educator, as a husband, as a father, as a friend, as a cafe goer…

Krumpak: [laughs]

Bach: …as a traveler…it’s all a mix that you’re constantly adjusting and mixing and tweaking. It’s like you have a big mixing board and you’re making these adjustments and you’re like, “I’m going turn it up here on the educator part and I’m really going to get my students to talk and then I’ll dial it back down, I’ll go home and just chill out and watch a film and drink some brandy, and then the next day, I’m really going to spend some time in the studio. But, there isn’t a hard demarcation where this begins and this ends. To me, that was something I picked up on very early when I first started here. My first class with you was Intermediate Drawing, because I transferred [from Ventura College], so I already had all of the foundation classes…

Krumpak: Yes, [ART] 381.

Bach: With the big charcoal drawings where you subtract charcoal with an eraser.

Krumpak: I remember your drawing.

Bach: Because of the environment that you created in your classroom and the discussions we had, I knew right away that you were someone who was going to play an important role in my life and in my career as an artist. For me, the thing that has always stuck with me, and that I can point in all of my work, was your way of connecting artistic practice and expression to the place that you’re in, specifically something as simple as taking a shape from the environment and using that as a starting point in the work. So, you go and you find a circle or a quatrefoil in the landscape and you trace it, and you take that tracing and you transfer it to the drawing and that becomes an initial shape that you work with. That simple idea, where you find something in the place that you’re investigating, and that becomes a direct link to the work…

Krumpak: Yeah.

Bach: …is a touchstone for me when I look back at my development as an artist, as a poet, as a sound artist. That is the thing that I’ll always remember. That simple, elegant practice.

Krumpak: That’s good, that’s good. I think that’s true. I agree with everything you said. I’ve always thought that good, quality information, research, other works of art, whether it’s music or literature, dance, theater, film, architecture, design, all that…if the source of inspiration is rich and right, the best thing is to go directly to it. Use it, bring it into your wheelhouse, as you’re saying, and let it inform the decisions that you’re making in the rest of the actual art piece, or the trajectory, or the area of investigation, whether that’s a person, a place, or thing, a temporary event, seeking the new thing that is happening, or whatever. I guess I’ve always believed that good information, especially art in one form or another, transforms the witness. I mean, psychically and physically transforms you, the maker. The closer you can get to that quality, the better off you are. I never feared that I would be overwhelmed by it. I never feared that it was appropriation or belonged to somebody else. I never really made that much of a distinction between low life and high art at all. I could recognize the differences in them. I could admire the aspiration and the hard work needed for Nureyev to leap up and lift off the stage, and how it felt like he was suspended in the air for what seemed like hours. And the magic of how that changed time and space in my head…I know what kind of discipline must go into that. I don’t know, but I think I know. I always tried to go to the source, as you said, and just get rid of the bullshit and get rid of my prejudice about the source, and just eat it up. Right? I guess that informs the way I teach, too. It does. I try to get young people to the source, the highest quality source that I can get them to. And I try to speak about it in a way that is humble, so that they understand that they can aspire to that same level of greatness of artists like Nureyev, for lack of a better word. If they believe it has the possibility of transformation for them, they probably will be transformed by their journey. And if they don’t, then, that’s their life and their choices and I can’t cram it down their throats. So, I agree with that.

Chinatown, downtown Los Angeles (image by Bri Joy)

Bach: Have you always approached it that way? Did you come to it through trial and error, or was it an epiphany?

Krumpak: Good question. We don’t want to go all the way back to when I was a child…

Bach: Yeah.

Krumpak: You do? [laughs]

Bach: No, no [laughs]. I was just thinking that, for me, the way I made work before I came here was very different than after I came here and worked with you, and worked with Beverly [Naidus].

Krumpak: Yeah.

Bach: I had some very strong epiphanies that were very illuminating.

Krumpak: We could go back to childhood just for fun…I never thought I was an artist when I was a kid. I remember drawing, but it was not on my radar at all, and I think I gravitated to making art as a teenager, and maybe you and I have even discussed this early on, because the people who were making it, the students when I was young, seemed to be the best people to hang around with.

Bach: Ahhh [laughs].

Krumpak: [laughs] They seemed to be the smartest, and they seemed to be the most interesting. They were non-violent. They seemed to have an edge on life. They had a sense of style, and I was just comfortable there. Where I was not comfortable in other arenas. I think I just took a look at that, psychologically and internally, and it just said, “Go over there.” In that environment, I realized the membership card… was that you had to make art. [laughs]

Bach: Yeah.

Krumpak: And, so I started to make it. But not with any aspiration of being a great artist. I started playing in bands when I was in junior high school, and I loved music, all kinds of music. The card to being a rock and roll guy was playing the drums. So I taught myself how to play the drums, you know. And then the same people who were interested in music were the same people who were in my art classes.

Bach: Interesting.

Krumpak: I loved the life of being a musician. I loved hanging out in bars, even when I wasn’t old enough to be in them yet. I liked the nightlife. I liked the seedy side of town. We certainly saw a lot of it. Through all of that time I was making paintings and drawings, but then again not seriously thinking of myself as an artist, but just as, well, a creative person does this. That’s what one does. You don’t do that. You’re not playing football. You’re playing drums and making paintings. That’s what you do. I think it is the milieu that I identified with. I had an uncle who was in the film industry. He was a screenwriter, but more than that, he was a researcher and a historian for film. He ran the libraries for MGM and Twentieth-Century Fox. He was definitely an outside-of-the-norm person, he was almost a Zen Buddhist, who drank lots of vodka and read volumes when he wasn’t doing film research. He was mixing up words and pictures all the time, and he had this erratic, loner lifestyle. And he really liked me and I really liked him, so he was an example of esoteric in motion. Also, I had some really great painting teachers early on, from New York, who were very different in the way they handled themselves. They were definitely bohemians. I could watch that, and I felt comfortable, not posing, but I felt comfortable around them because they offered alternative views of the world and ways to move through it. I think that those environments became closer and closer. I went to San Francisco to go to school at State [San Francisco State University], but it was closed because of the anti-Vietnam demonstrations. You couldn’t go to class. So, I ended up applying to the San Francisco Art Institute, which was the best thing that ever happened to me. And then I was around really odd young artists and very eclectic teachers who were very political. Certainly their lifestyle came first, and art-making was part of the lifestyle, and not the other way around. So, I learned how to be San Franciscan, I learned how to be excessive and have a lot of attitude.

Bach: [laughs]

Krumpak: I learned to know what I liked, know what I didn’t like, which barstool to sit on, which one not to sit on. Where to have your cappuccino in the morning, where not to have your cappuccino in the morning. How to read the paper. How to sit at a table. How to be addicted to a latte at Caffe Trieste. All those flavor mixes, I think, helped the thing you’re talking about…mesh the idea of what an artist is with how one conducts oneself. And what artwork one makes, and what you have to do to be ethical and hold your position within that community. How sincere you have to try to be. How you have to realize…and this is getting a little personal, but that’s okay…how to realize just how fucked up you are, as a person. Meaning, how imperfect. Because, I could see all these great imperfections and imbalance with people who I liked to be around in the art scene. And I realized that it was okay. I could be dis-balanced, and not a well-put together and holistic being.

Bach: Aren’t we all.

Krumpak. That’s right. Those of us who make art [laughs].

Tom Krumpak and his friend Tiki (image by Judi Russell)