Kaleidoscope of colors
Fred Dalkey said that he heard somewhere that the plastic lens of those old Kodak Instamatic cameras have better optics than the human eye. In 2004, the local legend embarked on an exercise that challenged his way of seeing by painting the same still life repeatedly—54 times—in the old church on K and 23rd streets in Midtown, which was owned by friend and art dealer Paul Thiebaud, who passed away in June. For the first time, the series will be on exhibit as a nearly complete set (52 of the 54).
For this series, you painted in the old church on K Street?
Right. I had for many, many years a studio downtown across from the park on Ninth and 10th and J Street, over Joe’s Style Shop. … It was condemned, and I had to move.
I had been showing for a number of years with Paul Thiebaud, who had a gallery in San Francisco. He had acquired [the church], and he wasn’t using it. Paul said, “Why don’t you just see if you can use it?” …
I was having a difficult time [there] because it was such a large space. … Everything in the studio was white, even the light fixtures, ceiling fans, thermostat. … I had taken a lot of large canvases down there, thinking that I would do some great big epic church painting of some sort. And nothing seemed to develop. … After working for probably six months … I saw these two little pots—I’ve had these pots for years. … Occurring simultaneously is that I noticed that in a white environment, you start seeing white as a kind of kaleidoscope of colors, and I was finding that I would look at the wall and all of a sudden it would break into all of these patterns and colors. … I did a painting of the pots in that environment and didn’t like it very much. …
So I kept doing it and doing it, for 54 of them. And I think I’d probably still be doing them if the building hadn’t sold.
How long did it take for the building to sell?
The series runs from January of 2004 to November. The ones that had been framed have been shown. Paul decided he would show some of them in his gallery in San Francisco. The ones that are unframed have never been shown before. … So this is the first time they’ve ever been seen in total, and also the first time I’ve ever seen them in total.
What do you think of them now, seeing all of them at once?
It’s interesting, the kind of evolution of seeing that occurs. I mean, the first one, which is the one I didn’t like very much—it’s not as bad as I thought it was. …
What I wanted to do was to see if I could paint a painting where all through it, I was alert to what I was seeing, alert to experiencing this kind of color. … It might take me an hour of looking before it starts really modulating and breaking into these color patterns.
Last year in The Sacramento Bee, there was a story calling you, Gregory Kondos and Wayne Thiebaud a painting triumvirate. How did that feel?
Well, that’s very flattering, but I don’t feel like I’m up to their stature, certainly not to Wayne. I think it’s basically because all of us taught at Sacramento City College for a number of years.
You were there for 40 years?
Yeah, I was there for 40 years. I started teaching there in 1969, and I retired in 2009. So I was there a lot longer than they were (laughs).
Congratulations on the retirement. You were born and raised in Sacramento, but have you lived outside of the city?
No, I traveled a little bit, but not much. Mostly to New York.
In that same story, you were quoted saying that you’d rather have a studio in Manhattan.
It was a joke because both Wayne and Greg have various places, different houses and whatnot, and I always feel very fortunate to have a roof over my head (laughs), let alone many of them! … The [reporter] asked, “Where do you live?” “How many houses do you have?” Basically, I said I was lucky to have a house at all. And she said, “Well, where would you like to live?” and said I’d like to live in Manhattan.
So how does it feel being a professional artist your whole life?
I’m very lucky. It’s a wonderful thing to do, to get to do something I love. …
To me it’s always kind of a frustrating quest for something you can look at and say, “OK, it’s all right.” It rarely happens. … It’s one of the things about this series, too, is that it kind of represents the desire to redeem yourself from your past mistakes. So the next one will be better. I kind of think they got better as they went along. But I’m not sure.
Will you ever be sure?
No (laughs). I can’t tell.
What are the top five things people should know about Fred Dalkey?
(Laughs.) Oh, I don’t know what that would be. …
I think one of the things that is that [this series was] done quickly, but they were hard to do. After working only two or three hours on them, I was pretty well exhausted. I can’t keep looking that way. All of sudden it would start shifting, and, in a sense, I would go blind. I had a window of opportunity that I could see things that way.
They’re all so different but the same.
That’s an interesting comment: that it’s possible to do something over and over again and still have the possibility of it being different. That was part of what that whole process was about. At one point, you run out of possibilities, but I didn’t feel like I did. It stopped out of necessity, not out of choice. I would like to do same with a portrait, have someone sit for a year.