Walter Knabe: From art to design to the 500 

Even if you've never heard of Walter Knabe, it's a good bet that you'll be seeing his artwork this Memorial Day. Knabe is the 2010 Official Artist for the Indy 500, the first Indiana-based artist to be selected for this honor; it's his work that you'll see on this year's IMS programs and posters.

Knabe's work spans a wide range; from fabrics and wall coverings to fine art. He's a painter, printmaker and surface designer with an eye for history and iconography. Knabe himself has something of an historical pedigree, having worked for five years under the tutelage of Andy Warhol. In Warhol's studio Knabe learned the techniques that he'd soon apply to his own print making and painting.

Like Warhol (who was born in Pittsburgh), Knabe was born in a city not especially noted for its artistic heritage: Cincinnati, Ohio. As a high school student, he took courses at the Cincinnati Art Academy. After continuing his studies as an undergrad at Columbia College in Columbia, Missouri (where he studied with Thomas Hart Benton), and then as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Knabe moved to New York in 1979.

He came to Indy with his family in 1992 but he's still a part-time New Yorker — as he is one of the preeminent producers of new pattern work in the interior design industry. His commercial clients have included Trump Plaza, Chanel, Harrods, and the White House, while private collectors of his work include the likes of Michael Jordan and Madonna.

This interview took place in Knabe's downtown studio, on the 3rd floor of the Stutz Building, overlooking I-65.

NUVO: What was it like first moving to New York?

KNABE: Nancy Hoffman, who has a very well-known gallery there, came to Wisconsin and liked my work. She told me to come see her when I got to New York. I guess I thought that I was going to walk down easy street... She looked at my work; she was very gracious. Actually she wound up hooking me up with a woman who was actually running her gallery... She said your work looks great but you need to be showing elsewhere first. So she gave me a name and number. She said go see this guy; he may hire you. So I went down there. It turned out to be Andy Warhol's studio.

NUVO: What was it like working with Andy Warhol in the eighties?

KNABE: Things were jumbled, if you will. It was almost post-Pop. It was very much set up as a business, not the bohemian Factory.

NUVO: Do you have any memorable stories about Warhol?

KNABE: The one memorable thing he told me was, if you get a really good idea, a good concept, it's almost impossible to blow it. So I kept worrying about how I was going to translate those into the paintings. He was, like, If you've got a good concept it doesn't matter how you translate it.

NUVO: So was one of those ideas bridging the divide between art and design? Did that come at this point or did that come later?

KNABE: Well, it actually came a little bit later. There was a very eccentric woman on the Upper East Side who saw my artwork... She wanted me to do a whole bunch of things. So I said why don't we do an installation piece in your apartment... I decided to do an installation piece with my painting so we actually did those directly on canvas and applied those to the walls almost like wall covering.

NUVO: So that's how you started doing fabrics and custom wall coverings.

KNABE: That was the segue, yeah.

NU VO: You took pop art and you translated it into design. So in a way you went further than Warhol did.

KNABE: Yeah, I kind of did and I think even though it didn't exist purely for the aesthetic I did feel that we were doing "functional art." And I do think that's been a double-edged sword throughout my career... Some people understand that and some just see that as commercial product.

NUVO: Ansel Adams distinguished between inside of the soul... and outside art he did for his pocketbook, his professional art....the photography guides. Do you have any distinction in your own mind?

KNABE: It's very interesting because I always made a distinct difference between the two and I'm dissolving those lines and not worrying about them... What it's being done for dictates whether it's more philosophical or serious or just pure aesthetic or whether it's the functionality of the product. It may not be "as important" as the fine art or whatever, but you know what? I'm not going to worry about that any more. If people find it too decorative I guess that's their problem. I mean seriously. I think I'm very good at getting emotions across with a visual narrative. And that's who I am and that's what I do.

NUVO: You have a lot of iconography in your work. Particularly the screen prints of the Buddha. Where do you think that comes from?

KNABE: I think that has to do with my core credo, which has to do with a sense of antiquity leading to a broader sense of our present day and then, hopefully, leading to a sense of posterity... So I think a lot of those icons and elements represent not only antiquity but I'm very concerned with having a sense of mythology and fairy tale.

NUVO: There does seem to be some humor in the way you mix genres with the splashes of paint — and text on screen prints with images of the Buddha and Queen Elizabeth, for example.

KNABE: Oh, absolutely. The splashes are actually relating more to a sense of graffiti and a sense of destruction and that really has to do with my concern about the destructiveness in the world and violence but also it works as a device to negate some things and to free other things up. It comes back from being philosophical to just... it's just a splash of paint.... it's just a collision, if you will. I love collision.

NUVO: Did you ever think you'd be exhibiting your fine art in Carmel?

KNABE: No one thinks of Carmel as a cultural center. And [Evan Lurie's] gallery is just gorgeous up there. What I like about working with him, he has a national reach. So that's positive as well.

NUVO: You haven't done many shows like the one at the Lurie Gallery [in October, 2009].

KNABE: I was always so busy that I sold my art to existing clients. Nothing was left to sell to any gallery. In hindsight, that might have been a mistake. Now I have a business plan for the artwork itself. So it will be put into the art market in a very organized manner.

NUVO: Do you think your selection as the 2010 Official Artist for the Indy 500 will do something for Indianapolis in its national exposure in terms of the arts?

KNABE: I hope so. As a commissioner on the Indianapolis Cultural Development Commission it's really our agenda to make it viable for artists here. Given a national reputation, that's something I can help move forward... It's been a very difficult thing to do. With all the great stuff that's been going on, it's still been a difficult thing to do.

For more info about Walter Knabe's art visit

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