Todd Monaghan in his studio.

Conversations: Abstract of a Changing World

The artist's lens draws into focus details that otherwise might escape observance. For Todd Monaghan 86B, viewing the world in abstract provides artistic clarity.

By Michelle Valigursky

In a fourth-floor walkup on the Upper West Side, the studio walls and scarred wooden floors seamlessly merge into one connected creative space for Todd Monaghan 86B. Dotted with paint and residue from artistic projects past and present, with its antique sleigh seat and window altar of found treasures, the space is distinctly Monaghan: spare yet effusively expressive. 

Tony Solomon of the Andy Warhol Foundation described Monaghan’s work as "spiritual surrealism." For this innovative artist, celestial skies, city streets, iconic movie stars, Japanese calligraphy, and more all serve as inspiration for what one fan described as “stark expressionism.” Monaghan explains, “Each piece tells a story that expands beyond the lines of the canvas.”


EmoryWire sat down with the prolific artist to learn more.

EmoryWire: Are you a lifelong New Yorker or did you transplant there? Do you consider it your home?

Todd Monaghan: I consider New York my one true home. I love this city, especially Central Park, which us Westsiders consider our back yard. I came here on New Year’s 1987 after living in Atlanta for a bit after graduation. The irony is that Times Square has been a back drop for me throughout my New York experience. I had some of my earliest shows with Anita Durst's chashama gallery in old Times Square. 

EW: Why art? You were a business student at Emory. What drew you to this type of creative expression?

TM: I was making art as a kid at 11, only then it was floating decorative decoys. I was the US National Champion with a best of show for a mallard drake I made. I always kept that red handled Exacto knife from those days, and when I came to New York it came with me. One of my first odd jobs was for an antique toy store on West Broadway in Soho. They had one of the first color copiers in the area and local artists would make copies of their work. From the recycled copies, I started collecting images that I liked. One day the Exacto knife came out and I spent all day making a collage from the images I had collected. One collage became a second and so on and so on. I made them for me. I had no intention of showing them to anyone. I started painting on the collages I had mounted on cardboard until one day there was no collage left - only a painting, the Shri Mona Lisa.

Alientation of tm by Todd Monaghan

"Alientation of tm," See/Me Fifth Annual Exposure Award Exhibition, Musee du Louvre, Paris, France. Photograph of tm by mentor Gregory Ilich with tm Iphone and a polycarbonate sheet.

EW: You began to work with photographer and series painter Gregory Ilich. How did that collaboration influence your work?

TM: He lived high above Central Park in the whistling tower at the south west corner of the park above Al Pacino. Gregory invited me to work with him and I began to paint freely and was challenged in ways I hadn't been working all this time alone in my apartment. Gregory taught me how to use paint and different techniques to apply paint, and I was free and unaffected, ready to experiment and try new things. He taught me about tempera and oil and brushes and balance and composition and color. He taught me to find the freedom in the work, to have my own voice, my own language of work. We worked side by side on the same paintings, collaborating on a whole series of works and showing together. 

EW: You began to do commission work as a solo artist. Did it help you forge a new style?

TM:  My brother commissioned a flag painting in 2000. A fellow Eagle Scout, he wanted something textured that was inspired by Jasper John's flag painting as well as the free action painting Jackson Pollack had made famous. 

I was working nights in the north tower of the World Trade Center in September 2001. On the morning of September 11 I wasn't working in the tower but after what happened I realized the power of the painting I had done for my brother. He suggested I do another one as he didn't want to part with his. I redid the piece, only larger, deeper. I painted with the smell of the burning building floating into the studio from time to time. I remember going to my Emory reunion with a picture of the original American Beauty I had done for my brother. I was working on the larger version entitled American Beauty 911.

EW: And American Beauty 911 was purchased by Emory University for its permanent collection.

TM: This purchase was a major turning point – my work was now in the collection of a major university. I was respected for doing large works now. After the painting’s dedication, I began showing with the chashama gallery in New York.

EW: Have you always had a gut-level reaction to experiencing the creative process?

TM: On some level art was/is something I have to do. It is a practice, a meditation if you will. I never intended for it to be a career choice but with time the practice created a collection and I started showing it.

EW: You are now a seasoned pro in the art world. What was your most gratifying experience?

TM: The dedication of American Beauty 911 here in New York in honor of the Emory victims who died during the events of 9/11.

A window-side altar of found treasures in the artist¿s studio home.

A window-side altar of found treasures in the artist's studio home.

EW: Your style has changed and continues to evolve.

TM: It’s funny, but when I was learning to paint with my mentor Gregory Ilich all those years ago one of the definite rules of our practice was to constantly reinvent the game of painting. Flipping the piece, whipping away, crossing out, changing the piece by turning it around.

EW: When you do a commissioned piece, how does the process work?

TM: Most series are born lately by a patron’s request. Recently I had a patron tell me that they loved Franz Kline's work as well as Japanese calligraphy, and could I make them a black and white painting. This plants a seed in my head, I research the work, and discover what I love about it. I play with it, sketch it, reproduce it until I feel I've learned everything about it I can. Then I try to let it all go and start fresh being informed by what I’ve learned and yet free from it.

EW: You’ve been described as an artist of “spiritual surrealism.” How do you describe your own work?

TM: Anthony Haden Guest said my works were puzzle paintings. I think he's right in that each time you look at the work you should see something else, another piece of the puzzle, something you hadn't seen before. My paintings are like windows into another world, paintings you can step into and lose yourself and discover a new, expansive universe filled with light and color.

EW: Your art tells so many different stories.

TM: So true. An artist’s career is really a series of collections of works. And I’ll never stop creating.

Editor’s Note: To browse the artist's portfolio, visit Monaghan’s website at http://www.tminism.com/