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Artist interview: Sue Williams

The US artist on her shift to abstraction and being a happier person

The Art Newspaper: This new show at 303, is it yet again a further shift into abstraction ?

Sue Williams: It’s the same again, I guess. Let’s see what’s it doing…the show at 303 two years ago, it’s like that. It’s gotten a little less restricted; it’s gotten looser.

In terms of brushstroke or colour?

In terms of everything, the whole deal’s gotten looser. Things can be left as lines, as abstract, or an image can pop up and I just leave it as long as I like it. Whatever fits into the paintings. I’m letting them develop on their own; I’m still too fussy I think. It would be nice to have no fussiness, no editorial going on, but you’d probably just end up with pitch-black paintings, brushstroke after brushstroke. They get more playful as I make more of them in that vein.

So, if a recognisable figurative image crops up, that amounts to a matter of chance?

Yeah, there might be like a bit of a skirt, but then something comes over it or it gets wiped away because the line didn’t cut the mustard. It’s hard for me to just make a stroke that’s not anything; at least it could be a curve or something. I like them to have some point of departure from the real world, even if it’s just a curve or a shape. What is abstract painting? I refer to my notes here. You know who says a lot of good stuff? Ad Reinhardt. But my painting is nothing like his. I’m much more involved with the “process.”

Does your imagery emerge as characters do for a fiction writer—taking on a life of their own? Does your “line” take on a life of its own?

Yeah, the paintings do. They’re puzzles actually. And sometimes they become very cumbersome and I have to kind of wrap them up, because you want them to be finished, you want to look at them. Or else they have to stay in the studio. They go their own way. That’s why something that might look crappy by itself might make sense on top of certain colours. This group has a lot of difference in it: some works look almost like Pop Art; one of them looks a lot like a brain from Zap! comics. I try not to make them specific, but sometimes they look cool, so I leave them. Others have almost no image, but it’s probably there if you look hard enough.

You had a transitional period in which you were almost painting monochromes, a little painting with just a simple image on it.

Yeah, I scrapped that long ago. That was a time the paintings weren’t working so good. I had big ideas, but...You probably feel your own development as organic, but other people may see it as a change from a figurative, feminist political stance to what is now almost formalist abstraction. Is it formalist? Nah, I don’t think so.

But would you be willing to call your recent work “abstract painting”?

Well I suppose it is. Certainly not in terms of Ad Reinhardt and that sort of purity, but other painters have some underlying point of comparison with my line, even if you can’t see it anymore.

So you stand there in front of a blank canvas and you follow the brushstroke where it takes you?

Yeah, but I do make decisions, if it’s early on enough I’ll wipe out crappy ones. They begin, “fling, fling, fling”, and that’s all fun and games, but then it gets bogged down. Sometimes they just move along so easily and then they have to be completed and there’s that wretched decision making thing which I put off right to the end and get really nervous.

Could there be fans of your earlier, political work who are disappointed by your current direction?

Yeah. Somebody said that collectors bought it now because it’s not offensive, whereas before it was too offensive…but actually they collected it before.

Are collectors of your earlier political work now outraged by your lyrical abstractions?

I know a feminist art critic who wondered what had happened to the work. She felt the change was because I’d got attacked in the press that I decided to not “speak out” anymore. But I think it’s just different phases. It was just a personal peeve that happened to coincide with feminist issues, so I could get involved in the politics for a while back there, but that’s not my main motivation for making art. That art was extremely angry. Definitely, those were my sincere feelings. That was reflecting my stance and my personal history of ridiculous battering, the “battered woman” syndrome from one person to the next.

Could your latest work reflect the fact that you are a happier person?

Yeah, I am a happier person.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 109 December 2000