blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Part I

Susan Glasser: My name is Susan Glasser, and we are here in the Blackbird office to talk with Sally Bowring, who is a painter who is located in Richmond and has been working in the mode of abstraction for several decades, and she continues to find it an inexhaustible platform for her own ideas. And so we wanted to get her in front of the mike and talk a little bit about abstraction in the twenty-first century, in general terms, and also to talk about her own recent work. So, Sally, welcome.

Sally Bowring: Thank you.

SG: And the first question actually has a kind of long setup, so give me a minute on this one. Abstract art has been around so long that most of us have, at this point, stopped thinking about the word itself. And for me the word abstraction, when I start thinking about it, is such an amazingly good word to talk about art with. Because it can be an adjective, as in an abstract idea, and it can be a noun, like "Please write an abstract of this article," and it can also be a verb in the sense that abstract is . . . to abstract something is to condense it. So it's one word that's a noun, and a verb, and an adjective, which in my mind is kind of exactly what art is also. And so marrying it with art is so wonderful. The term abstract as we use it with art typically means trying to depict something without pictorial representation. But the word abstract has so many other definitions, and I was wondering . . . I'd like to hear your thoughts on how several of those other meanings jibe with your own concept of what abstract art is.

SB: I guess things like "difficult to understand" or "obtuse" are maybe one of the definitions of abstraction, or a criticism of abstraction. I think that something as far as "difficult to understand," it really implies an education. I think abstraction, or abstract paintings in particular, clearly can be looked at with an educated eye. And I'm hoping that people who look at my paintings are both from the general public and the people that are really in the field, and I paint to both of those audiences as well. I don't think consciously, but I think it's just my nature to.

SG: Can you expand on that . . . your audience, you paint to people in the field?

SB: Well, I . . . you know, I've been in academia for over twenty years, and it would be coy of me to think that I am not bringing all the things that I've read, thought about, and have taught, in teaching painting, to my own work. I mean, of course I do. And I'm very educated along those lines and the work is loaded with things like that. And there are times that I actually make things that I wonder, "Will someone like a Susan Glasser pick this up?" And yet, I also . . . I'm generous in my nature, and I want my paintings not only for one specific audience, but I want it for anyone that would want to look at work and maybe not know a formalist device that I've used . . . and I don't really use devices, but I mean a formalist concern, maybe. Or you know they just want to look at it and they find it beautiful or they find it interesting to look at or they just want to go "Mmm," you know? And that's important to me also. If it's difficult to understand, I think that, unfortunately, much art is difficult to understand. I don't think it's only abstraction; I think it's contemporary art in general. I think Matthew Barney is just as hard to understand as any abstract piece. And it has been the problem and the irony, almost, of modernism and into postmodernism. Things like [Kasimir] Malevich's "White on White" painting that was supposed to be for the public, you know, becomes so obtuse and oblique. So it's been the failing of modernism and it’s almost . . . it goes on and continues to fail in postmodernism because so much of this art is also based on scholarship. And if we don't have that in our general education, a lot of this is going to be lost. A lot of, maybe, the, the actual meaning and reading of all of our contemporary art will be lost. But that doesn't mean that the general audience can't enjoy whatever they're going to enjoy out of it.

SG: This is not something that you think is just germane to abstract paintings?

SB: No no no, I think it's . . . I think it's inclusive of contemporary art. You know, if it's insufficiently factual—that's an interesting term—and I think that very good art should be insufficiently factual. I don't like didactic art. Again, it's a part of inclusiveness. It's letting the viewer have a piece of the action. It's allowing somebody else to find their own way in the art. And if you give too many facts and tell them exactly what it is, the viewer will either like it or not like it, you know, but if it remains—and I'll use the word poetic here, or abbreviated—there are more windows and doors to get into the work for the viewer, and I think that's important.

SG: Reminds me of a critic for the New York Times, a movie critic who once said that it's the mediocre movie that leaves every question answered.

SB: You know, it's the problem with what we suffer through every day. People watch TV, it's conclusive. It's all conclusive, and there's no place to imagine things, or find other possibilities with, or broader meanings with. It's all given to you, on a . . . spoon fed. And it doesn't foster a bigger mind, somehow. You know, and "mind" in both ways: the mind and then mining fields of information and association and imagination and things like that. Insufficient factual information is fine with me.

SG: Where an artist may take that as opening up the door for dialogue with the viewer, I think many times the viewer sees it as being asked to do something that they're uncomfortable doing. Is that related in your mind to the perception that so many people have that abstract art is an elitist activity?

SB: Oh, yeah, yeah . . .

SG: Whereas, you feel you're being welcoming; they feel like they're being asked to do something that's beyond their . . .

SB: . . . Made to feel stupid.

SG: Yes.

SB: It's very interesting for me because I teach painting at VCU, and there's so many people that, so many of my students feel like when they finally get to be a mature artist, then they'll make abstract work. And I keep saying, "No no no, you don't have to, that's not the end game here." There is this notion, and it's a recent notion, and I think in my teaching in the past five years this has come up. I mean, prior to that, there was almost no discussion about abstraction, and now it really feels like it's the prize. When you finally arrive at someplace, you'll become an abstract artist. I think that abstraction has gone through such a funny passage. Or, you know, it's gone from being . . . in the 50's where it was like the thing. It was heroic and it was tragic and it was sublime. And then it became almost decorative.

I remember seeing a show at Ronald Feldman [Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York] in the early 80's, and the saddest thing in world was having this art furniture and these abstract expressionist paintings behind them, truly as decoration. So you could see all these bodies rolling around over in their grave. You know, there was Gottlieb and, you know, and Pollock, and you know . . . and I thought, "Oh my God, it's like putting the knife in." Now it really doesn't have to come with any kind of huge baggage, and so it's become more of the landscape, more of all of the landscape. And I think it goes back to a whole sense of time. I don't think it's elite. I think that people want instant gratification, and maybe they understand pictures better than they understand marks or color.

But, odd bedfellows for abstraction, it's like the corporate world only wants abstract paintings. I'm not really sure what kind of statement that is, but they can sooner live with an abstract painting than they could with a figurative painting because they think it doesn't say anything. And you know abstract painting can be enormously subversive. I mean, all you have to do is hang out with it for a little bit longer and then you'll be surprised. So I think that it's a combination of lots of things. I think that people aren't willing to give anything time. It's hard for people to read books anymore, and it’s . . . and they want fast food and everything fast, fast, fast. And abstraction in a Rothko painting, or even—and I'll be so bold [as] to put myself in the same sentence as Rothko—I want people to stay there for a while. I want to slow it all down. And certainly a Rothko painting is poetic and it's meditative. You just need to hang out with it, though, for a while and let it give, let it wash over you. I don't know if people are willing to do that. So I'm not sure it's elitism, I think it's about time. It's a time factor.

SG: And people just are not willing to give the time to it that it requires.

SB: Yeah, yeah.

SG: Related to what we were just talking about, which we were just talking about, do you think that abstraction is a matter of faith? That is, that you have to believe in its communicative potential? Or do you think it's something . . . that it's about an objective truth? Do you have to be part of the game of abstraction, kind of, to believe in it as something? Do you believe that abstraction is premised on an aesthetic construct or on universal truths?

SB: Yeah, in 2004 it’s very hard to get very religious about things without sounding pollyannaish or ridiculous, almost. I mean, it's hard to like talk about such faith in things. And that you kind of keep private in your own studio, and I . . .

SG: Isn't it a shame that we can't be passionate publicly about things?

SB: I don't know what . . . you know, it went the way with the word liberal. I mean I never understand when liberal became a dirty word and passion became ridiculous. But I don't think that you have to be part of the construct to really have the accessibility of an abstract painting. I really . . . I honestly don't. I've had the honor of someone once crying in front of an abstract piece of mine and she didn't know bupkis about art at all. ("Bupkis" is a technical term.) And I really [was] so touched. And it was a very poignant piece for me: it was about my first divorce and hopefully my only divorce, and that really taught me something. I mean, that really showed me something, that if you do something really from your heart—and I risk being a little too passionate—that it translates onto this flat, painted surface that someone can really pick up. I mean I wound up crying in front of a Brice Marden. It was a two-paneled, two-color piece, there I am weeping and I'm thinking, "What's going on here?" And yes, I'm probably more educated than the person that was crying over my piece—just about art—but it still . . . it touched me to a place that's far less intellectual than when I would normally come and look at a Brice Marden painting with. I mean it really touched my gut and my heart and my soul and you know, and I really wept. So does that get us to universal truths? Maybe. It gets us a lot closer to universal truths than just an intellectual place.

SG: Do you think that abstraction's potential—if it is in fact, can reach to some grander, more shared truth or knowledge—its potential to reify truth and beauty, do you think that's abstraction's reason for being? Or is that just a fortunate byproduct?

SB: I think the reason for being is really within the individual artist that's making the abstract work. Because I think that abstract painting is a very, very broad, wide field and there's all different kinds of abstract work. And especially in this time of pluralism. I mean, I wouldn't have said that twenty-five years ago even, but now the way abstraction does not carry the baggage it once had. And it has become far more personalized. I think that it really is almost a byproduct of the fact that it can happen that way. When I thought about this question for a while, I was thinking about not just abstract paintings, but abstract environments where people really have taken environments and done several things with color and several things with design, and how that can extend into one's environment, into one's living space. And how that would affect you, totally affect you, in that I was like broadening out and getting off the canvas, and maybe, not installation, but really into environmental living and the same things that would make an abstract painting. And not necessarily in the most gestural way, but in the more color field kind of way, would start all of a sudden affecting your whole environment. It could be that as well. I do think, though, that the whole issue of abstract painting really has become much more on a personalized scale, less of a kind of painting.

SG: Do you think that that's because there aren't single movements? There's not the overwhelming cubist movement or abstract expressionism or whatever it might be . . .

SB: Right, right.

SG: . . . that everbody's out there, an island unto themselves?

SB: Yeah, yeah, very much so. And I think it's a positive side of pluralism. Of course the other side of it is that you create very little criteria. I mean, everything becomes everything. I think that's the other side of the pluralistic coin, so to speak.

SG: Expand on that. Is it the lack of camaraderie, is it the lack of shared focus, do you think, as a group?

SB: No, I think it's freedom. I think it's a freedom to go wherever you want to go in art history. I mean, I think a couple of things. I think that it comes out of thirty years of MFAs or art schools and all of a sudden you get into art school prior to like maybe thirty or thirty-five years ago there was a much smaller population that went to art school, and now you've got so many people in art school seeing so much, I mean so much of art history, and not only western art history, now there’s this whole global resource to pull from, and you want to try things. I mean as an artist you look at this and you look at that and "Gee, I really like that" and it's like a big smorgasboard of possibilities. And the straps have been taken off, more of the restraints have been taken off that you can't do this or you can't do that. And everyone has broken every possible rule that you can break, including all the broken rules. So the nature is to be . . . to include everything and to bring everything in. And that's fine, it makes for very interesting work. But it's also . . . you have to reach each . . . almost each piece on . . . I find, even teaching, I have to reach each student on an individual place because you're not setting up this criteria, that this is the way to do something. And so each piece of work, especially student work, has to work on its own. It's good on its own terms, and I think that's the nature of pluralism.

SG: Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Does it divorce the work too much? Does it . . . what place does history have at that table?

SB: It has an enormous place, actually. I mean initially, I think even five years ago, I had a tougher time with this. Now I just read more. I just have to know more. I feel that that was my job. If once we're going to include so many other kinds of cultures and so many other kinds of ways of doing, or so many other kinds of references, it was just my, "Okay, well here's a bigger plate for you to eat from." And I had to really work harder. You know, the nature of art is you have to just say, "Okay, I'm going to have anxiety for the rest of my life. That's just part of the animal and that's that." And not know the answers. Or you'll know the answers for a fleeting moment, you'll get this glimpse into something, and then it's gone. That's the nature of being the artist, and that's the nature of making art. Having to pull from so many different areas, I think it's fine. I think it's fine, you just have to change the way you approach things. You can't go with the way you used to approach a painting even ten years ago. You have to change your whole mode, and that makes it interesting. And I don't know if it's better or worse; my nature is to be more inclusive so I think it is, I think it's better.

SG: I guess I get—for me, I get tied up, coming from an art historical background, first of all, I think I have a reverence for, I have a more pronounced reverence for art history maybe than some contemporary artists do. But in all of the pluralism, because you can take it in any direction, you can combine things in any way you want to combine them, I think you—we—end up creating such sui generis conversations or vocabularies within paintings that it does become so private, that there's no room for anybody else and you're talking to yourself, and I think that's a concern.

SB: I think so too, and that's why I'm personally happy to still be in the realm of abstraction, because there still is a big enough vocabulary to really keep talking about not only what I'm talking about, but in the context of a much broader discipline. It's still in the language of abstract painting.

Part II

SG: Well let's talk about your stuff a little bit, because I think that you just had a very successful show at the Reynolds Gallery in Richmond, Virginia. You've been, you’ve had a very good couple of years here recently with a number of awards and getting a lot of people looking and talking about your work. Yours is a very, in my mind, a very sophisticated kind of abstraction because it doesn't deal with the easy things in abstraction. You're not trying to make it be a metaphor, you're not trying to make it be an analogy or a symbol or an allusion. The word onomatopoeia comes to mind . . .

SB: That word is great.

SG: . . . when I look at your work, a painting like "Flutter" that's on view right now in a gallery. It's not an illustration. When I look at it, I sense air and water and light. And it has . . . there's no air or light or water in this thing, but it's that sensation. And it captures that sensation in the same way that the word, a word like "buzz" captures the sensation of that sound. How do you understand your work, if it isn't metaphor or analogy or allusion or . . . ?

SB: I understand my work by making it. That's how I understand my work. I don't know what I'm going to do before. Even if I think about what I think I'm going to do before, it doesn't happen in the process. Something else takes over and I am so willing to make that turn, I really am. I'm not ever dogmatic. If I think I'm going to do something and something happens in the process, I'm not going to say "Well, that was my initial idea." I'm going to take any turn it's going to take me to. So so much is tied up in the material and the process of painting. When it's over, I think again, and I almost [spend] a longer time looking at the painting than I do making the painting. Which I've realized over the years—that's changed over the years. I try to have paintings done, like for a show like this that was in January, the work was really done by late November because I really need a long time to look at this work and decide whether it really is finished. Yeah, and people always say, "How do you know when you're done." It's when nothing is gnawing at me, you know, when nothing looks like "Oh you can do this better, what, are you going to just leave it alone? No, you're really going to take care of it." There is a long time to sit and digest, and it is such a nonverbal process, so this makes it almost impossible to talk about. It really is. There's so much . . . this over thirty years of making decisions, that happens. Things that I've looked at, things that I've thought about, things that people have told me, I mean, it's all in there. And the moment that I paint it and the moment that it's painted, it's all there. I guess I just make a tremendous amount of decisions on the most intuitive level when I'm working.

Joseph Boyce has a great quote of "Intuition's the highest form of rationale." Or reason, maybe it's reason. But intuition is based on so much, I mean, it's not based on not knowing something. Unfortunately it gets called this "woman's intuition" and so it gets negated or gets knocked down a couple of notches. But intuition is based on all of the experience and all the things that you've learned, and then you do it in the moment. I mean, I've always described painting almost like learning to drive a stick shift. Put your foot down to the clutch and then you slowly . . . and then slowly lift and you have to . . . and you're talking to yourself the entire time. And when I used to paint, I would talk to myself. "What about the composition, what about the coolness of the color, what about . . . " And now it's just like I'm just flat out. I mean, I've read this, I've understood it when I've read it, it's like something takes over me. I'm not sure I'm really there anymore. And I know that that sounds like magic and it really starts sounding like the stuff that makes you kind of feel icky about. But if I'm too conscious of what I'm doing, or self-conscious, it's just not going to work. I really need to be in whatever that wonderful place is that you go to and you're just there with it. You're just there with it and you're doing whatever you need to be doing, and then you come out of it and you take a look at it. Where the intellect follows your intuition.

SG: That's what the psychologist up at University of Chicago, [Mihaly] Csikszentmihalyi, calls "flow," when the world just completely dissolves away.

SB: I mean, yeah, [Philip] Guston used to say. Guston said when your critics leave and when your family leaves the studio and then when your friends leave the studio and you'll finally start working when you finally leave the studio. And it's true, that's why I go back for more. It's the only place in my life that I have this extraordinary lack of self-consciousness or whatever that is, and it's heavenly.

SG: Addictive?

SB: Addictive.

SG: What do you consider more pertinent for you when you're in the studio? Is it how you put the paint on the canvas, or why? Or is it a matter of it's while you're there, it's putting it on, and that second phase that you've talked about of part of the process of making art is looking at it, thinking about it?

SB: I think it's a combination of both. Really, I bring everything I've got into the studio, but when I'm painting I really leave my intellect out. I trust that there's just so much I know about painting that I don't really have to think about it. I'll make the right decision.

SG: I guess as you're talking I'm thinking about your son, who has just discovered his—as a surprise to everybody—his own interest in art. And he's at that stage that you were at as a young person where he does have to think about everything. Do you see him struggling with the things that . . . have you watched him paint that you know what he needs to be doing or where he needs to be going and you can see him struggling because he doesn't have that information yet, that knowledge yet?

SB: He has extraordinarily more, he has so much more than I had at that age. First of all, I didn't make art at eighteen years old or seventeen years old. I kind of doodled and I was really . . . I didn't know who I was or where I was going. And I certainly didn't know I was an artist. I made the mistake of going to Fashion Institute of Technology for textile design and I was anything but a designer. But no one said to me, "You're an artist! Not a designer." So I . . . lots of painful years and finally the counselor at Fashion told me I should become a nurse or a teacher. But certainly not . . . it was really one of those nightmarish times. Pierre comes with the advantage. . .

SG: Your son.

SB: . . . my son comes with the advantage of eighteen years being brought up in an enormously talented, sophisticated art community. He has looked at very, very good people for a very, very long time. I came downstairs one day and I caught him looking at [Gerald] Donato's painting. He'd say, "Well how did he do this?"

And even though [as a child] I had real art in my house, it was very kind of conventional. There were very nice watercolors, but they weren't anyone famous. They were friends of my parents, and my mother drew beautifully but she illustrated, she rendered, and she never knew what I was doing. When I finally went to the art institute she had no idea what I was showing her, she was like "Well this is kind of nice and I'll frame it because you've done it but what is it?" And even though they were very well read and loved music and things like that, they really didn't have a very high . . . they weren't tremendously sophisticated around the visual arts, where Pierre's had that advantage and it shows in his work already. So I'm very curious . . . I think for him it's going to be more of honing in and being disciplined. But God knows when that kicks in. It didn't kick in for me for years, so who knows.

SG: Okay, let me end with one last question. You just had an exhibition at the gallery where I work that was a group exhibition called Pivot Points which is now traveling around the country and will be for the next year and a half, almost two years, I guess, around the country, and also you're doing some international venues. And actually, which is kind of related to what we were talking about. The whole premise of Pivot Points was it's six artists and six poets, three generations. So it's the first generation—the two poets and the two painters—were teaching the next generation, who then taught the next generation, and all three are in the exhibition itself. Talk a little bit about that and what it was like seeing that exhibition up where you could actually follow the influences visually.

SB: It was interesting because I actually worked with Victor Kord and Reni Gower. Reni was on my committee when I was in graduate school, and even though we're in the same generation because we later on taught the third generation down, it was just an interesting process. I was very amazed of how well it all held together. The work really, really holds together and no one knew what each one of us was going to put in the show. I thought that was interesting, and how well it worked with the written word.

There was something that you were going to ask me about what other kind of discipline abstraction might be, and you used philosophy, religion. I think it's poetry. I mean, for me, it's poetry, and it was my idea to include poets in this exhibition. Initially it was just going to be six painters' work on paper, and for some reason, the work . . . when I started seeing the slides . . . and I had read something about Susan Rothenberg and poetry. And I went Doiing! and I thought, this is going to be much, much richer if we stretch this out. And again, it's almost like my own painting in some ways. I never know really what it's going to look like, but I just kind of have a hunch, and I want to see what it could look like. And that show really came together that way. We didn't really know . . . and in fact it was a very hard show to sell to people that wanted to have very literal link-ups. And people would say, 'Well, what's the connection?' And we'd say, well it's all on paper. And for me there was just such a clear connection between this work and the poetry that was being . . . the poetry in general, and then the actual poems themselves really started when two people meet and then they start finding out who they are and there are these connections and it's very, very exciting, and that's exactly what the show really feels like to me. And it was a pleasure seeing that initiate or premiere at your space. And it's more than I thought it was going to be, and that's always very exciting.

SG: I was curious how it was going to work as well, having poetry in an art gallery. And it was really interesting over the course of a month to watch the kind of resonance that happened—is that the right word?—between the paintings and the poetry, and how many people stopped to read the poetry and then look at the painting, go back to the poem, or vice versa. Talk about opening up doors and trying to involve people, there really was a dialogue that was happening between the poetry and the painting, and the audience was very receptive to that and really worked at it. It was a curious thing, we had a reception that you were at and Greg Donovan, one of the poets, was there. And at one point someone was standing there reading his poetry and I started to go up to say something to him and he brushed me, he kind of made a motion for me to be quiet until the person finished reading the poems. And then honestly I thought he was going to burst into tears because he said "You know, I've never watched someone read my poems before."

SB: I remember the first time I watched someone stop and look at my work. It was like Oh! My! They're interested! And for Greg it was that experience, and I thought, how unique! You don't watch people read your book or read your poem, and so that was a very . . . that was like something brand new, which was great too.

SG: I'd love to see more exhibitions along that line, it was . . . and then the paintings . . . the whole premise of the exhibition of Pivot Points being this generational evolution, it really was a little like being at a family reunion where you could see relationships, you could . . . there were traces, but they were all individual and autonomous.

SB: Especially the way things get taught at VCU. This is basically VCU, even though not everybody is attached to VCU, but I think the majority of the artists are, and certainly in the . . . everyone in the painters' realm except one person has been at VCU or taught at VCU. And yet the way things are taught at VCU is not . . . I would be horrified if my students' all started looking like Sally Bowring's. And you don't want to teach that way, and you want to encourage their own voice. And you do have that sense of their own, and yet there is something familiar about it.

SG: A gene got passed down somewhere.

SB: Yes, exactly.

SG: You've used the word hypostasis in describing your work. Can you talk a little bit about what you consider . . . what way do you think that your work is a visualization of your essential nature? Whether that's as a mother or a wife or a friend or a woman in the twenty-first century?

SB: Food! I like making a good meal for my friends, and I look at my paintings as good meals. You hopefully have a lot to taste, and, God I don't want to turn this into Martha Stewart, but I think that there's a sense of generosity. It goes back to almost where we started. The nature, that they're small events put together next, building from small, these small pieces, and they're all put together, is so reflective of my crazy segmented life. I've run from different jobs. I now have two different jobs and I get involved in other things and yes, I'm a mother so you know the same day that I'm sitting in a Public Art Commission meeting I'm also going to look at a basketball game with my sons. And so you switch audiences, you switch friends, you switch groups of people that you're around, and I think the paintings reflect that. I think the structure reflects that. And then some of what's happening in the painting reflects that also.

I’ve heard this, and I don't know if it's true, but I'll mention it. I've heard that there's this layering process, this veil, and I call it veiling. In my own work, I loved Mark Harris called it weather. I thought it was great. And maybe it is the weather; I'm always preoccupied with what's going to happen with the weather. But it's tied to women's paintings, and I'm not . . . I don't really work that way. I used to. And I really don't . . . I've gone back to almost the way I felt prior to the women's movement in the seventies that it’s genderless, it should be genderless. And that's not to open the Pandora's Box about women's rights and everything else, but there is that kind of layering going on that is reflective of a lot of living also. So I think that reflects my immediate moment in time.

SG: Sally, thank you so much for talking with us.

SB: My pleasure.  

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