I was going to say 50-50. Or even 60-40. Especially at the end when you are pulling it all together, there’s way more looking and thinking than actual painting.
I spend so much time looking. Often I’ll just get on the phone and call someone, like my mother, and I’ll be talking and just sitting in my studio in front of the painting, absorbing it visually. Your unconscious picks up a lot, even if I’m consciously talking to her. Actually, I kind of go unconscious on her, too. (Laughs) I move back and forth.
That’s what de Kooning talked about, getting that glimpse of something. Moving from conscious to unconscious and back again and creating out of those fluid states.
That’s what’s exciting to me about abstract painting. Even in realistic painting you can get lost in the paint or in something that might happen in the painting, but for me replicating what I see can be too much like a chore. I like to kick-start myself with something, whether it’s a photograph or a drawing, and get strongly involved with the experience of the painting. Surprising things happen as you paint that you don’t expect and you respond to them. Those developments usually become much more interesting than what you originally started with.
You start your paintings with a memory of a place, a photo you’ve taken or a sketch you’ve made. Your work up to now has been concerned with phenomena: place, nature, the wildness of nature. Tell me more about your source material.
When I was a child we spent every summer on Lake Michigan. I was the youngest kid and left on my own a lot. My mother and sisters would be doing their own thing. My dad was back in the city. I loved to go on walks and go down to the water by myself. It was a very rocky shore there, not sandy like a beach. Later I got a dog to hang out with. I spent hours just playing with the rocks and in the water. I wandered around picking flowers. That was my great pleasure and it moved me. I really had a deep connection with nature from a very early age.
All these memories persist in my mind and form the basis for my paintings. Even now, I’ll begin a painting by laying out a design that refers to landscape. Even way back when I was doing minimalist or geometric work, areas of paint referred to sky, earth, and horizon. That is just where I like to go when I paint.
When were you a minimalist?
Late 70s, early 80s. I had graduated from art school and was living in New York City. One favorite piece from that period that I still have is a painting that’s all blues and grays and a streak of red. Most people realize that color carries an emotional content but for me it was more. The painting looked and felt like spring in New York. That’s what I titled it, Spring in New York. It was minimal and geometric and I was really into the work of Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman and Brice Marden at the time, but still I referenced nature. Even in New York City, I was responding emotionally to nature.
Those three artists you mentioned came out of minimalism, but still used texture, and gesture. Marden was minimal early on, but his paint had so much presence.
Tremendous presence. Their paintings were spiritual objects. They were all really masterful at embodying a moment in time. I could stand in front of a painting of Agnes Martin and feel the vibration of the moment, the expansive qualities of reality, and the spirit she put into it. When Agnes Martin moved from New York to New Mexico, her paintings changed as her surroundings changed. The light and colors changed. As an artist, I am open and permeable to what is going on around me, and that transience is what painting is all about.
To me painting is always referential; or symbolic in a way. Minimalism moved in the direction of editing the reference out of painting but it turned out to be impossible.
There was a feeling then that painting was dead, there was nothing more that could be done with it. It didn’t work out that way though. The act of painting itself is meaningful. It’s just a singular and unique form of expression.
Knowing you, I know you are very engaged with social and political ideas and I see a response to those realities in your work.
That’s true. Who I am as a person is informing my work. When I was younger I really struggled with who I was in relation to society, politics, and art movements, but now I am more comfortable with who I am and what I’m doing. I am confident with following the painting where it leads me. I love working from a subjective, sensual response to natural phenomena. So, my work is social and psychological; as well as physical and emotional.
You connect with the spirituality of painting.
Getting back to de Kooning and chaos, or Joan Mitchell, another painter who was so wild in her freedom on the canvas, I love reaching for something that will always be just beyond me. The imperfection of a painting is just like the imperfection of life.
That’s very meaningful to me—in life and in art—that searching and reaching for the next thing. In my painting, I’ve moved through a series on waterfalls, a series on rocks, a series based on the prints of the Japanese artist Hiroshige. Yet I’m very confident that my paintings look like my paintings and that my spirit unites the influences and subjects.
Many people who look at your work have commented on what a gifted colorist you are. What are your thoughts about that?
I feel that it comes naturally to me. Like a musician seeks a perfect pitch, I am drawn to the rightness of a color. When I’m painting, I’ll lay down a color. As I sit and look at it, it’s as though I can see the next color that I want. I see it before I create it. I know the color I’m looking for and I go to my palette and mix it. I spend a lot of time mixing color and I always have. Subtle gradations and slight changes in color are really fascinating.
The varying temperatures of colors are interesting and there is also a connection to weather and nature.
I love to paint water where one area is warmer and one cooler--a darker blue color blending into a lighter blue and all the hundreds of shades of gray.
My day job is that I teach art to kids, and it’s funny but I find that I shy away from teaching color to them. The things that are closest to me, that are instinctive, I have the hardest time teaching to people.
There are a lot of color theories and systems out there and some people will teach them but caution students not to follow slavishly but to try to access their instinct about color. You know, paint the way you feel about it, not what Josef Albers tells you is the way it is.
(Laughs) When I went to the University of Michigan I had a teacher who had gone to Yale, and was a devotee of Albers’ color theories. I took his class but I had to drop it because it just congealed my spirit. I couldn’t stand the way they had to have it ratified and coded. For me, working with color is more instinctual.
This series you did that was inspired by Japanese prints, what was it like painting this series?
I struggle more with composition than with color, so I come up to a lot of dead ends but then I just keep going on. So in the process I build up a lot of surface and texture, which becomes like a history of the painting.
We were looking at your book with the paintings of Jacqueline Humphries and she said, “I’m interested in making paintings which engage one in a kind of dramatic physical event.” That’s what I’m up to as well. It’s like riding a wild horse sometimes. I’m working with many elements and sometimes my impulses can’t be contained. Marks and gesture, color, pattern, space, darks and lights. I’m working with a darker palette the last couple of years.
What’s that about?
That’s about the world…
That’s what I meant when I said the social and political climate has affected your work.
I feel a lot of grief in the world in the last few years. The legacy of the Bush administration: the war in Iraq, the destruction of lives, the setbacks to the environment, global warming, disasters. The environment is fragile and there is so much at stake. It’s both frightening and completely sad.
The paintings influenced by Hiroshige have a feeling of cataclysm or apocalypse. The forms in some of these paintings evoke sky and water but also the explosion of a mushroom cloud.
As a painter, you are looking to the future for a paradigm or a unity that will bring together all this chaos we are living in, but at the same time, you don’t want to reach a false resolution.
I feel that way. I feel insignificant in the face of such daunting realities but clear that I want to challenge it and offer a sanctuary and a response.
Turning back to the C.V. here, let me give a quick rundown of your background. You are from Detroit. Your dad was a dentist, your mom was a housewife, you have two older sisters…
My parents were children of Jewish immigrants. We grew up in a rather insular Jewish community in Detroit. My dad fought in WW2, came back and went to school on the GI Bill which was great because his family was really poor. He went to college and dental school. My mother went to college when she was older and studied art history. They traveled a lot when he became more successful. They want to Europe and they actually collected art. They had work by Chillida, Lucio Fontana, Johannes Itten, sculptures by Max Bill, Karl Appel. Also, local artists like Charles McGee, a really great African American painter from Detroit. We had a lot of art in the house. My mom was a wanna-be bohemian. (Laughs)
I desperately wanted to go to college out East. I got into Wesleyan, but my dad was very controlling and he didn’t want any of his daughters to move away. He would only pay for me to go to University of Michigan, so that’s what I did. But first I went to Europe. I took off with $800 that I had earned and went to Europe for 4 months. In 1972 you could do that. (Laughs)
I had danced and done theater all through my youth, and continued in college at U of M. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. At one point I wanted to transfer to Boston and study journalism. Finally I decided I was going to transfer to art school. I was rebelling and my parents were not pleased with me. But I did it--I got into the art school at U of M.
I started to meditate right about then. Then I took a trip out West, went to New Mexico and remember being blown away by the Western landscape. I started to have ecstatic experiences; my first spiritual experiences. I’d say I was blissfully happy at that time.
Now, when my students at school say, “Mrs. Weiss I wish I could stay in the art room all day,” I say to them, “Well that’s what art school is, you get to make art all day, every day!” That’s what it was for me; it was thrilling. I fell in love with a guy that was an artist. I could not have been happier than in art school.
Then you graduated and moved to New York.
I had started a women’s artist group in school because feminism was just becoming influential. Women were woefully underrepresented at U of M and not discussed as artists. (But, there was a huge Joan Mitchell painting in the museum which I went to look at all the time, it was so awesome.) Anyway, we invited Mary Beth Edelson, a New York artist, to speak to our group. We had a little party for her and we were chatting and I told her I was moving to New York. She said, “I need someone to take care of my kid for a month. I’m going away to do a residency. Would you like to move into my loft and take care of my kid?” I said, “You don’t even know me.” And she said, “I can tell you are a good person.” The 70s were an innocent time. (Laughs)
So I did, moved into her loft on Mercer St. in Soho. She was one of the founding members of A.I.R. Gallery, the feminist gallery. I started to volunteer there. There were some fantastic artists associated with that gallery--Ana Mendieta, Nancy Spero. Later I got my own loft on Warren St. It was amazing for a while. But I left NYC after 3 years when hard times hit. I broke up with my boyfriend, my father was dying, I quit my crappy waitressing job and I had no money. The place we had been living was sort of illegal. (Laughs) It got too hard and I left, but I was always sorry I left.
I know you’ve had many adventures but one interesting thing about you is that you went back to school to become a therapist. Tell me a little about that.
It was early-mid-80s and teaching jobs were scarce. As I said, I’ve always been interested in psychology and spirituality. I came out to California to study body-oriented psychotherapy through the Lomi School with Robert Hall, a psychologist who teaches Vipassana meditation. I did a two-year program through Sonoma State up in Tomales. I worked for four years with kids in residential treatment.
Through all that, I was really missing my painting. So at the same time I started studying painting again with Mark Perleman at Sonoma State. I had stalled out on painting and that class got me back into it. I committed myself to doing both the therapy and painting.
How does all that you’ve done—the teaching, the therapy, motherhood, the waitressing (laughs)—how does it all feed the painting?
Truthfully, many of those things have seemed like obstacles to painting. It’s hard to be a working-class person and an artist unless you live close to the edge--which I did when I was younger--but that’s really a struggle.
I was a very good therapist and I feel like I served people and really helped people. But I was isolated from the artistic life. I was a therapist for 14 years but was happy to release it when I did. I had a child and my time was even more limited than ever. I wanted my work to be about art. Even though I’m still working to make a living, it feels very joyful.
As an art teacher, I get a lot of positive feedback from my students and it really feeds my soul and puts it all together for me. And I have connected with many artists through my critique group and the Mercury 20 gallery project. I’m surrounded by art and artists now and that’s really important to me.
interview with Kathleen King
June 14, 2008
Kathleen King: Joni and I are sitting among our paintings at Open Studios weekend, looking at art books and reading the New York Times. Check out this book on de Kooning. Has he been an influence on your work?
Joan Weiss: I’m looking at de Kooning’s early work here, like the Women series. I love how he creates chaos and works his way through it. He finds the form in it. I definitely work that way, too, working my way out of chaos. There is usually a point during the making of almost all of my paintings where chaos overwhelms the painting, threatens to take over. At that point I spend a lot of time sitting and looking at what I’ve created, figuring out where I’m going, what I want to emphasize.
How much time do you spend actually painting and how much time do you spend looking and thinking? I don’t think most people know how much time a painter spends not painting.
I think 50-50.