Susan Weil has been pushing the limits of painting since her career began in the late 1940s. Her work deftly defies traditional categorizations, often straddling the line between painting and sculpture, the figurative and the abstract. Over the course of six decades, Weil has continuously reinvented her style—but her works have consistently explored questions of space, time and movement in ways that few painters have accomplished.
Despite her long, prolific and accomplished career, Weil’s work has seldom garnered the recognition it deserves. In the past, her talent was often overshadowed by the fame of contemporaries, not least of all by her former husband Robert Rauschenberg, whom she met while studying at the Académie Julian in Paris.
In 1948 Weil attended Black Mountain College, then one of the most vital centers of artistic activity in the United States. Rauschenberg followed her there, and later the two moved to New York, where they shared in the explosive emergence of the New York arts scene in the 1950s along with friends like de Kooning, Kline, Tworkov and Pollock.
She spoke to Magdalene Perez at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery in New York, where her retrospective Now and Then is currently on view.
As an artist, you’ve never been afraid of experimenting, have you? Whether you’re taking your paintings into the third dimension and exploring space or …
Growing up in art in the 1950s when Abstract Expressionism was kind of blowing all the rules, it gave you a sense of possibility: You didn’t have to be hemmed in by a square or something. You could really make these things move.
At Black Mountain College, where we [visual artists] shared our thoughts with poets and people in music, you could learn to sort of lose the tight rules of painting. My work can be a cross between painting and sculpture or it can move out from the walls.
Over the course of your career, you’ve never felt a need to stick to any certain discipline or style. But how would you characterize some of the aesthetic constants in your work?
I always thought of my work as leaning toward sculpture. It’s a passion of mine to not have a still picture but to have it involved with movement and time.
Certainly the world was different for me in the 1950s and ’60s than it is now. But there are certain elements in my work that are pretty constant. I grew up on an island, so the horizon was a very powerful element to me, the sea and the sky.
You were a student at Académie Julian in the 1940s, where some of the most important artists of the last 150 years have studied. How important was that time on your development as an artist?
Paris was a marvelous thing. I mean, I was eighteen! But Julian was restrictive [in its teaching methods]. You know—a model stood there for a week for you to draw [laughs].
So your work really began to develop after moving to Black Mountain?
At Black Mountain, [painting director] [Josef] Albers was himself another kind of academy. He came from the Bauhaus and he had a way of teaching art and a way of teaching color and drawing, and you couldn’t go exploring. He’d say, “When you’re in school, you’re not an artist, you’re a student.” Then he was very freethinking when people became artists after their schooling and went on their own journeys.
It sounds like Black Mountain was an incredible place for artists at the time.
It was wonderful to be a part of this whole community that involved artists and writers and musicians. You didn’t feel like it was just the tip of your paintbrush; it was this whole creative world.
You and Robert Rauschenberg were there together. Talk about some of the collaborative work you did with him.
We did a number of things together. The most well-known one is the Blueprints series [life-sized silhouettes captured on photo-sensitive blueprint paper with the help of a lamp], and we did a couple of other things. But my best collaboration with Bob is my son Christopher [the well-known photographer]. He’s my favorite collaboration. He’s a great kid… kid, he’s now he’s in his 50s.
It’s difficult to find monographs about your work or even in-depth biographical information about you despite the fact that you’ve been an established artist for decades. Do you think that your place as a woman artist has anything to do with that?
Absolutely. When I was growing up in art, women artists were really overlooked. Also there was an age thing. At the time, you couldn’t be young and be worth your salt, so by the time I was of a respectable age, then you had to be young [laughs].
It’s complicated. I’ve always shown and I’ve had very good support from various people. I was well received in Sweden. My gallerist there, Anders Tornberg, loved my work and believed in my work and arranged for shows all over Europe.
Why do you think it is that you’ve had large, solo exhibitions and retrospectives in Europe and even North Dakota, yet it seems that New York museums still haven’t approached the idea of a retrospective—even though this is where you grew up?
It’s a leftover of these different prejudices. And also, if you’re not already a big famous deal by the time you’re 50, people think, “Well, if you’re not going to make it by now, you’re not going to make it.”
You worked for a period of about 20 years on a series of James Joyce drawings. Why that degree of depth of personal investment?
I had the opportunity to do three limited-edition books of Joyce with [publisher] Vincent Fitzgerald, so I got deep into reading because you can’t think of making images to words if you don’t know the words really well.
Joyce is such a powerful writer and I respond to that sliding into dreamland and the shifts in time. It’s so moving. I find his writing so meaningful and powerful, and I began a deeper study because I was invited to do these books. Then I took [his writings] into my studio with me and did a lot of the Joyce paintings.
I’ve heard you were exposed to Joyce early in your life.
Well, in my childhood, my father was a writer and he did read to us, unbelievably, from Finnegans Wake when I was a child [laughs]. But I loved it because I loved the music of it and I understood it was his passion and so I thought it was important to me. Of course I didn’t understand a word, being a child, but when I went back to it as an adult I felt that same kind of response to the music of it and the journey of Joyce. It really struck me.