Jane Wilson moved from the open spaces of Iowa to New York in the early ’50s with her husband the writer, John Gruen. She now splits her time between New York and Water Mill where both her studios are filled with paintings that surround the viewer with magnificent and disturbing atmosphere. Recently elected to the Academy of Arts and Letters, Wilson continues her work as a “weather” painter with a vision.
Mimi Thompson There was no political impetus behind the formation of the Hansa gallery where you first showed your work in the ’50s?
Jane Wilson No, it was to be open-ended. I suppose underlying it, without getting grand, was some respect for the authenticity of differing directions going on simultaneously. Of course, at that time everyone was very involved in Abstract Expressionism.
MT You too?
JW Well, that was it. There was such a momentum that anything else seemed not to be of interest, except museums remained important, of course. There was a great deal of talk about the late Monet, not early Monet, but late Monet. There was a great deal of talk about Turner and that of course was late Turner, not early Turner. And a lot of talk about Manet—these were painters who were accepted as being major deities. It wasn’t a bad choice—I mean, we were looking for antecedents basically. Of course you can always find them, they’re there. And Delacroix, Delacroix, Delacroix . . . Categories are always changing, I guess.
There was a lot of dismissal going on then, too. But I floated around the periphery and either disliked or couldn’t handle the kind of scrappiness that was an element of the social scene. Certainly there were hierarchies as there always are, and some of them are justified.
MT What was the position of women who were artists at that time?
JW There were lots of women artists and there were a few who were in and out of the Cedar Bar social scene. It was a living room over there where you got your beer or boilermakers if you felt ready for a hangover, or if you needed one. The most vocal of the women painters tended not to be married. There was also a position taken that you could not be married and be a painter—it indicated you were not serious. Later, I began to realize that there were many other artists that were not part of that scene, women artists who were married and who even had children for God’s sake. Their sustenance came from other things.
MT You’ve said you work from a kind of spatial memory . . .
JW I choose to have this notion that the place and the light you’ve been born with sets you up for a lifetime, everything else is measured against that. A person as a child tends to think that the whole world is exactly like the place he or she lives in. I could not conceive of environments that were very different from my own with different weather, different temperatures. The first hints of that kind of adventure came from a family vacation. You put two kids in the back of a car and a chicken in the front and the cast iron frying pan somewhere else and you can drive for two weeks. That was really, a remarkable experience. The world shifts under you, imperceptively you’re moving into other worlds. And my parents were up in the front rating the farmlands as they went along. We went through the Badlands . . . places where you would have to live in an entirely different way. We went across the mountains, the valleys of California, and saw San Francisco completely engulfed in fog. I never really saw it until 30 years later when I returned. But that was my first ocean experience. The other trip was the southeastern United States with razorback hogs running wild, and Georgia where there was red dirt. It was unbelievable that the ground could be that color. Years later when I took a trip through France—in my eternal search to see where artists come from and what they grew up in—the train was suddenly traveling through red dirt, scrawny pine trees . . .
MT Where was this?
JW Near Aix-en-Provence, I said “Wait a minute, I’ve been here before.” There was Georgia, but then I thought, it’s something else, it’s all Cézanne. He didn’t make up a thing. The invention is always in the details.
MT So you think of the artist as a medium for a message?
JW Yes . . . You start deciding, in color I’m after this, in structure I’m after this, until you recognize the most fun you’ll have in painting is not knowing what is going to happen. You dismantle the idea that in the past painters knew how things were going to turn out. Things never turn out as you visualize—it’s a destination you want to get to.
MT I have an idea that the time you spend on a painting, making it, comes back at the viewer. The level of concentration can be read by the viewer.
JW I think the ingredient of the time in painting—both in the experience of the viewer and the input of the artist—there is an indecipherable interlock between the two. I like the slower process. I like a surface where you can improvise rather than the dictum that comes from trying to work for a painting that looks as if it were executed alla prima—all in one fell swoop. It’s rare that there is a true alla prima painting. There is something in my way of working that allows me to contact a lifetime of experience that I don’t even know is there. Putting one kind of non-color over another kind of non-color starts to bring in all kinds of familiar things, the imagery that wheels out is one of weather and humidity and time of year and wind direction, all of those things that a person doesn’t think about that we walk in and out of every day.
MT I was reading in your clippings that Philip Guston was a big influence for you, but which period of his work?
JW He had done murals in Mexico and for the WPA in the ’30s, and he was at that time laid low by Piero Della Francesca. I had never seen a living artist so shaped by an artist from so long ago. Guston taught at Iowa where I went to school for two or three years in the early ’40s. Here was this handsome hulk of a man whose mind was so concentrated on his own reality that he didn’t seem so much a part of the daily world. There was a feeling of his complete independence. His inner world took precedence over absolutely everything else.
MT People writing about your painting have also drawn analogies to Rothko . . .
JW I remember vividly going to a retrospective exhibition of his paintings, in 1961 at the Museum of Modem Art. It was held in a series of small rooms where you were absolutely surrounded by Rothko. It was a powerful and sustained experience. As long as you were in the gallery, you kept responding to them. It made me think about landscape in the sense that it was basically a horizontal series of balances and floating volumes. And landscape in the sense that I felt I was looking into a density of air, different densities layered and floating. The paintings were looking at and enveloping the people in those galleries. And, of course, these are paintings where there is no scale trigger, not a house, not a tree, not a person. Whatever scale is determined by ourselves being a vertical in front of them. If the paintings had been lined up along a regular wall they might not have triggered this feeling. It was like being outdoors at night. Later, I was reading about Russian icons and the point was made that the icon is not being looked at by the worshipper but that the icon is seeing and taking care of that worshipper. I thought this was an interesting idea about painting, that you’re being taken by a painting and absorbed into it. I began to get a glimmer about what it is that may be so magnetic about certain images.
MT And the scale is also determined by the scale of the gallery which is crucial in a situation like this. The connection between architecture and art is interesting when it’s able to have that power.
JW And then, of course, Rothko went on to do the chapel in Houston. Several years ago, I went to Athens and had to go to every church. I expected vast buildings with great arches. I’d probably been confusing Greece with Turkey which is always a mistake from everybody’s point of view. But these churches were tiny. I had always thought of Christ in Blessing in the dome as terribly forbidding and I walked in braced for the patriarchal society in all its purity. But it was the most intimate, protective atmosphere. There were wonderful frescoes everywhere. And you felt so protected against chaos, it had nothing to do with intimidation. People would crowd in close to each other, it was hot and the candles were burning. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be part of the belief system. It was a kind of embodiment of landscape in the sense of a surround—above, then various celestial levels, and finally, earthlings. The colors were unbelievably beautiful.
MT And that wild light over there.
JW Yes, moving from the harshness of the light into the protective envelope.
MT What made you decide to concentrate on landscape? Is it a kind of armature for your emotions and formal ideas?
JW I think it is. In 1956 and 7, I found myself in one of those lucid moments that occurs every 20 years and I realized I wasn’t a second-generation Abstract Expressionist. I looked at the ingredients of what I was painting and felt an uncontrollable allegiance to subject matter, and landscape in particular. Here I was an avid museum-goer—I go in like a vacuum cleaner on high—and yet, at that time, I foolishly felt that still life was beneath me. So landscape it was. From the mid-’50s to the mid-’60s, I painted landscape and cityscape paintings which I did on Tompkins Square Park. At the end of that time, I looked at the cityscape paintings and I thought, these are so impressionist. This was the time of minimalism, and acrylic paint was making an appearance. People could really paint flat surfaces and it never occurred to me you couldn’t do that with oil. It took me another 20 years to realize you could create the experience of solidity, but you cannot make a perfectly flat opaque surface with oil.
MT To me, acrylic is so flat that it loses the idea of solidity. I find the acrylic surface flimsy.
JW So do I. Then I took up still life for a while. I began to see painting less in terms of division of subject matter and more in terms of the kind of spatial cavity that a given artist would like to work with, or that a given period is obsessed with. I found myself thinking about still life as if it were a city on a table or a landscape on a table, especially living on Tompkins Square with this framed three-dimensional landscape outside the window.
MT When did you start going out to Long Island to paint?
JW In the mid-’50s . . . That landscape is somewhat similar to the Midwest and also Dutch landscape. Not only is it flat with potato fields going up to the beach but there are windmills.
MT So the landscape painters seem to have settled in Southampton and the abstract painters in Springs?
JW I hadn’t thought of that . . . it is kind of entangled in Springs. I guess it was the openness of the farming country that appealed to those of us painting landscapes. There is a kind of light there that occurs when you’ve got water on both sides.
MT You’re in the middle of a big reflection.
MT I was reading a catalogue about luminist painters, in the early part of this century, working in Rhode Island. Earlier, we talked about Martin J. Heade and that kind of evilness or eeriness that lurks in his paintings. There is a kind of wild atmosphere in those paintings although many of the landscape painters always had to include the familiar, the small figure or boat to anchor the painting.
JW In early American painting, you get the strength of a certain kind of provinciality. I really like those early American portraits by Smibert and Feke, and then there is someone like Copley, who is incomparable. I guess what I’m taken with in the portraits is the fact that you get a figure that is cocky, independent and self-made. But there is also a sense of anxiety in the background, the darkness of the environment. In Heade, what I see again is that tradition of the background—the apprehensiveness.
MT How do you feel about contemporary painters who are interested in landscape, painters like April Gornik, David Deutsch, Mark Innerest . . . Do you look at these paintings?
JW Yes, I’m always interested in why people paint the way they do. As an analyst said to me once, painters are people with problems about seeing, and being seen, she added. I find their work is very much rooted in the 19th-century tradition we were talking about with Heade, and also in the illustrational tradition, not popular illustration, but the illustration that appeared in encyclopedias which are wonderful engravings.
MT Some of the sources for these painters seem to be photography or movies. It’s the panoramic sweep . . . the scale and drama.
JW In Gornik’s work, there is a sense of traveling across times and continents to a specific place. She’s very graphic: her work has a real attack which is quite powerful. Her work sends you back from the canvas and then forward and then back again. With David Deutsch, I always feel pulled in and in and in. There is a vitality in all these paintings, and an acid edge to today’s landscape paintings. The feeling I get from them is like a paper cut and I like that.
—Mimi Thompson is a painter who works and lives in New York.