Georgia Marsh by Betsy Sussler

BOMB 4 Fall 1982
004 Summer Fall 1982

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

Betsy Sussler Someone asked me what your paintings were like, and I described them as an attempt to organize chaos. You use a graph, which would seem to conform them into very settled units and yet they are violent movement which has been trapped.

Georgia Marsh A futile attempt at organizing chaos.

BS I actually said futile, only I figured…

GM It was my privilege.

BS Is there any hidden meaning used in the formation of these grids?

GM None whatsoever. I wanted to get away from meaning altogether.

BS Why?

GM Because meaning struck me as too confusing and too intentional. When you start out wanting to say something ahead of time, it’s an axe to grind. You’re not being open anymore, things don’t have a chance to register. It’s rare to say what you mean, you’re usually just off tapping around in some vaguely significant area anyway.

BS Do you think it’s possible for someone to look at your work and attach no meaning to it? Do you think its possible to escape meaning?

GM Meaning attaches itself, there is no vacuum of meaning. What I’m trying to do is cut it down—cut down the intentions. If you take a pile of papers and try to make sense of them, give them meaning, file them away, you start by assigning them categories, then you subdivide the categories to get even more precise. If you carry it through and class each paper according to its specific content you eventually wind up with a very neat pile of papers that has no more sense to it than what you started out with, only they are specific, individual. There’s an over abundance of meaning. It’s saturated with it. Extremes of organization lead back to chaos.

BS How did you decide upon the length of a space—they vary.

GM I started to enumerate them, limiting myself to four—one, two, three, four. One space was one, two spaces, two, three spaces, three and four spaces, four. After that it was like making rhythms. One one, two, two, two, two, three three, one one two three. Almost like—I hate to call it that because I have nothing to do with music, but like musical notations. When you use music to describe your work, you have to define it first as a tool and not as a metaphor.

BS How do you choose your color—which seems to be your particular organizing device?

GM Arbitrarily. Pleasure, pure pleasure.

BS Once you put down one color what determines the next?

GM The color was done numerically in the first paintings. I would choose say, red to be one. Since I was limiting myself to four spaces there were mathematically six possibilities or combinations. That’s just set theory. So the relationship between red one space and green two spaces and say purple was always constant but the variations of those made the color go all over.

BS When I look at them I think of writing because they guide the eye from left to right.

GM They are writing, inscription, description. They all begin left and go right, except the mirror image ones, the reflections, and the near symmetries.

BS And I think of landscapes because they seem to have a horizon line.

GM A lateral prejudice. I wouldn’t exactly call them landscapes but they have a reference. Physics was born out of the desire to describe nature, the world, the universe, the outside, the Other—mathematics too. The need for description. And I mean description in the script, the mark on the page. Painting is a description—wanting to describe the “too much.” To decode it maybe, or encode.

BS Does this desire have anything to do with chance? How much chance is really involved in your color device? You still mix red and purple—you already know they look good together—and your colors, do you mix them or do they come straight from the tube?

GM I mix like crazy, I love it…it looks good, sexy, its pure pleasure, there’s no other description for it. I have nothing against choice. I’m not making a demonstration of some mathematical model for chance. It’s not so much pure chance that is interesting. It’s the trip-up, the rupture in the grid, the ecstatic surprise. I think colors, I go through life thinking colors.

BS I notice a few very American looking landscape gouaches around your studio. (And I mean American landscape as in the landscape painting of the ’30s.) What happened?

GM What can I say, I came back to America, and there it was—HUGE—an enormous fantastic spread. Variety. In the past couple of years I’ve traveled a lot in America and I loved it and got very excited about the possibilities of this huge enormous land—the only thing that stops it is the ocean. That doesn’t stop it either, but geologically it does. It brings you to a different scale. It becomes so vast that all of that effort to explain everything in some great Cartesian way falls to pieces in the awe inspired by the American landscape. What can you do but take note of it?

BS Your landscape paintings are very small, say 8 × 12 inches. There are two spaces divided by a horizon line.

GM Curve. I started to permit myself to do landscapes because I wanted some other possibility to come into the paintings. Because eliminating possibilities as a method means that you have to permit yourself to go outside of that method. You have to allow other things to come into it. And if you’re working in a tight structure that’s been so well worked out over the years, there’s very little room for accidents, it’s like throwing a monkey into the works. It’s the joker in the deck. Landscape is an anonymous possibility.

BS Anonymous—man in nature is anonymous?

GM No, not man in nature. Man’s so inconsequential. That’s why I don’t like to paint people. There’s a lot of other stuff that’s equally as interesting if not more so.

BS Like what?

GM When you stand outside in a thunderstorm and watch it whack away at something—at tons of sand or—I mean, you stand on land and it feels like permanence, but watch nature handle it—it ain’t so permanent. It’s magnificently indifferent to man.

BS There’s something very soothing about that indifference because it is predetermined—much more soothing than dealing with the human race.

GM Everything is not psychological. Only us, and our production. We project it everywhere. We project ourselves onto everything. It is hard to distinguish production that is our own (ideologies, images, institutions, stories, methods) from production that isn’t. Anthropomorphism, the only psychology in nature is our own. We reflect onto things and then take the projection as fact, like creating a belief structure from a slide show. The sanctity of a Kodak carousel.

BS What are all the postcards of Early American Portrait paintings doing scattered about the room?

GM American Primitive painting took a European idea of painting from heirlooms people brought with them, small portraits, memories. When they began to paint their environment they did it with a set of references that got totally screwed up in the translation and came out very poetically, very clumsily and very tightly structured. Within that very tight structure, primitive painting has a certain organization of space, an organization of life, certain conventions, such as trees growing this way and not this way, one embroiders in this fashionand not another fashion…within that, they managed to encompass all of their experience. Without that strict frame—the structure, the crosshair, the sight, the painting —you go work in the cornfields and live the cornfields, the referent changes places. The frame of reference. It’s a kind of nomination. By naming, you distinguish, differentiate. The great 18th-century botanical endeavor—to name everything, to inject it with meaning, to change flatness into something rare.

BS I am slightly confused by a dichotomy that keeps coming up in this talk which I think is inherent in your work. The act of describing and not describing, naming and refraining from naming. You say, on the one hand, that your method of structuring (which I would say is your basis for subject matter) is arbitrary to avoid inserting a priori meaning onto the surface, and yet the act of painting itself, if viewed as a process—and you do, alters a priori meaning and always, whether you use your method or any other, leaves us with a rarefied fragment or code, which all paintings are—and as you admit cannot escape being. So if, as you claim, any structure will do—all being part of the whole—what difference does it make what you use? What forces your decision to use one over another? Why this particular obsession? Is it simply to enable you to act (paint) in a way that at once avoids and embraces this dichotomy?

GM To paraphrase: Chance will never abolish the cast of the die. The pleasure of the game, of playing, is exactly that: Pleasure. To play with new images, situations, concepts, feelings, procedures. A spontaneous dis/organization. I can’t be definitive about these situations precisely because I am surprised by them myself. It’s not just to surprise you, the public, the other with a virtuosity in a particular craft, style, or idea. The approach/avoidance you talk about is appropriate in the sense of approaching and distancing, changing the vantage point. To see things differently. From any perspective something is hidden.

BS You apply a very Calvinist aesthetic code to your method of painting. Do you think that this becomes the subject matter of the painting?

GM You’ve been asking how I constitute my subject matter (numbers, colors, grids, etc) and I can answer the question with a description of the devices, but the subject is not so important as the constitution of a subject, of playing out the game of subject (squares movements, playing rules, etc). One game is as good as the next. It’s the pretext of play and has no meaning in and of itself.

BS Do you think morality has any place in aesthetics? Let me add that I ask this because a common criticism of nonrepresentational painting is that it’s easy to swallow because it has no moral position outside of itself. This could be answered of course by saying a painting is not a revolution. Or is this exactly what is revolutionary about it?

GM There are lots of works that appear to have no moral position, and many that appear to have one, there are even works that appear to change moral positions in time, or could be assigned to more than one. “Moral positions” are often disguises used to ward off ethics, and responsibility, and even truth. “Moral positions” are aggressive interventions. They are always negative because they proscribe (write before). They are crystalizations, sclerosis. Moral positions are only aesthetics. Beauty, the kind that comes from nowhere, the surprise, the ecstatic yes, is the no-moral position. It is not a tint, an overlay, a predisposition; it’s an “overture,” an opening not a foreclosure, an act and not an end.

An absence of moral overlay in a social or ideological sense doesn’t necessarily imply an absence of responsibility. Both of the great generators of “moral position,” the State and Social Tradition (I include religion) are in fact historical murderers and muggers. To identify a position or several positions, to identify mythologies, ideologies, to work with illusion and illusions as a field of curiosity is responsible. Desire is the joker, always displacing the movement, socially, historically, aesthetically. Reserving the option of inconsistency, of incompletion; (internally, not externally constituted desire) is the role of the artist. There is no room for inconsistency in a moral position. Inconsistency is the best that I can do.

Joanne Greenbaum by Jeremy Sigler
Joanne Greenbaum 1
Jennifer Bartlett by Elizabeth Murray
Bartlett02 Body

Elizabeth Murray and Jennifer Bartlett, painters and lifelong friends, reminisce about the ambitious New York art world of the 1960s and ‘70s in this Fall/2005 interview.

Three Painters: April Gornik, Freya Hansell, and Susan Rothenberg by Betsy Sussler
Bomb 23 18 Body

Three prominent female painters engage in a roundtable discussion about style and technique in their paintings.

Oral History Project: Stanley Whitney by Alteronce Gumby
​Stanley Whitney

“My work was just like art history; it was all Velázquez, Goya, Cézanne, and Soutine. But when I saw Morris Louis I saw a way into the present.”

Originally published in

BOMB 4, Fall 1982

Georgia Marsh, Paul Bowles, Michael McClard, Olivier Mosset & Fred Brathwaite, and Duncan Hannah. Cover by Mary Heilmann.

Read the issue
004 Summer Fall 1982