I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I first saw Sue Williams’ work two years ago, and thought, Wow, they bite. Her paintings galvanized me: violent, cartoonish, explicit, voracious… . A chosen few, mostly other artists, were impressed, yet the work seemed to slip by oddly unnoticed. Times change. Political thought returned. Sue Williams has been there all along. And now, we’re ready to see her.
Nancy Spero I express anger, dissatisfaction, in my art work. I also show women enjoying their own sexual pleasure. But let’s say in conversation I will not be as confidential or expose myself to the degree that I do in my art. So, with that in mind, I’ll ask you a few questions that could refer to both of us.
Sue Williams People think that I’m like my paintings, liberated and aggressive. When they meet me, they find that I’m shy and not too in control of my life. The work helps me to evolve.
NS What I first saw in your work is anger, it’s palpable. How autobiographical is it?
SW It’s more autobiographical than I used to think. The earlier imagery wasn’t so explicit. I used to not want to talk about it as being autobiographical. I thought people would say, “Well, that’s what happened to her, she was a nut.” But I’ve gotten more nerve because it wasn’t just me, it’s also a reflection of the status quo. I have a feeling that along with therapy, I should have learned hand to hand combat, because I’ve been in therapy a long time and I still feel I’m in danger of being raped and attacked.
NS All women carry this inherent knowledge, that we can be raped, that we are in danger. We’re both figurative artists and very personal, although my work comes from an entirely different impetus. I have wanted always to override the personal, to step into a more public arena. But it was also this reluctance to turn attention to myself.
SW I didn’t want people to know my personal victim history. But this show was explicitly about violence. And I got such a reaction. I started talking to women. I was so surprised to find out how many people have had to deal with incest, have been molested or raped. I couldn’t believe it. People almost take it in stride. And that’s the way it is, it’s always been this way. This is a horrible thing that I went through. I had no awareness of my rights as a person, I did the classic thing. It’s so humiliating. People would ask me, “He beat the hell out of you and you went back to him?” I thought that this person loved me and that this was my home. I didn’t like it, but I was used to it.
NS In varying degrees, a person’s artwork embodies self-identification, the artist’s reflection or mediation of the personal. When you do buttocks with a bat being shoved into it, you are saying that this happens, perhaps to me, but maybe just as likely to you, the viewer.
SW Mine are events, the feelings are actually, for me, still mixed up.
NS Your art comes on angry and now, with a more public persona, a larger audience. What do you want? Is your art to instruct the viewer? Is it to relieve yourself of anger?
SW To relieve myself? No. (laughter) Do I want to instruct? I don’t know. I think I’m pissed because I went through all this horrible shit, and I want to do something for other women who are going through that. I just figure that everyone does.
NS Your work is critical of abuse of women, is it a call for action, getting out on the streets?
SW It’s different than wanting to do real things. They’re my babies, those paintings, so they’re not strictly teaching tools. They’re things that I create, and I like to. Somebody had told me that women thought my show was negative, which I had never heard before, since most people only want to say nice things to your face. And I thought, negative? I had always thought it was kind of happy.
NS You use a lot of jokes, lively cartoon-like figures. We’re told that art is a mediation, the removal from the real body, a privilege dealing in the symbolic.
SW The images are pretty direct. But there’s unconscious things too, if you try to get rid of that, you lose out on the things that aren’t words. So, yeah, it doesn’t necessarily work literally.
NS Canadian law has taken over Catharine Mackinnon’s definition of pornography as, “Material that subordinates or degrades women.”
We cannot ignore the threat to equality, resulting in exposure to all audiences of certain types of violent and degrading material. Material portraying women as a class, as objects for sexual exploitation and abuse, and the negative impact on the individual’s sense of self-worth and acceptance. (from the Nation)
When you depict a baseball bat shoved up a woman’s butt, that could be vicious porn. Let’s say you are showing in a Toronto gallery—Canada is the first place in the world that says what is legally obscene and what harms women. How do they know that your piece harms women?
SW They lay out little doilies. (laughter)
NS There’s a slogan: “Pornography is violence against women.” It doesn’t say that it causes violence. If it depicts it, is that in itself, violence against women?
SW You can say that men cause violence to women, so they should be banned, not just the photos. The photos aren’t the violence.
NS I have the book by Diana Feratto, which you displayed at your show. (flipping pages) It’s absolutely graphic displays of battered women’s faces and bodies.
SW I brought that book to my exhibition because I had gotten a review from this obnoxious guy saying that I made up a war against men, that these things don’t really happen. So I brought in that book, with the statistics and the pictures, so I could show it to anyone who thought I was imagining or just trying to make trouble. One of the reasons my show is so popular is because this year it’s fashionable to be interested in women’s issues, even in art.
NS In the early ’70s that was true too, but it was more conceptual. And now, the body in art has returned. During the ’80s, I was attacked for using images of women. This has to do with one feminist theory that women artists should avoid creating a woman’s image for men.
SW Right, that’s the party line.
NS I could not abide more limits and regulations—you and other women like Kiki Smith, Lorna Simpson, Clarissa Sligh are all involved in the images of the female body in very different ways. Shifting times and interests.
SW I never thought of that, not being able to use the body, but your work is conceptual. You take from what’s already out there, don’t really alter it a lot—you’re not messing with it. The work becomes a whole new language; it’s not male art.
NS It’s a tool to investigate, to attack, to celebrate. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir discusses women and their smiles, smiles to please, to accommodate. A woman has to be ready with a smile to ward off potential aggressors, not to give signals of fear.
SW I had this positive review from Betsy Hoffstead in the Voice. She mentioned that she got from my work that I was afraid of men. And I’ve heard that before from a shrink. It always makes me gulp because it’s true. I am really afraid.
NS She sensed from your work, that you showed a certain fear?
SW Yeah, I was surprised because I didn’t think that it had come out in the work, that fear. It threw me because I wasn’t aware of putting that in; I like to be in control. The criticism I don’t like is: “So you hate men?” and, “So you’re an angry person.” It makes it sound like it’s not my body, that it’s not just a logical …
NS I’m married to Leon Golub, and we have three grown sons. I would imagine that some women who don’t know me but have seen my art work wonder how I have been associated with a male artist all these years. Or male artists, or men in general wonder how he could be associated with me. It may seem illogical to them, but that’s not the point. We respect the straight forwardness of each other.
We were discussing how, in the ‘80s, a few feminists condemned the visual depiction of the female body because the woman’s image had been so subsumed under the “mastery” of the male artists’ gaze. An interesting point, but not necessarily to turn it on ourselves, once more limiting emotionally what “good girl” artists are supposed to represent. But I wanted to investigate women’s conditions from the extreme repression and torture of political prisoners to that of women as protagonist, activators freed of male control. I am trying to set things in motion, to re-inscribe women in history. We’ve always been there but we’ve been written out.
SW You know it’s very interesting because mine comes from down in me, and yours, really you know …
NS No, the very act of your making it, externalizes it. Battered women see your show and suddenly you represent something that is not just held within oneself. You’re exposing this to the world. That image isn’t actually your body. Your body is the jump-off point. From auto-biographical circumstances you can make universal statements. Do you think that your work would be less appreciated by some women of color? Would there be a resentment towards your experience as a white woman? You might even still, in this terrible situation, be more privileged.
SW Yeah, I probably am more privileged in some ways, but then again, the system is the system. A busload of predominantly black women from Atlanta who had been abused came in to the show and wrote some comments. That’s quite a compliment for them to come and see my work, for them to see what an artist is saying about them. That made me feel really proud. At the same time, I saw Lorna Simpson’s show. It was really heavy work and it made me mad because it was true, and I don’t want to feel privileged. Maybe they had resentments because the lady was white.
NS Allegiances are mixed, many black women feel white women have not treated them equitably. All these differences of class, race, ethnicity, age, culture.
SW Males see my show and they don’t like it, they almost don’t believe it. I had the same reaction when I saw Lorna’s (Simpson) show. She was saying things as a black woman that I don’t know about. Each little thing was representative of her culture.
NS I’m wondering about yourself as a younger artist, or artists, in their early twenties, who have a lot of attention paid to their work, get sudden fame and then think it’s the normal thing. In truth, it doesn’t happen that often.
SW Well, I’m not that young, I’m 38.
NS You’re not that old.
SW I see women who are really young having shows and that seems unusual to me. I don’t remember that happening. I didn’t have a show ‘til four years ago. And with this last one, I’d just come back from my honeymoon …
NS Is this your second marriage?
SW No this is my first, I’m a virgin. (laughter) I had come back to all this publicity in the Times. So a lot of people who wouldn’t normally see the show came. It was something new for me, I ate a lot of chocolate and went shopping. I am very self-conscious and I don’t want to get distracted. That’s a problem. I like living out in Brooklyn where I do because I don’t know anyone. I used to live in the East Village and I thought people were looking at me even when I was inside. I couldn’t work. I don’t know, I hope it doesn’t unbalance me, the little attention I have.
NS It’s great you have success. Can you enjoy it?
SW I always forget that I am, supposedly, successful now—I am successful now. I was on welfare until I started selling. I didn’t have any friends, and I wasn’t on anyone’s mailing list. So this has been kind of a shock. Of course, it’s really nice because my self-esteem is so low. I need this kind of success so that I feel like I have the right to walk outside. It really has helped me a lot in that way.
NS I should think that would be an indication that it can’t be entirely superficial. And you’re happier now, you mentioned your marriage?
SW Yeah. I’m happy again also because I’m working. I’m just as isolated as ever, except—no, that’s not true, that’s not true. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of people and I just forget to call them. See, the thing I went through, being beaten and all this stuff—I’m so different, no one likes me. A lot of people feel that way.
NS It wouldn’t seem that way, from the positive response to your art. What are you working on now?
SW A sculpture idea from the last show that didn’t get done. My blowjob fountain. A head, a couple of hands here, and a cylinder to her mouth. The water comes out of her eyes and nose and mouth. I decided I really like working in wax, at this foundry. So, I’ve been working on all these different things. Suddenly, I’ve been focused on the work instead of who hates me this weekend.
NS Making art is this unholy mess of pleasure and pain.
SW You find it very painful?
NS Sure, there’s a certain pleasure in working an idea through, but I find it difficult and perverse always fighting oneself as well. The tension, the irritability; trying to get it just right. It’s painful because “it” is so elusive.
SW At a certain point, I get into it and it’s just a blast; it’s like being in my playroom. But those times are hard … and there’s this weird putting it off that happens. It’s a whole state of being, almost. And the transition—sometimes you don’t want to go, you don’t want to lose control. Art takes an inordinate amount of time. Answering letters takes time, living takes time. I mean we all live complicated lives.
NS Not to mention terrible experiences.
SW Oh, that’s outside of art. (laughter) You know, I always trivialize this stuff when I talk about it because I’ve had so many really bad things happen to me and it just seems absurd. Yeah, I was raped and sodomized and there is so much autobiographical stuff in the paintings: A woman is being raped and sodomized by two men in one of my paintings. Actually, one of them said, “Put something in her mouth to shut her up.” So you can just imagine what they thought, in their creative minds. It’s just too embarrassing. Totally embarrassing.
NS You are victimized but you are the one embarrassed!
SW I know, but I can’t help that …
NS The vulgarity, hate and arrogance of it …
SW It was very horrible. I have all these terrible things happen to me, I told you about being shot. When I was nineteen.
NS How’d that happen? In New York?
SW No, I was living at home, Chicago. A date shot me. And he left me to just die and somebody else called an ambulance. And then I had to go to the hospital and have my whole lung, the outside of it removed.
NS So are you okay, now?
SW Yeah, I just get cramps.
NS You have often been victimized—abused.
SW A succession. I was coming from a violent household. So I couldn’t really tell that these guys were violent, although other people could. It would get bad and then I would try to get out of it. Once, I moved out and he broke in and tried to kill me. I went through the court system and all that stuff, getting orders of protection and I even tried to put him out by smashing a bottle over his head. He tried to beat me to death several times. I was walking around with my face kicked in over and over and looking horrible. And people really look at you like, what is your problem? Running for your life is just so horrible. It was just like living in this hell.
NS Where could you go? What did you do?
SW I wish someone at the end had told me something, anything. But I left the country, that’s how I got away.
NS You came from a violent household, these things perpetuate themselves.
SW Yeah, I didn’t know how to get out of them. I drank and I took drugs. I was pretty out of it. I would have known to leave if I wasn’t so out of it, but that’s how I would stop thinking about it. It just gets worse and worse as the pattern progresses. And me not really being very aware, they would remind me of my family.
NS Do you, because of your experiences, envision continuing your art with this kind of content? Violence and women’s subjugation? The abuse in power relationships?
SW That was the problem with getting all this attention. If you don’t do that anymore maybe people won’t be interested, or, is that a stigma? I hope not. I’m an artist and my work wasn’t always about abuse. It may come out in different ways but it is only recently that it has become so …
SW Almost literal and sometimes not even interesting.
NS Which I don’t think is true.
SW Well, whenever things bother me that I am not aware of, once I have a show, they look really clear. Did you ever notice that?
NS Having work up in a neutral space removes it from the private domain—the studio. But a neutral space can neuter too bland and sterile. However, this did not happen to your work, your art is shockingly externalized, a subject of discourse. The personal shame and battering is brought into the open, you declare it in our faces.
SW Well, I know that those subconscious things are weird and obscene and then, if I put it in a social context, it comes out so literally and it makes more sense but…I used to do things and not know where they came from. They were often weird and gross, and that’s okay. It’s good to be able to do things that have no conscious meaning.
NS Artists are, or ought to be, deviants in our society—we don’t represent the norm or play the cover up game (although a lot of art does).
SW I had never thought of doing autobiographical stuff until my medium suggested it.
NS Who said this?
SW The spirit energies, through my medium, actually a year ago.
NS And what were you doing before that?
SW Well, it was there, but I wasn’t thinking about it.
NS Let me ask you this. Do you think men pay as much attention to your work as women do? Women artists?
SW No, uh uh, no. I don’t hear much feedback from men at all.
NS What about the critics? Has there been equal, both male and female critics?
SW At first I had male critics and now I have female critics, and I am so glad because I like the way they look at it. They take it seriously. The men who liked it, liked it for reasons that you might like Mike Kelley’s art. Mike Kelley’s is serious social stuff. But in a goofy kind of way. Some men talk about it as if I were a crackpot. And that made me sad because I really wanted to be considered…. It was the way I had always felt about men, this was subject matter to be discussed by someone who never talked. That was me, I never talked. So I was speculated about like an eccentric. One review, said “It leaves you wanting more.” Like more S&M fun! I see the women in my paintings as going along with the men because they see it as the only game in town and they don’t have any choice.
I wanted to ask you, do you feel like you have a voice and you can speak?
NS It took decades but now I get my message out. I’d been working as an artist for 30 years without much response. Then around ’83 the situation changed, or partially changed. The work reverberated, the same stuff hidden all those years. I infiltrate and subvert and celebrate, as I wish. Earlier in my career, I was excluded, ignored. I was angry and frustrated in my attempts to get some sort of dialogue going. I used fragmented writings of Antonin Artaud collaged with painted images as a means to express my rage at being silenced as an artist [1969-72, the Artaud Paintings and Codex Artaud. Artaud’s tirades and screams of rage and anguish, his extreme introspection of physical and mental states resonated for me. If his hysterical and insane ravings would have been written by a woman, they would not have survived nor gained this recognition. Women artists are in the world too and will not be silenced.
SW I had no world. I could not function in the world I was in.
NS It’s tough entering the art world, becoming a participant. It’s a small elitist enclave—a special world, but then one may find a place.
SW It’s such a relief. I almost feel like a human being. I still have a prejudice against women. I mean why would I want to look at the past of women; it’s boring. They are not the ones who really did anything.
NS It’s a matter of learning the histories of other women—how women have been written out of history. How the struggle for equality has to be fought and won, over and over. It’s as if we always have to start from zero.
SW That’s what happened to all our energy. It’s gone somewhere else, not into the world.
NS So what’s next?
SW I want to play with oils, goof off, and see what happens.
NS And then there’s success!
SW These kind of successes are a little like flash in the pan things. I don’t want to take the opportunity and go hog wild endorsing things. I would love to have a career.
Nancy Spero is a painter who lives and works in New York.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee