Interview with Wendy Sussman: Real Painting
by Richard Whittaker, Sep 2, 1998
Painter Wendy Sussman's untimely death in April of 2001 left a void in the San Francisco Bay Area artworld. Sussman was an artist of impeccable integrity and great depth. Following is perhaps the only interview on record with this remarkable artist. The interview took place in Sussman's studio just before the Fall Semester began at U.C. Berkely where she taught painting. We began talking about how certain painters utilized the shapes of elements in their paintings to resonate with and deepen the content of the image.
Wendy Sussman: I always have to find an image. Once I find the image I can find the painting. But I'm always playing both with the image and the abstraction, the paint as just paint, as a substance. The further away from the image it gets the more it becomes its own substance. It becomes just paint, just color. But then as it gets closer to the image, which is the hot spot, the paint starts forming itself into something. Let me show you something here. Here's a Ryder. (Showing me a slide) He lived in New York City at the turn of the century and was an eccentric. He lived alone and he would go out to the Hudson river and paint these boats. Here's a moonlit cove. I think there's a boat in it. That painting of the cove with a little boat in it also looks like a pelican, a baby-there are so many things it looks like. When Juan (husband Juan Rodriquez) and I moved to Henry Street there had been a painter living there for twenty years who had to move because the rent went up from seventy-five dollars to one hundred and fifty which was too much...(laughs knowingly) She was a very nice older woman. A real painter. When we moved in there was nothing left in this cold-water flat except a pot belly stove and a fireplace. It was a beautiful place, an old yeshiva, but she had left a Ryder, a little postcard on the wall. One of the boat paintings. And that was the first time I had seen a Ryder.
Richar Whittaker: You have a special feeling for Ryder then, coming to you as it did?
Sussman: Yes, and it reminds me of Melville and all those wonderful artists who came out of that era, out of that relationship between New York and the sea. But here, look at this one. (Another slide) Here is a Rogier Van der Weyden from the early Renaissance,"The Deposition," Christ coming down from the cross. It's more complex and more finely tuned than the Ryder. If you look at that image of the Christ and the image of his mother you see they are duplicated. They mimic each other. What is beautiful in these two images is that they look like they're either slowly floating down, or slowly going up like birds. You see how their arms are. See how this has to do with the subject? Christ coming down off the cross but then, eventually, going up to heaven. So it's the embodiment of the subject in the form. Let me show you another one. This is what I think about when I teach. When I paint I don't think this way. It's too theoretical and doesn't allow you into a painting, really...to paint it. But I'm very conscious that I want that subject in every inch of that painting. I want it embodied. I want it there. Even to the question of where the viewer is. I'm very aware of where the viewer is. That is really part of the subject. You see, I found over the years a few paintings that are the perfect paintings to explain some of this, like this Mantegna. (another slide-a radically foreshortened view of Christ lying on a slab with the feet immediately in the foreground.) "The Dead Christ." See his feet? If you were looking in perspective, his feet should be much bigger.
RW: Oh, yes. That's true.
Sussman: What I think Mantegna did was, do you see those mourners? I think what he did was to make the viewer's eyes come upon Christ with the mourners, up at his chest and face. He wanted the viewers, us, to hover over him like those viewers portrayed there, those mourners who are crying. So that we become one of those mourners. We're there with them.
RW: That is so interesting because you're right. The eye goes directly there. It passes right over the feet. And the perspective is subtly distorted from what it should be if it were true perspective. I didn't even notice it until you mentioned it. And that's exactly what happens. I go right to that spot with the mourners.
Sussman: Tell me that isn't part of the subject.
RW: You're right. Absolutely. It would be wonderful to be a student and to have this brought forward.
Sussman: Now keep this one in mind. I've got to show you one more in relationship to this one. You know the Guston that's at the University Art Museum?
RW: Yes, I know that one. I love it.
Sussman: That Guston is similar to this. (Shows another slide. Three shrouded figures in a car.) The car in the one at the UAM is a convertible. Maybe a Thirties car. It has the rounded headlights that are kind of outside the car, and the running board. Okay, imagine where you are when you are looking at that car...remember, it's a convertible. If you're on the sidewalk looking at a convertible that's pretty close, you should be able to see in over the door and be able to look down into the passenger area, and maybe see part of the legs, right? But you can't. You can't, because your eye level is lower. It's at the level of the running board. Keep that in mind. Now what you have to think about is that these figures are dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes, and they have red paint on them as if it were blood. And, they're smoking cigars as if it were after an act of some kind. What kind? It seems like it could be violence since there is blood on the robes. And the viewer is on the ground. That's where Guston has placed the viewer. The viewer has to be either lying on the sidewalk or on his knees. And so, why? I think it's because Guston wants the viewer to see the painting, and to feel it, from the side of those who are being victimized by the figures in the robes.
RW: Placing the viewer's eye low could also mean the viewer is a child.
Sussman: But I couldn't imagine Guston would paint this painting for a child.
RW: He could be painting it to be seen from the child's perspective, which ties into all that childhood experience which we all carry.
Sussman: He could be. Because of all those early paintings.
RW: Either way, it's consistent with your thinking that where the viewer's eye is placed in space is a crucial part of the meaning of the painting.
Sussman: Yes. So, if it is a child, or if we are on the ground, we may very well be the victims that these people are driving away from.
RW: Or, too, if we are a child, we're still innocent, not necessarily a victim, but looking at this strange sight.
Sussman: That's right. And in either case, we are part of the subject. Either as victim or as child.
RW: Yes. And, if we look at a painting and don't become a part of it, it doesn't really work then, does it? If we don't become part of the experience, we can't be touched.
Sussman: But it's not just part of the experience. It's not just that. Not like us looking at the Rogier Van der Weyden where these people are either flying up or going down. It's not just like that. Our situation in relation to that car, or take the Mantegna... we are hovering, and we are mourning. We are adding our wails to the women that are around Christ. Or, we are bleeding. And so the subject is tri-angular. It isn't just bringing us in because we are having a feeling for it, it's because one big part of what he is trying to say is outside the painting. It's us! It's where we are!
RW: I follow you.
Sussman: When I look at this little horse here (pointing to one of her paintings in progress.) I know I am higher than the horse. What I really want in this painting is for us to feel the horse. I've been looking at these, since I haven't been able to paint much this last week. And I've been trying to make heads or tails of what I've been doing this summer. These images of the horses, they're a little demonic. When I look at the horses they feel like they're striving and struggling, but they also have a demonic quality, and I don't know exactly what I'm feeling from them. When I looked at them they all started feeling like war. I don't really see them innocently struggling. But that horse hasn't done something to us like the Guston painting does. It doesn't complete the tri-angle, to finish the tale. Except I want the viewer to be higher so they can see the whole thing more clearly than someone who would just be down there with the horse.
RW: I'm trying to think about it because it seems like what you're talking about with this tri-angular idea is pretty fundamental. It must be at work even here. To be looking down doesn't necessarily mean, does it, that there isn't this tri-angular relationship at work? Perhaps it means I am standing next to you and looking down with you. A contemplative place to be.
Sussman: Yes. This is what Michael Fried calls the painter-beholder. But really the perspective is just subject matter, whether I put it at eye level, or deep down. When I make a big field I'm trying to find the subject in the field as well as in a very small moment of figuration... Remember that little puppet that was in the snow?(speaking of one of her paintings) That figuration is tiny, and that painting is big. So I want the whiteness to be absolutely as important, if not more important, than that little tiny, almost incidental, moment of figuration.
RW: So, what does the whiteness mean, then?
Sussman: Now, this is only in looking back. No, it comes as I paint. The associations in my mind are of remembering the foam when you're up to your neck and the waves are crashing all around you. After they've crashed there's a moment when there is all this foam around you, and for me, that moment was ecstatic...or a moment of snow when you're a child, and you first see it. I remember on that first day of snow in elementary school, all the kids running to the window to see it. It's a magical moment of whiteness- in Moby Dick that one chapter on whiteness, on the whiteness of the whale. For me there were some ecstatic moments of remembering that were associated with whiteness.
RW: These are very special moments.
Sussman: They're very specific ones.
RW: It's as if that little piece of figuration anchors that very specific moment. It anchors it and shows its place, it's meaning perhaps, in the broader field of experience.
Sussman: That's exactly it. It needs this moment, which isn't a moment of my remembering. But it needs this very specific moment for this flood of remembering to come to be. An abstract remembering of an ecstatic moment. And I always wish that the paintings didn't need this. I wish they could just fly the way a Rothko could fly, and didn't need this anchoring. But until that moment comes in my artistic life when it's no longer needed I'm not going to shy away from it. Because I want this moment to happen and I will do anything to make it happen. There were times in the past when I felt ashamed that I was still a realist, and needed figuration. I would ask, why can't I just fly? And I'm not, anymore. This is the way I do it. There comes a point when you're not ashamed. You accept yourself and want to know more about what you are. Maybe I wouldn't have gone through this if I didn't seem to go counter to what the art world was, in my love of traditional painting. But something wonderful sometimes comes out of a lot of friction.
RW: We have to find that on our own. That's what I'm thinking of as you talk. It's like a path toward something. You've come through a process which involved a lot of struggle. At times you felt bad because you weren't painting abstract work.
Sussman: Or "postmodernly" in what I thought was a brilliant form. It seemed dumb, and it seemed primitive. And I have a theoretical bent, that's part of me, but when I paint that flies out the window. I'm not thinking post-modernist. I'm not thinking politically. I'm not thinking those things. And when you teach at the university you come in contact with artists, and sometimes they sound so brilliant. And often they're attuned with the latest philosophical, semiotic, sorts of things. And then you go back to the studio, and theories of the moment don't fit.
RW: It's hard won, what I hear. Where you've come to over the years. And its an ongoing struggle, too, isn't it?
Sussman: It continues. Yes. But many things stay the same. Like a love of Western painting- specifically, certain moments of it, like the early Renaissance. I told a friend of mine what I was painting this summer and she said, "Well, you better get over and see this certain Simone Martini painting." And so yesterday when I was going through slides I decided to look for it, and it was the most amazing moment! It's so similar to the paintings I've been doing. (She shows me the slide, and there are striking similarities.) I recognized myself in that painting. You're not alone. There are other artists who have had a similar sensibility.
RW: I find it kind of inspiring to see the Ryder painting and have you describe it the way you did, and to see that. And to think, "yes, these people also felt these things! They also were struggling to portray these deep feelings!" There is a real sense of connection. It's really quite wonderful to realize this human connection goes far back. It's very touching.
Sussman: It's wonderful. But, it's not all like that. Very often in the studio, it's boring. And you can't find your way.
RW: Maybe I've gotten carried away but it feels to me like it's really a hidden brotherhood, or sisterhood, this thing that artists are up to. Because people really don't understand it, and who says they should? But it's strikes me as a hidden thing. Not because any effort is made to hide it.
Sussman: You know, it's funny, but it feels more hidden here than it does in New York because, say, at the Met, there are always these wonderful exhibits coming through. And at these exhibits you would run into artists you knew. You'd begin to feel and see the ties. I remember every Tuesday evening we would go to the met. And there were always older artists there and they wouldn't mind if you went up and asked them questions, talked with them. So, you felt more of that there. Here, I'm so alone. But it feels good in my studio.
RW: This is probably the biggest reward for me in doing the magazine-to be able to meet people like you with whom I can feel a shared understanding, or sensibility, or something like that.
Sussman: When I was in New York I was always very shy about showing my work, but maybe twice a year I would have a friend or two come by and take a look and it was a great moment. I loved it.
RW: I think it must be wonderful to be a student in one of your classes when you're giving these lectures.
Sussman: Well, I get excited, and they know it, so they get excited.
RW: I had an art history class and I hardly remember it. There was nothing that touched me. I had a few other art classes. Well, in my very spotty art education nothing much stands out, but there is also the question of the readiness of the student.
Sussman: It's true. Sometimes they're not at a level of really absorbing it, especially undergraduates. But a few are. You know, I don't really have a lot of ideas. What I try to do is work hard painting and bring to the class what I'm thinking about during the week. I bring in what's exciting me, and very often what happens is just an exchange of energy.
RW: I remember hearing Harry Callahan talk once. He must have been in his mid-sixties. Speaking of his work as a photographer, he said, "I've only had a few ideas." It was an interesting statement. It seemed so modest, almost self-effacing. But I felt there was something else about it. You had to realize what it meant. It really meant something. It's hard to appreciate that in today's culture where there is such a hunger for distraction, entertainment. There's a thousand and one shallow ideas.
Sussman: Yes. Teaching isn't set up for that kind of thing either, because every week you have to say something. You could say it all in a half-hour.
RW: There is a lot to show people, though. To be able to look at a painting and ask what is here? In the Mantegna, for instance, to notice the counter-perspective. His choice was no accident. He was clearly in command of perspective...
Sussman: Yes, he knew that. He painted a lot from a perspective of looking up. But this one was from looking down. He knew where his paintings would be placed, high up on walls, and so he built the perspective in for that. And he gets the nobility and all the things one would get from looking up. But with this one, we're looking down. Brueghel looks down. He always gives up the feeling of looking down upon a vista. There's one Brueghel that I love that I always show to the class. It has to do with subject, and also with how to connect a middle ground to a far ground. How do you connect far and near? He would paint these beautiful snow scenes-it was a genre that was common in those times-and there's a little skater. With Breughel the skaters are in the middle distance. And right next to the skaters, the same size, and almost the same shape, are some crows that are on a branch. They are the same size, and are right next to the skaters. It is meant to show they're closer to us, he compresses the space. But it also says something to us, subject matter-wise. Why would these crows and these people be the same size? I'm not sure what he is saying. We are all one?
RW: If the painter does this intentionally...
Sussman: I know he did it intentionally because you can see it over and over with Breughel.
RW: Then that means something. Because a painter like Breughel knows all about control of the pictorial space.
Sussman: Or when they do weather. Van Gogh would do rain, Breughel would do snow. And snow and rain are usually the very last thing you do on a painting. It's very hard to paint rain as you work. So, rain and snow are in the field but also on the surface. It kind of flattens the thing in a beautiful way. Surface is an important thing, right from the beginning- from the canvas you pick to the kind of paint you use. And it can hold the things you've found along the way, as you've done the painting. I always use the analogy of a pool that has frozen over. The finished painting is like that. So, in the pool at a lower depth might be a rock, and then there might be a little leaf that is frozen closer to the surface, and above that maybe a candy wrapper. It's all frozen in the pool, and then on the very top somebody comes and skates. The surface has this history, and that is time, the time of the painting. You know what I mean? It isn't just the surface, that moment when you skate over it, but the very last thing can be the most spontaneous. Time is interesting in a painting because it does take time to paint.
RW: You've been painting for a long time. What have you learned?
Sussman: That's too vague.
RW: Well, this is a question that I'm having right now. With a painting you know sort of what you want but you don't know exactly what it is. But, at times you've found it, right?
Sussman: Yes. At times I've found it. And I hope I keep on finding it.
RW: Well, I'm a beginner at painting and I've had hardly any successes. I haven't had one for quite awhile. But right now I've got one that I love, but it isn't finished, and I don't know what to do with it. And I made a mistake with it and sort of screwed up part of it. It kills me. I just love it, you know.
Sussman: You know what I would do at that point? I would have an anxiety problem at that point. I would feel, I have something here, and I'd be scared of it because I like it so much.
RW: I do get anxious.
Sussman: So, you know what I would do? I'd start another one. After I was getting somewhere with it I might have enough courage then to go back to the one I really loved. It takes the heat off. I'm doing that with this one. I'm stuck with this one. I'm stuck because I see something going there and I'm scared I'm going to ruin the spontaneity of it. I turned it around. And yesterday I started another procession. It's different from this one but it is a procession. I did it so I could take the heat off that one and work it out on this one. There are some moments you really like but you know they're not quite there because you know others can't really see them yet. And, you know that if you keep on going you'll lose it. You're scared to lose it.
RW: Absolutely. It's just such a wonderful thing, and you want it so badly.
Sussman: And you could kill you want it so badly (laughs). It's all very precarious, isn't it?
RW: It is. But, this is helpful, talking with you.
Sussman: You know, another thing... Juan and I were talking about this. Some people know exactly what they want from early on, and others don't. And there are some of us, me being one of them, who sort of knew, who held an image of the artist, and this image was very strong. We really liked this image. But that image, and the doing are two different things. That image was so strong, and the wanting so much-the grandness, and all that was built into that image-it loomed so large that the doing of it became frightening. Because you had to live up to this image of what it was you thought you wanted. It's always been hard for me to start paintings because of all the problems of that. This summer was good for me because I had to produce a lot. I had to start a lot of paintings. I like to be in the middle of them, but I don't like to start them. What happened was I hit upon something that I think could be helpful for other people. There are things that are hard to do, and things that you gravitate to more easily. In painting sometimes it's good to gravitate to the things that are easily done. Not to feel like you have to do it all, be a great draughtsman, and all the baggage... just gravitate to the thing you can easily do. Then you're in the flow. You're not at the door anymore. And then all that baggage of being the great artist, all that just flies away. You know what I mean? That all flies away, and you're just doing it! That's really the important thing. But you shouldn't feel ashamed of yourself because you have an image of what you want to be. There's nothing shameful in that. The thing is to find a way into it. Listen to yourself and try to find the easiest way in. To get in is real important -not just to stand at the door, over and over, for years and years. Get into the room. Any way.
RW: That sounds like hard-won knowledge.
Sussman: It's real hard-won knowledge. I've seen some of my students-it comes so easily to them. They need friction to go against. They stand back and feel dissatisfied because it was too easy. But for me it was the opposite. It was always so difficult. I was always putting myself down. I should be this, I should be that. Now, because I've learned to, I've just let go of some of that and I accept myself a little bit. Then you start unraveling the story of what it is you want to say. I think it's hard for a lot of people. A lot of people stand at the door looking in- at the door of writing, or of poetry. They have wagered so much of their life on it that they're in armor and they can't walk. They were going to be the great artist.
RW: You've seen this? What happens?
Sussman: I see them all the time. They freeze in the doing, because the doing is so important. The outcome has to be the reason for their life. They put so much importance on it. I mean society doesn't. You can't make money doing it.
RW: A teacher I knew once proposed a toast. I think it's related. "Here's to our greatest moments, may we forget them!" So we can go on, you know.
Sussman: (laughs.) That's perfect. Yes, so we can do it.
RW: There's something you said earlier describing a Philip Guston painting. You were describing how the low angle he gave the viewer was meant, you thought, to put the viewer in the role of the victim as part of the meaning of the painted image. That sounded pretty important to you.
Sussman: It is important. When I studied perspective they always said, "the bird's-eye view" or "the worm's-eye view" and it was always "the eye." But I found out it isn't the eye, it's the body. It's where your body is, when you look-not just where your eye is. You get a bodily feel when you're in front of the painting, or the sculpture. The painter could take the ground out from under you and you could get vertigo, even, looking at a painting. A painting can literally give you a bodily feeling of not being on the ground. Odilon Redon can do that. And that then plays into the subject. When my parents died and I felt I was not on the ground anymore I painted these paintings that truly are not on the ground. They're all in sky, in the blue, all dark blue. I remember one painter coming in here and being frightened. She said, I'm getting vertigo. I'm being swept away. I'm getting frightened. It was just reflecting what I felt. It wasn't conscious. When my parents died I felt I was in the sea, and was being swept away with them. I had to pull back. And then these later paintings after that, they all became white, with a very hard surface. I just brought these (the large blue paintings done about Sussman's parents' death) out this week. I hadn't seen them together in about a year. I had to bring them out to show some people how all this current work began. Seeing them now, in relationship to this hard surface, I don't know about that hard surface. It's very cold and detached. It's almost like after my parents' death, after I thought the mourning was over, I went into the whiteness which I thought was ecstatic, but maybe I also went into a protective coldness.
RW: You did say that there was something demonic about these horses. (Two large paintings of single horses in a white field)
Sussman: It's in the faces of the horses. When I look at them there is something ominous about it. I don't try, but I always tend to paint tender paintings. But there is something frightening there, like coming face to face with another species. It reminds me of hearing this woman who went into the jungle and lived with the orangutans. There would be a moment when they would look face-to-face. And she would see there was a gulf. It was another species. In New York we used to have all these mice. I would wake up at night and there would be a mouse. The mouse would stop because it would feel me waking up and moving. There would be a moment when I would be looking at this mouse, and the mouse would be looking at me. There was something frightening in that moment. Like I had bridged a gulf, gone into another world, this very fast world of the mice. It didn't feel like "oh, I'm just one with the animals." (laughs) But like across a gulf, looking at a strangeness, and yet a strangeness I kind of understood.
RW: I've often felt scared like that. And it happens when I've truly had a perception that is outside of the world I'm comfortable with. A feeling of the reality of it.
Sussman: That's right. That it's real, as real as your world is.
RW: And I don't think necessarily that it's frightening because there's anything wrong there, but just to feel that there really is something outside my world. There's something that can be frightening about that.
Sussman: Yes, that's what I feel. And it may not be demonic. I remember a moment in Wisconsin when I saw these horses rolling on the ground and seeing their eye look up into the sky... It's almost like a door into another consciousness.
RW: It's not sentimental stuff.
Sussman: No, it's not sentimental.
RW: I've looked at lizards, and other animals, dogs, for instance. I've looked into their eyes trying to fathom something of that foreign world. And, it can be very strange.
Sussman: And you don't really want to go too far into it because of maybe a feeling of insanity. (Laughs)... But they're not really about horses. They're about another being, a being who's striving. Maybe I'm looking straight into the face of something that's in me that I don't know anything about. They scare me sometimes. Especially when I get very realistic in the heads. And I really want to paint those heads. The rest I don't care so much about, the bodies...I want the shape, but the heads, I really do care about painting them. When I look at that one, it scares me. (Long pause) When I get the blue against that white there's a moment when... I got the whiteness opaque and really white, and the blueness really blue. That moment where they meet, I really like that. That's ecstatic. That's celebratory. A real high. But that head is another moment. That head isn't a painting moment. You know what I mean? It isn't a moment like when you paint, and you put a beautiful white against a beautiful blue-and the opaqueness of each, the thickness of each, or the heaviness of each, work together and kind of squeeze and then make this really great moment that really feels beautiful. It's a different feeling from when I paint that head, and I'm looking into another world. It's not a painting moment.
RW: The way I respond to that is how, you know, in a way we're all asleep. We are protected from the reality, the real, reality. It escapes us by and large. And it's really quite frightening. There may be a way to get beyond all that, apparently some have. You read about that. The reality of things like dying, I mean. That is terrifying. And I don't feel that very much, but to get close to the reality of that is very frightening.
Sussman: You're so right in bringing this up right now. Because that's very similar to this feeling of looking into another world, at another species, and seeing this other world that seems so different. You really don't want to go into it. It's like another world of consciousness, and that's what death is, what you imagine it would be.
RW: I think that once you're fifty you're thinking more and more about the limitations of your time, of how much is left. And I want to move towards being able to be prepared for reality. And you're describing moments where reality breaks through. It's frightening because it's so real, and yet...
Sussman: And yet, you want that to happen too. I mean in a way that's why you're painting. That's the door you're knocking on. You want to go further and further, and see something you've never seen. You want to unveil something. You want to know, to find the Truth, or something like that. That's what's behind it.