Interviewsand Articles


A Conversation with Jan Wurm: Hope and Renewal

by R. Whittaker / Jan Wurm, Feb 28, 2024



photo - r.whittaker

My friendship with Jan Wurm goes back several years. In part, it was linked to my having met and interviewed her friend, the well known Los Angeles artist Michael McMillen who she'd met when she was 17 and entering UCLA. And there were my own experiences of Los Angeles to share, as well. And eventually, we'd both come north and settled in the East Bay.
     A few years prior to our conversation, she'd managed to get me invited to a UCB alumni art day (I'd had a brief stint there) where I spoke about
works & conversations. I soon recognized that Jan is a natural weaver of connections, and her experience as an artist is deep and wide. Over the years, her fidelity to the figure and a seemingly effortless gift for the telling gesture has always been a pleasure to behold. 
     Our conversation here was preceded by other conversations and barely touches on the scope of where's she's been, who she knows and the endless stories connected with her long and faithful life in art. But the time had come to get at least a little of her journey down for the record. — rw    

Richard Whittaker:  Before coming over, I was thinking that our deeper interests kind of point in different directions, and thought well, it could add an interesting dimension to this conversation.

Jan Wurm:   I mean, that’s what’s stimulating, isn’t it? It’s not that I don’t love being with people who I’m really in sync with; it’s a very comfortable place to be. But the other feeds me in a different way.

RW:   Yes. It’s a real possibility when both people are open enough. Jacob Needleman, who I knew for many years, spoke a lot about that. I was also thinking about him and his friend, Paul Reynard before coming over. Needleman interviewed Reynard who was a painter who taught at SVA in New York. Both of their interests pointed in a spiritual direction. It’s a great interview, and of course, looking at this painting of yours [a figure looking at an Egyptian sarcophagus] my associations are flying around. What’s going on there? I haven’t seen it before.  

Jan:   Well, the intention is to show this dichotomy, this notion of separation, you know - the investigation and the looking-at - which is a kind of othering, as opposed to recognizing a continuity and a sameness, a shared sensibility and our oneness. Right? 
     I’ve had this problem for many years, a great sadness in seeing these mummies - and thinking that they should be reburied. The bodies should never have been removed. In that issue of that distancing, we don’t see it as having been a life. There’s no honoring of it. When we investigate in this way - in scientific or analytical mode - that really creates a separation.
     There are a lot of things in the painting. I think that having the figure emerge in that way sets up this dichotomy between that which is investigated with the flashlight, and being connected - the feeling of connection.

RW:  You’re saying that underneath this perceived otherness, there’s something that connects all of us? We breathe the same air, live under the same sky; we have such fundamental things in common, which is not a contradiction to people becoming self-aware and truly themselves. Is this diving too deep immediately?        

Jan:   Not at all.

RW:   No?  

Jan:   Not at all. So, becoming truly self-aware would have certain consequences. I think that if one recognizes that, then I think that dispels war, for instance. Right? I mean it should. And that’s what one would hope.

RW:   Yes, one would hope.

Jan:   So, these things are so entwined for me. But certainly, this is a period of incredible grief and pain. The way in which we can have the separation between “us and them,” “you and me.” This painting, Archeology, actually was paired with a painting of an anthropologist. The idea that we could look at a culture, at a people - that we could have that kind of separation - engendered all the things that followed, in terms of colonialism. So, does one draw a line and say, “This is spiritual work” and “This is political work”? I don’t think you can make a distinction between them.

RW:   Well, I could suggest two paintings side-by-side where it would be hard to say there’s wasn’t something fundamentally different - let’s say, Guernica versus one of those black cross paintings by Ad Reinhardt.

Jan:   I think that if we don’t bring into our analysis - all that we know and think about Picasso’s biography and his personal life around that time - I think it’s an entwined political and emotional and spiritual identity. He was a Spaniard. He was concerned about his people. He never lost that identity. So, I think that outrage is filled with an empathetic response of connectedness, and does have a spiritual element to it.

RW:   Okay. And Guernica is triggering the emotions - an immediate reaction from people who view it. And when someone looks at some of the Abstract Expressionist works that also flowed from deep feeling - and where I think the hope was - they also can sometimes touch a deep feeling in response. Take Rothko. The viewer doesn’t have to know anything about Rothko. I guess what I’m saying is one can’t expect a work of art to be read in terms beyond what its image conjures when someone looks at it.

Jan:   Well, to stick with your example of Ad Reinhardt - it’s not immediately clear to anyone who just takes a glancing look at his painting. I mean, it demands attention and reflection - and a willingness to connect with it. Then you start seeing more and more - and you start being affected in a different way. I would say that’s not much different than looking at the way the horse is painted in Guernica. Anyone who looks at that horse is responding to that living, powerful creature, and its destruction. It’s a victim, just as the people are in that painting. And is central to it. So, I don’t think you need any kind of notion of what the bombing was and who and where. I think you respond to it immediately and see the destruction right there, and the loss of life, and that terror and pain. I think they operate very much the same.

RW:   Sure. But on the one hand, you get outraged with Guernica. There’s sadness and emotional disturbance. On the other hand, with Reinhardt, you think, “What is this?” You’re not put into a state of inner turmoil. Or with Rothko, you might have some mysterious feeling from the way he did those color shapes. So, what do you want to happen with your work?         

Jan:   One of the things that I think is very prevalent in my work, is a call to memory - to remember and recognize that we’re not the beginning of time. That there are others who have built and created and have been here. I mean, it’s a recognition of their presence - the ancestors, the generation before our fathers.

RW:   Are there particular paintings where you’re going to feel the ancestors?

Jan:   I think there are ghosts in lots of my paintings. [points to one] There are dead bodies there and there’s a hand reaching up.             

RW:   There’s sadness and loss.

Jan:  Yeah. There’s a Greek chorus on the left. There’s an orphaned child. But I would say one speaks for one’s self. I can project onto others, I think, but I think there are others also who would feel this way. That when you look at an Ad Reinhardt painting and you look at that palette, and the darkness… I mean, for me, they’re very sad paintings. They grip me and affect me physiologically. They affect my heart rate and the weight of my body, my mood, my thoughts. When you see those deep blues and the blacks, and you see a cross figure, and you have all of that there, I mean, I find that very, very gripping emotionally. I don’t know that Guernica is creating pain and that Ad Reinhardt isn’t. I think there are times when one can look at an Ad Reinhardt and feel pain, too.

RW:   It could be. They don’t affect me that way. But that doesn’t mean it might not affect you that way. How about a Franz Marc painting of those horses? That doesn’t make you feel pain or anything, does it?

Jan:   No. But they don’t make me feel much of anything, actually. And even knowing his biography, and the terror of World War I, and losing all those young artists who went off to war, World War I, with enthusiasm, and died within days - even knowing all of that.

RW:   He died, too.

Jan:   Yeah. That’s what I’m saying. Even knowing that, when I look at that work, it doesn’t evoke that from me.

RW:   It doesn’t evoke what?

Jan:  I think of it as being about the simple pleasure of the arc and the arabesque.

RW:   The arc and the arabesque? You mean a dance?

Jan:   I mean the geometric thing. And what that line does. And what the shape does. I don’t know about you and your childhood, but when I was really little - I’m talking about like five and six - I got into my parent’s desk drawer. There was my father’s slide rule and there were all these things that were really intriguing to me. The slide rule in particular. It had its case and that shape and those corners - and there were the triangles, the square. Then he also had a set of French curves. I took them out and drew with them all the time.
     I think we have these early, early responses to shapes - to certain phenomena. A line that goes this way, and then comes back - and just the way in which it does. I think those things are embedded in how we develop as an artist - and that’s what I see in Franz Marc.

RW:   When you looked at and drew with French curves, did it evoke a feeling of some kind?

Jan:   Well, it must have because I really loved it.

RW:   You have a strong memory of this?

Jan:   Absolutely. I mean, we’re talking about really basic, young responses to forms. Like being four or five years old. And I think this thing that children have about hearts, and heart-shaped things. I mean, what is this? This doesn’t relate to heart and emotion. We imbue it with that afterwards. But initially, what is it that has us about this heart shape? The curve and the coming together? The going apart? The kind of lusciousness, and holding it. You know you’ve got a form there. And then it kind of comes together. But it’s disappeared at its point of coming together. I mean, I think these things are really magical for young kids.

RW:   I totally agree. That’s how I see those Franz Marc horses, too.  You were saying they didn’t affect you, particularly.

Jan:   Well, I mean, he’s not somebody who has affected me as an artist. But when I look at his work, that’s what I see. Which is why I was telling you about these experiences.

RW:   One of the few times I really looked at one of those horse paintings, it’s almost like I drempt into it. It almost broke my heart, in a way, because it seemed to capture the beautiful innocence of childhood. I agree with you, but those experiences are some of our deepest ones. They’re still there, don’t you think?

Jan:   Absolutely. Absolutely. And to go back to that period of time - I have to say that I loved cards when I was a kid, greeting cards I mean. The greatest joy was if my mother had to shop somewhere, and I could go over to the aisle where there were greeting cards and I could just look at them, open them. They were so intriguing, and the layering of them. I mean, sometimes they popped up! Sometimes they had little things - dials you could change. They had different images and numbers - that whole thing.
     I’d made a card with a heart cut-out, and the heart on the inside showing through - those kinds of things - the layering and the possibilities of something not being what it appears at first. You open it up and see it’s something else.

RW:   What’s coming to me is that Jan Wurm’s work springs from a deep place in her, and perhaps a lot of it has to do with the world’s transgressions against something deeper and purer in us as human beings - its transgressions and separations and oppositions - when we were more open to the beauty of life, and curious, and able to see somehow. This is sort of what’s coming to me. 

Jan:   I think it’s really hard to understand two things when you’re a child. One, that there can be destruction in the world. And two, how can people see this, understand it, and not stop it?

RW:   It’s like the question, why is there evil in the world? 

Jan:   Yeah [with some emotion].

RW:   Besides just liking it, I’m feeling more connected to your work now.

Jan:   I think it’s just very difficult to paint children because, in the abstract, they tend to be rendered with sentimentality.

RW:   Right, that’s the word.

Jan:   So to avoid that, because I don’t want my work to have that at its core, that’s one way in which I’ve used animals. They’re blameless, in the same sense. And they very often have been the entry into the pictorial space. So, the human figures will not have eye contact with the viewer, but it’s the animal that engages, and is looking directly out at the viewer. It could be in the zoo - captive like this - which is very obvious. It could be an animal on a balloon. It could be an animal on a carousel in an amusement park. Wherever it is, that’s where the point of connection is, and for me, that’s the blameless questioning of why and how is this behavior?

RW:   I don’t know why, but it reminds me that recently you curated an exhibit at the SHOH Gallery. All women, wasn’t it?

Jan:   It was all old women. [laughs]

RW:   Who have stayed with their art making for decades. Was it your idea? [yes] Can you talk about that?

Jan:   The women in that exhibition were women I’d known for a period of time, whose work had moved me and whom I’d shown in other situations, or whom I’d shown with. They all are not only looking outward at other people, but they themselves are also incredibly vulnerable in the ways they put that into their work. Whether in painting or sculpture or photography, these women artists all have a commitment to looking at and seeing just how people were, and how we are as social and political animals.
     Their work is very personal. I mean, there was nothing there that was just about dealing with the edge - not that the work wasn’t all very considered and exacting, and highly constructed. I mean, with all of them - from looking at their work from 1980 and from 2023, which is what it did - there was a thread that ran through the work that showed character, a consistency, a humanistic position and responsibility. All of that work really had a need to communicate.

RW:   What’s coming up for me is “mothers.” We need real mothers. I mean, the Earth is our mother. It holds us. It gives us life. Mothers give life. It’s really interesting having this conversation because we’re in real territory, don’t you think?

Jan:   Yeah. There are mothers - in the literal sense of one’s own biological children. There’s mothering, in the sense of mothering one’s self. I think of Lorraine Bonner’s sculpture in that show where she is mothering herself; in that work, she’s providing her own healing in that sense.
     And then to look at nurturing - I mean, there are also men who engage. I mean, there weren’t men in that exhibition, but certainly we expect that in the social contract. We expect of men that they also perform in the same way. They don’t always, but we expect that. We expect that of our school systems, and we look at the teacher as having that role, also.

RW:   You made a remark earlier that this a time of a lot of grief.

Jan:   Yes.

RW:   And what we’re talking about right now seems very much related to where this grief is because we’re lost somehow in the culture’s strategies for grabbing our attention, seducing us with entertainment and selling us products. Selling out.
     You spoke of the social contract. Honoring the social contract would mean we have to behave responsibly and understand that we only prosper when we take others into consideration, and not only my own immediate desires. We help out other people if we can. All that seems to be disappearing in the rear view mirror somehow. It’s very disturbing. We’re in a frightening period. Do you feel that?

Jan:   Absolutely terrifying. But to go back to your point about not just taking advantage of others, but actually helping and supporting. I think often about old barn-raisings, and how people lived in other times. I do think a lot about the way in which schools now have “community service.” They have requirements for students before they can graduate from high school. Students have to have projects; they have to do community service.
     It’s both really wonderful, but to me, it’s also frightening that these things aren’t happening organically already from childhood. And by the time they get to high school this should be something that’s already integrated in just the way people are living their lives. You’re talking to somebody whose ideal was to be a candy striper.

RW:   What is a “candy striper”?

Jan:   A volunteer in the hospital, like when you’re 15, 16. It was something I was waiting to do. I mean, I did other things before that. We’re the generation of the Peace Corps, right?

RW:   Right.

Jan:   And AmeriCorps. It’s amazing to me that our whole society hasn’t embraced that. It’s remained as just a narrow pocket of thought in relationship to our society. And we’ve certainly been around long enough, all of us, to have gotten to the place where everybody would feel it’s the right thing and derive some kind of satisfaction from doing something for someone else.

RW:   You’re saying we’ve been around long enough, we should be doing this?

Jan:  We should be.

RW:   Yes. And we’re not. It’s a very strange time in that respect.

Jan:   There’s more “messaging” coming at people - everybody, with really different values.

RW:   It’s hard not to think that, as a culture, we’re going in a bad direction. I’d say, there’s been a huge loss of trust. I think most of us regard a lot of things coming our way as being not true - lies, either outright or by implication. Like with the Amazon trucks emblazoned with the graphic, “Warning. Contents may cause happiness.” What a sly, unfortunate message. Godfrey Reggio’s second film was Powaqqatsi. Its title comes from a Hopi word powaqqa, which means “witch” or black magic. When I interviewed him, he said the film is about black magic, which he defined as “promising what you can’t deliver.” We have a lot of that in this culture.
     In the canvases I see behind you, I feel the protest and the sadness. I think I’m finally getting that. And also, maybe why you’ve been doing this for so long. Now, let me see if you’ll agree with what I’m saying… It’s a very deep feeling for something of utmost value in each us, particularly from when we’re still intact in childhood. And how that’s being squandered in a culture that prioritizes getting and winning - the Buddhists would say “the five poisons” or something like that. How do you feel about what I’m saying?     

Jan:  Yeah. I mean they’re not sweet and content paintings, for sure. I think they’re calling us to task, particularly for those who saw the social changes of the 60s. It’s impossible not to feel there was a lot of - I don’t want to call it - betrayal, but it’s like that’s what happened. I mean, we were going to have smaller, fuel-efficient cars. We were going to have more public transportation. We were going to have all those things years ago, and now all you see are SUVs everywhere - all these kinds of things that are hard to understand within that same generation.
     I mean, what happened to everyone? I can’t figure it out.
     It was easy for us to look at our parent’s generation in the 1950s, and to look at Madison Avenue and understand how that manipulated people, and what it drove people to. It’s been a lot more difficult with this generation, where everything is online and social media. In some ways, people have more of the illusion that they’re in control and that they’re making these decisions.

     I’m not quite sure what’s at work here, where people can say “shopping therapy” and not find it abhorrent. The fact is that it’s a reality for millions and millions of people and is acceptable. Even the terminology should be stopping us in our tracks, and it’s not because it’s being pedaled as “therapy.” It’s a very bad therapeutic since it’s gone as soon as your box arrives, and it’s opened.
     That doesn’t even address the basic problems with our personal relationships, with communication, with people’s relationships to their work, and to isolation - and all kinds of issues within their lives. All of this was there and in place pre-pandemic. The pandemic was just an opportunity for this to bloom exponentially. And there are so many places where people don’t even know their neighbors.

RW:   I don’t doubt that for a second. It’s only recently that I’ve gotten more and more interested in meeting people outside of my own silo. In fact, I do it on purpose now. Before, I was too shy to break the ice with strangers. If someone broke the ice with me, I appreciated it. It's this thing of the fear of “the Other.”

Jan:   I think we long for the connection. I mean, I don’t see it so much as fear of “the Other” as much as fear of rejection. I think there’s a fear they’re not going to like me. They’re not going to want to engage with me. They’ve got better friends. I think we’re just very self-protective. It’s not a physical, it’s self-protective emotionally.

RW:  [cell phone call] I’ll let them leave a message. I’ve already had my first encounter with artificial intelligence voice simulation. I didn’t think AI would come up here, but my heart sinks at the very mention of it. I mean, if you’re an illustrator, you can kiss your job goodbye, really. That’s part of why I say we’re in the strangest time.

Jan:   What I don’t understand is, in terms of art, we’re not looking for something that’s already there. We want to do something that’s new, and of this moment in time.

RW:   Well, you’re speaking as an artist and I was referring to…

Jan:   Right, the job.

RW:   In any case, I think we’re in a pretty small minority - those of us who have managed to cultivate a life of art. There are a lot of people who want to try that, but of course, you know how it is. You can’t sell your work. Can’t get shows.

Jan:   It’s all right here.

RW:  Long ago I had a feeling that what draws people into art is the instinctive wish to have an authentic, real life. Well, what does that mean? It could get back to individuation - in Jungian terms. It’s not just getting whatever I want. I interviewed Enrique Martínez Celaya maybe 15 years ago and remember him saying “Nowadays, we can entertain ourselves to death.” It was very apt then and it’s even more so today.

Jan:   Yeah.

RW:   The power wrapped up in entertainment, in comparison to what you and I, and others, can do as artists - I mean, there’s hardly any comparison. I’m soldiering on because there’s nothing better than the joy of having a real conversation and the magic one finds sometimes in the realm of art.   

Jan:   Paint on the hand - a hand print - and we go “Wow! Look at that!” It’s the most fun there is in the world. So it is a delight. And it’s what we want to do the most because it really gives us pleasure and satisfaction. The other is that we see a little bit of our mortality. We see this passing and loss, and it’s a way of leaving a mark, holding onto something and not feeling that everything is just gone, evaporated and all over.
     I’ve had a life already. What happened to all those years? That was a whole life and it’s gone, you know? I’m not feeling all the years, and the art holds onto moments in a different way. It’s still going to be there. I think it is a place in which people can enter, and they can have the images and the thought. It’s a communication that we always hope for.
     You spoke earlier of shyness. Well, there are all these things that we may never say to someone. We may never encounter the person with whom we would have that intimate connection we’re seeking. But when you’ve got your work there, you think that at some point in time, the work may actually find the person and have that kind of connection, that conversation. Even if you aren’t there, you’re having it through the work.

RW:   The work is a testament.

Jan:   It can be very much a marking of experience and milestone, or understanding, or clarity.

RW:   You know, I think that in many traditional cultures it’s believed that the  ancestors don’t go away. They’re always there. Still present. And in recent years, I find myself beginning to believe that. It just feels true somehow.

Jan:   All of those people - parents, brothers, the closest friend - I mean, they are in your brain. It’s physically holding them. If scientists understand that people can hallucinate - that hallucinations can be created with drugs in a physical way - then they have to understand that on some level those who you’ve known, whether they’re still living or not, they still exist for you. I totally have my ghosts with me all the time - sometimes unexpectedly.
     I have one dear friend who died unexpectedly. It was really tragic. I’d be driving my car and make a right-hand turn, and all of a sudden, I’d hear her laughter. For me, she would be present, and it was always her laughter first, before I saw her.
     After my father passed, he came in a dream. He wasn’t in a wheelchair and I thought, oh, this is so great. I can have him with me now, not in pain.  So we have ways of holding and keeping people that comfort us, that guide us.

RW:   Yes. And getting back to animals, my wife and I have two dogs, and one in particular, Ula, has been appearing in the magazine. She looks something like a Siberian fox/corgi mix. Not all dog. Sometimes I feel like she’s a window into the mystery of life. It’s quite a different thing. It’s not going to be explained away.
     I’m not sure how to pull this back to our conversation about art, but it’s just a great mystery that we exist. Language starts to fail around this point.

Jan:   Well, we can’t even conceive of this time. We can’t conceive of geologic time, much less this universe. It’s beyond us. I mean if we are limited to actually being able to understand, have an empathy for one death, maybe four or five, and then beyond that we don’t have a concept - even of what it means for a thousand people to die, or ten-thousand people, twenty-thousand. How do we comprehend the stars? In our system, you know, our galaxy - and the next galaxy? But all over there are things happening, not just here on our little planet. I think it’s really useful to think about it, because then I know if a fire wipes out all these paintings, it’s not such a huge, big deal; it’s not so big.

RW:   Well, we all have to face this - our impermanence, and the impermanence of our work, although it could last a bit longer, possibly. I mean, the Buddhists are reminding us all the time of our impermanence.

Jan:   One of the reasons I love drawing so much is that it is inherently impermanent. It’s on a piece of paper that’s going to fall apart, and that’s the end of it. It’s very liberating because in a sense, what you’re doing doesn’t really matter. So you can do anything. Drawing has that freedom for me.

RW:   It brings me back to the here and now. When you open the tube of paint and actual paint comes out, you put your brush in and start putting paint on the canvas - it’s simply a real thing, a form through which so much flows. I mean, this whole thing of making a piece of art, how would you describe that?

Jan:   On the one hand, it’s not like anything else, and on the other hand, it’s like any other chore. The beginning is really exciting. Then there’s that middle where you’re just working at it. There’s a point where may be a little tired, and then it comes to the end. It comes together, and totally surprises you - like somebody else did it. Like, where did this come from? It suddenly asserts itself as itself, and you’re out of the picture.
     I mean, yes - it’s so many different things. It’s like working, and all of a sudden you realize, “God, I’m in the middle of this!” It’s so familiar. It’s like you’ve just encountered yourself again. It’s like you’ve been asleep or something; you hadn’t been present, hadn’t been in the room with yourself. Then suddenly, you’re there with yourself in it. It’s got a lot of different things, depending upon the weather. You know? 
     It’s full of surprises and it definitely has a biochemical effect to actually be doing it.  I know, because at the end of the day when I’m doing something else and reflect on the day, I remember, “My God, I was painting!” And just the fact that I was painting, makes me happy afterward; just having done it. It’s like doing a good deed for yourself. You know, we were talking about doing things for others - it’s something that you do for yourself, as well.

RW:   To keep yourself alive?

JW:   Definitely. I had an interesting experience in Chicago at the College Art Association conference. I just came back a week ago. One of the things that they’d done pre-COVID, and just started again, is something they call “ARTexchange.” People would sign up and bring work to show, and people would mill around. They’d have a bar set up, and it was the end of the day on Friday.
     This year there were just four of us artists. The others had ‘zines’ and my stuff is more books, really. I was sitting with someone I’d met during the conference and we were looking through this book I’d done from little pencil drawings. During 2020 when we had our lockdown and everything was really scary with COVID - I mean, those weeks in March and April were terrifying - at the end of every day, I took out a little sketchbook and a pencil and did a little self-portrait.
     We were talking about marking one’s life that way. For me, it was like, “Oh, my God, I’m still here!” And the response they had was related to their transitioning, and that they should be doing that, too.
     I’ve done similar things, always. I keep a book in my studio and the end of a painting, I’ll take whatever color is left on my brush and make a drawing from it. So, I have all these variations of my physiognomy. But this was different. This was a kind of prayer of gratitude at the end of every day - of having survived another day.

     So when you say, “What is painting like for you? What is the work like? It’s always different. It’s a hard, long way of saying this, but when you look at, let’s say from age 12 to 72 - an even 60 years - it’s served so many different masters and fulfilled so many different needs. I mean, how could you do one thing, like virtually every day for 60 years, if it didn’t have different meanings at different times - and feel differently?

RW:   It keeps renewing itself.

Jan:   Of course. It has to.

RW:   And it does.

Jan:   It does. It does, and it renews itself not because I’m always coming to it with new ideas. I think it also renews itself because of the world around us and everything is changing. That I’m meeting someone new. That I’ve had a different conversation.


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.        


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