Dona Nelson

Interviews, 2017 and 2014

Dona Nelson in conversation with Nicholas Chambers, Senior Curator, Modern and Contemporary International Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sidney, Australia, on the occasion of exhibition, Unpainting, 2017.

Dona, you’ve been exhibiting since the 1970s but I must confess that my first encounter with your work didn’t happen until 2013 when your New York gallerist, Thomas Erben, recommended I see the brilliant group exhibition Untitled (Hybrid) curated by Kate McNamara at Robert Miller Gallery. The following year you presented a solo exhibition, Phigor, at Thomas’ gallery that was so adventurous and uncompromising that it truly shifted my frame of reference for contemporary painting. Of course, I wasn’t alone in having such a strong reaction – the New Yorker memorably mused that the show ‘gives notice that she [Nelson] will do anything, short of burning down her house, to bully painting into a freshly spluttering eloquence’.1 One thing I’ve puzzled over is the title, so let me start by asking you, what is a ‘phigor’?

It’s a word I invented in the course of curating a little group show in Philadelphia of young figurative painters. When I was thinking up a title for the show, two words popped into my head: Philadelphia and figure. And so I thought, ‘I’ll call it Phigor’, and then, ‘Oh that’s way too good to waste on a group show in Philadelphia!’ So I ended up using it for my show with Thomas, partly because I think there’s a figurative implication with all my work, but also because it was a real rough and tough kind of show. They were really wild paintings that seemed to have some kind of synergy with the word, ‘phigor’, which could be the name of a Frankenstein-like character.

Actually, I’m interested in how words relate to paintings. I think paintings are specific in a different way than words.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales acquired the painting March Hare 2014 from the show, a title that has quite a specific literary reference.

That particular work is actually one of my favourite paintings. You know, I have always loved the idea of the March Hare who, in Alice in Wonderland, had a certain kind of absurdity coupled with an undeniable physical thereness. This is a quality that’s in Pollock’s Yellow islands from 1952, a painting that has been very important to me. In Yellow islands, the paint is zooming around, being decorative, being imagistic, and in the middle of the painting, the paint becomes just paint, pulled down by gravity.

Something I find interesting about late Pollock is the tension between his virtuosic control over the composition and his unbridled spirit of experimentation. I sense that there’s a parallel with your own two-sided paintings (March Hare is an example), which you have been working on for more than a decade. You must have become very familiar with the processes involved in creating them and I wonder how you maintain the possibility for experimentation.

Well, I do have a particular way to go about making paintings. I consider myself a process artist and have always had procedures, sometimes written up as lists. I do one thing, I do the next thing and the next thing and so on until the painting has a kind of character which I then follow to see where it leads.

For the two-sided paintings I start by throwing a net of cheesecloth soaked with gel medium onto the canvas. When it dries I have a series of rope-like lines that function like dams when I pour fluid acrylic over the surface. I may then rip off the cheesecloth, or maybe I’ll throw down another net and do the whole thing all over again. Sometimes when I remove the cheesecloth it tears holes in the canvas, which I quite like and patch with gel.

March Hare has at least two holes on its surface. Depending on where one is standing, it’s possible to see light passing through the canvas.

That’s an important part of my paintings – the holes and the rips. The point is that there are so many ways to make paintings. There are so many things going on in my studio and that’s maybe why I do object to ‘signature’ style painting. I also don’t like the idea of making a painting better. I don’t look at a painting and think to myself, ‘How can I make it better?’ I follow certain procedures and then, at the end, the painting is what it is. And that’s a really important part of my practice. With abstract painting you can get into this pointless way of thinking, ‘well, maybe I can add a bit here?’ or, ‘another shape there’. But it becomes arbitrary and it’s not interesting at all to me.

In a sense, I have rebelled against having to do anything predictable. I think, as a woman, you always have a tempestuous relationship to painting’s history. You stand a little to the side of it. You really just can’t march along and take your place in the line-up. You can see that with a painter like Lee Krasner. There’s a sense in which her paintings were more experimental than those of many of her male peers. She explores this avenue, then she explores that avenue.

One of the things that sets your recent shows apart is the way you deal with space. You approach it in a very forthright, even aggressive way, presenting some pictures in a conventional fashion, on the wall, and then using ceiling or floor- based supports to allow others to occupy a room’s volume. They compel viewers to address them using not only their eyes, but their whole bodies.

I think the floor stands work particularly well with rougher paintings, like March Hare. There’s nothing minimal about them, they’re like medieval instruments of torture with screws holding the stretcher in place. When you place a painting on a stand, away from the wall, it just sits there in such a stubborn way. It’s neither sculpture nor painting.

In the case of March Hare, you see the back of the canvas, which is quite illusionistic and this contrasts with the physical experience of seeing the painting standing there in the space.

I’m also interested in the way that the steel stands and the wooden box structures I’ve started making force you to think about what it is to look at an art exhibition. Ordinarily, you walk into a white space; all the paintings are uniformly hung on the wall; you stand 10–15 feet away from them. It’s a highly artificial environment. I want people to be conscious about what it is to be an art viewer.

When I was a kid I lived in Columbus, Ohio and I was always dying to go to the big museums. Every summer we would go to Iowa with my family to visit my grandparents and I’d always plead and plead with my father to stop in Chicago, so I could see the Art Institute. Usually he wouldn’t do it but one time, when I was about 11, he said ‘Okay’. So, we got to the museum’s parking garage and he turned to me and said, ‘Alright, Dona, you have a half hour!’ And I ran. I ran through the museum, from room to room like a crazy person because I was dying to look at art. So, I mean, I do think looking at art is kind of fabulous. It’s a privilege. To have the time and the place to look at art. And I do feel that it’s not just a given thing and I don’t want the looking to be an unexplored aspect of making exhibitions. I want people to think about what it is to look at art.

Making Sense Interview Questions, 2014

Questions submitted to Dona Nelson, June, 2014, by Megan Voeller, Associate Curator, Institute for Research in Art, University of South Florida, (unedited text).

Is there a set of techniques that you think of as being distinctively yours? How did you find or develop them?

Maybe I can claim to have invented cheesecloth mixed with gel medium, a kind of soft clay that allows me to spontaneously make little images and abstract forms. Also, I work one side of the canvas so vigorously that another image shows up on the other side of the canvas, but other painters have probably done that also.

What kinds of relationships do your paintings propose to viewers? What do your paintings want or invite?

I am interested when pure materiality on one side of the canvas, becomes an image on the other side of the canvas, as in the painting, Division Street. I call such abstract “images,” phigors, because the word is a sound that suggests other words.

Painting’s history. What do you hear it saying? Does the history of painting compel you to make in certain ways, or with certain aims over others?

Artforum, September, 1975, special painting issue:
ARTFORUM wishes to ask you, as a painter, what you consider to be the prospects for painting in this decade. It appears that painting has ceased to be the dominant artistic medium at the moment. And we assume that the debates between it’s two major ideologies, abstract and representational, have outlived their usefulness to the current scene. Our thinking here refers to the fact that neither side has triumphed over the other in a historical verdict to which both had appealed. On the contrary, those understood to be making “the next inevitable step” now work with any material but paint.

How do you think this has affected the need to do painting today and the general morale in the field?

Dona Nelson: Artforum’s view of painting seems limited to the history of Western painting from the end of the 19th century to the present, seeing this history as rushing from Manet, Monet, and Cezanne to Marden with hardly a moment to spare for the pleasures of a long contemplation of a single painting…

If a painter is to continue working with any kind of cheer and conviction, he must see painting as part of an infinitely varied and infinitely repetitive world tradition

My memory of art history is in terms of specific paintings. When I think of those paintings…I know why I am a painter…

Who are your touchstones in the history of painting, or art in general? Imagined rivals? Friends? How do they show up in your work?

Miro, Pollock, Fontana, and many, many other painters have informed my practice. I have great admiration for some of the American so-called “outsider” artists who are so inventive with materials and images. Right now, other than my own work, I have hanging a painting and a drawing by the American painter, Harriet Korman, a shaped Thornton Dial painting, a print by Deborah Grant, a great painting on plywood by the “outsider,” artist, Freddie Brice, a big Judith Linhare’s painting of a personable squirrel, a figurative painting by the late Sidney Tillim that is inspired by an old movie, and one of Gordon Moore’s complex works on photographic paper. Then, I have quite a bit of framed work on paper – paintings, pastels, drawings – that I have picked up from all over the place – senior citizen art sales, art shows in cafes, libraries, etc. The most humble artists are capable of extremely sophisticated visual production. Often, this “uncategorized” artwork is more surprising than what one sees in New York galleries. I certainly don’t call uncategorized artwork “primitive,” or “uneducated,” or “thrift store art,” or any thing of the sort. We are living in a repressive time that prizes conventional “success” above everything else, so yes, I am interested in almost any artwork where I see the urgency and intelligence of an individual.

Part of what’s happening over the process of making a painting is a certain thinking through things—discovering questions, discovering answers to questions. Would you talk about how such thinking unfolds in one of your works or projects (in the exhibition)?

Paintings are something different than questions or answers.

What do you think about the old saw that abstraction and representation are distinct endeavors? Does this distinction hold in your work?

No. Those categories don’t exist for me. Sometimes my paintings are representational images and sometimes the images are more abstract, but nothing is separate from the materiality of the actual painting. The two-sided paintings resist succumbing to a graphic quality. They also resist being photographed. My two sided paintings, like eccentric relatives of paintings, are absurdly ambitious in their futile but spirited opposition to both photography and architecture.

Where time makes an appearance as something communicated in your work, how do you paint it?

An image, even an abstract image, has a different quality of time than a splash of paint. Again, I refer to the front and back of Division Street. Often, I couple a fast process, such as staining with paint, with a slow process, such as pushing painted string through the canvas, from one side to another. The string slows and changes the reading of the painting’s composition. Most of my paintings are not graphic images. Color that is inseparable from the canvas and the texture of the paint also slows the read of the painting.

How has being a woman informed the positions you have taken up with regard to your studio practice and to painting as an institution?

Painting is not a gendered form. These days, when I hear myself referred to as a “woman painter,” or a “female artist,” I have to laugh – such an old fashioned designation! The first big show that I was in was Lucy Lippard’s show in 1970 at the Aldrich Museum, “23 Contemporary Women Artists.” There was a review in the New York Times titled “The Ladies Flex Their Brushes.” Many people who write about painting can’t think about the form in a complex way, so they resort to simple-minded categories like “woman painter,” as if that describes anything! However, that said, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the many women who have been so generous to me, other artists, critics, and curators, almost my entire professional support system has been women, but a few men have also been very supportive of me.

Of course, I try to be supportive of my students, but it’s interesting to see who continues to paint after school is over. Many stop painting, although they may stay in art related professions. Years ago, I happened to be in Chicago, and I visited a woman who had been a student at Tyler some years before. She was a single mother, and she was painting in her living room. I really liked her paintings, and her on going art practice, unsupported by an academic job or an exhibition history, was very moving and inspiring to me. I always say that painting is a gift that you give yourself, for your whole life. You give it to yourself. Don’t look to other people to give you permission to be an artist.

Does your work have a source? Is there a place where your best or newest ideas come from, somewhere you can return for renewal?

My only source is studio practice. I don’t work from ideas prior to practice. I am in the world, therefore the world is in my paintings.

Do you build paintings out of the world of imagination or from what you see out in the world?

Both, but mostly I build my paintings out of my materials. Although it’s often done, it’s not illuminating to speak as if paintings are not in the room.

What role does story play in your painting? Do you think of your paintings as having or telling stories?

The thing about stories and language in general, is that stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, while paintings, when they are really good, keep producing themselves while you look at them. It’s not very good news for higher art education, but, in fact, paintings are profoundly different than what can be said about them.

You’re in the thick of things in the studio. What’s your body doing? What are the moves that make up one of your paintings?

I can’t answer this question.