Painting in the Interrogative Vein: The Recent Work of Sue Williams

On the eve of the last us election–the one we can only hope will turn out to have changed things in ways that still remain unpredictable–Sue Williams was still dissatisfied, to say the least: still pissed off by sexism, greed and war is more like it. And maybe that should go without saying, because the anger that was everywhere explicit in the “Project for the New American Century” paintings (2008) she showed last fall at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York was the opposite of irrational: it was sufficiently intelligent and well-aimed to make me wonder, on reflection, how I or any of us can be foolish enough not to be as angry as she is.

One thing Williams is not angry about is painting, but even so, she's still dissatisfied with it--with the art form in general and with her own relation to it in particular. I've been following her work for some 20 years now, and I can't think of anyone else during this time who has been so consistently productive in her questioning of painting, so resolutely unafraid to tear up her own rule book and write up a new one--and then to put herself through the same process again and again. Who else has been so restless and passionate in her dissatisfaction with what painting can be and do for us in the present? She keeps redefining what her project is and thereby negating whatever settled definition one might have of her as an artist, just as she negates any settled formulation of the painter's task.


Thinking about Williams's recent work, haunted as it is by the nightmare that was the last eight years of American history, has put me in a retrospective mood. I've been looking back at some of her early work, the paintings and drawings from the early '90s that first caught the eye of a broader public. Those works, with their crudely stated imagery of sexual violence, are still as uncomfortable today as they were then. At the time, hot on the heels of Neo-Geo and the return of the cool, they were so wrong they were right, and so they remain. Look again and see if I'm not right. Until our own amazed reactions taught us otherwise, we might never have believed ourselves even capable of receiving such things as painting--I mean in the emphatic sense of the word, part of the great tradition. And don't think I don't realize, by the way, that by invoking the great tradition of painting with respect to a contemporary artist like Williams, I am opening myself to ridicule from both sides--on the one hand from those would-be upholders of tradition who consider that it is merely defiled by any connection to the art of today (above all when it combines such raw subject matter with such raw technique), and on the other from those avant-gardists after the fact who think that the Futurists really did succeed in burning all the museums. On the contrary, the art of the present is cut off from the past neither as a catastrophe nor as a liberation; it is joined to it as a paradox.


Looking at those early paintings of Williams's, I can affirm that they are still ugly. I will not prophesy of them, as Clement Greenberg once did of Jackson Pollock's paintings, that "in the course of time this ugliness will become a new standard of beauty." In this case I really find it hard to imagine how the paintings could ever look beautiful. And yet they make me want to say that though they do not *look* beautiful and never will, they *are *beautiful. Their beauty lies in the inner strength that allowed them to be painted ...

See issue 111 to read Barry Schwabsky’s entire article!

Volume 28, Number 3: Paint

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #111, published August 2009.

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