One of the most intrepid artists working today, Susan Weil has been breaking new ground in the field of painting for more than half a century. I was introduced to Susan in 1999 by Robert Rauschenberg, shortly after I had opened my first gallery, then located in SoHo. I began representing her in 2000. Since the early days of showing her work on Greene Street until today, with her retrospective exhibition in our Chelsea gallery titled Art Hysteri of Susan Weil: 70 Years of Innovation and Wit, Susan’s work has retained and incredible sense of unpredictability and continues to beguile and inspire me.
Although she has roots in the New York School of Art, Susan’s work defies categorization. She fractures the picture plane, deconstructing and reconstructing images. Yet, her works are neither Cubist nor Futurist and they elude the boundaries of Abstract Expressionism. Instead, her paintings challenge and surprise. They are dynamic and buoyant, playful and pensive. Possessing extraordinary expressive power, Susan’s work seems to dance on the wall.
Susan has always stood apart from her contemporaries. She has never been afraid to pursue figuration and reference reality in her paintings. She unabashedly draws inspiration from her childhood spent living on a farm and her summer journeys to a remote island in the Long Island Sound. Susan was raised in what she describes as “a rare and unusual landscape, human and otherwise.” A reverence for nature and personal narrative is threaded throughout her work. She is particularly interested in themes of renewal and shifts in the natural world including changes in seasons, transition from day to night, and the decay of trees.
Susan came of age as an artist in the post-war era. It was a time when American modernism was boldly veering away from its roots in European art and a new chapter in the country’s history was beginning. Following the trauma of World War II, young American artists were anxious to forge new identities. The drive for modernism was insatiable. New York was a fervor of artistic activity from the mid-1940s until the late 1970s. Institutions such as Black Mountain were established embodying the radical spirit of the time. Black Mountain was a creative Mecca where boundaries between various art forms collapsed and interdisciplinary collaborations became the norm. Susan was an integral member of that community and studied under Josef Albers. Her peers included Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, John Cage and Cy Twombly.
Leaving Black Mountain in 1949, Susan arrived in New York City when the art scene erupted. Working with other visual artists, dancers and musicians, she was at the heart of the city’s renaissance. She participated in happenings and elements of dance, poetry and theatre found their way into her work. Boundless in her creative search, she united the most unexpected materials into lyrical assemblages. Susan engaged in what she describes as “swapping,” “trading,” and “crumpling.” Intuitive and inquisitive, she was fascinated by the sequential movements of time. Setting static picture planes into motion, she articulated the disjunctive quality of present-day society. Not only do her works break free from the picture plane but they also tease viewers and force them to reevaluate their perceptions of reality and space. Her works possess the robust qualities of sculpture and reveal her profound understanding of the poetics of space.
Within the context of the post-war period, Susan was a maverick. Although she was outstanding among her contemporaries, she remained some distance away from the limelight. Like other women artists of the time, she was overshadowed by her male counterparts and only came into prominence later in life. Today, of course, the equation has changed and her works are being sought by museums and collectors around the globe.
Standing before Weil’s work, it is impossible to believe that she is an artist at the age of 90. Her work is filled with vitality and a sense of childlike awe. She seeks to capture her stream of consciousness and paint what moves before her mind’s eye. Not only is she one of the great historic figures of the American post-war movement, but she is without a doubt one of the most innovative and inventive artists I have ever encountered. Her output is prolific and her paintings remarkable. To say the least, she has made an indelible impression on 20th-century American art.
- Sundaram Tagore, 2020.
Adapted from an essay by Sundaram Tagore in the book Susan Weil: Moving Pictures, published by Skira Editore in 2011.