In an essay that appears in the 2018 exhibition catalogue like the land loves the sea, Phyllis Tuchman observed that “[f]rom the get-go, Mary Weatherford wanted to pack her paintings with meaning. Politics, mathematics, outer space, philosophy, linguistics, opera and ballet, literature, art history, urban life, bridges and thin shell constructions, science, faith, death and resurrection: the world has been her oyster.” This voracious desire to embrace the world in painting finds some of its most beautiful and far-reaching expression in Into Space and Time (2020), an important new work that speaks to the entire trajectory of Weatherford’s project to date. Embracing the world in this case means engaging with it as a cosmological phenomenon, and with the human capacity to see, sense, and experience the reaches of outer space, whether through telescopes, poetry, or simply the ever-unfolding layers of the imagination.
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Into Space and Time also represents the intersection of two ongoing thematic concerns: Weatherford’s interest in science—in particular astrophysics—and an art-historical curiosity about the use of the color pink, which has dominated in several key paintings throughout her career. A number of these works are included in the artist’s current survey exhibition Canyon–Daisy–Eden at the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Pink, traditionally associated with the soft and the permeable, has often become the occasion for a feminist cri de coeur in which Weatherford rewires the ways in which viewers link colors, forms, and content. This is particularly clear in works like Nagasaki (1989), a large, hard-edged target painting whose title alludes to the setting for the opera Madame Butterfly and the tragic story of its female protagonist. Epic in scale and reach, the painting challenges what we think we know about the development of abstraction as a standalone discipline, instead prompting us to search out references outside the artwork even as we grapple with it as purely phenomenological experience.
Simultaneously, Weatherford is signaling the existence of alternative art-historical narratives. If the evolution of Color Field painting is usually understood to be the result of a steady march toward the non-objective, looking out for notable appearances of pink leads us to artists like Paul Feeley (1910–1966), who allowed a very different emotional valence to suffuse his work. As poet and critic John Yau noted in a review in Hyperallergic, “Feeley was intensely interested in a confounded figure-ground relationship; he was able to economically synthesize the formal and the comic; he was attentive to the erotic; his work clearly stands apart from Color Field painting.”
An expanded field of this kind, which includes the psychological along with the formal, allows painting to reflect not only the experience of the viewer during the moment she stands before the canvas, but also her impressions, projections, and memories of experiences that are not directly related to abstract art, per se. Weatherford is one of her generation’s great innovators in this regard, as she has continuously pushed abstraction forward on numerous fronts, rooting her advances in material experimentation while asking ever more pointed questions about how painting conveys meaning and how it relates to the world—and not just the visual world—around it.
5:00 a.m. (1992) is another large-scale pink work that departs from the stain-based vocabulary of late Color Field painting through the inclusion of silkscreened images of rose thorns. Weatherford inserts these representational forms in a complex, shifting, crepuscular composition that evokes the time of day to which its title refers. This move juxtaposes tropes from the still life genre, with all of the sharp fixity of subject matter and scope they imply, and diffuse, light-filled areas of color that, despite the horizontality of the canvas, go beyond landscape. Here is something as dream-like and unpredictable as a memory of a sleepless night.
My Dalí (1996), on the other hand, is a compact, thickly painted work that notably includes actual seashells and starfish along with oil and Flashe paints. Surface here is not just a place where pigment goes to rest. It’s a gravitational plane that attracts materials that would ordinarily find their way into sculptures, not paintings: a surface, in other words, that disrupts painting as much as it constitutes it, and that contributes a tangible sense of time, space, and texture. If the qualities of light that emanate from Weatherford’s heralded neon paintings tend to make us think of sky and weather, it is worth noting that there is an equally prominent side of her work that is dedicated to the earthy aspect of things.
In fact, the basic duality of heaven and earth has been a generative principle for Weatherford since the beginning. Several explicit takes on this archetypal theme provide telling touchstones; among them is the comically sublime Midnight toker (2001), in which an anthropomorphic Earth, in the form of a horizon at night, seems to be smoking a joint. Otherworldly touches include what appear to be two moons hovering in the sky; more grounded ones can again be found in the non-painted elements that Weatherford affixes to the canvas. A feather is the whimsical “joint” between the Earth’s lips, and a single sequin adds its reflective shimmer to the pinkish expanse above it. Here pink and the subject of the heavens above come together in a single, compact statement.
Into Space and Time, the work at the heart of this presentation, shares these basic attributes, but takes on both the literal and metaphorical vastness of the cosmos. Given its prominence in the 20th-century collective imaginary, outer space has proven to be an august theme in contemporary art, especially since rendering something that stretches the mind to its limits presents productive formal challenges. Vija Celmins, for instance, has recreated found images of space in a variety of mediums, painstakingly applying paint or pencil marks, say, until she builds up fields of stars and the voids of emptiness that separate them.
Weatherford is also a proponent of this material heterogeneity. To make each of the paintings mentioned thus far, she relied upon different sets of paints, materials, and supports. While the neon paintings represent a sustained body of work, each of them involves a series of decisions about how to prepare the gesso ground, apply her paints, and incorporate the neon bulbs as well as the cords and fixtures required to power and hold them. Each step requires a calibrated dance, an oscillation between improvisational speed and methodical planning. Even the sweeping marks that give Into Space and Time its characteristic energy are laid down upon a calligraphic architecture of first pink strokes, visible in this studio shot taken early during the painting’s evolution, when the canvas is positioned on the floor.
The importance of line in the finished composition is evident. Even when making gestures at this scale and in this medium, painting and drawing function as points on a continuum rather than separate disciplines, as our concurrent online exhibition of Weatherford’s recent paintings on paper also makes clear. Her brushstrokes are heroic on the one hand and intimate, even vulnerable, on the other, leaving behind a record of her movements around and over the canvas. The physicality here goes beyond the expressive dispersal of pigment onto a flat surface. It is also informed by the relative experience of space itself, which is reliant upon movement as well as stillness, action as well as perception.
This relativity is at the core of what Weatherford evokes in Into Space and Time. A lifelong interest in contemporary astrophysics and its philosophical ramifications provides a variety of cues, visual and otherwise, that inflect the painting process in subtle and surprising ways. According to the radical propositions of string theory, for example, our universe is one of several universes that intersect according to principles that scientists are still attempting to conceptualize. Einstein wondered about whether it was possible to move between disparate moments in space and time through hypothetical portals, known as wormholes, that might serve as shortcuts between past and future.
Seen in the light of such theories, the linear substructure of Into Space and Time—the lengths of color pulling away from the center of the composition—can be read as strands of space connecting disparate dimensions, a notion that seems less far-fetched when one considers that even memories of different moments in our lives can feel like shards of separate realities. Line and geometry become more than mathematical principles; they are expressions of the natural world and the range of human attempts to bring order to it, including those, like Weatherford’s, that privilege the organic and the open-ended. One 20th-century art-historical antecedent can be found in the hanging wire sculptures of Ruth Asawa, which contain intricate universes within universes, and which emerged from a milieu at Black Mountain College during the 1940s and 50s when figures like Buckminster Fuller were advocating for new connections to be forged between artistic and scientific modes of thought.
That apt comparisons can and should be made between Weatherford’s paintings and non-painting artworks speaks to the breadth and mutability of her visual language, which includes elements, like neon tubes, that expand and elaborate upon painting’s existing legacies, generating hybridized forms and fostering a palpable sense of possibility. Nonetheless, a large part of the magic of her work comes from her ability to draw from a broad swath of painting-specific techniques. As she built upon the initial marks of Into Space and Time, working wet on wet and allowing large strokes to pool into enveloping masses of pink, violet, red, and yellow, she also used sponges to vary the thickness and opacity of areas of pigment, sculpting the paint into majestic bursts and clouds.
In one important sense, she is following the dictates of the materials, participating in the proceedings as a conductor might, allowing each color to assert its individuality as an optical and physical force. In another, she is operating from a lifetime’s worth of thoughts, reflections, and dreams about outer (and inner) space. From following the trajectories of the Apollo missions to the moon as an elementary school student; to visiting the seminal Art and Technology exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1971; to attending lectures by Neil deGrasse Tyson at the Hayden Planetarium in New York in the 1990s, each phase of Weatherford’s life has been marked by continued engagement with the science of our solar system, galaxy, and universe. She even wrote a radio play in 1992 entitled Satellite Girl, which includes passages like this:
“Of course there are too many stars in the heavens to count or observe unless they are special in some way—like the aforementioned pink, an odd color, and I think it’s a myth that stars glow more brightly before they burn out, so it would make sense that it would be very unlikely to be observing a star at the moment of transformation.”
For years she has also maintained a digital collection of images culled from NASA's archives. Some of these depict nebulae and and other far-off galactic events not unlike the ones to which she refers in Satellite Girl, and that clearly relate to the color and composition of Into Space and Time.
As the painting progressed, Weatherford augmented the warmer colors with patches of a darkish blue-green that lends the composition depth and shadow, and that functions as a kind of negative space even though it also defines the work’s foreground. The theoretical existence of dark matter—which physicists think is a crucial, invisible building block of the universe that lurks within everything we see—comes to mind.
“There is a dualistic theme to my work. It goes from night to day, from a low range to a high range. The way I choose colors is maybe like an improvisational pianist choosing whether to play in the bass or the treble keys. I have infinite choices, and I like to go from low to high—I like to paint without black, then paint with all black. I like to combine neutrals with high chroma color.”
A similar effect is present in a painting like Agnes Pelton’s Day (1935), where a dark, pigment-rich black defines the lower right-hand side of a scene otherwise characterized by a luminous arrangement of pastel forms. Pelton is a particularly interesting predecessor for Weatherford, since she painted images that cannot be classified as abstract or representational; they inhabit, rather, a visionary landscape of the mind that simultaneously refuses to adhere to the tropes of the landscape genre. Her imaginative, spiritually inclined responses to the American West are expansive and romantic, appealing equally to the head and heart.
On the other side of the color spectrum, the rectangle hovering near the center of the Pelton painting functions much like the neon bulb that is the final “mark” in Into Space and Time, which also seems to open up a portal into another dimension. As Weatherford has observed about the neon paintings generally, “I think the light makes a cut. It makes a hole in your vision. You can’t look at the painting and look at the light at the same time.” In the ultimate phase shift between macro and micro, and between outside and inside, the neon transports us into the very mechanism of our vision.
While Into Space and Time is undoubtedly a work about the human capacity to enlarge our sense of the reality we inhabit, even beyond the limits of our own comprehension, it also reminds us that any journey outward, to the furthest reaches of space, is a journey back to the finally indescribable center of our individual lives here on Earth. Thinking about the origins of the universe, we think about the origins of ourselves. As Captain Kirk intones at the beginning of every episode of Star Trek, which Weatherford has recalled watching with her parents as a young girl, space is “the final frontier,” and the challenge, whether we are looking inward or to the stars, is “to boldly go” where none have gone before us.
Mary Weatherford (b. 1963, Ojai, California) is currently the subject of a retrospective exhibition, Canyon–Daisy–Eden, that opened in February 2020 at the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, and will travel to SITE Santa Fe. Other solo exhibitions include shows at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum, Claremont McKenna College, Claremont, California (2014); Todd Madigan Gallery, California State University at Bakersfield, California (2012); and LAXART, Los Angeles (2012). Recent group exhibitions include Aftereffect: Georgia O'Keeffe and Contemporary Painting, Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (2019); Feel the Sun in Your Mouth: Recent Acquisitions, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. (2019); Between Two Worlds: Art of California, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2017); NO MAN’S LAND: Women Artists from the Rubell Family Collection, Rubell Family Collection, Miami (2015); Pretty Raw: After and Around Helen Frankenthaler, Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts (2015); and The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2014). Her work features in the permanent collections of many institutions, among them the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate Modern, London; Brooklyn Museum, New York; K11 Art Foundation, Hong Kong; and Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. In 2019, Lund Humphries published an in-depth monograph surveying the artist's oeuvre. Weatherford lives and works in Los Angeles.
To learn more about Mary Weatherford, please view these articles in Art in America, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, and the Los Angeles Times, or purchase a copy of the exhibition catalogue like the land loves the sea.
Portrait by Antony Hoffman
Photography of Mary Weatherford works by Fredrik Nilsen Studio, unless otherwise noted
Space photography: Hubble’s sharpest view of the Orion Nebula, Courtesy of NASA, ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team
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