An Interview with Artist William Conger

January, 2008

William Conger began exhibiting professionally in 1958 at the Southwest and New Mexico Biennials in Santa Fe while he was still an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM, and found a mentor in Raymond Jonson, the influential abstract painter and founder of the Transcendental Painting Group. Conger’s gallery exhibitions began in 1960 when he showed in a group exhibition at the Great Jones Gallery in NYC curated by Elaine de Kooning. He completed his education at the University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, where he received an MFA in 1966. His long teaching career was capped at Northwestern University where he is now Professor Emeritus of Art Theory and Practice. Conger has had numerous solo and group exhibitions in Chicago and nationally. His work is in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL; The Wichita Art Museum, Wichita, KA; The Jonson Museum, Albuquerque, NM; The Illinois State Museum, Springfield, IL; The Rockford Art Museum, Rockford, IL; and in many university museums, as well as in corporate and private collections both nationally and in Europe. Conger has completed public art commissions for the city of Chicago and for Chicago’s McCormick Exposition Center. His career papers and records are archived in the Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art. A forty-year retrospective of his painting will be presented at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2009. Conger lives and works in Chicago.

Julie Karabenick: Your paintings present imaginary realms that are new to us, yet allusive.

William Conger: My paintings are “as if” places and stories acted out in imagination. They evoke associative responses to abstract form. The paintings are surrogates or metaphors of selfness in the most complete way I can devise in any single work. They are layered metaphors of my self-imagining.

Florida, oil on canvas, 152 x 355 cm (60 x 132 in), 2003

When I begin a painting, it’s typical for me to be motivated by formal issues more than expressive ones. Once a painting gets underway, however, I begin to be preoccupied by allusions and recollections brought to mind by the shapes and how I paint them. The painting process is slow enough to invite contemplative free-associating as I work.

JK: Many passages in your paintings suggest a deep space.

WC: I never was much interested in completely flat abstraction. Everything I paint is somehow illusionist. Years ago, I made up a rule: The logic of pictorial space is not the logic of real space. In pictorial space, two things can be in the same place at the same time, whereas in real space, they cannot. I suppose this is another way of defining cubist space. My abstraction has always been intuitive. I never abstracted from nature or used a grid or any geometric system.

Ravenswood, oil on canvas, 178 x 188 cm (70 x 74 in), 2006

I don’t really calculate my compositions, but simply follow my inclinations and feelings. Perhaps it’s like conducting improvisational music—I just feel where the emphasis should be, what color should rise, what line descend. The painting is a performance, a metaphor of myself reaching and leaning, stretching and pulling. Maybe my way of composing is a residue of earlier influences of Abstract Expressionist action painting. Only now, the action is fully internalized and passed through a formal filter, as it were. I think intuitively and playfully with shapes and colors just as a mathematician might amuse herself with numbers and equations.

JK: You offer the viewer considerable spatial ambiguity.

WC: I’m interested in the transgressive results of contradictory modes of treating pictorial space. That’s a cubist inheritance. I want to keep ambiguity without having to rely on flatness. All of my work bridges the polarities of flatness and depth, object and void, ambiguity and literalness. In the end, I want a composition that strongly suggests place or figure, but without representation or depiction. It’s all formal and pictorial; that is, it’s impossible and nothing—except in painting.

Intersections Chicago
Intersections Chicago I, oil on canvas, 213 x 335 cm (84 x 132 in), 2002

I remember saying that my paintings seem to exist just behind the surface, not on it. That’s why I came to avoid textures and obvious brush marks. My paintings have an abstract, illogical atmosphere and light, as if created by the shapes, not for them. I combine flat planes defining the picture surface with those suggesting a stronger illusion of space.

I like the clarity of a severe formal presentation, seemingly requiring a flat plane, but immersed in a strange, immeasurable space. What could be more contradictory than hard edges in a quasi-atmospheric space with shifting internal light?

Recruit, oil on wood, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 2005

JK: We often sense a horizon line in your work that encourages us to make real-world sense of the painting’s space.

WC: The horizon line is an affirmation of the material world—and it’s a lie. It’s a zone of ambiguity. Like a mirage, the horizon always slips away from you. You never know where it really is or where the sky actually becomes land or water.

Sheridan, oil on canvas, 152 x 127 cm (60 x 50 in), 2006

JK: Glimpses of a potential horizon line provoke even greater ambiguity in your paintings—ambiguity about the fundamental nature of the space before us.

WC: I want to explore an interesting paradox: how easily we perceive the illusion of pictorial space while retaining the awareness of the flat surface, the paint and the work itself as an object. Our quick willingness to make believe, to immediately perceive an art object or image as a metaphor is strange, a habituated reflex. It’s not something we do very much in our day-to-day experience except perhaps unconsciously.

I allude to this paradox by suggesting painted metaphors and denying them in the same composition. I suppose this is the opposite of minimal and formalist art theory, which is aimed purely at objecthood without metaphor. But it’s central to abstraction, particularly to earlier abstract painting, although abandoned after WWI. It’s the unfinished adventure of modernist painting.

Vigil, oil on wood, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 2005

JK: The paradox—painting as illusion and flat surface—is reinforced by how you cut off many shapes at the canvas edge.

WC: The suggestion of continued pictorial space beyond the framing edge is forcefully contradicted by the literal end of the canvas. I want to echo that contradiction within the composition even as I indulge illusionist and allusionist options. If you feel the urge to complete a shape beyond the painting’s edge, then you are adding imaginative content. It’s a reminder of the make-believe nature of perception and art.

Herald, oil on linen,
213 x 61 cm (84 x 24 in), 2005

JK: Tension and ambiguity are heightened by the complex ways your shapes interact with one another.

WC: I’ve always preferred to connect shapes, to string them together along linear paths and to intersect the canvas edge. These linear connections create a web of ambiguous positive or negative space, figure or ground. This enables me to modulate the shapes, add atmosphere, toy with illogical light and dark, allude to things and places without locking any identity explicitly. Every shape and color is both something and nothing, substance and void.

Pioneer, oil on canvas, 152 x 244 cm (60 x 96 in), 2003-04

JK: Many small dramas play out across the canvas, precluding a primary focal point and foiling a simple resolution of the space.

WC: I want the viewer to feel embodied as a painting, as if one is the painting. In that sense the painting is like a moving, stretching self, a body, a playful consciousness. First you are here, then there; you are this, then that; you are reaching, floating, bumping. Thus you create the space you’re looking at by vicariously acting within it.

Scout, oil on wood, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 2005

JK: Your shapes coexist—sometimes peacefully, but more often in a state of tension or even discord.

WC: In 1965, one of my professors at the University of Chicago, the great modernist scholar, Joshua Taylor, explained Jacques Louis David’s compositions as “thrust and counter-thrust.” Every line or shape was countered by an equally forceful opposing line or shape. That, he explained, stabilized the compositions, making them heroic, contemplative, iconic, yet full of action. Thrust and counter-thrust are aggressive in my mind, as if each movement intends to vanquish its target, but none succeeds. The result is action in momentarily stable balance.

Loyalist, oil on canvas, 152 x 127 cm (60 x 50 in), 2006

The static nature of painting is contrary to the continual flow of events and perception. The “frozen moment” is the hallmark of painting, and the painter has the task of imagining the flow of time before and after the static moment depicted. My aim is to suggest that the frozen moment I compose is unique—idealized, yet fleeting. I want the viewer’s gaze to hold the moment, as if looking alone can rescue it from a disorderly, chaotic past and future.

New Spain
New Spain, oil on canvas, 183 x 127 cm (72 x 50 in), 2004

I almost always begin a painting with unplanned formal rhythms and structural lines. It’s a nameless arrangement of shape and color. Yet as the painting develops, I play along with its evocations or allusions. In the end, I want my paintings to pull viewers into make-believe space.

JK: The firm edges or outlines around your shapes contrast with the handling of the areas inside—further contributing to the work’s ambiguity.

WC: The hard edge in my painting is my choice, but often a reluctant one. I’m interested in the sfumato of atmospheric painting—the blurred edges that open the window and flood the painting with deep colored space. The interiors of my shapes are often on the edge of depicting airy open space. This is contradicted by the edges, however, which remain in the crisp realm of the mind, not of nature. Paradoxical duality is crucial to my painting. Often shapes suggest either empty space or solid matter, but sometimes not. Anything goes in pictorial space.

Navigator, oil on wood, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 2006

The title, Navigator, is an allusion to the artist as navigator of the painting and to the composition that navigates pictorial space. The navigator metaphor emphasizes the responsibility of the artist in creating a journey and the responsibility of art to embody feeling and meaning.

JK: You’re often regarded as a colorist.

WC: Color is a difficult issue for me. I always begin with lines, thus the rhythm of the painting is linear. But once underway, my paintings are all about color and the very subtle color relationships that transcend basic color theory. I’m always trying to vex ordinary color harmony and rely purely on instinct. My paintings are a process of linear and color discovery.

JK: Turning to some background information, you were born in 1937 in the small town of Dixon, 100 miles west of Chicago.

WC: My father had an auto supply and appliance retail business, and our family lived in an apartment over the store. This was very modest living as my father’s business, always tough going, was soon bankrupted by Depression era woes. From 1939 to 1943, we moved around, finally settling in Evanston, Illinois where my father began a successful career in merchandising and publishing.

JK: You did a lot of drawing as a child.

WC: In Evanston, I recall drawing stylized tulips and working very hard to copy the wave design decorating the crib of my infant sister, Clara. I developed step-by-step diagrams of things like flowers or even people. I loved connect-the-dots puzzle drawings, and Donald Duck soon became a favorite image to copy. How I struggled with his foreshortened bill!

Soon I tried to draw by direct looking. By age six, I had apparently decided to be an artist because that’s what I blurted out in school one day upon being asked what I wanted to grow up to be. I figured I’d better live up to my boast.

My mother was an amateur painter. She often took me to the Chicago Art Institute, and I became so familiar with the museum that I memorized every gallery. I bought postcard reproductions of the masters and would try to copy them with poster paints.

JK: You enrolled in the demanding Chicago Loyola Academy prep school.

WC: The curriculum was rigorous and academic, taught by Jesuits. There was no attention to art. It didn’t take long to expose me as having no study skills and no interest in Latin and algebra. I drew pictures of cars instead, and by the end of that year I was excluded from the school. Concluding I wasn’t very smart, my parents enrolled me in a trade school where I excelled in architectural drawing and shop, but I quit school at 16 after a suspension for fighting. My parents sent me to live with my grandmother in Wisconsin. She was famed as her town’s most demanding no-nonsense school teacher. The following year, I attended a Catholic high school where I had ample opportunity to draw and paint, and I achieved some distinction as the school artist.

JK: You were admitted to the School of The Art Institute of Chicago in 1956.

WC: I loved the intensity of the school, but didn’t like living at home. An associate of my father was a good amateur artist. He convinced me to attend The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and study with his friend, Raymond Jonson, the founder of the Transcendental Painting Group that was devoted to geometric abstraction.

JK: So you left the city for a strikingly different environment.

WC: The vastness of the Southwest landscape made a lasting impression on me. Nature seemed to heave and move on a huge scale. Nothing was hidden. Wherever you looked, you saw new and ancient nature side by side. A meditative or awed response seemed to be the only way to comprehend the bigness, the variety, the daunting presence of the landscape. It encouraged a broad way of painting; it mocked little gestures, small shapes, weak colors. New Mexico was not a place for purely intellectualized art. Instead, it inspired a romantic, transcendent abstraction imbued with fear. I think this is what we see in the best works by Jonson and the Transcendental Painting Group.

JK: And Jonson became your mentor.

WC: Jonson’s sense of total commitment to his work impressed me. He left nothing to chance. He was very involved with the technical side of his art, in contrast to the highly informal procedures of the AbEx work everyone was doing then. His sincerity about the spiritual aspect of his work came from Kandinsky, whom I already regarded as the most important artist in Modernism. I felt a kinship with Jonson even though his approach was less fashionable at the time—more geometric, hard-edged, not purely intuitive action painting.

I was impressed by Jonson’s illusionist form because it signified atmosphere and real world references. His painting was always a picture of something absent. That was a big idea to me. It was contrary to everything I was being taught—that a painting should be an object documenting its creation, not a representation of something else. Jonson acquired one of my first large paintings, below, for the museum. I think he paid me $25 for it, and of course, I was very pleased.

Untitled, oil on canvas, 216 x 165 cm (85 x 65 in), 1958

In this work, I decided to use soft shapes because I wanted to overpaint with translucent colors to obtain a glowing surface. Much of the color was stained into the canvas over a thin ground.

My other paintings of this period had slashing lines and shapes in highly contrasting colors. Some paintings had scraps of stained canvas glued on. Looking back, I can see how their gestural composition prefigured what I developed in hard-edge form many years later.

Untitled, oil on canvas with collage,
91 x 61 cm (36 x 24 in), 1958

In 1959, Elaine de Kooning came to the university as a visiting artist. Elaine’s influence on me had to do with the energy and guts of being an artist. She conveyed the attitude that an artist’s ability came from uninhibited action. For her, painterly hesitation meant timidity and pictorial weakness. She was also a great intellectual in my mind, a person who understood art and art history. One had to think and be smart to be around Elaine.

Elaine was responsible for my introduction to the New York art world. In 1960 she organized a show entitled 14 Albuquerque Painters for the Great Jones Gallery in New York and included my work. Although still an undergraduate, I thought my professional career had begun when the show was reviewed in ArtNews and The New York Times. Elaine encouraged me to move to New York when I graduated, but I wavered. Without money, I certainly couldn’t have survived in New York, even with the artist’s assistant jobs Elaine said would be plentiful. A conservatism ingrained by my father’s many tales of his Depression era poverty stopped me.

JK: So you returned to Chicago.

WC: My father stopped supporting me, and soon I found employment at Montgomery Ward as an entry level copywriter. I stayed two years while continuing to make art in my small apartment. When I moved to a better position at the Skill Power Tool Corporation, I rented a storefront studio with Robert Lewis, a painter friend from my Art Institute school days. We were both very influenced by Hans Hofmann and I was also influenced by Lewis’ work that was painted thickly with spatulas.

Untitled, oil on canvas, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in),1963

I considered the 1963 painting my most successful work up to that time because I felt I had built it—almost as if I had used bricks and mortar. I thought it suggested something of sky and ground, but I wasn’t seeking representation.

That year, I met my future wife, Kathy Onderak, who encouraged me to pursue art and graduate education. We married, I quit my job, and I began MFA study at the University of Chicago. There, I turned away from abstraction and began to draw and paint the figure. I began an intensive study of art anatomy, but ultimately realized I was more interested in the curious shapes of bones, sinews and muscles than I was in the figure. For a while I made both abstract and figural paintings, but by the time I finished my MFA I was back to abstraction.

JK: Your first teaching job was at a community college, and you were fully engaged with abstraction.

WC: When I returned to abstraction after my figural episode, I thought of abstract shapes as organic metaphors of tendons, limbs, muscles. I began making abstract reliefs from plywood cut into geometric and quasi-organic shapes with a jigsaw. They suggested animal gestures. I did the same with mylar shapes backed with magnets and placed on metal sheets. These could be moved around to make intuitive cartoon-like compositions.

Variable Relief, painted mylar with magnets and steel, 76 x 107 cm (30 x 42 in), 1968

I experimented with installations, placing colored blocks on buildings, and I made a few irregular wall objects. The big change was the crisp edge of the cut wood and plastic. When I started painting again, I arranged compositions of entangled shapes similar to the jigsaw reliefs. I used tape to draw and “cut” the shapes just as I had drawn with the jigsaw or knife. That was the start. I made my first hard-edge painting in 1970.

Untitled, oil on canvas, 165 x 152 cm (65 x 60 in), 1970

JK: Your edges got sharper and your shapes more simplified, as we can see in Mondovi.

WC: This was one of the first paintings where I greatly simplified the cutout compositions using sweeping bands and tubes of heightened colors. My experiments with sculpture and real space installations plus my earlier representational work made it easy for me to move into illusionism. I made a very conscious decision to see what I could do with illusionist abstract form, knowing full well that it echoed early 20th century abstraction, as in Kandinsky, Dove and others.

Mondovi, oil on canvas, 163 x 155 cm (64 x 61 in), 1970
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