An Interview with Artist William Conger

January, 2008

I wasn’t interested in flat Greenbergian painting. I felt it was too limited, that it wrongly excluded the fullness of what painting could be. After all, I reasoned that any mark on the flat surface will allude to something it’s not, to something else. And since any mark will also have an illusionist relation to its surrounding space, why not admit illusionsim and develop it robustly? I wanted my paintings to include multiple allusions and paradoxical illusionist space.

At this time I began to title my paintings. Mondovi is the name of the Wisconsin town where I spent summers as a child. Thereafter, titles became very important, although never really descriptive except as allusions to autobiographical incidents or to abstraction itself, as if shapes and colors also have their own autobiographical content.

JK: You’d really found your artistic voice by then.

WC: By 1970, I was on the path I’ve pursued ever since. I began to exhibit more in the Midwest and received recognition. New teaching opportunities opened up for me, and we moved back to Chicago in 1971 where I obtained a teaching position and chairmanship of the Department of Art and Art History at DePaul University.

JK: Flossy’s Night was an important painting at that time.

WC: In this painting, I used a deep red-black ground, scraping away seemingly arbitrary shapes as I worked. This was a very messy process. The canvas became so loose from heavy scraping and sanding that I had to restretch it two or three times. I became frustrated and confused and suddenly preoccupied with painful memories of my mother’s last illness and death in 1959. I wanted to save the painting just as I had tried to save her after she had fallen in weakness. The painting’s organic shapes alluded to ungainly movement and a sense of entrapment. It was abstract—but it was also her. The painting became a symbolic portrait of my mother’s final hours in delirium.

Flossy's Night
Flossy’s Night, oil on canvas, 160 x 157 cm (63 x 62 in), 1972

Flossie’s Night seemed to justify my commitment to abstract form while also enabling the expression of human feeling and action. I realized that pure abstraction necessarily alludes to our paradoxical, psychologically charged inner lives, and I wanted that to be evident, though never explicitly narrative.

JK: Paintings such as Flossy’s Night have a surreal quality.

WC: It has illogical light, uninhabitable space, dreamy dark depths and the suggestion of animated, but still abstract, form. I called it “surreal abstraction.” I didn’t set out to paint in this style. Rather, it was the natural result of two soures of influence. One was my acquaintance with Chicago Style art that was so imbued with surreal content and psychological narrative—what Donald Kuspit once called the “madness of Chicago art.” The other was the New Mexico landscape, native culture and the Transcendental Painting Group artists.

JK: Despite these affinities, you felt out of touch with the current art scene.

WC: There were controversies about the relation between Chicago Style abstraction and the reductive abstraction in New York, complicated further by the hugely influential Chicago Imagist art. I felt that my work, with its surreal, allusive formalism, didn’t fit in anywhere. Yet I also felt it was a valid alternative to mainstream abstraction. I felt a kinship to earlier abstract painting of the 1920s and 30s where allusion to objects and space was so richly amplified.

The painting Exile began with a very complicated composition. Working intuitively, I began to subtract shapes, reminding myself of Picasso’s admonition that it’s not what goes in, but what’s taken out, that counts. Shapes were exiled, I pretended, just as I imagined myself in exile from the current scene.

Exile, oil on linen, 132 x 122 cm (52 x 48 in), 1976

JK: Increasingly, your subsequent work contained strong diagonal thrusts and a sense of barely restrained energy.

WC: I used an X composition format many times during the 1970s and 80s. I liked the dynamic it offered. The early Greek sculptors devised a pinwheel-type figure that evolved into running figures of stunning grace and formal beauty. Mindful of the pinwheel motif, I decided that mythology with its shape-shifting symbols and metamorphic figures was akin to my pictorial interests. I liked the idea of one thing being perceived as something else, and that as something else and so on. We project our changing recognitions and meanings, and the painting accepts them, mirroring them back to us. So I gave many of my paintings mythological titles.

Atala, oil on linen, 152 x 137 cm (60 x 54 in), 1979

JK: And what about beauty?

WC: A painting may be led to beauty as a kind of surrender. I never set out to make a beautiful painting as a first priority. The stakes aren’t high enough. I want to make a symbol of life and feeling, barely controlled and balanced. If I do that well, then the painting will be beautiful in a forceful way—like the dangerous New Mexico landscape—not as a surrender to comforting solace. I prefer an aggressive, disconcerting kind of beauty. When the painting is perceived as a metaphor or surrogate of selfness, it may be disconcerting, but also strangely expansive. Perhaps that is beauty, too.

JK: The mood is more serene in East Troy, below.

East Troy
East Troy, oil on canvas, 122 x 102 cm (48 x 40 in), 1984

WC: My parents had a gracious summer lake home near East Troy, Wisconsin where they had intended to retire. But they both died too early to make much use of it. In this painting—as in Exile—I used a vertical central shape to divide the composition. It sets up a melancholy conflict between left and right and a pictorial struggle for synthesis—a yearning. The central shape divides like a sword, yet unifies like a column. There are allusions to water, sky, landscape, times of day and night, interior, exterior, change, stasis, threat and fear. Allusions crowd into consciousness while I’m painting, and I sometimes acknowledge them with a color or a twist of shape, but my formal concerns for composition and color are the first priority. Titles come last, provoked by the formal and narrative allusions.

JK: In a number of subsequent works, we witness an energetic swirling of overlapping forms.

WC: Broadway was the biggest painting I had done up to 1985. It’s a crowded, clashing composition of organic, quasi-floral and architectural shapes against a horizon evoking Lake Michigan and sail rigging. In Chicago, I grew up living between the lake and Broadway, the nearest commercial street. I was deeply attracted to the loud noises—the wooden red streetcars of the 1940s—and the visual clutter of Broadway as a contrast to the quiet emptiness of the nearby park and lake. These were two worlds—one real, exciting, crowded, dangerous, enticing; the other dreamy, escapist, eerie, lonely, quiet. The painting is an abstract symbol of the paradoxical nature of life and art—presence and absence, action and repose—frozen for a moment in uncertain equilibrium.

Broadway, oil on canvas, 147 x 305 cm (58 x 120 in), 1985

During the 1980s I became fascinated by the history of Chicago and its central role in shaping America’s economic and architectural development in the 19th century. Even in the early 20th century there was a belief that Chicago would not only be the world’s largest city, but also the world capital of culture and the arts. My paintings from this time were energized by my feelings of identity with the elegant formal violence of Chicago’s face to the world. In Ogden Field—an allusion to both the hard-fisted early pioneers like Mayor Ogden and the wistful prairie where they built the city—I wanted the curled leaf-like shapes to evoke blades or knife points, danger, smoke, fire, attack and retreat, but in ritual make-believe, as if choreographed and safe for today’s actors.

Ogden Field
Ogden Field, oil on canvas, 114 x 142 cm (45 x 56 in), 1988

JK: Calvary Park is filled with vertical forms that create a sense of ascension.

WC: Here I wanted to get away from my nocturnal paintings. I’d begun teaching at Northwestern University in 1984. On my drives to the university, I passed Calvary Cemetery on the shore of Lake Michigan. The cemetery has many tall gravestones from the 19th century. The shoreline is banked with limestone blocks to offset storm waves and flooding. Those blocks are packed with tiny fossils—nature’s cemetery. I thought of the painting as a resurrection of the spirits, both human and those far more ancient.

Calvary Park
Calvary Park, oil on canvas, 183 x 152 cm (72 x 60 in), 1986

JK: Your work became more rectilinear.

WC: In the late 80s, I began to use more elements that echoed the edges of the canvas. I even measured the verticals and horizontals and used rulers to get them right. Overall, my work swings between baroque and classical, open and closed, dynamic and static. Sometimes when I’ve done a very complex dynamic painting, the very next one will be simple and calm. I don’t really work in series, but go from work to work. The similarity among paintings is simply the preoccupation I have with certain shapes or colors for a while. In this sense, Newberry Window was affected by a desire for order. It alludes to architecture.

Newberry Window
Newberry Window, oil on canvas, 147 x 137 cm (58 x 54 in), 1990

JK: Native Range contains allusions to your student days and—as is so often the case in your work—to more universal themes.

Native Range
Native Range, oil on canvas, 190 x 196 cm (75 x 77 in), 1992

WC: Making this painting, I had many thoughts of my time in New Mexico and learning about Southwest Native American culture. I regard Native Range as a landscape painting, but one animated by dance and symbol. It’s like a figure in ceremonial costume invoking the spirits of nature or ancestors. But I didn’t want to create a localized landscape. I wanted something symbolic of a human resonance with nature, a fusion of some kind—of intellect, belief, movement, closeness and yet separation, too.

JK: The strong diagonal in October counters the otherwise fairly stable composition.

October, oil on canvas, 152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1996

WC: The strong diagonal adds a strenuous reach in this painting, veering away from vertical support and offsetting its calm, relaxed sense. I was going though a very anxious period in my life at this time, and I think I was trying to find refuge in my painting.

Kathy and our children encouraged me to work through my crisis. For the sake of fun, we took a short trip to a circus museum, and I was invigorated by the whole experience. The circus, I thought, is the perfect metaphor for art and the artist. It’s a ritualized event in which the performers mock death and failure through seemingly impossible and foolish acts. The circus animals represented unruly nature, the high wires were death defying, the performers were mocking their skills as much as the dangers they faced. The overwrought circus wagons indulged a vulgar affection for extravagance and misappropriated mythology. It was a huge experience for me, totally unexpected.

I began new paintings on the theme of the circus. I hadn’t worked with a series before or even with a unifying theme, but I was so affected by the metaphorical and visual possibilities of the circus that my period of doubt and depression lifted. Kathy bought me some new, very expensive colors I had never used before, and I began to paint them straight from the tube, excited by their vividness—vulgar, like the circus. I made a group of Circus paintings and exhibited them the following year with much success.

Circus ICircus II
Circus I, oil on collage,
203 x 76 cm (80 x 30 in), 1997
Circus II, oil on canvas,
203 x 76 cm (80 x 30 in), 1997

These were the first two Circus paintings I made. The compositions were intuitive, unplanned and only slightly altered in the course of painting. I used a lot of variety in the edges, as if to suggest that no rule was at work here or at least the rules would be subverted by playful, willfully arbitrary elements. Although the circus is a highly ritualized and formal event, the clowns are there to subvert pretense and expose vanity.

I also remembered going to the circus as a kid spending summers in a Wisconsin farm town—how the summertime circus seemed to magically appear in a desolate field, fill up the place with such energy and excitement and then leave behind the same desolate place, all tramped down, worse for wear and lonelier.

Ringmaster, oil on canvas, 173 x 305 cm (68 x 120 in), 1998

Ringmaster is the largest of the Circus paintings. In formal terms, the painting shows my growing interest in geometric shapes, rectangles and circles joined with the organic bands and loopy shapes of my earlier work. I employed these shapes playfully, guided by the overall entertainment sensibility of the circus. Just as the ringmaster orchestrates the activities in the circus rings, so does the artist control the diverse and competing attractions of the composition. Beyond, a moody landscape evokes the inherent melancholy of artificial rituals.

Comparing Ringmaster with an earlier large work like Broadway from 1985, it’s evident that I was seeking a simpler, more dramatic arrangement of shapes in shallower space in the newer works. The Circus paintings marked my shift from dark, tonal colors to more saturated colors. While brighter and flatter, they are still imbued with an atmospheric sort of narrative.

JK: To the East Were Moving Waters suggests a view toward Lake Michigan.

To the East Were Moving Waters
To the East Were Moving Waters, oil on canvas, 154 x 244 cm (60 x 96 in), 2001

WC: I was commissioned to make a painting for an apartment in a building designed by Mies Van Der Rohe. The building is a classic example of his steel and glass grid architecture. The painting would face the glass wall overlooking Lake Michigan. I remembered Nelson Algren’s masterpiece, Chicago: City on The Make, published the same year that the building was erected, 1950. The first sentence is, “To the east were the moving waters as far as the eye could follow.” I wanted to make a work that would allude to Algren and Van Der Rohe, as if reflecting moving waters seemingly fused with a Miesian grid. This was not the first time I thought of a painting as an abstract window, a symbol of the Chicago landscape transformed by human enterprise.

JK: Your Iron Heart City series also dealt with the theme of the city.

WC: I had been reading about the early period in Chicago’s labor movement—the unchecked industrial growth, extraordinary exploitation, pollution, and crime. The Iron Heart City paintings commemorate the idealism that always underlies social strife and change. Although I wanted to make strong and colorful compositions, I also wanted to suggest the discordant nature of urban life.

Anarchist, oil on wood, 61 x 66 cm (24 x 26 in), 2002

In Anarchist, I thought the small dark circle, so dense and volumetric, was like a little bomb about to explode. Though my paintings are abstract and formal, they become containers for the thoughts, reveries, and concerns I have while making them. The formal and the allusive mingle—formal composition becomes a pictorial narrative.

JK: You provide glimpses into a deep, yet ambiguous, space that seems to open up beyond the canvas.

V-Day, oil on canvas, 152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 2005

WC: There’s never a clear figure-ground relationship in my paintings even though one is implied. I do this to maintain a flat or shallow space and at the same time imply illusionist depth. Pictorial space is paradoxical, and my shapes and compositions exploit that. The title, V-Day, suggests the heraldic, victorious, declarative nature of the composition. The slightly organic nature of the shapes suggests their bending and leaning toward one another. That figural association is something I try to incorporate into formal celebratory abstraction.

Compatriot, oil on canvas, 152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 2006

Compatriot has the feeling of shapes moving across the picture as well as moving in and out. They work together to make a somewhat muscular display. To me, the composition suggests figural action. It conflates the geometric division of space with transgressive figural movement. Allusions to stepping, running, reaching—to anatomical flexing—are evident.

JK: Color is exuberant is much of your recent work.

WC: In Chinatown, I wanted to make a painting with dynamic circular shapes and strong artificial color. The acidic colors and swirling shapes reminded me of the festival dances I’ve seen in Chicago’s Chinatown. Diagonal lines structure the space with geometric divisions

Chinatown, oil on canvas, 165 x 165 cm (65 x 65 in), 2007

The ringed target-like circle near center of the canvas is a newer motif. I think I took it from Kandinsky. Here, the central circle is a focus for the dynamic of the work. Everything in the painting is pulled toward or strains away from the circle.

In Red Trolley, I wanted the most intense colors possible. Each shape was repainted several times to build up the density of the color.

Red Trolley
Red Trolley, oil on canvas,
168 x 76 cm (66 x 30 in), 2007

From the beginning I wanted to suggest the cacophony of a noisy commercial urban street such as I remember from childhood when I walked to and from school. The clattering streetcars jammed the street, screeching and rumbling under a canopy of wires and signs. It was joyful, loud, crowded. It’s one of those childhood street memories that stays with me. Perhaps this is augmented by the fact that we still live in my childhood neighborhood. Thus the strongest impressions of my youth are always mingled with my new experiences of the city streets.

JK: Chicago is a large painting you recently made for the new McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago.

Chicago, oil on canvas 396 x 488 cm (156 x 192 in), 2007

WC: Here, there’s no longer so much thrust and counter-thrust. Moving into and out of the picture replaces a back and forth across the picture. I think of this work as a symbolic landscape. The implied view is toward Lake Michigan, but it’s interwoven with shapes that seem like moving parts—large mechanisms, tubes, tracks, wires. It’s also figural. It runs, reaches, builds and works. It’s a symbol of Chicago and the industrial and human energy of a great American metropolis.

JK: The linear shapes often seem to bar us from entering the space—perhaps like guardians.

WC: I suppose it’s true. I’m barring the enticements of deep space and at the same time protecting us from them. The city is like that: all clutter and conflict up close, distraction and movement, the here and now, while the distance is calm, open, empty—and perhaps more dangerous as well.

JK: Sketching has always been an important part of your practice.

WC: I’m always making small sketches for possible paintings. The strongest motivation is to develop new shapes and compositions or to subvert what I’ve already done. All artists need to explore and push the limits of their ideas both by working with and against their impulses. Out of the dozens of little sketches I make every week, there may be one, often none, that can inspire a new painting.

sketch, 2005sketch, 2004

Most often, after making many sketches I just begin painting without any specific choice, but somehow the sensibility of some of them congeal on the canvas. The scale of a composition is crucial. My sketches are always made with some size and scale in mind. That’s why I often draw imaginary viewers to help me imagine the work in a given size.

William Conger with Bandit
William Conger with Bandit, oil on canvas, 152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 2007

Bandit was given that title because it stikes me as an aggressive painting, in your face, more on the surface than many others I’ve done. It allows little space to escape into. The artist is a bandit, wanting to rob the viewer’s attention and sensibility. Art is a bandit,too, confronting art history like a mugger, ready to take whatever will replenish its self-indulgence.

JK: Where do you see your work heading?

WC: Lately I’ve been making more elaborate sketches using watercolor. I suspect they will influence my paintings. I think I’m heading toward more complicated shapes, more lyrical use of line and color. Yet all bets are off. I really can’t predict what will happen in my next painting or where that will take me. But I’m eager to go there.

More information about William Conger at

Interview images and text copyright©2008 Julie Karabenick and William Conger. All Rights Reserved.

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All text and artwork reproduced by permission of the artists.

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