Margaux Williamson talks to Kenneth Goldsmith

Painter and filmmaker Margaux Williamson’s latest painting show, “I Could See Everything,” is currently showing at Mulherin + Pollard gallery in New York, accompanied by a book with the same name. The exhibit closes May 25. Poet Kenneth Goldsmith interviewed her last week. His introduction and the interview below:

I don’t trust painting. At least not in New York. Most painting here relies on formula and repetition, whoring itself to the market. There seems to be no risk and once a painter gets a strategy, very little exploration. As a result, I stopped thinking about painting a long time ago. I prefer forms of art that are more market-resistant, more idea-based, more—for lack of a better word—risky. So I was taken aback when I was so taken aback by Margaux Williamson’s paintings. The first thing I was attracted to was their scale: unusually small for New York. I was drawn to them and then drawn into them. Exquisitely painted, with a sweeping range of historical references, they won me over. My resistance crumbled. I found myself falling in love with painting again. Williamson’s paintings dissolve binaries and, in turn, dissolved my own binaries. By reconciling opposition in the most elegant way, they got me thinking, making me think that these are, in fact, conceptual works of art.

On a cool, rainy Thursday in May, we met in the gallery and chatted about her works, then decamped to Freeman’s Alley where, in the cozy confines of wobbly floorboards, Audubon prints, and stuffed deer heads, we continued our conversation over lunch.

—Kenneth Goldsmith


KENNETH GOLDSMITH: The range in this work is so incredible. These days, most of the time people do one thing, and yet you’re really an auteur. The abstractions are as delicate as the figurative works. But then you have a Richter—We painted the women and children first (Gerhard Richter’s painting “Dead”)—next to something more figurative, and that’s about artifice and distancing. What’s happening here is such incredible range and dimensionality. Can you talk a little bit about that?


We painted the women and children first (Gerhard Richter’s painting “Dead”)

MARGAUX WILLIAMSON: [Laughs] That’s so nice what you said. Well, I guess I’ve never been so interested in showing my own talent, so… I think I just have to find what seems right for each piece and for the whole body. I followed it very slowly.

KG: Where’s the beginning of this show for you?

MW: [They walk to the painting I healed the little animals] I made an earlier version of this one— 


I healed the little animals

KG: That’s the first piece that you made?

MW: An earlier study was the first piece I made, then this piece was one of the last pieces I made. I made the first one pretty intuitively, just pushing paint around. And when that came out, I got a bit excited about using painting as fantasy. Playing God a bit. But one of the first paintings I made in the show was I thought I saw the whole universe (Scarlett Johansson in Versace). I was struggling to figure out how to combine the abstract and the representational. Painting, I suddenly understood how that aesthetic could fit together. That was a really fun game to figure out how that worked—


I thought I saw the whole universe (Scarlett Johansson in Versace)

KG: So with this one—I thought I saw the whole universe (Scarlett Johansson in Versace). Does that come from a magazine?

MW: Yeah, it comes from a spread in the New York Times magazine. I tore that little picture out and carried it around with me for a few years.

KG: What were you attracted to about that picture?

MW: I thought it looked like the universe. [Laughs] But I’m a really slow thinker, and when I first tore it out of the magazine, what I used it for was as a backdrop for another painting, as the universe, and it took me a long time to figure out that the more interesting painting would be to actually take what I found and to show what was so attractive about it. What was so attractive about it was it is a dress. So it gets to combine both this feeling of limitless depth with the sad flatness of this very flat magazine picture.

KG: It’s Blakean really—the world in a grain of sand; the universe in a pattern on a dress. Also, what this painting does is it references Frank Stella and Ross Bleckner, and I even see Whistler in the fireworks. There’s this tug between high modernism and pre-modernism in your work. Then Guston might be the real touchstone where all this work comes together, because in a way Guston is a classical painter, yet it ended up being like cartoons. But to see them as cartoons is to miss the larger project of Guston. So what’s your relationship to Philip Guston?


Philip Guston, “Friend—to M. F.” 1978

MW: Oh, I applied for a university education [Laughs] and I had to write an essay, and I didn’t know much about art, and they picked a piece of art for us to write about, and it was a Philip Guston. That was the first time I saw Philip Guston, and I wrote a long essay and completely fell in love with this image, and I got a scholarship—but I never actually thought about Philip Guston so much. Maybe I just incorporated it. Some artists I stay away from aesthetically a bit more, but with Guston, I never feared that. Maybe he just seemed a bit like home. His work’s just so empathetic and so solid.

KG: This painting, We Climbed into a Hole in the Wall, reminds me of Manet—the flatness, the patterns on the wall, the mirror—what’s your relationship to Manet?


We climbed into a hole in the wall

MW: I actually thought about him a lot. I thought about him using the shit out of a camera, and how—with that painting In the Grass [Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe]—we sometimes forget that what he was doing was making a painting that was hyper-real. Instead of these women being allegorical, they were clearly prostitutes and clearly people. It’s complicated in painting how you represent such high realism while doing something so interesting.


Edouard Manet, “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” 1862-63

KG: What I love about At night I painted in the kitchen is it’s also very much Cezanne.That table is not where it should be. There’s something about Cezanne and apples and tables and everything being wrong. Yet it feels so contemporary.


At night I painted in the kitchen

KG: I could say that your work reminds me of somebody like Elizabeth Peyton, who manages to take the mundane and the celebrity and our culture and render it absolutely timeless and classical. How do you feel about her work? 


Elizabeth Peyton, "Leonardo, February 2013"

MW: It’s beautiful. It’s lovely. She takes things that we understand to be gold in culture and she makes more gold with it. So it’s wonderful, but it also seems nice to take things that aren’t gold and try to see them a little bit more—to see the meaning of them. [Laughs] I think that’s what I’m good at. I can see the value in all this ugly stuff, and it’s such a pleasure to do that. But with Manet—Manet was doing hyper-realism and making women real instead of allegories, but also everything was wrong. I think that makes a painting more physically real because it’s a painting. Painting is such a complicated mess of making things more real and less real.

KG: Absolutely. And your work really hinges upon representation and abstraction—the real and the less real. Every time I stand in front of one of your paintings, I think of another historical precedent. I think of Matisse with the painting We built a new justice archway.


We built a new justice archway

KG: Yet I look at the self-portrait, We loved the world and the things in the world, and immediately I think of the work of Leon Golub—who was a political painter, who kind of scratched out on rough paper these disembodied figures, scenes of torture, in El Salvador in the 80s. Very brutal paintings.


Leon Golub, “White Squad V” 1984

KG: They fit a little bit in with neo-expressionism in the eighties, but because they were so political they fell outside of it. Actually to me they’re some of the great political works of the 20th century. Can you talk about this piece, We loved the world and the things in the world? 


We loved the world and the things in the world

MW: I was starting with this fantasy idea of, ‘Oh, it’s painting, you can play God, you can heal things, you can destroy things.’ But I hate the idea of fantasy, so I was trying to take advantage of painting, and half-way through I returned to what I love, which is the ‘right here’ [Laughs] and just how complicated that is, to be tolerant of the world and to love the present and to accept the world as it is. In some ways that’s confusing because that’s about complacency, but it’s also—there’s this Biblical quote—you must not love the world or the things in the world. Because you have this other ideal.

KG: Well I think the whole body of work is very much an elegy to the world and the things in the world. There’s a sadness to it, a nostalgia, almost as if you’re looking back on these moments.

MW: When you say Philip Guston, Philip Guston just seems like a friend and a contemporary and part of the world, but for me Goya has always been my main guy. There was a lot more Goya paintings that I threw away [Laughs] and the strange thing about Goya’s work is that I always found it really comforting, and that seems strange. It’s such tortuous work. But I think the reason I always found it comforting was because he was, as a painter, saying, ‘The least I can do is witness this, the least I can do is say, someone saw it, someone’s here.’ It’s like he can’t help himself—he seems to portray the villains and the victims with the same amount of empathy in the brush strokes and the lines. In an odd way there’s not villains in his work, and not heroes, and not victims.


Francisco Goya, “The Third of May” 1808

KG: So how can painting, today, do what Goya did? Is it relevant for painting for capturing that? What’s your feeling about being a painter in the digital age?

MW: Actually I never really valued painting before, then I took a long break and sort of learned how to make art outside of painting, and coming back to painting I really had to think about its limitations and its virtues. Then I actually fell in love with it, and I suddenly saw what it could do that other mediums couldn’t. I started this series when I was up in the Yukon, pretty far away from the world, seeing mainly everything through the internet or books, and suddenly painting seemed like this ideal place to understand what is real and what is not real in this flat-screen world we’re in.

KG: Really? What makes painting do that as opposed to YouTube?

MW: Well, YouTube [Laughs] YouTube needs no help.

KG: I actually disagree with you. YouTube does need a lot of help. But there’s a subjectivity that’s being expressed in your work that helps me contemplate my time in a way that YouTube sometimes does but mostly doesn’t.

MW: Right, so even though all the paintings are very different, they’re all in the same realm where, as you say with YouTube, one of the nicest thing about YouTube is how specific and beautiful it is and how it’s of this very specific time, but with painting you can sort of go back and forth, and even though everything’s so different and all over the place, my hand gets to unify it all and see what it all might look like. Together. And the main complaint of the internet and the contemporary world is, Is it real or not real? The best painting is both real and not real. And painting is lent so much more authority when it’s not real. It’s funny, when things go on the internet now and people say ‘that’s not real,’ well, that’s what painting’s always done—it’s taken things from the world and said, Look how much more real this is now.


study (At night I painted in the kitchen)

KG: Look at the banana here in this study, At night I painted in the kitchen. Of course it’s Warhol, it’s the Velvet Underground. What I’m sort of charmed by in the work are the subtle pop references. Even in I healed the little animals I see the owl in Harry Potter in there. I see bits of advertising in there, and they really are filled with allusions to fleeting contemporary culture. I think that’s one of the reasons it makes the work contemporary, cause it couldn’t have happened at any other time. I find this work of yours to being extremely complicated and extremely sophisticated—you’re doing so many things, and that the range of what you’re doing, and the fact that you’re managing to always hold it together—there doesn’t strike me as being a dead moment in the show. Everything is alive and discoursing with itself and every other work in the show. I mean, I think it’s a staggering achievement of balance here. To me it’s true talent what you’re doing here. 

MW: [Laughs] You’ve just given me goose bumps.

KG: Another thing I really need to talk about here is this studio door. Another name that keeps coming up again and again is Jasper Johns.

MW: Really?

KG: Johns always is using trompe l’oeil, things that are pinned to a wall, kind of playing with representation of flatnesses on top of each other. What’s your relationship to Johns?

MW: I think it’s more about my relationship to New York. I never embraced the abstract expressionists as much as New York did. Then about a year ago I came here and there was a Jay DeFeo exhibition, so I saw that work and I thought about New York’s love of abstract expressionists, and I realized there was something I was sort of holding back a bit with that.


Jay DeFeo, “The Rose” 1956-66

MW: I kept talking to people about how I was doing this work that was trying to bring together the realism of the day and the abstraction of the night, and I realized I wasn’t actually taking advantage of abstraction or expression. So I sort of thought about that a bit and I came home and I made that painting.

KG: The banana.

MW: Yeah, and this last painting I made—Studio Door. I made this giant painting that had all these references—it was my studio wall, and I had two paintings of the same Manet pinned up on the wall, and all this garbage, and to me it was a painting of garbage, but when people came to the studio and saw it, they were always trying to puzzle it together and tell a story, so I had to throw it away. Then I just made this very quickly after working on that other painting for months.


Studio door


MW: [As her food is placed down] Oh, this looks good!

KG: But there’s this funny trend now where they don’t put salt on the table. [calls the waitress] Could we please have some salt?

MW: It was funny, listening to your talk [at Frieze]. I think we just have so many similar references, just all the pleasurable and brilliant friends of the past and present—

KG: That’s what artists do. They share a vocabulary that other people don’t share. But it’s interesting to me—you thought you were going to be a doctor? Something more useful? What made you become less useful?

MW: I feel like my body is much more powerful than my mind [Laughs] so I just have this really bossy part of myself which the “I” part of me is exhausted by. My mother said she’d pay for the university applications, and I thought I wasn’t going to go to school for a while, so I wasn’t taking it seriously, and I had a pretty wide-open potential for what program I could study, and my hand just checked “art.”

KG: But you had been drawing and painting—

MW: Yeah, I loved all that stuff.

KG: Did you paint a lot as a kid?

MW: I did, a lot a lot. But I didn’t understand that you could have a profession in that. In university, I ended up writing essays about art and having to talk to people about art, and I had never been happier in my life. I couldn’t believe you could think all day long, I was the happiest person in my art department. I was just so happy and grateful. But it took me a long time to get over the fact that I had made that choice.

KG: We’re blessed because that’s the life that we live every day, getting to think about things. Despite all the trouble of being an artist, there is that incredible freedom. I can’t imagine a better life.

MW: I know. I think I always felt like a really useful person, and maybe I didn’t understand the role of art, so that’s why I’m so drawn to people that do such good work, because when I’m near people who do good art, it calms me down, and I think oh, look at them—they shouldn’t be doing anything other than what they’re doing. It’s almost the only thing I need in art, to see other people that are doing good work. Then I relax and I don’t think about it so much.

KG: It makes the world the place you want to live in. That’s why we surround ourselves with people like that. Have you been to Dover Street Market here, the Comme des Garçons store?

MW: No.

KG: Well, the clothes are so beautiful and so weird and so interesting, and the people who work there embody all of that fabulous style—these kids, they’re just marvellous, and anybody who would go in there shopping is interesting, and it’s this perfect fantasy world that really makes me high. I want to live in there. It’s a heightened aesthetic, off-kilter, and I understand it completely. It’s where my mind lives. And when I leave there I really leave elated. Most things are too pricey for me—but I do try to buy something sometimes, and then I feel like I walked out of the greatest place in the world. That’s the way I want to live in art.

MW: You live well in art. That’s what I’d like—where there’s a fluidness to wherever you go.

KG: Your last show was six years ago?

MW: Yeah, my last painting show.

KG: What was in-between? Your movie, Teenager Hamlet?

MW: Yeah. I’m a pretty bad teacher and a bad student, and I thought I needed to learn something new, and it might have taken two years or something, but it took about five years. And I really did learn something. Instead of working a lot and painting a lot, I took in the world and I talked to people and I really tried to follow my interests and struggle to be more the master of my field. I ended up making that movie a little tiny bit by accident.

KG: How are you dealing with—for lack of a better word—success? It seems like things are really happening.

MW: Oh, that’s nice.

KG: I mean look at all the incredible press you’ve had this week, and you’ve made the most beautiful work, and I think there’s a great response.

MW: Well, it’s so nice being at home in my studio—Toronto never quite feels like the real world. So in my studio in the last few years I have felt very successful with what I’m doing with art, but that had no relationship with the rest of the world. So for me [success] is a little tied in with the slight discomfort of having to be in the world. I find it confusing because in my studio it’s the whole world, then when I’m here in New York doing stuff, it feels like it’s about me—in a way that’s the opposite of my studio. I’m not so good at that. I have a pretty empty mind and I don’t like thinking about myself so much. I find it distracting, and I feel a little resentful when I have to think about myself. So does that answer your question about success? [Laughs] I love talking to you about all this stuff, but it took all my strength not to talk about the lecture you just gave.

KG: What did you think of the Frieze art fair? Did you walk around the whole thing?

MW: I went on Thursday. I mean, it’s such a trade show, you know? I like when all the critics write about how it’s the nightmare end of the world for the soul. But when I went again on Saturday and I saw you, it was just so wonderful. It’s like the Frieze art fair is this bright confusing fractured thing, then you go in this little dark room, and it felt like you were just saying mantras of ‘this is real this is real this is real.’

KG: I wonder if they feel they have to do something intellectual in order to justify themselves, otherwise it’s just a big store.

MW: When I went on Saturday, I had a really nice time with Alana [Wilcox], who published my book [at Coach House] and my curator [Ann Marie Pena] and Misha. Ann Marie’s gallery, which is from London, had a booth at Frieze, so we went there. It’s called Frith Street Gallery—they have Chantal Ackerman and a lot of great women and they don’t drop their artists. So I imagine they’re very patient. I’ll be in a show with them in the summer and it’s funny—I really have been in this sort of wonderful place, thinking and learning and searching and playing with friends. So all this work is much more me trying to get somewhere more than trying to show people something.

KG: I think that’s why it’s so convincing. Because it really seems to have been made out of necessity, joy, and wonder, and awe. When I think of the art world, which works against all of those things—to find work that actually expresses that, it’s shocking and a slap in the face. It’s a wake-up call for us to recognize the beauty and the—what’s the title of that self portrait?

MW: I want to cry right now! We loved the world and the things in the world.

KG: It’s saying wake up to existence. I think a lot of this might come through your illness. Do you feel some of this new wonder as a result of that?

MW: Certainly. I’m a bit of a depressive person, like me having felt bad about having gone into art. But because I threw everything away to go into art, I feel like I never have to compromise. Like, I already made this very hard decision. Art’s not immediately meaningful to me, and the act of doing isn’t automatically meaningful to me, so I feel I have to struggle really hard to try to find meaning, you know? I think I started out thinking you could create meaning, then I got a little more faithful that you could find meaning, so I’ve always been a little bit desperate for—like, that’s where I’m a vampire on all the poets. I saw the Jay DeFeo show with Ben Lerner and I feel like your talk was so amazing—I need to see art through other peoples’ eyes sometimes. So right before I got sick, I really got somewhere with all this work—I made that sequined dress and I made the painting, I made that same drawing too. Then I got sick, but I knew what I was going after. But most of the painting for the show happened after I got sick.


I made that same drawing too

KG: Was there a philosophical change after you got better?

MW: Mostly I was trying to incorporate life better, rather than be a workaholic.

KG: Let me ask you another question. A typical day in Toronto for you is like what?

MW: Well, I have two apartments that I share with Misha—two very small apartments above a store—he’s on one side, I’m on the other.

KG: What do you mean above a store?

MW: We have two apartments on the second floor above a storefront.

KG: What store?

MW: Well, I’ve been there a long time, so there was a toilet store at first, and then it was a bikini store that was very unsuccessful, then it was an organic clothing store that didn’t do so well, and now it’s like a sort of yuppie bakery.

KG: Oh no, are they noisy?

MW: No it’s great, it’s great. We’re in the blissful period of life. [Laughs] So I get up, and the cerebral and verbal part of me is very new—so when I wake up my brain’s a bit better, so I try to read or write in the morning. Then I bike to my studio. It’s probably an hour walk or a twenty minute bike ride down a railway path without any traffic, but down those railway tracks all of our friends live. So that’s the part that feels pretty magical. Or lucky. That maybe won’t last for a long time. Everyone I know I run into all the time. And it’s nice—when you run into people it’s not a lot of pressure, and everyone gets to be more part of your life.

KG: So you like your life in Toronto.

MW: I do, yeah. I love it here [in New York] but I’d always moved around a lot, and I thought, I should stay somewhere. I think I have a lot of crazy feelings. I just feel like if I lived in New York I would be leaving people behind or something. Not people in Toronto but—just living in a place that is so good, you know? I always feel more comfortable being in a—I don’t know how to say this without insulting different places—but I talk a lot about coming from places outside of centers of culture, and for me that’s kind of important. I want the world to be like that. I want kids from Thunder Bay to be able to stay in Thunder Bay and still be completely engaged—

KG: Sorry, what’s Thunder Bay? 

MW: [Laughs] Thunder Bay’s a town north of Toronto. I have my contemporaries in Thunder Bay and New York.

KG: What is it? It’s a small town?

MW: It’s a city in the middle of the big north. They used to have paper mills. I like that. There’s something about moving to New York that felt selfish or indulgent for me—which is crazy. But I felt the same way about doing an MFA at a place like Yale. I just thought, I don’t want people to have to pay that much money to be part of the system. Sometimes I feel like I’m making a lot of bad choices for myself, but they’re all choices that make me not depressed, and make me maintain whatever sense of wonder I do have, you know?

KG: Funny, I don’t know you that well but you seem happy, you seem full of wonder. And you’re so intuitive. You can intuit what’s right for you. That’s great. Intuition is such a great inspiration.

MW: It’s much smarter than anything else I have. And I think I probably am an incredibly happy person because of all those choices. I really know I’m happy, you know?

Margaux Williamson’s show I Could See Everything will be up at Mulerin + Pollard gallery in New York’s lower east side until May 25. A book of her paintings from this series, alongside essays by Mark Greif, Chris Kraus, Leanne Shapton and David Balzer can be purchased from Coach House Books or Amazon. Her feature film, Teenager Hamlet, can be seen on ubuweb.

Kenneth Goldsmith is the author of Uncreative Writing and other books. He was the first Poet Laureate of the Museum of Modern Art last year. And he is the creator of UbuWeb which collects important avant-garde artworks for free consumption by all.

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