VENICE — It’s the kind of horrible painting that makes you want to look away: that of TitianThe Flaying of Marsyasdepicts a satyr, half-man, half-goat, hanging upside down as he is flayed alive, while a dog laps up his blood and a musician impassively plays the violin.
But artist Mary Weatherford wanted to keep looking.
Captivated by the work after seeing it in Antonio Paolucci’s exhibition, “Tiziano”, at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome a decade ago, Los Angeles-based Weatherford decided to create one day a set of works based on painting. Now, it’s like that – featuring 12 new canvases that Weatherford produced between January and March 2021 – opened on Wednesday at the Museo di Palazzo Grimani, just as the Venice Biennale begins.
“I thought it was the most evil painting I had ever seen,” Weatherford said in a palace interview. “Marsyas is resigned to his fate. My works have been dealing with fate since 1986. I am interested in the choice of turning left or right.
Dressed simply in a black sweater and ripped jeans, her straight hair parted down the middle, Weatherford may seem more understated than the spritz-drinking art fashionistas who invade the Giardini. But at 59, with top galleries behind her – Gagosian and David Kordansky – Weatherford actually represents something quite rare in today’s overheated contemporary art market: a middle-aged artist and mid-career that slowly, quietly earned its share of fame.
“Mary is like one of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Ladies of the Canyon,'” Kordansky said, referring to the song about a community of artists and musicians. “She’s totally, completely brilliant and unfazed by trends. She’s always done her own thing.
This “thing” made lyrical abstract paintings often punctuated with neon rods, which are now in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Tate in London – and which have sold for up to $450,000 at auction in 2018. That year, critic Roberta Smith, writing in The New York Times, called the works “ecstatic, pierced with beams of light, akin to Bernini’s ‘The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa’.”
Weatherford has had surveys in 2020 at the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY, and SITE Santa Fe, NM, as well as solo exhibitions at the Aspen Art Museum and LAXART in Los Angeles. “Mary is unsatisfied in the best sense of the word,” said Ian Berry, the Tang’s manager. “She is a researcher who digs into the history of art, science, architecture, gender.”
Those familiar with her work comment on Weatherford’s technical accuracy – the particular linen she uses for her canvases, the gestural nature of her brushstrokes, her layering of gesso.
“There’s something very specific about the way she applies the paint,” said Nicola Lees, director of the Aspen museum. “It has such a playful quality, but it’s very precise.”
While Weatherford’s paintings often feature swirls of color, Marsyas’ works – on view until November 27 – are dark and gloomy, with dominant tones of black, gray, purple and silver.
The neon slashes work like “a break in your sight,” Weatherford said, “a break in your vision.”
With Titian’s painting, which usually resides in the Archbishop’s Palace in Kromeriz, Czech Republic, she wanted to reflect on the thorny questions it raises, given that Marsyas challenged Apollo to a musical contest, knowing that he risked losing and paying a terrible price.
“Is Marsyas ignorant or does he have pride?” she asked. “What is the difference between ignorance and pride? »
Weatherford often becomes philosophical in conversation. With an unvarnished and personal manner, his references range from writers Iris Murdoch, Haruki Murakami and Leo Tolstoy to the films “The Godfather” and “Un Chien Andalou” by Luis Buñuel.
Born in 1963 in Ojai, California, where her father served as the vicar of a small Episcopal church, Weatherford has been making art ever since she wove macrame with her mother at the kitchen table. She fell in love with museums while on a school trip to LACMA. “I loved the smell, I loved the sound,” she said, “I loved everything about them.”
She was particularly intrigued by the “Wheat field with crowsbecause of its threatening skies and hovering birds. “I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to have to figure out why this is a scary painting.'”
As an undergraduate at Princeton University, Weatherford traveled to New York to see art, visiting the galleries of Holly Solomon, Leo Castelli, Paula Cooper and Annina Nosei. Thinking she should pursue something “hands-on,” she planned to major in architecture, when a painting class taught by Professor Jerry Buchanan everything changes. “I was an instant convert,” she said.
After college, Weatherford joined the Whitney Museum Studies Program. In the meantime, she sketched in her Upper West Side studio and attended art lectures.
In 1990, The Times featured Weatherford in an article titled “Fresh, Hot and Headed for Fame, These Are the Faces to Watch”.
“Her determination to transform abstract painting into a crossover art form, infusing it with both feminist consciousness and stereotypically feminine performing arts references, is full of possibilities,” Smith wrote.
Weatherford said she was unprepared for the attention that came. Back in California, she taught at UCLA and the Otis College of Art and Design, but found that “I couldn’t paint and teach,” she said. “Teaching would take up too much of my time.”
So she did accounting for a living — first for the Santa Monica Museum of Art, then for artist Mike Kelley. “I like accounting because it’s like a chemical equation,” Weatherford said. “I love astrophysics.”
She worked in an office four days a week and at her easel the other three, likening it to playing roulette. “I just swiped all the chips on one number,” she said. “I always made the choice to take the time to do the paintings.”
His 2012 exhibition at the Todd Madigan Art Gallery, California State University in Bakersfield, “changed everything,” Weatherford said, bringing him more attention from critics and collectors.
Describing it as Dan Flavin meets Helen Frankenthaler, art collector David Gersh – who, along with his wife, Susan, owns one of Weatherford’s pieces – said the artist had “developed his own vocabulary”.
Yet, as solid as it now seems, Weatherford’s artistic career wasn’t something she really planned or could count on. “I didn’t really start selling paintings until I was 50,” the artist said, adding, “I just want to be a good painter.”
“It feels good being this age because I’m not worried about it going away and wondering how I’m going to make a living,” she continued. “If you have success young, it’s a spectrum.”
The belated success also freed her not to worry about remaining popular or pleasing the public. Komal Shah, who sits on the board of the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco and collects Weatherford’s work, said she admires the way the artist continues to challenge himself. “She becomes Joan Mitchell’s heiress,” Shah said. “Success did not come easily to her and she established herself as a painter of gravity.”
Part of what drew Weatherford to Titian’s painting was the way it both attracted and repelled, embodying the often painful complexity of life. She tried to capture this nuance in works such as “Below the Cliff” and “Light Falling Like a Broken Chain” – both of which were featured in a show by Kordansky in 2021. “The sublime is the marriage of horror and beauty,” she said. “It’s like going up the river.”
If there’s an underlying darkness in his work, Weatherford said, it’s because there’s a lingering sadness in the world. “It’s fleeting and I can’t stop time,” she said. “Even here in Venice, I look out the window at a boat going by on the water and I think, ‘This is the only time we’ll see this boat go by.'”