Coming full circle

In the summer of 1951, artist Susan Weil wasn’t getting much work done.

Two years before, she’d left Black Mountain College (where she’d studied with painter Josef Albers) to attend classes at New York City’s Art Students League, and to learn from artists living and working in the city. But in 1951, she’d just returned to Black Mountain College to join her then-husband, Robert Rauschenberg — who was teaching the summer session — and, as the mother of the couple’s newborn son, Christopher, she was busier pinning diapers than stretching canvases.

Yet considering Weil’s impressive list of exhibitions, both stateside and abroad — not to mention the myriad reviews and articles about her — one gets the sense that this must have been the only period in her life when she didn’t maintain an extraordinary output.

This week, Weil returns to western North Carolina to open a two-month exhibit of 33 selected pieces from her extensive body of work. Titled Susan Weil: Full Circle and presented by the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center, the show at zone one gallery includes works in a variety of media — paintings and drawings, lithographs, photographs, etchings, sculpture and mixed-media pieces small and large — dating from 1949 to the present.

For Weil, the show represents not only a return to the place where her artistic career formally began, but an even more personal evolution. Two pieces in the exhibition — “Fractured Portrait of the Artist” (1997) and “Triptych” (1998) — are collaborative works by Weil and her son, photographer Christopher Rauschenberg.

“One thing that is very nice for me about this show is that it really is a ‘full circle,'” Weil said in a recent phone interview from her home in New York. “There’s something very sweet about coming back to the place where I was with Chris when he was a newborn, and showing work that the two of us have done together.”

The photographs are just two “very nice” things for viewers of the exhibit, which showcases Weil’s rich dialectic among elements, as well as her perceptions of nature and time, rendered in careful yet surprising combinations of two- and three-dimensional media. The show also highlights the subtle, steady progressions of her work over the course of five decades.

Her paintings and sculptures often contain elements of natural landscapes, such as horizons, as reference points. Some are based on photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s multiple-exposure depictions of sequential movement, and she often manipulates her canvases or other surfaces to suggest cuts, tears, folds and crumples in time.

Weil’s penchant for synthesizing different media seems most natural when she merges visual art with literature, which has played a prominent role in her life, beginning with her early childhood years.

“My father, who was a writer, used to read aloud to us every day — children’s stories, but also Chaucer and Gertrude Stein and Joyce,” Weil recalls. “My father was of the same generation as Joyce, and as a writer, Joyce moved him the most. I remember listening to him reading Finnegan’s Wake — the way he read really imparted the wonder of the sound of the language. It was just such music, and I was absolutely transported by it.”

Weil’s infatuation with language and literature — and with Joyce’s writing in particular — has never wavered since. But it wasn’t until her days as a student at Black Mountain College that words began appearing in her art: “Secrets” (1949) is a striking, ethereal pencil-on-paper collage of torn and reassembled journal pages.

“I am very glad to have “Secrets” in the [zone one] show, because it’s an important tie to coming back [to Black Mountain], and to things coming around,” she explains. “It was the first time I used words [in my artwork], and it is when I started working three-dimensionally, so it was a kind of starting point for some things which have stuck with me in my work.”

Full Circle also includes several etchings (some on paper handmade by Weil) from her livres d’artistes (originally published by Vincent FitzGerald and Co., N.Y.) and “Epiphenomenon,” a work on paper which juxtaposes lush, delicate photo-etchings in vibrant greens with text that replicates Joyce’s own handwriting (which serves as the visual translation of a passage on epiphanies from Joyce’s Ulysses).

Some of Weil’s most recent works — like “Chair and Sitter” and “Fragmented Chair” — seem to move away from her interplay of the visual and verbal. Yet there’s no missing a Joycean ring in “Fractured Portrait of the Artist.” The photograph, with its startling interplay of the abstract and the figurative, brings together — rather strangely but miraculously — disparate moments in time in a peculiar sort of jangly visual melody. In fact, it’s a veritable Finnegan’s Wake of a portrait.

These days, Weil lives in New York City with her husband, sculptor and professor Bernard Kirschenbaum. And Weil’s melding of art and literature gets its exercise every day — or, more accurately, for the last 14 years, without missing a day — by virtue of her regimen of creating what she calls “poemumbles” (some of which are also included in Full Circle). Each morning, three hours before her daily 10 a.m. date with her studio, she sits down with writing and art supplies and sets to work creating an “image” poem.

“Sometimes I start with a word, or sometimes with an image,” she explains. “What inspires me can be almost anything, and I don’t know where it’s going to lead me. It’s a wonderful thing about doing something like this when you’ve just woken, because you’re sort of in-between times, and things are clearer, in a way.

“So I just let it take me along, and see where it goes, and then I’m ready to get up and start on the next thing.”

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