Marjorie Welish asks, “Can Art Think?”

Marjorie Welish, The High Valley, 1984.

Marjorie Welish
Marjorie Welish, The High Valley, 1984.
An Inside Look at the Musings of the Artist & Art Critic

An Inside Look at the Musings of the Artist & Art Critic

Marjorie Welish

Marjorie Welish, Small Higher Valley 11, 1995. Oil on canvas. 4 x 5 feet.

“The nature of the art informs the instrument, and we sense the rhythm of its efforts to make, connections … to create ‘dialogue,’ and to wonder ‘What does the other think?’”

Marjorie Welish

What sparks an artist? More to the point, what sparks Marjorie Welish? Clearly, it is she who ignites the multitude of sparks in diagrams and constructions, drawings and plans, paintings and prints, essays and poetry—and lots of opinions, sharp as well as round-edged and generous.

She ponders such mind-boggling questions as “Can art think?” And answers, “Yes, if it is mindful of principles. Yes, to the extent that formalism—that is, of composing with lines and planes, surfaces and volumes—can expand its compositional field by integrating structures from disciplines other than art.”

This artist/art critic has been wrestling with these ideas throughout her multifaceted career and has brought them into the present, where the look of the digital world holds sway alongside the slower, analog one.

Her work is in the collections of the British Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and she has been awarded fellowships and grants from such organizations as the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Pollock-Krasner Foundation, and Trust for Mutual Understanding, as well as a Fulbright Senior Specialist Fellowship to teach at the University of Frankfurt.

Marjorie Welish

Marjorie Welish, Indecidability of the Sign: Red Yellow Blue 18, 2007. Acrylic on panels. 18 x 28 ¼ inches.

Like Sol LeWitt, Mel Bochner, Robert Mangold, and Barry Le Va—artists of her conceptual ilk—her concerns include such matters as similarity and difference and their relation to each other. Her visual dialogues take us back and forth between modernist and contemporary culture and show the jittery links between technology and its ceaseless communication blips.

So, for example, her Blueprint series of diagrams stratifies grid, line, and plane, while her Indecidability of the Sign: Frame series considers such basic matters as what is a line, and, when, increasing in width, does a line become a plane?

She speculates, “Maybe it also shifts from figure to field depending on where it is placed on the support and to what it is adjacent. What is the difference between the edge at the margin and the diptych’s gap—the edge at the center?” She excites and teases out connections such as these, comparing left and right, for what is changing, changeable.

The elements in her work do all seem to connect, from within and to one another. She confirms, “My painting series are ongoing: that’s because each series title is itself generative, and sparks initiatives.” Then alternate approaches to an art work in process may tempt her to follow up with others, such as paintings and works on paper. “It’s never-ending,” She elaborates. “Almost every project done remains an open work in a sense.”

We can see in Welish’s exercises and musings, especially in in her diagrammatic art, the paths she has created and those not taken, experiencing them, for example, in the snakelike “stitching” and geometric interceptions in her graphically rendered series Indecidability of the Sign: Yellow/Black (2019 and ongoing), where the portrayal of barrier tape affected in acrylic paint hints at ambiguous content and is symbolic of the complexity of visual and verbal communication.

The approach to design is graphical—all the better to convey the language of signage morphing from prohibition to permission—but of what kind? We begin with confidence and then intercept.

And speaking of interception, what is important to her contemporary diagrams are approaches she shares with others, noting how, for structuralist strategy, she looks to Mel Bochner’s paper pieces, while, for semiotics, to Jasper Johns. She explains how Johns’s painting According to What “sets out the problem of modernity: which criteria are valid for our times? Sampling modes of work as relative, not absolute, his According to What announces its quandary in its very title.

Marjorie Welish, Indecidability of the Sign: Yellow/Black 13, 2020.
Marjorie Welish

Marjorie Welish, Indecidability of the Sign: Yellow/Black 13, 2020. Acrylic on panels. 20 x 32 ¼ inches. 

Installation of works from the series Blueprint, at the exhibition URBANISME SUR PAPIER / URBANISM ON PAPER
Marjorie Welish

Installation of works from the series Blueprint, at the exhibition URBANISME SUR PAPIER / URBANISM ON PAPER, La Terrasse, Nanterre, France,  2017.

Marjorie Welish, Before After Oaths 9, 2016.
Marjorie Welish

Marjorie Welish, Before After Oaths 9, 2016. Acrylic on panels. 20  x 32 ¼ inches.

Studio installation of paintings and drawings from the series Indecidability of the Sign: Frame.
Marjorie Welish

Studio installation of paintings and drawings from the series Indecidability of the Sign: Frame.

Installation  of works from the series With/Without Small High Valley series
Marjorie Welish

Installation  of works from the series With/Without Small High Valley series, at the exhibition Image Works, Word Works, Miami University, Miami, Ohio, 2007.

 Marjorie Welish, The High Valley, 1984. Oil on canvas. 6 x 8 feet.
 Marjorie Welish

 Marjorie Welish, The High Valley, 1984. Oil on canvas. 6 x 8 feet.

Johns’s art was encouraging to her. “His things the mind already knows is presented in my series Indecidability of the Sign: Red Yellow Blue. There identical yellows appear in different contexts; the same yellow appears in color samples, but they differ in kind: a color swatch of modernist primaries contrasts with a shading gradient.”

Writing in the New York Times on a related series—the Small Higher Valley series—Grace Glueck said, “Sudden changes in form and color, discontinuities in structure, teasing figure-ground relations, the interruption of geometry by free-form brushstrokes and other devices give a gamelike character to these works. But the game, although of high surface appeal with its mostly primary colors and deceptively simple forms, is dauntingly complex.”

Reading Welish’s own words and looking at her art, encourages us to understand how her diptychs create dialogues of sameness and difference. How, indeed, by sharp contrast or subtle differences, structure becomes a sign language.

“Sudden changes in form and color, discontinuities in structure, teasing figure-ground relations, the interruption of geometry by free-form brushstrokes and other devices give a gamelike character to these works. But the game, although of high surface appeal with its mostly primary colors and deceptively simple forms, is dauntingly complex.” —Grace Glueck

The subtle attention to rules and procedures of change is most apparent in her elegant Before After Oaths series, marking a difference in orienting strokes as one moves across the gap, while gray-blue shades of Delft evoke domestic references. See, for instance, Before After Oaths Gray 9 (2016) in which the shifting tones are active and fleeting.

As Sharon Butler points out in a review in the online Two Coats of Paint, “Her elegant paintings explore the butterfly effect–the theory that small perturbations like the flap of a butterfly wing can produce estimable consequences over time. She reminds us that change is the inevitable outcome of endeavor. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be very, very worried.”

From series to series, Welish’s art ruminates on the rules and procedures that organize and order its own formal resources. Her works seem to tell the story of their making themselves as they evolve, which leads me to wonder whether the same process would be true of the artist’s entire creative output, her criticism, in particular. It’s a tale told by the process of the art itself. “The nature of the art informs the instrument,” she says. “And we sense the rhythm of its efforts to make, connections … to create “dialogue,” and to wonder “What does the other think?” She ponders such questions in her essay collection Signifying Art: Essays on Art after 1960 (Cambridge University Press), and in her contributions to Art Monthly [U.K.].

New York is talkative. “New York raised me,” Welish says. “My mother’s idea of fun was to go to The Met, taking me along as she attended the afternoon lectures on art. Of several memories, one especially vivid, is that after seeing and hearing a lecture on Le Corbusier, and walking out into the sunshine, I was seized with a kind of agitation, which prompted me to ask: Why hasn’t New York architecture changed to reflect Le Corbusier’s ideas.” Why, that is, hadn’t it become an altogether modern-looking and -seeming city?

Modernism is a cosmopolite nexus of culture, and it makes demands on us,” she says, “demands to become visionaries—visual, verbal, and all else.” So what goes into art? “Technique versus form,” she responds. “It is the dialectic to be reconciled even in disjunction—it’s a synthesis of what then develops into art.”

Welish, who has exhibited most recently in New York, Paris, Vienna, and Cambridge, England, is looking forward to her show (De)cipher, at the project space gkg // Gesellschaft für Kunst und Gestaltung in Bonn, Germany, from November 2022-February 2023.

About the Author

Barbara A. MacAdam

Barbara A. MacAdam is a New York-based freelance editor and writer, who worked at ARTnews for many years as well as for Art and Auction, New York Magazine, Review Magazine, and Latin American Literature and Arts. She currently reviews regularly for The Brooklyn Rail.

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