Sea, Space and Doubt: Artist Mary Weatherford On Inspiration and Conversation

The painter shares her inspirations and insight into the way her newest paintings exist in conversation with her previous works.

Not long ago, artist Mary Weatherford opened a show of new paintings at Gagosian 980 Madison Avenue, “Sea and Space,” which probes the depths of these concepts alongside their real natural beauty. Weatherford (b. 1963) has long been one of our finest painters, included in the once controversial, though in retrospect, basically correct survey at the Museum of Modern Art, “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World.” Roberta Smith has praised her work as featuring “verve and an ecumenical historical awareness.”

A woman wearing a black shirt and jeans sits in front of a painting
The artist in her studio with “The Flaying of Marsyas—3500 Spectra” (2021–22). Photo: Elena Dorfman / Courtesy Gagosian

We caught up with Weatherford to talk about the thinking that led to her latest paintings.

Let’s talk sea, let’s talk space. How and why do they inspire you? 

The deep ocean is a mystery, the habitat of unnamed creatures alive in darkness. Deep space is mysterious too. Both sea and space have been imagined and described by our poets forever. Upon death, Nefertiti sailed the ocean in the sky to break the iron gate to the iron orb of infinity. Keats, the Romantic poet, famously wished to be as steadfast as a star. Ringo Starr, in a burst of inspiration, composed the pure delight of “Octopus’s Garden.” Space and the ocean are vast and unknowable. When I hear or read “Mariana Trench,” I feel fear and awe. The same for “galaxy” and “event horizon”. As a girl, I enjoyed Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, the TV show about a submarine and crew weekly beset by giant squid and other dangers. On another night, I watched the on-deck of the starship Enterprise meet with intergalactic challenges, physical and psychological.

These new works are in conversation with your Flaying of Marsyas paintings, which were stunning at the Palazzo Grimani. And the works on paper were made at a residency at the Elaine de Kooning House in East Hampton, New York. How do you think location affects the creation of or reception of your paintings?

The ten paintings in “Sea and Space” were inspired by the way the paint behaved in The Flaying of Marsyas works. The metallic paints I used for the Venice series moved through the other pigments in an interesting way. A drag of a sponge (I paint on the floor) created a trail of fractal patterns because of weight differences. I exploited this in Sea and Space, experimenting with pouring and pushing low-viscosity pale colors into watery dark spills. The pale colors pulled the darker colors over themselves like a veil. The edges between colors could be sharp, or fuzzy, like sfumato. The Flaying of Marsyas works were inspired by the Venetian painter Titian. They found their home at Palazzo Grimani after I finished. The works on paper in the “Sea and Space” show are about dappled light in a forest. Elaine DeKooning’s studio on Long Island is surrounded by woods. Dappled light is another historically favored subject of poets and painters.

A dark gray painting
Cover of “Mary Weatherford: The Flaying of Marsyas” (New York: Gagosian 2024). © Mary Weatherford / Courtesy Gagosian

Your works feel organic and natural, but I know that you used to be a bookkeeper and are a fan of science. Are there more calculations in your work than may be apparent to the casual viewer?

The Flaying of Marsyas paintings have a one-to-one compositional correspondence to Titian’s late painting of the hubris and folly of Marsyas and the cruelty of Apollo. The many characters in Titian’s brutal forest scene are there, hidden in the paint, lit up by neon light. The science part enters through the titles that include the names of the glass, say Triphosphor 2400. The higher the number (6500), the bluer the light. The mythic scene is, in my thinking, carried into the present by office and factory lighting. The subject of horror is also in the Sea and Space paintings, represented by colliding shapes that are, by my perception, of unstable scale. The depicted “events” can be as wide as the spread of my arms or millions of miles apart.

What are the distinct difficulties of being a painter at this moment in art history?

Doubt.

Sea, Space and Doubt: Artist Mary Weatherford On Inspiration and Conversation