Frances McCormack: Wonder and Limitations

Frances McCormack

Paintings are the products of imagination whose language is feeling and form.  My paintings describe an interior theatre where the relationship of energy to limitation unfolds in a drama that is primarily optical.  The work references the natural world filtered through the lens of the marvelous and invites the viewers’ participation and interpretation…. a task ideally suited to painting.                                                                              

  – Frances McCormack, 2020​

At your presentation at the Analytical Psychology Club of San Francisco you mention Philip Guston’s quotation of poet Paul Valery who said that a poem should not disappear into meaning. You say that a painting should not disappear into meaning as well. Can you elaborate on that?

When confronted with an artwork (a poem, a painting, or a piece of music), that is baffling or strange, most of us automatically wonder: “What does it mean?” I think this is not the most useful question to ask. Assuming that a work has a specific meaning and that meaning is known to the artist alone, reduces the potency of the work and turns it into something narrow and one dimensional. This is why many artists are hesitant to talk about their work. Most artists are looking for expansion rather than contraction, a capacious field of association or sensation rather than the rigidity of a definition or meaning. Even when work is instructive—political or religious work for instance—the best of these works give us something beyond information and ask us to participate in some way.

Artists have a vivid sense of the layers of conscious and subconscious ideas, the strange unpredictable tangents that go into the making of a work of art. They want to share some aspect of this experience of multiplicity and vitality with the viewer. Meaning is a string of words or concepts that take the place of the shining, compelling, less well-behaved artwork. It’s not that “meaning” can never be a question, but to ask it too early, or give it too much attention, is to diminish the potential the artwork has to evolve and grow with extended reflection.

In this presentation you also discuss the sense of Wonder in making and viewing art. Can you elaborate on how you see Wonder in relation to your own painting process?

Wonder is a mix of surprise and delight.

I am almost never satisfied with a painting until it has surprised me in some way, and probably after working on it for long while, weeks or months sometimes. I understand this is not how all artists work. This happens when the image I am chasing on the canvas suddenly suggests another direction—color, orientation even—and it is so compelling I am willing to undo weeks of work to try to integrate this upstart outlier, this strange event. Because it (the new approach) comes from somewhere I did not anticipate, arrives on the scene full of confidence and new life, I fall in love with it and give myself over to it. Some of these love affairs do not end well, but the appearance of an unexpected element is usually essential for me to feel good about the finished work.

Wonder is also the response I value in my own experience of looking at art. Whether it is the astonishing level of sustained attention in Vija Celmins, the palette of feeling and sensation in Bonnard, or the transformation of the mundane into something almost holy in Morandi, I trust and value the response of wonder over all others.

All your paintings are mostly 4-6 feet. Why this scale?

I have tried for many years to make smaller paintings. A few have been successful but mostly I find I need to paint with my entire body, not just my arm or wrist, on a canvas close to human scale. The process of painting feels to me like a mix of a dance and a wrestling match, with wrestling being the dominant tone. Many of my images can be read as a restless energy (your biomorphic) pushing up against something that will not give way (architecture/ container). It seems the process and the image are closely related.

When I was three, I had polio, not a serious case, but I was confined from my neck to my ankles for a time. I sometimes wonder if my need to use my entire body when making a mark has anything to do with my early experience of confinement. But like your first question about “meaning”, I’m not sure if this line of inquiry is answerable or valuable. I just seem to work best this way.

You describe your paintings from 1989, Garden Gate, as “deliverance out of too much deliberateness”. Can you elaborate on that?

Deliberateness. DE as a prefix often functions to “undo the action” or “give the opposite”. So deliberate is to not liberate. Deliberate has many positive connotations but for me, in painting, too much deliberateness is overthinking or too much concern for correctness. This reduces the opportunity for wonder, for wonder comes up below the radar of intention.

When I first started teaching, I had a student, Mary, a very beautiful woman who came to class in extraordinary vintage clothing. She did wear an apron but she still made me nervous. She stood as far away from the canvas as possible and mixed the paints as if she were distractedly sautéing onions. She applied the paint as if it were a kind of canvas body lotion, a substance without direction or form. Her paintings were not good. Her insouciance riveted me. One day in my studio I was very frustrated with a painting. I felt my searing determination. At some point I thought of Mary. “Paint like Mary” I joked to myself and applied the paint accordingly. Soon the image started coming together (or opening up?) the paint lost its dead, uptight aspect and began to breathe. I did not give up my original intention but held on more lightly to the idea and the application. This was my first conscious experience of deliverance from too much deliberateness.

Frances McCormack, Garden Gate, 64 x 72 oil on canvas 1989

You describe your painting process as “intuitive”, referencing De Kooning’s take on being an artist as a “slipping glimpser.” Can you elaborate on your process – how do you start a painting, what are your resources?

I seem to be drawn to a form and I experiment and develop it over a number of years. The form is simple, it may have begun with a specific object but over time does not reference that object. A bit like Mondrian’s trees eventually becoming Broadway Boogie Woogie. The form is in service to a dynamic, and often is used lightly to foreground the tension between the energic and “that which cannot be persuaded”; what might be called necessity or containment. In many paintings the form is almost buried and invisible but still essential to the development of the imagery. Years ago, I saw a photograph of a very early corset in a magazine. It struck me as deeply familiar and I realized it had a similar shape and texture to the garment that restrained me when I had polio. I worked with that form for many years. The form functioned as a severe container for restless energy. The marks and veils of color that make up most of the painting are generated by glimpses of a force pushing up against the border of that form. What might happen above the form, inside it or below it, how translucent, heavy, busy or still, all discovered in the process of painting and not beforehand.

Pillar’s Prediction (1991) seems to mark a shift in your work. Can you elaborate on this?

Pilar’s Prediction was the first time I divided the panel with the white band. It was entirely accidental. In frustration I took a roller with white paint in order to cover a section of the painting that wasn’t working. I paused after the first pass of the roller and I was really seduced by the effect the white band had on the rest of the grey, black painting. I began to draw into the band with thin black lines, as if the fleshed out, embodied forms in the dark area of the painting continued into the white band like an X-ray. I imagined it as a realm of vision, or the map vs the territory laid over the painting. I made many paintings that have this dissecting band, some bands vivid and others more subtle. Thirty years later I am still intrigued by this arrangement and compelled by the visual contrast. I have not exhausted the possibilities. With Pilar’s Prediction I stepped outside of what I considered acceptable in my paintings and integrated an element that I previously would have rejected.

Frances McCormack, Pilar’s Prediction, 80” x 70”, oil on canvas, 1991

I am very drawn to the tension between the shapes (organic / biomorphic) and the linear marks (architectural / border / movement). I see it as both co-existence and a struggle. Can you address that in reference to The Needle’s Eye (1993)?

The Needle’s Eye is related to Pilar’s Prediction. You are correct. It is a co-existence and a struggle. Again, the white band breaks the rectangle of the canvas and a black band, at a right angle to the white, plunges almost to the bottom of the canvas. This all happens within the faint outline of a corset shape. Out of the opening created by these two bands a thick white cord snakes from behind and a red X is drawn in the white band. I was thinking about my simultaneous or co-existent desires to be both hidden and known, the need for both privacy and connection that we all have to various degrees. It is a struggle. I was also thinking about Emily Dickinson the reach of her cosmic vision and her actual sheltered life. About confinement, about the eye of the needle, that holds the thread so perfectly and makes so much possible.

Frances McCormack, The Needle’s Eye 60” x 55” oil on canvas 1993

The spaces you create in your paintings remind me simultaneously of landscapes, interiors, and portraits. In Dark Vase (2007) there seems to be a shift in your palette and a growing sense of spatial void. What would you like to share about this painting?

Dark Vase is a favorite of mine from those years. The impetuous / implacable dynamic that had been the basis for most of the work from that time is almost gone. What is left is like an empty stage set with dim lighting (what you called a special void). The actors have departed and a few props are scattered across the floor. It is the end of something.

I think these endings, when a particular approach to a specific content has been played out, are hard for artists to recognize at the time. Maybe Dark Vase is a successful work about the sense of an ending.

Frances McCormack, Dark Vase 36” x 48” oil on canvas 2007

I find a strong sense of collage throughout all your paintings but it is particularly pronounced for me in your Vase series from 2019. Also, you seem to include here more overt elements of representation: plants, text. Can you tell me about this series and how you see in relation to your previous work?

The Vase series from 2019 were my first attempts at collage. I think the shift to an entirely different medium made it possible for me to finally work smaller. Everything about collage, or the way I approach collage, is contrary to how I approach painting. It is small, careful, patient work that is not particularly forgiving. It is possible to make changes but they also must be made very carefully. The search for appropriate materials, borrowed imagery, can take forever but the thrill of alighting upon the right slice of a drawing, photograph or instruction manual is satisfying. And honestly, cultivating patience is something I wish I had learned years ago.

Frances McCormack, Conifer Vase 20’ x 24” collage on panel 2021

What are you working on these days?

I am finishing up a few last collages and turning to a group of modest size canvases to begin oil painting again. The image below, Shiver Me Timbers , a collage, includes botanical illustrations, nautical maps, pieces of floral photographs, a couple of organic forms I have used repeatedly and a female nautical figurehead from the prow of a ship whose torso morphs into a long tail of botanical growth. All this happens in the body of the “vase” form, the container. For me the vase series and the collages evoke the spacious, complex, curious nature of our inner lives. “The place where all the ladders start”, or a vast inner ocean of rumination. Maybe my inner experience is the inverse of Yates’s Circus Animal’s Desertion and depicts promise, growth and a sense of wonder rather than “ the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”.

Frances McCormack, Shiver Me Timbers 20” x 24” collage on panel, 2021

All photos courtesy of the artist unless otherwise indicated.

Frances McCormack was born in Boston and received her MFA from the University of California at Berkeley. She is Professor Emerita at the San Francisco Art Institute.  McCormack was the recipient of the first SFAI faculty residency at the American Academy in Rome, three Buck Foundation individual artists grants and residencies at Djerassi in Woodside CA and Willapa AiR in Oysterville WA. 

In 2010 McCormack curated Silence, Cunning and Exile for the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art.  She collaborated with the San Francisco based composer Kurt Rohde and the writer Sue Moon, creating the video of their performance titled Artifacts. It premiered in San Francisco in September 2012 and was performed at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art in 2016.