VENICE – It’s the kind of horrifying painting you want to look the other way: Titian’s The Skinning of Marsyas depicts a satyr – half human, half goat – hanging upside down and being skinned alive while being a dog blood licks up and a musician impassively plays the violin.
But artist Mary Weatherford wanted to keep looking.
Intrigued by the work, having seen it in Antonio Paolucci’s “Tiziano” exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome about a decade ago, Los Angeles-based Weatherford decided that one day he would create a work based on the painting. Now this exhibition – featuring 12 new canvases produced by Weatherford between January and March 2021 – opened on Wednesday at the Museo di Palazzo Grimani, right at the start of the Venice Biennale.
“I thought it was the most evil painting I’ve ever seen,” Weatherford said in an interview at the Palazzo. “Marsyas has resigned himself to his fate. Since 1986, my works have dealt with destiny. I am interested in the choice of turning left or right.”
Dressed simply in a black sweater and ripped jeans, her straight hair parted in the middle, Weatherford seems perhaps more understated than the squirt-drinking Art Fashionistas crowding the Giardini. But at 59 and with celebrity galleries behind her – Gagosian and David Kordansky – Weatherford actually represents something quite rare in today’s overheated contemporary art market: a middle-aged, mid-career artist who has slowly and quietly earned her 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 absolutely brilliant and doesn’t let trends sway her. She just always did her own thing.”
This “thing” created lyrical abstract paintings, often punctuated by neon bars, 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 were sold at auction in 2018. That year, critic Roberta Smith in The New York Times called the works “ecstatic, suffused with rays of light, akin to Bernini’s ‘Ecstasy of Saint Teresa'”.
Weatherford had surveys at the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY and SITE Santa Fe, NM in 2020, as well as solo shows at the Aspen Art Museum and LAXART in Los Angeles. “Mary is unhappy in the best sense of the word,” said Ian Berry, the Tang’s director. “She’s a researcher involved in art history, science, architecture and 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 layers of gesso.
“There’s something very specific about how 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, the Marsyas works – on view through November 27 – are shadowy and somber, with dominant tones of black, grey, purple and silver.
The neon slashes act as “a cut in your vision,” Weatherford said, “a cut in your vision.”
With the Titian painting usually on display in the Archbishop’s Palace in Kromeriz, Czech Republic, she wanted to reflect on the sensitive issues it raises, since Marsyas had challenged Apollo to a musical competition, knowing that he likely to lose and pay a terrible price.
“Is Marsyas ignorant or has hubris?” she asked. “What is the difference between ignorance and hubris?”
Weatherford often gets philosophical in conversation. Unvarnished and likeable, her references range from the writers Iris Murdoch, Haruki Murakami and Leo Tolstoy to the films “The Godfather” and Luis Buñuel’s “Un Chien Andalou”.
Weatherford was born in 1963 in Ojai, California, where her father was the minister of a small Episcopal church. She has been making art since she weaved macrame with her mother at the kitchen table. She fell in love with museums on a school trip to LACMA. “I loved the smell, I loved the sound,” she said, “I loved everything about them.”
She was particularly fascinated by Van Gogh’s “Wheatfield with Crows” because of the menacing sky and the soaring birds. “I was like, ‘Okay, I need to understand why this is a scary painting.'”
As a student at Princeton University, Weatherford traveled to New York City to see art, visiting the galleries of Holly Solomon, Leo Castelli, Paula Cooper, and Annina Nosei. Thinking she needed to pursue something “practical,” she was planning to study architecture when a painting class taught by Professor Jerry Buchanan changed everything. “I was an instant convert,” she said.
After college, Weatherford entered Whitney’s program in museum studies. Meanwhile, she drew and attended art lectures in her studio apartment on the Upper West Side.
In 1990, The Times featured Weatherford in an article headlined “Fresh, Hot, and Rising to Fame, These Are the Faces to Watch.”
“Her determination to transform abstract painting into a crossover art form and infuse it with both feminist awareness and performing arts references steeped in female stereotypes is filled with possibility,” Smith wrote.
Weatherford said she was unprepared for the attention that was coming. When she returned to California, she taught at UCLA and Otis College of Art and Design, but found that “I couldn’t paint and I couldn’t teach,” she said. “The lessons would ask too much of me.”
So she did bookkeeping to make a living—first for the Santa Monica Museum of Art and then for artist Mike Kelley. “I love accounting because it’s like a chemical equation,” Weatherford said. “I love astrophysics.”
She worked four days a week in an office and the other three days at her easel, which she likened to roulette. “I just put all the chips on one number,” she said. “I always chose to take the time to take the pictures.”
Her 2012 show at the Todd Madigan Art Gallery at California State University in Bakersfield “changed everything,” Weatherford said, and brought her more attention from critics and collectors.
Art collector David Gersh – who owns one of Weatherford’s works with his wife Susan – described her as Dan Flavin meets Helen Frankenthaler and said the artist “developed her own vocabulary”.
But solid as it seems now, Weatherford’s art career wasn’t something she ever really planned or depended on. “I didn’t really start selling pictures until I was 50,” says the artist, adding: “I just want to be a good painter.”
“It feels good to be at that age because I’m not worried it’s going to go away and wondering how I’m going to make a living,” she continued. “When you succeed young, it’s a ghost.”
Late success has also freed her not to worry about staying popular or pleasing audiences. Komal Shah, who serves on the board of directors of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and collects Weatherford’s work, said she admires the artist’s continued challenge to herself. “She becomes an apparent heir to Joan Mitchell,” Shah said. “Success hasn’t come easy for her, and she’s established herself as a painter with gravity.”
Part of what fascinated Weatherford about the Titian painting was how it simultaneously attracted and repelled, embodying life’s often painful complexities. She’s tried to capture that nuance in works like Below the Cliff and Light Falling Like a Broken Chain — both featured on a Kordansky show in 2021. “The sublime is the marriage of terror and beauty.” She said. “It’s like driving up the river.”
If there’s an underlying darkness in her work, Weatherford said, it’s because there’s an enduring 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’m like, ‘This is the only time we’ll see that boat go by.'”