The artist who confronts the future.
Sarah, we are in your studio in Long Island City that was a former Learjet interiors manufacturing facility where they customised the insides of their planes. Is this building now acknowledged as being a place for artists?
No, I don’t think so, but there are a lot of my artist friends around. Rudi Stingel, Adam McEwen, Matthew Barney, Richard Phillips are the ones I know, but I am sure there are lots more. Everybody has their studios in Long Island City.
Have you been here a long time?
Almost two and a half years. I had a studio in Chelsea for ten years, and then I moved it here. This is the only place you can get this light and this space, and it has a huge elevator.
Do you consider yourself a New Yorker?
I do, even if they say on Wikipedia I am British. I was born in England, but I was raised in America. At one point I went back to school in Britain, and one of my main galleries is White Cube in London, and that has confused things even more. Here in New York it’s Friedrich Petzel.
Did you start very young?
Yes, while I was at University in Cambridge studying social and political philosophy (SPS), but I never made any work there. I come from a family of medicine, my father is a research scientist, an endocrinologist, but my mother is more practical, a doctor who specialised in geriatric medicine – but she also made art, and my grandmother made paintings and other family members also made work, so we would always see their exhibitions. The scientific approach is very important, and when I say that I don’t mean I believe in truth, I only believe what you can disprove. I love Paul Feyerabend’s “Against Method”. The scientific approach of distrust, mixed with the political backdrop of growing up in the late seventies and eighties in America, is very important. You have a gas crisis, you have a President resigning, you have all these incidents that affected me as a kid.
Are you an only child?
No, I am the eldest of two.
Where were you raised?
I was raised in Rhode Island.
Then you went to live in England?
No, in 1995 I met Jay Jopling who runs White Cube who I planned to start working with and make my first show in February ‘96 and then I met my ex-husband Liam, also in ‘95. When I went to London to do my first show I was very interested in spending some time there and someone who I had met in Cambridge, I ran into his parent in Berlin having breakfast and she said, “What are you doing in Berlin?” and I said, “I am on my way to London” and she smiled. I was with Liam and she said, “Would you like to stay in this little warehouse?” that she and her husband had in the East End of London. They were important, in-depth collectors, Erika and Rolf Hoffmann. They lived in Berlin and they had a lot of work by Lucio Fontana, Marcel Broodthaers, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and they introduced me to Gerhard Richter, amongst others. When I met them I was 20, I was not making work.
When did you start making work?
Probably aged 21-22.
And what did you do?
The first thing I did I made in my last year at Brown University, a manifesto, one document which I printed and published and distributed all over the place. The document was called “Defunct” and the front of the image was like a piece of broken glass, but it looked spatial, it did not look like glass it looked like something else. It was a position, and this I consider my first step. Because of this I met Hal Foster who is now the head of art history at Princeton. At the time he was in charge of the Whitney programme, and he said, “You should think about coming to the Whitney programme.” Normally when you apply you have to have made a lot of work, but he vouched for me and they let me in. In 1990 I had reached my maximum threshold with reading.
I started off just making paintings, because I wanted to make a language. Then, a couple of years in, I made my first film in 1998 which was “Midtown”. I was involved with a lot of artists of my generation and I had a studio on 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenue for $250 a month that I was very excited by. I was also curating shows. A lot of friends of mine were in the same building, that was Andy Warhol’s favourite building, there was Christian Marclay, Rita Ackerman, Jack Pearson, and I felt like I was at the epicentre of all this noise, all this volume, all these signs, lights, adrenaline, similar to the film The Sweet Smell of Success.
Was it a problem to be a woman?
No, I didn’t think so at that time. Now I think it’s a bit more of a problem. The generation before me was Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, Barbara Kruger. The last thing I would ever have imagined was that there was a ceiling and that you couldn’t do something. For a woman it’s harder to be taken seriously, when you are very ambitious.
You mean difficult to have important exhibitions?
No, for instance I did just do a big exhibition in Leuven. They showed 4 films and we showed around 20 paintings and a selection of drawings, and then a very very large wall painting that was upstairs. The last time I had done a show that was that comprehensive was in Frankfurt at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in 2009.
Has your work changed much over the years?
It’s all based on perspective. The work was perhaps more photographic at the beginning, and had some element that played with perspective. But if you really look at my early paintings, like a piece from my “Midtown” series, my first proper series, the “Revlon Corporation” or “Conde Nast”, I can assure you the Revlon Corporation and Conde Nast buildings do not look anything like in my painting; it’s a proposition, it’s a rhetoric, it’s a title. It becomes a virtual architecture, and people start to think of it as the real thing, but it’s make believe, not the real thing.
Are you involved with a new project?
I am thinking about barcodes and the desert in the Middle East. The Guggenheim commissioned me a few years ago to make a new film in the Middle East, and I start editing this next week. I am very excited about this. I shot it in November and December last year, but I have been working on it and researching it for several years.
What is it about?
The construction of a nation, through oil, through sand, through concrete. It’s about material visceral qualities, and just willpower. But I am sworn to secrecy and I can’t tell you all of the details!
Is it going to be shown in Abu Dhabi?
Yes, but New York commissioned it and I am sure I will show it in New York too. Of course this is very contentious, a very complicated issue to be engaged with, but what I try to do as an artist I always put myself at the center. We are engaged and complicit, there is no outside. This is how I think about moving around in space, how I think of my work, and ultimately I want the viewer to feel that they are part of this system. This is what they are engaged with, even if it is repulsive.
It looks as if the subjects of your films are mainly cities?
Situations more than cities. What does it mean to be engaged with the film industry? What does it meant to be engaged with a country that’s only 40 years old? The last film, commissioned by Suzanne Pagé, what does it mean to be involved with a billionaire who collects companies, who collects people, collects places? All of these questions are not answered, they are situations.
What is the link between your paintings and your films?
I see it as two sides of the same coin, they are very different mediums with very different economies of production. One is real and one is very abstract, but nevertheless both are based on a form of perception and a form of movement and are dealing with something that is larger than you, that engulfs you. You are part of this thing and you have to deal with it and you have to negotiate that.
You like to title your paintings?
Yes, I do like to title them. I often title them at the very end, but I also have a pot of titles, places, people, that I think about as I am making work.
Are you a very productive artist?
I make about 20 paintings a year, maybe, maybe sometimes more or sometimes less. I don’t believe in this rule that you can’t be prolific. For sure, I do whatever I need to do to get through a series of ideas or get through a series of movements.
Is your creative process slow?
The economy of production and scale for the paintings are quite slow and very precise, built with a series of coordinates and masking. They reveal themselves at the end, it’s almost like working from a negative. In the films on the contrary, they take a long time to think about, but you have to work very fast when you shoot them and a lot of improvisation happens and problem solving. It involves a lot of people. Somehow the two different speeds and the two different economies work very well together for me. My painting is quite porous, it allows me to think a lot in the space while I am completing them. Even the exercise of the repetitive gesture while making the painting is a meditative act.
Is there an evolution in your work?
I have thought recently of making sculpture, I think this could be interesting, and of making drawing of how I see space, and try to conceptualize space as a form of communication, but I do like this relentlessness of creating this structural thing.
Is America very inspiring for your work?
Of course. I don’t think I could make the type of work I make and think about the work as a rhetorical device without being American.
Is New York the right place for you to work?
I think it is, just because there are so many artists here and the history of modern and contemporary art. Hard not to be inspired by being here. Of course I love to travel, in South America, in Europe, Paris, Italy, Germany. I like anywhere where there’s an interesting history of production and of thought. I could be happy in lots of places. Most of all there has to be contradiction for me to be interested.
Is there too much money around art? Do you sometimes feel like a commodity?
No, I do not feel like that, but I do understand that art functions like that. There are moments of repulsion, I’d be lying to say there isn’t, where you realise the system. But, overall I think of it as a very diverse arena, and I see it much more in a historical context and I think there are many art worlds. What motivates me is looking at the history when I might have a moment of doubt. Art, architecture and books, all of the things one loves, this issue of the commoditization of this has always been there, and I don’t think it’s any worse now than it was. It might seem worse, but we can cite lots of examples of where this was repulsive in the past too. This is one’s challenge as an artist, to deal with this subject.
Is it difficult to preserve talent and momentum?
I have a lot of energy – there are times when I am exhausted or fed up or annoyed, feeling somehow blocked or feeling thwarted, but in general this drive and energy is there and I am pleasing myself by making what I make, first and foremost in what I want to see that doesn’t exist. I love the conversation with a viewer, with an audience, even if it is a rhetorical conversation, even if it is in your mind it’s still a conversation. The Dadaists were dealing with this too, and there is continuity between all these different coordinates and this is interesting, how to play with your work.Are beauty and aesthetics very important to you?
Yes. Even the way I have the studio and the way I like to be with light and colour, if I didn’t have that I would feel amiss. I do it first and foremost for myself, and then to be in conversation with others.
Who are the artists that have inspired you particularly?
Marcel Broodthaers, who is on show at MOMA right now, Gerhard Richter, Piero Manzoni, Andy Warhol of course. Sigmar Polke made a film of monkeys and I thought why not make films? I like Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger.
You seem to be rather interested by architecture?
I am interested in Mies van der Rohe, in the megalomania of making the idea of the American city in Chicago, the plaza and the fiction of the city. I think he did it for reasons that are not anything to do with anything that anybody has written about. I think he liked scale, vastness and cinematic emptiness and “the public plaza” is an excuse.
What are your future exhibitions?
I am making a series of paintings that are functioning like portals into thinking about this fictional space, making a new space. I will show them in New York, London and Berlin, next year and the year after.
What is the role of an artist today?
I think it’s open ended. I think you want to make a confrontation with the future. For me, you are creating problems and you are solving problems constantly, and you are placing a viewer in confrontation with a future that might be real or it might be fantasy, it’s not yet clear. For sure, you have no answers, only visceral situations.
How do you lead your life?
Probably pretty decadently. I like to imagine that I can do whatever I want to do and I imagine I can go wherever I want to go. It’s a decadent licence.
When do you work?
I am very disciplined. I work even if I am travelling, I am constantly thinking, constantly working, also taking hundreds of photographs that function like an atlas for me, like a palette to me.
Do you like being a mother?
Yes, I love that aspect of things, of basically showing somebody, my son, everything that’s possible, and what you can experience and what is pleasurable and what is good and what is bad.
Are you afraid of failure?
As an artist failure is always there. It’s there every day when you are trying to make something that isn’t there yet. You are trying to solve problems. Problems as banal as how a certain paint is functioning. When things are not becoming what you want. You have to will things into existence and to do that you have to be very persistent.
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Long Island City
22nd March 2016.
All images courtesy of Sarah Morris.
Portrait of Sarah Morris by Jason Schmidt 2013.