The Operator: An Interview with Molly Greene
At the end of WWII, the Transcendental Painting Group was apparently at odds with the American public. Notions of spirituality, nature, and science being mutually explored through painting would have seemed rather vital in the years that followed the dropping of the atomic bombs; one might imagine a world that could imagine itself literally exploding would go for something cosmic. However, the art world opted for new directions, and the TPG faded from critical attention.
It’s an important observation as we face the catastrophe of pandemics and social unrest and how artists might respond in this ferociously accelerating decade. The attention to what we call spirituality, self-healing, self-examination, and understanding our relationships to nature and science have become indispensable in our daily lives. Molly Greene is a bit of an anomaly in the art world, coming from a unique background in the social and environmental sciences, creating a cacophony of textures and ethereal structures in paintings that push the boundaries of what we perceive as form and reality. Her new solo show at Richard Heller Gallery, perfectly timed with a survey of the Transcendental Painting Group at nearby LACMA, made a conversation with Greene essential.
Evan Pricco: In your last show, you became connected to the word "omen." It’s amazing that in looking at those works now, there was this undercurrent of tension of whether life or destruction was emergent, so to speak. What word do you connect with in this show at Richard Heller?
Molly Greene: Generally, when I start a body of work I have some loose constellation of ideas that I hold present in my mind, but I usually don’t fully understand why those things are important, only that they are. While in the process of making the paintings, things become clarified in some way, but I find it’s unhelpful to try to narrate what’s going on before most of the works are done. It’s early days right now and no dominant word has surfaced, but one of the things I’m thinking about is this passage in Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil: “This world is a closed door. It is a barrier. And at the same time, it is the way through. Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing that separates them but it is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link.” Alongside that I’ve also been thinking about quantum computing—I certainly don’t fully understand how it works but there’s something beautiful and disturbing to me about that basic idea that entangled particles remain connected regardless of how far apart they’re separated, and that feels so related to the Weil passage.
Your background doesn’t necessarily presage the "typical art world pedigree," and to be honest, whatever that actually means, no one should know. You come from an American Studies Ph.D. and MESc in Environmental Science from Yale University. This may be a completely daft question but in terms of the actual process of being in the studio and painting, does the knowledge from these degrees actively engage with your hand and mind?
I don’t think it’s a daft question at all. Actually, I think my painting practice has been more of a continuation of what I was thinking about in school rather than a divergence. The thing that has changed is the way I ask and answer questions, though conceptually, I’m still orbiting many of the same centers of gravity. In school, I was mostly reading and writing about human philosophy and the way that definitions of the human manufacture corresponding definitions of the subhuman, the non-human, and the super-human. I was and still am, interested in the politics and aesthetics of that boundary—making and the history of anxiety regarding the fragility and fictionality of the idea of the human (and all its attendant others). At some point, I realized that the line of questioning I was interested in was outside of language or that language somehow failed to capture certain experiences. I felt like using language to ask and answer questions was foreclosing what sorts of things I could think about.
There was a period of time after I graduated when I completely stopped reading, partly because I felt so saturated and partly because I needed to quiet those texts in my mind in order to find my way with images. That was incredibly challenging because text has such authority and specificity. What I read in school definitely formed who I am as a thinker and my current studio practice is extremely indebted to those books, but they form more of a background or foundation now. I’m back to reading, but actually, really avoid writing or talking about painting most of the time because I still feel like words are so good at over-determining what I can see and feel.
I've heard people reference you in the realm of almost organic surrealism, but when I see your work, I go to the Transcendental Painting Group, which, coincidentally, has an exhibition at LACMA at the same time as your new show in LA. Do you think that is more akin to where you are at in terms of influence, either consciously or subconsciously?
I just went to see the Transcendental Painting Group show at LACMA last week. I loved the exhibition and was a bit ashamed by how little of that work I had previously seen, I was aware of Agnes Pelton but that was it. I had this kind of uncanny experience seeing the 1942 painting Blue Forms by Florence Miller. I had never seen her work before but something about the logic of that painting felt so deeply familiar. I have a longer running relationship with Hilma af Klint’s work, which I first saw at the Guggenheim show in 2019, and the work of Emma Kuntz, which I came across at around the same time. I think of both of them as transcendental painters who have had a big influence on me.
I’ve never studied art or art history, so my sense of how things get categorized is pretty patchy, but I would say I’ve been influenced by surrealism too. When I first moved to LA and started painting, I checked out (and kept renewing over and over) this book In Wonderland from the public library, which is about surrealist artists who were working in Mexico and the US in the middle of the 20th century. I’ve always understood surrealism to be a historical concept though, so applying it to contemporary work feels anachronistic, and I think there’s something else going on right now that isn’t so rooted in giving form to the unconscious.
As I understand it, the Transcendental Painting Group (and af Klint) were similarly trying to give form to metaphysical concepts, but in their case, those concepts were coming from theosophy, esotericism, or the occult. I don’t have any relationship to organized religion or spirituality, but I’m drawn to something like devotion in my work and that impulse to give form to the non-physical. But I’m more concerned with trying to express the way social or political constructs haunt the material world and are felt in my body. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize my work into either the surrealist or transcendental camps, but there’s definitely some commonality in that insistence on the realness and vibrancy, and power of non-physical forces. Also, transcendence generally implies some sort of escape or independence from physicality and I would describe my interests as a complete inversion of that idea. I’m hung up on what can be known by inhabiting a body and by burrowing deeply into matter.
\I view these associations with a lot of suspicion and wariness though. I think it’s wonderful that there’s been such enthusiasm and interest in surrealist and transcendental painters lately, especially women painters, but I get nervous about the way authorship gets construed with that work. Often there’s this implicit or explicit suggestion that these women were empty conduits through which some cosmic picture passed and then appeared on the canvas as if the images were channeled rather than made. I think that whole narrative fits neatly into really regressive and essentialist gender tropes about feminine intuition and passivity that functionally deny true authorship to these painters, so in that way, these categories feel like a trap. New Age culture is also interwoven with the context of how this work was made and the current interest in this type of work. New Age culture is pretty ambient in LA, and parts of that culture are interesting and amusing to me, but it’s also just really laden with every variety of appropriation and delusion (which I guess is also interesting to me but in more troubling ways).
It's a new year as I ask these questions, do you feel optimistic? Is your artwork optimistic?
I don’t feel very optimistic about human beings, but at the same time, I don’t feel like I require optimism in order to feel excited and curious about experiencing the future. I think the act of painting is inherently optimistic, so I guess there’s discord between how I feel and how I spend my time. Paintings are records or some way of bearing witness, and so to keep making them without any clear sense of what’s going to happen in the future seems like an act of faith. I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard a long time ago and it sticks with me in regards to how one goes about stomaching the world. I thought she wrote so compellingly about the interplay between terror, violence, death, pleasure, and joy. I feel like it was really instructive in how to observe the world closely, make space for despair and bliss, and to appreciate the horror and beauty of things.
Molly Greene’s solo show at Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica from April 1—May 6, 2023