In her recent artist book, Flying With Remnant Wings (2020), Jo Smail asks “Could I paint a caress?” Throughout her career, Smail (b.1943, Durban, South Africa) has dealt with similar questions. From early poured paintings and calligraphic abstractions to experiments with the grid and collaged patterns, Smail’s work has been concerned with the spaces between movement and material, between the spoken word and the intangible feeling. Fittingly, her titles and writing often reference literary figures such as Clarice Lispector, H.D., Trinh T. Minh-Ha, and Mallarmé. What does it mean to paint a caress? Painting has always had to mediate between the tactile and the visual, and Smail’s project is one that delights in the blips and wobbles inherent to that process of sensory translation.
On the occasion of her retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Flying With Remnant Wings, as well as her solo show at Goya Contemporary, Bees With Sticky Feet, Smail and I spoke about her life and work. The following is an edited version of a video conversation held in June from our respective quarantine locations, Baltimore and Ithaca, NY.
Louis Block (Rail): I’d like to begin by reading a quote from an author you’re very familiar with, Clarice Lispector, from her book Água Viva: “I want to grab hold of the is of the thing. These instants passing through the air I breathe: in fireworks they explode silently in space.” I love how she describes artmaking as an interior and temporal process—it’s a statement of the desire to represent some intangible mass that we’re floating through.
Jo Smail: Reading Clarice is all you need in terms of art theory. [Laughter] I was reading William Carlos Williams at the time I made the early paintings, and he’s all about the is too.
Rail: Could you talk about how you came to painting, and your education and early career in South Africa?
Smail: I didn’t grow up drawing or painting, although I made things out of clay we found in a river, and I made all of my own doll’s clothes and a house for them to live in. So that about says a lot, that art was not on the cards at all in my upbringing. My first degree was in History and English—and babies—because I didn’t want my home to be like my parents’ home, which was always short of money. And I wanted to study something really practical, even though I don’t really think that History and English are practical subjects—but they’re more practical than Drama and Philosophy, which I was interested in as well. I went to University when I was pretty young, and I graduated at 19. When I was 23, I already had three children, which always boggles students’ minds when I tell them.
There was something I knew was missing about my life. I knew quite a lot about literature and contemporary music, but I had no idea how it all fit in with art. I asked myself: What don’t you know anything about? My answer: Art. So, when my youngest child was about four, I took up some classes for housewives, painting still lifes, but I thought, gosh, there must be more to art than this. So a friend of mine helped me get into the Johannesburg College of Art.
Rail: What was being taught there during the ’70s? What was the general attitude toward painting?
Smail: We had traditional courses like lettering, design, figure painting, and history of art, but it was a mixture of all of this traditional stuff and being in an environment that was incredibly avant-garde. Some of the faculty had studied at St. Martins College of Art in London and they would do things like walk into a classroom and say “What’s the grade you want to have?” and we’d have to announce that grade on our first day, and then they’d walk out and leave us there for the rest of the semester and we would think “Well, we’ve already gotten As so we’ll just do whatever we like.” Then I was given strange assignments such as taking five letters of the alphabet and constructing something, and so I got on the roof and dumped about 25 pounds of flour, saying A, E, I, O, U, and then downstairs on my desk I wrote some kind of treatise on existentialism or something. [Laughter] I was so confident in those days. I’m much less confident now.
Rail: And it was sculpture that really drew you at the beginning?
Smail: Yes, it was. There wasn’t much written about Joseph Beuys at that stage, and we were scrounging for everything we could find on him, and Anthony Caro was the big noise right then. Welding was in vogue, and as much as I tried, I just couldn’t do it, so that’s when I began to use canvas as a material, and the canvas became flatter and flatter, and then it wanted paint, so I gave it paint. In 1975, Clement Greenberg came to South Africa to curate the South African Biennial, and I entered a stitched canvas with flooded paint, which was à la Frankenthaler and Morris Louis. Greenberg gave me a prize and then the following year I got my first solo exhibition in Cape Town.
Rail: On the subject of childhood and schooling, you have written about childhood ballet instruction as your “first memory of touching nothing.” How much of your process relies on other senses besides vision? Sound, touch, taste, etc.?
Smail: Well, I’ve never wanted to tell stories, so I’ve always believed that if abstraction has any validity, it’s about the things we feel in our lives and the way that our lives are animated, and maybe that goes back to my ballet experience as well. I also remember saying: touching nothing with care. When you touch the air with care, your hand touches it, really touches it, so that you can believe something is happening out there. I’ve always been interested in nothing.
In 1997, I visited the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. I wanted to see Matisse’s Dance (1910). The windows of the museum were open, so I gazed at the painting with a breeze on my face. And in 2017 at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London I saw Rose Wylie’s paintings for the first time. They made me giddy with delight—I laughed out loud. Our friend Basil Beattie is a Royal Academician, so we could see Matisse in His Studio upstairs on our own before the crowds. I felt my body curve into an odalisque form, and felt his brush skim across the surface and curl around the edges of pattern—all charged with the joy that emanates from his use of color. When you feel the air on your face, when you see the work of a painter in an environment that isn’t something that you know, as grand as the Royal Academy, it’s so different than the computer, and I think that’s what painting or art is all about, that experience.
Rail: Going back to this idea of emptiness, nothingness, you often leave unpainted fields of canvas in your work or collage patches of raw canvas on top of painted areas. I wanted to ask how you think of those areas—as full, as receding into space?
Smail: Once I suffered a stroke and was unable to speak. I was thinking that if I was going to talk about not being able to speak, then I needed to get rid of any kind of substrate or anything on the canvas. That was my initial reason for using raw canvas, to really start from scratch, and to build something on that. It’s just to do with nothing, really nothing, and then something. When formalism and aesthetics get talked about, it’s implied that they relate to nothing in the world, but I don’t believe that. This bare canvas has its own life, its own sensibility, and I juxtapose it with something, an image. After the stroke I could not speak, so that was what I was saying with bare canvas. As I learned to speak, I gave it an image which you could recognize.
Rail: The majority of your canvases are rectangular, but their edges are often invaded by collaged elements, loose strings, or thick applications of paint, causing the edge to shake or quiver. In the early work from South Africa there is also an awareness of the architectonics of the rectangle informing the interior of the paintings. What is your relationship to the rectangle?
Smail: I used triangles as well, and I did actually think about the rectangle a lot then. The seams would go diagonally or horizontally, so in that way I did relate to the edge very much. But now, I don’t, and I think it’s given me a certain freedom. I remember someone saying in my studio that the new work seems to be so much more pertinent than the older work, when I had to have so-called background or negative space. Now I don’t think about negative space—everything has to be positive.
Rail: The grid appears in many of your paintings, and earlier work sometimes references weaving. You also let the canvas edge unravel until individual strings become mark-making elements.
Smail: Absolutely, I felt as if I was unraveling, and the canvas was good enough to help with that, and when you’re working with a grid, when you’re drawing by hand, the wobble makes it more vulnerable. Vulnerability really excites me, and I think that the more vulnerable we are when we paint, the better the painting will be. If that makes any sense.
Rail: There is a painting in the show, Figure in Plaid Walking a Dog and Dog (2011), which incorporates a collaged grid. It reminds me of Julian Schnabel’s Formal Painting and His Dog (1978), there is a similar humor in the titles.
Smail: Collage is just another device—I’d cut out old paintings and then collage them onto new canvases. That image was the best part of that painting, and there was this little thing sitting at the bottom of the canvas, and a curator came by one day and said “Oh, that looks like somebody walking a dog.” And I thought “Brilliant title!” I’m not against humor. Once upon a time Clement Greenberg decided that humor was out, but that was a long time ago. The more I laugh… I just love Rose Wylie’s work. I think she’s brave, but she would probably just think she’s doing what she needs to do. In a catalogue essay on her paintings Barry Schwabsky wrote that “although they might look artless, they’re the opposite of the art that hides art.” I love that.
Rail: You had connected the canvas unraveling with vulnerability—to what extent do you try to exert control over your materials?
Smail: When I go into my studio I always have great ideas as to what I’m going to do, but then that doesn’t happen, so I just fool around. I think it all happens by accident. The best ideas you don’t have much control over. It reminds me of Hélène Cixous. She is an atheist but whenever she’s writing well, she says “Oh, God did it.” [Laughter]
Rail: Yes, her essay “The Last Painting or The Portrait of God” presents a sort of jealousy toward the language of painting and what it is able to accomplish without words. She writes:
I gather words to make a great straw-yellow fire, but if you don’t put in your own flame, my fire won’t take, my words won’t burst into pale yellow sparks. My words will remain dead words. Without your breath on my words, there will be no mimosas.
Smail: “No mimosas,” I love that too. And one doesn’t even have to know what it means but it conjures up something so beautiful. So “God” wrote that, definitely.
Rail: She is also obsessed with this enigmatic phrase from Kafka’s deathbed: Lemonade everything was so infinite. While we’re talking about language, do you want to touch on the work you made while recovering from your stroke in 2000? What role did drawing and writing play in your recovery?
Smail: Nobody thought I was going to speak again. My speech therapist said there was no sign of action in my throat, so don’t hold hope for speaking. He tried all sorts of things with beating out time and using rhythms to try and speak. But then he started to sing Happy Birthday, and I joined him. I think that’s because you go back to the most basic instincts and come up with something that has really been in your life forever—and that was all I could do—so I’d go back to my hospital room and start singing Happy Birthday. Then of course everybody brought in hundreds of music books, and we’d all have sing-ins, and I’d hum. It was just a glorious time of my life. Even though I suppose I wasn’t supposed to feel happy, I felt terribly happy.