Octogenarian painter Rose Wylie makes U.S. museum debut in Aspen Art Museum’s ‘where i am and was’


What: Rose Wylie, ‘where i am and was’

Where: Aspen Art Museum

When: Through Nov. 1

How much: Free

More info & digital resources:

Though American audiences and the New York gallery scene didn’t take notice until the past decade or so, the British painter Rose Wylie has been making work in her purposefully crude, sometimes childlike and whimsical style since the early 1980s.

A new Aspen Art Museum show, “where i am and was,” marks her U.S. museum solo exhibition debut, arriving in the artist’s 85th year.

The octogenarian debutante’s 14 paintings in the show were hung in March but went unseen until last month when the museum opened to visitors following a closure due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The works here date from the 1990s to 2019 and they are complemented by a fascinating compilation of drawings, notes and ephemera which offer a glimpse into her creative process.

She works from drawings, often made late at night, in pencil, before bed. One of these nights, she recalled, she racked her brain for things she used to wear and thought of a bathing suit from the 1950s. She sketched it, placed a girl in it, and it eventually led last year to her “Yellow Bathing Costume, Steps,” depicting a woman approaching water tentatively for a swim.

It includes the playful on-canvas text “in a primrose yellow bathing costume 1956-55(?).” The confused dates hitting on one of her primary interests in these works: memory. The pieces are largely figurative, with people and Google-able subjects in them, but they depict Wylie’s memories of them rather than the thing itself. So her portrait of Serena Williams at the French Open, for instance, is an overpowering outline of a portion of her body split across two deep maroon canvases.

The drawings on display here offer clues about how the large-scale paintings take shape.

These large-scale works touch on world history, art history, autobiography, film and popular culture. There’s no theme linking them.

“I think I am the theme,” Wylie quipped in a May interview about the Aspen show with critic and podcaster Jennifer Higgie.

Wylie won’t be coming to Aspen during the run of the show and has been quarantined in the home in the English countryside, where she has lived and worked for more than 50 years.

The solitude of her working life during the pandemic, she noted, is not much different from before — only she has friends dropping groceries and she is working on paintings without visits from her assistants.

“I’ve worked very much as usual, except I don’t see anyone,” she told Higgie,

In lieu of its standard walk-throughs, talks and complementary events that would normally fill the calendar at the museum for the months during a major exhibition, the museum is instead offering a variety of digital resources. If you love this show and want to learn more about Wylie, or if you don’t get it and want to dig in, these resources on the museum website are well worth your time.

They include a transcript of a 2017 conversation between Wylie and Serpentine Galleries, London, artistic director Hans Ulricht Obrist, audio of a conversation about the Aspen show — recorded in May — between Wylie and critic and podcast host Jennifer Higgie. There’s also a short video segment, from Frieze, of Higgie visiting Wylie at her home and studio in 2013 — an enriching and entertaining experience that includes a walk through Wylie’s wild garden and wilder studio, piled high with spattered paint cans and the newspapers she uses to wipe brushes and to cover the floors.

“I have an idea that gardens are rather good if you leave them alone,” she says on a walk around her garden, where ivy and grass have been left to grow naturally among the plots.

Wylie has often said one of her main influences — from her time in art school in the ’50s to today — has been by ancient cave paintings. That may seem a stretch but like those anonymous artists, Wyle is reflecting the things she sees day to day.

Movies are a frequent inspiration. The Aspen show includes her depiction of the Philip Seymour Hoffman title “Jack Goes Boating.”

“I like the fact that films are seen by people and are relatively inexpensive,” she said in the video tour. “The painting links into a shared public ideology that we all have and that we can all take part of.”

Wylie often writes sort-of captions on the work itself. A three-panel painting, for instance, that playfully occupies a corner space in the show, includes the words “spider,” “frog” and “bird” and, upon inspection, depicts just that in a light blue on white.

Other works toy amusingly with text, the words in her works often resembling like haiku and scrawled across her canvases and chunky paint. Often there is what seems a mistaken word or malapropism, a backward or upside down letter. Wylie captivates by toying with viewers, in most every aspect finding ways to make it a little awkward, slightly askew.

She does regularly write poetry, glimpses of which are on view in the show. Even the exhibition’s title, the lowercase and un-punctuated “where i am and was,” has a touch of the poet in it.

“It is present now and it is old work,” she explained of the title. “It just seemed to work.”

The crude style and brushstrokes might seem tossed off and improvisatory, but most aren’t. The details, down to things like the shape of her characters’ legs, often have a purpose.

“Women often feel their legs should be a certain shape, governed by the idea of a wonderful leg,” she said of her treatment of legs. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. So I often make quite spindly legs, legs which are different.”


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