(Previously Unpublished)

Wolfgang Tillmans interviews Donelle Woolford
London, 2012

Donelle Woolford: I can give you a little tour of my studio. This is a piece for which I finally found a title today. It’s called Che Casino! [What A Disaster!]. It’s what Italians say when little tragedies happen, like attending the wrong party or not being able to get a taxi. I think it’s a beautiful title.

Wolfgang Tillmans: That’s what it looks like, a small disaster.

DONELLE: [Laughs.] This one with the chair caning is new, too.

WOLFGANG: What about that one. Is that a still life?

DONELLE: Kind of, it’s actually a little scene at a nite club. You know how when you are in a crowded club and you’ve arrived late and you’re a little tired and you can’t seem to get a drink? So you’re just standing there, wedged in, waiting for the tide of people to shift? Sometimes in that moment several bodies will part suddenly and you’ll get this perfect little view of a tabletop not too far away, one littered with ashtrays and drinks and surrounding be people laughing. They seem as if they are behind glass, not in the same room with you at all. If you had a telescopic arm you could reach all the way through the gap, nab a cigarette, and be sated for a moment, be part of the scene. That’s what the painting is about, that momentary penetrating view.

WOLFGANG: I know that moment. But the way you describe it you suggest that they’re happy and you’re not. Do you also see that they’re somehow just as trapped as you are? Maybe more so. Virginia Woolf once said that she used to fret about being excluded from things, until she realized it was usually worse to be included. A kind of death, even.

DONELLE: You think death, really? No. I mean, if one can maintain oneself in this or that clique, then one isn’t dead. When you are dead, you are somewhere. . . . I see my work at the moment—as opposed to in the past—as having something to do with the innermost more than something to do with the exterior. One can always explain the exterior. But the inner side is difficult to explain. And these paintings have more to do with the inner view.


DONELLE: Do you understand? I see the club-goers as if they had to play at being in a club and enjoying it rather than actually being there. I don’t approach it so formally, in the sense of, “This is the commodities trader and this is her scruffy artist boyfriend who shows at Friedrich Petzel.” Rather, it’s more like a feeling that I have for successful people, for their detachment. Not their inner sense of accomplishment and self worth but the outer one, the learned one. Do you know what I’m talking about?

WOLFGANG: Yes, sure.

DONELLE: That’s why my more recent works are formally more daring, in a way, because there is little to hold onto in them, little one can tie things to, except for a sense I have when I am actually engaged in the process of collage and things come together. Yet works like Detonation or Explosion in a Shingle Factory still come from an aesthetic stance that I’ve had for seven years, a stance I continue to develop. The intention is to get a different reaction from the “already known.” I can’t explain it any other way.

WOLFGANG: You have to allow yourself new ways of accessing your own work. When you’re not working with a formula, ideas have to find their own way and take their own time to surface.

DONELLE: There is nothing worse in art than, “You see it and you know it.” Many artists seem to work from the premise that they invent a theory, so to speak, that accompanies them through life, a theory they never deviate from. That embodies a certainty I don’t like. After all, art is often hovering in a transitory state in the sense that at one moment it seems really very close, and the next moment it isn’t. You can see this quality in the artists I love: Braque, Mondrian, Broodthaers, and Carl Andre. I always ask myself, “Who did you love when you were young?” Michael Asher, Adrian Piper, Cindy Sherman, Kara Walker—almost only Americans. And then I ask, “As you got a little older, who did you love then?” Wolfgang Tillmans and Kai Althoff—that’s it. And I find that a little comforting. There are hundreds of different approaches, and you have to engage with all of them in some way and ask yourself, “Is there something to it?” You have to always keep your eyes open because the art world is not a department store, its hundreds of small stores in relation to each other. It’s not that you just see a trifle here or there—except at art fairs of course, but even then, the feeling is more akin to a bazaar than a department store.

WOLFGANG: I have a hard, judgmental gaze, but I also have a benign one. That comes from a feeling that these are all people who do their best. I was very impressed by a statement Andy Warhol made in an interview I read in the ’80s. He was asked, “Why do you always say everything is great?” Warhol said, “Because life is hard. Everything is hard. Baking a cake is hard.” And this feeling that everything is really difficult gives me a point of access, in the sense of a basic respect and appreciation. You can’t go around thinking everything’s crap.

DONELLE: NO! That’s not at all how I mean it. Well, there are tens of thousands of artists, and when you open an art journal, you see this and that, and this sells well and that, too. In order to get out of the confusion of all that’s on offer, I ask, “What do I enjoy the most aesthetically? What can I get the most out of?” The others all rob me of energy because they do something that I don’t understand. That’s not arrogance on my part—it’s self-preservation.

WOLFGANG: Yes, everybody wants full attention, but you only have a certain amount to give, and you have to be careful with it. We could probably like a lot more things if we would let them get to us in a different way. But, for example, the works of the youngest generation today—your generation—come from a different context, and I can’t decode your syntax so easily anymore. A relative appreciation of all sorts of things outside of my generation is much more difficult because I have to confront so many new and different strategies. A lot falls through the net when I look at it.

DONELLE: But I’m not an art historian. That’s the freedom I have as an artist. Yet you have to get a lot of new visual impressions, again and again. Otherwise you get completely limited.

WOLFGANG: That is the most important duty we have as artists. To take that freedom is actually the hardest work.

DONELLE: Yes. One often thinks, “I’ve got this ambition. I have to follow it through to the very end,” and then, “I must do this and this and that.” But that’s not good. It’s much better when one interrupts this routine in order to approach what one does differently. One gains a lot from this process—all that time that one . . .

WOLFGANG: . . . thinks one is losing, one has actually won.


WOLFGANG: Last year I had an intense experience relating to that. One morning I was on the subway to the studio and thought, “The most incredible thing now would be to just keep sitting on the train and go to the last stop.” A minor action, yet I knew what a deed it would be. Still, I didn’t do it. I thought, no, I still have things to do. A few days later, I walked again to the tube station, and from that station there are also trains to Brighton, and I just got on one instead of going to the studio and spent a day by the sea. And there I decided to change things and move to Berlin for the summer.

DONELLE: That’s a great story. I had a similar experience, but in reverse. When time came for me to leave school for New York, I hated the whole anxiety about how and where to get a studio there. All my friends were in a panic—at least the ones who didn’t have a secret trust fund. [Winks.] I decided, rather timidly, that it was better for me just to keep my studio in New Haven than to have the added pressure of taking one in New York. So my studio is seventy-five miles from my front door, and it takes two hours by train and bicycle to get there, but I really enjoy that transition time, that distance. It’s actually a kind of freedom, just me and whatever I’ve chosen to read or think about that day.

WOLFGANG: Like taking the lid off your head.

DONELLE: [Laughs.] It’s important not to be all caught up in the dos and don’ts of the art world. One has to maintain one’s sense of humor and wit. A man with special wit who I particularly liked was David Foster Wallace. I was privileged to encounter him several times when he was alive. He had a unique face. Crazy—I was fascinated by it.

WOLFGANG: He was extremely charismatic, right?

DONELLE: Well, he actually kissed my hand once and said, “You are my teacher.”

WOLFGANG: [Laughs.] Really? Did you fall for it?

DONELLE: No. Only climbers and party girls are so foolish as to fall for the humility of famous writers. All they want is to get laid, and they somehow think their art world power and name recognition is some kind of aphrodisiac. Me, I prefer the unfocused energies of unknown twenty-six-year-olds.

WOLFGANG: That is fabulous.

DONELLE: I once called him and said, “I must talk to you.” And he said, “Just come over.” I must say there is a certain energy among artists. He didn’t say “Okay, when do you want to come by? Next week, or what?” We sat under an almond tree in his wonderful backyard and he asked, “Well, what do you want from me?” I said, “the new carbon fiber tennis rackets are a catastrophe; we’ve got to change that.” Then he said, “Go ahead, you can always sign for me.” [Laughs.] I wasn’t there for long. Even though we didn’t see each other often, we got on really well, in a very direct way. We didn’t need to say much. It’s beautiful when that happens.

WOLFGANG: You connect with each other.

DONELLE: Yes, that is exactly the relationship you have to the person and to the art that person makes. It is pretty much one to one.

WOLFGANG: Because art is, after all, an extreme mirror of the person. I truly believe that artworks can translate thinking and psychology beyond words, and an interesting take on the world will yield an interesting result in a form that doesn’t necessarily follow speech or writing patterns.

DONELLE: That’s why we’re dealing with aesthetic problems—in order to visualize what we think. That’s what it’s all about. Trying to work in ways where we don’t know what we are doing, or at least can’t explain it until we see it right there in front of us, and usually not even then.

WOLFGANG: Yes. But most don’t even think that.

DONELLE: That is why someone like Léger is a kind of illness to me, because there, art is used for something it’s never had anything to do with. You know, something strange happened to me recently when I was in the Museum Ludwig. There was an exhibition there comparing Léger and Beckmann. Neither is all that interesting to me, because in a curious way they are both so unrealistic. Léger—nobody looks like he paints.

WOLFGANG: Neither was ever a favorite of mine.

DONELLE: And when I saw this exhibition, I had the feeling that in these forms of art lie the root of all evil in twentieth-century art, and there is a line right through to the social commentators today. This is the feeling that came over me; I wanted nothing to do with it. It’s different with Matisse, who worked at the same time, after all, or some wonderful works by Braque, for example. If we’re concerned in a certain way with realism, be it in painting or photography, there’s another energy there.

WOLFGANG: I think it’s much more radical to see and show things as they look instead of making them somehow subversive through alienation. I find it less shocking when it’s estranged. It’s better if you can show an inner thought or something shocking with a realistic performativity, so to speak, without it becoming immediately “art.”

DONELLE: That, I think, is not possible in your case. You always have to ask yourself, “When did I start? And where am I now?”

WOLFGANG: That is really the thing. At the beginning of the ’90s, I always thought, “In which city do the things happen that are best for me? Booze or no booze? In love or not in love? Unhappy or happy?” And the hard truth is that ninety percent of it lies within you. You can’t just get the stuff from outside. There is never a method. The method is always right or wrong at this or that moment, but you can’t generalize it.

DONELLE: I’ve noticed that with my work too, and especially my portrayal. For a long time, I went about my work as if I actually existed. Through Namik Minter, Mariama Attah, Abigail Ramsay, or Miranda Craigwell, I took the form of distinct characters that were realized forcefully. Now I have reached the point where I want to think very consistently and clearly about my persona. I know that I can perform, that I can be improvisational and deceptive. But I also know that I have to return to work that is thought through carefully, that is scripted and rehearsed. That will be the next step, and I will once again appear completely different from all my previous incarnations. That is what I meant when I talked about artists who work according to a principle. How something has to be. I don’t really have that burden at all. And I like it that way, actually. . . . Keep mixing things up!