"Oh boy!" That's what I said after my first glimpse of William Conger's collages at Chicago's Roy Boyd Gallery in January. Here was fresh, strong, invigorating work -- and a puzzle too. I'd followed Conger for years -- he's one of Chicago's most important artists -- but he'd always shown paintings. Why had he suddenly started making collages? A few days later, Conger and I sat face-to-face in his studio.
"My younger sister died in spring of 1997, leaving me emotionally distraught," he explained. "All summer long, I affirmed my own life, making an enormous painting and my first collages in many years.
"The artist mocks nature and defies death," he continued. "Circus is a metaphor for the artist, a ritual in which people do death-defying things -- walk a tightrope, put their head in a lion's jaws, ride the elephant. In this comical and ridiculous way, man asserts his superiority over nature. I put the circus into my work -- it makes me think of bright colors, bouncy shapes, and spectacle."
"Full of evocation"
Through much of his 40-year career, Conger has explored and refined the same basic imagery. He is primarily an oil painter, and to understand his collages, we must begin with his paintings (See Circus II, Marsh, Lagoon).
Conger paints semi-abstracted landscapes -- natural spaces as viewed through a window. We see interior architecture and forms that suggest objects one might find indoors, such as paintings stored in a rack. Through the window, we glimpse patches of sky, water and earth. There are rocks too, and swelling forms that could be organic.
The titles of some Conger paintings (Webster Bridge, Diversey, Fullerton) refer to Chicago places and streets, but he says he only employs these names suggestively. Even so, the light and colors in this work would be very different if the artist had not spent his life in Chicago.
"My work is full of evocation," Conger explained. "I was directly influenced by Raymond Johnson, the painter who taught me at the University of New Mexico [1957-60]." Johnson trained at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, went to New Mexico in the early '20s, and founded the Transcendental Painting Group there. Conger says that his work follows Johnson's in alluding to "symbolic aspects of nature."
The artist also links his style to "American abstract painters like Arthur Dove" who "symbolize nature through organic form -- quasi-identifiable things." This approach to art "kind of went away" after Mondrian, he states, and was completely out of fashion during the 70s, a time of "non-referential painting."
Abstract Expressionism is "the basis of his work, the collages especially," says Conger. "Making a composition is an automatic activity. You create a happening on the canvas." As a young man, the artist studied with Elaine de Kooning, who exhibited his work in New York in 1960.
Like a jigsaw puzzle
Conger's paintings -- some are more than six feet tall -- contain carefully outlined forms that fit together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. The artist gives many forms volume by lightening one of the edges, but there is no consistent direction to the light in his paintings and no shadow. He often organizes the composition around a strong vertical or H-form in the center or at the left. These elements are strengthened with light at the edge.
The forms in Conger's paintings seem almost to be stacked up, but they are located in space according to the artist's expressive needs. Sky can be anywhere, for example -- not just at the top. The artist activates lighter-colored areas by painting the surface in soft cloud-like, wave-like patterns.
Conger has a second, less ambitious body of oil paintings (See "Lakeview Suite" #22, #23), done on thick pieces of wood about one foot square, which he has made since the early '70s. These are "very casual and quick," he says. "I do them to loosen up." These "wood pieces," as Conger calls them, form a bridge between his large paintings and the collages.
Trusted every hunch
Conger's original plan for the collages was "something meticulous" -- a paper version of his big paintings. He drew in pencil and painted on large sheets of white paper, cut these up into hundreds of different-shaped pieces, laid everything out on long tables in his studio, and set to work.
"As an artist," he explains, "you always want to subvert your natural habits to get to something new. Painting is a very physical, drawn-out process involving much stop and go in your contact with the surface. With collage, you work much faster and look down at the surface.
"Last summer, I was in the studio seven to eight hours each day, intensely focusing my energy," he continues. "I worked very rapidly, very intuitively on the collages, trusting every hunch. If I'd stopped to get esthetic about them, I would have repeated things I already know.
"To get going in the morning, I'd glue something down on a blank piece of paper and work off that," he says. "Some collages have four to five layers, with the starting piece completely covered up."
For many artists, this would be a very dangerous way to proceed. It was right for Conger because he has a long history with his visual vocabulary and a thoroughly disciplined mind (See Collage 1997 -- six images). "The collaged shapes have a dialogue with each other," he explains. "There are places in the image where you think a line should be, but the shapes impinge upon the line and grow over it.
"The collaged image is incipiently chaotic, but I forced it inward," he continues. "I have an almost obsessive passion for structure and order. There's a very formal connection between my work and the rectangle."
Conger's finished collages are square-shaped or rectangular, measuring anywhere from 20 to 24 inches on each side. We see squares, triangles, and semicircles with corners cut or torn off so shapes lead into each other. The artist employs subdued colors and leaves his brushwork visible, which enlivens the surface. Light and dark shapes seem to move back and forth in three dimensions.
The artist makes abundant use of white, leaving the paper blank to suggest emptiness and creating architectural elements with white or yellowish paint. To tie his composition together, he may draw on a completed collage.
In the future, Conger wants to merge collage and painting. "I've figured out how to do it technically," he says, "but haven't yet found the right psychic way, haven't gotten the idea of necessity. All I know now is that I may want to glue down big pieces of canvas."
VICTOR CASSIDY is an art journalist based in Chicago.