William Conger

Artist Q&A with William Conger

William Conger’s paintings blend fascinating arrangements of color and form, some geometrically precise, others smoothly haunting. His works combine technique, complexity and abstract brilliance. Conger’s themes range from the fanfare of Chinatown parades to the collective souls within cemeteries, to the vast socio-economic-industrial energy of Chicago itself.

William Conger received his MFA from the University of Chicago and his BFA from the University of New Mexico, where he worked closely with abstract painters Raymond Jonson and Elaine de Kooning. He taught at Northwestern University along with his friend Ed Paschke. He is Professor Emeritus at the Northwestern University. 

“Boomer”, oil on linen, 36 x 36 in | 91 x 91 cm, 2019

Who is your favorite artist of all time?

I have a large number of favorite artists in art history. I admire them in different contexts or for differing reasons. Yet I have probably admired Picasso more consistently and for more reasons during my career. I first encountered his work during my childhood visits to museums and was immediately struck by its painterly force and inventiveness. I still experience a shock when I see his art, even after a lifetime of acquaintance with it. 

How did you become a professional artist?

As a youngster who was very serious about becoming an artist even in the first years of grammar school, I didn’t distinguish between professional and other, except I was never interested in being an amateur artist, (if that’s the opposite of professional). From my first efforts beyond childish scribbles and sun-and-stick figures and the like, I was very conscious of trying to draw and copy the images of paintings I saw in books or museum postcards. A family friend supplied me with stacks of ArtNews which gave me a visual sense of what art and art careers — both past and present — were really like. 

My mother took me to museums. I was introduced to a few artist-illustrators at my father’s business.  So I was thinking of myself as a professional at a young age although to me there were only real artists and nothing else. By the time I was in high school, I was determined to be a lifetime artist even though I was mystified as to how I could do that. My parents did not encourage my interest except as a hobby. A few teachers did encourage me and I pursued art in college (with much parental chagrin), and was fortunate to meet and study with prominent contemporary artists – notably Elaine de Kooning and Robert Mallary – who sharpened my identity as a career-bound artist. 

What are the influences and inspirations in your work?

There are so many different kinds of influences and inspirations affecting me. It is impossible to claim any as more important than others. I am steeped in my lifelong study of art in all its forms and am continually trying to learn more across the whole spectrum of past and present art. Every day brings new inspiration and influence. 

Nevertheless, my earlier mention of Picasso underscores my ongoing interest in his art, in cubism, and in the whole modernist tradition, including, certainly, the era of Abstract Expressionism (Willem de Kooning, Hans Hofmann, etc.) and the art of Native Americans, particularly in the Southwest where I had studied in the 1950s. I find inspiration in philosophy and literature, in history and science, because I’m interested in how the world is as it is but also in how it’s understood poetically through ambiguity and metaphor or symbol. In both the visual and the verbal, I am always interested in how we can regard one thing as another or in how seemingly logical relationships can be deepened by paradox or contradiction. I like to say that anything can stand for something else even as it remains itself. 

William Conger, portrait by Kathleen Conger.

How is your work different than everything else out there?

The emergence of the artist’s expression of self-identity is central to the development of Modern Art, including Geometric Formalism, and is certainly intrinsic to Abstract Expressionism, and mingled, too, with the fantasist and Surrealist traditions. My work shows all of that in differing degrees. But my paintings are purposely idiosyncratic, fantasist, and a bit surreal. They present these traits in a somewhat illusionist space, an elsewhere, as if to invest Nature with my persona, my own consciousness. However, my paintings are objective in being rigorously formal, and scarcely inflected. It’s as if the compositions float slightly behind the canvas, only infrequently disrupting the surface with a textural mark. While remaining abstract and seemingly nameless, my paintings bring to mind private allusions, memories, fantasies, perhaps even narratives that contradict and animate the formal order of slightly askew geometric compositions.  Sometimes I prefer a whimsical approach, imagining that basic shapes like circles and squares, should be, as it were, sent out to play, and be freed from their frightening responsibility to modernism. 

My art is also imbued with my lifelong experience in Chicago, a city of contrasts in every way. The furious nature of the city itself, still showing its “big shoulders” and always uncertain of its role in synthesizing the American culture, faces the serene, melancholy of Lake Michigan where I used to watch the iron ore boats heading to the steel mills during WWII and would sometimes jump off shoreline rocks (quarried limestone packed with tiny fossils) to swim in risky water. Chicago’s architecture, lake, noise, arrogance, and loneliness are in my art. It has been aligned with the Chicago Imagist Art of the 1960s-80s with which it shares an idiosyncratic sensibility albeit abstractly. It has been defined as Abstract Imagist. Although the Imagists looked to low-art for inspiration, I was always more affected by the high-art of world art history and particularly post-war abstract painting. Thus my art flavors formalist abstraction with an autobiographical impulse and organic, allusive references to common everyday feelings. This has been the unique character of my art since the late 1960s.

When is a piece finished for you?

I always finish a painting, sometimes more than once. I want my paintings to be independent of me. I don’t want them to beg for another mark, mine or the viewers. I achieve an overall visual uniformity but I also keep a degree of blur, as if a film of atmosphere clouds some shapes or edges. My more recent paintings do show the painting process more than most of my earlier work (pre-2000) but it is always subtle, never disturbing formal-organic linear visual order.  However, in my small gouache paintings, or in collages, the process is quite evident (as if to echo my earliest Abstract Expressionist art). I stop when I think the painting is so complete as to not want another bit of help from me and has a sense of make-believe consciousness. It’s an admittedly romantic notion. The painting has to have a life of its own. 

What would you like collectors and curators to know about your work?

I want everyone in the art world to know that my art is participating in the discourse centered on what is possible as a work of art today. It alludes to both art historical and personal or private knowing. It invites make-believe that is both profound and ironically playful. It is ornamental and beguiling but only to ultimately reveal an unsettling melancholy and angst. 

“Wizard”, oil on linen, 36 x 36 in | 91 x 91 cm, 2021

Tell us about a few of your career highlights or moments that have greatly affected your career?

Elaine de Kooning encouraged my work and put me in a group show, 14 Albuquerque Painters, at the Great Jones Gallery, NYC, in 1960. I was still an art school undergraduate. In 1964, I was engaged to my now wife Kathleen. I had a demanding managerial day job that I wanted to quit in order to go to graduate school for an MFA.  She encouraged me to do that despite the very severe economic hardship we faced. In 1976, I was one of four painters included in the Abstract Art in Chicago exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary in Chicago. That established my career and led to over forty solo shows since then. In the 1980s-90s the art historian and critic Mary Matthews Gedo published commentary about my work in Arts MagazineArt in America, and Art Criticism, and in other art press periodicals. Her writing defined my work in relation to both abstract painting and Chicago Imagism.  In 2010, I was given a career retrospective at the Chicago Cultural Center by the City of Chicago. In 2020. I created a large 43 x 64’ mural in Chicago. In 2021, my work was included in a major exhibition of Chicago Imagist Art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. My work has been added to the collections of several museums and private collections, and I have completed large public commissions.

What’s coming up for you?

I am completing new paintings for exhibitions in Chicago and St Louis. At age 84 I still work in my studio every day.

What advice would you give to an artist just starting out today?

No matter what, do everything as well as you can. Use the best materials you can obtain, and work as if whatever you make is a keeper. Be a finisher, get it done, and move on to new work. Don’t pile up a lot of unfinished work. That shows a hesitancy to decide.  To finish a work means to make a commitment to it, to let it be what it can be now forcefully, decisively. Then begin new work to extend what’s been hinted at. 

Keep good records of your career. Keep a journal. Document all work when it’s finished. Go to shows and galleries. Go again. Draw a lot. Read a lot. Support your peers and be present in the art-world. Invite them to see your work. Be frugal. Assume that you’ll need a day-job. Don’t take physically exhausting day jobs, but do take jobs that are mentally challenging and rewarding such as teaching or museum work.  You can make your best art even when your time is cut up by daily tasks.  It’s a state of mind and focus that matters. Learn to be very comfortable with solitude.  Don’t price your work too high too soon. Seek opportunities to show your work. Help arrange shows with your peers. Live a healthy life. Be honest and polite to all. 

Who are some of your favorite under appreciated artists that you don’t think get enough attention?

Bob Hooper is a prime example of an under-recognized artist. He had a recent show at Regards Gallery in Chicago. He is a Yale MFA with the Rome Prize and a Guggenheim in his past. His new work is brilliant, difficult, and refined.

David Sharpe is a long-time and prolific New York artist of remarkable ability. His drawings and paintings are usually landscape or intimate interiors with figures, Expressionist,  but also lyrical. He shows at Hammer Gallery in Chicago.  

“Morning”, oil on linen, 20 x 16 in | 51 x 41 cm, 2020

To learn more about William and his work, please visit www.WilliamConger.com.