The Unstoppable Rose Wylie

The artist Rose Wylie came of age in austere postwar England, a member of the so-called Silent Generation, but she doesn’t quite fit the mold. While she leads a relatively frugal and hermetic life that exemplifies the resourcefulness her contemporaries are known for, silent she is not. At 86, Wylie paints freewheeling pictures, often with words loosely scrawled across them, that are gloriously big and crude, and full of a certain dry British humor that sends up any whiff of orthodoxy or pretension. Tudor kings and queens cavort cartoonishly across 16-foot-wide, unprimed canvases. Disembodied mouths chomp through exploding cookies. Celebrities, cinematic characters and figures from commercials often appear: stars from Quentin Tarantino films with hulking shoulders and slender legs; Lolita-like blondes in sunglasses; Serena Williams hammering a tennis ball into the air. Nothing is off limits. “I don’t like constraints,” says Wylie. “I’m hugely open to options and possibilities.”

Wylie found her way to art early in life. She attended art school in Kent as a teenager the 1950s, specializing in figurative painting, and soon after enrolled in teacher training at Goldsmiths, where she met her future husband, the painter Roy Oxlade. The pair had three children and, for much of the ’60s and ’70s, Wylie put her artistic pursuits aside while she dedicated herself to family life. But she always imagined she might return to painting eventually and, in the late ’70s when her children were grown up, she enrolled at the Royal College of Art, graduating in 1981. Since then, she hasn’t stopped working. Her paintings garnered little notice for decades but, in the 2000s, exhibitions at London’s Union gallery and Cologne’s Choi & Lager helped create momentum, which grew steadily with a 2010 appearance in a group show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., as well as subsequent exhibitions at the Tate and Serpentine in London, among other institutions. All the while, though, Wylie has remained focused on her craft, unfazed by the now-voracious attention.

This month, she will open her first show at David Zwirner gallery in New York. Titled “Which One,” it includes paintings of Adam and Eve; Wylie’s cat, Pete; and a breakfast bowl with berries picked from her garden. But Wylie would tell you that the subject of a work doesn’t much matter: What matters is how she paints it. “Which One” alludes to the choices the artist makes in her studio as she compares newer versions of a painting with earlier ones, and for her those decisions come down to the style and quality of form, color and line. For instance, she wrestled for some time last year with a piece that depicts grounded planes on a runway and riffs on images from the media of frozen airports after the world stopped on account of the pandemic. One of the planes is much larger, and more resolved, than the others. “I’d spent days doing this plane — you know, you’ve got to get it right,” she says. Then she added a dark line along the bottom, a shadow that wraps around the aircraft’s nose. “The plane was perfectly OK before I put it on and, in putting it on, it can lose its potency. It can get soft or weak.” Still, she was pleased. “I don’t know what it added,” she says, but after pausing to consider, suggests, “personality.” Finally, she embellished the runway with some tassels, so that it more closely resembles a magic carpet, “which is, of course, the opposite of sophisticated air navigation,” she says.

For the last 14 months, Wylie has remained under lockdown, but the pandemic has barely changed her routine. For years, she has painted alone in her Kent home and studio, which is an unruly den of magnificent chaos. She relishes being able to fling paint-smeared newspaper, brushes and used paper towels to the floor with abandon. She has occasional help from two assistants who live nearby. In the evenings, Wylie likes to watch the news and often returns to her studio to paint with no distraction, mining the internet, newspapers, films and advertisements for source material.

On a recent afternoon, Wylie answers my call to her landline. She has been working on a painting of Shakespeare’s Miranda for a new edition of “The Tempest,” to be published by David Zwirner Books in 2022. She chose the text, she says, because it’s about “intuition and magic over governmental hierarchies and learning and position.” But the play, and its female heroine, are not Wylie’s primary concern. She has depicted Miranda with her back turned toward the viewer, and the image’s focal point is instead the pale green chair on which she sits and that looks, to Wylie, “rather awkward, square and primitive — it may not correspond with your idea of a chair.” She explains that she recently saw a painting of a chair by Jimmy Lee Sudduth, the Alabamian artist and blues musician, that was “very elementary,” she remembers, “like how I draw.” She thought it was “marvelous,” and it stuck in her mind.

Wylie likes artworks that disregard the rules, where scale is distorted, perspectives are off-kilter and inelegance prevails as, sometimes, in folk art or the paintings of so-called outsider artists. (She is also fond of early Renaissance works, frescoes, late Philip Guston, Edvard Munch and more.) In her upcoming show, she pays homage to the style of retablos, Mexican votive paintings in which visual narratives are set above fablelike text. “They’re not clever, flashy, arty drawings,” she says. “They deal with stuff we know about. They deal with betrayal, they deal with guilt. They deal with fundamental subjects that theater and film and literature have always dealt with.” Wylie values their ability to communicate those themes in a universal language. “They illustrate that in a very direct and clear and non-arty way,” she says. “It’s honest. And the form often has a line around the edge.” Seated in her home, surrounded by piles of materials and raw canvases hanging to dry, Wylie answered the T Artist’s Questionnaire.

What is your day like? How much do you sleep, and what’s your work schedule?

I don’t have a schedule. I have bouts of obsession and then work all the time. I can work into the night, and I do work into the night. I never go to bed before 12 o’clock and often go much later — 2:30 or 3 o’clock. I work quite ferociously on my paintings at the beginning, and then I leave them for a bit and I think they’re OK — and I go back and look at them and they’re not. I put them on the computer screen and compare them with earlier stages of themselves. I spend quite a few days with them. If you photograph them in different lights, you can see them in a slightly different color. That process drives you to understand what looks better, and then you leave it.

Are you sad to see your paintings go when they’re finished?

I do get fond of them. But if they always remain in your studio, it’s not exactly a happy situation for an artist. What I absolutely very much like is for them to get into museums where everybody can see them. That’s my ideal. I do keep pictures of them all. And of course a catalog is always very agreeable to have.

You’ve said that you no longer read books.

I’ve decided not to read novels because it’s so time-consuming. I read art reviews and the newspaper. Films are a hugely good 21st-century art form. Those earlier blokes didn’t have access to films. It’s nice to use them, and I do. I watch the news every night — I think that’s a good idea. I do quite a lot of chance trawling through the web for images and looking up artists whose names come up for other reasons. For instance, the photographs of Deana Lawson. I think she’s superb, and I wouldn’t know about them if I hadn’t followed some stray reference. Some of her figures are absolutely knockout good and they’re like early Cezanne and they attack stereotypes.

How often do you talk to other artists?

Sometimes, off and on, ones I know. Though I also quite like talking to artists I don’t know. It can be invigorating because you’re starting fresh, not from old knowledge. Judith Bernstein came over, and I loved it. Katherine Bernhardt came with her son. I love chance visits.

What was the first piece of art you ever made?

I used to paint in books when I was small — does that count? Grown-up books, not children’s books. I used to draw black-and-white illustrations and color them in. I had a paint box when I was 4, and it was a treasured object. I would buy paints for it with my pocket money when I was a bit older — 5 or 6.

What’s the worst studio you ever had?

They’ve all been in my house — I’ve never rented one — but they have gotten bigger. And I’ve always painted on the floor. My studio now is a good size. I’m very liberated there, and live with a lot of what the world would call mess. I pile and I heap. And I do the same things on my painting that I do on the floor.

Do you listen to music while you work?

No, because I don’t really hear it. There’s traffic that goes by the window because the studio looks out over the road, and I don’t hear that, even. Also, any equipment I take in gets absolutely covered, encrusted, with paint.

What was the first work you sold?

Possibly a giant painting I did, 14 feet high, that was sold to the Australian writer Rosalin Sadler. It was called “Woman Avoiding a Man’s Stare” (1993). There were a pair of lips and a giant eye and some eyelashes on the bottom. It was quite dramatic and very big. I was happy when she bought it. She was at the time married to Howard Jacobson, a highly respected British writer. Rosalin was an early feminist and I think she liked the subject. The origin of the painting was a Titian of a bloke playing an organ and a nude woman. She’s looking the other way, avoiding his advances.

At the time, you had recently returned to painting. Were you frustrated during the period when you didn’t make art?

No. I did a lot of making things. Making the children’s clothes. Making curtains, cushions. The garden. I planted certain flowers. I did a lot of things with food, too. Making Christmas cards with the children. I used to go endlessly to exhibitions.

Do you procrastinate in and around bouts of obsessive painting?

Sometimes I do anything that isn’t painting. Walk around the garden. I might make something to eat for dinner — that’s a good way of doing it. Sometimes you’ve got to avoid it, particularly when you’ve just finished a work.

What is the last thing that made you cry?

Well the other day, I saw these cows on the news. They were being neglected, maltreated — they were thin, ribs sticking out, with big eyes — and the bloke, the farmer, was being prosecuted. I don’t like seeing animals abandoned and neglected. I’m always on the edge of crying when I think of the fact that polar bears can’t get onto their ice anymore.

Your cat, Pete, appears in this show in “Black Pete, Blackbird and Lizard” (2020). What’s he like?

He’s very good. He’s not elegant, he doesn’t have that stereotypical cat daintiness. But he has a very good personality and is very affectionate. And he’s super intelligent. Big, heavy and hugely good company.

What do you wear when you work?

I wear trainers, I like trainers. I also like rock climbing boots but I don’t wear those painting. I tend to have an old shirt in my studio. I tie it around my waist and it covers my front, but then I get a lot of paint on my clothes anyway.

What do you bulk buy?

Paper towels. I use them all the time. I know it means cutting down trees, so I shouldn’t be using them. I should be using old rags and clothes and sheets. I am very green, so it’s a bad move on my part. In fact, I better change after I’ve talked to you.

What is your favorite artwork by somebody else?

I’ve always liked early Cezanne. Before he reached the height of the way he worked, he did some early work that I like very much. Giovanni di Paolo did a small painting on carved wood that’s in the National Gallery. It’s of John the Baptist, who moves across the painting out of time, out of scale. I like Giovanni di Paolo because he illustrated Dante’s work but, generally speaking, people always cite the other bloke, Botticelli. I like the fact that di Paolo was marginalized and not used, and I think his drawings were better than Botticelli’s.

What embarrasses you?

It’s an interesting topic, embarrassment. Some of my paintings make people feel embarrassed because they can’t place them. They don’t know quite how to respond to them. Sometimes you say something and it’s misunderstood and misinterpreted — that can be an embarrassing situation, and I don’t know how to deal with it. But if my skirt is hanging down at a funny angle or if my stockings are wrinkly, I don’t mind that too much.

Is there anything you wouldn’t paint?

Probably not. I quite like subjects that are taboo. I like clichés, too, and I’ll paint a cliché so long as the painting transforms it and makes it interesting.

Rose Wylie’s “Which One” opens on April 28, 2021, at David Zwirner gallery, 533 West 19th Street, New York.

This interview has been edited and condensed.