Known for sublime color and light paintings, Mary Weatherford creates expressive canvases that capture a visceral sense of place. Over the last decade, her work has also become synonymous with a signature technique: using neon to push the bounds of abstraction. An important departure from her massive colorscapes, “The Train Yards”—originally slated to open at Gagosian in June, pre-COVID, and now tentatively rescheduled for fall—is a collection of entirely black paintings. Made over the last four years, they translate the night view and sounds of a train yard as they evoke the grand mythology of railway travel. To wit, the painter has compiled an accompanying Spotify playlist of the same title, to celebrate the tradition of the locomotive in American music. Weatherford’s process is heavily research-based. Deeply moved by the history of the transcontinental railway, the artist shares how its dark legacy also influenced this body of work. We met for a virtual studio visit, in which she greeted me with a huge, entirely blank wall calendar in the background—the perfect iteration of the moment.
What has the COVID-19 shutdown and the last three months been like for you? I flew to South Africa in early March with the intention of making a journey northward up the continent. I’d never been to Africa and I’d just finished all my “Train Yards” paintings. My plan was to make a slow trip over two and a half months, gradually traveling north from South Africa to Zimbabwe, and up, up, up ending in Morocco. From there, I would fly to London for the opening of “The Train Yards” at Gagosian, scheduled for the first week of June. These are serious paintings, and I was pleased with the time slot—Francis Bacon’s exhibition “Couplings” was Gagosian’s London show last summer. I thought there would be a good connection between Bacon’s work, which has tremendous gravitas, and this work.
Had you planned on painting in Africa? When I was in Japan last fall, I worked the entire time and felt that I missed out on a lot of experiences because I was working. This journey was intended simply to see and experience places. I’m not the kind of artist who always needs to be making something, though I know there are artists who do. I paint from memory. Africa was to be a trip where I could experience things without bringing my paints along. It’s a lot of work to take all the supplies. It’s a big kit. Maybe I would make sketches, but nothing I would exhibit.
What was South Africa like during COVID? When I arrived in Cape Town, there was maybe one case in the country. But, coming off the plane, they still took our temperatures and had signs about the virus and washing hands everywhere. I got there on a Saturday and by the second Monday, the president, Cyril Ramaphosa, went on television and made an extraordinary speech about how he was going to completely lock down the country. It was the most serious lockdown in the world outside of Wuhan. No planes in; no planes out.
We relocated to Hermanus, a summer vacation spot known for whale watching. The beach house was fine for a few weeks but then the weather turned. I flipped on the heat and it didn’t work. So from there, we moved to a small farmhouse in a nearby valley at the edge of a vineyard. It was a working farm; we had cattle and chickens and a baboon troop and could walk around outside on the property. People weren’t allowed to exercise outside in public in South Africa or even walk their dog on the sidewalk. You could only leave your house for the store or the pharmacy. The government made it illegal to post falsities about the virus. There was a guy who posted some falsity on Facebook and they went to his house and arrested him.
We started a project making masks with a local woman and her mother. We donated masks to the hospital and the police department. After 35 days in lockdown, we received an email from the Canadian High Commission through the United States Embassy, informing us that the Canadians were organizing a flight from Cape Town to London, and then we could get a direct one to Los Angeles.
What are your thoughts as Los Angeles begins to reopen? Today I saw that the governor, Gavin Newsom, said that everybody is required to wear a mask in public. I’m frustrated with the belligerent ignorance with which people go outside without a mask. It’s defiance in a way that’s unnecessary.
You’ve been working on the “Train Yards”series since 2016. It feels like an eternity has passed in that time. Much has happened in four years. I started these paintings before the current presidency and administration. They’re intense pieces that I was working on for myself, in between other projects. I wanted to make an exhibition that was a room full of black paintings with white light that would conjure the feeling of a train yard at night, locomotives and various trains coming and going—the atmosphere, the sounds, the smells, the temperature. “Train Yards” was something I would come back to between other exhibitions. My work is often about the history of the United States. For this series, I researched the history of the laying of the transcontinental railroad. The more I read, I learned that it was mostly built during the Civil War.
I was driving here to speak with you, and I thought, “When was the first time that I thought about trains as a child?” Do you remember the jump rope song for Double Dutch, where it says, “Meet me at the station, be on time”? You would have to jump into the Double Dutch right at the time. One girl jumps in after the other. I made a playlist on Spotify to accompany “Train Yards.” It’s twenty tracks—country blues, folk music; Mississippi John Hurt, Woody Guthrie; all of the songs have the image of the train. Once you start looking at traditional American music, you see the train is used to convey love, coming and going, travel, freedom, being on the road. The first track is Odetta’s “900 Miles.” People may be unfamiliar with her, but she’s a great American folk singer. The last song is the Joan Baez version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by Robbie Robertson.
Hearing this playlist, I pictured you painting to it in the studio. Oh no. These are two entirely different things. That’s a question I get often: do you listen to music while you’re working? I can listen to music up until the point where the painting gets difficult. I think my senses are hypersensitive, so I can’t smell and hear at the same time, or look and smell, or look and hear. If I’m looking at a color and there’s music—I can’t, it’s too much to process. I might listen to music or a podcast while mixing colors, but even then, it sometimes becomes such a difficult task that I have to turn the music off.
What is the narrative in these abstract paintings? That takes a bit of art history to answer. What is an abstract painting? What is a pure abstraction? Think about Malevich or Albers. I was about to say Alma Thomas. She’s on my mind because of that photograph of the Obamas at their White House seder with Alma Thomas’s Resurrection (1966) on the wall in the family dining room. I think Ad Reinhardt is an abstract painter, but Alma Thomas is conjuring something for us—dappled light. So you’re asking me, what is the narrative in your abstract paintings, and my answer is: I’m not sure I make abstract paintings. In the late ’80’s and ’90’s, the concentric circle paintings I made were circular timelines and they could be considered abstract, meaning that they don’t point to anything outside of themselves.
Take Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43), which I would argue is a painting of Boogie Woogie. When you look at the work, you experience the rhythm of the music. In my series, the painting Heaven Going By (2020) looks like the Milky Way, the stars in the sky. It has no neon in it. It’s a dark night. But it also looks like when headlights shine on falling snow. So, it’s a representation of several things. Is it an abstract painting? Are these train yards that have been abstracted? I try to create works that reproduce an experience. I really made them to imagine myself being in a certain place.
How did your historical research impact your process? In a way, these works allude to stories. The building of the US railroad lays out a history of enslavement, immigration, racism and Manifest Destiny. There’s one painting called Across the Plains (2019) that imagines a night sky on the great plains. There, the railroad brought the bison to near extinction, moved in settlers and drove the native Plains tribes from their land. It was essentially war without war.
Southern railroad lines before the Civil War were built by enslaved people. The Central Pacific line that came up from Sacramento through the High Sierras was built almost entirely by Chinese immigrants, at a great human toll. The history of their contribution is just now being written about by Stanford professor Gordon Chang, in his 2019 book Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad. Unbelievably, there’s no personal record by a Chinese immigrant who worked on the railroad. There was a tunnel that took years to dig and blast through, during which Chinese immigrant workers lived in the tunnel. In 1867, there was a famous strike in which the owners of the railroad cut off the food supply and starved thousands of immigrant laborers into breaking the strike. They still never got equal pay compared to other workers.
This exhibition is about many things: freedom and travel, as well as the dark side of history. But the works aren’t specific illustrations; I’m trying to paint mystery.