Born in 1951 in Lexington, Virginia, Sally Mann has always remained close to her roots. She has photographed extensively in the American South, producing portrait, architecture, landscape, and still life series. She is perhaps best-known for her intimate portraits of her family, including her young children and her husband, and for her evocative and resonant landscapes of the American South. At times controversial, her work has always been influential, and has attracted a wide audience since the time of her first solo exhibition, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, in 1977. Photo: Annie Leibovitz
In her depictions of the human form, Jenny Saville transcends the boundaries of both classical figuration and modern abstraction. Oil paint, applied in heavy layers, becomes as visceral as flesh itself, each painted mark maintaining a supple, mobile life of its own. As Saville pushes, smears, and scrapes the pigment over her large-scale canvases, the distinctions between living, breathing bodies and their painted representations begin to collapse.
Sally Mann Is it true that you paint at night?
Jenny Saville Yes, I often work at night. There’s a different atmosphere in the studio at night, more dreamy, and I often take risks in the work at night, so I like to use that time. My studio is a five-minute bicycle ride from my house in Oxford. So I tend to cycle back past all the colleges and drunken students.
SM I’m sure I would once have been one of them. Well, I feel like I should mention that while I’ve been the subject of interviews, this is the first time I’ve ever asked the questions. So this should be interesting for us both [laughs]. Have you ever asked the questions?
JS No [laughs]. But I do feel that even though we don’t know each other very well, we actually have quite a bit in common. There are some surprising connections in terms of subject matter if you look through the work. And also Cy Twombly is such a pivotal character for us both.
SM I don’t know how many times I’ve sat having a coffee or a drink with someone and I’ve endlessly pestered them with my gadfly—too personal—questions. And now I have permission to freely ask. For starters, I’m curious to know if you’ve ever visited the back country of the American South.
JS Well, not specifically. Apart from driving south to New Orleans, the farthest south I’ve stayed for any reasonable length of time is Cincinnati [when I was a student].
SM That doesn’t quite count [laughs].
JS The first time I ever went to America it was quite a shock. I flew the day the first Gulf War started. There were yellow ribbons around all the trees. It was a real culture change, and an exciting time.
I definitely became more interested in fleshy figures from being in America. I loved watching bodies in malls and at carnival parks. I was shocked at how big people were and how frequently you would see big bodies. I was fascinated: I could watch the way flesh moved around for hours.
SM Me too. That’s what Cy used to do as well. He would sit out in front of Walmart and was unabashed about appreciating the size of people.
JS I was learning to paint bodies at the time, really getting to grips with how beautiful and fleshy paint can be. Seeing fleshy bodies heightened that sense.
SM Well, that discussion of oil paint and flesh has been part of the dialogue around your work since the beginning. Was it you who said it felt like the paint actually became the flesh?
JS There’s something playful and fun in painting. I get a simple kick out of seeing one color running through another, or making forms appear—out of making something from nothing. I feel the same thrill in that process that I did as a kid.
SM A natural marriage. You’re lucky. Do you ever paint with your hands?
JS Yes, sure. Maybe not in such a free way as Cy. Once I’d seen his work, he helped reinforce those feelings of freedom. I was painting figures, working out how to do that, and then I’d go and see Cy’s latest paintings, and they would blow me over with their confidence and tactility.
SM He was so physical and gestural.
JS One moment with Cy that I remember fondly was being on a plane with him and ripping pages out from a magazine because we both thought the colors were just so exciting. I just found an easy relationship with him, because our conversation slipped seamlessly between high art and everyday things. I recognized the way Cy had an interest in the simplest things, and that gave me tremendous confidence as an artist.
SM That’s interesting about tearing out the pages, because he really was kind of a magpie; like a bird picking up shiny, attractive things, Cy would find these oddball images, tear them out, and stick them to his walls. Do you pillage information the same way?
JS Oh yes, sure. I have collections of images of stains and shadows, war photography, graffiti, bits of material, paint swatches. The iPhone has made collecting visuals so easy. I don’t know how much explicitly goes into the work, but these things nudge me in the right direction.
SM Is that scavenging in fact related to how you work? Do you take pictures of everything—from sculptures in a museum to a piece of gum on the bottom of your shoe?
JS I take a lot of pictures, yes. I like to work in that kind of suggestive visual atmosphere. I work with a lot of images around me on the floor, because you see forms upside down and I find interesting compositions that way. Everything I do becomes a part of me and feeds into making my work. And my children have really opened me up to new things and have given me back an enormous amount of freedom. I admire their openness so deeply and I want very much to be able to put that back into my work.
I grew up in quite a bohemian family: my parents were well educated, and I had this farm where I could just wander around all day with a knife in my pocket. And now I realize that my level of creativity, the confidence that I have in my own ability to create, is something they gave me, which at the time I didn’t understand or think of as important. But now that I’ve got my own children, I realize now what my parents gave me, and I actually realize how important that was.
SM You were quite young when you were first celebrated as an artist, you sort of catapulted to celebrity at such a young age. Did that have any downsides? Was that problematic in any way?
JS I can’t say it was problematic, or even [that there was] a dramatic difference. The best thing it did was make me value the things that have kept me steady in terms of making the work. I’ve tended to move studios after big shows, and that’s helped. After the Saatchi show, Young British Artists III, in 1994, I moved to America; after my second New York show, in 2003, I moved to Palermo [Italy], so that was fortunate, because I kept my eye firmly on the work. I guess it depends what you need as an artist at a particular moment. Time is everything for me; I’m always yearning for more time.
You also received a lot of attention and controversy as a young artist with your pictures in Immediate Family. I so admire the openness and Arcadian spirit in those pictures, but was that controversy difficult to navigate? Especially because they were your children?
SM Yes, but I had removed myself completely from the art world when I was making that work. I was living so far outside of it, I was more or less able to tune out the controversy. To this day, I don’t particularly read art magazines; I barely read the newspaper. I’m like you, I just work. Sometimes it seems to me that other artists create their work with less effort, whereas it always feels onerous to me. But I suppose that’s not really true.
Do you paint your children at all?
JS Yes, of course. Having children had the most profound impact on the way I make art and see the world. Making flesh in my body, and the animalistic nature of giving birth, affected my view of nature. The simultaneous realities I’ve been trying to generate in my work over the past few years, the strata and layering, came about through the drawings I made after having children. It opened out a new way for me to create space and movement. What I enjoy about my children so much is their freedom. They move their bodies without care or judgment, and that’s a precious moment in life.
SM I know, that’s the way my children felt about it too. It’s a shame that society has a way of inflicting its censorious views, and when children feel that, it gradually undercuts their convictions and confidence. I was lucky because my children were very strong.
JS Was there a moment when they didn’t want to be photographed or where you decided not to photograph them anymore?
SM It was more about a shift in the work. I’d photographed them for ten years and I wanted to move on to something else. They never asked me not to photograph them—at ages nine and ten, your children are probably still pretty open-minded and free to work with. But there’s an age where I didn’t even want to ask them anymore. They were always happy to do it, but we had all just moved on, I suppose.
JS I made drawings after my son was born, when he just didn’t stop moving. He was this whirlwind of limbs and slipping torso as I carried him, which was so exciting. A drawing of a singular body just didn’t seem enough to communicate this torrent of human movement, and I wanted to get to the unsentimental truth of those childhood years. But when I first showed my drawings it was suggested to me that they could be controversial because they were images of children, and that was a little bit of a shock to me, because I didn’t see them like that at all. Was that the same for you when you were making those pictures?
SM Oh yes, exactly. Exactly the same thing. And people thought I was being disingenuous when I would say, “I can’t imagine what you’re seeing in these pictures.” It’s ridiculous how innocent I was at the time, how unaware I was about the cultural environment. And a lot of that had to do with my isolation, which was not unlike the distance that you seem to be enjoying yourself at the moment.
JS Do you always work in series? For instance, I love those pictures of Cy’s studio, but they happened over many years, and you were presumably photographing lots of other projects at the same time.
SM In the case of Cy’s studio, those photographs are unique in that they were free flowing, they weren’t made with any greater project in mind. That’s not my normal practice. I would just briefly alight in his studio every once in a while and take some pictures, but I was always working on something else. I never thought of the pictures in Cy’s studio as a body of work, at least not while I was making them. They were just casual gestures of friendship when they started. Early on, he asked me to take a few pictures, not in any professional way, just in a “Why don’t you come on in and take some pictures” kind of way. And over time it grew to be habitual. Every so often I’d stick my head into his studio if I had a camera in the car, or if I had some color film, or if I had a new funky lens. It’s funny how the less emphasis you put on a project, the less you worry about it, the less handwringing you do, the more spontaneous and vital and fun it becomes.
JS Yes, it rises naturally, doesn’t it? I find if I work very hard and force myself onto the work, it can feel like an arduous trek and [like] the paint is too heavy. But I think it’s necessary for me to go through this process and show myself what I can’t do or what I don’t actually like, so I end up releasing the reins a bit and my next piece comes quite easily. I like the feeling when my wrist opens up and goes floppy; then I know I’m painting with some kind of fluidity. It’s a sort of fitness or nimbleness. What’s tricky is to keep at the same pitch in the next painting when the going’s good. Maybe it’s just one of those things you just have to go through.
SM I know that exact syndrome. It is so true. Actually, my syndrome works like this: my first one is often really easy, and then with the next one I’m a little more self-conscious about it. But it doesn’t sound like that’s how it happens with you.
JS Well, it depends where I am with a body of work. I think that’s the way ideas arise for new groups of paintings. My weakness is that I can sometimes contrive paintings too much, and they run the risk of being mannered. That’s not my intention at all but a risk that I know I have to go through to try and do something in figuration. So most of the time I make paintings that show me what I can’t do, and that’s annoying but inevitable. Then, in a body of work, once I’ve got through this novel and heavy phase, sometimes I get the chance to make some good paintings. I have to keep going. I’ve learned that spontaneity is important when working with models, especially groups of bodies, because when people interact they create forms that I couldn’t imagine before they arrive in my studio.
SM That sounds very similar to what you just described about watching your children.
JS Yes, just appreciating your instincts. That confidence has grown over time—just doing it and building up a language, a vocabulary.
SM Well, as you know, I’m not a painter, and what I do is so completely different and so technical that I don’t get to do that kind of graceful, physical movement that painters do. I’m so jealous.
JS That technical side of photography would just nag at me too much. Most of what I like in painting is through mistakes or the unintentional: an oil stain on newspaper that has such presence, a mix of paint on my palette rather than on the painting. With photography don’t you have to be so well behaved?
SM Well, yes, but that’s not always true, and experimentation is actually one of the greatest joys for me. A good example is my wet-plate-collodion work, because you can allow these serendipitous accidents to happen, and it completely transforms—
JS Yes, of course, that’s much more like a painting, isn’t it?
SM Oh, much more. But some people move straight into the serendipity, or so it seems, and they don’t do their 10,000 hours of technical work first. I think it was Malcolm Gladwell who once suggested that 10,000 hours of practice is what it takes to get good at something. Well, I’ve put in my 10,000 hours of hard, technical work. And that’s one of the things I most admire about your work: it is clear that you’ve put in that time as well.
JS Well, if you do 10,000 hours of paint splattering, you would get pretty skilled at that, like Pollock did. I don’t know, I’ve had conversations about this before—whether you can go in, you know, at late Picasso, where he puts just dots of paint in for eyes and it seems almost cartoonlike, but there’s an absolute precision in where those dots go. That dot has hours and hours of painting behind it. It’s the same when you look at Rembrandt—you can see this incredible abstract move of the wrist with the right amount of pressure and ink, but of course it isn’t that simple—that move of his wrist has all the other marks he’s ever made in his life behind it. It takes a lifetime to get to that level of loose precision.
SM I agree completely. I spent decades learning how to take a perfect photograph, and then I was able to completely forget that and take any kind of picture I wanted, because I’d put my time in.
JS And that structure is behind you, isn’t it? It’s the backbone that you’ve got, right?
JS It depends what you want to do as an artist. We’re lucky that we’re living in an era with a lot of different areas of artmaking. I had quite an academic training as an artist, looking back, and I was able to use that process as well as kick against it. I have always aimed to make painting that deals with the realism of our time rather than being nostalgic or academic. It’s not so easy to eke out new possibilities if you work figuratively, because most of human history has worked figuratively.
SM Of course. Can we circle back to becoming a mother? Did you photograph yourself giving birth?
JS I did, I asked a good friend to photograph me. I loved all the incredible colors and the intensity of that miracle moment. I was shocked by how much beauty and violence there was—it was very primal. I have an impulse to record all sorts of moments in my life, even something like the death of my father. When my father died, I sat and watched life literally drain away from his body. I was shocked, in grief, but at the same time was conscious of how beautiful he looked, and felt compelled to want to hold that moment visually, because there was so much life in that moment. I think that impulse to look and record has probably been the backbone of my work.
SM Well, yeah, and that brings me to this other issue, which is that there seems to be a movement now that suggests that artists who depict suffering in a beautiful or aestheticized way are actually harming the subjects. That it’s an ethical violation to make a photograph or a painting of suffering, even if the result is actually also a beautiful work of art. Perhaps Sebastião Salgado is the perfect example of that. People are asking whether or not artists have the right to look at and depict other people’s pain. I guess I’m just wondering whether you have any feelings about that, because God knows we’ve both done that.
JS When I’ve worked with dead bodies, part of the interest for me was that I didn’t know anything about that individual’s narrative. I found images in medical books and made portraits from those. If you spend six months or more on a painting, you develop an incredible intimacy by looking at the face of someone again and again and working out their particular structure, from the turn of an earlobe to the bones of their nose. It takes time and study to differentiate between the specific colors and tones, and the colors were just incredibly beautiful and related to nature, like in a sunset, but I was looking at bruised flesh or a gunshot wound.
SM I know all about that.
JS But the beauty of it is dumbfounding. The beauty just knocks me over, and I saw paint in that moment. I imagined what colors I would mix and how I could merge them. I didn’t want to ignore that impulse to make paintings like that, because it was so powerful. It’s similar to how we see war photography that’s incredibly beautiful. You can’t deny its beauty. In Robert Capa’s pictures, the blurriness of those soldiers’ landings on the beach in France: the blurring is what makes not just the beauty but the tension. I wouldn’t want that picture not to exist. That’s too puritanical for me, because the beauty of it helps us accept our collective humanity, in all its shapes. Imagine not having Goya in the world because he’d self-censored?
SM I know, I’ve photographed a lot of dead bodies. And actually, when my father died, I was with him at his very last heartbeat and I saw a perceptible change in the color of his flesh. It was, as you described, very powerful and evocative and provocative.
JS Exactly, it’s a cycle, isn’t it? And you don’t want to deny looking at that, because that’s powerful about your life. Like those pictures that you did at the FBI death farm . . .
JS It must have been so powerful to be there and to see that, and similar in a way, because you didn’t have a narrative for their lives, either. It’s like being a pathologist, but from an artistic point of view.
SM Exactly. But there’s a question—I remember it being raised with Joel-Peter Witkin’s work. As I recall—and I may be mistaken about this—he went to a morgue in Mexico, rented a corpse, and photographed it. The family of the dead man were outraged and upset to find a relative in a publicly displayed photograph. And I can see both sides of that.
JS That’s a difficult situation, because those bodies were in a private context: it sounds like they hadn’t been given to science.
SM It is. Nobody in modern society wants this sort of raw scrutiny of our human vulnerability. Because it’s something I’ve never been particularly afraid of, I haven’t had too much hesitation about taking those kinds of pictures, until, I guess, I get confronted by people who say, “You can’t appropriate our suffering.” In my mind, I’m an artist. That’s what artists do. We speak to these things.
JS You have to work with yourself, don’t you? You have to just follow your instinct and navigate that. I think that’s the only guide you’ve got. I always feel that I have so much work to do. My studio is a vital place for me; it’s a universe of trying things out and experimenting. Wherever I’ve worked in the world, I’ve basically created a similar space and developed routines and rhythms around the work. I have the very annoying habit of listening to the same music over and over when I’m working on a particular piece. I enjoy these repetitive routines.
SM I’m the same way. I really like a routine. I like the quotidian. I need to know exactly how my day is going to be laid out. And I lay it out pretty much the same way every day—I mean, right down to the food I eat.
JS That’s so true. If there’s too much noise going on, I can’t process information. When I’m in New York, Paris, or Athens, I love wandering around, seeing shows, looking at what’s being made, watching people. I gather things up but I don’t effectively process them until I’m back into an ordinary rhythm.
SM So in a certain sense, you harvest stuff and then bring it home.
JS Yes, exactly.
Sally Mann artwork © Sally Mann; Jenny Saville artwork © Jenny Saville; interview originally published in the 2018 monograph Jenny Saville, co-published by Gagosian and Rizzoli