AGNI: I’m fascinated by the role of story in your paintings, which we showcased in Issue 81 of AGNI. The images themselves don’t immediately suggest storylines, and yet, in the titles—for example, “Exchange. In which an innkeeper and a thinker agree to a role swap but are lost afterward”—you’re pairing them with very narrative ideas from the writer Thomas Bernhard. What draws you to this intersection where stories encounter the non-narrative?
Anna Schuleit Haber: Thomas Bernhard wrote numerous short pieces of fiction that read like intense fragments of urban reportage, many of them quite bizarre. In this series of 104 paintings, “The Voice Imitator,” I am working with Bernhard’s short fiction as my point of departure, but I want the paintings to go beyond mere illustrations of the stories. I begin each painting after reading and re-reading the story and then leaving the story behind. I work at multiple paintings at the same time, spread across my studio wall, and I return to the text at various times while painting, over weeks and months: re-reading again, adjusting, discovering more elements. At some point I rewrite each story into a micro-summary, a radical reduction of the events contained in the story, which finally serves me as the bridge between the narrative beginnings by Bernhard and my often abstract paintings. If readers look for actual pictorial re-tellings of the story, they might be puzzled by this process. In the end, I hope to have created a visual landscape of the stories that reads like a very detailed, long-term, and equally intense translation of Bernhard’s characters and creative focus, into my own. The project has been going on for three years, with seventy-two paintings already completed, out of one hundred and four. And except for their size (22″ x 30″ on Reeves BFK paper) these paintings keep changing and changing.
AGNI: Another layer to your visual-narrative explorations is that sometimes—as in the essays you wrote for Issue 81—you actually do tell stories, in words. When do you find yourself turning to the verbal in your work, and when do you turn to the visual? Have you ever done both simultaneously?
Anna Schuleit Haber: Writing happens for me alongside the messier studio work, on a parallel track. I write every day as part of my visual process, and I wish for it to remain raw and direct, not labored, not intentional, or direction-filled. I turn to writing when the literal context of something exceeds my tendency for abstraction, when writing seems closer to open transport. Sam Beckett’s prose comes to mind, its teetering proximity to actual meaning and simultaneous insistence on abstraction have been an inspiration to me for both media: writing and painting. I enjoy the overt risk that writing holds, and I crave this riskiness as a way of peering into the life of a thing, rather than out from it, which might be what painting does — some sort of reversal of that risk (of description, of meaning). Writing then is like a form of sketching, a preparation for something slower, a warming up of tools, a testing of eye and ear and hand before the real thing (painting) comes in.
Anna Schuleit Haber is a visual artist whose current projects revolve around seriality and memory, and include a body of 104 paintings based on Thomas Bernhard’s short fiction, as well as large-scale drawing commissions for architecture. She recently completed a serial work for which she took over the front page of a daily newspaper for 26 days, serving as the embedded artist in the newsroom. She studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, creative writing at Dartmouth, and was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard. She was named a MacArthur Fellow for work that has “conceptual clarity, compassion, and beauty.”