Sydney Yeager: A Willingness to Take What is Immediately Given

Throughout her career, the Austin artist finds continuity by remaining open to change


They say change is inevitable, but it can be scary. The Austin-based painter Sydney Yeager weathers personal and artistic changes adeptly by listening to herself and to others, even people she just met.

Nearly three decades ago, armed with an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin, Yeager secured a studio in the old Whit Hanks Antiques building on West Sixth Street in Austin. At that time, she was doing a lot of narrative figuration relating to her childhood home in the East Texas town of Lufkin. Her subjects related to what she calls the “mob rule” of that region at the time, specifically the cultures of hunting and fishing. Interested in work by Max Beckmann, Yeager’s work had an expressionist bent and responded to politics and Vietnam.

Then a stranger came into her studio and made a remark that Yeager had done something very different in one painting. She replied that she wished she could pursue it further but didn’t feel like she could because she had made a commitment to representational work.

“This is what I am; this is who I am,” Yeager explained.

The stranger responded, “Is that everything you are?” 

Of course, the answer was no, and Yeager realized that she should be looking within herself a little more.

That unexpected comment became a pivotal event in Yeager’s artistic evolution, indicative of an openness and ability to listen she still maintains.

Sydney Yeager’s recent paintings on view at Austin’s Gallery Shoal Creek.

Not long after the stranger wandered into her studio, in 1989, Yeager had a solo show at Women and Their Work gallery, which throughout her career has offered Yeager critical institutional support. WTW’s online archive describes Yeager’s work at the time as “images drawn from classical and medieval sources and imposed on densely worked dry surfaces” suggesting the process of aging.

“Those were all fragments and pieces of things, pieces of things I didn’t quite understand like fish drawn from Egyptian wall paintings,” Yeager recalled recently.

Another WTW event contributing to Yeager’s growth was when Rita Starpattern enlisted Marcia Tucker, founder of the New Museum in New York, to jury a statewide exhibition of female artists. While attending Tucker’s accompanying slide show, Yeager thought, “if they can do this, maybe I can too.”

But not without support.  “Carol Ivey, Melissa Miller, they were so helpful to me. In the beginning, I was painting pictures of houseplants and my dishes in the sink, just trying to learn how to paint, and they both believed in me and encouraged me to go ahead.”

Executive Director of WTW Chris Cowden says of Yeager’s work “her exploration of the possibilities posed by the medium of paint itself has informed her work since that first solo exhibition at WTW. While those early paintings often evoked images of containers, be they urns or shoes, her chief interest was an investigation of the physicality of paint, the primacy of paint.”

As her work evolved, Yeager started referencing the body and the physical self, inserting clues in the shape of tiny drawings amongst abstract fields. “You could barely find little images of body parts, hats and gloves in there,” says Yeager. “One critic called this series ‘Where’s Waldos.’”

It was these paintings that bridged her earlier figuration and eventual break towards total abstraction.

However small, Yeager still felt obliged to include the iconographic traces within her abstractions.

She sensed that perhaps it was time for a change. While giving a gallery talk in 2002 at D. Berman Gallery she again fielded a probing question. This time a young man asked her, “Do you put those pictures in for us or for you?”

So Yeager thought about it and decided she was relying on figurative motifs too heavily and needed to learn to let go. Ultimately she eliminated them from her work altogether.

Yeager’s all-over abstraction of the 1990s is frequently punctuated with glyphs, signs or symbols, prompting some sort of semiotic reading; perhaps the artist’s mark could have multiple meanings. For a long time, these large canvases painted layer-over-layer had highly textured surfaces and a penchant for pattern. They highlighted the constant back-and-forth in nature between order and chaos.

Sydney Yeager, “Mortal Coil,” 1998-99, oil and enamel on canvas, 66 x 66 in. Says Yeager in her most recent artist statement: For the past decade, I’ve painted on linen, leaving the field either raw or lightly touched with a wash of color. This method insists on a willingness to take what is immediately given Further challenging is my habit of painting “alla prima”, or wet into wet. This approach allows little opportunity for revision, and tiptoes along the edge of chaos.”

Yeager says around this time, her studio mate, assemblage artist Steve Wiman, joked that he knew yesterday there an entirely different painting under there.

For the past decade Yeager has been painting on linen, leaving the field either raw or with a light wash of color, often gold. “This method insists on a willingness to take what is immediately given,” she says.

Yet her method does not allow for a re-working really — rather it is immediate and direct. “Making the initial mark is like jumping into Barton Springs. It’s exciting,” she says.

Colors trigger her process but are not intended to reflect emotion anymore. Instead color choices strictly are formal devices.

“Yeager is a painter’s painter” artist-friend Jill Bedgood says.

Yeager enjoys the process and viewing and responding to painters old and new. Discussing recent artists who surprise her, Yeager mentions Katharina Grosse and her brilliant spray-painted murals as well as Phyllida Barlow’s heroically scaled installations at the 2017 Venice Biennale. The undulating bends of Yeager’s painted forms brings to mind Baroque sculpture. Yet she also favors the weird distortions of Italian Mannerists and cites commonalities with Elizabeth Murray’s curved constructions.

Yeager enjoys travel and has been to Italy numerous time, including as a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome and as a drawing instructor for Austin Community College’s Florence Study Abroad program.

The place she feels most at home is in her studio in the small town of Elgin, just east of Austin. It’s a bit of a commute but worth the drive to have the quiet, lots of light, high ceilings and two rooms to paint.

“I miss lots of stuff, like lectures, afternoon openings, a social life, ladies’ lunches, etc., by being out here,” she says. “On the other hand, I often enjoy missing that same stuff, as I am basically a hermit.”

Installation artist Margo Sawyer’s studio is nearby so they get together and chat but are respectful of each other’s work time.

These days Yeager is still busy composing colorful knots and twists of paint on linen, but recently has made another, albeit somewhat subtle, stylistic shift. She has introduced hard-edge geometric shapes into her compositions. These shapes intrude and collide with her curvilinear forms. The interplay of balance and imbalance are compelling. Sometimes she uses Flashe paints to create fields of matte color. The flat surfaces contrast with areas of impasto and wildly brushy edges.

Of the new work, featured in “Liminal: Sydney Yeager” at Gallery Shoal Creek, through June 20, Yeager says, “The wedges of solid color challenge the tangle of shifting space and line and begin to imply a narrative. Together, the oppositional forms express a sense of imminent change. These forms are in a state flux.”

Years ago, when Yeager was considering returning to school to study painting, she remembers what her husband told her: “You don’t want to look back on your life when you’re in your eighties and have regrets.”

Again, advice Yeager considered. After all, listening, even to complete strangers, has provided Yeager with direction, opportunity for transformation and much gratitude.

Erin Keever
Erin Keever
Erin Keever is an Adjunct Professor of Art History, freelance writer, art historian and art appraiser. She lives and works in Austin, and serves on the Sightlines board.

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