The City Magazine Since 1975

How abstract artist Susan Altman was influenced by William Halsey and why she paints without fear

How abstract artist Susan Altman was influenced by William Halsey and why she paints without fear
December 2021

See her latest work at December‘s ”Mixtape” show at Meyer Vogl Gallery

Abstract painter Susan Altman is one of 20 artists included in this month‘s ”Mixtape” show at Meyer Vogl Gallery.

Abstract painter Susan Altman is entering a new chapter—in art and life. Her husband of 55 years, Sam, died in 2020, and that loss has, naturally, made itself felt in her work in the year or so since. “We met at 19,” she says. “He was my life. He has impacted my art from the very beginning. And now he’s doing so in his absence.”

Born and raised in Connecticut, Altman moved to Charleston with Sam about 55 years ago, where she continued her art education and painting while making a career in real estate. Though art was a side pursuit, it was always a serious one—Altman studied with and was mentored by the late abstract painter William Halsey at the College of Charleston. “He still speaks to me every time I step up to the canvas,” she says.

After decades of study, Altman began pursuing art full-time eight years ago at the urging of her husband. Today, she is represented by the Meyer Vogl Gallery, and her work hangs in countless collectors’ homes. This month, Altman is participating in Meyer Vogl’s group show “Mixtape,” featuring works from 20 artists, each inspired by a song. She has selected “Proud Mary,” and her piece will be closely tied to where she is emotionally right now: grieving deeply, yet still seeking and experiencing joy. Here, Altman looks back on her art and forward to where she’s headed.

On William Halsey: Halsey taught us to enjoy the process, to paint big. And to not be afraid. He used all kinds of instruments—never brushes; he said they were too high maintenance. When you’re thinking in a very open-minded way about mark-making you’re always looking for things that would make an interesting stroke. They’re outdoors—branches, feathers. They’re in kitchen stores or Walmart. They’re everywhere, if you can get out of the box.

In the presence of greatness: [Sam and I] used to go to the Art Students League in New York because Halsey thought it was nirvana. Georgia O’Keeffe, Franz Klein, Rothko—they all spent time there. So after 30 years in real estate, Sam is the one who said, ‘Susan, you need to go back to your art. You need to go to the Art Students League.’ The ‘big boys,’ as I called it. I went, and it was like a genie opened up this box filled with all the information I had accrued over 30 years. I knew what [abstract expressionist] Robert Motherwell did, what Rauschenberg did. And it all came pouring out. That was the first chapter of my art career.

(Left to right) Just Walking Along (oil wash and graphite, 36 by 36 inches, 2016); Makes Me Feel Like I’m Flying (oil and woody on paper, 20.25 by 15.5 inches, 2020); Torn Up (collage and ink, 25 by 19 inches, 2019)

Seizing the moment: When I came home from New York after those classes, I knew I had to go all in right then, or the fear would set in, and I wouldn’t do it. Fear of failure is like a straitjacket. Art was really the riskiest thing I’d ever done.

Personal style: My art is not representational. It’s very personal, intuitive, and expressive. I love good abstract art—I mean the Motherwells of the world. I can get joy out of the way that color relates to color, the way shapes are juxtaposed against each other. Art doesn’t have to represent anything or relate to anything I’ve seen for it to have meaning to me.

Her process: I usually start with a large instrument, often an oil stick. Because of its shape, you can use the side to make a really interesting, wide mark—where you’re holding it, the mark will be darker, but where you’re putting less pressure, the mark will dissipate. It’s not entirely in your control, which I love. I think the unintended mark is the most interesting and has the most energy to it.

Left versus right brain: My marking is out of my right brain, but then I step back and evaluate the mark and let that guide me, in a very loose way, for how to make the next mark. That critical thinking, the left-brained part, is when the endorphins fly. It has nothing to do with the end result—it’s the learning, the process.

Moving forward: I paint with abandon. I paint without fear. I think that’s what attracts people. And that’s going to be my saving grace in this next chapter.