In “I Confess,” the final essay in Moyra Davey’s new collection of prose pieces, “Index Cards” (2020), she recalls losing, as a child at school, a pencil given to her by her mother. Thinking it was stolen, she began to sob. Her teacher asked her: “Pourquoi as-tu tant de peine pour un crayon?” (Why so much grief over a pencil?) That question has remained with Davey, the New York-based artist, for 50 years. The anecdote — the triviality of the pencil, the pinprick of a particular line — is emblematic of her art, in which tension comes from small traumas and everyday talismans. Moving between video, photography and prose, Davey’s work is bound by idiosyncratic references and quasi-dreamed connections. An acute chronicler of quotidian life, she is both the narrator and protagonist of her work. She paces her apartment hallways in her videos; she photographs the dust under her bed; she reads and writes restlessly, hoping to find what Walter Benjamin called the “tiny spark of accident” that will set off stray thoughts and images. “Index Cards,” which she wrote between 2003 to 2019, reads like a serial novel and distills Davey’s methodology: Her art is rooted in finding a way to practice and is a record of its own creation.
Davey’s work, beloved especially by artists and writers for its conceptual rigor and literary slant, acquired greater exposure with her 2007 survey “Long Life Cool White” at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, which brought together for the first time the full spectrum of her intimate scenes of domestic interiors. Its catalog is perhaps the most enduring, though not easy to find, contribution to this success. (The book is one of my preferred eBay searches.) A suite of important exhibitions — at Kunsthalle Basel in Switzerland (2010), Mumok in Vienna (2014), Bergen Kunsthall in Norway (2016) and Portikus in Frankfurt (2018) — followed from there.
Born in Toronto in 1958, Davey grew up in Montreal and spent her teenage years in Ottawa. She returned to Montreal in 1977 to attend Concordia University, where she studied photography. In 1985, she entered the graduate program at the University of California, San Diego, which had become the West Coast mecca of conceptual art in the early 1970s under the influence of the artist Eleanor Antin and her husband, the poet David Antin. There, Davey studied with artists, filmmakers and critics including Steve Fagin, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Martha Rosler, Sally Stein and Manny Farber. Before arriving at U.C.S.D., she had been working in a free-form confessional mode, taking straight-on, punk-ish black-and-white portraits of her sisters and friends as part of a loose series titled “The Triptychs” (1979-82), whose subjective approach ran counter to the period’s strident critiques of representation. Davey studied the various experimental documentary modes then favored at U.C.S.D. and began shooting videos and 16 mm film. It was there that she met the artist Jason Simon, whom she married in 1989, and with whom she has a son, Barney.
In 1988, Davey moved to New York to attend the Whitney’s notoriously rigorous Independent Study Program (I.S.P.). A so-called Super-8 scene led by feminist filmmakers including Jennifer Montgomery, Peggy Ahwesh and Leslie Thornton was redefining avant-garde film practice with its focus on subjectivity and sexuality, and Davey developed her interest in video. In 1990, she made her first film, the playfully anarchic “Hell Notes,” in which she wanders through Manhattan, meeting with friends and delivering a monologue about financial anxiety and neurotic compulsions. Just after, though, figures all but disappeared from her photographs. Throughout the 1990s, she produced tidy, conceptually structured photographic series including “Copperheads” (1989-ongoing), “Newsstands” (1993-94), “Bottle Grid” (1996-2000) and “Books and Dust” (1996-99), whose subjects — from coins to books to dust motes — and scale (mostly poster-size) are in the minor key.
In the late 1990s, while raising her son and increasingly occupied by the tension between motherhood and making art, Davey began editing “Mother Reader: Essential Writings on Motherhood” (2001), an anthology of diary entries, memoirs, essays and stories that deal with maternal ambivalence. (The collection can now be seen as an antecedent to semi-fictional novels such as Jenny Offill’s 2014 “Dept. of Speculation” and Sheila Heti’s 2018 “Motherhood.”) Following its publication, Davey decided to temporarily stop taking photographs and begin writing in earnest. “I had boxed myself in,” she says. “I had all of these personal restrictions on what I could and couldn’t photograph. I felt at an impasse and didn’t know where to move from there.” While literary models had always served as inspiration for her images, her hope was to arrive at a new way of working, in which photographs and videos “would take seed in writing.” The result was the auto-fiction video “Fifty Minutes” (2006), a wry, neurotic account of her six years of psychoanalysis, interspersed with shorter vignettes that touch on nostalgia, post-9/11 New York and the Sisyphean cycle of working through the contents of one’s refrigerator.
The interplay of these forms — narrative monologue and illustrational video content — became the model for a succession of videos that followed, ranging from a trilogy of work tying Mary Wollstonecraft’s progeny to the artist’s own family to diaristic reflections on Jane Bowles, the passage of time, illness and artistic production. Davey’s latest video, also titled “I Confess” (2019), had been scheduled to screen at the Museum of Modern Art this month as part of a larger retrospective of her video work that is now temporarily postponed on account of the pandemic. For the past two months, she has been isolating in the Sullivan County, N.Y., home she shares with Simon, reading Carson McCullers novels and beginning to work on a new project (“It’s too early to say anything”). It was there that she answered T’s Artist’s Questionnaire.
What is your day like? How much do you sleep, and what’s your work schedule?
I get eight hours of broken sleep. I wake early and spend a lot of time answering emails, reading, writing and keeping an eye out for the wildlife that traverses the small field in front of our house.
How many hours of creative work do you think you do in a day?
I don’t have a set schedule. If I’m shooting video, the days can disappear. If I’m developing a new piece of writing, as I am now, there will usually be an initial effortless outpouring followed by another process that’s more sporadic, doubtful, obstructed and aiming to problem solve.
What’s the first piece of art you ever made?
I decided very early that I wanted to be an artist. At around 15, I made a painting of my best friend and me as maenads.
What’s the worst studio you ever had?
Nearly every studio I’ve had made me uncomfortable. Studios are not my preferred working spaces.
What’s the first work you ever sold? For how much?
A photo to a family friend for $100, close to the time I graduated from college. I was very short of money and he kindly organized a sale of my work in his home.
When you start a new piece, where do you begin?
I spit it out, I dive in. Psychologically it’s important to break the ice — to write something and name the document, or to shoot a scene or a roll of film — and then you have something to play with and build on.
How do you know when you’re done?
That’s a tricky question, because I’m ambivalent about endings. I appreciate the structured, circular ending, but part of me stubbornly resists its completionist aspect.
How many assistants do you have?
One: Nicolas Linnert.
Have you assisted other artists before? If so, who?
Allan McCollum, around 1989.
What music do you play when you’re making art?
No music usually, but if I do listen, it will be to “The Duane Train.” Over 10 years of the show are archived on the W.F.M.U. website.
When did you first feel comfortable saying you’re a professional artist?
When I was a teenager.
What’s the weirdest object in your studio?
Not exactly weird, but new and special right now is a mended coffee cup with a lichen bouquet given to me by my partner and son for Mother’s Day.
How often do you talk to other artists?
What do you do when you’re procrastinating?
Eat, make tea, walk around the apartment, stare out the window, talk and write to friends, “use my computer to shop” (Sheila Heti said that) and read The Times.
What do you usually wear when you work?
Sweatpants, jeans, T-shirts.
If you have windows, what do they look out on?
In Washington Heights: Trinity Cemetery and downtown; in Sullivan County: a small field bordered by woods.
What do you bulk buy with most frequency?
I buy a lot of books.
Do you exercise?
I do yoga, walk and run.
What are you reading?
I recently read all of Carson McCullers’s novels for the first time. “A Girl’s Story” by Annie Ernaux. Just now, I finished “Drifts” by Kate Zambreno. She led me to “Indelicacy” by Amina Cain. And I’m listening to “My Meteorite” by Harry Dodge.
What’s your favorite artwork (by someone else)?
For this moment: Peter Hujar’s animal portraits.
This interview has been condensed and edited.