For a woman whose work commands such high prices at auction (her 1987 painting The Teacher sold for $3.34 million at Christie’s three years ago, setting a record for a living female artist), and whose work draws from a deep well of historical, political and philosophical influences, Dumas is, in person, conspicuously modest and without airs. A bouncy and gregarious blond with a head of wild curls, she’s all dramatic gestures and big laughs. Still, she’s a famously tricky person to interview. Dumas thinks like an intellectual but doesn’t talk like one: Her conversation is a tangled maze of starts and stops, lucid proclamations and stream-of- consciousness digressions that rarely end neatly, if they end at all. “I often do not finish my sentences,” she acknowledges in Afrikaans-accented English. “So people try to finish them for me. There are often misunderstandings.”
Recently, Dumas says, she vowed to adopt a new strategy during interviews: behaving like a pain in the ass. Now 54—“old,” as she puts it—she figures she’s earned the right, like Louise Bourgeois, to be grouchy and difficult around journalists. “I always decide that I’m going to be strict,” she says. But as she offers me a glass of wine and pours one for herself, it occurs to her that she’s about to break her vow. “Every time I sit down with a person, I make the same mistake,” she says. “Because I start to see you as a person and not as an interviewer.”
Dumas has the kind of voracious curiosity that’s typical of people who were raised in bubbles of one sort or another. Hers was apartheid-era South Africa, where she grew up on a vineyard near Stellenbosch and, in the early Seventies, studied art at the University of Cape Town. Strict censorship was still in effect throughout the country (TV arrived only in 1976), shielding Dumas from the larger Western zeitgeist. Still, a few totems of high and low culture belatedly snuck their way into her world. She remembers watching Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad at her university’s film society. “I was totally perplexed,” she says. “But I felt it was important to see how the film broke down the narrative structures, while there was still somehow a love story in it. So you could have the politics and the love story and a reflection on the medium.” She wondered why painters weren’t attempting similar experiments.
Actually, they were, as Dumas realized when she moved to the Netherlands on a scholarship at age 23. She began playing cultural catch-up, devouring not only modern and contemporary art (including Joseph Beuys and Frank Stella) but also centuries’ worth of classical European paintings and sculptures that she’d missed at home. At first, in Holland’s museums, she recalls, “I couldn’t discriminate. I just saw all these Jesuses and angels and stuff—pfft. And then, suddenly I’d start to say, ‘Hmm, this is a fantastic one.’”