Why did you become an artist?
I finally decided I was an artist after trying a number of different straight jobs: I went to liberal arts school, thinking of becoming an attorney. I’d thought perhaps I was an artist when I was five or six – I drew murals on shelf-paper, turning out these long scrolls. But I didn’t really have any hope of doing that, so gave up, and only came back to art later.
What was your big breakthrough?
Putting up anonymous street posters around lower Manhattan. Dan Graham, an artist I admire, noticed them, talked to people about them, and finally figured out that I was the person doing them. So thank you, Dan.
Which artists do you most admire?
Bruce Nauman, Louise Bourgeois, Nancy Spero, Ed Ruscha, Lawrence Weiner, Goya, Da Vinci, Giotto, Piero della Francesca. I could go on. I would never make a prescription for what art should be, but I like it when an artist’s hand and mind and subject matter all work together.
Where do you seek inspiration?
I’m inclined to work on dark things. Sadly, the world is always offering up something dark and dreadful.
Have you ever felt that your work is judged in a certain way because you’re a woman?
When I was selected to represent the US in the Venice Biennale, I recall that someone wrote, “If it had to be a woman, it could be this, this or that other woman.” That wasn’t very nice to me, or the others. You can’t imagine anyone saying that about a man.
Who or what have you sacrificed for your art?
My daughter, who’s now in her mid-20s, was justifiably angry at me many times because I was possessed by art. I was used to being monomaniacally focused on my work, and then lo and behold, there was a baby, who of course thought and deserved that I should be utterly focused on her. Not so simple, that one.
Which of your works are you most proud of?
I would be embarrassed to be proud of anything, but I like the Projections. I like it when crowds gather at night and watch quietly. That makes me happy.
Is there an art form you don’t relate to?
Theatre scares me because I’m so bashful – I can’t imagine standing on stage. That says more about me than theatre.
What advice would you give a young artist?
"It will be the best of times and the worst of times." Not original, I know. Of course it’s the best preoccupation ever – but it’s impossible to make work as good as it needs to be. It’s intermittently exhilarating and crushing. At least, that’s what I’ve found.
Complete this sentence: At heart, I’m just a frustrated…
If I’d been given a better mind, I’d have liked to have been a useful attorney. Art is useful in its own way, but I come from a group of practical people: I feel guilty about having questionable utility.
Born: Gallipolis, Ohio; 1950
Career: Best-known for multi-disciplinary works such as Truisms, a series of one-liners printed on posters, T-shirts and billboards; and Projections, a long-running work projecting phrases on to public buildings and monuments. In 1990, she was the first woman to represent the US at the Venice Biennale. Her piece MONUMENT (2008) is in Light Show at the Hayward Gallery, London SE1, until 28 April.
High point: "When my daughter’s not mad at me, and gives one of my works a positive review."
Low point: "About 20 times a day, when I wish I had the perfect clarity and the exquisite ability to synthesise and represent. That only comes once a decade, and it’s never quite exquisite enough."