An Unabashed Master on Full Display
I am grateful to have sat down with Joan Snyder in her Brooklyn home and studio last week to chat about art, life and her new work. Going into the visit there was an overwhelming desire to share and learn everything about her legacy in American painting. So naturally when I get there, I am bursting with a litany of questions to ask her. Ten minutes in and I am all over the place. I have read Joan an excerpt in which she describes her awareness of what her paintings are about, and the myriad of materials they contain; brought up a video in which she sensitively talks about the work of Florine Stettheimer and how she puts herself in paintings; how her palette and narrative style are so personal, intimate and is innately a female sensibility. I asked Joan what it means to be a vessel; to be able to look back at her own storied history of painting while looking at her new work in the studio. I realize now that I was trying to express an enormous sense of gratitude for her deeply personal and powerful influence.
What surprised me about our short time together was how extraordinarily simple she made it all seem. We talked about her love of music—of Bach cantatas, of Nina Simone and Philip Glass, of opera and world music—and its profound influence on her work. She highlighted how, "Charlie Parker always said that it took him a long time to play like Charlie Parker." You work, and you work, and you work, and you become who you are. We touched on her Feminist Artist Statement from 2007, and how she has developed a vocabulary that is naturally her own; feminine, inclusive, nuanced, extremely personal and incredibly present. Joan has been tirelessly working for over 45 years, so there is no better advocate than the artist herself in describing how her work and her body are inextricably fused (from “Response to What is feminist art”, circa 1977):
Female sensibility is layers, words, membranes, cotton, cloth, rope, repetition, bodies, wet, opening, closing, repetition, lists, lifestories, grids, destroying grids, houses, intimacy, doorways, breasts, vaginas, flow, strong, building, putting together many disparaging elements, repetition, red, pink, black, earth feels colors, the sun, the moon, roots, skins, walls, yellow flowers, streams, puzzles, questions..repetition…
This is who Joan Snyder is: unabashed, intensely present, always working. In looking at her new paintings made over the winter, there is an incredible vastness and sense of wonder; painting as an insatiable and overflowing record of lived experiences; and the importance of affirming the body in all its futility. In a work not yet titled, we both marveled at out how she has taken the landscape motif and turned it on its head, inserting a plethora of materials from the physical and natural world, effortlessly collapsing art and life through the weight and luscious materiality pouring from the picture-plane. On raw linen, Joan has painted and collaged, small twigs, Chinese herbs and swatches of unprimed linen interspersed with text, traces of the body, and dabs of browns, pinks and purple paint that magically cascades throughout. Here is a master on full display; skillfully deploying decades of her visual iconography with a clarity and grandeur so large, it reminds us of the eternal possibilities of painting, and why we endlessly return to its surface.
In another painting, Joan has transformed the female reproductive system into the ultimate icon and symbol of female power and creation. The image is striking for its economy and the radiant focus on the body, here made up of papier-mâché and resting in a reflective pool of dark and light blue paint. The physicality of the female body is heightened by a wonderful juxtaposition that brings to mind bodily secretions, and an earthy bed of twigs that encircles the figure in a corona of light and small petals. The image is as much radical as it is a powerful celebration of women. Fitting is the artist's placement of the female body as the center of love, hope, freedom and continuous renewal; strongly affirming women as the leading source for change during such a tired and tumultuous period.
So it is important to say―Joan, we see you, we cherish you, and we thank you.