On the occasion of two new exhibits—Joan Snyder…and seeking the sublime, on view at the Nielsen Gallery in Boston, MA from September 13–October 18, 2008 and One Blue Sky at the Danforth Museum in Framingham, MA from September 7–November 23, 2008—the painter welcomed Rail Publisher Phong Bui to her Park Slope home and studio one sunny mid-afternoon in late July to talk about her work.
Phong Bui (Rail): While you were at Douglas College from 1958 to 1962, the women’s division of Rutgers University, you initially wanted to become a social worker, so your field of study was sociology. But it was in your senior year that you took your first class in painting, which dramatically changed the course of your life. Could you retell us briefly about that deciding moment?
Joan Snyder: In college I majored in sociology. And yes, the elective class in painting that I took in my senior year did alter the course of my life. It also reconnected me to my childhood, when I used to make some pretty good paintings by copying pictures from magazines. My father was always very supportive of this endeavor. He had painted as a young man and later took up painting in his old age, which he did until his death in 1993. He made some terrific Grandma Moses type paintings. Anyway, while I was in the painting class, my teacher asked me if I had ever seen Russian or German Expressionist paintings. He showed me slides of, among others, Aleksey von Jawlensky, whose portraits I completely identified with. From that moment on it was as if he had turned on a light inside of me. I knew, as far fetched as it was given my life and education to that point, that I was going to be a painter and I also knew that one day I was going to be good at it. That year I mostly did expressionistic portraits of family members and friends, landscapes of houses and barns, etc. all connected with people and places in my life at the time. It was only when I was in graduate school at Rutgers University that I began to do more experimental work.
Rail: Having seen some of the early work in your Abrams book published at the time of your survey show at the Jewish Museum in 2005, it makes sense that the early expressionistic landscapes which had already revealed your interest in dealing with the interval between negative and positive space, were a basis for your later abstract painting to spring from.
Snyder: You’re probably right. At the time in 1963, 1964, I was making Burchfield/Vlaminck-like landscape paintings. What happened was that after earning my mfa in 1966 I went to Europe and while I was there I fell apart. I sat in parks in Belgium all day, drew, stared into space and felt totally lost. I came back, and looked at my expressionistic landscape paintings and realized that I wanted to make paintings that had the same feeling that these paintings had but without the content, without the barns, without the houses. I also wanted them to have the same broken feeling that I was experiencing at the time. I remember very specifically saying to myself, “I’m making strokes that are very broken apart,” without realizing how abstract it was. I made one, for example, called “Stroke Landscape” with the sky painted a flat pink color covering the top half of the picture plane and in the field below were separate strokes on a tan and white ground. The impulse to work in this new way was very strong.
Rail: Given the background of the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movements the Women’s Rights movement, could you describe how you mediated your way through painting in the mid to late ’60s, especially right after graduate school?
Snyder: I was very involved politically with some artists groups at that time, but I wasn’t involved with the art world. But at the same time since I had a late start, only beginning to paint as a senior in college, I mostly stayed in the studio and worked. I wanted my paintings to have more content, not less. I wanted to be a maximalist, not a minimalist. Even though Robert Morris was one of my teachers in graduate school, and while many of my classmates were making gray boxes, I was making a plaster angel with red fringe, splayed legs and plywood wings, who sat on a wheeled platform covered with plastic flowers. I felt that since I had spent so many years being so anxious as a child and a teenager, painting became a way for me to speak, a means for me to deal with an internal dialogue that I had never known how to deal with before, and rather than trying to relate to what was going on in the art world or even the world-politic at the time I was very involved with my own drama, dialogue. My situation then was more about trying to save my own sanity, relieving my anxiety.
Rail: Would you regard your “Flock” and “Alter” paintings series as a personal response to what was going on with the Women’s Rights movement?
Snyder: Absolutely. The late ’60s was the very beginning of my own dialogue about a female sensibility. Those weren’t the words I was using when I made those paintings. I was making paintings that were, for me, about being a painter and being a woman, about trying to paint the internal, organic, anthropomorphic sense of being a woman and also about my own sexual awakening. It was also my way of reacting against both Color Field painting and the dominance of minimalism during that period. I was using very funky non-art materials in my work like flock (crushed rayon), lentil seeds, fake leopard skin, wallpaper, glitter, even colored light bulbs. At the same time, during the early seventies, I was doing visiting artist gigs all over the country, slide lectures and crits. Art departments needed some female presence so they invited us as visiting artists. Keep in mind, at the time, I couldn’t get a job in any art department. They weren’t hiring women. I remember seeing works by young female students that excited me. They would explain that their teachers, who were all male, didn’t like, get or understand their work. This was about male faculty who absolutely did not comprehend our language, who didn’t get the concept of a female sensibility that was emerging at the time.
Rail: Though unlike some of the women artists of your generation, who, out of personal necessity, had to make works that intensified the greater good for the feminist cause, you, on the other hand, were more invested in the organic permutation of how a painting has to have its own growth. Could you elaborate on that?
Snyder: Well, I think that there are always many things going on at once especially as a young painter. I was compelled to build my own vocabulary, say what I had to say personally, not address a local or world politic especially as a young artist. But I was definitely involved in women’s issues personally and politically. In my work in the mid-’70s, I painted works such as “Small Symphony For Women,” which I did in 1974, and “Small Symphony For Women II” in 1976. Earlier than that, in 1970, I made several works in reaction to the Vietnam War. One was a wall collage piece called “My Lai Collage,” but I don’t think anyone can easily explain why they work the way they do, why they sing or write the way they do.
Rail: Still, in the traveling exhibit High Time, Hard Times: Abstract Painting from 1967 to 1975, a year ago that Katy Siegel and David Reed co-curated, which solely focused on the prospects of painting; whether reacting against or being inspired by other art forms such as minimalism, conceptual art, experimental film, dance, performing art, video, and so on, I wonder how did you manage to negotiate with all of those emerging trends?
Snyder: I knew what was going on, more or less, but I did spend a lot of time in the studio. My goal during that time period—the early ’70s—was to make what were called “stroke” paintings. They were abstract but some also had narrative elements. I wanted them to have beginnings, middles, ends, both sad and joyous sections as in a piece of music, for example, or a poem. “The Storm,” the painting included in that show, was about me negating everything I had painted previously. I was just feeling so vulnerable during that period of my painting life and career, mostly because I had become quite well known very quickly and it was overwhelming for me so that every time I painted a beautiful passage on that painting I covered it up with a dark mud like color. It ended up being a beautiful painting in spite of my cover-ups. After finishing “The Storm” I was so upset that I didn’t paint again for six months.
Rail: When or how did the use of the grid come about?
Snyder: The grid came about not so much because of minimalism, although that was in the air, but for myself in a few other ways. One was that when I was teaching art to children, they were making paintings and drawings on lined paper. That caught my eye. I knew that I wanted my work to have a narrative feel and one day while I was working, I looked at the tongue and groove white wall at my Mulberry Street loft and I noticed that it had little delicate drips on it from my brush strokes, and I suddenly said to myself, “That’s what I want my paintings to look like,” And so I started incorporating the drips on the grids. They have been a very important element ever since. Every grid that I’ve ever made has been different. I’ve rarely made the same grid twice. But it was a structure for me to either destroy on the way to making the painting or stay within like a musical staff, providing order. I was also involved in what I called ‘the anatomy of a stroke’—my own version of cubism. I wanted to be able to see the process through the stroke, to see the canvas, the underpainting, the drawing, etc. And then I began painting paint strokes.
Rail: What was your response to the slogan “Painting is dead,” in the late ’60s?
Snyder: When I heard that for the first time I was living out in Long Island and it never meant anything to me because I was going full steam ahead with my paintings. Actually, I think that the talk of the death of painting had to do with a certain male sensibility. They were making paintings without stories. They were dealing with formalism, abstraction, minimalism, whereas women were questioning all of those ways of working. This was all very much part of our dialogue, at least of my dialogue. If you think about the WACK show at P.S. 1 last spring, it was extraordinary in that there was such a rich variety of work and dialogue coming out of that period by women artists from all over the world.
I remember reading in Time Out magazine something that Phillip Pullman said when he accepted the Carnegie Medal: “The present-day would-be George Eliots take up their stories as if with a pair of tongs. They’re embarrassed by them. If they could write novels without stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do.” In any event, I’ve never thought that painting was dead.
Rail: Yeah. Marsha Tucker told a story of a party at her loft in 1969: Richard Serra, who was sitting across from her, said, ‘Painting is dead,’ and she replied, ‘Yeah, for a sculptor of course it is.’
Rail: At any rate, were you aware of David Reed’s early stroke paintings in the mid ’70s?
Snyder: David once told me he couldn’t have done those stroke paintings without having seen my work. I’m not so sure that’s true but it’s nice when a painter gives you a compliment like that.
Rail: In your paintings from the mid ’80s to the present, apart from the reference to the body which we spoke about earlier, there was an increased reference to nature, whether in the form of a wheat field, trees in a landscape, the seascape with the moon above, as explicit as some of the titles suggest, such as “To Transcend/The Moon” (1985), “The Ocean/ Renewal” (1988), or “She Is the Earth” (2000). I wonder whether it is your particular identification with American modernist landscape painting via Albert Pinkham Ryder, Arthur B. Dove, Marsden Hartley, or even Forest Bess rather than their European counterparts?
Snyder: My references to nature come out of my own experiences. For example, I was visiting my parents in Florida, walking along the beach one night with my daughter and we saw a full moon. I had been doing beanfield paintings at the time and thought to myself, ‘Well, if you can do a beanfield, why not a moonfield?’ I have had a great love of nature ever since I was a child. And even though I love Ryder, Dove and especially Forest Bess, I felt greater kinship with Cézanne, Van Gogh, Vlaminck, Jawlensky and other European painters from the early part of the 20th century.
Rail: One also feels there is an element of memory that persists in your work and associations with a sense of place…
Snyder: Yes, of course that’s true. “New Moonfield,” for example, which has ghostlike shapes, and shapes that appear to be floating moons and breasts. It began as a very light painting but then it just got darker and darker. This was after I had moved my studio from Woodstock back to Brooklyn for the winter, and I’m sure that had something to do with how dark the painting became.
Rail: It appears to be by far the most somber painting you’ve ever made.
Snyder: It’s also possibly the most haunting.
Rail: I’d like to shift the subject to the wound-like openings in your work; unlike Lucio Fontana’s holes or slashes on the painting surfaces, part of his spatial concept, John Graham’s cuts and puncture wounds which he claimed brought the equivalence of a punctuation, a way of trapping spaces, or Ron Gorchov’s distinct mark-makings that hold their presence against the concave/convex structure of the canvas, would it be fair to think that yours seem to evoke more emotional than formal concerns?
Snyder: I would say that’s true, mostly. In “Vanishing Theatre/The Cut” (1974), a painting where the opening, as you call it, or the cut as I call it in this work, was as much about the conflicts of my sexuality as it was about vulnerability and coming to terms with loss and letting go. “Heart On” (1975), which also had many sections that were opened up and some that were even sewn back together, had to do with anger and pain, and also my desire at the time to become intimate with women. But more than that, in the mid ’70s the dialogue about female sensibility was in full swing. My paintings were somewhat in response to that as well. In a recent painting, for example, “Life of a Tree,” (2007), the four openings with rusty nails and cherries soaked in cherry red paint is more about openings, still vulnerable but more seductive, more beautiful. There’s another world inside.
Rail: They appear to me almost like ears as well. It is a tree that can hear everything from its surroundings.
Snyder: Yes, you’re listening to the symphony. [Laughs]
Rail: We’ve spoken about the presence of the body, aspects of sexuality in your paintings. How about your idea of beauty, which is inseparable from sex?
Snyder: I once named a painting “…and Always Searching for Beauty.” In spite of some who might not think my work beautiful, I almost always try to make beautiful paintings. I think being vulnerable, however complicated and difficult it may be, is a form of beauty.
Rail: Have you ever thought of Cy Twombly’s work, particularly his five “Ferragosto” paintings, painted in 1961? Not because of the fact that they embrace the physical relationship of the body to the size of the painting like do Abstract Expressionist paintings, but in the variety of ways in which paint is laid on the surface made his touch and imagery so sensually feminine. And more importantly, there is a shared fascination for the sense of decay in his and your paintings that seems to lie between Baroque excess and the grotesque.
Snyder: I was somewhat aware of Twombly as a young painter and since then have always liked his work.
Rail: How about Anselm Kiefer’s work?
Snyder: I am a huge Kiefer fan…love his work…
Rail: Who else among the artists of your generation have you exchanged dialogue with?
Snyder: Keith Sonnier, Jackie Windsor and I lived in the same building on Mulberry Street so we often looked at each other’s work. Pat Steir and I used to visit each other’s studios, as did Louise Fishman and I. I also remember visiting Mary Heilman’s studio on the Bowery. In the early ’70s we were beginning to have consciousness-raising groups: we weren’t talking about our careers though, or our art for that matter—we were talking about our lives.
Rail: Let’s shift to the formal issue in your work. I recognize three themes in your painting: “strokes and grids,” which comes out of your love of post-Impressionist paintings and minimalism, “fields,” which embodies your own unified geography of overall surfaces that yield both to Abstract Expressionism’s and Neo-Expressionism’s painterly languages and lastly, narrative or personal history is an ongoing thread that runs throughout your work. How do you manage to sustain and maintain the equilibrium of differences while being able to create a cohesive visual unity?
Snyder: Well I love landscape and I love the painterly, and also structure and repetition which relates to music, and I seem to need the narrative. My work is able to contain all the elements you describe in your question. What is exciting for me is putting all those elements together and having them actually work. In my last show in nyc (at The Betty Cuningham Gallery), a young woman told me that she sees my paintings as “gothic valentines.” I considered that to be a high compliment.
Rail: You often make references to music in relation to your paintings. Is there a particular kind of music that you prefer listening to?
Snyder: It’s changed over the years. When I was younger I listened to a lot of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Then I was obsessed with Bartok because of his interest in folk music and culture. Of course I loved Wagner, without knowing then his politics, for his operatic sound. Later when I got married, I listened to Jazz, especially to The Revolutionary Ensemble, the free Jazz trio, consisting of Leroy Jenkins, who died last year, Sirone [Norris Jones] and Jerome Cooper, all friends of Larry [Fink], my former husband, and I. Their work inspired me because it was very experimental. What they were doing coincided with where I was as a painter at that time. Now I also listen to classical vocal and World Music. For instance, last summer I listened for almost the entire summer to Anne Sofie von Otter singing Berlioz’s Les Nuits D’Eté. Similarly, when my mother, with whom I had a difficult relationship, died in 1992, I listened to Mozart’s Great Mass every morning in my studio for a whole year, crying my heart out for an entire hour every day. No one was more surprised than I was about the grief I felt. Again, it was music that got me through it.
Rail: My beloved grandmother used to take me to a Buddhist temple where she would go every weekend for meditation. Once I remember clearly, after seeing the middle part of the gong that one would strike to make sound from, I said to her, “Why does it look so much like my mother’s breast?” She answered, “That’s because music nurtures the soul.”
Snyder: That’s a beautiful story. She sounds like she should be everyone’s grandmother.
Rail: What happens when you paint in silence?
Snyder: I do sometimes paint in silence when I feel the need to just sit and look at a painting, whether it could stand on its own without the music.
Rail: Do you think all the works that you and artists from your generation paved the way for younger women artists today, at least in the last decade or more?
Snyder: Definitely. I think we paved the way for male artists too.
The artist Joan Snyder is represented by Betty Cuningham Gallery in New York.