Consider the lines with which Albert Camus opened The Myth of Sisyphus, his 1942 meditation on what he called the inescapable absurdity of human life: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem,” he wrote, “and that is suicide … what is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying.” After all, Camus noted, with a silent, heavy sigh, at any moment the “feeling of absurdity … can strike any man in the face.”
Now consider a cocktail of thoughts, observations, and emotions, one that mixes an eavesdropper’s juiciest catches with the most unlikely souvenirs from the subconscious. Stir in afterimages from dreams and fragments of language and marginally noted patches of peeled paint on walls. Throw in the remnants of the kinds of mixed emotions that, once cooled and dissipated, leave only hints of melancholy, fear, desire, or yearning in the air to invisibly fill a room or burden a tender heart.
Such is the raw material from which the painter Stephanie Brody-Lederman has long fashioned her peculiar, very personal art. In it, she captures and transforms the most fleeting source material—the shape of a lantern, the color of a candy wrapper, the sound of a car door slamming shut as it seals the voices (and anxieties) of the passengers inside—into the rock-solid stuff of serious art. She brings her grab-bag of scavengings and allusions into her creations in paint on canvas or in paint on paper, or into her assemblage objects, often changing that raw material by daring to employ an ingredient that much of the art world still has a hard time trying to swallow—a sometimes subtle but irrepressible sense of humor.
At 71, Brody-Lederman is aware that many art-establishment poo-bahs have not known how to categorize her work, for she is not exactly an abstractionist, a feminist artist, a text-based conceptualist, an expressionist, a collagist, a classical modernist, or a postmodernist, but she is not exactly not any one of those kinds of artists either. In various ways, she is all of those kinds of artists at once.
Brody-Lederman was born in New York and grew up mostly in the Bronx. Her parents were the children of Jewish immigrants whose lives were marked by assorted hardships. During her own childhood, her parents separated and reunited several times. Despite such instability, she fondly recalls her father as a bon vivant who took art classes at the New School and in the 1950s opened a short-lived Manhattan gallery. Sometimes he drank at the famed Cedar Street Tavern in Greenwich Village, where, one time, he told his daughter, he met “an interesting Dutchman”—the painter Willem de Kooning.
Brody-Lederman, her husband, and their children moved from Manhattan to western Long Island in the early 1970s, a period that turned out to be a formative one for the artist. Although she was not directly motivated by the feminist aesthetics of that time nor by the politics that informed such thinking (she did not make sculptures of vulvas or feel obliged to “reclaim” traditional “women’s work” like quilt-making or embroidery in her art), she identified with feminist values and aims. “I didn’t get on board with the militants,” she remembers, “but the movement gave me permission to feel comfortable making art about whatever happened to be on the kitchen table.” Still, she found time to edit women’s diaries for the feminist journal Heresies.
Brody-Lederman was also not consciously influenced by the early stirrings of what would emerge in the 1980s in American art and academia as the techniques and outlook of postmodernist critical analysis. While many artists of the 1980s would produce exercises-as-artworks, lacking resonance, in the name of this method of critical inquiry (whose basic premises they seemed to comprehend fuzzily at best and which, ultimately, they simply interpreted as a kind of style), Brody-Lederman’s art of the late 1970s and 1980s was—and it has remained since then—only unwittingly postmodern in its purposes and character. As a collector of language and image snippets that she brought together in what often seemed to be randomly composed pastiches, Brody-Lederman exercised an art-making technique in which the appropriating and recontextualizing of source materials became, in retrospect, a vivid demonstration of Po-Mo “strategies” before those methods had a buzzword for a name.
Wendy Ward, an artist, expressive-arts therapist, and mother, knew Brody-Lederman well during her Long Island years. “Stephanie’s antennae were always working the room,” Ward recalls. “She was a philosopher, poet, reporter, and artist—all this with a sense of humor, which was usually dark. She was transforming observation into art.”
Early in her career, Brody-Lederman made works based on what she knew best: the shape and aura of her own home. In “Blue Floor Plan” (1975), a drawing in pastel, acrylic paint, and pencil on paper, she offered a map of a bedroom showing where a double bed, a nightstand, and a side table with a television were situated within this most personal space. Her examination of her subject matter was precise and scientific, sharing more in common with the field notes of an anthropologist than with a poet’s romanticized musings about so iconic a theme as home.
“Those works were about a kind of longing,” she explains. “In them I was playing various roles—the femme fatale, etc.—that I might have played had I not married and had children when I was so young.” Writing about those works in a 1983 review of a Brody-Lederman exhibition at Manhattan’s Kathryn Markel Fine Arts, Jean E. Feinberg, a curator at the Nassau County Museum in the late 1970s, observed that the artist had wanted viewers “to notice that to be ordinary is extraordinary, and that our fantasies are present in reality.”
In time, Brody-Lederman’s work found a distinctive voice, whose messages still sometimes appeared to be uncertain or veiled. In “I Am Still the Same” (pastel and pencil on paper, 1976), the rubber-stamped word “PRIVATE” appears like a declarative headline at the top of the sheet above a not very legible, handwritten text in the upper half of the composition. While the text seems to be a revelation of some deeply personal information—perhaps the description of one of her own dreams—a large X drawn across that upper part of the image somewhat obscures the handwritten text and even seems to mark it for expurgation. In works like these, Brody-Lederman toyed with the idea of exposing her emotions while still hesitating to reveal too much. She observes: “Emotional vulnerability has always been a theme of mine, the idea of not being ‘right’ if one exposes one’s emotions or fantasy life.”
More recently Brody-Lederman told me that her solution to the vulnerability problem was to “pull back and let the shadow of suggestion remain.” That approach would allow her to make feelings, including her own, a subject of her art without sentimentality, awkward self-awareness, or narcissism. She could lighten the pressure on herself as a communicator and pass it along to viewers as a sense of free-floating tension.
Looking back at how she refined her approach to making art, Brody-Lederman says: “I honed it. I learned to be ruthless about leaving out whatever is not absolutely necessary in the images or in the words I use.” Thus, some of her later paintings, like “Son + Moon” (2009), appear to be little more than whispers of different ideas tapped out into the atmosphere like some kind of muted Morse code. In such images, a single word or short phrase or a simple, outlined shape of a coffee pot, stool, or chair may do the job of conveying a nuanced message or an uncertain emotion. Sometimes, as in “Oedipus” (2002) or “The Mystery of Our Love of Things” (2009), Brody-Lederman’s messenger of meaning may be little more than a single, lazy, paint-drippy letter, oozing its way across a particular passage of a composition, or a solitary stroke or patch of color that energizes the pictorial space.
The tone of Brody-Lederman’s art is never ironic or sentimental. Her rejection of irony has confounded those postmodernists whose doctrinaire relativism and perpetual, self-conscious smirk spring from their insistence that the meaning of anything depends on varying contextual points of view, which in turn means that anything can mean just about anything, and that nothing ever means anything absolutely. That’s a mode of thinking that, elaborated to its logical conclusion, leads to a dangerous kind of nihilism, and nihilism’s “final solution” is nothing if not death.
By contrast, Brody-Lederman’s art offers a sweet-sour billet-doux to humanity, but ultimately it celebrates life. Steeped in that sense of “the pastness of the past,” as T. S. Eliot put it, that is an essential aspect of the poet’s consciousness, Brody-Lederman really does enjoy exploring what it is that makes people tick. She could never state, as did tired old Freud in a 1929 letter to the Russian-born psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé, that, in his estimation, one of his “worst qualities” had been “a certain indifference to the world.” Freud wrote: “In the depths of my heart I can’t help being convinced that my dear fellow men, with a few exceptions, are worthless.”
In the contemporary-art world, overt displays of or even hints of interest in emotion are decidedly uncool. Still, many of the works on view in Brody-Lederman’s last, big solo exhibition, which opened at O. K. Harris Fine Art in Manhattan in late 2009, appeared to touch many viewers’ nerves. “I look at that picture, and I recognize the dreams I’ve had about my childhood,” a woman at the show’s opening told me, pointing to “View from the Ferry” (2009), a large blue, green, and gray painting of two lonely trees on a shore near a lake, with a constellation of connect-the-dot numbers floating in the air above the water. A middle-aged woman who identified herself as a painter approached Brody-Lederman and said: “That painting over there that says, ‘And close to happiness,’ with the tree in bloom right next to an empty tree without any leaves: It’s about every relationship I’ve ever been in.”
Some of Brody-Lederman’s paintings at O. K. Harris felt hushed and sparse. Others were packed with cacophonies of color and varied subjects. Just in “Promises” (2009) alone, for instance, I counted a multicolored, scalloped awning marked with the word “Promises”; a small green chain encircling a flowering tree in bloom; two black half-ovals that looked like baked potatoes but were actually related to the oval shape the artist routinely uses to depict islands or lakes; a vertical band of colors like a printer’s color-calibration bar; the written reminder, “Don’t make promises that you cannot keep”; and, behind it all, a fire-engine-red background that was as luscious as it was theatrical. From this kind of visual hodgepodge to a single, fluffy tree in the center of a large canvas that anchors the entire diverse group of images on view, each of the artist’s new works pushes buttons on a control panel of human emotions—not in a mechanical, manipulative way, but rather obliquely, evoking in such subjects as a pair of scissors, an empty bird cage, a black fedora, and that enormous, looming tree a sense of longing, romance, discomfort, or nostalgia. “I’m working with the impermanence of what we are all seeing and feeling,” Brody-Lederman told one viewer. (She was also working with kitty litter; to make the textured surface of one picture, she had mixed it into her paint.)
It’s easy for me to imagine Brody-Lederman walking to her studio in Brooklyn on a windswept winter morning, her mind tossing around a phrase she heard on the subway, in the supermarket, or on a radio talk show that might offer a starting point for a new painting. I can imagine her walking along purposefully, her thoughts focused on a patch of uncooperative color on a canvas-in-progress that must be scrubbed or cajoled out. I wonder for a moment how a person as sensitive but also as resilient as Brody-Lederman might respond if suddenly she were to be struck, not just by the thought of being walloped, but by an actual, unanticipated slap in the face from that old rascal, the “absurdity of life,” and I understand, now that I have gleaned some lessons from the grit and gusto of her spirit and her art, that most likely she would simply pull up her collar and, with a shrug and a sigh, some spunk and some charm, a dollop of defiance and a hint of old-fashioned grace, look that unlikely, uninvited, unmerciful son-of-a-bitch right in the eye—and slap him right back.