Joan Snyder: A Studio Visit
by Deanna Sirlin
I have been visiting artists these days, particularly ones I admire and whose work I have been looking at for over 25 years. I made a choice to visit only women artists, trying to understand how they work and what makes them who they are, because even though women have made great strides towards equality in the work force, it is still a struggle to be an artist, and maybe a bit tougher to be a female artist. I wondered what set of conditions or strengths have led these artists to be able to make important art.
In a blue and white house with a studio converted from a carriage house behind it, I found Snyder about to finish lunch with her assistant. The large kitchen possessed the warmth of a place where many meals had been prepared, eaten, and lingered over. We chatted a bit while they finished, and I spent my time gazing upon a resonant horizontal painting of sunflowers, its thick paint massed on the surface with the presence and panache that make Snyder’s work so distinctive. Gardens figure prominently in Snyder’s paintings, and later that day she tells me of the summer place which has a large garden built by her son-in-law in Woodstock, New York where she and her partner spend half the year. While telling me of their home in Woodstock, Joan’s entire face—no, her entire being--brightens with a delightful smile and a posture that speaks of her happiness while there.
Joan was born and raised in New Jersey. She has white curly hair and wears black round glasses on her intelligent, vibrant face. She speaks with a straightforwardness that I feel comfortable with, maybe because I recognize her clear hard shell as similar to my own demeanor. I know this manner for what it is: it is not hardness, but just a directness that many New Yorkers have. I forget how much I miss it until I experience it again.
We leave the house and take a few steps past a small koi pound that Joan tells me was there when they bought the house. Her studio is light and airy: the top floor was removed during the conversion to give it a high ceiling and skylights. Joan tells me about her paintings and the books she has been reading for her reading group. She is cavalier with the books; she writes in them in pencil and cuts them out of their bindings so that “they will be easier to read in bed.” But her recklessness is that of someone who loves books and wants to understand every word and phrase. Knowing how she uses books is a delightful way to understand Joan’s paintings and how she makes them. She paints colors and forms, circles them, covers them over and reveals them. She crosses some images out and brings others up to the surface.
Shown in New York in the fall of 2010 as part of her solo show at Betty Cunningham Gallery fondly titled A Year in the Painting Life, “Summer Fugue,” 2010, is a triptych made up of three paintings of different sizes. The left-hand painting is small and intense, full of bright blooming flowers, with an elliptical shape at its center. The larger, yellow hued center panel is an explosion of flowers. The paintings are truly mixed media. Joan uses everything in her studio in the same artwork: oil and acrylic paint, but also seeds and herbs, rosebuds and sparkles, burlap and silk and. This and other works have dirt, papier-mâché, seeds, and cord or rope applied to their surfaces. Snyder has her canvases prepared the old-fashioned way by stretching linen and sizing it with rabbit skin glue, which dries clear. When she allows parts of the linen canvas to appear through her rumble of paint and media, they do not read as empty white space. Rather, the linen’s tawny color becomes part of the painting’s hue. The paintings constitute an entire theatre of painting with highs and lows, strokes and drips, two- and three-dimensional materials.
I spent a long time at this exhibition trying to understand how Snyder got it all so right. I started to think about what makes Joan’s painting different from those of the thousands of painters who paint fields of flowers. Her paintings are just this side of sweet and nostalgic without ever actually becoming so. If anything, they are tough works with content and soul, like those of her contemporaries such as Kiefer or Rauschenberg. Her work has an uncanny physicality that is built up on the surface with paint. Not only do I have the urge to touch them like doubting Thomas with St. Sebastian’s wounds, I want to pierce the surface with my finger and touch the interior of the wound or flower or other orifice.
In the 60’s and 70’s Snyder was known for something called “stroke” paintings. The strokes in these large paintings from the last century are big marks that move horizontally across the canvas. Many of the paintings are quilt-like because of their gridded structures and the freshness of their color.
Snyder spoke to me about the influence of many types of music on her painting; a recorder and sheet music are on a stand in her studio. Sound is important; not just sound but the rhythms of music whether eastern or western, jazz or classical. We talked about how she loves making prints; she will make a print whenever anyone invites her to do so. We talked a bit about her parents, her middle class New Jersey childhood, the New York art community, and her relationships with art dealers. Snyder also explained that while some aspects of an artist’s life may become easier over time, others never do. “My life got easier financially and in other ways. Life in the studio can still be rigorous and sometimes a struggle, [and] dealing with the art world never gets easier!”
She brought out two white paintings that she was finishing. Still is a work of layers of different tones of white laid over previously painted areas so that the drips have a wonderful variation of hue behind them. In an impasto of paint are small, round fleurettes in rose, coral, pink, and white. The word “still” is written four times in paint on the surface. Joan tells me that she writes words on canvases when she needs them, when the painting calls for them. “Still” is the perfect word in this case. It is a tribute to her persistence: after all, Snyder is still making paintings after all these years! But more important is Snyder’s ability to find a place of mental stillness so that she can make her art.