MacArthur Fellowship-winner Joan Snyder showing at Woodstock’s Elena Zang Gallery

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Born in Highland Park, New Jersey in 1940, Joan Snyder became famous in the early 1970s for her paintings of strokes – marks, sometimes arranged in stacks, often bearing a cascade of drips – and large canvases incorporating moody, darkly expressive grids whose physicality was expressed not just in passages of roughly brushed paint, but also incised welts made of thread, fabric, chickenwire, papier-mâché, mattress batting and clusters of plastic grapes. Her work has always laid bare the structure, down to the elemental bone, built up and scraped down, yet also incorporated a symphonic richness.

Snyder was a key figure in the emerging feminist art movement of the 1970s, yet her work transcended any timely agenda, instead revolving around the universal themes of love, death, sex and motherhood. (The exception was the collaged works incorporating images of starving children and incarcerated women, made in the late 1980s.) She oscillated between abstraction and representation, painting dark, moody, large-scale landscapes that injected narrative elements into their thickly textured fields; glass beads, wooden spools and balls, marbles, twigs and other materials were encrusted on some of her surfaces.  In the 1990s, her palette lightened and sunflowers, roses, fruit and other vegetative imagery entered her work. The round floral motif also suggesting breasts, ponds, suns and planets, infusing her pieces with totemic meaning.

Roses and sunflowers appear in her latest show at the Elena Zang Gallery, titled “Works Large and Small.” As inventive and prolific as ever, Snyder incorporates seedpods, twigs, mud, Chinese herbs and pulped paper into her paintings: a method that infuses her work with a raw intensity. Pink rosettes, fashioned from papier-mâché, emerge from the flat surface of one of her canvases, whose pale, whitish ground is also incised with jagged lines, as if it had brushed against thorns. In another work, White Earth, the roses are lightly painted across the surface, like a faded pattern of an old tea towel, which in contrast is fisted up and distressed, almost sculptural: The surface of paint-encrusted burlap, broken china, brown, brittle herbs and dried rosebuds suggests turmoil, decay and a tough, physical resistance.

Snyder is clearly in top form in this show of large fieldlike paintings, small-but-astonishingly-monumental works and prints, which incorporate woodcut, lithograph and etching; the artist is as adventurous in her use of various media as she is of materials. Much celebrated – the artist received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2007 and is the subject of several books – she spends six months of the year with her partner, Margaret Cammer, in Woodstock and the rest of the time in a carriagehouse in Brooklyn. The exhibition at Elena Zang is on display until October 5.

Proserpina, consisting of two large panels, is a particularly powerful work, with words reading stone, earth, heat, fields drawn like ancient graffiti among a series of floating dark cloudlike forms, which shift to white and pink on the right-hand panel. Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods spoke last week with the artist.

Is it a diptych? How did you make it?
It’s not a diptych. I put two panels together and it becomes a field. It incorporates actual poppy pods, rice paper, mud and other materials, which give it a dimension.

What inspired the work?

It’s based on a song written by Kate McGarrigle just before she died, called Proserpina. It refers to the myth of Persephone, who gets taken away to Hades before her mother, Demeter, threatens to turn the fields into stones and take away all the food and water. A deal is struck and she gets her daughter back half of the year. Kate’s daughter Martha Wainwright sings it, and it’s a beautiful, intense song.

I painted this after another painting I did based on a Kate McGarrigle song, entitled Tell My Sister. It refers to a narrator who is telling her sister to tell her mother that she’s coming home alone after splitting up with her husband and having a miscarriage. Martha and I have become good friends. I made Proserpina in 2012.

Do you paint to music?

Yes, my work is always informed by music, and/or it gives me license in a certain way to be free. The structure of Proserpina evolved. I probably knew I was going to spell out the words and put them from the song in there.

The drips make it seem as if the painting were weeping.

Demeter was weeping, I am sure. Proserpina also has a graphic quality about it. The dark clouds consist of rice paper painted with mud. As far as making a painting, putting one all together cohesively, I know how to take one step after another step, but the entire process is mysterious to me.

How do you begin?

I think about a painting for months and months before I do it. I make sketches with pencil and pen in a notebook. It’s not like it happens totally spontaneously. It’s not as if I walk right into a blank canvas. I figure a lot out before I do it – although when I do it, it can change. In my sketches I talk about the materials, structure, size of the canvas and make lists of materials. I have my palette of materials ready. That’s how they all happen, except for the little works, which are one-off spontaneous.

So you work out the scheme in small sketches first, sometimes over a period of months or even years.

The element you can’t forget is the magic that happens once I start. Because I’ve been doing this for 45 years or more, I put myself on automatic pilot. The notes are key. I refer to them usually in the early stages of a work. It’s very much like a musical staff. I play the recorder, and one day I saw Break In Two My Heart So Needy, a Bach composition for the recorder. I took the music and copied it onto rice paper and collaged it into the painting. It appears in both German and English. On the white silk down the middle of the painting is the broken heart made of ripped red velvet.

It looks almost black, like a pulsing organ. You use a lot of pink, which often has a raw, almost violent quality.

Pink happens. Where there’s enough white around it’s a different kind of red.

In the large print from your cherry tree series, the falling cherries in pink/red also appear to be levitating. How did that theme come about?

I’ve been making cherry tree prints for years, working with a printer on a press. These were hand-rubbed, so they are more painterly. The subject has a very specific source: In 1992, I was driving to visit my father in a nursing home on Fort Hamilton Parkway in Brooklyn, which is one of the least attractive places in the world. I passed by a little house with a cherry tree in the front yard. It had cherries on it, falling off, on the ground rotting, and there were little flags on it to keep the birds away. I rang the bell and asked the woman if I could take pictures of it. My mother had just died, my father was 92, and I had a kid who was six. The cherry tree became a metaphor of life and death.

When did you start painting?

In 1962, when I was a senior in college. I was a Sociology major and took a painting course as a senior at Rutgers. I got very turned on by it, and discovered German Expressionism. I rented a studio on the river in New Brunswick, much to my mother’s dismay. I worked part-time teaching art to kids and went to my studio and painted. I had a really anxiety-ridden childhood, and I was speaking for the first time. I couldn’t say it in any other way.

After a year or so I filled my car with paintings, drove up to the graduate program at Rutgers, knocked on the door of the chairman of the department and put eight paintings around his office. They said I could be a non-matriculated student for one year and after that they let me into the program. It was a fabulous group and wonderful experience.

Growing up I had never been to a museum. My parents were hardworking lower-middle-class people who were second-generation Russian and German Jewish. The moment my mother became unnervous was when I appeared in a Time magazine article about a young generation of painters.

You got famous just as the feminist movement was getting underway in the early 1970s. How did this affect your career?
I was already showing work, but there was a real need to talk about female sensibility and the work women artists were doing. I was one of the founders of the women’s art movement and got very involved. It was an exciting time in the art world. We had community. I started the women’s artist’s series at Douglass College [in New Brunswick, where Snyder got her bachelor of arts degree] in the 1970s, which at the time was the first place in the country to show women’s work exclusively. The students had never had a female art instructor in school so there were no role models. Women came to the Douglass College campus from the city, had shows, gave lectures and had the exposure they weren’t getting in NYC at the time.

How much progress have we made since then?

It’s definitely gotten better, but there’s still a glass ceiling. Seventy percent of art shows are by men. It’s still a white man’s world. Young women coming out of Yale today do not want to call themselves feminists because they don’t want to alienate the male faculty. But it is possible to be a feminist and an artist.

Was it difficult to be an artist and a mother – a single mother at that, for eight of those years?

I didn’t have my daughter until I was 39, and by then I had a career. I was living on a farm in Pennsylvania with my photographer husband. Having Molly didn’t change my production. I usually made 12 to 15 paintings a year and continued to do so.

How long have you been coming up to Woodstock? Does the local landscape affect your work?

Since 1987. When we lived in Willow, I was surrounded by ponds and pine trees and it was dark. My work was very affected by the landscape. That’s when I did huge narrative paintings, in the 1990s. Seven years ago we moved to a house with spectacular mountain views, and I’m not making ponds and pine trees any more. I’m not looking at the view when I’m working, but I live with it all the time.

How did you connect with the Elena Zang Gallery?

Elena Zang: Mary Frank introduced us. She was our first artist, and I only showed Mary’s work for three years. One day Mary said, “You should get another artist. Joan Snyder lives just down the road.”

Elena, how did you select the pieces in the show?

I wanted to have different media, so I chose a mixture of paintings, prints and the paper-pulp works, of which there are three. I love her monoprints and find her process so interesting.

The paper-pulp works have a totemic quality. The piece itself has a sculptural quality, and reminds me of painted hides from Native American cultures or some other type of so-called “primitive” handmade ritual object. How did you make them?

I do these at the Brodsky Center at Rutgers University, where there’s a paper-pulp expert named Anne McKeown. I give her my palette in advance, and she prepares vats of colored paper pulp. I wear boots and my hands are in big trays of water in which we have laid down the first layers of paper. After that, I take the wet paper pulp and lay it on layer after layer; some is liquefied and squirted from a bottle. Artists usually come and make paper out of the pulp and then work on that. Making paper-pulp paintings is unusual. Paper pulp has informed my work in so many ways.

You’ve been producing work for 50 years, and the well never runs dry. What accounts for your continual fount of fresh inspiration?

I don’t know. I feel the best when I’m in my studio. I love being there, and when I’m not in there, I’m more erratic and anxious. I don’t have a clue where this stuff comes from.


“Joan Snyder: Works Large and Small,” on view until October 5, Elena Zang Gallery, 3671 Route 212, (Shady) Woodstock, (845) 679-5432;

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