Joan Snyder’s canvases—alternately gentle and tragic, pastoral and grimy—elicit thoughts of Susan Sontag’s half-century-old call for an “erotics of art.” The works’ emotional openness compels us to experience them directly through our feelings, rather than intellectually through abstract ideas. Snyder’s exuberant use of materials also points to another meaning of the word “feeling”—an act of touching something with one’s hand.
Snyder’s exhibition at Franklin Parrasch consisted of eight recent paintings. In Requiem Redux (2014), materials including papier-mâché, patterned fabrics, mud, straw and glitter share the canvas with oil and acrylic. The sense of touch—of materials handled—is intertwined with an expression of grief, communicated as much by the word “Requiem,” whose letters are scrawled here and there in the piece, as by the light-absorbing square of black velvet positioned in the upper-right corner. The figure of a rose appears three times on the left side of the painting, in chunky white, muted pink and washed-out earthy brown. Each inspection of the work seems to reveal an additional layer, such as the bright strokes of quinacridone red and cobalt violet smothered under smears of pink and yellow.
The rose appeared throughout the works on view. The exhibition title, “Sub Rosa,” alluded both to this age-old symbol of passion and mortality and to the complex layering evident in all the paintings. In Winter Rose (2013), black-red roses with the suppurating texture of scabs dominate the upper and lower registers of the composition. At the center of the canvas are thick smears of pale green and lavender overpainted with pale yellow. Such cool tones evoke the cold skin of a cadaver.
It takes guts to find new life in a symbol as sentimental and overused as the rose, but Snyder’s formidable power as an artist has always been in her ability to present familiar things (words, simple landscapes, brushstrokes themselves) with a roar of emotional intensity, channeled through her visceral grappling with materials. Looking at her work, one can feel the physical glee of making it: the extension of wrist, shoulder and elbow in the act of brushing, gluing and glittering. In Symphony VII (2014), faint lines in red, pink and black grid out a loose set of eight squares, two high and four across. A thickly crusted rose sits on each of the squares of the top row: a whitish rose on a pink square, a red rose on a red square, a purple one on purple, and a yellow one on raw linen. The bottom row is filled with long streaks of thick white paint as well as silk strips, berries, twigs and sunflowers encased in a syrupy dark-orange gel.
In interviews, Snyder has related the loose grids that structure her paintings not to 1960s Minimalism but to the lined yellow paper that children often use for drawing and to the tongue-and-groove wainscoting that an old studio of hers had. Her emphasis on finding inspiration in seemingly mundane items echoes the way her paintings harbor an emotional immediacy that reveals itself directly to the viewer.
What if you weren’t aware of Joan Snyder’s history as a feminist artist, going back to the early 1970s? As you stepped through the doors of Betty Cuningham Gallery this fall, the first thing you might have thought was “Monet.” Snyder’s Oh April (2010), at 17 feet long the largest work in the exhibition and immediately visible at the back of the gallery, is a flower- and rain-filled triptych that offers an immersive experience akin to that provided by Monet’s Water Lilies. A vibrant and incident-filled work in scarlet, hot yellow and pink-purple, with the titular phrase written on it in chartreuse, Oh April handily anchored a show of 12 amply sized pieces that represent “A Year in the Painting Life,” as the exhibition was titled.
Snyder’s surfaces run to extremes, from the viscous gobs of paint and encrusted plant matter that have become her signature materials to thinly dripped washes that stain her gray-brown linen grounds. Herbs, twigs, seeds, papier-mâché and dirt, clotted and congealed with the paint, give the works a bodily, physical resonance, and set up a tension between nature and culture. Like Anselm Kiefer, Snyder seems to bring the mown and harvested field to the canvas. Snyder’s earlier motifs return, such as the pond, an enclosed ovoid that can be interpreted as a self-reflective pool of paint or as the world navel. Strings of berries (sometimes glass beads) cradled in paint-covered fabric generate forms that are ambiguously but deliberately vulval.
Several works in the show—Oh April, Summer Fugue (2010) and The Fall With Other Things in Mind (2009), a virtuosic accumulation of matter in autumnal oranges and ochers—could be candidates for inclusion in a four-seasons cycle. And this is not the only affinity Snyder’s work shares with Cy Twombly’s. Her thick horizontal strokes with their torrents of drips remind one of Twombly’s boats—and, indeed, specifically boatlike forms in collaged fabric appear in Ode To B (2009). Like Twombly, Snyder strews her paintings with flowers, scrawls them with words, and favors the emotional, the handmade and the immediate.
When I visited, a tour guide leading a large group was suggesting that women viewers might respond to Snyder’s works more than men. While women’s specific experiences may never be far from Snyder’s mind (one title, WOL, stands for Women of Liberia), the paintings remain strong abstract statements, rooted in the intensely personal but open to appreciation by all. Snyder makes extensive use of secondary colors, as did Joan Mitchell, but she also subverts primaries toward jewel tones, like Twombly. These are not exclusively women’s colors or women’s pictures. Like her exact contemporary Mary Heilmann, Snyder is willing to push the limits of modernist reserve and good taste. Her paintings’ lack of self-restraint may make a viewer uncomfortable, as she challenges him to follow her example and wear his heart on his sleeve.
Photo: Joan Snyder: Oh April, 2010, oil, acrylic, burlap, dirt and mixed mediums on linen, 54 by 210 inches; at Betty Cuningham.
In her third show at Betty Cunningham gallery, Joan Snyder, painter of anxiety and disquiet, presents a mellower side. “A Year in the Painting Life,” the exhibition title, emphasizes autobiographical threads in her work. As a committed feminist Snyder was put off by the hard drinking, bad boy womanizing that defined Abstract Expressionist masculinity, in the 1950s. She sought instead to develop a feminine sensibility that she defined with layers, membranes, vaginas, holes, breasts, slits and moist, watery places.
The artist’s new assemblages including Brooklyn (2010) and The Fall with Other Things in Mind (2009) feature found objects; gritty soil, seeds, spent flowers, dried herbs, scattered leaves, stained burlap, and knotted fabric. Her previously rigorous grids have morphed into blurred color patches vertically shifting between rectangular bands, abandoning the structural formality of her former years in favor of a more atmospheric approach to the transient effects of light she experiences outside her studio in Woodstock, New York.
WOL (2010) stands for “Women of Liberia,” and was inspired by a recent documentary about a grassroots organization of Liberian women who courageously stopped the brutal civil war that had plagued the country. The bloody spaces between intervals of congealed white pigment and smeared black holes are suggestive of skulls. The thin, razor sharp brushstrokes are laid down on the surface in jagged lines that cut into the surface suggesting a series of scars. Big Blue Two (2010) is composed of lush passages of scarlet, burnt orange, foxy brown pigment supplemented by a scatter of objects found in nature—twigs, berries, and stems. This mosaic is peppered with enormous white blobs of paint that careen across the surface. In the foreground a vibrant band of deep lavender punctuated by scarlet and burnt umber decaying leaves floating on a stream. Her depiction seems to stand for the fertile ground of nature itself.
Snyder made Ode to B (2009) as homage to her friend Mary Hambleton, who died in 2009. Snyder’s painting with its rosey floating broken heart suggests a warmth and depth of feeling that is profoundly moving. The artist deliberately draws our attention to this burning organ that floats above the loosely connected shimmering waves below. The paint has the consistency of a vanilla milkshake and glistens. Choppy strokes of blue, ruby ripples and boat-like shapes are randomly scattered throughout an expanse of silvery sea. The emotional intensity of this painting conveys a sense of ardor and grief.