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Old school
Joan Snyder takes painting to the max
BY GREG COOK
"Joan Snyder: Two Rivers"
NIELSEN GALLERY | 179 NEWBURY ST, BOSTON | THROUGH DECEMBER 3

"JOAN SNYDER: A PAINTING SURVEY, 1969–2005"
DANFORTH MUSEUM OF ART | 123 UNION AVE, FRAMINGHAM, MASSACHUSETTS | THROUGH February 5


The star of Joan Snyder’s show at the Nielsen Gallery on Boston's Newbury Street is a recent painting called Pond. Describing this image of a tiny round body of water decked with lily pads makes it sound like an aerial view of the woody landscape around the artist’s summer home in Woodstock, New York, but the visceral delight of the work is in how it conjures a place by an alchemy of materials: syrupy drips and dabs of paint; the muddy ring of the pond edge concocted from dirt and herbs and papier-mâché; the mysterious dark translucent water (an acrylic varnish?); the felty softness of the cloth-and-paper lily pads; actual wet autumn leaves; patches where the raw linen stands bare. This is glorious old-school painterly painting, the sort that gets you all choked up and giddy.

And there’s plenty to see with Synder’s show of recent work at the Nielsen Gallery through December 3 and a 30-painting retrospective at the Danforth Museum in Framingham, Massachusetts that was organized by director Katherine French and is up through February 5. (The Danforth show premiered at the Jewish Museum in New York in August.) The 65-year-old Snyder, one of the founding mothers of modern feminist art along with the likes of Elizabeth Murray, Judy Chicago, and Miriam Schapiro, first won attention with paintings like 1969’s Lines and Strokes. Here she distilled her earlier landscape paintings by dividing up her raw canvas with penciled horizontal lines and then filling them with loose bands of autumn red, orange, and brown, like lovely outtakes from a Rothko. Snyder is one of the poor souls who came of age at the height of Minimalism and was forever scarred by it. Minimalist art draws its power from paring down, from purity and monkish asceticism, but for many artists it was hobbling. You see Snyder finding herself within minimalist confines via short staccato strokes and drips arrayed against lines and grids in her "stroke" paintings. And you see her struggling to break free, too.

The pressing question among women artists just then was whether there was a female æsthetic distinct from men’s. "I was one of those who was out to prove that there was, that our work comes out of our lives, and that women’s experiences are somehow different from men’s experiences, so our work is going to be different," Snyder remembers in the catalogue of her work that coincides with the Danforth show. Soon her compositions grew wilder and chock full of material: paint, velvet, silk, plants, plastic grapes, and elements that are stitched or stuffed. The results of her "maximalist" approach are often striking and seductive, but just as regularly she’s produced works of unabashed ugliness — check out 1973’s Flesh/Art. Like her maximalism, this awfulness is a badge of rebellious experimentation — she’s no longer going to follow the (male) rules, and you needn’t either.

"It was women artists who pumped the blood back into the art world in the ’70s and ’80s," Snyder’s Danforth essay continues. "At the height of the Pop and Minimal movements, we were making other art — art that was personal, autobiographical, expressionistic, narrative, and political." Her paintings are a barometer of her moods: about her marriage to the photographer Larry Fink in 1969; leaving Manhattan for the country; a miscarriage; the birth of her daughter Molly in 1979; her divorce; her affair with her psychiatrist; moving back to Manhattan, then Long Island; months bedridden by Lyme Disease; moving to Brooklyn in 1989 to be with her new partner, the judge Maggie Cammer.

Snyder’s paintings became diaristic in the mid 1970s, when she started jotting her thoughts onto her canvases. In 1983’s Apple Tree Mass, next to a schematic tree she scribbled her fears about the break-up of her marriage and the safety of children and listed what she loved about and lost from the Pennsylvania farm she shared with her ex. It also became shamanistic, exorcising demons and healing hurts. A decade ago, a friend who performed acupuncture in the front of the building where she had her studio gave her some Chinese medicinals. She embedded them in her art. "At first I was making healing paintings for two or three years for people that were sick," she said in a talk sponsored by the Danforth at the Framingham Civic League a couple of Sundays back, "and then I started just using them because they’re so incredible."

By the mid 1980s, Snyder was aching to get out of New York City again, so she moved with Molly to a house on Long Island. The surrounding fields inspired a new body of work in which her old strokes resurfaced as muddy furrows sprouting beans and pumpkins. Beanfield with Music, a 6x12 panorama from 1984, is built of wide green and black strokes dashing left to right across the orange canvas. "When I painted the fields, I really felt as if I were in a field," she says in the Danforth catalogue. "It’s a very physical thing. I’m planting my canvas and arranging the rows and colors."

As this painting’s title suggests, Snyder listens to music for inspiration: jazz for spontaneity and contrast; Mozart, Handel, Bach, Beethoven, and Bartók for symphonic complexity, for conflict and resolution. With 1988 came didactic complaints about women and children wounded in Afghanistan, Nazi death camps, Palestine. Dark awkward paintings mourn friends lost to AIDS in the early ’90s. The howling and haunted apple tree motifs of the 1980s, symbolic of her divorce, gave way in the early ’90s to melancholy and elegiac cherry trees and sunflowers that represented her parents’ deaths. (She saw a cherry tree once while driving to visit her dying father in a nursing home.)

Bits of Monet, Rothko, De Kooning, Rauschenberg, Twombly, and Kiefer echo in her work. Her sunflowers and blooming countrysides recall Vincent van Gogh; their paintings are similarly electrified by emotionally charged color and rugged individual brushstrokes laid one by one by one. The grids, for her, refer to the structure of marriage. The drips are sometimes tears. She says Two Rivers (2005), at the Nielsen Gallery, channeled Iraq’s Tigris and Euphrates without her realizing it. "I think on some level I am very hooked into a collective unconscious when I am painting, and this really proved it to me."

Snyder’s styles in this decade continue to mix annoying awkwardness and unusual beauty. Her imagery — hearts, flowers, nests — and its prettiness strike a proud girly femininity. Perpetuo (2004) is a bunch of lilac and orange blossoms, or maybe breasts. The centers are built up of a shiny red and cream paint, like hard candy, that drips down the linen. Actual seeds and buds cup the bottom of the bunch. It is gluttonously gorgeous.


Issue Date: November 25 - December 1, 2005
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