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'Rivulets of Feeling'

April 27, 2006 By:
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Of those painters who came of (artistic) age at the tail end of Abstract Expressionism, who partook of its painterly elements for a time, then moved on to forge their own styles, Joan Snyder is one of the most dynamic and challenging. She appeared on the art scene in the 1970s with her beautiful and mysterious "stroke" paintings, which she characterized as letting the viewer look "at paint and painting from a different angle" - an angle that "speaks of human needs."

Hayden Herrera, the art historian and critic, who is perhaps best known as the biographer of Frida Kahlo, says of these paintings in Joan Snyder, an exquisite monograph published by Abrams and linked to a Jewish Museum show on the artist, that the brush strokes in these paintings "seem to sink into the canvas."

"This gives them a resonance that recalls [Mark] Rothko's stacked rectangles of pure color. Her technique was to lay down a base consisting of brush strokes made with both acrylic paint and acrylic medium. Once the strokes made with acrylic medium (which was sometimes transparent) dried, Snyder would either spraypaint them to give them a kind of aura or paint over them with colored pigment, either acrylic or oil. Her method was highly physical. She was painting paint the way a house painter paints a house.

"She also allowed her strokes to drip: drips became rivulets of feeling. Each stroke is a thing in itself. Each sings a different note. They do not join together to form a single chord, and no one stroke dominates. Each part of the canvas is as important as any other. Snyder avoids synthesis and insists on multiplicity. The strokes may stand for feelings, sensations or sounds. Paint moving across the canvas embodies the passage of time and suggests a story line. In Lines and Strokes each reddish stroke can also be thought of as a stretched-out membrane or maybe even a wound. Indeed, Snyder identifies canvas and pigment so closely with her own skin that the viewer can almost feel the touch of her brush. This kinesthetic empathy is an essential part of Snyder's female sensibility."

For many artists, this creative breakthrough might have constituted the discovery of their lifetime, and become the epitome of their style. Then they would wring changes on it and probe it for the rest of their careers. Not so Snyder. The stroke paintings are modulated and moving works, but she did not rest there.

Within the stroke technique, the artist found enormous room and unending creativity. Look at works like Summer Painting and Desmoiselles, and you see how far she could take the style. It could be representative of inner states, could embody landscapes and could comment on modern art as well. If you look closely, Desmoiselles might remind you of a famous Picasso.

Right beside a perfunctory sketch for the latter painting, Snyder wrote this to herself in her notebook: "I want my new pictures to have a different rhythm than the others - less staccato - not working themselves out by dissipating down. I want them to run horizontally from one side to the other with a more even flow but then end up more complex because the color running over and under it would probably be different and make the picture complex … ."

After the comparative minimalism of the stroke paintings, Snyder's work broke out in all directions, bursting with vivid colors and patches of text and contrasting blocks of design, as in works like The Storm and Vanishing Theatre/The Cut. The lives and thoughts of women are often the subjects of her text blocks, which is the case in the latter painting.

The first panel of the three in Vanishing Theatre/The Cut contains a list of what Snyder thought "the female sensibility meant." Included were things like "pockets, layers, seeds, landscape space, human space, marks and strokes." Also included are "feelings, ideas, material, names of colors, political ideas, personal ideas, ideas about making art."

As Herrera points out, there was often a rage behind the words Snyder used, "an explicit feminist complaint" against male dominance in the art world. "In the future," writes Herrera, "Snyder would use more and more writing in her paintings. The writing is graffitilike, rough and raw. She resorts to writing, she says, when she has something to say that cannot be said in pictorial terms."

In this all-inclusive study of the painter, Herrera keeps track of all the permutations throughout Snyder's career to date - artistic, personal, sexual, political - and the reproductions of the paintings are stunningly vivid, verifying and extending her ideas at every turn.

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