Tag Archives: drawing

Fascism Fear Meter: November 17, 2016


I find each day my fascism fear meter rises as the day goes by.

Here a notebook sketch done yesterday just to move my hand, as, in the late afternoon, the fear meter was high. The text is:

November 17 2016
in the ’80s I wore Timberland (work) boots as my winter boots. I used to think about what I would need to survive life in a concentration camp and how these were sturdy until I read Primo Levi & realized they would be stolen if I slept.


Quick Responses, then and now

Hello again. A Year of Positive Thinking continues but the facts of everyday life are such that it has been impossible to find time to see much art or sit down for a day to address for this site any issues of concern to me. That is a condition of everyday life which I suspect is shared by many in one way or another. But here are a couple of image/text pieces, one from 1994, the other a drawing done this week after the most recent school massacre and the public reactions to it on the part of some politicians.

Hyperallergic included the following text and image in its Sunday October 4 Required Reading section . They picked it up from a October 3 post of this statement and image on Facebook:

With regards to there being bad boy, bad-ass women artists, I created this image in 1994 for How many ‘bad’ feminists does it take to change a lightbulb? a publication by Laura Cottingham (the back of the magazine has text in a small triangle: “It’s not funny”). I continue to be interested in the category of excellent women.


Then yesterday, struggling with the first cold of the season, directly caused by my work schedule’s interaction with the Achilles heel of my immune system (evidently I can’t get up early two days in a row much less also tromp around the city in a freezing cold rain storm without getting sick), I nevertheless had to do some drawings to express my rage at Jeb Bush’s response to the most recent mass shooting–“stuff happens.” Indeed his family has inflicted a lot of …”stuff”… on this country and the world.

I started with this sketch, held down for the picture with my middle finger for emphasis:


But it wasn’t quite “stuffy” enough if you know what I mean.

Luckily I have a “stuff” colored sketchbook I got in Berlin last spring:


I loved the response of a friend to this second notebook drawing: “like you pulled it out of your guts – told a friend it looks like the walking dead jeb vomited up his own shit for the world to see.”

That’s about right, but did the world see it?


Interiority and reversibility

A few works on paper that I did in the 1970s are going to be shown for the first time in Four Figures, a group exhibition curated by artist Tom Knechtel at Marc Selwyn Fine Art in Beverly Hills, California, opening  Saturday July 12 through August 23.

These are part of a body of work from the mid-1970s in which the overall subject was interior language, or, coming from a more political, feminist approach, the idea that women are filled with language, rather than being empty vessels whose exterior nubile beauty as a commodity to be traded among men is the principal focus of their value in most societies.

I wanted to approach representation of women, and specifically self-representation as living inside a female body, with a mind, no longer from the point of view of figuration, whether realist or surrealist, which had been my first approach to representing myself as an agent in the world, much as a number of women artists associated with the Surrealist movement had done–I was already on that path even before I first saw works by Florine Stettheimer, Lenore Fini, Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo, and Dorothea Tanning, having found cultural permission for narrative and representation in the works of  male Surrealist artists such as Max Ernst and René Magritte as well as from early Italian Renaissance and Flemish painting, Rajput painting, and Japanese emaki–but, now, from the point of view of an interiority of thought, with the image of language as the sign for thought.


There were five groups of work done between 1976 and 1978: the first were a  group of unfolded or folded fan shapes covered with handwriting, followed by a touchstone, foundational work for me, Book of Pages in 1976, followed by a group of masks many of which kept the idea of the book so that the mask has several layers, as did a series of Dress Book pieces, and finally the Dream series, in which the image was the text of a dream handwritten in black ink, with my interpretation and associations in sepia ink. While the shapes changed accordingly, the “image” on the surfaces was my handwriting recording dreams or diaristic personal writing and in some cases directly addressing a specific person, a much bemused male muse. Some works also incorporated diagrammatic drawings. All works were made from hand-made Japanese rice papers, some diaphanously delicate and made translucent with Japan Gold Size medium which also fixed the dry pigment I used for color used as matter rather than illusion, some other paper richly fibrous and sturdy.

All the works were two-sided: each component or piece of paper was worked from both sides so that the “front” was created by material applied to the “back” in order to create the effects that underlay the writing in the “front” but in the process the brute instrumentality of the work on the “back” often ended up trumping the more intentionally produced “front,” bolder and more abstract. Because the paper was often translucent, text could be doubly difficult to decipher: my handwriting was inherently difficult to read, and  some of the text that was foregrounded was backwards, with the legible face permanently inaccessible to the viewer.

Since many of these works continued to work with the format of a book of pages that could be turned, these works were also layered dimensionally, you could turn the pages of the woman, her dress, or her face (where you might also try to lift a veil) and try to “read” the woman, but I came to writing as image at the moment when I saw that my handwriting had achieved an abstract beauty that was unrelated to easy legibility. Even the Dream pieces, one of which is in the Four Figures exhibition, though flat, were not only reversible, but sometimes contained a shape sandwiched within layers of paper so that what you thought might  be revealed if you turned the piece over never actually surfaced.



These works were difficult to categorize: though I thought of myself as a painter, as I had earlier when working with gouache on paper, in defiance of the rules left over from Greenbergian formalism in the New York School that made oil or acrylic on canvas the probative medium, these were not paintings. But though they were objects they were neither conventional sculptures, nor could they be folded into any type of avant-garde sculpture focused on the readymade. The use of ink on paper made them drawings, but aside from the occasional diagrammatic sketch, writing escaped back into the category of actually being writing, not drawing. Because the writing was personal, the private made public yet retaining its illegibility, and because the image was my handwriting as opposed to printed text as many conceptual artists used at the time and rather than being writing that was meta-generic, in the manner of Hanne Darboven‘s (or Cy Twombly’s) scrawls, and because they did not turn their back on visual pleasure, they were not dematerializations according to the interpretation of that term as codified at the time. They were materializations of thought.


They were things, intensely personal things, that for the fullest understanding and apprehension, had to be experienced not just optically from a respectable spectatorial distance but viewed/experienced by an individual, pages turned, a veil lifted, a work turned over in your hand, with perhaps a grain of pigment or even a trace of the aroma of the medium remaining with you as material traces.

Thus, though they were things, and even quite precious ones, rare and fragile, they were the opposite of art commodities. They were and are still best experienced by hand but practically for their protection they require special handling and framing, thus are hard to exhibit to the fullest extent of their meaning (in Four Figures for clarity of presentation and their protection a number of works from this period are assembled together under Plexiglas and thus only one view of each work is available, other solutions include two-sided frames or the treatment accorded rare manuscripts, in a vitrine, open to a selected page, occasionally turned).

Because of their basis in feminist desire for alternate representations of the experience of being a woman, because of their focus on language as subject and image, because of their interest in scale through accretions of modules (in this case pages), because of their seriality (though this was narrative rather than in relation to mechanical reproduction), and because of their thingness yet impracticality, making them both experiential and notional, they have always seemed to me like archetypal 1970’s art, feminist and otherwise.



*Works reproduced include a view of Book of Pages, 1976; and from the exhibition Four Figures, three views of Mask Book: Floor Plan, September 2, 1977, ink, dry pigment, Japan Gold Size medium on rice paper, front with page closed, page open, and a view of the back, which will not be visible in the exhibition; and Dreams, February 25-26, 1978, ink, dry pigment, Japan Gold Size on rice paper, c. 18″x29,” image of the side that will not be visible in the installation in the exhibition.


Craft and Process: Jasper Johns / Regrets

I am interested in the capacity of material experimentation and serial practices to bring an artist to the expression of, the performance of, the actualization of content the artist had intended or desired but might not have arrived at if trust had not been put into process and materiality at some point or another. Such practices at times may seem to be unrelated to language-based theoretical structures, in particular if they involve manual processes and techniques although I am careful here to say “process” rather than “studio practice” because the latter might summon up traditional media and object-based art that in some quarters can be easily dismissed as irrelevant to contemporary issues, whereas material or methodological experimentation and serial practices can take place in any medium, including video, film, and photobased work, as well as in writing and conceptual art.

Because of my interest in process in the broader sense and because of my love of the expressive material qualities of traditional media such as ink, paper, pencil, oil, gouache, linen, wood, wax, stone, lead, copper, bronze, and more, I wanted to see Jasper Johns: Regrets, currently at MoMA even though I had a feeling I might be disappointed, despite my admiration for Johns’ earlier work and for the rigorous and rigorously private studio practice that he maintains at what is considered an advanced age for an artist, 83. Daily studio practice and engagement with craft by older artists was, literally, my matrix, and it’s my hope for my own future.

The work exhibited in Jasper Johns: Regrets  is exemplary of work process in which an image is repeated and reworked using a range of techniques and materials. Johns has applied his own, oft-quoted prescription for the empty studio and the blank piece of paper or canvas, “Take an object/Do something to it/ Do something else to it/ [Repeat]” from 1964, to the crumpled, torn print of a photograph of a young Lucian Freud, commissioned by Francis Bacon for his own work process on a portrait of Freud. In the past year Johns has produced an impressive and instructive series of drawings and prints and two paintings on canvas that use this photograph as the initiatory form.

A slight pause to observe the awe-inspiring, nearly absurd monumentality of what it means that an artist can call MoMA and say something to the effect of, “I have some new work in the studio and I want to show it–at MoMA–now,” and they make it so. I had to research whether Johns even has gallery representation in New York; he does (Matthew Marks) but the call to MoMA denotes an artist who is hors combat, beyond value, who has droit de seigneur, and justly so, and it suggests an almost quaint familial intimacy with roots in another time with the institution MoMA.

The drawings are mostly small and they take place within the strict boundary of a smaller rectangular area set on a larger piece of paper, effectively setting each drawing into an optical frame, and giving each drawing a formal quality that goes somewhat against the grain of the theme of material and subjective experimentation: Johns never draws outside the lines and there are no accidental smudges or other stereotypical indications of “work” in progress or changes of mind within an individual, except for notes to himself at the bottom of some works, in a careful, small capital letters only print in pencil: “GOYA? BATS? DREAMS?” There is a quality of carefulness and diligence in each work, with each drawing fulfilling a specific set of material specifications and formal analysis of the image. Each is a finished work, enclosed, specific, and private.

The drawings are done with pencil, acrylic, and water-color, in some cases with a Seurat-like dissolution of the figure created by the pebbly effect of rubbing a pencil over a pebbly-surfaced watercolor paper, in other cases a watery smooth print like effect is achieved through ink on a smooth and water repellent vellum like surface.

In most of the works, the pathos embodied in the photograph of Freud–a young man, his face obscured by his hand and by falling strands of hair, seated on a bed–is transferred emotively to the shape of the negative space created by the torn off bottom left hand corner of the print.  In the many iterations of the image in which Johns has doubled the picture in a mirror or Rorschach-test format, the human figure is a recessive, barely legible form while the negative shape becomes an important sculptural shape, like a mesa or a tombstone.

The two paintings in the exhibition have a sober, reflective quality with the monumental tombstone form of the negative space in the center framed by intimations of the recalcitrant figure. The group of work as a whole, the whole gift of a limited invitation into his studio functions as a counter-movement to mortality and knowing the age of the artist it is easy to read into the work a reflection on mortality, which is his subject I think.

Yet the work also has a funereally static quality of which the worst effect is a kind of conservatism instead of the sublime monumentality or contingent fragility that one imagines it will contain.

The problem is twofold: it is fascinating to see how the artist has taken an unprepossessing photographic scrap and rung so many changes on it yet the image upon which this edifice of studio practice is based is perhaps not all that resonant, either absolutely, or in the way he has chosen to interpret it by enhancing abstraction and deflecting figuration. Or his pressing of the appropriated image through layers of visual analysis does not actually push experimentation with materials far enough in order to get at the core of the content by his deconstruction of the given picture.

Photograph of Lucian Freud by John Deakin ©Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane/The Estate of Francis Bacon

But, now I think, perhaps I am wrong. As I write, in my mind the work becomes more interesting, the fact that the figure is so obscured and the very disciplined and precise thoroughness of the visual analysis of the appropriated image is fascinating in its rigor and in the emotional reticence. Maybe. And yet…

The most important moment for me was while standing to the left of the larger painting, Regrets, trying to get as close as I could to the painting surface, in the area where the seated figure is both represented and camouflaged through a web of paint marks which are neither minimal nor especially sensual: the paint quality is curiously dry with unexpected but frustrating flicks of a more sensual or at least thicker slightly less dry paint. I wish I could photograph that moment of vision, being as close to the painting as one is allowed, looking at it from one side, my vision raking it from a sharp angle to the picture plane, trying to decipher the figure, trying decode the various types of paint strokes and degrees of lubricity or aridity of the paint. It is the crux of the experience of this painting and this series of works, that the most interesting thing, the most complex, is also the least visible and, for some viewers, the most disappointing. If one thinks of this painting in relation to the characteristics of the “old age style” first perceived in late works by artists such as Michelangelo, Titian, Rembrandt, as well in late Cézanne, where the high finish of youth yields to a rougher, often more “unfinished” and therefore more modern to our eyes loose, direct, unvarnished representation, this painting both adheres to some of the characteristics of of that stylistic determination and yet goes against its grain: it is sometimes loose, but also tight, obscure, and recalcitrant. Instead it is in earlier work that one finds the characteristics of what had once been called the old age style, where the artist has no time for the niceties and goes for the gut, as in Painting Bitten by a Man, 1961, from the collection of MoMA, which was in a small but resonant two-person exhibition at Craig F. Starr Gallery last spring,Body Double: Jasper Johns/Bruce Nauman. Here is rich surface, base materialism, a mark that goes beyond indexicality to something like both cannibalism and lovemaking with the matter of paint itself.

Jasper Johns, Painting Bitten by a Man, 1961. Encaustic on canvas mounted on type plate, 9 1/2 x 6 7/8″ (24.1 x 17.5 cm),Gift of Jasper Johns in memory of Kirk Varnedoe, Chief Curator of the Department of Painting and Sculpture, 1989-2001 Copyright:© 2014 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York

Compared to Painting Bitten by a Man, the paintings in Regrets yield their meaning parsimoniously. I know that to compare these new works by Johns to his remarkable earlier work is to commit the unpardonable of holding a great artist to the standard of his greatest works, which came in his youth, all the more so because I respect all the work intensely, I mean not just the great early works, but the way he continues to work and to be in the world, the discipline of work no matter what stage of life’s work he is in. But I have a feeling I’m not the only person who is painting late Johns paintings in my head that are different than the ones he is actually painting.

A hint of what those might be is contained in 0-9, , one other series of works on paper in the MoMA exhibition, also done in 2013 but unrelated to the Regrets series. Nine monoprints on small pieces of rice paper represent the numbers 0 through 9, in the stencil style Johns has used many times addressing this subject. The work is done through a complex process, according to the wall text: “using stencils, rubber stamps, and textured materials–including mesh screens, rags, strings, and coins…Johns assembled each composition on an aluminum plate. He then covered these assemblages in white ink and printed them on sheets of paper. Finally he immersed the prints in a bath of black india ink, which dyed the paper but not the oil based white ink.” If one of the features of work that I love is that I want to turn on my heel and go back to my studio and work, in terms of the inspiration provided by process, he had me at “a bath of black india ink, which dyed the paper but not the oil based white ink.” By that I mean, just reading those words–“bath of black india ink”–made my pupils dilate and set my pulse racing slightly, separate even from the work achieved through that technique. But on top of that, these works themselves are delicate, simple, and there is a resonance between the method and the subject: the numbers 0 to 9 are images and concepts we recognize immediately, we know deeply, a subject that combines familiarity and neutrality so that, like the target or the flag, we can appreciate what it is that Johns is doing to them with his craft, when he takes an object, does something to it, and then does something else to it, and repeats, whereas the wrecked photo of Lucien Freud is foreign to us. Thus, although it is a resonant and mysterious image, it is also an arcane, individual, and private one, so that there is perhaps too great a conceptual and cognitive distance between the appropriated image and the material explorations of the series. I admire the work, the artifice, and even the recalcitrance of the works in Regrets, but, although I really want to, I don’t love them, I regret to say. But I will go back and stick my nose as close to the big canvas as I can and think about it some more.



Day by Day in the Studio 14: August 24

August 24, 1976

Mira Schor, Persephone, August 24, 1976. Ink and mixed media on rice paper, two sides, c. 12 x 9 in.

This week I have fallen in love with a word, the word Chthonic. I have often seen it and knew its basic meaning as denoting the underworld, but looking it up again in relation to a work I did on August 24, 1976, Persephone, I found it exactly described the psychic, creative, and also the economic spaces my paintings have sought to delineate in the past year. Chthonic. How do we fall in love with words these days? I clicked on the link in the Wikipedia entry for Persephone, and , at 2AM, having finally torn myself away from gazing at the definition on the screen, I jumped out of bed to go and gaze at the Wikipedia page some more…Chthonic, “it typically refers to the interior of the soil, rather than the living surface of the land.”

This work from 1976, Persephone  indicates that in those early years of my life as an artist, I already was concerned about the patterns of my productivity in the studio, the summer/winter division in my studio practice, and most particularly the desire and the fear of lying fallow.

Mira Schor, page from exhibition catalogue, “Mira Schor: Paintings,” Dalhousie Art Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1975.

Other resemblances to the mythological character were that I lived in the summer with my mother, in the role of the Demeter of myth, who made art downstairs while I worked upstairs, and under her protection I could immerse myself in my work and in the earth and the sea, and in the winter I lived in the city, the academy, the art world, as good a stand in for Hades as any as we use that name to denote the underworld. I need both, neither one nor the other alone would suffice. I get strength from solitude, from the rhythms of the tides and the simple pleasures of my small back yard and one large English oak tree, but I stride out into the crowded streets of New York City with a passion for the cultural richness and pride in the competitive forces packed into such a compact space, my place of birth and my home.

The duality is cast also as that of dream and wakefulness. The summer work in the chthonic space is the dream, the winter existence is one of wakefulness, of “reality.” But as the first line of the Japanese Noh play Atsumori suggests,

I recopied this line by hand in an annual diary every year for over thirty years until the world pulled away that kind of time

The duality extends to what I want my paintings to contain and express. I would not give up visual pleasure for theory, even this summer when, through this retrospective process of considering works made on specific summer days over decades, I have begun to think of the period during which “theory” most influenced me, from the early 1980s until the turn of this decade, as a period of the sacrifice of one part of my character as an artist, a period that perhaps is over although there is still a professional imperative to “keep up” with wherever the academy wants to apply its methods, language, doxa, and rewards to. But I also know that is ridiculous to claim this was a sacrifice since it was also my character and my desire that drove me. Even in the period I think of now as the dream period, I was involved with a feminist critique of power and the politics of challenging the canon of American modern art. There was never a moment that was not text- and history- based and politically engaged. I have always sought out the artwork and the theory that was seemingly most antithetical to my own practice, because it seemed necessary to keep the work from lapsing into sollipsism and sentimentality. I will not give up the critical and intellectual or the visual and intuitive, so I see that the task ahead is to continue to insist that both ways of being as an artist can and even must exist in the same works and in the same practice. So, like Persephone, I do live in two worlds. Often, as in the 1976 drawing, the duality is born out in the two-sidedness of the drawing, and this summer I have found myself making paintings that are reversible: the space is divided by a horizontal median line where the Chthonic meets the surface of the earth and the air above, but the painting can be viewed with the Chthonic below or above, because, thinking of the opening line of Atsumori, which is the dream world? The country, the ground, the summer? Or the city and winter?

In this case, time is reversible:

And even a painting whose title is Underground Garden, representing the fertility of the chthonic ground,

can also be viewed “upside down” so that the figure falling into the earth can also appear to rise up into it,

This summer my work has followed the line of the earth as a demarcation between sky and ground, austerity and fertility, public and private. I have focused on reversals and reversibility, where ground, and by that I mean underground, the matter of earth itself, the Chthonic, not the line of demarcation upon which we stand, can also be sky and the sky above can become the ground below.

I had started the summer wanting to address in my work the terms of contemporary economic existence I had sketched in a drawing earlier in the year, as the illustrated version of a short text I wrote for the Brooklyn Rail:

Mira Schor, Austerity Utopia, 2013. Sketchbook scan, c. 12 x 17 in.

While keeping the visual premise of maintaining that line of demarcation between earth and air as the common ground linking painting to painting by that line rather than by any standard installation height, I found myself unexpectedly shifting to what seemed to me a more radiant engagement with nature than I had intended when the central theme would be the difficulty of thriving in a time of radical inequality and austerity, again blurring the distinctions between the dream and the real.

*This is most likely the last of my Day by Day in the Studio posts although, for once in a blue moon, I get to spend a few weeks more in the dream of the summer studio. I thank my subscribers and readers for their patience and I look forward to plunging A Year of Positive Thinking back into the world later this fall.