Tag Archives: Resia Schor

Day by Day in the Studio 10: August 3

August 3, 1976

Mira Schor, Postcard: From the Deep Pool of Dreams to Landlocked, August 3, 1976. Ink, dry pigment, medium on rice paper, c. 3 1/2 x 6 in.

Mira Schor, Two Postcards (side 1), August 3, 1976. Ink, collage, medium on rice paper, c. 4 x 6 in. each

Mira Schor, Two Postcards (side 2), August 3, 1976. Ink, collage, medium on rice paper, c. 4 x 6 in. each

Postcards/blog posts. You mail a postcard, although I did not mail the postcards I made as artworks in 1976-77. You “publish” a blog post and it goes out into the mysteriously infinite internet, including in my case to a number of subscribers who I believe get these posts as emails. The similarity is that they arrive unexpectedly. This series of posts, Day by Day in the Studio–short spontaneously written essays suggested by works done on particular days in the summer over a period of about 40 years, including only those that I have a specifically dated record of on the hard drive I am working on this summer–has received mixed response as best I can tell. I regularly get one or two unsubscribe notices after each post. This is plain rude and unnecessary behavior, people! I subscribe to many blogs and even old fashioned email posts and, top secret, I don’t read all of them every time, I often don’t have time, so I understand that no one else has any more time than I do, and I’m not necessarily interested in all of them, but I have never clicked “unsubscribe,” first, because it would hurt the person’s feelings and, by the way, it’s not anonymous, the unsubscribe notice includes the person’s email address which may contain their whole name or enough of it, and, second, because by scanning these blog posts in even the most cursory manner I do get a basic sense of what various people are thinking about and doing, and sometimes I find something I like or learn from so it is always informative on some level. On the other hand, I have been getting very supportive emails from other artists including from people I do not know in person, but through Facebook and my writing, which I am glad of because I do try to lace my personal reflections with comments of more general interest to other artists.

In one of these emails, William Conger, a Chicago-based painter, wrote asking

I’m very interested in notions of duality on literature and art. This seems to be a central theme in Terry Eagleton’s recent The Event of Literature. Would you care to say why you have frequently chosen to work on both sides of a translucent surface as if the image/content depends on their integrated presentation?

I was grateful to able to address what is an important aspect of how I have often structured works and I warned him I might use my response to him in a later post and indeed here is it.

I think that before any kind of analysis (in the psychoanalytic sense as well as any other) of why I work on both sides of the translucent paper, I owe that process to inheritance. Both my parents worked on both sides of every object they made, jewelry, Judaica, and sculpture, and my father painted on both sides of the pieces of cardboard he painted on–the image on the back was not translucent or functional as in my drawings, but in both cases there is always a sense of discovery and pleasure when you see the reverse side or the interior. In my mother’s work in particular, she recognized the visual power of the back of her works in silver, so that the functional, unintentional forms that helped created the “front” image was just as interesting though often with a darker feeling..if you look at my blog and search for the posts on both their work, Resia Schor and Ilya Schor, you will see examples of what I’m describing. I’m just finishing work on a catalogue for a show this summer here in Provincetown of their sculpture and that aspect of their work is featured in the catalogue.

I also find that as I began to work with rice paper and through experimentation began to work on both sides, then deliberately to work one side to create the other, that the “back” side often had a vigor that sprang from decision made purely instrumentally, thus without self-consciousness, and gradually the “back” became “the front” or no distinction could be made. Although oil painting doesn’t allow for that particular method of production of a surface, I try to remember the freshness that comes from unintentionally.

Here are examples of the back and front of works by my parents that will be exhibited in the exhibition Abstract Marriage: Sculpture by Ilya Schor and Resia Schor, opening August 16 at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.

Ilya Schor, Angel (back and front), c.1959-60. Brass with brass wire, 26 1/4 x 11 1/2 x 7 in. riveted to a wood base.

Resia Schor, Nike (front and back), 1981. Brass, Plexiglas, gouache on paper, 12 x 12 in.

And here are other examples of how they worked the back and the front of almost every work they made. In the case of my father, the back most often functions as a kind of unconscious of the work, a night for day, or simply provides a surplus of delight, visual pleasure where it would not ordinarily be seen, as in the front and back of a bracelet in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but rarely is it directly instrumental or indexical, unlike the back’s of my mother’s works, as in the pendant below, where the back leaves open to view how the work was made while creating an image as, if not more, interesting than the “front.” (I demonstrate the delightful complexities of my father’s bracelet in my 2003 video on my parents’ work, The Tale of the Goldsmith’s Floor, an illustrated video script appeared in differences in 2003).

Ilya Schor, Bracelet (front and back of a detail), 1958. Silver, gold, diamonds, approximately 6 x 1 1.5 in. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Resia Schor, Pendant. Silver and gold, approximately 4 x 2 1/2 in.

When I began to paint in oil in the early ’80s, the medium presented challenges, many of them of a nature familiar to anyone who has tried to master this medium–how to effectively be either loose or tight, and how to avoid mud, the most feared by-product of first attempts–and some that were particular to how I had previously arrived at an image. For years I worked both sides of rice paper so that several experiences of the creation of the image were visible at the same time in the final layer: dry pigment on the back of the paper pushed color and highlighting through the front without being present as a tactile element, while the dry pigment on the front as tangible as a sculptural element. In oil I had to figure out a way to make these complexities of layering happen as oil painting allows, where most of the layers are covered over and you cannot see through to the beginning of work and the back doesn’t penetrate the front except chemically and through refraction of light through layers of matter of which the viewer is not consciously aware: in oil painting, the under layers do affect the final surface in many ways causing conservatorial stability or havoc, but these layers are mostly hidden to the viewer and thus seem to operate as alchemy–leading to the fascination infrared imaging of paintings holds for us, as we discover what is going on in some of those unseen layers.

August 3, 2003

Mira Schor, Painting (yellow on blue), 2003. Oil on linen, 30 x 36 in.

It took a long time to adjust to the way in which the layering of an oil painting goes from a bottom layer (whose back is closed to us by sizing) to the visible final layer which is the painting image, here in a work that represents what it is and what I do, painting, or pain-t-ing as some might read it.

Meanwhile I continue to work on a type of paper which allows me to work front and back though because it is less resilient than rice paper, I mainly put white gesso on the back so that it gives an overall highlight to the work while also offering another, acrylic layer of matter to thicken and strengthen the work.

Mira Schor, Untitled, end July 2012. Ink on tracing paper with gesso on reverse side, c. 18 x 30 in.

While I continue to work both sides of paper, I also appreciate the blunt opacity of oil.

August 3, 2012

Mira Schor, The Bland Face of Expropriation (II), August 3, 2012. Oil on linen, 18 x 30 in.

Many recent paintings combine drawing and painting techniques and ethos such that I call them oil-assisted drawings: at best they keep intact the potential for spontaneous line that is more easily achieved in drawing while adding the color and materiality of oil paint, whether it be glaze or a beautiful opaque pigment used straight from the tube onto the canvas, in the case of this painting also finished August 3, 2012, a tube of Old Holland Cobalt Blue Turquoise that I had hanging around the studio since the ’90s. The painting presents two spaces–the garden in a summer’s night, and the classroom in winter, and it suggests a third, the space that is the ground of the whole painting, the flat gesso “wall” I create on linen, so that in the painting the figure in the dream of winter, dreams of an escape, which is back to the ground of painting.

Mira Schor, Fallow Field Series: Last Dream of Summer, August 3, 2012. Oil, ink on gesso on linen, 18 x 30 in.

The rapturous and desperate attempt to draw enough strength from the earth to deal with winter in the city trapped in rooms, recalled some important influences and this summer I became taken with the necessity to see and read something again that I had been introduced to at the very beginning of my becoming an artist, a beautiful catalogue on Rajput Painting from a show at Asia House in New York in 1960. The paintings reproduced in this catalogue–small works on paper, combining vivid color, rich narrative, radiant nature, and sometimes language–gave me support at a time when painting still generally had to be large, abstract, oil or acrylic on canvas, with no evident personal or narrative content to speak of. As important as the paintings reproduced in the catalogue were ancient Indian poems accompanying three or four particularly rapturous paintings. A few misremembered words of one of the poems has been like a refrain of a song in my mind this summer, “all rain and Vrindavana.” Googling Vrindavana did not make the remembered line make sense and I wanted to assure myself of my memory so much that I ordered a second copy for my studio here–a hardcover catalogue from 1961 turned out to be available and cheap online– and it arrived today, August 3, 2013.

This night of rain and rapture, all Vrindavana/ unmoored, adrift, lost in the solid dark of rain/ in torrents of sweet rain.

Wild lightning in the lap of the dark;/ Radha ever more richly plays,/ while sidelong in the slippery path a way is felt,/ vermilion, musk, and sandal-mark all turn to mud/ in torrents of sweet rain.

Narrotama, who cannot swim, drowns in the unhorizoned sea.

Narottama Das, 16th Century, trans.: Deben Bhattacharya

 

 

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I was born: Past, Present, and

I was born. Here is the bill:

I was born, in the first hour after midnight on a first of June, a long awaited second child, much beloved.

 

A child is among many things a step into the future. So, surely, my parents did not consciously say, on this baby we will place the burden of our remembrance, our memories, the meaning of our lives and our work.

But so it is.

As I first became an artist, I began to consider some of this burden of memory.

Mira Schor, Tombs, 1972, gouache on paper, 22×30 in.

 

Now I am used to it, that burden is my destiny.

Mira Schor, sketchbook, 2009.

I should say that what I call “the burden” is filled with what I consider treasures.

I open a drawer. What will I find in it today?

These slightly gloomy/elegiac thoughts, on my birthday, come from working in recent days to pull together material for the catalogue for the show I have curated, Abstract Marriage: Sculpture by Ilya Schor and Resia Schor.

Just in the past few weeks I have come upon and scanned many things I had not seen before, including this grant application, apparently never sent, I’m not sure why each page is different, or who typed this, because I don’t believe we owned a typewriter in those days, in 1955.

“I am a Jewish artist from Poland. I lost all my creations and tools while escaping in 1941 from the Nazi occupied part of France to Marseille and later on from there to the USA. I was twice arrested by the Nazis and taken to a concentration camp near Marseille. I was released when I received my American Visa.” (Ilya Schor, unsubmitted grant application to the Conference for Jewish Material Claims against Germany, 1955.) Note: My father was indeed picked up and interned during their wait for a Visa in Marseille, the whole thing shades of the movie Casablanca, down to a mother who looked a bit like Ingrid Bergman and the constant search for letters of transit, but he was to my knowledge picked up by Vichy forces, not by the Nazis directly. I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale if he had.

Hanging, a manual drill that my father had brought from Europe.

 

Ilya Schor, Torah Crown, believed destroyed in a synagogue fire in the 1950s

and so on and so on, (today’s post contains only material related to my father, Ilya, but there is much work by my mother, Resia, for another day).

This archival and artistic material–paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, letters, and books, and the lines of thought they suggest–forms the seeds of the book I want to write, that I have been working on all my life. It is a cultural autobiography, and it begins with them and then–though a recently published “as told to” autobiography by one of my contemporaries reminds me that I also want to write about the art world since I entered it, to recuperate closer histories constantly being unwritten by patriarchy. But plunging into the Schor material I’ve shown you bits of here today is to plunge into the powerful emotion of memory. Even working on the Tworkov material I sometimes felt overcome by the weight and emotions of the past. That I can withstand, it is fascinating. Part girl reporter, part historian, part archivist, part Sherlock Holmes,  I love archives, I love history. But at the moment I feel I have spent too much time in it and I am gladly about to go back to painting in the present.

Mira Schor, Spring Growth, 2012. Ink and oil on gesso on linen, 14 x 18 in.

So the mournful tone of this birthday blog post is not because of the emotional nature of the project, but because my ability to do it is so fraught, so endangered, because the austerity economy that has me and millions of other people in its stranglehold may not allow me to do the project as I want. I don’t want to do it from exile but from intimacy.

It was reported in the New York Times yesterday that the cost of restoring Donald Judd’s studio home in Soho cost $23 million. The result sounds fantastic, I can’t wait to see it. I admire Judd and I understand the fetishistic desire to put everything exactly in the place it had been placed by him. I admire and applaud his children for the monumental work they have done to make this happen. And I hope but wonder how I will find the considerably lesser amount necessary for me to do what I feel I need to do, fulfill the burden of memory that my parents did not know would rest on me when I was born. And although it may seem of interest only to me, I mean to make it useful to others.

Ilya and Resia Schor’s studio, New York City, 1976

This morning a friend asks me how I will spend the day, before we meet to see a movie (Hannah Arendt, Eichmann, the past). I don’t know. Sit under a tree, or perhaps sit at my parents’ work table and try to do even one small drawing.

Studio, June 1, 2013

 

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A Remembrance: Sarah Wells (June 6, 1950-June 6, 1998)

This post is inspired by two aspects of the life of the artist.

First, friendships are very important to artists, perhaps because the nature of being an artist often includes necessary aloneness in the making, the thinking, or the ideological position, within an atmosphere of bracing but sometimes corrosive competitiveness so that it is essential to survival as a practicing artist and as a human being to have a core of friends who know and understand your work from its roots and who can suspend their tendencies towards competition enough to support and advise you.

As a teacher, I see my students start their professional lives in little clusters: graduating classes of MFA students or Skowhegan participants from a particular year move into neighborhoods together, share studios, curate each others’ work into shows, get each other jobs, support each others’ achievements. After a while career paths, changing ideologies, and private lives sever some of these bonds, but some continue to sustain for a lifetime and are one of the most precious resources one can have. One may strive for historical importance but at the bottom line one’s practice rests on the shoulders of a few friends who know, understand, and believe.

Second, many of my friends are, like me, not only artists themselves but they are the children and sometimes also the parents of artists: we are all responsible not just for our own work, which is work enough, but also their work, their memory, their reputation. If running your own career is difficult, maintaining the career of a dead artist is even harder, whether the artist was famous or not. For us, there is an ironic tension, a valiant sense of quixotic absurdity, between the necessity we feel to produce our work (I don’t mean the commercial necessity, I mean the creative necessity) and our unique awareness of the burden that any artist’s productivity imposes on the maker and those who end up responsible for it–perhaps contemporary artists currently engaged in post-medium, post-object social practices will leave behind a minimum of stuff but even very successful artists who are lucky enough to sell the majority of their work still often leave their heirs with very problematic estates.

Among my friends, while working on their own art work: in the past decade Mimi Gross has led the development of the Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation, while Susan Bee has exhibited  her mother Miriam Laufer’s work, packed up her father Sigmund Laufer‘s work in printmaking, and supervised two exhibitions of the photography, and the publication of books and catalogs of her daughter Emma Bee Bernstein‘s photography and writing. Since 2001, I edited The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov, a project long nurtured by his daughters Helen Tworkov and Hermine Ford, I’ve begun archiving my parents Ilya Schor and Resia Schor‘s artwork, made The Tale of the Goldsmith’s Floor, a video documentary about their art produced for the conference “The Lure of the Detail,” in honor of my late sister Naomi Schor‘s signal 1987 book, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine, which with the help of many of my sister’s friends I was able to have brought back into print in 2007, all this while working on my own painting and writing as well as archiving it in order to create a comprehensive website.

I think also about all my parents’ friends in art school in Warsaw in the 1930s, a whole fertile world which perished, how my parents lost that initial loving context, and how much my mother tried to keep their names alive so that now I am the only one who remembers anything about them.

Art students at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts and friends, Warsaw c.1936: far left, a friend at whose house the group often gathered, last name Mackover (spelling uncertain); third from left with the burning blue eyes, Fishel Zylberberg (known also as Fiszel Zber, 1903-c.1942-43), a wood-engraver and from all accounts and appearance a magnetic and brilliant man. They all perished in the Shoa except for my father Ilya Schor, far right, leaning on the easel.

Young artists have fun in every generation, and perhaps young artists can imagine what it would mean if they suddenly lost those with whom they now share such companionship and joy. I think the artist Wermus is in the middle, bottom row but right this minute I'm not sure.

Etching from the 1930s by a friend of my parents, last name Wermus, Polish artist, killed in Russia before WWII

When I was packing this fall for my recent move, I found an etching upon which, sometime in the past for when I would find it in just this way, my mother had scrawled, “Wermus our best friend in Warsaw perished in Stalins cleaning of Jews in 1938-39 in Moscow.”  So there was once a Polish printmaker called Wermus who went to Russia to work with a master engraver and who perished in Stalin’s purges just before the beginning of the Second World War. As far as I know he and his wife, who also died, had no children, and perhaps now I am the one living being who knows he once lived. The least I can do is make a tiny place for the memory of this  artist here in the present.

I have unpacked every box that was moved from my loft on Lispenard Street and at the moment it looks like everything made it intact except for one group of, as luck would have it, absolutely crucial, irreplaceable archival material that for the present seems to have vanished, including all the black and white documentation of my work up until the 1990s, among which were many many photos and negatives by the sculptor and photographer Sarah Wells. I had scanned some of the pictures but that’s not the same as having her original prints and the negatives.

Sarah took this picture of me in 1993 at my studio at the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation Studios, then in Tribeca, with in the background some of my work, a segment of War Frieze in the wall, top,and some of my punctuation mark paintings.

The editors of M/E/A/N/I/N/G, Susan Bee and Mira Schor, 1991, photo: Sarah Wells

Sarah was a dear friend, a lovely person, a very talented artist, and she made her living as an excellent photographer of other artists’ work. She has been much on my mind these past few weeks because of my realization that this material is, I hope only temporarily, lost, and especially today: we were born the same year, 6 days apart, and often celebrated our birthdays together. Her tragic early death from cancer came thirteen years ago today, on her 48th birthday.

In another instance of trying to celebrate the work of an artist, Sarah’s friends, among them Medrie MacPhee and Judd Tully published Sarah Wells, a catalog for a retrospective exhibition of her work held at the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, New York in 2000. I wrote the following essay for the catalog. Indicative of the special problems in maintaining histories in the digital age, I can’t find my Word files from that period so I have scanned my essay and a few reproductions from the catalog. I hope the text is legible enough.

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Orbis Mundi

Hello.

A Year of Positive Thinking has been on hiatus since late February while I moved out of the loft where I lived and worked for 33 years into the apartment where I grew up.

All moves are overwhelming endeavors and often fraught. The circumstances of this move had particularly infuriating aspects contributing to a less than positive outlook. I’ll just make a few general statements, and for legal reasons I’ll say, quoting Mr. Jaggers in Great Expectations, “I’ll put a case to you. Mind! I admit nothing.”

First, “Ownership occupancy eviction” is an apparently idiot-proof loophole in the New York City Rent Stabilization Law (the burden is on the tenant to prove the landlord is lying about his stated plans, and this is nearly impossible, though lying is a near certainty, and even if the landlord is claiming a seventh floor walk up for a 90 year old mother, or that his poor sick daughter must live in the smallest darkest most poorly appointed space in the building he has just given her a 5% ownership in so that she can be used as a spurious proxy to evict a 60 year old artist before she turns 62 and would be legally out of reach for such maneuvers, the tenant would have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to prove the absurdity of the proposition–how you say in English, This is a stick-up).

Second, young, mostly British in the particular  case of my building, people, or the financial corporations they work for or own, are able and willing to pay $22,500 a month for approx.3750 usable square feet on a street with a healthy street population of rats, that’s right, $270,000 a year rent in a city where the median income even just for the Borough of Manhattan is about $65,000 a year.

Third, it’s possible to turn a small 7 story loft building with only 8 tenants in it into a gated community: to the young blond “neighbor” holding her young daughter in her arms who waited until I got out of the elevator this winter before keying open her floor so I wouldn’t see which floor she lived on, I say, bravo, you learned your survival-in-New-York-City lessons well, you can never be too careful, who knows what a middle-aged woman carrying her groceries could do to you if she knew not just generally but exactly where you live.

Also, striking the set of a lifetime of artworks, papers, and belongings is a brutal task, backbreaking and filthy; further, things taken out of a drawer no longer fit back into exactly the same drawer when you try to put them back exactly as they were before. Clothes multiply like tribbles. And once things are ripped from their natural place, where they had slowly accreted into the archeology of your life, it can take a whole day just to find the right place to put one plate. And you can’t write when your books, papers, artworks, art supplies, clothes, and the rest of your wordly belongings are in over 150 boxes through which you must navigate a narrow path to your computer, because you can’t think until some modicum of order and personal geography is restored.

Between last September and November I worked two or three days a week with a wonderful assistant packing hundreds of artworks made by my parents as well as their collection of books, and the many objects they collected. What in essence was about 100 years worth of life and art was to be put into temporary storage so my family’s apartment could be modestly repaired and refreshed. In that process I basically touched every single object, book, piece of paper, photo that accounted for their lives, mine and my sister’s, but each only for a tantalizingly brief instrumental moment since, even though many such moments of contact sparked the idea for a brief aesthetic and politically autobiographical essay, the packing had to move forward against an inexorable deadline.

In February these possessions were returned to the apartment, the furniture set in place but the artworks and objects staying in boxes. Then I had to dismantle my loft, which, half a lifetime ago, on a $4700 budget in 1978, I had designed in the barest, simplest way possible  to serve my needs as an artist. Though small and with no natural light, it was a space with an interesting ambiguity of proportion–a friend’s precocious child, now an architect, once visited and declared, “C’est grand, mais c’est petit” (It’s big but it’s small)–and a tremendous unity. No matter whether I was cooking, painting, writing, watching television, I was living inside my brain, with all my books , paintings, texts, and collection of china visible to me at the same time.

So I have bucked an American axiom, that you can’t go home again. I have returned to the building I was born into, and to the beautiful apartment I moved into when I was five–the day I first saw the apartment with my parents, taking the elevator from our smaller apartment a few floors below, is the moment where my conscious memory truly begins. Thus infuriating circumstances have precipitated my taking on part of what I consider my destiny, that is to archive and to mark as best I can the memory of my family’s life, particularly my parents’ lives in Warsaw and Paris before the War, their escape from Nazi-occupied Europe, and their creative life in New York as the background for the path I have taken in my life as what I would call an inflected American.

There has been too much to do to have time to feel haunted in my new old home, though the first time I took a bath in the deep ceramic tub there was at least one moment when I felt the quiver of time’s arrow in a 2001: A Space Odyssey see yourself as the old man in the next room and the fetus floating towards Earth kind of way: I was myself in the moment in mid-life enjoying a small luxury, and I was also myself as a small child in the same bathroom with my two parents checking in on me to see if I was alright, and I was myself five years ago peeking through the bathroom door to make sure my 95 year old mother was safe in her bath, and possibly I was also myself at 95 taking a bath in the very same place. As if in an eerie commentary on that shift through time, when I got out, the bubbles had taken the following form.

Now I get to gaze again daily at the objects whose beauty and character as the natural atmosphere of my childhood shaped my aesthetics. My parents didn’t have a chair that didn’t creak with age or threaten to collapse altogether, but the sometimes centuries old wood shone darkly and those gleaming dark ochres and rich browns are primary hues in my painting. If they could adorn their rented room in Marseilles with flowers while hoping their visa to America would arrive before the Germans, the minute they could put two cents together in New York they hunted through antique stores, pawn shops, and Parke-Bernet auctions for furniture and antiquities, though the only antique pottery they could afford to buy was often shattered like a eggshell and glued or stapled together so that it seems that a breath or a touch could shatter them, but their glazed surfaces lurk under the manner in which I use oil paint, using stand oil for its ceramic like shine or glaze.

Each object seems to repeat the same metaphor of my family’s life and work: treasures with frustratingly little material value because of their condition yet with the immeasurable value of beauty, history, age and time, fragility itself. There are many times when the weight of so many histories, many of whose details I don’t know, and the fragility of the objects containing them makes me nearly scream with fear, but what a richness, I know.

Here are a few of the things I have touched in the past months:

A series of dictionaries and grammar books that mark the stages of my mother Resia Schor‘s immigrations from Poland to France to America.

Polish French Dictionary, c.1937

English Language manual acquired in France c.1940

Back of same language manual, with what appears to be my sister's early efforts to write her name, NOA for Naomi, or Noemie, or Nomi, all variants of her name, c.1947

An early drawing of mine saved by my older sister Naomi.

No book could be safely shunted off to the side to be given away or thrown out, even if in a language I can’t read, because my father Ilya Schor drew and painted on any and every surface.

Ilya Schor, ink and gouache drawing, inside of the cover of Yiddish-language poet Nakhum Bomze's "A Chasine in Harbst" (A Wedding in Autumn), Marstin Press, NYC, 1949

The day after the movers had emptied the apartment, I returned to pack the contents of one last shelf in one last closet, some left-over antique ceramics. I was exhausted and unprepared to encounter, though not for the first time, a message in time from my mother, from when she had two daughters and was always careful to give us each equally.

Thinking she would be survived by her two daughters, my mother marked various objects with my name, having already given my sister an equivalent gift

And finally the last thing to be packed was a small, heavy, glazed ceramic orb.

I barely had time to look at at it but it was both strongly yet only vaguely familiar, and the combination of spherical shape, glaze, and weight in relation to size made it memorable.I called it Orbis Mundi, its Christian markings suggesting a Latinate name. Orbis Mundi does in fact mean the sphere of the world, but although I was certain this must be a term from liturgy, it isn’t, I made it up.

The very day I moved in I set up my computer and connection to the internet. Sine qua non. Then the very first object I looked for as I started to open boxes was my little Orbis Mundi, which I found immediately.

I have begun to make enough headway in unpacking, though my studio will be the last to be cleared and functional, that I’ve started to go out and see some art again. Last week I went to the Met to see Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century –A Year of Positive Thinking four star recommendation: a modest show of small scaled modest paintings in the sense I think of the term, small paintings of  domestic interiors, but painted with rigorous precision and abstract fluidity and a kind of formal clarity anticipating modernism given the window’s rectangularity as a central focus of each painting, with fascinating and occasionally quirky views of spare studio interiors, and with the liminal space of the open window as a framing device for the world outside, and a metaphoric reflection for the meaning of light, the safety of shelter as well the subtle imprisonment of domesticity. My current immersion in interiors made the show especially affecting.

As I left the museum, I chose the right hand path towards the lobby and exit, going down the hall with vitrines filled with early Christian antiquities and immediately spotted my Orbis Mundi! Or at least the Met’s larger and in far better condition version, though its markings are identical to mine. It turned out I was right in its having some relation to the Church, but not exactly in a liturgical manner: my little ceramic egg turned out to be a kind of 17th century Armenian version of Combat, hung to keep bugs and vermin from falling into oil lamps hanging in churches!

Knowing that this year would be disrupted by my move, I always intended that A Year of Positive Thinking would run longer than a year. The Year is a metaphorical time frame, a space of challenge to focus on art that I love while underlining the positive aspects of negative thinking, and so it can continue for a baker’s dozen of months, or as long as I am interested in doing it.

That the first object I fix on as I start to think about how to turn my family’s things into something that among other things is a Jewish story turns out to be a Christian Church accoutrement is not a contradiction to me: my parents owned it, because it pleased them as an object. And so it is the egg that I celebrate this Easter and last days of Passover, as I sit at my computer, that other Orbis Mundi, as I start up the blog again.

The worlds, April, 2011, photo: Mira Schor

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“I Love You With All My Hearth”

Today, December 5, 2010, would have been my mother Resia Schor’s 100th birthday. This is not just a nostalgic realization looking back at a deep past, as it was for me in 2004 which was my father Ilya Schor‘s centennial: he had died in 1961 so forty-three years separated his death from his centennial. My mother died only four years ago, nine days before her 96th birthday. So 100 wasn’t such a stretch.  But she had no wish to make it to this landmark. “God forbid!” she said when at one point I explained to her that if she lived to but also died in 2010 I wouldn’t have to pay any estate taxes (an amusing conversation in the light of this week’s disgraceful actions in Congress!). She had retained her excellent memory, her very left politics,  her judgment of people unblurred by sentiment, and her courage intact, but when the encroachments of age threatened her independence and her ability to work, she had had enough. When my friend Tom Knechtel said goodbye to her after a visit to Provincetown in the summer of 2006, he said, “I hope I see you here next summer.” “I hope not,” she answered, flashing a beautiful smile.

When I began A Year of Positive Thinking I said that it posed the challenge to myself to find contemporary art that I love but that I would also write about significant artworks, films, and political actions and speech from the near and the deep past that have given me the courage to become and continue to be an artist and an activist. No artists are as important to that personal history as my parents Ilya Schor and Resia Schor.

Resia Schor, Mezuzah, 1985, silver, c.5″x4″x1″

Resia Schor, Mezuzah, 1985, detail, doors open: gouache and gold leaf on paper

When I was a teenager, my mother and I mostly lived alone together. My father had died and my sister Naomi was living away from home, at graduate school and then in Paris. Whatever the tensions that my adolescence and the grief and loss we both held inside our individual hearts imposed on us were tempered among other things by how much I loved the work in silver and gold that she had turned to in order to support my sister and me. I was a fan of her work, and I now sometimes think that if I gave her one thing it was that enthusiastic support.

In the 1950s in New York, she painted and exhibited abstract gouaches in a style reminiscent of Philip Guston. When my father died, she was fifty years old and had two daughters, eleven and seventeen years old. She had no other family. It never occurred to her to look for another man to help her support her children although it was the logical or the more traditional solution to her perilous situation. Instead, figuring that she couldn’t make a living from painting, she took up the tools of my father’s trade as a silversmith, jeweler, and creator of Judaica, transferring her abstract, modernist aesthetic from the soft medium of paint (and the arena of “high art”) to the hard medium of precious metal that challenged her forms in a more powerfully creative direction (though in the area of “craft” as defined by American art at the time).

Resia Schor, Mezuzah, 1983. White metal, Plexiglass, gouache on paper, 12″x9″

My mother was  a modernist through and through, unlike my father for whom modernist abstraction was a visual language he could speak articulately but it was not his mother tongue: he had deep roots in the philosophical but also the visual traditions of Hasidic folk culture going back to the Middle Ages and it was his unusual gift to carry these into the twentieth century.

Some of my aesthetic and political point of view was formed in these early experiences of art in my home. The curious and problematic thing was that the essence of modernist abstraction was conveyed by her work, but in a form that was generally considered a lesser modality: that of small scale and craft. Yet each piece was so obviously a sculpture.

Resia Schor, Fragmented Mezuzah, 21976. Brass, Plexiglass, gouache on pape with Mezuzah text, c. 12″x6.5.” In a radical and iconoclastic geture, my mother took the mezuzah and turned it inside out, revealing and cutting into small fragments the samll talismanic text that had always been hidden and not to be touched by a woman.

That my mother as a person had sought economic survival through her own aesthetic labor was already a lesson in feminism for me and my sister. And, as she developed her own style and techniques in her new medium, it became intriguingly clear that my parents’ work embodied a strangely crossed gender art message that in itself contributed to my sister Naomi and my involvement with feminism and perhaps too to the slightly unusual flavor of our feminist outlook. Inasmuch as art movements are gender coded, my father’s work — folkloric, figurative, narrative, Jewish, delicate, light in weight — carried a feminine code. My mother’s work, abstract, muscularly sculptural although still relatively small in scale but heavy in weight carried a code that would seem to be masculine, as those terms are used.

Resia Schor, The Moon, 1967. Pendant, silver, gold, precious and semi-precious stones, c.3″x2.5″

Resia Schor, The Moon, back

When potential customers came to visit, there would be the ritual of showing the work: she would gradually open one case and soft pouch after another, unwrap little tissue paper packets, laying out gold and silver pendants and pins studded with sapphires, emeralds, and rubies, heavily sculpted silver Mezuzahs, chains whose silver and gold links and  blue African blue glass beads made from ground lapis lazuli tinkled softly, and earrings made with ancient beads from “Roman excawations.” At the end of the unveiling, a profusion of treasures would cover the coffee table in our living room. I never tired of seeing the work and better yet of handling it, wearing it, sculptural, glowing, deeply satisfying as an aesthetic experience that was tactile as well as visual. Her rings in particular became part of my identity.

Resia Schor, silver and gold rings from the 1980s to the 2000s

I also loved to watch my parents at work, in the small “maid’s room” of our Upper West Side apartment. When my father was a teenager, before he went to The Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, he had been apprenticed in a kind of medieval guild practice as an engraver and goldsmith, and his gestures at work, with metal as with gouache and brush, were light and deft. My mother had watched him work, she claimed he had taught her some basic skills. After he died she took one course in soldering, but basically she taught herself to make her own work. But her body language at her work was different than his, more determined, she radiated an intense and physical absorption.

Resia Schor, soldering, summer 2002. Video still from Mira Schor, “The Tale of the Goldsmith’s Floor,” 2003

When my mother was about 8 years old, spending the summer at her grandparents’ house in a small village near Lublin, in Poland, there was a fire next door, always a dangerous event, but all the more so in a small rural community of wooden houses in the early years of the twentieth century. Left alone, as the aunt who was in charge of her ran out with her own small children, my mother decided to save the bedding, so she tied all the pillows up into a sheet, and got her bundle and herself out of the house. Later they could not untie her knot.

This story always seemed metaphoric and predictive of my mother’s strengths and abilities. She was courageous and had presence of mind: when, as she sat with my father and friends in a café in Paris in May 1940 and saw French peasants from the East pushing their belongings and their elderly relatives in wheel-barrows through the streets of Paris, with their livestock in tow, she understood that she, my father, and their friends, poor Jewish émigrés, must leave at once and so, early the next morning, they fled, with only a few lumps of sugar and a change of underwear, a day ahead of Hitler’s army.

English was the fifth language she learned, after Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew and French: when I was at summer camp, she once wrote to me “I love you with all my hearth.” One of the important images of my adolescence is of my always very elegant little mother wearing goggles, hair covered in a dirty bandana, face blackened by metal dust, carbon, and red metal polish, wielding a gas-powered torch over a gas burner on our kitchen stove to solder her large silver mezuzahs. Vulcan’s sister at a domestic forge.

The heat of that unquenchable fire inhabits a recurrent dream I have had for many years that the burners on my stove spontaneously alight and like the burning bush, the flame cannot be extinguished and the bush is not consumed.

Video still, “The Tale of the Goldsmith’s Floor.”

In a 1974 letter to his sister Janice, Jack Tworkov wrote about my mother “[…] alone in the house, always fighting loneliness, but better off than most because she has a work in hand and makes a living from it. ” (from The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov). “A work in hand,” those are powerfully meaningful words to describe her and to describe what I feel I learned from her – the importance of dedication to a self-created aesthetic task pursued in daily practice. To have a work in hand gave meaning to her life and to mine and my sister’s.

Resia Schor, c.1928

Resia and Ilya Schor, under the Magnolia tree on the grounds of the Academy of Fine Arts, Warsaw, c.1935

Resia Schor, Student ID, Academy of Fine Arts, Warsaw, 1930

Resia Schor, Carte d”Eleve, Louvre Museum, 1938

Resia Schor, Provincetown, 1960, photo: Ryszard Horowitz

Resia Schor with Naomi and Mira, from top 1965, 1982, 1985

Richard Howard, “Jewelry by Resia Schor,” Craft Horizons, July/August, 1966

Resia Schor, Gold Pin, c. 1970

Resia Schor, 2005. Photo: Chie Nishio

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