Joan Snyder in her studio with unfinished Proserpina. 2012.
I am going to preface this post by saying – you just never know. You never really know what’s next and you never know what kinds of people you will encounter in your life.
I found myself on the brink of my birthday feeling sentimental, reflecting on what had happened in the past year and what I was to look forward to in the upcoming year. After my amazing road trip through the Midwest in my Chevy Camaro, I was itching for the next adventure, the next challenge. I found myself thinking, what’s next?
And that’s when I got to know Joan Snyder – a talented artist but also a woman that I could admire and respect. And so, in my never-ending search for life advice, I asked her to answer a few questions for this blog.
At first, I was excited about this interview with Joan. Then, I was nervous that I would sound stupid. Then, when I had thought of questions to ask her, my research answered all those questions. Then, with some advice from a good friend, I decided to look inward and see if there might be an angle of Joan Snyder that had not been covered by the multitude of interviews she has done during her lifetime. I thought I had the answer by asking more reflective questions, but she was way ahead of me. Turns out, Joan has all the answers and all the right questions to see what it is that drives you. And she has the compassion to look after every one. Even me.
From a woman who has it all – what does someone like me do? Here is the conversation that I had with Joan Snyder in her studio in Brooklyn on December 10, 2012.
Pink Happens: A Conversation with Joan Snyder
Maria Kucinski: What did you envision your life to be like?
Joan Snyder: I remember at one point when I was really young, thinking that I wanted to have it all. What “all” meant to me, I don’t know – but I think I wanted to try everything.
I never, as a young woman, thought of myself as being gay, that’s for sure. But that interested me because I did feel a certain attraction to women.
And I didn’t know that I wanted to have a kid. In fact, I aborted my first pregnancy. And then, I really suffered after that and regretted it. So I got pregnant again and then had a miscarriage, it was a late miscarriage and that was very difficult. And then I got pregnant with Molly – so I was basically pregnant for three years in a row. During that time, I never stopped painting.
As far as my art and career, I knew that when I started painting – and I was not a good painter at all in the beginning – I always say it took me 8 years before I made a good painting (Lines And Strokes, 1969)… but I knew that it was something that I was going to be really good at. I just knew that instinctively and it’s not as if I was really good at anything before that.
I’m still very anxious, but I was a really anxious kid and teenager. When I started painting I realized that this could be a language that I would be able to develop and speak. Then something clicked miraculously. And I took it seriously and my work developed over many years. I wasn’t looking for fame or fortune, or anything…but it happened – I have been very lucky. Of course, it came with a lot of very hard work.
MK: How did you get through those tough moments in your life?
JS: Suffering…living with a lot of anxiety…therapy…which oftentimes was not useful. That’s an understatement. I ended up having an affair with my therapist when I was in my 40’s. Crazy. Really crazy. But my therapists often kind of fell for me in ways that were not healthy for me. Over and over…
MK: You say that approaching a painting is like approaching an altar, can you say something about that?
JS: Well, I know that when I was in graduate school, my final thesis stated that my work was my religion. I have made a lot of altar paintings but I can’t say that the metaphor really works today that easily – although every painting is exciting and serious and I feel very devoted to each work. They are more reflections, personal expressions than anything religious.
It’s a language that I am speaking. That is what young artists sometimes don’t understand. It takes many years to develop the language. It is like a baby learning to speak. You have to be able to make mistakes and sound stupid and do ridiculous things but you really are developing a language that hopefully doesn’t exist yet. It’s something new and different. So, for me, that’s what I have been up to over the years, developing and speaking this language.
MK: So with this language, do you know what it is that you ultimately want to say?
JS: Ah, well, it always starts from somewhere and then goes to other places because what I might be thinking in my head as a topic for a painting doesn’t always stick. Because once you put one mark down, or one step, or one note, it’s going to have its own mind and go somewhere else. That doesn’t answer your question. Who knows what they ultimately want to say?
Specifically, with Proserpina, the painting is based on a song that Kate McGarrigle wrote at the end of her life. The song is based on a Roman myth about a daughter who is kidnapped and brought to the underworld with her mother searching for her and threatening all sorts of awful things if Proserpina doesn’t “come home to mama.” I heard this song a few years ago, at a time when my own family was in the midst of a major drama. That song just so spoke to me. I made some sketches at the concert. The lyrics have so much great imagery of fields, the earth, of stones, heat, of mother and mama and come home, you know, it has everything. Then, what further inspired me was meeting Martha Wainwright after I painted Tell My Sister, 2012 – her telling me about her mother, Kate McGarrigle, and hearing stories that related to Tell My Sister and Proserpina.
It’s easy to say what inspires the beginning of the painting, but what happens with the painting is ultimately its own journey. At a certain point, I go on automatic pilot when I am painting because I totally trust myself and my process. That is not to say that I don’t step back, that I’m not cautious. The marks might look haphazard but I am monitoring every drip, every mark.
Joan Snyder, Still, 2011. Oil, acrylic, paper mache, twigs, glass beads, cheesecloth, silk, burlap, rosebuds on linen. 48 x 63 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and the Cristin Tierney Gallery.
MK: Looking at your work over the years, and at the new paintings in your studio, can you talk about the color pink in your work?
JS: The color? No. Why?
MK: [Sheepishly] Because I love the color pink…
JS: I think it’s variations on red that I like. I wouldn’t necessarily say I love pink although what happens when I mix certain reds with certain blues and add white then it gets to be pink. But it’s not like I go after pink…pink happens. I guess that’s what you can call the interview.
MK: Well, now I’m heartbroken…but when I look at your work, I often see the limitations of the female body – that physically we are limited by our bodies.
JS: Really? How do you see that in my paintings?
MK: In the recent paintings, I see the struggle of women through the abstract forms. In Still, 2011 for example, I feel that painting. It has the female form. The blood. And the drips.
JS: Well that painting really is about fragility in a lot of ways, that is true. That one went out to the limits in some ways in terms of fragility. It’s funny because I don’t necessarily think of it as the fragility of a woman or a woman’s body. But then I’m mincing words because it is about how delicate it all is. I don’t ever think of dripping reds as blood. I don’t think I have ever thought of blood per se. It’s not where I go in my head. I mean there are forms that are vaginal and sexual and vulnerable and things like that. I just absolutely love the color red, but I don’t say to myself, “I’m gonna drip some blood here.” Never.
So what’s interesting is that what people see and relate to, and identify with when looking at a painting, is often very different than what I might have been thinking or relating to or identifying with when I painted it. That’s why I have often told young artists that you can put anything into a painting, tell any secret, no one will get what you’re putting in anyway. Everyone is going to read it differently. And so my paintings have often been confessional and upfront and diaristic. I have always been quite confessional…
But it is interesting to me that you’re feeling this kind of fragility…
MK: Outside of your art, what are you interested in? What motivates you?
JS: I have been writing a play for seven years.
MK: What is the play about? Why did you want to write a play?
JS: The play is about the exploitation of younger people by older people, about power. It moves between two different time periods. It’s about Carl Jung and his patient, Sabina Spielrein. And it’s about me as a young person and about my psychiatrist, who happened to have been a woman. The cast includes Sabina and Jung and Sabina’s parents and then of course Freud and me and my psychiatrist. It’s about Jung’s behavior, his genius and his anti-Semitic ways, about my doctor who was a holocaust survivor. And finally about Sabina, who became a renowned child psychiatrist herself. She and her two daughters died at the hands of the Nazi’s. It’s filled with subject matter that very much interests me.
Gardening used to be a great passion of mine. But a couple of years ago, we had a family drama which took place in my garden. The Garden of Eden. And nothing has been the same in the garden since. I’m hoping to get back to my garden next year.
One thing I am not ambitious about is my career. The New York art world is not interesting to me. I only go to openings of close friends. I don’t hang out. When I started seeing Maggie, 25 years ago, one of the first things I said to her was how I regretted that I didn’t go to more openings. And Maggie said, “I seriously doubt that on your deathbed, you’re going to say that you regret not having gone to more Leo Castelli openings. She’s right. I am not going to say that.
One day, many, many years ago, Pat Steir was in my studio on Mulberry Street. And I remember saying to her that she was so lucky to be showing in Amsterdam. And she said, “Yes, but you have Molly.” And Molly was my priority. I was a single mother and she was my priority. I met Maggie when Molly was eight years old and Maggie became a serious part of our lives a few years later. Not to say that I haven’t paid attention to my career but my work and my family have always been my priority.
I am really lucky. I mean, really, really lucky to have accomplished all that I have accomplished. I started with nothing. My parents had nothing – they were working class. Everything I earned, I earned on my own.
I have lots of interests but I also spend a lot of time alone quietly. I think that for me, that’s very important because that is when I work – without working.
MK: What piece of advice would you give to someone like me?
JS: I’d have to interview you first to know more about you because I don’t know anything about you, really, Maria. So it would be hard for me to give you advice.
How old are you?
JS: 25…So, your problem – knowing nothing about you – I know what your problem is, your problem is probably that you’re good at a lot of things, exceptionally good at a lot of things. So it’s hard to figure out where to land. That’s hard. I think I was good at one thing, which was painting. I promise you. That was the lucky thing that happened to me. I wasn’t good at a zillion things or at least I didn’t recognize that I was. I was just anxious more than anything else. Then I started painting. [Pauses, glances at Proserpina] I am happiest when I am in my studio.
And I was happy to have the opportunity to speak with Joan Snyder in her studio. The conversation continued about painting, Iyengar yoga, my stupid hip, music, Twitter, smoothies, and life in general. So aside from the disappointing fact that Joan believes pink is really a variation on red, I learned a lot from her and I learned a lot about myself. I look forward to working hard and approaching the next exciting challenge.