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Joyce Pensato, Untitled, 1992.
Joyce Pensato, Untitled, 1992.

Joyce Pensato (1941–2019)

American painter Joyce Pensato, who since the mid-1970s had reimagined a steady cast of cartoon icons—Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat, and Homer Simpson—in id-driven expressionistic brushwork, has died. She was seventy-seven years old. Out of her AbEx-inflected style emerged reliably manic, blank-eyed, humorous, and often-sinister renderings of those familiar Pop subjects in her signature black-and-white enamel. One can trace the influence of artists like Franz Kline, Philip Guston, and Willem de Kooning in her work, but the untiring dedication with which she returned to Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny recalled, too, a strain of the classical still-life tradition.

Pensato was born in Brooklyn, New York, and studied at the Art Students League and the New York Studio School, where she shared a studio with lifelong friend Christopher Wool and met mentor Joan Mitchell. In a 2017 interview with Artforum, Pensato recalled: “[Joan] would say, ‘Do you want to be one of those German Expressionists, all dark? Or do you want to be one of the French painters, like Matisse or Cézanne, with light and color?’ I wanted to please her, of course, so I’d say, ‘I want to be French!’ But I realized I was one of those expressionist painters.”

In the first Artforum review of Pensato’s work, which appeared in the 1995 October issue, Barry Schwabsky wrote: “She has no interest in using cartoon imagery to cool down her paintings, to distance herself from the emotionalism and spontaneity of Abstract Expressionism. Instead, Pensato uses it, in distorted form, to emblematize, to name, however indirectly—as purely abstract imagery perhaps no longer can—the aggressive, anxious psychological quality that is the content of her work. . . . Pensato accepts the cartoon as a distortion of the human figure, then distorts the distortion only to mutilate it as well.”

Pensato’s work is included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Dallas Museum of Art; the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; and the FRAC des Pays de la Loire, France. She received the Robert de Niro Sr. Prize in 2013, the Award of Merit Medal for Painting from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2012, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Award in 1997, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1996.