Joyce Pensato (1941–2019)

Joyce Pensato in front of Take Me to Your Leader, 2018.

I WAS FINISHING UP A ONE-MONTH STAY AT JOAN MITCHELL’S HOUSE in France when I met Joyce. It was July 1982, and Joan had awed me with tales of affairs with Giacometti and Beckett while dissecting my childhood, my romantic life, and anything else I might confide. Joyce used to joke that she had become a Joanie, and she was coming to stay the following month with her friend Carl Plansky. She’d previously spent six months at Joan’s, which must have been intense—I remember seeing Joyce’s harsh self-portrait with slashing brushstrokes and jarring colors in Joan’s wine and whiskey storage room. In September, Joyce and Carl helped get me a job working with them at David Davis’s opulent art supply store on Lafayette Street, where David ranted about anything and everything and the neo-expressionists got their paint. That fall, on Joan’s recommendation, I also began psychotherapy with Jaqueline Fried, who was treating Joyce and was the daughter of Joan’s therapist, Edrita Fried. It was as if I had joined a family, with Joan as the grandmother, Jaqui as the mom, and Joyce as the big sister.

A few weeks later, I visited Joyce’s enormous studio, an erstwhile dance hall on Olive Street, for the first time. It had a ceiling two stories high and a balcony where musicians once played, which is where she worked for a while as she adjusted to having so much space; on the dance floor, she’d stretched out a badminton net, and we played for a little while—that was the beginning of our friendship. Twenty years later, we made a video of her dancing and painting in the space to Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” for an exhibition called “Studio Visit” at Exit Art. I must have burned at least thirty copies of the DVD for Joyce, as she loved to give it away. (It’s still on YouTube.)

More memories: attending and photographing the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade every year throughout the ’90s; watching all of Claude Lanzmann’s Holocaust film Shoah; walking around Ground Zero days after 9/11; being the two oldest performers in Oliver Herring’s stop-action videos and struggling to hold the crazy poses he required; flying to Buenos Aires for our friend Arturo’s wedding in 2005, accompanied by several of Joyce’s stuffed animals, who had their pictures taken everywhere. Joyce always threw her keys out the window so I could come up when I visited her third-floor apartment in Williamsburg. If we were walking somewhere and she had something important to say, she had to stop, like she couldn’t walk and talk at the same time. I often helped with grants, most memorably nagging her to finish her 1996 Guggenheim application, for which she insisted on a one-line project description: “I plan to paint.” She got it.

Her last few weeks in hospice were another miracle. Elizabeth Ferry, her wonderful studio manager and dress-up partner, brought everything Joyce loved into her room, including favorite photos, life-size cutouts of Obama, Elvis, and Muhammad Ali, mechanical stuffed Elmos, Batman masks, wigs, crazy sunglasses, gold shower caps, a big toy gun, and sometimes a bit of champagne—total Joyceland. Speaking with a microphone, she’d preside from her bed over a revolving cast of friends, clearheadedly planning her foundation while dreaming up hilarious plans for her ashes after she was gone. She turned the end of her life into a celebration and inspired everyone. 

Joyce often said her paintings were finished when they scared her and made her laugh at the same time. Cartoon characters were her inspiration, but her work was never cartoony, a term she reserved for superficial art. She intertwined numerous layers of black and white paint to make riveting images of chaotic exultation and fury, fearlessly obliterating one version after another until she was completely satisfied. She was a genius artist. She was also incredibly courageous, generous, and loyal. I will miss her forever.

Elisabeth Kley is an artist based in New York. A monograph on her work was published this year by Pre-Echo Press and CANADA.