PRINT May 1971

The Anatomy of a Stroke: Recent Paintings by Joan Snyder

Modern painting, like modern thought generally, obliges us to admit a truth which does not resemble things, which is without any external model and without any predestined instruments of expression, and which is nevertheless truth.
—Merleau-Ponty, Signs

SEEING JOAN SNYDER’S PAINTINGS for the first time is like looking into a partially demolished building filled with the remnants and debris of its occupants’ lives; the initial experience is that of surprise, disorientation, curiosity. It is the paradox of an intimacy aggressively exposed. There is almost too much to look at at once", a shocking sense of disorder in the context of what were once structured, habitable spaces.

Many reductive or “Minimal” paintings seem to have closed up their surfaces over the sensate world of susceptibility, gesture, violence or spontaneity that characterized Abstract Expressionism. They present to the eye an objecthood, an “isness,” a non-symbolic totality in which the work does not signify anything outside itself. As the predominant pictorial mode, they have altered our vision and our expectations.

In sculpture, on the other hand, a move away from the making of objects has become increasingly apparent. It is as though the object is being dissected, and process, material, site, concept and temporality as the component parts of traditional sculpture have now become the subject or the object of the sculpture itself. This has not been true for painting, which by its nature is contained within the shape of the canvas, and can go no further out. It can, however, go further in, since the potential for optical space in a painting is virtually limitless. The illusion of depth has consequently been of concern to painters from the early Renaissance on.

We perceive a Renaissance painting as though it were a window looking out onto another world of visible reality. Modern painters have focused instead on the shape, limitations and nature of the window itself. Painting has been concerned, then, with the world, and with its own essence. But it deals as well with the nature of being, since the visible world is grasped or understood through physical analogies echoed internally in the body. “Quality, light, color, depth, which are there before us,” says Merleau-Ponty, “are there only because they awaken an echo in our body and because the body welcomes them.”1 The world is perceived, experienced, understood and extended in us first through our physical knowledge of it. It is for this reason that painting “gives visible existence to what profane vision believes to be invisible; thanks to it we do not need a ‘muscular sense’ in order to possess the voluminosity of the world.”2 It is through our bodies that we first understand the nature of “horizontal” and “vertical”; and it is through our bodies that we first discover the emotional corollaries of our visual experience.

Among Joan Snyder’s earlier paintings, done in 1967, are dissections of human anatomy; not in the traditional sense, but in their expression of flesh, membranes, musculature and cells as pigment, color and surface, rather than as symbolic images. Over the years, she has continued to examine the already dissected parts, to analyze the strokes, gestures, drips and markings of the painting itself.

As a child, I remember trying to understand the physical enormity of the world by a comprehension of my own body situated in a room, which was in turn situated in a house, which was in turn situated on a street in a town; the town was in a city, in a state, in a country, in the world; the world physically located in space,in the solar system, in a galaxy. Snyder’s paintings reverse this dimension, moving relentlessly inward, rather than outward, into the nature of things seen and depicted, and into the methods and physical realities of that depiction. It is as though the artist’s being were a microcosm of the world, a starting point from which the search for reality turns inward. The painting itself seems to serve as a pivot between the world outside the body and the world inside it.

Theoretically, her work has much in common with the concerns of recent sculpture; physically, it has everything to do with the nature of painting itself, both as a process and as a visual language. Snyder’s markings (brushstrokes, daubs, restless lines, patches of improbable, vividly changing color and texture)are splayed out across the surface of the canvas as though scattered by the hand of an excited child. Each mark occupies its own territory, none more important than the next. The large marks, thick strokes often 5 or 6 inches wide, occupy only a small amount of space, whereas tiny daubs of paint are arrayed within a relatively large area. The eye is constantly making choices between elements that are vastly different, yet require equivalent attention. Underlying the markings in each painting are unobtrusive pencilled lines or grids, which seem unrelated to the elements situated on them. Every painting has a different scaffolding. In some cases the lines move across the surface in a widening geometrical progression; in others, a grid is composed of large squares, rectangles or oblique geometries.

Because no one part of the painting is less complex than any other, the visual confusion that results forces one to “read” the painting stroke by stroke, and precludes being able to apprehend it as a whole. The grid, although it is a fixed system on which the elements of the painting thrash about, fails to offer visual stabilization. It offers visual direction instead, an indication of where to start, literally, “reading” the work. It is, according to Snyder, like a writing pad on which to place the letters, words or sentences that constitute a pictorial language.

The nature of spoken language, as well as its written form, is analagous to the visual structures used by Snyder. Language is perceived and comprehended in process. A sound, a word, or even a sentence does not have “meaning” in and of itself. Even a specific language has no comprehensible meaning outside the context of the culture which employs it. Signs are, rather, allusive. Their meaning is grasped in the silences, the intervals, the spaces between them. “This meaning arising at the edge of signs, this immanence of the whole in the parts,” says Merleau-Ponty, “is found throughout the history of culture . . . It is a lateral or oblique meaning which runs between words. It is another way of shaking the linguistic or narrative apparatus in order to tear a new sound from it.”3 “Let us begin,” he says, “by understanding that there is a tacit language and that painting speaks in this way.”4

Just as a child, learning to speak, first uses a sound to stand for an entire thought, and then apprehends that there is “a lateral liaison of sign to sign as the foundation of an ultimate relation of sign to meaning,”5 so the markings in Snyder’s works relate to each other as the components of a language of visual equivalences which have pictorial “meaning.” The information given in a single canvas cannot be understood in a specifically symbolic manner, since the language of painting is not based on the same culturally accepted meanings that most words have for us. There is no hieroglyphic system in contemporary Western art which allows us to equate a certain shape with an equivalent definition that will be understood by almost everyone. There are only personal meanings, individual evocations of physical and emotional experience that a depicted shape or painterly gesture can arouse in us.

The painter’s experience, out of which such images are born, is communicated in terms of the experiences evoked in us when we see these images. To what extent are the painter’s experiences and our own congruent? It depends upon the voice of the painting. Its pivotal function, its ability to speak to us, is not only contingent upon those aspects of visual language common to both artist and viewer. It is also a question of style, that is, of how and what we have learned to look at, and to what extent we are able to recognize and relate to a cultural context for painting as well as to the more personal context of individual style.

For example, Big Green, a complex, ambiguous, contradictory picture, is a lexicon of images found scattered throughout Snyder’s other earlier works. The markings consist of strokes, repeated and thinned until they are almost invisible. Each stroke is, then, a slice or layer of its original. In another area, a heavily impastoed green and white shape is deliberately cracked, revealing the actual layers of pigment of which it is composed. There is a huge sludge of coppery gold paint in the upper right, variations and echoes of which can be seen in other paintings. There are thick arabesques of transparent gel, ghosts of their brilliantly-hued, full-fleshed images elsewhere in the canvas. The drips and wakes of a wet stroke imply that stroke’s potential for movement, change, process, diffusion. Its character, like ours, consists of myriad possible alternatives.

In one area of Symphony, in the upper right, there is an agglomeration of marks; the smallest ones are dense and highly colored, while the largest ones, reaching out into frontal space, are pale and watery. Visual perspective is reversed, and each stroke’s past and present are of equal, visible importance. This seemingly infinite pictorial lexicon becomes familiar the longer one looks, yet its meaning remains elusive as therecognizable images are altered in each new context, within each painting as well as within the body of the work. Some notes made on a recent drawing indicate clearly the relationship between the structure of a painting and the structure of human experience: “We at least know there is a beginning and an end.the middle can be very difficult, especially below the surface into the layers of past of painting of myself.”

Because no one image takes precedence over another, and because there are so many images in a single canvas, there is no gestalt, no holistic aspect to these paintings. For some artists, there is a desire to amalgamate the multiplicity of one’s experience into a single image, to comprehend it and give it order. Snyder presents that multiplicity as it is experienced.

The complexity of her paintings has a temporal aspect akin to that of certain pieces executed around 1969 by sculptors like Morris, Le Va, or Sonnier—random elements spread out or scattered on a ground too large to be perceived at once. The perceptual process allows for visual diffusion over a large field (with no attention to detail) and for specific, close-up focus within a relatively small area. If this were not so, we would not need to move our eyes to read a page of print.6 In Snyder’s large as well as very small pictures, the relationship of the size of field to the size and number of markings is such that the process required to actually see them requires scanning, or optical movement across the canvas in the linear manner used when reading the printed word. The relationship of mark to mark suggested by the underlying linear grid necessitates vertical as well as lateral scanning, similar to that employed when reading musical notes arranged on a staff.

Scanning the printed page requires anywhere from several seconds to many minutes, depending upon the number of words, size of type, and complexity of the message. Looking at one of Snyder’s paintings requires considerable time simply to see what is there. To press one’s nose against the surface of even the most reductive painting in order to see what it is composed of also takes time, but Snyder’s work has this kind of temporal complexity from an ordinary viewing distance. Although they become clearer seen close up, the viewing energy required is almost overwhelming.

The analogies, both direct and implied, between the methods, concepts and processes Snyder uses to make a painting, and those involved in the evolution of our personal lives, recall Harold Rosenberg’s analysis of Abstract Expressionist paintings. “The canvas began to appear,” he wrote, “. . . as an arena in which to act, rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze, or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”7 Although the gestural, often violent, quality of Snyder’s paintings seems related to that of Action painting, their differences are far more interesting than their superficial similarities. The painterly gestures of Kline, de Kooning, Pollock or Guston, for instance, are largely homogeneous; there is no formal discrepancy of parts, no areas that do not function as a totality, either in terms of the image or the shape of the canvas. Pollock’s drips remain always in the service of a shallow, post-Cubist space and are contained within an unpainted framing edge that emphasizes the exterior limitations of the picture plane. Kline’s enormous, sweeping strokes relate to each other as well as to the rectangle and provide, in his best pictures, a compositional stability and order that operate in tension with the spontaneous quality of the brushing.

If, however, the gesture is not important as a formal element, but as an expressive physical action which leaves its mark on the canvas, then the resultant image does not intentionally refer to anything outside itself. Snyder’s images have little in common with either mode; her pictures are, in fact, less formal in an overall sense than the most violent Action paintings, and yet more carefully controlled in terms of each specific part.

They are closest in feeling to the work of Hans Hofmann because of their roughness, intricacy and improbable color relationships. Where Hofmann’s painting deals with the tension between geometric shapes on a highly textured ground and a kind of Cubistic fracturing of densely-packed space, Snyder’s forms are juxtaposed rather than placed on each other. Her work, like Hofmann’s, has something in common with a Cubist esthetic, but Hofmann’s planes are related to Cubist form and composition, whereas Snyder’s relate more to the idea of being able to see through something, to dissect an image in order to see how it is constructed. The Cubists were involved with the physical structure of real objects, but Snyder is concerned with the physical structure of the pigment used to depict those objects. Paradoxically, by narrowing the focus of her subject matter, she is free to explore fully its metaphorical implications and complexities.

Although Snyder’s painting readily lends itself to certain intellectual and philosophical reflections on the nature of painting (since, in a limited sense, this is its subject matter), there is a startlingly “dumb” and intuitive quality about her work that makes it seem primitive or child-like. In its simplification of subject, expansion of emotional content, its reduction of “psychic distance” between viewer and painting, its extraordinary sensuous appeal and its use of pure color (she has said, in fact, that she picks her palette in the paint store, and often applies color unmixed from the tube), her work is decidedly primitiv-izing. Robert Goldwater’s analysis of such characteristics and their relationship to modern abstract art is very much to the point in the context of Snyder’s work.8 Referring to Klee and Kandinsky, he writes:

Both these characteristics—the immediate presentation of themes for direct absorption and the vague symbolic quality obtained by generalization—are carried over into the representation of nature, and from there lead, by a process of further iconographic rather than formal expansion, into abstract painting. In either case the result is a kind of symbolic animism, an attribution of independent life and activity to the forms of the canvas themselves, which are conceived both as paralleling human moods and as representing in miniature the moods of a whole living universe.9

When, as Goldwater further indicates, the forms of painting become the subject of the work, their predominance “includes all those aspects which are believed to be at the base of perception and to constitute the formal foundations of the world.”10

The autofigurative as well as the formal nature of Snyder’s painting has another direct parallel in children’s art. In an elementary way, the array of markings and strokes on a linear substructure looks very much like the drawings children make on big lined sheets of paper. More abstractly, a child’s syncretistic vision and the art he makes are both generalized and at the same time highly individual. The child sees the world in an undifferentiated fashion. For him, any scribbled form can stand for any other form, yet is immediately recognizable in its specific nature.11 In Snyder’s painting, Whole Segments, the distinct separation of elements on a square grid, the large areas of space in relation to the number of forms in them, the simplification of marks (circles, squares, lines), and an unexpected hierarchy in the size of these forms have more in common with the quality of children’s art than do her very recent pictures. The disregard for formal perspectives (or for any single perspective or vantage point) in this work relates the painting to the way a child first makes objects larger or smaller according to a personal system of importance, rather than to an approximation of the “real” values of the adult world. Similarly, Snyder appears to have disregarded the accepted values of formal- ordering in favor of a more personal, hermetic arrangement of images.

The lack of frontality and multiplicity of vantage point in many of Snyder’s paintings are also necessitated by the subject of the work, since the Anatomy of a Stroke pictures not only involve the dissection, vivisection, and dissolution of each stroke but also its examination from every possible point of view. Thus, a stroke seen in cross section becomes an uneven circle; a circular mark turned on its side becomes another stroke; a thick line examined obliquely becomes thinner and the quality of light contained appears very different. “If you’re going to dissect something,” she says, “you can’t just do it from the front; you have to go into the surface.”

The artist’s move away from frontal images isanother indication of an attempt to correlate the reality of the painting with the reality of our own experience. Space, for us, is not conceived of, or perceived, as a flat plane. Even when objects overlap in the line of vision, we are aware that the nature of space is such that another person situated differently will see that object in front of the thing that we are seeing it in back of. Space, then, encompasses us, and we live in it and move through it as a constantly fluctuating dimension.12 The space in Snyder’s painting, therefore, is as impossible to perceive singularly as is the space inhabited by our own bodies.

By definition, any space sculpture occupies or creates is part of the space we actually inhabit. With paintings, space is illusory, since the surface of a canvas is almost always two-dimensional.

Snyder’s paintings deal not with the illusion of a painted image, but with the reality of the pigments and markings that constitute that image. What makes her work startlingly different from other abstract pictures is that the markings are left intact, and do not belie their own nature. They do not suggest other objects or shapes, nor are they composed on the canvas in any formally pleasing way. Because there are so many parts—such a confusion of colors, textures, shapes, and spaces—recalling any single painting is like trying to recall a piece of music in its entirety. At best, one remembers the melody line, recognizes in the relationship of notes a style, and perceives the piece as much by its intervals and silences as by its notes. Finally, the meaning of the piece does not lie in any mimetic quality it may have but in the feelings it engenders in us, which the notes both create and parallel.

Our perception is, at best, always incomplete, full of complications and seeming impossibilities. Truth, or reality, is found only in a state of contradiction. To eliminate in art, as in our lives, what is tentative, irrelevant, superfluous or awkward is to create an illusion. Snyder’s dictum of “more; not less,” the welter of visual contradiction in her work, her continued concern with making impossibles exist in the same frame of reference, all amount to a pictorial reality which shares, in its richness, the reality of our own experience, and cannot be fully comprehended outside that context.



1. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, Northwestern University Press, 1964, p. 164.

2. Ibid, p. 166.

3. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signs, Northwestern University Press, 1964, p. 41.

4. Ibid, p. 47.

5. Ibid, p. 40.

6. Abraham Moles, Information Theory and Esthetic Perception, University of Illinois Press, 1968, p. 57.

7. ArtNews, Vol. 51, No. 5, Sept. 1952.

8. Robert Goldwater, Primitivism in Modern Art, Vintage Books, 1967, pp. 250–271.

9. Ibid, p. 257.

10. Ibid, p. 259.

11. Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, p. 150. See also Anton Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order of Art, University of California Press, 1969, Chapter I, “The Child’s Vision of the World,” pp. 3–20.

12. Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, p. 178.