New York

Joan Snyder

Hamilton Gallery

Joan Snyder has produced some of the most “loaded” paintings in contemporary American art. The 1981 and 1982 works here are enticingly “loaded,” from the tops of their densely rich, boldly built-up, mixed media surfaces to the deep-down emotive implications of their primary, signlike imagery.

Throughout the ’70s Snyder subverted the color-field style that then dominated abstract painting. She developed a method for turning the grid, the favorite geometric form of the ’70s, as well as the zigzag into expressionist shapes. Brush strokes and drips were isolated in her compositions not so much to focus attention on process (as in the work of other artists of the time) but instead to bring out visceral sensations. Different collage elements, including fabric and papier-mâché, were introduced, lending physical substantiality to pictures that over the course of the decade began to move toward the symbolic, mythic center of abstraction.

Savage Dreams, 1981–82, a large painting and one of the most ambitious in the show (its dimensions are 66 by 180 inches), reveals the twin threads of continuity and change in Snyder’s work. While the murallike scale and thick, heavily impastoed surfaces are foreshadowed in works from the ’70s like Vanishing Theater, 1974, and Sweet Cathy’s Song, 1978, the imagery here offers an immensely appealing structural specificity. Savage Dreams presents a brilliant yellow segment that in this context begs to be read symbolically as the sun. It appears above a horizon formed by a narrow band of zigzag-patterned fabric, vigorously overpainted with rhythmical strokes of red, blue, and purple, and is surrounded by jagged diagonal configurations of additional red, blue, and purple strokes. The abstract and literal aspects of the composition exist in a tense but upfront relationship, one which intensifies the audience’s interest in the implied narrative of this landscape scene. Whom, for example, do the pink ideographic figures, one large with outstretched limbs, the other smaller and more contained, represent? A universal mother and child, perhaps?

Snyder’s masterly creation of a personal vocabulary of simple forms, with sources in children’s and primitive art, is also evident in small-format works. Weeping Warrior, 1982, is an example. This 24-by-24-inch piece displays a pictographic cross-slash rendering of a figure on a gold ground incised with a grid. The whole image is framed in red, green, blue, and purple wood, and backed by a wood square. The result is painting that has the focused, “holy” energy of a traditional icon.

Ronny H. Cohen