New York

Joan Snyder

Hirschl & Adler Galleries

Joan Snyder’s works on paper are remarkable for their range of imagery and gesture, especially in her treatment of abstract words as concrete gestures, so that they seem to lose their textual meaning and express a personal truth, a feeling ultimately unavailable in language. Indeed, in work after work, one senses her attempt to free herself from constraints as the title Free to Explore Every Corner of Your Imagination, 1990, suggests. Her emotional as well as technical range stretches from Oh Marie, 1984, a picture murky and explosive with suffering, to Large Yellow Cross No. 2, 1989, a clear, self-contained abstract work in which Snyder seems to reach, however tentatively, a state of serenity. In other words, she ranges, stylistically, from the primitive and childlike to the conceptual and formal.

Art and the Nature of Grief, 1992, is emblematic of the basic purpose of the works on paper: to examine art’s power to articulate basic affects, and alleviate them when they are too painful to bear. Paper seems the perfect medium for such an enterprise, for paper is as transient as the results of such an effort at resolution often seem. Because of the nature of feeling, these works will always look improvised, and in need of perpetual revision. Indeed, Snyder’s works on paper are endless revisions of a self struggling to understand what is emotionally basic to it, yet ultimately ungraspable.

Snyder has been called a feminist, but she is not entirely happy with the baggage that frequently accompanies the label. Crimson Lady, 1989, represents the female ego—as, I think, the more experimental Love’s Pale Grapes, 1984, and Love’s Deep Grapes, 1984, do symbolically—but I think Snyder’s larger concern is with the body of the work as such. Her tendency is to fragment it so that it verges on disintegration, and she struggles to prevent this from happening—to give it a semblance of integrity and control, whether by means of the grid in God Bless the Child, 1980, and Brooklyn Bean field, 1991, or, relatedly, via the letter format, as in Red and Yellow, 1977, Oh Marie, and Art and the Nature of Grief III. The triptych Small Symphony for Women, 1974, uses the letter format and incorporates a letter. It is a wonderful device, fusing text and context.

The point is that the picture is always a kind of writing for Snyder—a letter that can never quite get written, that never achieves its ideal form, because inevitably it is (as art is) inexact. More extremely, Snyder is always writing her body and it is always unravelling, because she doesn’t know exactly what it is anymore. The relevance of the body has become generally unclear—it certainly no longer seems as primary as it once did—in the Modern, and especially post-Modern world. This extends to the body of the work of art, which increasingly seems like a heap of visual rubble conceptualized into equivocal meaningfulness—just as we unconsciously experience our own body as an agglomeration of parts that are only dubiously linked. Snyder’s works on paper seem to exemplify this difficulty—through a literal as well as a figurative depiction of the body—which is why they seem fraught with uncontainable, unmanageable feeling and permanently unresolved. In this respect they are contemporary: they create the illusion that we can always reinvent ourselves, even when we have no idea of who we are; this is the cul de sac to which our Modern and post-Modern self-analysis has brought us.

Donald Kuspit