New York

Joan Snyder

Hirschl & Adler Modern

The catalogue for Joan Snyder’s recent exhibition of paintings takes the form of a facsimile sketchbook, underscoring the artist’s spontaneous working method and intimate, diaristic style. The book’s title, Paintings and Sketches, indicates a certain equality between preliminary thoughts and finished work that reflects the emotional weight the artist places on every stage of her work, as well as the value of catharsis in her process. There’s certainly no separating the life from the art here: “My work,” Snyder writes on one drawing, “has been absolutely faithful to me.” And yet, she adds elsewhere, “Even art can’t substitute for tears.”

In the ’70s, Snyder openly rejected the analytic framework of many of her peers, settling on a lush signature palette and a creative process enmeshed with writing, the making of lists—on pieces of paper affixed to the canvas or directly in the painting—a process that represents, for the artist, a practice markedly “female” rather than feminist. Snyder has continued her assault on the unfeeling ever since. She is a master at tapping and synthesizing emotion with a lyrically abstract and symbolist idiom that she elaborates through written marks corresponding to the visual sign. Her meditative approach has well served her subjects, which for much of the past decade have included loss and death. A small work on paper announced the show’s theme with characteristic directness: in a field of yellow, under a bright red square, the artist has spelled “Requiem.” Although scrawled in large capitals, the letters are faint, the visual equivalent of an echo, carrying their own trace. The word resonates against the intense presence and color of the square; the contrast summons the complexity and contradictions of the process of mourning. The intellectual order of geometry fails to hold the evocative red wash, and as the color begins to exceed the boundaries of its form, we continually return to the commanding power and instability of the word.

Gardens have been a productive metaphor for Snyder as she celebrates and suffers the temporal reality of the body. A mournful decrepitude overtakes these pastoral settings: the slightly bowed inflection of the barren tree in Falling Blossoms, 1997, whose blood-red flowers settle into a spreading inky blackness; the memorial flowers surrounding a black-velvet vaginal opening in the diptych . . . and acquainted with grief., 1997, which are countered by a litany of emotional vicissitudes smudged and crossed out in charcoal; the cumulative sense of transience in My Life, 1996, in which a reclining woman’s reverie—her legs and genitalia spread with flora, fruit, and a trickle of menstrual blood—gradually expands into a cloud of abstract and disconnected elements.

Some of the small works on paper reveal the artist’s maternal instincts. Is Anybody Home? Drawing, 1996, depicts a stick figure of a needy child standing outside a house with arms outstretched. Among the inscriptions on these works is a meditation on letting go of a daughter’s childhood as she starts college. In another, an ominous black doorway frames the alarmingly red bars of a cell-like enclosure; Snyder captions the image “Protection from what?” Reaching beyond the anxieties and concerns of her own generation—one that all too quickly abandoned its youthful idealism and radicalism—Snyder’s openness to emotion and experience situates her to grapple with those of the next.

Mason Klein