Joan Snyder

Nielsen Gallery

“New ideas—more feminist imagery has to come back and flowers and fields could be incorporated into it but also with a very sensual sexual imagery. The Female has to begin enveloping the world.” The words, from a 2002 notebook belonging to Joan Snyder, are reproduced in a monograph accompanying the veteran expressionist’s 2005 retrospective at the Jewish Museum. They reflect a renewed commitment to issues and attitudes with which Snyder has long been associated, allegiances that also found their way into an ambitious recent exhibition of eighteen new paintings and works on paper—augmented by a selection of drawings from the 1990s—at Nielsen Gallery.

Two Rivers, 2005, the heroically scaled and heavily laden painting from which the show borrowed its title, features two black-on-brown areas of tarlike paint that flow diagonally through a field of blue and black orbs and pale bleeding strokes of blue, green, gray, white, and yellow on a ground of raw linen studded with straw and pumpkin seeds. Originally intended, according to Snyder, “as a smashed pumpkin field meant to symbolize Iraq,” the work evolved into a dramatic metaphor for the no longer fertile crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The broad swaths of pigment that make up the dark waterways also look like vaginal slits, recalling the feminist poetics of Snyder’s gashed canvases. In another operatic composition, The Things We (Can) Save, 2005, a burlap book with a bloodred spine lies open against a dark, ominous landscape, revealing a palettelike arrangement of tinted paper petals affixed to its covers.

In The Heart Is a Lake, 2004–2005, a handful of dried hibiscus in a burlap pocket glued to the middle of a canvas is surrounded by undulating strokes of pink spotted with nipplelike pinches of herbs embedded in cherry red paint. Scarlet paint drips from the central heart/lake (yet another vaginal image), while under a fist-shaped mixture of dirt and glitter are the scrawled words THE HEART IS A FISTFUL OF EARTH. The painting’s title is inscribed below another ovoid shape on the right. Both quotes come from Fugitive Pieces, a 1997 novel by poet Ann Michaels about a Holocaust survivor—an allusion that suggests an unlikely affinity between Snyder and Anselm Kiefer.

More immediately appealing are Snyder’s lighter and less moralistic works. A number of paintings featuring ponds or lakes, for example, are somewhat easier to absorb. In the exuberant Round Pond, 2005, Snyder punctuates soft bands of paint with swatches of cloth, drawings of buds, paper petals, and floral swirls. A paper bucket filled with roses and medicinal herbs embedded in gel medium is attached to the surface, becoming a mandalic focal point. Elsewhere, the pond is a kind of universal womb. Four Ponds, 2005, a long, narrow painting inspired by the view of a koi pond in Snyder’s Brooklyn backyard, evokes Jackson Pollock’s No. 8, 1949, in its dance of yellow and white drips. Three black cavities and one filled with a milky medium are located against a speckled blue ground, combining connotations of the celestial sublime with earthy allusions to open graves and bodily fluids.

Snyder’s happy immodesty in using a broad range of media to express the tragic-ecstatic drama of life here benefited from a reinvigorated commitment to bringing “a feminist energy and some kind of beauty back into the world.” In these opulent landscapes strewn with healing herbs, this female warrior fights her aesthetic and political battles against “male energy [that] is killing us.”

Francine Koslow Miller