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Joan Snyder, Untitled, 1970, crayon, watercolor, and graphite on paper, 11 x 20".

Joan Snyder, Untitled, 1970, crayon, watercolor, and graphite on paper, 11 x 20".

Joan Snyder

Sandra Gering Inc

Joan Snyder, Untitled, 1970, crayon, watercolor, and graphite on paper, 11 x 20".

An artist’s work can change a lot over the course of his or her career, but the best artists always remain themselves. I hadn’t realized just how much this is true of Joan Snyder until I saw this selection of thirty-three works, “Symphony: Early Works on Paper, Recent Paintings.” The continuity between past and present is most evident when one compares Snyder’s new paintings to her early drawings—much more so than when the comparison is made with her early paintings. That’s not to say her early paintings are irrelevant to her present concerns, but there is a difference. As the very title of Lines and Strokes, 1969, suggests—it’s the only early canvas included here—the artist was then taking her cues from formalism and Minimal painting. With its sometimes brushed, sometimes sprayed horizontals, this painting might bring to mind aspects of the work of any number of painters on the scene then, from Jules Olitski through Michael Venezia to Thornton Willis. A year later, however, Snyder produced a crayon, watercolor, and graphite drawing that showed she had other things on her mind. Dominated by three large horizontal strokes of red, the untitled work also includes a graphic stand-in for a fourth stroke, the scrawled word GREEN with arrows indicating motion in either direction, presumably that of an imagined brushstroke—but written, like the painted strokes, in red rather than green. This Jasper Johns–esque incongruity between word and perception indicates that reduction of art to the basics of the medium was not Snyder’s goal. Such contradictions are a way in which to break down boundaries: Another work, also from 1970, includes the flouted instruction DON'T WRITE ON THIS DRAWING.

Dating from 1968 through 1976, the works on paper on view here become increasingly rich, even eventually polyphonic in their concatenations of line, color, language, and material. Jumping ahead to Snyder’s recent paintings Break in Two My Heart and Song Cycle I (for Molly), both 2011, and In Bloom and Spring Eternal, both 2012, one might be tempted to say that the writing has trailed off even as the color has grown more luscious and the material more flamboyant. (Not only oil and acrylic but papier-mâché, collaged fabric, glitter—a substance Snyder was using as early as 1968, as a couple of drawings from that year demonstrate—and even herbs adorn the opulent yet sometimes painfully raw surfaces.) But that’s not quite right. Now, and maybe it’s just because the paintings were shown in propinquity to the earlier drawings, though I don’t think so, the horizontal strokes that are still a recurrent motif for Snyder seem to be implicitly crossing out some hidden message—with all the emotional vehemence that gesture can sustain. Looking back at Lines and Strokes, one senses that Snyder wanted to do something else besides simply display the marks it contains; she wanted to test their credibility—to see what kind of truth they could bear, and how much. Playing up the conflict between discursive meaning and the abstract truth of a pictorial mark, she used each to test the other. At least for the moment, the physical veracity of color, matter, and gesture seem to have won out as the most trustworthy bearers of meaning, but somewhere beneath the surface, the same skepticism that thrives on language continues to lurk—and to keep the paintings grounded. Without this burden of doubt, the paintings might float off in heady bursts of rococo effervescence.

Barry Schwabsky