The photograph, dated 1970, shows the artist Joan Snyder in paint-splattered overalls, lying spread eagle on a crochet-blanket-covered mattress on the floor. The room also contains an old TV and a lamp, and primitive-style artwork and photographs are tacked on the wall. Taken by Snyder’s then husband, the photographer Larry Fink, the image says so much about the artist, wearing combat boots and a skeptical facial expression.
“Was she gruff?” asks a middle-aged male artist when I told him I’d interviewed her. “She has a reputation.”
“She’s strong,” I defended Snyder, the 2010-’11 Estelle Lebowitz Visiting Artist in Residence at Rutgers University. “She had to be to have achieved what she did during the time she did.”
Snyder, 70, who won the MacArthur Genius Award in 2007, is the subject of a major print retrospective at the Zimmerli Art Museum. “Dancing With the Dark: Joan Snyder Prints, 1963-2010” is on view through Sunday, May 29. The first retrospective presenting the full range of Snyder’s prints, it spans from her earliest woodcuts from her student days at Rutgers to her multimedia images completed in 2010.
Upon receiving the MacArthur Genius Award, Snyder remarked on how it was the sight of a cherry tree in Brooklyn’s Borough Park, while caring for her ailing father, that inspired many of her paintings. “It’s become a metaphor for life and death for me because of those cherries on the ground,” says Snyder, who divides her time between Park Slope, Brooklyn, and Woodstock, N.Y. “The MacArthur was an amazing acknowledgment of 40 years of my work. It was a very big boost emotionally because the New York art world really is a tough place, and when you get that, it’s one of the nicest things.”
Snyder says she was completely surprised when she received the announcement, thinking she was too old — the award is designed to reward the potential for future work. “It was an acknowledgment that they have big hopes for me and expect me to do a lot of wonderful work.”
The 1960s can seem like forever ago, and at times it seems like just yesterday. The cutting edge work being done by artists during that era could have just happened; the Douglass College art department at Rutgers University was a hot bed of avant-garde experimentation in the ’60s and ’70s, with Geoffrey Hendricks, George Segal, Robert Watts, and Roy Lichtenstein on the faculty.
The forever-ago part is when you realize there were no women on the visual arts faculty at Douglass College, the largest women’s college in the U.S., until 1971.
And yet, during the ’60s, there was no shortage of edgy women artists studying at Douglass. Here’s how Snyder tries to define that aesthetic: “Female sensibility is layers, words, membranes, cotton, cloth, rope, repetition, bodies, wet, opening, closing, repetition, lists . . . stuffing, sewing, fluffing, satin, hearts, tearing, tying, decorating. . .”
When Snyder founded the Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series at Rutgers in 1971, it was in reaction to the invisibility of women artists in the art world, and especially to the dearth of women on the arts faculty on the Douglass College campus, says Ferris Olin, co-curator with Judy Brodsky of the series. The Dana Women Artists Series, housed in the Douglass Library, is the oldest continuing exhibition space in the United States dedicated to making visible the work of emerging and established contemporary women artists. The series has exhibited the work of now established artists who were once pioneers: Louise Bourgeois, Faith Ringgold, Elsie Driggs, Orlan, Miriam Shapiro, Bernarda Bryson Shahn, Grace Graupe Pillard, and Alice Neel.
“We showed Bourgeois in 1980, before her first major retrospective at MoMA in 1982,” says Olin. “Alice Neel made her first print at Rutgers.”
For the 35th retrospective of the Women’s Artist Series, Snyder and her daughter, Molly Snyder-Fink, a filmmaker, curated a show called “Regenerations.”
Most appropriately, for its 40th anniversary, the series is celebrating its founder with a 45-year survey of small works: “Joan Snyder/Intimate Works,” on view through Sunday, June 5. So there are two art venues in New Brunswick currently featuring Snyder’s work. “Joan’s work here holds up on its own but in partnership with the work at the Zimmerli it makes a strong statement about her achievements for the MacArthur Award and for being inducted into the Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni,” says Olin.
In an artist statement about the work in “Intimate Works,” Snyder says: “The small paintings in this show span the length of my 45-year painting life. Most are works from my own collection from which I have not been able to part. I often make small paintings as studies for larger works, but just as often will make one to satisfy a need to paint a more intimate piece. Looking at this work, most of which has been in storage for years, is very satisfying to me. I am excited to see it all hung together in one space, a space that holds so much personal history for me.”
The artist mines her diaries and sketchbooks for ideas, and the work has been described by both sets of curators as autobiographical, serving as a visual diary. It is motivated by personal themes, female sexuality, motherhood, mortality, and social injustice. In one color etching with woodcut she says: “My work has been absolutely faithful to me.”
Snyder grew up in Highland Park “in a working-class family of Russian-German Jewish descent,” writes Zimmerli curator Marilyn Symmes in the catalog for “Dancing with the Dark.” Her mother worked as a department store clerk and bookkeeper; her father was a toy and novelties salesman.
Snyder, who earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology from Douglass College in 1962, will be inducted into Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni in May. At Douglass Snyder took her first painting class in her senior year. She continued painting and in 1963 was accepted into the master of fine arts program at Rutgers as a non-matriculated student. According to Symmes, Snyder walked into the office of the chairman of the department with seven paintings and convinced him to let her in. She earned her MFA in 1966.
Throughout her career Snyder has combined oil, watercolor, acrylic, pencil, glitter, fabric, bark, straw, herbs, beads, paper mache, and other materials in her paintings. The paint itself is applied as thick and heavy, light and washy, or propelled onto and dripped down the canvas to create vibrant expressionistic works. Though small in size, the “Intimate Works” are monumental in content and represent the artist’s development during the past four decades.
Reds and pinks dominate Snyder’s palette. In “Blood on Our Hands,” we see a news photo of a veiled woman ministering to a female patient. In another, a female form has her legs splayed open. Next to it, textured canvas has been mounded and torn open. Hearts and wounds populate the works.
The exhibit “Intimate Works” is “being concise about big ideas,” says Olin. During the show’s installation, recent graduates from the Mason Gross School of Art, current students, and an extern surrounded Olin. Olin remarked on how exciting it was for these young women to work on a show about an artist who had struggled for women’s rights in the arts at Rutgers and has achieved so much. Unlike Snyder, who had no female role models at the time, these young woman have footsteps to follow. Snyder will give a talk to students about women and creativity.
“I started the Women’s Artist Series because there were very few role models when I was a young painter,” says Snyder from her Park Slope studio. She wasn’t feeling well during the day of the interview, and was awaiting a call from her acupuncturist. “It was hard, and I wanted women to see what other women were doing. There were good artists in New York, but they were not on any faculties.”
How does Snyder choose the materials to embed in her canvases? “It’s all part of the language I use, just as the paint and the text is,” says Snyder. “It’s become part of my iconography.”
The decision as to whether a work will be a painting or a print often centers on whether or not she has dates scheduled in a print shop, she concedes, but the ideas are always worked out in sketch pads first. “I think differently for each, but I’m always thinking in layers, whether I’m doing etching, lithograph, woodblock, or monoprint.”
There tends to be more use of text in her prints “because it lends itself to text more, and I can tell whole stories,” she says.
Olin, who was a Rutgers student about a decade after Snyder, crossed paths with the artist many times and notes how Snyder laid the groundwork for so much that is happening now at the Institute for Women and Art and the Feminist Art Institute. Even the Women’s Art Journal is published at Rutgers. “Joan’s initiative and foresight led to where we are now,” says Olin.
The Douglass Library is an ideal venue for a gallery because it brings in visitors who might not ordinarily visit a gallery and don’t feel comfortable in one, says Olin, who earned two masters degrees at Rutgers, a graduate certificate in women’s studies, and a doctorate in art history.
She has visited Snyder’s Park Slope studio, which was featured in a New York Times Habitat column last May. Snyder lives with her partner of 23 years, Maggie Cammer, a former judge.
In the “Dancing with the Dark” catalog, Snyder is quoted as saying: “I had spent 18 years of my life not knowing what I wanted to do. All I knew was that I was very sensitive, very anxious. There was nothing that was making me happy. So when I found painting, it really was literally like speaking for the first time.”
The program “was all male, and some of the older men were pretty awful. Those were the guys who were still pinching women’s behinds,” says Snyder, who earned her MFA in 1966.
Before the opening of these two exhibits, Snyder had worked at the Brodsky Center for Innovative Print and Papermaking on her very first pulp paper paintings. “It fits with the way she works because she embeds and layers content, and turns abstract expressionism into a feminist form,” says BCIPP founder Judy Brodsky, a Princeton resident. “She has an incredible intensity and energy when she’s creating and is a really hard worker. She exhausted the papermaker working with her.”
“Printing is magical, though a lot of work,” says Snyder in the “Dancing with the Dark” catalog. “You don’t know what you’re going to get.”
So what exactly is the dark Snyder is dancing with? Despite the beautiful red roses, silvery orbs of moons, and other bright objects filling her canvas, what is it that causes the angst-ridden face in that 1970 Larry Fink photo? The words scrawled across the canvases tell the story: tears, screams, torture, contradictions, Mommy Why?
“Joan Snyder’s art is not quiet or secret,” writes Symmes in the catalog. “Her paintings and prints expose her anxiety, joy, pain, rage, sexuality, or sorrow. She interweaves her most personal feelings, thoughts, and life experiences to create profoundly affecting pictures that explore humanity and nature with bold choices of colors, forms and textured surfaces.”
“Sometimes I am sure I know what my work is about,” says Snyder. “At other times it is a mystery to me. My work is a language I create. It’s about my life, my art, other lives, other art. What else can I say?”
“Dancing with the Dark: Joan Snyder Prints, 1963-2010,” on view through Sunday, May 29, Zimmerli Art Museum, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick. Admission free on the first Sunday of the month. 732-932-7237 or www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.
“Joan Snyder: Intimate Works,” on view through Sunday, June 5, Mabel Smith Douglass Library, 8 Chapel Drive, New Brunswick. Free admission. 732-932-3726 or http://iwa.rutgers.edu.
Also, Art After Hours gallery tour at the Zimmerli, led by curator Marilyn Symmes, Wednesday, March 2, 5:30 to 6 p.m.
Also, screening of “The Heretics,” the story of the Heresies, a feminist art collective at the epicenter of the 1970s art world in lower Manhattan, Thursday, March 3, 7 p.m., Douglass Lounge, Douglass Campus Center, 100 George Street, New Brunswick.