"Joan Snyder: Works on Paper" surveys the artist's work from her signature "stroke" paintings of the late '60s to her present autobiographical works. Snyder recognized that the myriad stories of her life, from the birth of her daughter to her divorce from photographer Larry Fink, could be part of a long-running exploration of identity. Her paintings and works on paper document the internal dialogue of a person whose time is spent alone painting in the studio. Her subject is the act of reflection through the representation of gardens, flowers or a cherry tree.
Snyder has devoted a good deal of energy and time laboring over the issues of death and dying. Her works consider the inevitable loss of parents (reflected in the work Rites of Passage), the loss of friends from sudden illness (the "Candles for Clem" series) and the death of children afflicted with AIDS. And although Snyder has written about the pain of loss and the grieving process, the turmoil and personal rage are finally best expressed in purely visual terms, such as her 1988 woodcut For the Children. Here the central image of the haunting child recalls Edvard Munch's The Scream -- an icon of alarm and fright. Snyder's child is a victim of the numerous terrors that Munch and his generation also feared.
Her feminism is political, social and humanitarian because through her work she only asks one question: Why? Perhaps this is best symbolized by the monoprint Large Cross on Black #2, 1989, an animated Swiss cross that sails across a black sea with hope and purpose. (In the adjacent gallery is a recent acquisition show which includes a Kathe Kollowitz (1867-1945 ) lithograph, Death Seizes the Children, it is a great reminder that this brand of feminism has been at work for many years.)
Writing in the accompanying brochure, Brooklyn curator Marilyn Kushner notes that "in monoprinting Snyder has found a type of printmaking that is consistent with her painterly and expressive style when working on canvas." And this is certainly underscored by the simple fact that most of her prints are made in her own studio and not with a publisher. In fact, Snyder's prints are not monoprints but they are all monotypes. The difference is significant. The monoprint is the result of an application of medium to a plate that is then passed through a press just once. For a monotype, the print undergoes numerous stages of printing. Snyder's hallmark in printmaking is the use of several print techniques -- etching, lithography and wood block, for instance -- as well as different types of paper.
The remaining impressions, such as Garden Grid, 1996, are the results of many hours of labor and thought. This is a ghost impression remains from other plates appear as a grid pressed into the paper's surface. Some of her thoughts are even articulated in text written across the surfaces of the prints. Like a ruminative quatrain Snyder is lost in an emotional tangle between thought, word and visual message. This is set forth in a palette akin to the soft atmospheric print colors of Bonnard and Vuillard. While she works in the spirit of other politically minded artists such as Leon Golub and Nancy Spero for example, hers is a consciousness expressed through abstract forms and symbols.
Like many women Snyder is several people at once: mother, lover, artist, home maker, cook, teacher and friend. Those often time conflicting roles are energized into these intensely atmospheric and delicately colored prints. For example in Our Foremothers, 1995, Snyder acknowledges her past and her present through an association with the strength and wisdom of Jewish women from the Old Testament written in bold letters and scribbled in small script across the page. Other prints are bitter-sweet colored in acid pinks, yellows and greens. and laced with text, prayers or blessings such as the combined engraving and woodcut of ...and acquainted with Grief, 1997-98, or Requiem/Let Them Rest, 1997-98.
At the far end of the long gallery that holds this show is a small room in which Snyder has installed a piece called SOULS, 1993 .This is a series of varied size woodcuts printed on paper and silk. The numbers are too great, too abstract to individually imagine each and every casualty. This installation is a simple memorial, a small tribute to thousands of lost souls portrayed on torn shrouds.
This is an extremely powerful and moving exhibition, an exhibition that is less about the talent or ambition of an artist, but more about how images create moods and how one voice can move the spirit of many.
An exhibition of ten new paintings, as well as ten works on paper made within the last two years, opens at Hirschl & Adler Modern, Apr. 25-June 12, 1998. This show is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue.
"Joan Snyder: Works on Paper," Mar. 7-June 14, 1998, part of the "Working in Brooklyn Series" at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11238-6052.
MICHAEL KLEIN is a New York dealer and curator.