Published: Jan. 20, 2000 By

[1]   When I graduated from college I was barely twenty and unused to living on my own in the world. A foundation was willing to pay me to continue reading books, always a great pleasure for me, so I set off for graduate school at the University of Chicago, entering the Committee on General Studies in the Humanities; chaired then by Norman Maclean. The Chicago School of criticism was at its peak and I learned to take the formal relationships in a work of art very seriously. I learned too that I was envious of the authors and literature under scrutiny — probably more for the sense of a lived life in their works as mine stretched unknown before me than for their formal beauties. The surgical minds that articulated the anatomy of that beauty seemed somehow secondary. I was concerned, too, that the world of formal relations was only half the critical story but too young to see how other approaches could be attached to those insights. My husband’s entry into a Ph.D. program at Yale gave me the opportunity to gracefully bow out of my own Ph.D. after finishing my Master’s and cross over to the other, less ruly side, of making art. It’s a little hard, now, to think that I may have encountered the one who loved my work the most – or, perhaps, its most trenchant critic – early on in my career.

[2]   I had moved into my first studio, the first one truly mine; a very large step for me. Prior to this I had been working at home where it was hard to feel like an artist surrounded as I was by the outward and visible signs of domestic demands on my time. The very large charcoal drawing I made on the brown paper wrapping of a new mattress showed me Munch-like with hollow eyes sitting nude on the edge of the bed surrounded by pots, pans and appliances. I didn’t think it was really art. I was a Boy Scout with no uniform without proper place to work. As I write Boy Scout instead of Girl Scout, the issue is clear, yet again. My father, who had wanted to become a painter but did not ever fully commit to it, had used the term “woman artist” very much as others would use the term “woman driver” to describe those who were timid on the road of life or art. I wanted to be just an artist and that meant the main game.

[3]   At that time, the time I moved my studio life out of the house, it was the late ‘Sixties, and Model City New Haven looked like a battlefield with empty lots, rubble, and unoccupied buildings. The Redevelopment Agency, an unlikely patron, allowed me to use space rent-free in one such building as it awaited its fate. “My” building, not all the way downtown, was a former printing company. The front faced the foot of one of downtown’s major thoroughfares and it was around the corner from pricey brownstones and brick buildings that housed doctors, lawyers and psychoanalysts. It was on the edge of a “good neighborhood” and I would remind myself of this as I faced my fear of being alone in an abandoned building at night. The front doors were inch thick plate glass and the lock was at the sidewalk so I would have to bend over to let myself in. Once I was trapped between a drunk and the door but I stood up and commanded him to go away. Much to my surprise, he obeyed! Another time, I came down the stairs to go across the street to buy my daily cup of coffee and as I arrived at the glass doors so did a tumble of police and a perp armed with a gun. Through those doors, it looked like a TV show unfolding, an illusion of entertainment and not a real gun that could go off, break the door, hurt me. At least I was no longer the frightened young woman in a red bathrobe who would watch, holding the hand of her young son, the twice weekly surrealistic show of garbage pick up, morbidly fascinated by the casual feeding of trucks that eat.

[4]   The dark orifice was to return as an element in the first painting I did in this new studio. My rooms were up one flight of stairs in the front, facing the street. To the back and up another half flight was a huge unexplored territory whose existence I tried to deny. Neon lights across the street cast lurid blinks of color on the night studio walls. I made a painting of my own shadow cast against the wall, running up to where it met the ceiling and off center there was a dark door leading to the next room, its nature undisclosed. The shadow’s huge primate arm is outstretched and I can’t remember whether it is really holding a brush or whether it is the arm of someone who would be holding a brush. I am not seen, just my shadow – the one with the odd horror and fascination of trash collection?

[5]   The next two paintings were of the room I was in and of the room beyond, the door between ajar, light behind, no scary shadows. Two of them had very thin color, veils of thinned oil that were reminiscent of Mark Rothko’s mature paintings because the color fields were rectangular and the colors were saturated reds, blues, greens, yellows. They were much more about the light than the dark. As I settled in and got used to working alone, away from home, I learned that I was to be moved out of the building, not because of its immanent demise, but to make room for a more politically powerful tenant, the Civil Air Patrol’s Connecticut Wing. My need could not balance theirs in the eyes of government but then another, even stronger player entered the game – Yale. Somehow a couple of male graduate students at Yale’s School of Art, painters, had gotten access to the long attic warehouse at the rear of the building. They’d shoved the trash and rats to the very back and had made a capacious fifty-foot long studio with no windows but skylights down its length. Between their space and the newly installed Connecticut Wing lay a big 1600 square feet space with windows on both the north and south sides and a little glass office that could be locked. With good will all around, this became my studio. The Wing put up a diaphanous blue curtain to separate their space from mine. It was never clear to me whether it was blue because that was the fabric they had, or blue to make an inside sky that they and the flag could stand against in their uniforms as they conducted the formal meetings that were a weekly ritual.

[6]   The graduate students were both making mural sized paintings with acrylic paint, building their own stretchers and priming the canvas with house paint. It was 1969, 1970, a time when the art world proclaimed realistic representation dead, done, done in. There was a corollary – painters needed to have cajones to make it big and abstract. I couldn’t do much about the anatomical problem and couldn’t properly name the expressive one.

[7]   I had begun at what I had perceived to be the beginning – in representation. Leaving the images of interior spaces, I was painting images of women, trying to be one, trying to figure out what one was, stuck as I was in some version of essentialism, hoping that figuring the figure would give me a clue. What was an aspiring woman artist to do, though, when the message from the art world seemed so clear about what was serious, meaningful, engaging? Each day in the studio I was confronted by my sense of how pitiful my efforts were and how much fun my studio mates seemed to be having. I was looking at what they were doing and thinking about it. Their struggles were opaque to me – I was not privy to their dialogues with their mentors, we did not know each other well enough for them to betray their anxiety, and gender politics demanded that they be the ones with painting cajones. Then both of them went away for the summer and I decided to try on abstraction. I filled my studio with huge paintings, most of them based, one way or another, on the circle, a geometrical figure in place of the flesh I had been painting. I “sold” one to a young woman who never came to get it – one of my favorites – a nine foot tall vertical painting with huge red washes on it, rising and falling, a geometric circle cut through one of the veils of different reds. I look at it now and see a monumental menstrual flow passing through a feminine geometry. When I was young ads for sanitary napkins suggested “Modess Because…” refusing to name the natural biological fact of life as a woman; I was still embarrassed about buying my own sanitary supplies. This painting declared an end to all that.

[8]   Meanwhile, the Connecticut Wing was going about its business: holding meetings, training civilian pilots, performing search and rescue missions. The United States Air Force would contribute gear ranging from planes to the pale blue worsted uniforms that they’d all wear on Wednesday nights. The head administrator, commander maybe, was a guy named Chet. Chet had a crew cut and a beer belly and a fondness for arguing about the issues of the ‘Sixties with the long-haired lady artist up in back behind the blue curtain. I had to wash my brushes in a common john so several times over my work sessions I’d have to go down to the front, half a flight down, to the water in the ladies’. This would provide the occasion and Chet would sally forth from his office and strike a match on his cigarette and on my politics and we’d burn it all off for five or ten or fifteen minutes and then go back to work. In 1970 in New Haven Bobby Seal was being tried for the murder of a supposed Black Panther infiltrator, Alex Rackley, and there were massive demonstrations on May Day on the New Haven Green. Even without the eye of the American political storm hovering over New Haven, we were not isolated from all that was happening in the nation at that time. Now those on the right call it the Culture War. Then, it was the spirit of the times meeting a generational rupture in a debate about real, hot war. I thought Chet enjoyed these encounters even if I was identified with the “other.” Once, in a moment of relaxed self-awareness, Chet confessed that he was jealous of the youth, envious of what seemed to be easy sex and rock n’ roll. He was willing to consider that his ideas about race were wrong but there was no bridging the gap in our attitudes about the war in Vietnam. Nevertheless, from time to time Chet would come up and look at what I was working on and when he did, he taught me a lot. For all that my painting was using a nonobjective vocabulary, when he started to talk about what he was seeing, he was always on the mark, always chose the stronger paintings as his favorites. Maybe it helped that the aerial views implied by my paintings seemed vaguely familiar to one used to flying. Maybe the sign

Wing Supply sign[9]   One wintry day when the glass on the windows was thick with ice, I came in to find that a succulent plant I kept for company had had all its leaves picked off so that it was a tall stem with a single leaf on top. If a non-deciduous plant can look naked, it did. This clear sign of someone not just passing through my space but stopping, standing, leaving evidence was troubling but I told myself it was a small thing, a half dollar plant from Grants, not worth anything.(which I subsequently made off with and which still hangs in my studio) inspired some aspect of the motif. Whatever the reason, I found it profoundly reassuring that the specialized critical vocabulary that I had worked so hard to achieve, was more relevant to talking with certain people than it was to aesthetic response in itself. Altogether it seemed like a perfect working situation – good space and light, regular feedback, proximity to other artists and the cultural resources of the city. The work was moving forward.

[10]   In the second year of my aesthetic change, my studio mates had left and I had the place to myself although I did not move further to the back. I liked being able to see out the windows, liked that I had two means of egress, liked my own space for being familiar. I was beginning to think the work might be born in the larger world. People in the art world had been coming to see it, people with power, and I’d had interest expressed by galleries I would like to be in. The studio was full of work, and I had become so comfortable there that I didn’t lock up my paints but left them out so I could get right to work when I came in. My paintings at that time were large, larger than a person, made of veils of acrylic paint. They had both color fields making a place and gestures that were, increasingly, wanting to be forms coming out of the fields. Then The One Who Loved My Work showed up.

[11]   One morning, I want to say a morning in May but it couldn’t have been, when I was twenty-nine, a mother of two, working artist, wife, (a summer day, perhaps), I came to work on a Thursday morning and found that the nine paintings standing against the walls had been worked on during the night. I came into a violent chapel made of my own work. Not only had someone passed through, picked at a plant, this time someone had painted on my paintings. Each painting that faced the room had paint added to it by a hand beginning left and moving to the right, a fast gesture made with a strong action of the wrist, a spurt of semen in a color astutely chosen for the palette it was joining. I could tell from the marks just the way that hand moved up and down ending with a big gesture moving far across the surface. The splashes and splatters did not obscure the painting underneath, they danced with it, just a few, pointed, additions, that’s all. And then, in front of each painting at the midpoint, as if the floor was an altar symmetrically set with ritual objects, the jar of paint was turned upside down topless so that the paint would spill out when it was picked up. It was contained but ready to spill, a metaphor for my assailant? I felt no assurance that the person who had done this would stop with the painting. I knew that it was quite possible that sometime I could be cornered there with no glass door turning it into a TV show, it would not be a drama unfolding in the next room of my imagination but a real attack. How do you report a symbolic rape?

[12]   I tried to talk with Chet about the sickness of the individual who did this. It seemed inconceivable to me that Chet himself would have done it after all our talk. There was someone in the Wing who made stick figures out of pipe cleaners that he hung from nooses over his desk. These had been pointed out to me earlier by a volunteer who wanted to know if I thought that these objects were art. Could he have been the perpetrator? Of course, it could have been someone else who wanted to try out the medium; maybe just someone who thought the best way to get me to move was to scare me out. The other artists had gone on to New York. I was the only “other” left in the back. There was no forced entry to the building and there had been a Wing meeting the previous night; maybe it was just a curious member who looked back there after and got inspired not knowing or caring who I was. From the outside it looked like merely an insurance problem (I had none). Was it a criminal problem? And what was it as an organizational problem? I couldn’t convince anyone in the Civil Air Patrol to take this seriously although the cop who came in response to my call bought me a vanilla milkshake at the dairy bar across the street.

[13]   I never worked in that studio again. In fact, I never went there alone again. The possibility that I might be assaulted was just too scary. I took tai kwan do to feel less vulnerable and enjoyed raging fantasies of successful female street fighting. As I tried to do jump kicks and landed on my own toes and, as amateurs do, had actual contact with body masses much larger than mine in free fighting, it became clear that these dreams were probably very unrealistic. Even the master urged the students to just clear out of sticky situations if at all possible and if not, to cause enough pain just to buy time to get away. The spiritual high point, breaking a board with my hand by thinking my way through the seemingly impenetrable barrier, was mixed with the realization that as a painter, I have an investment in my hands and shouldn’t put them physically on the line in that way. Nothing is simple.

[14]   Before I moved all the work out of the studio, I spent some time showing an art historian friend of mine, Annabelle Cahn, the damage. She said that she thought the marks contributed something to one of the paintings, an idea that I resisted strongly for all the obvious reasons. As time passed, I began to believe that there really was a difference between symbolic attack and real attack. Powerful as art can be, as much as it can arouse us or seem uncanny or teach or trouble or fool us, it is not alive; it is a representation. Aside from the cost of materials, the loss to me was a conceptual loss about my sense of safety in the world and the introduction of a question about what was in the work that might have provoked this. I was in my paintings but they were not my living body and as transgressive as it was to paint on someone’s work, the nature of that act seemed more complex as I thought about it. Clearly, someone had chosen, however perversely, to literally join me in my work. I spent time looking at the evidence, I needed to make decisions about what to keep, what to trash. I began to read the marks as semiosis, as specific communications made by a particular person. The colors and gestures varied – they were chosen insertions in dialog with my painterly assertions and were not random. They seemed uncanny. He (am I sexist to think gestures of ejaculation would only be made by a man – would a woman have done it differently and if so, how?) – was acutely sensitive to what the painting needed to really spark it up. A very pale painting with white, ice cube green, beige and deep toned muted earth red, got a thick “drape” of clear medium that accentuated the horizontal axis and created a see-through barrier between the viewer and the figures suggested in the “proscenium” box of the painting’s space. It didn’t really contain them, it increased their illusory quality because the added gesture was thick and literal compared to the thin paint underneath. A purple and green jewel-toned vertical painting got three cobalt blue floaters moving down a diagonal axis, subtly jarring the color harmonies, making more pictorial jazz. The paintings were bolder, less “nice,” they had more attitude and I could see that that added something. Some deep purple marks added to another increased the chiaroscuro. How did I come to read the marks in this way?

[15]   A painter faces the work whether it is on a stretcher, the wall, the floor, above the head. As each mark is laid down, it changes the appearance and the dynamics of the field in play. When we make a photograph, the whole image is formed in the moment of exposure; painting is different, no matter how many decisions have been made in advance in planning the work, its performance evolves mark by mark, stroke by stroke. Unless the work is performed by a machine, during this time, there is a conversation between the maker and the thing made, between the self and the other, which is mostly about the physical features of the painting and feelings evoked by the qualities of gesture and surface, color and form. This is a different sort of conversation than the one that a viewer has, unless that person is extremely attentive to the hints of time, the order of facture. The viewer begins with a response to the sense of the whole, the simultaneous presence of all the visible elements in the first glance at the image before the eyes. The sense of the whole that the painter carries while working is an internal image that repeatedly fails to exactly match the external image evolving on the support for the painting. In the end, the performed painting conveyed to the viewer is a new thing that can only be glimpsed in part by the artist as she works. The habits of my professional practice made me “read” those marks once I was past my own shocked response. The vandal’s “skill” made them visually meaningful and my reading endowed them with a meaning relevant to me. It was an aggressive act to impose on someone else’s work, but the marks themselves were not violent, they were responsive to visual context. These were not graffiti applied by someone who needed an available “wall.” These marks were addressed to the person, me, in the paintings; they spoke of joining not of destruction. Perhaps I wanted to alchemically transform a bad thing and make it good, or put the experience in a new envelope with a different address. I came to an inescapable conclusion that the intrusions were contributions. If they “worked” for me, I needed to discover why and I needed to think too about why it hadn’t occurred to me to add those sorts of things myself. This is fundamentally a self-reflective critical process that is different in kind from those scales of value and ladders of success that had occupied me as a graduate student of criticism. Partly the difference is directional – in solving the problems of a painting, or one’s own direction, the issues are particular and about being inside oneself and inside the work. External criteria are only marginally helpful. Much of criticism is about making distinctions, illuminating shadows, putting works into a larger context. Effective creative process demands giving permission to enact in the face of the unknown, to find out “what happens if…” and to learn from the results of the effort.

[16]   After this episode, external forces that had been governing some of my choices were diminished in their force. I went back to the figure, got a new studio and started again. The year of martial art had helped me to be much clearer about aggression, seeing it outside and seeing it inside. A painter is Queen of the Universe within the format of the canvas. Anything can and does happen there and because painting is representational behavior (in the sense that its job is to mean something), and contained within boundaries, the dangers, if any, it poses are indirect and the effects of its communication are impossible to predict. That I needed to use my own aggression to be a better maker does not necessarily mean that I needed to make aggressive paintings. It means that I needed to use all my resources including that energy. The aggression is directed not at other people, but at the image I am making. It is what allows me to change it, to get rid of what doesn’t work in the name of what might work, to play fully on that field. I rescued one of the paintings after the vandalism: peeling off the thick colored cum left a negative shape floating in the field. I painted bold purple lines, six inches or more thick, providing an armature for the whole. This was my first painting to be exhibited in a museum. I had begun to understand just how serious this business of painting is and a little something about the power of art. This was, in many ways, the point at which I began to understand what my aspiration would demand of me and the moment when I knew I mustn’t leave anything important out. It took longer to learn that I mustn’t leave anything unimportant in.

[17]   For years I felt guilty about having left academia. Then, as I could see just how bits and pieces of my life were twined into the aesthetic threads of my work (even when it was it was not about confession), I could see more clearly how my lived life acquired a shape as well as a narrative. Like the overwhelming majority of artists, I needed sources of revenue in addition to sales of my work. When I was hired by Paul Connolly to teach for Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking, I returned to the world of words, putting them quite literally at the service of my art and that of others. It has been liberating to do this. When I went back, I wasn’t the young woman anxious about her capacity for wit at a literary gathering and I wasn’t looking for a subject. The Norman Maclean whom I’d worried about letting down had himself become an artist, a writer of novels, at the end of his life. Words have not constrained the painting, they have made more of myself available to me; having their own channel they are out of the way in the studio. I have thought a lot about what it is we teach when we teach art and, setting aside specific issues of technique, I think we teach students to “get the picture.” To see the picture, to find the forest in the trees, one must both use the powers of perception, observation, and the insight of experience and knowledge. To think, one must see. To see deeply, the ground must be prepared and the senses tuned. The act of seeing is both a noticing of the visible and a reading of invisible connections. It matters how open your eyes are.

NB: The works in the gallery are recent; they reflect a desire on the part of the artist to integrate her period of nonobjective abstraction (the period described in the essay) with her return to the figure in the aftermath of the loss of that studio.

"Up and Away Digital" Scanned monotypes, Adobe Photoshop™ 1999   "Horses and Hooves" monotype, image 15 x 15, 1999    "Embrace" monotype, image 15 x 15, 1999

"Like Two Peas" monotype, image 15 x 15, 1999   "Head on Knee" paint on paper, 18 x 12 x 18, 1998    "Torso" ink on paper, 15.5 x 12 x 15, 1998

"Diver" paint on paper, 27 x 18 x 18, 1997   "Group Dynamics" oil on canvas, 72 x 60, 1998-99    "Combat" oil on canvas, 24 x 24, 1997-99

"Venus and Adonis" oil on canvas, 40 x 50, 1996


The author wishes to warmly thank writers Anne Higonnet, Judith Miller, and Nancy Kay Webb for their thoughtful reading and Cynthia Beth Rubin, Sydney Spiesel, and Jonathan Weinberg for technical assistance.