Painter Joan Snyder Takes On the Big Boys: Pollock, de Kooning

What, for other artists, might be considered excess—excess energy, excess emotion, excess ambition, excessive quantities of paints and other materials

What, for other artists, might be considered excess—excess energy, excess emotion, excess ambition, excessive quantities of paints and other materials for making paintings—is, for Joan Snyder, a minimum of what a painting requires. She belongs to the school that labors in the belief that Too Much Is Hardly Enough. As a consequence of this painterly overload, Ms. Snyder’s work has an immediate and compelling impact on the viewer—so much so, indeed, that the initial encounter doesn’t leave much room for later discoveries. The paintings on view in her show at the Jewish Museum are so “out front” to begin with that subsequent encounters with the work simply confirm one’s first impression of the artist’s hell-bent appetite for excess.

What results from this high-energy ambition are paintings that are big and blowzy and blatantly competitive. It’s not with her immediate contemporaries, however, that Ms. Snyder enters into fierce competition. (She hardly bothers to acknowledge the existence of contemporaries—unless they share her ardently feminist views on art and life.) The artists she’s eager to compete with and surpass are the big boys of the Abstract Expressionist generation—Pollock, Kline, de Kooning, Hofmann et al. Born too late to be a member of that generation, she nonetheless stakes her claim as its principal successor.

Artists who aspire to the mantle of their dead predecessors inevitably run the risk of imitation and belatedness, and Ms. Snyder doesn’t entirely avoid those hazards. There are more than enough painterly drips in the paintings to remind us of her very large debt to Jackson Pollock; and the sheer weight of the brushstrokes that deliver quantities of brilliant color to the paintings remind us of her equally large debt to Hans Hofmann.

Yet into this mix of Abstract Expressionist conventions Ms. Snyder introduces certain elements of narrative and figuration that evoke quite different precedents. In a painting called Cover Me with Flowers (1985), which doesn’t appear in the current exhibition, the large female nude reclining in a landscape and garlanded with flowers inevitably recalls us to Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe.

The most shocking of her narrative pictures is the very graphic Women in Camps (1988). A powerful and appropriately somber evocation of Hitler’s death camps, devoid of the brilliant color and extravagant gesture that dominates so much of this exhibition, it will be remembered long after everything else in the show has faded from memory. It does leave one wondering, however, why male casualties of the Holocaust have been excluded from the picture—or would cause one to wonder if Ms. Snyder hadn’t been so emphatic in announcing her feminist point of view.

The following passage, quoted in Hayden Herrera’s essay in a monograph being published by Abrams, is but one of many in which the artist celebrates her bias:

“Female sensibility is layers, words, membranes, cotton, cloth, rope, repetition, bodies, wet, opening, closing, repetition, lists, lifestories, grids, destroying them, houses, intimacy, doorways, breasts, vaginas, flow, strong, building, putting together many disparate elements, repetition, red, pink, black, earth colors, the sun, the moon, roots, skins, walls, yellow, flowers, streams, puzzles, questions, stuffing, sewing, fluffing, satin hearts, tearing, tying …. ”

And on and on and on ….

It would obviously be futile to attempt a paraphrase or summary of such a passage. Ms. Snyder uses words very much as she applies paint to her pictures: in gobs and splatters that don’t easily lend themselves to coherent questions or answers.

Her written and spoken words about painting—both her own paintings and those of other artists—are also freighted with feminist resentment over the preferments that male painters are believed to enjoy on the current scene. On that issue, I believe she’s a little out-of-date (but then, of course, I am myself writing from a male perspective). I do find it odd, all the same, that Ms. Snyder is so determined to claim Neo-Expressionist painting as primarily a feminist creation, but this may be because I don’t regard Neo-Expressionist painting as one of the great achievements of the modern era. And since her own paintings don’t suffer from any of the faults that have plagued the Neo-Expressionist school, I am puzzled by the fuss she makes over it.

Never mind. Artists are not to be judged on the basis of their words or ideas or resentments, but on the quality of their artistic achievements. On that score, Joan Snyder doesn’t strike me as having much to worry about. You don’t have to admire every one of her excesses to appreciate her achievement.

Her current exhibition remains on view at the Jewish Museum in New York through Oct. 23, and will then travel to the Danforth Museum of Art in Framingham, Mass., where it will be shown through Feb. 5, 2006.

Painter Joan Snyder Takes On the Big Boys: Pollock, de Kooning