In 1992, the painter Joan Snyder wrote an article called “It Wasn’t Neo to Us” about the emergence of the Neo-expressionists. Julian Schnabel and the rest were not, she argued, as original as the faddish art world suggested. Hadn’t others been painting in a similar vein for many years? Wasn’t there something sexist in the way the art world was fawning over these fashionable bad boys? Expressionist artists, among them many women painters, had never really disappeared; she herself was an example of that. But her title “It Wasn’t Neo to Us” also conveyed an important, perhaps unintended distinction between Snyder and the Neo-expressionists. The Neos didn’t take their expressionism straight. They were cultural spinmeisters and game-playing ironists, whereas Snyder was actually the straightest of the straight, a heartfelt painter who didn’t have any “Neo” on her palette.
The straight role is difficult to play in a curvy, mannerist period. It often appears earnest, not smart, old-fashioned, and uncool. “Joan Snyder: A Painting Survey, 1969–2005” at the Jewish Museum is a useful, against-the-mainstream exhibit, an opportunity to see how well this serious straight shooter holds up in contemporary culture. Organized by Katherine French of the Danforth Museum of Art in Framingham, Massachusetts, it includes about 30 of the artist’s pictures. (A book by Hayden Herrera, with an essay by Jenni Sorkin and an introduction by Norman L. Kleeblatt, accompanies the show.) As a young painter, Snyder came of age in the chilly, self-consciously philosophical environment of Minimalism, and she adopted certain of its particular interests—notably, its use of grids and its navel-gazing meditation upon what a brushstroke means. Her strongest early works, for example, isolated loose brushstrokes in gridlike compositions. But she was impatient even then with Minimalism’s tidy reserve. Her brushstrokes appeared full of stories, messages, and feelings.
For heated inspiration, Snyder might ordinarily have looked back to the dominant generation before hers, the Abstract Expressionists of the fifties. To many artists of the sixties and seventies, however, AbEx seemed worn out—and the heavy-handed machismo of that period put off many women. Instead, Snyder looked back to even earlier painters such as Jawlensky, Nolde, and Klee, and she developed into a committed feminist. But what kind of feminist? Snyder became neither a hard-edged ideologue nor one who believes there is no significant difference between male and female art. In the wall text, she’s quoted as describing a female sensibility as “layers, words, membranes, cotton, cloth, rope, repetition, bodies, wet, opening, closing, repetition, bodies, wet, opening, closing, lists, life stories, grids, destroying grids, houses, intimacy, doorways, breasts, vaginas, flow, strong, building, putting together many disparaging elements, repetition, red, pink, black . . . stuffing, sewing, fluffing, satin, hearts, tearing, tying, decorating . . . seeing through layers.”
As this suggests, Snyder began to transform her life into a layered art collage. Many things in the list above entered her work, sometimes literally, and important personal events—such as the breakup of her marriage, her developing love for the natural world, her relationship with her daughter, and her outrage at social injustices—affected what happened on the canvas. A sensibility like this makes many people, including many women, impatient. In certain artists, writers, and poets, it turns into something earnestly poetic, something soft, damp, and clammy, what somebody—I forget who—once called “all that sensitive shit.” (Anaïs Nin has that effect on me.) Although Snyder is sometimes diagrammatic and occasionally moralizing, she’s not flabbily poetic. She brings a kind of quiet ferocity to her work, an intensity that pushes past the merely sentimental. More important, she does not use paint the way poetical message-mongers do, to make a sign or speech or illustrate a grandiose meaning. She’s not outside the picture in that way: She seems to live inside the paint. And her canvases are alive to the eye, whatever points are being made.
In her work, those points are not usually too literal. You don’t really need to know about her marriage, for example, to respond to her best paintings, which transcend contemporary confession. They seem to be part wound, part cry of joy. She can make a gutty red smear, for example, that’s both a savage flower and a bloody gash. Anguish and joy are rarely so intricately bound; here they become almost inseparable. Snyder has not attained the renown of some of the Neo- expressionists, but her work has a way of lingering in the imagination. (It may finally prove more weighty than that of the clever Neos.) The Jewish Museum understandably appears to emphasize Snyder’s connection to Judaism—she had an Orthodox grandmother and rues, as many people do, the loss of religious traditions—but she actually plays a more interesting role in our culture than that suggests. She’s one of our pagans. Like Joan Mitchell, another painter who was once overlooked, she seems to call upon something visceral, vital, and ancient, as if she just doesn’t have time for the ironies of the moment.