May 8, 2014  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
Speaking with Joan Snyder about Sweet Cathy’s Song (1978)

Installation view, caption TK

Installation view of the fourth-floor Alfred H. Barr Painting and Sculpture Galleries, The Museum of Modern Art, spring 2014. Pictured are works by (from left to right) Sam Gilliam, Dennis Oppenheim (in case), Elizabeth Murray, Joan Snyder, and (on floor) Lynda Benglis

A new installation in the galleries brings together a diverse group of works from the late 1960s and 1970s, a moment when many artists radically reexamined the medium of painting. It unites a few recently acquired works—including a large unstretched, draped painting by Sam Gilliam, a composition of stitched-together strips of dyed canvas by Al Loving, and a brightly colored floor-work made of spilt and hardened latex by Lynda Benglis—with some veteran artworks from the collection. Organizing these kinds of special installations always provides a fresh opportunity to take a deep and focused look at the collection. Within the rich context of the gallery, the Department of Painting and Sculpture is delighted to present Sweet Cathy’s Song, a painting that New York–based artist Joan Snyder made in 1978 and that has been in MoMA’s collection since 1979. The work is in many ways characteristic of what one might describe as Snyder’s signature style—it is large in scale and brightly colored, its composition is guided by a grid-like structure, and it contains both abstract and narrative elements. Yet it holds a special place within her oeuvre. I was delighted to have had the chance to speak with Snyder to learn why.

Joan Snyder.

Joan Snyder. Sweet Cathy’s Song (For Cathy Elzea). 1978. Children’s drawings, newsprint, papier mâché, synthetic polymer, oil and pastel on canvas, 6′ 6″ x 12′ (198.1 x 365.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Louis and Bessie Adler Foundation, Inc., Seymour M. Klein, President. © 2014 Joan Snyder

Is Sweet Cathy’s Song the only work into which you incorporated children’s drawings? How did you come to the decision to do so? Where did the drawings come from?

Joan Snyder: As a very young artist I was working for a program out of Yeshiva University that was focusing on the Bedford Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. I believed very strongly in the idea of art as a language that children could use to express their feelings. Many were not doing well or succeeding easily in their math or English classes and I thought that if at least they felt successful making art, expressing themselves through their pictures, it would be a great help to them. So I devised lessons….I worked with these kids for several years. They made fabulous drawings. I asked them if I could have some and ended up making about three or four paintings using the drawings. It was like jazz music for me. They were the base, the structure, the inspiration and then I went off on them. I played (as in jamming) with them, using their images and structures to make the paintings—Sweet Cathy’s Song being the most important, the most serious one.

You dedicated Sweet Cathy’s Song to Cathy Elzea. Who is Cathy and how does this work relate to her?

Joan Snyder. Norfolk Landscape.

Joan Snyder. Rain Dance. 1978. Oil, acrylic, pastel, children’s drawings on paper on canvas, 72 x 96″(182.9 x 243.8 cm). Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Gift of the Sydney and Frances Lewis Foundation

JS: Larry Fink (my husband at the time) and I taught at Norfolk, Yale’s summer program. I had just had a miscarriage. Larry taught that summer (I taught the summer before), I painted, and was a faculty wife, as it were. It was then that I made a painting called Norfolk Landscape in which appeared totems that I later learned were or could be a symbol…for death or loss. These images were flowing out of me onto the work. Cathy Elzea was a faculty child at Norfolk who was loving and sweet and quite developmentally challenged. Larry and I fell in love with her and I know she with us.… Back in New York I made Sweet Cathy’s Song using the children’s drawings that were piled up in my studio, incorporating the totems all across the top—my symbols of loss, grieving, etc.—and I dedicated the painting to Cathy.

Joan Snyder. Norfolk Landscape. 1978. Oil, acrylic, fabric, sticks on canvas, 24 x 72" (61 x 182.9 cm). Private Collection

Joan Snyder. Norfolk Landscape. 1978. Oil, acrylic, fabric, sticks on canvas, 24 x 72″ (61 x 182.9 cm). Private Collection

The grid figures prominently in much of your work. In Sweet Cathy’s Song, the uniformly formatted children’s drawings provide an almost ready-made grid collaged across the canvas’ surface. Did your attraction to the grid stem from someplace other than the perhaps obvious source of Minimalism? From someplace more personal?

Joan Snyder. Lines And Strokes. 1969.

Joan Snyder. Lines And Strokes. 1969. Oil, acrylic, and spray enamel on raw canvas, 40″ x 52″ (101.6 x 132.1 cm). Private Collection

JS: For me the grid began in 1969, almost 10 years before Sweet Cathy’s Song. But…placing the drawings down on the canvas one after the other did easily provide a structure that I had been using by then for a decade. The source of the grid began for many reasons, one being the desire for narrative in the work. How to structure that. And I had been very interested in music—the staff providing lines for notes—plus I had been working with children…and had become very used to seeing children’s drawings on lined yellow paper. Those drawings became one of my inspirations for the grid. The other, strangely enough, was the wall in my studio on Mulberry Street. The top half was white plaster and the bottom half tongue-in-groove wood painted white. I was sitting one day looking at my painting and noticed the drips that had fallen onto the vertically lined wood wall. I said to myself that that was how I wanted my paintings to look. The next painting I made had some lines and very delicate drips falling onto an undulating surface of white. The very next painting was what I refer to as my breakthrough painting called Lines And Strokes, done in 1969.…I do think my use of the grid came from my own search, not from any minimalist theory, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t affected by what was going on. I, though, wanted more in my paintings, not less…and I wanted narrative. The grid worked for me for those reasons.

Installation TK

Installation view of the fourth-floor Alfred H. Barr Painting and Sculpture Galleries, The Museum of Modern Art, spring 2014. Pictured are works by (from left to right) Al Loving (on wall), Lynda Benglis (on wall and floor), Jack Whitten, and Ron Gorchov

Looking around the gallery where your work is now displayed at MoMA, it is easy to get a sense of the radically diverse approaches to painting that proliferated in the late 1960s and 1970s. Did you feel your interests aligned with those of your peers? And, if so, in what ways did you participate in and draw inspiration from this community?

JS: The art community? It has rarely inspired my work. I could name so many other things, experiences, mainly music that has taught me so much and that has inspired my work. Although the German Expressionists (my heritage is German/Russian), Cezanne, Klee, Mondrian, Pollock, and Hans Hoffman all did, and Anselm Kiefer does. When I was a young artist I was not sophisticated enough to understand what others of my generation were doing.…I think it was a time when we were as a group if you could call it that, all working in our own way, very differently from each other—no school of art there, no shared vision, etc. At the time they were calling a certain type of painting Lyrical Abstraction. I was put in that category and hated that label.

Your work is widely described as deeply personal. And I know you have stated before in interviews that when you started to paint, “it was like I was speaking for the first time.” Finding this new personal vocabulary for self-expression must have been a revelation.

JS: My work was coming from a personal place. I had no art background as a college student and only began painting as a senior in college when I took a painting course. It was a revelation. Painting. A way to speak. I was a child who suffered severe anxiety, popular but never fitting in for so many reasons. Working class parents. Was a sociology major in college. Painted on my own for a year after college (1963). Had never even been taken to a museum or a concert. I was reinventing myself. Loved to paint. Knew this was the most important thing I could do, so I gave myself assignments and attempted to develop my own language to say what I had to say.…And yes I felt like I was speaking for the first time. I finally had found a way to express my feelings, not in words, but on canvas for the first time in my life.