“Making art is, for me, practicing a religion. … My work is my pride, creates for me a heritage. It is a place to struggle freely at my altar.” These words were spoken by Joan Snyder for the Fortieth Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting held at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. in 1987. Twenty-five years earlier Snyder experienced an epiphany, which she expressed with these words, “I felt like my whole life, I had never spoken … had never been heard … had never said anything that had any meaning. When I started painting, it was like I was speaking for the first time.” Joan Snyder is known for the intensity of her feelings. A true Expressionist and feminist in her life and art, this veteran painter uses the broadest possible palette to paint the canvas of her life.
Born on April 16, 1940 in Highland Park, New Jersey, Joan Snyder is a second-generation American artist of Russian-German Jewish descent who comes from a working-class family. Her father, Leon Snyder, a toy salesman, was born on February 24, 1901, and died on September 14, 1993. His family was originally from Germany and he was also a second-generation American. Her mother, Edythe Cohen Snyder, was born August 27, 1906, and died October 25, 1992. She was a bookkeeper whose parents came from Russia. Joan attended Hebrew School at a Reform temple in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and was confirmed at the age of thirteen. Her older brother, Stephen, was born on April 13, 1937, and her sister, Suellen, was born on November 25, 1944. Today Suellen Snyder is a social worker and therapist, and Steve Snyder is an aeronautical engineer and author. Joan Snyder has a strong Jewish identity and holds large Passover seders in her home, but her parents were not religious and she is not observant. However, she was very close to her maternal grandmother Cohen, who was an Orthodox Jew, which made a lasting impact on Snyder. In 1964 Snyder painted Grandma Cohen’s Funeral Painting, dedicated to her grandmother. From the first paintings Snyder made it was clear she was an American Expressionist painter with strong European roots. Snyder graduated from Douglass College in New Jersey with a B.A. in sociology in 1962. Four months into an introductory painting course she had the revelatory experience which changed her life and entered the Master of Fine Arts program at Rutgers University in 1963, graduating in 1966. Her earliest paintings show the related influences of German Expressionism, Alexei Jawlensky (1864–1941), Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), and her own background. Snyder says, “I believe my Russian and German heritage had a profound impact on my art. The German angst is a part of me.”
Snyder moved to New York City in 1967 and in the late 1960s began incorporating materials she associated with female imagery into her paintings, such as flocking (a thin, inexpensive type of cloth), beans, lentils, seeds, threads and silk, making what she referred to as internal landscapes. These “flock/membrane” paintings, such as Flock Painting of Women (1969), were organic, anthropomorphic and body-like. Snyder completed these paintings before her marriage to the distinguished international photographer, Larry Fink (born March 11, 1941). They eloped and were married by a Justice of the Peace in Amenia, New York on October 12, 1969. In August of that year she painted Lines and Strokes, a breakthrough in her painting to that point. This began a series of brushed canvases which resembled paint strokes in a loose grid format. Snyder’s initial notoriety began with her first solo exhibition of these paintings in 1971 at Paley and Lowe in New York’s SoHo, which was a sellout. Snyder soon started receiving invitations to participate in women’s exhibitions. She initiated the Women Artists Series program at Douglass College and curated this series in its first crucial year of 1971. Snyder said, “These were the years right before the dawning of the women’s/feminist art movement.”
In 1971 Snyder purchased a farm in Martins Creek, Pennsylvania, and moved there with her husband in 1973; here Larry Fink continues to reside and work. Around 1973–1974, she began to incorporate childlike drawings of landscapes, houses, stick figures and parts of the female body into her paintings. Scrawled notes, torn valentines, diaristic scribbled words, fabric, papier-mâché and wallpaper appear. While Snyder had won early recognition for her “stroke” paintings, participation in feminist consciousness-raising groups helped Snyder realize her work had to become more specifically autobiographical. “I had nowhere to go but into my own past again, into my own iconography.” Snyder’s work became more expressive, personal and openly feminist. In paintings such as Flesh/Art (1973–1974), curved gashes have been cut into flesh-colored canvas and filled with rich, thick pigment. In Heart-On, (1975), collaged materials such as paper, cheesecloth, mattress batting and thread form different shapes, including a heart-shaped Valentine box, shapes with sewn-up cuts and others which spill out of the grid system Snyder used extensively in the 1970s to give order to her work. She began treating her paintings as objects by stuffing, sewing, tearing or slashing the canvas in her exploration of materials and female imagery. Like a diary entry, a private symbolism of written words and a predominance of wound-like female genitalia images emerge.
By 1975 Joan Snyder had become a powerful, eloquent voice for the struggles of the women’s art movement. She was one of the founding members of the Heresies collective, a group of feminist artists, critics and historians, who held their first meeting in November 1975 in the New York loft of artist Joyce Kozloff. Snyder would say later, “I believe that women artists pumped the blood back into the art movement in the 1970s and the 1980s. At the height of the Pop and Minimal movements, we were making...art that was personal, autobiographical, expressionistic, narrative and political.”
Snyder left her Pennsylvania farm in 1980 and returned to New York with her one-year-old daughter, Molly Snyder-Fink, born on June 4, 1979, a documentary filmmaker, painter and writer. Joan Snyder also met her longtime Boston art representatives and friends Nina Nielsen and John Baker in 1980. Snyder’s unhappiness over her broken marriage found expression in her 1983 paintings Apple Tree Mass and Mourning/Oh Morning, a dark work that expresses her sorrow about an earlier miscarriage, the dissolution of her marriage and the pain of life. Joan Snyder and her husband divorced in 1985.
During the early 1980s Snyder had been spending her summers in Eastport, Long Island, and moved her studio and residence there in 1985. With the full powers of a mature painter she celebrated nature, fertility and renewal in Beanfield with Music for Molly (1984), I Felt Like a Virgin Again (1985) and Moonfield (1986). She says, “This work reflects all of my moods, my sorrows, losses and struggles, and a peace that has finally come into my life.”
In works of the late 1980s and 1990s Snyder turned her attention to issues of fear and suffering. Disturbed by the cruelty and exploitation of women and children around the world, Snyder said, “I started reading a series about the children of darkness. … I wanted to make some kind of political statement.” She painted Boy from Africa (1988), Morning Requiem (For the Children) (1987) and Journey of the Souls (1993), referring to the tragedy of AIDS. Paintings such as these take us to a new level of global concern for Joan Snyder. Her Morning Requiem with Kaddish (1987–1988) and Women in Camps (1988) explicitly refer to her Jewish heritage, background and haunting reverence for victims of war and the Holocaust, as does her recent exhibition Kaddish/Requiem, held at The Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art in 2000–2001, which mourned the dead using Hebrew and Latin phrases.
Joan Snyder received the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1974 and the Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship Award in 1983. Snyder’s paintings are in the permanent collections of The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.; The Whitney Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Jewish Museum and The Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Joan Snyder divides her time between Brooklyn, New York, and Woodstock, New York. She shares her life with Maggie Cammer, her partner of seventeen years, a semi-retired New York State Acting Supreme Court Justice.
Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society. New York: 1990.
A classic work on the woman artist in the history of Western art.
Broude, Norma, Mary D. Garrard, and Judith K. Brodsky. The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact. New York: 1994.
A major anthology of 1970s feminist art. Includes a wonderful photograph of the Heresies collective at Joan Snyder’s Pennsylvania farm taken in 1976, including founding members Joyce Kozloff, Joan Snyder, Harmony Hammond, Sally Webster and Miriam Schapiro.
Hammond, Harmony. “Joan Snyder.” In Lesbian Art in America: A Contemporary History. New York: 2000.
An essay based in part on the author’s interview with Joan Snyder in her Brooklyn studio in 1995.
Smith, Beryl, Joan Arbeiter, and Sally Shearer Swenson. Lives and Works: Talks with Women Artists, vol. 2. Lanham, MD, and London: 1996.
Sally Swenson interviews Joan Snyder in 1992.
Iskin, Ruth E. “Toward a Feminist Imperative: The Art of Joan Snyder.” Chrysalis 1 (1977): 101–115.
An important analysis and interview regarding Snyder’s early work. The reader should be aware that it contains explicit subjects and references and that the article incorrectly refers to Snyder’s series of “membrane” paintings as flock/“membrance” paintings.
Joan Snyder: The Nature of Things. Boston: 2002.
Joan Snyder: Primary Fields. New York: 2001.
Joan Snyder Paintings and Sketches. New York: 1998.
Joan Snyder, Painter: 1969 to Now. Boston: 1994.
Joan Snyder Collects Joan Snyder. Santa Barbara: 1988.
Articles and Reviews
Diehl, Carol. “Nests, Wounds and Blossoms.” Art in America, February 2002.
In praise of Snyder, artist and writer Carol Diehl tells us, “Joan Snyder’s paintings shouldn’t work. There’s just too much of everything: too much color, too much paint and far too much passion.” Snyder’s gutsy, emotional paintings can be confrontational and provocative; however, no one could suggest there is anything but pure honesty in these works.
Gill, Susan. “Painting from the Heart.” Artnews 86/4 (April 1987): 128–135.
Jones, Bill. “Painting the Haunted Pool.” Art in America 82/10 (October 1994).
Artist Jones addresses the ritualistic import of Snyder’s work and her habit of attaching exotic objects to her paintings, which he believes represent shamanistic ambitions, giving the appearance of a fetish possessing magical powers.
Webster, Sally. “Joan Snyder, Fury and Fugue: Politics of the Inside.” Feminist Art Journal 5/2 (Summer 1976).
Shirey, David L. “Spirited Feminist Wields Bold Brush.” The New York Times, February 12, 1978.
Snyder is not concerned with producing conventionally beautiful canvases. As critic Shirey observes, “In fact some are downright brutal and ugly, they are still, however, powerful expressions.”
Smith, Roberta. “Artworks That Strike Up Conversations With Viewers.” The New York Times, April 1, 1988.
Moved by her own horror at world events, Snyder embeds new painting-collages with photos of children lost in war in Africa, Afghanistan, the West Bank and Nicaragua.
Perl, Jed. “Abstract Matters.” In Eyewitness: Reports from an Art World in Crisis. New York: 2000.
In a negative review of an exhibition of twentieth-century abstract art, critic Perl praises Snyder for the fearlessness it takes to produce ambiguous or unresolved art at a time when curators are trying to tidy up the history of abstraction. Perl says of Snyder’s paintings that “their excesses and confusions will tell you more about risk and freedom and discipline than anything from the past quarter century that was in the Guggenheim show.”