On Tuesday, Nov. 27, artist Joanne Greenbaum spoke in Taylor Hall on her life and career, describing the path to becoming an artist in her own way. Without commenting or drawing on abstract and modernist art, she has found a unique ability to combine painting, drawing and sculpture to create a language that evokes animation and emotion.
Greenbaum creates largely abstract pieces and her art is displayed all over the country—in spaces such as the Rachel Uffner Gallery in New York, the Tufts University Art Galleries at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, MoMa PS1 in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Interestingly, she has a penchant for not subscribing to abstraction.
“I’m very uncomfortable with gesture. I was uncomfortable using gesture because I felt like part of me didn’t want to make New York School-type abstract expressionism,” Greenbaum said. “I was really against that. I just wanted to make my own work, and I was afraid of gesture.”
Associate Professor of Art Laura Newman said of Greenbaum, “I went to the Loeb to see her work, and I happened to notice a Hans Hofmann painting on the way out. I think she is very intelligent in the way she uses art. She’s not sitting there thinking about Hans Hofmann, but it’s like her cultural landscape. She’s sophisticated, she knows a lot more than she said, and she’s thinking about the history of painting and particularly how women have been written in it. It’s really interesting.”
In her introduction to the lecture, Newman commented, “Scribbled magic marker is obliterated by poured paint. Paintings are reimagined as sculptures. Signs of high modernism cohabit with ballpoint pen doodles, drawing interacts with painting. Her work is exuberant and generous, adventurous in its lack of predetermined end.”
From an early age, Greenbaum gravitated toward drawing. Though an artist her whole life, Greenbaum recalled she scrapped all of her work in the mid-’90s and started from scratch.
“I started with a very blank canvas. I didn’t think, I’m working on white, I thought, I’m working on blank. It was performative—the paintings had rules, they were fairly quick. I didn’t work out my ideas on the canvas, I worked them out in my head beforehand,” Greenbaum recalled. “There was no going over, there was no painting out. If something was a mistake, I would try to incorporate that into the painting—it wasn’t a game, but I set these rules for myself, which was thrilling because it rid me of these preconceptions about what painting is or could be.”
Anna Grayson ’22 commented on the romantic idea of beginning the creative process from a blank canvas: “She just kind of started simple: she said she always loved drawing. But she stopped producing art and didn’t start up again until later, and she started with a white canvas and grew from there into doing these paintings that are super layered and textured with color.”
Greenbaum said that several years ago she wanted to experiment with the third dimension. After creating layered and geometric paintings, Greenbaum began crafting unique sculptures that look like creatures from her paintings. Tiny sculptures seem to occupy the fictional geometric spaces Greenbaum created through her layering and gesture. The sculptures function as another way for Greenbaum to produce art and make her paintings come to life.
“I think in the process of using clay, which is such a beautiful medium, it was more like the sculpture changed the painting. My paintings were always so linear and geometric, and working with clay, it freed my line, softened the line,” Greenbaum said. “I started drawing on the sculptures, thinking of the sculptures as drawing in three dimensions, using that as another outlet for my drawing.”
It became clear in the lecture that Greenbaum creates the art she envisions, without trying to critique modernism or create what would be well recieved. In discussing the progression of her work as an artist, Greenbaum noted how her experience with art allowed her a freedom to create what she wanted without worrying about how it would turn out or how it would be perceived: “I’m just trying different ways of making a painting. Eventually it does all look like your own work. The idea that if I try something new, it’s not going to look like my work. I think my work started growing so much more when I stopped trying to make Joanne Greenbaums—whatever the hell that means,” she said.
For Grayson, this freedom is enticing, something to which aspire to as an art student. “The thing that struck me as the most interesting was how she talked about getting to a stage with her work where now she creates pieces because she loves making art, and she doesn’t have a set idea of what a piece has to be before she makes it. [T]hat kind of freedom that she has now in doing her work is something that comes when you’re a mature artist,” Grayson said. “That’s really interesting to see and to hear, and maybe I’ll get to that point some day as well.”
Listening to Greenbaum’s artistic process, it became clear how instinctual she is about her art—she’s unpretentious about creating and understands when her art needs time to breathe. “I have a house on Long Island, I go to Michaels arts and crafts, I buy cheap-o premade stretchers that are perfectly good and perfectly fine and I make a lot of paintings on them,” she remarked. “A lot of my work comes full circle—I like to go back to something simpler that I had done maybe 20 years ago…To recycle things I used to do.”
Greenbaum spoke of various challenges that she has overcome as an artist. One of her exhibitions at a gallery in Los Angeles several years ago had few viewers. Another exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City left her out of an abstract gallery. “I guess I always just have to keep going. I always just say fuck it, and just keep going.”