I always love painting. If not mine, then somebody’s.
When I’m off track with my own work, I look at Rembrandt and Goya, Vermeer and Matisse. I look at Gorky, Rothko, Morandi, 17th century paintings from China and cave paintings from forever.
In the past two years, the path I’ve been following for quite a while was no longer yielding new glimpses and I couldn’t find a way. From years of working, both as an artist and an instructor, I understood that as long as you court experience, there can be no failure. When you work, you see. Watching what’s there as you flounder and sink provides you with new ways of seeing what you thought you saw before. Vistas open.
Scared and hopeful, I gave myself a two-part assignment with very strict parameters. Since drawing is my basis and has always provided my clues, I’d go back to the beginning and draw from life using a variety of sources. Each source had to yield at least a hundred shapes before I could go to the next. An enriched shape vocabulary might offer a new glimpse. The second part of the assignment permitted me, simultaneously, to re-enter painting using only black. Black is primal and would keep me closer to drawing than the distraction of color would allow.
For many months I did many paintings, all of which looked like black versions of earlier works minus the aliveness that discovery conveys. It was a difficult time, but I clutched the hope that my frustrations would eventually drive me right over the edge and that, falling, I would see something new. It did. I have.
I am landed in another realm inarguably linked to my earlier, but also very new. I move in an atmosphere of shadow and shape where nuance abounds and possibility seems endless. Emerging from the dark are somewhat abstracted processions of bottoms, breasts, flora and fauna in musical and intriguing conjunction. Yesterday’s doubt has transformed itself into today’s delight and instead of dragging myself into the studio; it’s become difficult to drag myself out.
So I think about this process and I wonder what it means. Maybe it means that if you want a new world, you must persist in its invention. And that armed with that persistence (and living long enough) you will get there, at least for a while.
Right now, I’m there and it seems to be working.
The installation that I call “Decameron” started three weeks into the lockdown although really it started when I was a child. We had no money, so if you wanted something, you didn’t buy it, you made it. My mother was very creative, always coming up with ideas and assignments for us. Cardboard was a favorite material and my sister and I spent many hours folding, cutting, shaping, drawing and painting it. Later, when I was teaching, cardboard became a material I used in some of my drawing classes. It came in large sheets (3’x6’) and could provide students with an inexpensive excursion right into scale. I didn’t work with it myself because it wasn’t permanent. Recently, having turned 80 and being sequestered, it occurred to me that I wasn’t particularly permanent either, but wanted and needed to work and so I began.
The first assays were with what I had on hand and there were plenty of cardboard sheets in my storage area. I began to paint on them with wide washy lines. The way the material received the paint was gorgeous. After a while and guided by the lines, I began to cut the cardboard. Unexpected shapes announced themselves. Somewhere along the way, I realized that being guided by the lines had become a rule and was holding me back. The rule went out the window and I reentered the world of cardboard with abandon. Abandon is a sometimes guest, always welcome and never subject to command. I’d got lucky. The shapes grew wild, then wilder—animate, eccentric—creatures from another world.
I then decided to take this huge pile of shapes I’d made and place them on the wall. The original idea was to fill the wall from floor to ceiling, but once I began tacking them up, I saw that the horizontal movement formed in the initial part of the assembly had a strength and presence of its own. The wall itself, no longer a mere surround, had entered the frenzy and a procession declared itself. Shapes moved in a rapid and musical march accompanied by large dollops of comedy. It was a choreography. It was a narrative. We were escaping, all of us, from the Plague. It was the “Decameron.”
In Conversation with Judith Foosaner, The Painting Imperative
The Painting Imperative
International Contemporary Painting Magazine
Frances McCormack in Conversation with Judith Foosaner, 2011
Born in California’s Central Valley, like her good friend Maxine Hong Kingston, Judith Foosaner’s appetite for and understanding of, those aspects of artistic and cultural life more commonly associated with the city, has been consistently ravenous. An accomplished teacher, writer and visual artist, I have admired her work for many years. In 2007 I included Judith’s work in the Exhibition “Silence, Exile and Cunning” which, I curated for the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art.
One essential aspect of her work is its emphasis on drawing and its place in the shifting fortunes of painting. Few artists have so intensely and relentlessly probed the possibilities of line. In charcoal and graphite, acrylic and oil Judith has certainly been the equal of better-known artists such as Cy Twombly or Brice Marden, other masters of the linear.
I find her works intensely physical. In fact my reading has consistently witnessed a celebration of physical existence. Gravity and flight, speed and resistance, weight, pressure and direction are all present in the work. Recently I visited Judith in her studio in Sacramento where she has returned after living and teaching for years in the Bay Area: thirty-four years at the California College of Art and a two year stint at U.C. Berkeley. I asked her about her early years and also about the relationship of her work to Chinese and Japanese calligraphy.
Frances McCormack: Judy, you became an artist and a teacher at a time when it was pretty difficult for women to be taken seriously. Can you talk about what aspects of your early, formative years may have given you what you needed to flourish in this masculine world?
Judith Foosaner: When I got my degree in English in 1964, I had zero idea of where I was going vis a vis a “career.” Actually, I’d been on my own, completely self-supporting since I was eighteen. I had no concept of career and was used to living by the seat of my pants in a totally improvisational way. I careened from one job to another, did a bit of traveling and moved through a space which seemed like a very long tunnel with not a lot of light in sight.
At the suggestion of a friend, I got special permission to re-enter university, for the equivalent of a second degree, and began taking some art classes. It was an exclusively male art world. There was a restroom for male faculty, but none for female faculty. There wasn’t even a concept of female faculty. But after taking my first class: that was it. I knew that I wanted to devote my life to drawing and painting and hoped that with some of the street smarts that come with being on your own and a little or more luck, I could get into college teaching. I had watched my instructors, sipping their coffee and talking and I thought–Well, I can do that! In 1970, I did.
Things happened. I married more than once, but never with the idea of being a dependent and never for more than five minutes. When I was first taking the art courses, they gave me such joy; just the process and I understood that even if I were at the bottom of the bottom, this is what I wanted to do. I loved visual making and I loved working alone. That has never changed.
Frances McCormack: Could you say a bit about your background in literature and how it may or may not have influenced your painting practice?
Judith Foosaner: Well what did change was my perception of the relationship of my background as a literary person as maybe being a kind of waste for someone who was going on as a visual artist. The years have taught me–and that became apparent way back–that nothing is lost. Nothing. Quite the opposite. My roots in literature–and they are deep–and they are ongoing–feed my work all the time. Henry James is with me when I am in my studio. So is Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot and Dickens. Chaucer sits in a corner. Shakespeare is on my left. Not simply their narratives. Maybe that aspect less than others. I feel and resonate to the beauty of their language, to the grit and the glory of their rhythms and the inquisitiveness of their pursuit. And I want that quality. I want the beauty of their language-of what they did– to be also in the language of my work.
Frances McCormack: When I look at your work I immediately think: calligraphy and dance. I’m most curious about calligraphy and how conscious an influence it has been on your work.
Judith Foosaner: Certainly my work is greatly influenced by calligraphy– primarily Chinese and Japanese. I don’t know if it’s a correct definition, but my idea of calligraphy is a marriage of line and space. There is rhythm. There is movement. If there is a pause, it is pregnant. Expectant. Each mark calls space into being.
Frances McCormack: Almost a definition of dance as well.
Judith Foosaner: Yes. The ancient calligraphers said that a line can express anything, everything. It can. It does. There is just something about one line meeting another and then another that is so endlessly magical and full of possibility. For me, drawing is the basis in pictorial art and line is the basis in drawing.
Recently, I went to the de Kooning retrospective in New York. The selections from every phase of his painting life and the installation of his work were astonishing. Stunning. What was also astonishing, emphatically so, was his remarkable ability in drawing. He is right up there with Picasso. Not second. Right up there. As you moved from one gallery to the next, you could see the struggles of one phase becoming the triumphs of the next and that had to do, in my mind anyway, less with the imagery and more with the fact that he used drawing , not just to register or reproduce, not just to exaggerate or amplify, but as a vehicle for investigating the reality, the nature and the inventive possibilities of pictorial space. All this through line. Over and over, I returned to watch his work, always in the hope that it would instruct me. I wanted to see what he did as clearly as I could . I wanted to follow his example of unflagging, inquisitive pursuit.
Frances McCormack: I know this conversation could continue for a very long time but I want to thank you for sharing your thoughts on your work. It has been a pleasure!
Judith Foosaner: It has been a great pleasure for me as well. Thank you!
Frances McCormack is an artist, curator she is also currently Associate Professor and Chair of Painting at San Francisco Art Institute.
Kenneth Baker Review
The abstract drawings of Judith Foosaner have impressed me occasionally, but not as much as her unmaking of them in recent work at George Lawson’s.
In small panel-mounted collages, Foosaner has cut up and reconfigured old charcoal drawings, cinching her compositions by brushing on black acrylic. Charcoal markings streak through the smoky voids in a piece such as “Night Flight 04” (2009).
But Foosaner’s cuts, occlusions and blacking out impose interruptions that arrest expressive gesture and depictive impulses. Patterns of black and gritty gray remain. Here and there they begin to suggest leaves or other figural profiles, but at every such point Foosaner sidesteps description.
Various artistic echoes appear – of Matisse’s late cut-paper works, of Picasso’s “Guernica,” of Ellsworth Kelly’s drawings and collages – but Foosaner seems to be in dialogue more with her younger artistic self than with others fluent in the collage idiom.
Her collages, and a few related paintings on view, make vivid the intuition on which an artist must finally rely in deciding when a work has come together as best it can. Seen in action, this intuition models the steering by feeling that we all must do in some domain or other. When it functions well at the level of accomplishment Foosaner demonstrates here, we cannot see enough of it.
April 17, 2010
Judith Foosaner Artist Profile by Barbara Morris
When Judith Foosaner hit a dry spell in her work a few years back, the artist pared down her methods and materials. She wrote “Scared and hopeful, I gave myself a two-part assignment with very strict parameters.” These were limiting herself to an exhaustive drawing process, and then allowing herself to re-enter painting using only black. “It was a difficult time, but I clutched the hope that my frustrations would eventually drive me right over the edge and that, falling, I would see something new. It did and I have.”
Given the elegance with which Foosaner constructs such statements, it may come as no surprise that her first degree was in English, from UC Berkeley. Her passion for literature, indeed, for language itself, is expressed almost subliminally in the very essence of her paintings. Returning to Berkeley in the ’60s to obtain degrees in art was a terrific experience for the artist. As Foosaner explained by phone, from her studio in Sacramento: “Back then the University had money, the art program was one of the best in the nation… Hans Hofmann had come and taught at Berkeley [in the ’30s]–his teaching was so strong it formed the basis for the education which continued through my time there, which was really about structure and space, and I took to it like a little duck.”
Self-supporting since the age of 18, Foosaner began to teach right out of grad school. She appreciated the time for her work which teaching afforded her, and found that she loved to teach, as well. After a year teaching for the de Young Museum’s art education program, she interviewed at what is now CCA, and ended up teaching there for 34 years. Foosaner feels fortunate to have spent so many years “immersed in a climate of visual culture.”
Foosaner’s work conveys to the viewer both her mastery of her craft, and the sense of sheer joy she experiences in mark-making. “Moving Violations,” an exhibition of her work recently on view at Brian Gross’ One Post Street, was comprised of a group of large-scale collage and acrylic works on canvas–dramatic, gestural black and white works where linear elements suggest letters from some unknown alphabet, poetry written in a language we can’t quite translate. Interstices filled with black give a sense of completion and assurance. These works have a lyricism and elegance, but also an unsettling edge. Through their palette, line quality and energy, they recall Picasso’s Guernica, although clearly removed from the politically charged imagery of that work. The work is also rooted in dance. “I see the shapes as characters and their conjunction as choreography,” she observes. Foosaner participated in a small South Bay contemporary dance company during the six months or so of its existence; clearly, a meaningful experience for the artist.
Foosaner offers a glimpse into her method, “I’ll put up ten or fifteen pieces of paper, and just draw, draw, draw, draw. It’s an incredibly ecstatic process… I love to chop them up, I love to glue them on the surface and see what I have… I paint into each square with black, and its interior starts popping out against the black ground.” These shapes “can have a number of qualities–boisterous, combative, quiet, any number of things–then I have shapes forming a grid against the black ground over the entire surface of the picture plane. My next step is to deregulate it, and keep it on track–whatever that is.” She adds, “I think in movement, shape and line… I could introduce color, I’ve thought about it, but I actually think it moves away from… whatever I mean. I just don’t feel I need color–at least, not right now.”
“Moving Violations,” an exhibition of works on canvas by Judith Foosaner, could recently be seen at Brian Gross Fine Art at One Post Street, in San Francisco, from April 11-July 1, 2011. www.briangrossfineart.com