Contributed by Sharon Butler / Although we always seem focused on the present and the future, artists have history. In the late 1970s, Marcy Rosenblat graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute and moved to Spanish Harlem where she took a waitressing job and fell in with a group of figurative painters. Discouraged by the polarity between representation and abstraction, she eventually turned to abstraction, where the painting conversation was more expansive. Throughout the 1980s, she worked in Williamsburg with her husband Jim Donahue. He had been in the sculpture program at KCAI, but they lost track of each other until a chance encounter at the Met in 1983. As they pursued their artmaking, Rosenblat began teaching in the painting program at the Fashion Institute of Technology while Jim worked in the film industry. In the early 1990s, as they raised their son, they fixed up a brownstone in Fort Greene, where Rosenblat converted the top floor into a cozy, well-outfitted studio where she still works today. Her elegant abstract paintings feature flat color, undulating shapes, and the geometric patterns she finds in lace and other textiles. Summer being a good time to catch up, I stopped by to see what she had been up to since I had seen her work at a Jersey City gallery several years ago. The paintings have become even richer and more complex, particularly in terms of process, color, and composition. Climbing the stairway, we were surrounded by used fabrics, covered with colorful paint splotches, draping the banisters. Three recent canvases hung on the longest wall of the studio, each about 48 x 50 inches, and a series of small works hung in a tight grid formation on the opposite wall.
Sharon Butler: Marcy, thanks for inviting me over. It’s been a while since I’ve seen your work. Can we start by talking a little bit about the process? Your surfaces are so pristine, and I’m wondering if the images, which strike me as more complex than your earlier work, come out of the painting process, or derive from ideas in smaller studies before you start working on the canvases?
Marcy Rosenblat: I start by making what I think of as drawings, but I suppose they’re actually small paintings. And they become the studies for the larger work. When I sit down at the drawing table, I try to empty my mind and begin with no ideas. I’m just doodling around until I come up with something that feels right. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.
SB: They are beautiful little studies. Can you describe what you’re looking for, what “feels right,” so that I can get a sense of what your criteria are?
MR: Well, I’m looking for a certain amount of ambiguity in terms of foreground, background, and positive/negative space. There has to be some movement or interaction. I’m also looking for content, a meaningful meeting between shapes. Perhaps there’s some compression, or maybe a shape reaches out to the edge of the paper. Magical things can happen with the color. It confuses what you’re looking at when the values are close. For instance, in this one, the overlapping pink seems to shift, and it’s not clear if it’s all pink or if the color has changed. But the last layer of color is the same throughout, just in a different context.
SB: So the color play is important, and you like to create a kind of uncertainty in terms of the relationships among the parts.
MR: Yes, exactly, there has to be a sense of ambiguity. And I’m always surprised by the process. After working through a bunch of the drawings, I’ll begin to take a look at them, pick the ones that work, and get rid of the others. I find some forms and shifts that I like in the smaller work and those are the ones that I’ll use as the starting point for a larger painting. At the beginning, there’s a tremendous amount of comfort in having a direction. I know what my basic shapes are going to be but then the color changes as the color field becomes larger, and I have to respond to the shift. That interests me. Then it’s a whole new ball game when I’m trying to figure out which lace to use and how to position it on the painting. I’m basically trying to predict which pattern will accentuate the shapes best. And how to orient the lace.
SB: So you’re not necessarily using the same pattern that you might have used in the study, because it may be too small for the larger scale. Do you think of the patterns as narrative elements? Where do you get them?
MR: No. there isn’t a narrative intent with the choice of pattern. Friends give them to me or I find them in thrift shops. No one had lace in my family, so there’s no personal history at all. When I tell people there isn’t any personal narrative, I feel like they are disappointed, but I just like the idea of having a screen or a scrim – something you have to look through, like peeking in people’s windows. I give you this little something that you can look through.
SB: So your intent is more formalist. They are found geometric patterns. Like readymade compositions. How you position them on the painted shapes within the painted shapes seems important. They also recontextualize the Modernist grid.
RM: Yes. I’m always surprised at how many different patterns there are. Once I decide on the lace, I have to figure what color to spray over it. I make paint mixing Guerra pigments with binder, and then I make my own spray paint with it. In the earlier work I used commercial spray paint, but it was so toxic and too fast. Now I use small cosmetic bottles with hand-operated spray pumps. I like the imperfection that arises when I spray the paint by hand. It’s slower and more physical, and I think the accidents are more interesting. When I’m spraying, I never know what I’m doing because the textiles are covering the canvas. I lay the painting flat, place the lace over it, and then I just spray. Someone told me a while ago that they used to use a process like this to paint patterns on motorcycles in the early 1960s with car paint. Lately I’ve been having people over and asking them to choose their favorite study, which I then use as the basis for a new painting.
SB: Then you make choices and decisions based on someone else’s direction, and that adds another wrinkle in the process, distancing you even farther from the final outcome. I find these are much more complex than the pieces you had in the show in New Jersey. Do you think it’s because the process has changed?
MR: Yes, they are more complex in every way, and that’s because of the drawings. That was a major breakthrough. When I was finding the forms on a larger format, sometimes I accepted the outcome to soon – compositions, shapes, and their interactions. I shouldn’t have, but I was overwhelmed by the endless changes at that scale. I find I can be more adventurous on the smaller scale. It’s such an obvious thing, but it just didn’t occur to me until I watched a conversation with Stanley Whitney on Zoom, and he talked about how he had everything figured out before he made his painting. Well, his paintings look completely spontaneous, and the color is beautiful. It was a wake-up moment. Working small, on paper, is totally freeing. Before I tried to find the image in the process of painting and I ended up settling on less adventurous outcomes. The moves are too big. But it’s also the surface. I want it to be fresh, not with globs of paint. Now I don’t agonize over the image and I can focus on the paint itself – the small details of edges and color shifts
SB: Yeah, there’s a tremendous amount of freedom when you’re working on something that’s 12 x 12 inches and you can just work the hell out of it and then throw it away if it doesn’t work.
MR: In the earlier work, there were things that interested me, like the color relationships, but I didn’t think they went far enough. Now I can focus on the small things, you know, how the curves align or maybe I’ll spend a really long time on an edge. Sometimes I wonder if it’s stupid, but I’ll go over and over it until I feel it’s exactly where I want it. And again, if I were trying to figure out the whole composition of the painting, there is no way I could do that.
SB: Marcy, you’ve been painting for a long time. Now that you’re in your sixties, do you feel like you’re slowing down, or do you have any like idea that maybe you have spent too much time up here, focusing on painting, over the last thirty years?
MR: God no. I’m more prolific than ever. Working on paper is just an amazing step. You know, very exciting. I have always tried to cram all of life in, and it fuels me. I respond to whatever it is going on. Partly because of the pandemic, life became simpler. I slowed down the process, added more steps, and it has made the paintings richer. But I have to say that when I saw the ceramics show “Shapes From Out of Nowhere” at the Met I thought I might add ceramics to what I do. Then seeing the Alice Neel show, and the Cezanne drawing show, I started to think about the figure again. I’m open to influences. I’m easily inspired.
About the artist: Born in Chicago, Marcy Rosenblat currently lives and works in Brooklyn. She received her BFA from Kansas City Art Institute and her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, including at the Rawls Museum, Virginia; Fordham University, New York; Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts; The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; and Salisbury University, Maryland. Most recently, during the pandemic, she had a solo online exhibition presented by Jason McCoy Gallery in NYC. Rosenblat received an artist’s grant from the Women’s Art Development Committee in 1998. She is currently an Adjunct Professor of Fine Arts at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Her work will be exhibited in “11 Women of Spirit, Part 4,” a satellite Art Fair of the Armory Show, on September 6–12 at Zurcher Gallery, 33 Bleecker Street, New York, NY.