Articles & Interviews
The paintings are usually large. In an era of abstract painting they have been uncompromisingly figurative. They are dominated by the female form seen in “multiimages,” Fay Lansner’s term to describe three, sometimes four or five horizontal or vertical figures brought together on one canvas. She derives this idea in part from the simultaneity of the Futurists, from Klee’s idea of the projection of images, and partly from the faces of Picasso. In her recent painting, not only are there many figures, but also a series of different approaches. Some elements are smoothly outlined; others heavily, Expressionistically treated. They stand or sit and face each other or contemplate the viewer. One has the impression of witnessing an incompleted drama. The personages are caught in the process of an action which may be either ahead of or behind them. There is an air of mystery; the figures are mute, yet they appear to have been conversing with one another. They are motionless, yet the appeal of the arms and torsos is one of suspended movement. They are brought together in extreme calm or violent opposition. This drama is in flux. For Fay Lansner, a completed action represents a finality never consummated in reality. She believes these attitudes of incompletion represent the movement and fluidity of the life process.
Thus from an exterior viewpoint her work seems to be concerned with depicting the drama of the human comedy. Why should she chose to paint pictures which are apparently involved with a concealed story? Why should she be concerned with revealing inner states of emotion or embryonic developments of evolution—as in the womb-like shapes which recur in the paintings? The answers have to do with a balance which the artist wishes to attain between the visual and emotional attitudes revealed by the human dilemma, and the choices the artist makes in order to re-create it. Life presents conflicting attitudes. Life is incompletion; it is both real and ideal. Because life is both comic and tragic, her paintings often reveal the two sides of the mask. An aspect of tragedy is opposed by one of comedy; grace opposes awkwardness.
In setting out to convey the idioms of experience, she has given herself a difficult task and one to which she has clung undeviatingly for some years. She has chosen to paint the figure because for her the figure is an emotional necessity; it can become a direct and volatile expression of the complexity of human relationships. She does not believe that this multiplicity can be conveyed by concentrating on a single figure or a single moment on the canvas. While it is true that she simplifies experience by giving to each figure a single gesture or attitude, this simplification is one of the rigors of art and to arrive at this singularity one must pass through a variety of experience and conflict. The clue to these passages is given on the canvas by a variation of paint sequences from heavy to thin, from a broad to narrow line, from the small heads of the standing figures to the larger modeled heads which may be in an opposite corner.
In thee paintings, a concept of immediate formal unity must be abandoned. The faces, the bodies arranged over the canvas are held together by loose rhythms of line and color. She says: “Any composition which has a single surface doesn’t correspond to life; life is not a unified idea.” In the work, these rhythms vary the sensations on a single canvas, they relate opposing elements, they move from violence to calm as the artist turns from a hard stroke to a soft one. The multiple image expresses a refusal to concentrate on a single aspect of painting.
She feels that her work with Hans Hofmann was important mainly because it gave her creative freedom. She was able to make a necessary break with her previous studies. Not so much interested in the “architecture of space,” she was still bound by academic rules from which the Hofmann School freed her. She also learned that the “Abstract” as a formal identity did not lend itself to the particular subjective expression toward which she leaned. Later, in Pairs studying with Léger, she found that she was learning more formal abstraction when what she desired was a spontaneity of imagery.
Having grown up in a Russian émigré household, she had been filled with ideas of the “totality of experience”; translated, this became an idealism divorced from social reality. These idealisms deepened the conflict which she recognized between what is possible and what exists. This conflict followed her through her schooling and ultimately led her to paint figures in opposing attitudes of hate-love, or passivityactivity, figures yearning for the ideal yet caught in the conflicts of the viable. She found that she was deliberately choosing contraries, working against totality—the single figure, still life, landscape—because a reasonable summary was impossible.
Yet these selected contraries at the same time appear as spontaneous choices. They may previously have been drawn, she may have made many prior studies, yet their arrival at a position on the canvas has not been preconceived. The artist has chosen the style in which they will be painted, yet their final appearance has not been predetermined. Of course, by now they are “families” to her; over and over again she has painted these female figures, yet each time they reveal another aspect of themselves. In earlier paintings they were much less revelatory, turning their backs on the viewer, or appearing in a set of profiles. Also at one time the symbology in the painting appeared somewhat heavy, and the artist seemed to be imposing on the figures a knowledge which they were incapable of bearing. As in the theatre, the character speaks with the voice of the author, rather than his own. Now as the painter’s style has firmly set in, they are less embarrassed about telling us more of themselves, they seem indeed to be more complicated as people, as the painter has gained more control of volume, tonality and line. She has become a stronger colorist in progressing to larger blocked-in color areas, whereas formerly, the background of the painting was built up by a series of multicolored strokes. Like verbal exposition, now we have one firm explicit statement of background color. Or she may select two color areas to divide the painting. This gives the composition an assurance upon which the exposition of the figures may be more clearly based.
Fay Lansner considers her pastels to be exercises—a rather extravagant attitudes toward a beautiful form in which she excels. They may not be so important to her as her larger paintings, but they are perfectly conceived and executed. In the pastels especially we sense her physical enjoyment of color, a pleasure that is all the more sensuous because it is without program. There is no real separation of line from color or color from light. The pastels avoid the major problem of volume, yet space as she handles it here is luminous. She is probably the only pastelist of hearts and flowers without any innocuous overtones.
Reality, vitality, movement—these are essentials for Fay Lansner. She says: “To draw what you see is passive, you are reduced by the object to a pair of eyes; to draw what you feel is active. To change form in any way is action. Pleasure will exist in moving form.” Here it must be stressed that “pleasure” is what she derives from painting and it is what she wishes to share. She may have described a difficult, ambivalent world, yet she adds to it the quality of the panting itself, its richness of color and line, its enjoyment of the senses.
Panel Discussion: Lansner, Bourgeois, Baker, Nemser, Voadka and others. Y.M.C.A., New York, January 1972. Also taped and broadcast over WBAI/FM radio, New York.
Statement by Fay Lansner
To be an artist is to be a soul. In this day of liberated consciousness we should no longer separate the psyche into strict boundaries of masculine and feminine. We all long for the essential unity in love and the binding of separate identities in unity.
It seems strange that after long years of psychological advance, we have not yet come to accept the duality of the spirit, which is both masculine and feminine, the neutrality of the art object, and the anonymity of material.
In Paris at a recent demonstration, someone shouted, “All power to the phallus!” and Simone de Beauvoir said, “I believe we will begin to revise this myth because women are now taking militant steps, independent of men.”
The fact that a problem such as gender in art comes up today is a social and political response to the vast changes that are occurring in our turbulent and swift times. In our over mechanized and technological society we must all meet the task of becoming human. The work load can no longer be divided as if this were the nineteenth century. The inevitable changes are forcing women out of the “image playing” roles into a life of reality. Unfortunately the history of oppression is too long and it will take time for women to find their genuine roles. As women become more aware and participate in society, the patriarchal male who inherited his role without asking for it will become freer too. The question should be phrased, “Does discrimination have a gender?”
I have always believed in the intellectual and spiritual equity of the sexes, but that biologically we are made to adapt to each other.
I think all artists, male and female, share the same tradition. Most of the art I admire has been created by men and I submerged myself willingly in their vision when I felt an affinity. But the content of my painting is the exploration of the self and its transcendence.
I paint out of inner experience and conflict, and have therefore inevitably projected my anxieties and contradictions.
I use the female image and form to explore my identity and I want an organic form true to the sensation and inner life which can show the possibilities of transformation and metamorphosis. Art is revelation! But how a woman artist uses the female form is not necessarily different from the way a man uses it. Not that men do not use a subjective form (Giacometti, Balthus, etc.), but rather everyone’s subjectivity is unique.
On the objective level the plastic reality is the knowledge of modern painting and that long stretch of history which begins with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Whether a new aesthetic can develop only from the vision of women now awaits us.
I have tried to make a totality of my experience, past, present, future. Perhaps we can call it “Maximum Painting,” meaning adding onto, instead of subtracting. My painting seems to leap into the reality of my life, uncharted. In looking at my images I may love them, hate them, but when pure form tempts me, I am afraid of losing my heart to my mind.
The singular human effort that makes art is the constant submerging to a structure and order, and the unique development which comes out of concentration and discovery. This is true for both genders.
But Gertrude Stein said, “The male genius in Picasso and Matisse and Moi Aussi, perhaps.” Perhaps “perhaps” is our next step.
In a decade that parses the vocabulary of minimal decay, perversely one finds it more difficult to uncover and to praise the work of those artists who have labored in more difficult gardens, whose dedication has been more to the discovery of principles and adherence to the honesty of difficult learning, rather than the allure of instant fame or commercial conceit.
It was my particular fortune to be on scene during the 1950’s and 1960’s when Art, as our era was to know it, was emerging from its chrysalis of more sky than mammon. It was a kind of coming of age on the American cultural scene with the added flavors of Europeanism, brief as it was, and even frequently fictive in its laurels.
But for that time it was just where we all wished to be-New York-the U.S.A., the Cedar Bar, Hans Hofmann’s classes, and following the alert seerers, the critics of the art magazines, the editors, the occasional professor, and the excitement of the galleries.
This is enough of an introduction to what is to follow: an appreciation of an artist whom I met in the 1950’s, whose work has been of a consistent fine caliber, and whose dedication to her craft, her art, her ideals has been continuous.
I first saw Fay Lansner’s work at the Hansa Gallery on 59th Street in New York, ensconced romantically in its brownstone, facing Central Park. She was exhibiting along with Jan Muller, Jane Wilson, and Wolf Kahn. These were artists who were deviates from the rampant Abstract-Expressionism of the period. I use the word ‘deviates,’ because although they were all certainly influenced by the art theories of the school of Hans Hofmann, were certainly devoted admirers of Abstract-Expressionism, they had banded together at the Hansa Gallery because they each viewed the current idiom from a different frame. Each sought to strike a blow, to make a breakthrough in a somewhat different idiom than that of deKooning or Pollock or Kline, to mention the names whose work, of course, they admired.
“We need mystery and wonder.” Fay Lansner
Fay Lansner was born in Philadelphia, the daughter of Russian émigré parents. She grew up in a household transplanted from Russia, one in which the parents were still involved with the ideas they had carried to the U.S with them-political and philosophical idealism, socialist in cast which were to form a background for the young girl, separating her from the usual Americanisms to which she and her friends still remained “foreign.” She went to Socialist camps in the summer. She read Russian novels and sang Yiddish songs. She and the other girls dressed in “socialist” uniforms. What imaginations and definitions those parents had!
I believe it is necessary in looking at the artist’s work to be aware of her background, because the elements which gathered into her painting are all there in her past, as they are in all of us, and hers differ from other painters in the fantasy, the romanticism, the drama which is always prevalent in the painting, which took foothold in a foreign country.
Once she and I were talking about the delicious potatoes the farmers were harvesting in the Hamptons on Long Island, and how good they tasted when freshly picked. “I always think of Tolstoi,” Fay said to me. “Do you remember the harvesting in War and Peace, how after the labor the water tasted and the wonderful potatoes?” I am convinced that she was the only person on Long Island to relate those potatoes to the ones in a Russian novel. Yet to Fay Lansner the association was both obvious and ordinary.
After attending the Tyler School of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Fay Lansner came to New York City and studied at Columbia University with Susanne Langer. Later she entered the Art Student’s League. After her marriage to Kermit Lansner and two years at Kenyon College where her husband was teaching Philosophy and helpful associations with the keen faculty of the college and its summer school of English-Ransom, Lowell, Empson, Hardwick, Tate, Burke and other poets, writers and critics- the Lansners returned to New York City. She resumed her studies with Hans Hofmann and was introduced to her fellow students-Jan Muller, Wolf Kahn, Larry Rivers, Jean Follet, Grace Hartigan. Within a few years she had enlarged her friendships, changed from a student into a painter and was further continuing her art studies with a whole new group of young painters emerging on the scene who later were to be known as Second Generation Abstract-Expressionists.
Whereas the other students were concentrating on abstraction and its tenets as laid down by Hans Hofmann, Fay Lansner was concentrating on the figure. She says she wanted to do a Twentieth Century figure. As simple as that! She was demanding a great deal of herself. Not a realist painting, not a social documentary, not realism per se, but the desire to develop the language of the body as she could interpret it in twentieth century terms.
She wanted to indicate that the model came out of nature, the model was part of nature. The model, the figure, was her starting point. This is also true when as in many of her drawings the work appears to be totally abstract, it still derives directly from the figure. The figure found its way into the artist’s concentration on space, those principles of space heavily defined by Hans Hofmann.
In her paintings and pastels we witness the figure, or figures in what we can call the drama of the psyche. There is a hush, a fragmentation just before the figure begins to move into is action. Or there is a reclining figure from which emanates those dreams, thoughts, ambivalencies which melt into the halo of color encircling it.
Fay Lansner has said: “I want an organic form true to sensation and inner life which can show the possibility of transformation and metamorphosis.” That is the air which these figures breathe. They are women involved in life, yet women who sometimes take a step backward from life to view it soberly as an aid to decisions. It was in the 1950’s that these dramatic forms began to take over her painting. And ever since that time her pictures are notable for the intensity of their dramas.
We learn more about the dramas through color, for to Fay Lansner, “color is information.” A beautiful and deliberate way of describing the usefulness of color. “Information.” Of course as she also notes, the color also intensifies the picture. Color is used as light, as line. Color is also given symbolic meanings. There are the oppositions of light and dark, birth and day. I also believe that it should be noted that she is such a natural colorist, because Lansner also draws very naturally, with an ease by forcing the draughtsmanship upon our attention. In the way that her pastels appear to float from space and settles themselves with no apparent effort upon the paper.
Lansner’s desire to revive the figure was an emotional necessity. The content of the painting, the figures in the painting are there to carry the seed of feeling. She wished to return to primary truths, to the instincts. This determination to rely on instinct and nature might possibly have been a reaction to the group of intellectuals whom she began to meet when she and her husband went to Paris in the early 1950’s. Those were the greedy years in Paris of Existentialism when philosophy took a precedence over aesthetics in the cafes and lecture rooms. However, it is also true that a certain kind of existentialism entered Lansner’s painting; she became attracted to it and to the theory of opposites, which she translated as thought as opposed to feeling, ideas opposed to instincts. Yet it was existentialism that underlined her dependence on the real world in which people were dependent upon one another-bodies leaning toward or away from one another-not, as in pure abstraction, lines or squares forcing themselves upon space. Or even as in Abstract-Expressionism when the painting acts as a mirror for the activities and expressions of the artist.
Writing about Marie Laurencin, Apollinaire said: “Women bring to art a new vision, full of the joy of life.” What Apollinaire did not say was that women have learned that they must fight to be happy. Fay Lansner has realized that women must fight for their happiness in order to bring forth joy. And that is what many of these paintings are about: the difficult birth of joy. The uncovering of the layers, the bareness of the unconsciousness, and its exposure to ambiguity. These paintings are ambiguous. They are at once gay and sad, disturbed and calm. Color intensifies and lessens. Her paintings are translations of experience. Not in the gesture of the painter’s stroke, but in the silence of their difficult atmospheres. These pictures attain an awareness, existing as they do at the center of light and color.
Lansner has said that the inner relationships of the figures in her paintings make the composition. These are not exterior arrangements, or as one might say, “this is a landscape, this is a moodscape, this the artificial moon. Or even that this is a dress.” The figures are not supposed to correspond to the laws of traditional composition. The artist wishes to make a new space with figures from the unconscious appearing almost willfully. Of course we know they are carefully constructed according to certain laws, but we are supposed to discover them, as if entering a room, one is surprised to find someone occupying it.
All she is saying is: “I want life.”
In Lansner’s charcoal drawings of an earlier period she did experiment with the control of space through the architecture of Cubism. And in this book we can see those drawings, and also the later developments when the Cubist principles resolved into “swirls” – the cube going up in smoke. And although these drawings were interrupted, we can discover that they never left home, as it were. They entered into later development. Specifically, the very newest paintings of Lansner indicate this relationship.
Now the particularization of the figure gives way to the circle or triangle. Still working from the figure, she is relieving if of its features. That is, the realism of the body is finding itself “emptied” out. The way I would describe these latest paintings is to say that they story has been left out. There is no longer any dialogue. The exceptions, of course, are the quite brilliant lithographs with their reliance on collage.
Briefly, the concentration is the same, only the area is different.
These latest pictures are playful. We caught a glimpse of this playfulness much earlier in the painting with the nose of a sun, the arabesques of people gamboling about, relaxed and tossing their skirts. Now the sun shines without a nose!
One experiences these latest paintings in a different way. I miss the autobiographical content of the earlier paintings. (This “autobiography” , by the way, was what attracted Lansner to Pollock’s work. It was not his schematic drips. She was able to discover the private story within the seeming abstraction, like relieved us of content she still gives us a thread to follow, the line of creativity leading up to the freshest experience of the artists.)
Fay Lansner used to say: “Two and two are four, but when I make a painting they’re five.”
It’s pretty rare to be given five when we only expected, if we were lucky, four. It’s generosity in all these paintings, pastels, drawings, collages, the emptying out of self, displaying the self, that is, the giving of self, that has made the painting of Fay Lansner such an entity, so different, so difficult, even isolated from the sparse work of others, or the hints other painters delicately bestow and hastily remove.
Remaining consistent to her ideals, refusing to compromise with current and fashion, Fay Lansner has not only displayed courage, she has even risked the charge of obsessiveness. As is refusing to substitute an axe for a motor were indicative of narrowness, and changing one’s vote at the polls, open-mindedness.
I am perplexed, moved, delighted by the work of Fay Lansner. She does not set out to astonish me. I become involved with her work. The pictures are the road that passes through the villages, that leads to the top of the mountain, that leads around the mountain to the next village. And in each village I see a head, or a face, or enjoy the movement of a body as it turns toward me.
Let’s begin at the beginning, Fay. From what sort of background do you come?
I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania of Russian parents and lived in a small circle of Russian émigré families. It was like an extended family. My mother’s friends spoke Russian together and we spoke Yiddish at home.
How did you decide to become an artist?
My artistic heritage came from my background. My father was artistic and musical; but it was more of an intellectual milieu. My parents and friends used to have long political-intellectual discussions sitting around a table, drinking tea and talking for hours. They took us often to the theatre and concerts; but they were not knowledgeable in art. I started to draw as a child. I remember being thrown out of classes for drawing in my notebooks instead of writing.
Was there encouragement from your family?
They encouraged me to express myself, but they didn’t encourage me to become an artist. They didn’t think I could sustain myself through art.
Fay, tell me about your early art education. Where did you study? With whom?
I studied fashion design and drawing in Philadelphia. I discovered that I really wanted to learn how to draw. We were constantly drawing the female figure for fashion drawings, but it was frustrating; we were taught to depict the superficial aspects of the figure instead of the essential ones. To study drawing thoroughly, I went to Tyler School of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. This was just after World War II; veterans were coming back from the army and the classes were full and lively. Tyler is a part of Temple University, outside the city proper and away from the mid-city campus. The large buildings housed ceramic and sculpture studios, and classrooms for drawing, painting, and the history of art.
Were you introduced to modern art in Tyler?
No, Tyler was very strong on technique. We learned the actual technical processes employed by the Old Masters. Each year they sent us to the museums to copy a Fifteenth or Sixteenth Century painting. I wanted to copy a Picasso, and no one there could teach me. In any case, every one was absorbed in techniques, but many students absorbed them so terribly well they never forgot them. After two years, I left Tyler and came to New York to study modern art.
In New York you went to Columbia University and the Arts Students League.
At Columbia I studied aesthetics with Suzanne Langer. Intent on becoming a painter, I enrolled at the Arts Students League. There I went to a class with Vytlacil who had been a former Hofmann student. It was crowded, frustrating; he had fifty people to criticize every week. Vytlacil was a good critic but didn’t have a deeper understanding of the forces the make for a good painting.
At the same time you were being introduced to modern art.
There we were on 57th Street. There were relatively few galleries then, but I remember walking down 57th Street and going to superb shows at the Kurt Valentine Gallery. Those shows alone, taken one by one, were the education. Of course, the Museum of Modern Art had the most interesting retrospectives, and we could see Cezanne at Knoedler and the Metropolitan.
When you studied with Suzanne Langer, you were evidently interested in aesthetics.
Yes, I was extremely sympathetic to her ideas. In 1948 she was writing her book Philosophy in a New Key and reading us the chapters as quickly as she wrote them. I worked on a thesis on Kandinsky that year.
While all this was going on you met Kermit Lansner and later married him. Would you tell me a little bit about that side of your life?
Kermit was a graduate student in philosophy at Columbia. We met in 1947, lived together and married.
What was he doing then?
Kermit had come out of the Navy, studied psychology at Princeton, and was reading philosophy with Ernest Nagel. He was a terrific writer, involved in literature and art. But bowing to the fact of marriage, he took a job at Kenyon College.
That was a very exciting time at Kenyon.
The Summer School of English was famous, drew fascinating people, and we stayed for the first two summer schools. William Empson had come from China bringing beautiful tomb rubbings. I still have one. Kenneth Burke came and Robert Lowell had just married Elizabeth Hardwick. Alfred Kazin was there and Delmore Schwartz. Meyer Shapiro spoke and Dylan Thomas and L.C. Knight came from England and read. John Crowe Ransom, the poet, was teaching there. We knew him because we were often at his house with other students and professors. I had no first hand acquaintance with the literary world before. I was allowed to come to the seminars. I always had read a lot, but now I started reading voraciously. Visiting lecturers came from all over the world.
You continued to paint through this period?
I studied Cubism then, copying what seemed an infinite number of Gris and Picasso Cubist drawings. In the summer I went to Provincetown to study with Hofmann. The following winter I went back to New York and studied with Hofmann again. At Kenyon there was only a tiny studio in the back of a basement room with a furnace in it. I remember the furnace fumes mixed with the linseed oil very well.
You studied with Hofmann the summer of 1948 and then went back to New York and studied through 1949. Tell me a little about Hofmann School, its importance to you.
I wasn’t prepared for the reversal in my thinking, in my method of approaching art. There was no emphasis on the technical processes which had been the core of all I previously had been taught. Hofmann focused on the creative process and what that meant; we talked about it, we wondered about it, we questioned ourselves. Until then, I don’t think that I had understood the kind of drawing that Hofmann taught. His approach came from Cubism, but included intuition, as well as Cubist space, as part of the primary process. This combination of the intuitive and the intellectual was absolutely unique to Hofmann. I did study later with Leger but he was not able to teach Cubism, or formulate an approach to art through its means.
And Hofmann could.
This must have been an absolutely marvelous time. Your class in the Hofmann School included Jan Muller, Wolf Kahn, Stankiewicz, Jean Follett, Miles Forst, Grace Hartigan, Michael Loew, Al Leslie, Larry Rivers, John Grillo, Milton Resnick, Pat Passloff.
What fledglings we all were. There was a definite feeling of growth. We did what you might call standard Hofmann drawings. When we finally learned the method we were good. But to go beyond that was really the aim, and Hofmann communicated this. Hofmann understood that each person is unique and must express himself in his own individual way. After two years with Hofmann we went to Europe. I studied with Leger, a disappointing experience. Now, I understand Leger was old and only wanted to teach his own particular method. He would set up the models as if he was going to do a still life of his own. He expected the kind of drawing you’d get if you copied a Leger. I remember when he came to my (Hofmannesque) drawing and he commented favorably, much to everybody’s surprise and mine. It was not rewarding after three months, I left the class. I thought I would try Andre Lhote, but that was worse. Andre Lhote was more boring than Leger. He would set up a classical model, take a Poussin painting, for instance, and set four or five models, exactly like the painting with the same color drapes in the background. Why not go to the Louvre and copy a Poussin for heaven’s sakes?
UNEDITED: When you returned to New York you probably got to know Pollock and certainly the work of the older generation of abstract expressionists. What was your response to that work at the time?
We all knew Pollock and his work. We knew Gorky’s work, we knew the work of the Europeans and the Surrealists. When you speak about the older generation, you’re not yet talking about de Kooning because he didn’t come onto the scene until the late 1940s.
UNEDITIED: In 1948, which made an enormous impression...
In 1948 I was struggling and trying to formulate my own vision. I didn’t regard Pollock as someone I should emulate. I understood him intellectually and argued about him but I was in too much awe to emulate him. Hofmann had taught that painting must come from nature, and Pollock, at that time didn’t seem to come from nature. (Although now I understand that he does. ) Some artists...Al Leslie, Grace Hartigan...were absolutely wild about Pollock and brought Pollock-like painting into Hofmann’s studio class. Hofmann didn’t respond very well; he felt they were too abstract. He wanted each artist to use his own particular nature and not imitate.
This was also the time of the very large Bonnard show, and many young artists of your generation were very taken with it, but I don’t think the older Abstract Expressionists were.
Yes. I knew the work of Bonnard, but I remember the Matisse retrospective in Philadelphia which preceded the one in New York; that was what excited me. Hofmann had studied with Matisse, so I felt a direct link to Matisse though Hofmann. Also I was aware of the Barnes Foundation studies in Matisse, which were extremely thorough, tracing him from the Persians, the Venetians to the impressionists.
The inspiration of Matisse is a long continuing fact in your entire career.
I could never make up my mind whether I was or was not an Expressionist and the ambivalence in me went in many ways. I was drawn to Matisse for his purity, classicism, and joy, for all the qualities I wished for. But I also felt by nature rather violence, impulsive, chaotic, and given to impulsive expression and those two qualities fought all the time. Then I was drawn to the work of de Kooning.
I think that you’re not really conveying your feeling for Matisse, that it’s more complicated. But there are other influences. Cezanne for example. I’m sure he must have been a great love from almost the very beginning.
Cezanne was a deep love, as was late Rembrandt. I loved Cezanne but I never hoped to come close to him; he seemed really in the Pantheon. Matisse was someone I could identify with because of his spontaneity, naturalness, his lyricism. In 1950, I began to use the Fauvist techniques of putting down color. I started with tiny little dots like the pointillists and then the dots became little brush strokes depending on the size of the brush, and then the brush strokes became a little longer, maybe two inches long, put down next to the other in complementary oppositions of color. But it didn’t act on the eye the way the Fauve paintings did. There was more impulsiveness in the way I did the strokes, so they didn’t fuse exactly the same way.
In Paris, you exhibited at Gallery Huit and were friendly with the American artists who started Gallery Huit.
Yes, Otilski showed there it; it was the first gallery I showed in. It had been in existence for a year and I was asked to join. I had met some of the artists at Leger’s school. Americans, Israelis, Swiss; we were an international colony of non-Parisians. Nell Blaine gave me her studio off the Rue Notre Dame de Champs, in back of Zadkine’s studio where he was teaching sculpture.
What was the work that you exhibited like?
Drawings and pastels from Leger’s class, and the work I had been doing that year; heads, portraits, figures...turning from abstraction to figuration.
Then you did pain abstract pictures.
The first years, 1948-1950.
Then when you were in Paris your work was abstract.
In Paris the work started to become...figurative abstract...based on the laws of abstract painting and of Cubism. I wanted to draw heads and figures of our time, the Twentieth Century.
But at this time, was your work explicitly abstract?
The motif was generally from the figure. There are two kinds of abstract painting. There are painters who are always allied with the landscape, and there are painters who take their inspiration from the figure. I’m in the latter group. I also do still life and the landscape. Generally, though, the form derives from the figure itself as the basic motif.
Fay, you never took a programmatic position toward abstraction or figuration; you more or less saw your work as being in both camps.
In the early Fifties I became more interested in the narrative aspects of figuration; the figure not as an isolated idea, but the figure as an idea. As I am female, I identify with the female figure (which was all we drew anyway in art classes). I started to make these figures and to vary the technique in terms of the oppositions of their ideas and their feelings.
One of the things about your work, Fay, is that you never seem to abandon anything. It might be transformed, be changed. For example, in your abstractions of 1948, the same kinds of forms, of ideas continue to develop, are transformed, i.e., quoted and carried further.
I think that’s true. I feel that abstraction is the basic armature, the architecture on which all painting rests, and I certainly wouldn’t want to give it up. It’s the foundation of what we know as Twentieth Century artists. But there are moments or periods when one is obsessed with certain ideas, one wants to develop certain ideas and therefore one is focused much more directly on a specific task. When I began my early figurative works, I was so focused on the idea of making a Twentieth Century figure that I forgot abstraction for the moment, the problem was too huge. I tried from very many different points of view. I always felt that I wasn’t succeeding if I made the figure too round, because then it had too much perspective. If I made it too realistic, it was too Nineteenth Century. If I made it too flat there wasn’t any feeling in it. There were always problems in painting the figure. It seemed the most difficult problem in modern painting.
What you really wanted to do then, Fay, was somehow grab the figure in a modern sense, in an Existential sense, a very felt sense. This was the time of Existentialism in Paris. Did that make an impression on you?
Yes, Paris in 1950 was very exciting. I would walk to the corner, from my hotel on Rue Bonaparte to the Deux Magots, and see Sartre sitting there with his students. His college was about two doors down from that cafe, and he would take his students there to read and write. Existentialism was talked about in limited circles at that time, only a few intellectuals were aware of the ideas. Now we understand Existential ideas are real. They exist and have true meaning. But then it was local. And I was excited. The ideas were ripe and beautiful, they touched me, and I knew I wanted to make an Existential painting. I didn’t know how to go about it at the time. I approached the idea of the dialectic; I used varieties of oppositions, of feelings, of ideas, oppositions of states of mind, and oppositions of technique. Through those oppositions, a dialogue took form on the canvas which might, perhaps, be called Existential painting.
UNEDITED: What we have then, Fay, is on the one hand a sense that you have a conception of a modern picture, what it takes to make a modern picture. On the other hand, there’s a feeling you have for the figure and how that feels and means, and all of the expression you can put into that figure. It seems that your enterprise is to fuse, to weld, the underlying thrust in your work.
Yes, and I think that there are...antagonisms, because what I constantly feel is the conflict of trying to put these forces together. If I didn’t try to put them together I wouldn’t paint or I wouldn’t make the pictures that I do.
Aside from the artists you met in Paris, you met a number of people close to Matisse. Georges Duthuit, Pierre Schneider. What role did these people play in your life?
Pierre was also a Fulbright student. He was writing articles on art and literature and we became friends. Kermit was writing for the Kenyon Review and we would see each other. After a year he (Pierre) began to work for Georges Duthuit, and subsequently he bought us to Duthuit’s house to see his collections of African and modern art. Duthuit was married to Matisse’s daughter Margueritte and he had a magnificent Matisse collection in his house. Duthuit was Malraux’s nemesis. Malraux was a hero then and Duthuit wrote Anti Memoires which refuted Malraux’s thesis and a great battle was on.
This would have intensified your interest in Matisse....
Yes...Matisse (whose work I hadn’t studied as intensively as Picasso’s) must have begun to enter my consciousness then. I admired Matisse, obviously.
The one person we haven’t brought into this discussion is Picasso. At the Hofmann School, I’m sure you were very aware of Picasso and his work.
At the Hofmann School itself there was no particular interest in studying Picasso’s work. I had studied Picasso’s work on my own, the year or two before. In my studio I tacked up reproductions of paintings of Picasso, of Matisse. Sometimes I would copy them, sometimes I would analyze formal elements. But Picasso fascinated me as a human being too. I was curious about his creativity and I fantasized all kinds of good things about him; I thought he was a god.
What would it have been about the work itself that you found valuable.
The excitement of creation seemed exemplary in Picasso. His unending liveliness, fecundity, inspiration, ideas, his unending creativity fascinated me. He seemed the greatest example of the living artist in the Twentieth Century.
What about his way of making a picture? His Cubist picture making? This whole notion of modern structure in painting.
Picasso’s great importance lies in the fact that he thoroughly understood Cezanne and many other great artists. He grasped their essence. I suppose I was searching for the key to Picasso’s creative essence. I don’t think one can really explore that verbally, because creativity is very mysterious. One can talk about aspects of the mystery, get hints of it, but never the total thing.
In 1951 you came back to New York, Fay, and you began to frequent places like the Club, where you met Kline, de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Elaine de Kooning, and other people in the New York vanguard. By this time, however, your work was very much your own.
I was struggling then. I was trying for a new kind of statement with my own kinds of forms, a new kind of space....I had hopes...it seemed to me a beginning. I had been in New York before, but now I was back from Europe. There were still many bonds between the Hofmann students, bonds that have held until the present, that (curiously) never disappear. I don’t know whether it was simply being young or being where the ideas were more accessible or where artistic freedom was assured, but it was a unique, special time.
Your suggesting that it didn’t feel heroic.
Well, I think the media has done a very good job on all of us. We are called on to be heroic whether we felt that era to be heroic or not.
By this time, Fay, you were a figurative artist. There were many young figurative artists. Indeed, in 1954, you showed at the Hansa Gallery with Jan Muller, Wolf Kahn, Jane Wilson, George Segal, who were indeed figurative artists.
It is unfortunate that all those individual artists have to be lumped together under the misleading heading “figurative.” Think how different Jan Muller is from George Segal or Wolf Kahn from Jane Wilson! In the Fifties no one distinguished between them. Abstract painting was riding very high, and everything else was lumped under “figurative” art, which didn’t really explain it. Even now, there is little attempt to differentiate between styles, techniques, aims and goals.
Did you feel any pressure or any kind of bias against the work that you were doing because your subject was the human figure?
Do you mean the female figure, Irving? It seemed to me that to go backward to the Eighteenth or Nineteenth Century in figuration was absurd.
But you do suggest, Fay, that there were camps at the time?
There were some artists who had common aims and there were others who did not work in a “group.” I had always worked independently; I wanted to create my own style. The form and style were generated by the ideas.
Did you find a sympathetic audience in New York for your work?
Not yet then, but, the American Abstract Expressionists were being very well received, and the next generation felt the overflow of this appreciation. It seemed easier for us than it was for them.
You exhibited at the Hansa Gallery in 1954, ’56, and ’58.
Remember that in 1954 there were only twenty or thirty galleries for American art. But the few galleries that did exist and did show American modern paintings were well received. People talked about each new show that was put on. It was a constant subject of conversation. Nothing went unnoticed.
The Hansa was a cooperative gallery where the artists organized and ran the gallery.
Yes, several galleries on 10th Street showed young artists. In 1950, a group of ex-students of Hofmann opened a gallery downtown called the Hansa Gallery. A year or two later they moved it uptown to see if that could improve its commercial prospects. Although the Fifties were a struggle, eventually everyone shown in Hansa began to be received very well by the public.
The earliest pictures reproduced in the book, Fay, are pictures from 1948. These are abstract paintings. Could you talk a little about your intention then?
They’re abstract in structure but if you look carefully, you can see that the figure is the starting point. I was interesting in drawing the negative and positive spaces in and around the figure and the space. And the figure is the armature. The idea in drawing space is to render it as a two-dimensional surface. But, to begin with, the model is three-dimensional, round, has circular forms in her arms, legs, head, in the bosom and stomach. To render this flat and to render the spaces between the various parts of the body is a mathematical idea, calculating the relationships of the spaces between the various parts of the body.
This is very much an abstract Cubist picture (page 54): The references to the figure are remote.
I had done many studies of Cubist paintings (after Juan Gris, for instance) but the idea of drawing directly from the model and not making it representational was a challenge to see it differently.
In 1948 I began to do figurative drawings which I considered an objective rendering of a model in space. But in 1951, in the figurative paintings, a necessary subjectivity was emerging. These subjective concerns began surfacing in some of the abstractions. I couldn’t take them out, and so I overloaded some of the abstractions. If some of the representational elements were left in, it was no longer strict abstract painting. One had to be very clear and prune very carefully. In 1951 I decided to hell with it; I was just going to let the subjective elements speak for themselves as much as they could and if that was forcing me to work in this particular way I was going to let it happen. So I did.
And at that point, your work becomes explicitly representational.
Yes, but subjective...
Yet the subjective element was not accepted then. The figurative mode was emerging; many people were working on it. My problem became: to render the subjective in an objective way.
This is very interesting. I think that there is a strong Symbolist strain in your work, Symbolist the way that Redon is. But much of your work in the Fifties seems to refer (art historically) to Matisse or Bonnard; one almost falls into thinking about your subject matter in their terms but it simply isn’t so at all. Your figures tend to be very otherworldly, strange, much more out of a kind of dream than out of reality.
Or of a painful subjectivity that I wanted to disguise in a more objective style. Here (p 11 reversal) is a portrait, of myself as a painter, holding brushes, very resolute. I wanted that to swing upwards into space, with an opposing, upside-down portrait, a ghastly figure, descending. But the artist was ascendant. Actually, it’s a love-hate portrait of my mother and me: the double fate, the antagonism between the generations.
There is very much a kind of life death opposition in this work, Fay. But in this picture, Self Portrait (page 16), everything seems to change from the earlier abstract work. The brushwork, for example, is very visible, very strong, very articulated; no more quasi-geometric planes, no more pressed brushwork.
That work (page 11) was done after coming back from Paris to New York in 1952 during the beginning of the excitement of Abstract Expressionism. Perhaps this accounts for the loosening up of the brushwork in this painting.
Did the loosening up of the brushwork have any other kinds of meaning? I remember around that time many artists thought it was a more honest way to paint.
Not only that it was more honest. It seemed that it was the only option. The only way one could think about painting.
Your pictures of this period also begin to grow in size.
I think that’s the influence of the Abstract Expressionists. Their monumentality impressed me. There is an identity implicit in size, an idea which I transmuted into personal identity. In Sacred and Profane Love (page 15), one of the Metamorphosis series, I started with collage elements and drawing elements. They are various states of feelings and states of being. A small self-portrait in the top upper middle probably came from the one ON PAGE 16, a pastel drawing. Other parts, drawing elements, came from drawings and collage. When I started to make these paintings, I put the drawings in various spaces on the floor or on canvas and found spaces for them. This resembled the old method of doing the drawing first and then painting, but not a copy. I always tried to make a very direct painting—drawing directly in the paint. The elements of technique were definitely Abstract Expressionist, and some of the drawing elements were Classical.
Your pictures of the late Fifties seem to bring together various ways of handling images, a very free painterly style that refers back to your work of the earlier Fifties. The image is juxtaposed alongside an image simplified, yet very gestural, very free. Simplification and diversity.
At the time, I was exploring images of the self while trying to define what that particular self was. Since I couldn’t fix on one absolute image as the end result, I decided to show the varieties of images. So it seemed to follow that one would show the unfolding of varieties of thought that went into the making of these images.
What is your own feeling now in recollection? Several times as we’ve been talking the word “pain” has come up.
Painting is a joyful process. But pain often provoked the subject matter. For instance, take The Sacrifice, which was painted in Paris in 1956 and was later shown at the Hansa Gallery. It is autobiographical. A passive woman is stretched out looking rather anguished and helpless, with a couple of demons, withdrawn in in rage and anger, in the upper left corner. There is a sun and a moon and the Taoist symbol of yin-yang in the middle and a doll-figure. The idea was the woman and the masks, the child, the doll and the masks are one as in a dialectic exchange.
Other works, Fay, have very strong sensuous dimension like The Beginning (page 21).
If you compare the two pictures, Sacrifice and The Beginning, I think you’ll see a distinct difference, not in subject matter but in attitudes. The Beginning has a sensuous feeling. It uses very hot reds. At that time I was experimenting with reds and pinks, magenta reds, hot pinks and pink violets, all the colors that I felt expressed heat and sensuality.
Later on, Fay, your work becomes simpler, certainly in drawing and brushwork, and one sees the introduction of geometric elements either in the background or very frequently framing the figure.
Yes. I went through a gradual change, starting with a divided color brush stroke, in opposing complementaries. At first I made very small strokes; they got a little larger, then they got a little longer. Now, making a brush stroke, I simply use a sweep of an arm. In many paintings I will simply pick up the brush and sweep it over the entire painting. But you’re talking now about simplifying the elements, simplifying the design, simplifying the dialectic.
...between the figure and the geometry. When you use the word dialectic, how do you see the opposition?
In the pictures of the Fifties, I was trying to show the oppositions on the same canvas; the opposition of hope and fear, dark and light, or the juxtaposition of life and death. And in the Sixties the intention changes somewhat. In the Sixties, I did not use the dialectic form as frequently although I still refer to it in oppositions of color or, in very severe oppositions of shape and forms.
You have in these pictures a strong opposition between organic and biomorphic figures; the curvilinear figure and the rather angular geometry.
I don’t know whether it was the subconscious or if it arrived through the process of painting and elimination. I believe it was the latter.
As much as geometry, one of the qualities you achieve through simplification is a very heightened color. Is that one of the considerations in the change?
No, not exactly. That may be the result of subtraction, but the heightening is more directly the result of eliminating the extraneous.
In the 1950s, in a picture such as Metamorphosis I, there is a very strong feeling of collage in the juxtaposition of images. Somewhere in the back of your mind you were using a collage method.
Indeed I was, but what’s interesting is that I never made collage in those years and now I’m making collage for the first time. In the last four years, I’ve been doing silk screen paper collages, while then, I was making a lot of pastel drawings. But I did use my drawing in the paintings, as spaces of collage elements, and also direct drawings in the paint.
If there’s any element that is uppermost in your work, it’s painterly drawing, a particular kind if drawing where you actually draw with the brush and this seems to exist in all of your work from 1951 on. It’s certainly the way in which you determine and define figures in your work.
Drawing has always been a very important part of my work, has always been (for me) the freest, the most spontaneous way to see an object. I have never stopped drawing. I believe, as Matisse, drawing and painting are one; they’re indivisible.
And your method of drawing is with the brush. Did you ever see your pictures are humorous?
No, but other people do. Drawing is exploratory; it enables me to see, enables me to feel and to see what I’m thinking. I used to draw....half of the painting day would be spent drawing and the rest would be spent painting. I would like to draw with my eyes closed like de Kooning, but it never occurred to me to do that. I always open my eyes when I draw.
Do you draw from the model?
Yes. I draw from the model, and also I don’t draw from the model. I draw from my imagination, from my feeling, from my idea, from sensation, and from the object. Nature. It’s very important to have some sort of model, a reference one can spring to and from.
In general, Fay, what would you like your pictures to do?
I would like them to give a sensation of individual identity. Women often react this way, men less so (even though the objective elements are there). Men don’t seem to identify with the content, the life-size figures or anguished heads, or the disappointed dolls or...things like that. But they do identify...they identify with the paint as such and with the poetry.
You....as a woman; your conception of yourself as a woman seems to be a very important consideration in your work.
Defining myself as a woman (which began in these paintings a long time ago) was intentional. I deliberately made images of the self. It was a taboo subject, but not only the taboo fascinated me. I was exploring my identity, and in many ways I did this though my pictures. But in the end one wants them to be recognized as art first.
This introduction of your identity as a woman to the content of your work comes much before the feminist movement as it has emerged in the last couple of years. In that sense, I think your work may be prophetic.
I had been aware of Simone de Beauvoir in Paris, and had read her books long before Betty Friedan’s books came out, but this really had nothing to do with the content of my painting. It was my own particular search and it was my own particular defiance. The art world was doing the most exciting things that I had ever seen. The Abstract Expressionists were giving us images of the self though abstraction, but through this kind of figuration I was beginning to paint images of myself as a woman.
Do you feel that that element as strongly in your recent work?
It’s funny. Since having participated in the feminist art movement for a few years, I find much less need for this kind of self-definition. It’s as if the feminist movement has given us our political image, at last, and now I can go back to the real concerns of painting, pure painting. But actually one moves from one painting to the next because there are other things one could fuse.
Do you consider your more recent work more objective than these new paintings?
I know these new paintings are more objective, yet I’m not objective. But I think a different kind of passion went into the earlier paintings than went into the later ones. I seem to have more clarity now. That translates immediately. What seems primary now is color. It seems sharper, clearer. But whether the painting should be an abstraction or figurative, that really doesn’t matter to me too much. They can fuse now or be separate.
But it’s changed...there is more resolution. Why do you put certain reproductions of paintings on your wall here?
Because I’m fascinated with the forms...
I see winged monsters...
You see what? Winged monsters? And angels?
I’m fascinated with winged forms, and wings, and protuberances that look like wings in flight. Things like that have been fascinating me for a long time. We don’t believe in winged angels anymore but we would like to: as symbols for hope.
And then you have Assyrian....Well that’s a winged figure.
All of these photographs have wings in them.
And a reproduction of a late de Kooning woman, and a Nick Marsciano woman next to one of your old pictures. And then a series of Giacometti’s heads. Oh, the Matisse heads...Two pictures of de Kooning. Does de Kooning in your own thinking assume a kind of importance that Picasso has?
De Kooning, because of his European heritage, became the link in my transition from Paris to New York. I didn’t wan to forget the lessons I had learned in the European museums. His energy was American, but his line, drawing, and painterliness related Europe to now. He is the most intelligent painter. His great “Madonnas” of the 50s became for me the “devouring Mothers.”
Then you have Leger’s studio...
These are his palettes...it is in his studio, but what fascinated me was the paint piled up like that. And there’s Venice in flood...civilization sinking...a lost civilization.
I want to turn it around now and look at your work from another point of view. Frank O’Hara once had a theory called Personism. He said he wanted to write poetry with one person in mind as a direct communication or conversation. Is there an ideal viewer?
Yes, but I don’t think of it at all like that. What I would like to communicate primarily is a sense of great vitality. I want the viewer to understand the living quality the rhythm my work imparts, to be aroused by sensations of movement, of energy, of light. In the past, some epochs have been essentially tragic and some classical. A tragi-comic image could perhaps contain both of these passions.
There are a variety of elements in your work. Let’s take that one idea, the rhythm, the vitality of life, the whole conception of energy, and think of the various elements that you use beginning perhaps with the subject itself (which is very frequently, almost invariably the image of a woman); or let’s think of a color, or of a particular kind of form (which tends to be geometric, or a quasi-geometric underpinning). How in your own mind do they contribute to this sense of vitality, rhythm, energy.
Think about the quality of energy that light and color have. The very conscious use of red, for instance, and yellow in the past four or five years has been a concentration of the idea towards light, light-giving, life-giving, sun-giving, sun-equaling energy, light. These things became equivalent somehow. I used to paint a symbolic darkness, or night, dark blues, dark greens, and then always oppose it with a central sun image. After that, light became stronger. There was a period when I was experimenting with red, for instance, to see which kinds of red gave the most vibrance. I experimented with hot and cold reds, brilliant and shiny reds and cool reds.
This is a very difficult questions, because you’re essentially an intuitive painter. You probably are not fully aware of it, but as you talk about this quality of vitality and rhythm it seems to suggest a kind of continuum, a surging continuum, perhaps the kind of continuum one might think of in the work of Jackson Pollock. There’s another element in your work; it’s not a dissociation of imagery, it’s a disjunction, and a juxtaposition of imagery.
Yes, Pollack’s personal mythology, his Portrait and a Dream was my first clue. It was a seminal painting for me. I immediately understood its autobiographical content. It related to Past, Present, Future, and Metamorphosis. I was reading a lot of surrealist poetry and Jung then, so of course I was aware that I was painting psychological dramas (a drama of the self as psyche and the psyche as the self). I painted oppositions of feelings, because these were my most immediate sensations and they were very clear; perhaps not totally clear because one doesn’t always understand every emotion. I was trying to make oppositions of color and oppositions of varying kinds of techniques, to make a dialectic painting encompassing thesis and antithesis. In the end the disjunction asserted itself and people didn’t see the image as single, but as multiple.
I think you put it in words...the sense of vitality one gets from your pictures does have to do with the vividness of color. There is a certain impact that your painting has. But along with that impact comes this other thing that I think you just began to talk about very beautifully....what you called a psychological drama...the dissociation of images does set up all sorts of psychic shocks and psychological dramas.
Yes, the terms express an unconscious battle that I continually fight in myself. Everyone has internal conflicts and somehow mine were projected onto canvas, and were made immediate to me. I didn’t understand why I was painting a lot of these images for a long time. They just poured out. I couldn’t censor them.
This is a question that as a man...I’m somewhat hesitant to ask. There has been a great deal of interest in feminist circles in your work. A good deal has been written about your work both by men art critics and women critics with a very strong feminist orientation who respond not only to its aesthetic quality, but also to a particular meaning that they find in your work as women. Would you care to comment on that aspect of your work?
It’s a complex subject. I think one has to make distinctions: I think that, how shall I put it?, to only have a feminist aesthetic is a rather narrow way of defining one’s art. I have always wanted to be a universal artist. My work certainly has come out of the modern movements; I studied the art of the past. I always wanted to make a Twentieth Century painting. One of the central problems I met as an artist was how to make a Twentieth Century figure. Lots of people were doing figuration in the Fifties. Some were going beyond Cubism (which is what I wanted to do); and some were going back to the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, reverting to a three-dimensional form. I wanted to use the two-dimensional form implicit in the principles of Modernism.
I think you’re quite to the point.
The point is that I believe in ART. If one addresses oneself only to a feminist view, one limits one’s possibilities, one limits ones audience, one limits one’s definitions, and I couldn’t think like that. When I started to do these paintings they were actually Existential in my mind; they came out of the Existential movement. When we were in Paris in 1950, Kermit was working on a thesis on Merleau-Ponty, and we talked about Kierkegaard, Merleau-Ponty, and Sartre all the time. Then I started to think about including drama, and narrative painting and psychological drama, as possible forms. The ideas also came from the cinema, which gave the clue of movement to the narrative form I began to develop in the early Fifties. The identification with self from Abstract Expressionism came directly out of Existentialism. I simply went on a little, and said: I want an image of myself rather than the self.
But interestingly enough there is really no fundamental conflict between Existentialism and the feminist content of your work. Yours is an image of a woman’s self in a particular historical situation.
It had to do with the idea of being, an idea of existence. And being had to do with one’s past, future, present. I started to paint images of states of mind. Of the past, the present and the future. And it seemed to call forth all kinds of psychological ideas; when I thought about the past, I thought about my mother, when I thought about the future I thought of my children and there I was the central actor in this terrible female drama.
Fay, in the last year or two, what changes have taken place in your work?
The work has become simplified; psychological drama has changed or been taken out. And what I have left is a purer canvas. It seems to be all painting, although I am still using imagery which may or may not be recognizable. The heads and figures are turning into geometric forms, but these geometric forms still have their basis in figure-space relationships. In other words, I think there is a strong relationship between these last pictures and my very first drawing from Hofmann’s school.
In the recent emergence of a strong group of the figurative painters such as Philip Pearlstein or Alex Katz who tend to be literalist, you are essentially symbolist, in the tradition of French symbolism that stems in poetry from Baudelaire and in painting moves through Gauguin. There is really no essential difference between your painting between a figure and an abstract form or a color. They can interchange, they can correspond, they can mean the same thing.
It seems there must be a strong drive to arrive at symbolism. I consider painting to be a conscious symbol. When I painted moons and suns, they were symbols, but if I painted something that was simply dark and light, those tones, colors also acted as symbols. In Suzanne Langer’s terms, the whole painting is a symbol.
RUSSO: Fay, when did you decide to become an artist? What made you want to become an artist?
LANSNER: Very early. I think I’m lucky because I never had any other desire. I always wanted to be an artist since the time I was a child. I used to draw when I was a child. A traumatic thing happened when I was six years old. I scratched a star on my desk at school, and the principle asked my mother to come to his office where, as an object lesson, he slapped my hand with a ruler. That was the first sign that something was right or wrong. I’m not quite sure. Later, I was thrown out of class because I was drawing in my notebooks instead of writing, and the teacher thought I wasn’t paying attention. I was always scribbling and dreaming and, from the earliest time I remember, wanting to go to art school.
RUSSO: Were your parents encouraging?
LANSNER: Not toward art. My parents were intellectual and literary. They encouraged free thinking and independence. My mother was an emancipated woman for her time. She’s Russian and was brought up during the period of the Russian Revolution, and she had been a revolutionary in 1910. My mother became a teacher and she had accomplished this against great odds in Russia. To go to the Gymnasium was a great accomplishment for a young woman of her time, and she was a brilliant student. She encouraged me in many kinds of play techniques when I was a child, and I had a lot of physical advantages in terms of play with interesting games and constructive games. There was a great deal of early nurturing and teaching I was never conscience before.
RUSSO: Did your father accept your mother as a breadwinner, someone who was a professional?
LANSNER: Mother was a great contradiction; a good Victorian lady who left her work for marriage. She did occasional teaching, but not seriously, and neglected her gifts after marriage.
My parents and their friends lived in a rather close-knit circle of Russian intellectuals. They were all refugee émigrés, and they had come to America because of the war and the pogroms in Jewish towns. My father escaped the draft in Russia and came through Siberia and Japan, across the Pacific, and eventually to Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, where I grew up, they spoke Russian and Yiddish at home. It was a highly charged atmosphere. They were all left wing and Socialist; passionate liberals.
I lived in a very interesting literary and background, but as for the visual arts, my parents were not very knowledgeable. My father wanted to be a musician. There was a general bohemian atmosphere.
After high school I went to Tyler School of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.
RUSSO: How long were you there? Were you there for four years?
LANSNER: No, I didn’t stay at Tyler for four years because it was too academic. I was young and hasty. We were taught to analyze the old masters and learn the techniques of the old masters. The Philadelphia Museum was an underused museum in 1949, but they had enormous resources. We would go there once a week and copy our favorite master according to the technique of that old master. That was fascinating and constructive in terms of the technique of painting.
After that training, I was impatient. I really wanted to study Picasso and the modern movement, so I came to New York and went to the Art Students League and later to the Hans Hoffmann School.
RUSSO: Looking back to this early formative period, which years do you feel were the most useful to you in terms if basic education?
LANSNER: What is interesting about education is to develop an open and free mind. I think that has a great deal to do with growing with a richness of purpose.
In terms of formal art education, my education was primarily visual, and that happened when I moved to New York and then to Europe where I worked with Leger and Andre Lhote in Paris.
But Fifty-seventh Street was just burgeoning, beginning to open up in 1950. Not as overwhelming as now. We used to go to Fifty-seventh Street to the shows at the Curt Valentin Gallery. And we used to go to the Frick Museum, where the best and latest European art was shown, and the Metropolitan to see retrospectives of Cezanne and Manet and Monet. The Metropolitan was New York. The pictorial richness of New York was the most influential and important in terms of education one’s eyes.
RUSSO: In terms of your technical models, do you feel that art schools were helpful in providing you with the kind of technical knowledge you needed to achieve a freedom of expression?
LANSNER: It’s good to have thorough academic training. I really believe in learning how to draw and learning all the techniques of painting. At Tyler it was very interesting to learn many understandable techniques; to make those techniques available was a good part of that training. I wouldn’t have wanted to stay with only technique forever, but it was useful. Although I’ve never worked in acrylics, I think it’s important to develop one’s expertise in as many mediums as possible, because each one translates its own essence and gives one the needed kinds of forms for a new kind of work. Each material is a challenge leading to a different form, and they all nourish each other.
RUSSO: When did you begin to exhibit?
LANSNER: I started to exhibit in Paris in 1951. There was a cooperative gallery called the Galerie Huit, organized by Americans. I was asked to join that gallery primarily because I was in Leger’s class and there were lots of American GIs there at that time – it was after the war – and the GIs went to Paris with their veteran benefits, as well as New York. Paris in 1950 was filled with American students, and they formed this little gallery.
When I came back to New York in 1953 I was asked to join the Hansa Gallery in 1954. As you know, that was the most important, energetic time in American art.
RUSSO: Did you find it difficult to present yourself professionally in the arts because you were a woman, or did you find that it went rather smoothly?
LANSNER: I didn’t really think about the problems of women artists until the late 1960s. I hadn’t the experience that many women had of finding a lot of difficulty in exhibiting. I seemed to have been in a milieu where many friends were exhibiting and they invited me to exhibit. In the fifties I showed three times at the Hansa Gallery. The Hansa Gallery was the most exciting gallery experience I remember. We were all young artists, all unknown, all just beginning to exhibit; it was the heyday of abstract expressionism. There was a kind of minor revolt of individualism against abstract expressionism, but the premise respected and admired art. We all accepted abstract expressionism as the most dynamic and exciting movement in New York at the time. I had studied art in Europe and had looked at the old masters from 1950 to 1952, but when I cam back to New York I found that American painting was really in a state of high energy, and this was most exciting
And there was the beginning of the Artists Club. To be able to go to the Club and join all the people there was a rich experience.
In the fifties I showed in 1954, 1956, 1958. The art world was much less commercial than it is today. In fact, it was not commercial. American art was just winning a place for itself on the world scene. There were only thirty galleries for American art at the time, and American art was fighting for its own position against the French. It established a position around the beginning of the 1960s. Women were asked to show as artists, and I never considered any difference between being a woman or being a man. I considered myself an artist and I was asked to show on those terms. Later in the sixties there were new problems. The art world had become invaded by very highly visible commercial values. Pop art, which was the antithesis to the art of the fifties, dominated the art world and overshadowed the abstract expressionists, especially the second generation abstract expressionists, of whom I was considered one. Other problems began to emerge. The art world proliferated and that again created new problems.
RUSSO: Who were some of the people during the period of the fifties and sixties you were associated with at the Hansa Gallery?
LANSNER: The Hansa Gallery had a group of really exciting young artists. Allan Krapow, who was the progenitor of happenings. George Segal, who is a very well known sculptor now, was painting then, primarily, and I had begun to do his early sculpture in white plaster in 1958. Jan Muller, a painter I was quite close to, was an original expressionist. Wolf Kahn, Jane Wilson, and Richard Stankiewicz, the sculptor. Also, there group shows at that time, in other galleries that were very interesting because they included people from the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, Larry Rivers, Miriam Schapiro, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning. The women in the fifties, the women I knew, were especially strong and vigorous artists, very intellectual and very visible.
RUSSO: They are our contemporary masters, aren’t they? I think for young artists, many of the people you mentioned are very well established, distinguished artists.
LANSNER: Yes, I think all of these artists grew and developed in the most extraordinary way, and I think the atmosphere of the fifties was very conducive to growth. I felt that especially at the Hansa Gallery, because primarily the value system gave you points on not how much you sold or what your prices were, but the question was, “What kind of new art are you creating?” That’s what was uppermost in the feeling of the 1950’s. Also there was a feeling of camaraderie and mutual criticism, and a great deal of visiting in each other’s studios and looking at each other’s work and being utterly serious about it.
What I feel is wrong today is the competitive commercial atmosphere in the galleries. The commercial ambitions of many artists have ruined the understanding artists can very easily have if they work together and work for similar goals.
RUSSO: What you just said stimulates a number of questions which are cogent to our concern today. Certainly one question would be, What are your views about commercialism as it relates to an artist of today, a young, developing artist?
LANSNER: I feel that the people who are more successful financially seem to be able to create a single image and have that image flow out in some general way to the public. It seems to be a repetitive, recognizable image. An artist who struggles and who works through many formal ideas and changes often and grows through those changes has less of a chance.
In terms on commerce, it’s like advertising; you get an image out there and it’s a recognizable one and it’s identified, like a trademark. Many artists have hampered their growth and creativity because they can’t grow with such a concept.
RUSSO: I am reminded of a statement by Picasso, who said, “Success is my worst enemy,” or words to that effect. He felt that at one point in his career, after he had achieved a great deal of success, that it was counter to his spirit of investigation.
LANSNER: Well, I’m glad you mentioned Picasso, because he’s one of my favorite great artists, and I’ve always tried to understand him on a very deep level. I’ve tried to study him, and very often I copy his drawings line for line. I really would like to understand what makes that great creativity. It’s amusing that you mention him, because in our century he’s one who never stayed still and constantly experimented. At a photography session I once had with his son Claude- Claude was a photographer before he had the great burden of the Picasso estate on his shoulders – I asked him, “Tell me about the genius of your father. Really, what do you think about it?” And he said, “My father really understood the essence of Cezanne.”
RUSSO: How long did you work in France?
LANSNER: We were in Paris for two years. My husband, Kermit Lansner, had a Fulbright in philosophy, and so that gave me an opportunity to go to Fernand Leger’s classes.
RUSSO: What was your husband’s field?
LANSNER: He was studying philosophy and working on a thesis on Merleau Ponty, the existential philosopher. That was an exciting time because we used to see Sartre sit on the corner of St. Germain du Pres every day with all his students, working and reading. Kermit was reading a great deal of Merleau Ponty, Sartre, and Heidegger. We had philosophical discussions at home with other students and friends.
Actually, I think some of the forms of my work later were derived from ideas that were being spun around in the early fifties. I really wanted to learn how to develop a dramatic form in my work; the narrative idea that developed later in my figurative paintings comes out of the idea of a moving form.
RUSSO: I notice most of your work involves the figure in one way or another; either part of a figure or a full figure, or several figures.
LANSNER: Yes, there’s a narrative form in a sequence of figures. I wanted to develop a painting with multiple forms so that you read the painting on different levels, and as a story at the same time. It comes from the idea of cinema, which is a moving image. In cinema you also have a moving span of time, and I wanted my paintings to be read on these levels.
I worked like that for about fifteen years. But now my image has gotten reduced to a more abstract image.
RUSSO: You also seem to be working with pictograph and symbolic ideas. Tell me a little about your personal imagery.
LANSNER: I worked for a long time on symbols of the self, the self as a dual subjective and objective image. The imagery was also of mothers, daughters, and children. The female as subject and object came before women’s liberation. Now my figures seem to imply liberation and allow the erotic elements to show. I want to achieve an image of freedom.
I studied briefly with Suzanne Langer at Columbia, who wrote Philosophy in a New Key and Feeling and Form. She believed that the entire painting is a symbol, which puts art into a much larger cultural context. And she felt the entire surface was a symbol as well, no matter what was put on it. I agree with that.
RUSSO: Being married to a philosopher – did you find that a congenial arrangement?
LANSNER: Although my husband didn’t remain in philosophy, he was especially interested in aesthetics. That’s what drew us together in the early days. We talked and quarreled about aesthetics for many years. [Laughs.] Later he became a journalist, more interested in politics.
RUSSO: The kind of dialogue you had with him then was –
LANSNER: Very interesting.
RUSSO: And beneficial?
LANSNER: Oh, absolutely. He was a professor of philosophy when we first married, and he taught at Kenyon College, and so I had to live in a college atmosphere for a while where I met many poets, writers, professors of English and philosophy.
RUSSO: You have a family, too. And children.
LANSNER: We have two daughters.
RUSSO: How have you managed to have a family, have two daughters –?
LANSNER: It’s very, very difficult to manage the whole enterprise.
RUSSO: Your daughters are grown up now?
LANSNER: Yes, and they’re both involved in art.
RUSSO: How long did it take you to achieve the kind of success you have now? You’re obviously well known, you’re established, you’re in books, you’re in various collections, your work is quite expensive and it’s collected. You’ve achieved a noticeable degree of success. How long did it take you to get to this point?
LANSNER: Well, I don’t consider myself in those terms; when you put it all together it sounds wonderful. But to me it’s been a cumulative process. One thing leads to the next, and it’s a process of growth. I don’t think of success as an end.
RUSSO: I’m looking at your work here in books. I’m in your home, looking at things on the walls, rugs that have been made, tapestries. I get the picture of success being here with you. That is, you are a very successful artist in my mind.
LANSNER: I suppose the word success is a dangerous word. I’ve always tried to work to the best of my capacities physically and mentally. I’ve always worked very hard and I believe in the work ethic. I don’t believe you can achieve anything without a great deal of searching and a great deal of hard work. There is no other way.
RUSSO: So art is a commitment.
LANSNER: Art is very indeed a very serious commitment, and one of the most exciting and rewarding commitments.
RUSSO: This is interesting in terms of young artists. I’m in a situation where I deal with young artists and those who aspire to be artists.
LANSNER: I think that today young women are more fortunate than we were. I think the understanding of our time now is wiser, much deeper, more psychological in its perceptions. Young people are much more conscious of the problems they face in reality than we were as young artists. I remember everything being very impulsive and chaotic, and I felt driven and compulsive. Everyone used to think that those were necessary attitudes, but I don’t know if that’s actually so. I think American young women today have so many more channels for achieving what they want in life, in any direction they wish. Not only in art, but in terms of a total life. People are more committed to life as a whole today. There seems to be a better understanding of the forces that make us human beings, mind and body, heart and soul. There has been a growth that comes from awareness and affluence. We’re a freer society now. We’re the most open society in the world, and probably the best one to grow in. One has more chances in a democracy. And you have to make the most of it, grasp it.
RUSSO: Do you feel as an artist that you have an obligation to society?
LANSNER: Well, I think every human being has an obligation to society. When I was younger I thought that through my art I could change society, which is what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a revolutionary artist. I really thought it was possible to change the world, but as I’ve grown older I see that those ideas were a bit immature. I do feel that one plays a part in one’s society and is obligated to put something into it.
RUSSO: Let’s approach it from the other angle. Do you think society has an obligation to the artist?
LANSNER: Definitely. [Laughs] But I don’t want the welfare state. Although there have been cuts, the government is doing a great deal for its artists. And it certainly can do more. In the last ten years the National Endowment for the Arts and the state councils for the arts have really played a functioning role in the idea that the arts belong to the people, and in giving to the various art funds, they can branch out into areas of popular concern. The kind of attendance records you now have at museums and cultural institutions is record breaking. It’s very important to have this interplay between the government and the people in the arts. I think there’s a common good implied.
In terms of the artist in society, I believe all artists are citizens, therefore they function in society and they’re obliged to vote and take part in political activities and also in the politics of women artists. This has a participatory value. In the early 1970s I helped organize Women in the Arts, which has an important role now in New York City. We organized many women got together in the early seventies and started to meet on a weekly basis and discuss the problems of the woman artist and the woman artist in society. This was helpful on many levels, for the individual artist, and for raising the consciousness of many women artists who felt that they were discriminated against in galleries and museums. We picketed many galleries and cultural institutions so that they would include more women artists in their shows. The first exhibit, “Women Choose Women,” in 1973 at the New York Cultural Center, was the first large exhibit of women – of only women artists in a New York museum; it was an important beginning. And I would like to see another large institution like the Guggenheim or the Museum of Modern Art do a show of women artists. I think that’s a responsibility that cultural institutions have, in political terms, to women.
RUSSO: You seem to suggest from what you said that you moved rather smoothly through professional involvements, you began to exhibit-
LANSNER: I feel primarily – the questions in women’s art circles in the early seventies was, “Is there a female sensibility? Is art primarily aesthetics, or, if you are a woman, can you be as mediocre as a man? [Laughs.] Or, must you be better than a man to achieve recognition?”
I think that one of the problems is that women in earlier times, especially Victorian times, were taught that they would have to take a more passive role, that they could not compete, that they should not compete. One of the impediments to success is also the fact that women don’t allow their competitive instincts to show, whereas men have always allowed their competitive instincts to show. Now, there is nothing wrong with being competitive, if that’s what and where you want to be.
RUSSO: I think that certainly is a part of the European culture that we haven’t heard. That’s why I was impressed by what you said earlier about your mother being a professional, because I think this is unusual, going back a generation.
LANSNER: Yes. She never practiced her profession, and she was always unhappy about it; she was very Victorian. And the repression had a very deep and melancholy effect on her, which I had observed as a child. My mother was a very unhappy woman. This impressed me, and I did not want that fate.
RUSSO: Are you active now in the women’s movement?
LANSNER: Yes, but not as much in the same way. What happened in the women’s art movement is that the major political concerns of the women’s movement belong more in the political arena. I do take part in those issues. I’m active for ERA. But in terms of the women’s movement for Women in the Arts, I don’t participate as before. I read and support all the publications and I will lecture about women artist. But I found that I was devoting too much time to those political concerns; I wanted to get back to my studio.
RUSSO: If you were a young person studying art today, how would you approach it? With your perspective now, with your insights, would you do things differently today than you did before, or, to put it another way, how would you advise a young artist starting out today?
LANSNER: Making art is a very individual process. I think what’s interesting is that each person has to develop his individuality to the point where it can be totally expressed, totally accessible to him or herself. In other words, one has to understand what kinds of things one wants to make and study. I don’t mean it’s necessary that you become terribly academic or that you necessarily have to study old masters. It’s a very selective thing. I think it’s very open, and I for one believe in a broad development intellectually, literally as well as artistically. Reading has been very important to me. I like to read a lot and I read art history, biographies, aesthetics, novels, social history, political history. I think that all of this is important, and everyone has his or her own road to find and I think that’s one of the joys of being an artist; one doesn’t know where the next corner is going to be or what lies beyond the next mountain. But one is always climbing that mountain.
Also I believe in experimentation and being able to use new materials and learning how to use these materials. Materials can be as diverse as steel or paper. I think one should have knowledge of all the arts and of the crafts, too. Technique is a very important thing to master.
RUSSO: How do you feel about exhibitions?
LANSNER: Well, exhibitions are very important. When you’ve reached a point where you feel you’ve attained a certain plateau, you go on a certain road and then you accumulate enough work to be able to weed out some and choose some of the best, and then you put them up on the wall and study them. Hopefully you study them before you put them up on the wall. Sometimes you don’t. But then you see them, and you see them in a larger context. When you see your works in relation to other people’s works, you may gain some hindsight or foresight.
RUSSO: Do you believe in creating works that are relevant to the contemporary context in which we are living? Contemporary, social, economical, political?
LANSNER: Hopefully, one is in one’s time.
RUSSO: Do you make any special effort for this result?
LANSNER: I think about it a lot. I don’t know where that effort finally gets put, but I do think about it.
RUSSO: How do you feel about a dealer? Is it essential to you to have a dealer?
LANSNER: I think it’s terribly essential. I have several dealers for various kinds of work. In the last few years I was opening out, trying to learn new mediums. I started to work in tapestry and lithography. Last year I joined the Ingber Gallery for painting and drawing.
The dealer is primarily to get your work out to the public, and hopefully the more successful he is, the more successful you are, and vice versa.
RUSSO: Do you handle all the arrangements with the person who makes the tapestry?
LANSNER: Oh, that is an artistic process of its own. I do the maquette and I choose the colors. The actual weaving is done in France. You have to be qualified to weave there. You have to go to a national academy for four years to be qualified to make a tapestry in France, and then there are certain laws about production.
RUSSO: Did you supervise the development of your tapestry; did you go to France and oversee it being made?
LANSNER: Yes, I worked in France a lot. We went to France many summers and over the years I decided I wanted to make a tapestry. I saw so many Aubusson and Gobelin tapestries in France by modern masters like Picasso, Braque, and Lurcat. They were very beautiful. Leger had done many, and Arp, and they’re all over Europe. We hardly had any American tapestry in this country whatsoever, especially with modern imagery. We had copies of eighteenth and nineteenth century work, but now modern ones. So I was anxious to do that, because I thought not many American painters had done that.
RUSSO: One final question: Do you have any special advice for young artists, someone who is studying art?
LANSNER: Well, I think in the general context of what I said, the real advice is to work like hell. [Laughs.] And I guess that’s it.
RUSSO: And other things will sort of adjust?
LANSNER: Yes, everything will follow if you work well and you work consistently and you’re very diligent, and you’re very, very disciplined.
“Woman as Metaphor”, Alexander de Lallier, Womens Art Journal, 1987 Back to top
Faye Lansner...is one whose paintings, nominally Abstract Expressionist, took a long time to be seen for what they are: statements in a powerful Feminist idiom to be justly regarded only in the 1970s. Her enormous, part-figurative and narrative canvases show a theatre of women of classic monumentality encountering tangles of calligraphy or blazing Fauve color fields that must be in some way symbolic of obsessions Feminism does not shrink from making explicit.1
In chronological review, Fay Lansner’s pictures are a continuum of inquiring allegories that reflect the inner states and psychic struggles of 20th-century women. Yet underlying the larger significance has been her personal search as an artists and chronicler. As longtime friend and poet Barbara Guest put it:
I believe it is necessary in looking at the artist’s work to be aware of her background, because the elements which are gathered into her painting are all there in her past, as they are in all of us, and hers differ from other painters’ in this fantasy,the romanticism, the drama which took foothold in a foreign country.2
For Lansner, the “foreign country” was a Russian community in America. Memories of her childhood are studded with images and sounds of her transplanted heritage. “My parents and their friends...were all refugee émigrés, and they had come to America because of the war and the pogroms in Jewish Towns.”3 Her mother, Rachel Skorodok, grew up in tzarist Russia, in the town of Proskurov. She achieved the distinction, rare at the time because of the restrictions on women and Jews, of graduating from the Gymnasium and becoming a teacher. During the Revolution she taught peasants to read and write. In 1920 she left for America to marry her childhood friend Meyer Gross. Her “father escaped the draft in Russia and came through Siberia and Japan, across the Pacific, and eventually settled in Philadelphia,”4 where he found work in the textile industry. Their children Fay and Norman were born in 1921 and 1928 respectively.5
From the time of her birth Fay was surrounded by a colony of Russian-born women—friends of her mother,relatives, visitors—most of whom worked long and hard in the garment industry, often the sole supporters of their scholar-husbands and children. They spoke their views openly and considered themselves equal to the men. Often the neighborhood men and women would sit for hours around the family dining-room table drinking tea while discussing literature, philosophy, and politics.
It was a highly charged atmosphere. They were all left-wing and Socialist; passionate liberals....I lived in a very interesting literary and intellectual background, but as for the visual arts,my parents were not very knowledgeable. My father wanted to be a musician. There was a general bohemian atmosphere.6
Although Russian also was spoken at home, Fay’s first language was Yiddish. At age six she was enrolled in the leidy, or “American School,” where she learned English, and in the community socialist day school,where her mother was teaching. In the afternoons she attended classes at the International Workers Order (I.W.O) and Arbeiter Ring School, in Jewish history,culture, and literature, as well as in dance, music, and drama.
Fay and Norman grew up largely unaware that their ways were not the ways of the America outside. Little by the little the larger world crept in their awareness,starting with the cultural excursions they took from the time Fay was six years old. Saturdays meant visits with their father to the Philadelphia Public Library to listen to the recordings of the great symphonic orchestras. But it was at the museums that Fay’s dreamy, quixotic nature was sparked and nourished. She remembers vividly the Rodin Museum and, as she grew older, day trips to Merion, Pennsylvania, to the Barnes Collection. She visited frequently, looking at, indeed, studying closely the works of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Renoir, and Matisse until she knew the collection almost by heart. She longed to be an artist.
After high school, to please her practical parents she studied fabric and fashion design at the Wannamaker Institute. Her desire to study art strengthened: “I was not a rebel against my background....I loved Russian- Jewish culture, history, literature. To be an artist was my only act of rebellion against them.”7 In 1945 she entered Tyler College of Fine Arts.
The Tyler curriculum was highly structured and the influx of veterans studying on the G.I. Bill gave a certain soberness to the atmosphere.
We were taught to analyze the old masters and learn the[ir] techniques. The Philadelphia Museum was...underused....in 1945, they had enormous resources. We would go there once a week and copy our favorite master according to the technique of that old master.8
While Tyler gave her the traditional art training she had lacked, she felt increasingly hidebound by the school’s conservatism and after two years left for New York City to study at the Art Students League and Columbia University. She supported herself designing fabrics.
At Columbia she studied aesthetics with Suzanne Langer, who was then writing (and reading each new chapter to her students) Philosophy in a New Key. Grasping quickly Langer’s ideas relating symbol to art, Fay Gross prepared, under Langer, a thesis exploring Kandinsky’s form and color. At the Art Students League she joined classes taught by Vaclav Vytlacil, a former student of the gifted teacher Hans Hofmann. In addition, she visited galleries and museums regularly, where she was exposed to thought-provoking exhibitions of modern art. She began at last to have access to the art education she was looking for.
In 1948 Fay Gross married Kermit Lansner, a graduate student in philosophy at Columbia. Shortly thereafter they moved to Gambier, Ohio, where Kermit was appointed Assistant Professor of English and Philosophy at Kenyon College. At the time Kenyon was a burgeoning literary enclave; the two years the couple spent there proved intellectually stimulating. In Summer
1948 Lansner went to Provincetown, Massachusetts, to study with Hofmann, and continued taking his classes in New York the following winter. Hofmann’s teaching was a revelation.
I wasn’t prepared for the reversal...Hofmann focused on the creative process and what it meant; we talked about it, we wondered about it, we questioned ourselves...His approach came from Cubism, but include intuition, as well as Cubist space, as part of the primary process. This combination of the intuition and the intellection was absolutely unique to Hofmann.9
Inspired by Hofmann, Lansner made a series of powerful charcoal and pastel drawings that deal with the geometry of Cubist space, for example, Easter Sunday and Untitled (Fig. 1), both from 1948. A dark, angular symmetry complements the softly blurred color of the pastels Lansner rubbed into the paper. Constructed of interacting planes and arcs, the compositions are intricate systems of shifting movement and balance.
In 1950 Kermit received a Fulbright to work on a thesis on the philosopher Merleau-Ponty, and the Lansners left for Paris. Like many other Americans at the time, they settled on the Left Bank, around the corner from Les Deux Magots, where Sartre and de Beauvoir daily held court. Fay too became steeped in Existentialism. Near where the Lansners lived, in a print shop, she found a reproduction of a twelfth-century Romanesque relief sculpture, The Temptation of Eve, from the Musée Rolin in Autun. She felt an immediate affinity with the earthbound physical volume of this strongly sinuous female representation, an influence which has endured.
She began studying with Léger, whose teaching she soon found too dogmatic. Although he praised her work, he expected students to work as he did. After three months she left his studio for that of André Lhote. There, too, she was disappointed—she found his tableaux of old master poses too formal and stiff—so she returned to her own studio and began experimenting with Fauvist color techniques on a number of portraits, figures, and heads. She was invited to become a member of and show her work at the Galerie Huit, founded by a group of American artists working in Paris. She showed drawings that displayed strong impulsive lines, translations of Cubist abstraction into expressive figuration, as in the charcoal and pencil Heads (1951)—two female faces, one dark and brooding, the other lighter with little emotion, a Noh player’s mask.
The Lansners continued to spend their summers in Europe after their return to the United States, as Kermit was working for the Paris-based L’Express, 10 but as Fay commented:
When I came back to New York I found that American painting was really in a state of high energy, and this was most exciting. And there was the beginning of the Artist’s Club. To be able to go to the Club and join all the people there was a rich experience.11
Resettled in New York, Lansner formed friendships with Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and other “second-generation” Abstract Expressionists. She continued with her figure explorations. From 1948 to 1950 she had drawn the nude geometrically, reducing form to cubes and planes. “She wanted to indicate that the model came out of nature...the figure was her starting point. The figure found its way into the artist’s concentration on space...so heavily defined by Hofmann.12
As her work became more Cubist, the figure became more abstracted, but she stopped herself from losing entirely the definite shape of the human body, the particularity of the head. She began to rescue the circle (later adding biomorphic forms), and with it the primordial roundness of the female form, which had all but disappeared in abstraction, resurfaced.
Lansner was working through formal ideas to develop her own style. The Abstract Expressionists had changed all the rules, and artists and critics were debating between Pollock and De Kooning. Lansner neither could follow Pollack’s linear form nor identify with De Kooning’s violence. She accepted the painterliness of the Abstract Expressionists, but unlike many others of the second generation, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler among them, she wanted to express the same painterly feeling through the figure rather than through landscape. Hofmann’s reasoning held out the answer:
He communicated the bond between nature and the creative force in each individual...he always said “the model is nature” and that was our starting point...he taught each artist to be aware of his individuality and to express it through 20th-century plastic means...to me he imparted a kind of philosophical root of creativity.13
Existentialism continued to inform her thinking. “The ideas were ripe and beautiful...personal and dramatic...they touched me and I knew I wanted to make an Existentialist painting.”14 Strengthening this resolve was the new relevance she discovered in the work of De Kooning and Pollock. She began to recognize the figurative, autobiographical content in Pollock’s larger-than-life poured paintings. Most of the “first generation” used enormous canvases, on which they made the visualized self, through abstraction, a painter’s reality. “Their monumentality impressed me...I wanted to make a life-size figure because...there is an identity in size, an idea which I transmuted into personal identity.”15 Up to this time Lansner had ruthless eliminated from her work any element that seemed to unbalance a cerebral recording, but in 1951 she stopped editing and allowed subjectivity to flood the image. This pushed her forward into a search for self-definition.
Defining myself as a woman...was intentional. I deliberately made images of the self. It was a taboo subject, but not only the taboo fascinated me. I was exploring my identity, and in many ways I did this through my pictures.16
Lansner had maintained her ties with fellow Hofmann students and in 1953 was invited by Jan Muller, the German-born Symbolist/Expressionist (who died in 1955), to join the newly formed Hansa Gallery, a cooperative of young artists, among them George Segal, Allan Kaprow, Jane Wilson, and Wolf Kahn. At her first American exhibition, at the Hansa Gallery in 1954, she showed a series of Abstract Expressionist figurative paintings. She had experimented with divided brushstrokes in opposing complimentary colors, expressing the duality of emotion. The small strokes became larger, longer. There was a growing ferocity to the exploration.
The Lansners’ first daughter, Gabrielle, was born in 1956, the same year Lansner had her second show at Hansa. (Erica was born in 1958.)17 This early cooperative gallery spawned creativity and egality, and fought for the primacy of American art. As Lansner recalled:
American art was just winning a place for itself on the world scene. There were only 30 galleries for American art at that time, and American art was fighting for its own position against the French...Women were asked to show as artists, and I never considered any difference between being a woman or being a man. I considered myself an artist and was asked to show on those terms.18
But in the late 1950s, as commercial interests took hold of the art world, the pressure of competition entered the gallery. The cooperative trust, which had been its foundation, was lost, and members regrouped to go to other galleries. When Hansa closed, it was a blow to everyone, especially the women members who had invested so much of themselves in making the enterprise work on egalitarian terms.
Undeterred, Lansner continued to work. A language both personal and universal began appearing in her compositions. Figures of women alone or in groups inhabit the canvases and drawings; they are set in rooms of primary colors or in stark white space. Often overhead loom potent ancient symbols, which, unseen by the earthbound figures caught up in their momentary experiences, stand undeciphered. One such work, The Sacrifice (inside back cover), painted in Paris during the summer of 1956, explored multiple ideas using the vocabulary of woman and child, dolls and demons, and masks.
The dimensions of her work expanded until she was painting lifesize figures. Underlying the “dreamscapes” were psychological dramas involving the past, present and future states of being. “When I thought of the future I thought of my children, and there I was, the central actor in this terrible female drama.”19
In the huge (80” x 110”) Past, Present, Future (1962- 63), dramatic oppositions in content provide the dialectic for a modern statement of the Three Ages of Women.
In the 1950s Lansner was one of the first to explore feminine/feminist concerns through a personal 20th - century mythologization. In the next decade this became “a new iconography which now from hindsight looks like feminist imagery...autobiography became the content.”20 Indeed, her paintings from the 1960s are filled with figurative drama: women in landscape, women in conversation, women in transformation. They are presented in a visual narrative of multi-images, an idea developed from the movement of frame to frame in film. These compositions can be read both as simultaneous in time and space and as continuing narrative drama.
Some canvases from the period combine drawing with painting—broad areas of color divide and define space. In Real and Ideal (1962-63; Fig. 2), two central female figures modeled in the neutral tone on white and surrounded from overhead by dark Prussian blue represent the Ideal. Flanking the center panel and representing the Real are two other figures built up of ribbon strokes of paint on planes of scumbled red. At left, a pale open figure rises. A sunlight-yellow radiance—symbolizing creative potential—streams upward within her. In contrast, the figure at right is more developed; charged with invigorated life force, it shimmers in rainbow hues of red, yellow, blue, green, and violet.
The theme of transformation is strong in Metamorphosis II (1962; New York University), a painting of flat geometric diagonal-angular areas of clear read and blue color-space which have become figures. In the left-upper corner a narrow window glows with a moon-face, while diagonally across, in the lower right corner, two outlined figures washed over in yellow-gold recline and dance, recalling the drawings of Rodin. Centrally placed, a small face looks out of another window of paint, in intense search. As the decade progressed, the paintings became more linear, painterly, and abstract. Figures arch and contort as in childbirth or curl up in fetal position. The inflorescent relationship of mother and child is drawn and painted in symbolic negative and positive space. Dream-like paintings with floating figures also refer to prebirth.
During an interview with Lansner, Irving Sandler divided contemporary figurative painters into two groups, placing Philip Pearlstein and Alex Katz in the literalist and Lansner in the symbolist:
...in the tradition of French Symbolism that in poetry stems from Baudelaire and in painting moves through Gauguin...Symbolist in the way that Redon is...There is essentially no difference in [Lansner’s] painting between a figure and an abstract form or a color. They can interchange, they can correspond, they can mean the same thing.21
Lansner was of of the founders, in 1971, of Women In the Arts (W.I.A), an organization seeking to change both public and institutional attitudes towards women artists. In 1972, members demonstrated in front of the Museum of Modern Art, and the group sent an open letter to New York’s major museums listing six steps to correct discriminatory practices, the first being an exhibition of art by women. The late Mario Amayo, director of the New York Cultural Center, responded, and the result was the landmark “Women Choose Women” show of works by 109 women artists, which opened at the Cultural Center on January 12, 1973.22
In 1969 Lansner went to France where she designed her first tapestry. In the next few years she completed three more and is currently working on designs for another three. Inspired by her abstract figurative painting and woven in Aubusson wool, they are extremely strong, linear, and in color intensity like medieval stained glass. Homage to Corbusier (1971), now in a private collection in New York, shows the female form in several poses and in various stages of abstraction superimposed on overlapping planes of brilliant color. She also embarked on a series of lithographs and collages. The lithographs are spare geometric forms of red, yellow, blue, and green against a white background. In the middle of the geometric forms, as in Lithograph in Seven Colors (1971) and Figures in Space (1972), for example, are outlined or silhouetted female figures. Whereas the prints are almost minimal, the collages are strongly romantic in their combining of paint drips, photographs, colored paper, and typography. A particularly fine one is Homage to Frank O’Hara, “Scene of Myselves”(1979; inside back cover), incorporating cut-out lines from a page of his verse.
In 1973 Lansner began a series of paintings that abstracted further the human figure. In Double Figure in Diamond (1973) and Double Figure (1974; Fig. 3), lines made thick by loaded brushstrokes in sharpened primary colors zig-zag and swagger across a surface ground heavily primed in white. Different in medium, technique, and approach from the 1948 to 1950 drawings, these large, square paintings use geometry less to build intellectual units in space than to challenge it. Painted with much freedom, the elements of composition are propelled by restless energy— uncoiling, reinventing, pushing limits with the arbitrary license of street graffiti. The figure is almost lost.
A year later, Lansner abandoned abstraction to draw the figure again with renewed attention to form. She spent most of the next year drawing in pastel from the model—studies of female nudes, solo, in couples, and in groups—regaining the balance of objectivity. She occasionally introduced a male nude into these studies. Color strokes used as line defined the human form while evoking subjective feeling, merging symbol with abstraction.
In 1977 she began a series of pastel drawings concentrating on the environment of the art studio. Natural forms were added; the figurative receded into the background. These bright pastel studies, like Mannequin, Amaryllis and Protea (1980), read like pages from an artist’s journal, richly documenting the evolution of plants and flowers amidst the objects of the studio, fusing physical and symbolic content in vibrant, dense color strokes.23 On another level, one senses the tradition of the artist reflecting upon the studio. Lansner’s blue glass bottle, open box of Caran D’Ache crayons, and small jointed mannequin became symbols of her studio life.
Lansner has always been a reactive artist, moving from one opposition to another, contradicting and reassessing past priorities and techniques. She frequently scrutinizes, questions, reassembles, and works out a new system. Taken as a whole there is an accretion and synthesis from this way of working. Certain elements are set aside only to reappear later, altered perhaps, but still recognizable. The head of the dark-haired woman, seen, for example, in Double Self- Portrait (1955; inside back cover), seems a most constant image, returning perhaps more than any other. In Profile Head with Gladiola (1983), this symbol appears almost as an echo, in running outline, and in Head and Protea, Roses, Pears, and Pumpkin (1982, fig. 4), it is a solid, concentrated presence, strongly sketched in three-quarter view, forming the right diagonal. In Head and Protea, one senses the firm width of the charcoal stick used flat to shade the black, unruly hair, then held upright to delineate the tense, angular features and to mark in asymmetrical sloe-eyes. Opposite the female head at the same level, far left, an isolated still life of dried yet sculptural king and queen protea plants juts out on a diagonal plane. Filling the lower picture plane are the shaded outlines of ripe fruit, vegetables, and lush open roses, creating a thrust from the left corner upward to the right figure. The playful forms have Cubist angles. Heart-shaped pears, round apples in square boxes, multi-lobed squash, and triangular seashells act in a system of counter-thrust.
Lansner periodically focuses her effort on drawing. It is where she tests and experiments, confronting old ideas, evolving new ones. “Drawing has always been the freest, most spontaneous way to see an object....I believe, as Matisse, that drawing and painting are one.” 24 In drawings from the early 1980s color provides a vigorous accent, as in Homage a Picasso, but a formal economy of black and white dominates the majority.
In the drawings of mid decade, she has deepened and further integrated themes of nature, art, and emblem-figures from art history. Color has re-entered these drawings; however the sharp, purified clarity gained from two years of working almost exclusively in black and white has not been lost. As can be seen in Sunflowers with Vase and Border (1983), color, freely scribbled and scumbled in multihued oil, crayon, and pastel, is principally limited to a wide border. It frames the charcoal composition, setting it off and focusing attention back to the interior, intensifying its strong black-on-white linearity.25
The matrix of her artistic development, the female figure, has never completely disappeared from Lansner’s field of vision. In the life drawings she is working on now, the model, at times wearing Egyptian headdress, symbolic of an ancient feminine lineal descent, is sketched in multiple poses, sitting, standing and running. The physical volume of her body and her personality fill the pages and confront the viewer. (See Models in Studio, on the back cover of WAJ, Spring/Summer 1986. Ed.)
Lansner’s work over the years has been reviewed in the New York Times, Newsweek, Arts Magazine, Art News, and Art in America, and it has caught the attention of critics Eleanor Munro, Lawrence Alloway, Harold Rosenberg, David Shapiro, Gerrit Henry, and art historian Irving Sandler, among others. She has been closely associated with the two most significant art movements since mid century—Abstract Expressionism and the Women Artists’ Movement. Each has informed her work.
Since her formative studies with Hofmann, abstraction and the figurative have been parallel concerns for the artist in her search for a contemporary mode in which to paint and draw the human figure. In converging objectivity using two-dimensional planes with inner states of emotion, often through the use of heightened color fields, she began to channel emotions, rendering the subjective through the framework of physical measurement. This commitment to the figure and to the unseen psyche made visible has challenged and progressively transformed her work through successive periods, achieving a highly individual expressionism.
With her developed format of the artist’s studio linked to symbolic tributes to the masters of 19th- and 20th century art, an important lineage has been retrieved on many levels. Grounded in the perpetual rhythmic cycles of nature, there is integration and continuance.
This connected awareness is perhaps most tangible and at once intimate, yet magnified, through the medium of large drawing which has become intrinsic to her mature expression and which has allowed a revisionist approach to her interpretation of the female figure. The newest drawings, larger than life, continue to combine the sense of animating intelligence with a feeling of great expressive freedom in clear, exuberant statements. No longer studies or self-portraits, the artist has stepped back to let the individuality of a particular woman come through and represent a common identity.
1 Eleanor Munro, “The Second Generation: Mavericks at Midway:Including Jane Freilicher, Grace Hartigan, Fay Lansner,” Originals: American Women Artists (New York: Simon andSchuster, 1979), 205.
2 Barbara Guest, “Introduction,” Fay Lansner (Swarthmore,Penn.: AVA Books, 1977), 1.
3 Fay Lansner, in Alexander Russo, ed., Profiles on WomenArtists (Frederick, Md.: University Publications if America, 1985),145.
5 Unless otherwise noted, information about the artist wasgathered during a series of meetings between 1982-1985. I amgrateful to Fay Lansner for the generous spirit she has brought tothis project. All photographs are courtesy of the artist.
6 Lansner, in Profiles, 145-146.
7 Quoted in Munro, Originals, 205-206.
8 Lansner, in Profiles, 146.
9 “Fay Lansner, An Interview with Irving Sandler,” in Fay Lansner, 1.
10 Kermit left the academic world for journalism. After L'Express he worked briefly for Art News and was with Newsweek for twenty years.
11 Lansner, in Profiles, 147.
12 Guest, “Introduction,” 6.
13 “Lansner Interview,” 1.
14 Ibid., 5.
17 Gabrielle is now a dancer and choreographer and Erica, a photojournalist. Both live in New York.
18 Lansner, in Profiles, 147.
19 “Lansner Interview,” 5.
20 Fay Lansner, Statement in Miriam Shapiro, ed., Art: A Woman's Sensibility (Valencia, Calif.: Feminist Institute of the Arts, 1975).
21 “Lansner Interview,” 11.
22 Lansner's support of women artists over the years has taken many forms. She interviewed Arthur Cohen about Sonia Delaunay for The Feminist Art Journal (Winter 1976-77), 5-10, created with Ce Roser in 1978 a video of Charmion von Wiegand, and organized in 1984 an exhibit of work by noted women artists at the University of Pennsylvania in conjunction with a conference honoring Simone de Beauvoir.
23 Work from the figurative (1977-82) and nature series was shown at the Phoenix II Gallery, Washington, D.C., November 1982.
24 “Lansner Interview,” 9.
25 Drawings from 1978-1986 were shown at the Benton Gallery, Southampton, New York, August 1986.