January 19, 2012
Text by Caroline Cunningham
There’s a compelling duality in the work of artist Susan Schwalb. Her complex and gorgeous images are grounded in the technique of silverpoint, a medium most often associated with Renaissance masters like da Vinci and Raphael, and defined by the need for precision and absolute control. And yet Schwalb’s paintings transcend these traditional limitations. There is inherent rigor in their linearity, but there is also fluidity and abstraction. From a distance, the surfaces appear muted and gentle, like watercolors; up close, their unexpected depth and power is almost jarring. Schwalb has pushed the boundaries of a classic form and made it modern—and entirely her own.
Schwalb works on the second floor of a rambling Dutch Colonial home in Watertown, Massachusetts, that she shares with her husband, Martin Boykan, a composer and emeritus professor of music at Brandeis. Her drafting table stands by a large window and is surrounded by stacks of art books, catalogues and her own drawings and paintings, an arrangement that reflects her perspective that new images are inspired by an interaction with ones that came before. Although she works in series, Schwalb often begins a composition without any notion of what will evolve. “I even buy tools before I decide what I’m going to do with them,” she says.
There’s nothing passive or haphazard in her approach, however. Instead, it’s an active form of discovery by an artist who admits, “I keep finding something else to do.”This curious and restless spirit has driven Schwalb throughout her career. “I wanted to be an artist since I was five years old, before I even knew what being an artist meant,” she says.
She grew up in New York City, where she still keeps an apartment. She attended The High School of Music & Art, then earned a BFA from Carnegie Mellon, in Pittsburgh, where she majored in design and painting. After graduation, she worked in publishing and advertising as a graphic designer and taught at City College of New York and New Jersey’s Kean College (now Kean University). Schwalb continued to draw and paint on her own, mounting some small exhibitions in SoHo in the early 1970s. Then, during a weekend in the Hamptons, she saw a friend working in silverpoint. “My life changed on that day,” she says.
Schwalb started by making delicate floral drawings with a stylus, but soon felt constrained by her own figurative imagery, so much so that she began to tear and burn the edges of her work, as if in protest.
Her technique became increasingly bold and expansive when she combined silverpoint with iridescent gold leaf and acrylic paint. In 1997 she set her stylus aside in favor of applying metalpoint directly onto a prepared surface.
The extraordinary paintings that followed explore the illusion of layering and the lyrical effect of colors that melt into one another or shimmer through a screen of horizontal bands. They also suggest memories of light and landscape—sun filtering through trees at dawn, or moonlight reflected on a quiet sea—in a way that is at once personal and universal. As Edward Saywell, head of contemporary art and MFA programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, observes, “Her work allows us the freedom and opportunity to arrive at our own understanding of these most beautiful of images.”
Schwalb’s most recent paintings begin with beveled wooden panels that she coats with sealer and gesso before carving thin lines into the surface. She applies several layers of acrylic paint, which she then partially erases with sandpaper to uncover slivers of color. Finally, she adds more lines in copper, bronze or silver to intensify the sense of spatial depth. There’s a distinctly sculptural quality to this work, an effect intensified by the tapered panels that appear to float against a wall. The sparkling gradations of silver and black in Road Not Taken, for example, seem to vibrate with visual and emotional force. The poetic title captures Schwalb’s independent artistic journey as well. She has always been a seeker, and followed her own path. And that has made all the difference.