Dialogues

An Artist’s Life Lived

An Interview with Susan Shatter.

Six weeks after our conversation Susan lost her battle with cancer. I recall that when I called to confirm our appointment, she wanted to postpone the interview because she felt so fatigued but then decided to go ahead with it. I guess she knew the opportunity would probably not come up again. When I arrived at her loft, she greeted me with a warm smile, gave me a tour of the spacious apartment, and we began to talk. I’m very grateful we did.

Susan Shatter, Night Wave, undated. Oil, 22 x 30 in.

Ira Goldberg: How did it all begin? What made you want to become an artist?

Susan Shatter: I always drew as a kid.

Where did you grow up?

In Queens and in Great Neck. My mother was very encouraging. We tried everything: dance, piano, art. I said, Look, just forget the piano lessons. I really would rather take drawing lessons.

I see you still have an electronic piano back there, but you don’t play it.

No, that’s my son’s studio. I didn’t have any talent that way. I took classes at the Long Island Community Center. In school they had a drawing major. It was a pretty sophisticated high school. I had a really good teacher. My mother took me to museums all the time.

In Manhattan?

Yeah, and by the time I was fifteen, I was going myself. That is when I discovered Pollock, and was blown away.

Was he the first inspiration for you?

Well, he was the first artist I saw that was so different. I had never seen such energy before in a painting. I didn’t think it was possible. Not that I ever painted like Pollock, or ever wanted to. I was just completely taken aback.

Usually young artists look to figurative artists like Rembrandt for inspiration.

Well, I started out sort of with modern art at the Museum of Modern Art. It was that era with the head of MoMA. Alfred Barr. I took classes there. So, it was modern European art. I didn’t know much about it.

I studied with Alex Katz, who I found totally intriguing as a person. I didn’t understand half of what he was saying, but I followed him around, because when he did say something, it was right on, and he had a great way of describing art history.

What did they teach at MoMA?

It was basically design-oriented, from the German Bauhaus.

Were you drawing from the model at all?

No, I drew from the model at the community center in Great Neck, and I was pretty good at it. I did it once a week or so.

How old were you when you first started studying at the community center?

Twelve. I just always drew in the summer, and my mother fooled around with watercolor. I watched her, but I never did it. I think I used poster paints or something like that. Then, I got into oil painting when I was about fourteen. When I was fifteen, my mother said I could take the train in to the Art Students League and take a class. I walked into one of the studios. I wish I could remember the instructor. It was on the first floor. Maybe it was Hale.

Hale would have been on the second floor. Was it a drawing class?

No, it was painting nudes in oil.

OK. Could it have been Frank Reilly?

I wish I could remember.

It was a Saturday class?

It must have been. I wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise. So there were fifty easels. It was a big class, and every single painting looked the same. I just stumbled out backwards, and said, Oh, my God, I can’t hack this.

This was after you had spent how much time at MoMA?

Oh, well, it was way after. I went to MoMA as a little kid, you know. There was a famous guy in charge of the education department at MoMA, and the classes were for kids.

But you had already gotten the bug about Pollock. That was your first real awakening.

Yeah, when I was looking at art on my own. Prior to that I was at the old Whitney on 53rd Street next to MoMA and there were these Pollocks. I just didn’t know painting could look like that, or have that kind of energy.

Pollock was pretty popular. He was a big name, especially at that time. The New York School was all the rage at that period, wasn’t it?

I’d have to sync up the dates, but it was my first exposure. Up to that time, I had loved Stuart Davis.

After you backed out of the class at the League, what did you do?

I think I just went home and thought that I would never find myself in there again. When you called, around forty years later, I just had to laugh because I remember that moment.

So you had one day at the Art Students League. Wow, interesting.

I didn’t think it was for me, it was too pre, you know, nineteenth-century. But that brief glimpse was all I saw.

There were more modern leaning instructors. Will Barnet was teaching at the time.

I’m sure, I’m sure. I thought it was ironic when I came back to teach there, and, of course realized that the League was much more expansive than I’d thought.

Where did you go from there?

Well, I went to college in the Midwest, Madison, and I tried to major in art. The teacher told me to leave and go back to New York.

This was the University of Wisconsin? It’s a good school, Madison.

Someone in the art department thought I wasn’t going to learn anything, that I was too far ahead in the program, so I transferred. I hated the Midwest. I transferred to Pratt, and that’s where things really opened up for me. I studied with Alex Katz, who I found totally intriguing as a person. I didn’t understand half of what he was saying, but I followed him around, because when he did say something, it was right on, and he had a great way of describing art history.

This was in the late fifties, early sixties?

This was the early sixties. He was there for just a short time, and I happened to hook into him. We became sort of pals, and I used to follow him around to Paul Taylor dance rehearsals. Through him I met Rudy Burkhardt and Yvonne. He showed me how you go to galleries and just talked about the art world in a very pragmatic way, like what it was really all about. He warned us not to have any romantic notions that you were going to be a professional artist.

Susan Shatter, Sebasco, 2004. Watercolor, 12 x 16 in.

Did you spend a lot of time learning your technique? Were you then more involved with watercolor?

Watercolor didn’t exist in art schools or universities. It was, in America anyway, unheard of at that level. I didn’t know about it either. But I studied with Phil- lip Pearlstein, who was a terrific teacher, and taught us a lot about space. That was the big thing back then, space. But, no, we took drawing and Pratt’s program was based on the Bauhaus.

What did Pearlstein have to do with the Bauhaus?

Well, it’s not that any of them had anything to do with the Bauhaus, but the first year program was based on the Bauhaus, so Phillip ended up teach- ing about design and space. I had another teacher who taught color through the Bauhaus. Alex just did whatever he wanted. I had a materials class. You had to try everything.

Along with the Bauhaus, was Hans Hofmann discussed?

No. The other teacher I had was Gabriel Laderman. So I ended up with these three major realist artists. I had one teacher who had us work abstractly, and I felt it was meaningless. So, I stopped it. I really liked working from life, so we had a lot of figure drawing. I had Mercedes Matter for drawing. She showed up, and then she told us about her classes with Charles Cajori on 14th Street with two models at night. I went. It was like I was drawing and painting all day and all night for four years. I loved it.

It’s also incredibly valuable training.

But it was a training that was more out of Cézanne than anything like the Renaissance. It was marks all over the page, that kind of thing. That was mostly taught by Mercedes Matter, who eventually took half my class over the river to start the Studio School. I didn’t follow her because I thought she was nuts.

You mean crazy?

I felt she was very unstable. I thought, Oh, God, I don’t want to be around someone like this.

Was she given to fits, unexpected outbursts, things like that?

Yes, yes. She’d come around to your work, and she could have a tirade if she didn’t like what you were doing.

Really?

She would draw all over it. She would come late to class. You just started to feel at the mercy of some out of control person. And I thought, How in the hell is she going to run a school? So I knew them all but I didn’t go with them.

You got your BFA from Pratt?

Yeah.

What happened after that?

Well, I was going to be an artist. But I wasn’t quite sure how. I went in the middle there to Skowhegan.

You got a scholarship to go?

Through Alex, I think.

But through Pratt?

No, it wasn’t. I applied to Skowhegan and got a scholarship. I don’t really know exactly how. That was a great experience. That was when I discovered I wanted to paint the landscape. That’s where I met my ex-husband. We decided we were going to come to New York and be artists. Then we got a loft.

What was your husband’s name?

Paul Brown. He was finishing up a year at Yale, and I was finishing up at a year at Pratt, and then we got married. We found a loft on fifty bucks.

Downtown?

Fourteenth Street. It was pretty awful. We each worked shitty jobs like—what did I do? I was a substitute teacher in the public schools. He worked for welfare. We were quite miserable.

At the time, what kind of qualifications did you need to substitute teach in public school? I take it the substitute teaching wasn’t restricted to art. Well, at Pratt they gave you a certificate because you taught so many hours in these little private schools around Pratt. I had the certification. I was a sub basically. It was horrendous.

How long did that last?

Couple years. Then he got a show at Ellie Poindexter. Does that ring a bell? It’s ancient history. That went nowhere.

What was your husband’s work like?

Abstract. Big abstract paintings.

Did you like them?

Yeah, I liked his work. It was out of Al Held, who was his teacher.

Then, somehow I met Fairfield Porter at Skow- hegan. Paul invited him over to the loft, and he looked at my work. It was a very exciting afternoon. I couldn’t believe he was in my studio. Sometime after that, the war came, and we had a baby to stay out of the war.

You had a child for him to get a deferment?

Yes, aren’t I nice?

Was that against your better judgment? I mean, you would not have done it otherwise?

Well, I didn’t want him to go to war.

You didn’t want him to go war more than you didn’t want to have a baby? Or you did want to have a baby?

Well, we were going to have a family, eventually. Instead, we had one right away with no money,

You just did it.

We just did it. And it was very difficult. We were going broke here. He got a job at Brandeis, and we moved to Boston. We were there for ten years.

Susan Shatter, Untitled, undated. Oil monoprint, 22 x 30 in.

How did you like Boston?

I grew to like it, but I really wanted to come back.

Were you painting in Boston?

I was painting in Boston, and my career really took off. I got an invitation to come down to the Fischbach Gallery. Maybe that was through Yvonne; she had just gotten into the gallery.

Yvonne?

Yvonne Jacquette. The dealer was looking for more realists. Yvonne and myself and Sylvia Mangold were all friends. So he took all of us on, and just starting selling work. It was amazing.

You were still painting in oils then?

I was painting with oils and then I got into painting these huge cityscapes in acrylic, which I actually didn’t like.

Why?

I didn’t like the surface. I didn’t like the drying time,

I didn’t like the quality of it. It wasn’t like oil where you could mix and blend images, but it wasn’t fluid either. Somehow, I just started to throw watercol- ors in there, and add to it. Eventually, I was painting these big watercolors, learning as I went. I really knew nothing about the medium. I didn’t even know anyone who did watercolor, but I loved the liquidity of it, and it seemed to work out well with watching a child. You could run in and put a big wash on, run back out, then come in and put on another one. It didn’t require, you know, that kind of concentration you had to have with oil.

You were basically raising a kid and painting at the same time.

Yeah, and making it up as I went.

Was this still in Boston?

Yeah. I started to look at Sargent, Homer, and Marin, and that’s how I taught myself. Then I started to show in Boston at Harcus Krakow.

Was that on Newbury Street?

Yeah, and they did very well for me. After about ten years in Boston, I moved back with a new guy, got divorced, and came back to this building with a group of friends.

When was this?

It was 1978. I had a lot of fun. I was doing really well.

So you were now earning a living as a painter?

Yeah, but I always kept a teaching job.

Where were you teaching?

Well, everywhere, as an adjunct. I never got a tenured job. You know, my last long stint was at Brooklyn College for five years.

You were an adjunct professor there the whole time.

Yeah, I didn’t get a tenured position.

Back then there was a lot more work to be had for teaching jobs.

I don’t know, not necessarily. I just got asked. I took a lot of visiting artists positions around the country: California, Texas, North Carolina.

Was your child traveling with you?

He was older.

He was taking care of himself?

No, I was with this guy. They were taking care of each other. My son actually might have been out of school by then. As a matter of fact, I think he had already graduated. He was playing as a musician. That was his goal.

Can I ask who the guy was?

He’s been run out of town.

So at that point you were pretty much living the life.

Things were going well, and then my dealer died.

At Fischbach?

It turned out to be a real tragedy for me. After ten years of trying to negotiate with the new director, we mutually parted. You know, I discovered that Aladar Marberger, Fischbach’s director, had really been my fan and promoted me and had made all things possible. Without that, it’s very difficult. For the last ten years or so, it has been more of a struggle.

You’ve been with DFN for a while.

Well, they closed. That looked hopeful. Then, I got involved in the National Academy of Design.

When did you get elected as an academician?

I don’t know, around 1993?

How did you get involved with the academy?

Annette Blaugrund lured me in.

I think she wasn’t appointed director until a few years later.

Well, I arrived three months after she did. Maybe it was 1997. She just saw me across the room and decided I was going to get involved. She kind of seduced me. At the time, I had room in my life for it, so I got involved. I was interested in how a structure, an institution works. I figured this would be a good way to find out. I had no idea what I was getting into.

When did you become president?

Two thousand five.

Were you involved before that?

Before that, I was the secretary. Annette just kind of threw me on the council. Somebody dropped out; I think it was Sigmund Abeles. He had been the secretary or the treasurer. I took over his job. I worked closely with the then-president Greg Amanoff and with Annette. There was a lot of confusion about what the place really was. It was complicated, hard to figure out how to bring it together.

The academy has had ups and downs. Were Alex Katz’s insights about the reality of the art world helpful to you in this circumstance?

Well, I don’t think the academy ever was connected to—at least when I came in—the real art world. The group of NAs that were kind of involved run- ning the place were much older. They had once been the center of attention, in their figurative work. And they had respectable careers. But you know, the art world moves fast, and very few keep their position for long. They were threatened by what was happening out there in the world.

Susan Shatter, Crash, 2006. Oil, 42 x 110 in.

Are we talking now about the present tense?

No, we’re talking about fifteen years ago.

We’re kind of jumping all over the place. I want to get back to the first lessons Alex offered about the realities of the art world.

He just said it was brutal. It was like a tank filled with sharks. His metaphors were great. He told us you had to really stay on top of your game.

Did those lessons help you?

I don’t think I really understood them. He was talking about a man’s world, the old boys world. I didn’t know anything about it.

You weren’t necessarily witness to the brutality he described.

No, I had my own little niche. I wasn’t playing at the high stakes level that he was aiming for. He wanted to be in Gagosian or Pace or something. He was fiercely ambitious. At some point I realized that I was not in that company.

Were you relieved to know that?

Well, I just didn’t see how I could keep up that kind of production. You know, you need a life set up with people around you who are going to support you. Usually it’s a wife, a dealer. You need a team. I never thought about that. That’s kind of what it takes.

At the same time, you were painting.

I was painting, I was showing. It was all fine until I didn’t have a gallery. I then realized that’s a big loss. You need good representation, or you need somebody who believes in you.

Do you think there are the same possibilities for representation today as there were fifty years ago?

I think there are enough dealers around who care.

You do?

Yeah. You know, like this kind of thing. [Shatter points to a magazine.]

Gagosian?

That’s a separate world.

He’s a market maker. You’re talking about the elite. That’s what Katz was aiming for. You’re sup- posed to do it because it’s what you gotta do, and whatever happens after that, happens after that. Sooner or later, if you’re good, good will happen. If you’re not, well, I guess it doesn’t.

Well, that’s half the story. You have to promote yourself, or somebody has to promote you, and that’s the business part. If you have a bad attitude about that, you will be in trouble.

Have you been doing that since you have not had a dealer?

No. I have people over all the time and things hap- pen. Like I’m going to have a show at the Century Association. Right now, I’m just open to anything that comes along. I don’t feel too hysterical about not having a gallery. I’d like to have one, but I almost don’t know where to start at this point.

Are you still painting a lot?

Well, this was the last series that I did. All these water things.

They’re beautiful, by the way. I really love them.

I didn’t do anything this year. That was last year. I was going to show them at DFN, so when it closed, that was a bummer. This year, I haven’t really been able to work. Just last night at dinner I sat next to a lawyer who works at Sotheby’s and asked him about estate problems with paintings. What do you do with them? He said try to get rid of them all before you die. So now that’s what I have to do.

He said you wouldn’t believe what they do. The IRS comes in and combs through everything and gives it a value and adds that to your estate, and you pay taxes on it.

This is all based on current market value?

Well, whatever they can figure out. I said, Really? They are going to go through every scrap of paper in my file cabinets?

Has the sea been the key theme for your work over the last few years?

Well, the last few years, I’ve kind of gone back and forth between the sea and the desert because they are very planetary. I don’t like domestic landscapes.

Is there any kind of underlying philosophy?

I don’t want to go into any kind of corny kind of stuff, but I’m interested in geology and the really big picture. I like landscapes that are very basic like that big Death Valley painting, which shows the erosion of the ocean floor.

Did you paint that there?

Well, I was there, and did a lot of work there. Then, I painted back here.

Did you get the sense of being in an uninhabitable place?

Well, it makes you feel your fragility. It’s a little scary painting those places.

When did you do that?

Nineteen-ninety.

That’s a long time ago.

Well, I’ve been painting a long time. I did a whole series of Western work in places that were very barren. I don’t know why it appealed to me.

Can you see yourself going back there now and painting?

I’ve kind of moved on to the Caribbean and gentle waters. Of course, I painted for years in Maine, on that coast, which is kind of intimidating.

Near where Monhegan is?

I never went to Monhegan. I went everywhere up and down the coast. Now I’m sort of into this. I don’t know when I can do more of it.

How do you deal with all the other things that people call art?

Well, I think there was a cutoff point when I stopped relating to it. I feel there are still people who are painting good paintings, both represen- tational and abstract. I actually like some of the sculptural installations I see every now and then. I’m not a video fan.

Susan Shatter, Melting, 2006. Oil, 52 x 61 in.

Well, I think if you can’t draw and you can’t create a composition, whether on a flat surface or in a space, it’s not going to be working. It just so happens there are people who have the ability to make good things out of new materials, and they actually do study video. They do study that stuff now. I think it’s much more hands-on. Thank God. I think the theory is over, at least I’m hearing it is. That was a wretched period.

We’re out of postmodernism in that regard.

I hope so. I didn’t get that in a school where you are supposed to be making things. It just seemed like an academic ruse. I kind of left the university system at that point because I had nothing to say. It has been a pleasure teaching at both the league and the academy because you don’t have to de- fend yourself. You aren’t beleaguered by questions like, What are you doing?, or criticism like, It has no irony. I think a lot of students want to learn some of the basics.

I think it’s still the thing. Well, I don’t know. I can’t say for sure. I’ve heard so many crazy things, like students who don’t want to be influenced by anything from the past. They want to be opened to doing what’s never been done before.

But I think every generation has kids like that in it. And they do look back to art history. They steal from it.

They re-write it, too.

I don’t believe that they don’t look at art history. They may not copy a Rembrandt, but …

Well, I don’t think everyone needs to copy a Rembrandt. It’s one thing to appreciate and be moved by a Rembrandt, and another to try to replicate it. Everyone has his/her motivation to create.

I see work that is definitely rooted in tradition, but it is moving forward a little. And, I like that. I know what you’re saying. There is this generational as- pect that is hard to escape, but if you wait around long enough, it sort of goes away.

So a life in art is, I guess, a struggle, like any other. The thing about it is that it’s very fulfilling and something you really want to do. I notice that people are so desperate to find something meaningful in their lives. I don’t have that problem, and I feel really lucky and relaxed not to have to be dealing with, “Oh, if only I could do something.”

What about the information age? What about the proliferation of texting and e-mail?

Texting? That’s social.

It’s a social thing that is basically invading and becoming a mainstay of our culture.

I don’t know how it will work its way into art-making.

With Ed Ruscha’s words or Barbara Kruger’s, you know …

Well, Ed Ruscha is pre-technology.

Let’s just go back to pictures of letters, pictures of letters making words, whether they make sense or not. How about the word itself being the subject of art.

It’s interesting. That kind of work I call brain work, like work from here up. It was kind of like the grid brought forward, and people are attracted to that. Other people aren’t. It’s like a stream … art making.

It’s another branch.

It’s another branch, and I think what’s so interesting about art is that it keeps evolving into things you wouldn’t expect to see, like seeing that Pollock for me. I recently saw something that I thought was magical: a piece by Sarah Sze. It was a room installation, and it was just brilliant.

Where did you see it?

At her gallery. She is well-known. In terms of what she was working with, it was like a big architecton- ic world with very carefully placed units of painted everyday stuff, but you didn’t notice it. It was so artfully done.

Integrated.

Yeah, it was unbelievable. So you just never know. You have to look through a lot of stuff to find something.

Do you think in this information culture, the possibility of having the kind of experience you had when you saw the Pollock is somehow threatened?

In the fifties and sixties the art world was tiny. You knew all the abstract painters. You knew all the realists. And that was the fight. [Laughs]

And today?

Today, it’s so big. Everything is accepted, and there’s a lot of crap. I saw this thing on Madison Avenue: a teddy bear with a lamp over its head. Huge. A piece of junk.

There’s a problem with that, isn’t there? Was there much less junk back then?

No, I don’t think so. There was a lot of shitty painting.

So, basically we’re just evolving.

I think people still like to make stuff. I think they always will. That gives me hope. You can try to keep it in rigid lines and have schools of thought, and there’s a lot of that too.

You mentioned Sargent and Homer and Marin. Are there any other big heroes that you’ve had?

Manet. Matisse. I don’t know. Michelangelo. I think I learned how to draw from copying his drawings.

He’s a good teacher.

Yeah, I would still get excited about seeing a Michelangelo sculpture.

How are you taking the advice of the lawyer from Sotheby’s?

I don’t know. It’s new.

You’ve got a lot of work.

Well, it’s a burden for your heir. He has no idea what to do with it. Well, anyway, it wasn’t something I wanted to think about. It seems to be a lot of my fellow artists who are thinking about it, and it’s a real problem. Anyway, it’s not very interesting.

It’s part of life. Part of dealing with what you’ve got to deal with. Anything you want to throw in to wrap this up?

I wanted to be an artist from a young age, and I became one not really knowing what that meant. It’s been an eye-opener along the way. You teach a lot of students and rarely do you meet one who has the obsession.

I’m sure you’ve met a few.

Yeah. I haven’t met anyone at the league. I think that’s because the nature of what I teach has a low rung reputation, although I tried to change that. In general, watercolor is thought of as something easy that requires a white bonnet.

What I’ve always heard is that watercolor is extremely difficult. It’s less forgiving. I think people just don’t want to work in a medium that is less forgiving.

I don’t know. People come into the class and think it is going to be a lark, and then they are like, Oh, this is really hard. I make them stick with it. And they end up liking it. But in general, even in the culture …

It didn’t get the respect …

That oil has. However, with so many new ap- proaches to making art, working on paper is no longer an issue. I mean, people work on many things. So, that reputation has kind of gone away.

Not disrespected.

It’s more respected in England and Europe because they study it. Somehow here, in the education system, it didn’t take, and that’s why I’m really glad the league and the academy teach it. It has been great for me.

Well, it has been great for us.

So a life in art is, I guess, a struggle, like any other. The thing about it is that it’s very fulfilling and something you really want to do. I notice that people are so desperate to find something meaningful in their lives. I don’t have that problem, and I feel really lucky and relaxed not to have to be dealing with, “Oh, if only I could do something.”

When I was growing up, I think it was when the phrase “midlife crisis” was first becoming popular. I said, I am not going to let that happen. It was only when I came to the realization that I wanted to go into art that I knew it wasn’t going to hap- pen. I totally understand.

You feel like you have a reason to be here, that this thing propels you, and maybe you’re giving something back. But there are so many lost people out there who don’t have that.

Well, not to go out with any regrets is a blessing. And I think anyone who has really been true, who felt that they did what they were supposed to do, what they needed to do, or did not let that life become unfulfilled, has peace.

I think that’s true.

This interview was originally published in the Spring 2012 print issue of LINEA.

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    Painting is a state of being. … Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is. — Jackson Pollock