Susan Schwalb
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Paintings 1997–2008
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Metalpoint 1974–95
Sculpture 1977–96
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Totem

I began working in the Renaissance technique of silverpoint in 1974 after spending the summer in the Hamptons watching a fellow artist work in this medium. By 1975 I was drawing almost exclusively in silverpoint and other metals. I began my first series of orchid drawings after someone gave me an orchid, stimulating my desire to explore one particular theme in depth. During the first year I drew from one dried flower exclusively, seeing it from many points of view; it seemed to me a symbol for myself and for women.

“In Susan Schwalb’s recent drawings, the natural form of an orchid is transformed into a personal vision. By isolating and enlarging the flower to fill the entire space, she evokes lived experiences or sensual fantasies.
spacerBecause of the scale of the drawings, generally 40in. x 30in., the spectator is engulfed by the curving petals of the orchid and encouraged to “enter” the flower. The image slowly emerges from the depths of the paper and gradually unfolds.
spacerThe new orchid series affirms Susan Schwalb’s technical virtuosity and indicates her willingness to accept the powerfully evocative nature of the large-scale images.”
— Joan Marter, "Susan Schwalb," Womanart, Winter 1977–78

“… the large silver and goldpoint drawings by Susan Schwalb, shown in December, received special attention because of her personal imagery and technical virtuosity. Schwalb isolates and enlarges flowers to evoke lived experience or sexual fantasies.”
— Joan Marter, "Women Artists," Arts Magazine, February 1978

Gradually as my work became more and more abstract, I removed the orchid as a literal subject and worked with the shapes behind the flower. I began to scratch and tear the paper and then added smoke and fire as part of my technique, juxtaposing the very precise silverpoint technique with an emotionally free and dramatic element. In the works entitled “Parchment,” “Covenant” and “Headdress,” personal and public rituals provided a source for my imagery.

“Susan Schwalb’s metalpoint and smoke Tablets and Headdresses explore the effects of fire as a symbol of dynamic transmutation of matter into energy. She probes changes of state, the limits of life and death, destroying part of the art work itself in a moment of the burning, the ephemeral moment in which the essential radiance inherent in all matter is perceived.”
— Gloria Orenstein, "Evocative Images," Arts Magazine, May 1980

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In 1980, during a residency at Yaddo, I completed a series of burnt triptychs and then a major 5-part work, “Rites of Passage” which dramatically enlarged the scale of these works.

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“At the time of the residency at Yaddo she began mixing silverpoint marks with interactions of smoke and fire. In this work a delicate charring of the paper merges with the metallic marks to achieve a curious variant of trompe l’oeil effect. One series from this period, titled “Parchments,” is a poignant signifier of documents from the ancient past.”
— Jill Waterman, "Delicate understandings," artsMEDIA, June 15 – July 15, 2000

“Schwalb’s treatment of this venerable technique is unconventional. 'Powerful' is not often an appropriate adjective for silverpoint, which lends itself to delicate effects. But Schwalb’s work is powerful indeed. She creates a union of the sensuous and the spiritual, and does so in inventive ways. Her drawings are large, and she often tears part of the drawing or burns into it with a candle. This partial destruction is part of the art — a very forceful part. The candle flame, which Schwalb cannot completely control, adds to the element of risk already inherent in silverpoint, which cannot be effectively erased. The line the artist makes is the line that stays.”
— Christine Temin, "Silverpoint’s delicate power," The Boston Globe, 11/14/1986

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spacer In 1984, I began to use color combined with silverpoint. In these large-scale works, burning no longer plays a role; instead, the drawing becomes very varied, ranging from subtle toning to complex linear imagery. I used line to build up a vibrating, luminous surface that forms a stark contrast to the white of the paper.

“In one drawing, Ritual, Schwalb returns fleetingly to a representational element, two small feather shapes, on each side of the central line. The pinkish glow that encompasses the opening, formed by her addition of a subtle application of tempers, adds to the sensuality of the piece. Schwalb’s renewal of minimal imagery echoes the work of Barnett Newman somewhat, but her lines are very gently curved, and their quiet swaying movements reflect their human, intimate scale, rejecting grandiosity.”
— Stephen Breslow, "Four Women Artists," Art Papers, March/April 1988

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In the Emblem series (1988) I continued my characteristic use of dramatic oppositions; a surface of extraordinary sensuality is structured by an exact geometry.

“In Schwalb’s ethereal silverpoint drawings streams of whispery lines — surely it is impossible to make thinner lines than these — cascade downward. They form sliding, blossoming organic shapes so close to touching you can feel the heat between them. Schwalb achieves great tension between formal delicacy and sensuous, even erotic, content.”
— Christine Temin, The Boston Globe, 2/26/1987

“White Night” and “Spiritus Mundi” continue this theme. The same can be said for my Poplar series (1989–92) which had its source in a painting by Monet. The Judean Desert and Sandstorm works (1988–90), evoking memories of a trip to Israel, introduce a very complicated technique of cross-hatchings. “Quintet” takes it one step further and combines this cross-hatching with a grid based on the lines in a musical score.

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“Schwalb is referential also in the large Homage to Monet, part of her Poplar Series. Unlike Monet’s naturalistic scene, these work of silverpoint, acrylic and gold leaf on paper juxtapose geometric verticals with horizontal bands of muted wash over delicate silverpoint strokes. The paintings glow with a vibrancy that belies their stark precision, the infusion of color implying a tension between feeling and formal means.”
— Alicia Faxon, "Viewpoints," Art New England, October/November 1991

“The harsh desert landscape inspired Susan Schwalb’s abstractions, which emphasize the repetitious rhythms of barren terrain. Punctuated by gilded vertical strips symbolizing gaunt poplar trees, the compositions go beyond superficial appearance to analyze the artist’s experience of place.”
— Helen A. Harrison, "Contemporary Metalpoint Drawings," The New York Times, 4/3/1994

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The Intervals series (1992–95) combines ideas of dramatic contrasts that have frequently interested me in the past. The opposition between carefully drawn sections and freely brushed gold leaf has its roots in my burnt works. With their horizon lines, the panels and drawings inevitably evoke landscape imagery. To my mind, the muted colors suggest an autumnal harmony, to which the varied levels of the multiple masonite panels add a note of spatial vibration.

“Schwalb’s mastery of her medium is the primary anchor for the group of paintings at Wheaton. It is a show of contrasts — the drama of freely brushed gold leaf against the resolute line of silverpoint, expressive surfaces against disciplined geometry. The unabashed beauty of some pieces belie their complexity. Subtle details and tonal variations draw the viewer in close to experience the obsessive repetition of this, feathery silverpoint lines on either side of the white verticals that divide the panel into areas of contrasting surface. From a distance the push-pull of variations — dark and light, sensual gold and pale yellow painting, broad calligraphic gestures against silverpoint scratches — set up compelling visual rhythms.”
— Joyce Cohen, "Susan Schwalb: Intervals, Silverpoint Paintings," Art New England, August/September 1996

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