Briefly describe the work that you do.
I am an artist specializing in silverpoint and metalpoint drawing and painting. My work is reductive, abstract and sometimes minimal. At this moment I am thrilled to be included in an upcoming historical metalpoint show entitled “Drawing in Silver and Gold: From Leonardo to Jasper Johns” opening on May 3, 2015 at the National Gallery of Art, Wash DC. I am one of two or 3 living artists in the show and perhaps one of the only women in the show. This exhibition will travel to The British Museum, London opening in September 2015.
At what point in your life did you decide to become an artist?
Ever since I was a little girl (maybe around 5) I knew I wanted to be an artist, even though I wasn’t sure what an artist did. My mother was also an artist so we visited museums all the time. The Metropolitan Museum was my playground.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
I was born in New York City and studied at the High School of Music and Art, and Carnegie-Mellon University. For the past 40 years I have been part of the revival of the old technique of silverpoint drawing in America and am considered by many to be one of the foremost figures. Most contemporary artists who draw with a metal stylus continue the tradition of Leonardo and Dürer by using the soft, delicate line for figurative imagery. My work, on the other hand, is resolutely abstract, and my handling of the technique has been very varied and innovative. In works from the 1970’s I tore and burned paper to provide an emotionally free and dramatic contrast to the precise linearity of silverpoint. In works from the 1980’s I combined silverpoint with flat expanses of acrylic paint or gold leaf. At times I have used a wide variety of metals so that subtle shifts of tone and color would emerge. Finally, in 1996, I began what many think of as signature works, as I abandoned the stylus altogether in favor of wide metal bands. In 2010 I began to use a stylus once again but in a manner completely different than earlier works.
What types of conceptual concerns are present in your work? How do those relate to the specific process(es) or media you use?
My drawings use the classical Renaissance technique of metalpoint in ways which challenge all the traditional concepts. Juxtaposing a wide variety of metals (silver, gold, brass, copper, platinum, pewter, bronze and aluminum) I obtain soft shifts in tone and color reminiscent of the luminous transparency of watercolor. Horizontal lines and tone evoke an atmosphere of serenity, and the shimmer of light on the surface, created by the metals, is quite unlike any of the usual effects of metalpoint.
I have been working within a square format almost exclusively since 1997. An even grid of narrow horizontal lines forms the basic structure of my drawings and paintings. But unlike the work of Agnes Martin, with whom I am often compared, this geometric regularity serves as a spatial context for irregular events on the surface.
Tone and line are the most important features of these works. In my wood panels I began by carving thin lines into the surface after which I applied several layers of paint or gesso. Then, after lightly sanding the surface, I enriched the surface with bronze tones and metalpoint drawing. The works seem to vibrate as the eye moves around the painting.
Many of the drawings, particularly those entitled Madrigal, create a counterpoint between fine lines drawn with a stylus and broad swatches of bronze or copper tone. Those entitled Toccata have a stronger linear presence, and on occasion I have actually used fine pencil lines as a dark black contrast to the metalpoint.
There is considerable variety in these works. A ground of black gesso alters the tones and colors of the metals in the drawings entitled Aurora. A particular variant of the linear texture characterizes the three-dimensional drawings entitled Toccata or Intermezzo, where lines wrap around the edges of the panels. And finally, the panels and drawings entitled Polyphony feature multiple square units, often arranged in layers so that an illusion of depth, in sharp contrast to my other works, frequently seems to emerge.
We once heard Chuck Close say he did not believe in being inspired, rather in working hard everyday. What motivates you in your studio practice?
I agree with Close, I just try to work everyday some days are amazing and others one just slogs along.
What artists living or non-living influence your work?
I have been inspired by many artists, from Jackson Pollack to Agnes Martin. I am particularly interested in younger artists, especially those working in metalpoint such as Marietta Hoferer.
When you are not making art what types of activities and interests do you engage in?
I adore swimming and try to swim everyday. I love looking at art and spend lots of time in galleries and museums. I follow the work of many people, especially sculptors like Ursula Von Rydingsvard. I have never made sculpture so I admire those who do. Lately I have enamored with the abstract and concrete work of Latin American and South American artists. I also write about art, most recently for Art New England magazine.
Susan Schwalb is one of the foremost figures in the revival of the ancient technique of silverpoint drawing in America. Most of the contemporary artists who draw with a metal stylus continue the tradition of Leonardo and Durer by using the soft, delicate line for figurative imagery. By contrast, Schwalb’s work is resolutely abstract, and her handling of the technique is extremely innovative. Paper is torn and burned to provide an emotionally free and dramatic contrast to the precise linearity of silverpoint. In other works, silverpoint is combined with flat expanses of acrylic paint or gold leaf. Sometimes, subtle shifts of tone and color emerge from the juxtaposition of a wide variety of metals. From 1997-2008 Schwalb abandoned the stylus altogether in favor of wide metal bands that achieve a shimmering atmosphere reminiscent of the luminous transparency of watercolor. In recent works, Schwalb creates a counterpoint between fine lines drawn with a stylus and broad swatches of bronze or copper tones. Those entitled “Toccata” have a stronger linear presence, and on occasion she has actually used fine pencil lines as a dark back contract to the metal point.
Schwalb was born in New York City and studied at the High School of M&A, and at Carnegie-Mellon University. Her current drawings juxtapose a wide variety of metals (silver, gold, brass, copper, platinum, pewter, bronze and aluminum) to obtain soft shifts in tone and color. Horizontal bands evoke an atmosphere of serenity, and the shimmer of light on the surface, created by the metals, is quite unlike any of the usual effects of metalpoint.
Schwalb’s oeuvre ranges from drawings on paper to artist books and paintings on canvas or wood panels.; many of these panels are carefully beveled so that the imagery seems to float off the wall. Her work is represented in most of the major public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the National Gallery, Washington DC, The British Museum, London, The Brooklyn Museum, NY, The Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Kupferstichkabinett – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Germany, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX, The Achenbach Foundation of Graphic Arts, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, The Library of Congress, Washington, DC, The Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT, Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, The National September 11 Memorial and Museum, New York, NY, The Columbus Museum, Columbus, GA, Evansville Museum of Art and Science, the Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock, AK and The Isreal Museum, Jerusalem.
Susan Schwalb has been in residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (2010,’07, ‘92,’73), the MacDowell Colony (1989, ’75,’74), Yaddo, 1981 and has had two residencies in Isreal in 1994 at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv Artists’ Studios. She has had over 35 solo exhibitions and has exhibited nationally and internationally.
In 2015 the historical metalpoint exhibition entitled, “Drawing with Silver and Gold: From Leonardo to Jasper Johns”, will open at the National Gallery of Art, Wash. DC and then travel to The British Museum, London. Schwalb will be one of a very few living artists included in the show.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.