Briefly describe the work you do.
My work reflects a preoccupation with spatial ambiguity, whether informed by geometry or line. Recently, my gaze has shifted away from rhythmic complexity towards compositions that are increasingly spare and contemplative. While relationships between forms remain central to my work, I now seek to do more with less — to suggest spatial tension by using a limited number of elements, as well as a palette reduced to blacks, whites and occasional reds. My painting process often balances the accumulation of layers with vigorous attention to revealing what lies beneath.
Tell us about your background and how that has had an influence on your work and on you as an artist.
Music, dance, and visual art have been present in my life for as long as I can remember. In elementary school, weekday afternoons were filled with violin lessons and classes in music theory. Saturday mornings were spent at modern dance class, with painting classes at the Art Students League in the afternoon. I didn’t know any adults who had careers in the arts and I had no expectation that the classes would lead to a profession. These creative pursuits were simply something I did because I enjoyed them.
I remained passionately committed to both music and art through the first two years of college — carrying my violin in one hand and a portfolio with etching plates in the other. Oddly enough, although I never felt the inclination to work with three-dimensional forms, I was in a sculpture class when I realized that the visual arts would be my life’s work.
Music and dance still play prominent roles in my life—in the studio, listening to music, often jazz, helps me transition from the busy-ness of the outside world into the mind space I need for work; and dancing around the studio energizes my day.
The concept of the artist studio has a broad range of meanings in contemporary practice. Artists may spend much of their time in the actual studio, or they may spend very little time in it. Tell us about your individual studio practice and how it differs from or is the same as traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
‘Being in the studio’ encompasses so much more than being physically present in the studio and making the work. My studio practice includes writing about art, both to clarify my understanding of the work of other artists and to gain new insight into my own work. It includes reading books and articles by/about other artists, and books about creative practice. It also includes a lot of looking: visits to museums and galleries. And finally, it includes having conversations with other artists. Doing the work is certainly the most intense part of being in the studio, but it is very much informed by all the rest.
What roles do you find yourself playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
When I was in school, it was taboo even to suggest that being an artist entailed anything beyond making the work and being part of a community of artists. The advice was to just stick with it, find your voice, and everything (!) would fall into place. Of course, that approach is rather naïve. In addition to working outside the studio so I can pay my bills, my current job description as an artist includes: marketer, researcher, semi-skilled user of software programs, blogger, occasional woodworker, packager, and maker.
When do you find is the best time to make art? Do you set aside a specific time everyday or do you have to work whenever time allows?
The demands of daily life outside the studio mean that the best time to make art is whenever I am in the studio. Of course I would prefer a predictable schedule filled with long and frequent studio days, but I have adjusted how I work so I can be intensely productive in brief bursts.
How has your work changed in the past five years? How is it the same?
The most significant change in my work has been to fully embrace paring down. Over the years, I have periodically explored more reductivist compositions and palette—but each time I retreated because it didn’t feel like there was enough going on. After my exhibit in 2013, I began a year of experimentation, doing more with less. My work now has a much richer surface texture and increased spatial uncertainty, but at the same time it is compositionally restrained and executed with a very limited palette. Another noticeable change is that I am actively engaged in two distinct bodies of work at the same time—the compositionally austere Blacks and Whites series (oils and oil pastel on paper) alongside the compressed energy of the Tangle series (charcoal drawings). While the paintings are built over an extended period of time, in which I repeatedly layer, sand and adjust the forms and surface, the charcoal drawings are executed in a single work session using a process that does not allow for any modifications.
The constant that unites both bodies of work is my process. In each series, I establish parameters to guide my exploration and then develop my vocabulary. But after that initial exploration I go where the work leads me, manipulating the vocabulary in successive iterations through a process that is intuitive, rather than planned. I seek to pose questions, rather than offering up answers. I am always open to ‘accidents,’ fully aware that those moments often make a piece sing.
How have people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers, other artists or even pop icons had an impact on the work you do?
Most everything I encounter has the potential to impact my work in some way—the exposed layers of ripped billboards, a phrase in a novel, the pattern of windows on old brick buildings. When I’m feeling stuck, I often reread Gary Snyder’s translation of HanShan, Cold Mountain Poems (which I became acquainted with through the work of Brice Marden), along with Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. The artists I turn to for sustenance are numerous, but here are just a few: Myron Stout, Helmut Federle, Suzan Frecon, Stanley Whitney, Richard Diebenkorn, Manet and Velasquez. But above them all stands Morandi, whose work can bring me to tears. I become engrossed in the subtle conversations between forms, the just-right arrangement of objects, his obsessive revisiting and reworking of the same territory. Finally, along with looking at the work of other artists, historic and contemporary, ongoing conversations with artist friends help me through the uncertainties and fears that accompany the creative life.
Have you ever been pulled in the direction of a pursuit other than being an artist? What are your other interests?
When I was around ten years old, I briefly entertained the notion of becoming an archaeologist. Although I would have been well suited to patiently revealing what is hidden beneath the surface, I abandoned that idea when I realized that it was primarily about uncovering what other people made. I have always been a maker and inclined towards going my own way, so while there are many things I do for pleasure—reading, listening to music, cooking, gardening, being politically active—I can’t imagine spending so much of my time doing anything other than being in the studio.
Tamar Zinn is a visual artist and blogger who lives and works in New York City. She has shown nationally for the past thirty years. Recent exhibits include her 2013 solo “Still/Dancing” at Markel Fine Arts in NYC, and group exhibits include The Last Brucennial, NYC; Navigation Puzzle, Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts; and No Chromophobia, OK Harris, NYC. Her work is represented in private and corporate collections across the U.S., including Fidelity Investments, McKinsey & Co., Pfizer, and IBM. She has completed commissions for medical centers including MD Anderson Cancer Center, Texas; and Mt. Sinai Hospital and New York-Presbyterian Hospital, both in NYC. Her work has also been selected for the Arts-in-Embassies program of the US Department of State. Zinn is represented by Markel Fine Arts in New York and blogs at tamarzinn.blogspot.com
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.