Among Miriam Schapiro’s works, the black paintings are my favorites. Although she often used color ecstatically, I never felt it came to her easily. In these works, it was not an issue: they are refined, elegant, beautifully crafted, perfectly pitched. She layered transparent, gauzy, filmy fabrics over a dark ground until they merged seamlessly. It was sometimes impossible to tell if certain passages were collaged, painted or both. She would talk about the importance of gluing, and she was right. By 1980, she had become a master/mistress of the glue pot! She would delicately squeeze sparkly, iridescent acrylics from a tube with a tiny nozzle to create the dotted lines that look like strands of beads.
It is well known that Mimi (only her husband Paul Brach ever called her Miriam) collected embroidered handkerchiefs, doilies, aprons, napkins at yard sales and thrift shops, and that women all over the country saved them for her. But she also had a cache of finer fabrics (silks and satins and damasks and chiffons) in her materials closet, and that’s what I see when I look at the black paintings. They remind me of how much she loved the exotic jewelry and garments that she wore to art openings and parties. The black-and-white photograph taken in her studio, in which she stands in front of Black Bolero and behind Azerbaijani Fan, perfectly describes these paintings as an extension of herself.
Black Bolero is so dense, controlled and tightly designed within its half circle/fan shape that it shouldn’t work, but something wild happens as it breaks out into that cloud of arabesques at the top, a shout of joy. There are two kinds of patterning, geometrical and floral – here we see them both, carefully intertwined and balanced. It succeeds in her often stated goals: to marry high art and craft; eastern and western influences; the public “male” world and the domestic “female” world; the rigorous and the sentimental; kitsch and splendor. We feel an underlying fin-de-siecle morbidity too, and not just because it’s black. It is as if the brightness and liveliness dancing across its surface were disguising a depth of sorrow.
Bal Masque (like Medusa) from her “Screen” series is more austerely formal. Composed of 6 attached panels, these works are flat, although they appear to recede into space. The form anticipates her theater pieces that were to preoccupy her for many years, but I prefer the severe, contained parameters of these screens. She upended all she’d learned utilizing the computer to generate large, hard-edged geometrical abstractions earlier in her life. Filigreed botanical ornament follows its borders respectfully, as it might in a traditional screen, but at the center, it sprouts tendrils and buds. If you look long enough, you begin to see gaping eyes and death heads at the interior, reminiscent of the masks that Mimi collected and arranged on the walls of her loft. At the center is a face, a scary one! I somehow associate these pictures with the ravishing interiors in The Last Emperor (1987) – could Bertolucci have seen these paintings?
It is essential to situate artists in their historic milieu, especially if they thrived on interactions within their community, as Miriam Schapiro did. She was active in many feminist artist groups on both coasts, participating in working collectives with other strong, smart women. There were intense, heated discussions about art and politics, which could be volatile or generative. She was also a member of the Pattern & Decoration movement, which included a pretty even number of men and women (Robert Kushner, Valerie Jaudon, Brad Davis, Patsy Norvell, Arlene Slavin, Jane Kaufman, Cynthia Carlson, Robert Zakanitch, Kim MacConnel, Barbara Zucker, Ned Smyth, Mary Grigoriadis, Tony Robbin, Richard Kalina, Kendall Shaw and myself, plus others as it expanded). At our meetings, we encouraged one another to push the boundaries of the decorative. We shared a love for the arts of other times and places, and a dissatisfaction with the restrictions of formalism, which had been dominant in 60s painting. Some of us continued the conversations from the larger gatherings during one-on-one studio visits, at which ideas were hashed out in front of the work; the dialogue was so stimulating that one would be energized. These were among Mimi’s happiest times, and I believe that their charge is visible in the pieces she made during those years.
Miriam Schapiro: A Visionary, opens at the National Academy Museum in New York City on February 3, 2016 and is on view through May 8, 2016.