Joan Schulze: Celebrating 80
Curated by Michele Ellis Pracy and Kristina Hornback
Fresno Art Museum
The object of painting a picture is not to make a picture—however unreasonable this may sound. The picture, if a picture results, is a by-product and may be useful, valuable, interesting as a sign of what has past. The object, which is back of every true work of art, is the attainment of a state of being, a state of high functioning, a more than ordinary moment of existence. In such moments activity is inevitable, and whether this activity is with brush, pen, chisel, or tongue its result is but a by-product of the state, a trace, the footprint of the state. —Robert Henri1
At the heart of my work, whether it be quilts, collages or books, is the transformation of fabric and paper in layered constructions. Improvising during the painting, image-transfer processes and collaging of materials while chasing an idea at hand creates adventure in the studio—Thoughts are made visible. —Joan Schulze, 1999
Collage has declared to be the predominant aesthetic strategy of the modernist art of the twentieth century. (A slightly broader term, juxtaposition, might also be claimed for the postmodernist art of recent decades.) A century ago, the Cubists combined drawing and painting with glued printed images in order to depict, with ambiguous wit, modern life’s new fast pace, jumbling images and sounds.. A decade later, the Dadaists and Surrealists employed collage to create nonsensical or dreamlike tableaux that excoriated the ostensibly rational leaders responsible for the Great War. In America, after the second world war, collage was employed similarly by the Abstract Expressionists and Pop Artists: in Ab Ex, colors and shapes were combined with painted forms, echoing Cubist formalism; in Pop, real-world elements were painted or printed, or literally incorporated into artworks to both commemorate and satirize mass-culture daily life.
Joan Schulze, the eminent California quilt artist, has made collage the basis of her practice. She “embraces,” says art critic Peter Frank, “the disjunctive quality of modern life and seeks to discover coherence and harmony within such disjunction. This is no mere demonstration of virtuosity; it is an ongoing display of discretion, a constant matching of medium to material, content to context.”2 It is a compositional method that reflects her creative philosophy of openness, improvisation and experimentation. A lyrical poet as well as an artist, Schulze is a careful observer of things, and, of her reactions to them, both visual and verbal. Sarah E. Tucker describes Schulze’s “fascination with changing light, the effects of time and weather on the walls of buildings, the passing of time, and laundry (and to travel with Joan is to be ever alert to the cry, Stop! Look at that laundry! And yes, to stop and take photographs at regular intervals along the route.)”3 These photographs, transformed and combined, make their way into the artist’s beautiful, poetic artworks. Tucker likens Schulze’s compulsive image-gathering to the writing method favored by the eighth-century Chinese poet and calligrapher Li Po (who drowned, apocryphal legend has it, while drunkenly trying to embrace the moon’s reflection), as well as the twentieth-century Beat writer William Burroughs, who labeled his method ‘cut ups’.
Li Po would ride out each morning, his servant walking by his side. Each time a thought came to him, he would write it down and drop the slip of paper and text into the black embroidered bag hjs servant carried. Returning home Po would spend each evening working these scraps of text into a poem.4
Method alone does not, however, guarantee the divine madness of art: imagination must be balanced with discrimination —Peter Frank’s ‘discretion’. The sense of form as well as a strong creative drive cannot be taught; they are inborn, as the painter Robert Henri writes (in The Art Spirit). Schulze is a self-taught artist, an ‘outlier,’ to use her term, who never attended art school, but always apparently had a prodigious commitment to the art life. She remembers visiting Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Grande Jatte” at the Art Institute of Chicago, alone, at age seven, pretending to be part of a group in order to evade scrutiny.
…I grasped their patterns
Made by dots,
Those Morse Code messages
That reached out to me…
—From Morse Code, by Joan Schulze
Shulze waited until her late thirties, after becoming an accomplished poet and photographer, to focus on art quilt-making, or, to use the more exact and inclusive term, fiber art. In the 1970s, she learned embroidery at a local stitchery guild; in the 1980s she explored traditional quilting materials and formats (though not traditional imagery); from the 1990s to the present she has expanded her scope to include nontraditional methods and materials (glue transfer, acrylic paint, Velcro, plastic fabric, monotype, cyanotype, creative photocopying, reverse printing, layering, metal foils, machine and hand stitching, mass-market printed imagery) and unusual formats (double-sided quilts; scrolls; and sequences of images either sewn together or affixed to wide strips of tape, resembling filmstrips or contact sheets). Tucker sees this experimentation—which includes transforming old works into new ones— as akin to improvisation in jazz, one of the artist’s enthusiasms, demanding both technical virtuosity and perfect visual ‘pitch’5. Schulze also ventures at times from the lyrical into sociopolitical commentary with a feminist slant, proving that art engagé can combine visual beauty and even a wry sense of humor. Schulze’s fashion-themed collages (Tango, Fast…Faster) celebrate youth, beauty and glamor, while hinting, with their distressed, faded surfaces, at the flip side of fabulousness, evanescence. Schulze’s affinity for wabi sabi, the Japanese appreciation of imperfect beauty. i.e., marked by weathering or age, or ‘living a life.,”7 is captured in four works depicting Japanese tea bowls, which the artist collects. These works collate multiple views of each cup at various sizes and seen from different angles, cubistically; some of the cup portraits are distorted by photocopy-machine manipulation; others recall photographic negatives, with their light and dark values reversed. Three of the collages—a long time ago, not so long ago, and the unknowable future—are accompanied by poems that ponder the mystery and miracle of enduring artworks “made to last through time.”
once upon a time, not so long ago
this bowl, this precious object
cared for, used, and admired
passed from one to another
then given as a gift
to one who received it
with delight and surprise
—Joan Schulze, not so long ago, 2017
Schulze’s restricted, delicate palettes, her elegant drawing in thread, her use of written or printed characters as semi-abstract visual forms, and her airy, open compositions suggest the nature philosophy of Asian art. In several recent works, however, Schulze confronts the racial divide in American culture in tape-strip collages that suggest the pervasive imagery of the digital era. Interior Lives and Vertical Daydreams suggest private reveries, while Opus: White and Opus: Black and Brown, subtly show how skin color is still unfortunately the filter through which we perceive each other.
While previous writers have focused on Schulze as the creator of extraordinary art quilts, it is a disservice to her art to relegate it to the craft domain. Schulze’s vernacular, everyday images taken from a variety of sources, mysteriously and miraculously synthesized through color and composition into compelling, hypnotic works—that, in Whitman’s words, “contain contradictions”—are fine-art collages comparable to any. Schulze acknowledges the assemblagist Robert Rauschenberg as a kindred spirit whose work influenced her, and both artists combine curiosity about the world and a passion for materials and experimentation. For both, the process and the experience are of equal importance with the resulting product, or ‘by-product,’ to use Robert Henri’s 1923 term. Fortunately for us viewers, both are consummate artists who magically and intuitively transform the diaristic stuff of daily life into universal visual experience; Schulze calls this quality that lifts a work beyond design and composition ‘the sixth dimension.’ 6 Henri, again: “It beats all the things that wealth can give and everything else in the world to say the things one believes, to put them into form, to pass them on to anyone who may care to take them up.”8
1 Robert Henri, The Art Spirit (1923), p. 159
2 Peter Frank, “The Collage Aesthetic,” in Deborah Corsini’s Poetic License: The Art of Joan Schulze (1999), p.113
3 Sarah E. Tucker, “Schulze: The Artist Who Dances,” in Joan Schulze’s Quilts (2005), p.9
4 Sarah E. Tucker, “A Poetics of Cloth, Paper, Stitch and Line,” in Deborah Corsini’s Poetic License: The Art of Joan Schulze (2009), p.85
5 Sarah E. Tucker, “A Poetics of Cloth, Paper, Stitch and Line,” in Deborah Corsini’s Poetic License: The Art of Joan Schulze (2009), p.90
6 Schulze, quoted in Dyana Curreri, “ A Life Without Limitation,” in The Art of Joan Schulze (1999), p.58.
7 Schulze, quoted in Jette Clover, “Looking for Beauty,” in The Art of Joan Schulze (1999), p.110.
8 Robert Henri, The Art Spirit (1923), p. 142