Interviews

Joanne Greenbaum on Translating Painting Into Sculpture

Observe how an artist moves between materials, from sculpey to ceramic and paint, to playfully touch on the ways color can test the limits of beauty and ugliness.

Joanne Greenbaum, “Untitled” (2018), enamel on porcelain, 5 1/2 x 4 3/4 x 4 1/2 inches (image courtesy of the artist and 56 Henry)

The New York-based artist Joanne Greenbaum, is well known for her abstract painting. We have the pleasure now of learning about her small sculptures and commitment to making artist books. For her latest show Caput Mortuum, on view at 56 Henry, 10 year’s worth of paintings are re-imagined as sculpture. The work runs the gamut of shapes painted in hues of saturated color, gradients, scribbles, to drips. The sculptures are stacked in an installation on a table, either encased in, or on top of, clear plexiglass boxes. Greenbaum and I spoke about how she developed her sculptural practice and how it influences her other work.

Artist Joanne Greenbaum (photo by Costas Picadas, and used with permission)

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Samuel Jablon: How long have you been making sculpture, and have they always been ceramic?

Joanne Greenbaum: I started making sculpture in 2003 and 2004 but not in clay. I made some very small things in sculpey and some other air-dry materials. I wanted at first to understand some of the things in my paintings that resembled sculptures or fictional structures. Initially it was the bright colors of the sculpey that I responded to and then the ability to make something fast and bake it in the oven. I didn’t think it would be something I would pursue, and made these things as notes and three-dimensional drawings for the studio, to have on my table to look at, not for reference at all.

Eventually I came to like working in three dimensions and felt as though it was a form of drawing. I then enrolled in a clay class because the other materials were actually very limiting in what you could do with them. I didn’t fall in love with clay. It was hard, but something kept me going back to classes and eventually I figured out that I liked making sculpture out of it. I still use a variety of materials to make sculptures from sculpey, cellulose air-dry material, clay, and lately cast aluminum. Hand building porcelain is my favorite medium, mostly for the white color because I end up painting or drawing on them myself. It is like a piece of good paper.

Joanne Greenbaum, “Untitled” (2008), polymer clay,  4 x 4 3/4 x 4 1/2 inches (image courtesy of the artist and 56 Henry)

SJ: Do you approach making a painting differently from a sculpture?

JG: It’s a very different process. I am able to work on paintings a few or more at a time, going from one to the other moving them around, over a long period of time. At the end of the period of time, after maybe a month, I start to have a body of work.

Also, when I paint, I think about different things in a formal way. With sculpture, I mostly think about how to get it so it doesn’t collapse or how it can stand up. How, if I am working with clay slabs, will the slabs stay together and how high can I go before it collapses and I have to put it down for the day. Also, when I work on a sculpture in clay, I usually do it in one time block, maybe two. I am more impatient with sculpture and want to see results right away, while with painting, I seem to have acquired great patience and resolve not to mess it up by going too far.

I think because I have been painting my whole life there is a history there that I am very aware of, and with sculpture because it is fairly new, I’m still figuring it out.

Installation view of Joanne Greenbaum, Caput Mortem, at 56 Henry, New York (image courtesy of the artist and 56 Henry)

SJ: How did you decide on the miniature scale in plexiglass cubes, and are the sculptures always this size?

JG: The sculptures for this show were made very small on purpose. I had some of them in the studio, displayed in plexiglass boxes, and when Ellie Rines, the owner of 56 Henry, saw them she suggested we do something like that for her space. I continued the project of small sculptures in plexiglass boxes as a structure to fit on a table in her space. Most of the sculptures I make are much larger, although they are all table-top size. I don’t have the intention to make large monumental sculpture and I have to force myself to make things that are at most 20/25 inches tall. I am just comfortable with that size.

I think of the sculptures as very intimate, and want to keep them that scale. As to the plexiglass boxes, I once saw a beautiful Franz West installation where he had some smaller sculptural models in plexiglass and it just struck me as something I would eventually want to do. I think the boxes are used as a kind of framing device for the pieces, some of which are fragile materials, so its protection, but also a way to show them together in a larger structure creating a sort of environment that can be different each time.

Joanne Greenbaum, “Untitled” (2008), polymer clay, 3 1/4 x 3 1/2 x 3 3/4 inches (image courtesy of the artist and 56 Henry)

SJ: I know that you also make artist books. How do your different practices inform each other?

JG: I do make a lot of artist books, and I started this some years ago as a way to carry drawings back and forth with me as I went about my life. After doing this for a while, it really caught on as a method of drawing, keeping each book to a theme, such as watercolor, pencil, gouaches, ink etc. I got excited about having this structure in the books, and it was a way to show drawings to people in a different way than the pile of drawings on my studio table. I also felt that they were laboratories of a sort for my painting and sculpture, although I almost never refer to the specific books when I am working on something else. I think it’s another activity and all the activities are related and come from the same place of wanting to make things. I love books and I like how in these handmade books I can make one over the course of a weekend in watercolor and at the end of the day actually have something I can look at and enjoy. I’ve always drawn and would spend hours working in notebooks, but now basically make those notebooks myself. I think of them as art objects and in fact at my upcoming show at Otis in Los Angeles we will have three vitrines with the notebooks on display.

Joanne Greenbaum, “Untitled,” polymer clay (image courtesy of the artist and 56 Henry_

SJ: I’ve always admired how your paintings resist being formulaic. Could you talk about how you make a painting?

JG: I resist formula. I almost never make the same painting twice and always try to move it along in some way, and in which direction I have no idea. I think painting is a great adventure and always fascinating to me what one can do in the two dimensions and with color.

I also love materials and have found that different paints have different results, so it’s become a study of mine to really think about materials, which color would look better in oil or acrylic or flash, for example. I work slower now than I have ever before.

I think because I want each painting to have a life of its own and a pace of its own. I add things to a work and then leave it for a while to see what it does after a couple of days. The painting tells me what to do or what it needs.

Joanne Greenbaum, “Untitled” (2012), glaze on porcelain, 6 x 3 x 3 inches (image courtesy of the artist and 56 Henry)

I like to think about beauty and ugliness and all of that, but what is most important to me is that the work is interesting and that it takes me to a new place. Not that I don’t use some things over and over again, as we do with language, but, as with language, it changes over time.

Making a painting involves building and leaving it, then building it again until I have no more information to put in it. It’s important for me to not get anxious about finishing something, because then the pace gets messed up, and I rush to make decisions, I like to take my time and let each painting progress.

Lately I’ve been working on smaller paintings, which is totally different than large works. I can work on many at the same time and they are faster and rougher, crude almost. I don’t know what my subject is or what the content is. I just go and then think about what the painting is later on, after I stop working on it. I do like color and most of my paintings use many many colors. I don’t think I could make a black and white painting. I used to think of painting as very performative, albeit a private performance. This has changed. I am more in my head now, and comfortable with that. I no longer have to act out all the painterly impulses in one go. And I do not have to act on every single thought either.

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Joanne Greenbaum’s exhibition, Caput Mortuum, is on view at 56 Henry (56 Henry Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) until June 2 (it was originally slated to close May 20, and it has been extended).

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