“I met Jen when she was a baby!” Joyce Pensato tells her studio manager, Elizabeth Ferry, when I arrive. It’s true that I met her about 14 years ago, in her former Williamsburg studio, and the experience was formative and unforgettable. The studio was a massive first floor space that felt completely exposed to the street and elements, as if its skin were permeable and the graffiti outside had melded with her walls and floor. Pigeons were flying through. Layer upon layer of enamel paint drips covered everything: milk crates, rolling chairs, plush toys, and massive paintings of her cast of characters: Donald Duck, Batman, Homer Simpson, Mickey Mouse. The scene was raw and ferocious.
At the time, I was researching the history of the New York Studio School, and Pensato had taken its teaching method — which was focused on erasure and constant re-investigation rooted in Existentialist philosophy (Sidney Geist called it “work, work, suffer, fail”) — and made it her own. In the 1990s a friend tagged Pensato with the nickname “The Eraser” because she would scrape down her drawings and paintings so hard that rips and holes appeared on the surface. She lets the mostly black and white and metallic paint accrue in layers and drips, focusing on the eyes, mouths, and masks of the characters. In 2007, Stephen Maine titled an Art in America review of a Pensato show “Toon Noir” to describe the unlikely meeting point of brutal darkness with benign, all-American cartoon characters.
Pensato knows how to have fun. She’s gone to get beer in anticipation of our visit, even though she’s not a beer drinker. She opens her drawer of props and sets us up to pose for selfies with costume sunglasses, in front of her work and her newly acquired freeze-dried palm tree. She works big and she works for as long as it takes. There’s a radical self-exposure to her work and persona, which is an aesthetic and a political statement. It’s about grand gestures and not backing down — an uncompromising form of empathy that takes on all the layers of meaning in our cultural history.
Pensato was born in 1941 in Brooklyn, New York, where she continues to live and work. Solo exhibitions have been held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, St. Louis (2017); the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2016); the Kunstraum Innsbruck, Innsbruck, Austria (2016); the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, Texas (2015); and the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica, California (2013). She is represented by Petzel Gallery, New York, where she has had four solo exhibitions; Lisson Gallery, London, where she had solo exhibitions in 2017 and 2014; Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago; and Grice Bench, Los Angeles, where she has an upcoming solo exhibition in September 2018. She has also shown with Galerie Anne de Villepoix, Paris (2010, 2000, 1998, 1996, 1994). Pensato’s work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; the Dallas Museum of Art; St Louis Art Museum and the FRAC des Pays de la Loire.
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Jennifer Samet: You grew up here in Brooklyn. What are your earliest memories of art and art-making as a child?
Joyce Pensato: My father used to make things, like toys and puppets for my brother and me; he was like an outsider artist. My mother thought art was dirt — like, you’re dirtying the house. My father would bring sparkle stuff home, and it would get all over the place. She thought my father was ruining us by encouraging our interest in art. The art in the house was the Sunday Funnies and comic books. Our museum was the tourist spots: Broadway, the Statue of Liberty. Forty-Second Street would blow your mind; we would walk from one end to the other. We took the subway to Coney Island. That is where I would have liked to live! My father came to New York at age 13 from small town in Sicily, and learned English by going to the movies. He gave my brother and me that love.
My brother was the artist of the house when we were kids, and I tried to imitate him because he was getting all the attention and love. We went to the same arts high school. As someone from a working-class family you had to have a job. There was no such thing as fine art. I tried to do the same as my brother — commercial art — and I failed. I loved fashion illustration, and I spent my five-dollar allowance on Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. I went to Pratt on Saturdays and they would say, “Oh, you are talented!” Then I went to a class with a real fashion illustrator and they said, “Where are the details? Where are the buttons?!” I was into the gestural. They told me I would be better off in a different class, and there was one incredible teacher who said, “You can do fine art.”
Recently, on social media, Jerry Saltz posed the question, “When did you know you were going to be an artist?” I always thought that for me, it was seeing the film Lust for Life (1956). I wanted to have a miserable, tortured life. This is how I thought as a young teenager. I remember making a 20-pound clay bust of Van Gogh. I put it in a box and carried it to school on the subway. Nobody ever looked at the head, just the teacher once.
JS: I know the New York Studio School and Mercedes Matter were important to you. How did you end up studying there?
JP: I had been at the Art Students League studying with Morris Kantor. I won a travel grant for a year in Europe I realized I didn’t know what I was doing. My friend Neil said to me I needed structure in my drawings, and suggested I study with Mercedes Matter at New York Studio School.
I applied and was rejected the first time. Morton Feldman, the composer, who was Dean at the time, said they didn’t know what to do with me, and told me to come in the summertime. I went to Mercedes’s drawing class, which was really big — 60 or 70 students. Her voice was booming. When she came over to look at your drawing, she would tell everyone what she thought. The set-up was two models and a couch. She came to me, and in a voice that I thought all of Eighth Street could hear, said, “What did you do!? You made the wrinkle on the couch the most important thing!” Oy vey. I wanted to run away and hide.
Mercedes was a very stately, beautiful, woman in her 60s. I ended up staying at the school for six years, and was very close to her for the last four. She was very giving and encouraging to me. She would say, “Don’t be like me. Show your work.” She was always waiting for Sidney Janis, and then Janis died — so forget about showing with him. When I did the Batman drawings, she was the first one who encouraged it. It was far from Studio School apples and pears. She was really supportive and put the work up on the wall and showed people.
At the Studio School I shared a studio with Christopher Wool, and we became lifelong friends. I adopted his family, and they adopted me. His father was my first collector, my art Godfather. What I remember of Chris was that he was always in the studio, always focused, working. I don’t remember him going to too many classes. We were just focused on working.
JS: Joan Mitchell became an important mentor to you. Did you meet her through the Studio School?
JP: In my last year at the Studio School, someone who was part of the summer program suggested that Joan Mitchell go see my studio. My friend, the painter Carl Plansky, and I were like two peas in a pod. We both connected to Joan and she invited us to come visit her home in France. I called it the “Fresh Air Fund.” We were invited for the summer, and to me the summer started as soon as it got a little warm in March, and lasted through September.
There were so few women artists to look up to, and she was in the art history books. She was a woman painter who was totally passionate. Joan and Mercedes were both strong-willed women and they were my mentors. Mercedes was like a cheerleader, and Joan was the critical mom. As I got healthier psychologically, my trips to visit Joanie became shorter, and eventually I stopped going. The first trip was six months, then maybe two months, and I think the last one was two weeks. One of the last things she said to me was, “Are you still doing those animals? Do you still have that skin disease in your work?”
A couple of months into my first visit, Joan said, “What kind of painter do you want to be? Do you want to be one of those German Expressionists painting without color, without light? Or, do you want to be French — with light and color and air?” I would say, “I want to be French!” But, after I left, I realized that I was an Expressionist, painting without color.
She would point things out — magic moments. One day it was a flower sitting in water in the kitchen, and the light was hitting it. She said, “That’s what I mean about light.” All of a sudden, I could see light.
I could not see her paintings until 10 years after she died. Her voice in my head was so strong. Now, when I think about her work, I think it is incredible. But when you are young, you are so stupid. When we first knew each other — I can’t imagine why I did this! — but I told her that I didn’t get her work. I said, “It’s not my cup of tea.” And she said, “That’s okay. I like you and your work.”
JS: How did you start working with enamel paint and finding your voice with the cartoon images?
JP: In 1989-90, I was doing these horrible abstract paintings, which looked like everybody else’s abstract paintings. I was also doing Mickey Mouse and cartoon drawings. I was supposed to have a show at Fiction/Nonfiction Gallery. The show was cancelled two weeks before it was supposed to open. I was so shocked. I was telling my family I was about to have my big break.
The shock made me turn to friends, but it also made me think about who I was, and why I was making the abstract paintings. I was more connected to the drawings. Why not accept myself? In this same period of time, the gallerist Anne De Villepoix — the Madame — visited my studio. She looked at the abstract paintings. I could see she was giving me the brush-off: she had a friend to see; the cab was waiting for her. She’s dressed in Chanel and not taking off her jacket. I told her I had some drawings in my apartment and we walked half a block up to see them. And the response was incredible. She took off her jacket, and couldn’t care less about the cab waiting. She told me she wanted to show the work.
I also started to think about working only in black and white. I asked Chris Wool what kind of paint he was using, and he said enamel. I always lost the figure when I used oil paint. The paintings would become abstract because the figures disappeared into the paint. I thought I would try to keep it graphic. It was like Christmas. I had the best time that summer. I was using enamel paint — the kind you find in a hardware store, but it was exciting.
JS: Erasing and scraping down is an important element in your work. How did that play into the enamel paintings?
JP: At first I didn’t know how to maneuver the paint, or how to change something if it wasn’t working. That took a couple years. Eventually I learned how to erase. When I went to Paris for my show with Anne De Villepoix, there was a painting that wasn’t quite done. Anne said, “Well, you could bring the painting and finish it at the gallery.” But the only way I could finish it was to erase the whole thing and start over. When she arrived in the morning, the whole thing was erased. She said, “I’ll never trust you again at the gallery by yourself!”
It took a while to figure it out. But peeling and chipping away at the painting became part of the work. The paintings would become almost three-dimensional. And it can feel so good to gouge, that I have to watch out and make sure I don’t gouge out the whole image. I’ve done that once or twice.
All of a sudden, from having nothing, in 1992, I was given three group shows in New York: at 303 Gallery, and at Luhring Augustine, along with Paul McCarthy. When I saw McCarthy’s box of toys, I thought, “Did he go into my studio and steal my toys?” They looked like mine, all dirty, messy, like they were found. I met him and we connected. I love his work. In 1994 I had my first solo show in Paris.
JS: Now your work is full of drips but you didn’t always work that way. Can you tell me about your earlier work?
JP: When I had my show in 2000 in Paris, the Madame said, “You must change.” I thought, fuck that. Instead of doing one duck, I would paint five ducks across the canvas. It became almost like a scripture or calligraphy. I made them with a tiny brush, almost like a pen. Spatially it would move as I moved my eye across the canvas. It was very clean. It was about writing and repeating, instead of working on one image over and over. Also, when she told me to change, I started looking more at the eyeballs of the characters to feel the connection.
But I came back to New York and 9/11 happened, and I thought, “I have to start from here, from the beginning.” I felt I had to get back into the actual life in New York. Ira Wool, Chris’s father, said, “You are the queen of distress.” I realized I had to get back to who I was: messy, dirty, edgy. And that’s when everything good happened again. Just don’t give a shit, work, drip all over the place, whatever. That was freedom.
JS: In 2012 you had an exhibition at Petzel where you showed pieces of your studio, like parts of the floor and wall, and paint-covered dolls and chairs. Was that your idea?
JP:Yes. I always wanted to fuck up a clean white space. I was also moving studios, so the timing was good. I felt of age to say, “This is me, you either like it or you don’t.” I don’t think you can do that when you’re young. And when Petzel put four paintings together, I thought, “That is the show. There are four strong paintings that hold up the wall.” I then felt free to bring in parts of my studio into the gallery. I can show who I am.” I cut out pieces of the floor and the wall from the studio, and gathered my junk, and Petzel said, “Bring it all in!” That was all I needed to hear. They were so great.
JS: Can you talk more about your relationship to pop culture? Do you think of yourself as a Pop artist? It’s interesting because you come out of an Abstract Expressionist tradition and talk a lot about drawing and structure.
JP: I don’t watch cartoons but I have a connection to American pop culture. I think The Simpsons are drawn so well. And I love how the South Park characters are so minimal. I liked the old Mickey Mouse, the black-and-white images from the 1920s or 1930s. We all know Mickey Mouse — it is familiar. As a structure, it’s just great. The ears and mouth are so simple, and the simplicity draws you in.
I have to look at something for the drawing and the structure. I’m always surprised that some artists never studied drawing. But they work with computers now.
JS: Is there a reason you use three-dimensional dolls as source materials rather than flat comic book images? Also, where do you find the dolls?
JP: Now they are all from eBay. In the old days people threw them away. Lots of friends would give them to me. Right now, I’m using a flat image of Donald Duck. But I get a lot from the three-dimensional stuff. What I also do is mix up parts to throw off expectations. You’re not quite sure what you’re looking at. I sometimes use Felix the Cat’s eyes, a clown’s mouth, and Mickey’s ears. I have to connect to whatever I’m looking at. I could work from the same source images over and over again, but I still have to be looking at something, constantly. It triggers something in me.
I’ve been working at the same image for a long time — all these Mickeys. First they were figures and then I found myself drawn to the head — so why not just do the head? To me a clown face, with its big mouth, nose, and round eyes, is so gestural; it is like Abstract Expressionism. It looks to me like a Kline — just splashing away.
JS: What other art are you looking at and thinking about right now?
JP: I have a new apartment. I never had the opportunity to do this — to collect art and represent who I am now, by putting it up on my walls. I love outsider art and black culture objects. I like looking at young people’s work and friends’ work. I’m big fan of Elizabeth Ferry’s work, she’s up and coming. Andrea Belag is my friend since the Studio School and her new paintings are just – wow! It’s so great to be able to buy one. It is hanging in my living room. The color makes you feel good. David Leggett’s drawings of black culture are part of my collection; I have a whole set. I also like photography, and I go on eBay to mix it all up.
JS: Can you tell me about how Abraham Lincoln became a subject for you and how you started incorporating photographic images into your work?
JP: I always have images up on the wall near my work area and I realized the splashes on top of the photography looked great. It was like gestural Abstract Expressionist marks. I came across a Lincoln image on a calendar of all the presidents. This Lincoln was so iconic — black and white, staring at you, and when the splashes hit, it looked incredible! I searched on eBay and started collecting every photograph and poster of Lincoln I could find. I liked his look: the black-and-white iconic image, and him staring at the viewer. An image of a splattered Lincoln photo arrangement was blown up to create a large-scale mural at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. It was installed right after the election. It meant something.
I’ve been working more with photography lately. My latest thing is funny photos: staging these photo shoots like the one I did with a George Clooney look-alike. I want to do more photos in Los Angeles — big wigs and convertibles. I can do whatever I want! Why not?