Jenny Snider, “Jenny Snider presents, Sergei Eisenstein’s AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, by Theodore Dreiser” (2013-17), acrylic ink, watercolor, glitter, gold powder, leaves, canvas, cord, paper maché, Tylenol w/codeine, wood, and paper on linen, 66” x 66” x 75” (all images courtesy of the artist)

KINGSTON, New York — I have wanted to meet Jenny Snider for many years. Soon after I moved to New York in the early 1970s, I lived in a loft on Greenwich Street in Lower Manhattan. The unrehabbed four-story red brick building had a freight elevator, its only amenity. Snider was my downstairs neighbor. She and I must have kept very different schedules because we never met in the year-and-half I lived in that building. Since that missed opportunity, a number of artist friends have urged me to see her work, which was shown in alternative spaces in Manhattan and in the now-closed John Davis Gallery in Hudson, New York.

I missed All Painted, All Dancing, All Black and White, her installation of over 200 drawings done in gouache and acrylic paint, ranging from 9 by 12 inches to four large works stretching more than 35 feet in length, in the main gallery of Artist’s Space (February-March 1980). She started this series in 1978, which was based on still photographs of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing to the song, “Hard to Handle,” in the film Roberta (1935), and she continues to work on it. There are two things she wrote in an email on December 16, 2019 that I want to cite. The first is a quote from The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book (1972) by Arlene Croce:

The beauty of [the dance] is that it really seems to be happening for the first time — it’s like a moment of cinéma vérité bursting through the surface of a polished commercial film.

This is the second:

Born left handed, with a benign Essential Tremor, gestural freedom and control, are important parts of my drawing process. What interests me in all my dance drawings, is the memory and anticipation of movement; implied movement in time and space.

Jenny Snider, “Soviet Armored Car” (2015), acrylic paint, graphite, carbon, canvas on paper, 19.5” x 22”

In 2018, Snider had her first solo show in New York, Jenny Snider: A Selection of Paintings, Drawings, and Sculptures from 1970 to the Present, at Edward Thorp Gallery (October 25, 2018–January 12, 2019), which I reviewed. As an artist who works in many mediums, including painting, drawing, film, sculptural objects, book arts, and printmaking, I pointed out:

Snider’s enthusiasms include ballroom dancing; choreography; popular music; innovative Soviet art, specifically in film and theater; outsider art; Jewish literature; automobiles and other vehicles; and the urban landscape.

It is clear from this description how little Snider’s work shares with the mainstream art world’s interests. She belongs in a category that no one else inhabits. Living in a society where so many people want to be like someone else, I don’t think we value singularity enough.

More importantly, I think it is imperative to recognize that Snider’s interest in the relationship between popular culture, theater, dancing, innovative art, politics, and persecution, as seen through the lens of the Russian Revolution and Soviet art (which, like ballroom dancing, has been one of her longtime preoccupations), addresses the present moment. I wrote previously in my review of Snider’s show:

The conflict between the freethinking artist and state censorship is one of Snider’s points of interest. Seen within our current political climate and the accusations mounted against the press, “And I, An Old Man…II” reminds us that we don’t have to fall very far to become a murderous police state. In some ways, we already have.

Given how little Snider has shown, and how much of her work and history I still did not know at that point, I welcomed the chance to go to her studio when a mutual friend introduced us at his opening. She invited me to visit her in upstate New York, where she lives and works.

From what I had seen of Snider’s work, I sensed that drawing is central to her practice. What I didn’t know was how many drawings in different mediums she had done and some of the subjects she covered: clowns, taxis and trucks, and Soviet armored cars. Snider seems to completely immerse herself in a subject and is thorough in everything she undertakes. She told me that she had watched the 10 films that Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire were in between 1933 (Flying Down to Rio) and 1949 (The Barkleys of Broadway) many times in order to make drawings of them. This consciousness, in tandem with her curiosity, drives her investigations into the domain of dance, theater, and the contributions that Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874–1940) and Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948) made to theater and film. Both men, who were Jewish and homosexual, did more than make foundational contributions to film and theater; they opened our eyes to new ways of seeing, as they introduced montage and an economy of movement into their art.

Jenny Snider, “American Clown” (2015), acrylic paint, graphite, carbon over glitter on canvas board, 14” x 11”

Influenced by classical Chinese theater and Japanese Noh theater, this Meyerhold put it: “The theatre should employ only those movements which are immediately decipherable” (Meyerhold on Theatre, 1969). For Meyerhold, “decipherable” did not mean dumbed-down or simply entertaining.

I came across this citation on Snider’s website: “Drawing and dance are, of course, the fruits of the same loins: they are merely two embodiments of the same impulse.” This is from “How I learned to Draw; A Chapter About Dancing Lessons,” which can be found in Immoral Memories: An Autobiography of Sergei Eisenstein, translated by Richard Taylor.

By connecting drawing to dance, and these two expressive uses of the body to film and theater, all of which have to do with movement in time and space, Snider has expanded our understanding of drawing, of being directly engaged with the surface you are working on in pursuit of making something that is — to use Meyerhold’s term — pared down and decipherable.

In these paintings devoted to Eisenstein and Meyerhold, she has updated what we define as history painting. Snider is a major artist who has hardly gotten her due.

Jenny Snider, “Ivan the Terrible” (2010-11), acrylic and watercolor on linen, 8’h x 5.75’w

I am only focusing on one body of work within an extensive oeuvre, which cuts across different media and ought to be better known. Yet in all of her works, from her trucks and taxis made of cardboard to her drawings of dancers to her paintings, Snider seems to be interested in movement, that space between the choreographed and the free and fluid, what she called “gestural freedom and control.”

Many of the paintings in her series on Eisenstein, Meyerhold, and other innovative Russian artists and writers zero in on a specific event in their lives, and often combine word and image. I know of two paintings that record Josef Stalin’s response to Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible, which Stalin commissioned. While Part I was released in 1944, Stalin banned Part II, and it was not released until 1958 — 10 years after Eisenstein’s death, and years after the authorities destroyed what was made of Part III. Stalin, who identified with Ivan, had already found fault with Part I, but let it be shown.

The pettiness to Stalin’s complaints about the film is chilling. In white letters on a black, washy ground in the painting, we read this statement by Stalin: “In Part One, for instance, it is unlikely that the Tsar would kiss his wife for so long…” Doesn’t this small-minded, humorless comment strike a chord? Who else have we heard talking like this in public, to many eager listeners? Meanwhile, as the painting further recounts, “Comrade Zhdanov said that Eisenstein’s fascination with shadows distracted the viewer from the action, as did his fascination with Ivan’s beard: Ivan lifted his head too often so that his beard could be seen.”

Jenny Snider, “Montage of Attractions” (2008-10), acrylic, watercolor pencil, collaged paper, linen, & canvas, on linen, 7’x 6’

Snider achieves something that few artists tackling such an enormous subject would be able to pull off: she pivots effortlessly from one subject and domain of feeling to another, all while covering the gamut of human experience, from despair, terror, and torture, to arrogant power and high self-regard, to moments of celebration, joy, and innovative art. Her work evokes the passionate highs of artistic breakthroughs and the ruthless, sanctioned torture of a human being. Compositionally, the paintings do not repeat themselves. Snider wittily writes in the upper left hand corner of one work:

Jenny Snider/presents/Sergei Eisenstein’s/An American Tragedy/by/Theodore/Dreiser.

Eisenstein, who was invited to Hollywood in 1930, ostensibly to make and direct a film, suggested, among other projects, Dreiser’s novel American Tragedy (1926), about personal irresponsibility. For various reasons, including anti-Communist sentiment, the proposal was turned down. By writing what she does in the painting, Snider drolly re-envisions history, as well as links this imagined production to Eisenstein’s early involvement with theater and being employed by Meyerhold. Snider’s passion reverberates throughout everything she does. In working with everyday materials, such as cardboard and paint, while drawing and painting everything herself, she brings Ad Reinhardt’s observation to mind: All art is political. Snider has rejected outsourcing, self-advertising, oversized works, and grandiose claims — all commonplace options in this time of capitalist-riddled aesthetics. It is clear to me that this series should be shown in a New York museum as it speaks to our ongoing crisis regarding the wielding of power. 

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...