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 Susan (Amelia) Schwalb  (1944 - )

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Lived/Active: New York/Massachusetts      Known for: minimal-landscape based, silverpoint

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Susan (Amelia) Schwalb
An example of work by Susan (Amelia) Schwalb
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following was submitted July 2004 by the artist, whose studios are in New York City and Watertown, Massachusetts. Her methods are silverpoint and metalpoint drawing, and acrylic paint. Of Schwalb's artwork, Lisa Hatchadoorian, Curator, writes:

"Utilizing the most basic of tools, mainly metalpoint and paint, Susan Schwalb creates very minimal compositions that gently expose a complex relationship between line, structure and color. Reducing her compositions to their surface elements of a flat plane of subtle color and vertical or horizontal lines, Schwalb redefines a formalized language of painting. Color and line merge seamlessly, as each leaves traces and residue of their passage across the surface.

While the artist works mostly from a square format, she reveals a distinct sense of movement on the surface that conflicts with the static and iconic shape of the square. The very use of line would seem to promote stability, especially since she builds the lines on top of each other. However, her interplay of color and how the line recedes and approaches within that environment counteracts that structure and imbues her surfaces with motion. Another point of tension is how the artist manages to erase her own hand within the process of drawing and creating this delicate interwoven atmosphere. Through these points of friction, Susan Schwalb converts a reductive and stable language of painting into a dynamic exploration of its endless possibilities."

The following is by Edward Saywell
Charles C. Cunningham Sr. Curatorial Associate Department of Drawings
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums

"Metalpoint is one of the oldest and most venerable of drawing techniques. Although it is usually associated with the elaborate drapery studies or finely modeled portrait drawings of fifteenth-century artists such as Fillipino Lippi and Leonardo da Vinci, this most beautiful of drawing methods continues to enjoy a devoted following among a small, albeit expanding, group of artists. One of its most creative and original practitioners is Susan Schwalb. Since her first use of metalpoint in 1975, Schwalb has been furiously inventive, expanding the parameters and possibilities of the medium in exceptionally intelligent and genuinely innovative ways.

Traditionally, metalpoint drawings have been made using a stylus with points of metal such as silver or gold. In order for the stylus to mark a piece of paper, the surface of the sheet must be covered by a ground layer. In the Renaissance this usually consisted of multiple coatings of white lead and ground bone, tempered with glue size. Today, artists such as Schwalb continue to mix their own grounds, often using gesso, brushing it directly onto the paper or, as an alternative, using a commercially prepared paper. Although smooth to the touch, the ground is sufficiently abrasive to remove a very fine deposit of metal from the stylus as it is drawn over the ground's surface. This thin trace of metal then tarnishes over time to leave a delicate and refined line.

The limitations of the medium are demanding. Metalpoint cannot be erased, nor does the traditional stylus lend itself easily to rapid or extemporaneous draftsmanship. Tonal shading is also restricted; press hard with a metalpoint stylus and the line will darken only slightly before it starts to gouge and rip the surface of the ground layer, and ultimately, the paper itself. Often, artists who use metalpoint work unquestioningly within these constraints, their drawings characterized by carefully rendered contours and an exactness of line. Schwalb is one of the few artists to have actively embraced the difficulties and refinement of metalpoint in order to push its graphic capabilities to compelling and vibrant new heights.

Schwalb's current work has its immediate precedent in an on-going series of works on paper that she began in 1997. In these so-called Strata drawings, Schwalb forsakes the metal stylus in favor of small pieces of a variety of metals (silver, gold, brass, copper, platinum, pewter, bronze and aluminum) which, when drawn across the paper, leave bands or strata of the most beautiful and softly effusive tonality. Using this simple technique, Schwalb creates works of astonishing complexity, as the different tones and colors of the metals gently meld and slip into one another. Far from confining or restricting the line, in Schwalb's hands the exquisite facture of the metalpoint is reminiscent of the fluidly rendered and luminous transparency obtained from that most instinctive and spontaneous of techniques, watercolor. It is a remarkable visual effect, one that not only reveals a highly attuned sensibility to the beauty and sensuousness of delicately defined tonalities, but which also dispels any perceived limitations of the medium itself.

Schwalb characterizes her creative process as a "journey". Although she always proceeds by series, creating a group of works together, her working method is one without a preconceived notion of how each individual work will evolve. Instead, she describes how a composition or image will come about through its interaction with other drawings and paintings in her studio. This continually evolving connection between her older and newer work becomes especially apparent in the close relationship between her current paintings and the Strata drawings. As Schwalb sought a means to make the transition from drawing to painting, she first introduced color into her drawings by tinting the ground layer with the delicate and muted colors, such as light yellow and soft green, that are common to Renaissance grounds. Excited by the results, she sought a means to work on a larger and freer scale by fusing together elements of both painting and drawing, blurring the traditional distinctions between the two media.

Although her paintings, such as Palimpsest LXI or Afterimage III, appear to be made on a simple wooden panel, the surface of the wood is in fact usually covered by a sheet of paper, upon which Schwalb brushes as many as six layers of gesso. Over this she applies layers of differently colored paint; in the case of Afterimage III, for example, she uses gray, blue and yellow. On the surface of the final paint layer, Schwalb draws with her metalpoint sheets in a manner similar to the Strata drawings. Once the drawing is complete, she uses sandpaper to erase the surface of the work in order to reveal the colors of the lower paint layers as well as to create the most beautiful shimmering surface on the painting. The technique not only heightens the illusory sense of depth and recession, but also suggests the emanation of a very soft and muted light from within the internal space of the work.

Although the works are resolutely abstract, and are not defined or structured by any literal source, they are informed by the experience and memory of the particular qualities of light at certain moments: perhaps a reminiscence of the sun or clear light over the Hudson River, or maybe the diffused modulations and quality of light and shadow that one is aware of through half-shut eyes. Other paintings from the Mesa and First Mesa series, in which an explicit "horizon" line is evident, are informed by the rich desert colors and haunting shapes that she experienced on travels to Arizona and New Mexico. Above all, though, her work allows us the freedom and opportunity to arrive at our own interpretation and understanding of these most beautiful of images.

Schwalb's abiding connection with her immediate environment is most evident in the series of works entitled red/white/blue. Prompted by the bombardment of images of American flags throughout New York after the tragic events of September 11th, Schwalb memorialized their powerful visual effect in a series of drawings and paintings that are based on the red, white and blue of the flag. By sanding away the topmost somber gray layer of the paintings, the underlying colors bleed or smolder to the surface through gash-like openings which evoke, quite hauntingly, the ripped and torn facades of the Twin Towers before their collapse. The creation of such moving and powerful works through such refined and subtle means makes them all the more impressive as both drawing and memorial. They are perhaps the ultimate testament to Schwalb's mastery of the medium."

Cohen, Joyce Galaxies and Other Matter and Intervals, Art New England, August/September 1996
Dreishpoon, Douglas The Fine Line: Drawing with Silver, Arts Magazine, September 1985
Faxon, Alicia Visual Memoirs Rose Art Museum, Art New England, April/May 2000
Faxon, Alicia Susan Schwalb: Moments of Resonance, Art New England, June/July 1999
Faxon, Alicia Doing Nature in the 20th Century, Art New England, June/July 1994
Faxon, Alicia Viewpoints, Art New England, October/November 1991
Faxon, Alicia Spirituality in Contemporary Art by Women, Art New England, April 1990
Faxon, Alicia Drawing: Line or Image, New Art Examiner, January 1990
Faxon, Alicia The Narrated Earth, Women Artists News, June 1987
Faxon, Alicia Susan Schwalb: Silverpoint Drawings, Women Artist News, Winter 1986
Franklin, Valerie Drawing Invitational: Six Women, The Arts Journal, November 1979
Hovanec, Vincent American Circulating Exhibition Program, Pregled, 1983
Katz, Sonia Susan Schwalb, The New Art Examiner, November 1978
Langdon, Ann The Creation Series, Art New England, December 1992/January 1993
Langer, Cassandra The Creation Series: 15 Years of Silverpoint, Women Artists News, Fall 1990
Lighthill, Amy Massachusetts: State of the Artists, Art New England, October 1984
Marter, Joan Susan Schwalb, Womanart, Winter 1977-78
Marter, Joan Women Artists, Arts Magazine, February 1978
Marxer, Donna Illuminations, Women Artists News, Fall 1989
Moore, Sylvia Evocative Images at NYC's Fordham University, Women Artists News, May 1980
Moore, Sylvia Metalpoint in Queens, Women Artists News, May 1980
Morris, Diana Aspects of Fire, Women Artists News, November 1980
Orenstein, Gloria Evocative Images, Arts Magazine, May 1980
Swan, Jon Boston Women Artists: WCA Invitational, Women Artists News, Fall 1988
Wadsworth, Susan M. Spirituality in Contemporary Art, Art New England, December 1993/January 1994
Waterman, Jill Delicate Understandings, ArtsMedia, June 15- July 15, 2000

1994 Artist-in-Residence, Mishkenot Sha'ananim, Jerusalem, Israel
Artist-in Residence, Tel Aviv Artists Studios, Tel Aviv, Israel
1992, 1973 The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Sweet Briar, VA
1991 Massachusetts Arts Lottery Grant
1989, 1985, 1977 Exhibitions Grant, Committee for the Visual Arts, Inc. - Artists Space, NYC
1989, 1975, 1974 The MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, NH
1981 YADDO, Saratoga Springs, NY
1980 International Communications Agency Travel Grant, Copenhagen, Denmark

2001 M.Y. Art Prospects, NYC Palimpsest: Recent Metalpoint Paintings
1999 Andrea Marquit Fine Arts, Boston MA Moments of Resonance: Recent Metalpoint Drawings and Paintings
1998 Birke Art Gallery, Marshall University, Huntington, WV Improvisations on Outer Space: Recent Metallic Works on Paper
1997 Arthur B. Mazmanian Art Gallery, Framingham State College, Framingham, MA Improvisations on Outer Space:
Recent Metallic Paintings and Silverpoint Drawings
1996 Andrea Marquit Fine Arts, Boston, MA Galaxies & Other Matter: Recent Metallic Paintings
Watson Gallery, Wheaton College, Norton, MA Intervals: Silverpoint Paintings
1994 American Cultural Center, Jerusalem, Israel Silverpoint Drawings 1987-1993
Andrea Marquit Fine Arts, Boston, MA Intervals: Silverpoint Paintings
1992-1994 B'nai B'rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, Washington DC, The Creation Series (tour: May Museum of Judaica, Lawrence, NY; Chase/Freedman Gallery, Greater Hartford JCC, West Hartford, CT; Robert I. Kahn Gallery, Congregation Emanu El, Houston, TX) (catalogue)
1990 Yeshiva University Museum, NYC The Creation Series: 15 Years of Silverpoint
1989 Brad Cooper Gallery, Tampa, FL Silverpoint Drawings
SOHO 20 Gallery, Invitational Space, NYC Silverpoint Drawings
1986 Saint Peter's Church, NYC Large-Scale Silverpoint Drawings
1985 SOHO 20 Gallery, Invitational Space, NYC Recent Silverpoint Drawings
Simmons College, Boston, MA Recent Silverpoint Drawings
1983 U.S. Embassy Exhibition Program, sponsored by the United States Information Agency,
The American Center in Belgrade, Banja Luka and Skopje, Yugoslavia Silverpoint Drawings 1978-1982
1978 Loyola University, Chicago, IL Orchid Series/Silverpoint Drawings
1977 Rutgers University, Newark, NJ Orchid Series/Silverpoint Drawings
Douglass College, New Brunswick, NJ Women Artists Series Year Seven, Orchid Series/Silverpoint Drawings

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