27 Questions for Artist and Critic Mira Schor

Mira Schor's "Here/Then, There/Now," 2011, ink, oil, and gesso on linen
(Courtesy the Artist and Marvelli Gallery)

Name: Mira Schor
Age: 61
Occupation: Artist and writer
City/Neighborhood: New York — recently returned to childhood home on Upper West Side.

What project are you working on now?

I want to follow up on some ideas that came up in the last series of paintings I finished this winter for my current show at Marvelli Gallery, “The Dreams of All of Us” series. The last one is an intense cadmium yellow light and I called it “This Is the Future.” I was thinking of the Occupy movement and chose to give the series (which follows a collective dreaming sleeper through the darkest night) an optimistic outcome, but the title also refers to the immediate future of my work: I want to use more intense color. I have a show planned for CB1 Gallery in Los Angeles next year and I think it would be great to have vibrant, intense hues for that show, but I also may end up following the path of darkness, so I can’t be sure where the work will go. Mainly I just want to re-immerse myself in the rhythm of working. I also hope to get back to writing for my blog, “A Year of Positive Thinking,” which I had to put on hold while I prepared for the show while also teaching.

This is your first solo show in New York in some time. How has your work developed since your “Book/s of Pages” in 2010?

“Book/s of Pages” included big digital prints made from very hi-res scans of the small notebook drawings that are an important part of my process. It’s all part of my quest for one of the holy grails of painting, how to bring the freedom, spontaneity, and investigative spirit of drawing into the sculptural materiality of paint.

Many of the paintings feature a little stick figure reading or sleeping. Who is this figure and what does she or he represent?

The figure is a sketchily drawn avatar of myself, wearing glasses because at this point my reading glasses are so much an organic part of my head that I sometimes forget to take them off when I turn out the light at night. Interesting that you ask “he or she” because the figure is indeed barely gendered, even barely embodied: when I formulated an agenda for my work when I was in my early twenties, it was to bring the experience of living inside a female body — with a mind — into high art in as intact a form as possible. I’m so glad I was so prescient in adding “with a mind,” because once woman moves past nubile youthfulness, her body is of no interest to representation and maybe even to herself, so I assured myself a lifetime of possibilities. My avatar is a thinking person walking around, sleeping, reading, looking. She is a scholar, an ancient philosopher, and an eight-year old girl vividly perceiving the world’s beauties and its terrors.

You and co-editor Susan Bee recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of your feminist journal “M/E/A/N/I/N/G.” You launched the journal as a response to the commercialism of the 1980s, the failure of art criticism, and the market-driven cynicism of much of the art. In what ways has the art world changed since the ‘80s? How has it stayed the same?

The biggest change is the scale, the global reach, the digital accessibility. It’s the same but more so. It’s complex for artists because the field is now truly global, but at the same time art worlds retain a local aspect. The crisis of criticism in the ‘80s that Susan and I addressed most specifically in starting "M/E/A/N/I/N/G" was the sudden dominance of obscure, technical theory language that took agency away from many artists and even types of art, like painting. That moment is over except in academic circles. There are fewer established venues for art criticism or art journalism, yet art writing is more diverse, and there’s a lot of interesting art writing taking place on blogs, in more personal and unregulated settings.

You advocate for what you call “modest painting,” painting on a small, intimate scale. What are the stakes of modest painting, as opposed to immodest painting?

Modest paintings don’t necessarily have to be small, and small paintings are not necessarily modest. I’m advocating for a kind of potent expressive reserve that can exist within intimacy, perhaps, but also for painting that is more committed to criticality, rigor and ambition for painting itself than to overpowering the viewer with the size of the work or the ego of the artist. In an age of the world dominance of the 1 percent of the 1 percent, art venues that demand the spectacular, and the empty calories of “supersize me,” the stakes are emotional, intellectual, and even moral.

You’ve written a lot about the art market and current trends in contemporary art education. Last summer, in response to what you perceive as a new conservatism among young artists, you asked the provocative question: “Should we trust anyone under 30?” Are there any young, trustworthy artists you admire?

Yes, otherwise we could just shut the door and walk away. In Judaism there is an ancient legend that the world requires a minimum of thirty-six righteous individuals in order to exist, to justify humankind’s purpose. Their goodness may be anonymous, it almost has to be, even the righteous individual may not know she is one of the thirty-six. I don’t really care about whether there are any artists under thirty that I trust, I care about whether there are people under thirty I can trust to care about justice because the rest of my life is in their hands. And of the existence of at least thirty-six such young people in the world, I am sure, especially after the last year, from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park.

What's the last show that you saw?

Just today I saw Joe Brainard at Tibor de Nagy Gallery. I love how his work is filled with the joy of making, of creativity, and I also saw the Forrest Bess paintings that were up at Christie’s. They’re mostly terrific paintings beautifully presented and you have to see them in person, not as images, because their physicality is crucial.

What's the last show that surprised you? Why?

A show... no, can’t think of anything because there’s such an established range within the responses possible to anything. But your question makes me think of the biggest shock I ever experienced seeing an art work: I worship Giotto, and the paintings in the Arena Chapel in Padua are part of the most important pictures, shapes, depictions of human emotion and gesture in my mind, but when I finally went there and walked in I almost had a panic attack. Nothing had prepared me for the absolute flatness, that the paintings were the wall, not on the wall, but the wall. That’s beyond surprise to shock because I needed so badly to be able to really see them. It took as much of the short time I had there to slowly adjust to the reality of the actual work.

What's your favorite place to see art?

The Met, The Morgan, the Frick, and the Whitney when no one is there — a situation soon to become historical when they move. I like a place that is beautifully lit, and empty and quiet enough that I can have a private experience with the art, hear my own thoughts, and briefly feel that the art works belong to me. I think that should be every artist’s birthright.

Do you make a living off your art?

No. I wish I did.

What's the most indispensable item in your studio?

A flat palette knife I use to create a fresco-like gesso surface on linen. It has an accumulation of encrusted gesso on the handle and even though I got an identical one just in case, it’s the only one that does what I want. When I travel someplace I’m going to work, I never ship it with other studio supplies, I take it with me in my bag with my keys and other absolute necessities.

Where are you finding ideas for your work these days?

In the zone between the self and the world. I trawl the news, I draw from art and art theory, and I try to express visually and tangibly exactly where I am at any particular moment, in my body, in my life.

Do you collect anything? 

Postcards, books, all kinds of research material. I’m drowning in folders of newspaper clippings on women artists, feminism, and I’ve been collecting Holocaust-related obituaries from the New York Times for a couple of decades — as time passes it’s a dying genre. On the cheerier side, I love pottery, china, teapots, plates, pitchers, and Mexican folk art.

What's the last artwork you purchased?

A big Mexican plate with a figure that is half a living woman in a skirt and half skeleton, holding flowers in both hands.

What's the first artwork you ever sold?

When I was 19 the art historian Hubert Damisch, who had just married a close family friend, bought a small self-portrait engraving from me for about $20. I think he was impressed that, as a girl of that age, I depicted myself drawing and thinking. But maybe I’m misremembering the whole thing.

What's the weirdest thing you ever saw happen in a museum or gallery? 

I think the whole point is that by now nothing is weird.

What's your art-world pet peeve?

You’re talking to the author of a book called “A Decade of Negative Thinking”! I think the prevalence in galleries and art fairs of the kind of artworks my mother called “merchandise” (in her rich Eastern European accent, emphasis on the mer), and in general groupthink in art making and seeing.

What's your favorite post-gallery watering hole or restaurant?

In Chelsea, La Bergamote. I love MoMA’s two cafes, that’s my favorite part of the new MoMA. Basically what gets me through a gallery jaunt is the prospect of tea and pastries in a quiet place at the end. It’s the carrot that keeps me going and I actually start thinking about it before I even start.

Do you have a gallery/museum-going routine?

Sort of. I try to go around at least once a month, though sometimes I’m too busy to keep up. It’s hard with so many far-flung gallery neighborhoods. It’s not organic, which is the nicest — when you can stop by a gallery on the way to do your laundry. I often go with Susan Bee, I take my own notes, and write down her pithy comments. Going to museums is a great luxury. Even though going is part of the job of being an artist, I always feel like I’m playing hooky, it’s such a treat.

Know any good jokes?

I just heard a bunch of foot-stompingly funny Jewish jokes — at a memorial service! The best part was that everyone had heard the jokes for years and chimed in with their better, more complete version of the jokes... "Three Jews were sitting on a park bench," "No, no, it was four Jews and..."

What's the last great book you read?

Michel de Certeau’s “The Practice of Everyday Life” influenced a lot of my recent paintings. I mostly read for research, so it’s a gift if the book turns out to be great. I loved Morton Feldman’s collection of essays on art and music, “Give My Regards to Eighth Street,” a totally serendipitous find in a used bookstore last summer.

What work of art do you wish you owned?

When I was a teenager, I played a game with some friends, what work would you steal from MoMA? At the time I think I chose Max Ernst’s “Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale.” Now... maybe Louise Bourgeois’ "Fillette.” And I’d like to own “The Portinari Altarpiece.” I think I would never tire of it, even just that eerily elongated baby all alone on its radiating bed of hay is divine — literally, as a painting.

What would you do to get it?

I think I just answered that.

What international art destination do you most want to visit?

The Prado.

What under-appreciated artist, gallery, or work do you think people should know about?

That’s too big. The art world ignores more good art than it will ever appreciate. I live in a world of under-appreciated artists who inform my work. I’d upset people if I didn’t name every single one!

Who's your favorite living artist?

Ida Applebroog is one of my favorite living artists. I love her work and I’m lucky enough to know her. She also happens to be a wonderful person. But the question is a difficult one: there are many dead artists who are fully alive and plenty of living ones who are functionally dead.

What are your hobbies?

I’m a Mets fan, does that count as a hobby?