This is the transcript (with small edits) of a conversation SPEEDWELL Projects organized in the context of the exhibition Abby Shahn—50 Years. The show had opened on 21 March and COVID caused it close just a few days later, before an opening could be held. On 19 April, SPEEDWELL organized a conversation, held via Zoom, with over 80 people in attendance. As this issue of MAJ invites the Union of Maine Visual Artists members and others to take stock of the present situation and of their response to it, it seemed fitting to include this conversation in which Abby, one of UMVA’s founding members, reflects on her career and life in Maine and how she found her voice, which is so distinctive, so personal, and so very authentic.
VP: Thank you, Jocelyn [Lee, Founder/Director, SPEEDWELL Projects], and thank you for doing this. Well, this is a wonderful opportunity; I’ve been teaching remotely since March the 15th so, hey, it feels like my life is spent in front of a screen, and it works, you’ll see.
We’re starting our visit outside SPEEDWELL Projects: there are two works by Abby that can be seen from the street. So, right now, even though the gallery is closed to the public, the show still exists. The one we’ve been looking at is Dogs of War, right Abby?
AS: That’s correct.
VP: And then there’s another one next to it, with a wonderful title, You’d Forget your Head if it Wasn’t Attached to Your Shoulders. I’ll ask Abby to talk about titles a little bit later. To get started we have to talk about why this show is taking place right now. Its title is Abby Shahn: 50 Years, and it’s quite amazing all that we have to celebrate in 2020. It turns out that the show is on the occasion of Abby’s move to Maine 50 years ago, but then, with 2020 we’re also celebrating Abby’s first exhibition ever, which was 60 years ago, and what’s remarkable is that that first exhibition took place in a mythic place: City Lights Books in San Francisco. And then, there’s one more important celebration in 2020: on July 21st, Abby’s turning 80.
Abby, you have great stories about lots of different things, great stories about your New York years (my favorite involves a phenomenally expensive emerald bracelet at Tiffany’s, that you tried just for fun, and to absolutely horrify the sales person), but here you are in central Maine, in what you yourself call the “Boondocks,” and you’ve been here for over half a century. I used to brag about the high per capita artist presence in Maine, until our common friend Natasha Mayers made the sobering remark that, as a result, there aren’t many people to buy art! So, can you tell us a bit about living in Maine, so far from New York City, and for so long?
AS: You know, I’ve been thinking lately that one of the things that happened was that the war was happening, and, in a sense, it was similar to the mood now with the virus happening, that it seemed like things were really falling apart. I came up with this strange little thing that said: “Somebody better know how to grow potatoes,” because it seemed like we didn’t know how to do anything to really survive in the world that might be coming. So, we came up here and I started gardening, and I fell in love with doing that, as well as doing what I do. And, actually, for a while I wasn’t going to paint. For about three or four years when I came to Maine, I thought the only people who could buy art, stole the money, so I didn’t. And then at some point, all of the marriages in our neighborhood were breaking up and I got so bored. For my own therapy, I started making art again.
VP: We’ve been looking at the first set of pictures one sees when you enter the show, there are thirty of them put together, and they’re all Ghosts. I think everybody will agree that these figures have a ghost-like, diaphanous feel, but can you tell us more about them? Why do you call them ghosts?
AS: I was in a show about images of faces in Farmington and I wrote a message to Sarah Maline [Director of the UMF Art Gallery]—I was looking on the computer at late 19th-/early 20th-century attempts to photograph spirits as they left bodies—and so, I said in passing to her that every image is evidence of a specter, and every image is spectral. So, we called that show Ghosts. And then, we did it with a bunch of artists (we were all doing things about faces, and we put up this show together in three places), and then, I started doing these and said “Well now I’m really painting ghosts.” So that’s how they got to be named ghosts, but they did seem ghostly to me.
VP: And then, in 2018, you did this wonderful collaborative book with poet Mark Melnicove, who wrote 31 poems based on 31 of your Ghost paintings. I know you love collaborating (later on, we’ll see a book you did with Gretchen Lucchesi), I even heard you say that you prefer group shows to one-person shows. Why?
AS: It’s like sharing the space, I don’t even know if it’s collaboration. I just like sharing the space and having my fellow artists with me. I think we’re all empowered by each other more than we’re empowered by our little lonely selves. I like seeing my friends, having their art with me (with wine).
VP: Let’s look at the small faces on the other side of the wall. Faces—and masks as well—figure prominently in your work, can you tell us why?
AS: It’s just a basic thing to look at faces, It seems like one of the most deeply rooted things in our psyche. Looking at your mother when you’re a newborn baby, looking at people. When I was a kid I remember not understanding what people were saying but reading their faces, reading their gestures, and knowing more about them that way. And one of my things with these faces was I didn’t want any of them to be generic, I wanted each one of them to be, somehow, something kind of particular, because I felt we’re all particular.
VP: When looking at these faces, I am reminded of what is often said about your work, that it’s very improvisational—you play music in the same way. What strikes me is the freedom of mark making in your work, and how densely-layered these works are. In these series, faces emerge from the marks and simultaneously dissolve into them. There is indeed a sense of depth that’s created through mark making while mark making is also a record of activity—in the best abstract-expressionist tradition. But then, what I think is really quite fascinating about your work is this tension between abstraction and representation.
You and I recently talked about how images, faces, kind of appear from that mass—in a way, that mess of marks—and I mentioned the concept of pareidolia (for instance, when we see shapes in clouds or stains)—that you really liked. Would you say that what the surrealists called automatism, letting accidental marks speak to you, is part of your m.o.? Could that also be a way to engage your audience?
AS: I guess I’m engaging myself at that point, I have no idea who the audience is. I want to say something about these that’s interesting too, something that might be pertinent to what you’re saying, is that all of them start out with big pictures on paper that didn’t work out. And I tore them up into these little squares and then worked on the random pieces. So, the randomness was partly just what happened when I happened to tear up the other painting.
VP: But you didn’t give up, you continued working.
AS: But with these faces, once I started, I was seeing faces everywhere too!
VP: Exactly! As a matter of fact, we are now looking at a set of larger faces and I would like to talk about the role of color, which is obviously absolutely fundamental for you. I’d love to share a revealing anecdote, which shows not only how important color is for you, but also how you think as a colorist no matter what you do. Just a few days ago you were telling me about a soup you made with leeks and potatoes but when you found it too bland-looking you decided to add turmeric—and later other ingredients—but it was obvious that it was for the color! So, can you tell us what you think about color? Also, could you comment on the fact that many of the works in the show are just pinned to the wall, unframed, and clustered as a series?
AS: I couldn’t afford to frame them all [chuckles]. That would be impossible!
My dad [Ben Shahn] used the pigments, so I went to the pigment store with him when I was a kid. I just loved them, looking into a barrel of cadmium red, or indigo, or these wonderful colors—it floored me. So, I think I was loving color, right from the get-go. Then, it became just economical, I could go down to a place called Fezandie and Sperrle before they acknowledged that they were poisonous, so I could go down to Fezandie and Sperrle and get me a pound of this or a pound of that. I’ve just been using them all my life, and—I don’t know what to say—they’re beautiful! I was teaching at a school for a while and it seems like there was a sort of order of what was important. First, there was line and then there was volume or mass, and color was like a sort of scarf, like an accessory that you put on top of things, and to me, color was much more important and expressive.
VP: You know what you just said about the barrel of color when you were a kid and would go buy pigments with your dad, what you seem to be talking about is the materiality of it. I know you love stuff, you love objects.
AS: Yes I do.
VP: We are now in front of A Field of Blackbirds, which you explained to me is in fact the etymology of Kosovo, which means “blackbird field.” I’d like to talk a little bit about your titles, which are, just like your art, very varied. I think everyone will agree that your work is very varied in terms of its formal qualities, materials (we’ll talk about that later), and titles. And the sources for the titles also run the gamut. So here we have a title that’s the etymology of a place (and carries political undertones; another issue we’ll talk about later). Dogs of War, which we saw outside, is titled after a line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and You’d Forget Your Head if it Wasn’t Attached to Your Shoulders after something someone said to you. Can you talk about the role of your titles?
AS: I like to write too. I like words, I like poets, and I like poetry. And so sometimes a title appears before a thing. Part of the Field of Blackbirds was that all this battle was happening between the Serbs and the Kosovars, it was at that period that this painting came from. It was all about some battle that had happened 500 years ago, or something like that, where a lot of people were killed. And the fact that those sort of battles continued in peoples’ heads for so many generations was really striking to me, so that’s where these little marks or little blackbirds come from.
VP: To follow up on that, this is a painting that is connected to current events and many critics stress that your art has a political dimension and yet, you declared (quoted on SPEEDWELL’s catalogue and website) that your art is inspired by political events, but that “it’s not political art in the sense of trying to move people into action” and that you think of yourself “more as a witness.” And yet, you are active: you were among the founders of the Union of Maine Visual Artists in 1975 (along with the likes of Carlo Pittore, Kathy Bradford, Natasha Mayers, Maury Colton, Tom Cornell). When you read the mission statement of the UMVA, it’s clear that it was meant as an advocacy group “dedicated to upholding the dignity of artists while creating positive social change through the arts.” Every Sunday you can be found on one of the bridges in Skowhegan, demonstrating whatever needs to be demonstrated; you once told me that for you, it’s like going to church. So, can you talk a bit about how that social and political awareness intersects with your life as an artist?
AS: I know some people, including Natasha, including my friend Lisa [Savage] who’s running for senate now, who are really activists. I feel like I put my body there on the bridge and I carry my sign and I write letters to the editor too (unfortunately!), but I don’t feel like I qualify as an activist, you know, I really don’t.
VP: You’re probably too modest.
AS: They’re little commentaries on the world. They’re commentaries, maybe.
VP: Another thing that struck me in this painting, and we talked about that when you took me on a little virtual tour a week ago, is that some of the shapes are reminiscent of the letterforms found in graffiti, and that made me aware of how writing is important for you. You talked about how writing informs your work, about poetry, about your titles, but I find it remarkable how you also see writing in places that are unexpected. That black line that zigzags at the very bottom of the painting, I think might be inspired by the shapes that worms leave in the wood, that you call worm writing, right?
AS: Bug writing. Yes.
VP: I know that you did an artist book with a prison inmate (today in the Bowdoin College Museum of Art collection), which contains imaginary writing. Can you talk a little bit about writing and letterforms?
AS: I’m talking about writing and part of the thing with the bug writing and the thing I did with the guy in prison was it was unintelligible. The bugs are maybe saying something as they crawl along under the bark of the tree, but it’s unintelligible to us. So, it’s kind of like knowing that there’s a message, but we maybe don’t know what it is, and that is part of what it’s all about. And I love that line, it just pulls the picture together—you really need it.
VP: That’s right.
AS: There’s an element of composition work that drives you to do certain things, you know?
VP: Well, I think curiosity is a really important thing for you, right? And that’s maybe why you find those unintelligible pieces of writing fascinating.
We are now approaching a painting called Single Mom. Here, too, the shapes at the bottom remind me of graffiti letterforms. You told me that this painting and its title was about a friend of yours who had split from her partner and was left alone to raise her children. But as always with you, the political and a social conscience are never far, and that made you think of all the women who raise children alone. This work is also a good example of the importance of rhythm in your work. I read somewhere that for you, rhythm is what brings a work together, that ties it together. You also said that it helps your viewer—in a way, it’s how you control your viewers’ eyes, right? Because you know that we are going to follow those lines, that rhythm, within the work.
AS: It allows them to move through the picture. Otherwise, you get stuck at points, so it’s allowing movement. I did a little fresco at some point, and we went to the Sistine Chapel and I thought: I know that you paint a little section every day, because you can’t plaster the whole thing and paint it all. And I’m thinking: “How the hell did he hold it all together? How did he make that huge room pull together?” And I decided it was rhythm, there was a red here and a red here and a red there, and it was kind of like they made a rhythm that you could follow and that held it together and well, there you have it!
VP: So are you thinking about your viewer when you’re painting?
AS: No. I don’t think so. Maybe I should be. But I don’t think I am.
VP: You’re thinking about yourself, right?
AS: I’m just trying to make it work out.
VP: So here we have a whole cluster of pictures on paper, spheres, and a pile of objects on the floor that have all been painted with rust. It’s clear you’ve been loving working with rust. So, can you tell us…
Stuart Silverstein: Just want her to talk about what I taught her!
VP: So when did you start…
AS: Yes. I went to this fellow’s house and looked at his paintings and there were these little pieces of rust in there. And I said “Oh you put some rusty metal in there,” and he said “No, it was this paint,” and he told me about this paint. And I got kind of excited to try it. Because I’d been making these worlds, my first thought was: “I’m going to make a rusty world, a rusty sphere.” And then I had leftover paint and I just started putting it on paper and then… You know, we talked about that pareidolia—however you pronounce it!—but these images were just in the variations of the rust paint itself, I hardly had to do anything to make them appear. It was kind of neat. I liked the rust sphere too.
VP: It’s funny, because you first started using it for its meaning, for the metaphor of the “rusty world,” but then you fell in love with the material. Right?
AS: Well, yeah. Fang [James Fangbone], my partner, has all this rusty stuff. Actually, for that book that’s at Bowdoin we made a box covered with rusty metal, too. So, I don’t know, it’s been beautiful. It’s basically like earth red, you know, it’s one of our basic pigments.
VP: You know, there are quarries of ochre near Avignon, where you have soil in all those shades: from very white, to yellow, to brown, to orange. So, yeah, they’re very natural colors. That one is gorgeous. Did you use some sort of pencil or crayon for the yellow?
AS: Yeah, colored pencils was the other thing I used, I think that’s about it.
VP: Beautiful. Since we were talking about your rusty globe, let’s move to the ensemble of globes. You told me that these globes are a meditation on the world. When did you first start using the globe as a format?
AS: A long time ago. A friend was coming to visit from New York and she wanted to bring me something, and I said bring me a globe. So she brought me a wonderful Fisher-Price globe that had a little thing you could roll up there and look at different sites around the world. So then I just started thinking: “yeah, they’re meditations on the world.” We did a show in the windows in Skowhegan with a lot of artists, and a lot of people made globes: Kenny Cole made beautiful ones, Amy Ray made beautiful ones. We had a lot of globes from artistic professionals and regular neighbors too. I like that, look at that, I love them spinning.
VP: The globes are wonderful because they kind of recapitulate some of the aspects of your work, and one I’ll mention is the variety of the media. This one is made with a wasp’s nest (in one of the books we’ll see later, you used what you call wasp’s paper). We saw how you used that new rust paint. Some of the Ghost pictures mix gouache with glycerin, honey, and gum Arabic, and you often use ink you make yourself from walnuts. So you use so many different materials and mediums. Can you talk about your m.o.: do you focus on one medium for a while and then switch, or do you work on several at the same time?
AS: I don’t know, whatever comes next. Speaking of materials, these two glow in the dark, they’re painted with phosphorus and paint. I like that. I like stuff, you’re right.
Abby Shahn, La Siren, oil on canvas, triptych, each 36 x 50 in. (photo: Kyle Dubay).
VP: I think it’s when you saw my very cluttered house that you decided we’re kindred spirits. I never forgot that lovely expression.
La Siren has a great format, it’s a triptych. Of course, for someone like me who works on Renaissance religious art, it’s very meaningful, and I think it’s not so coincidental that the title, as you explained to me, has to do with Caribbean religions. One striking feature here is the gold line that ties together the three panels, starts on one and continues on the next two.
You wrote a great text for the exhibition catalogue, where you talk about people who were important for you, kind of teachers. And interestingly, and in a very Abby Shahn fashion, they came from unexpected places. Could you talk a little bit about your training?
AS: Well, I was in college, and I started to paint, I wasn’t a painter when I was a kid. I got more and more excited, I paid more attention to that than anything else, sneaking into the studio and so on. And also, the other thing that happened, I got a jaywalking ticket. And they made you go to jaywalking school to learn how not to jaywalk in Portland, Oregon (that’s where I was). And I started hanging around the court, drawing everybody, and I began to think that the real way to study American culture would be to go to Detroit and study cars, because all the cases in the court were about cars. And so we planned it, it was like sort of a Ken Kesey wannabe, that we’d all go to Detroit and get a bus. It was really weird that we thought of all this stuff, but we did. And everybody dropped out but me, but then, I decided that I really wanted to go to art school and do more art. So, I went to San Francisco. So I was there for six months, but I did all that without telling my family, so they were a little bit mad. So then, I just came back and moved to New York. In New York I went to the Art Students League, I went to Pratt Graphic Arts Center, but I never went to regular art school for any length of time. I spent a year etching at Pratt Graphic Center and studied at the Art Students League with kind of a second-generation abstract expressionist, Stephen Greene. I was at the Art Students League for a bunch of years, just drawing people, basically in a life drawing class, but I loved doing that. But then, the other thing that happens is you meet people that have a message, that teach you something. I was thinking the other day about this woman that made rugs [Minnie Preble], I wrote something about her a little bit too, that was a neighbor up here in Maine. And the first time I saw her she had a pig named Porkchop. And it was her pet, and she’d scratch its belly, and she loved it, and she planned to eat it. To me that was a great lesson, that you can love what you eat. You don’t have to feel like you’re a murderer or something like that. So she was a great teacher for me, too. And she made beautiful rugs.
VP: And be very open about what this animal is intended for, right? You’re not hiding what the outcome is.
AS: Exactly, naming it Porkchop is what got to me. Naming it Porkchop and scratching its belly, you know? That combination of really loving it and planning to eat it. I was living in a place on Long Island and there was a neighbor who hated the hunters, right? And she really was down on the hunting, she went on and on about it. They were upsetting her so much. And anyway, one day she was telling me how terrible the hunters were while she was unwrapping a package of meat, all bloody, from the supermarket. And I thought: “Well if I’m gonna eat I’m gonna take responsibility.”
VP: This book Jocelyn just opened has some of that wasp paper outside, right?
AS: Yes, it does, yes, it does.
VP: Is that Minimal Ghosts?
AS: Yeah. You know what happened with this book was that I discovered that I could make these ghosts with even fewer lines and fewer gestures, so I got kind of curious about how minimal I could do them and still have them.
VP: Hence the title.
VP: So those books I think wrap up well the whole show, because you can see with that set of six books how phenomenally varied they are in their style and their topics; they really show your curiosity and your political conscience. One is entitled Eat War, another has a title that addresses the viewer with urgency, it’s called Stop, Look, and Listen. It’s really like you’re grabbing your viewer with that book. And the one called Travelogue is a collaboration, as I mentioned earlier, that you did with Gretchen Lucchesi. What I’m curious about is the format. In the catalogue you explain you learned Chinese calligraphy with a gentleman called Dr. Wu…
AS: No. I didn’t learn Chinese calligraphy!
VP: and he taught you the format for these books. They’re accordion books. It’s interesting because they can be viewed as a regular book, as a codex with pages you turn, but then you can open them up, and some are painted one both sides. So you can really operate them in all kinds of different ways. Again, there’s incredible variety and complexity. Can you tell us about your choice to work in the book format?
AS: You know, to say he taught me calligraphy was not right. He taught me how to appreciate it, Dr. Wu, with his wonderful books of Chinese painting. And the folding books were for sale in the store. He had really nice paper and he had really nice brushes, and I learned a lot about how brushes are constructed from him.
VP: Speaking of the book format, one would expect to find writing and they have very little writing in them, very little text. They have little snippets, there’s some collage here and there, a few written words. Can you talk a little bit about that, about how they’re books and yet not what we would expect?
AS: I’m the person that looks at books and looks at the pictures and sometimes reads but sometimes looks at the pictures.
VP: Abby, I’ve been saying forever and ever that I became an art historian because I’m lazy and I just want to look at pictures, I don’t want to read books.
AS: Right. Yeah!
In this book [Travelogue] we kind of fantasized that we were going on a trip, me and Gretchen, and that we were going to find her a lover [chuckles]. I love this: this is a hotel where we stopped—or she stopped, I should say.
VP: So did you actually travel or not?
AS: No, no, no, no. It was all talk. It was all in imagination. But we took her to New York, right?
VP: It’s gorgeous.
AS: That page opens out there, it folds out. That green page? There you go.
VP: See? It’s not your typical accordion, it folds in.
AS: Yeah. Someone sent me a postcard with that building on it, and I fell in love with that building. It’s in Samarkand or some damned thing.
VP: Oh yeah. And there’s wallpaper.
AS: Once in the town dump, I found a wallpaper sample book, and I’m still using it.
VP: Can you say a little bit about how you collaborated with Gretchen on that book?
AS: When you talk about the book with Mark Melnicove, basically I did the pictures and he wrote the poems. But this, we were sending it back and forth, we’d keep it for a couple months and then send it back. There he is, her soldier man or whoever he is.
VP: That was supposed to be the lover you were finding?
AS: Somewhere in the beginning, I cut him out of the thing, so he’s silhouetted in the beginning. Somewhere, there’s a photograph—I mean a copy of it—by that woman Chansonetta [Stanley Emmons], I think. There’s the pond in front of my mom’s house [Bernarda Bryson Shahn] in New Jersey. And this is a print, I did a print with Richard Wilson with these stripes that was for the first biennial—or one of the early ones, in ’81 or something. We made the posters, so I have a bunch of them, and it didn’t work out; those were cut up.
VP: It’s a very long book, that was a long trip!
VP: If you want, I think we can open up the floor for questions. I can retreat and let Abby face her public!
AS: Losers! [Chuckles] No, I’m just teasing.
See this guy, kind of an orange one? There was a style in New York that all the Spanish guys were wearing called the “Stingy Brim Hat,” so I was painting and suddenly it began looking like a stingy brim hat. So I called it Stingy Brim and then I thought “oh I’m being so cool and everything like that.” They didn’t wear stingy brims, they probably hadn’t worn them in twenty years, but turned out they did actually still use them, I found out.
Hey Véronique, I was thinking about the very first graffiti I saw, before there were spray cans. In my neighborhood, there was a wall that was painted black about three quarters of the way up, maybe with tar, and then somebody in white paint (sort of at an angle) had written “Imperial Dragon DLAMF,” and for a long time it took me a while to find out what DLAMF meant, did you find out? Can I say it here? “Down like a mother-fucker.” That’s what they meant. [Laughs]
Image at top: Abby Shahn installing pieces for the exhibition Abby Shahn—50 Years, SPEEDWELL Projects, Portland, March 2020 (photo: Jocelyn Davis).
A video of parts of the conversation can be found here.