Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art: Feminist Art Base: Susan Schwalb

Susan Schwalb

Susan Schwalb is one of the foremost figures in the revival of the ancient technique of silverpoint drawing in America. Most of the contemporary artists who draw with a metal stylus continue the tradition of Leonardo and Durer by using the soft, delicate line for figurative imagery. By contrast, Schwalb’s work is resolutely abstract, and her handling of the technique is extremely innovative. Paper is torn and burned to provide an emotionally free and dramatic contrast to the precise linearity of silverpoint. In other works, silverpoint is combined with flat expanses of acrylic paint or gold leaf. Sometimes, subtle shifts of tone and color emerge from the juxtaposition of a wide variety of metals. In recent works, Schwalb abandons the stylus altogether in favor of wide metal bands that achieve a shimmering atmosphere reminiscent of the luminous transparency of watercolor.

Schwalb was born in New York City and studied at the High School of M&A, and at Carnegie-Mellon University. Memories of light have been a recurrent source for her work; travels to Arizona and New Mexico, for example, suggested some of the colors and shapes in paintings called “Mesa”, and other works clearly owe something to the light on the Hudson River as viewed from a studio on the West Side of Manhattan.

Schwalb’s oeuvre ranges from drawings on paper to artist books and paintings on canvas or wood panels.; many of these panels are carefully beveled so that the imagery seems to float off the wall. Her work is represented in most of the major public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the National Gallery, Wash. D.C., The British Museum, London, The Brooklyn Museum, NY, The Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX, The Achenbach Foundation of Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, The Library of Congress, Washington, DC, The Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT, Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art and the Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock, AK.
I have worked in the Renaissance technique of silverpoint and metalpoint drawing since the early 1970's. The sensual quality of silverpoint built up slowly and meticulously with thousands of lines was particularly suited to my images. I found going back to a traditional technique was compatible with a personal desire to find my own identification as a woman artist. I was encouraged in this work by my mentor, the artist Isabel Bishop, who I knew since high school.

My first series of metalpoint drawings was on the theme of the Orchid (1974-78). For the first year I drew from one dried flower exclusively, seeing it from many points of view. These were relatively small drawings which I later enlarged to works of 40"x30". I saw the orchid as a symbol for myself and for women. The drawings are meant to evoke sexual as well as spiritual themes. These works were shown in a solo exhibition at the Women's Series at Rutgers University in 1977 and then toured to several other universities.

In 1979 I removed the orchid as the direct subject matter and worked with the shapes behind the flower. These works have a more abstract quality, yet deal with the same subject matter- sensuality and spirituality. In these works I scratched and tore into the paper as well as used smoke and burning with silverpoint. The burnt works were like a ritual act and in some cases the drawings seem to exist only for a moment.

My Headdresses and Parchments speak of a lost space that was being reclaimed by women. These drawings explore a central and interior space using sexual and spiritual themes as metaphors for the process of life, death and re-birth. I used burning and tearing as part of my technique until the mid-1980's

In my work of 1988-90 I continued my use of the female body as a source in my work to make works such as "Emblem" and "Spiritus Mundi". A large drawing from this series was included in the exhibition "Power, Pleasure, Pain: Contemporary Women Artists and the Female Body" at the Fogg Art Museum in 1994.

In more recent years I moved further into minimal abstraction and have continued to push the limits of silverpoint. But my earlier feminist inspired works still serve as an underlining basis for my creative thinking.

View Susan Schwalb's CV (PDF)

Emblem #2Incident in the Mist #5Headdress #6Orchid Transformation #2Spiritus Mundi #1

New York, NY
United States


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