Essay: Darsie Alexander

Has anyone here seen Anne Labovitz?

Anne is waiting patiently for me at a lunch spot in Minneapolis, in a cool glass-enclosed restaurant overlooking the city streets. I’m at least twenty minutes late and first impressions are already out the window. Anne is looking very professional – hair pulled back, suit jacket, fashionable eyewear. She is smiling, nicely. She is very forgiving, poised even, and understanding of my busy schedule. Anne is good at the ice-breakers:  Do I like Minneapolis so far? Kids? Job?  Has my stuff arrived yet? I’m not sure when the lunch ended, but when it did I realized, to my horror, that I had done most of the talking. Very bad practice for a curator who works with artists – and Anne is an artist, first and foremost, and that was my introduction. I’m herewith attempting a redux, now at least ten years anon and many lunches (and a few cocktails) later.

For those who know Anne, who have met and experienced her, there is really very little one can do to untangle the person she is from the art that she creates. Her personality, desires, fears, relationships – it’s all there. In hindsight, that first meeting was but a little sliver of all that space that Anne occupies, be it in her career, board roles, family life, student responsibilities and countless other preoccupations that she writes, paints, acts and thinks about. People are the driving force of her life and the connector that shapes all through-lines of her art.  Painted portraits – some alive with feeling, others seemingly expressionless – talk across the walls of Anne’s brightly-lit studio. Their thoughts perform substrates of her compositions buried in layers of text, stories, and color. Friends, peers and family members, all with their own narratives, are quite literally written into the work. Anne’s painting is also a tale of her process, often over a period of many months, when according to the artist she aims to “fossilize, preserve and record each set of marks as a single event…” In so doing, she taps into her own memories and associations of the person she is depicting. These associations come by way of interviews she has conducted, photographs and other documentation kept on hand for reference to deepen the texture of the subject, often in visible ways. Mostly there is first-hand knowledge of the subject him-or-herself, gleaned in ways similar to our first encounter in the restaurant, the slow beginning of an accumulation of experience and personal connection that is the inspiration, and, in some ways, the responsibility of her art.  

Responsibility is a strange term to use when talking about painting, but it goes back once again to the individual who is this artist and the civic place her work has always occupied. 122 Conversations is the perfect example. Launched in 2014 the piece incorporates interviews conducted with ten residents of six global cities. Created over Skype, they take shape around basic human questions (name, occupation, etc) that anyone can answer, but that are also revealing of factors including age, background, and cultural context. These conversations then become the foundation of a traveling exhibition – sometimes of remarkably long and colorful works can be rolled and packed into lightweight carry-on luggage. Talking as a means of relaxing and getting to know a subject was a strategy Anne learned early on from her grandmother, also an artist. As a child, the older woman would distract Anne with a toy or trinket, using the “sitting” as social time to connect with her grandchild while getting to the business of her art. When Anne herself became a mother in 1998, she also worked with kids doing class portraits, discovering once again that chatting can put people at ease. It can also add levity to a process that can be intimate and vulnerable (who doesn’t feel awkward knowing they are being examined through the eyes of an artist?). She has said recently, “For many years, I did portraits as a way “into” someone – a way to connect, a way to see.” And these moments of connection ultimately lend a compassion and humility to her work, allowing the deep crevices of hidden feeling and emotion to come forward through dense and imprecise surfaces that often resemble encrustations, suggesting the many layers that constitute our individual selves. 

Giving material form to a psychological state or emotion is a daunting challenge for any artist, but it is nonetheless one that has occupied them for generations. The raw, gnarly that Anne has produced over the years (and one in particular, the riveting Untitled 14 [Black] with its off-register scratches and compressed field) bring to mind the early twentieth century experiments of Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Emile Nolde; for what it’s worth, Anne has spent considerable time in Berlin with family and pursing graduate studies, where she has had first-hand access to these legendary members of Expressionism. Her reliefs share with these earlier figures an abiding interest in pathos and human frailty. In some of her works, a face is submerged in veils of thick black ink, alluding to feelings of despair and hopelessness in her work. Elsewhere, floating embers of light and shadow form auratic halos around the heads of children and girls in particular, suggesting an interest in the challenges facing young women today. Thoughtful interpretation and pure conjecture collide in these readings of her work, shaped as they are by a multitude of forces, be they personal, social, spiritual or fantastical.

Within this language of ‘portraiture’ (itself such a limited term), Anne is the ultimate abstractionist. Unsurprisingly her color-field work is a contemporaneous and hugely related practice. Saturated with hues of pink, orange, purple and turquoise, these compositions operate within several genres – one evoking the stained raw canvases of Helen Frankenthaler, the other alluding to the calligraphic marks of Cy Twombly with their mergers of line and script. Sometimes a head is visible from behind the veils of marks and color. While no less inspired by specific experience (in some cases people, in others places) the compositions are singular and energetic. One senses nature in their loose swirls, soft horizons and bursts color.  Opting for exuberance over restraint, they exude pleasure and optimism. This was particularly important for the artist after the divisive 2016 election when dark/light metaphors pervaded her work. A sun is visible cutting through the haze of several ‘color wash’ works from this period, suggesting the potential to pierce the aqueous surface of her work with a new opening and possibility. 

Reflecting on the work of a prolific artist – and Anne is certainly one — is a welcome opportunity for those of us involved in contemporary art, and we can be deft interpreters of lives and history. But any pretense to objectivity must be acknowledge as such when writing about one who is simultaneously an independent creative force and lasting friend. These two roles are inextricably bound in my appraisal of Anne and her work. It is difficult to muffle the sound of Anne’s enthusiastic string of expletives when describing the “Fuck Triptych” painting (assuredly a tame mantle compared to the live performance), or to suppress the image of a colorful scarf once worn to an opening that resembles a painting of the same period. It’s a vibrant cacophony. Like life. Like Anne.  

Darsie Alexander

Susan and Elihu Rose Chief Curator 

Darsie Alexander is the Susan and Elihu Rose Chief Curator at the Jewish Museum. Previously she held curatorial positions at the Walker Art Center, Baltimore Museum of Art and The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Most recently she served as Executive Director of the Katonah Museum of Art in Westchester County, New York. Alexander has curated numerous exhibitions focusing on postwar American and European art, notably International Pop (2015-2016); The Spectacular of Vernacular (2011); Franz West, To Build a House You Start with the Roof: Work, 1972-2008 (2008); and SlideShow (2005). She maintains an interest in interdisciplinary practice stemming from her work on the Merce Cunningham Dance Archive. Alexander has served on various boards and foundation panels. She is a graduate of Bates College and earned her graduate degree from Williams College.