Answering Her Own Questions

The past two years were a period of rediscovery for the artist as she worked on the exhibition, “Michelle Stuart: Drawn From Nature,” on view at the Parrish Art Museum through Oct. 27
In her Amagansett studio, Michelle Stuart often works with Lola, her dog, by her side. She uses the white walls as her canvas and idea laboratory for her palimpsest photo-grid compositions. Morgan McGivern

   Michelle Stuart’s Amagansett studio is a few steps away from her house and pool in a green and shady retreat not far from the highway, but separate and serene behind a mature border of shrubs and trees.
    The workspace in her second home, which she has had for 22 years, is both bright and spare. Her older rescue dog, Lola, relaxes on her bed, leaving her free to work with the blank canvas of her white walls to devise and reconsider one of her multi-paneled “Palimpsests.” These are image-based pieces, layered in ways that lead to a point where they “answer the question I have asked myself” and she knows that they are complete, she said recently.
    The past two years were a period of rediscovery for the artist as she worked on the exhibition, “Michelle Stuart: Drawn From Nature,” on view at the Parrish Art Museum through Oct. 27. It was organized by Anna Lovatt, a lecturer at the University of Manchester in England, initially for the University of Nottingham, and travels to Santa Barbara in January.
    Although it is called a drawing show, Ms. Stuart’s active engagement with nature and the exhibition’s encyclopedic scope make it more of a mini retrospective that showcases not just two-dimensional works but many other manifestations of the artist’s practices involving paper.
    One of the early and few female artists to tackle a genre known as land art in the 1960s and 1970s (made prominent by her male counterparts Robert Smithson, Richard Long, Walter de Maria, Dennis Oppenheim, and others), her engagement with earth and land was often ephemeral or indirect. The drawings she made in those days might be rubbings of outcroppings or dirt and small stones taken from a site and rubbed into paper, rather than radical engineering projects such as Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” in the Great Salt Lake.
    Dr. Lovatt came to Ms. Stuart’s studio in Amagansett first as a visitor, accompanied by a mutual friend, but as an exhibition took shape, it was in the New York studio and storage area where the artist keeps most of her work that certain surprises began to emerge. 
    “We met quite a few times in the studio. She was very serious and very, very smart,” Ms. Stuart said. At first, she wasn’t sure what the curator wanted to see. “I have a lot of architects drawers with work buried in them. She said, ‘Let’s start with the 1960s and ’70s.’ I started opening drawers that I had not taken anything out of since I put them in. There are four or five drawings in the show I hadn’t seen since the day I finished them.”
    There were early word drawings — “Sand” and “Stone” made with pencil and strategically erased — fault-line drawings, and photographs of the moon. “They were early but they related closely to what happened later. When I looked at them I told her, ‘They’re as much of a surprise to me as they are to you.’ ”
    Then in the storage unit, there were more unexpected finds. “We kept pulling things out and she kept saying ‘I’d like to use that.’ “ Ms. Stuart knew about some things, but some things she didn’t. Dr. Lovatt was looking for one of the artist’s box pieces, works that she set in painted wood boxes, in a minimal approach to a Joseph Cornell construct.
    Those works, dating from the late 1960s, were way in the back of the storage unit, and her assistant, crawling past the aggregation of several decades, found several. “The one Anna wanted I hadn’t seen since 1972.” They took the rest back to the studio to examine their condition.
    One of the works from the series, “Scanning Sequence,” a multi-box piece, was open on the floor when Ms. Stuart’s dealer Leslie Tonkonow came by. She liked the piece and took it to the Art Basel Miami Beach fair last December, where the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought it. The first piece of hers that the museum has purchased, it was in its “Land Marks” show, which closed on Aug. 25.
    Although the process of pulling together pieces from her past and seeing all of the work together in the show allowed her to see the relationships between works distanced by many years, she is otherwise moving on with her work. “I don’t dwell on things,” she said, vital and full of energy, even as she stands on the precipice of her 80s.
    Still, she recognizes the value in those relationships and appreciates that younger generations, who are more aware of her current projects, are seeing much of the earlier work for the first time. This show and a smaller survey held jointly at the Tonkonow gallery and James Salomon’s gallery in New York City in 2011 gave a sense of the broad base of interests she has had over time, with works that incorporate seeds, images, wax and encaustic techniques, maps, and bookmaking, along with the scrolls and her most iconic work.
    Lately she is much occupied with continuing her “Palimpsests” series, grids of framed images, printed on 8-by-10-inch sheets of paper. The images might be scanned from her archive of photographs or from historical photographs and may be altered or left as originals. Although the images are photographic, she does not want to be mistaken for a photographer.
    “I work like an artist, not a photographer.” She said she has too much respect for the practitioners of the medium to claim an aesthetic intent of her own. Instead, she adopted photography first in the 1970s as a documentary function, taking images of places she visited just as she would collect soil samples. But even so, she was, and still is, never without her camera.
    The “Palimpsests” often include tables with collected objects on them, placed in front of the grid. “Ring of Fire,” a 2010 piece included in the show, is one such work. A group of 60 images is completed by a metal table with cloth from Tonga, a Philippine basket, and a Samoan wood container, along with seeds and stones.
    The origin of the materials and the title are key to its meaning for the artist, as they relate to the Pacific Ocean and her upbringing. The Pacific basin is known as the “Ring of Fire” for its volcanic and earthquake activity. The islands that produced the crafts she included are also found in the Pacific. Ms. Stuart, who has an Australian father and Swiss mother, was conceived in Australia and raised in Hawaii and California with visits to relatives in New Zealand.
    “I wanted to do a piece related to my parents and roots.” One of the more arresting images in the piece is a dark male figure standing in a non-specific background, dreamlike and surreal. It was an image she had drawn and cut out, collaging it in black to the photo that served as its setting. “That everyman with the hat, I realized, stood for my father. It didn’t look like my father, but that’s who it was.”
    While that work has a very specific personal meaning to her, she said she enjoys when others bring their own interpretations to her pieces. Everybody brings their own personal associations to art, even artists, she said. Goya’s painting of a dog in the Prado Museum might be an arresting piece of proto-minimalism to her aesthetic sensibilities, but it was as a dog person that she was first drawn to it.
    The Parrish show has given her a chance to speak to a number of people about what they are seeing there and it is something she has enjoyed and found illuminating.
    “A piece is complete for me when I’m happy that it works, when it says to me my intentions for it. After that, it’s up to the viewer.”

Click for a December 13, 2007 review

Click for a February 10, 2011 review

"Ring of Fire," 2008-2010
"Earth Diptych," 1969
"Earth Box," 1969
"Moray Hill," 1973