ABBY SHAHN High Street Gallery
ABBY SHAHN Congress Street Gallery
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I can describe the story of my life as an artist in several inexact stages. I was born into a family of artists surrounded by art. I was the youngest child. We lived in central New Jersey. Inevitably, I developed an exaggerated sense of the importance of art. My family was also keenly aware of political issues. I wasn't always sure I was going to be a painter, but I was always trying to find ways to "express myself." As a child, I wrote a lot of poetry and pondered lots of philosophy.
After I grew up. I went away to school in Oregon. I missed all of the art that had always surrounded me. I came to realize that in comparison to everyone I met, I lived in a visual world. I realized that many of my thoughts were purely visual thoughts. I became a painter. Painting became a way for me to express my thoughts, observations and feelings. I grew restless in college. I dropped out of college and moved to San Francisco. It was the tail end of the beatnik era and before the hippies. After several months in California I came back east to visit my family and wound up living in NYC. I had a realization when I moved to NY, that all of my life I had been saying things to people and getting blank stares in reply. In New York, people answered me. I could have dialogues with people. I felt very at home there. I took some classes. I met people. I worked on my art. I began to have shows. I managed to earn a meager living from my art. I met the man with whom I lived for twenty-five years. We had two daughters.
New York, and for that matter America, was going through a lot. There was the war in Vietnam. There was all of the protest and political awakening. It was an exciting time. The whole art scene was in a state of ferment. Sometime during the sixties, we bought a rundown farm in Central Maine. We began to spend a part of every year up here. In 1969, the whole society seemed to be collapsing. The art establishment seemed to be in bed with the warmongers. We decided that year to try a winter in Maine and see what it was like.
I've lived in Central Maine ever since. I learned to grow some food. I stopped painting in disgust and started again in desperation. One marriage ended and another began. I think that my rural life has been central to my evolution as an artist. Our gardens, our firewood, and our isolation from the society at large, especially from the art world, our wonderful community of artists in this area: all give me a slight feeling of independence. I don't want to overplay this, or give any false impression, but it does seem a crucial fact of my life, at times a hindrance, at times a blessing.
Most of the paintings that I've ever made have been "works on paper." I'm not sure how I fell into that mode. Maybe it started because I liked my drawings better than my paintings. I think I was intimidated by the carpentry involved in making stretchers. I could make them, but by the time I had done the carpentry, and stretched the canvas, and sized and primed it and started painting on it; frankly, I didn't feel very relaxed.
Then there was the storage question. Hundreds of "works on paper" can fit into the same space as one painting on stretched canvas. Paintings on canvas seemed very pretentious. I got so that I could fit a whole exhibition of rolled up paper works in my Volkswagen. I like that renegade sensibility.
At some point I just began to love paper. I loved the way the paint or pencil laid a mark on paper. I worked mostly on paper all through the sixties, seventies, etc. until the last few years, when I've begun to work in oil paint again.
For me, there is not a distinct boundary between painting and drawing. One seems to merge into the other before I know what's happening. I always like hanging out at those borders; between painting and drawing, between abstract and figurative, between political and personal, between Canada and the USA.
I've picked the works on paper in this portfolio from a wide range of times. Some were done in the sixties and seventies. Some were done last year. It's been interesting to me to look over old and new pictures. I realize that certain themes, certain ideas and images keep cropping up over and over, over the years. Putting this portfolio together had been an act of reflection for me.