Studio Visit: Melissa Meyer
By Deanna Sirlin
Melissa Meyer has been a painter all her life; this is who she is and what she does. “Painting has died at least seven times since I started working as a painter,” she quips. She makes calligraphic marks, now thin and diluted with turpentine, each mark with a clean brush and freshly mixed color on a primed white canvas that serves as the colors’ ground. The grid is there, an underlying structure that she uses like any tool, but only loosely, and she mostly ignores it. The paintings are large—they have always been large—taller than the artist herself. She has worked smaller and loves to make books—artist’s books that are pictorial but on which she sometimes collaborates with poets and writers. We change our planned meeting time because she wants to show me a new hand-painted book she has made in collaboration with a South Korean poet, Ko Un and French publisher Gervais Jassaud. She has had a special and very beautiful red box made for these unbound pages. She beamed with happiness. This is what artists do when they make things they love. Five minutes after meeting Melissa, you know that she loves being an artist and has no regrets. For her, each day is a new opportunity to make art.
Everything she does is to enable herself to make art, to be an artist, to live as an artist. I met Melissa in 1983 at the Yaddo residency. She has been to many other artist’s retreats but has been a returning fellow at Yaddo. We each have a great story of a woman artist who played a significant role in our being invited there. Mine is that Louise Bourgeois insisted I be selected for a residency despite being a very young artist. Hers is that Helen Frankenthaler was on the board and called New York University to see if there were any younger artists who wished to apply. Few young artists were painting in 1974, and Melissa got the residency. I mention this because there is something important about women artists helping other women artists. It is part of the history and I am grateful for it.
Those who have been invited to be a “guest” at Yaddo know what a gift this is. The notion of endless, quiet time devoted to work might not be for everyone, but for most it is a most amazing opportunity. The year I met Melissa, she was there for four months as a sort of “den mother” for the artists, a job she shared with the novelist Joe Caldwell with whom she is still friends. For this, Melissa got to do her work away from the pressures and summer heat of New York City and the other things that make an artist’s life difficult. I was twenty-five years old, and my partner and I were homeless at the time, so Yaddo saved me. It is a magical place to work and think. Melissa’s life as an artist has been tied to her ability to work there and have chunks of time with little or no need to have a “day job.” I do not need to say how important this can be to any artist.
At Yaddo, you have to be invited to visit someone’s studio, and after a week or two, Melissa invited me to see what she was working on. I enjoyed looking at her work, which at that time was large, abstract, and thickly painted. The pictorial space was shallow, but the brushstrokes and color were vibrant and seductive. We walked over to my studio afterwards, and I remember spending the evening talking with her about color in painting. Needless to say, I was taking in everything she could give me. I was just -beginning to figure out how I could live my life as an artist, and here was someone who, in my view, had done it. I admired her from the start and appreciated her paintings. She seemed so worldly. She had been awarded a Rome Prize and seemed to know so many artists. She told a great story about her mother. After she came home from a year in Rome, Melissa received a grant from the State of New York, a CAPS grant in painting, in 1981. When she told her mother that she had been honored with this grant, her mother’s response was “Where do you have to go “now” ?” I recognized this as an expression of love between mothers and daughters. They want you to succeed in the world but not go too far. A Rome Prize is nice, but better you should stay at home with your mother.
Ironically, even though Melissa seemed worldly-wise to me at Yaddo, she was actually still a young artist at that time, only 36 to my 25. Of course, there was a long road ahead for both of us, and many moons would pass before we would meet again. We reconnected recently to my surprise at a signing in New York City for my book, She’s Got What It Takes: American Women Artists in Dialogue. There was Melissa, buying my book! I remembered her immediately. Many of the artists I interviewed for the book are friends of Melissa’s, particularly Joyce Kozloff and Joan Snyder, with whom she has a close friendships. Joyce, Joan and Melissa worked together on Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics, a journal produced between 1977 and 1992. I believe they are all still good friends.
Visiting Melissa at her studio on September 17th, 2014 was different from our encounters at Yaddo. Over the last few years, Melissa has made a significant change in her painting. She went from using very thickly painted impastos to thinned-out oil paint, still working on a large scale but with each calligraphic mark sitting on the surface of the canvas.
She told me this change happened when she was asked to teach a college level watercolor class. Melissa had not painted in watercolor previously, “because I thought it was for women artists and hobbyists and it didn’t have the muscle of oil paint”.However, the students got her excited about the medium and Melissa decided to explore its possibilities in order to be able to teach it. She had the students painting in watercolor from the model, doing quick poses. I can only imagine the kinds of paintings they produced under Melissa’s careful eye.
Enthralled by this transparent medium and the idea of making one mark at a time, Melissa began to work in this manner. She has one chance, one brush, and mixes all her colors on the palette. Each stroke is a lovely, but also energetic, calligraphic mark. Melissa now makes drawings on paper in watercolor, but her big canvases are in oil paint diluted with turpentine. In each section of her implied compositional grid, there is a scribble that is curvilinear and strangely alphabet-like yet resembles no actual letter in any language even though they derive from Asian painting and hand-written documents. Her paintings delineate a new font or an alphabet primer for a language that does not exist. These marks reflect the connection of the artist’s hand to the medium, the fluidity of each stroke as it is mated with its chosen color. How and where in the painting each gesture is repeated is what gives the painting its verve and emotion. Yes, one feels an emotional outpouring in these works; with each stroke, Melissa is finding her own poetry and verse.
As I sit in the studio and converse with Melissa I am looking at two large painting, each at a different end of the studio. Melissa does not work on these paintings upright but views them this way. She paints the canvases flat on the floor using brushes attached to long poles to avoid drips. Nothing should be by accident—everything should reflect the artist’s decisions about what the painting should or should not contain. The calligraphic marks on the painting interest me—the marks are all different, yet are of the same language Melissa created. The marks are in different colors and overlap one another other just enough. Each canvas has its own palette with a dominant color: for the painting nearest me, it’s red, clear and bright, while the one on the other side of the studio is dominated by blue inky marks that go from indigo to ultramarine. Each color system becomes part of the work’s content. I enjoy seeing each mark separately and then as part of the entire painting. Color and mark are together as one.
There is an energy in these works that call up first generation Abstract Expressionism. Melissa gives a nod to all of them: artists like Pollock and de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Joan Mitchell and Bradley Walker Thomlin. The underlying grid makes the works refers to quilts and other patterns. Each stroke seems choreographed and costumed, reminding me of how much Melissa loves the ballet. (While at Yaddo, one could go see the New York City Ballet perform in their summer residence at Saratoga Springs.)
The notion of abstraction is bandied about quite often these days. I wonder about Melissa’s paintings, drawings, and books—-all abstract, but at the same time, I think, closely related to the person who is the artist. I asked Melissa if there were any bad ones, since so much energy is used to put down the particular mark. She showed me a small pile of rejects that she may or may not continue to work on. It is all part of the life of an artist. She gets up, goes to the studio, makes her marks and decides if they get to live in the world. She leaves the studio to sleep and returns the next day to do the same. It is more than a process—it is a life.
And if we are lucky we get to look at these works and appreciate them.
Deanna Sirlin is Editor in Chief of TAS and the author of She's Got What It Takes: American Women Artists in Dialogue published by Charta Art Books. She is an artist with an upcoming solo exhibition at NWWK in Worpspede, Germany, May 2015.
Images: Melissa Meyer Studio photo: Sarah Faux
Photo of Melissa: Deanna Sirlin
Paintings by Melissa Meyer
Untitlled 2013 80 x 78 inches oil on canvas
Devlin 2013 70 x 80 inches oil on canvas
courtesy Lennon Weinberg Gallery, NYC