Judith Stone, The Per Contra Interview with Miriam N. Kotzin

P.C. When did you start making art?

J.S. I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t making art, although I’m reluctant to name the drawing and painting I did as a child and young adult “art”, in the conscious, focused sense. I quite literally grew up in a studio, that of my gifted, accomplished mother, Frances Tissenbaum. Watermedia, oils, charcoal, pastel, India ink and, graphite drawing pencils were always available, and spending long periods of unstructured time drawing and painting was as integral to my home life as eating, sleeping, and reading, this last an equally gratifying pastime. Since my mother gave private painting lessons in her studio, a sun-filled designated space in our Great Neck, Long Island home, I picked up technique and a high comfort level with art materials through a kind of osmosis. I watched, listened, and learned. I was unteachable, however, surly and resentful of any effort to direct what was an off-hours escape and delight.

My mother assured me that I could have a successful career in the visual arts if I wanted one, but, until the advanced age of 29, I passed through a number of other ambitions - horsewoman, dancer, gourmet cook, writer - before the desire to work full-time as an artist positioned itself as central and permanent. In fact, the decision was made very shortly after my mother’s death. And I don’t believe only coincidence was operating here. I hasten to add that, while I had inherited my mother’s facile drawing hand and her easy way with art process and materials, it would be another eight years and an M.F.A. from the University of Colorado, Boulder before I produced a lithograph, etching, or drawing worthy of the name “art”. Until then, I’d been acquiring the skills, but hadn’t consolidated the vision.

P.C. What sort of art did you see when you were growing up?

J.S. Of course, I saw my mother’s work, which ranged from precisely observed, naturalistic watercolors to bold, singular attempts to merge Abstract Expressionist technique and creative ethos acquired at the Art Students League in Manhattan with her native bent for figurative portraiture and landscape. “Push-pull” became a household mantra.

As for the larger world of galleries and museums, once we moved to Great Neck in 1949, we, psychiatrist father, artist mother, and I, began our weekend habit of traveling to New York, “the city” as I still call it. In Manhattan, we partook of all the arts, theater, dance, and opera inclusive.

My parents were culturally voracious and passed that hunger on to their daughter. I’m sure that I was exposed to every visual art period and “ism” during these excursions, but it’s painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art I recall most vividly. At that point, MoMA was still bonded to the Whitney, with a modest garden adjoining the corridor that linked the two museums. A constant in my memory is the imposing, tilted mass of Rodin’s “Balzac” looming over us on its pedestal, as we walked from MoMA’s collection to the Whitney’s. The raw power of the figure, its quality of uncompromising assertion, marked me even then, grade-schooler that I was.

So I developed an early familiarity with modernist painting, with Cubism, the Fauves, and the then emerging Abstract Expressionists. I can honestly say that Brancusi’s stripped down, elegant “Bird in Flight” and Giacometti’s emaciated, virtually immaterial figures constituted the norm in sculpture for me. I really hadn’t seen anything else. I do confess as well to some battle fatigue in hearing, from my mother and her artist friends, paeans to Cézanne. The painter’s groundbreaking struggles with intersecting planes, color complements, and composition paled, in my 9-year-old sensibility, before the startling, saturated hues of Rédon’s still lifes. While I’m not a deep-dyed colorist, the impact of those electric blues and reds definitely informs my current mixed media work.

Although your question refers chiefly to childhood exposure to visual art, I feel it’s important to note several experiences I had somewhat later, since they were landmarks in terms of the artist I would become.

I spent my Vassar junior year in Paris, where my classmates and I passed two frenetic hours each Monday morning touring the Louvre with an unabashedly opinionated French scholar, M. Serrulaz. We were an unruly group of forty young Americans, no doubt viewed as “les barbares” by the museum attendants. In mid-winter, M. Serullaz’s non-stop, ambulatory lectures took us to a large Degas oil depicting a group of dancers in a rehearsal hall. The tutu of one dancer unfurled like a peacock’s tail across the breadth of the painting. Its clear resemblance to an open fan, a Japanese fan, opened the door to a discussion of the influence of Japanese woodblock prints on Degas and other Impressionists in his circle. In our time, knowledge of late 19th Century East-West cross-fertilization is old hat, a scholarly given, but for me at the time, it was stunningly new. I was doubly moved, by the asymmetry and radical cropping in Degas’ composition, and by his very idiosyncratic take on the spatial relationships between the dancers in the studio, many viewed from the back! I was “at home” with Degas, in the way I would find myself at home with Japanese art and craft in Tokyo 25 years down the pike.

A second epiphanic moment took place seven years later in a Whitney Museum, now severed from MoMA and moved to Marcel Breuer’s Bauhaus-inspired structure on Madison Avenue. Here I had my first encounter with Louise Nevelson’s brooding, black-painted wooden environments. The encounter took place in a dimly-lit, silent gallery, thankfully devoid of other visitors, who were all downstairs paying homage to Andrew Wyeth’s equally somber, but still very accessible Pennsylvania landscapes. (Obviously, this distribution of museum visitors would be quite the reverse today.) The phrase “shaken to the core” indicates precisely my response to Nevelson’s haunting surround. That I’d read nothing about her work in advance probably contributed to the shock, the psychic upheaval I felt: the utter blackness of it all, the refusal to give in to commonplace conventions of beauty. A woman had done this. I wasn’t quite ready even then to think about becoming an artist; that decision would begin to surface and solidify several years later. But the meeting with Nevelson’s mysterious, hand-built environment surely provided impetus.

P.C. What media do you prefer?

J.S. I’m permanently hooked on media that one deploys on paper, more precisely graphite and, for the past decade, pastel and color conté. Nothing in the art-making process approaches the satisfaction I feel at the first stroke of sharpened graphite pencil tip on a sheet of virgin Arches paper: 100% rag, acid free, cold press, the lot. The weight of the pencil in the hand, the subtleties of control through pressure, the minute dark-to-light shifts in value through the tonal spectra of soft “B” and hard “H” pencils ...all of that delicious complexity packed into the deceptively simple act of drawing with graphite has dominated my studio experience for three decades.

It’s crucial here to note that I began my formal visual art education with a lithography class at an art center in Pittsburgh. I was nearly thirty at the time, married to my first husband, with two small, truly marvelous children, my son David and my daughter Sylvia. I was also, like so many women in the late ‘60's and ‘70's, increasingly conflicted about domesticity and very restless. My appetite for printmaking whetted at the art center, I moved on quickly to “Special Student” status at Carnegie Mellon University. You might say that I entered the art life through the wrong door, spending long Special Student Friday afternoons learning the ins and outs of arcane etching and lithography techniques, but with no inkling as to what I was about as a novice artist. I did know, however, that I was mesmerized by the visual riches of etching and lithography: the rich, inky blacks in both media, the grainy flow of a tusche wash, the knife-like clarity of an etched contour, the subtle tonal range of a carefully achieved aquatint surface.

By the time I graduated with an M.F.A. in Printmaking and Drawing from the U.C. Boulder in 1977, the direction of my studio life had begun to take shape: I would continue working on paper, but only on high quality printmaking paper; I would mobilize the hand-eye coordination that came easily to me in unconventional, but recognizable imagery ( and this in a period when illusionistic rendering was simply verboten); I would find ways of duplicating in drawing the dense, lush blacks, the variety of textures, the incisive contours lithography and etching allowed, (but without again entering a lithography or etching studio minus the assistance and collaboration of a skilled master printer.) So the grainy, tusche-like washes you see in my work are accomplished by pouring non-toxic turpenoid through graphite powder; the clean edges are often accomplished by incising a contour into the paper with a mat knife and rubbing graphite into the groove; and the deepest blacks emerge when the granules of graphite powder in a dried turpenoid wash are merged and spread with my finger tips. If I want to recreate the soft cloudy effect of an lithographic acid tint, I pick out light from dark with a kneaded erasor. I’ve become a printmaker manqué.

Of course, you see far more media than the always essential graphite in my current work. I had the great good fortune of spending three expansive weeks at MacDowell Colony in May, 1992. There, I did something I’d contemplated fearfully for years: I lit a match and burned a hole in a partially completed drawing on pricey Arches paper. The simple act of penetrating the paper with fire, which resulted in a “window” with a charred edge, became - forgive the pun - a genuine breakthrough. The rough-edged aperture permitted a second layer of image, one that now generally involves a photographic fragment perceived through a pane of tinted, transparent Plexiglas.

At this juncture, I should admit to a lifelong, full-blown addiction to film. Accordingly, if the “flashback” in film stands in for the ephemeral, but often obsessive quality of memory, then I can go further and say that the dimly glimpsed shard of camera image seen through the Plexi “pane” operates as both: cinematic flashback and memory itself. Very recently, I’ve taken the “image within an image” strategy even further, immuring dry-mounted photographs in tinted, transparent Plexiglas boxes. These boxes are in turn integrated into the mixed media tower-like pieces that comprise “Tokyo/Upsurge”.

And finally color. For years, I withstood the insistence of friends and colleagues that I “graduate” into color. If color became a factor in the work, it would become so when I was ready and on my own terms. Indeed, about five years after my second husband Don and I moved to Vermont, I was ready, in spades. Rationalist that I am, I still can’t pin down the source of this mid-career leap into color. And I mean “leap”, in the form of large, structural “flats” of color, as opulent as I can make them with layers of pastel and color conté. I suspect that the motivation had much to do with the subject of the abovementioned series I’ve been developing in my Burlington studio: “Tokyo/Upsurge”. It would, after all, make little sense to formulate in black and white a gallery installation designed to body forth the surging energy and chromatic brilliance of Tokyo in the 1980's. As I reflect, I realize that the long, grey Vermont winter works on me as well, producing an exaggerated thirst for intense color I haven’t felt before. And then there’s such freedom in building fields of azure blues, claret reds, magentas, and crimsons on sheets of black Arches paper (100% rag, acid-free, the lot). Almost, but not quite as ineffable an experience as the application of that first stroke of graphite

P.C. At one point did you include language/writing in your work? Would you say something about what you were doing then? I remember seeing some of your work that included text and it wasn’t derivative, but I wonder if you’d want to place your work in the context of some of the other artists who did that.

J.S. I’ll start by saying that I’ve a real resistance to the stereotype of the “dumb artist”: the spontaneous, intuitive painter or sculptor who’s not guided or hamstrung by formal educational experience and who is literally “at a loss for words”, even when trying elucidate his or her own work. So, naturally, I’m drawn to artists like Delacroix and Kollwitz, whose journals record not just the vicissitudes of their personal and studio lives, but responses to literature, theater, musical performances, contemporary politics, in fact the entire context in which their work developed. And they were not only avid writers, but very articulate, with highly developed gifts both for introspection and for appraising their respective cultures. Kollwitz, for that matter, would have been hard put not to write, living passionately and productively through two world wars, losing one beloved family member in each, and witnessing the rise of Nazism.

But, of course, neither Delacroix nor Kollwitz - apart from some powerful anti-war posters - injected language directly into their two-dimensional work. So perhaps I’ve strayed from the direction of your question. More to the point, I spent about a decade addressing the intricacies of integrating text with image. I began writing on my drawings, with the studied carelessness so fashionable in the 1970's, while still in graduate school in Boulder. I’m a lifelong bug on methodical craft, so the graffiti-like cursive scrawl, not to mention the let-it-all-hang-out content of some of my message, felt very, very wrong. However, I was, at that point, a novice in serious art-making and far more vulnerable to external pressure than I am now, so a few dead ends in art-making were inevitable and - I see now - profitable in the long term.

Nevertheless, while the initial text-image forays were duds, the aspiration remained, intensified by the structure of my professional life as it shaped itself in Philadelphia in the 1980's. I became a traveling Adjunct Professor in Literature and Composition, taught separately or in combination depending on the campus. In the classroom, language was my domain: fiction, poetry, and drama at, say, Lasalle University, and the complexities of clear, cogent writing itself at, say, Temple University. On campus-free days, I attended to the graphite-on-paper images that by that time formed the core of my studio work. This discipline-hopping weekly structure would probably make more sense if I note that I’d focussed on English and French literature at Vassar - “majored”, at this stage of my life, sounds silly - and French language and literature at Harvard. In fact, until printmaking and drawing took its place in the early 1970's, I’d been certain wordsmithing would be my métier, that I’d have a career in literary criticism and fiction writing

I attacked the knotty problem of marrying text with image full throttle in Tokyo, in the mid-1980's. I’d snagged a Presidential Appointment, a non-tenure track contract with Temple, to teach in its Liberal Arts program on its Tokyo campus. At the time, I was more invigorated by the twin prospects of travel to an utterly alien culture and a healthy salary than by the imminent exposure to Japanese art and craft. I’m sure, though, that the anticipation was heightened by the subconscious knowledge of the wealth of woodblock prints, screens, and calligraphic paintings I’d certainly see in Tokyo. As I noted earlier, I’d a longstanding attraction to Japanese visual sensibility: the knife- clean edges; the asymmetry; the cropping and substantial empty “negative” space; and most relevant here, the tradition of integrating text and image.

I arrived in Tokyo in August, 1986 and almost immediately began teaching an unwieldy Temple course concoction entitled Intellectual Heritage, primarily to Japanese students. On free days, in September and October, I roamed Tokyo and gradually acclimatized myself to this puzzling city, at once magnetizing and alienating. In November, I was finally ready to stay home and engage in my conventional studio “thing”: I began a set of graphite drawings in which language, all manner of language, played a major role. This time, however, I didn’t scrawl or scribble on my eggshell-thin, 90 lb. Arches drawing paper. I used gold powder and medium and a plastic template for the letters, spacing them carefully and as often orienting them vertically as horizontally. I could say that exposure to Asian calligraphy played a major part in this surge of linguistic energy, but that would be only a partial truth. I believe that absolute freedom, the upside of isolation, propelled me in this direction, as did a head full of resonant names, terms, phrases, partial sentences - I called them “predicates” - I’d already started logging in a tiny notebook. I was particularly drawn to remembered comments with iambic stress pattern. Here’s a very romantic example: “I think about you all the time, your smile.”

I’m not sure I understand how you are using “derivative” in your question. But I can say that my verbal sources were, in that febrile period in Tokyo and for years afterward, eclectic. To put it mildly. I gleaned language from poetry and Shakespearean drama, from pop songs of the ‘60's and 70's - never later - from place names and overheard conversations, from the crudest of advertising slogans and graffiti. Added to the mix was technical language, all pulled from assignments I’d given classes of engineers at Temple in the early ‘80's and, taken out of context, weighted with metaphoric meaning beyond their concrete application. For instance, here is a provocative statement: “And the helicopter will destroy itself.” The more matter of fact and grittier the word or phrase, the greater, it seemed, its power of suggestion.

I admit that I was at times cavalier where easy understanding of the link between text and image in these Tokyo pieces was concerned. Indeed, confusion for the viewer was compounded by the their image content: stylized earth moving equipment. I juxtaposed the words and phrases, eclectic as they were, with each other and with the images, with full awareness of their logical connection in my own mind. But explanation and clarification for the viewer was often a step I hadn’t taken. So the reception for these drawings was mixed, to say the least. The last of the group, “Désormais”, was completed in 1988, after I left Tokyo, and shown with other similar pieces at the University City Science Center in Philadelphia. In retrospect, I think I may have been overly intolerant of gallery visitors who asked me what “Désormais” meant, rather than looking it up in a French and English dictionary, as I would have done. But then, I am that wordsmith. More importantly, at that point in the late ‘80's, I began to “get” the obvious: that grasp of the relationship between text and image in a piece is contingent on vocabulary shared by artist and viewer. An artist can only escape that quite sensible axiom by choosing language that sounds like what it means, like the German “Todt”, or “death”. (“Désormais”, by the way, means, “from here on”, and I intended the thrust of the machinery as I depicted it to run parallel with the import of the word.)

So at the moment, I am not bringing text and image together in my work.. But I haven’t packed away the desire and the effort forever. I see the tricky issue in this enterprise as finding the symbiotic match between language and image, so that one neither overwhelms the other, nor seems “tacked on’ superfluously. Ideally, when text and image function coherently, they seem inseparable, so that the whole piece would lose expressive force if one or the other were taken away. I’m also aware that my hope of again bringing text into my work, without turning word into image, as Ed Ruscha has done so marvelously, goes against the grain of contemporary cultural attitude, at least American cultural attitude. (Here I am on my soapbox.) We’re conditioned to believe that pictorial and textual communication part ways when one has “moved beyond” the illustrated children’s books we use to learn how to read, not see, in elementary education. As a result, we are implicitly led to assume that needing an illustration is symptomatic of inferior intellect. In the end, though, cultural assumptions notwithstanding, I’m equally enamored of language and the riches of the visual cosmos, so I’m sure to resume the delicate process of bringing language and image together in the future.



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Visual Arts

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graphite, conte, photograph, tinted, transparent Plexiglas

h25" x w45", 1993



graphite, conte, photograph, tinted, transparent Plexiglas, enameled found hardware

h22" x w48", 2006


ANGULAR MOMENTUM (2 images, hung together) graphite, burned edges,

h37" x w19", 2008



conte, pastel, photograph, tinted, transparent Plexiglas boxes, enameled hardware (inside boxes)

h45"x w36" (combined), 2006

Images are provided by Judith Stone and may not be used without the Artist's permission.