This article on still life artist Harriet Shorr, written by Rick Stull, originally appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.
Still life artist Harriet Shorr has eloquently written and spoken about her paintings, addressing the knotty issues of form, content and meaning—issues that often raise as many questions as are illuminated during such discussions. Neither do such discussions dispel the mystery of an artist’s work. The ability of a work of art to bounce back after such scrutiny and to give endless pleasure must surely be one of its significant and valued traits. The same is true about discussions of the more practical issues of procedure and technique. When all is said and done, when a painting has been analyzed and, in a sense, deconstructed, its ability to delight should remain. Such is the case with Shorr’s art.
Still Life Objects Without Objective
In my recent conversation with Harriet Shorr, we stuck to the practical issues—how she actually goes about preparing and making her still life paintings. We gabbed about canvas, brushes, stretchers, paint brands and gesso. And, of course, we talked about the strange and disparate objects that inhabit her paintings.
“The objects I initially choose for a painting may not necessarily coincide with what I’m thinking and feeling at the time,” says Shorr. In fact, she consciously tries not to look for objects with a specific agenda in mind. Nor does she question what makes them “click” together. “I find a lot of the objects in flea markets and while walking along the streets of New York,” says Shorr.When she feels that she has gathered all her “stuff,” she arranges (a term Shorr prefers to “composes”) the items on a table in her studio (located in her Manhattan SoHo loft for most of the year and in the Vermont countryside during the summer). This act of arranging still life objects, though basically intuitive, is something Shorr does with a degree of self-consciousness. Shorr explains that when she arranges objects on her table, she usually tries to vary the spaces between them. “But my idea has always been that if the paint is really working, any compositional relationships can be made convincing.”
Proceeding in this casual yet alert mode, Shorr chooses a canvas, size and orientation governed by her arrangement of objects. She uses stretched canvases, typically covered with a single coat of gloss medium followed by two coats of gesso. She prefers canvas to linen because “linen is expensive and is harder to stretch perfectly.”
Straight to the Paint
One might think that a certain amount of drawing or sketching would be the next step, but this is not so. Shorr does no preliminary drawing for her still life works: “Many people think,” she says, “that there’s a necessary connection between drawing and painting, that is, you have to understand something by drawing it before you can paint it. I don’t believe this.”
Of course, this isn’t the whole story. Using bristle brushes for the larger areas of color and longhaired sable brushes for the more precise modeling, she creates the different shapes, their shadows and the spaces between shapes as she paints, maintaining the fluidity of the painting. Shorr developed this fluidity and the practice of painting wet-into-wet after studying with Alex Katz at the Yale School of Art and Architecture in the 1960s.
On the subject of paint, Harriet Shorr waxes adamantine. “You must be extravagant with your materials.” And she is. Using Old Holland oils, she mixes her colors specifically for one painting and doesn’t keep any paint from one piece for work on the next one.
“I derive my colors from my perceptions,” says Shorr. She adds, “I don’t have any real interest in color balance. I just paint the color I see. If it shifts, I shift with it.” She uses a different brush for every color and for every gradation within a particular color.
Led by Light and Sight
Shorr typically begins working at 9 or 10 in the morning and usually stops around 3 in the afternoon. This is surely in keeping for an artist who attends so closely to the effects of light. She is, after all, the person who, while describing how she completed a still life, once said, “As I worked on the painting, I would wait until the shaft of light fell in the same spot to paint the particular passages influenced by that light. Each day I painted the same parts of the painting at the same time.”
She paints what she’s looking at: objects, cloth, mountains seen through the windows of her Vermont studio, building facades seen through the windows of her SoHo loft. This might seem a strange procedure for an artist who includes Barnett Newman among her major influences. It becomes less bizarre, however, when you consider the structural frontality and whispers of Color Field abstraction in her paintings.
What one notices when gazing at a Shorr still life painting such as Objects of Use to Me (above)—the abstract traits aforementioned aside—is the care and attention she gives to ensure that every square inch of the canvas has equal importance. No one particular object or section of cloth or landscape draws the eye. The viewer gazes fixedly at the whole as one might do when staring into a sun-dappled section of forest or across a stretch of desert. Or the eye can travel over the surface, delighting in the juxtaposition of rich colors, the shape-giving illumination of light, the varying hues and the darkened shadows of Shorr’s worlds. It is a high form of pleasure that sails the meaning of the painting’s title from the utilitarian toward the sublime.