Nell Painter: Working In The Year 2017

Nell Painter carving the woodblock for her print Wise Woman Disappears, Brodsky Center, February 2017. Image courtesy of Brodsky Center, Rutgers. ©Brodsky Center, Rutgers.

Following a distinguished academic career (she is Edwards Professor of American History Emerita at Princeton University), Nell Painter returned to school and began a second career as an artist. She earned a BFA at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University and an MFA at RISD. She recently returned to Rutgers for a residency with the Brodsky Center—the university’s artist-in-residency program and printmaking and papermaking workshop—where she collaborated with master printer Randy Hemminghaus on six editions.1 The Brodsky Center regularly interviews artists about the work they created during residencies. In this conversation, which took place on 8 June 2017 at the Brodsky Center, Painter spoke with Paola Morsiani, acting director of the Brodsky Center, about resistance and freedom at this moment in her life and in American history.

Paola Morsiani When you arrived here, you said, “When I was a student, I always dreamt of, one day, making work at Brodsky Center.” What is printmaking for you?

Nell Painter In 2008–2009, taking classes with Professor Barbara Madsen, I loved printmaking for the series-ness of it, which is the hallmark, it turns out, of my work. I do repetition and work on the same ideas and images. I thrive on the serendipity that happens when I can’t control everything. Working with Randy Hemminghaus, I did miss the anal, obsessive side of the printmaking processes—doing them in order, focusing on the manual process, and switching from and back to the results. However, Randy knows so much more about how to translate my sketches—which I make by hand but recompose on the computer—from the digital to the physical image, through technologies that maybe didn’t exist in 2009. In print, my charcoal drawings look like they were done on a lithography stone. In fact, they were done on a polyurethane sheet.

PM You made three self-portraits here. You have said that self-portraiture invites you to reinvent yourself. Can you tell us more about this process?

NP I came in wanting to do a woodcut because I like that it retains traces of the process, the marks of an effort that speaks volumes visually, but also in terms of art history, because woodblock has been so influential. Wise Woman Disappears is my very first woodcut. It comes from my drawing of a photograph of me taken by Joanna Morrissey at the MacDowell Colony at the end of 2016.

Before I left Princeton I had started making art, but I did not have any experience with dark-skinned models. Representing dark skin is different from dealing with light skin, largely in terms of its reflectiveness and rendering features. So I used the figure closest to me, always at hand—me. I did not have to worry about whether I would make myself too cute or too ugly. I was just a motif.

Nell Painter, Wise Woman Disappears (2017), woodcut and polymer relief print, two parts, 24 x 36 inches overall. Edition of 10. Printed and published by Brodsky Center, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Image courtesy of Brodsky Center, Rutgers. ©Nell Painter and Brodsky Center, Rutgers.

Nevertheless there is this weight, this whole story of the representation of the black body. Part of it is the negative stereotyping from earlier centuries, and part of it is the whole question of skin color, hair type, lip shape, and so on. Every depiction carries (a) history and (b) an aesthetic value judgment, rooted in our culture and our history. Making drawings of other people would entail all of that tradition. Making self-portraits also certainly entailed all of that tradition. But that was not my focus. What I was self-consciously doing, instead, was experimenting with images and processes, strategies of rendering a figurative image.

PM Your self-portrait in these new prints appears doubled, in a symmetrical composition. Can you describe the dynamics of expansion and implosion that you are expressing in these works?

NP In What Do You Say About That?, the figures—two pairs of eyes—are regarding one another. There is nothing in that image that specifies anything, but if you read the year when the piece was made, then you know it’s a conversation about 2017. In 2017, you can’t resist saying something about “that,” and “that” is always politics. It’s asking the viewer, “what do you say?” It is open-ended, it’s a question.

I am very drawn to fabric, and I am a knitter. I love the regularity of the texture and the way the fabric is knotted on itself. The background in Wise Woman Disappears is from a detail of a Nigerian cloth I brought back in the 1960s that I love. It’s abstract, but clearly evokes some other culture, place and time. The composition is closing in on itself: one of the figures is a blank indigo ink silhouette, the other is the indigo ink silhouette overlaid with a line drawing. You have to move very close to notice that one is disappearing and one isn’t. It is a simultaneous narration, in which the right side comes earlier than the left side.

Wise Woman Inside contrasts two levels of detail: the background pattern conjures up the infinite universe, while the inlaid figures play on the small-bore of focusing on what is inner.

Nell Painter, What Do You Say About That? (2017), linoleum cut and relief print, two parts, 17 x 30 inches overall. Edition of 10. Printed and published by Brodsky Center, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Image courtesy of Brodsky Center, Rutgers. ©Nell Painter and Brodsky Center, Rutgers.

PM In the art of the last century, words in pictures are often associated with deconstructive conceptualist strategies. What role do words play in You Say This Can’t Really Be America? [This is a digital and screenprint in eight parts, in which the portrait of the artist appears alternatively smaller and larger as she assumes the role of listener and responder in the following conversation:

You say / this is the worst / thing ever / ever.
I say / Yes / This / is / America / too.
You say / this can’t / really / be / America.
I say / Yes / This is / the America / I know.
You say / this isn’t really / America. / Not the / America / you / know.
I say /Yes / This is / the America / I know / from / history.
You say / We’ve never / seen / anything / like / this / before.
I say / Yes / This is / America. / Look South. / Look West

NP My art teachers slapped my hand so much for using words when I was a student, that as soon as I got out of school, in 2012, I made word paintings from the work of poet and friend Meena Alexander. With You Say This Can’t Really Be America, I felt kind of emancipated, and used my own words. And that was the very spirit of resistance coming out of our time in 2017. We are living in a time in which “resist” is a political word. If you say the word, it brings along a string of political connotations that have to do with the current administration, and the outbreak of hatred.

I “resisted” my shyness about using text because of a conversation I had right here at Brodsky Center, which I had heard several times before, the first time in France, from very nice people who do not have my historical background. You Say… is a hymn, a song, a chorus of commentary that I have heard and read many, many times in 2017. I am not the only person who can reply, “I say, yes, this is America,” but I do have knowledge that probably the vast majority of Americans do not have, and that is of American history. So “I say” is a historian’s resistance to a prevailing view of lovely, wonderful, free American democracy. It’s also a black American resistance of pushing back against a kind of dream-world American democracy that just doesn’t stand up to not only history, but just everyday facts. The work contains at once the idealized version and the nonidealized world.

PM A couple of years ago you said, “After a life of historical truth, my artwork represents freedom.” What is the work of the artist, in your mind?

NP For me the work of the artist is to keep on making the work. It is not, “oh!”—genius strikes one day and you get up and go when the spirit moves you. No. You make work and you make a lot of work.

I also write a great deal of commentary, where I don’t use images from my artwork—that is, like, my day job. In my artwork, I don’t typically refer clearly to the world, or to politics, or to culture. I have four small digital collages that are about Toni Morrison’s Beloved.2 They are largely abstract. I have a series of lithographs that are inspired by a photograph of Serena and Venus Williams, but you wouldn’t know that if you did not know the title. In my art, I have usually not commented on the world.

Nell Painter, Wise Woman Inside (2017), relief and screenprint, 17 x 17 inches. Edition of 10. Printed and published by Brodsky Center, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Image courtesy of Brodsky Center, Rutgers. ©Nell Painter and Brodsky Center, Rutgers.

I have actually felt, as a burden that I have avoided, the job that our country puts on black artists and writers. In my art I do not speak as the black person in America. And in the memoir I’ve written, Old in Art School, I don’t. The memoir has had a terrible time finding a publisher because I am speaking as an individual, and I am not telling you “this is what it’s like to be a black in America; here’s what race means.” So, being a black person and being an individual, that is my freedom in my art. I am making my art as myself, not as the black person or the black woman, which is what our country wants.

You Say This Can’t Really Be America has however brought me into politics in a way that I have never done before. On one hand, it is a step into what my country wants. But on the other hand, my country did not tell me to do it. It was more like, “I’ve got to do it.”

PM Do you think you have to do it also because artists tend to be always engaged with cultural and social values?

NP I think black artists have been asked to do that much more, and also rewarded for doing it. You are not supposed to work as an individual, you are supposed to work as a unit of identity. That is also why I have inserted drawing in these prints. Unlike how part of us generally wants photography to be reality, drawing clearly is not reality. It is the artist’s hand and eye, and the claim of an individual hand and image-making ability.

One of the reasons for my gratitude to Brodsky Center is the freedom it gave me to just go wherever my drawing hand went. I felt comfortable enough here as myself—that you would see me as myself—even if I made work that is political, like I Don’t Think of You, which does talk about race in ways that I had not done before, visually. I can’t wait to hear what people say about this piece. [This is a four-part print in which drawings of athletes in action are overlaid with screenprinted texts: “I don’t think of you as black; I don’t think of you as Chinese; I don’t think of you as Jewish; I don’t think of you as white.”]

You Say This Can’t Really Be America is not ironic, but I Don’t Think of You is tongue-in-cheek. The sport figures in the background and the text do not have any discursive relationship. You have people playing their sports, and tangling with each other, and the viewer decides how the text and the figures work together.

Nell Painter, from You Say This Can’t Really Be America (2017), digital and screenprint, eight parts, 17 x 17 inches each. Edition of 10. Printed and published by Brodsky Center, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Image courtesy of Brodsky Center, Rutgers. ©Nell Painter and Brodsky Center, Rutgers.

A woman of Chinese heritage shared with me that someone told her, “I don’t think of you as Chinese.” As I was playing around with these pieces in my studio, I had several versions that all said, “I don’t think of you as white.” The most common saying among them in real life is “I don’t think of you as black.” I think anybody who reads “I don’t think of you as” knows all the connotations of “those people are something, but you are better, you are not like them.” I would have not thought of “I don’t think of you as Chinese” if this visitor had not shared it with me. That utterance exists in the world. Then I added, “I don’t think of you as Jewish.” Probably, “I don’t think of you as white” is going to come as more of a surprise, and maybe people will ask themselves: Why is that a surprise? Why I am stumbling over that a little bit? Why does that sound strange?

I Don’t Think of You resists commonplace habits of thought and identity. I was thinking about resistance a lot, without having focused on it before. I think resistance is a theme of my work because it resists the expected, easy, taken-for-granted, conventional wisdom.

PM You are a part of the art community in Newark: is this also a form of resistance? How do you see your work in relation to what gets shown in Chelsea or at the art fairs?

NP There are all kinds of work out there. I went to the Whitney Biennial and saw a lot of work that inspired me, that I felt was my kind of work. Some of it was by artists who are basically 20th-century artists, including Jo Baer and Henry Taylor, but some was by younger artists like Dana Schutz.

Nell Painter, from You Say This Can’t Really Be America (2017), digital and screenprint, eight parts, 17 x 17 inches each. Edition of 10. Printed and published by Brodsky Center, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Image courtesy of Brodsky Center, Rutgers. ©Nell Painter and Brodsky Center, Rutgers.

I do not mind Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till.3 Emmett Till’s mother opened his casket, and she said she wanted the world to see. These are citizen questions, not artist questions. As a citizen, you have the ethical and social responsibility of living in a particular historical time. For me, condemning cultural appropriation does not make sense because there is no jurisdiction for culture, in general. This is very different from issues of copyright and plagiarizing another artist’s work. But, as this debate evolves, I am also finding that, as a senior person, I am not fazed by it, while younger generations of black Americans feel that their blackness is too fragile.

As an artist, I have to work very hard to bring my eye from the 20th into the 21st century. Maybe I am not far enough yet, but I am far enough for me. I go less to the Met, but I go to MoMA, the Studio Museum, Skoto Gallery, which shows African Art, and DC Moore. One of my favorite artists is an older artist—my age—Joyce Kozloff.

But I do feel suppressed by the market in New York. I am probably unable to make the kind of work the market seems to want. I am in an odd position, because most artists my age are much more accomplished than I am because they have been making art for 40 years. Artists who graduated in 2011, as I did, are much younger and have a kind of right-now sensibility that I lack. I am stuck in this very strange place, which bothered me for a couple of years. But then I realized: this is how I make art. The nice thing about Newark is that it is hospitable to all sorts of art, and now people know me and my work. And I show all the time.

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  1. As of press time, four editions had been completed and two were still in process. The completed editions are: Wise Woman Disappears (2017), two-part woodcut and polymer relief print, 24 x 36 inches overall; You Say This Can’t Really Be America (2017), digital and screenprint on eight sheets, 17 x 17 inches each; Wise Woman Inside (2017), relief and screenprint, 17 x 17 inches; What Do You Say About That? (2017), two-part linoleum cut and relief print, 17 x 30 inches overall. Edition of 10. Still in process are the polymer relief and screenprint I Don’t Think of You (2017) and another as yet untitled work. All works are in editions of 10, published by Brodsky Center, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and printed with collaborating master printer Randy Hemminghaus. []
  2. Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1987). []
  3. The inclusion of Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016) in the 2017 Whitney Biennial sparked ongoing protests from the day of the exhibition’s opening, arguing that a white painter’s use of the image of a murdered black child was exploitative. (Emmett Till was a 14-year-old from Chicago who was beaten, mutilated and shot by two white men in Mississippi in 1955; to show the world what had been done, his mother insisted on an open casket and supported the publication of photographs in Jet magazine and The Chicago Defender. His killers were acquitted. His death became an important touchstone in the burgeoning Civil Rights movement.) Randy Kennedy, “White Artist’s Painting of Emmett Till at Whitney Biennial Draws Protests,” New York Times, 21 March 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/21/arts/design/painting-of-emmett-till-at-whitney-biennial-draws-protests.html. []