"Art is knowledge at the service of emotion." José Clemente Orozco
Among the many functions of art, perhaps the noblest is to bear witness, to give testimony, no matter how ephemeral or modest. We see this function in the work of Brueghel the Elder, Goya, Daumier, Kollwitz and countless others. I see this function in the drawings and paintings of Sheba Sharrow.
Sheba Sharrow was born in 1926 in Brooklyn, New York. A year later the family moved to Chicago, and it was in this city where she would grow up and receive her art education. Her parents were Russian Jewish immigrants; both were working class. Her father earned his living as a painter and wallpaper hanger during the Depression. Her mother worked her way up in the garment trade to be a dress designer and went on a 6 month walking tour across the United States "to see America." Like most working class people of that generation, both of her parents were political - committed to labor unions and other leftwing causes. As Sharrow was an only child, she was the focus of her parents dreams and aspirations and "typical of the Jewish working class experience in the U.S., they made sure I received piano lessons, art lessons, dancing and acting lessons - all of this was meant to enlighten me, to enhance my life, and of course to give me what they did not have."*
As a child during the Depression, Sharrow was taken by her mother to the Art Institute of Chicago to experience the great works of art. "I drew all the time. A lot of kids do this. My mother got me started with Saturday classes at the Art Institute. While in High School I competed for a scholarship to the day school of the Art Institute and I got it." After High School graduation she attended a local junior college and studied science , then the scholarship permitted her to study full-time at the Art Institute, where "the smell of oil paint was like perfume to me." This was right after the end of World War II and it was a dynamic place to study: "There were a fair number of young women at the school. Also a lot of GIs back from the war. They seemed to know what they wanted, they were adults, and they had experienced the brutality and desolation of war. They were committed to seriously making art." Joan Mitchell and Leon Golub were among Sharrow's fellow students. The two teachers at SAIC who most impacted Sharrow's artistic education were Boris Anisfeld and Joseph Hirsch. Sharrow remembers Anisfeld as "a sort of romantic figure with long hair . . .he was Russian, so there was something of that Slavic romantic quality about him. I learned a great deal about color and surface from him. He was a very intuitive teacher." Joseph Hirsch taught an advanced painting class for the senior students and, although he lived and worked in New York, would come to Chicago to conduct his classes. Hirsch's students were chosen by the faculty and Sharrow was one of the lucky ones - "Hirsch came to Chicago one week a month and during that week he conducted very intense crits. Hirsch had a positively brilliant way of analyzing a painting, one that I have not forgotten and which was of great use to me as a teacher. I learned just about everything about painting from Hirsch, from content to composition. He was very articulate and emphasized the formal aspects of picture making in a very dynamic way. After class we would all go out and drink beer and talk about art, the world, politics, literature. Hirsch was a humanist artist committed to social content in his work . . . it was exciting, stimulating. Training at the Art Institute was rigorous; we had 15 hours a week of life drawing, we studied anatomy, we drew from a moving model." Sharrow graduated in 1948, married a fellow student who had studied industrial design at the Art Institute, and kept making art. Her husband's new job brought the couple to Philadelphia. They had two children and Sharrow kept painting "while the children were napping." All throughout this time (1960s and 70s) Sharrow's paintings were abstract but never non-objective. The landscape was a source for this work, a poetic evocation of the landscape, and at times these paintings seem like a visual dialogue with the work of J.M.W. Turner. She painted Apocalyptic Fragments, 13 one-foot square canvases dealing with ways the world might end. Smile is a series of paintings of the abstracted teeth section of the skull, which in Sharrow's words "of course wears a perpetual smile." She returned to school in 1962 and earned her MFA from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in 1968. She relocated with her two children to Lancaster, PA to teach at Millersville State University - "teaching helped me crystallize my own goals as a painter, made them clearer to myself. The exchange, the back and forth with the students was good, it kept me honest. And the hours were good, so I had time to pursue my own work."
By 1979 Sharrow began her return to figuration. The Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s, Feminism and the war in Vietnam all left her with a sense of urgency and indignation and formally, from the point of view of picture making, she had a great resistance to the merely decorative in her painting. Socially, she felt her work had to engage. Sharrow's interest in the human skull led her to do a series of very academic studies in 1979 - "just to teach myself how to draw again." These studies developed into a whole body of work, through which she recovered the figure. She states "as long as the world is going the way it is going, I cannot stop doing what I have been doing since 1979 . . .through my work I want to give voice to that which lacks a voice of its own. I still have to live in the whole world ... I do not question myself about the meaning of my work, I just keep going." Sharrow's art is no longer just personal; it is a deeper meditation on the social, the societal.
Sharrow's process of working needs a meditative mental space. She thinks a great deal throughout this process. She thinks and looks. She reads and looks. She draws, paints, then sands, repaints, working and reworking her surfaces with great intensity. This is a process of being open and critical as the work progresses - "I look for that moment of magic, which happens sometime, not all the time. You are some kind of vehicle - it comes - the moment that all artists look for. When it comes it is the most ecstatic state of mind that one could reach. This is not a deliberate kind of lock-step process from start to finish. You have to enter a kind of mysterious space. You let go. You are driven by the very process. You are just working. Pure energy keeps pulling you along. Sometimes I start with a 'picture' in mind, but then painting takes over. I start looking and then I start to see, not think. Ultimately it is all pure intuition."
If Sharrow's process of working is ultimately pure intuition, the larger context of her images is grounded in the multi-layered reality of the contemporary world: newspaper photographs, the poetry and prose of authors whose vision she finds solidarious with her own, the news of a world where man is still a "wolf to his fellow man." This and much more is the "stuff' of her art. Yet it is important to note that all of this material ceases to be topical in Sharrow's hands - it becomes universal. Her extraordinary formal powers - rich sense of color, solid structure, dense texture and dynamic drawing - pull the viewer in through sheer visual beauty and then a fist descends in the middle of one's stomach once we see her figures walking the tightrope of the human condition.
Astride depicts a thin, worn-out and helmeted warrior astride on a horse. We barely see a fragment of the horse, but we see the figure of the warrior turning, looking to the side and rear. The painting is all in blues and grays, the texture built up in areas, scratched away in others. A graffiti-like text is written in the background. The warrior's skull-like face and bony arm tells us that he is death, the only victor in every war. Balancing Act III is a two-panel painting flooded in the color white. An off center figure on the left panel walks a tight rope. The stick being used by the figure in the balancing act holds a skull at each end. On the lower right of the right panel the heads of four spectators look up to the tight rope walker. Their expressions: indifference, anxiety, awe, and silence. The figure, the rope, stick and skulls, the heads of the spectators are all painted in silver grays and pale browns, with subtle touches of black and pink. Arbitrary and deep touches of red in four or five areas of the painting disturb the overall whiteness of the entire composition. This painting is the human condition, balancing death with life and sometimes death with death. From the Files of the KGB is a haunting gallery of faces. Based on a group of photographs published in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, the work consists of twelve portraits expressing anger, rebellion, fear. All of the figures have an identification number attached to their clothing or behind them on a wall. They are all painted monochromatically; black, gray, brown and white. This grisaille imposes a distance between the viewer and the work, thereby eliminating the potential sentimentality of strong colors. Sharrow has painted all of the faces vigorously; they are individual presences, staring at us from a brutal past. In reality, these individuals were executed shortly after being photographed. Beyond these file photos, Sharrow paints them against the weight of history. Next to the Last Supper reminds us of Goya's Caprichos; there is something nonsensical and terrifying going on here. A horse sits at a table with five obese, bald men wearing ties. Off-center to the right sits a famished, nude figure. The men with ties seem to be either screaming at or about to devour this Christlike victim. The horse looks absurdly out of the corner of his eye to the viewer. Is the horse a symbol of the irrational or of the nobility of an animal with no political agenda? Perhaps both. This work is a visual parable: the rapacious mob against the individual. The self-righteous against the marginal. Yet, who has the true strength? Who will prevail? Most of the composition is painted in chalky whites, applied thinly and delicately, or layered and rough. All of this overbearing white is balanced by the reds and browns of the ties, as well as by the black scribbles that make up the bloated faces of the mob of five. Many layers of black and brown, with some subtle touches of blue, construct the figure of the victim. Web-like lines create the image, which possesses an aura of depth and weight. Don't Look Now is a diptych on canvas painted in layers of pale blues, purples, pinks and white. At first look the surface has the abstract luminosity of the surfaces in Monet's late Waterlillies. Then we see: on the left panel a figure hanging from a trapeze is about to fall, while on the lower right of the right panel another figure sits hunched over and turning towards its left. Behind it a third figure is falling from a cross. Betrayal and abandonment abound. In this beautiful and disturbing painting Sharrow tells us that without solidarity we are alone and lost.
I see Sheba Sharrow the artist in the company of Rembrandt, Goya, Kollwitz, Beckman and Orozco — all clear-eyed humanists who never flinched in the face of tragedy and horror. Sharrow's figuration is neither sentimental nor illustrative, rather it is eschatological. Her art is knowledge at the service of emotions, and these are noble: indignation and compassion.
Alejandro Anreus, Ph.D. 2001 Associate Professor of Art History
William Paterson University
* All quoted italicized text are the words of the artist.
Sheba Sharrow's disturbing evocations of suffering and evil link her sensibility to German Expressionism, yet the sensual refinement of her surfaces and the rich literary and historical resonances of her imagery connect her to the romantic-horrific tradition of Turner or Ryder. Sharrow works serially, but each set of pictures — Warriors, Hanging Men, Bound Figures, etc. — elides into the next, adding up to a despairing view of the world, relieved only by beauty. Her Warrior Series grew out of two visual epiphanies experienced decades apart. Since 1948, the artist has been haunted by the stunning ice battle scene from Einsenstein's Alexander Nevsky. What astonished Sharrow were the close-ups of medieval warriors clad in helmets which obscured their faces, and hence their humanity. This image returned with renewed force five years ago when she discovered in the Philadelphia Museum of Art an ancient Greek helmet fused to a fragment of human skull. The military artifact became for her "a perfect metaphor for the fusion of mankind to war." Obsessed with the death's head/helmet motif, Sharrow felt compelled to paint picture after picture exploring this condensed anti-war emblem. The results are at once frightening and gorgeous, like the pageantry of war itself.
Sharrow first seduces the viewer by means of her lovely surfaces. Before we are even aware of the picture's iconography, we are taken in by the meticulously wiped and re-wrought layers of paint, pastel, graphite and oil stick. Her message aside, Sharrow is a painter of nuanced color and texture. She knows her media and is technically expert to the extent that her combination of materials, wisely, is archivally sound. Most of the pictures have passed through several earlier states. The history of each one's evolution can be traced by penetrating through the sanded-over accretions of pigment. Mounted Knight has an ominous black background, but vestiges of its former incarnation as an iridescent, pastel-toned work are still calling attention to the brilliant crest adorning the knight's helmet. Traces of landscape imagery remain as well in the oppressively high horizon, which bears down on the horseman, and in turn on the viewer. The carefully ravaged picture surfaces are as symbolic as the subject matter. Backgrounds of the works on paper recall the kind of peeling, stained walls seen in crumbling Mediterranean towns. Overall, the surfaces convey a sense of decay, not only of flesh but of civilization. Ragged patches attached here and there to pictures such as Astride become the most concrete formal equivalents to war's desolation.
Emerging from Astride's caked surfaces, whose vermillion blotches resemble dried blood and whose silvery smears evoke ghostly moonlight, is the exquisitely drawn figure of a cadavorous calvaryman. Here is the modern embodiment of Death on a Pale Horse. This is a 20th century apocalyptic vision, not just because of the gestural brushwork or the contemporary helmet, but because of the doubt expressed in the ghastly turned face and bony hunched shoulders. Barely legible traces of writing scratched into the paint of this work and others suggest faint, muffled voices of protest amidst overpowering destructive forces. In Red Warrior, the dominant pigment brings to mind, not just bloodshed, but conflagration. The way the colors seem to flicker and dart about adds to the illusion of infernal fires. And the rough black streaks take on the look of unidentifiable charred substances. Smokey effects appear also in Warrior #2, where a hatted death's head materializes out of a field of eerily atmospheric blues and greys. The idea of merging skull with helmet is taken to its logical limit in Warrior Profile. In this work it is difficult to tell whether the picture represents a death's head or a warrior's headgear; the fusion which originally motivated the artist is complete. Whatever its identity, the image is rendered in the dirty ivory tints of old, mottled bones. Apart from its menacing connotations, the helmet clearly appeals to Sharrow as an aesthetic object. Her fine appreciation of the visored medieval helmet's smooth surfaces and jutting planes makes the small, radiant White Knight one of the series most appealing works. Another Warrior painting whose mood is less than catastrophic is the ambitious Annunciation, executed in blushing pinks, powdery lavenders, and shiny steel-greys. The title (which is scrawled across the work) and delicately drawn system of orthogonals and transversals allude to Quattrocento religious scenes. But this is not Angel Gabriel hovering in pastel clouds. The winged figure wearing the crossemblazoned helmet is more akin to the Angel of Death or the armed Archangel Michael. And the little luminous cloud puff at the left reveals itself, on closer inspection to be a skull.
In Sharrow's mind the nasty business of war is a masculine affair. All the figures are unquestionably male, a fact most evident in the exposed sex organs of the rider in Astride. But if men are perpetrators, they are also victims: the warriors seem swaggering and terrified in equal measure. In fact, the most astonishing painting of Sharrow's new Hanging Man series shows a warrior — the fratricidal and rebellious Absalom — turned victim. King David's youngest and most beautiful son is depicted at his death, hung from a tree "between the heaven and the earth" by his own flaming red locks and pierced by the spears of his father's soldiers. Sharrow imparts to the scene a tragic splendor, in perfect pitch with the mood of the Old Testament tale. Both dramatically reveal the perverse paradox of war — no victory comes without sorrow. Sharrow underscores this point by inscribing in a shaky hand King David's tormented wail, "Absolom my son." In other Hanging Men pictures, figures are suspended not from trees, but from crosses. By avoiding traditional crucifixion poses and painting victims halflength, Sharrow generalizes the act of martyrdom, extending it beyond a strictly Christian context. Her current tendency to universalize images of suffering acknowledges that cruelty is an abiding component of human nature. Unlike the Warriors and Hanging Men, whose associations are more historical, the Bound Men (who appear bound in every sense — physically, psychologically, legally) have distinctly contemporary connotations. The Prisoner, inspired by poet Peter Klappert's lines on Michelangelo's bound Slaves, recalls not only these Renaissance sculptures, but also the plight of modern-day political hostages. Chairs at upper right hint at the presence of interrogators (if not executioners). The severe, rhythmic pattern of the chairbacks' vertical slats is echoed in the tight horizontal bands cincturing the prisoner's chest — both indicate oppressive forces at work. Among the great pleasures of the Hanging and Bound Men series is the opportunity they provide Sharrow to display her brilliant command of the human form (as opposed to the heads and busts of the Warriors). Their tortured, difficult poses convey meaning as eloquently as the scarred surfaces and molten palette. She is such a master of figure drawing, in fact, it comes as a surprise to find a landscape (albeit a metaphoric one) among her recent work. The glorious Shrine for a Lost Landscape shows an infinite sweep of darkly lush earth stretching beneath a spectacular sky, seemingly ignited by an aurora borealis. Yet this is a disappearing paradise; clearly drawn perspectival lines and a punctuated vanishing point suggest that it recedes ineluctably in time as well as space. And the real expanse is not traversable, but completely contained with a Gothic reliquary and mounted on a rough wall. Graffiti'd across this wall is the famous slogan of the Spanish Republicans: NO PASARAN! The enshrined landscape — which illustrates verses from a Loyalist song: "Spanish heavens spread their brilliant starlight far above our trenches in the plain..." is, of course, a symbol of vanished idealism.
Each of Sharrow's pictures is in a sense a plea to retrieve this visionary "lost landscape." Yet her idealism is always complicated by a cynical but outraged awareness of the persistence of malevolence — which, her paintings imply, not only endures, but prevails.
Amy Fine Collins
Art in America
Astride MM/Arches 60 x 58 1988
Astride MM/Arches 60 x 58 1988
From the rise of Nazism to the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, Sheba Sharrow is deeply troubled by humanity's malevolence. "I don't think we will ever see the world at peace in our lifetime."
Ms. Sharrow paints with a heavy heart and a firm hand. Her emotive images possess seductively beautiful layered surfaces, while their content conveys a profound sense of soul-searching, responding with indignation at man's brutality and compassion for society's hapless victims.
"Sheba Sharrow: Bearing Witness" is a gem of an exhibition at the Noyes Museum of Art, providing a timely look at the painter's career. In an essay accompanying the show, Lawrence Schmidt, the museum's executive director, writes, "In post-September 11th America, Sharrow is an artist who gives particularly appropriate and powerful voice to understanding the potential tragedies of the future by helping to remind us of tragedies of the past."
Sharrow, who is a recipient of a 2002 Fellowship Grant from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, is also one of 12 artists participating in "After September 11th," on view through Dec. 1 at the Bernstein Gallery of the Woodrow Wilson School on the Princeton University campus. She is represented by Clumsy Dancer, a large canvas from a series of images using the circus as a metaphoric theme.
Astride (1988) is the earliest work on display. This formidably scaled mixed-media painting on paper depicts a close-up view of a scrawny figure riding bareback on a horse. The helmeted subject has a bony arm and is both a military and religious image, looking like a German soldier as well as the specter of death from the Book of Revelations. Ms. Sharrow's strokes of red paint on the warrior become like dried blood. The equestrian figure, avoiding eye contact with the viewer, is reminiscent of "The Polish Rider," a Rembrandt in the Frick Collection in New York. Like Rembrandt, Ms. Sharrow uses chiaroscuro and a paint surface of bravura gestures with impasto passages to enhance the expressive quality. It may be difficult to decipher the text scratched onto the left surface; the Latin words come from "Carmina Burana," a collection of medieval poems and vespers.
One of the largest canvases on display is Attempted Escape, a rowing subject that immediately brings to mind Thomas Eakins. Working in the Philadelphia area, Ms. Sharrow demonstrates her respect for Eakins and his series of paintings of muscular oarsmen racing on the Schuylkill. At the same time, the vibrant red vertical recalls the nearly fluorescent color of a dress worn by Suzanne Santje in her large portrait by Eakins. Looking down on the subject, the viewer realizes that the skeletal figure in Ms. Sharrow's painting is not a competitive athlete but a crucifixion image. Like an altarpiece, its somber religious character is underscored by the use of both gold leaf and stainless steel emulsion to give a metallic sheen like traditional icon paintings. At the upper right, a poetic inscription appears almost breathlike, reading: "Bind me in the river's gauze, carry me laid out on the wind." The inevitable approach of death as a river journey is a universal cultural reference, but it carries even greater regional and historic resonance with Laurel Hill Cemetery on the banks of the Schuylkill River.
Next to the Last Supper is one of Ms. Sharrow's most literal works; the title is scratched onto the heavily built-up surface at the lower left. This large painting was inspired by the Congressional election of 1994. Once the Republicans gained control of the Senate, the artist considered it "the next to the Last Supper for poor people." Several well-fed men, wearing white shirts and power ties, gawk at a dark, emaciated figure standing before them. On the left, like a helpless witness, a horse observes the scene.
With its swirls of blue and purple pigment, Don't Look Now recalls the intense palette of Monet's late work, atypical of Ms. Sharrow. This recently completed diptych presents a trapeze performer awkwardly suspended from a red bar, implying the precarious nature of human existence. On the right panel, there are two figures: one is seated and turned away from the viewer; the other appears to fall from a cross. The image suggests that the ideals expressed by religion may be eroding.
"As long as the world is going the way it is going, I cannot stop doing what I have been doing," Ms. Sharrow has said. With considerable exasperation, the painter wonders why "we cannot seem to get it right."
Despite mankind's failure, Ms. Sharrow has certainly succeeded; she deserves the kind of recognition enjoyed by such other neo-Expressionist artists as Joan Snyder or Leon Golub.
Fred B. Adelson 2002 New York Times