Joyce Cutler Shaw or the Gift of Grace by Konrad Oberhuber

From “Library Quartet Exhibition Catalogue” Published by The Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, September 2003.

San Diego Environmentalists.
During the twelve years, from 1988 to 2000, in which I was the director of the great museum of the graphic arts, the Albertina in Vienna, four artists connected with San Diego visited me there and had works acquired for the collection. One was John Baldessari, who grew up in this area and now lives in Los Angeles; two others were Newton Harrison and his wife Helen Mayer Harrison; the fourth was Joyce Cutler Shaw. The latter three are all New Yorkers who settled in San Diego and became associated with the University of California in San Diego. All four are friends with each other, belong approximately to the same age group, and also have much in common otherwise: They all were originally traditional painters, but have given up that career to work in other media in order to realize concepts, to create environments, and to gain and promote scientific, psychological or social insights. Above all, they are all artists in whose work the word is essential: They employ the written and the spoken word mostly in relationship to visual elements, but also as artworks in themselves. In John Baldessari’s case one finds an often punning and humorous play between word and image that gives new social and psychological insights and changes one’s perception of the human environment. In the case of the Harrisons words are used in the play between serious and funny dialogues, both spoken and written, combined with visual data about the ecological situation of specific regions of the earth, to which they bring not only new ideas, but a healing and reestablishing touch in order to counteract the ills of civilization. In that of Joyce Cutler Shaw the word can take the form of messages positioned in public places often in fleeting materials, but can also appear in the form of inscriptions, of poetry, and above all startles or intrigues everybody in the shape of her “Alphabet of Bones”, which often is part of her installations, her publications, and also of papers and cloths with decorative purposes. Her interests lead her on the one hand into human and animal anatomy and into the exploration of the mysteries of life and death, but on the other hand also into the social and political ills of our society in an attempt to extend the artist’s function as a messenger of peace. Through her work she has reached people in the whole world and also affected those in her own sphere of life in San Diego and Northern Mexico, bringing them the idea of harmony and of reconciliation between humanity and nature.

All four artists are interdisciplinary and are internationally known not just in artistic circles, but also outside of them in the institutions connected to the fields of life they have chosen to study. In the case of Joyce Cutler Shaw it is medical and natural history museums and schools.

In the case of the three New Yorkers one might say, that the intellectual, the social, and the political components are almost of higher importance than the visual one as motivating factors, while in the case of the Californian the latter seems to prevail. All four, however, bring a strong artistic form and vision into their disciplines or the media which they have chosen. Photography and printing techniques play a major role in their work. All four are also environmental artists in all senses of the word: They create and transform spatial environments with their art on the one hand and react to and heal the natural and human environment in which we live.

All four obviously belong to a larger circle of artists amongst them another New Yorker in San Diego, the famous creator of happenings, Allan Kaprow, who is their friend. It is also no wonder that to the circle of Joyce Cutler Shaw’s intimate acquaintances in the larger world belong Christo and Jeanne Claude in whose work environmental and social awareness is paired with a capacity for organization on the one hand and great draftsmanship on the other. In fact, it is their merit, to have pointed out, that in our time the organizational and financial operations necessary to realize unusual projects is actually part of the work of art and has to be recognized as such. This is relevant for the Harrisons and particularly for Joyce Cutler Shaw, who had to spend enormous amounts of time and effort to persuade government institutions to let her realize her outstanding ideas for public projects.

All these artists together with many others of their generation have attempted to take art out of the purely artistic and aesthetic realm and thus out of the ivory tower of galleries, museums, or rich private collections and away from purely private contemplation in order to reintegrate it into our modern global and industrial and primarily scientifically oriented world. They attempt to reestablish something which still naturally functioned at the awakening of modern times in the Renaissance, when the new scholarly and scientifically interested artist could work in a much more artistically oriented society. Leonardo da Vinci is the ancestor of this group and especially of Joyce Cutler Shaw.

The example of Leonardo.
Painting was for Leonardo only a side occupation as he approached the totality of the world through his scientific investigations ranging from minute research into botany and anatomy to every variety of technical invention and engineering, including the regulation of rivers, to grand visionary predictions of the future. Joyce Cutler Shaw is especially close to him because his main tool for the exploration of the world was drawing. In fact the San Diego artist quite like Leonardo, is an obsessive draftsperson and can never let go of her drawing tools even in lecture concerts like the ones of May 2003 in the Atheneum in La Jolla, where she incessantly copied the drawings shown on the screen or portrayed public and musicians as is documented by the wonderful portfolio she gave as a gift to that institution. Of the four just mentioned artists from Southern California she was, in fact, the most active visitor to the Albertina’s own drawing collection . She delved not only into the holdings of old masters, among them those of the Renaissance, but appreciated also the great figurative artists of Vienna, especially Egon Schiele. In the Austrian painter Herbert Boeckl she could find an artist sharing her interest in the dissection of the human body, one who was like her a great admirer of the achievement of Rembrandt in that field.

The basis of Cutler Shaw’s design is the movement of an animated line and the sense for repetition of related or even identical forms including diminution or enlargement. Again it was Leonardo who introduced into drawing the concept of repeated and varied contour-lines , which not only became a means of variation of form, so that one literally sees one figure changing into another, but also a means of connecting the figures with the surroundings and placing them into an atmospheric environment instead of closing them off through powerful lines from their background. Leonardo reacted against the representation of the human body in books like that of Johannes de Ketham created in the style of his somewhat older contemporary Andrea Mantegna exactly in the way Joyce Cutler Shaw di by adding her own drawings in a recent publication: “The Anatomy Lesson, Conversations with Johannes de Ketham” featured in this exhibition. In the simple but beautiful woodcuts illustrating de Ketham’s work the body is defined by clear outlines mostly in bulging and undulating curves. The mind can appreciate the different parts of the body which is represented in the fullness of life and growing strength coming from the ancient Greek and Roman tradition. Leonardo felt that this kind of drawing lacked animation and movement and in no way relates to the surroundings in space and light and therefore to true visual reality. There is a mask-like expression in the faces that can speak of serenity or suffering, but the fleeting emotions that pass through them in daily life are not to be found. With Leonardo this is also what Joyce Cutler Shaw intends to show in her drawings, carrying the older master’s still strongly idealized and didactic observations much further by concentrating on the individual element of each body or of each teacher and student, but also by observing the intricacies of nerve- and blood-networks in the body which only modern knowledge has brought to cognition. Her line unlike that of Leonardo’s rounded and calligraphicly flowing one is brittle and fragile and the body lets one perceive the sensibilities and ravages of life that pervaded them. Rather then the budding, growing life evident in the art of the Renaissance it is the transitory, passing, and enervated energy of modern people moving toward death. These thoroughly modern interests must be what attracts Joyce Cutler Shaw to masters like Egon Schiele and the art of Vienna around 1900 where self-consciousness, suffering, fear, and uncertainty are major parts of the expression in the body. Oskar Kokoschka shocked the Viennese public by including the skinned cadaver of a goat in a painted still-life.

This modern, death oriented look also leads her to the fascination with the dying and with dead bodies as they are examined in the Medical School of UCSD of which she is a member as artist in residence. It ultimately is at the origin of her occupation with bones and skeletons, or with the feathers and especially with the emaciated legs of birds. It is out of the continually changing positions of a pair of bird legs that the alphabet of bones developed into a kind of secret language which one can decipher and in which she writes many of her messages and poetry similar again to Leonardo and his almost indecipherable reversed handwriting in its refined calligraphy.

The affinity of Joyce Cutler Shaw to Leonardo does not end here. Her thinking is also similar. In the book reacting to Johannes de Ketham she translates the image of his lacerated body into one surrounded by all the modern instruments of personal battle and destruction. Leonardo himself wrote about the bestiality of real battle in his time by comparison with the idealized presentations in the work of his contemporaries and predecessors. Leonardesque is also another feature in the book the representation of the womb with the embryo. It was the Renaissance artist, who made the first drawing of this situation. She is not only fascinated with death, but also with the intricacies of birth. Her line may be brittle, but is like Leonardo’s in constant motion. Like him Joyce Cutler Shaw is therefore naturally obsessed with the phenomenon of bird flight, even though for her this is no longer an engineering example for humans. They are, instead, natural messengers connecting one place with the other in a continental or even world wide span. Like the Renaissance master she also studies plants and particularly grasses and trees and it can not be totally coincidental that the one public environment still preserved with decorations by Leonardo, the “Sala delle Asse” in the Castello Sforzesco in Milan consists of the depiction of intertwined trees growing up to the ceiling, while Joyce Cutler Shaw’s most monumental contribution to an environment so far are “The Sycamore Leaf Canopy” and “The Railing of Wild River Grasses”, in the Mission Valley Branch Library in San Diego, dedicated in 1992.

Like Leonardo she is also interested in the smallest and the largest even though the relationship of macro- and microcosm as illustrated in the book by de Ketham in astrological terms is foreign to her more earthbound mind open to mystery only through direct experience, as when a bird almost died and revived at her studio window, or when she was present at the passing away of loved ones. Joyce Cutler Shaw is fascinated by the permanent and the temporary and like the older artists does not mind that works can perish almost as soon as they are created. Her “Name Walls” were dismantled and pieces of it given away, her ice sculptures were made to melt, released birds flew their course. She is in this respect no other than her friends Christo and Jeanne Claude and the masters of happenings like Allan Kaprow or Joseph Beuys yet without their affinity to the temporary arts of performance and theater, and the personal and bodily engagement usually strongly present in them. Yet all of these masters keep exact record of the passing events.

Joyce Cutler Shaw is, in fact, meticulous in the preparation of a public project with well thought out proposals and portfolios inspired by the work of her husband, whose profession this is, and in the recording of the completed works in beautiful books or folders. Again Leonardo can be quoted for his grand albums and smaller drawn books recording his insights. The list of her publications is very long.

The New Yorker.
Joyce Cutler Shaw is an exquisite draftsman in the figurative tradition current in the fifties and sixties in the Eastern United States with its rich and expressive style for which Leonard Baskin can be named as a well-known example. With that artist she also shares the love for precious books, even though she uses more contemporary methods of printing. Her upbringing in New York and in the Eastern United States determined her aesthetic outlook. Her mother was a successful milliner and early on show-window design was part of the daughter’s work. Her studies included the applied and decorative arts. Yet at first she became a painter of large canvasses experimenting, however, early on with shaped forms and laminated drawings leading to what we now know as her “Dimensional drawings”. Yet the results of this early training pervade all her life. Refined elegance surrounds everything that Joyce Cutler Shaw does beginning with her own person and the usually black clothes adorned by the unusual jewelry of delicate bird bones or sculls, to the fabrics and papers in which she wraps her smaller works for presentation. It characterizes her books and proposals, her studio into which one enters through the delicate grid design of bird cages, but also the decoration of the dinner table with dried fruits, flowers, and dead birds and, of course, her whole home adorned mostly with her own work, but also a skeleton and animal bones. Everything is designed and cared for down to the last small detail.

The Gift of Grace.
While elegant and conspicuous, to some degree, in her eccentric jewelry and her liveliness and animation in conversation Joyce Cutler Shaw does not put herself in the forefront of her art. Her work is about what she perceives as need. Her major public career, the “Name Wall” started, in fact, by her compassionate observation of the barren walls of a Los Angeles Air Terminal through which passengers from the whole world had to pass without any consolation for the eye and mind, an inhuman welcome to the city. In collaboration with other artists and in the face of unusual circumstances Joyce Cutler Shaw can completely change her style without loosing her character. In the project for the South Plaza Activity Center in Balboa Park in San Diego completed in 1999, where she worked as part of a team with the architects Rob Wellington Quigley and Richard Beachman, the landscape architect Martin Poirier and with the painter Raul Guerrero, and was faced with the world of sports and the shape of a ball she changed her line to become pure and rounded like that of the Greek vase painters, who first so well depicted sports we still pursue today. When she worked with Coryl Crane to recreate Asian ritual movement in the “Akido Conversations in Drawing and Words” completed in 1999 her line lost the brittleness it has when i describes the forms of dead bodies or of the dying and swings in freer rhythms. Faced with terrazzo floors as in the project in Balboa Park Joyce Cutler Shaw can even overcome her attachment to black and white by working with wonderful hues of color in flowery forms which make one think of some of the greatest masters of Art Nouveau. When showing her work in the time honored Teylers Museum in Haarlem in the Netherlands she used gold grounds for her works in reference to the rich decoration of the rooms with old collections of natural history. In her public projects in San Diego she was extremely sensitive to the surroundings, as when she responded to the place of the Mission Valley Branch Library near the River through her theme of trees and river grasses. In the project for Stonecrest Village completed in 1999 “The Open Cage of Wild Birds” she reacted to the country situation by stimulating the bird connoisseurs and the lovers of plants, while creating an elegant general setting that alludes to city parks and thus stresses the aspect of a town.

Joyce Cutler Shaw in all this shows what the Renaissance artists and noblemen appreciated as the highest achievement: “desinvoltura” or “grazia”, which is in our words GRACE, standing in their mind for the capacity of making the achievement of very difficult things seem easy and natural. Grace is what characterizes Joyce Cutler Shaw also in all her activities in the social sphere, in her involvement in the creation of lecture series and of architectural presentation, for example, the “Landmark Art Projects” and the “Dialogues in Art and Architecture” at the Atheneum in La Jolla, where she collaborated with Diane Attkinson and Jeffrey Brooks as well as with Allan Kaprow. This grace combined with her meticulous preparation also accounts for the success of her negotiations with government institutions and the scientific, scholarly and museum world both locally and internationally. It is to be hoped, that Joyce Cutler Shaw’s graceful contribution to her region of life and to the world at large will find due recognition through this fourfold exhibition demonstrating her amazing versatility paired with a astonishing continuity and consequence in her pursuits.

–Konrad Oberhuber

About Konrad Oberhuber:
Former director of the Albertina in Vienna, the most important museum of the graphic arts in the world. He was one of the foremost art connoisseurs of his time. A graduate of the University of Vienna, he was the Ian Woodner Curator of Drawings and professor of fine arts at Harvard University, research curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and professor of art history at the University of Vienna, Cambridge University, Smith College, and International Christian University in Tokyo. His numerous publications dealt with historical issues from the Renaissance to contemporary art.