Berkeley - Figurative painter Wendy Sussman, a professor of art practice at the University of California, Berkeley, died of cancer on March 29 near her home in Oakland, Calif. She was 51.
In her large-scale canvases, diminutive figures materialize
within vast fields of layered paint, deepening the metaphysical
questions her paintings raise about the pressure of time and
space on our mortality.
A passionate artist and inspirational teacher, Sussman was considered by many to be the "soul" of the Department of Art Practice.
Said Charles Altieri, former chair of that department, "You could always depend on Wendy to tell the truth. During her critiques, more than anyone else, she got to the core of the work."
"I always use the analogy of a pool that has frozen over," Sussman told an art and literary journal in March 1996. "The finished painting is like that. So, in the pool at the lower depth might be a rock, and then there might be a little leaf that is frozen closer to the surface, and above that maybe a candy wrapper. It's all frozen in the pool, and then on the very top somebody comes and skates. The surface has this history, and that is time, the time of the painting."
As a teacher, Sussman brought abstract concepts down to earth, making them profound. According to UC Berkeley undergraduate Christie Lyons, "she was one of those teachers, when you left the class, you were happy to be alive."
Born in Brooklyn, Sussman earned her MFA from Brooklyn College in 1979 and taught at the Pratt Institute in New York. She began her career as a realist painter, inspired by Leonard Anderson, Paul Georges and Philip Pearlstein, fellow painters with whom she conversed during meetings of the New York Figurative Alliance, a group established in the 1960s to preserve and extend the tradition of figurative art in an aesthetic milieu dominated by abstract expressionism and conceptual art.
"They really talked about your work," Sussman once said, "If they just said 'good show,' you knew they hated it. Here (in California), people are afraid your feelings will be hurt."
In 1986, Sussman won a Rome Prize Fellowship that enabled her to study early Renaissance painting at the American Academy in Rome. According to her husband, art critic Juan Rodriguez, Academy Fellows Martin Puryear and Bruce Nauman (both abstract sculptors), performance artist Vito Acconci, and conceptual artist Mel Bochner "had a tremendous influence on her thinking about art."
Aiming to become a "modern" artist, Rodriguez said, "she left the idea of the figure/ground in Rome."
Over the next 15 years, Sussman gradually developed a subtle and innovative form of painting in which space could not be defined as characteristically figurative or abstract. "I manipulate the ground," she once wrote, "to resist the figure and make the figure struggle to come into being."
But Sussman also experienced a dramatic stylistic shift after her parents died within three months of each other in 1989, the year she came to UC Berkeley to teach. "I always considered myself a realist," she told a writer reviewing her work in 1996. "When my parents died, I became much more abstract because, of course, what I really wanted to see was them. But they were so far away."
Meanwhile, her visual vocabulary grew to include her son's toys - medieval horses, a catapult, a puppet, a demon mask - as well as the heads of her family members, whom she portrayed as solitary and vulnerable, dwarfed by the expansive materiality of their transcendental grounds.
The first painting in her "Kaddish Series," which won the Max and Sophie Adler Award in 1996, depicts her mother -described by the artist as "readying herself for the journey of death" - as a larger than life-size head cupped in a gigantic catapult aimed at the impenetrable mystery of deep blue space.
In later works, Sussman transformed the blue black sky of mourning into vast fields of white, resembling waves, snow and clouds, which "became the end of grief," she once said, "something beautiful." Her medieval horses, painted during her successful bid for tenure at UC Berkeley, race around her canvases toward nothing one can see, as if life, fraught with professional striving, were a contest with the unknown.
Grappling with fears of mortality during the last year of her life, she painted figures of herself and her husband materializing within a grid of colored squares, part of a larger design that extends beyond the canvas, beyond art.
In addition to the Max and Sophie Adler Award, Sussman was awarded a Tesuque foundation Grant (2000), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1998-99), an NEA Fellowship (1989), and a Pollock-Krasner Grant (1988).
Her solo exhibitions include the Jewish Museum, San Francisco, d.p. Fong Gallery, San Jose, the Bowery Gallery, New York, the Platt Gallery at the University of Judaism, and the Jan Baum Gallery, both in Los Angeles.
Sussman exhibited internationally at the American Academy in Rome. In New York she exhibited at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, the Queens Museum, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and at the Cooper Union School of Art. Other venues include The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngston, Ohio, the Reading Museum, Pennsylvania, The University Art Gallery, University of California, San Diego, and the Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco.
She is survived by her husband of 30 years, Juan Rodriguez,
and their 14 year-old son, Gabriel Sussman Rodriguez. A
remembrance and celebration of her life will be held on
Wednesday, May 16, at the Berkeley Art Museum, 2625 Bancroft
Ave., 4 to 6 p.m. For information, contact the Department
of Art Practice at (510) 642-2582.
In lieu of flowers, donations for Gabriel's education
may be sent to "Squeak Carnwath, Custodian for Gabriel Sussman
Rodriguez, Account #101-039818-590", c/o Douglas E. Treter,
Morgan Stanley, 101 California St., P.O. Box 7805, San Francisco,