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Life Arts    H4'ed 8/27/14

A Conversation with Grace Graupe-Pillard

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In a refurbished synagogue in Keyport, New Jersey, Grace Graupe-Pillard works virtually non-stop creating art. The format varies--paintings, video, drawing, and photography--yet all are integral to her vision. Perhaps it is ironic that her workspace was previously home to an Orthodox Jewish congregation. Although Graupe-Pillard is adamant that she is an atheist, her sensibility is very much informed by the consciousness that came with having German refugee parents--and relatives that perished in the Nazi death camps. Her work is infused with the concerns of the outsider, the downtrodden, the marginalized, and the oppressed. War, social justice, and a call for an acknowledgement of the world's ills permeate her material.

Graupe-Pillard also has a flip side that is funny, mischievous, and feisty. It is evidenced as she cavorts unabashedly naked through everyday scenarios in the archival pigment prints that comprise her I Can Still Dance images, or when she is redefining and poking fun at art history in Grace Delving Into Art. In the oil painting grouping, Self-Portrait as A Blonde, Graupe-Pillard overturns feminine stereotypes, while simultaneously kicking the precedence of the "male gaze," sexism, and ageism squarely in the rear.

Growing up as a twin in Washington Heights, New York City, Graupe-Pillard was surrounded by free-floating anxiety and whispered conversations about family members who had disappeared in Germany. (Her paternal grandparents were killed in Theresienstadt.) Her father was an architect. Her mother--who had hoped to be a doctor--was a dressmaker. It wasn't until decades later that Graupe-Pillard would come to fully appreciate her mother's creativity.

Accepted into the Music and Art High School, Graupe-Pillard entered a world in the middle of Manhattan that was overtly different from her sheltered home enclave. Her connection to her artistic path did not click in these surroundings. Instead, she pursued an education at the City College of New York, where she focused on history, political science, and literature. The knowledge she acquired, combined with her intrinsic sensitivity to social inequities, would provide the backbone of her political awareness. America was in the throes of facing hard truths about its own racial inequalities. All these factors were integral to forming Graupe-Pillard's perspective.

An interest in Marxism and Russian culture led her to the CUNY Graduate School and an assistantship in "Russian Area Studies." Not unlike many young women of that time, Graupe-Pillard married at the age of 21, "in order to get out of the house." Yet what she thought was her personal and educational course ended up being subject to the same social upheaval that others were experiencing. The catalyst for her epiphany came when she covered a wall in her apartment with a huge mural executed in magic marker. A friend encouraged her to consider attending art school.

As a result, 1964 turned out to be a pivotal year for Graupe-Pillard. She shed her marriage and graduate school, and signed up at the Art Students League. There, she studied for several years concentrating on classes in life figure drawing. She received the George Bridgman Memorial Scholarship, awarded to her by juror Philip Guston. Beyond the financial ramifications, it served to validate her choice to pursue art. Marshall Glasier, who had studied with George Grosz, was one of her mentors. When pressed about her painting instructors, Graupe-Pillard said with a touch of irony, "I am really a self-taught painter. My teachers were Cezanne, Soutine, Van Gogh, and Goya."

Deciding that she definitively didn't want children, and there would be "no hausfrau for this frau," Graupe-Pillard set her sights on a different kind of lifestyle. She wanted to "live in a loft" and focus on her art. She decided to uproot herself and start a new chapter of her life in New Mexico. She called it, "Being part of the hippie movement that embraced expanding human potential."

In Albuquerque, Graupe-Pillard found a studio and wrangled free rent by taking over the role of the superintendent. She joined other building residents who were engaged, nationally exhibited artists. They formed a close-knit group that argued and exchanged ideas. Numerous friendships were built with those who were affiliated with the University of New Mexico, as well as Tamarind Institute. It was during this period that Graupe-Pillard met the man who became her second husband, a student of cultural anthropology.

Talking about the body of work that she produced from 1968-1974, Graupe-Pillard related, "It was all about place and light. The setting was so vast." She acknowledged the influences of Mark Rothko and Helen Frankenthaler, and discussed her method of directly pouring paint on unprimed canvas--"never to be touched by human hands." Using the format of "the series" (a mainstay of her work), Graupe-Pillard assembled a grouping of paintings under the title New Mexico Band Paintings. Although at first these canvases appear to be totally disconnected to ensuing works, there is a clear link to the intensity of how Graupe-Pillard still uses her colors.

The inclusion of several pieces at the Santa Fe Museum encouraged Graupe-Pillard to approach galleries and collectors in the vicinity. She also began to think about "coming home."

Graupe-Pillard moved to Long Branch, New Jersey in 1974. She connected with the Razor Gallery in Soho, where she exhibited the Band Paintings. Her physical surroundings, including the oceanfront, served as new inspiration. Graupe-Pillard started to draw again, reconnecting with figuration. Most importantly, she learned photography, which would become a constant tool as well as a basis and filter for seeing.

"The 70s," Graupe-Pillard reminisced, "were a heady time. I was informed by feminism. The movement was very important because it gave us chances we didn't have before." She pointed out how presently, she views feminism as akin to ageism.

From 1977 through 1981, Graupe-Pillard worked on painting "realistic" male and female nudes.This began a period of seeking models that were out of the mainstream--and often on the peripheries of society. The nudes led to clothed people, and an examination of their inner psychological profile as intuited through their external presentation. A 1981 exhibit at the Drawing Center showcased charcoal drawings of People and Hats, followed two years later by an exhibit at the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery.

Graupe-Pillard talked at length about the "irony" of her use of pastel, often categorized as a "woman's tool." In addition to "using a traditional medium in an untraditional way," she liked the rapidity of the process. For a decade (1984-1994), Graupe-Pillard used pastels on canvas, pushing the envelope by then cutting them out and creating wall groupings as installations. She said, "I saw it as the perfect medium to document the often difficult art of survival in New York City. The directness of the material mimics the speed and excitement of the urban environment--and that includes the contradictory elements of squalor and glamour." Once again, Graupe-Pillard drilled down on making those denizens who are too often "invisible, permanently visible." In 1993, at Kean University, Eugenie Tsai curated a ten-year retrospective of Graupe-Pillard's pastels. Included was an Architectural Installation, which encompassed the verisimilitude of life on the street.

One of Graupe-Pillard's strongest series was Boy With a Gun (1987-1993). A one-person show at Klarfeld Perry Gallery in 1993 garnered a series of reviews in the art media. Using a silhouette of a boy with a gun ("I use the silhouettes as containers."), Graupe-Pillard commented on a continuum of narratives from gang violence to state sponsored violence--capital punishment. Several of the pieces will be part of a November 2014 exhibit, Evil: A Matter of Choice, at the HUC-JIR Museum in Manhattan.

'Boy With A Gun Installation' 1992
(Image by Grace Graupe-Pillard)
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Marcia G. Yerman is a writer, activist, and artist based in New York City. Her articles--profiles, interviews, reporting and essays--focus on women's issues, the environment, human rights, the arts and culture. Her writing has been published by (more...)

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