How the New York-based artist slowed down and got better than ever.
A year out in the country has served Joanne Greenbaum well. Stepping away from the frenetic pace of the art world has rejuvenated her creative process and given her time to reflect. From her quiet home on the far end of Long Island, Greenbaum spoke to Platform about why she dislikes the word ‘career,’ what makes all crime procedural shows more or less the same, and how overcoming shame can have a life-changing impact.
How do you like to travel?
Given the pandemic, I haven’t been traveling very much. I own a house in Greenport, New York and my life now is traveling between New York City and Long Island. I used to travel a lot more to Europe when I was showing. I lived in Germany for a while and at some point, I thought I might move to Berlin, but the expat life was too lonely. I know it sounds crazy, but I don’t have a huge traveling curiosity. When I go somewhere, I like to check it out and then be cozy in my hotel and draw. My favorite thing to do when I go to Europe is to check out the art supply stores to see what they have there that we don’t have here.
Was quarantine easy for you or did it make you itch to go somewhere?
No. When it first happened, I was like, “Oh, good. I can just stay in and work,” which is really what I did. I got very deep into drawing and making books and making ceramics. There was one point in the pandemic in the beginning when I couldn’t paint, and I just decided to make functional objects like planters. That and drawing was all I could do. I’m a big drawer, but painting is joy. Even though I was happy to be home in this bubble of isolation, I didn’t feel joy at all. It was hard to actually get going, but I did eventually and produced tons of work. I actually did kind of love it, I have to say.
Did that period of isolation change anything about your process or the resulting works?
Slowing down was really good for my work. In my studio, I have stuff going that’s been in this room for months. The slowing down has been really good for my process because I’m not acting out on the canvas. I’m internalizing everything so that what actually comes on to the work seems right. It’s not that I don’t make mistakes, my whole work is about mistakes, but there’s no desperation involved whereas earlier in my career––I don’t like the word career––when I first started showing, there was this frenzy and performative aspect. Now, I just put a little thing on a painting and look at it for a week.
What don’t you like about the word career?
It could be a generational thing. When I was in school––I went to Bard where I studied art––no one ever talked to us about ‘career.’ It was like that was something that would probably not ever happen to you. I guess I use the word ‘career’, but my life took so many turns. When I left college, I wasn’t like, “I’m going to move to the big city and become a famous artist.” I wouldn’t have even known how to go about that, and I think artists of a younger generation are taught how to go about that.
What other jobs did you have until you were able to commit to art full time?
When I first graduated college, I did all the usual things like waitressing and cleaning houses. Living was actually pretty cheap at that time. I lived on the Lower East Side. My apartment was probably $100 or so a month. You could do a lot of smaller jobs and get by. Then I worked at The Metropolitan Museum in the education department. I worked at the Whitney in the membership department filling out membership cards for people. I left and I tried to work as an artist for a while and then I ended up getting a real job at this place called Art Resource, which is a fine art photo library. I wouldn’t call it part-time, but I managed to work three or four very long days so I could have time in the studio. Then toward the end of that period, I started showing, and I was juggling working at a real job and having an art ‘career’, traveling and doing all those things. That just became impossible. I started selling work and I was able to cut the cord. But it’s hard because I got used to having a paycheck coming in. Switching from that to being self-employed took a couple of years to figure out.
What’s something you’ve learned recently?
I’ve always known that I don’t need a lot of people, but I always felt bad about that. I think I’ve learned not to feel bad about it and accept who I am. I would always beat myself up for not being more social or not wanting to go to parties or not wanting to go to everything that’s going on in the art world. I learned to stop apologizing for who I am and take care of my need for being alone. But because of that, I actually do more things. It freed me up in a way to be more spontaneous and not feel guilty about wanting to stay home.
What are some things you collect?
I collect ceramics. There’s this woman named Beate Kuhn and I collect her vases. They’re hard to find here, but they’re easier to find in Europe. They’re beautiful and modernist.
What is it about ceramics that attracts you?
I started collecting these things way before I started making ceramic sculptures. I collected vases and then it dawned on me that I can just make my own. When I started making clay sculptures, on the side, I secretly started making functional objects. I make planters, vases, candlesticks, ashtrays. At this point, I would never show them. I use them or give them away. I’ve actually furnished my house with all this stuff.
Do you have any favorite movies or other things you really like to watch?
I’m a real TV person, so I will watch a lot of trash, like reality TV. I also watch lots of crime series. I think Netflix has changed so much of our lives because we’re introduced to European TV that we never normally would have seen unless you’re there and speak the language. I’ve just gotten into all these crime procedurals from Germany and Sweden and Istanbul. The funny thing is that they’re all the same: a crime happens in a small town and the detective has problems. They’re all exactly the same, but I can watch it and work at the same time because it’s like background noise. If I leave the room for a few minutes, I don’t even turn it off anymore because I don’t feel like I’m going to really miss anything.
What’s something you wish you could change?
People always say, “I wouldn’t change a thing about my past.” I think I would change some things about my past even though I’m in a grateful, good place in my life. There are some bad personal choices I’ve made along the way that don’t sit right with me now, like a bad marriage. Why couldn’t I have been smarter about things that I did?
I don’t have regrets, but I think there’s an element of shame. Maybe we all have shame about things. I think I’m at peace with it, but I’m super aware of that these days. I guess maybe it’s because I am in a good place and I’m in the country and it’s beautiful and I’m in my 60s and all of that’s behind me. Now, I have time to think about how unaware I was or how I let myself be treated poorly, even by the art world. How did I let certain dealers take advantage of me? I never stood up for myself when I was young. I think as an artist and as a woman, we’re told, “If you demand too much you’re going to get cut out. They don’t want you if you ask for too much, so just take what is being offered and don’t ask for what you think you deserve.”
What do you think the world will be like in 100 years?
I hope it’ll be different from how it is now. I hope racism and sexism and all of the ‘isms’ get better though I can’t imagine they’ll go away. I think the social change that we’re seeing happening, that will become more the norm.