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red/white/blue #14
Date: 2002
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Medium: Silverpoint, acrylic, and gesso with sandpaper surfacing on Arches hot press watercolor paper
Dimensions: Sheet: 11 7/8 × 11 7/8 in. (30.2 × 30.2 cm) Image: 10 1/4 × 10 1/2 in. (26 × 26.7 cm)
Description: The multi-media and silverpoint drawing is a non-representational meditation on the World Trade Center tragedy and part of the artist's 9/11 series.
Credit Line: Gift of Susan Schwalb and Garvey|Simon
Object Number: 2018.8
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Susan Schwalb, a contemporary silverpoint artist, is in the forefront of the current revival of the ancient technique of silverpoint drawing in America. Most contemporary artists who draw with a metal stylus continue the tradition of Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer by using the soft, delicate line for figurative imagery. By contrast, Schwalb’s work is abstract, and her handling of the technique is innovative. In some works, the paper is torn and burned to provide loose uncontrolled contrast to the precise linearity of silverpoint. In others, silverpoint is combined with flat expanses of acrylic paint or gold leaf. Subtle shifts of tone and color are evident from the juxtaposition of different types of metal. In more recent works, the artist has abandoned the silverpoint stylus in favor of wide metal bands that achieve a shimmering atmosphere reminiscent of watercolor. Memories of light have been a recurrent source for her work, and some are influenced by light on the Hudson River as viewed from her studio on the West Side of Manhattan.

“My primary medium for over 40 years has been the Renaissance technique of silverpoint and metalpoint drawing,” writes the artist. “Juxtaposing a wide variety of metals (silver, gold, brass, copper, platinum, pewter, bronze and aluminum) I obtain soft shifts of tone and color. Horizontal lines evoke an atmosphere of serenity, and the shimmer of light on the surface, created by the metals, is quite unlike any of the usual effects . . . I have been working within a square format almost exclusively since 1997. An even grid of narrow horizontal or diagonal lines forms the basic structure and serves as a spatial context for irregular events on the surface . . . My paintings and drawings are always done in series and each work is generally inspired by the piece or pieces created before it.”

"red/white/blue #14" belongs to the artist’s 9/11 series, which comprises 7 works on panel and 16 works on paper (the red/white/blue). She also drew 10 very small related works called “Moments.”

Like many residents of New York and the nation, Schwalb was galvanized by the tragic events of September 11, 2001. In response she wrote: “I divide my time between New York and the Boston area. Part of the shock of September 11, 2001 was finding myself in Watertown, MA so far away from the disaster with no way to help and so little understanding of what was happening. I returned to New York on September 20, 2001. I went all over town, even spending a day visiting Union Square and then going to ground zero. Everywhere I went all the shrines and flags overwhelmed me. My first reaction was to write a diary of my first days in New York. ‘I have yet to sleep through the night,’ I noted. ‘Somehow I will get back to my painting; maybe I should try using the colors red, white and blue?’ After some weeks I slowly began to make a series of works on paper and finally paintings on wood using as my theme ‘red/white/blue’. I applied layers of red, white and blue paint, which I then covered in a neutral gray, and on the top of this I drew simple bands of tone with silverpoint stylus. Then I erased part of the surface with sandpaper to expose under layers of paint. The images are meant, in part, to evoke marks, gashes or wounds.”

Schwalb’s "red/white/blue #14" is the first work in silverpoint to enter the N-YHS collections. The sheet is a meditation on the tragic events of the day that wreaked havoc on the nation, its treasure, and it’s heretofore held sense of security. It demonstrates the power of non-representational art to communicate deeper truths and emotions by suggestion rather than illustration. One can read the lines in Schwalb’s composition as the stories of the twin towers, the blue as ripped denim saturated with the blood of the victims, and the whole as the rending of the very fabric of the nation. The meidum of silverpoint adds a spiritual, ineffable beauty that is elegiac.