In memory of Susanna Heller:
A conversation between Mira Schor, Nancy Bowen and Medrie MacPhee
Medrie MacPhee, May 2021
Susanna Heller and I have been friends going all the way back to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design [NASCAD] in Halifax from which I graduated in 1976 , and Susanna in 1977. Our first studios in New York were our first apartments, mine on 3rd St. in the East Village and hers on 5th. Our lives consisted largely of many a night of visiting each other’s studios, museum and gallery visits, and talking painting, painting, painting. We encouraged each other, critiqued each other’s work and reinforced each other’s total commitment to being artists- something essential at that time in an art world largely devoid of women.
Her devotion to painting and recording the experience of “being”- over the forty seven years of our friendship - never wavered. On a drawing she completed after the World Trade Centers were attacked [and where she had only just completed a residency] she writes:
“In 1998-99 I shared studio space on the 91st floor of WTC1. After 9-11-01 I went down to the site of ruins + drew for hours – day & night, almost daily – until after New Year. Some work here is in response to all those events. Some was made on the 91st floor. My subject has always been NY city, so drawing ‘her’ wounded was absolutely natural.”
Reading this made me think of the hundreds (maybe thousands) of drawings Susanna made of her husband, the activist scholar Bill DeFazio, as he lay in comas recovering from the twenty-seven surgeries he received for a flesh-eating necrotizing fasciitis. Then there followed countless drawings and paintings of Bill in his wheelchair with his leg amputated.
Among the numerous ways artists relate to tragedy - one way is to find a means to bury reality within what appears to be something other (like Vermeer whose serene paintings that seem to be visions of peace but were visual antidotes to the horrors of religious wars raging endlessly across Europe) or, alternatively, at the other extreme, the black paintings of Goya.
Susanna went Goya-like to the heart-of-darkness, yet even so, there is a strange exhilaration in the drawings/paintings as they attempt to understand what she is looking at and experiencing. We do not sense only horror looking at the “Bill works”, because there’s also wonder at how someone was able to go there and report back. To take a dark human experience and offer it up without artifice, feels for the viewer, empowering - the witness to her taking charge of it.
During a decade of Bill being in and out of hospital, Susanna began to have her own debilitating series of health issues. During the last year of many surgeries even the force of nature that was Susanna could no longer continue to produce work in her studio as per usual and took to making drawings in her apartment. Many of the sketches she had made of the thousands of miles she clocked on her epic walks around the city would end up on the walls of her studio. A spot was found on every space on every surface for the drawings and paintings so that a visitor entering Susanna’s studio would feel as if they had entered her brain.
The “apartment” drawings no longer were exterior landscapes but those mapping her own body in all of its frailty and fragmentation. They are extraordinary works – possibly masterpieces - where again she was taking charge of her story and her humanity in an unblinking way. This is how it is – was.
The conversation below is an edited transcript from a recording between Mira Schor (artist, feminist and writer as well as Susanna’s and my teacher at NSCAD), Nancy Bowen (our friend of 40+ years and also a well-regarded sculptor). We spent a couple of days photographing and archiving Susanna’s last drawings and repacking her studio. …
Medrie: So here we are, three longtime friends and I've been thinking about Susanna non-stop as I'm sure that you both have. And especially about the paintings. I came up with a quote from Susanna where she was talking about a kind of backwards way of looking at, or making a painting, because it isn't just something to behold. It's a journey.
In her words: “Its not what the paintings look like, but what they’re doing…it’s a counter-intuitive way to make a painting, a visual medium, to put its appearance as secondary in import. Don’t look at me and judge, my paintings are saying. Get to know me first, let’s talk and travel. Then see how my appearance changes!”
Susanna wants to take you along on her journey. That got me thinking about her preferred vantage point, which was usually aerial –she tipped the picture plane up towards you and you lost the vanishing points. The painting then makes the viewer have to consider being caught up in a contradiction between the space as “window” and how the big clumps of paint interfere. A kind of tennis match between going into the paintings and being pulled out again.
Nancy: Those vanishing points, the way they did make sense was compositionally. And I feel like her compositions were all about moving you in and out of the painting, around the painting and I feel like those clumps of paint acted like punctuation marks in some way, in the compositions. A place for you to slow down and notice that, "Oh, okay. I'm going to stop in this red blob and figure out what it is, or"-
Medrie: …that its just paint.
Nancy: That's how I experience her.
Mira: From a painterly point of view, that aspect of her work grew in recent years, so that the physicality of the paint, objects and things that she glued onto the canvas, the level of abstraction and even putting real objects like the yellow glove, onto the painting, I think that developed more recently, and began to really be an even stronger counterpoint with what I think is really one of the most defining parts of her work, which is her linearity--the black line that was in so many of the paintings. But also that opposition between an aerial perspective and that physicality of objects in the painting speaks to the way in which she would describe her walks.
I remember her giving a talk a long time ago, what I remember is her talking about a sort of intense physical experienciality, the way in which she experienced her walks, she wanted the viewer to slow down to be able to experience that too.
Nancy: And Mira, I feel like that black line that you talked about, it does reappear in so many of her works and in a way, it is the journey. It's the physical thing or visual thing that allows the viewer to take the journey with her in some way. And I think she would just get so excited when you were in her studio and you would notice something in the painting, she'd be like, "Oh yes, yes!"
We have all had that experience where she was so thrilled that you would see it the way that she saw, because she really developed her own way of seeing and her own way of transcribing that experience into a physical object that we would call art.
Medrie: For Susanna, a negative space was not empty. She would be looking out for some kind of patterning within it, so it was a full emptiness. There's so much that surrounds us that we actually can't physically see.
Nancy: We don't perceive.
Medrie: Yes exactly. That was always the thing that fascinated me about Susanna. She loved New York, was addicted to New York from childhood and wanted to come back to it from Canada, and yet New York itself is always like a little fence at the bottom of a painting with a huge sky. What she was really interested in was everything around it.
Mira: The sky got bigger and bigger and more dramatic in recent years. And that haptic experience of the walks changed. I really am thinking a lot about how tragic it is that we won’t get to experience what would have been, let's say, the third part of her life as an artist in the developments of her recent work that I think were, if anything, more painterly, more sculptural, much more risk-taking than ever.
You could think that there was something risk-taking about all the work, but there also was something fairly traditional in a sense, in her perception overall. In her presentation of landscape, there was a trace of something that was traditional. And I think it affected how people in New York received her work. But the recent work went way beyond that and I think it was achieving something in a painterly direction that I just... I just feel, it's such a violation that we don't get to see it develop further.
Nancy: Yeah, the things she was sticking on the paintings were getting bigger and more irregular. They were going off the edge of the canvas sometimes, and you saw this even more in her drawings, where she was just sort of starting in one place and gluing in all directions.
Mira: She was less concerned with realism.
Mira: Though it was realism in a deeper way.
Nancy: I feel that even more strongly in the drawings that she did of Bill. That the sense of composition and the pieces of paper were very unwieldy in some sense, and, again, that black line that you talk about became the trace of Bill's body, the trace of Bill's body as it interacted with machinery. A lot of those drawings really stuck in my memory.
Mira: Well, her last drawings of herself are masterpieces. They're kind of joyful in a bizarre, horrific kind of way. If you look at what you're actually seeing and what's happening, then it's like, "Oh, my God." On the other hand, they're exhilarating. I mean they're really exhilarating works as well.
One thing that I think it would be interesting just to bring up is that, at least the last time it ever came up or in the years before, Susanna really rejected the description that she was an expressionist. And it's so weird because I think the work, both historically, its lineage, its appearance and these late works have to be seen in the tradition of the best of expressionism, from Otto Dix to...
Medrie: I was also thinking about June Leaf in that Susanna idolized her. And June Leaf's paintings are tough. You would never say that you were having just an aesthetic experience. They're not beautiful, they're not seductive in any way. And I think Susanna's last work, the work that Sharon Butler and I featured in our Two Coats of Paint piece – “Studio Visit: Susanna Heller’s Endless Strength," were tough paintings.
Part of their strength was that they were so difficult and so uncompromising, and dark. And Susanna just let them be. She may have found her way out of this period of work in the end, but not just to go back to what she was doing before, I love them, but they were very difficult and definitely an expression of her state of being.
Nancy: I think part of what Susanna idolized about June is that June is the quintessential artist who lived the artist's life in the way that is almost anachronistic at this point, and Susanna so identified with that bohemian/ fuck capitalism/ fuck the world aspect.
Mira: One thing that I thought it would be interesting just to bring up, especially in the context that we're talking about, is that there is an interesting relationship between Susanna as a New York-based artist, born in New York, whose subject was New York City. And Canada, which in the larger picture, occupied only a small part of her life, I mean her childhood to her very early twenties, and yet that was the place where her work was appreciated, is in museum collections, very notable commissions and very important private collections. And I think one could say that there was something Canadian about her work. Something about her color choices, the black and the brown and a cool blue-gray. When I moved to Halifax, the most striking thing was that the sky was never a warm color. It was always a cold light.
I think that had a remaining influence on her and it also may have accounted for some of the more traditional aspects of her work that really rang true for her Canadian audiences.
Medrie: I do think this Canadian-American divide had an impact on her career.
Mira: Paradoxically, New York was her subject and one of the things that always really strikes me is that her gigantic works, the works on paper about the World Trade Center-
Medrie: Are in Canada. For example an enormous floor to ceiling drawing of the WTC is in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Mira: They're not known in the United States.
Nancy: And they're so fantastic.
Mira: They're totally fantastic. And historically significant.
Nancy: The one thing we haven't talked about for the recording is that I feel should be talked about is her politics. For me, that was one of her incredible passions, was no matter what... I remember when George Floyd was killed and I joined a social justice group to educate myself and every book I told her about, she's like, "Oh, I read that last year. I read that last year." And she wasn't lying. They were in her studio. She was always so committed to social justice, and to putting herself out there. When she was not in good shape, she always had the energy to go to a protest and-
Mira: Last summer, she lurked at the edges of some George Floyd BLM demonstrations.
Mira: And she made those Black Lives posters, one that's still on her building.
Medrie: There are pictures of her sitting on the ground after installing a big BLM sign looking exhausted.
Nancy: Well, you know she put those up first at Transmitter Park, in Greenpoint, near her house. And they were taken down the next day. They were vandalized. It made her want to paint new ones and put them back up. Which she did, and then they eventually ended up on her building. Her backpack, the doors of her studio and home were covered with political mottos and stickers, I mean, that's who she was.
Medrie: She was always political and she got much more swept up in radical politics when she met Bill (William DiFazio, Susanna’s husband, was a noted radical sociologist.) This was a project that they really shared.
Mira: I feel like I've lost a guidepost, a political guidepost, like a political conscience. I trusted the fierceness of her feelings about politics.
Medrie: And I think that the more she suffered physically, the more she would express her radical politics.
Nancy: And one other thing, just when the years that I lived in Greenpoint with her, I was really struck by and this was before she got super sick, the generosity. We'd go to the fruit stand and she knew Mr. Kim and she knew Mr. Kim's kids and she knew everything... Seriously. Just the generosity of her personality and to make the people that exist in our lives, but we say hi to. Well, I'm kind of the same way, so I get it, but she just knew everybody in her neighborhood. And they loved her.
Mira: I would see her say things to people that related to politics, where she would say it in a way as if, "Of course, you're going to agree with me.” Because she said it, it was like she would wake up people who were not thinking politically. I think her neighbors who just loved her so much, one of the things they loved about her was how radical she was.
Nancy: She definitely imbued her students... She really woke a lot of students up, or at least made them aware that they lived in a real world, that had real effects and it wasn't just about painting pictures.
Mira: We should say that she was an exceptional teacher in that all the times... Well, we co-taught, I mean taught together at the same time at Sarah Lawrence and then all the Grand Central projects she did for the Purchase students. She got people to do work that they were not capable of doing. And I often wondered what happened after, because I think they also were very influenced by her formally. But they would do things where you would just think, "Oh my God, how did she get these people to do that!
Medrie: It's like teaching somebody to walk on water or something, and just through her enthusing them with her enthusiasm, with her attention to detail, with this kind of extravagance-
Mira: It was her enthusiasm, and she was very funny, and that she said it as if she assumed that you would agree with her.
Nancy: Exactly. And that actually made people go, "Yeah," because nobody had ever talked to them like that before.
Mira: Susanna was a huge baseball fan, huge Mets fan. Her studio neighbor wrote me that Susanna was there at all hours, and if they were both there, and they had the game on, if the Mets hit a homerun, Susanna would bang on the wall. And he said, she would often go out alone in the day and just get a bleacher seat. She'd sit and draw. One of the last paintings featured eyes floating on a purple ground that she had painted over what had been a mostly baseball diamond.
Nancy: And baseball was also something, that when Bill was in his well years, they so shared that. He was a bank of stats. He knew who had hit how many homeruns and dah de dah de dah, and the two of them would just sit there and talk.
Mira: She and I got seats for what turned out to be the night, September 22, 1988, when the Mets clinched the National League East. We had field level seats right behind the batter's box. Ron Darling was pitching and Susanna turned around to me at one point and said “Oh Mira, it's a science." And that was like the last sensible sound I heard. She screamed for the next two and half hours, until she was completely hoarse and the next day, she met Bill.
Nancy: At the Greenpoint Diner, her regular “Coffee Klatch” group at the Greek diner on Manhattan Avenue. One painting that I so, if I think Susanna, oftentimes, you know how you have an image of someone in your head, I get the image of this painting and it's the one that was, I think it was just called “The City On My Mind.” And it was her head, and it was really pink, fleshy cheeks, and this sort of glorious, happy looking person, and then New York City growing out the top of her head. That was one of my favorites.
The remarkable painter Susanna Heller passed away on May 5, 2021. Many of Susanna’s paintings involved elaborate installations made up of assemblages of smaller paintings on paper and were based on her walks around the city.