Interview with Laurie Fendrich

by Catherine Parker Sweatt ‘12Staff Writer

voice: Have there been any challenges as a woman working in the art world and/or in academia?

Laurie Fendrich: Numbers do tell, as they say. There’s no question that although there’s been progress, women do not have parity with men in the academic world, [nor in] the art world. Some of this is clearly due to prejudice, some is simply a byproduct of the fact that most women choose to have children and children are a distraction from ambitious work. The ambition of many women—either by nature, or by choice—tends to ease somewhat once they have children.  Bacon was right—children are hostages to fortune. That said, I must add that having children deepens the experience of life, and I in no way regret having had a child even if it meant it slowed down my ambition.

voice: Do you believe there is still a need for women’s educational institutions in America today?

LF: “Need” is a big word. I prefer “room for.” There’s room for women’s educational institutions because we have all sorts of educational options in the United States, and there are still many young women—and probably will be for the foreseeable future—for whom the particular experience of mostly being with other women during college, and particularly in college classrooms, helps them bloom. It was certainly true for me.

voice: Do you have any words of wisdom for your students at Hofstra that you would like to share with the Scripps student body?

LF: Aha! I think of myself as continually spewing out words of wisdom! That’s a sort of joke—I  blather on in my studio courses, at least in part because I think young people get a lot by hearing older (and presumably wiser) people ruminate on a wide range of subjects. I think the thrust of mass culture is such that it shoves older generations out of the way, and makes everything about the youthful present. That’s good, in a way—it’s fun and exciting to be young. But it’s bad as well, if only because it gets boring, and is severely constricting, for young people to hear only the ideas of other young people.

voice: You work within the tradition of modernist abstraction. At the same time, you say that you are searching to make something original in your paintings. In our time, there is a compulsion to create what’s new and never-has-been, but at the same time we’re told it’s all been done. What would you say to the young artist about being situated in time and the compulsion for novelty?

LF: Paradoxically, of course, most contemporary art looks pretty much as if it’s contemporary art. So the compulsion to come up with something new is leading straight to conformity. I often quote Schiller to the effect that it’s important for an artist to be part of his times, but not crushed by them. There are a lot of unexamined, accepted dictates out knocking around in the heads of artists, old and young, that are absolute rubbish. I find it arrogant to insist that originality is over and done with. The style of a good artist derives from a particular temperament that, if matched with some talent, and the decision to work in a medium that matches the temperament, will almost automatically generate something that feels new—even if it isn’t actually new. In other words, the goal of artists ought to be to develop a style, over time.

voice: I stand in awe of your ability to switch between the written and visual arts. You say that the challenge of abstract painting and drawing is having wit. How do you cultivate this wit and restraint? Where do you draw inspiration for these two factors in your art and writing?

LF: This is all a bit flattering for someone who stands in awe of the truly great wits I encounter in both art and life—from Jane Austen in the past, to Eddie Izzard or Tina Fey (I’m thinking of the wit in their faces!) in the present. I can only say that visual wit came alive in art with modernism. I’ll add that I believe in living an ordered life—with a dash of chaos to it. It’s absolutely essential for an artist. Too much chaos destroys an artist.

voice: In your interview with Julie Karabenick you say that art can affirm things rather than question them. What does your art affirm?

LF: I think my art affirms an old, nearly forgotten principle: Despite evil and tragedy, it’s both more just and noble to remember that which is beautiful and good than to dwell on that which is ugly and bad. That’s what my art affirms.

Laurie Fendrich is an abstract painter and Professor of Fine Art at Hofstra University; her retrospective, Sense and Sensation is at the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery until December 19, 2010. She resides in New York City. Laurie also blogs for the Journal of Higher Education’s blog Brainstorm. You can read her thoughts on everything from DaVinci to Jane Austen at http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/author/lfendrich.