SANDRA MUSS: What’s Past is Prologue

The work of Sandra Muss is saturated in an assemblage format laid down on canvas and on aluminum panels. These compositions celebrate the great tradition of post-Abstract Expressionism and traditional collage, particularly with a nod to the early Pop artists of the 1960s, who were exploring a transition from symbols, recognizable imagery, narrative abstraction and images of popular culture to non-narrative works that were often embellished with found objects.

Muss seems to have a great fondness and respect for these early pioneers, and has become a contemporary disciple for exploring the endless possibilities in gathering disparate organic and inorganic adaptively reused items to stitch together like a vintage crazy quilt. In the summer of 1955, mutual friends Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, fresh out of Black Mountain College, went to Manhattan as artistic bad boys taking on whatever challenge they could find. These groundbreaking decisions often were prompted by the various and unconnected remnants they could scavenge from the streets of the Cast Iron District (now SoHo) that became the genesis of a developing composition. Every day, artists like Muss continue this tradition by keeping their eyes open in their travels for cast off objects to incorporate into their work. Early in Rauschenberg’s career, the artist created shocking, collage-like arrangements of images taken from magazines and newspapers; transferring the printed color by soaking the paper briefly in lighter fluid, then rubbing the wet pulp onto a plain surface. This new, and at the time, controversial in the general public view, advance in picture-making was scandalous in its aberration and originality. For many, the appropriation of basically worthless discarded elements was unconvincing, unflattering, unattractive and essentially worthless, both aesthetically and financially. The novel idea of integrating entities that have no meaning, connection, or established recognizable features overrides acceptable and conventional values.

Sandra Muss respectfully and intelligently follows this historic path with a reconfiguration of painterly mixed backgrounds that may pay homage to early abstract paintings by Philip Guston, repeat patterned textures by Robert Natkin and Robert Zakanitch, and the gutsy and often intimidating application of unexpected and experimental media. Another Pop artist that comes to mind is Jim Dine, who sprinkled many of his early artworks with found objects such as hand tools. She also has a reverence for the scraped color surfaces of Gerhard Richter. The exacting placement of these different elements comes from a natural intuitive talent, which is evident in this show. Muss has created a fuss with her own confident and independent visual language, a tossed salad of tasty ingredients that are palatable and bursting at the seams with a visual aroma steaming from a recipe that is both harmonious and diverse all at once. The unique materials seem to stimulate her imagination without pre-conceived notions or prejudice. In this seemingly endless library of forms, one could go on a gallery scavenger hunt of discovery that might never end. Attached at the hip to her foundations are a virtual parade of components that is so diverse and eccentric it becomes engaging enough to take a closer look and discover the intimate details that she has incorporated into her art work: snakeskins, bird nests, feathers (both from a peacock and hawk), maple leafs, animal claws, ferns, seeds, weeds, lizards, sticks, butterflies, frog skin, purple coral, stone arrowheads, rocks and, if there was room and a plumbing connection, the kitchen sink. To round out the piece, the artist carefully utilizes a checkerboard of items that dress up the canvas—tin ceiling tile squares, photographs, glass, burlap, mirrors, string, rusted metal fragments—all of which receive a treatment of paint that is brushed, stenciled and sprayed. The trick here is how in the world you somehow make this curious collection of specimens worthy of a nature lab cooperate with coherence and integrity? The answer is a thoroughly inventive use of a keen, informed eye for compositional balance and an energetic bravado that celebrates the old adage, “where there’s no risk, there’s no reward,” most recently quoted by Evel Knievel. Muss has clearly, and likely painstakingly, developed a true unique formula for building a proper and appropriate base for the exact placement of objects. Often the artist starts by creating a section of geometric shapes from cut aluminum or tin ceiling tiles. As these household items are secured to the canvas, the process continues layer after layer until a suitable supportive complexion forms. The next step is to embellish the newly created surface with a series of textured patches of color, which often come from a stencil of multiple, small, open circles and squares, as in the caning of a vintage Thonet chair. The personal enjoyment of creating these compositions is evident in the free flowing lines and gestures that are her unique handiwork.

Like her predecessors, including Willem de Kooning, Muss starts without a predetermined plan. Prepared canvas at hand, there are no grids, cartoons or digital transfers of images that she can follow, only her intuitive instincts. De Kooning insisted on clean, pure white gessoed cotton material, on which he would first create magic with just a single, seemingly random brushstroke in any direction (like Muss) that intuitively he would develop into additional lines and gestures that he hoped would become a complete painting. Knowing when to stop is the secret that Muss shares with de Kooning. Here the artist utilizes the same kind of formula of exploration from a starting point that is not marked or pre-conceived. That’s what gives her paintings such an edge. There is evidence of trial and error and of corrections in mid-direction; over-painting and sharp turns and deliberate twists of fate that are handmade actions spun into a kind of woven mixed mediatapestry of post-modern visual games of chance.

There is an overall harmony to this engaging show, which seems somewhat ironic as so many different things are in play. Each painting is separate but equal. Each work carries a distinct, dignified, charismatic personality, and seems to share a distinctive bloodline connecting each one like a common denominator at a family reunion. The very first glance at this show offers the viewer a thrilling visual experience executed by a mature artist that is thoroughly consistent and instantly identifiable. Here, the confident maestro becomes the celebrated consummate conductor, sweeping a magical baton in the shape of a camel hair brush to achieve an exacting harmony and desired rhythm that is powerfully eccentric and handsomely iconic.

Bruce Helander

West Palm Beach


Bruce Helander is an artist whose work is in the Whitney and Guggenheim Museums. He is a White House Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and the former Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs of the Rhode Island School of Design. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and The Huffington Post, and his bestselling book, Learning to See—An Artist’s View on Contemporary Artists, has a chapter on de Kooning titled “Dutch Boy Paints.” He is the Editor-in-Chief of The Art Economist.