Melissa Meyer is big in Japan. Not in the euphemistic sense applied to rock stars, but literally. She has just completed her largest paintings to date there.
Tokyo’s newest skyscraper, the Shiodome City Center, designed by Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo, and Associates, is also, at 43 floors, the tallest. Ms. Meyer has created a pair of murals for the atrium, one at 10′ high and 60′ long, the other at 40′ x 40′. The atrium also includes works by fellow New Yorker Matthew Ritchie, and an artist from Beijing, Zhan Wang.
Like all her works, the murals are a riot of color, spontaneity, exuberant gesture, and masterful poise. In terms of color, gesture and mood, Ms. Meyer is one of the most upbeat painters working in New York today. Whatever the state of the economy, business folk entering the complex are sure to feel a lifting of spirits on passing these works. It is interesting that these murals, decorating a major new skyscraper, started life a week before September 11.
Ms. Meyer tells the story in her Tribeca loft, looking out a window that used to frame a view of the Twin Towers. When the attacks occurred, she was “sitting right here, where we are now, and watching from this window.”
“The week before September 11 (now we do everything “before” and “after”) Sarina Tang [an art consultant] asked me for some slides because she had a project. Then September 11 happened, and Sarina called again and said, ‘Now you have to do a proposal.’ I felt very lucky because it was very comforting to be able to focus on something. I had a lot of trouble focusing on my painting.”
Ms. Meyer threw herself into the technicalities of making a proposal. She called friends for advice, and fellow painter Joyce Kozloff said, “You’re asking all the right questions”. She was told to go along to Cooper Union and ask the architects there to make her a model.
“But I thought, I don’t want to make a model, because I don’t like the little paintings you have to make for models, and then it turned out there was a program all the architects have on their computers. In the end, it turned out, I couldn’t have done this project without a computer, a cell phone, and a digital camera, which is funny considering I’m a traditional abstract oil painter.”
This observations describes Melissa Meyer perfectly. She is her own woman, but open to change. A tough nut, but flexible. She was born in Queens in 1947 and has the accent and attitude to prove it.
The architect Wendy Evans Joseph, who designed the Women’s Museum in Dallas, let her work with a technician in her office out in Brooklyn. “I scanned in my paintings and watercolors, stood behind Liz, and said, can you move it over here, can you make it transparent, soften the edges, take it from this painting or that painting? Basically I made a mosaic, or a collage, on the computer to fit into the two spaces.”
Ms. Meyer noticed that the paintings she was proposing for the Shiodome Center were going to be too big to hang like conventional canvases on a wall. “This is something I learned from my experience living in Rome 20 years ago in the American Academy. And I thought, since they are building the building, why can’t they be set in. It’s worth asking. The world’s coming to an end anyway, so I can take my chances. Of course, the architects loved it. It made sense and they saved a lot of granite!”
The final murals took their forms from these proposals, worked up in Photoshop from an almost arbitrary selection of images chosen originally just to give a mock-up of what a Melissa Meyer might look like. This might seem a curious genesis, but it actually, ties into Ms. Meyer view of collage. “I think collage was the most important visual contribution to 20th-century art.”
Does she make collages herself? “Not any more. I did about 20 years ago.” Perhaps she has internalized the technique, so it continues to inform her painting? “Yes, but I think we all have, just by looking at websites. Going to Tokyo, looking at what looked like a whole city of Times Square, that’s collage. Book jackets. All these things we see all the time are a collage space. We live in a collage space.”
Her paintings often bring to mind quilts, in the way they patch together discrete areas, often forming a loose grid of irregular rectangles of color and calligraphy. “Its funny because in my case I knew about Kurt Schwitters,” she says, referring to the Dada pioneer of collage, “before I knew quilts.” So you are not directly influenced by quilts? “I’m influenced by everything that I think is beautiful,” she bounces back. “I love Japanese prints, Ukiyo’e prints which are woodcuts with water based ink. I like the way the space is created without foreground, middleground, background, but all happening at once.”
But Meyer’s interest in collage is not purely formal. Back in the 1970s she co-authored with artist Miriam Schapiro a polemical feminist text they titled “Waste Not Want Not: An Inquiry into What Women Saved and Assembled-FEMMAGE.” The artists argued that many of the breakthroughs of the (predominantly male) modernist pioneers like collage, assemblage, photomontage, the paper cut-out, had been anticipated quietly and unofficially by women in ages past in such activities as sewing, piecing, hooking, cutting, cooking, and the like, which the authors called “femmage.”
Ms. Meyer’s particular obsession was with the scrapbook. “I had collected scrapbooks, which I had considered visual diaries. I had an English one I bought on Portobello Road. I knew about this woman by just looking at her visual diary, this scrap book.”
The scrapbook is a perfect metaphor for Meyer’s painting: an inexplicable natural order arises from a piecing together of disparate parts. A jumble coheres, but without any imposed narrative or logical sequence. High-octane color and decentered compositions give her work unique strength and beauty. But they also open her up to charges that she violates one of the taboos of current art orthodoxy: That is, that she is decorative.
For many years, Ms. Meyer was represented by the late Holly Solomon, whose gallery was best known for a group (to which Ms. Meyer did not belong) called “Pattern and Decoration.” But what do people mean by “decorative” anyway? “It depends who is saying it, but it could mean in the worse sense, meaningless, or too pretty, or too beautiful, or they don’t think. Its just some word they use that maybe they can’t come up with something better, or they don’t have the energy to work out what they are actually looking at.”
“I don’t mind the word ‘decorative’ if it is used in relationship to Matisse,” she adds. Is there a word she would use to describe the essence of her work? “I think spirit. Or Spiritus, which is breath. I think the best criticism I ever got was from my mother when she saw this painting of mine at the Metropolitan Museum. She walked up, didn’t say anything, and then walked back and said, ‘So much life.’” That’s a lovely thing to hear from anybody, especially the person who gave you life.”
One of the smartest things a teacher ever said to me is that the quality in your work people initially reject you for eventually is what they want. That’s kind of brilliant, no? I used that line a lot at Skowhegan, and people went, ‘Ooooh.’”
What’s Skowhegan? “I don’t know if they’ll resent this quote – but it is an elite art camp. 1250 people apply, 65 are invited, mostly on scholarship, on a 300-acre compound, on a lake.” Ms. Meyer spent last summer there, critiquing young painters and working on one of the Tokyo murals. The other (the 40-foot square piece) was completed in a massive factory building in Queens where she could only work two-panels deep at a time. Ms. Meyer is an interesting mix of individualist and social animal. She thrives in artist communities. She is on the board, for instance, at Yaddo, the artists and writers retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York, and is a frequent resident there.
Ms. Meyer’s mood combines the fatalistic and the optimistic in a very New York Jewish kind of way. At the end of the recorded interview, she mused: “In my most negative moments, when I think that all of this [looking at her stacks of painting] is going to be destroyed, I think this project in Tokyo will be the only proof that I was here. Those are my most negative thoughts.” But then she reproaches herself. “But I don’t want to end on such a gloomy note.” And then, pointing at the tape recorder, she realizes her dark thoughts need not be the ending: “But this is a collage anyway.”
A version of this article was first published in the New York Sun in April 2003 under the title “Big in Japan: A Chat with the Painter”