I met Bascove almost four decades ago. At the time she was one of the top book cover illustrators, working in woodcut with a startling expressionist approach that was at once brooding and beautiful. I worked with her on some of my favorite OpEd pages. Bascove left the illustration rigors in the ’80s for a career as a painter, most notably of bridges spanning rivers and streams around the United States. She’s had solo exhibits at the Museum of the City of New York, the Arsenal in Central Park, the Municipal Art Society, Hudson River Museum, NYU Fales Library, and The National Arts Club. She has worked with The New York, Brooklyn, and Roosevelt Island historical societies, and has lectured and arranged events with the Museum of the City of New York, Central Park Conservancy, New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, Municipal Art Society, NYU Fales Library, and the Hudson River Museum. She has been chosen by the U.S. State Department’s Art in Embassies Cultural Exchange to feature in exhibitions at the American Embassy of Sofia, Bulgaria, and the American Embassy of Muscat, Oman. A few years ago she turned from painting to collage. Not just any cliche of collage, but an original approach to creating a sense of kinetic power that I’ve never seen before. I took a recent opportunity to discuss this shift in medium and subject matter, so read on.
What turned you from painting—especially your intense interest in bridges—to these more abstract collage pieces?
There were many factors in my life that were pointing to breaking away from what I had been doing the past 30 years. It’s not the first time I’ve made a major change in medium and subject matter. Some of the bridge paintings were becoming more abstract as I was playing with distortions and different angles. Occasionally experimenting with abstraction in sketch form, it was time to explore and see where it would lead. The first collages were all bridges, familiar structures already made of small units pieced together.
There is a wildly kinetic quality to them. In one sense they remind me of the Futurist painters and their obsession with speed. What inspires these image explosions?
I’ve always loved the boldness of Constructivism and found Futurism exhilarating. These mixed-media works still have representational elements but they have been released from staying in place, growing in whichever direction they want to. Each piece progresses over several months, changing as something I see or read relates to the subject by color, form or substance. It’s exciting to build an image this way, a process closer to stream of consciousness.
“The Time We Spend in Words” is a vortex that reflects our collective thinking. It is an amazing piece that appears to be very deliberate, not ad hoc like so many collages. Do you plan these out? Or is there an element of surprise for you?
Hardly planned! The desire was to make a work about books. I’m mad for them. Since I prefer my own photos, I started shooting books from my shelves, thinking about marbleized paper edges and the open book shape. But then I became fixated on those little black half circles called thumb indexes on the dictionaries. At a trip to Argosy bookstore, where they were just about giving old dictionaries away (!), they actually thanked me for taking them, and I left, weighted down with musty, disintegrating volumes. Tearing apart old books felt like a desecration, though some of them just about fell apart in my hands. These old book pages were too delicate to draw on properly, which meant exploring other ways to balance the composition.
Wanting the feeling of letters and words flying out from the pages involved overlaying dozens of tiny letters found in type-, design-, and poster books. Including images of typewriter and computer keys, moveable type, even metal stencils, all added to the narration of how words become printed on a page. Then certain words, dear to a bibliophile’s heart, such as library, thesaurus, and text, were composed. During those months I came across Mark Kurlanky’s Paper: Paging Through History. His index of how information communication is shared begins with the Sumerian cuneiform and ends with microchips. Microchips, another wonderful shape! So several dot the work’s surface. Cutting and gluing on the curved black slivers of paper configured the direction of the piece, and made me feel like I was carving a woodcut, my first beloved medium. Finishing the work, sensing the need for more texture, the dictionary page edges, almost lace-like, were added.
“Emily Wore White” appears to be filled with memory. I know it’s obnoxious to ask an artist to explain a work, but why so many cobwebs?
You are right, that work is filled with memories. Jerome Charyn wrote a fascinating book about Emily Dickinson titled A Loaded Gun, prompting me to reread her poetry in a different light. One poem, “A Spider Sewed at Night,” an eloquent nine-line verse, is particularly haunting. I’ve hand-written one of each of the three stanzas on each panel of the collage. Dickinson identified with the spider as creator. The spider pulls threads from its own body as she drew the words of her poems from hers, often at night. At that time women’s days were filled with the act of sewing, knitting, and embroidering. She speaks of the breadth of that sewing life by mentioning both a lady’s ruff and a shroud. My mother and grandmothers all sewed, knitted and embroidered, their hands constantly busy. My teenage grandmother and her family, coming from Ellis Island, did piece work, hand-sewing, to survive. One aunt sewed costumes for the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company. This collage contains pins, needles, and thread that were my mother’s. It never felt quite finished until I realized it needed some sewing, which I did! That’s the great fun of doing these pieces: Each one takes me someplace new. And there are tips-of-the-hat to two other women artist arachnophiles—references to Louise Bourgeois and Maria Sibyl Merian are tucked in here and there.
What indeed are the thematic areas you focus on?
Bridges and infrastructure, of course—the elements are so essentially dynamic and graphic. Art, books, and poetry, which continue to be central to my life, and finally astronomy, architecture, and botany, which were always included in my paintings, but usually not as the primary subject. It had been a while since I had done an overtly political piece but “Women in the Military” was a response I couldn’t help but make to the continuing reports of abuse of women soldiers in the military. The strips of type list the statistics of assault and rape in different military services and the names of various abuse scandals.
How do you see these collages evolving in the near future?
They have become more textual: cloth, thread, metal, and other elements seem to be finding their way in, extending beyond the two-dimensional surface. I’m very curious where they are heading, too.
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