The Daily Heller: Bascove Unbuilds Bridges (and Other Things) With Collage

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I met the artist Bascove over 40 years ago when she began doing her signature brand of woodblock editorial illustrations for me at The New York Times OpEd page (one of my favorite commissions included three illustrated initial cap letters that were so bold yet simple they lit up the page). Her political and literary work is in the permanent collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum. She was best known, however, for the numerous book jackets and covers that gave novels (like this) a searing vitality. Not content to illustrate others' work, she turned to her own painting. Three collections of these paintings have been published, accompanied by anthologies of related writings: Sustenance & Desire: A Food Lover’s Anthology of Sensuality and Humor (2004); Where Books Fall Open: A Reader’s Anthology of Wit and Passion (2001); and Stone and Steel: Paintings and Writings Celebrating the Bridges of New York City (1998).

Bascove’s most intensive focus for many years has been the bridges of New York City—vast and small. She adores the majesty and functionality and has painted them as monumental portraits that are both familiar and rare. In recent years Bascove has shifted media from painting to collage—very intricate assemblages of fragmented visual elements. Some are bridge deconstructions, others take scraps from other sources. All combine energy and passion into explosive imagery. I’ve written about Bascove before (early on in my book Innovators of American Illustration, and for PRINT as well). It seemed time for another conversation.

Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge

Your collages have such energy. The pieces, while precisely designed, seem to explode from vortex and critical mass. Tell me how this approach developed?I had a personal experience that prompted some issues with my balance and proprioception—the sense of where you are in space. Exploding is right. That’s just how it felt. So, I took some of my bridge reference photos, the dozens I took for each painting, and started cutting them up and reconstructing them on a piece of board. For me, the city’s bridges provide inspiration and sustenance, and they’ve become so familiar, I feel like I’m part of them. Seeing new spaces and combinations was like being introduced to them anew.

Bridges create solid ground where there is none. I decided to experiment with collage—including images of bridges without clearly expressing their solid build. To my amazement, and despite their abstraction, their solidity is still evident in spite of the incongruence of the abstract pieces that make up the collage. It was grand—I started exploring other subjects the same way.

Seeing Blue

You had been painting, for a long time, very impressionist/expressionist/representational portraits of bridges. You made them dramatically alive yet curiously solemn.

The bridge paintings were also intense and turbulent, but much more controlled. Reassembling the geometry and integrating representational imagery in abstract compositions in these new pieces has allowed more investigation of space and motion. Having worked in multiple mediums, I find I’m bringing everything I’ve previously developed into these works. Many of the black shapes could come straight from my woodcuts, the color palette and variations from my drawings and paintings.

Seamstress II

There seems to be a kind of universe-building in these collages. In other words, images appear to evolve from the inside out, reaching a kind of orchestral crescendo. Are you indeed making music as you cut and paste? Is there an equivalency?

I’m delighted that you experience them as musical. There is certainly an intention of movement and dislocation—the elements either fly beyond their boundaries or implode. Why not extend beyond the edges of the borders? I’m reaching for another type of space and time, constantly experimenting with how to give the elements an animating energy that belies the limits of two dimensions.

Collage is one of my favorite media, but mostly as a means of distorting reality (usually for social or political reasons). Yours are not in that mold. What inspires your approach?

I revere political collage; the immediacy is a powerful language unto itself. There are also contemporary collage artists that have used paint and everyday objects, like Lee Krasner or Anne Ryan, who explored the experience of life through abstraction. All have been great influences.

My approach is a response to the great rush of meta information and imagery that surrounds us now, how one thought immediately evolves into another. I like to think these works reflect our perception of life today, as enlivening, chaotic and spirited. Science, architecture and color charts repeatedly appear in interconnections of geometry and form. Using elements that come to hand, like the traditional mending and decorative materials that women in my family used, has been a joyful exercise in improvisation.

Finally, how do you see or foresee an image before you construct it? Is there a dummy or sketch stage? Or do you just allow it to happen?

It’s the opposite way I have worked most of my life. I decide on a subject and start gathering materials, which I may or may not use. No sketches, no idea of the direction it will take. I love the spontaneous nature of it, experimenting with balance and color and, as it grows, locating the areas with the most dynamic force. Each piece has a life of its own.