Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Maven of Watercolor: Susan Shatter, 1943–2011

Susan Shatter, who died earlier this year, was one of the great exponents of watercolor among contemporary artists.  She was a consummate technician, revered teacher, and passionate advocate of the medium which she used, along with other painting materials, to express profound feelings for American landscape, whether the searing sublime of Utah desert or the dramatic turbulence of the Maine coast.  In a rare departure in terms of imagery and mood within her work, she also found an organic, abstract language in unexpected colors to express the pains, hopes and sheer weirdness of undergoing her first breast cancer surgery in the mid-1990s, exploring “the anguish, the fear, the joy that I went through being ill and recovering,” as the artist expressed it herself.  After years of heroic struggle she succumbed to the illness this last July.

Susan Shatter, Melting Rock, 2006. Watercolor on paper, 52 x 61 inches. Courtesy of DFN Gallery

Susan Shatter, Melting Rock, 2006. Watercolor on paper, 52 x 61 inches. Courtesy of DFN Gallery

Shatter was determined that people take watercolor seriously, forcing them to rethink stereotypes arising from the Victorian era when it had earned its reputation as the polite medium of amateurs.  In 2002 I had the privilege to work alongside her in an exhibition she instigated at the New York Studio School, a bold curatorial venture of forty contemporary artists ranging from well-known exponents such as Francesco Clemente, Marlene Dumas, Philip Pearlstein, Al Held, Elizabeth Peyton, Sean Scully, Graham Nickson and David Salle to truly marvelous artists known in smaller circles for their inventive, at times subversive use of the medium to yield singular effects beyond the tropes of wash or translucence, artists like Patricia Tobacco-Forrester (who also passed away this year), Ray Kass and Donald Holden.  It was typical of her feisty attitude towards artistic excellence that Susan would think nothing of bringing together artists of very different milieu and allowing their equality to be asserted on the gallery walls.

Shatter was a great believer in art community.  She was a regular colonist at Yaddo, for instance, and was active in the National Academy of Design, where she served as Treasurer and then, until her illness forced early retirement, as President. Devotees of The Review Panel in particular are in her debt for stewarding the program (with former President Gregory Amenoff) to the NA during turbulent and challenging years for that institution.

Susan Shatter was a native New Yorker.  She studied at Boston University, Pratt Institute and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and was the subject of over thirty solo exhibitions, receiving her debut in 1975 at the Harcus Krakow Roen Sonnabend Gallery in Boston, Mass.  A significant exhibition of her work, Tracking the Terrain, that brought together her breast cancer series and landscape paintings, took place in 2003 at the State University of New York at Stonybook and was accompanied by a catalog written by Donald Kuspit.

A memorial for Susan Shatter will take place at the Century Association (7 West 43rd Street) on October 5 at 5 pm.

Susan Shatter in conversation with the author, 2001.  Photo: Marianne Barcellona

click to enlarge

  • Virginia Sassman Rose

    David, thank you so much for these loving thoughts about Susan. I remember the NYSS watercolor show, at the time I was working with Patricia Tobacco-Forrester and Ray Kass as well. Susan had a great sense of humor along with incredible integrity and grit. I am grateful for the art she has left us, as she is very much missed…

    • Chief

      Thanks, Virginia, for sharing your thoughts. I was distressed, on checking the spelling online of Patricia’s name, to learn that she too had passed away.

  • Anne Neely

    Susan was not only a maven but she was also unflinching in her approach to her cancer, her art, someone else’s art, food and (an avid reader) books (whether she liked “a read” or not). She always had an opinion. We were a town away in our remote summer studios in Maine where she would bring people together for her “watercolor workshops” in Downeast Maine. Once I drove her to the annual meeting at Skowhegan where she made many contributions to the shaping of their program. Although small in size, Susan was large in stature leaving a surprisingly large wake behind her. She will be dearly missed.

  • Ray Kass

    David, I have just read the wonderful and sincerely moving piece that you wrote about our dear friend Susan Shatter. I miss her very much and think of her almost everyday – and about her beautiful work, her courage and determination, and the special presence that she contributed to art and to all of our lives. My forty two years of friendship with her, our travels, and the many days of painting together, are inseparable from my experience of life and art.

  • Kevin Estis

    Sorry to learn of Susan’s passing. I bought 2 of her paintings in 2004. Now I cherish them even more. RIP Susan.

  • Andrew

    One of the artists final interviews is posted in LINEA, the journal of The Art Students League of New York: