Nancy Mitchnick
Curated by Polly Apfelbaum
October 16 – November 22, 2003

Nancy Markiewicz Mitchnick was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1947.  She studied at Wayne State University and moved to New York in 1973.  In the 80's she exhibited her work with Hirschl and Adler Modern, and has shown work nationally throughout her career. 

She was a full time member of the faculty at the California Institute of the Arts for ten years, and is currently the Rudolph Arnheim Lecturer on Studio Arts at Harvard University.  Nancy Mitchnick has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Pollock Krasner Foundation Grant, and a National Endowment for the Arts award.  Most recently she was a recipient of the Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Award, at Harvard College.


Polly Apfelbaum was born in 1955 in Abington, Pennsylvania. She attended SUNY Purchase College in Purchase, New York and later earned her BFA at Tyler School of Art in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania in 1978. She lives and works in New York City.

Polly Apfelbaum has been exhibiting internationally for nearly twenty years. A major mid-career survey of her work debuted at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the summer of 2003. The exhibition will travel to the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri.

Apfelbaum's work is in many important public collections, including: The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; The Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, Washington; The Dallas Museum of Art; The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Illinois; and the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

The artist has received important grants and awards such as: the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Art; the Richard Diebenkorn Teaching Fellowship; the Joan Mitchell Grant; the Artist's Fellowship New York Foundation for the Arts; and the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant.




100 Dresses

This body of work began as a group of studies, and though it has evolved into a sequential project of excessive proportions, the spirit of 'figuring something out,' is still a real part of it.

I read this book as a child that I always remembered: a girl who wore the same tired dress to school everyday, in a moment of confidence, told the 'popular' girls that really she had -- in her closet at home -- one hundred dresses. When they snidely asked why she always wore the same old plaid school dress she explained that the dresses were all party dresses, and not appropriate for weekdays. As a child I had fancier dresses than the kids in my neighborhood because my Mother's New York Aunt's liked to send party clothes and books on manners hoping to encourage a cultural shift. There are lots of ways to be an outsider, and having ridiculously fancy dresses in a working class Polish neighborhood in Detroit is definitely one of them.

What happened in the book was the little Polish girl moved to Chicago with her Dad. But, to the horror of the disdainful girls she had entered and won THE drawing contest . Everyone was stupefied until they saw the pictures. She had drawn one hundred dresses and they were wonderful. I know other women my age who remember reading this book as children. It was surprising in its emotional actual-ness. And Wanda Petronski was probably the first girl artist I'd ever heard of. So with a sense of hilarity and purposefulness I decided to see what would happen if I painted a hundred dresses.

I have a few rules. The paintings on paper are numbered. I don't mess with the sequence, if I paint another version of a dress it gets the same number with an a or b attached. The paintings that use models, always get started by looking at them standing there. I often finish using a photograph. Where I am working at the time can have an impact, like a particular landscape or interior space. The paintings are acrylic on paper, and except for two early ones, they are 52 inches wide. The height varies, from 8 to10 feet. I have painted one dress from a movie magazine. I feel free to use historical art. I plan to make structurally abstract changes to a few dresses. I think sewing something odd might be interesting. For the most part I'm using dresses that I bought at the Beverly Hills Hadassah thrift shop in Santa Monica last year.

A painting intuition that affects me deeply and that I trust is how differently some beings fill the rectangle. Sometimes I don't get much past the knees, I hate that feeling of squashing someone in.

I'm painting men in dresses as well as young and older women and children. If I really want to paint someone and they won't put a dress on for me, I have many skirted options. A chef in Ipswich is going to pose in his apron with work boots. I painted a guy in my dog group with decal dalmatian spots on a bathrobe. A cabinet maker I know wants to wear a kilt. Judiciary robes will be good, as well as doctoral gowns, and I'm longing to paint a religious being in ecclesiastical garb.

It also turns out that I just can't bear to paint 100 white people. I've decided to use the statistical break-down of the US census.

Because I teach I know many really lovely young women and they abound in this series. I am very interested in depicting older women. I have renowned friends who I am thrilled to include, and I'm particularly interested in the carpenters who work in the warehouse space I'm painting in this summer. My father was a carpenter.

I think another reason I feel so compelled to do this work, now that I'm on the other side of 55, is that I notice I want my youthful body back. Painting can be a kind of wishful dreaming. I've avoided 'the feminine,' most of my life also, and am willing these days to tolerate my own vulnerability, it seems like a choice: it probably isn't one. And dresses are a kind of equalizer, they contain shapes in surprising ways.

I have always disliked acrylic paint, but it is perfect for this particular work. And it really is time for a metaphorical sea change. I adore the paint Nova Color makes on Black Welder Street; It is often called 'the people's paint of Los Angeles.' It is ready to go right out of the containers. It is matt and flat and fast. And for all those turpentine years of soulful oil paint on linen primed with rabbit skin glue, that represented my true heart, I think I just needed a break from solvents and reverence.




by Polly Apfelbaum

I like work that is idiosyncratic, or that has been given a raw deal, critically or otherwise. Nancy Mitchnick didn't start out that way, but today this work feels like a new discovery - something overlooked that's fresh again. I like her casualness, and her painting's insistent visuality. They are not there to be analyzed, but to be looked at. She takes obvious and guilt-free pleasure in the act of painting, and she is good at it (these two may be related.) No nonsense, no hierarchy, no false history, just painting and its many subjects.

She understands very well the emotional tug of her subjects: dresses, dogs, landscapes, and quirky narratives; but the experience of these paintings is also about color, pattern, flatness, weird points of view - things that have to do with painting and its problems. Its by putting these two together, or better, showing how they are always there together, that the paintings really jump. Its something you could only do with paint. For some people this is conservative, but for me, it's all about experimentation and taking risks. When the rules are well defined, it's harder.

In talking with Nancy I am struck again with the illogical logic that drives artists to do what they do. It's never direct, and in this case, a book called 100 Dresses gave her an excuse to loosen up, to try something new. Then there is the medium itself -- after working always in oil paints, she decided to experiment with acrylic on paper, something faster and more direct maybe. So much art is process and the pleasure of the making. It's this openness to experimentation that can only come with confidence and a sense of where the work needs to go that becomes visible in the work itself, as a sort of record of visual thinking. I think that's finally what I like about this work, the sense of being along on the artist's own adventure. I am so happy to see this work out in the world.