Dale Appleman is a Manhattan native, a distinguished painter and the mother of actress and photographer Gillian Zinser, profiled in AWT’s Rejection issue. We spoke to Appleman about her artistic process, the value of solitude in creative work, and the ways things have changed for female artists between her generation and her daughter’s.
AWT: How did you begin your career as a painter?
Dale Appleman: Early on, I identified with my father as an artist. The word ‘career’ doesn’t work for me—I had no script, art was something I just wanted to do. The thing always was to try to keep doing my work. I am image-obsessed—I like paintings of course, but also book illustrations, photos, postcards, billboards, magazines, movies…pictures!
In junior high school, I went to an Upper West Side apartment art studio run by an older bohemian art couple to prepare a portfolio for the entrance exam to the High School of Music & Art. My years at M&A, this turpentine-scented theater where drive, talent, and diversity were a tonic and a challenge, were pivotal. Mae Stevens [feminist artist, political activist, educator, and writer] was my painting teacher; she modeled the life, and the possibility of being a woman artist—a serious painter. I only later understood how unique she was in those heady male-dominant years.
At Skidmore College in upstate New York, I was incredibly lucky to have Arnold Bittleman as my drawing and printmaking teacher. Though he had exhibited and was in the collections of MoMA, the Whitney, and Brooklyn Museum, among others, he came in every day looking for ways to teach us the difference between looking and seeing. He embodied the pursuit of seeing and working into your piece—that is, staying attuned to what it is ‘becoming’ as he’d say.
After college, I worked in pastel, graphite and colored pencil, always taking my mother’s 35mm Retina when traveling. I supported myself as a graphic designer later when I moved to Washington. The Corcoran Gallery sponsored the Conference for Women in the Visual Arts and I met artists, eventually sharing gallery and studio space and meeting for informal critiques. This circle led to solo and group shows in and around Washington.
AWT: How do you look at self-promotion as a female artist? Perhaps you can talk about watching Gillian and her generation being so successful at it.
DA: What a brilliant and important question! Self-promotion is thorny for me—I just want to do the work! I am no good at (read: dislike) networking for publicity. I’m happy that Gillian’s generation is more relaxed and confident about this—certainly social media are immediate outlets for expression and self-promotion. I am somewhat uncomfortable, however, with the selfie nature of some of this. A distracting amount of hype and virtual connection doesn’t sync with the focus and solitude needed to make work.
AWT: What is the value of solitude in producing creative work?
DA: Distraction: the ubiquitous fiend. Being alone works unexpected gifts, chief among them realizations and inroads. It is a privilege to have the time to listen and respond to your own thoughts, dig into your work, write. I can’t even share a studio because this is such a strong feeling. I kept my third-floor home studio ‘secret’ until Gillian figured it out. Though I need to work alone, I confess to a lifelong envy of musicians that had to have started at Music & Art—seeing the other half enjoying collaboration and collective achievement…being part of a larger creative organism.
AWT: Tell us more about the benefits and problems you see with using social media as both a medium for expression and a promotional vehicle.
DA: Gillian once posted a photo of wall graffiti: STOP MAKING STUPID PEOPLE FAMOUS. Who knows whether Warhol intended to be prescient or ironic when he said, “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes”—but we’re certainly here. And I ricochet between finding the benefits of this proliferating democratization of expression and wondering whether it muddles our ability to discern. True, I do love being able to find work of artists I want to know more about online. And in countries where one’s views and art are verboten, it’s a real victory. Still, it’s a mixed bag. Benefits for artistic expression: nearly anyone can have a timeless, if virtual, platform. And maybe go viral! The downside: nearly anyone can have a timeless, if virtual, platform. And maybe only those you know are following.
AWT: How do you feel about the patriarchal bent of the art world? Have you ever felt like an intruder in a male-dominated world or was this topic not a concern of yours? Has this changed in any way between your generation and your daughter’s?
DA: At Skidmore—then a women’s college—a large majority of the faculty were male. Nearly every one of my art teachers was male, but the one female art professor [Joan C. Siegfried] I had was a brilliant art historian.
In college, I drew and painted female nudes a lot. I found the female form far more complex and interesting. And while I abstracted some, most were drawn with every bit of concentration I was capable of. One day in class a 30-something professor looked at my work in progress—a female nude—and leaned in to warn me that I didn’t realize just how this might be read, or what it could convey. He meant, of course, to a male like himself. I was stunned. This professor—an artist himself—couldn’t see beyond a naked body on my canvas! Thousands of years of the female nude in art coursing throughout all my art history classes, and my little painting was provocative? I am thoroughly sure that the pose and my rendering were nothing that would give Lucien Freud or any of us pause now. I was furious but I never told him off. It wasn’t a subject I knew how to take on yet.
Equally wild in hindsight was that at Skidmore, professor James Kettlewell used the 572-page art survey tome “The History of Art” by H.W. Janson who found not one female artist worthy of inclusion in the sweep of time from the stone age to the early 19th century. It took Germaine Greer [Linda Nochlin, Lucy Lippard, et al] to amend that in her 1979 book “The Obstacle Race”—opening the world to extraordinary but forgotten female painters, Artemisia Gentileschi, Sofonisba Anguissola, etc. At a museum in the 70s, I saw a large-format calendar titled “In Praise of Women Artists” and sent them slides of my work to consider. I was really happy to be included in several publications by the Bo-Tree Press [San Francisco]: “Contemporary Women Artists” and “In Praise of Women Artists.”
You’d have to ask Gillian if she’s experienced the male hegemony in the TV and film industry. She’s certainly able to stand behind her convictions, having grown up and been educated in a far more politically aware climate than I. But the real question for artists and the rest of us is: Who wields the power to decide?
AWT: Tell us about your painting process.
DA: My process is changeable. Some paintings stem from an idea, state of mind or image which—if persistent enough—may develop into serial work. Others might start as riffs, blind leaps, paying attention to what is surfacing. Sometimes color drives the work—the power and nuance of color is a big part of my need to use paint. Metaphor—in word or image—is so useful. It gives me ways into psychological mindscapes.
AWT: What materials do you use in your paintings and how do they reflect your message?
DA: I work primarily in oil or acrylic and I have used my photographs as transfers. I think of paint, paper or canvas, and a camera as my toolbox for color and image. The only time I’ve connected a particular medium with a message was for a series of homages to fresco painters I love, where I used pumice stone in the oil paint. Usually, I just don’t think about either.
Truly, I can argue that [my] paintings are never done. I stop when there’s no longer a conversation between us and I very rarely go back to rework. I’m pretty linear too—not eager to start another work before this dialog is over.