It is not every day that one sees an exhibition devoted to the work of three artists who are members of the same family, but “A Very Happy New Year to You” at Nina Johnson Gallery in Miami is precisely that: an illuminating show with infectiously ebullient paintings by three Abelows—brother and sister Joshua and Tisch and their grandmother Paula Brunner Abelow. On view through February 9, it is a touching affair, suggesting how their artistic growth and stylistic invention shaped one another over the years. Earlier this month, I spoke with Tisch, who is 33 years old and has recently been making psychologically charged portraits, and Joshua, who’s 42 and leaning toward abstraction these days, about their first show with their late grandmother, who died last year at the age of 94.
ARTnews: There’s something intriguing about having an exhibition that focuses on a family of artists. It creates such a close-knit and intimate dialogue between the works of art.
Tisch Abelow: It’s amazing to see the ways in which our sensibilities overlap. I think our work complements each other. You can feel that the work and the artists are related.
Joshua Abelow: I agree. It feels so personal. And it’s such a unique opportunity to show with my sister and my grandmother. It’s too bad that Paula isn’t around to see this show happen, but she knew it was in the works and she was enthusiastic about it. Art was a strong bond between the three of us and our cousin, Andy, who went to Maryland Institute College of Art for painting but pursued music. Tisch and I did a show together at an artist-run gallery in Philly nine years ago. That was our public debut as a family of artists.
Would you say that Paula Brunner Abelow paved the way in your family for both of you to pursue art?
Joshua: Paula helped pave the way for me to visualize a world that was bigger than the suburban world I grew up in.
Tisch: Paula was an inspiring force. She was extremely prolific and kept a studio practice up until her death at age 94. I always loved going to her basement studio growing up and playing around with her pastels and charcoals.
Joshua: Paula was always showing me whatever she was working on in her many sketchbooks. You could look at her and know her interior life was vast and rich.
Tisch: Even riding around in the car with her you could tell she was an artist. She’d comment on the colors and the lines along the road and the trees. Being around her gave me a certainty about being an artist myself, that being an artist was in my blood. The kind of artist I am feels rooted in being in touch with the Jewish and Eastern European half of our family. One time, I recorded Paula speaking and when I played it back for her she was shocked by her thick Czech accent. She had no idea she had an accent! This tickled me because her accent was such a reminder of my heritage and family history.
Joshua: One of the most memorable experiences of my teenage years was a monthlong trip to the Czech Republic and Switzerland with Paula and our grandfather Ira. Paula often spoke of Prague and of her life there when she was a girl before the Nazi occupation. She observed all the Jewish high holidays and was generally involved with the Jewish community where she lived. She often wore colorful baggy clothes that somehow managed to look incredibly stylish. She was very beautiful in her youth. She even won an award for belly dancing when she was in her 80s! She persevered through many tragedies, including the loss of her three sons: Jonathan, Evan, and our father, Ralph Abelow. In other words, she was an inspiring human being.
How has your grandmother’s approach to art making impacted the way you think about painting?
Joshua: I’m pretty sure it was Paula who introduced me to Matisse, and I think it was pretty early on when that happened, like when I was 12 or 13. She had a Matisse book that made a deep and lasting impression. Simple shapes, flat color, and fluid lines. That was it for me—I was sold! Like Matisse’s, Paula’s work is executed with an economy of means. There is intent behind every mark. And there is also a strong rhythmic quality to the work that I strive for in my own paintings and drawings.
Tisch: After Paula died, Josh and I went through her life’s work—college assignments from Cooper Union, endless sketchbooks, abstractions, figurative work, sculpture, pastel and charcoal drawings, oil paintings. I felt in awe, and even a little jealous, of her willingness to try different styles, yet somehow she maintained a consistent touch. There was always something definitively “Paula” about the simplicity in her colors, lines, and compositions. I can get a bit stiff and controlling in my own practice, so seeing how she experimented was inspiring. Also, the fact that she made work with little reward or recognition is a helpful reminder that being a true artist is not about one’s career, it’s about making work and remaining humble.
Do you think that you’ve influenced one another as siblings?
Joshua: Yes, I think so. It’s hard to define, but I think there is absolutely a shared sensibility, although there are certainly a lot of differences as well. I think one key difference is that I went to art school and Tisch went to liberal arts school. When Tisch was younger, her ambition, like our mother, was to write fiction. She went to Sarah Lawrence intending to focus on creative writing but ended up painting instead. I, too, have an interest in creative writing, which I think relates to a shared interest in psychology. I think we both see painting as an inclusive activity than can absorb other mediums and strategies.
Tisch: I was only 9 years old when Josh left for RISD. Growing up in suburban Maryland, it was pretty eye-opening to visit Josh in Providence, Rhode Island. Not to mention, how I learned about art history was fairly unique. Throughout high school and college Josh made work, even replicas, in the styles of famous painters, and those works hung all around our house. At the time, I thought those were Josh’s styles and compositions. It wasn’t until later, when I’d flip through art books, that I realized, “Oh, that’s a Matisse!”
Tisch’s recent work has become increasingly personal, after enrolling in the New York Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. The subjects come from old family photographs and images that evoke childhood memories, which seem to create an even deeper meta-dynamic between the works.
Tisch: Yes, since my enrollment at NYGSP, I’ve been painting portraits. These works explore my personal and family history as well as my dreams, to make work that shifts between comfort and discomfort. I think of the people in these paintings as a reflection of myself but also as their own characters, with their own traumas, as I might relate to a family member. For me, showing this work alongside Paula and Josh certainly enhances the uncanny effect tenfold. The history is right there! My work is not only reflecting my projected idea of my family, but it is literally in dialogue with my actual family’s work and essence.
Josh’s work has always had a psychological component as well. Although his recent paintings are becoming increasingly abstracted, they retain a level of intimacy and intensity.
Joshua: My work habits tend to be cyclical. Abstraction and figuration come and go, and from time to time they link up. In the many months leading up to the election of Donald Trump, my work became very agitated and somewhat aggressive. I made a series of large paintings loosely based on an image I took from a Francis Picabia painting titled Masque, dated 1949. I called these paintings (and drawings) the “ABELOW IN LUXURY” series. The luxury series was the first body of work I produced in the church where I live and work and run [the gallery] Freddy in the Catskills.
It was freeing for me to loosen up and make some “expressive” paintings, but once Trump was elected, it didn’t feel right anymore. Trump was agitated and aggressive enough on his own and I no longer wanted to contribute to that vibe. I decided to lose the figure. I also changed the size of the large paintings from 80 by 60 inches to 80 by 48 inches. Over the years, I have gone back to this vertical type of painting again and again. I like the doorway/portal/window metaphor. The main idea is to make the paintings as plain as possible, to let the associations remain abstract and to let the political content remain somewhat implied rather than illustrative.