A Moment in Time
Artist Joan Moment reflects on an upcoming Sacramento exhibit and six decades of adventurous art, including landing a solo exhibit at the Whitney Museum at the age of 36.
Joan Moment stands in front of her painting, "Tiddlywinks I," one of the works that will be exhibited at JayJay gallery this fall.
Photo by Max Whittaker
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Joan Moment answers the door to her house, a modest Tudor on 35th Street in East Sacramento. A pale, short woman, her head a thick bushel of hair, she could easily be a decade younger than her 75 years. Lunch is waiting out back. The walls of the home are lined with her work, in particular the paintings with geometric patterns that have become a defining signature of her output.
The divide between Moment’s home, which she cohabits with art critic David M. Roth, and her studio is marked by a slate walking path that traverses a lovingly attended garden. The studio, a voluminous detached building that rivals her house in size, is also filled with her art. There are works in progress, some of which will be featured in an upcoming exhibit at Sacramento’s JayJay gallery starting on Nov. 6, as well as evidence of the six decades that she has been an active artist, since her grad school days back in the 1960s at the University of Colorado Boulder (where she studied with, among others, Sacramento area art legend William T. Wiley, who at the time was a visiting professor from his regular job at UC Davis).
The rare studio wall space that is not covered by Moment’s paintings is given over to two posters of the composer Philip Glass, best known for his hypnotically repetitive operas and film scores. Glass’ gazing presence makes perfect sense in this place: his music’s rhythmic minimalism serves as a useful sonic parallel to her own art. She is too varied to be pigeonholed as a minimalist, but Moment’s paintings are rich with visual patterning—circles like the foam of some massive surf, tiny spots that resemble distant stars, rough brushwork that suggests waveforms—and their seeming simplicity, like Glass’ music, belies an underlying provocative intensity.
“The themes of sex, mortality, sensuality and transformation, spirituality,” Moment says, before passing an avocado salad, “have been in the work from the beginning. In spite of the fact that the work appears, visually, to change, that is the thread.” Moment has the patient tone of an artist-educator, having served as a professor for some three and a half decades at Sacramento State. She is as adept at explaining her own techniques as she is at describing those of the masters who preceded her. But while she retired from teaching in 2004, as an artist she is more productive than ever. She estimates that she typically spends six hours painting almost every day, ideally starting early in the morning.
In conversation she is vibrant and funny, reflective and curious. She is also a generous host, serving an alfresco afternoon meal of quinoa and grilled chicken, and discussing her long career, one that took a giant leap forward on one of the single biggest stages in the art world.
If Moment’s career can be said to have had its specific moment, so to speak, it would have been in 1974, when, at the age of 36, she was granted a solo exhibit at Manhattan’s esteemed Whitney Museum of American Art, home to major work by such painters as Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe and Jackson Pollock. That 1974 solo Whitney show followed her participation just the year prior in http://jayjayart.comone of the Whitney’s celebrated, taste-making biennial group shows, in which her work was displayed on the same walls as those by famed artists such as Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Serra.
In the essay accompanying the solo exhibit, the Whitney’s then curator Marcia Tucker called Moment’s work a “keyhole view of paradise, a still and magical world that seduces, enchants, and captivates us with eccentric, impossible delights.” This success came early, and Moment says that what she felt primarily was a sense of shock throughout the experience. “It was kind of like a dream,” she says. “Not a dream come true—there was something very surreal about it.” In the early 1980s she began maintaining a second home in New York, but financial considerations, as well as her attachment to Sacramento State, had her give up her lease in 1993.
It was the Sacramento State position that brought Moment to this area in 1970, immediately following graduate school in Colorado. (Moment was born in rural Pennsylvania in 1938 and the family moved to Connecticut when she was 4 years old.) She has remained here ever since—that is, when she has not been serving as an in-demand visiting artist at Princeton or Wake Forest, among other institutions.
Even if you’ve never stepped inside the Whitney or a local gallery, chances are that you’re familiar with Moment’s work, having probably walked on top of one of her pieces. The Sacramento International Airport serves as the permanent home to her A Fragment of the Universe, a floor mosaic that measures a dozen feet by a dozen and a half. It rests in the upper level of Terminal B. Her mosaic depicts a broad suite of rough circles, some filled with colors, others letting the deep, aquatic blue of the background tiling show through. Moment was one of only three area artists invited to contribute to the airport’s billion dollar expansion.
The mosaic was such a complex logistical undertaking, you might be surprised to find it was her first mosaic ever. Yet, if you appreciate how Moment ticks, it makes perfect sense that she would dive headfirst, with no prior experience, into a project involving countless tiny intricate little pieces—because trying a new medium has never intimidated her. Over the years she has actively worked with varied materials, ranging from a quilt made of balloons, to a pillowcase created from condoms, to painted fabric, to the abstract paintings with which she is so widely associated. And Moment does not paint only with brushes. She also paints with her fingers and with found objects, such as the tops of old film containers. At one point during her studio tour, mention is made of a lovely wooden vase of dried shrub branches situated on a cabinet in between mugs and mason jars full of paintbrushes. She pulls out one of the branches and begins to scratch at the floor. The branch shudders with the jerky motion of a divining rod, and Moment explains that she has been doing a series of paintings with these ragged, spindly sticks.