Following major solo exhibitions in New York and Paris, the artist joins Document to discuss language, legacy, and the ‘thingness’ of painting

When I connect over Zoom with the artist Mira Schor, she’s sitting in the Upper West Side apartment she grew up in. It’s filled with art. Her own, of course—her studio is there—but also pieces by her parents, Ilya Schor and Resia Schor, who met at the Warsaw Academy of Arts and emigrated to the United States in 1941, fleeing Nazi persecution. These surroundings have been inspiring her: “The sources for my paintings have been my own work,” she tells me, referencing drawings and clay sculptures she made when she was 10 years old. “I’m just harvesting everything.”

It has been a year of reflection and retrospection for Schor, who has had two major exhibitions: One, titled Mira Schor: Moon Room, at the Bourse de Commerce in Paris, displayed rice-paper masks and dresses from the 1970s, as well as a painting from 2022. Another, WET, at the Manhattan gallery Lyles and King, showed pieces on paper and canvas dating from 1973 to present. Born and raised in New York, Schor left for CalArts’ nascent Feminist Art Program after completing studies in art history. And a sense of historical situatedness—of her art’s place in history, and her own—hums in her works.

While Schor has worked in myriad forms, materials, and scales over the course of her career, a certain energy of inquiry unifies her oeuvre: an inquiry that links feminist thought, conceptualist practice, theory, and imagery both bodily and abstract. Her paintings are sculptures; her critical writing and editing are art-making in their own right. Her internal inquiry, her “harvesting,” thus, is an inquiry that has a great deal to say about what art can be today.

I’ve had all my work in mind, all my career, at the same time as being involved with whatever I was involved with right then. It’s a little bit like knitting. In knitting, you pull a thread from the past, and that’s how you continue.”

Drew Zeiba: With this recent show at Lyles and King in New York and this exhibition at the Bourse de Commerce in Paris, you’ve been showing work from the ’70s on. There’s also new work. Had you been consciously thinking of your earlier work as you made the more recent pieces? Or has it been a process of rediscovery?

Mira Schor: Kind of both. I feel like the track of my work is a little different than a lot of people I know. Some artists, I know, do change their work. So if you look at something from 15 years ago and now, they’re quite different. But my sense was that my work changed more than others, or went through phases. I could see where there was a cyclical aspect or thematic relationships and so forth. Sometimes it might have appeared jarring, or that was my sense. I don’t know whether that was my paranoia or not. I’ve had all my work in mind, all my career, at the same time as being involved with whatever I was involved with right then. It’s a little bit like knitting. In knitting, you pull a thread from the past, and that’s how you continue.There’s always a bit of looping into something I did 10 years ago, 15 years ago. But on the other hand, I’d written about the work. I had notes from over the years. I accumulated a lot of little statements that I’ve written for myself or for others along the way, but the fact remains that the dresses in particular that were shown at the Bourse and at Lyles and King had been in storage since 1978. They were packed, and I never unpacked them. I taught in Halifax, Nova Scotia, at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, in the mid-’70s, and some of the work was done there. A little bit of it was done in New York. Some of it was done in Provincetown. But of the dresses, all of them had been packed and I really had not seen it. And not everything was that well documented. I had one work here, in my mother’s apartment, because it had stayed in this apartment after a sabbatical in New York in ’77. That was the only one I could show anybody. The rest, I couldn’t really show. I could just say, ‘Well, here’s a picture of it.’

I met Mr. Pinault, and he came to the studio in the fall of ’22. We stood in front of the piece, and I said, ‘I don’t actually know what was saved, and in what condition any of the work is.’ Once that interest seemed to have been established, then Lyles and King and I excavated the whole thing. And that was pretty amazing to see the work again. Luckily, it was in good condition. Mostly. Although it was incredibly fragile sometimes.

Drew: I’m really curious about the shape of those. And the fact that many of the newer paintings aren’t on stretcher bars. A lot of the dresses and masks are double-sided, or there’s a visible fold. Across the work there’s a lot of texture. As a viewer, there appears to be this gesture with the material that’s different from the gesture of mark-making. Whether on rice paper or canvas, the paintings have a strong valence as objects.

Mira: Now that’s interesting that you bring that up. I think a lot of my work, and certainly from when I’d started to do the works in the mid-’70s with rice paper—and the fans, masks, and dresses—a trait began to appear, which has been consistent throughout the work, which is an interest in the thingness of what I’m doing. There are moments, especially in my 30s, when I was finally in the New York art world, when there was a renewed emphasis on having to define myself for other people and give them something to think about, or to hang their perceptions on. And I would think, Okay, I’m a painter for whom sculpture is really at the center of my work. Then, other times, I would think, Well, really, I’m a conceptual artist, but I’m a painter. And it was because all of those different art methods or identities were, in some way, part of how I had learned to be an artist.

And there are definitely preferences that take me away from a standard painting size. There’s a kind of a generic scale, especially for 1950s paintings on canvas, before people started making humongous works and making them more architectural. Or, previously, there was that Cézanne-to-Picasso easel-size work. And that’s precisely what I’ve never related to. I mean, I relate to it as a viewer of their work, but not as something I can do myself.

So, for example, when I started to work in oil, pretty quickly it evolved into the idea that if I was going to do something that was large, it was going to be made up of smaller modules. All the paintings from that time either are 12-by-16, or they’re a vertical multiple of that. So there’s a definite thingness about them. And they fold up. Once I’m finished exhibiting, I can pack them away very conveniently.

I always had somewhere in my head the desire to speak to the grand tradition of painting and to Courbet and people like that. In my 20s, I’d seen L’Atelier du peintre and somewhere in me I was thinking, Someday I want to do that. But it took 50 years or more to get to the point where I could envision doing it—not just because I wanted to do something big, but because the work could be big, or had to be big.

When I started on canvas, I was working on the floor because I always liked to work on the floor. I don’t like this relationship to painting where the work is in front of you. I had laid out extra material where the canvas could be stretched. I started to think, You know, I’m getting older, and I was friends with artists like Leon Golub and Ida Applebroog, who in their 70s began to have physical problems that impeded their ability to do certain kinds of very physical work on canvas—working at scale or working on the floor, which they both liked to do also, and scraping things or whatever. I thought, Alright, I’m getting to that age. So I applied again for one of these studios, and I got a very beautiful big studio at the Sharpe-Walentas foundation so I could work on large paintings. I did make that conventional little border for stretching. But when I moved back to my home studio, there wasn’t the space to do that. Then I thought, I’m just gonna roll out the canvas and paint on a shape that’s the biggest I can do in here, basically. Leon Golub’s paintings were not stretched and they were hung on grommets. So if he could do it, why shouldn’t I do it? They can be rolled up.

“One has a history, a history of one’s own work, which becomes part of your subject matter. I have to do whatever it is and then let other people come to conclusions about it.”

Drew: One thing that’s been fairly consistent in your work is writing or language; script appears on many of your paintings. But you’ve also done a lot of writing on your work and on art in general. You had your journal M/E/A/N/I/N/G, the slashes of which remind me of the equal signs in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the magazine from the experimental poetry movement of that same name. There’s this dialogue with conceptualism in your practice, but it’s manifesting very differently than, say, Lawrence Weiner. This is a very amorphous question, but what role has language played in your oeuvre? I mean writing as in both language and as in physical handwriting.

Mira: This hasn’t gotten out in the world as much, but the work I did from 2009 to 2015 has this signification you’re asking about. There was an evolution. After my mother died, that was kind of like, What am I going to do? I’ve written about this a little bit, but I returned to life through art-making by just doing a blob, basically. The first thing I did was just a blob of black ink in a notebook. That blob ended up being the image on the cover of A Decade of Negative Thinking. Once I did that blob, then the blob became a thought balloon and then eventually the thought balloon had language in it. Then, at a certain point, it grew legs. And so it became a figure that also was speaking. In other words, all kinds of elements began to enter from different times in my work.

In the work now, I think only one of the large paintings has language in it, but it’s basically: Why not? It’s something that dropped into my head this summer. I did a sketch of it. I had the idea of doing a tondo and trying to see whether I could put figures in it. It’s actually kind of hard to work in tondo, but it was easy enough to put language in. Whatever I’ve done could  be developed in the next work; I don’t know what the next work will be. It’s a weird time to be an artist right now, and also maybe to be an older artist—because if you’re an older artist, you’re not part of whatever it is that other people perceive as the latest thing or the newest thing or something that’s really dealing with the present. That’s arguable, but I think that’s the perception. Plus, one has a history, a history of one’s own work, which becomes part of your subject matter. I have to do whatever it is and then let other people come to conclusions about it.

This last year, the sources for my paintings have been my own work, going back to drawings I did when I was 10 years old. I had done these little figures out of self-drying clay. I think there are 10 of them, they’re all figurines of women, singers and different kinds of things influenced probably by things I’d seen at the Metropolitan as a child or sculptures my father had around the house. And those are my subjects. One in particular, which is the most inscrutable one, is the one that I’ve painted the most. That’s the figure in the painting that’s on the cover of the Lyles and King catalog [Torn (It didn’t happen), 2024]. Once we installed that ’70s dress, it looked so related. Also, the work I did just before I went to CalArts or even when I was in my late teens were women in rooms, often with a window, and sometimes with a moon in the room. I’m doing the same thing now. I’m going through flat files and taking pictures. I’m just harvesting everything.