Joyce Pensato, Painter of Warped Cartoons Who Went from Cult Icon to Celebrated Figure, Has Died at 78

With her characteristic grungy, in-your-face style, Pensato explored a sinister side of pop iconography.

Portrait of artist Joyce Pensato in her Brooklyn Studio, New York, 2004. Photo: David Corio/Redferns.

Joyce Pensato, a painter who devoted her career to mining the psychology of cartoon iconography, has died. She was 78.

Long recognized as a painter’s painter—beloved by fellow artists but not particularly sought-after by collectors—Pensato emerged as a bona fide art star in the mid-2000s. She had an outsize personality and cultivated a legendary studio, which was even messier than the paintings that came out of it. Throughout her long career, she repeatedly trained her eye on toys and cartoons, from Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat to Batman and Homer Simpson, using expressionist brushstrokes and visceral scraping techniques to reveal the dark side of consumer desire.

Pensato was born in 1941 in Brooklyn, a borough in which she continued to live and work for most of her life. She studied at the Art Students League of New York before enrolling at the New York Studio School, where she spent six years working with painters Mercedes Matter and Joan Mitchell and shared a studio with Christopher Wool.

“Joan and Mercedes were both strong-willed women and they were my mentors,” she said in an interview with Hyperallergic last year. “Mercedes was like a cheerleader, and Joan was the critical mom.”

 Joyce Pensato attends the Inaugural opening of The Bunker on December 2, 2017 in West Palm Beach, Florida. Photo: Patrick McMullan/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images.

Joyce Pensato attends the Inaugural opening of The Bunker on December 2, 2017 in West Palm Beach, Florida. Photo: Patrick McMullan/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images.

After years of making abstract expressionist canvases inspired by those mentors, Pensato turned full time to cartoons in the early ’90s after her first solo show at Fiction/Nonfiction gallery in the East Village was canceled just weeks before the opening.

“The cancellation forced me to really look at what I was doing and thinking about, and what I liked looking at,” she recalled in an Artforum interview in 2017. “For the longest time I’d been torn, divided—I had two sides to me as an artist, and I was longing to just become one, totally unafraid of who I wanted to be. One side of me was making these colorful, atmospheric, AbEx-y landscapes, while the other was making these charcoal drawings that were simple, black-and-white, graphic. And I really wanted to make the drawings paintings—it just made sense to me. I like being messy and I love throwing paint around and fucking it all up. But I also like the structure drawing provides.”

The result was paintings that were simultaneously gritty and seductive, evoking the grungy, freewheeling New York of a bygone era. “Whether her subject is Homer or Marge, Groucho Marx, Batman or Donald Duck, her big-eyed behemoths have a similar kind of visual attack,” critic Adrian Searle wrote on the occasion of a show at London’s Lisson in 2014. “Subtle they are not. Pensato’s work is resolutely in-your-face. It has the beat of the kind of street you might want to avoid on a dark night.”

Showing regularly at her two primary galleries, Lisson and Petzel, Pensato also had solo shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (2016); Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas (2015); and the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica (2013), to name a few. In 2013, she won the Robert de Niro Sr. Prize, awarded to a deserving mid-career painter, while the year before that, she was given an Award of Merit Medal for Painting by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Her work is included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Dallas Museum of Art; and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, among others.

“She has been an incredible spirit for all of us, every artist friend, collector, writer, and all of her fans in the gallery community,” Friedrich Petzel, Pensato’s gallerist, said in a statement. “The last few months were hard for many of her admirers. But Joyce kept being Joyce, full of energy, humor, and drive to create art. Nothing could stop her, she has been a true inspiration for everyone who was touched by her.”

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