Susan Brockman: Editor, Filmmaker, Artist

Sheridan Sansegundo | September 10, 1998

When Susan Brockman graduated with a fine arts degree from Cornell University in the 1960s, "There were so many choices then - I didn't want to be too concrete about what I wanted to do. Letting in accidents and seeing where things went seemed to be the way to go," she said.

Consequently, though she has never veered from the arts, her path has taken her from set design to "box" art to art magazine editor to filmmaking to color photography on vellum.

The conversation was taking place on the stone-paved terrace of the Woodhouse Playhouse in East Hampton. An Elizabethan-style building, with high rafters and mullioned windows, it was built at the turn of the century by the wealthy Mary and Lorenzo Woodhouse as a 16th-birthday present for their daughter, Marjorie. For idyllic summer parties, players and musicians would be brought out from New York City to provide entertainment in the playhouse.

In TriBeCa

Ms. Brockman's late father, David, and stepmother, Elizabeth, who bought the Woodhouse estate at the beginning of the 1960s, continued the tradition with plays and concerts, including Shakespeare productions by the young Joseph Papp.

Her stepmother "knew how to match the challenge and theatricality of the house," said Ms. Brockman. Elizabeth Brockman still lives there.

While Ms. Brockman spends most of the year in her loft in TriBeCa, in the past few years she has been spending more time at the East Hampton house, as have her brother, Richard, a psychiatrist whose play "Angels Don't Dance" was recently optioned by the Off Broadway Cherry Lane Theater, and sister-in-law, Mirra, a film and theater director.

But back in 1960 she had set off for Greece to work on the sets and costumes of an ambitious project to film "The Iliad."

Even with the Greek Army happily standing in as extras, however, the film was never finished.

"Let's just say it was a great adventure but not a totally conceived project," said Ms. Brockman.

When she returned to America, she was inspired by an 8-year-old's shoebox project to make a series of elaborate peepboxes. Looking into them, one saw dilapidated rooms, peeling hallways, and maybe just a shadow of a person. The static tableau, usually unpeopled, where something is about to happen rather than happening, is a theme to which she has returned again and again in different mediums.

With de Kooning

Asked whether the Abstract Expressionist painter Willem de Kooning had had a big influence on her work at this time, during the years they were living together, she said that with such an archetypal artist it was inevitable.

"It would have been hard not to be affected by his power and brilliance as an artist and as a person," she said. "It was the luminosity and almost iridescence of his colors, and his almost re-creation of the color pink and flesh tones, that left an indelible impression on me. The heightened emotionality in the paint itself feels almost baroque."

He was very supportive of her work, she said. In a letter to Joseph Hirshhorn of the Hirshhorn Museum published in Judith Zilczer's "Willem de Kooning," he comments on the good reception in a New York Times review of her work in the Byron Gallery's "The Box Show."

To The Chelsea

It was the zenith of the Pop Art movement, and an uncharacteristically quiet and difficult time for de Kooning. He was still building his studio at the time and the couple lived in several different rented houses over the years they were together.

"It was my first live-in relationship," said Ms. Brockman, "and that in itself was an adventure - cooking, doing the marketing, living an ordinary life."

When the affair ended in the late '60s, Ms. Brockman moved back to New York and into the Chelsea Hotel at a great moment in its history, when its tenants, including Jan Kramer and Leonard Cohen, represented a cross section of New York's artistic community.


A chance phone call from a friend, Sam Edwards, who had just been made the editor of Art Voices, and later of Arts Magazine, changed the direction of her life again.

Knowing that she had an arts background while his was entirely literary, and that she had lots of good contacts, he asked her to come and work for him to bring him up to date with what was going on in the art world.

Art Voices had a swanky office in the Fuller Building and what the publisher had wanted was some sort of "Palm Beachy" editor, she said, but between the two of them they managed to sneak in art pieces instead of social pieces. Robert Smithson and Donald Judd were among the emerging artists who wrote articles for them and whose work appeared on the cover, as did Jackson Pollock's.

"The art world was very small then," said Ms. Brockman. "You could attend every opening on a Tuesday evening and cover the whole turf."

The day came when Mr. Edwards had had enough of the art world. He left to become a park ranger, leaving Ms. Brockman to take over the editorship.

"But I was too young, I agonized over every comma and about my responsibility to the artists," she said. And she couldn't stand up to the publisher. In her very first issue, "he put a shockingly reactionary picture on the cover, something like a Keane" (a mawkish painter of big- eyed children). "Sam was a tough guy, he wouldn't have let anything get past him," she said, but she failed and felt she had no alternative but to resign.

From Print To Film

From magazine editing she turned to film editing. Zena Voynow, the sister-in-law of the famous Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, introduced her to the process, whose technology at that time was such that not many people were attracted to the work.

"With lighter equipment and 16-millimeter film, artists were just beginning to discover film as a medium. But using a Moviola made editing a really tedious, difficult, and painstaking process."

She got a job as an apprentice on a documentary at the Ross Gaffney Film Studio. Later, working on a series of films for California public television, she met and married the cameraman, Mark Oberhaus, now a film and television director and producer, and during their marriage worked with him on a number of documentaries.

Robert Frank

She worked as a film editor during the 1970s and '80s on everything from a network special about Joe Namuth to music and fashion videos, documentaries on hospitals, and a film about the East Hampton artists Alfonso Ossorio, James Brooks, and Conrad Marca-Relli.

An important influence on her film work was the photographer Robert Frank, with whom she made a couple of films.

"He was so relaxed. He knew how to sketch in film, to use the material very fluidly."

She also directed and produced a number of her own films during this period, including "Depot," a film which was shown at the Film Forum in the "New Women, New Films" series in 1976.

Photos On Vellum

Both an homage to, and a satire upon Ruth St. Denis, a contemporary of Isadora Duncan who used to create elaborate photographic poses in ethnic costume, the movie portrays a naked woman eternally waiting - for a train or maybe a lover - in a station. Everything moves - the smoke, the trains, curtains blowing in the wind - except the woman, who is shown in a series of stylized poses.

"Soul of a Dog" (1987) is based on a Kafka short story about a dog who runs wild and meets a troupe of gifted magic dogs. "Lee's Ferry" is a dance film made with a National Endowment for the Arts grant with the choreographer Sally Gross, with whom she also made "Stopped in Her Tracks" for the Public Theater Dance Festival.

During the time they were together, Ms. Brockman had watched de Kooning working with vellum, and in the 1990s she worked out a way to reproduce color photographs on vellum.

Hot Item At Barney's

She works on a small scale, which gives her the freedom to experiment constantly, and makes her own prints, combining the translucent vellum print with a plain double card on which there may be cutouts. The result is a small tableau where the depth and different light sources create a number of dimensions.

"They play with the illusions of edges and space."

Apart from a selection at Havens House in Sag Harbor and Gallery 91 in New York City, the cards are carried exclusively by Barney's in Manhattan.

"It's like having a show every couple of weeks when the cards sell out," Ms. Brockman said, noting that the store quickly sells everything she gives them and has allowed her a creative free hand. Her larger works, many of them photographic triptychs with the same three-dimensional tableau feeling, have been shown by Atsuko Murayama in Japan, and she will have a further show at Jan van der Donk Rare Books in the spring.