In 1999, the summer before her senior year, Isca Greenfield-Sanders bought a box of 600 snapshots at a yard sale in Putnam, New York. The photographs, taken in the 1950s, depict family gatherings at the beach and in suburban yards; hand-scribbled notes on the backs hint at the family’s identity: one woman is named Alice, and a little boy is Tommy. The dog is called Stinky. But the family’s history is not what interests Greenfield-Sanders. She sees in the photographs an excuse to make oil paintings. “The archive gave me a large set of images to work with,” she explains. When she returned to Brown that fall, she began using the photographs in her paintings. The results earned her a solo show in Turin, Italy, a few months before graduation; everything sold.
Now twenty-five, Greenfield-Sanders has completed roughly 300 pieces based on those snapshots—works ranging in scale from large mixed-media paintings on canvas to silk-screen prints and small watercolors. Her work is in the collections of the Guggenheim Museum and the Lauder Corporation, and she has had four sold-out solo shows to date. This April she shipped her latest collection from her studio in Manhattan’s East Village to the Galerie Klüser 2 in Munich, which is hosting a solo show through July 22.
One signature work, a painting she calls Poolside, looks at first glance like a blown-up photograph of a typical suburban American family from the 1950s. Two girls and a woman in a skirted bathing suit wade in a backyard pool. But the work is on canvas and its surface is slick with translucent oils that create a haze, as if the scene takes place in intense, vibrating heat. “Photography is in the background,” Greenfield-Sanders says, “but the surface is all mine.”
Photography and painting both come naturally to Greenfield-Sanders. Her father, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, is a photographer and filmmaker known for his celebrity portraits. Her grandfather Joop Sanders was an abstract expressionist painter. She apprenticed under both but says she perfected her technique at Brown, where she concentrated in visual art and mathematics.
Greenfield-Sanders begins each painting with a snapshot, which she scans and crops in Photoshop. She prints black-and-white copies onto rice paper and applies watercolors. Then she selects one image and rescans it in color, digitally enlarging it to fit her canvas, which is approximately four feet by five. She prints the resulting image, segment by segment, on seven-inch squares of rice paper and reassembles the entire grid on canvas, sealing the rice paper with a clear acrylic. Then, one square at a time, working left to right and top to bottom, she paints the entire canvas with oil paints.
Since her work pairs computer technology with oil painting, Greenfield-Sanders has attracted fans from both camps. “The computer geeks,” as she calls them affectionately, embrace the digital and photographic aspects of her work, and she has been profiled in Wired magazine. Traditionalists, meanwhile, favor her painterly qualities and nostalgic subject matter. Yet Greenfield-Sanders is the first to admit that some purists dislike her reliance on computers and the absence of drawing. “I never wanted to be affiliated with a school or a particular aesthetic,” she says. “I want my work to be free to look like a Goya or a de Kooning—and then, if I want, a Klee watercolor.”
Erika Kawalek is a program coordinator at the New York Institute for the Humanities.