Joyce Pensato, a painter born and based in Brooklyn who became widely known and celebrated for her large-scale paintings of cartoon characters’ faces, has died at age 78. News of her death was confirmed by her New York gallery, Petzel.
Pensato was born in Brooklyn in 1941 and attributed her early interest in art to her father, a Sicilian immigrant who moved to New York as a teenager and who she described as “like an outsider artist,” in an interview with Hyperallergic last year. However, it was seeing the 1956 Vincent van Gogh biopic Lust for Life, starring Kirk Douglas as the tormented painter, that sealed the deal for her. “I wanted to have a miserable, tortured life,” she recalled. “This is how I thought as a young teenager.”
Pensato studied at the New York Studio School, where the Abstract Expressionist painter Mercedes Matter was an especially influential teacher for her. While in school, she became fast friends with her studio mate, Christopher Wool, whose father she later credited with being her first collector. In her final year at the school, Pensato had a studio visit with Joan Mitchell, who would go on to become another important mentor.
But the encounter that transformed her practice and set her career on its unique trajectory came around 1976, when she had a brush with Batman. In a 2013 interview with the Brooklyn Rail, Pensato recalled:
I discovered Batman by chance because I was looking for pop culture materials to work with. [. . .] I thought of them as still lifes. I finally got what all the teachers were talking about. They all said, “Oh, don’t forget the space in the middle.” Once there was a life-size Batman cut out on the floor with a chair on top of it. They were all telling me to make it energized as space, and I did.
Over the years, Pensato painted an eclectic cast of comic book and cartoon characters, from Batman, Donald Duck, and Mickey Mouse to Homer Simpson and Eric Cartman. The works were often enormous and usually monochromatic—though occasionally a work would have hidden layers and small splatterings of color. Through her use of scale, framing, and distinctively maximalist paint application, Pensato often managed to imbue her innocuous subject matter with ominous undertones. At times she would hone in on a specific detail of a character’s face, or repeat a motif like cartoon eyes, creating nearly abstract compositions.
In the 2018 interview with Hyperallergic, Pensato underlined the formal similarities between her work and the Abstract Expressionist orthodoxy that she’d struggled with as a student. She said:
I’ve been working at the same image for a long time—all these Mickeys. First they were figures and then I found myself drawn to the head—so why not just do the head? To me a clown face, with its big mouth, nose, and round eyes, is so gestural; it is like Abstract Expressionism. It looks to me like a [Franz] Kline — just splashing away.
In recent years, Pensato had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the High Museum of Art, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, and Kunstraum Innsbruck, among others. Her work is in the permanent collections of major museums throughout the U.S. and France, including SFMOMA, the Museum of Modern Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Centre Pompidou. In addition to showing with Petzel in New York, she was represented by Lisson Gallery and Corbett vs. Dempsey.