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Joan Danziger. American Artist, born 1934

Washington DC artist, Joan Danziger began as a painter but moved to creating vividly colored sculpture from wood, mixed metal armature, resin, celluclay, colored glass and paint.

Joan Danziger, Artist, Portrait, artline
Joan Danziger
Joan Danziger, Artist, Bumper Krupp, artline
Joan Danziger
Bumper Krupp, 2010-11
mixed media, metal, fiberglass, thinner, paint, 85 x 29 x 138"
Joan Danziger, Artist, Let's Take a Fly, artline
Joan Danziger
Let's Take a Fly
metal, wire, resin, celluclay, paint, 29 x 13 x 34"
Joan Danziger, Artist, Mosaic Beetle #2, artline
Joan Danziger
Mosaic Beetle 2
metal, glass, acrylic paint, 34 x 32 x 10"
Joan Danziger, Artist, Carousel Frog, artline
Joan Danziger
Carousel Frog
wire, resin, celluclay, paint, 30 x 18 x 9"
Joan Danziger, Artist, Spirit Lightning, artline
Joan Danziger
Spirit Lightning, 2016
metal armature, copper wire, 35 x 33 x 18"
Joan Danziger, Artist, Griffins World, artline
Joan Danziger
Griffin's World, 2007
mixed media, 31 x 16 1/4 x 14 1/4"

Artist Statement

My sculptures combine an interplay of the animal strength and beauty of nature with the human spirit.

They are reaching into the heart of nature to evoke mysterious and secret worlds which draws upon my fascination with dream imagery and metamorphosis.

The use of animal imagery as metaphorical or psychological subject has great potency for me, it gives my sculptures a life of their own and creates a magical world.

"The wonderful thing about the fantastic is that the fantastic does not exist: everything is real" -Andre Breton


Joan Danziger's Forms of Liberated Desire

It seems to have always been there—Joan Danziger's restlessness with formal elements and her eagerness—no, need—for larger, more flexible modes of expression. You can see it in her earliest works, which situate contemporary desire in old forms, to explore, perhaps, the juxtaposition of the two, or the causal connections between the two, how now is prefigured by then, then representing a kind of pressure and now representing a kind of release. And you can see it in her most recent works, her expressionistic wire sculptures, which aim to move beyond normative domains of understanding to create and explore new ones.

Certainly, we can understand Danziger's early works as causal metaphors for the pressure and release of desire. In Secret of the Jade Garden (1983), she is the secret, and in Owl Mother (also 1983), she is the mother. Likewise, in Asmoday's Circle (1984), a mixed media sculpture, she is the music which gives motion to the wheel, and in Flying Bird (1995), also mixed media, she is the bird. Or, if we were to turn it around, we might understand these antecedents differently: we might know Danziger respectively as the cats, the owl-headed woman, the wheel, or the passengers aboard the the flying bird. Which is the pressure and which is the release? Sometimes one can have it both ways.

Danziger's work in beetles is similar to but more ambitious than her earlier work. In these sculptures, Danziger begins with beetles she has selected from the more than 300,000 known beetles, and then she transforms them, exploring boundaries and intersections between our and the insect's domain. Understood in light of her earlier work, we can see this work as involving pressure—the known shape of the beetle—and release—Danziger's departure from the literal. But these works are even more complicated, especially as they communicate with viewers, in whom something interactive—maybe even transactional—occurs both between the artwork and the viewers and between the viewers and themselves. Displayed on a wall, the beetles initially provoke a bit of a shock. We want to know, what are these? Why are they here, in a gallery? Our sense of normative order is dissolved so that, contemplating the beetles, we are suspended in a kind of liminal space, where we find ourselves employing processes of familiarization to restore our sense of broken order. These processes might allow us to source and understand the dilemma these beetles have initiated within us, but resolution remains a challenge, and that is the point.

In Danziger's most recent work, her expressionistic wire sculptures, one sees yet another interesting advance. In Black Star, for example, we are presented with a horse in the attitude of a boxer throwing a left-right combination; in Golden Prince, one encounters a horse in the attitude of a gymnast approaching a pommel horse. These works traffic in at least two domains—the human and the animal—to explore resemblances and departures between the two. In other of her works, for example, Riders of the Blue Spirit and Wild Encounters, the pieces seem to suggest additionally the artist's attempt to a complicate our relationship with her subjects. The metal and glass armature of the sculptures reinforces their poses, suggesting, despite the rhythm of lines, a kind of discord that is unusual given the subject matter. One thinks of horses and of the harmony and fluidity that is normally associated with them. These horses are different. Their awkward, improbable physiology removes them from traditional contemplative domains and involves them in others. In this way, Danziger succeeds in creating art that challenges both historical assumptions of subjects as subjects and of viewers as viewers—an effect that would not be possible if Danziger were interested in spectacle only. It is precisely because of Danziger's fidelity to the subjects in one form that we can understand them as possible in others, and that is quite an impressive feat.

John A Haslem, Jr.

Inside The Underworld: Beetle Magic
by Aneta Georgievska-Shine
Washington, DC
Joan Danziger
Katzen Arts Center at American University

Joan Danziger at Katzen Arts Center

The two-story atrium of the Katzen Arts Center, aggressively bisected by a large staircase that leads to the upper galleries, has always been a challenge for exhibiting painters and sculptors. Its robust architectural presence can make even the most daring artistic statement appear timid. Yet every once in a while, an artist manages to find an effective way of responding to its imposing sculptural volume and unpredictable angles: recent examples include Sam Gilliam's draped pieces hung from the curved walls and ceiling (2011) and Emilie Brzezinski's monumental wood sculptures, whose rough tree-like shapes appeared alive against the space's stark planes (2012).

In both of these cases, the work stood its ground because of dramatic scale or contrasting form and medium. What was interesting about Joan Danziger's recent show, "Inside the Underworld," was that it succeeded through deceptively unthreatening, rather smallish-looking animal forms. The Washington sculptor has long been known for her phantasmagorical object-stories composed of eccentric combinations of human and animal species, some large, yet many more rendered on a much more intimate, tabletop scale. This time around, she presented a body of work that she has been developing for the last few years - close to 70 exquisitely crafted beetles.

As one walked into the Katzen foyer and then climbed its bold staircase, these objects - individually, they evoke oversize jewels fashioned through an alchemical marriage of wire and shards of glass - became ever more present and inescapable, despite their unimposing size. They were everywhere, like an infestation: crawling along walls, climbing all the way to the ceiling, and lying on the floor. Skeletal wire-beetles could be found next to others whose metal armatures were almost entirely covered by shiny glass. There were also humbler-looking ash beetles, some of them rather plain, others painted with carnivalesque zest; horned beetles and winged beetles; and woodland and warrior beetles - as if an entire imagiunary encyclopedia had burst open into the museum interior.

Danziger has spoken of this series of sculptures as a continuation of her life-long interest in between-states, whether physical or psychological. Like her signature anthropomorphic objects, her beetles address desires and fears that resist easy categorization. Her interest in this zoological sub-family derives from the human tendency to revere and disdain beetles, to see them as both beautiful and repulsive, pesky things that you can step on and squash, but that can also survive even the most in-hospitable of environments. Just as important is her fascination with their immense variety. Granted, her sculpted beetles are never faithful reproductions of natural specimens, but most of her creations begin with close analysis and study of actual examples as recorded in photographs or scientific illustrations.

This tension between the real and the imaginary is reflected not only in the diverse media, materials, and techniques that Danziger uses, but also in the names that she gives to her creatures. They are as individual in designation as in form: a slender gray Hermit next to a wire-mesh Vampire; a boldly faceted Constructivist next to a round-bellied, shiny Scarlet Lily - each one represents its own fantastical transformation of a living being.

One could consider Danziger's fanciful beetles within a history of zoological representation. The Katzen Center indeed became a Wunderkammer of sorts during the course of her show, a cabinet containing curiosities born of the imagination, a place that invited wonder and celebrated artistic, as well as natural, diversity.

- Aneta Georgievska-Shine

Emblematic World of Joan Danziger
by Dr. Elaine King

Joan Danziger’s uncanny sculptures do not fit into today’s fashionable art scene. Conjuring mythic, almost romantic worlds, they are the exception that proves the rule of the spiritual crisis that Donald Kuspit sees in contemporary art.1 Robert Rosenblum’s argument in Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition (1975) also comes to mind.2 In his alternative history of modern art, an important northern European mystical tradition greatly influenced artists in both Europe and America. This pioneering work opened up a line of thinking that now allows us to take for granted the landscape allusions and spirituality of Rothko and Newman.

Danziger’s work fits readily within this family of influence. But, unlike the Romantics of an earlier period, who aspired to discover secreted certainty behind the illusion of life, Danziger transports viewers into zones of ambiguity. Her strange characters refuse a unitary resolution and instead function as symbolic depictions of emotions and experiences. Her oeuvre reveals an artist awed by the power of nature and fascinated by mythology. Despite the fantastic qualities evident in these puzzling works, her inspiration, in part, stems from a knowledge of tree species from around the world. The tree is a distinct symbol in Jewish and Christian mythology, placed at the center of both the divine and the earthly Eden. Both a feminine symbol, bearing sustenance, and a masculine one, visibly phallic, trees embody longevity and endurance and are often identified with strength. Their formal structure has long captured the human imagination, the monumental vertical thrust toward the sky linking heaven and earth, while the mirroring root network reaches all that is hidden beneath the earth’s surface. More prosaically, they are places of shelter and sources of nutrition and useful materials.

Each of Danziger’s assemblages contains familiar forms as well as impenetrable tales. Recognizing the supremacy of nature and time’s inevitable effect on all matter, her magical constructions evince a poetic innocence. Before turning to three-dimensional work, she was an abstract painter, and she believes that her knowledge of abstraction’s formal language persists regardless of her current realism. Balance and order remain the foundation for works that hint at chaos and urgency. Themes of temporality, natural imbalance, and life’s majestic power inform Danziger’s recent sculptural series. An indistinct silence veils each self-contained and symbol-filled metaphorical world. Each organic arrangement contains an enigmatic language of abstraction and representation inspired by nature, allegory, and private reflection.


I grew up in NY and started going to art museums when I was very young. I would stare at the Surrealist painters at the museum for hours. I loved their dream imagery and vast imagination. Magritte, Salvatore Dali, Peter Bloom, Hieronymus Bosch, William Blake, Ancient Greek, Roman myths, Native Folklore all this has influenced my artwork. Masked figures, animal imagery, forests, nature all this fascinates me. I have a long-standing interest in metamorphosis - in the blurring of boundaries between the human and the animal, between flora and fauna and the irrational versus the rational.

I was an abstract painter for many years and graduated with a BFA degree at Cornell University and then studied drawing in Rome, Italy. I was exhibiting my paintings in New York when I became interested in creating sculptures. I started experimenting with wire armatures and developing my Mixed Media technique using metal armatures, resin, celluclay and paint. When I moved to Washington, DC in 1968 I started exhibited my sculptures in museums and galleries. I love paint so a lot of my sculptures have vivid colors. Recently I became intrigued by the beauty of colored glass and used it in my series of scarab beetle sculptures. These beetle sculptures with their ongoing cycle of resurrection, immorality and luminous colors became an army of 135 glass beetle sculptures of varied sizes.

I work in series and the nature series "Mythic Landscape" draws upon my fascination with dream imagery and magical environments. The forest settings are an interplay between the animal world and human form. My newest series of sculptures started when I saw the paintings of horses by the German artist Franz Marc. I love his horse paintings, their strength and beauty, and have developed a series of complex sculptural interpretations of these magnificent animals in wire and glass moving through three dimensional spaces.


born New York, NY, 1934

1955 Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, BFA
Art Students League, New York
Academy of Fine Arts, Rome, Italy Visiting Artist (six week residency)
public collections
Capital Children's Museum, Washington DC
Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, PA
Georgetown Day School, Washington DC
Jacksonville Museum of Arts & Science, FL
Katzan Art Center, American University, Washington DC
National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC
New Jersey State Museum, Trenton
New Orleans Museum of Art, LA
Reading Public Museum, PA
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC
Susquehanna Art Museum, Harrisburg PA


Washington Post
"Museum Keeps Things Fresh This Fall"
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, November 23, 2012

Joan Danziger, Washington Post, Artline

Most major museums deliver exactly what we expect, from one visit to the next. The National Gallery of Art? The Calder mobile. The Phillips Collection? Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.”

With tightly focused missions and the strong brand identification that comes from carefully cultivated permanent collections, such museums can’t, or at least don’t, reinvent themselves very often.

The American University Museum, on the other hand, likes to keep its audience on its toes.

With a lively fleet and flexible exhibition program that focuses equal attention on local, national and international art -- and a healthy respect for the past and the present -- the museum delivers only one thing with great consistency: surprise. Recent shows have included a survey of contemporary female ceramicists from Japan, a spotlight on Spanish design and furniture and a presentation of new work by Washington artist Sam Gilliam.

The current shows, five of which opened earlier this month, are prime examples of why the museum, though nowhere near the Mall, is one of the city’s treasures.

The first thing you’ll notice is a wall of giant bugs.

That’s longtime Washington sculptor Joan Danziger’s “Inside the Underworld: Beetle Magic,” an installation of several dozen mixed-media renderings of beetles that makes inspired -- if slightly creepy-crawly -- use of the building’s soaring walls. The building itself, whose curving walls and dynamic sculptural forms have presented art-hanging challenges in the past, has never been better used.

Smithsonian Magazine Art/Science Blog
"Beetles Invasion: One Artist's Take on the Insect"
By Megan Gambino
November, 2012

Joan Danziger, Smithsonian, Artline

Perched on a stool in her studio in northwest Washington, D.C., artist Joan Danziger pages through the book Living Jewels. “This one influenced me,” she says, pointing to Phaedimus jagori, a green-and-gold beetle from the Philippines. The book contains flattering portraits of beetles taken by photographer Poul Beckmann. “See this one?” Danziger asks, showing me a yellow-and-black striped beetle from Mexico called Gymnetis stellata. “It became the ‘Tiger Beetle’ up there.”

Clinging to a white wall in front of us are dozens of beetles—sculpted in all different shapes, sizes and colors. “They are real beetles, adapted,” says Danziger. The artist pores over books and other research on the Coleoptera order of insects so that she can apply some of the patterning and anatomy of real beetles to her sculpted ones; yet, the artist also exercises creative freedom. For instance, Danziger hasn’t made any of her beetles actual size. “That would be too realistic. The whole idea, in my mind, is to elongate and exaggerate them and make them beautiful,” she says. Her sculptures range from one to six feet in length.

This Saturday, Danziger’s swarm descends on the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center in Washington, D.C. All 72 of her giant beetles will be crawling up the gallery’s 50-foot walls in an exhibition titled “Inside the Underworld: Beetle Magic,” on display through December 16, 2012.

Danziger brings over 40 years of experience as a working artist to this project. She earned a bachelor of fine arts in painting from Cornell University and then went on to study at the Art Students Leagues in New York City and the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. She also attended artist residencies in Greece and France. Her public art can be seen in D.C., Maryland and New Jersey, and museums, including the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Susquehanna Art Museum and the New Jersey State Museum, have acquired her pieces for their permanent collections.

In the late 1960s, Danziger transitioned from painting to sculpture. “I got tired of being confined by the canvas,” she says. Nature and animals figure strongly in her work—a result, she says, of lots of time spent living outdoors, backpacking in the western United States and summering in Idaho. But the artist has a particular fondness for exotic animals not found in those parts—rhinos, giraffes, zebras and parrots—and a definite flair for the whimsical. She has sculpted figures, half human and half animal, performing acrobatics, cycling and playing in bands.

Now, says Danziger, “Everyone wants to know, why beetles?”

Since discovering Beckmann’s book Living Jewels, Danziger has done quite a bit of research on the insects. “There are 350,000 beetles in 160 families,” she reports. “You kind of get addicted.” At first, it was the beetles’ iridescent colors that drew her in. But, now, Danziger is enamored with all the mythology surrounding the bugs.

The scarab beetle (Scarabaeus sacer) symbolized great power and immortality to ancient Egyptians, Danziger says. The beetles are known to roll balls of dung and drop them into burrows in the ground. Female scarabs then lay eggs in the dung. The larvae, believe it or not, eat their way through the dung ball and then emerge from the ground.

“I like beetles, because they are survivors,” says Danziger. “Through all kinds of traumas of life, they are the ones that are going to survive.”

Danziger’s sculptures capture, in a sense, the full life cycle of beetles. Each of her beetles starts with an intricately woven wire armature. “They are kind of born in the wire,” she says, showing me some sculptures made strictly of wire. “Then, they roll out and get covered with ash, which is the gray material that I have up there.” She points to a gray beetle, flipped on its back and hanging on the wall; its wire foundation is completely covered in celluclay, a type of papier-mache. “And then they get reborn into color,” she explains. With this project, Danziger reinvented herself as a fused glass artist. She essentially builds mosaics of cut glass within the beetles’ wire frames. For the insects’ shells, she melts glass decorated with frit, or little pieces of colored glass, in a large kiln; the glass slumps over a mold, which gives the shell its curvature.

“Metamorphosis is the key,” writes Lenore Miller, director of George Washington University’s Luther W. Brady Art Gallery, in the exhibition catalog, “as these sculptures transform into creatures not found in nature, having evolved out of the artist’s imagination.”

Danziger leads me around her studio to introduce me to her beetle babies. “They all have names,” she says. “That is Spider. That is Retro. This is Copper Wing.” I meander through a herd of monstrous beetles laid out on the floor, taking great care not to step on a leg, antenna or wing. She hunts down a “little fellow” modeled after an actual rhinoceros beetle and an “interesting guy” inspired by a Hercules beetle. A Hercules beetle, Danziger says, can carry more weight for its size than almost any other species. After sharing the tidbit, she carries on. “This is Midnight Beetle. That is Bumblebee. This is Red Devil Beetle,” she adds. Red Devil Beetle has sharp red horns protruding from its head.

“Some people think they are absolutely beautiful, and others think, oh my God, beetles, creepy crawlies,” says Danziger. “I kind of like that dual reaction, between beauty and horror. When people think of beetles, they think of them as tiny things. But here they are magnified. They are beautiful, but strange.”

"Inside the Underworld: sculpture by Joan Danziger"
By Amanda Lineweber
November, 2012

When you walk into the American University Museum you'll find yourself in a beautiful, contemporary two-story atrium. You can find this kind of room in most museums and art exhibit spaces that have been built recently, and it's often used for soaring sculpture or a large-scale installation. Joan Danziger's artwork currently installed at the Katzen is both soaring and large scale, and it accomplishes both of these in addition to the fact that it's subject is beetles.

There are more than 70 beetles installed in the Katzen's atrium. Some are made solely of wire, some have beautiful glass backs or wings, some have glass mosaics integrated in the wire mesh, a tedious process. Others have plain or painted clay covering their wire bases. You could fit some beetles in your two palms, while a few are six feet across. For the last two years Danziger has been making these beetles in her studio. They've been crawling up her walls, laying on her floor, and getting tangled up in fights together.

While Danziger was creating the beetles, they had been sitting close to each other. For the installation they're more spread out, with space between each beetle. The choice allows us to see the incredible detail of each artwork. The architecture of the Katzen's atrium is well suited to the installation. When you enter, you see immediately that the beetles have taken charge of the space, crawling up every wall of the atrium, plus the ceiling. As you go up the staircase, you're able to see more detail on each beetle that wasn't clear from the ground.

What's clear from this exhibition is the fact that Danziger is a craftsperson of the very highest quality, making charming and captivating sculptures. Her wirework often incorporates multiple colors and shades of metal, which Danziger delicately mixes and twists as a painter would blend their pigments. Many of the beetles have backs made of solid plates of glass, beautifully hand colored. Several are covered in clay and attentively sculpted, requiring firm form construction to support the weight. Danziger's skill is as heightened as it ever was in her more than forty-year career.

For most of that forty-year career, Danziger has been working in DC. While most of her work can appear whimsical, if you've followed her career or looked at her larger bodies of work you'll know that Danziger follows greater systems of thought. Take these beetles for example. Each one was not created from Danziger's imagination, but to imitate an actual beetle. (For the budding zoologist, or interested visitor, a brochure lists them by name and photograph.) This artist is interested in the rules and standards of zoolo gy and mythology, in understanding them thoroughly. Danziger may choose to ignore them, but she wants to know the rules she's disregarding before she does so.

The Pink Line Project
"Inside the Underworld"
November, 2012

Joan Danziger’s art has always had the gravitational pull of mystery and magic. Now, in a new exhibition opening November 3, 2012 at the American University Museum in the Katzen Arts Center, Danziger will unveil the latest twist on her celebrated mythological sculptures by diving into the underworld of the beetle. Featuring approximately 60 sculptural creatures, the installation will showcase a horde of beetles in varying shapes, sizes and iridescent colors, crawling up 50-foot walls in and around the AU Museum to create a strange and creepy world. The exhibition will remain on view through December 16, 2012.

Over the course of her career, Danziger has combined her interest in the animal world with the beauty and mysticism of nature. Inside the Underworld introduces her newest riff on this theme as she explores a fresh group of subjects—beetles—with the playful fantasy and whimsy that has come to define her work. Fascinated by both the cultural myths of the beetles, which date back to the ancient Egyptians, as well as their physical ability to materialize mysteriously from underground, Danziger infuses each one with magical purpose and meaning.

Made out of Danziger’s usual technique, which consists of wire, celluclay and paint, the sculptures also incorporate a new material: fused glass. This is the first time Danziger has used glass in her work and she was inspired to experiment with glass for the exhibition at the AU Museum. The process is multifaceted as she cuts the highly colored glass into various shapes, which are then fused in a kiln. Afterwards, they are set into wire or are slumped again in a kiln for a beetle shape. Danziger likens the process to abstract paintingas she searches to create the iridescent and metallic colors of the beetles. As in the real world of insects, no two of Danziger’s beetles look the same.

“My fascination with the beetle images stems from my appreciation of their kaleidoscope of colors and patterns, their sculptural forms and the variety of their universe,” says Danziger. “They are a wonderful visual territory for me to explore intertwined with their mythology and mystery.”

read more reviews on Danziger's work on her website



Inside the Underworld: Beetle Magic

Inside the Underworld: The Beetles of Joan Danziger

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