Artist Snapshot: John Mendelsohn

Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions

by Stephanie Cassidy | March 24, 2020

John Mendelsohn interview[1]
John Mendelsohn in his studio

At what age did you decide to become an artist?
As a child I was always drawing, and always involved in art growing up. When I was in college, that is what I kept focusing on, so without deciding on it, by the time I graduated I was on my way.

How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
I did not specifically tell my parents that I wanted to be an artist. They could see my interest, and they did encourage it in different ways, including my attending the art classes that were offered at the museum. While growing up in Pittsburgh, I particularly remember going to the Carnegie International over the years with my parents. They were reluctant about my going to an art school, so I went to a liberal arts college instead. I continued with my work in art, and when I graduated, I got a place to live and paint in, so at that point I think my parents saw that there was no turning back.

Who are your favorite artists?
This question has had different answers at different times, some artists remain important to me including Paul Klee, Jasper Johns, and the painters of Persian miniatures, and Tantric art.

Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?  
Since I occasionally write about art, I am always encountering artists who are unlike me, and that move me enough to write about them. Some of the artists I have recently written about include Elizabeth Riley[2],
DeShawn Dumas[3], Dennis Hollingsworth[4], and Gelah Penn[5].

Art book you cannot live without?
The complete works of Van Gogh, given to me by my brother.

What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
The quality of finding their own way.

Do you keep a sketchbook?
I have in the past, but currently I make notes and drawing on loose sheets of paper.

What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
I had a very memorable visit to the rock garden at the Ryōan-ji Temple[6] in Kyoto, Japan.

What’s your go-to NY museum?
It depends on the show that must be seen.

What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
Such hard questions! Let’s say the Frank Stella retrospective at MoMA[7] in 1970.

If you were not an artist, what would you be?
I think that I could write an advice column or be a tour guide!

How did your early artistic cohort influence your development?
When I was in the Whitney Program at the end of college, I was in contact with young artists who were serious about their work, and in touch with art in New York at the time. At the same time, they had an independent spirit, so they wanted to find their own path.

What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
I did not go to art school, so maybe there are many things I could have learned. But I have given up worrying about them.

What work of art have you looked at most and why?
The Bonnard painting[8] of his wife bathing in the Carnegie Museum of Art. It is a resplendent and mysterious work of art.

What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
Walking along the Hudson River near where I live.

Do you listen to music in your studio?

What is the last gallery that you visited?
Artists Space[9] in New York to see the Jana Euler exhibition.

Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?
Suzanne Jackson[10]. I would say under-known, but her work is receiving well-deserved attention lately, including a review I wrote[11] about a recent exhibition.

What art materials can you not live without?
My Pilot Precise V7 rolling ball pen with blue ink.

Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
I work regularly, but am out of the studio for teaching.

What is the longest time you went without creating art?
A number of months, a necessary break.

What do you do when you are feeling uninspired? 
I look at what I have been doing, and just let that be enough.

What are the questions that drive your work?
I do not work in terms of questions, but I do find that without knowing what will come from them, my paintings reveal something of myself to me.

What is the most important quality in an artist?
A mysterious faith in art.

What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
There is something that I am currently working on that maybe is the marvelous thing I am thinking of.

What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
There is a vast, ever-changing resource of artists and images that is always renewing itself, best if consumed in limited doses.

JOHN MENDELSOHN is part of the Art Students League’s new program “Visiting Artists and New Abstraction[12],” a series of visits by prominent abstract painters who will speak about their own work, give students an approach for in-class work, and offer critiques of student work. To see John’s paintings and drawings, visit his website[13].

  1. [Image]:
  2. Elizabeth Riley:
  3. DeShawn Dumas:
  4. Dennis Hollingsworth:
  5. Gelah Penn:
  6. Ryōan-ji Temple:
  7. Frank Stella retrospective at MoMA:
  8. The Bonnard painting:
  9. Artists Space:
  10. Suzanne Jackson:
  11. a review I wrote:
  12. Visiting Artists and New Abstraction:
  13. his website: