INTERVIEW with JEROME WITKIN
This interview between Walt Morton and Jerome Witkin took place June 1st, 2019.
WM: What makes for a serious portrait?
JW: Portraits are very hard. Because they usually involve vanity and they usually involve money. Collectors want things, and may ask the painter to change the mouth or something like that. When I've done portraits, I’ve done people I know very well and they will allow me to do anything I want. That's mostly friendship involved. I want to show them how they feel to me. But the idea of any portrait, it has to do with vanity so much, and pleasing the viewer. It’s why I don’t do many portraits. It’s exhausting to please the other person.
WM: There is a current idea among artists that realism and even photographic realism is most desirable in a portrait. What are your thoughts on that?
JW: It's hard not to use photographs because they're so available. They're cheaper versus models. I tend to work first from drawings of the figure, then I’ll build it up with photographs. And then I may work directly with the model again. And sometimes the photograph becomes so vague compared to painting from life. That's important to realize. The other thing is that if an artist does a portrait via a photograph, that artist can feel secure. There’s a security working with the photograph. But the living person sitting in front of them projects life itself and projects conversation and projects color and all that stuff. I would prefer to paint from life, but sometimes in my work there's so much information involved that you want to have it all. I might place a model in real spaces, like a little theater to observe. I have to look at all of that in a portrait. And by the way, a model, who is also an actor or actress, is good because they can relate to the performance in the painting. They are part of my picture and want my picture to succeed and the photograph can't do that.
WM: There was a period when Gerhard Richter was doing paintings where he was trying to duplicate a photographic aesthetic or the aesthetic of a blurred photograph. It seems like you are never trying to do a photographic aesthetic, but some kind of painterly aesthetic that is solely your own. Is that correct?
JW: Yes. It’s an interesting thing. I know Richter’s work. And I don’t feel connected to his work, I feel like he’s making decisions about how to present the photograph which I think is kind of small change. I would rather see Richter go in front of a real live person and say his feelings much like Rembrandt would say his feelings before photography existed. Because that was all he had. Of course, Degas used photographs, Cezanne used photographs. Everybody does at some point. But the point is how does it feel to look at somebody compared to looking at a photograph of somebody? It’s the idea of the importance of looking at the person. I could be looking at a person for weeks or sometimes months. I get to know them very well. I can see them in my mind's eye and keep painting without them. If they show up in person, I can correct things. Ultimately, I want to find some kind of truth.
WM: We’re living in this new world of social media where people are worried about tweets and “likes.” And my question is: do you think you can do a serious piece of art if you're worried about being likable? And worries about selling? How does that deflect the artwork?
JW: If you think of yourself as making a commodity, you might as well commit suicide. Because the way the art world works, once you have a commodity you are stuck repeating yourself and it’s a Faustian bargain. Collectors want that commodity and only that. And to me that's not an artistic life. It's not a journey. If you make a commodity, you do your shtick and that's it. And then you reach a point where you want to run away because you’re stuck with collectors who demand to buy the same thing. To me, that’s not the life of an artist. The artist should be a life of independence, where no one can say “do this again.” Because, I don't do that again for anybody.
WM: You’ve painted paintings like “The Screams of Kitty Genovese.” In that work, you did not reference the horror of her murder overtly. On the other hand, you've painted very explicit images visualizing the horror of the Holocaust. Do you have a theory about when to show things and when showing too much could be offensive?
JW: I don't think about viewer. I think of how I'm committing myself to this image. You know, my dealer Jack Rutberg's been a great friend for 26 years and whatever I give him, he shows it. There’s no editing or censorship. He believes that I'm doing something worthy and he wants to show it. What’s fascinating is in my own childhood, my mother was theatre crazy, she would take me to see plays in New York City. I saw it all. Countless plays and I think that also made an impression on me. Later, when I saw Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf,” I felt at that point in my life I’d never seen such carnage.
WM: The 1966 Mike Nichols film version is also very good. It still carries a jolt.
JW: Yes. It's so hard to take, because you get uncomfortable. But art should be delivering facts and different feelings and if you can't take the heat, you leave the kitchen. I mean that's all. But instead what many people want in art is to be very delicate. And delicate art does not hold over time. You have to take chances and give it your whole shot.
WM: Your holocaust paintings upset some viewers because they're shocking and not polite. Maybe you’re familiar with the criticism Stanley Kubrick made of Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List as a feel-good Hollywood film? Kubrick said: "Think that's about the Holocaust? The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. Schindler's List is about 600 who don't.” Can you make a polite painting about the Holocaust? Would there be any point?
JW: No, because there is something to dealing with horror like that. I really feel that there's something strange in human nature to be revealed. And today, racism is worse than ever.
WM: Yet many artists are reluctant to make art about controversial subjects. They don't want to make difficult art about issues of race or gender or sex or politics. I showed one of your holocaust-themed paintings to a thirty-something artist and they said: “I could never do a holocaust painting like that, it would never sell.” What are your thoughts on this issue? What about doing a serious painting of a difficult subject?
JW: I'm concerned with what real people do in their lives. I follow that and if it’s something I have to paint, I'll just drop everything and start a picture that will take me to an answer. Right now, I'm working on a ten-panel painting of something I saw years ago when I was a student in West Berlin. I was 21, on a Pulitzer traveling fellowship, and I would take a train from the West to the East Berlin to study the communist system. Once, I was sitting in the train returning to the West, and at a station a very nervous girl comes in holding a guitar case and we all instinctively knew that she was trying to escape to the West. Collectively all the passengers were rooting for her to make it seven stops to freedom. But at the last moment the train halts. The doors ripped open. I was in the same compartment as she was, I saw her scream as soldiers grabbed her and yanked her off the train. I felt sick to my stomach as the train continued to West Berlin. People on the train were really exhausted. They were crying. And I asked around: what's going to happen to that girl? People said probably six years of confinement or they might just kill her. Very harsh and she was only 16 years old. After that, I walked around under this fog and thinking: “How do I deal with this?” That was the start of my being a social-involved painter. I had always loved social realist artists like Jack Levine and Ben Shahn. I knew them both personally, as well as Willem De Kooning, who liked every kind of painting that he felt was good, and didn't put any restriction on anything. I knew Philip Guston, and I was very taken by his sense of art. Today, my idea is that when you're about age 30, suddenly things click. You realize what you want to look at. But when I was 21, and saw that girl trying to escape, I didn't know where to put it. And oddly enough now at my senior age, I'm actually painting this serious subject. I'm very interested in the idea of political systems that could hurt you.
WM: When you paint this Berlin incident and a viewer sees it, are you trying to let the viewer experience your feelings? What do you seek to accomplish?
JW: I like the idea of sequential paintings. You know, paintings that could be four panels, or six or whatever. If you think about a movie, you can break it down into certain pictorial sequences that all link together like pearls on a bracelet. And what I want to do is slow down the observer looking at a picture, by making many pictures. Sometimes they're diptych, triptych but in this case, I'm making ten panels. I want viewers to invest, get into a human moment. I really believe this is important. I want to make it so that people will be gaga in front of this art for a chunk of time and taking it in. I think film is the most of important art form of our time. We can't beat it. We talk about it. We want to see more movies. You know, when I was a kid in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I would go to the movie theatre and just look through the window at the posters and the photos on the lobby cards and I’d think “Oh, I see what this movie is,” and then I’d leave. It’s the same thing with painting. If you make a painting strong enough, then people will not leave, but will hang around looking at it.
WM: When in your painting career did you start doing sequential narrative paintings like that?
JW: I think the big breakthrough was the picture of my father leaving home. The painting is called “Division Street.”
WM: And how many years had you been painting before you discovered that sequential narrative approach?
JW: A long time. But I think I wanted very much to make pictures that captured a situation happening. Division Street comes from a memory. I was actually a child in a high chair and I was watching my mother throw dishes at my father. I just remember my mother shouting and crying and screaming. No idea what the whole thing was about. I couldn't forget it. And later in my own marriages I realized how hard it is to make relationships. So, underneath there's a sympathy for both parents.
WM: I have a friend who is a white painter in Boston and he did a painting of a Black athlete. Several Black people criticized him and said he was “appropriating” their race and shouldn't do that. What would you have to say about this idea that only Jews can paint Jews, Blacks can paint Blacks, only lesbians can paint lesbians, etc. How does an artist of your generation think about this social justice politically-correct territory?
JW: If I talk to a lesbian and I said, “I'm going to make a picture about your life,” I'm feeling like I would want to know so much from her. It would enlarge me. To know I could be dealing with something territorial that I was unfamiliar with. I could be very grateful. To understand a person whose needs are to be a lesbian. And I think that would be great to understand. It’s not a matter of “you’re not me” but whether “I can become you.” If I understand you well enough, I know something more than I did before. Instead of making fences between people, we should hope that we could become each other's interests, and not feel like I'm not Black enough to paint a Black man because I'm a white man. The whole point is to try to understand another person and to paint what you found out about him or her.
WM: You often use vibrant un-realistic color in your paintings. What is your thinking on treating subjects with a chromatic palette? Any inner theory on that?
JW: I always use green in a certain way. I love looking at stoplights for the green color. In my earlier paintings, I used colored lights to make something look different from what is expected. Now, I’m using overhead theatrical lighting. That's enough. Although I like to have people posing in daylight for painting the figure. It’s a matter of what feels right in a theatrical sense. I think color wise, I sometimes use yellow or orange to seem to isolate the painted subject apart from the observer. That’s all.
WM: Most artists learn a process or style of painting from teachers and then after they have practiced long enough it becomes their working habit. What can you say about your style of painting?
JW: Sister Wendy Beckett said some wonderful things and she said most importantly, “The real artist doesn't cheat the experience.” I feel deeply about that. And when I start thinking about how to make a painting, I draw first from the model. I build sets sometimes. I’m building a set now from photographs to match a 1960’s Berlin train. I want to be responsible for the reality I put together. I think when people look at my style, I don't know what that word “style” means. I don’t know what my work looks like to you, but I know what it looks like to me. Artists like El Greco and Tintoretto made little clay figures to help guide their vision. I think if you have a vision and you trust your vision then you don't have to think about style. I believe that's the difference between an amateur and a painter. The amateur thinks in terms of: “I've got to find my style” while the painter, says “I have a vision.” Those are two very different ways to go about working.