Jerome Witkin, American Artist Interview

Jerome Witkin, American Artist Interview

By Hall Groat II, Professor and Chairman,
Art and Design Department, SUNYBroome Community College

Reprint from 1998 Central New York Art Guide,
copyright©1998 Hall Groat II, Publisher, New York Art Guide
This interview was published in 1998 within the Central New York Art Guide publication.

To learn more about the work of contemporary artist, Jerome Witkin, please visit his web site at www.Jeromewitkin.com 

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Hall Groat II

What inspires you to paint?

Jerome Witkin

I gave a lecture at the school for talented visual kids.  During this whole harangue of mine this black guy in the back said “Why do you paint?”  But I was thinking, he was probably saying “Why am I going to paint?”  Is something very unknowable –why’d you feel the urge to make pictures and don’t give a damn about personal economics or personal confusions, you just want to do it because you have to do it.  And need to do it because you have to do it. This need to do it is everything and if you don’t do this stuff that you have so much wishing to do, you will probably end up with ulcers and distraught self-image.  So you have to do it!

Hall Groat II

In your eyes what makes a great painting?

Jerome Witkin

I’ve made close to some great pictures; I don’t think I’ve ever made any great pictures.  It’s easy for the other person to look at the other person and say “That is so-called great painting.  The artist is always under the doubt of doubting that they make something that totally surprises them.  I think the word surprised and great are mixed.  With the best work I’ve made, I was either totally surprised by the work being so good so fast…  and maybe that is the strongest work.  But I didn’t have much to do with it; it just surprised me.  If I were to work like Death as an Usher, which took three years to make, I know I have taken many chances on that picture that it needed to take.  It is like what sister Wendy says with the interview with Bill Moyers; he asked her “What is an artist?” She said “The true artist goes deep and he or she never cheats the experience.  I think that is the greatest thing.  Michelangelo in his diaries when he was 51 said he is a failure because he didn’t go deep enough.  The rest of us think he did. One time Alice Neal had a show at the Everson and she called me up and she said “Go with me to the show— I want you to hold my arm and we will see the pictures together.”  I knew her for a long time.  We looked at all of her best work and when we finished the show she said to me “Is that it?”  That means there’s doubt.  I think like anything else, a mountain climber needs oxygen and gets in trouble the higher they go.  I think if you want to climb a molehill than you can keep your best clothes on, but I think if you go for something bigger there is doubt and confusion.  Even Raphael Sawyer said “I began confused and now I’m ending confused.”

Hall Groat II

What aspects of painting do you feel contribute most to the aesthetics of a painting?

Jerome Witkin

One time I was a kid at the Skowhegan School— I think I was fifteen—I stayed in the barn too long to paint one night.  Everyone who had cars left and there wasn’t the lighting they would have now.  So I left this dark building and had to go through a dark path in dark woods. I was afraid, I was literally peeing my pants.  I was getting cold and had to get out of there.  I could have slept there until the morning; that would have been the smarter thing to do.  I decided to cut into this darkness – absolute darkness – no moon –nothing.  I found myself in short time in thickets—off the road in thickets.  It was literally afraid that I would get poked in the eye by twigs and branches, and that I would be lost in deeper and deeper thickets.  The reason I survived is a passing car zipped by and I saw the road again.  I was crawling on the road all the way back.  I think that is what painting is in a very dramatic way.  I don’t paint safe pictures.  I’m not going to paint a picture and say “This is going to look good to everyone.”  My background is an abstract expressionist painter, and at any point the whole thing can change, and I let it change.  So, you either end up with a great surprise or great discouraging event, and you destroy the thing.  All these things about color, texture, and that stuff—the painting knows that—you have to ask the picture politely to tell you what you might find within it. There is a dance, and if it wasn’t a dance these things wouldn’t take time to make.  The more you see paintings the more you know of what you might want in them, and that wish to find what you want in them might come forward the more you paint.  I have an optimism I will find the road and won’t get lost in the thickets.  About ninety of the time I find the road and get to the cabin and get the light on.  But, in 1991I spent nine months on a painting that never worked, and it was really a terrible experience.  I went through every trick and every bit of energy I knew, and I couldn’t make this thing work.  It was a three panel, and he was feeling for the first time in my adult life that maybe I should take a year off.  It was that the discouraging.  And then when I did destroy the picture I felt better, and said to myself “Now I’m going to do a month of drawing and just forget about this.”  Then I get a phone call from the Memorial Museum in Rochester, and they asked me to make a picture that was similar to the one I just destroyed.  The funny thing is that it gave me another option, which is actually an interesting gift.  The option was not to paint Auschwitz which I just came back from.  By having the whole thing shift; making a whole different image; giving me more objectivity; the picture came out beautifully.  It was a wonderful event.  I don’t make safe paintings and the subject matter is not neutral.  I don’t make ironic paintings; they are more and more what I feel; and maybe they are more illustrative-I don’t care!  What I care about is just doing the best pictures I can make.  I no longer have control over what the things look like, and I don’t have beginners luck.  He gets harder and harder to make the picture.

Hall Groat II

Of the issues you have dealt with through your work which ones are you most passionate about?

Jerome Witkin

The Holocaust thing I think I’m finished with.  It took eighteen years.  The Norton Museum in West Palm Beach will show all of those pictures and everyone—there are six of them.  All but two are in collections.  I own two of them.  My son was born nearly five years ago with an incurable blood disorder; he has changed my wife and me.  It has changed me from a hyper-egotist into someone who is much more caring about that life continues.  I would rather have him survive youth into being an adult.  I would rather have that happen than anything else in my career.  I mean if I had a career where I made good paintings but they were never shown—fine!  But I want him to live.  Life and art are two different things.  His struggle to live is bigger than anything I know about.  What I am doing now is re-investigating my religiosity.  And I have come to terms with that; I have come to terms with nature, and luck, and chance, and prayer.  So I feel maybe a little like Rembrandt who lost four children in his career.  At the end he was alone; he was a Jekyll and Hyde.  He had a deep sense of his religiosity with Jesus and grace, and he had a terrible way with people.  I feel privileged just having to deal with certain trials in certain experiences in my life.  I think I know what love is, I know what being a father is, I know what the struggle for being a painter is.  Those things are gifts, whatever that is.

Hall Groat II

Could you discuss your process for creating a narration?

Jerome Witkin

The good thing about a narration is I keep a lot of little books, copybooks, and composition books.  I fill them up with notations and wishes and stuff.  I think what I like about my work and me is that if you have a lot of talent and facility you’ve got to keep that in check as you can stop that facility.  If you make a deal with yourself that you’re going to make a very impossible to make painting that is beyond what you know then you are in good shape.  I just finished the picture two years ago called The German Girl.  It’s really an outrageously difficult picture…  became six by sixteen feet. It was a three panel thing.  The point is, what I finish with was a surprise, and that’s good.  I did a lot of studies, and once I got the first part going the picture had its own life and it finished itself.  It kind of told me what to do.  It sounds crazy, but it’s like priming the pump.  The more you prime it…  then it trickles then it floods.  If you immerse yourself in something that is so difficult, usually the reward happens big-time, and the thing has its own logic—it’s fun! It’s fun because it does take you two or three years, but you know then your level of ambition…  Your level of finding something you didn’t expect this terrific.  So you don’t have a small objective, you have a very large objective.  It could include failure—huge failure.  Right now I am painting a triptych of twenty-one feet. It’s about love.  It’s about young love, middle age love, and old age love.  It’s fun.  I’m having a kick with it.  I’m also painting a picture called Jesus or J., and I am exploring what I really believe about the visual and the unseeable of faith.

Hall Groat II

How do you go about choosing the models you use in your paintings?

It’s wonderfully lucky!  I happen to have an idea and somebody shows up.  I really believe that’s Grace.  It’s lovely!  I happen to be able to have the right people when I need them.  They help me make the pictures.

 

Hall Groat II

What themes do you plan to address for your work in the future?

Jerome Witkin

Love, and is there chaos or meaning in life.  Especially when you have a kid who is very sick, and you worry about him.  I spent more than 15% of my life in hospitals sleeping with him because he’s back and forth in hospitals.  He got sick because he doesn’t have a complete immune system; and now he’s well because he’s on a very special antibiotic that is killing something in his liver.  When he goes off that he’s going to be able to get sick much faster.  But he has had ten months at a stretch without getting sick.  We live in a war zone.  He has almost died twice, so he is not like a normal child.  I have older children who are fine.  But this child is incredibly special kind because every day is tricky.  You don’t know.

Hall Groat II

How is Chris doing? (J.W. Older son)

Jerome Witkin

He’s great!  He lives in New York City.  His first book is coming out at the end of this year.  He has four people working for him.  He’s pretty famous.  He went to Japan to get an award as the best young photographer.  He does New York Times Magazine; he does every British-American magazine there is.

Hall Groat II

I remember him being quite a tennis player.

Jerome Witkin

He is a very good athlete.  My daughter was living in L.A. and now she will move back to Holland.  I’ll see her I hope during the summer.  If everything is okay with my little boy I’ll spend a week in year with her. And that is the best time to see her.

Hall Groat II

Who has had the greatest impact on you as a person?

Jerome Witkin

If I had right now a chance to be with anybody all day and just spend time with them, it would be a person.  It would be Rembrandt.  I have been to Holland a lot.  My first wife was Dutch.  My kids are Dutch and American.  They speak his language.  Maybe it’s very egocentric …  I have so many questions for him to check out.  How he felt about his first wife dying?  How he continued in the face of emotional difficulty?  How he continued to be a Christian in the face of screwing it up second mistresses’ life?  How he took abuse?  How his career went down greatly, and then he did his deepest work when he was most abandoned by his own society?  And yet he gained respect…  he was buried in an unmarked grave.  He was a pauper. To me I think the greatest saints have such trials that their faith is greater, and they know that they have nothing except more trials ahead of them.  I really admire that.  Dégas is another person I would love to spend time with.  Dégas when he was middle aged was progressively going blind. He was swearing at God for his ailment.  When he most wanted to make the work he couldn’t see the work.  At the time he was a terrible anti-Semite.  There are all of these contradictions; and I think we forgive contradictions, providing the person is struggling to go deep.  And they did go deep.

Hall Groat II

What type of reading do you do?

Jerome Witkin

I love biographies.  I am now reading a biography by a guy by the name of Bev Griffis, who is a British guy, born in 1906.  He became a monk in a Catholic Church; tried to bridge Christianity with religions of India, and found a way of doing that.  I admire people who are eccentric, who lived a life which is much more intense than most live.  I just read a wonderful book by Donald Sputa who is an ex-monk.  It is the first time in my life that I felt that I was reading something that I could believe in and trust.  It was an inspired book.  I gave a copy to my sister.  My own background because my father was Jewish and my mother was Italian Catholic…  even though my parents divorced I felt both Jewish and Christian, and only in the last few years — maybe five years since my son, Andrew, was born have I had to deal with real definitions.  I am a Christian; I really believe the Messiah is here.  I think there is trust in that.  I don’t want to feel there is just chaos like that dark woods that car gone by with those headlights showed me the road.  I lately think I saw where the road is.  All I know is you still have to crawl on the road out of the thickets.

Hall Groat II

What direction do you see painting moving towards in the future?

Jerome Witkin

 

David Hockney was just asked after seeing the Ingres show in London…  I got a copy of this from a friend in London, and it was a good response.  Someone asked him “What’s beyond photography?”

And he said “Painting and drawing.”  I think the word beyond his silly.  I think what’s confusing with virtual reality, computers, and a million pixels of a photograph, is there are so many images out there, and people are seeing billions of images.  –Where five hundred years ago they would only see a painting rarely.  A painting was a mysterious and great thing.  Now painting pictures by hand seems to be very old and medieval technology.  But, there is something very comforting or comfortable about a book or making a mark on a piece of paper, or making a painting on a paper or canvas.  I really believe that old hands-on technology that is a hidden in plastic is somehow wonderful and so simple in its mechanism.  It doesn’t need to be plugged in.  There’s no utility bill attached.  It’s direct.  If Rembrandt, if Dégas, if Picasso, if Balthus, if Lucian Freud, can make paintings that still intrigue us, why not?  So if I think there is no end to painting.  There is an end to people giving it up — which is their choice.  There will always be painters because there is a line of painting.  I don’t know how long video will continue.  That might be a very short technology.  Maybe we’ll have virtual realities where people will transfer thoughts to each other, or where you can press your gland or something and see a picture on the wall.  Or maybe robots will take over the world, and we will ask the robot “You could do that but you can’t paint or draw because you don’t have hands.”  You don’t have something which is soul.  That  Mark on a piece of paper or on a canvas, or how you want to find this thing, is really about deep levels of self -consciousness, un- conscience, super-conscience— who knows?  It is not technology, and I think so many people get fooled by technology.  Technology is only technology, it is not a visionary.  Painting and drawing can get you there fast.

 

Jerome Witkin, American Artist Interview

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