By Nancy Keefe Rhodes
Courtney Rile ’04, a young Syracuse videographer, vividly recalls the first time she met renowned artist and longtime Syracuse University professor Jerome Witkin. She was at a gallery opening in the Delavan Center, on Syracuse’s Near West Side, where Witkin had a studio for 16 years until the infamous Labor Day storm blew off the roof in 1998. “He came up to me and said, ‘I must paint you!’” says Rile, who later modeled for Witkin’s portrait of activist Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day. “I loved his stories! He told me about watching how roughly some young people were taken off a train in East Germany. I think he is very affected by what happens to other people.”
At the time, Witkin was 21 years old and visiting Berlin on a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship during the tense run-up to the Berlin Wall. For Witkin, the trip was part of “an artistic pilgrimage” that took him to Florence, Rome, and Venice, painting, studying, and meeting other artists. But it also politicized him deeply. Since then, Witkin, who turns 72 this September, has been influenced by the course of history and its unforgiving toll on others to a degree nearly unmatched by other artists of our time. Seeking out subjects that handle both artist and viewer roughly, Witkin has addressed human anguish, large scale and small: the Holocaust, Vietnam, Jesus in modern life, the Nuclear Age, political torture, and 9/11, as well as family crises, sexual intimacy, the costs of apathy, madness, and poverty. Witkin sees the artist’s search as akin to that of the religious seeker. “Art and the holy are twins,” he has said, and he wishes to be remembered as a “religious painter.” His technical mastery as a realist is supercharged by echoes of his youthful skirmish with abstract expressionism—he knew a number of that movement’s major figures growing up in New York City—before casting his lot with the human figure. “My basic theme is our vulnerability, our most precious footing in a dangerous world,” he told Sherry Chayat, author of Life Lessons: The Art of Jerome Witkin (Syracuse University Press, 1994; 2006).
This year, Witkin marks 40 years of teaching painting at the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA). In celebration, the University is hosting Drawn to Paint: The Art of Jerome Witkin, a retrospective of those years comprising 70 works. The exhibition opens on September 8 in a dual showing at SUArt Galleries and VPA’s XL Projects storefront gallery downtown (see story below).
Reflections on Humanity in Our Time
In his foreword to Chayat’s book, San Francisco Chronicle critic Kenneth Baker declares Witkin’s “only peer” is the British figurative painter Lucian Freud, also known for discomfiting psychological depictions. “There is little optimism in Witkin’s painting,” Baker writes.
But in May, Witkin seemed to counter such an observation. Sitting in his backyard studio, still unable to move large canvases after recent shoulder surgery, Witkin was nearing the first anniversary of his son Andrew’s death at age 16 from complications of a bone marrow transplant. He recalled his own fraught relationship with his father, who had once attempted suicide. “Later, I thought, I’m not going to be someone who tries to kill themselves,” he says. “I’m not going to be a self-destructive person. I’ll make good—I’ll make optimism work for me.”
Raised in Brooklyn and Queens by his Italian Catholic mother, Witkin later found a way into his Jewish father’s heritage through a series of paintings related to the Holocaust. He began the series in 1978 and pronounced it done with the six-part Entering Darkness in 2002. Still, The Two of Us followed; now, he says, he’ll do one this summer about Anne Frank. “She loved movies,” says Witkin, whose work is often called cinematic. He will reference Edward Hopper’s painting, New York Movie (1939), with a diptych in which Hopper’s usherette and Frank would trade places. “I’ll paint it differently than Hopper because I’ll use the Landmark Theatre,” he says. “That I think is my last one.”
“I’ve heard that before,” Chayat says. “He can’t seem to be through with it. He feels it’s the narrative that can’t be told enough.” About the difficulty of his son Andrew’s long illness and death, she says, “His art always pulls him out.” If anyone knows Witkin and his work, it’s Chayat, who has covered the local arts scene for years and written for such publications as Art in America and ARTNews. She traces their relationship back to 1976, when she had just moved to Syracuse during a difficult time in her own life. Her brother had just been killed and she found solace auditing Witkin’s painting course. “In that miasma of pain, grief, confusion, desolation, knowing nobody…he was just so kind,” says Chayat, now abbot of the Syracuse Zen Center. “He said, ‘Just come and paint.’”
When Witkin arrived in Syracuse in 1971, he thought he’d only stay several years. Already he’d moved around: summer art scholarships to Skowhegan School in Maine during high school; the Pulitzer fellowship to Europe after graduating from Cooper Union in 1960, which led to a Guggenheim and a first show on return; teaching positions at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Manchester College of Art in England, and American College of Switzerland. Then, in Philadelphia, he taught at Moore College of Art while earning an M.F.A. degree at the University of Pennsylvania. Yet, Witkin says of Syracuse, “the place looked good to me.” It was a large university with so many options for him. “And the thing which is good is you become Hamlet, you become isolated by the cold weather, you do your work,” he says. “I can get to the city [New York] fast, and I’m represented on the West Coast by the Jack Rutberg Gallery in Los Angeles, but I think the place I really love is where I work. And this is where I did my work.”
Like Chayat, SU professor Alejandro Garcia met Witkin in a painting class and friendship ensued. Garcia, who just finished his 33rd year teaching in the School of Social Work, collects Mexican masks that he’s traded with Witkin for drawings. He also posed as the Latino torturer in the graphic, deeply unsettling Unseen and Unheard (1986), and last winter photographed much of the work in Witkin’s studio. “I admire his capacity to create great work,” Garcia says, “his technical virtuosity, his themes.” As an example, Garcia cites The Screams of Kitty Genovese (1978), which alludes indirectly to a notorious 1964 rape and fatal stabbing in a Queens alley while dozens in neighboring apartments listened and did nothing. But the painting depicts a nude woman languidly smoking in bed next to an open window. “The punch line is not obvious, and it’s a beautiful painting with lace curtains blowing in a gentle breeze,” Garcia says. “You ask, ‘What is that about?’ There’s no one screaming in this painting. You have to think about it.”
VPA professor Edward Aiken, head of the Graduate Program in Museum Studies and SUArt Galleries senior curator, attributes Witkin’s success and longevity to his work ethic. “Jerome is always working, looking very hard at things,” says Aiken, who curated the Witkin retrospective. “He’s self-critical. There are flashes out there, but those who are able to sustain a career over such a considerable time—they will flourish wherever they are.”
Aiken considers Witkin’s decision to become a figurative painter “a gutsy thing to do at that time,” he says, in light of the emphasis on abstraction and even detachment during much of the past half century among many artists and critics. “The emphasis on formalism, the anti-storytelling, the anti-narrative thrust—it was almost a tyranny. Jerome had a much larger reading of what modernism was and in retrospect their view was impoverished.”
Making Art that Matters
For his part, Witkin believes people will one day look at his work to try to understand our time. Personally, he continues to look ahead, too. Besides working this summer on his Anne Frank painting, Witkin is planning a rare joint show with his identical twin brother, the noted photographer Joel-Peter Witkin. He says he will teach here a few more years and then his wife, Lisa, and he will see what the future holds for them.
“So many of the artist-painters have been acolytes or altar boys for what is hip or edgy and maybe looks good in art schools, but that doesn’t add up to much because they weren’t making the art, they were following the art,” Witkin says. “I like the Native American comment about dying with clean hands. In a world of compromise, I think this retrospective represents pretty clean hands. I’ve done what I wanted to do.”
Inside, Outside, 1976
oil on canvas
50 x 48 inches
The Everson Museum of Art
When Syracuse University premieres Drawn to Paint: The Art of Jerome Witkin, it will be on view at two venues from September 8 through October 23: the SUArt Galleries in the Shaffer Art Building on campus, and XL Projects, the College of Visual and Performing Arts storefront gallery downtown. Beginning in 2012, the exhibition will be available for loan. “Drawn to Paint will be traveling to other museums around the country during a two-year tour that will conclude at the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State in University Park, Pennsylvania,” says SUArt Galleries assistant director Andrew Saluti ’99, G’09.
Drawn to Paint ranges from a 1959 crayon drawing to work literally still wet during conversations for this article. It includes oils, studies for paintings, self and other portraits, and drawings. Most timely and notable may be Witkin’s massive, four-panel work on 9/11, Taken, which opened at the Everson Museum of Art on the 2003 anniversary of the attacks. There are also a number of portraits with local connections and some dozen pieces from Witkin’s Holocaust series, including the diptych The Two of Us, Bergen-Belson, 1945 and Israel, 1951 (2009). “We’re trying to create an exhibition design that really gives the same feel for both spaces,” Saluti says. “Someone seeing the show downtown wouldn’t necessarily miss any of the conceptual points—narrative, academic drawing, and the artist’s process—by not seeing what’s in Shaffer. Obviously we’ll have larger pieces that you couldn’t show well in that space.”
The core of the material comes from Witkin’s personal collection and from his Los Angeles dealer, Jack Rutberg, but the exhibition will change as it travels. This fluid approach makes participation easier for collaborating institutions and private collectors, which number close to a dozen. “It will be dynamic,” says exhibition curator Edward Aiken. Because Witkin works on such a heroic scale, Aiken says the exhibition, in part, is laying itself out in terms of running wall feet available and even doorway size. “I expect there will be substitutions in and out,” he says. “Some work that won’t be shown here may be folded in on the West Coast. And the Penn State community and collectors in that area have been particularly supportive of Jerome’s work, so the Palmer may show other locally held work there, too.”
According to SUArt Galleries director Domenic Iacono, there’s a fervent interest in this exhibition to illuminate the relationship between Witkin’s drawing and painting more so than there has been previously. “Our specialty is really works on paper,” he says, “so this focus also plays to the strength of the SU collection.”
In addition to an extensive catalog, the exhibition will offer educational material, and a web site (suart.syr.edu/witkin) featuring images, interviews, podcasts, and a digital sketchbook that visitors can download to personal devices. “You’ll be able to look through his sketchbook as you look at the painting in the gallery,” Saluti says. “The unique element about this exhibition is this sense of the artist’s process.”
Jeff Davies, Large than Life (Study), 1979, pencil on paper, 17 x 14 inches
Jeff Davies, 1980, oil on canvas, 72 x 48 inches
Palmer Museum of Art,
The Pennsylvania State University
The Devil as a Tailor, 1978-79
oil on canvas
72 x 65 inches
Collection of James and Barbara Palmer,
State College, Pa.
Jerome Witkin spoke with Nancy Keefe Rhodes for nearly two hours on May 18 in his home studio in Syracuse. Here are some further excerpts from that conversation:
Witkin on his 40-year retrospective, Drawn to Paint, opening September 8 in SUArt Galleries on the main campus and in XL Projects downtown:
I was very, very excited about the possibility of celebrating these 40 years, because my work starts in Syracuse. We got work from all four decades. I think it’s a very balanced show. It’s the first show this large, here, to my knowledge. And a book is coming out. A very wonderful lady, a patron, a collector of mine, Barbara Palmer—her husband deceased 10 years ago—sent $15,000 for the book. SU matched that amount, so we have a lovely hardcover book coming out, with great plates and color. And this will have a lot more of the specific work with related drawings. Andrew Saluti [of SUArt Galleries] put together a little electronic compilation of notebook drawings—the first ideas for the paintings and then some drawings made at the ending of the painting. So things like that are terrific. I like the Native American comment that we all die with clean hands. In a world of compromise, I think this retrospective represents pretty clean hands. I’ve done what I wanted to do.
On coming to Syracuse in 1971:
When I first came here, I went as a new faculty to the Chancellor’s house—then with Mildred and Melvin Eggers. By chance, Mildred, who was so generous, said, “Look at this, how big our house is!” I said, “Do you have an attic?” She said, “Yeah.” I said, “Think I could use it as a studio?” She said, “Go ahead, no one’s using it.” So it was a wonderful beginning because I didn’t know the town, and I had this wonderful back stairway that I could go up and paint. They would come up like field mice at the end of the day and check what I was doing. I had that studio for about three years. I ended up doing a painting of Melvin, which is now in the Eggers building on campus.
Coming to Syracuse was strange. I thought it was too far away from my relatives in New York and Long Island. At the same time, things work out the way they work out. And if Syracuse is a bit far away from the city [New York], the thing about Syracuse, which is good, is you become Hamlet. You get isolated by the cold weather. You do your work. And we have people coming up here all the time. I can get to the city fast. And I have a West Coast gallery, Jack Rutberg in Los Angeles. But I think the place I really love is where I work. The studio.
I was born in Brooklyn, raised in Brooklyn and Queens, attended high school and college in Manhattan. I had never been to upstate New York, except for an interview when I came up here. And the place looked good to me, because I was really dealing with art schools only. And a university was so much more vital—there were so many options. I thought that was good.
And the funny thing about Syracuse is when I was in high school, entering my last year at Music and Art High School, my father, who was divorced from my mother for many years, whose business failed for the second time, decided to jump off the top of his building in Brooklyn and kill himself. Luckily for him, he fell from a low building into a tree, botched up his leg, and was unable to work anymore. Well, his attempted suicide just knocked the crap out of me. I thought, I’m already a failure, I’m a terrible person, you know. So I walked around the city for about two weeks, not going to school. I knew I was screwing things up. And I found myself going to 57th Street at the Steinway Building and there was a sign saying, “SU portfolios.” Some of the kids I knew were showing their portfolios to become selected from SU. My grades were dropping, and I had no chance or money to even consider SU. Instead my vice-principal, Mrs. Divorkin, phoned Cooper Union, and I was allowed to take their three-hour test and I got in. And, 14 years later, I became faculty here at SU. So I think God doesn’t make mistakes. You get put where you have to be put. And meeting my wife came out of being here. I think that’s what life is—you’re not sure what’s going to happen, you make the best of what cards are dealt to you, and that’s our trip. I feel pretty good about the whole thing.
On working with models:
I didn’t know these people and, to some couples, I would say, “Could you pose for me and would you find a gesture—which is your relationship.” I wanted the models to do their own thing and then surprise me. And that’s what I do a lot—I don’t really pose anybody in most of these portraits. I want them to do a few things—and I’ll wait and react. So I think there’s something beautiful and special in being able to have people in front of you and work a picture out of this kind of dialogue. Just today in fact—this model is very special, a very elegant girl, the mother of two kids. She no longer poses at SU, but she’s a free-lance writer and model and she also teaches yoga. By chance I walked into the office at Shaffer and she called my name and came out. It struck me that she’s the spittin’ image of John Singer Sargent’s Madame X—if I just lengthened her nose—but I’d like to make my version of Madame X and make it more like today. So that’s one of my summer projects.
On his period of working in abstract-expressionism as a young man, when he knew a number of those artists in New York City:
I was graduating from Cooper Union, and I think I was of two minds about what my definition of painting was. I loved painting abstract paintings and that was the time of abstract painting. I knew all these people very well—Phil Guston was almost my “uncle,” I’d met him so many times. And I knew de Kooning—we chatted at the Cedar Bar. But those two especially were great men. And I had the privilege of being asked by Rothko to have lunch with him at Ratner’s in New York, you know, the Jewish delicatessen. Because my father was Jewish and I went to a very Jewish high school and my mother was Italian and Catholic, I could play both of those venues of culture—I could fit in. But when I talked to the painters—I’m just a painter too, I want to know from painting. You know, even though life is sometimes very hard, sometimes doors open. So I think I’ve been extremely privileged. I found that most of these people were—with the exception of Rothko—pretty humble, really searching. They felt the next picture would be their best picture, that kind of thing.
The nice thing about being a teacher is that you’re in the studio and you’re by yourself, half the time. Half the time you’re with somebody else, but—you’re still concerned with the work. And the next day, for a day and a half, you can talk about drawing and painting. I know people like Milton Resnick who became so lonely in their studios they would hire homeless people to sit in the corner, just to have somebody breathing near by. I don’t feel lonely, because I’m always working on an idea or a feeling about somebody. I have music or books on tape on. Sometimes I don’t even know how long a picture takes me to make because it just needs its own maturation, and length of time is always unique to each work.
I think the artist is never really sure, because art is long and life is short. In the diaries of some wonderful artists, most of them say they feel like failures because they couldn’t be sure that what they did was enough. But they did do it, they did do it. I think there’s a mercy involved here. You know, the trial and the attempt count for a lot, too. I really believe romantically that you could be a magnificent failure, because that kind of failure is always regarded with great respect. I don’t think Michelangelo felt the Sistine Chapel was his best work. But it’s the most haunting painting he ever did. I think the same thing with Giotto in Padua, the Scrovegni Chapel—you go there and it’s like heaven. It’s such a beautiful dream of immersion. And I think so many people see that immersion. And how other people feel their way into the work, you only find out later.
On his trip to Israel and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority:
I’m not exactly well-known. But I’m very well-known to other artists and painters across the country and even in Europe. When I went to Israel, my third day, I think, I took a cab to Yad Vashem and I didn’t take any work with me, but I thought I should look up the director of this place because I’d love to show some of my paintings there. So, I see this office and I go in, this woman is busy—a young woman—so I go, “Excuse me, I’m looking for the director.” She says, “Who are you?” I go, “I’m Jerome Witkin.” She says, “We know who you are.” So, it’s interesting. I was shown this beautiful space downstairs and I still want to show there. Half Jewish or full Jewish or no Jewish, I want to show there.
On his Holocaust series:
The whole history of the Holocaust still means a lot to me. I’m not finished with it. This summer I’ll start a picture about Anne Frank. The first time I went to Europe, in 1960, I made a bee-line to the Anne Frank house. I went to a very Jewish high school, I read about the Holocaust there. In 1960, the Anne Frank house wasn’t then so tourist-driven. I probably was the only one in the place. I was only 20 years old. So there’s something—the persecution thing is always there. You know, why are they after me? The article that Peter Selz wrote about me in Art in America about three and a half years ago was about suffering—“The Persistence of Suffering.” I think everyone has different experiences in suffering. But for some reason I can’t explain, I was always very attracted to the idea of how do you paint suffering? The camps, places of abjection and dislocation and horror. I knew in my heart when I first decided on doing The Devil as a Tailor. I said to myself, “No one’s going to look at this stuff; no one’s going to buy this stuff.” After I painted The Devil—it took me six months—and then three years on the second picture, the Kristallnacht picture, then I found I didn’t care. I cared about making the work. I couldn’t calculate selling pictures. I couldn’t calculate how to enter this art world. But I think the thing that is true is, if you do the work that you really must do, somebody will present themselves and say, “I want to show that.” That’s what happened. So I never compromised.
The first time I showed Death as an Usher at the Kraushaar Gallery—and it was so ambitious of Antoinette Kraushaar to take that work—it got a lot of attention. Then it was shown at the Old Jewish Museum and I was so proud to be there. They had docents in that period of time who were camp survivors. I got a letter from the director of the museum, saying they held a little impromptu vote of which paintings most meant things to them, and it was my painting. They wanted to meet me. That’s in the face of Elie Wiesel, whom I’ve met and like a lot. Elie Wiesel said that no one can paint the Holocaust, no one can write about it, except those who were there. Well, what about Sophie’s Choice? I think you can be there because you have the ability to become the other person. If you go there, especially, you become the other person. I spent a lot of time there [in Auschwitz] just drawing—the women’s lager [camp], the men’s lavatory, or the rebuilt crematoria at Auschwitz I. I had a lot of time to think, because I was drawing there. So I said to myself, “If I put this place in my lungs, on my face, then I can better be there when I return to the studio.” I hope for the best.
If you were a child, 50 years from now, and you could see my images of the Holocaust, that kid might get something from that looking experience that he would have to think, “What is this about? Why was this painted? Well, did this really occur?”
We’re all six degrees of separation from these events. Even the Holocaust—I do have 17 known Witkins who died in that.
On his plan to paint Anne Frank:
The Anne Frank thing is on my mind a lot. I really want to do it. You know, she loved movies—the heroes and all that, of course, like any kid would. Edward Hopper’s 1939 painting in the Whitney, New York Movie, has the usherette. I want to paint the idea in a diptych form—like “trading places.” If I could have a girl posing as a kind of striped-pajama Anne Frank, I think in a moment of her dream she’s with the usherette in a New York movie. And then the usherette is with her and the other bald women in the schlage, the place where they were held. Anne Frank, it’s going to be my last one. I always wanted to make the idea of time, like if I’m here and somebody’s in Tibet, if we traded places, what’s that about? She trades places—the usherette —and is suddenly in the lager in Bergen-Belsen where Anne Frank would die.
One of my students is a very elegant girl, who would look good in a blond wig as the usherette and I’ll have a seamstress make her costume. I’ll paint it differently than Edward Hopper, because I’ll use the Landmark Theatre and I’ll do something that’s more detailed. I’ll make something that looks like his painting, but it’s my painting. But Anne Frank, she’s in a pose of joy and then in the next panel, reversed, the usherette, you know—they’re both happy to be in a movie, trading places. Simple. But you know, there’s a punch line to every joke. And in painting there’s gotta be a kind of punch line that builds. So that’s going to be my summer’s work. I have a lot of things to do.
I’m very fond of movies. I’ll look at movies many, many times, just to see how certain moments were made. It’s the same thing: You can be immersed in a film or in a painting. The difficulty with painting is you only have one shot. People talk about the movies they’ve seen, but rarely about the paintings they’ve seen.
On being a figurative painter during an era of abstraction:
When I came to Syracuse, because I was painting the figure and talked the figure, many faculty saw me as an illustrator. Edvard Munch was an illustrator. And Picasso’s best work, Guernica, is an illustration of war. So I think it doesn’t matter. What matters is, have you really cheated the experience or have you met the experience? It’s something where you’re so deeply into the forest you don’t even care if you’re lost or not. You just are privileged to be in the forest. And that’s where you are and you can’t explain why you’re there or how you got there, you just like your search. I’ve always been a big fan of Alice Neel—I’ve known the woman for years—and she would say something really good: “You know, if they’re gonna shoot me as a sheep, better they shoot me as a wolf.” So many of the artist-painters have been acolytes or altar boys for what is hip or “edgy” and that maybe looks good in art schools, but that doesn’t add up to much because they weren’t making the art, they were following the art. So I can tell you that I really believe in these pieces, and when they get finished I feel like they’re familiar to me. I think what matters is, are people taken by the work, and I think some people have been taken by the work.
Once, I was at Cooper Union and I was of two minds about this. I was an abstract painter in school and then I felt I had to do the figure also. So, I stretched this canvas—four by seven feet—it’s now in my daughter’s apartment in Holland. And I began this picture, sort of influenced by Jack Levine at that point too, but it was Adam and Eve, on stage, and these contemporary people watching. Next to them, off stage but the crowd could see, was this fat woman with this thin child. And that was where my life was at that point. And sin—the picture was called Genesis—bishops and politicians were in the audience. Not a good painting, but it got me the last Pulitzer Prize given to an art student. I never got the medal, but I got some money and I went to Europe.
On his identical twin brother, the photographer Joel-Peter Witkin:
He and I probably will have a big show, maybe two or three years from now, together, finally. It’s called Twin Visions. Part of my trip to New York this week and weekend is to see Ise White, who’s going to put that show together. I always think of Joey’s work—as you watch his work—and you join him in hell. And my work, you probably are more in purgatory. I think our life is purgatory. You know, we’re just above the coals of hell. But he’s extremely—extreme! And that’s fine, that’s who he is. When we were children, he was always the more crazy. He would take chances with his life, strange chances. And I thought, “What the hell is he doing?” And the same thing happens in his work. But he’s amazing for finding something he wants to do and then he does it. I like his work, a lot.
On how his father affected his work:
My father had two different businesses that failed. I would see him occasionally, coming to my mother’s house in Brooklyn and later, Queens, with the check for the month. He was a guy who free-lanced—you ate what you killed. There was no agent. As a glazier, he had to look for the work and do the work. But when he tried to kill himself, later I thought, “I’m not going to be someone who tries to kill themselves. I’m not going to be a self-destructive person. I’ll make good on everything —I’ll make optimism work for me.” I think I’ve always felt great optimism. To start a painting and to finish the picture, after eight months, two years, three years —whatever it takes—is optimism.
On wanting to be remembered as a “religious painter”:
I think “religious” in terms of Dorothy Day [the activist founder of the Catholic Worker movement]. The definition of a real Jew is someone who leaves the world better off than it was. And I think the people who leave the world better off than it was are religious people. I really believe the devil is not a symbol. The devil is a real person. The devil was an angel that was pushed out of heaven. He was an archangel and as the Arabs believe, the devil is angry because he can no longer see God. The people who save lives are remembered—who fix lives, are remembered. Like when you hear a story that grabs you. Or if a guy attacks a maid in a New York hotel, you get angry. So we do have morality. We react. And I think it’s hard to make a religious painting today, in this climate. But the thing is, why not try?
On his trip to Auschwitz in 1990:
I took the train out of Warsaw to Krakow. As usual I didn’t have that much money on me. So I went the cheap way. I was at the student hotel in Poland and no one spoke English. I spoke a little bit of German, Dutch, and mixed it up. I went to this tourist place to get a ticket to Auschwitz. So the ticket was for someplace in Czechoslovakia and you take a second bus. Luckily, this one Polish woman could speak English. She said, “Auschwitz is their word. It’s a German word. The name of the place you want to go is Oświęcim. So you take the bus to Oświęcim.” So she went out of her way for me. So at 10 o’clock, I took the bus and I walked through this turnstile to this property for Auschwitz I. There’s one bus that just comes in, and all these English people get off. So I followed them. Finally this woman, Jane, the Polish lady, says, “Who wants to take the bus to Auschwitz II?” Birkenau, the place of the birches. She said, “You were on the bus?” I said I was in the back. So I joined them. So we took the bus and I swear to God, even with a Catholic education—before I went to high school—when we got into Birkenau, close to these buildings—I saw this as holy shrines. And she had a cousin who had this little taxi, for a $100, this guy would take me back and forth for as many days as I wanted, have tea for me and he would pick me up at 4 o’clock. Six hours every day. That’s where I did my drawing. The very first time I went into the lager on my own, I go into Woman’s Lager 15. It had the bunks. Dirty—filled with all this white powder that killed all the bugs. But then I looked up and there was a shingle off the roof. It let in this blue daylight and it hit a little bowl—it was a Schindler bowl, an enamel bowl—and I thought, “I cannot go on top of these bunks and get that bowl. It’s not for me, it’s sacrilege.” A day or two later I met this guy from Texas who was doing research on gay deaths in those camps. So I said, “I saw a bowl in Lager 15…” This guy was like a monkey. So he hops up and he throws the bowl—I catch it and inside there’s like this little clump of dust. I took that bowl back with me, I used it in a few paintings, and then I gave it to Hillel because they should see this—this is the real thing. It’s three-dimensional. You can touch this thing. This one got left. I always thought of this bowl as a woman. It came from a woman’s lager, a place of imprisonment. But the bowl came back with me. But even when I got there, I thought, “I’m supposed to be here.” It really was a mission. And I’ve read about that. We all have missions.
When I was walking around Birkenau, you could go to places that you don’t read about anymore. It’s called the Pond of Ashes, where they dumped all those crematorium bits and pieces. I know something about human anatomy and human bones. So I got there —I’m by myself —no crowds, this is pretty far away from the edge of Birkenau, at the Pond of Ashes, and I put my foot just at the edge of the pond, and with the pressure—three bones came up, baby bones; one was a humerus bone, one was a scapula bone, and one was a leg bone. In the Jewish sense, you have to bury the Jewish bone. You put them in the ground. So I took those three bones and buried them out here [outside the studio].
I think what’s amazing is, certain people have survived. I mean, who could tolerate that? It’s amazing. There are very interesting stories. There’s a wonderful rabbi, who is very—not quite Orthodox, but he’s close. He came up with these stories of the “faith of the Jews.” And there’s one thing about the Jewish people—they have some extra battery. They can tolerate a lot of bad things and come back. And their zest for life is huge. They seem to have a sense of rejuvenation that they can somehow build on the ashes and come back. I’ve met those people. And you ask them, “How did you do it?” “I just wanted another family—I just wanted to live.” Where did they get that strength from? And yet, many of the intellectuals who faced the camps, were shaved and put on that little striped outfit, went for the wire. You go to Birkenau, there are piles of these rolled up wires with people’s clothes attached, still. It’s probably the worst thing that’s ever happened, in human history, because of its calculation. Yet there it is. We live in privileged times—maybe much more dangerous, because of the dirty bombs and all these other things—but we have the privilege of being witnesses and being able to report to the next generation how we lived through our given time.
The identity thing was so hard. And I think a lot of people—Jewish ex-pats from Berlin, filmmakers who came to this country—they said, “In Berlin we were Berliners, in America, we’re Jews”—because they were so integrated. One percent of the population in Germany were Jews. Even Kaiser Wilhelm and the guy who was Chancellor before Hitler, they all said, “The Jews are our champagne to our culture.” My daughter actually went to the studio in East Berlin where they filmed Metropolis and so many great films. It was a madhouse of brilliance. Well, Goebbels knew the power of films, of propaganda. So the day before he arrives at that studio, they made an edict, no Jew should be there. Out! And who shows up? This Jew-less group of people. And somebody asks him, “What are your favorite films that were produced here?” And he rattled off about 12, and no one wanted to tell him that 11 out of the 12 were made by Jewish directors and technicians. They saved his little sanity, I guess.
Luckily, many of the Jewish-born film people got to Hollywood, where I think some had the attitude of, “Let’s jump into this thing because it’s my only chance. It’s a free place, I can make something happen.” The moxie or the courage to make songs, or books, there are just so many people who are amazing. Isaac Bashevis Singer, the storyteller, is a good example, and he really lived the stories. So I think it’s the privilege of having time to live and make art—maybe the word “privilege” goes especially with these Jewish people in Berlin or like Rothko. One of favorite teachers, Karl Schrag, was a German. Wonderful artist-printmaker. A teacher at Cooper. He was a next door neighbor of Mark Rothko. So he finds the body of Mark Rothko when he cut his arteries. He was bleeding on the floor and Karl the German was trying to stanch the Jew. And that point, Jew or not Jew, it simply is two artists—one had more optimism, one had less.
On the death of his 16-year-old son Andrew last year after complications from a bone marrow transplant:
I’ll tell you, the most amazing person I ever met in my life is my son Andrew. I was incredibly impressed by him. I revered him for his courage. I can’t say enough about how he was so amazing. When I finished that Tatum picture and I had that woman flying through the air, he came in and said, “Dad, that’s over the top.” [laughs] And he was at that show and he was in perfect health. He could be healthy for as long as a year and a half, and then he’d suddenly get sick. But he did very well, considering, and he was so close to getting through this. His mother was with him those last six months all the time. At the end he knew he couldn’t fight it. His last text message was to his best friend. He says, “Pray for me.” He was very sensitive—these kids with these ailments know exactly where they are.
It has affected my wife, Lisa, and me deeply. It makes me feel that most people don’t know how valuable their health is. They don’t know what pain is. They’re wasting the privilege of their health and their bodies. But the thing is, I’ll see him again—I believe in the afterlife. All these stories about near-death experiences? I’ve heard them, but at 12½ years old I was given a near-death experience [during a near-drowning]. He is there now! So Andrew was on a mission—he was given the task of having a difficult life. We know a number of people with sick children. My wife is an amazing lady—she’s quiet, an iceberg. A lot of stuff under the water—very deep, very loving.
It’ll be a year July 13. Dead children leave things—we’ve heard this. Since he died, we pick up pieces of junk jewelry all over the place. The day after my mother died, Andrew was about 3 years old. My wife was in the kitchen and I was in my studio, and she called me and said, “You’d better come home, something is happening here.” So I got home and she told me, she was in the kitchen and smelled this incense-like smoke, coming out of Andrew’s room, and he says, “Mom, Grandma’s here.” She just died. So he came in and said, “I had a good time with Grandma. She looked at my toys.” So I said to Andrew, “What color was she wearing?” “Oh, a red dress.” She doesn’t like red. So we get to the funeral place and he runs to the coffin and we both looked—she’s wearing a red dress. So it’s a weird trip. But at the same time I think everyone is privileged, if you can find the privilege in the events. I think it takes a lot of optimism to say this.
I think the question would be: Do you feel lucky? I always feel lucky. My life has been good. I always feel I’m going to do my class well. And it does work out. I always feel even my worst painting is not bad. It’s pretty good. And I continue.
One time my mother—I was starting this Genesis picture I talked about—I said to her, “I can’t finish the picture, I can’t resolve it.” She was watching me paint it for like a year, and she was enjoying it. She said, “Let me buy the picture. Here’s $25 and I’ll get you two cartons of Camels cigarettes.” I said, “Great.” I took the $25, I went to New York City, I saw some people, went to a show, and I came back. And the next day she said, “Now I own a painting.” I said, “What are you gonna do with it?” She said, “I want you to finish my picture.” Now if she didn’t say that I wouldn’t have had the Pulitzer Prize and gone to Europe.
So those are moments when I admire—the moment. I admire this early scene, because if she were a different woman I would have never finished the picture. There are little miracles along the way that happen. My mother believed in her children. We were everything to her. She raised us and she did a pretty good job. And all these moments now, of a show, a retrospective, a book—she never saw them, but she knew something would happen. If she could see my son play with toys, she’ll be at the show on September 8th!