In looking at many paintings over a fairly long lifetime, what has struck me as most important to my understanding of what a painting can be is the element of energy sustained by the painter during the creation of a work which then is palpable to me as a viewer during a lengthy period of consideration. During such a long time of looking, the painting reveals its magic, the play and struggle of its maker and the willingness of a viewer to be suspended from quotidian pre-occupations and taken up into the work seen.
I gon’t get around much any more, in terms of long-distance travel, so the opportunity to see, first-hand, some wonderful paintings about which I am curious, is not a possibility for me. So, in a case such as this, the availability of books with good reproductions is invaluable if not an ideal way to get a view of an artist’s oeuvre. Recently, “PGT” shared with me his book of the photographic works of Joel-Peter Witkin. We discussed the illustrations at length, but also the fact that J-P Wikin had a twin brother who painted, Jerome Witkin. On arriving back home, I Googled Jerome Witkin and found some intriguing information which firmed in my mind that I had to find and acquire a book about this remarkable painter. This took a little bit of doing, of ordering a book which took some time to arrive, but it is here now, in my lucky hands.
“Life Lessons – The Art of Jerome Witkin”, Sherry Chayat (Second Edition) Syracuse University Press
Looking at the reproductions, some of which are 5 inches by 7 inches, and then reading the actual size of a painting, say, 71 by 88 inches, required me to go out into my studio with the measuring tape to mark out on a wall this larger proportion, then sitting in front of that to look at the reproduction and imagine the shapes in the painting enlarged to that imagined size. Then, standing at my full height of 63 inches, extending my arm to full height and width (adding a brush) I tried to re-enact the making of a diagonal edge in the painting – and then realized how much psychic and bodily concentration may have been required of the painter in order to make the sure mark that delineated the long edge of a diagonal shape. Just what was the dance of Jerome Witkin like in establishing the underdrawing and composition of his rather complex designs, of moving forward and backward to check the marks for their desired direction, proportion and descriptiveness? Then of course, there is his determination of how to disport the warms and cools, lights and darks, complex versus simple paint manipulations – he had to keep all these balls juggling for a long period of time in order to have arrived at such consistency of freshness, and just-rightness in so many paintings.
There is something acute and remarkable in how Witkin draws the human form, and so much pleasure in how he “sees” the specificity of the turn of a foot, or a pant-covered leg, that looking even at these small reproductions feels like seeing these things for the very first time. That the theme of the paintings varies from the harrowing to the poetic, symbolic is in itself a daunting reminder of the drama of life, of the witnessing of life and its circumstances by a most remarkable painter. These are not paintings one can just walk by, unscathed.
Jerome Witkin’s work is my newly discovered treasure. How I wish to be in a room full of his work, and just sit, walk about and be inundated!