In Search of the Humane

An Interview with Burton Silverman.

In Search of the Humane
Burton Silverman, Self Portrait with Guitar, 1959. Oil on linen, 36 x 29 in.

Ira Goldberg: When did you first come to the League?

When I was 12-years-old, on Saturday mornings.

That was your first art training?

Yes. I studied with Anne Goldthwaite. She taught a children’s class. You drew from a cast for a set time. Once you mastered that, you would then be able to graduate to a life class.

I take it you passed the test.

Yes. I was extremely gifted. I don’t know what my work looked like, but I know that it elicited a lot of admiration. After about four months, as I recall, I finally got to go to the life class. I couldn’t wait to see naked girls. Of course, you are not supposed to say that, you see, it’s got art attached to it. It’s not naked, but “nude.” Kenneth Clark, the noted art historian, wrote about the important differences between the naked and nude. At twelve, I really could not make that distinction. Anyway, the class was separated by a hallway. You had to go from the cast room down this hall to a door at the end. I went in with trepidation. Standing with my hand on the door, I decided I had to go in. As I started to push, someone from the other side opened the door violently. I went cascading into the room. The last thing I wanted to do was be noticed.

After graduating Music and Art High School (now La Guardia), I went back to the League’s sketch class because I wanted to keep drawing from life after my early experience in the Saturday children’s class.

You didn’t have life classes at Music and Art?

No. I took classes at the League because I began to see more clearly that I needed more training than I received during my high school experience and, later on, at Columbia University where I received no art training at all. I had classes with three men who had substantial reputations at the time, including Reginald Marsh. He was a lousy teacher. I liken him to Gary Cooper. He never said very much to anybody. I’d been in the class for three weeks, no months. I can’t remember now. I decided to do something in pen and ink. I knew he was an etcher, and he used line to create values and form and so on. Most of my values were being done by making parallel lines, either very close together or very wide apart. You can do the same thing to create gradients of form. Marsh passed by and looked at what I was doing and said, “Did you ever think of cross hatching?” [Laughs] That was it.

In Search of the Humane
Burton Silverman, Stonebreaker, 2008. Oil on linen, 51 x 30 in.

Did you notice people in that class he had a greater influence on?

I thought many people emulated him, especially in graphics.

Do you think they were doing that just by copying what he was doing, or was he able to convey that through his teaching?

It was, I think, by inference. You study with someone because you admire what they do. I get the same thing now as a teacher. I try to dissuade people from emulation. First of all, I don’t have a style. There is nothing you can imitate. The only important thing I can do is to urge the student to identify just what it is they really want to do in the painting and to ask, Why are you making this image? I can suggest certain kinds of corrections in formal qualities like composition, proportion, and three-dimensional form. It is not a big secret. It’s gone on for 500 years.

Let’s go back a few years. How did your interest in art begin?

I was already a reader of kids’ books illustrated by N.C. Wyeth, who I thought was the cat’s whiskers. I’d look at the world, sometimes even in sunlight, and it seemed very pallid compared to his palette. His was glorious, but also romanticized. But it was realistic, so you could believe it. His work had the obvious skill that I, in my dim-witted way, thought was so extraordinary, so far out of reach that you couldn’t ever get there. But then came the real epiphany: at the 1939 World’s Fair I was blown away by 500 Hundred Years of Great Painting, which had been assembled from the great European and American collections. I still have the catalog from that extraordinary exhibit. I lived in just those three great pavilions any time the family went to the fair. All at once I knew that it was something great to be an artist, especially if you have three goddamn pavilions all devoted to art. Until then, I’d never seen a real painting, only reproductions in books. The impact was stupendous.

Where did you grow up?


Did you visit museums?

Aside from the World’s Fair experience, I didn’t go to the museums until high school. I’d never seen a real painting, only black and white reproductions in books. One of our friends in the group of talented young artists in our class, Arnold Abramson, knew his way about New York art galleries. He’d drag us all to see gallery shows and museums when they were virtually empty. No blockbuster shows back then. From him we had a whole education about the larger art world outside of high school. And the museum experience became very much a part of it as well.

Another important event took place at about the same time when a cousin of mine, an extremely sensitive, smart guy, about ten years older, knew of my interest and gave me a book on Flemish painting that included work by van der Wyden, Hans Memling, van Eyck, and so on. That really got to me. It was a revelation that put N.C. Wyeth out of my mind. He started going through the book, reading the commentary about the paintings and saying interesting things about the art. It was almost like he was presenting me with a life plan.

I take it that was the first moment you realized that art potentially might be in your life for a long time.

Yes, that it was intimating that art was something I could do. It was presented to me as something that I was uniquely gifted to understand. It wasn’t given to anybody else in the family.

Burton Silverman Interview
Burton Silverman, Fast Food, 2004. Oil on linen, 23 x 52 in. Private Collection.

Why did your cousin sense that? Did you let him know that you were interested in art?

No. He just knew from the work that I had done, even at that age, that he had a talented cousin who liked to draw pictures.

An aunt complemented this by giving me my first set of oil paints when I was 9-years-old. The aesthetic goal combined with the technical one, and I was set up. I was a patsy. I was destined to do that. It affected a lot of the ways I began to feel. My imagination flourished. But I never said to myself, That is going to be my career. I always said that is something I’m going to do.

Was there a reason for that attitude?

I was surrounded by practical people. My parents, with their Depression-era mentality, were terrified that I wasn’t going to be able to survive. Paradoxically, they sought out schools—even the ASL for kids’ classes—that would train me to be an artist.

I went to the High School of Music and Art, which was probably the seminal point in my education. It brought me in contact with other young wannabe artists, all of them committed to drawing realistically in an age of Cézanne. My lifelong friend and colleague, Harvey Dinnerstein, was in my class.

Burton Silverman Interview
Burton Silverman, Study in Black and White, 2006. Oil on linen, 28 x 24 in.

Were you at the head of your class?

I was the class president.

Were you the one who was looked up to for your artistic skill?

It was very democratic, a lot of competition over who could draw the best.

Where did you rank?

I have no idea.

Where do you feel you should have ranked?

Well, I always thought that Harvey Dinnerstein was much better than I was. I really had a competitive thing going with Daniel Schwartz about, of all things, who could draw US war planes better. Remember, these were the war years, and almost everyone was invested emotionally. But I don’t think that was part of it. I think my concern was who was going to do the best drawing rather than who was going to be the best artist. There’s a difference. Maybe by inference, of course, that made you the best artist.

After the League, how did your career develop?

I’ve been very lucky as an artist, extraordinarily so, I now think. I became a professional illustrator at a time when illustration was still flourishing. I didn’t actually choose to be an illustrator. Because my serious art was noticed by a very astute art director and with a few connections, I was lucky and talented enough to become very successful.

When I was in the service during the Korean War (which I opposed on political grounds), I was in a special unit that produced PR for the Pentagon. I did not see combat. In this instance, however, my talent was my luck. In the infantry units Korea was a dirty word. Fear of that climate’s bitter cold and an enemy that fought to the death caused a lot of people to faint before they even got there.


The word about Korea was that it was “GonnaKorea.”

That implies something other than frigid temperatures.

It was a pun on the word for sexually transmitted disease Gonorrhea.

Were you in Korea?

No. I was here, stateside, in Washington DC. I hated that I was part of some propaganda machine, but I figured it was survival. The fact that I did a good job was only because that was who I was. I wasn’t out to sabotage the unit. Part of my ego was involved. We did some cool dioramas.

A word about my politics: I had a very liberal background, not radical, but probably closer to socialist. My father was a socialist in his youth. When elected members of the Socialist Party were evicted from the New York State legislature, in 1920, during the first Red Scare of the century, he fled the party. He felt that it was no longer useful for him to be in a party connected with so much hostility. He had a family to support. Later in his life he would say about politics, ‘‘They all stink.’’ Curiously, I may be coming around to the same idea but for different reasons.

Do you think you are an idealist? Idealists often don’t; they think they’re pragmatists.

I do, yeah. I hold an ideal about cooperation over competition. I believe that people can somehow surmount their genetic history, which is animal and territorial and in constant struggle for survival. We need another millennium to become the superior humans we pretend to be, but we may not have the time. I mean, ninety-five percent of life on earth disappeared in the Great Extinction. There might be another one.

Burton Silverman Interview
Burton Silverman, Near the Shenandoah, 2010. Oil on linen, 42 x 48 in.

You have certain very deep-rooted values. You have been a very strong observer of the world, of human behavior, of how things are, and art also gives you greater insights into that as well. I’ve always felt that way. Art is something that puts you outside of yourself.

I’m glad you make that connection. I think it is the common characteristic of artists who have made great art, art that is lasting. I believe it is a mix both of their emotional life and their cognitive life. Caravaggio, to cite one example, humanized the Catholic narrative about God by painting real everyday people. He even painted the Madonna with dirty feet! The human being became central to the story as much as the story was about divinity. Was this because of who Caravaggio was? Because of what he had gleaned from Leonardo and, before that, Giotto? Was it a matrix of other artists doing the same thing? Certainly his art seemed to come from his love of painting from life rather than cartoon studies, a notion that stirred admiration from his contemporaries.

This brings me back to something we talked about earlier regarding me and my friends in the Davis Gallery. We had a need to reconstruct a similar humanist environment. We had dreams about a realist revival in the 1950s at the height of abstract expressionism, when there was not only no matrix for us, but only the great modernist explosion. It was the Age of Aquarius for modernist art, overturning the remnants of figurative art that still survived in the quiet backwater of American provincialism.

The exhibition we planned was itself a bit pretentious. We called it A Realist View, but it included only ourselves as presumably the only realists around. In retrospect, we were narrowly egocentric and the show we put together didn’t include a lot of other very worthwhile artists because they didn’t seem to measure up to the aesthetic criteria we had evolved for ourselves. We were trying to create a new environment, a new matrix, for what we dared think would be a realist revival. But we became exclusionary and maybe it ultimately defeated us.

Sixty years later we see a phenomenon that perhaps owes something to our beleaguered efforts. Namely, a lot of people have exploited new-found skill, permissible now, perhaps in part because of that Realist View exhibit. But it is different because the art is no longer guided by the same aesthetic construct. Realist painting is now increasingly harnessed only to pure observation. There are exceptions and differences, such as the emergence of personal narrative art, often of a kind that is remote and difficult to decipher. In the main, however, this new realist art just wants to get it exactly as the camera might see it but not to look photographic. It wants to capture the absolute existential “it-ness” of things. The authenticity of the untrammeled eye has become the new basis of validity

Do you think that the desire to create more photographically-detailed work is motivated by a need to demonstrate technical prowess?

There is a skill factor involved. But there is a sense, too, that artists want it to be considered more authentic, more socially valid, and more available to the ordinary viewer than the recent century of modernist art, which has been deemed indecipherable, and, yes, uninteresting. In this quest, however, a lot of the paintings seem to ignore the traditional love of the painted brushstroke.

I was having a discussion with Michael Daley about the Chardin exhibition several years ago at the Metropolitan Museum. I love the work, and I couldn’t wait to see it. I saw it and relished in the whole thing. But one painting in particular, a bowl of plums sitting on a table in a small room with a window revealing a landscape, made me feel that I was looking at something that was absolutely real. It was startling because I realized how one individual’s vision could relay an absolute truth.

I believe in the veracity—the truth telling—inherent in great art much more because, although you can photograph everything so easily, a photograph rarely presents you with a contemplative experience. Not to knock great photographs, but somehow they have a shorter shelf life for me than do paintings.

What this all comes down to is image. An image has multi-layered meanings. We have always been image-conscious but are probably more so now than we’ve ever been before.

Photographic fidelity has affected portrait painting terribly. People now expect portraits to have the same veracity as a photograph. The painting, though, gives them another little cultural edge: it satisfies a sense of tradition because it is called art. Other qualities that make a portrait endure—the sense of something live that is created magically and makes the portrait survive far beyond the life of the subject—these may have been lost.

Isn’t that part of the irony in a way because a great painting is always giving you something. It is something that slaps you and hits you like a wave. Using technology, after a while, you get used to it. Each time you’re going to have to come up with something that’s going to hit you harder in order to provoke a reaction.

Yes, I think it’s a kind of stimulus fatigue in receptivity.

Since photography’s creation in 1839, impressionism, post-impressionism, expressionism, all that started to emerge, partially as a result of having a recording device take over that function, which liberated art to other expressive ends.

No doubt about it. But photography also claimed the attention of a lot of late nineteenth-century, academically-trained artists, like Jean Dagnanon-Bouveret, who was probably a leading practitioner of the use of the photograph. But look at his work. These are clearly paintings! The idea spread throughout Europe and became the movement that has been called naturalism. Nevertheless, before naturalism and realism were swept away by twentieth-century art, they produced some powerful works.

Well, Courbet used photographs.

I was thinking specifically of him. Many artists found a use for them. Meissonier did the great stampede of Napoleonic horses using photographs. But the result feels like a painting.

Burton Silverman Interview
Burton Silverman, Fur Collar, 1998. Oil on linen, 30 x 24 in. Private Collection.

That’s all that counts. I don’t care how they got it.

I use the camera, too. But I use the camera with the idea that it offers information but doesn’t determine my vision. I’m not mincing words about this. I’m not disclaiming the photograph, since, in all honesty, I really can’t paint photographically, just can’t. Scholars have discovered Eakins’s great dependence on the camera. The point is, it didn’t matter. He didn’t set up an easel in the Schuylkill River to paint Max in a Single Scull, yet the painting gets beyond the photograph. Why? David Hockney wrote a whole book allegedly exposing the three-hundred year arc of the lens. I don’t care if Caravaggio used some kind of a lens to paint that lute in Boy with a Lute. The painting was more than a photographically-inspired rendering of the lute. Hockney argued that van Eyck couldn’t have painted the chandelier in his Arnolfini Portrait from the same point of view as the couple themselves. It had to be from a lens of some kind. Hockney even enlisted a mathematician to prove it. He misses the point of the painting altogether: why it survives. Hockney was struggling with, actually achingly envious of, the idea of craftsmanship. Every one of those people knew how to draw, and the drawing was far more important to them than any lens, if indeed they even used one. Caravaggio was noted by contemporaries, indeed envied, because he painted directly from life. Their aesthetics grew out of drawing. I’m a great promoter of the idea of craftsmanship. It allows you to really be free. I believe the photograph is inherently subsumed by my drawing in my art as well. To reiterate: the camera is a part of my equipment, but not my vision.

Whatever we use to get the pictures is what we use. I want to go back to your remarks about the abstractionists whom you do not hold in high esteem.

It’s not a question of esteem. I find it beyond that. I think two things happened during the beginning of the twentieth century. Society at large began to fall apart. World War I marked a devastating crash of communal values for people who believed in the old world values. Second, traditional academic painting had become just damned silly. It wasn’t about people’s lives anymore.

In Search of the Humane
Burton Silverman, Wall Poster, 2009. Oil on linen, 49 x 48 in.

Are you talking about the Pre-Raphaelites?

Yes, in part. But I’m thinking more about the Bouguereaus, artists like Sir Frederick Leighton and the people who painted rear-ends that were blatantly erotic and exploitative and pretended those images had some kind of exalted meaning. I’m thinking also of paintings of people in white tunics who celebrated festivals reminiscent of classical Greece, which was immaterial and distant in most people’s lives. So, these two events came together in a very dynamic way.

The break was also fed by some painting precursors, like the impressionists, who broke with conventional notions of modeling. Instead of having continuous, smooth, uneventful brushwork, they had it broken up into what they claimed was a replication of the way light was transmitted. For that you can look at Seurat and the pointillists.

Do you think Seurat had skill?

I don’t think so, at least not the conventional kind. I think he did add a sort of mysterious magic to the outdoors in Grand Jatte and in his theater pieces. In a similar vein, Picasso’s vaunted skills were overrated: his early paintings were still quite ordinary and repetitious of then contemporary Spanish artists. And he systematically aped Lautrec and Edvard Munch before turning image-making on its head with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. These are arrogant things for me to say. I’m clearly not considered an important enough critic. But think of this: there are only a couple of serious negative critiques in print among all the tons of Picasso books written since he became famous. One is in a book, Success and Failure of Picasso by John Berger, a noted and brilliant art historian. The other, an essay by Roger Kimball, on the occasion of a Picasso portrait show in 1998. That’s extraordinary.

What I am getting at is that much of modernist art doesn’t really interest me. It tells me nothing about my world, my experience, or what that artist feels about it. There are all kinds of interesting ways to paint; I don’t insist upon any one look in the way paint is applied, whether it’s scumbled or alla prima, whether it loses edges or is dripped or whatever. What I do require is a painting that transforms my understanding of what it’s like to be human, to feel like a human being.

Has anyone argued with you about this?

Should they have?

I don’t know. I’m just asking a question. You must have gotten into debates with people who you respect about the validity of modern art versus what you feel is valid.

It’s a challenging thing because perhaps there isn’t a real argument possible on either side. The argument or discussion or challenge of ideas is often circumscribed because somebody always falls back on an emotional defense of their position. Then, it’s not rational anymore. Why? Because modernist art—all art really—is emotional and largely subjective. Ideas may percolate within it, but most discussions become dead ends and fall back on taste, or “what moves me.”

You don’t attribute any of that to cognizance?

To an extent. But look at the titles on a lot of modernist art. They are made-up words. And the grand adventure one has of reading the almost humorous critical writing of the last sixty years confirms this.

Take a great painting, Titian’s Venus of Urbino. If it was titled My Mom When She was Young, how would you think about the painting?

It depends on the time.

Look, I did a painting of a stripper that is rather gloomy. She’s leaning on a doorway, and there is a sense of pervasive anxiety or malaise about her. Her body is just there, an instrument. She’s not showing it off. I wanted to give it a title that would enhance the subject matter. I chose Afterwards because it seems to suggest the finish of her performance, but perhaps also implies that sex is also an act.

Yeah, but if you titled it Hot Mama, it still wouldn’t make it into the museum for reasons that have to do with its imagery. What I’m saying is that if you title it Venus, who was the ultimate goddess of love, you’re elevating the image.

In Search of the Humane
Burton Silverman, Ambivalence, 2008. Oil on linen, 39 x 30 in.

Hey, I like that idea! But look, you’re talking about the illusion. Painting goddesses and myths is OK because they don’t challenge comfortable notions or perceptions about the world that we live in. Myths and illusions do have a place: they shape notions of society for better or worse. But they often become blinders to changing realities.

To get back to the whole dialogue about modernism. In the very early years of my career, I was given to writing and speaking in opposition to the supposed superiority of abstraction and championed the merits of the realist tradition. The philosophic basis for it, from Roger Fry to Clement Greenberg, was to “purify” art of it’s attachment to the real world—to isolate beauty from a real context. I never understood why images per se were “impure” or the nature of its contaminants. I felt personally delegitimized by that idea. It seemed like an attack the validity of my art. More recently, however, I have tried to clarify what I hope to achieve as a realist and really abandoned the tiresome realist/modernist controversy. I think the larger issue is how to fashion a vital new realism that becomes a movement and not a marketing device. There are a lot of problems for me in the current realist revival. I don’t knock people who paint abstractly, nor do I want to abolish modernism, even if I could. It’s now an inescapable fact of art history and the art has satisfied a lot of people. But it’s sometimes hard not to react defensively when the very idea of realism is constantly derided in the mainstream art press.

Is the subject you paint more important than the picture itself?

No, I think there is a balance and an interplay between the two. I want to connect body and soul, form and content in my art.

Do you feel that you were overshadowed by the abstractionists, the modernists?

Absolutely. Overshadowed in the sense of the attention they got at the expense of figurative art, which was still around, and the artists, who were still producing interesting stuff. Think Andy Wyeth or the recently sainted Edward Hopper. Not many people were looking at the work we were doing in the Davis Gallery. There were a few critics from the old New York Times like Howard Devree and, later, in the Nation the now-celebrated artist Fairfield Porter, who wrote terribly, yet sympathetically, of my work. I got more reviews in the New York Times then than I have had in the last twenty-five or thirty years. They liked the idea of this intimate place where small-scale, nice little paintings were done. That changed dramatically. It changed after Jackson Pollock. The paintings in galleries became huge, seven, eight, or nine feet.

There is a pleasure principle in all art, OK? For me that must include something else which is incredibly important, which is what I talked about before—that human element.

What did the reviews of your work reflect?

Mostly they were noncommittal, not extolling anything that great. They reflected a grudging respect for the skill, the painterly gifts of the art. I don’t think the paintings were great either. They were modest. I think they looked interesting in a climate where there was not much left of the nineteenth-century painterly tradition. We tried to alter that perception by putting on the Realist View exhibition. The Davis artists were intimidated by the idea that somehow or other we were revivalists, that we were just doing something that was done one hundred years ago. In fact, although we used similar kinds of painterly devices and realistic rendering, it was really different from nineteenth-century painting. We were painting people in our world, in our lives.

You still seem resentful although you’ve had what most consider a great career.

No. I’m not resentful, at least not anymore. And remarkably I’ve somehow attracted a very passionate following. But if you want to be noticed by the mainstream art press, I think you have to do something that whacks the bored critic and gives him something to write about. It’s led to the cutting-edge mantra that has produced some really silly stuff, but that, interestingly, keeps on being used to further careers. The critical establishment is complicit in this and it distorts the better part of whatever useful social role that art can be said to perform. I’m not made that way. And I’m also fearfully modest—scared is perhaps more accurate—to want to bear the pressure that goes with being “famous.” I think postmodernism has run its course, at least as far as actual painting is concerned.

I have done well because I’ve painted what moved me, and many other folks have apparently enjoyed it as a consequence. I now have an increasing access to a wider world beyond the galleries, to a museum or two, where my work can be judged on its merits alone and not by the red dots. It pleases me now even more, not because it’s prestigious to have a few museum exhibitions upcoming, but because it’s about my vision of the world being seen out in the world, unencumbered by the need to sell it.

So-called value is determined by what somebody is willing to pay for it.

I think that’s unfortunately true.

Do you work differently on a painting every time?

It’s evolving a bit because a lot of my painting now has got a high degree of finish, more than it had twenty years ago. It used to be more pastel-related with a lot more brushstrokes. Now it’s more hidden. So a lot of the ways that I apply paint have changed, and it takes more time. I’m not a patient nine-to-five painter.

So you were always drawn to the realists. There was never a time when you saw Cézanne and said, Wow, there is something’s happening there.

No, just never connected with it. My neurotransmitters are not geared for that. I don’t have any way to assess values in that kind of painting, and I couldn’t respond to Cézanne’s still lifes or even his card players. His landscapes are highly-prized for qualities I just cannot discern. There is a pleasure principle in all art, OK? For me that must include something else which is incredibly important, which is what I talked about before—that human element. Now, someone could look at my work and say, My God, you have no understanding of art history in the last hundred years. I’d say, Well, that’s one kind of art history. There’s another art history that was going on at the same time.

In Search of the Humane
Burton Silverman, Afterwards, 1997. Oil on linen, 36 x 26 in.

Do you think that is coming from a place where people think, Hasn’t this been done already?

In form, perhaps, but maybe not in content. I am doing something about the world I live in. When I painted strippers, I didn’t do it the same way that Reginald Marsh did. Maybe that’s what attracted me to it in the first place. I think that I have a different sense about it and a different way of rendering it. I think those bodies are terrific, but that’s dangerous territory. That’s forbidden sex. And I’m saying, What makes it forbidden?

I’ll give you an example. I had a model who had been a life model, worked at the League and so on. She had no problem standing before total strangers with nothing on, and she had worked for me in my class. I hadn’t used her for nude poses. I said to her, Listen, I’m interested in doing a series of things on strippers and I need a model. You’d be terrific. I didn’t tell her why she was terrific because the reason was she looked very depressed. I thought that was part of what I wanted to get at in the painting. I didn’t do it in a studio. I went to her room, a cubicle really, in a shared apartment. It was close quarters. I would tell you that it did elicit some other random thoughts in me as I was drawing.

I had her put on long black stockings and a G-string. She was topless and had on high heels. But, you know, as the art takes over, pretty soon you are really doing something that is creatively using those feelings. I did a half a dozen drawings. I was really pleased because she perfectly fit the concept I was working towards. We finished, and I said, Terrific, I’m going to set up a schedule for you to pose again because I want to paint you. She said, I can’t do this anymore. I said, Why not? You got a bad schedule or something? She said, No, I just can’t do it anymore. I said, You have to explain it to me because we had a good work session here. She said, What if my mother sees the paintings? So, flash of insight. Suddenly, she became the stripper and that troubled her. See, when she had no clothes on, she was an art model. When she posed as a stripper, she actually felt like one and that was disreputable. So, I knew I was on to the whole disparity between myth and reality, between painting under the cover of art as opposed to saying, OK, here I’m painting about sex. I’m painting about sex workers. But it is also about the fact that they have beautiful bodies, and they affect you in the same way that the human body does in every other circumstance.

Realist Painter Burton Silverman
Burton Silverman, I Am a Dancer, 1995. Oil on linen, 50 x 32 in.

There’s a prevalence and almost general acceptance of naked women, of pornography.

But it is all geared to something else. It is not the admiration but the exploitation of the body. You know what the problem with my paintings are? They aren’t very sexy.

Why would you call that a problem?

The paintings need to exploit the duality of the sexual experience. Eroticism is OK when you paint a goddess or nymphs, unreal creatures, but not OK when it’s sex in a disapproved of real-life form as in the strip club. It doesn’t work as well if the nude is not erotic.

A lot of the Old Masters painted provocative, desirable images for their patrons.

Those women are not erotic. [Laughs]

You don’t think that Titian’s Venus of Urbino was gorgeous? Oh my God. OK. We’ll save that for another conversation. Who are the artists you admire most?

Those precursors? A few like Velázquez and Degas, Eakins, and Sargent. Rembrandt, of course. Holbein, Hals, van Eyck, Vermeer, Caravaggio, and Lautrec. I scanned all of them for ideas when I was a kind of museum rat. Oh, by the way, I used to put down Sargent


Yeah, I thought he was a bit too glib, and next to Rembrandt appeared superficial. I changed my mind. I see that he made certain elements of his painting appealing to the people he was actually dissecting. They looked only at the appurtenances. You know the dresses, the furniture, the setting to sanctify their wealth. The idea that Sargent was a premier coup painter—one touch and you’re done—absolutely wrong. You have to really look at the paintings of the features, the heads. They are very considered, and they are constructed by many layers of built-up paint. That is where their luminosity comes from. A lot of them are extremely penetrating, psychologically-attuned portraits.

What about Ingres?

Ingres, forgot about him, too. There’re so many damned great painters. Degas was a fan of his, collected a lot of his paintings. I thought Degas was the best, always a favorite, because, despite drawing lapses in later works, his images of people were always alive. Perhaps he influenced me too much at a certain point but I’ve gotten rid of that. Early Eakins, the outdoor things and the magnificent Gross Clinic and so many of his other portraits. I’m trying to think of really dramatic influences. Early on, it was Rembrandt and Velázquez. There is a painting on the wall, of the studio back there, a self-portrait that relates to Velázquez in a very clear sense: the color, the lighting, the placement. That is who I thought was the ultimate best at the time.

There is so much nonsense now out there. How do feel about that?

Mostly, I ignore it. I have not looked at most gallery shows for several years now. I go to a few since the realist revival has become so visible. Jacob Collins has reproduced the nineteenth century intact. It was like a great discovery. I said to myself, Wow, how curious, especially since, historically, I tried to separate myself from that presumptive, negative identification. Jake just doesn’t care about how others estimate this.

Also, in that case, aren’t they trying to replicate a time ago, which has very specific rules about it.

It’s got rules that at this point in time are still operative. They still work and it’s very safe. If you can paint that way, it gets encouragement now from many galleries around the country because it has rediscovered technical proficiencies that haven’t been seen for such a long time. The work also has a reassuring serenity about it in an uncertain world. I think, however, it’s no longer useful for realists to paint girls with schmattes on their heads out in the fields looking soulful. Anders Zorn would possibly approve, but not for now when there’s oil in the wetlands.

Aren’t they trying to provoke an effect?

It’s enormously salable and oh-so-safe. But is that what art is about?

This interview was originally published in the Fall 2010 print issue of LINEA.

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