Artist Snapshot: Burton Silverman

Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions

burton silverman interview
Burton Silverman in his studio, December 20, 2016 (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

At what age did you decide to become an artist, and how did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
I don’t think I ever made that decision. I apparently showed a lot of drawing ability as a kid and my parents were somehow primed to support my talents. It was almost an article of faith in Jewish culture at that time to further whatever talents their children had, which they thought might be of cultural importance. There was a reverence in my family particularly for music and musicians and other performance artists. As a consequence we had an upright piano in our house which by depression era standards, made us seem rich. I was given piano lessons and after a few attempts and tearful sessions I abandoned them. So, as an alternate, at age thirteen, I was enrolled in a Saturday morning kids class at the League with a kindly woman named Anne Goldthwaite who led us to drawing from life-sized casts of Greek sculpture to entry into classes with nude models. This seemed to confirm my identity as an artist. Everything else flowed from that. In a strange cognitive disconnect, and to answer your next question about how my folks reacted to my career choice, my parents were totally involved in encouraging and directing my career towards the thing they most wanted me not to be. Against all their depression laden fears of my having no viable income as an artist—the “starving artist syndrome— they enrolled me in that class at the League. Their conflicts were further exacerbated because going to the League on Saturday would violate my Dad’s orthodox religious prohibitions about both travel and “writing” on the Sabbath. A lot of arguments flowed out of that. Then to further stress their concerns they later decided to send me to the newly created High School of Music and Art. I never thanked them enough for their choice and the emotional toll it took on their already fraught lives. The school was a marvelous accident because it provided me with a group identity and led to my lifelong friendship with Harvey Dinnerstein. We shared a camaraderie with a few other like-minded kids as dissenters to the then new direction that art had taken, which placed Cézanne as the turning point in art history, a shift that would soon manifest itself in the mid-fifties with Pollock and abstract expressionism. 

Who are your favorite artists?
This is always a troublesome question. I have no favorites because it involves making a choice out of the hundreds of possibilities and also because it is a constantly changing affection over time. Certainly as my art changed, different artists became more interesting as a resource for study or perhaps even to provide help in solving a problem—aside from some early infatuations with Rembrandt, Velázquez, and Degas. I loved all of the usual suspects, from the fifteenth-century Flemish artists, from Titian and the Romanticists onward. Occasionally I rediscover the marvel of that heritage–both inspiring and burdensome—when, on a recent visit to the Met, I saw the small portraits by Rogier van der Weyden and Hans Memling that virtually lit up the wall. And I have also had an increased admiration for Andrew Wyeth.

Who is a favorite whose work is unlike your own?
Toulouse-Lautrec

What art book can you not live without?
One is a book of critical essays by Roger Kimball, Art’s Prospect, that deals with the “challenges of tradition in the age of celebrity.” The essays often challenge my generally negative responses to modernist art, and the issues he defines are critical to all art—its aesthetic components, which sharpened my thinking and helped me better articulate my own aesthetic concepts. The other is a book by Gabriel Weisberg, Beyond Impressionism: The Naturalist Impulse, on the realist art that spread throughout Europe and later the US and Russia.

Do you keep a sketchbook?
Dozens of them, starting in 1964 when I made a watercolor record in a small elegant bound book of my first Grand Tour of Europe. And in years following that, I kept small ones for subway and beach drawings (in Italy) and larger bound versions when I started teaching or when I hired a model. These evolved into very large format drawing books, the first of which was replicated in an ambitious print edition in 2006 called The Intimate Eye. These, and the smaller books, became a record of my changing visual skills. I also dislike the word “sketchbook” since it seems to excuse any failed work as “ just a sketch”—an artist’s “get out of jail free” card.

What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
I think it would have to be the Met because of its prodigious worldwide collection. But like the diversity of art history, there are others which could easily be a favorite like the Frick Collection in NY, or the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
The Velázquez show at the Met in 2009.

If you were not an artist, what would you be?
I’ve never really considered that. It seems totally alien to me. But possibly I’d have chosen to be a writer.

Did you have an artistic cohort that influenced your early creative development?
That would clearly be Harvey. I always admired his extraordinary drawing abilities, even in the earliest days when we first knew each other in high school. His early drawings and their relationship to Flemish art was a great driver of my search to draw better. It was very easy to become imitative. Another close friend, David Levine, was producing marvelous watercolor paintings in the mid-eighties that were totally engrossing and captivating. They influenced my watercolor paintings.

What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
A tough question since my art school training has been fragmentary at best. In fact it has been less than that. My high school graphics teacher, a wonderful Miss Pferdt—I never got to know her first name—provided the most skill-based learning. We did etchings, both drypoint and acid bath stuff, which was terrific technical training, especially since the rest of the art program in this very progressive art high school was about “expressing one’s self.” Not a bit about paint mixing, mediums to use, wet and dry etc. I attended League classes after hours in college (I was an art history major), but these were largely also very absent any coherent perhaps “academically” inspired concepts. When Harvey and another couple of high school buddies attended the Tyler School at Temple University, I often queried them about technical issues and other things they were learning during my frequent visits with them.

What work of art have you looked at most and why?
I would say the painting Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien-Lepage. Among all the painters of the naturalist movement, he seemed to be able to depict the working people of his time without romanticizing or politicizing their portrayals. The Joan painting in the Met is a marvelous study of a hallucinatory experience. His painterly skills were also evident in his straightforward portraits, especially of kids.

What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
I can’t quite think of this as “secret” since it seems to imply something forbidden, but watching sunsets seems constantly compelling…. It’s also a very appealing one for a lot of people, which accounts for the number of artists who paint them. At a workshop I gave in Sarasota many years ago, which is located on the western shore of Florida, there was an evening jaunt by many locals to watch the sunset over the ocean. People would sit until it was almost dark. 

Do you listen to music in your studio?
Very early on, in the sixties and seventies, I listened to those dimly-remembered LP vinyl records of folk music and the icons of that genre: Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, etc. (I don’t really enjoy classical music that much and especially not as a background to working. For some reason, it drains energy rather than reinforces it.) As my tastes changed, I moved on to “soft pop” radio before acid rock and hip hop began to crowd them out. For many reasons, I began to switch to the local public radio station for current news. Increasingly, and especially with the Anita Hill testimony in the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings in 1991, I became a sort of news junkie. I no longer listen to the radio on a regular basis. Funny about things like that.

What is the last gallery you visited?
That was the Dinnerstein show at the Gerald Peters Gallery two years ago.

Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?
I have no idea. There are thousands of new people with similar abilities who have produced work of comparable merit. It is very difficult to make any meaningful choice in this setting. And those whom I could’ve named several years back are no longer unnoticed.

What art materials can you not live without?
Good brushes that can take heavy scrubbing and smaller ones that hold their shape for a reasonably good length of time.

Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
Mostly. I have found that the time at work varies along with the progress and of any given piece. And there are useful days off to consider what any painting’s progress needs altering.

What is the longest time you went without creating art?
I had a long career in illustration but barring the conventional distinction between “art” and illustration, and with the exception of the usual breaks like holidays, travel, and summer vacations, I have never stopped for more than a week or so. After I stopped taking illustration work in 1994, or as classic illustration began to disappear with the decline of many magazines, the volume of my personal work appreciated considerably. I produced many of my more interesting paintings in the decades that followed. It culminated in several retrospective museum exhibitions in 2000 and 2010.

What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
That does not happen as a kind of encapsulated creative moment. Painting is a continuum of creativity much like a wave on a graph, between finishing work and getting new ideas that tumble out of the finished ones. It often produces work on a theme that involves both structural and content changes and modulations. My favorite examples are Degas’ ballet dancers, bathers, and jockeys.

What are the questions that drive your work?
Have I pushed the painterly solutions far enough? Or gone too far? Is the totally refined form in a painting an impediment to expressiveness, or is that a fiction? Does something important in the story-telling function of historic realism get aborted by the pursuit of mimesis—virtual reality? Are the “mistakes”of accuracy sometimes the door to an unexpected revelation?  Those are questions that deal with the means, the technical issues. The “what you say” part is even more problematic.

What is the most important quality in an artist?
Honesty? Creativity? Intelligence? Skill? All of them together to be called what: genius? luck? Maybe just “perseverance” would be the best characterization.

What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
I have no good answer to that because I never had a coherent aesthetic goal nor a grand project. Perhaps it’s because of that, I feel I have not quite achieved a more consistent body of work. A lot of my work arises out of an accident, or stumbling on some event that spurs me to want to record it. It would seem that scale —bigness—is now critical to the “estimability” of any work as indeed it became an almost essential element in modernist art. I feel I have never had a theme or an idea that required an overly large scale except for one or two. I would like to redo some paintings in these next few years to remedy that.

What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
The opposite: that art as I have known it is an endangered species. However, it may be that so many people have become artists, or art lovers, because of the fragility and the impermanence of the digital medium. The pandemic exacerbated this anxiety as it removed a lot of “touch” from interactive life. The tactile experience may be a central necessity for durable human existence and perhaps a painting might even provide that. 

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