Artist Snapshot: Dean Hartung

Twenty-five questions exploring the mind and habits of an artist

Dean Hartung interview
“After Jack Beal completed the first mural for the Times Square–42nd Street subway station in Manhattan, called The Return of Spring in 2001, the response was very positive. City officials decided to fund the companion mural, The Onset of Winter, in 2005. In this update of the ancient story, Persephone fulfills her agreement to return to the underworld. Jack was ill, and I was enlisted to flesh out the idea. The half-sized maquette, pictured here, was sent to the Travisanutto workshop, in Spilimbergo, Italy, for translation into mosaic.” Photo: Ellen Hutchinson

At what age did you decide to become an artist?

I always drew and was considered “the artist” at school, but I think I started taking it seriously at fourteen when I decided I was a better artist than a drummer. I used to draw caricatures of the teachers, which were popular during class and used subsequently in the yearbook.

How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?

They weren’t surprised and listened to the experts, my art teachers, who felt I had potential. None of them had any real idea what that might mean practically and neither did I. It is a kind of calling.

Who are your favorite artists?

The Renaissance greats, Titian and Veronese in particular. Caravaggio always pops up in my mind, his work is so physical. Degas, Monet, Sargent.

Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?

I guess a pure colorist like Bonnard.

Art book you cannot live without?

The internet images are so good, I look at my books less and less. That said, The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini is amazing.

What is the quality you most admire in an artist?

The ability to be emotionally open in what can be a cruel, dismissive world.

Do you keep a sketchbook?

I have some, but I tend to have the best ideas on random pieces of legal paper and paper bags. Really cheap paper is very freeing.

What’s your favorite museum in all the world?

The Louvre.

What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?

The Sargent retrospective at the National Gallery was spectacular. I went to a preview opening and had an unexpected private walk around with Richard Ormond, the renowned authority on Sargent, who is also the grandson of his sister, Violet.

If you were not an artist, what would you be?

A fair to middling drummer.

Did you have an artistic cohort that influenced your early creative development?

Yes, a neighborhood friend when I was a kid. We would spend hours with clay making figures together and drawing superheroes and cars, mostly. He went into engineering, I think.

What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?

Perspective. I had to autodidact that one. They didn’t think it was necessary as we would all be obedient modernists.

What work of art have you looked at most and why?

I go back frequently to The Night Watch. It was such a novel idea to turn a group portrait into a genre painting. Rembrandt’s paint application is endlessly intriguing to me. The Dutch enjoyed turning the visual world into brush strokes, maybe more than anyone.

What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?

Light passing through objects—leaves, flower petals, fabric.

Do you listen to music in your studio?

Yes, classical mostly, Brahms and Rachmaninoff lately. I also love audiobooks.

What is the last gallery you visited?

F.A.N. Gallery in Philadelphia.

Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?

My wife, Ellen Hutchinson, is a wonderful painter.

What art materials can you not live without?

Everything starts from a pencil of some kind. It’s hard to divorce line from color, so you need paint. Really good paint is so expensive, it’s sad. I make my own sometimes with powdered pigment. I also like making my own black oil and Maroger medium.

Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?

No, I teach college, and some days are exclusively for that. Also, there must be time for life. Some artists do work every day, and it can be relentless and uninspired. The work can get tired, and the world doesn’t need those.

What is the longest time you went without creating art?

A couple months. You assume you would improve by thinking about art a lot, but you need to physically work at it. Starting to paint again brings you right back to where you stopped.

What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?

Try to work through it. Think like a craftsman and just start moving stuff around. An artist I knew would throw pictures on the floor and walk on them, kick them around to find something new. Too random for me. I couldn’t commit to an image created like that.

What are the questions that drive your work?

I try to communicate my emotions of observed life. I used to draw my essays as a kid sometimes because I felt I could show better than I could tell.

What is the most important quality in an artist?

Intelligence and perseverance.

What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?

An altarpiece would be nice to do. It’s a logical extension of doing murals and stirs the creative and competitive juices. The spiritual has always been the greatest impulse to make beauty.

What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?

All the forgotten artists who are available online. I can discover a new artist I’ve never seen before almost anytime I look. No critic to filter what you think is interesting.

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