Artist Snapshot: Ephraim Rubenstein

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

Painter Ephraim Rubenstein in his home studio
Ephraim Rubenstein in his studio, 2013

At what age did you decide to become an artist?
As with most things in life, my decision to become an artist was a lengthy process marked by certain salient landmarks. My maternal grandfather, Edward H. Freedman, was an artist and commercial illustrator, and it was he who started teaching me to paint at the age of about eight or nine. I took to it immediately, and the sight and smells of his studio, with its boxes of colors and drawers of brushes, were extraordinarily exciting to me, and quickly became the center of my interests. I grew up on Eastern Parkway right across the street from the Brooklyn Museum, which still had a fabulous art school at the time. Starting to take classes there at the age of fourteen was another important landmark.

At the age of sixteen, through a series of family connections, I met and befriended Dave Levine, who invited me to start attending the painting group that met weekly in a huge loft over Fairways on Broadway. There I met- and assiduously watched and learned from- not only Dave, but Aaron Shikler, Harvey Dinnerstein, Dan Schwartz, and many of the other great realist painters working in New York. From the moment I walked into that huge loft, with the smell of coffee, turpentine and cigar smoke, speakers blaring Puccini arias and best of all, naked women walking around, I was hooked and there was no turning back. I think I made the final installment of my commitment to being an artist when I went to Cambridge on a Henry Evans Travelling Fellowship upon graduating from Columbia. (Playwright Terrence McNally was an earlier recipient.) I spent almost every day out in Constable country painting landscapes along the river Granta and studying his works in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Standing out in the countryside, under English skies with massive clouds scudding overhead, I knew for sure that that was how I wanted to spend my days.

The only serious contender for my attention came from sports. I was a jock in high school and college, having achieved an Eastern ranking in Junior’s tennis and a National ranking in squash. I toyed briefly with thinking I wanted to turn pro. Luckily, I found out pretty swiftly that I was not nearly good enough, despite my early successes.

How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
When I was young, and art seemed like it was only going to be a hobby, both of my parents were fairly supportive. Aside from anything else, they figured it kept me inside and out of trouble. But the second it seemed as if I wanted to do it professionally, my father, particularly, became quite negative. He told me (quite correctly as it turned out!) that it was impossible to make a living as an artist, and that I needed to take up a real profession (like the law). Once, in the midst of a fight about this subject, I turned to him and said that it was “no disgrace to be poor.” To which he responded, “Well, it’s no honor either!” We fought about this for quite some time.

A turning point, however, was when he agreed to sit for a portrait, and he saw how much work it actually was. He slowly came around after that and eventually he became one of my staunchest supporters. One thing that he got wrong, however, was that he always told me that if I worked hard (which I did) and was well-educated (which I was), I would eventually be financially successful (which I am not). He never really realized that the economic paradigms of the traditional professions and the arts are just too different.

Who are your favorite artists?
This is almost impossible to answer, as my “favorite” artists change and have changed throughout my life along with what I am interested in and what I am working on. I remember one week in particular when I was in my 20s and was studying the Dürer Great Piece of Turf, and thinking that it was the epitome of art: intensely real, painstakingly observed, patient, utterly humble, and self-effacing in front of this ordinary corner of nature. And then later that week, I went to the Met and saw the Vuillard Self-Portrait with Waroquy, a completely different artistic statement: mysterious, moody, subjective, unresolved, enigmatic. And I left the museum thinking that it was the epitome of art! Needless to say, favorite artists, influences, obsessions are all very fluid.

I have never been able to get far away from the great Baroque painters: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Velázquez, Van Dyck.

Early on, like everyone else, I was brainwashed  into believing that everything important in later art came through Paris; Chardin, Corot, Degas, Rodin, Monet, etc. And these artists, no doubt, are giants. But equally important for me are artists that I discovered later and on my own: the great Russians Repin, Shishkin, and Levitan; the Danes Hammershøi, Eckersberg, Krøyer, and Købke; the Germans Menzel and Kollwitz, etc., etc.

The Americans Eakins, Sargent, Whistler, Homer, Hopper, and Dickinson have been large and constant influences.

Of contemporary artists, Andrew Wyeth’s influence has been huge. I have always found the combination of his Dürer-like exactitude with an explosive and unexpected spontaneity to be exhilarating. And his seemingly straightforward depictions of quotidian life always reverberate with mythic overtones for me. Other favorites are Euan Uglow, Antonio López García, Israel Hershberg; my teachers Dick Cunningham and Harvey Dinnerstein; and the work of my dear friends Anthony Panzera, David Dodge Lewis, and Costa Vavagiakis.

Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
I have always loved the iconic abstractions of Mark Rothko. They breathe and vibrate with air and space, like the most atmospheric of Romantic landscapes. Rothko once wrote (something like): “Before it is anything else, a painting should be a glowing thing on the wall.” This has always stuck with me.

Art book you cannot live without?
For my bar mitzvah, my parents got me the Frederick Hartt Michelangelo Drawings, a book that never left my side the whole time I was growing up, and whose plates I copied endlessly.

The New York Graphic Society’s Drawings of Edwin Dickinson is ridiculously well-thumbed and studied, as is the catalog for MoMA’s exhibition Georges Seurat: The Drawings. Peter Galassi’s Corot in Italy remains a revelation as to the breadth and depth of plein-air painting in Italy long before Corot arrived for his first campaign there in 1826, and the Art Institute of Chicago’s catalog from the great 1995 Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist exhibition always is necessary for me to have within reach.

What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
When I was younger, and struggling with my own mastery and technique, I thought it was mastery and technique. Now that I have my technique (such as it is) under my belt, I admire more the extent and depth of an artist’s vision—their view of life. Van Gogh did not have great technique, but he was capable of profound statements. Tissot, on the other hand, had all the technique in the world (and some to spare), but his vision of life seems superficial by comparison.

Do you keep a sketchbook?
It’s interesting. When I was younger, I took a sketchbook with me wherever I went, and I filled-up dozens and dozens of them. At some point in my life, maybe fifteen or twenty years ago, I stopped sketching so compulsively. Instead, I read compulsively. I am never without a book, and I read with greater and greater urgency as I get older and realize that I don’t begin to have time to read all of the books that I need to read.

What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
Having spent my formative years in New York, it is really impossible not to say the Metropolitan Museum. It is as vast as a small city, and can be overwhelming. But the number and quality of works in its permanent collection is truly staggering and ridiculously comprehensive. And compared to the Louvre, it is so easy to navigate. (If you decide to go to the Louvre, from the second you enter the Cour Carree, you will clock in almost two miles before you hit your first work of art!)

But aside from its own permanent collection, the Met has made it possible for some of the greatest works of art in the world to come right through our backyard (as it were) in the form of comprehensive one-person retrospectives that give one an unparalleled opportunity to study the work of great artists, with many of their greatest works all together, sometimes for the first time since they were painted. The great Degas exhibition in 1988, the Corot exhibition in 1997, the Leonardo, Master Draftsman exhibition, and the Balthus exhibition in 1984 were all incredible landmarks in my artistic life.

What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
This is another question that is almost impossible to answer, there being so many exhibitions in my almost fifty years of museum going that meant so much to me. But two experiences will have to suffice. The first is the day my wife and I stepped into the Breughel room at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. To see all of those landmark paintings, all together, with that teeming, all-encompassing vision of life, was truly overwhelming. My grandfather always had a reproduction of the Hunters in the Snow in his studio, it being the epitome of art for him. And there it was! The actual painting, along with the Tower of Babel, the Peasant Wedding, etc.

The second was the Picasso: The Early Years 1892–1906 exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in DC in 1997. I had never really cared for Picasso, but this show was a turning point. The Blue Period paintings were so overwhelmingly sad! And the Rose Period paintings which followed, while being airier and more delicate in feeling, still had an underlying longing to which I really responded. Anyway, it was an example of seeing an artist for the first time that had the force of revelation. I probably went back five or six times.

If you were not an artist, what would you be?
As I said, I had had dreams of being a professional tennis player, but they were unrealistic. There was a lot of pressure in my family to go into the law. The scary thing is that I probably would have been a very good lawyer! But knowing me, I probably would have become a public defender or something like that and still raised my father’s objections.

Did you have an artistic cohort that influenced your early creative development?
I had a very dear friend, Manuel Lozada, who I met at the Brooklyn Museum Art School when I was a teenager, and who remained my pretty inseparable companion in art from that time until he moved back to Manilla about fifteen years later. We shared a studio together, worked from the same models, painted outside together in Central Park, explored art supplies and techniques together. Early on, I sold a print to the “Original Print Collectors Group,” and we printed the edition together on a rented press. He was also about the most cultured man I have ever met. He always spoke to me about literature, poetry and philosophy, introducing me to so many great works. He was an excellent musician as well as an artist, and his sister was a well-known concert violinist in Germany. She was so good, that Imelda Marcos bought her a Stradivarius for her concertizing. Manuel introduced me to most of the classical repertoire, and most importantly, to the opera. We went constantly down to the Met to see performances. And because he was an artist, Manuel had no money, and taught me all the tricks of the trade for surviving in NYC on little or no money. He taught me how to buy standing room tickets at the Met for a few dollars and then sneak down to the good seats just as the first lights were lowering. And also how to sneak into Broadway shows at the first intermission. We saw the second and third acts of dozens of shows during the 1980s!

It was only later in my life that I realized how very important Manuel’s influence was for me. There are so many pressures against one’s becoming an artist and sticking with it, that you must have some positive forces in your corner or you will not make it. Manuel was just such a positive force for me.

What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
In art school, I was never taught to work from my imagination, only from observation. And while working from observation has always been the key to everything I have accomplished, I can’t help wishing I had more. I once stood for hours in front of Gerricault’s Raft of the Medusa thinking, Oh my God, I have been known to tear my hair out trying to paint a lemon, so I would have absolutely zero idea how to even think about doing something like this. It felt so completely beyond me, which was not a feeling I enjoyed. When I was at Columbia, there was no studio art major, only art history. So I spent four years studying art history and the rest of the humanities, which was amazing and very important for me. But I can’t help thinking that if I had gone to a good art school rather than college and had spent those four years learning about visual problems (like how to organize multi-figure compositions), I might have had a better chance at working more imaginatively. But, as Gombrich once said, artists don’t necessarily paint the pictures they want, they paint the pictures they can. This has certainly been the case with me.

What work of art have you looked at most and why?
This is another question that is almost impossible to answer satisfactorily. But certainly one of my favorite works of art in the world is the Marble grave stele of a little girl in the Met of a young girl saying goodbye to her pet doves, a work almost 2500 years old that always leaves me speechless. The way that the dove has its beak inserted between the girl’s lips is such a tender gesture, and speaks of a closeness between humans and animals which we can only regret losing. Because it is a shallow relief, the sense of compression of the forms only adds to the intensity of the scene. Talk about timeless, this is it. Luckily, the Met made a cast of it, which my wife, Sarah, splurged to get me many years ago when we did not have the money for it. Thanks to her, I have been able to look at it nearly every day in my studio. It’s serene and quiet presence effects nearly everything that comes out of my studio.

What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
If I told you, then it wouldn’t be a secret! I have always loved movies, and have been very influenced by the ways certain directors visualized scenes, particularly chiaroscuro directors, like Ingmar Bergman. Hopper supposedly was a compulsive film goer. He would get depressed for months at a time and not be able to work. But during that time, he would go to the movies constantly, and you can see how some of his voyeuristic tendencies come right out of Hitchcock.

Do you listen to music in your studio?
I usually do. Occasionally, when I am doing some of the more analytic aspects of a piece, like measuring or figuring out scale or perspective, I need it to be quiet. But generally, I find music a very comforting companion.

Recently, I have been experimenting with listening to audio books. Sometimes it works out, sometimes not. Listening to a book, I might all of a sudden realize that I haven’t really been paying attention and I don’t know who a certain character is! Sometimes, it works out great. I just finished listening to a wonderful recording of the Fitzgerald translation of the Iliad. It was a revelation to me, as I have always been a Lattimore guy, and I have always read the poem. But Homer’s audience would have heard it recited, and the power of the poems rhythms really comes across with a good reader.

What is the last gallery you visited?
It seems so long ago now, with the pandemic. The last exhibition that really stands out was the Verrocchio exhibition at the National Gallery in DC last year. It was a truly amazing show. He ran one of the most successful workshops in Florence, doing everything; paintings, sculpture, ironwork, decorative objects, etc. He was also one of the great teachers of the Italian Renaissance, counting Leonardo, Botticelli, and Ghirlandaio among his students.

Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?
My friend Costa Vavagiakis. Of course, we all know him at the League, but his work should be known by every serious student of figure art, and his works should be in important collections. He has created, in paint, a modern equivalent of fifth-century Greek sculpture—the nude, presented for itself alone, without adornment or story. And at the same time, he is not idealizing figures the way that the Greeks did. He is painting distinct individuals. This gives him away as absolutely modern.

What art materials can you not live without?
I work in all sorts of painting and drawing materials, all of which I love. But if I had to choose, I’d say oil paints. Oil paints have the fullest range of any of my materials—it is like having the whole symphony orchestra playing. They are also very tractable, and tolerate making tons of revisions. Which is great, because I don’t always get what I want right away.

Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
I would be lying if I said that I did. That may be my aspiration, but there is the whole rest of life to contend with and to enjoy. I can’t even live up to the League motto, “Nulla Dies Sine Linea.” If I do make a line everyday, some days, they are only in my checkbook. I worked myself into the ground when I was younger. Now I’m trying to pace myself, and trying to enjoy whatever it is that I need/want to be doing. As Dot says in Sunday in the Park with George, “It’s not so much ‘do what you like’, as it is that you ‘like what you do’.”

What is the longest time you went without creating art?
I had a serious injury to my spinal cord about thirteen years ago. After having cervical surgery, I was months and months in a horrible orthopedic collar, and even more time lying in bed recovering. I probably spent eight or nine months without working. But I read and thought and wrote and just tried to get better. “There is a season, turn, turn, turn…” was a hard lesson for me to learn, as I always wanted to be working. I have had to learn to enjoy other things at other times.

What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
I never feel uninspired. I always seem to have paintings or drawings I want to be working on. For me, it is more a question of deciding what to work on. If I don’t feel that excited, I’m probably working on the wrong project. That is why I like having both paintings and drawings going at the same time. And even multiple paintings in different stages. Sometimes, you like painting quickly and covering ground. Sometimes, you like burrowing in and spending the whole day on two square inches. So if you have paintings in different stages, you always have something to work on that suits your daily rhythms and inclinations.

What are the questions that drive your work?
I’m not sure that it is ‘questions’ that drive my work. It is more feelings, things that I want to say. I live in this beautiful nineteenth-century plantation house in Maryland, with beautiful spaces and light. And at one point several years ago, I remembering thinking that if I died right now, I hadn’t really expressed how much I loved this house; the privilege of being in the proximity of something well-built, that has survived storms and winds and slings and arrows, and is surrounded by ancient trees. As artists, we get this incredible opportunity to bear witness to all that we see and experience in our lives, and to give thanks for being alive and able to experience it. John Updike once wrote, “Description is Praise,” and I think that is right.

What is the most important quality in an artist?
Probably, it is the ability to tolerate solitude. Ours can be a lonely, introspective life, and if you can’t take being by yourself, if you can’t enjoy that and find richness there, it might not be for you. This is Rilke’s great message in the first letter of his Letters to a Young Poet. There are some types of art—musical performance, theater, film, etc.—that are more inherently collaborative. But with painting and writing, you are in there by yourself. It is not a team sport—it is more like “the solitariness of the long distance runner.”

What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
More to the point: what have I achieved yet? The longer I live, the more impressive the really great artists seem to me, and the greater the space between them and me. I just finished re-reading Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. If I could paint with anything like the authority and power of almost any sentence in that book, I would have achieved something.

What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
Well, I’m not a big social media consumer, but I’d have to say that I enjoy seeing the work of many different contemporary artists, ones that can’t get their work into galleries, no matter how good it is. It levels the playing field in some ways, and takes the commercial aspect out of art. People just doing what they do, and showing it to whoever is interested.

I also enjoy the fact that Google allows me to look up a painting that might be mentioned in a book, but not illustrated. Having this vast reference tool at one’s finger tips is an incredible thing.


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