Artist Snapshot: Harvey Dinnerstein

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

Harvey Dinnerstein interview
Harvey Dinnerstein, The Studio, 1978, oil on board, 23.5 x 20.5 in. Collection of The Robert Hull Fleming Museum, Burlington, VT. Gift of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

At what age did you decide to become an artist?
Perhaps at the age of fourteen, when I entered the High School of Music & Art. But it was not a matter of choosing a profession, rather the beginning of an all-consuming passion that would eventually shape the direction of my life.

How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
Both my parents, Sarah and Lou, were most supportive. They had no special interest in art, or conception of what it meant to be an artist. But they had convictions that placed human values above monetary concerns, and encouraged me to pursue my studies in a field that was totally alien to them and must have seemed, at the time, completely impractical. In retrospect, I realize that their support was quite remarkable and meant a great deal to me.

Who are your favorite artists?
I cannot possibly list all the artists that are my favorites, but Rembrandt, Degas, Eakins, and Kollwitz are outstanding. Rembrandt for the expressive power of all his work, paintings, drawings, and etchings. Degas, who integrated classical traditions with remarkably original figure compositions of contemporary life. Eakins probity of form and character that reflect his time with a unique sensibility related to the seventeenth-century Spanish and Dutch painting. And Kollwitz, whose powerful vision conveys human concerns that continue to resonate today.

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

Art book you cannot live without?
Diary and Letters of Kaethe Kollwitz

What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
The qualities I respond to convey a personal vision, an integration of form and content.

Do you keep a sketchbook?
Of course, I always have a sketchbook with me.

What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
The Louvre, Paris.

What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
Tintoretto at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice

If you were not an artist, what would you be?
It never occurred to me to be anything other than artist. Well, perhaps a shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers, circa 1939.

Did you have an artistic cohort that influenced your early creative development?
Fellow students were an important part of my early development. I met Burt Silverman, Dan Schwartz, Herb Steinberg, and Arnold Abramson at the High School of Music & Art, in New York City, and David Levine, Aaron Shikler at Tyler Art School, Temple University, Philadelphia. I would add Shelly Fink and St. Julien Fishburne, who I also met in those early days. It was a time when abstract expressionism dominated the art scene, and though we had different ways of approaching the subject, the traditions of figurative painting as applied to contemporary life became the focus of our work.

What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
I cannot narrow it down to one thing omitted in art school. But I found the teaching limited, and learned a great deal more outside of school, studying great paintings at the museum. The work of the masters conveyed lessons and inspiration far beyond anything I found in the classroom.

What work of art have you looked at most and why?
Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ, the dramatic composition projects so powerfully—with interlocked forms that convey the symbolic elements with naturalist details. I have done numerous sketch copies of this amazing painting whenever I had an opportunity to visit the Vatican Museum in Rome.

What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
What I find in nature, the seasons, and the vast universe from a crawling insect to an eagle in flight. But this is not really outside of art. It is the very source of all my artistic aspirations.

Do you listen to music in your studio?
Yes, an eclectic selection of Bach, jazz, or Yiddish music, related to the pleasure of the model posing or the rhythm of my work.

What is the last gallery you visited?
An exhibition before the pandemic at the Lehman Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Dutch paintings: Vermeer, Rembrandt, etc., while the galleries upstairs were being renovated.

Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?
Christen Købke, the Danish nineteenth-century artist. He is certainly very well known in his native country, but I was not aware of his work until recently. Most interesting combination of realism and classical form.

What art materials can you not live without?
Drawing, pastel, and oil paint materials are all essential for the images I want to construct.

Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
Of course there are occasional interruptions, but I try to work every day.

What is the longest time you went without creating art?
Perhaps a day or a week. Most recently the week I had to move to temporary quarters because of major repairs in my apartment and studio.

What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
Anybody who has drawn or painted for any length of time realizes that the intensity of creative work cannot be maintained at a consistent level. There are times when I am overwhelmed with visual ideas and wish I had another pair of hands to set down my perceptions. At other times everything seems dormant, though I realize that this is part of the ebb and flow of life. I find some kind of regular daily activity is necessary to maintain a continuity of ideas. I try to devote some time every day to the work, regardless of social obligations, financial hardships, or what may seem to be a lack of creative inspiration. There are many days when I can only make a brief notation in my sketchbook, but I think that is important in overcoming the difficulty of getting back to work once the rhythm is broken.

What are the questions that drive your work?
How do I respond to the subject, and how can I express this in visual terms?

What is the most important quality in an artist?
Technique and craft are essential, but the most important quality is a personal vision that expresses the complexity of contemporary life.

What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
In this tenth decade of my life, I have numerous unresolved projects in mind. I can only hope that my work will continue to reflect some aspect of the journey we all share.

What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
Social media and the web are fascinating to me in providing an opportunity to communicate without the gatekeepers of information, cultural elites who have presented a limited view of our world, past and present. But opening the floodgates with modern technology also communicates a great deal of false information and trivia. I wonder if the bright images on the computer screen, often with color distortions, are replacing the original work of art with all the subtle qualities that cannot be reproduced.

HARVEY DINNERSTEIN has been teaching at the Art Students League of New York since 1980. His most recent solo show, Underground, was on view at Gerald Peters in 2020.

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