Artist Snapshot: Henry Finkelstein

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

Artist Snapshot: Henry Finkelstein
Henry Finkelstein painting in Brittany, France

At what age did you decide to become an artist?

I never imagined doing anything else. My parents, Louis Finkelstein and Gretna Campbell, were both painters. So I grew up in art, its materials and its culture. I’ve drawn and painted since as long as I can remember: early on religious scenes, (I went to an Episcopalian school), then from the model, still lifes, and out of doors. I copied things by Poussin, Giotto, and Matisse among others. I often went to the Met by myself as a kid, walking across the park. (I lived on the Upper West Side). I visited the museum as one might a friend’s house. I suppose I did my first oil painting when I was twelve.

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

There was never a specific time when that happened. It just was. I remember at eighteen, when I applied to Cooper Union, my mother suggested that maybe I shouldn’t be an artist. My thought was “WHAT?!” Sometime afterwards, I realized that she may have been subtly testing my commitment. It may have been her way of saying that being an artist shouldn’t be anyone’s expectation but one’s own. 

Who are your favorite artists?

There are so many. Right now it’s Titian and Bonnard. Titian for a host of reasons. He is the first painterly painter, for one thing. He gets so much meaning from his use of color: profound volume, space, and light. It is the same with his virtuosity. Many artists agree that he is the greatest painter of all time. I love Bonnard for the color and emotion in his paintings. He developed a language that fused abstraction—or formalism—with a tangible sense of real life, more than any other twentieth-century painter I can think of. I also love Constable’s oil sketches, their sense of light, air, and place; Renoir, for his opalescence and his charm. Many people don’t like Renoir as much as I do. That’s fine with me because it makes my appreciation of him more personal. Another important artist to me is Veronese. He is the first secular colorist after Bellini and Titian. Of course I have to include Cézanne. Any painter who is not somehow conscious of Cézanne just isn’t serious. The list goes on.

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

Well, I wish my work was like Titian’s, but good luck with that. Otherwise there are so many artists that I love whose work is not like my own, such as Donatello, Giovanni Pisano, Duccio, Giovanni Bellini… It’s a good question because it’s important for an artist to look at things that are not directly related to their own work. One doesn’t want to be limited by one particular enthusiasm. Originality comes out of some sort of synthesis.

Art book you cannot live without?

I don’t know if I couldn’t live without them, but I’ve read and re-read Delacroix’s Journals and Matisse on Art many times.

What is the quality you most admire in an artist?

Authenticity. That the work has some sort of spirit which sets it apart from anything else.

Do you keep a sketchbook?

When I’m in the country, I carry some paper and pencils with me everywhere I go, to picnics, social events, or just walking down the road. You never know when something is going to hit you. I don’t like calling it a sketchbook, however. It’s a portfolio of sheets of a very particular type of inexpensive paper. A lot of them I throw away. I’d be inhibited if it was bound. I’d feel like every drawing would have to be successful and worth keeping.

What’s your favorite museum in all the world?

There are so many, among the major ones: the Louvre, of the smaller ones, the Barnes Foundation, the Poldi Pezzoli in Milan, the Marmottan in Paris, the Pinacoteca in Siena, and many churches throughout Italy and France. It’s more the one(s) I don’t like that stand out. I don’t like the Museum of Modern Art in NY. It’s a very cold place. Don’t take this to mean I am not a modernist. But the paintings at MoMA, while they are usually good, represent exactly what you might expect of each artist, as if you’re reading a textbook. There are are no surprises, nothing that grabs you in a particular way as though you’ve never seen it before. At the Barnes Foundation the works are presented in an esoteric way that makes the curator recede. You are allowed to focus on the work. Whereas at the Modern, it’s all about who has put the latest show together. They try to rebuild the museum every ten years, with a new vanity project by the latest architect, and yet the coldness always remains, as if one were in a tomb. This is not really what you asked me, but maybe it explains what I look for in a museum, and how I love so may of them.

What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?

Maybe a Bonnard show at Wildenstein Gallery forty years ago.

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

I would be a gardener. I do work in both flower and vegetable gardens. It has a similar timing to painting. There is a slow sort of learning through its rewards and pitfalls. Maybe it would lose something if I did it as a profession. But what’s a profession anyway, other than imposing a seriousness on something you just love to do? There’s a line I like by Robert Frost about seeking to “unite his vocation and his avocation.” I might prefer being a gardener actually.

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

At first, of course, it was my mother, Gretna Campbell. Her paintings have real soul. After that it was my fellow students at Cooper Union. We were all different, and we were all passionate and dedicated to our work. Also two teachers there, Rueben Kadish and Nicolas Marsicano, were crucial to opening my mind to new things. In Kadish’s case it was inspirational. It went to the core of what being an artist is all about. He didn’t talk so much about how to do but how to be, what to demand of oneself. I try to include both in my teaching and not every student is interested in the latter.

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

OK. I’m not going to give the usual answer here that my school lacked something which I should have been offered. If you remain deprived of something as an artist, it’s your own fault. Look at the life of any artist you admire. You will see that they hungered for and found what fed them, whatever the odds, as if by instinct. As teachers we always point to this in defense against a student’s dissatisfaction with what we might have offered them. And then when it comes to our own educations we whine and complain about something that we claim was missing. At Cooper Union you were free to do anything. But I wish that I had painted, at least a little bit, non-objectively, and I also wish I had represented some things from memory or from my drawings and not always working from life. This was a choice that I made, or didn’t make, at that time. When you’re eighteen to twenty, you can try anything and then you can draw on these things for the rest of your life in unanticipated ways. It becomes much more difficult to do later on.

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

I can’t give one answer, but one that I think of is the Bellini St. Francis in the Desert at the Frick. This is for how the color creates atmosphere and for its sheer excellence. If I lived in Venice, it would be his Altarpiece in the Church of San Zaccaria.

What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?

Gardening. It’s not a secret.

Do you listen to music in your studio?

I used to, and I still have records and a record player in my studio. But I’ve come to hearing music in my own head that occurs to me spontaneously as I work. Music is very important to me. I think of colors as having different sounds. I wouldn’t want to distract myself with the wrong music playing, and give the painting the wrong program — even if it’s really good music.

What is the last gallery you visited?

Peter Bonner at the John Davis Gallery.

Who is an under-rated artist people should be looking at?

Nick Carone. He’s of the generation born in 1917. He is more inclusive than any twentieth-century artist I know, save perhaps De Kooning. His work and his mind took in Italian masters, such as Titian, Tintoretto, and Piero, and the French tonalist Corot. He was deeply connected to Modernism. As a young man he knew many artists working in Italy in the postwar period, including De Chirico and Matta. At the same time he was in the thick of what is called the Abstract Expressionist movement as it was emerging, more from the surrealist Jackson Pollock side than from the cubist De Kooning side. Yet because he is a Hofmann student, he understands Rembrandt as a cubist. He was a close friend of Jackson Pollock’s at the height of his powers. He even mentioned Duchamp to me once as an important influence. (Of this I was shocked.) My favorite paintings of his were his heads. They were invented portraits, both surrealist and traditional. They were masterful, often like a Velázquez, in that you couldn’t tell how they were painted.

What art materials can you not live without?

Most of my oil colors are Old Holland. They are the most dense in pigment content, hence their richness of color—at least for now. (All the brands decline over time, until eventually we will just be painting with crayons.) I use the best lead-primed canvas I can find, currently Type J. For drawing I need a particular paper. This is actually inexpensive. It has to be very smooth so that a pencil can glide across it and thin enough so I can almost trace something on a new piece of paper over it and continue to work on the tracing. I use Faber Castell 8B pencils. If it’s the wrong paper or pencil, I literally can’t draw. I need them for rhythm and for freedom. And of course white lead, especially for grounds. When I run out of white lead—I have a lot of it hardening now in cans—that’s when I’ll have to take the pills. I am very fussy about my materials. This is a problem because prices keep going up, and many things are declining in quality or becoming obsolete. Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to score some cocaine just to get a hold of some canvas or a couple of colors. (No, I’ve never done that.)

Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?

Yes. Except when I don’t.

What is the longest time you went without creating art?

I don’t want to know.

What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?

I often go for long walks or joke around with friends a lot, to keep my spirits up. I like to cook and to eat. A lot of problems can be solved with a plate of spaghetti. Reuben Kadish used to say, “Never trust an artist who doesn’t know how to cook.” When I’m in the country, I work in the garden.

What are the questions that drive your work?

Color and light. Does the color sound right? Do I really feel what I’m doing here? Is it authentic or am I just repeating myself? What can be so hard about painting is that each endeavor has to have something new in it. It can’t be completely new, in every aspect, but some part of it has to be a discovery, not just a re-hashing of old tricks. This can develop naturally, or at times it can feel like a lot of responsibility.

What is the most important quality in an artist?

Authenticity, something that is the first of kind, not a watered down version of something else.

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

Ay, there’s the rub, as Shakespeare said. But thank you for using the word “yet.” I would say it’s mass, a greater depth of form. Other than that, everything.

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

While it’s great that social media makes it possible to see and to share anything instantaneously anywhere in the world, its greatest contribution to art is by omission. Social media equalizes everything whereas art is about making a very specific object. People will always need something created by the hand of an individual, which no one else can do and which offers a unique experience when one is actually in front of it. So a work of art becomes more special, more necessary as so much else is turned into a few gigabytes flashing across a screen.

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