Artist Snapshot: Bill Behnken

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

Artist Snapshot: Bill Behnken
Bill Behken in the printmaking studio at the Art Students League, 2020

At what age did you decide to become an artist?
Before launching upon this reflection of my life in art, I want to start by saying that I am doing so from the age of 77, and of having been a lifelong New Yorker. I don’t remember “deciding” to be an artist. I recall that when I was very young my interest in drawing was remarked upon by my family. My maternal grandmother who had been born and raised on 10th Street and Greenwich Avenue, noticed my eagerness to draw and once remarked,” Oh, Billy, you’ll end up in Greenwich Village.” I was still too young to know what her allusion to “The Village” referred to, and I didn’t know from her tone if this was naughty or nice! I just took it as approval and a positive recognition of my interest in drawing and coloring. In public school I was singled out with only a few others for special art projects so that reinforced my image that I was “an artist.” By eighth grade I chose to take the test for the High School of Music & Art, one of the special schools that had an intensive program for young artists or musicians. It was one of the first conscious decisions I made to choose a path towards dedicating myself to being an artist. My acceptance to this school was exciting and reaffirmed my identity as a young artist.

How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
My parents recognized my abilities and respected them. They weren’t artists; they came from working-class backgrounds and had matured during the Great Depression, so their advice was that it was alright to “do your art,” but be sure you can make a living.

Who are your favorite artists?
There is a popular old American Standard song whose lyric states, “If they asked me I could write a book….” That’s how this question strikes me! I find so many artists that I have responded to for joy, insight, skills, and emotional experience that it is hard to pin down just a few. On the top of the list is Rembrandt, whose work has such variety of bold technical inventiveness, subtle introspective moods, and a magic that is unequal both in his painting and his printmaking. He is a fountainhead for almost all artists. I also like Seurat for the clarity of form and carefully organized design; I’m partial to his landscapes of the harbor at Gravelines. His drawings have also been a revelation to me for their subtlety of tonal values. I love the Impressionists, both French and American: Monet and Pissarro, as well as Childe Hassam and Theodore Robinson. I am drawn to the strength of Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and George Bellows. I have cited painters, but as a printmaker I like Rembrandt, Albrecht Dürer, Francisco Goya, J.A.M. Whistler, Seymour Haden, Mary Cassatt, and among the Japanese, my favorites are Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai.

Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
I love El Greco, everything about him! The color, the fluidity, the passion.

Art book you cannot live without?
The Book of Fine Prints by Carl Zigrosser. It is a broad history of prints of both Western art and Asian art. It describes the processes of printmaking along with the history and has a section with illustrations making it a portable print “museum.” Then there is my extensive library of art books and exhibition catalogs none of which are expendable.

What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
I like when an artist has a distinct vision and purpose and has worked to develop their skills to match that vision.

Do you keep a sketchbook?
Yes, I have since my years in high school where we were encouraged to follow this practice. I use many sizes, some for quick compositional sketches, others for more detail studies, and those for finished drawings which are often preparatory for my prints.

What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, followed by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
Rembrandt’s Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2003.

If you were not an artist, what would you be?
I’ve often worried about that, but have no answer.

How did your early artistic cohort influence your development?
I met a friend in eighth grade who shared my same interests in art and nature. We became friends, we drew and painted together and visited all of New York’s museums. Our working and “talking art” together was as much, if not more, important for my development as any of the formal schooling I had. We are still as close as we were then after all these years.

What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
Nothing. Between the education I had in Music & Art High School and my courses at City College, where I earned my BA and MA, I was introduced to many materials and techniques, as well as ideas about the principles of composition and color. We were also encouraged to develop the discipline to carry our work to its fulfillment. Being exposed to the professional behavior and careers of our professors was enlightening and helpful in ordering our later lives as professional artists. I found their methods of instruction inspiring for my own career as a teacher. I also became immersed in the history of art which was as foundational to my work as an artist as was the skills I developed in the studio. What I did not get was a rigid, overly-academic, formulaic way of working, for which I am grateful.

What work of art have you looked at most and why?
Rembrandt’s print Christ Crucified between Two Thieves: The Three Crosses of 1653 is a drypoint, intaglio print, that embodies what a great work of art can do. It is dramatically expressive of human pathos as well as hope, using the medium to its fullest; the rich dark ink and luminous reserve of paper. Rembrandt’s apparent spontaneous draftsmanship creates an intensity of feeling, but his ability to suggest details in facial expression and bodily movement reveal his masterly control of human drama. This work speaks to me as a printmaker because it demonstrates Rembrandt’s ability to wrest this expression not only from his drawing skills but also from the manipulation of his materials.

Rembrandt produced this image from a copper plate into which he drew with a sharp steel needle. The groves produced by this process were filled with rich black ink. A wiping of the surface leaves ink in the groves which are then printed onto paper or sometimes vellum. This process permits the artist to make multiples of the image. Later changes may be made to the plate, and various amounts of ink may be left on the plate before printing, creating a variety of “states,” through which the viewer is able to follow the artist’s creative thinking process. By making changes to his copper plate, Rembrandt transformed his rendering of the Crucifixion from one which seems to represent an earthly setting to one which is spiritually visionary. He has done this by adding slashing lines, and heavily inked tones to create the illusion of flickering veils of light pressing back an enveloping field of darkness. It is exciting and instructive to see how Rembrandt the painter, known for his remarkably expressive skills of glazing and impasto, can bring this same dramatic intensity to his great prints.

What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
Enjoying the sights of nature; the silvery muted tones of rainy days, the soft muted colors of dusk, moonrise, golden afternoon light.

Do you listen to music in your studio?
I listen to music wherever I can. I like classical music, especially Dvořák, Sibelius, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky.

What is the last gallery you visited?
The last gallery I attended was the ACA Galleries, which had an exhibition devoted to works of art inspired by the New York Subway. I was delighted by a Martin Lewis wash drawing. I was also in the exhibition and was delighted as well that its black and white tonality was complemented by a red dot on the wall next to it!

Who is an under-rated artist people should be looking at?
I think Edwin Dickinson and Willard Metcalf. These are two American artists who deserve more recognition. Dickinson as a figure painter whose work has an aura of mystery that goes beyond mere academic representation and narrative, and Metcalf who captures poetic but true characteristics of the light of the New England landscape, with beautiful color pitch and compact compositions.

What art materials can you not live without?
Pencils, a variety of papers, and printmaking materials, especially rich, velvety, inks!

Do you create art every day?
Not every day, I weave working as an artist in and around my teaching responsibilities.

What is the longest time you went without creating art?
I stopped doing any project during the month I quit smoking in December of 1991.

What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
I look through my sketch books to uncover ideas and images that stimulated me but which I didn’t flesh out at the time. This recalls me to myself and my sensibilities which often jump-starts new work.

What are the questions that drive your work?
I don’t work by thinking of my process as driven by a question, but rather by trying to express a fleeting experience of mood or state of feeling and how to martial my abilities to realize it. It is more intuitive and practical than a question.

What is the most important quality in an artist?
To be alert to your experiences as well as your inner life, and to keep up your ability and skills to fulfill your expressive vision.

What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
From the long perspective of my career of over fifty years, I am able to see and appreciate the path taken in the development of my work and how it reflects my values and sensibilities. I am satisfied with my situation, I have no regret that I followed my own dream, and am pleased and humbled at the recognition my decision and my work has received. I am also comforted by the life I have as a teacher who can share my joys with those of the joys of accomplishment of the multitude of students and artists with whom I have worked. What more could one want from an engaged life in art?

What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
I would rephrase this question to be, “What is the best thing for art in the era of social media?”
André Malraux wrote Museums Without Walls to extol the value of art books, which could bring art to a broad public, revealing the wonders of art and its meaning through the ages to this audience. The electronic media are the natural outcome of progress in communication. It, too, brings more contact, with the greater advantage of interaction between the artist and their public, and between artists sharing their ideas and skills universally.

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