As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
The sculptor discusses his work and its influences.
Jonathan Silver was born in 1937 in Brooklyn. His mother was Argentinian, with deep roots in European Jewry. His father was a Brooklyn District Attorney and Surrogate’s Court judge. Jonathan dropped out of school at thirteen and did not continue his formal education until 1959, when he enrolled in Columbia University’s School of General Studies. When he and I met in 1967, he was living in a storefront near Columbia and as much art historian as artist. After completing a masters thesis on Constantin Guys, he began work on a doctoral dissertation on Alberto Giacometti’s painting, also under Meyer Schapiro, a transformative figure in his life, with whom he remained in contact after becoming a sculptor. He was passionate about Cubism, psychoanalysis, epic poetry, Egyptian and Hellenistic sculpture, Baroque theater, and Biblical and classical myths. About Beethoven, Picasso, Goethe, and Thomas Mann. For The New York Times, I reviewed his immersive installation-environments at the Gruenebaum Gallery (1987) and Sculpture Center (1989). In 1995, for Sculpture Center, I curated an exhibition of his haunting 1970s heads.
In fall 1991, Jonathan was diagnosed with lung cancer. When the gravity of his illness was clear, I asked if we could talk on tape. Prior to his death in July 1992, I interviewed him nine times. When Marion Smit of the Jonathan and Barbara Silver Foundation asked me to write the essay for Jonathan Silver: Drawings and Heads at the New York Studio School until January 20, I listened to the tapes. They are a treasure. Jonathan spoke freely and expansively about his life and work, and about the many other concerns to which he and I had returned, again and again, over twenty-five years. Excerpts from those interviews appear here. What we spoke about and how we spoke about it belong to a different time, but maybe his language and thought somehow also belong to the present.
Michael Brenson I was interested in what you were saying about the relationship between your drawings and your sculpture.
Jonathan Silver I was thinking not just about the relationship between drawings and sculpture. Something comes through in my sculpture that is beyond the range of my intellect—which is some kind of hope, or belief, in the continuity of substances, and that expresses itself directly in my handling of materials. So that even if there is a pathos that’s overwhelming, and even if there’s destruction—even if there are all those things which have negative connotations—there’s some kind of vitality that transmits itself, that is not necessarily part of my intellect, which is more skeptical in character. It’s something else. My ability to sculpt has some other source than anything I can actually locate in myself or in my mental life.
MB I gather the particular materials you use are important, too, including clay.
JS Clay is absolutely critical. But the reason I want to compose this piece of music has to do with the fact that there are other things that I would like to say that don’t get through. With music, there are intellectual constructs; there’s a kind of analysis I like to do that isn’t part of my sculpture work.
MB And why would that come through with the music?
JS My most passionate attachments to art begin with musical ambitions—not my most direct, or my most innate; like, when I was a little kid, I responded wonderfully, always, to sculpture, with a kind of real interest. It didn’t have to do with glory or worldly ambition. My natural instinct, when I read about somebody I admired, like Julius Caesar, or Beethoven, or Enrico Caruso, to name some of my early heroes, was to make a kind of tributary bust of them. But it had to do with my feeling about them, and making a sculpture. It didn’t have to do with “being a sculptor.” I used to love to look at sculpture because it gave me a feeling of reality and romance at once.
MB How far back does that go?
JS It goes back pretty early. It goes back to looking through World Book Encyclopedias. Actually, it was Compton’s Encyclopedia, and seeing pictures of sculpture in there. When I was four, five years old, we had a dentist on Coney Island Avenue who was an amateur sculptor. He made these little clay heads and stuff, which fascinated me. My mother, also, used to go shopping in antique shops on Coney Island Avenue. I always used to drag her to an antique shop where they had a bust of Othello. It must have been late nineteenth century, with a white, marble turban and a black, bronze face, slightly over life-size. It bowled me over every time I saw it.
JS I think it was the romance of Othello. Even at that age, my mother had acquainted us with Shakespeare. It had something to do with the physical realization of a kind of rhetoric that was part of my mother’s daily discourse. That’s a hard thing to believe, but I know I’ve told you that when we were little kids she used to read us Shakespeare plays.
MB What did you pick up, then, at five, six, seven years of age, from Shakespeare?
JS The sweep of the rhetoric was something my mother instinctively loved. Her personal drama was all involved in it, because it was her self-image, her grandiosity and perversity, that expressed itself in that way, somehow. That’s what made it very, very potent for me. I actually think that all the rhetorical gestures of my work are a physical translation of that baroque rhetoric, ultimately.
MB When did you start playing the piano?
JS I began to take piano lessons, off-handish, when I was about ten or eleven. It didn’t begin to become important to me until I began to associate it with classical music. It’s impossible, really, to describe it without getting into the intensely troubled grandiosity of my childhood. Somehow I had this idea in mind that I wanted to be a great pianist. I was not a very talented musician at all. I did have, though, as I look back on it, some exceptional musical gifts which weren’t going to be noticed, because the technical skills to give them shape weren’t there, and also because the circumstances didn’t encourage them. I mean, there was a real ability to communicate in a seriously expressive way, musically, even if it was awkward, even if it was crude. I had a strong identification with the music when I was playing it, and exactly that ability to touch a certain note of profound rhetoric.
MB You’ll then have to explain what you mean by rhetoric.
JS I mean an instinctive feeling for getting to the heart of the expression, for what the music meant, and to be able to convey it. Nowhere were there ever any technical skills even close enough to be able to make that consistently obvious. But, you know, I used to daydream. My mind would drift a little bit, and I would make up narrative to the scales as I played them, one after another.
MB What does it mean to invent a narrative when you’re playing scales?
JS Well, sort of like a dream, in which the progress of the tones seem to lead through a series, a sequence of events. You have the feeling of an incident. At sixteen or seventeen, I began taking extension courses at the Manhattan School of Music. This is when my ambitions to become a great concert pianist were, even to somebody with my slender sense of reality, revealed as manifestly impossible. I then went on to extension courses at Juilliard, in music theory. Of course, the interesting thing is that what I really enjoyed doing was sitting out on my porch listening to Beethoven and making busts of him, which I did, one after another.
So the natural expression was somewhere else; the natural, un-self-conscious, plastic realization of this rhetorical impulse just naturally belonged to a sculpture. But music was so glamorized in my mental life that I could never even think of sculpture as a professional interest, and maybe, also, because of the spiritual role of music among the Jews—the aversion to the concrete and the plastic.
MB Did the music seem a real link with God?
JS Yeah. Until I went to Rome and Florence, in 1982, I would have insisted on the spiritual superiority of music over sculpture, as an art form. But seeing Michelangelo in his native setting, and seeing some of the works of classical antiquity that I saw there, probably changed my mind about that.
JS Because that was the first time I saw a sculpture as something more than a single object. I saw it as groups of meanings—things that were grouped together to form a larger meaning, which could make the broadest possible statement about the human condition.
MB Was that where the need to put an individual object in the context of other objects came from?
JS Absolutely. All of a sudden, I understood that once you had that kind of control, you could make the kind of statement that could be made in a symphony, or a work of literature, which had a beginning, middle, and end. There was an equivalent space, time relationship, to those arts, possible in sculpture.
MB What in particular of Michelangelo? Are you talking about the Medici Chapel?
JS I would say the Medici Chapel in particular. It was the sense of the material transforming itself into meaning, which didn’t lose that feeling of substance, of solidity which belonged to the stone, but also permeated the air the way music permeates the air. It became a whole thing, in which the physical space inhabited by the work was alive with the thoughts projected by it.
MB You are talking about the effect that it had.
JS The cosmology of it, the ambitious attempt to embrace everything, from the underworld through salvation. It’s the sensual realization of an idea, which you may understand more or less completely, but the idea part is important, is inseparable, from the physical part.
MB I’ve never thought about sculpture as being parallel to music in the sense of its relationship to space. It makes me think of Giacometti, or any other sculptor who has that ability to make sculpture that creates an impact on everything in its immediate vicinity. At what point, then, did sculpture begin to replace music, or take over from it?
JS I began to take art history courses at Columbia, and they became increasingly interesting to me; I loved the stuff. I came to sculpture, really, by the back door. In 1959 as an undergraduate, I came to Peter Agostini’s class, because I figured, as an art historian, it made sense to take a drawing class and get a little practical, instinctive understanding of it.
MB What happened with Peter’s class that made a difference?
JS Peter had the ability to address my overweening ambitions for high expression. He wanted me to address myself to the model, and he wanted a completely unstructured response to the model. I was all involved in expressive distortions. He didn’t pay any attention to me. I couldn’t stand it.
One day I said to him, “Hey, how come you never look at my work.” He said, “What am I going to say? It’s lousy. You’re not looking at the model.” I mean, he wouldn’t put it in these terms. “You’re not addressing the issue. You’re not trying to do what’s in front of you to do. You’re busy with something going on in your own head.”
I finally figured, “Well, maybe the guy’s got something.” And I began to look at the model and try very hard to get the most volumetric representation of the figure I could, through the use of line. I was good at it. I had an instinctive gift for the realization of space in this way. And I began to find I could lose my self-consciousness in an outward attention to the object. At the same time I was refining my skills and my plastic imagination. It was a revelation to me. Peter never cared whether a drawing was complete, whether it filled the page, whether it had any design qualities. He was interested only in that sculptural quality. And that was the thing that I had a real instinct for. I learned how to work, without thinking about my ambitions.
Once I got that you could be engaged in the human figure intellectually, in terms of mastering the relationships, and the sensual impact of the human figure, and creating an illusion of a volume at the same time you were doing it, was endlessly fascinating for me. I just could never get enough of it.
Jonathan Silver: Drawings and Heads is on view at the New York Studio School in New York City until January 20.
Coleen Fitzgibbon’s film Jonathan Silver: Infidel in the Studio will be screened at Anthology Film Archives in New York City on January 10.
Michael Brenson is an art critic and art historian. His publications include Visionaries and Outcasts: The NEA, Congress and the Place of the Visual Artist in America and Acts of Engagement: Writings on Art, Criticism and Institutions, 1993–2002. He is a member of the sculpture department of Bard College’s Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts and a Visiting Senior Critic in the MFA program of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. He is nearing completion of a biography of David Smith.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.