The Continuity of Substances: Jonathan Silver Interviewed (Part 2) by Michael Brenson

The sculptor discusses his work and its influences. 

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Jonathan Silver, 1967. All images courtesy of the Jonathan and Barbara Silver Foundation.

(Part 1 and part 3 of the interview are available here and here.)

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


Michael Brenson Which modern artists would you consider great? 

Jonathan Silver By modern you mean—? 

MB Twentieth century. 

JS (pause) If you’re asking me what modern artists produced in me equivalent sensations to the great artists of the past, that gets tough. I think there are very few. I think I’ve had that experience at various times, with Picasso, obviously. I would have to say that I have had that experience with Picasso, particularly in Analytic Cubism.

MB Why? 

JS It’s a completely subjective thing. It’s a kind of sensation, and a suggestion of richness, and my willingness to keep coming back to those images, and my drawing from them over and over again. Just the feeling I get from them. They have that feeling; they belong to great, classic art. 

MB Even though the content, the theme, might not be there? 

JS The content is there, as much as it’s there in a lot of late nineteenth-century art. It’s there in the structure. To me, Cubism is that moment in the history of modern art when a structural metaphor that worked for a very important piece of meaning was discovered. It had to do with making the ambiguity of things cohere for a minute, which is a real achievement.

MB Or maybe systemizing that ambiguity had become a permanent fact of modern art.

JS Exactly. Making it into a system which could cohere, which could be useful for many other artists. You can’t get around that. It’s a stupendous accomplishment.

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Jonathan Silver, graphite on paper, 1976. 5 x 8 inches.

MB When we were talking a couple weeks ago, you mentioned that the only modern artist for you who really escaped a certain neurotic component was Picasso, and that even Giacometti got pulled down, to some degree, by it. Could you say what you meant by that?

JS Did I say that?

MB Yes. That the only one who was really free of it was Picasso; that even Giacometti’s work was ultimately, on some level, diminished or limited by that neurotic—

JS Well, neurotic is a funny word. It would be hard to describe Picasso as being someone who was a particularly healthy-minded man, in many ways; but his vitality was stronger than his neurosis, for sure, as many have observed.   

MB He had no inhibition. 

JS He had no inhibitions. And I think one of the things, and it must have haunted other artists, is the fact that he was totally willing to change in the course of the work. In other words, he wasn’t afraid. As an artist, he was totally unafraid. And what makes that such a great achievement, in the context of the twentieth century, is that it’s much easier to be unafraid when you’re working within a system of conventions of which you are a master. To be unafraid when you’re breaking new ground and taking those kinds of risks is extraordinary. And, actually, in a funny way, Picasso probably doesn’t get credit for it, because he was so brash and self-confident, that the courage was just there. So you don’t see him fighting with himself over it. I mean, it’s perfectly obvious that Giacometti was terrified practically every minute of his life.

MB Which also can make his work moving in a way that Picasso’s is not.

JS That’s right. You’ll find something in Giacometti’s work terrifyingly close to death, which was the one thing that Picasso could never face. In his old-man things, they don’t come off.

MB Maybe he didn’t face it because somewhere he always believed that he could beat that, too. With Giacometti you feel this daily terror of being killed.

JS That’s right.

MB And partly what makes Giacometti’s work so wonderful is that you feel the courage that he’s willing to deal with it, look at it head on. I think Picasso always felt that he could beat death.

JS Up to a point. I think when he got real old, he got the idea.

MB Yes, but it wasn’t until he was eighty years old.

JS Yes. Enviable … 

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Jonathan Silver, graphite on paper, ca. 1975. 5 x 8 inches.

MB Does Picasso interest you at all as a sculptor?

JS Some things, yes. Sure. Some of those heads, I think, were very—

MB You mean those big heads from ’32?

JS There’s that ability that Picasso had more than anybody else to just combine things in a surprising way, and bring them to lively and stimulating juxtapositions, both spatially and in terms of their meanings as objects. 

MB What I wonder is whether he has an ability to impose a certain vision of the world. My response to Picasso—it’s more like a genius with a little bit of emptiness under it. Do you think I’m wrong?

JS Yes. There is a vision in Cubism. There is a grasp of the fundamental slipperiness of modern life in Cubism that was so persuasive that no artist has escaped it. It’s not just a formal device; it’s a metaphor for the conditions of modern life of the most profound kind.

MB Part of what I like about Braque is there’s such a distinct temperament, such a distinct lyrical sensibility. With Picasso it’s harder to locate.

JS If you mean that you don’t feel the same sense of an intimate, personal touch running throughout his work, I think that’s probably true.

MB Touch that’s an expression of a temperament, of a philosophy, of a vision of being.

JS It’s hard to like Picasso. It’s a lot easier to like Braque, because there is a distinct, lyrical, persuasive individual personality there. It’s hard to like Picasso. But there’s a vision of the world there, all right, and a very terrifying one. In a scary way, he’s on top of it, also. It’s hard to like someone who’s so much on top of something so scary. Also, there’s all that other stuff. How can you like the guy? Not only did he do that, but he achieved extraordinary personal power, enormous wealth. He did what he damned pleased. He was simply altogether too successful to like. 

I think Picasso was so powerful that there is an impulse to try to find a weakness in him by saying there’s some emptiness there. Maybe you could say the same thing about any great classical artist, in a sense—that there’s that overriding thing. You could make the same objection to Poussin. 

MS Poussin had a much clearer temperament and had a much clearer sense of a view of life, view of things. To be a classicist then was also to have a certain kind of tragedy. JS I think that’s very reasonable. I don’t think much about Picasso now. But I think the period of which he was the representative has just recently begun to recede, which is modern art, which was very largely his creation. It’s just begun to recede, and he is the most representative.

But when you get through talking about Baselitz turning the painting upside down, and the need for disorientation, Serra, etcetera, you see it’s not that far behind. The whole point of Cubist work is that you’re constantly struggling to reorient your spatial relations, and you keep on running into a certain kind of spatial construction in process. In Cubism you have to deal with alternative spatial constructions in order to reshape the image in a coherent way.

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Jonathan Silver, graphite on paper, 1992. 6 1/2 x 9 1/4 inches. 

MB There’s also the Mannerism that Cubism learned something from.

JS Cubism certainly learned something from Mannerism. But, in the end, it was probably a more important style than Mannerism. I do think it represents a view of life, and I wouldn’t confuse Cubism with the narrow formalism of later modernism, or Greenbergism. I don’t think Picasso was anything like that. I think that he felt profoundly and instinctively that the modern condition was one in which a clear statement about the condition of Man was impossible. In other words, his work embodies finally the understanding of the relationship between the aesthetic concept of art and the earlier, religious concept of art. He understood that very well—what had happened in the eighteenth century. His work really expresses the profound sense of the loss of meaning. It’s kind of a retrospective comment, in a way, on what had happened to art, since it lost its religious meaning.

MB Are you talking about Cubism, or are you talking about his work as a whole? 

JS Cubism, and also a lot of other things. I think you’re wrong. I think there is a tragic dimension to his work. I think a painting like Guernica, and some of his etchings of the Minotaur—his whole relationship to the classical past. I think there is such a profound yearning for what art once was, and he sensed it could never be again, or felt it could never be again. I think there’s a terrific, on a grander scale, sense of the history of art and what it meant. Now that’s not an intimate, personal vision, but it’s a great historical vision, and he found ways to communicate that. It’s really quite heartrending; even the neo-classical works are heartbreaking in their relationship to their model. 

MB Well, maybe I’ll feel that.

JS I haven’t thought about it in a long time. And, again, his personal history does make him hard to swallow.

MB What probably gets in the way is his own sense of domination and competitiveness. It always mitigates, to some degree, whatever loss he would have felt. Maybe he’d feel loss, but he’s awful glad that stuff is dead and he can help bury it.

JS I’m not sure about that. I don’t think that’s fair. I think he probably believed, and probably rightly believed, that he could compete on that level, in a world that gave him a coherent language to work with. 

MB He did wind up competing on that level.

JS He did. Like no one else.

MB Matisse interests me more now.

JS I certainly love Matisse. I don’t think there’s a whole hell of a lot of point in discussing who was the greater artist. I think they were both very great ones, of decidedly different temperaments. I’m glad they’re both there.

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. 

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