Drawn to Paint: The Art of Jerome Witkin in the SU Art Galleries displays the work of a man haunted by history and inspired by humanity. With 70 works including drawings, paintings and sketchbooks, the exhibit lends insight into the mind of one of the most distinguished figurative painters working today.
The works of Witkin, a professor at Syracuse University School of Art and Design for forty years, range from huge narrative panels to drawings.
Witkin’s paintings depict scenes from his own life as well as history. Witkin was influenced by his mixed Jewish-Italian heritage and major events such as the Holocaust, as can be seen in the works Division Street and The Two of Us.
“I’m trying to make something for the ages,” Witkin said of his Holocaust paintings.
“I was always interested in mental and physical pain,” reads a plaque in his exhibit. “I always felt strongly about persecution…It’s not that I wanted to do this. I felt compelled to do it.”
“So much of his paintings stem from suffering he has observed or is coping with at the moment,” said Edward Aiken, senior curator of the SU Art galleries and the director of the graduate program in museum studies.
Along with the unflinching depiction of shocking and difficult subject matter, Witkin has a distinctive painting style that Aiken describes as “the love of applying paint.”
When close, one can admire the beautiful details of the painting. When one steps away, the components of the painting “organize themselves,” said Aiken.
One of Witkin’s trademarks is a distinctive green paint, which Aiken refers to as “ghastly Witkin green.”
Witkin’s trips to Europe from his youth, during which he soaked in the finest art in the world, have influenced his work, as he has been compared to the Western European tradition of narrative painting.
In a gallery talk the night of the exhibit’s opening, Witkin showed a packed auditorium of students, faculty and other art appreciators a slideshow collection of his art, sharing personal anecdotes and insight into his work.
Witkin said he aims for “magnitude” in his art, which certainly makes sense given his works’ physical size and the weighty subject matter.
“You should use [art] to make the artistic climb to Everest,” he said.
“He sets high goals for himself…he has a desire to achieve at the highest level,” said Aiken.
Witkin’s style reflects his life in the modern era and the traditions of the most distinguished Western artists. With this combination of influences and an interest in the hardships of humanity, Witkin has distinguished himself as a foremost contemporary artist, and one of the most skilled figurative painters in the world.
“The paintings are keeping me going,” Witkin said. “They need me and I need them. I get up in the morning and think ‘another day to paint.’”
Witkin's works are on display at the SUArt Galleries until October 23. For more information visit suart.syr.edu.