Morality plays of Jerome Witkin

FEW artists today are able to do what Jerome Witkin can do with paint. Even fewer are able to maintain an ongoing working dialogue with the great creative figures of the past. But then, not many have his talent, dedication, or imagination. Nor have many worked as hard or as long as he to fashion a style sufficiently dynamic and inclusive to tackle some of the most challenging and disturbing issues of our time. Also, few insist, as he does, on perceiving art in moral and ethical as well as in aesthetic terms. Confronted by man's cruelty and indifference toward his fellow humans, or the pain and terror that often lie beneath the placid exterior of everyday existence, Witkin calls upon us to respond compassionately to the victims and to become more fully aware of what we might have in common with the aggressors. His ``Death as an Usher: Germany, 1933'' (1978-81), for example, chillingly depicts individual acts of Nazi brutality and murder. His 1986 ``Unseen and Unheard'' exposes institutionalized cruelty as it has seldom been exposed before. Witkin unrelentingly insists that we assume our portion of the responsibility for what one human, class, or system inflicts upon another.

Toward that end, he has devised a highly effective pictorial method, one that utilizes cinematic and comic-strip narrative devices. The individual images are precisely realistic and are executed in a straightforwardly painterly manner, with considerable emphasis on draftsmanship. And finally, to achieve the exact touch of authenticity he deems essential, he builds elaborate ``stage sets'' for his models. The models participate in the evolution of their poses by offering suggestions and experimenting with various positions and gestures.

Witkin's painted morality plays - for that is what they are - pack a cumulative wallop far in excess of what one would expect from work executed so straightforwardly. There are no provocative distortions and very few exaggerations. Everything is shaped and communicated simply, in line with the artist's belief in ``accessibility without confusion and barrier.''

``Terminal,'' a 10-foot-high, single-panel canvas painted in 1986-87, depicts a young Jew about to exit a cattle car into one of Nazi Germany's death camps. It is among the best examples of his quieter, more empathetic approach. Everything in it is precisely and unemotionally composed and rendered. In fact, the only clues we have as to what is taking place are the yellow star on the man's chest and the two hands on the right opening the large doors.

And yet, thanks to Witkin's thoughtful conception, formal tact, and sensitive concern for the most appropriate and telling detail, we not only feel we know this young man, but know his fate as well.

Witkin sometimes employs a serial format consisting of from two to five panels. The action in his paintings generally unfolds from left to right, with each panel serving to advance his theme in much the same fashion as the story line of a comic strip moves from square to square. ``A Jesus for Our Time,'' for example, a five-part, 38-foot narrative painting, projects the story of a young man who believes he will bring peace to the world, but who fails and ends up with the realization that he is no better and no worse than everyone. The entire story is relayed in five separate incidents that occur sequentially from Panel 1 through Panel 5.

ONE of the more fascinating aspects of Witkin's art is the degree to which it draws upon a shrewd and sophisticated reading of post-World War II modernist formal and technical devices for at least some of its power. Thus, some of his best works project the surface energy and restless movement that characterize the paintings of the leading Abstract Expressionists. Seen from a distance, and in its entirety, ``A Jesus for Our Time'' could almost be mistaken for a purely Expressionist picture. And ``Terminal,'' for all its precise representationalism, draws heavily upon the abstract imagery of Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell.

The insistence on accessibility, on being clear and direct, rather than obscure and evasive, is of crucial importance to Witkin. He writes, ``My art is about meditations of life experience using, during every moment of creating it, the knowledge that someone will join in with my caring about this.'' And he is not afraid to add, ``I believe ... in words like tender and sharing.''

Witkin's insistence on seeing art in moral and ethical terms sets him apart. Ethics and morality, after all, the art world maintains, are the responsibility of the teacher and preacher, not the artist, whose work must remain ``pure'' and above contamination by such matters as the distinctions between right and wrong, and good and evil.

Witkin realizes, of course, the pitfalls inherent in his approach, most particularly the danger of moralizing and propagandizing, of producing work that leaves no room for a vital, insight-inducing exchange between artist and viewer. This is a critical issue with him because of the passionate nature of much of his art, especially that aspect of it that asks us to bear witness to the dark underside of the human condition.

The urge to share and clarify motivates many of his major paintings. Not, however, in a manner that neatly explains away life's more difficult and painful experiences. Instead, Witkin challenges us to extend and deepen our encounters with, and our perception of, reality.

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