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In the Studio: Burton Silverman

by Allison Malafronte


The artist in his studioPainting “real life” and the everyday struggles of the exploited and destitute has been the purview of French, Russian, and American realist painters for well over a century. Brooklyn-born artist Burton Silverman (b. 1928) has been examining and questioning the trajectory of that lineage and creating his own definition of realist art for close to eight decades. From his first completed portrait at 13 years old of a peasant-like man to his current depictions of the working class, outcasts, or unconventionally interesting individuals of society, the 87-year-old artist has carried on the search for what is real and genuine in art — and he continues to ask the hard questions of himself and others who endeavor to paint in this genre.

Over the years, many artists have referred to Silverman as a grandfather figure of sorts, a guiding presence who either through his artwork or teaching — he has hosted classes in his Manhattan studio since 1971, while also teaching at the Art Students League of New York and the School of Visual Arts — has been an example to those wanting to learn how to create convincing portraits of humanity and reality. Considering the painter has seen almost 80-years worth of activity in the New York art world — from Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Photo Realism to Post-Modernism — and has interacted with important figures from all sides, Silverman is a veritable storehouse of information and historical perspective.

On an overcast, rainy day in November, I visited Silverman’s studio and home on the Upper West Side of New York City — a landmark brownstone a few blocks from Central Park that he and his wife have shared for 44 years — to sit down with this important artist and learn more about his work and thoughts. After walking up from the ground level, I was struck by the ornate and modern design of their first-floor living space, which was filled with an eclectic mix of sculpture, quilts, antiques, and art. A small flight of stairs took us up to Silverman’s studio: his office, books, storage area, and working table were located in the back, while his creative space, collection of paintings, and materials filled the front. Even on this dreary day, light was streaming in through the three large windows and skylight, filling the 900-square-foot space with distinct illumination.

A view of Silverman's studio

I was looking forward to not only viewing Silverman’s paintings in person — many of which I had seen only in magazines, catalogues, or books — but also finishing some of the conversations we had started at various points over the years but never quite finished. Silverman has always been forthright in giving feedback and opinions on projects or published thoughts, and I always appreciated his candor and ability to counter in ways that led to an expansion of perspective. I know for many artists too, Silverman is someone they turn to for constructive criticism and honest feedback when they need a clear, objective opinion.

Silverman found his first portrait, completed at the age of 13

Learning about Silverman’s journey as an artist was eye-opening. He was fortunate to have supportive parents who recognized his ability at a young age and registered him for an art-and-music high school in New York City. Silverman also took a few Saturday morning classes at the Arts Students League of New York during this time. [At this point of the interview, the artist showed me the first portrait he ever completed, at the age of 13, which showed innate skill and instinct for his young age of inexperience.] Although Silverman took art classes in high school and went on to receive a B.A. in art history from Columbia University, he is primarily self-taught and says that he learned hardly anything during that time that would apply to the painter he would become, with the exception of an in-depth knowledge of art history.

Silverman revealed that he learned most of what he knows about art through his companionship with two other artists, whom he met in high school and is still close friends with to this day: Harvey Dinnerstein and Dan Schwartz. “We didn’t have an instructional curriculum for representational art at that time or any way to learn other than just experimenting, practicing, and painting,” he admitted. “We all wondered how the great artists of the past did what they did, and the museums became our classroom. We would go the MET or the Frick and analyze their techniques, and then draw and paint continually until we were able to figure something out. I find it amusing when I hear today’s concerns for ‘lost and found edges’ or other recently defined technique-centered concepts. We never heard of those terms in our early years. As a student, we learned to just paint what we saw and felt until it looked real, with an important emphasis on the process of visual selection: what we chose to exclude was almost as important as what we chose to include.” 

In the mid-1950s Silverman, Dinnerstein, and Schwartz joined Davis Galleries, and in 1961 they — along with David Levine, Aaron Shikler, and three other artists — held a group exhibition at The National Arts Club titled “The Realist View.” The show was accompanied by a published manifesto about the importance of realist art amid the then burgeoning Abstract Expressionism movement. This was the beginning of Silverman’s conscious effort to create intellectual literacy and dialogue around his and his fellow artists’ efforts in realist art, and he would go on to organize several other thesis-based exhibitions and protests throughout his career.

 One of the walls of paintings in Silverman's studio

As we discussed Silverman’s thoughts on how the art world at large and realist art in particular have changed in New York from the 1950s to the present, the artist explained how he and his cohorts have always felt at odds with prevailing movements of the day. “From Jackson Pollock in the 1950s and 1960s through Photo Realism in the 1980s and the renaissance of representation in the late 1990s, I have never related aesthetically to any of these movements,” he admitted. “I’ve always sort of been between the cracks, and I still feel out of it to be honest. Not in a negative or angry way, but just in the sense that I don’t really connect to a lot of what other painters are doing. I am always flattered when young contemporary realist painters tell me they look up to me or identify with my work — but to be honest it surprises me because I don’t see the connection. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in awe of the demonstrable talent and rise in technical ability that has accompanied the current ‘realist renaissance.’ Perhaps I’m deceiving myself — I may in fact be exactly how they perceive me to be — but I feel we have very different aesthetic goals.”

This was a sentiment I wanted to pursue further with Silverman. I know that he holds younger generations of realists to a high standard and wants them to be cognizant of both realism’s recent past and the historical tradition in which it originated. I remember a conversation with Silverman from a few years back when he commented on the artwork of a particular exhibition, saying that he felt the artists’ enthusiasm and effort were apparent, but that in many cases the large scale was masking a lack of content or conviction. “This is not a mass criticism, and there are certainly significant exceptions, but what I’m seeing in general is a proliferation of skill and size without the content to sustain it,” he said. “There is way too much art that is of the moment, often trivial, sometimes even silly. I respect honesty when I see it, even if I don’t agree with the subject portrayed or style in which it is painted.

“It’s hard to describe,” he continued, “because words are often inadequate to deal with visual language, and despite my lifelong efforts to establish a convincing or enduring set of criteria for excellence, I’ve come to understand that really great art is beyond any rules. I’ve realized that what has seemed to survive in all the miles of canvas from art history to the present is something ineluctable, a quality that touches our genetic beginnings and the historic longings for some kind of spirituality that we call ‘beautiful.’ But I don’t think ‘beauty’ should be the goal of art, despite the call for it these days. To give an example of what I mean, it’s the difference between artists painting a portrait that just records exactly what a face looks like instead of painting that person’s life. Or the difference between a quick, post-card plein air view of a beautiful place versus an artist painting a place he or has lived in or dreamed of or ‘owns’ as part of his or her daily experience — as with Innes or Constable or Wyeth. Something different happens in these types of encounters and recordings, and we come to recognize and honor it over time.”

At this point I walked around the studio and spent some time studying each of Silverman’s paintings, which visually explained the points he was making. He described how his way of painting has changed slightly over the years, but the motivation has remained the same. “If I look back on paintings I did 20 or 30 years ago, they all touch on the same kind of observational happenstance,” he said. “That is, I stumbled upon something that triggered a sense of it being important, even if I didn’t always know why. Or I was attracted to someone — not because he or she had classically attractive qualities per se or because I was intentionally trying to portray a certain social status but because there was perhaps something inexplicably special about his or her humanness.” One such example would be The Stonebreaker a shirtless worker, shamelessly bearing a beer belly and a irreverent expression that reveal many years of duty and labor — or Signora, a woman who Silverman met during his summers spent in Pietra Santa, Italy, when he was in his 40s and who reminded him of his own grandmother.

<i>The Stonebreaker</i>, 2008<br/>KNOXVILLE MUSEUM OF ART, KNOXVILLE, TN  <i>The Signora</i>, 1984<br/>PRIVATE COLLECTION

Another example would be two paintings Silverman did of a lifelong artist-friend, Herb Steinberg, one at the beginning of their friendship when the artist was in his 20s, and the other many years later, when the artist was in his early 60s and his friend was nearing the end of his life. Comparing the two portraits exemplifies Silverman’s point about artists painting someone they have read closely over a period of time as opposed to someone who may have just sparked a cursory interest or curiosity. “I would have destroyed that first portrait years ago because I think it’s a poor example of my painting,” Silverman admitted, “but I’m glad I didn’t because I can now see where I came from. Even then there was something very real about this person portrayed.” Silverman also mentioned that he later realized the significance of including the cigarette in both portraits. “He constantly held a cigarette in his hand,” the artist remembered. “It was his protection against the world: against its hostilities, fears, and ambiguities. Ironically and unfortunately, it also eventually led to his death.”

<i>Herb Steinberg, Early Days</i>, 1956<br/>COLLECTION THE ARTIST  <i>Portrait of Herb Steinberg, </i>1991<br/>COLLECTION THE ARTIST

Another evident comparison to be made involved the often-debated topic of painting from life versus working from photographs. The paintings that were most prominent in the studio were three recently completed large-scale portraits — an ambitious assignment commissioned by a prominent<i>My Mother, Last Days, </i>1981<br/>COLLECTION THE ARTIST think tank of three important public intellectuals. The artist admitted to having great difficulty painting these posthumous portraits because he was unable to observe the subjects' dispositions and personalities in real life. “Even though these individuals each had influential celebrity, I still needed to paint them as human beings,” the artist said. “The situation forced me to reinvent them based on news photographs and pretend as if I had actually encountered them. All I kept thinking was, What were their expressions and gestures like? How tall were they, and How did they hold themselves? What did their hands look like? You can’t get that information from photographs. It was challenging beyond measure.” Hanging on the brick wall just a few feet from these paintings was a portrait of the artist’s mother, painted posthumously from two drawings Silverman completed 10 days prior to her passing. “It took all of eight days to complete and gave me closure,” he confessed. “The commissioned posthumous portraits took more than a year. I think it’s an interesting comparison for obvious reasons.”  

The artist sitting near three recently completed portrait commissions

Silverman's 2004 self-portrait, <i>Survivor><br/>COLUMBUS MUSEUM OF ART, COLUMBUS, GAAs we continued to talk about differences in artistic intention, Silverman described a self-portrait he painted in 2004 that unexpectedly reached many people, even though he was just responding to a personal reflection in his own life. “I painted this particular self-portrait three years after I had a heart attack,” he explained. “I didn’t specifically spell that out in the painting — I was simply entering my studio in the country one extremely hot summer day and saw my reflection in the sliding glass door. I thought, God, I’m still alive. And not only am I still alive, I’m still painting pictures. So I will celebrate that. It ended up being about survival on two levels: physical and artistic, in the sense that my convictions about realism were still producing paintings. I was vulnerable in that work — almost nude — and I think that’s why it resonated with people. I think when a work of art taps into some universal notion, when it’s not just about one moment but about something we think of as timeless, that’s when it has impact. I always use The Raft of the Medusa by Géricault as an example. It was Géricault’s response to what was at the time a heated and contentious issue. But all these years later, it is still considered one of the great works in art history. Why? Because those temporal issues have faded and what remains is universally understood: survival, hanging on to hope, death, fear, etc. All of the same emotions we continue to confront.”

After hearing other interesting stories behind several paintings in the studio, Silverman and I sat down again to discuss his daily studio routine, as well as any plans for future teaching or projects. The artist’s work ethic and discipline are apparent, and he explained how he is in the studio consistently and has been for most of his life. “I’m here almost every day, either actually painting or plotting and planning,” he said. “The studio is a private place, and when I come in here, I’m insane. I’m talking to myself, I’m talking to the voices in my head. There’s a great quote by well-known artist that goes something like, ‘When I come into the studio I’m with 100 people, but when I leave I’m by myself.’ For me this means that even though we are all social animals and hounded by others’ demands, as an artist when I come into the studio and start working, it’s just me and the painting. I am fully responsible.”

Silverman's materials  Some of the books on the artist's desk

Regarding future plans for teaching, although Silverman’s studio has been abuzz with students for more than 40 years, he has decided that his contribution to instruction may be ending. “I don’t think I’m going to teach much anymore,” the artist admitted. “What I have taught, from a technical point of view, can be taught by others. The methods of painting from life, certain painterly devices — alla prima painting for one — are all very familiar now and, with the numerous people teaching, almost commonplace. I’m not sure I’m adding anything useful to it at this point. What I can’t teach is how to really be an artist — that’s self-discovery. All art has to come out of that complexity of personality, experience, affections, abhorrences in one’s life. These are all highly individual emotions, it can’t be taught.”

  <i>Claire, </i>1989<br/>COLLECTION THE ARTIST

Silverman has had three museum retrospectives in the last eight years — “Burton Silverman: The Humanist Spirit” at Hofstra University Museum in 2011; “Realism Recovered” at the Miller Museum of Jewish Art in 2010; and “The Intimate Eye: The Drawings of Burton Silverman” at the Brigham Young Museum, Butler Institute of Art, and Lyme Academy College in 2007 — and has recently had a solo exhibition of drawings at Portraits, Inc.’s New York gallery on the Upper East Side. At the moment, he is working on plans for possible future shows as well. One idea is bringing the “The Realist View” exhibition from 1961 full circle and having a final showing of Dinnerstein’s, Schwartz’s, and his artwork with an accompanying literary summary of what has happened in the contemporary art world since. “It would be a statement of sorts: the survivors of that show and the way we’ve evolved,” the artist explained. “It would explore how our art is both the same as and different than it was in the 1960s. It would also be an interesting example of how our work could be viewed in the art world today.”

<i>Ingénue</i>, 2013<br/>COLLECTION THE ARTIST  <i>A recent demonstration portrait</i>, 2014<br/>COLLECTION THE ARTIST

When our studio visit was over, I thought more about several of Silverman’s statements, particularly about how it is almost impossible to teach one’s individuality as a artist to another artist. When viewed in light of the ideas and artwork he directly or indirectly described that day, it made perfect sense that Silverman’s output is a distinct blend of the ingredients and influences that shaped his own journey: his 1950s-Brooklyn roots; his respect for certain artists of the past who painted what genuinely moved them; the mindset of the New York Ashcan School and their straightforward depictions of daily urban life, which ended not long before Silverman’s beginnings; the conviction of civil- and human-rights activists of the 1960s; and the paint-it-like-it-is stance of the millennium’s social realism. He is an artist who has experienced, painted, and achieved much in his lifetime, more than could be covered in one studio visit. Certainly his legacy will live on through his artwork, as well as through the numerous students and fellow professionals he has inspired along the way.

One corner of the studio  A view of Silverman's bookshelf

All photography this article courtesy Allison Malafronte