Jonathan Herbert is a New York City based artist www.jonathanherbert.com with lots of experience and a great deal to say about art, the art world and New York City. He knows art and the city very well and many of his observations are right on target. Here’s our chat …
MICHAEL: Hey Jonathan, Your work reminds me a bit of German Expressionism. I see lots of black lines, fluid color and BOLD expression. Is this what you're aiming for? Or is this just what I'm seeing?
JONATHAN: First, Michael, let me give you the short answer: I do what all great artists do: I channel. Now for my verbose additional response: I am not intentionally trying to recreate German Expressionism, yet its members number amongst my favorite artists. When I pick up the brush, I get out of the way of whatever artist's shade calls Shotgun. It is true that I draw into the paintings, sometimes with a brush loaded with loose black paint or even charcoal. It is true that I use BOLD colors, and lay complementary ones against each other. The consistency of the paint varies, based on the various mediums I use at any one time, in order for me to control those levels of fluidity. How those pigments meet the canvas is guided by something other than my intellect. There’s a shift in circuitry that takes place that connects the art I absorbed from very early in my childhood to the shaman holding the brush.
MICHAEL: Very interesting. You’re controlling the painting, yet not in control in a way. I still see German Expressionism in the work though.
JONATHAN: To say that I am aiming to imitate an earlier school of art history would be imprecise. However, while my work is my own, there is a prodigious amount of seeing, reading, thinking and experiences on which it is based.
MICHAEL: And so, what was your earliest exposure to art, your influences?
JONATHAN: A Museum of Modern Art stroller baby, resultant from my parents' passion for the arts, I spent the years from 1953, in the stroller at age 1, until around 1965 haunting that museum. It was the first place I went to alone in New York City, at the age of 12, to escape my violent childhood home. I answer your question with this paragraph because the visual world we drink in as infants and children is unfiltered by the unavoidable analogy machine that the mind becomes. Therefore, modern art was my primary exposure and I soaked it in without the filter of developed intellect; it is practically buried in my limbic system. I also went regularly to the Met, where I was introduced to a wide range of artwork going back into history and broadening out to a multiplicity of cultures. Furthermore, I was obsessed with dinosaurs as a kid and my grandmother often took me to the Museum of Natural History where I was also able to see many original native artifacts and indigenous art.
MICHAEL: Your childhood exposure to art was pretty much like mine. I have strong memories about those museums, but I think the early impact on me was more emotional and even spiritual than intellectual, being a kid and all.
JONATHAN: I detest art that my first instinct tells me is made from the neck up, and tend to love a lot of art that is made from the neck down. Perhaps it is a failing, but I cannot find a way into art that strikes me as primarily intellectually or financially driven. My connection with a piece is always loaded with emotion and spiritual exploration. My uncle, Sasha Moldovan, was also a painter. I always remember him saying that he and Picasso made art, and everyone else make artifacts. He was a member of the Paris School, friends with Chagall, Soutine, and Matisse; his later work exhibited brilliant Fauvism. While I do not agree exactly with his declaration, I do believe that if you put the commodity first you lose the art. Like Sasha, I believe that I'm brilliant. And I don't believe in false humility.
MICHAEL: Wow, that’s cool. Love that.
JONATHAN: I consider myself a direct descendent of the shaman who crawled into ancient caves to paint the spirit world. Those men and women journeyed to other realms of consciousness and brought back visions for the rest of the tribe, who could not go there. Undertaking this work is intense, emotionally demanding, and opens up the doors of heaven and hell; some of us can't get out. I am also an alchemist, whose primary obsession with substances and the unscientific results of their combination leads to a form of spiritual enlightenment. I believe that the genealogy goes from shaman, to alchemist, to painter. The idea of the analogy between alchemist and painter is not my own invention, though I resonate deeply with it, but comes from my favorite book about the painter and painting, What Painting Is by James Elkins.
MICHAEL: And so, I’m hearing you say that you really paint from the heart by letting go and being part of the process. What materials do you prefer?
JONATHAN: I am stone cold in love with oil paint. The fluid color and bold application have to do with my getting out of the way, and channeling the universe onto the canvas or paper. Much of the evident line work that you see is the result of having spent ten years drawing before I began oil painting. What I aim for is a spiritual experience both for myself and the viewer.
MICHAEL: As you know Jonathan, being a creative person can be very lonely and isolating. How do you deal with this on a daily basis?
JONATHAN: I re-read your question, and realized it did not refer to the loneliness engendered by hours and days and weeks shut up alone in the studio, which is how I misread it the first time around.
MICHAEL: Actually, that’s exactly what I meant. Please, go ahead.
JONATHAN: The aforementioned is addressed in another fascinating chapter of my favorite book, What Painting Is, by James Elkins. While all that time locked up alone in the studio mixing potions and applying surfaces, for years and years and years, is what many imagine the life of the artist to be, that is not my truth. The business of the artist takes an inordinate amount of time, for example: human networking, social networking, direct-marketing, guest-blogging, record-keeping, bookkeeping, being interviewed by Michael Corbin. The more successful I become with my art business, the more I can offload these non-drawing and non-painting activities to others; of course, doing so means interaction with those others, although perhaps I will have more time to paint. If you think about it, being lonely and isolated is a choice, or perhaps a matter of temperament. It’s not in my nature to be solitary and reclusive: an odd career choice for a guy like me. Then again, if being an artist is a career choice, you are doing it wrong. Pick a profession that people think is necessary. I feel sorry for people who don’t have art in their homes.
MICHAEL: And so, you’re this New York-bred and based artist. What are you working on now? What have you been experiencing?
JONATHAN: My current body of work, the plein aire “Brooklyn-Scapes,” really puts me out there on the street. New Yorkers are not known for their reticence and therefore I find myself interacting often with people while I’m painting. Riffing off part of my answer to your previous question, it is no problem whatsoever for me to have involved conversation with a complete stranger while I continue painting. I admit I also take the opportunity to do some social networking. I will be having an exhibition in a local soda fountain very soon. It opens on September 12th, (2012) at 7 p.m. at Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain. In this case, the social network is done by handing out postcards.
MICHAEL: How does New York inspire you?
JONATHAN: I do not mind being creative, or even extremely brilliant in New York City. I believe that I live in the most fascinating city in America. I can't imagine living anywhere else although I don't mean to imply that the rest of America inhabits a lower plane, especially since the Internet has made possible to live anywhere within the grid regions and still have a viable business and a different kind of life if one so desires. It's just that New York makes me high; this New York where I find there to be a wealth of intelligent people, intelligent conversation, and utter wackos, all of whom offer interaction and entertainment in their own way. There is also a wealth of wealth.
MICHAEL: Yes indeed. I absolutely love writing about New York. It’s infinitely inspiring.
JONATHAN: I am my grandmother’s son. Like her, I talk incessantly with people I run into on elevators, in the subway, on the sidewalk. I own a really cool folding bicycle, a Brompton, and every single day that I ride it around the city somebody asks me about it, and I have an opportunity to tell them how fabulous it is and to recommend the person who sold it to me. Dumbo is now one of the ten most expensive neighborhoods in New York City and the most expensive neighborhood in Brooklyn. I have managed to hold onto my studio there; there are still a few artists left in buildings that has been converted into multimillion dollar condos and for use by "creative businesses," but holdouts remain. When working in the studio, I have opportunities to trade studio visits with two of my neighbors who are artists; we all offer each other insightful eyes and articulate, positive criticism.
MICHAEL: Cool. I was just chatting with Renee Vara (of Vara Fine Arts) who says New York remains the place where most, if not all, artists want to have some connection. She says everyone wants to be able to say they had a show in New York. It’s the place!
JONATHAN: The great thing about New York which mostly New Yorkers know is that New Yorkers are incredibly gregarious people. Mind you, do not get between them and an opportunity to make some cash, but in general, this city stands out as special. It’s where one has multiple daily conversations with absolute strangers. Certainly some of my work does demand that I spend time alone, most especially working in Lightroom and PhotoShop after shooting archival images of each and every work I do. It could be tedious and laborious, except that I love seeing my work at any time, even when performing repetitive editing commands. The rest of the time I tend to have a run-on mouth, and often have to tell people in advance to feel free to tell me to shut up at any time.
MICHAEL: I understand. LOL.
JONATHAN: Another way of combating loneliness and isolation, in recent years, has been a large body of work consisting of paintings of naked young women. I started in 2006 and continued until the end of last year, including the works on paper, I estimate there are about 3000 works. I believe I started painting the series as a reaction to my late wife's increasingly fast deterioration from an extremely rare cancer into what looked like a skeletal Auschwitz victim by the time she died in 2008. Vibrant, young flesh in my studio was a nice reminder that life is for living. And, fine arts models are generally extremely intelligent. I have had a long an incredibly interesting life, and we have talked about a myriad of subjects. They like to ask me questions about what Soho was like in the 70s, and what it was like to drive a cab for quarter million miles on the night shift between the late 70s and mid-80s, back when New York was at its dirtiest, most dangerous, most exciting time in many years. They tell me about the boys they are dating, the artwork that they’ve made and the stories of their travels. Many of them are extremely peripatetic in their career which allows them to work all over the world. Another thing that reduces isolation and loneliness is the fact that, while nobody wants to admit it, often artists find themselves looking for multiple income streams. Okay, I admitted it, but I am not going to talk about it.
MICHAEL: Again, I understand.
JONATHAN: I absolutely love isolated moments in the studio, which are all too rare. I love spending time with myself. I love the ability to meditate on a sunny summer. While at times I feel financial insecurity and anxiety creeping in, I have noticed that it does not matter whether I have $3000 in the bank, $30,000 in the bank or $100,000 in the bank. Money is just where I hang my anxiety. Nobody has security. Those of us who live by our wits and creative talents are just far more aware of that at times than other people. What a thin veil this plane of existence. Death awaits at any moment. I’m looking forward to your next multilayered question.
MICHAEL: And here it is. When you start a new painting, do you have a concept in mind or can you just start drawing or painting with an open spirit and let inspiration guide you?
JONATHAN: Yes. Both, either alternately or simultaneously. As I look back over my work through the decades, I see that I have almost always worked in series, in bodies of work. My first series, Cut Off, was completed during my 13 months in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1975-76. I did indeed feel cut off; cut off from America, cut off from the denizens of Antwerp who despised me for my country of origin, cut off from the familiar cocoon of the museum school and its wonderfully mad community. I painted de Chirico-like plazas containing figures with arms or legs hacked off, the body parts lying next to them, while blood pooled. It was actually many years later that I realized what I had been painting. My next series was Views from a Yellow Cab. The subject matter is self-evident, and was created during my years of driving a quarter of a million miles on the night shift as a cabbie in New York City. I literally drew and painted while driving the taxi. I had my sketchbook and my watercolors and pencils on the seat next to me. I drove people up Park Avenue in the rain while painting Park Avenue in the Rain. And, from memory, I made quite a few oil paintings of that lovely, dirty, gritty New York City. I gained some notoriety through this. Cookie Mueller wrote about me in her column “Art and About” in Andy Warhol’s Details Magazine.
Cut to present ...
Inspiration drives me to a new theme. I feel the previous series winding down and I open to the birth of a new body of work. I know I am seeking inspiration; it inevitably arrives, the theme or overall subject fully formed in my mind. I never have any doubt that it will arrive and I never have a dry spell. In a flash of inspiration, I know I am going to paint nude women, or koi, or the streets of my neighborhood. Once the body of work is underway, I hunt the next painting. Again, the subject comes to me. I consciously call for it and I am certain of its arrival. However, I know that I am a channel and that Creation works through me. I do not decide what to paint next; I am told. I work from life or from reference photos which I myself have taken. When I do use photography, I make sure that I am using it as a device and not attempting to paint the photograph. And, every once in a while I do an outlier: a piece that I just drag out of my imagination that has nothing to do with the overall body of work in which I am involved.
MICHAEL: And so, you pick up the paintbrush and then what?
JONATHAN: Currently, in my Plein Aire Brooklyn series, I keep my eyes and heart open as I go about my daily business. I am looking for a subject that strikes me as iconic, and when I see it I know it. I prefer to do two or three paintings of the same subject. I like to draw first, usually in pencil, conté or charcoal. I think of it as time in the bullpen. I am not a baseball fan, but I do know that the bullpen is where the pitcher warms up before striding confidently out onto the field. I do not create tight drawings and then paint them, but rather use the drawing period to feel my way into that space where I am ready to fall into the alternate reality from which my paintings spring. On a more mundane note, I am also making compositional plans. After that, I leave my sketchbooks home, and schlep the Julian easel with thirty or so tubes of oil colors, the palette, a couple of canvases, three boxes of brushes, a bottle of turps, some linseed oil, and a pile of rags off to my chosen subject. At this point, I am usually dressed in rags myself; over the years I have developed the uncontrollable habit of wiping my brushes on myself. I will spare you the details of getting set up. I set canvas on the easel and from that point on the painting gets tossed back and forth between my shamanistic connection to the collective unconscious and that part of my conscious mind that has so many decades of making art, and looking at art at its disposal. The shamanistic nature is balanced by time looking with an experienced and critical eye. I can drop into “painting headspace” and come out of it pretty much at will after being in it for so long. I work until the moment comes when I just know that painting is finished. That, too, demands inspiration.
MICHAEL: What do you think about the artworld today and how it functions? Do you feel embraced or alienated by it?
JONATHAN: Do you believe for one moment that I believe these questions are simple? I know you know the layers that are involved in each and every one.
MICHAEL: Hmm. Really?
JONATHAN: For example, you did not capitalize The Art World, though the implication I believe is directed towards that Entity, so conceived. I see the Art World much like Tom Wolfe in The Painted Word, where he postulates that it consists of about 10,000 people. That was in the 1960s, and I really do not believe that the insider population has increased much based on a percentage of those who have entrée.
MICHAEL: Yes, Go on …
JONATHAN: The Art World, as I see, has as its raison d’être, the commodification of art, the removing of art from its spiritual underpinning, cutting it loose, as it were, and shifting the amputated artifact into an investment. I believe that to cut the lifeline that attaches art to spirit you end up with an artifact, a dead thing. When I was younger, I neither knew that, nor would have cared. I do not believe that this murder always takes place; an artist can be embraced by The Art World and still continue to produce works full of spirit. There is an excellent documentary, The Mona Lisa Curse, which is also about the commodification of artwork, proposing a moment when the value of the art overshadowed the VALUE of the art. My uncle, the artist Sasha Moldovan, used to rave about this when I was a boy in the 50s. At the time, he was my poster image for the crazy artist, but now, I am about the age that he was when I listened to him rant, I understand what he means. To me, the creation of art involves a long and rigorous process; part of it is almost like scrabbling in African dirt hunting for diamonds, or locking oneself in a noxious laboratory, an alchemist searching for the energies that inhabit substances. Art is holy and yet must be sold by the artist so he can make more art.
JONATHAN: My father told me a long time ago, “Buy that which you love, and you will never go wrong.” He and my mother loved art and music books and handmade furniture. On a middle-class income, my parents amassed a wonderful and eclectic collection. He believed in his own eye and she did in hers; they did not need someone to validate their purchase of these wonderful creations.
JONATHAN: In the 70s and 80s I was part of the downtown scene of the Soho and East Village, generating at the time its own Art World. I showed with the Frank Marino Gallery on Broome Street and I showed with the Nico Smith Gallery on East Sixth Street. In addition to my inclusion in the article by Cookie Mueller, mentioned previously in this interview, Robert Miller requested that I bring my work to his 57th Street Gallery. I never showed up. I did not embrace The Art World, no matter the reason, no matter the story. Even without the “Gold Ring,” I was lucky to survive the 80s. So, did I refuse the proffered entrée into The Art World, did I refuse it to embrace it? Yes, very much so, but not consciously. I yearned to be in, to be the next big thing, to have Samo’s place on the cover of The New York Times Sunday Magazine. I had the opportunities and I just did not suit up and show up.
MICHAEL: Wow. You actually had your own mind.
JONATHAN: The word education comes from the Latin e ducare, meaning to lead out from within – experience has taught me how painful education can be. I have lots of stories - 70s and 80s collected from the downtown scene, memorialized in my notebooks and paintings from that period. I cherish them and the experiences they evoke. I am grateful for my education. And then something happened. I spent 10 years recovering from an illness (I did no painting or drawing from 1988 to 1998). I spent the next 10 years caring for my late wife, Suzanne, as she was slowly eaten away by a vicious form of very rare cancer, although during those years, I produced a massive body of work, alone in my studio. I was able to make the art, but had no time to focus on the business of art. This brings us full circle back to “Art as Art and Art as Commodity.”
What is the The Art World? A-List Galleries, investment grade names creating blue-chip artifacts? Not to me at this time. The Art World remains, and yet there is a new art world transforming into something completely different, offering a world-wide world of art. I am inter-webbed. I spend time on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. I have a gluttonous RSS feed that dumps into the multiple readers on my iPad: Pulse, Reeder, Flipboard. I am aware of brilliant artists all over the world, most of whom I met on Twitter. There are so many of us, and we have become intimate in 140-character exchanges. I participated in a Twitter Art Exhibit in Moss, Norway, organized by my friend David Sandum. Nonetheless, most of us are not members of The Art World. Are art consultants The Art World? They are in mine. Is ArtBookGuy part of The Art World? He is in mine. Is Art Fag City The Art World? Yes. Is Hyperallergic The Art World? Yes. The immense list of online magazines and blogs generating cogent and important information about the art being made today in our world is something that Tom Wolfe could not have conceived of back in the 1960s.
My art world is about making paintings and making a living in New York City. Among the URLs I own is my own online gallery. I have been invited to join two online galleries, on a nonexclusive contract. One, The Artful Home, gets about 4 million hits a month and sends out 1.5 million catalogs twice a year. The other, Artsicle, is strongly New York-based, and has an interesting model for introducing new collectors to the idea and experience of owning their own artwork. I have a warm feeling about it because I think that art should be bought by the heart.
I have a specific, strategic marketing plan to get my art work out into the world. The backbone of this plan is based on the United States Postal Service and the regular, though not overwhelming, sending of brochures introducing consultants and other decision-makers to my work. We have become so deluged with unwanted email that, for so many of us, our first chore in the morning is the deletion of unwanted email. An actual piece of snail mail stands out as something new and different,
as opposed to 25 years ago when bulk mail was the spam of the day. I do not really think the insular Art World functions for all of us, although it does certainly function.
Again, you asked me a simple question, and you received a diatribe. I do not want to leave lingering the smell of sour grapes; in all honesty, I would be thrilled to be offered entrée. I would not refuse a one-person show at the Robert Miller Gallery, for example, or a retrospective at MoMA. Currently, the World embraces my art and studio visitors wonder aloud why this work is not in museums. I ask them, “Whom do you know?” I have no idea if The Art World knows who I am; they have not left a voicemail and hopefully they are not my spam folder.
MICHAEL: You’re definitely not in my spam folder. Thanks Jonathan. This has been really cool.
Check out Jonathan’s work at www.jonathanherbert.com.