The Spark and Wisdom of Artist Burton Silverman
NEW YORK—As his photo was being taken, Burton Silverman instinctively held on to a bunch of his paintbrushes with a relaxed, yet determined grip—the way a relay racer holds onto a baton. Painting with a fondness for everyday life, Silverman has been holding and passing on the baton of realist art for more than six decades. He has done so without purposeful intent. He simply continues to communicate the spark of what he sees and of what may otherwise go unnoticed.
In the midst of his endless process of refining an already developed artistic voice, he talked about his creative process, in his studio on the top floor of his brownstone home on the Upper West Side.
“It doesn’t start with any grand idea for me. When I am making a painting, it comes from the most incidental of events,” Silverman said.
Lately he has been retrieving some of his previous paintings and reworking them to make them better and stronger. He took one down from the rack, depicting a boy standing ankle-deep in water.
“We all go swimming. What does swimming mean—fun and relaxation, splashing in the water? I picked out a kid who was not really swimming. He’s hesitant going into the pond, seemingly trying to investigate something. He doesn’t know what is there. And then the painting became about a kid growing up, about discovery, and water became the unknown,” Silverman said.
Like the kid he depicted, he continues to investigate. “I am still trying to do something that is not yet achieved, though I’m unsure what that something is,” he said. His tone of voice exuded kindness in tandem with his shimmering eyes.
The 88-year-old Brooklyn native has weathered the onslaught of modernism and all its derivatives—including the thrust of abstract expressionism starting in the ’40s, pop art in the ’50s, photorealism in the ’60s and ’70s, and postmodernism in its various forms, such as performance art, installation art, multimedia art, and so forth. The popularity of those trends has been of no consequence to him.
“That’s a backdrop for all that I am involved with, which is trying to create some kind of value system,” he said. “Why do we think something is interesting, worthwhile, worth seeing again? How does it resonate with regard to its conversation with the viewer?”
In the most basic terms, in order for visual art to communicate a value system, it has to be representational, intrinsically. In contrast, much of modern art and postmodern art, generally called abstract art and what Silverman called “nonobject art,” depends on words to justify or explain what it means.
Over the years, Silverman has had his work sold to numerous private collectors. He has shown his work internationally in public collections, including the Brooklyn Museum, the National Museum of American Art, and the National Portrait Gallery.
An Essential Gap
Silverman has always been set on “getting it right,” which means looking to great art of the past.
He started to draw and paint as a child. In the late 1940s, he tried to emulate early 15th-century Flemish art and the exquisite formal lucidity of the portraits of Hans Memling and Rogier van der Weyden, and later the expressiveness of Hans Holbein’s drawings of English royalty at Windsor Castle.
He spoke of the painting “The Raft of the Medusa,” by the 19th-century French painter Théodore Géricault, as an ultimate example of what he considers “the best of what art is about: the marriage of form and content.” His goal has been to reach what is exemplified so stunningly in Géricault’s masterpiece about survival. “It’s about making marvelous pictures that are sometimes not about pretty things,” he said.
Of all of his favorite masters, he identifies most closely with the 19th-century naturalist painters, whom the art historian Gabriel P. Weisberg brought out of obscurity with his book “Beyond Impressionism: The Naturalist Impulse,” published in 1992.
Silverman showed the book with excitement. “It runs across three continents. It was a monumental movement. Look at George Clausen’s ‘Head of a Peasant Woman’—a standout among extraordinary artists, including my favorite, Jules Bastien-Lepage,” he said pointing at the illustration of the painting. “I had only known a bit about these artists, and when the book came out, it revealed another bit of art history that had lost its identity as a movement. Weisberg became a kind of a champion for our work,” he said referring to the artists that had exhibited together at the Davis Galleries.
The impressionists, who broke from tradition and started what can be considered the first modern art movement, argued that it was pointless to compete with the accuracy of photography.
The naturalists, on the other hand, used photographs as a tool to further the choices of their subject matter. Using photographs as a reference, they could depict more spontaneous scenes, in ways realistic to life.
While the naturalists were criticized for diverging from the classicists framework of “high art,” their naturalism demanded an almost photo-realistic rendering. However, their paintings do not look like they derive from photographs in the way that photorealist paintings look today.
Like the naturalists, Siverman paints from photographs and uses them to render his work as if done from life. Very often he will pose models in a scene otherwise captured in a photo. “Photographs have a closed-endish quality: There’s no space in terms of the renderings of form, the transition from dark to light. All of those are seamless gradations, which for me seems like the artist’s hand is removed,” he said.
He postulated instead a curious division between what is seamless and what is open, which allows for an essential gap—what could be called artistry. “It’s like if you are sending an electric current through a wire, and you put the two contacts together. You don’t see the energy traversing the wire, but leave a gap between the two and you see a spark,” he said smiling.
Silverman’s analogy is the spark that animates something else. It allows for ambiguity and the inexact hand of the artist, he said. It provides more space for inviting the viewers’ own interpretation. “The qualities that I find extraordinarily compelling and mysterious in paintings, and that seem to have a continuity over time, are the result of that gap. Something that is not totally complete, not totally seamless.”
In other words, “it’s called communication. You are enlivening in the viewer something that is not expected, that we have not seen before,” he said. That’s the reason why a photograph is less interesting to Silverman, but a naturalist painting much more so.
“A Rembrandt, a Velasquez, a Sargent, or a Thomas Eakins, all of those paintings [seem to] change over time. Naturally, they don’t, but I do, and it is often something of that indeterminate quality in the painting that allows me to see them differently,” he said. “Even with the great photographs (like the iconic photograph of Churchill by Yousef Karsh), I look at them again and again and it doesn’t elicit the same kind of spark.” For Silverman, paintings can serve a variety of emotional needs in their unique way, inherent to the medium.
Although he uses photographs to capture a moment, as a reference to paint from memory, something happens in the process of creating a painting. “Drawing and painting from life transfers into something very simple for me. If I look at a photograph, I cannot paint it photographically. I still think it is the real thing. I’ll paint it as if somebody took the luxury of standing still for a long time,” he said jokingly.
A Survivor’s Advice
Formal classical or realist art education was practically nonexistent during his youth, so Silverman taught himself how to draw and paint by studying the masterworks at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and at The Frick Collection.
“I like the idea of excellence, of being able to craft something with a strong relationship to the real that is both visually interesting and compelling in some way, and that has always inspired me,” he said.
His career developed gradually, quietly, and serendipitously.
Yet, at the same time, he wasn’t completely alone at the height of modernism. There was a stream of representational art going on under the radar at the time. “Think about Hopper and Wyeth,” Silverman said. “Surviving through a period that seemed like a desert. I had the company of several like-minded artists, most of them from the few who exhibited in the late ’50s at the Davis Galleries in New York, and formed a kind of matrix.”
In the midst of the “rah, rah” years of the abstract expressionism movement, together with his childhood friend Harvey Dinnerstein (who currently teaches at the Art Students League of New York) and nine other artists, Silverman put up an exhibition, “The Realist View,” at the National Arts Club in 1961. Silverman said although it turned out to be a disaster because their audience and financial backing were limited, at the very least it marked the beginning of a more conscious awareness of representational art at the time.
Through the years, he continued to participate in themed art exhibitions, including more than 30 of his own one-man shows. He taught for short stints at the Art Students League and at the School of Visual Arts, and ran his own workshops teaching a dozen students in his studio for 35 years.
As Silverman continued painting quietly in his studio, like-minded artists started to connect more, especially with the advent of the internet. About 20 years ago, academic art education modeled after the 19th-century ateliers started to emerge and multiply, mostly in the United States and Europe. That resurgence has seen two generations of highly skilled artists, who are creating works of impressive and even masterful quality.
Many of them consider Silverman a legend, a hero, and as a kind of art grandfather—appreciating his wisdom, honesty, and straightforward way of relating his experience. In the podcast Suggested Donation, which features artists devoted to skill, the seascape artist Edward Minoff told Silverman, “You carried the torch through a really dark period.” Tony Curanaj, who created the podcast with Minoff, chimed in, “If it wasn’t for you, there are a lot of people who wouldn’t be painting the way they are painting right now, so we thank you for that.”
Yet such representational and realist artists are still marginalized in the mainstream art market and art establishment. Silverman called that marginalization the result of a “disease that corrupts,” he said. “It is also denial. In a sense it has been a brainwash, because people have grown up trained to view art for its formalist qualities and thus its validity in a way that no conflicting understanding of possible alternatives can contravene it,” he said.
When asked for his opinion about the current state of realist art, Silverman said: “I’m loathe to really answer. … It’s not yet found its footing. It’s not yet told me that it is ready to find a competitive role to what has happened with great paintings of the past, nor even with the current modernist academy.”
He wasn’t merely referring to mastering technical skills, but to the need for realist artists today to communicate the essence of their lived experience, to bring context into their work, in order to reach a latent audience wanting to expand their taste in art.
“Something has to tell me more about what transforms an event into a paintable one. Just because you can, just because you have the skill to represent it, often with a very seductive verisimilitude,” he paused. “Not enough.”
As an aside, he mentioned that he’s been a little more cautious about his prescriptions for what painting should be like. After a short pause he summed it up as follows: “It comes down to something very simple. It’s like, who’s the artist, what is he like as a person, and how does he see the world, and how has he been able to manifest that? Each person’s sensibilities, as well as their sensitivities, are different. Those differences can evoke a novel or perceptive new slice of experience,” he said.
“People have to find their voice. … Something has to happen with all of that wonderful craft. It has to be taken out of the studio, it has to find a context. If you have a really compelling idea about the world, you have to make it relate to their experience, to their longing, to their as yet undefined aspirations. Call people in: ‘Come here, come on, come look,'” he said almost whispering. “That’s another quality that I look for in a painting,”
Looking at any painting by Silverman, it’s clear that he has found his voice, even as he continues to refine it. His subject matter, the feelings his paintings evoke, and his color palette are readily recognizable. In his own idiosyncratic way, he keeps transforming seemingly ordinary events into visual poetry.
“People respond to the fact that my paintings have some kind of inner life, and that my world is not just recording the event, but that it reveals another level of feeling—particularly in my portraits, that is unexpectedly real,” he said. Some of his paintings do provide that. Then he declared humbly, “I don’t know how, I really don’t.”
“I have always said that ‘I just want to get it right,’ which sounds insanely simplified,” he said, smiling with his eyes.
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