THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Who among us is free to make art?
Softened as it often is by vague appeals to “nuance,” this narrowly scripted but highly charged drama played out during the June 1 panel discussion of “Joel-Peter Witkin: From the Studio” at the Catherine Edelman Gallery. The principals, plot, and resolution are drearily familiar—so familiar, in fact, that it might as well be a professional wrestling match (or perhaps a low-stakes show trial).
In this corner: the oppressed—the armless, legless, or otherwise physically anomalous models that have appeared in Joel-Peter Witkin’s controversial photographs, along with any disabled artists who might be eyeing the money and attention that Witkin has generated.
And in this corner: the oppressor—Joel-Peter himself, a joyfully prurient, death-obsessed aesthete, whose consistent, apparently sincere professions of a strikingly Platonic Catholicism give him credible entrée to the network of classical European artistic references and motifs that animate his suppurating corpus.1 Having first entered the scene with art designed to outrage conservatives, Witkin has lived long enough to be eaten (nibbled, anyway) by the Left.
Why evaluate Witkin on such boring, predictable terms—friendly though the venue may be? Have a little imagination, for Christ’s sake! Picture instead some Church of the French Decadents, in whose altarpiece Pornocrates (Félicien Rops, 1878) one glimpses Witkin’s spiritual ancestor, and try him by their half-profane, half-sacred standards of artistic justice.2 One venial sin? That original error of the too-clever kid from Brooklyn, sifting through the ruins of high culture with a grin sometimes verging on a smirk: sharpness that sometimes looks more like thinness, and ironies that might just be lapses in self-awareness.
(Exhibit A: one of Witkin’s preparatory sketches for a photograph, Christ Driving Out the Money Changing Artists From the Temple of Art (2016), after El Greco’s 1568 painting. Witkin has, of course, signed and dated it, thereby increasing its monetary value.)3
Siamese Twins, Los Angeles, 1988 © Joel-Peter Witkin. Image courtesy Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago.
But back to our liberated Puritans and their parody Star Chamber. Under the current dispensation, Witkin may be more virtuous (and is certainly more sympathetic) now that he has entered the early stages of dementia. His status as a biological twin (to another noted artist, painter Jerome Witkin) is likewise redemptive.4 Images such as The Kiss (La Basier), New Mexico (1982) and Siamese Twins, Los Angeles (1988) are thus not merely disturbing or exploitive—they’re supposed to be seen as extensions of Witkin’s own socially acceptable form of freakishness. Witkin’s dark, deliberately anachronistic aesthetic, which recalls Diane Arbus as filtered through Southworth & Hawes, E.J. Bellocq, and Weegee, comes with an origin myth that has long served to legitimate his practice: at age 6, he witnessed a brutal car accident in which a young girl was decapitated. During the panel discussion, Catherine Edelman read aloud from a letter sent by someone who believed their father had seen the same accident.5
Las Meninas, New Mexico, 1987, © Joel-Peter Witkin. Image courtesy Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago.
* * * * *
In the age of LiveLeak and Pornhub, Witkin’s ritual transgressions have ceased to shock. This frees the younger viewer to interpret them somewhat more dispassionately. Though he and his brother both emphasize that Joel-Peter’s images are deeply personal and, in some way, reflective of an inaccessible space within the artist, it seems obvious that his work is only as powerful as the intellectual or emotional reaction it elicits.6 That reaction is predicated on our sharing, or at least deeply understanding, the fears, lusts, and powerful Ideas that Witkin renders in light, shadow, and furious scratches on his negatives.7
The diminishing artistic returns on nudity, hermaphroditism, sadomasochism and the like also free one to take Witkin’s Catholicism more seriously. For all that he relishes ambiguity, Witkin lives in a universe of fixed absolutes. Perhaps that is why he loves ambiguity. Therefore, and contra Jérôme Cottin, who calls him a “postmodern Catholic” in his essay for the book Heaven and Hell, Witkin is no postmodernist.8 This leads him to invert contemporary mores in unexpected ways. The sketch Couple in the Age of Moral Relativism (2015), for example, features a pair (“Hercules and the Hellenistic Beauty”) in which the male is weighed down by what Witkin describes as “sculpture suspended from [the] back.” This replicates and yet reverses the experience of a character in Luis Buñuel’s and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou, who is weighed down by a load of personal and societal baggage that includes a pair of priests. The absence of certainty does not make life any less tragic, though it may make it more absurd.9
Since being diagnosed with dementia, Witkin has stopped producing work for public consumption. Edelman’s show thus has a claim on finality. It even displays Witkin’s putative last piece, A Mermaid’s Tale (2018), as well as a reconstructed version of its set.
Evoking any number of Madonna and Child paintings, as well as Prospero’s renunciation of “rough magic” in The Tempest, A Mermaid’s Tale seems to end Witkin’s career on a rather conventional note of mother love/Marian devotion—that is, until you notice the mother’s tiny phallus. In the long film accompanying this exhibition, Witkin explains that he conjured up this subtle hint of psychosexual domination by preparing a larger latex penis and, uh, truncating it. Even in old age, Witkin remains Witkin—the same artist who dedicated one of his most famous images, Las Meninas, to “Spain and Foucault.” 10
A Mermaid’s Tale, NM, 2018, © Joel-Peter Witkin. Image courtesy Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago.
Whatever Witkin’s intentions may be, his work is generally engaging and worthy of further study. I hope future Witkins do not run scared from their future inquisitors.
1. One indication of Witkin’s consistent and complex engagement with religion comes from his 1976 master’s thesis, which is reproduced in the 1995 exhibition catalogue Witkin. There and in Witkin’s 1998 retrospective, The Bone House, Witkin quotes a couplet from Yeats, though in the latter work without attribution: “I’m looking for the face I had / Before the world was made.” In his thesis, Witkin reveals that Batman functions as his Antichrist, “Lord of the Bird world and Darkness” (Celant, pp. 51—Platonic capitalization in the original). He further asserts that his first sexual experience was with a sideshow hermaphrodite named Albert Alberta (Ibid., pp. 50). Adding to the psychosexual mystery (consciously, like a young actor crafting a persona to cover his face?), an almost Luciferian Witkin compares himself to Jacob wrestling the angel/God, writing, “I revolt against the mystical in order to be overwhelmed and won over by it” (Ibid., pp. 52). Do not be fooled by his name—while Witkin’s Jewish father was a minor presence in his life, his Catholic Italian mother was a dominating force.
2. Indeed, the book Heaven or Hell (2012), which juxtaposes Witkin’s photographs with images selected from the archives of the National Library of France, features Rops’ Les Sataniques: L'enlèvement (The Abduction) (1882).
3. Witkin, incidentally, is not averse to flatly stating his intentions and metaphysical commitments. Writing on the drawing Woman as the Dead Christ by Caravaggio (2014), Witkin says, “I want the viewer to realize that the soul has no gender.”
4. The other Witkin also delights in art history references. The exhibition catalogue Notes from Twin Visions: Jerome Witkin and Joel-Peter Witkin (Jack Rutberg, 2014) includes a painting depicting Vincent Van Gogh in a straitjacket. These similarities are all the more interesting when one learns that the siblings were estranged for many years. Witkin elaborates on the value of his twin-ness in a long video accompanying the Edelman exhibition, claiming that it has allowed him to view himself more objectively. This indirectly raises the question of whether the dog’s gaze serves a broadly similar objectifying purpose in some of his tableaus; in the sketch Woman and Dog in a Garden (2014), he writes, “I like the idea that the dog’s vision of the ball is behind the woman’s legs!” (capitalization altered, underlining in original).
5. In defense of the relativist moralists (moralistic relativists?), Witkin has admitted to treating people as means rather than ends in his early photography. In his master’s thesis, which at times resembles a confessional booth, he writes, “I used people” (Celant, pp. 53). He also describes a “voyeuristic process of stalking” in the recruitment of female models (Ibid., pp. 56) and states that, in New Mexico, he was “careful to choose only the people who seemed the most damaged and malleable who would show their pain, for me” (Ibid., pp. 58). Witkin’s copout, which is always available to the artist accused of exploiting some relatively less powerful Other, is to read his subjectivity back onto the people he has objectified. He thus concludes, “The people in all these images were myself” (Ibid., pp. 62). Mere casuistry or self-administered absolution? At any rate, a neat trick, and a testament to the rhetorical skill that has helped elevate Witkin to his position of eminence as a visual artist (you ever notice how the most influential contemporary artists are often, and totally coincidentally, the best talkers?). As an aside, it is a little disappointing that Witkin, diabolical arranger of cadavers, has said he cannot imagine his own body being used to make a work of art (Rutberg, pp. 53). This does not qualify as full-on hypocrisy, but it does smell a little funny.
6. Jerome Witkin, quoted in Rutberg in an interview with Louise Salter, echoes Hamlet on the “undiscovered country” that is death: “Here [Joel-Peter] was with his fears and beliefs. Where did these images come from? And how could he exist in this hell, this odd and deep country, known only to him?” (pp. 46). In his master’s thesis, Joel-Peter Witkin says he creates images rather than pictures—“images of things not actually present in reality, other than my own reality” (Celant, pp. 52).
7. Why, after all, do tourists like the Bean? Because they can photograph their own slightly distorted reflections in it.
8. Witkin has explicitly distanced himself from postmodernism in photography, writing, “I am not part of the ‘post-modernist’ tenet in photography whereby it is believed that all images are fictitious entities and that accepting them as representations of external truth is visually naïve. My life is not fiction; therefore, my work is not fiction!” (Celant, pp. 62). Eugenia Parry also distances Witkin from postmodernism in her essay in The Bone House (Witkin, 1998, 183-184).
9. Parry too notes the affinity between Witkin and Miguel de Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life (Witkin, 1998, pp. 188)
10. Witkin, 1998, pp. 188. Consider too Witkin’s selection of works such as Johann Sadeler I’s Phyllis and Aristotle in Heaven or Hell (2012). To the cross-pollinating mind, the set of A Mermaid’s Tale also suggests Witkin’s past meditations on death and biological decay; an oval shell yawns wide, disclosing a spiky conch and recalling Jacques-Louis David’s open skull in Witkin's Portraits In the Afterworld (1994).
Christ Driving Out the Money Changing Artist From the Temple of Art, 7/13/2016 © Joel-Peter Witkin. Image courtesy Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago..
Couple in the Age of Moral Relativism, 2015, © Joel-Peter Witkin. Image courtesy Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago.
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