Barnett Suskind: Mirroring Emotions
Interview by Jan Garden Castro
In their paintings of voluptuous female nudes, both Peter Paul Rubens and Barnett Suskind evoke the Venus of Willendorf, a fertility goddess in ancient times. While Rubens used his young wife Helène as a model and often used real women as models, Suskind’s women take us to fragile, fleeting states of body and mind. The artist turns his figures, who often spring full-blown, like Boticelli’s Venus, from his fertile imagination, into “everywoman,” and, by extension, into “ordinary people.” His gift as a painter is to remove his figures from the royal and mythic backgrounds and idealized proportions that Rubens and Boticelli presented in order to capture tangible universal moods. The emotional states of his portraits are without antecedents in the history of art, and this cutting to the core, this way of expressing inner, unspoken states — is Suskind’s gift. Rembrandt was the master of interiority in his day. By using the frame to shape faces and bodies in relation to themselves, Suskind’ s portraits expose things that get hidden in real life.
Jan Castro: Lucian Freud died yesterday. What does that mean in your world?
Barnett Suskind: Lucian was and remains not only an icon but also a paradigm of a goal. What he was able to do and what he accomplished with paint — bringing his subjects to a reality which was palpable — was very influential for me in terms of the opportunity to use the figure, incorporating my abstract background in a way which was unique to me – different from Freud — yet allowed the expression of the things I was looking to communicate.
He’ll be missed. The New York Times obituary called him “mysterious.” I don’t know, personally, how mysterious he was. The death of Lucien is a landmark; what continues is the legacy of his work, which is timeless.
Lucien was one of the reasons why I went to the face.
Jan Castro: Given your encyclopedic interests in art and its history, how have you chosen the artists who have influenced your aesthetic directions?
Barnett Suskind: As I’ve studied art and art history, I’ve been fascinated with everyone from Caravaggio to Velázquez through early modern and contemporary artists — Francis Bacon, Modigliani, Diebenkorn, Jasper Johns’ encaustic paintings, and James Turrell’s light installations. Maxim Gorky’s painting of his mother seated – very flat, simple — is profound. Some people question whether it’s finished. I think it is. Every artist who has something to say is added to the conversation.
I’ve been looking at Chaim Soutine recently, and Bacon’s abstraction seems to have correspondences with Soutine’s. It speaks to something I believe strongly — perception is universal. It’s based in our biology and our physiology. If you recognize that, you can use it in the studio to have a conversation with an audience no matter where they come from. I believe that if you need three degrees and four courses in advanced art and philosophy to “get” a painting, the art fails.
Jan Castro: Do you have any affinities with Rubens, Balthus, and Bacon?
Barnett Suskind: Rubens is influential historically. That we both paint large women is more of a coincidence. Rubens’ use of light and his composition are elegant.
Balthus was incidental. I admire his drawings for their fluid and beautiful uses of space and light. In contrast, his paintings seem stiffer and more linear, and I’ve always wondered about those choices. I like his use of patterning and his decision to make art out of taboo subjects.
Bacon was the much, much larger influence. Bacon was one of the reasons I became an artist. When I was young, his show at the Guggenheim (1963) – seeing his diptych of beef on the main floor — stopped me cold. I was enthralled. Whenever I see a great work of art, the only thing I want to do — other than enjoy it — is paint.
I hadn’t recognized that I was an artist yet, but this is something that has stuck with me from that moment until today. Some years later, when I started moving from sculpture to two-dimensional work, I rediscovered Bacon and looked at his abstraction and the emotionality of his work, and I found that beyond captivating.
Jan Castro: Your present body of work is primarily heads of men and women and large female nudes. How did you decide upon these directions?
Barnett Suskind: The heads, or the portraits or faces as I call them, have to do with my understanding that we as humans are specifically configured to recognize faces and nuances in the face. As an artist, my goal is communication. The face presents tremendous opportunities to communicate varied and subtle states of being. In fact, if I were to name the faces as a group, I’d call them “States of Being.” Some of my collectors tell me, “They all have a soul. They’re alive.” Each one is universal because we all share the same states of being.
Using the face, I can tap into that which resides in viewers and bring them something which they can relate to. It was a conscious choice, a recognition that comes out of my work in physiological psychology. This choice was amplified when I looked at Freud’s early portraits and some of da Vinci’s faces. Throughout history, the face has been used for communication, which is the most human thing we can do.
The large women, on the other hand, were a reaction to the linear figurative sculpture I used to do and the linear angularity in my early figure drawings and paintings. I am exploring the abundance of the curve. What I didn’t expect when I began these paintings was the way they were going to manifest in terms of their countenance and psychological set.
It all started when I saw an image of a very large woman reclining, and I said to myself, “That’s an interesting form.” This began a conversation about form. When I got to painting the face, the figure demanded –told me — who she was – a woman of confidence and sensuality, a woman comfortable with her sexuality, and with a level of pride and strength that I didn’t anticipate. It was almost as if the women were telling me how to paint them.
In addition, the large paintings reflect our current reality and our nation’s state of being. Hopefully, they will begin a conversation with the viewer. We all know that, physiologically, being this large is not a healthy thing. Is it a politically healthy thing? Is this a statement of affluence or poverty? Those questions reside in the figures. I’ll let my audience ask them and find their own answers.
Jan Castro: Your large nudes have many moods and states of being. Let’s talk about Ms. America.
Barnett Suskind: Ms. America is exactly who she appears to be. She is us: who we are today as a nation and as religious and political people. She’s abundant. She’s standing in front of a flag, proud. She has her arms outstretched — as if she is being nailed to a cross – and her legs are crossed. She’ s part of the fabric and the ethos that drives our decision-making as a country. This is not a judgment, just an observation.
Jan Castro: Norman Bryson’s 2006 essay on John Currin argues that Currin’ s morphology, or his intentionally grotesque distortions of female figures, aims to create distance between the art and the viewer. Do you intend for your Ms. America to create distance?
Barnett Suskind: Absolutely not. Distance is not my goal. Community and communion is my goal. Bryson’s statement may be true for Currin but is not relevant here. Historically, artists, including great artists like Grünewald and Goya, have tended to be aggressive, shocking, and new to create a greater impact on their viewers’memories. However, I don’t think that graphic depictions of extreme images are needed to create memorable art.
If you present a portrait that causes viewers to get emotionally involved, that encourages their recognition and memory. Picasso’s Woman Ironing is a perfect example. She’s almost linear as she puts pressure on the iron, and she raises her shoulder in a way that is far from actual. In that departure from reality, much is implied. That’s why the image stays with you and becomes relevant. I’m doing the same thing with Ms. America. You have to interpret my figures, and this makes the experience personal.
Jan Castro: Could you discuss one of my favorites — Veronique? She has a different message.
Barnett Suskind: The message is conveyed in her face. I will let the viewer look at her countenance and how she’s holding her body and come away knowing the spirit of the image.
Jan Castro: The Roman (Polanski) head is strong.
Barnett Suskind: Roman captures my interpretation of his emotions upon being held in captivity and having his freedom challenged. I don’t want to discuss whether what he did was right or wrong. That’s for others to decide. I was only documenting the process he was going through at that time and what I saw in his face. It’s not a verbal experience. It’s a transcendent experience that emerges from the canvas.
Jan Castro: Would you say your body is an important part of making art?
Barnett Suskind: Absolutely. When I paint, I stand up, frequently listening to music which I tune to the composition I’m making. There’s a lot of moving around. It’s physical, sensual, engaging. It’s not a contemplative, sitting-in-front-of-an-easel act. It’s aggressive in a joyous sense. If it’s a more difficult painting, I find that my facial expression mirrors the emotions I’m painting. This is without thought on my part, as natural as the empathy people show toward each other.
Jan Castro: Do you see your present figurative work as a continuation or as a divergence from your early abstract and color field paintings?
Barnett Suskind: Great question. If you look carefully at the figures, you will see all the history that preceded it in my work. In the early color field paintings, I learned about surface, color, and their emotive qualities. I tap into this every time I paint. Once you expand your consciousness, you can’t go back.
In the early narrative paintings, I was breaking up the space in a different way. When I started doing the nudes, I really eschewed the idea of having a recognizable space. I wanted them all very flat with the ground and the foreground ambiguous.
Jan Castro: When you are painting, how do you create each body’s and each persona’s inner glow?
Barnett Suskind: I don’t do it. They do it. In fact, I can’t complete the painting until the face has begun to take on the characteristics of a person. When the face is evolving, the figure evolves. In her countenance, she tells me more about her entire being. I just listen. I always say, you have to listen to your eyes. They’ll tell you what you need to paint. By delineating the position of the limbs and body, I’ve started to define how this person is. When I get to the face, I know who she is. Given that who, I may modify some of the positioning. This dynamic interaction goes back and forth until she is present.
Jan Castro: You once told me, “The closer you get to yourself, the closer you get to universality and the more authentic you are.” How does this apply to the way you make art?
Barnett Suskind: When I was doing color field work– non representational work – the question I always asked was, “Who’s going to get this?” Am I going to reach people who may not understand this reduced work? I struggled with this question for years. I’ve learned that the best I can do is pay attention to my core feelings. Art is about the moment and also about posterity. I ask myself, “Why is it relevant? Does it take me any place? Does it justify the intellectual investment required to explore further?” The closer we get to self, the closer we get to everyone. It speaks to the unity and commonality of all of us.
Jan Garden Castro, an art historian based in New York City, is author of four books, including The Art & Life of Georgia O ’ Keeffe.