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Iconoclasts: Jerome and Joel-Peter Witkin

 IDENTICAL TWINS JOEL-PETER WITKIN and his brother Jerome have lived their entire lives artistically and physically estranged. Born into a mixed marriage of Italian and Euro-Jewish parents on September 13, 1939, they grew up in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Jerome is a practicing Jew; Joel-Peter is a Catholic. Joel- Peter works out of Albuquerque, New Mexico; Jerome lives in Syracuse, New York and teaches painting at the University. He looks like a kindly professor; slightly rumpled, with a soft grey beard. Jerome seems genuinely caring and sweet natured. Joel-Peter, the bon vivant, presents as something of a rock star photographer, uber hip, in an understated way. Dressed in a chartreuse puffer jacket, he flashes a full-mouthed, sexy set of expensive white teeth. He wears wildly trendy glasses and has a devilish sense of humor; full of funny quips that he doles out with cutting edge insight. Jerome is more serious, thin and white, while tanned Joel- Peter can be deliciously Puckish. It’s hard to believe they are identical twins. The brothers, now, have a cordial, but distant relationship.

Jack Rutberg has shown Jerome’s paintings for years, but never Joel-Peter’s photographs. This is the first time anyone, anywhere, has shown both brothers together. I spent the better part of three days with Jack, Jerome and Joel-Peter, talking, looking at the work, and thinking and writing about this arty troika terrible of twin brothers and their gallerist, himself quite a dapper, worldly fellow. Rutberg is keenly intelligent, a tad loquacious, but always at the ready with good copy and insightful talking points about the artists he is promoting.

What follows are my notes, culls from bon mots offered by Rutberg’s press release, video and audio taped interviews, and an artist talk edited all together: a dapper collection in itself. Celebrating Fabrik Magazine’s Month of Photography issue, it is Joel-Peter’s photography that is the driving thrust of this reportage, despite the riveting quality of Jerome’s mesmeric paintings and bold charcoals.

Jack: These are both artists who orchestrate composition. Both have an unfathomable visceral quality with a strong sense of gravitas, an element that seems to be missing in much of the work produced today. Their show is a privileged view you are allowed into that is evocative and that demands attention. It’s hard not to be familiar with Joel’s work. Joel is as much a painter as Jerome – utilizing photography as a medium, like a painter. 

Witkin Archive

JOEL-PETER WITKIN • VIENNA EYE PHANTOM, 1990

JEROME WITKIN, 2012 OIL ON CANVAS (DIPTYCH)

JEROME WITKIN, 2012 OIL ON CANVAS (DIPTYCH)

VINCENT AND HIS DREAM GIRL, 2012 OIL ON CANVAS (DIPTYCH)

VINCENT AND HIS DREAM GIRL, 2012 OIL ON CANVAS (DIPTYCH)

ON DEFINING MOMENTS

Joel-Peter: When I was six years old, we were living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It was Sunday and we were home getting dressed for church. We heard this loud collision and when we ran outside, we saw a car crash and I watched a little girl’s head rolling in the street. When, later on, I wrote about that moment, I thought about the primordial aspects of life and death.

Jerome: When I was young and scruffy, my mother took me for my first visit to the Met. In a dark, out-of-the-way gallery, an old man came at me with a stick, poked me with it and said, “Dirty little boys like you should not be in museums like this.” From that moment on, I never doubted that we would have this life and that I would take my place in museums precisely like the one he poked me in.

Joel-Peter: When I was a teenager, I was in my first big show curated by Alfred Steichen at MOMA. When I brought my slides over for him to look at, he thought I was the messenger. I should have told him that I was the messenger.

Jerome: Identical twins are not very common in art history…but somehow we both punched through into becoming artists…I have to make art. I cannot help myself. I just have to do it. What drives us is that we have needs that have to be put down on photo paper and canvas.

Joel-Peter: I was in the Bowery once, downtown, in New York and I saw police cars in front of a movie theater. Then all these people came rushing out, so I decided to stick around and see what was happening. Suddenly the big bronze doors to the movie theater opened and the crowds in front parted. Out came a man being dragged by the cops on both sides. A giant smile was on his face and I couldn’t understand why the guy was smiling. Then he came closer and I saw that his jaw was dropping and had separated from his head. Someone had slashed his face from ear to ear. His entire lower face was hanging down…it had separated in a strange arc, that made his jaw drop in a giant smile.

ON PROCESS

Joel-Peter: I am very selective about the people I photograph. There are dead people and there are dead people. There are people on the slab that are fascinat- ing and then there are others that are boring! If you are boring when you are dead, you really are a loser! 

JEROME WITKIN • STUDY FOR TERMINAL, 1986-87

JEROME WITKIN • STUDY FOR TERMINAL, 1986-87

JOEL-PETER WITKIN • SATIRO, MEXICO, 1992

JOEL-PETER WITKIN • SATIRO, MEXICO, 1992

JOEL-PETER WITKIN • ABOVE THE ARCADE, 2013

JOEL-PETER WITKIN • ABOVE THE ARCADE, 2013

JOEL-PETER WITKIN • FACE OF A WOMAN, 2004

JOEL-PETER WITKIN • FACE OF A WOMAN, 2004

Jerome: Be bad. Be brave. Have a marvelous vision like Caravaggio. Be blinded by the possibilities that you have to go through, so that you can see.

Joel-Peter: I am a dramatist…I take the world and bring it to the studio, where I am creating a fiction…a narrative. Both our works are narrative, for me, and my brother. I get ideas…I make sketches and I can use them to change my concept before I finally put it together. The Raft of George Bush has 17 people in the shot. I like dealing with history. I use the historical continuum to serve as important milestones of our human experience. I really like history as subject matter and how it affects people today. Every age has its own consciousness and destiny, and its people live in an element that is honorable or dishonorable. They live in hope or despair.

I don’t do objective work. I do subjective work. I have a degree in sculpture and that helps me to be able to understand and go beyond the medium. I want my work to be astonishing.

I start with a concept. I often have a title like The Busboy at the Last Supper. It’s a bust of a guy with curly hair lit theatrically with a tray around his neck with fruit, and a scarf draped over him. It’s going to be printed on aluminum, and then painted. All the elements are symbolic.

The production – because it is a production – is sometimes very simple, other times it’s elaborate. I keep it very open…depending on reality, which often brings some- thing spectacular to it. I don’t shoot a lot. I see the print as I make the photos. I have everyone made up in white and the way I print the white shows up magically.

I often distress my negatives. I spend 50-70 percent of my time in the darkroom. I wear respirators. I deal with the papers, the chemistry, and then I work viscerally. The components…the optics…the chemicals…the people…I respect it all. I rely on phenomenal luck and destiny to make my work. It’s not a technical process. It’s emotional.

And it’s all a part of the magic. I have to know each and every millimeter of the work before I release it as done. I know what happens to silver, light and film, but it’s always a magical experience. 

JOEL-PETER WITKIN • LAS MENINAS, 1987

JOEL-PETER WITKIN • LAS MENINAS, 1987

JOEL-PETER WITKIN • POUSSIN IN HELL, 1999

JOEL-PETER WITKIN • POUSSIN IN HELL, 1999

FACE OF A WOMAN

Joel-Peter: I found the head in a doctor’s office. I cleaned it up really well. It was beautiful. Very well preserved. You know, the French do wonderful things with preserving body parts and with food. Body parts and food, the French do those two things really well. Anyway, across from the doctor’s office was The Museum of Natural History, and I saw a great taxidermied monkey, so I borrowed that. Then, around the corner was a florist and an antique dealer. I got the table from the dealer and some flowers and it was all coming together. I made some sketches 

and planned it out. I like a departure of form. So I rounded the corners [of the matting] because I wanted the attention to be all on the subject. I give the dead beauty and purpose, power and evocation. It tells us about tenderness. I ascribe feelings and characteristics to the dead cadavers. This piece is a gift to me from the dead woman’s face and mine to her.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Jack: Joel-Peter Witkin gives beauty, serenity and empathy to the deformed and the grotesque. You offer them a heroic presence in your pictures.

Jerome: Once you see Joel’s work, it s like a tattoo on your brain. Our work is overloaded in a time of the underload.

Joel-Peter: My thought on our conjoining is that we are both joyous romantics… In the end, I am as good as my last photograph. Life is transitory. And age is a very positive thing when you have something to say and the juices to express yourself.

Joel-Peter Witkin’s work resounds with an epic thematic quest. As fearless artist, seeker of spiritual beauty, sexual love and existential enlightenment, he has fashioned a numinous oeuvre of postmortem resurrections, one that also deifies the living before we each receive our coup de grace. When he speaks about his process, I find myself deeply moved by a new understanding of the man, his art and the possibilities of the photographic medium.

I ask Joel-Peter one last question: How would you like to be remembered? He thinks about it for an instant and flashes me an idiosyncratic Witkinesque smile.

“As a photographer who always went his own way and did what he had to do, and as an honest and caring man. I hope I photographed images that defined my world and my own vision of it.” 

 

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Phil Tarley

About Phil Tarley

Phil Tarley is a fellow of the American Film Institute, an artist member of the Los Angeles Art Association and writes about contemporary art, pop culture and photography for Fabrik Magazine. He curates at the A C Gallery in Los Angeles and founded Round Hole Square Peg, a biannual, international survey of LGBTQ photography shown at the Photo LA. Tarley is also a critical essayist for Katharine T. Carter & Associates, an art advisory service that  helps artists obtain museum exhibitions. His personal series of political and ethnographic videos is housed in the permanent collection of the New York Public Library and has screened in film festivals and museums like the American Film Institute,and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. In 2009, under his nom de porn, Phil St. John, Tarley was inducted into the Gay Porn Hall of Fame for his 20-year producing and directing career. His writing and photography have also appeared in the LA Times, the LA Weekly, The WOW Report, Adventure Journal, the Advocate, Frontiers, Adult Video News, Genre, Instinct and American Photo Magazine. His book, Going down On Cuba: Notes from An Underground Traveler,  is slated to be published later in the year by Fabrik Press.  

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