Photographer Joel-Peter Witkin Treats the Macabre and the Angelic With Equal Grace
People love or hate his work, and to Witkin, that's great.
To get a sense of Joel-Peter Witkin as an artist, it’s essential to look at one of his most enduring images: In The Kiss, taken in New Mexico in 1982, Witkin photographed two people locked in a kiss. But a closer look reveals that the two have one and the same face. It is two halves of the sliced head of a cadaver arranged as a formal still life, with a bundle of desiccated skin, veins, and muscle where the neck would be, and nothing more on the scalp than a fringe of tousled hair. While startling and gruesome, the image simultaneously takes on an otherworldly, almost graceful quality.
That tension between death and life, beastliness and beauty is a trademark of Witkin’s work, whether he’s photographing a young ethereal woman in the nude, dismembered cadavers, or the cast of a circus sideshow. Examples of a wide cross-section of his work are currently on view in “Joel-Peter Witkin: The World Is Not Enough,” an exhibition at A Gallery for Fine Photography in New Orleans. While his more recent work is softer and more romantic than early works like The Kiss (which is not in the show), many of the concerns, both in form and subject matter, are still in play.
Each of Witkin’s photographs is a unique object, personally printed by the artist, who has been working in the darkroom since his teens and was a photographer during the Vietnam War. Witkin has a deft touch, depicting erotic, sometimes illicit subjects with the care and elegance of an Old Master Renaissance nude.
“A woman’s body, besides the egg of a chicken, is the most beautiful form ever created,” Witkin told artnet News in a phone conversation. He’s a devout Catholic and believes that pornography is exploitative, but understands that he can’t stop viewers from appreciating the more erotic aspects of his work.
Though Witkin, who is a mainstay on artnet’s Top 300 list, is well-known for the darkness of a lot of his work, he was reluctant to get into detail about aspects of it that some might find challenging. “It’s not up to the artist to try and convince anybody,” he said. “A lot of people either love or hate what I do. I think that’s good.”
He has his own personal metrics for what makes a work successful. “It has to be meaningful,” he said, “it has to be purposeful, and it has to be socially powerful.”
Take the newest work on view in New Orleans, completed during a recent trip to Mexico and transported directly from the darkroom just ahead of the opening. Titled The Soul Has No Gender, it is a portrait of a transsexual woman named Alejandra. Posed as Mary Magdalene, Alejandra, who is completely nude with full breasts and a penis, stares directly at the camera.
“I’ve always dealt with unique people, because I don’t think society acknowledges them,” said Witkin noting that it was the second time he had photographed Alejandra (the first was in 1990, when she posed, also nude, with a small dog). “I think their lives and their spirits are unique. I find beauty in every life.”
Witkin’s fascination with unconventional beauty dates perhaps to his early childhood, when his mother would have to clean his infirm grandmother’s leg, which he recalls was festering from infection. These daily care rituals took place in the home (“even while I was eating”), perhaps fundamentally altering his world view.
No matter what the subject, his works often entail elaborate preparation. The photos begin as drawings, articulating his vision. He then builds sets based on those sketches, outfitted with hand-painted backdrops. The subjects will often be put in costumes, their hair and make-up professionally done. “It’s like making a movie, but the result is a still photograph,” said Witkin of his process. “It’s not just what’s recorded; it’s what I finally do to it that only I can do to it to make the print.”
For his more fantastical images, like Night in a Small Town, New Mexico, which features a female torso fused with the body of a horse, although quite rare, Witkin manipulates the photos with digital compositing, then turns them back into negatives before returning to the darkroom.
Witkin’s next planned composition puts the art world front and center. it will be based on a series of El Greco paintings of Christ throwing the money-changers out of the temple. The money-changers will all be lookalikes of contemporary “fashionable” artists like Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, and Gilbert and George, figures whose success, he says, has made them complacent. (Humorously, Witkin originally planned to include a David Hockney lookalike, but talked himself out of it during our conversation after praising the British artist’s groundbreaking photo collages.)
“I respect all those people, but it’s not my kind of art,” he said. “I think it’s a popular art. I think Warhol is a great graphic artist, but he, for me, instituted the artist as being celebrity. That shouldn’t have happened.” He also has much respect for Sherman’s work, but thinks she’s been doing the same thing for too long.
“Everyone with the desire to make art should make the greatest art possible, and not stop at some point of success,” said Witkin.
Beyond that message, Witkin’s planned scene with the ‘artists’ is sure to be provocative. The Koons figure, in reference to that artist’s controversial, sexually explicit “Made in Heaven” series, will be holding a balloon dog above his head as he receives oral sex from a women representing ex-wife Ilona Staller (who served as a model for the original series along with Koons).
Witkin lives on a ranch in New Mexico with five horses, three dogs, two llamas, and several cats. He keeps busy when he isn’t creating art. He was in Mexico shooting a documentary film when he took the opportunity to reconnect with Alejandra. The film is the third one that’s been made about him.
Witkin had his first exhibition in a group show at MoMA in 1959, when he was 20. His work has been featured at the Louvre and the Guggenheim Bilbao. In 2017, he’ll have exhibitions in Paris, Seoul, and Richmond, Australia. There are also feelers out with a gallery in Asbury Park, New Jersey, which particularly excites him. “I’ve never shown in New Jersey.”
“Seems to me that I work 8 days a week, 400 days a year,” Witkin said and laughed. “I’m doing what I love.”
This schedule is all the more impressive considering that in the past year, his wife of 11 years died after a six-year battle with cancer. “I don’t think of her as dying so much as crossing a threshhold,” said Witkin, who was her caregiver. Her passing seems to have given him renewed focus on his work.
“I’m 77 so I have less time to live than I lived. I’m ready as ever to keep going and making my work.”
Witkin’s love of art can be traced back to his childhood in New York, when his mother would take him and his twin brother, the painter Jerome Witkin, to museums. It was an experience he found overwhelming, in the best possible way: “The Metropolitan is the world—it’s like visual heaven.”
That early exposure to great works of art history had an impact on him and his brother. Witkin was 16 when, following Jerome’s advice, he made an appointment with Edward Steichen, head of the department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, to show him some of his photography.
“He thought I was the messenger!” recalled Witkin who had brought some 20 slides with him. “I said, ‘no, I’m the photographer, but I feel as though I’m a messenger through my work.’ He laughed at that, he was impressed by that, and he chose one of my images for the permanent collection.”
“That gave me a sense of maybe I’m good at this stuff,” said Witkin. He remains excited and challenged this many years later.
“In the back of my mind, I always say I’m as good as my last photograph,” he said. “I think I bat about 800 though, so I’m lucky with that!”
“Joel-Peter Witkin: The World is Not Enough” is on view at A Gallery for Fine Photography, 241 Chartres St., New Orleans, through March 10, 2017.
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