artnet Asks: Michael Hafftka, Figurative Expressionist Extraordinaire

Hafftka once peddled his photographs on the steps of the Museum of Modern Art.

Reflection (1995) Oil on canvas, 78" x 62".
Michael Hafftka.  Image: Wikipedia.

Michael Hafftka.
Image: Wikipedia.

Michael Hafftka’s first studio was a small room at the bottom of a water tower that sat in the middle of the kibbutz where he briefly lived in the 1970s.

For years, not one of Hafftka’s paintings sold. His only income came from selling jewelry right outside Bloomingdale’s and peddling his photographs on the steps of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum of Modern Art.

Now, the artist is opening a solo show with dealer and gallerist, Georges Bergès, in his Soho gallery.

The paintings in “Micheal Hafftka: Reconciled,” are pensive and solemn. Lone figures and sometimes pairs look out of the dark canvases with a haunting stillness. Hafftka’s brushstrokes are determined and thick, announcing themselves with a heavy tone and drawing the viewer into a depth of saturated color.

“In the beginning showing my work to dealers was depressing,” Hafftka once said. Read on to find out what happened when the artist, who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, first showed Bergès his paintings.

The Politics Of Spirit (1992) oil on canvas, 78" x 100".

The Politics Of Spirit (1992) oil on canvas, 78″ x 100″.

Tell us about your main body of work.
I am a figurative expressionist artist.  I express an emotional reaction to my subject, imaginary or real. Sometimes, when a person poses for me, we both experience a very special bond, a kind of high that adds a lot to the painting.

What attracted you to working with Georges Bergès?
When Georges [Bergès, founder and owner of Georges Bergès Gallery] first visited my studio I showed him one painting of two friends, Mike and Kevin. Georges sat down and looked at it for hours without saying anything. Eventually I told him I had to leave and he said he would like to come back to see the painting again. He came back more than 20 times just to look at that painting. When he opened the gallery a year later it was the first work he sold. The funny thing is that he still mentions it is one of his favorite paintings. He regretted losing it. Georges and I were checking each other out for about a year, you might call it courting. Georges described a global vision and big plans for a presence in Asia and Europe. But what actually clinched it for me was his love of my work. He is everything I ever wanted in a dealer. He has freed me to focus on my art and leave the business to him. Georges has deep connection with some international collectors that trust him completely. What more could an artist want in a dealer.

Man Sitting (1992) Oil on canvas, 78" x 100".

Man Sitting (1992) Oil on canvas, 78″ x 100″.

Where do you turn for inspiration?
My inspiration comes from my psyche, so almost anything around me can serve for instigating a painting. I paint almost every day. When I don’t, I start getting agitated. I often paint from my imagination but it is also a very special and wonderful experience to paint people. When I paint someone my concentration augments and I feel and see things that are invisible to me other times. Painting is inspiring!

How do these new works depart or build upon your previous work?
Someone familiar with my work over the years will see a thread but not a linear one. However, there is definitely a development through the years that cannot be reversed. I painted in many styles throughout the years navigating between realism and abstraction while almost always remaining figurative. It is all a learning process.

Tell us about your favorite piece in this exhibition.
That is a tough question, my preferences change all the time. Some paintings feel more important, either because of their meaning to me, or their meaning (as I perceive it) to the world. In this show I think The Politics of Spirit is most important, but then I love Man Sitting, Jane and Anna, and the other portraits. Really my favorite is what I will do later tonight.

What would you be doing if you weren’t painting?
I don’t know. I love painting and have been fortunate to be able to do it my whole life. I can’t imagine anything else. It always feels like if I can’t paint I would die.

The Old Story (1993) Oil on canvas, 78" x 62".

The Old Story (1993) Oil on canvas, 78″ x 62″.

Reflection (1995) Oil on canvas, 78" x 62".

Reflection (1995) Oil on canvas, 78″ x 62″.

Haffkta’s upcoming show, “Michael Hafftka: Reconciled,” opens at Georges Bergès Gallery on September 12 and runs through October 4.

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