Floating through the Chelsea galleries, up and down the democratic elevators, through the mysterious doors where minimalist girls, like wax figures, sit at laptops in sparse foyers and do not acknowledge your presence. Where liveried guards suspect your bag and camera, here and there there’s a Burton Silverman.
Coming from a background of illustration, Silverman, an artist’s artist, has found a unique place in the realist revival. To read his partly biographical The Art of Burton Silverman you might think he’s still fighting the art-wars of the sixties. He rails against what he considers the lightweight nature of modernism and wonders where his own place might be in the final tally. “I feel that much of modernist art has been involved with rudimentary formal exercises and to call it ‘High Art’ is a twist of irony,” he says. “Portraits,” he notes, “get a bad rap in museums these days.” It seems to him that “for the moment only photographs of people are allowed into museums.”
Burton Silverman need not worry. Long after much of modernism has floated off down the Hudson, private collectors will still be grabbing for his work. Personal, direct, human, and laced with his own idiosyncratic life-view, this stuff is simply great. The day that he stopped taking illustration jobs was the day that “the focus of my interior world intensified.” Through a variety of explorations — his wife and children, Italian bicyclists, party-girls, beach-scapes, concerns of urban loneliness, separation and roadside nudity, he sets a standard for both content and craft. Light shines in his shadows and magic glows in his lights. His casual surfaces belie his toil.
Burton should simply know that quality of his sort will always be in style. While modernism is easier and faster to make, with realism, the joy of technique and proficiency enters more deeply into the mix. But in one sense modernism is just as democratic because it’s accessible to all. Even kiddies fresh out of Elmo’s World, with a small amount of coaching, can make creditable modern art. This is no small consideration, and it’s good that this stuff is up the elevators, too.
PS: “My best training came from doing illustrations because it taught me to compose my paintings more effectively, to improve my colors, and to be ruthlessly selective.” (Burton Silverman)
Esoterica: It’s often desirable to put your detail into the shadows and burn out the detail in the brightly lit areas. Photo-based painters using Kodaky reference from contrasty subjects (such as beaches) are often unable to see shadow detail. When working from life the human iris opens automatically to peer into those shadows. For better or for worse, obscuring or neutralizing shadow areas in photo-derived paintings has become an element of style.
Burton Silverman, from Sight and Insight: The Art of Burton Silverman
“I am stuck with my passion for the objective world, for the constantly shifting shades of meaning to the events of my life, to the states of being of the people I paint, and to the persistent need to get it right. I am wedded to who I am. I continue to make paintings of people and their moments in our time because I am of that time; out of that I hope to make pictures that are timeless. I love an art which allows me to document my place in this mix and I trust the people who love to see it. I love the fact that this art might somehow affect the way people see, and thus open a window on the world. And I love the fact that there are more and more young people out there who still want to make a flat two-dimensional surface come alive with three dimensional magic. This is my past and my future. It has its own logic and finally, its own sense of fulfillment.”
Illustration versus painting
by Polly Jackson
Illustration (realism) is what Burton Silverman does. Painting is texture, line, shape, exaggeration, something other than a photographic rendering. And thus the debate goes on between illustration and painting. They are two totally different means of expression, period.
by Orythia Johnson
That letter on Burton Silverman was a good one. I have taken courses in modern art and although it is certainly accessible, it remains a puzzler as to where it fits in the scheme of the artist’s art.
Abstract painting difficult
by Jeri Fellwock, Farmington Hills, MI, USA
I agree with you about Burton Silverman’s work. It is in a class of its own. I disagree with your remarks about modern art. Before I painted abstract, I too, painted realism. Realism is a beautiful way of making a painting. There is a lot of hard work and sweat in painting realism. But, to say modern art is easy and young children can produce quality paintings is just not true. My abstract paintings take a lot of effort, concentration, knowledge and many years of experience to achieve a successful painting. Abstract art is not easy. So much thought, guts and soul go into abstract art. I have seen children as young as four on television with their paintings and also animals “painting.” Is this real art? I also agree there is a lot of modern art out there with a few brush strokes and a signature. These paintings lack substance and soul and can contribute to people thinking modern art can be produced by anybody with a canvas and a paintbrush.
by W. P. Sendahl
In your remark about kiddies fresh out of Elmo’s World, I guess you were referring to the latest art sensation, four-year-old Marla Olmstead of Binghampton, New York. As you and your readers may know she has already sold $40,000.00 of her work. Her dad, Mark, who does most of the talking, is also her “assistant.” He hands her brushes to her and gets her paint ready. The amazing thing is that none of this is amazing. Anybody can do her kind of stuff.
by Kory Twaddle, Oklahoma City, OK, USA
I disagree that children fresh from Elmo’s World are capable of the thought that goes into creating a minimalist, modern work of art. These paintings are, if done well, full of decisions that must be made to create a successful work. The colors, the shapes, all the other elements are considered. Children are simply not doing this when they are creating to the level that these painters are. Also, some of this is conceptual, and more is going on in the mind than on the canvas.
Amazed that some people can do it
by Karen Phinney, Halifax, NS, Canada
It is so interesting to see Burton Silverman’s work. Incredible. I am always amazed at people who can do what he does, the realism and perfection of their technique. And to think he did it from life! He is incredibly skilled. He is an illustrator, to be sure, and I am also captivated by the illustrative skills of N.C. Wyeth. He caught a life-like feel in a fantasy subject. Remarkable. He too was an intriguing guy, somewhat conflicted, but very gifted. The colours, particularly in light and shadow are breathtaking.
by Mike Carroll, Lana’i, Hawaii, USA
Like Burt Silverman, my “former life” was as an illustrator. I came to a teaching hospital in Chicago with a degree in Medical Illustration, but left in 1980 to enter the wild and wacky world of the freelance illustrator (90% non-medical). Long story short — my wife and I fell in love with the Island of Lana’i on our 20th anniversary, sold everything in Chicago, and moved here almost 4 years ago to give ourselves a break from Michigan Avenue and to see if I could remember how to hold a paintbrush after so many years with a stylus and digitizing tablet.
My subtle quibble with your suggestion in Esoterica to add detail to shadow areas is that the aperture of the iris is governed by the degree of light. The more brightly lit a subject, the more the shadow areas recede into the distance. If you honestly depict what your eye sees at first glance, it will be lead to light, not shadow. This, in my former life, would have been a hard thing to say, as I don’t think you’ll find a more, um, “detail-oriented” group of artists than Medical Illustrators. Shaded or not, those damn arteries are important! I think the key phrase I want to get across is to “honestly depict what your eye sees.” This means that a more honest painting, one that should resonate with the viewer naturally, will result from painting your first impression. Trust your eye: if you see light, paint it. If a composition is predominately in shade, perhaps that’s where your eye goes and burning out light areas is warranted.
(RG note) Thanks for that, Mike. And thanks to the several other painters who wrote to say that they would have thought that the most detail would exist where the light was strongest. Just yesterday I happened to be looking at this Franz Hals that is in the Frick Collection. Take a look at the fancy collar the fellow is wearing. I just love how the brightly-lit area dazzles out the detail, while the nature and intricacy of the collar is clear in the shadow. To my eye, while it may be an “illusion,” it’s ever so “honest” when rendered the way Hals did.
by Cathie Harrison
While reading the previous clickback I was disappointed to see two negative references to President Bush. Can we leave politics out of this one small peaceful place in the sea of entrenched monologues that now make up most of our public discourse? I have turned off the television and taken up my brushes. It has made a remarkable difference in my ability to think creatively.
(RG note) These days we sometimes include political references when they appear to have a relationship to art.
Real art brings truth
by Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia
Burton Silverman is one of the sensitive artists of our age. Imaginative art in any media is the language that can say true or false. We observe in many countries in the using of TV as a tool to give falsehoods and then use the taxpayer’s money to build up state armies—even for their own profit. Painting also is used just as a tool of profit and the false is involved against real art. We observed cases where real Ivan Ayvazovskys (Great Path. Kronstadt) were cheaper than some examples of “modernism.” Real art brings feelings of truth in any form — abstract, realistic or compositional creative fantasies. A real artist cannot be insincere by his/her artistic nature.
It is also true that good and evil exist the same in Russia, Canada, the USA, and elsewhere. As artists we think the same and speak the same imaginative language and suffer at the hands of falsehood in the same way.
(RG note) Ivan K. Ayvazovsky (Ayvazyan) (1817-1900) was mainly a marine painter, a representative of the Romantic school of Russian traditional painting, who worked somewhat in the manner of J.M.W. Turner, and who is now very much in demand.
by Bill Kerr, Courtenay, BC, Canada
One of the greatest advantages of digital photographic references is that with the computer you can adjust the exposure and even do burning and dodging to see into the shadows of your pictures as well as bring forward the textures in sand or snow that are usually lost in prints. Then you can file both the burned and dodged pictures as well as the original.
While on the subject of digitals, the economy is nice but the real joy is the ease of filing and more importantly recovering. You can’t sort of riff through the prints like playing cards but you can easily generate pretty fast slide show collections of related reference materials. Best of all you can easily find that specific picture if you made an accurate descriptive title. This is no place for cutesy titles unless they are truly memorable.
Brought back memories
by Laurie Irwin
I never knew Burton Silverman was the artist of the cover for Aqualung! Wow! The hours I stared at that cover and played that music over and over again in my late teens. Occasionally I will haul that album out as I still own a record player and it gets me fired up. I think today is one of those days, as it is rainy like stink and I could use a charge.
Fast food of the art world
by Mona Youssef
Does it take two people to distinguish between a fast food meal, that probably would last you for a couple of hours, and a good nutrition meal that requires time, art of preparation, costs, and this would last you probably for the rest of the week.
I do not mean to talk food here, but does it take two people to realize the difference between fast food meal/done painting and a realistic painting. The latter would need to acquire observation of surroundings to come up with a new concept and a new message to convey. After creating a new composition, determine a direction of light, applying many fine layers and using numerous tones. Can the latter be considered of more value and long-lasting piece of art?
Burton Silverman has certainly learned it all. He has reached the full capacity as a painter. I love his style, and I would have asked for exchange of links with his work, if he did not include nudity. I wonder if any man would like to see his mother, wife, daughter, or his sister undressed in front of, I would not say an artist, but in front of a painter with a good technique!. Well, I guess this is another subject to discuss.
(RG note) By all accounts Burton Silverman has an agreeable and respectful relationship with his models, including Claire, his wife. “We were married in 1969, and she became my most consistent model, my most responsible critic, and my most unswerving supporter.” (Burton Silverman)
Value of metaphor
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA
Fritz Koenig’s sculpture, The Sphere, didn’t hold much interest for me prior to 2001. Set in the middle of a vast open plaza between the Twin Towers, I can only recall having walked across that wind swept plaza once in all the years I lived there. But now, the work has taken on great significance. I too saw it down at Battery Park, its temporary site.
Now when I look at The Sphere I see images seared in my memory, “jumpers” and firefighters who never returned. Memories of frantic and bewildered people putting up posters searching for lost ones. I was down there in the days following September eleventh shooting a film about the rescue workers and the Red Cross Center that had been set up in The College of Insurance just one block north of where WTC#1 used to tower. It was an amazing time, volunteers from across the nation had come, all kinds of search and rescue people with their dogs, secret service people, counter-terrorist squads, bomb squads, firemen worn to the bone from the search and construction people everywhere with heavy machinery tirelessly moving the mountain. I spent a few days down there stunned by the magnitude of the disaster and amazed by the electrifying spirit of our great nation. People of every color, nationality and religion were working their hands raw — our brothers, our sisters, all working as one, with no regard for anything that separates people — all in search of one more survivor. So now The Sphere embodies that memory and so much more for me. Its metaphorical power brings tears to my eyes with its power to recall its original site and those days of hell I shall never forget.
The power that objects hold has been a special interest of mine for many years. Metaphors, I paint still-life objects that are metaphors — they hold meaning beyond their simple utilitarian form. They have the power to recall events in our lives, ideas, values and emotions. I look for and choose objects that speak to me. When that happens, I ask myself “what’s going on here, why is this object calling my name,” so to speak. Often the answer is right there in a moment’s pause and that is where my paintings begin. Scouring flea markets is a great source, as there are always many objects that have that metaphorical power for me and yet have a common ring to many other people, too. Often I will need to find other objects to create the juxtaposition of meaning and tell a story about the human condition. And sometimes I’ll have bought an object and kept it for years before the other objects rise to the surface or it can all come in an exhilarating flash.
The visual language of metaphors is one we all speak, consciously or not. We all dream in that language. De Chirico and Magritte painted in that language, as did many others. I mention them because they are the ones from whom I learned the language of metaphor.
When an object or painting ceases to be a painting for a viewer and becomes an experience, that is an epiphany. The viewer has been transported beyond the reality of the surface of the painting, the object, and been transported by the image to his or her other state of consciousness, which is the experience. That is the great power of art.
oil painting on line
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