Our art editor, Cynthia Close, recently had this exchange with Robert Zurer, Issue #13’s featured artist. Here’s what he had to say about influences on his development as an artist; what he admires in other artists; and the fun of decoding his own work.
You indicated on your website that you were “self-taught” but that you studied privately with Wade Schuman for some years. How did this affect the direction of your work?
I said that I studied privately because it was not in an academy setting. It was at his home studio for three hours each Saturday for a few years. There were always other students working nearby. He would make espresso and play music and wander about and make comments and criticisms as we worked. One of the most valuable and inspirational parts of this experience was the interaction that I had with others.
Wade has incredibly strong opinions and is quite brilliant. There is always the danger when working with someone at his level, that one might move too far down the road the teacher has traveled. However, since I came to him in my fifties there was no really no danger of that. I could pick and choose. Sometimes, regarding my subject matter, he would say that it was corny or exaggerated or too cartoon-like. That was his subjective taste. It was seldom that I took that kind of advice. In contrast however, he repeatedly made me aware of my unconscious, clichéd, and mechanical habits of composition. He saw parts of a composition that detracted from the power I was trying to achieve and suggested ways to make it more of a piece. With regard to color, I had always opted for the cheap immediate sensory rush of prismatic colors. He introduced me to earth tones and made me appreciate and come to love more subdued and subtle expressions. I took that advice immediately to heart and hand.
Many artists strive for “originality” and you seem to have achieved that, but you do mention your love of Gorky, Bacon, Neel, Lassnig, and Balthus among many others. Can you tell us what draws you to admire a particular artist? Feel free to use any examples other than those I’ve mentioned.
I am drawn by truth, intensity, bravery and commitment. I love art that shares perception at the deepest level that we humans can reach, and shares it holding back nothing, despite fear or shame or modesty. I don’t mean to imply that it must be raw or painful. The joy of being alive is that we can take in such a vast spectrum of ideas and emotions – from the terrifying claustrophobic aloneness and deformed passion of Bacon to the simplicity and gentleness of Avery or Burchfield or Millet – from the splendor and majesty of Church or Turner to the deep humanity and kindness of Kahlo or Rembrandt – from the sexuality of Balthus or Cadmus or Courbet to the painful loneliness of Gorky or Rothko – from the childlike magic of Chagall … and on forever.
I am unconcerned about joining the ‘current dialog’ and am entirely uninterested in craft for its own sake. I gravitate to emotional subject matter rather than to the intellectual or conceptual.
Since Mud Season Review is a literary as well as an Art journal, can you tell us something about your literary preferences?
Willa Cather, Bob Dylan, Edna St Vincent Millay, T.S. Eliot, Denise Levertov, E.B. White, Christopher Morley, Thomas Hardy, Flannery O’Connor, Joseph Mitchell, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, G.I. Gurdfieff, Stephen Sondheim, Dorothy Sayers, William Faulkner, Lou Reed, John Donne, Charles Dickens, Robert Frost, Flann O’Brien, Charles Dickens, William Blake, Polly Jean Harvey, William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde, P.L Travers, Robert Burns, Thomas Gray, George Mackay Brown, Seamus Heaney, Gary Snyder, A.A. Milne, Paul Simon, Matthew Arnold, Laura Nyro, Carson McCullers, John Steinbeck, Betty Smith, Evelyn Waugh.
It is clear that the human condition is central to your work. The paintings tell stories but need to be decoded. Do you have specific ideas in mind that you hope to communicate to the viewer?
Yes, everything I do seems to be about what it is to be a human on Earth and no, I never start with a specific idea. It is quite the opposite really.
I do my art to find out what is inside. It is only after a work is finished and I get to see what it looks like on the outside that I have the tremendous fun of decoding it for myself. The thing is, that unlike a traditional coded message or cipher, there are multiple decodings or ‘meanings’, one for every decryption algorithm you choose to apply. It is an exciting journey of discovery.
As I mention below, I very much want to communicate with others. It is certainly not that I intentionally want to be vague, hidden or secretive in any way. It’s just that what draws me is the mystery, some common meaning behind what we all experience. The magic part is feeling that pull and going with it.
You were born and grew up in New York City. How has this impacted your life and your evolution as an artist?
This question is ridiculously huge.
New York is hubristic, lonely and cut off from Nature. But there is a freedom in cities that I have felt nowhere else. I felt it when I was in London. I am sure I would find it in Berlin and who knows, maybe in Detroit nowadays. Freedom is why cities are centers of art.
New York is my home. Living with so many other lives so close, you either grow to accept these lives and let them penetrate you, or just high tail it. It is this incessant jostling, this intermingling, this anonymity that moves me toward taking risks. Millions of people come here for so many reasons and they bring the world and their entire worlds with them. It is a geometric progression. It can be chaotic and abandoned. I can lose and find myself in the swirl. The constant juxtaposition of seemingly random experiences and disparate images invites and inspires creation.
So many incredible writers and musicians and artists have felt this love. Read E.B. White’s “This is New York” or, for the absolute best answer to the question, listen to Laura Nyro singing this line from her song New York Tendaberry. “Sidewalk and pigeon, you look like a city but you feel like religion to me.”
What has been your greatest success story to date?
Last month I had five pieces in The People’s Choice Salon Show at the Greenpoint Gallery here in Brooklyn. There were five to six hundred works, floor to ceiling on two floors of a building hidden in a desolate area underneath the Pulaski Bridge (one of my favorite bridges). Over a hundred artists were represented.
Attendees were given tiny little slips of paper to vote for their three favorite artists. There was some very good stuff there. The show was on a Friday from 8PM to ??. There were hundreds if not a thousand people coming and going throughout the night. I knew none of them. I stayed and watched them looking (or not looking) at my paintings. The ones that looked really looked! They pointed and talked and studied and got closer and farther away and spent some real time. I saw them writing on the tiny slips.
I was first runner up to an amazing artist. I am still flying around the room.
Most of the public exhibition of your work has been fairly recent. Are you interested in cultivating a wider audience? Is public feedback from the exhibition of your work important to you?
I would love to say that I make art simply because I love to do it. And while that is very true, I do love doing it, I fear that it is way, way too important to me that people see what I do and are affected by it. I wish it were not that way. It is a very difficult struggle and by no means a new one.
What direction do you see your work going in the future?
I can’t answer that. I don’t know. I am working now more than at any time in my life and it is very exciting to see what evolves. Many years ago, when my wife and I were deciding to have our first child, I was scared and ambivalent. Once, sitting around his kitchen table, I asked my father, “Why would I want to have a child?” He was taken aback, since he never really talked much, and answered my question with a question, “Aren’t you curious to see what might come out?”