Jerome Witkin holds mirror to society’s horrors: ‘Drawn to Paint’ collection demonstrates artist’s method of dealing with the madness

Jerome Witkin typically paints a bleak and morbid picture. He forces us to peel back our eyelids, exposing us to the horrors and morbidity we are eager to avoid, even though their subjects and themes scream of social consequences and an urgency to act, to have that conversation that we have been neglecting for so long. “Drawn to Paint,” a retrospective of Witkin’s work is on display through May 5 at Palmer Museum of Art.

Born in 1939 in Brooklyn, N.Y., Witkin is a figurative artist who specializes in taking political and social issues to the forefront in a darkly and haunting manner. In addition to painting, Witkin is a professor in the painting department at Syracuse University and has maintained a long relationship with Penn State and the museum.

“There’s a long history that goes all the way back to 1976,” Patrick McGrady, the Palmer Museum’s Charles V. Hallman Curator and an affiliate assistant professor of art history at Penn State, said. “William Hull, the Palmer Museum’s founding director, had worked in Syracuse and knew Jerome Witkin’s work from his stay up there. He bought one of Witkin’s paintings called ‘Kill Joy’ in 1976 and invited Jerome down the next spring to give a lecture, and that’s when the Palmers met Jerome Witkin.”

Upon meeting Witkin, Barbara and James Palmer were enthralled, not just with his incredible artistic ability, but with his worldly outlook and progressive perspective towards painting.

“Barbara related the conversation that she had with her late husband, Jim, on their way home from meeting Witkin and said, ‘You know, this is the first time I’ve ever heard an artist actually talk about his work,’ ” McGrady said. “She was delighted to hear not from an art historian, not from a critic, but from an artist himself about what he thinks about his painting. This stimulated an interest and a pretty strong connection. Because of this it was a no-brainer and is the perfect exhibition for us to host.”

Although the Palmer Museum is a permanent host to three important Witkin canvases, this exhibition will serve as a major retrospective featuring close to 40 paintings and drawings that span more than four decades of his illustrious career. Visitors will be able to see the progression of Witkin’s career and can note how his art reflected the era of its creation.

“I don’t look upon at his art as really evolving as much as I do maturing,” McGrady said of Witkin’s painting periods. “It was really in the 1970s that he began to work with the themes that I think best describe his work.”

It’s within these realistically dark and macabre themes where Witkin’s true genius is most evident. Detailing all realms of violence, Witkin’s work is a conversation starter. The Palmer Museum of Art plans to extend and elaborate the dialogue that Witkin has begun through his work with a lecture by the artist at 4:30 p.m. April 9 in the Palmer Lipcon Auditorium.

“As much as a third of his work from at least the 1970s has to do with the Holocaust, but it also has to do with marriages that break up, parents fighting with their children. He is very concerned with the way that we allow ourselves to treat one another so terribly,” McGrady said. “We will get a better and clearer idea of this when he comes here to speak, but I believe that he looks upon his paintings as mirrors that force us to engage on a personal level, a very intimate level, with these horrible scenes that he paints in order to confront these issues that he’s dealing with. You can’t really change things without confronting them, and I think that Witkin looks at this as a start.”

“Drawn to Paint: The Art of Jerome Witkin” is on display through May 5 at the Palmer Museum of Art, University Park. Witkin will hold a presentation at 4:30 p.m. April 9 at the museum. Visit www.palmermuseum.psu.edu or call 865-7672.