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A master's critique: Jerome Witkin at W&M

{{youtube:medium|2UpRdkB6VcU, World-renowned artist Jerome Witkin critiques the work of undergraduate artists at W&M.}}
Jerome Witkin walked among the student art displayed in the foyer of Andrews Hall. His every move was followed by dozens of eyes—eyes that paused when he paused, that fretted as he pondered, that lifted in anticipation of a positive word as he framed their works with his hands.

The students were babies. Witkin would call them that. The master, a world-class figurative painter whose works are permanent fixtures in some of the world’s most-prominent museums, seldom critiques the works of undergraduates. He prefers advanced students, those who have committed to art as a career, who have suffered.

After a moment, he gathered them around him.

“This show, if there were a title, would be goody-two-shoes,” Witkin said. “I want to see a statement where you bleed, where you cannot eat or sleep because you have to figure it out.”

He told the students their work represented “very good classroom work” but not the kind of “visionary work” that marked an artist.

“It’s like riding a bike,” Witkin said. “You have to take the training wheels off.”

Witkin had come to William & Mary on Oct. 7 as part of the Art and Art History Department's Distinguished Lecture Series. The Distinguished Lecture Series was established in 2011 by an anonymous donor to bring nationally and internationally prominent artists and art historians to campus. In addition to his evening lecture which was attended by well over 200 students and faculty, Witkin led critiques of senior art majors in the morning and conducted a life drawing demonstration in the afternoon. His name was originally put forward to the lecture series selection committee by Brian Kreydatus, associate professor of studio art. Kreydatus studied under Witkin at Syracuse University.

If he had been reluctant to work with the undergraduates, Witkin did find plenty to praise. He admired Kate Fleming’s "ambitious" use of color, particularly what he called the “thermal” qualities of warm and cool. When he discovered that they had been drawn onsite, he was pleased.  “I am so tired of seeing people copying from laptops,” he said. “The eye is much more complex than a blurry piece of digital photography.”

Regarding Faith Barton’s series of self-portraits under colored lights, he admired the techniques but resisted the perspective.

“They are too tightly cropped,” he said, reiterating a theme he previously had addressed. “As a figurative painter, I am not interested in the close-up; I do not want to be pushed into TV. I cannot live in a space like that.”

Kreydatus explained that Witkin had been invited to campus to “light a fire” under the senior art students.

“Our students work very hard to learn how to paint and to draw,” Kreydatus said, “and they become competent. But competence isn’t enough. I think that’s what Jerome brought to them.”

Witkin also, by encouraging the students to take chances, gave them “license to fail,” Kreydatus said. Being young, many undergraduates are afraid to look foolish or uncool; being William & Mary students, some have little experience in letting themselves fail, he explained. License to fail is, in a sense, prerequisite to creative processes, he said.

For many of the seniors, decision time rapidly is approaching. Do they want to be artists or will they follow one of the alternate career paths for which they are prepared? If they choose the former, they need to become obsessed, Kreydatus said.

Assessing Witkin’s visit at its conclusion, Kreydatus suggested that it had been a success in that the students seemed to have accepted the license to fail and they had, he believed, the audacity to do that.

“I can’t tell you how dramatic was the change in our students,” he said. “Following Witkin's visit, I had students who wanted to change everything they were doing; Witkin's critiques, demo and lecture forced them to dramatically reassess if studio art was the thing they really wanted to do for a living—and, if so, how would they get to where they needed to be.”

For some, no doubt, art will provide their livelihood and viewers will appreciate their efforts first molded at William & Mary. For others, art will be vocation.

“I tell them that, whatever they choose, they have incredible potential,” Kreydatus said. “I also tell them to choose wisely because life is too long to be unhappy.”