With images spanning 1950 to 1978, many of which are unique and have not yet been displayed, a new exhibition at Bruce Silverstein Gallery offers the viewer rare insight into the origins of photographer Joel-Peter Witkin’s innovative and distinctive vision.
Joel-Peter Witkin and his identical twin brother- notable painter Jerome Witkin – were born in 1939, in Brooklyn, New York. Early in the artist’s life, he witnessed a gruesome car accident in which a little girl was decapitated. This traumatic event surely left an indelible mark on the artist’s psyche and would permeate all aspects of his creative vision and sensibility throughout his life. Witkin’s interest in photography began at age 15, after the artist received his first camera and enrolled in an introductory photo course. In these early photographs, one begins to see the origins of the artist’s interest in the surreal and experimental, as illustrated in Puerto Rican Boy, 1956, created just two years later at the age of 17.
Raised in a deeply religious Catholic home, his profound admiration for works of early Renaissance painter Giotto contributed to his lifelong interest in using the tableau to explore religious themes, as foreshadowed in the photograph Christ, Coney Island, 1967. Still Life (In an Air Shaft), 1967 would be the first ever still life made by Witkin. It is one of the earliest works to feature the remains of a living life form, which would later evolve to include not just animals, but also human cadavers, body parts, and fetuses. By all accounts, Witkin is a master printer. His works often feature markings and manipulations created by the artist both in the dark room and directly onto the print afterward. In addition, Witkin is renowned in the medium for his work in encaustic, an ancient process where a painting, and in his case a photograph, is coated with a mix of pigment and hot wax. For Witkin, printmaking is an essential element of the process; the resulting image is “the final form of all the hope and desire that went before it.” Featured in this exhibition, Star of David Dancer, 1963, the artist’s first work manipulated in printing, as well Olympia, 1974, an example of encaustic work.
By 1981, the year Joel-Peter Witkin received his MFA from the University of New Mexico, all the elements and themes of his distinctive style would be in place. As the artist states, “this early time was devoted to seeing the ideas in ME and testing how my images could explain the world.” For the next 40 years, Witkin’s images would continue dismantling our preconceived notions of sexuality, beauty, life, and death. In 1996, Joel-Peter Witkin was given a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. His work has been widely exhibited around the world, including such prestigious institutions as the National Gallery of Canada; Bibliotèque Nationale de Paris; Guggenheim Bilbao; Moscow House of Photography; ARCO Madrid; Museum of Contemporary Photography Chicago; Houston Center for Photography; Israel Museum; Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea, Milan; the Whitney Museum in New York; and the Louvre in Paris where he is currently part of the exhibition titled, Les Choses.