Max Ginsburg | How to Paint “What Is”

One of the finest draftsmen of his age, Max Ginsburg combines alla prima oil painting techniques and a humanist’s perspective for social commentary. This article first appeared in the June 2013 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

By Maureen Bloomfield

City Scenes and Social Commentary

In the world of the city that Max Ginsburg depicts, there is no dichotomy between the debased and the sublime, the decaying and the new. The world is “as is”—a tad shabby, worse for wear. Walls are sprayed with graffiti, windows are grimy, people are bedraggled. Ginsburg’s vision acknowledges the forces of weather, poverty, proximity, and time; it embraces “what is.” The city isn’t ideal but it’s not fallen either. Ginsburg’s New York is simply real, requiring neither reconstructive surgery nor sugarcoating. What’s required instead is the artist’s intense attention.

Bus Stop by Max-Ginsburg, city scenes
City Scenes: Eighty percent of Bus Stop (oil, 50×72) became the cover of Max Ginsburg Retrospective, because, Ginsburg says, “It’s the culmination of a theme: the reality of what I know and see—the people of New York.” The models were friends who posed in the artist’s studio, and of course, as always, he was thinking of Brueghel, Rembrandt, Velázquez and Repin.

Of course, part of that attention is a function of consummate craft. Ginsburg’s scenes are so real, they conceal their artistry. The compositions of people, for instance, waiting on line, may look random, but Ginsburg designs every grouping, every vector of movement, every repetition. Not beholden to the actual, he makes changes, as well, moving a scene from Central Park, for instance, to lower Manhattan so as to add a barricade or a barbed wire fence that can suggest an imprisonment that is social and economic.

Like Daumier, Ginsburg’s focus is usually on ordinary people on a train or in a crowd rather than on the heroic or tragic individual (although he makes compelling portraits, as well). The artist, whether depicting a basketball game or a peace march, is a man of the city, a man of the people; he feels empathy always but never condescension. In Ginsburg’s scenes, one person isn’t more interesting than another; each commands his/her part of the stage. The story is an urban and hence a communal one.

Nannies and Kids by Max Ginsburg
Social Commentary: Ginsburg has done a number of pictures of a common sight in the city, caretakers, often immigrants, in charge of the young and the old. Note the graceful draftsmanship and exquisite handling of paint on the child closest to us in Nannies and Kids (oil, 40×32).

Ginsburg’s Background

Ginsburg was born in 1931 in Paris, where his artist father, Abraham, had studied in 1922, having won a fellowship from New York City’s National Academy of Design. Two years later, in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, the family moved to Brooklyn, where they shared a house with grandparents as well as boarders. “Growing up during those economic hard times, times that were even worse for the many who had no jobs, made me aware of the struggles and suffering of ordinary people,” Ginsburg says.

Another factor that fostered the compassion that permeates his work is his experience of anti-Semitism, when Irish-Catholic kids from an adjacent neighborhood accused Jewish kids of having killed Christ. That Hitler was coming to power only exacerbated the anxieties of an imaginative child. “During World War II,” he says, “I followed the war reports avidly, fearing that I would be exterminated, as many of my relatives were.”

Once the war was over, it was not lost upon the young Ginsburg that German prisoners of war were treated better than returning African-American soldiers. “I became sharply aware of racism and our Jim Crow laws,” he says simply. “Issues of social injustice and man’s inhumanity to man became the focal point of my art.”

Coffee Break by Max Ginsburg, how to paint people
Painting Real People: The model for Coffee Break (oil, 16×16) is a Gulf War veteran who posed in his old army jacket.

Learning How to Paint People

At the renowned High School of Music and Art in Harlem, Ginsburg was voted Best Artist in the Class. Having won a scholarship to Syracuse University, he was disappointed to find that there were no teachers who were either willing or able to teach him the skills he needed “to draw and paint realistically.” At Syracuse, Ginsburg was active in the peace and civil rights movements; once he graduated, he was drafted into the army. Stationed in Germany, he was assigned art-related jobs: designing brochures and painting backdrops. Back in the states, he ran into the reality that, for an artist committed to realism, the 1950s and 1960s were an inhospitable era. Both schools and galleries were enthralled with the idea of the artist as tragic hero; gesture was sacred; Abstract Expressionism was the authorized style.

From 1955 to 1960, Ginsburg was employed as a commercial artist with little time to devote to his own art. That changed when he started studying for his master’s degree at the City College of New York and teaching at the High School of Art & Design, where many of the students were from minority families and broken homes.

“In order to reach them, before any education could take place,” Ginsburg says, “it was important for me to create an atmosphere of mutual respect.” From that conviction grew the famous “Morning Class,” starting at 6:30 a.m. and ending at 8:30 a.m. every day. The students, along with their teachers (Ginsburg and Irwin Greenberg), drew the live model or, if the model didn’t show up, either each other or an impromptu arrangement, for instance, of paper bags. “Working with the students (among whom were Steven Assael, Costa Vavagiakis, Sam Goodsell, as well as many prominent others) was one of the highlights of my life,” says Ginsburg. “Moreover, Greeny (Irwin Greenberg) and I were improving our skills.”

Ginsburg: Oil Painting Techniques

Ginsburg paints alla prima, from life, wet into wet from the beginning to the latter stages of development, in the manner of Velázquez, Rembrandt, Sargent, and Sorolla.

Bus Stop (scroll up to top) poses figures in groups of three or four while a rhythm of gestures and a repetition of colors (red, blue, red) unites the characters into a tableau. Contrasting the asymmetrical bodies of the figures are the beautiful, orderly sequences of lattices, rectangles, shadowy diagonals and variously sized squares. The young woman on the far right, before the doorway that indicates recession into space, seems to acknowledge the artist with a wary look. With that look, and with details like the child’s red shoes, the beggar’s ball cap, the older lady’s orthopedic cane, Ginsburg honors the individuality of his subjects while telling a broader story.

Ginsburg, in fact, often injects himself into the picture; he’s not solely an observer and he’s certainly not a judge. Instead he’s just out of the frame, on the sidelines—loving what he sees and what he’s painting. And how luscious is that paint, with none of the aridity of more austere kinds of realism.

Foreclosure by Max Ginsburg
Composition: Of Foreclosure (oil, 40×65) Ginsburg says, “When I first started this painting, it was much bigger with full figures, but I was having trouble with the perspective, so I cropped the figures and stretched a smaller canvas. The man crying is symbolic of the so-called middle class, whose homes have gone into foreclosure, and the little girl, my granddaughter, is a witness to this terrible, cruel and unjust tragedy.”

Timeless Gestures

As faithful as he is to what is, Ginsburg, an astute student of the history of art, constantly alludes to masterworks and repeats Judeo-Christian motifs. The subjects in the brilliant Foreclosure (above) exhibit the extreme postures of grief that are everywhere in Renaissance and Mannerist depictions of the Deposition (Christ taken down from the cross) and Dies Irae (the Last Judgment). Every detail in Foreclosure has a purpose in the design; every detail advances the story. Again, the figures are grouped in trios; the furniture, seemingly haphazardly arrayed, in fact mirrors the subjects’ disjointed emotions: the interior and exterior worlds are askew, not stable, about to fall apart. Referencing again the Renaissance, there are traces of landscapes that lead out of the picture and suggest an ideal that is, if not heavenly, at least safe.

In this work especially, Ginsburg is brave enough to push emotion toward pathos: the father’s carefully knotted but short tie, his hand over his eyes, the child’s stuffed rabbit and her expression of grave resignation—as well as the nursing mother, comforted by a stand-in for Ruth or Elizabeth, and finally the round little baby—break the heart. The contrapuntal positions of the most despairing figures—the woman who bows her head on the left and the woman who raises hers in incredulity and supplication on the right—anchor the picture visually.

Adam and Eve exiled from the Garden, Cain’s murder of Abel, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Jesus nailed to the Cross, damned souls cast into hell—the Judeo-Christian ethos is rife with violence, but the sad brilliance of Ginsburg’s work is that it is of its time. Like Francisco de Goya and Käthe Kollwitz, Ginsburg bears witness. The intensely felt street scenes that reflect actual life give way to later works like War Pieta and Torture Abu Ghraib, in which a gifted artist finds a subject worthy of his gifts.

From Life and Photos: For War Pieta (oil, 50×60), Ginsburg worked with two models and also did a photo shoot, what he used to do for his illustrations, “especially to capture the expression of the screaming mother.” “I referred,” he says, “to scrap tear sheets and my imagination for the background and painted many alterations of the figures.”

In War Pieta (above), a woman holds the mutilated body of a soldier. Michelangelo’s Pieta, of course, is an emblem of the end of grief: the mourning but serene mother offers her son as a sacrifice. Ginsburg’s Pieta is instead raw and without a vestige of redemption. It is hard to look at, the soldier’s wounds made even more pathetic by the fact that they are bound: he has been cared for, but he is past care; the loss is irrevocable. Again, Ginsburg has the guts not to pull back; the mother’s cry is visceral, repeating the cries of mothers everywhere (Sandy Hook, Iraq, Afghanistan, Detroit, Chicago). And instead of the tranquility of the Vatican Museum, where the Pieta is on a platform, the figures in this painting inhabit a world that is ruined; what’s on fire is civilization.

Finding Alternate Venues

Although Ginsburg has had his share of sold-out shows at commercial galleries, he decided, several years ago, to seek a broader audience at public spaces. He showed in 2008 at Gallery 1199 of the Hospital Workers Union in New York City and found that people loved the work—even paintings like War Pieta and Torture Abu Ghraib that were critical of U.S. foreign policy. When some observers complained, the Hospital Union workers defended the artist’s right of free speech, and, perhaps Ginsburg’s most controversial work, Torture Abu Ghraib was hung in the display window of the Art Students League on West 57th Street in Manhattan.

Fernando Botero addressed the atrocities of Abu Ghraib in a 2007 series, a sequence consistent with his past work, yet oddly owing something to Fra Angelico in its stylization. Ginsburg’s Torture Abu Ghraib, in contrast, has the seeming spontaneity and force of a snapshot. The two groups of figures (three on one side, a single figure on the right) on the dais above, as well as the paired figures and dog that flank the figure below, show Ginsburg’s mastery of composition as each figure’s demeanor is part of a visual rhythm.

Torture Abu Ghraib by Max Ginsburg
Political Commentary: Ginsburg painted Torture Abu Ghraib (oil, 46×32) from life, except for the dog, which came from one of the photographs of prisoners tortured by American soldiers. The models for the figures are wearing costumes from an Army-Navy store. Ginsburg was influenced, while he was working, by Caravaggio’s Flagellation of Christ.

Torture Abu Ghraib is obscene and that is its point. The hooded subject has assumed the posture of the cruciform (an actual double cross is behind him); the victim hangs his head in dignified acquiescence; he thus has visual and emotional affinities with Jesus, who was mocked and beaten before being nailed to a cross. Italian Renaissance crucifixions tend toward the sublime; Ginsburg’s has more in keeping with the Northern Renaissance (Grünewald): the blood and feces attest to dehumanization and savagery. The former victims of intolerance, Christians and Jews, are the perpetrators—just one of the ironies of this horrifying work.

Theatre was important to the ancient Greeks because of the possibility of catharsis, a release of intolerable emotion. Such primal responses are not part of our everyday lives. Max Ginsburg has the bravery to confront the demons of our time and paint what he sees and feels without compromise. Responding to this version of theatre, we will not feel purified, but Ginsburg’s fidelity to the truth will prompt us to face what we’d rather not face and feel emotions we’d rather not feel, and that is sufficient.

Maureen Bloomfield is the editor in chief of The Artist’s Magazine.



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