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    Grim Witness
by Donald Kuspit
The German Girl
Butcher's Helper, Buchenwald (1941-45)
Butcher's Helper, Buchenwald (1941-45)
(center panel)
Butcher's Helper, Buchenwald (1941-45)
(right panel)
The Effects of a Stroke (Roy Simmons)
Anna Hamm
Self-Portrait II
Self-Portrait III
Jesus, A Disbeliever's Son
A Boy and His Mother, The First Chair
Jerome Witkin, "Witness, A Major Exhibition of Paintings & Drawings," April 8-Sept. 2, 2000, at Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, Inc., 357 N. La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, Ca. 90036.

Jerome Witkin is a master of narrative figuration, not just of everyday figures in everyday scenes, but of people in nightmarish situations. This is apparent from the two unequivocal masterpieces of this exhibition -- a survey of Witkin's production in the 1990s -- both bearing witness to the holocaust: The German Girl (1997) and The Butcher's Helper (1999-2000).

In the former work, a German girl cowers in her room, as a line of hungry concentration camp victims reach into it -- one hand breaks through a wall -- for the few potatoes she has placed by an open window. They cherish the humble potato, a typical German food, as though it was the substance of life, which indeed it is for them.

In The Butcher's Helper, a somewhat more horrific triptych, an assembly line of Jews moves toward the Nazi who skins and butchers them, each step of their passage to death documented in gruesome detail. This slaughter of innocents moves from left to right. On the other side of the picture, moving from right to left, a German soldier emerges from a room after raping a Jewish girl, huddling in agony in a corner. Her arms and legs have just been cut off, preparatory to her final butchering.

The two sadistic scenes meet in the center panel, a warehouse-like space in which dead Jewish bodies hang from hooks in the ceiling and two American soldiers grab the dazed rapist as he enters their space. It is the moment of liberation in a killing factory, but the killing is far from over, as the poised guns of the American soldiers suggest. The German girl and the Jewish girl seem to be opposite sides of the same emotional coin for Witkin -- symbols of vulnerability in a world of atrocities.

Both pictures are remarkable for their painterly flair, dramatic concentration and excruciating empiricism. They are dreams in the grand visionary manner of the Old Masters, however modern their theme. The terror Witkin depicts is made all the more perverse and palpable by the glistening, luminous colors with which he paints it. They seem to jump out of the scene with the rhapsodic abandon of pure sensation. He makes us feel the pain of the Jewish victims, but his handling is hedonistic, conveying the sheer joy of painting.

The contradiction between the grim scenes, with their documentation of systematic barbarism, and the effusive, ebullient paint makes the pictures all the more hallucinatory. We are face to face with what our mind tells us must be an absurd fantasy -- there is a confrontational immediacy to all of Witkin's paintings, and a sense of existential absurdity -- but which our senses tell us is painfully real.

A Jew in a Ruin (1990) and Jesus, A Disbeliever's Vision (1994-95) continue Witkin's witnessing, that is, his empathic identification with the victims of the holocaust, and the victim in general, Christ being the archetypal victim, as it were, all the more so because he was Jewish. But what do the many wonderful portraits -- some painted, some drawings (often black and white) -- have to do with narrative nightmare?

Clearly Witkin has empathy for Roy Simmons (1995), the victim of a stroke -- a kind of nightmare -- and even for Anna Hamm (1998). Again and again we see him able to convey the experience of being the other -- women included -- from the inside. The point is that each of them is a victim of life, and their suffering is etched in the lines and planes of their faces, and above all in the tension of their lips and intensity of their gaze.

Nowhere is Witkin's clinical mastery of expressive visceral detail more evident than in his five self-portraits, all done in 1999. The trick of the portraitist is to make the physical representative of the psychic. In his self-portraits, Witkin experimentally distorts his features -- without losing the sense of verisimilitude -- to convey emotional extremes, in a way worthy of the best expressionistic portraits.

Even more, Witkin is able to make the naked or near naked body seem like a portrait of a disturbed person, as his stunning drawings of female figures indicate. He is an acute observer of expressive posture as well as expressive feature -- of body language in all its manifestations. (The visual narrator of human experience will fail -- not tell the full, hidden story -- unless he is a serious student of non-verbal language, which is more basically human than verbal language.)

Beyond the holocaust paintings, this is nowhere more evident than in A Boy and His Mother, The First Chair (1999). It as emotionally gruesome, if not as obviously horrific, as the holocaust pictures: from her son's portrait of her, a mother mocks him -- her annihilative laughter literally echoes through the space, as the repeated "HA" shows -- and the fiancé who displaces her in his affection. Is it her husband who urinates to the side, playing his indifferent part in the Oedipal drama?

The picture is a study in contrasting body types and poses, with each figure isolated and insecure in its own unstable space -- turned in on itself, even as it relates, however obliquely, to the other figures in their precarious places. Their hands may be linked, but even the young couple turns away from each other, conveying the uncertainty of their relationship.

It is rare to see such psychological complexity -- a narrative of the ambivalence and anxiety that haunts even the most intimate human relationships, suggesting the difficulty of all human relationships -- in contemporary art. Indeed, there are few painters working today who have as consummate and vivid a sense of the human drama, in all its personal and social complexity, as Witkin does.

DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.