Isaac Witkin has earned the reputation as one of the most original and masterful sculptors in the modern era. After creating abstract welded steel works in the 1970's, Witkin began working in bronze, ultimately inventing his own sculptural language, by pouring molten metal onto a flat surface or a sand mold to create abstract shapes, a technique he called "drawing" with bronze, or "action sculpture". By 1985, The New York Times wrote that Isaac Witkin "long ago worked his way out of aesthetic debt to such mentors as Anthony Caro and David Smith and into a powerful lyrical expression of his own."
Isaac Witkin was born on May 10, 1936 in Johannesburg, South Africa and died on April 23, 2006 in Pemberton, New Jersey. Witkin entered St Martin’s School of Art (today a part of Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design) in London, in 1957. Studying under Sir Anthony Caro, Isaac Witkin, alongside Phillip King, William Tucker, David Annesley and Michael Bolus, became known as "The New Generation", creating a new style of modern sculpture with innovative abstract forms that revolutionized the art world. Bryan Robertson, the director of the Whitechapel Gallery, whose groundbreaking exhibition launched "The New Generation", told The Times of London that Witkin distinguished himself from his peers because "he, more than the others, translated the underlying aims of traditional sculpture into a more modern sculptural language."
Witkin went on to work as an apprentice to Henry Moore, and became one of his most trusted assistants, whom Moore chose to represent in his absence to site, complete and repair commissioned works worldwide, giving Witkin carte blanche to reconstruct a major work that had been completely destroyed in transit en route to a European museum. Witkin executed at least five major commissions for Henry Moore, including the Locking Piece in front of Tate gallery by the Thames, based on an object he had given to Moore. He also completed Moore's Arch that is now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
He returned to St. Martin’s to teach for two years, and in 1965, he was chosen to represent Great Britain at the Quatrieme Biennale de Paris, where he won First Prize. That same year, Witkin accepted a one-year rotating teaching position in the art department at Bennington College in Vermont to replace his former teacher Anthony Caro, a position that had previously been occupied by sculptor David Smith, whom Witkin hoped to meet. As fate would have it, Smith was tragically killed weeks before he arrived in America. At the end of that year, Witkin was offered a permanent teaching position at Bennington, where he worked with a community of artists known as "The Green Mountain Boys" which included notables such as painter Kenneth Noland, Larry Poons, Paul Feeley and Jules Olitski (who remained a lifelong friend) as well as Helen Frankenthaler. He became an American citizen in 1975.
Throughout the 1970's, Witkin created innovative and imaginative welded steel works, some inspired by the landscapes and grandeur of America (such as the Vermont series of steel works), as well as his roots in South Africa and his deep love of African art, geography and traditions. (i.e. Africa at the Hirshhorn Museum.) In 1981, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. By the mid 1980's, Witkin had moved on to work mainly in bronze, creating organic forms that he assembled into monumental sculptures, recalling the works of his mentor Moore. He also created a body of lyrical, smaller works, often with distinctive patinas, that have been recognized for their artistic mastery, range of vision, and originality. In 1991, the Philadelphia Inquirer's art critic Edward J. Sozanski declared: "Witkin seems capable of making bronze do everything but sit up and speak."
During his final years, Witkin began experimenting with stone on the grand scale, after a prominent collector commissioned a monumental stone work in blue mountain granite. The work, called Eolith, was later donated to Grounds for Sculpture, the art park in Hamilton, New Jersey founded by the sculptor and philanthropist, J. Seward Johnson, heir to the Johnson and Johnson family fortune. Grounds for Sculpture features six major works by Witkin in their permanent collection, including Garden State, made of 75 tons of hand carved Zimbabwe granite, which is now the centerpiece of the park.
Isaac Witkin's work has been exhibited by Elkon, Marlborough, Hirschl & Adler & Locks Galleries, and can be also be found in the Tate Gallery, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Laumeier Park, the Nasher Sculpture Center, as well as with many other public and private collections worldwide. His innovative site-specific sculpture Kumo at Storm King Art Center was commissioned by the park's co-founder, Ralph (Ted) E. Ogden, who purchased four other Witkins. In 2000, an Isaac Witkin from the Denver Art Museum was selected for an exhibition at the Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Sculpture Garden at the White House, and his work has since been featured in several international group shows, including "The New Generation Revisited: a Tribute to Bryan Robertson" at the New Art Centre in London. In 2007, Rider University in New Jersey inaugurated an "Isaac Witkin Sculpture Park" with the installation of six large steel works on their campuses.
A kind and heroic man with a burly physique and a gentle, generous soul, Isaac Witkin is the quintessential sculptor's sculptor: a highly influential and revered artist and teacher, despite his personal modesty. Indeed, he spent the eve of his death driving alone for seven hours to rural Pennsylvania in torrential rainstorms to show support for a fellow sculptor by attending his exhibition opening at a local university. Witkin spent the very last day of his life with his daughter Nadine Witkin and friends, touring the many artworks at Grounds for Sculpture, which he helped to establish.