Max Ginsburg

Social Commentator of His Time

by Sarah Sutro

Bus Stop, 2010, Courtesy of the artist

In tracing the roots of his current paintings, Max Ginsburg starts with his father, Abraham, a successful portrait painter, a student of Charles Hawthorne and classmate of Raphael Soyer. His father painted portraits for the movie industry from 1925–1929 in New York City, later focusing more on his own painting and on “ghost portraits” for the wealthy. He told Max: “Paint what you see, not what you know.”1 Max worked alongside his father as he painted alla prima, receiving help and criticism, although not direct instruction. Max’s mother, Rachel Pupco Ginsburg, tried to organize a trade union in the hospital where she worked with a fellow pharmacist. They held union meetings at their home at the beginning of Word War II. Max observed this activity, which was a “strong motivating factor”2 for his subject matter. During the Depression, his family lived with his grandparents in Brooklyn, where he played in the streets and experienced the multiracial makeup of the city. Later they moved to the Upper West Side to a modern apartment from which he attended the High School of Music and Art. He went on to study art at Syracuse University, where he was involved in the civil rights and peace movements,3 observing that black veterans returning from the war were not even given the same rights extended to German prisoners. After attending City College, he taught variously over forty-two years at the School of Visual Arts, the Art Students League and the High School of Art and Design.

Ginsburg continues a tradition started by Gustave Courbet in the mid-nineteenth century. In The Funeral at Ornans (1850–51), Courbet’s characters are portrayed with real faces, not romanticized or generalized to fit a classic ideal.4 Ginsburg, at 81, like Courbet eschewing academic rules, paints vibrantly from life and from photographs he takes himself on the street and in his studio. Engaging his conscience and the viewer’s in his own version of Social Realism, he paints ordinary people, using friends, family members, students and people on the street as models.

For a long period of his working life, Ginsburg was one of America’s leading illustrators, designing precise, occasionally steamy, paintings and book covers, using studio set-ups to create dramatic scenes. Illustration dampened his own painting practice for a time, but the increased salary made it easier to support his young family on the Upper West Side. During that period, he created the paperback cover of John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, classic reading for a whole generation of high schools students. Returning to full-time painting in 2004, with sporadic teaching, he continued his own painting technique, blocking in color in large chunks and drawing with paint. His current subject matter encompasses racial issues, naturalistic street scenes, class commentary, war resistance and homelessness, offering a testimony to the joy of living, and revealing the blunt, gritty edge of urban poverty and discrimination. All are illuminated by his empathy.

In Death of the Liberal Class, Chris Hedges, in a critique of the current art world, disparages the needs of the “power elite,” suggesting instead that, in realism, “art gives people a language by which they can understand themselves and society.”5 Ginsburg’s work reflects this. Bus Stop (2010) captures a random collection of city residents waiting in line. A woman finishes her coffee before going to work, a man holds onto his child, a woman in a sunhat with a cane and a backpack checks her ticket, a casual man in a t-shirt smokes a cigarette with a newspaper under his arm, and a man with a crutch, possibly a veteran, begs for money with a cardboard cup. The people in Ginsburg’s world are not so much connected to each other, as they are united by common experience. Like Pieter Breugel’s beggars in The Parable of the Blind (1568), the man with the cup stumbles into an indeterminate space looking for help. Breugel’s fifteenth century, with its political and religious conflict, spawned allegories and satires in paint that resemble Ginsberg’s subjects and offer commentary on social justice.

As in Breugel’s complex scenarios, Ginsburg orchestrates the action in an almost cinematic way, creating a frieze of activity within the stage space of his paintings. His colors are bright and alive: reds and yellows glowing withinthe greys and browns of an urban street landscape, with blues underpinning the composition. In Crossroads (2008), he catches random walkers emerging out of a subway staircase and along the street, a trajectory of urban life. A poster in the background collages Dalí’s quizzical, surreal face watching this “dance of the everyday” on the sidewalk. Other fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Netherlandish painters come to mind, looking at Ginsburg’s work, like Hieronymous Bosch and Hugo van der Goes, who cram their pictorial space with active figures or faces. Roger van der Weyden’s Deposition (1438) might be seen as one of Ginsburg’s likely painterly forebears, with its interlocking figures and high-keyed drama within a compressed space. Ginsburg credits later Dutch and Flemish seventeenth-century painters such as Rembrandt and Hals as influences, as well as more obscure European painters such as Joachim Sorolla, whose work he saw at the Hispanic Society in Harlem, Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret and Ilya Repin. His paintings quietly exhibit human nature’s foibles, in a choreography of the city. For anyone who loves New York, paintings such as Bus Stop epitomize the way we live now and reiterate the painter’s intent, “to paint about the people of New York, realistically and with compassion.”6

Unemployed on Line, 2013, Courtesy of the artist

Ginsburg complains that “realism has been on a back burner” for a long time, and traces his own art education through classes and institutions where “bad drawing was called creative.” In the 1950s, art programs lacked structure, seemed “watered down,” in an era when abstractionists revolutionized what it meant to make a work of art. He and other realist-inclined painters had to work out their own methods. At one point at the School of Visual Arts, he offered to create a class in drawing and painting realism over a three-year period and was turned down—“at which point he walked out.” For a number of years, a small group of serious students got together to work before school, under Ginsburg’s tutelage, without credit. A number of these students have gone on to have solid careers. Artists who are now successful realist painters, such as Steven Assael, Warren Chang and Gabriela Gonzalez Delosso, join him in a current show touring China, “Contemporary American Realism,” running from September, 2012–October, 2013, in Dalian, Tianjin, Wuhan, Hangzhou and Shanghai.

Ginsburg’s recent horizontal painting Unemployed on Line (2013) uses the Dutch seventeenth-century repoussoir figure convention to frame the urban line of figures. The dark, ominous figure of a policeman, wearing a helmet and seen from behind, forms a foreground presence on the left side of the painting. In Dutch paintings, repoussoir figures were placed deliberately to create a foreground in the picture, frame the view into a confined space and direct the eye to the center of the painting. In Unemployed on Line, the paratrooper-like figure menaces. He holds a police dog’s lead in a tight fist as the dog strains forward. This varied crowd—listening through earphones, talking, musing, waiting, using cell phones—creates a lively thread of motion through gesture. Every character has a story. Confined by the wooden barrier reading “Police Line,” standing in front of a major corporate office, their liberty as ordinary people seems threatened, held hostage to a situation that might be referring to the 2008 banking fiasco and subsequent economic collapse. The beauty of the surface of the painting and its lush, buttery texture contrast with its unsettling meaning.

Ginsburg’s fierce, political realism ramps up in recent paintings such as the painful War Pietà (2007) and Torture Abu Ghraib (2009). His sometimes tempered political consciousness becomes full-blown, in direct commentary on the Iraq War and the use of torture on political prisoners. In both paintings, he makes reference to a well-known image, whether pietà or crucifixion, using the archetypal memory to create a deep sense of pain and loss. His horror of violence and torture resonates. In War Pietà, a mother cradles the dead body of her son, lying on an American flag, with burning oil fields in the background. In Torture Abu Ghraib, a crucified, hooded naked prisoner is derided and tortured while American soldiers mockingly look on. In a similar bid to truth, in the 2009–10 show of Fernando Botero’s work at the Berkeley Art Museum, Botero also delivered shocking, caustic realistic images that “make visible what was invisible.”7 Other paintings by Ginsburg, such as Protest March (2003), The Discussion (2007), Peace March (2007), Boricuas (1969), Flag Vendor (1968), Coffee Break (2007) and The Prisoners (1969), take up contemporary issues and events, such as the Gulf War, especially its black veterans, Puerto Rican independence, free speech and the World Economic Forum’s policies. The troubling existence of these paintings next to the calm assurance and painterly realism of Ginsburg’s early work speaks to the challenge of voicing concern as an artist, to reconciling academic and realist-political art. Some of these paintings evoke Kathe Kollwitz’s stark, emotive anti-war paintings and prints, Goya’s Disasters of War, Daumier’s sarcastic political cartoons and illustrations, and Picasso’s Guernica.

Ginsburg has always painted from life, drawing small sketches in the subway and on the street. He uses the compositions of his sketches for his paintings, but like the old masters, choreographs models in his studio. He poses them individually and photographs them. His paintings retain an oily quality.Brushmarks slide across the surface, in some works, offering an impressionistic, flickering quality of light and shadow. The nude studies are made with loose washes defining areas of tone and indeterminate spaces, traditional in their genre of realistic portrait and studio model painting. He bridges two worlds, genre studio painting and his more recent Social Realist work, and seems acutely confident with this choice. Maybe the fact that he was never the student of a prominent traditional painter has given him the liberty to unify these ways of painting.

Ginsburg confesses he “did still life when the model didn’t show up.” Chardin is clearly an influence, as well as Vermeer. His wooden palette could come out of the eighteenth century, with its small half circle of oil colors, seen beneath his studio’s north-facing skylight, in a traditional set-up from warm and light to cool and dark. He generalizes the form with thicker paint first, on canvas and board, preferring titanium white for its softness, while looking for the light bright spot on a person or in a scene. But his urge is to “make it contemporary.” In Studio Still Life (1976), he uses traditional compositional techniques: objects are placed diagonally to lead the eye into the composition, a curve of drapery unifies the objects with a circular brass tray behind the set-up, and everything draws the eye to center. A Vermeer print in the background suggests an affinity to old master technique and subject, yet he includes everyday items—a newspaper, folded twice, left haphazardly on a chair, a white and pink egg carton seen from an angle and a Domino sugar box near center. He paints these with loving detail and also a hint of amusement, seeing them as ephemeral, culturally and commercially based, part of his search for the truth of his circumstances.

The rich darks, bright highlights and deep shadows in his work are reminiscent of Caravaggio’s dramatic tableaux. Ginsburg’s compositions more often show the humbler side of life, in contrast to Caravaggio’s racy, badboy arrogance. Among American painters, he admires Edward Hopper and Winslow Homer, but he dislikes the stylization and distortion used by some painters working in America—Thomas Hart Benton, Diego Rivera, George Tooker. His subject matter resembles that of the Ashcan school, WPA photographers and painters, and the early George Bellows. Politically, he feels connected to Ben Shahn. His real gift seems to be in honoring ordinary people. In Going Shopping (1976), Ginsburg's parents modeled, walking on a city street with their bags and their folded-up shopping cart. In dark shapeless coats, perhaps a bit out of sync with their time, they take their place beside people who in older age find themselves marginalized, even forgotten.

Blind Beggar, 2006, Courtesy of the artist

Ginsburg has always been interested in sharing this realism with common people, as well as those who attend galleries. He had shows at the Local 1199 Hospital Worker’s Union in 1972, 1977 and 2008. Union Meeting (1976), purchased by the Union members themselves in 1977, still hangs by the elevator in their building. Recent paintings reflect middle Americans’ hardest problems. The recent Foreclosure (2011) again exhibits the chaos and near hysteria of a Bosch or Bruegel. The painting is densely packed, the figures in dynamic postures of emotional distress, a composition without rest. A family reacts and recoils, surrounded by their worldly goods, being put out in the street. The intensity of the composition reflects the artist’s feelings about contemporary society, where the middle and working classes are being pinched out of existence. Exhibiting a quieter, more reflective mood, Snapple (2006) depicts a man sitting on a wooden box next to his cart selling pretzels and drinks. It is summer, he has two umbrellas over the cart. It must be a time of day when no one is eating—maybe mid-morning or mid-afternoon. The man gazes out down the street, lost in thought or just resting.

Ordinary people also attend his shows. Ginsburg notes that, in his 2011 retrospective at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, and the Salamagundi Club, New York City, people off the street filled the gallery to see his work. His work has also been shown in recent solo exhibitions at the Gallery of Peace Museum in Dayton, Ohio (2009), the Martin Luther King Labor Center in New York City (Local 1199, 2008), Gallery Henoch in New York City and Cavalier Galleries in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Not to be forgotten are his images of women, his studies of old age and his celebrations of children. Most of these paintings are about an ongoing caring process, all ages together helping each other: a nanny helps children drink from a fountain in a park in Nannies and Kids (2003), and the random gestures of exuberant children contrast with the nanny’s careful grace; in In the Park (2005), two young women watch a young child, a baby and an older disabled woman, dozing in her wheelchair. The triangular compositions enforce the bonding between these figures, bringing together all the stages of life. A young woman rests her sandaled foot on the wheelchair; the older woman tilts toward the others in conversation; the young boy with his baseball cap pointed up eats a snack out of a paper bag. In Tire Swing (2003), three young girls clutch the chain of a tire swing in a fenced-in playground. Their glee and their swinging, moving up and out to the right of the canvas, is reflected in repetitive compositional circles. Despite the gritty wire, the streets and benches that define the background, there is sheer joy in this upward moment and in being young, a modern version of the Three Graces attesting to the existence of beauty in this world. In Pond Steps (2007), a boy standing in the shallow end of a pond in a park leans toward his sailboat. The water, a deep blue, surrounds him with ripples—no wire fence here. He is alone with his focus and his passion—a young Ulysses.

Chris Hedges describes the philosophy underlying Ginsburg’s work this way: “As our society begins to feel the disastrous ripple effects from the looting of our financial system…. and the accelerated impoverishment of the working and middle classes, hope will come only through direct contact with the destitute…. The ethic born out of this contact will be grounded in the real and the possible. This ethic, because it forces us to witness suffering and pain, will be uncompromising in its commitment to the sanctity of life.”8 In Blind Beggar (2006), a man stands in sunglasses by a plate glass-windowed wall. In his hand, he holds a cigarette and a cup. His walking sticks are crossed in front of him. The scale of his figure within the canvas projects gravity and a monumental quality. Ginsburg says that ordinary people came to be the subject of his work as a result of the experience of his life.9

Snapple, 2006, Courtesy of the artistIf Ginsburg’s work is successful and has done what it was meant to do, his viewers will take notice of his passionate humanism, and will care what happens to the forgotten part of our society. In turning away from narrative illustration and traditional painting, influenced by his childhood in the Depression and continuing into the present with the difficult political realities of the last decades, Ginsburg has created an important social commentary for our time. Unwilling to look away from the harsher conditions of life, especially in the city, working in his north-lit studio or walking the streets with his sketchpad, he still lists these issues as paramount: “…war and peace, justice and racism, the ordinary human conditions I see every day on the streets of New York.”10


1. Interview with author on February 28, 2012, in Long Island City. Unless otherwise noted, Ginsburg’s remarks are taken from this interview.

2. “Max Ginsburg: A Realist Takes Stock,” Fine Art Connoisseur (July/August 2011), online, no pagination.

3. “Max Ginsburg, a Personal History,” Max Ginsburg Retrospective (China: Wellspring Comunications, 2011), p. 17.

4. Sandra Pinto, Courbet (New York: Gross & Dunlop, 1972), p. 12.

5. Chris Hedges, Death of the Liberal Class (New York: Nation Books, 2010), p. 113.

6. Artist’s statement sent to the author, March, 2013.

7. Quoted in Lucinda Barnes, “Fernando Botero: The Abu Graib Series.” Accessed April 3, 2013.

8. Chris Hedges, Death of the Liberal Class (New York: Nation Books, 2010), p. 158.

9. “Max Ginsburg, a Personal History,” op. cit.

10. Artist’s statement sent to the author, op. cit.


American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2013, Volume 30, Number 3.