In the Studio: Max Ginsburg
Since the 1950s Max Ginsburg’s name has become synonymous with epic storytelling and evocative portrayals of the social issues of our time. The commissioned work of his mid-career — Ginsburg was a well-known illustrator from 1980 to 2004, creating editorial art and novel covers for such major publishers as Harlequin, Warner, Avon, and Bantam Books — and the direct realities of his recent paintings — such as War Pieta, Unemployed On Line, or Foreclosure — show two starkly different worlds: the images and ideas in the first belong to someone else, while those in the second are his own. For that reason, Ginsburg does not fully associate his artistic identity with his illustration work but rather with the paintings he has completed before and since, which truly reflect who he is as an artist and what he wishes to communicate.
The 84-year-old painter is one of several from his generation who have helped define the Social Realist genre. Although Ginsburg’s work is often called “political,” a more accurate description from Ginsburg’s point of view is that he is portraying social and human injustices that he simply cannot stay silent about, be they war crimes, disparities in wealth distribution, or discrimination. Ginsburg recently presented a paper on Social Realism at The Representational Art Conference, in Ventura, California, and several of the staff from the Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center and American Arts Quarterly magazine were greatly impressed with the information and images he shared. Managing Editor Sandra Sanderson asked if I would visit Ginsburg for the next In the Studios article to learn more about the life and thoughts that have produced the artist’s impressive 65-year career.
At the end of December I spent the day with Ginsburg in his Long Island City, Queens, studio. The artist grew up in Brighton Beach and Boro Park,
Brooklyn, and was 16 when he moved to Manhattan, where he attended the High School of Music & Art. He then received a scholarship to Syracuse University, where he earned his B.F.A. and went on to receive an M.A. from the City College of New York in 1963. Currently residing on the Upper West Side with his wife Miryam, Ginsburg was born in Paris in 1931 and came to the States with his parents when he was two. As he began talking about his upbringing and particularly the influence of his father — Abraham Ginsburg, a portrait painter born in the Ukraine who immigrated to America in 1912 and studied with Charles Hawthorne and Ivan Olinsky at the National Academy of Design — he pulled up the PowerPoint presentation he gave at TRAC and went through each slide, explaining the chronology and events of his life and career.
Because Ginsburg came of age in New York in the 1930s and 1940s, when Modernism was the prevailing movement of museums, schools, and galleries, it was nearly impossible for him to find traditional training. While the majority of artists who wished to work in this manner had to teach themselves, Ginsburg had the distinct advantage of learning from his realistically trained father. “It is tragic,” Ginsburg said, “that in America, where we cherish freedom of expression, the universities and colleges only promoted modern art and did not provide art students with realist-art training.” Ginsburg learned by watching his father, and experimented with various styles to find what suited him best. Throughout the 1960s — a time when the artist was not painting directly from life — Ginsburg’s work became looser and more fluid, as he briefly considered moving toward abstraction rather than fighting the opposition against naturalism and realism. Later he identified with and became inspired by Hopper and started painting street scenes and storefronts with a muted, limited palette. Even during Ginsburg’s search for stylistic direction, social and humanistic elements were always present in his subject matter. For example, his 1968 crowded subway painting Rush Hour, reminiscent of Daumier’s Third Class Carriage; or his 1969 Meier’s Upholsterers, depicting the insecurity of a shop owner, peering out from behind the “Open” sign in the Hopper-like storefront scene, hoping for business.
The next section of the slide show, the 1970s, showed the artist increasingly painting from life and finding a more realistic and natural style. During this decade Ginsburg also started settling into the type of subject matter — subway scenes, street life, and direct social commentary — that would feature prominently in his future work. The artist has always been sensitive to matters of injustice and inequality, and he explained how it is only natural that those issues would surface in his art. “I grew up during the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism,” he said. “I knew about the concentration camps, and I knew a lot of Jews were being killed. As a Jew growing up in Brooklyn, I remember kids coming after me to beat me up because ‘I killed Christ.’ When I was in the army in the early 1950s I saw that German prisoners of war received better treatment than black American GIs. I later started seeing the great division between rich and poor and how so many families and individuals end up destitute while others possess excessive wealth. I learned in school that America is a place where freedom of speech is encouraged and there is justice for all. At some point in my life I had to speak up about these observations that were weighing on my conscience, and I felt it was my moral and constitutional right to do so through art.”
I asked Ginsburg if painting these injustices is in any way cathartic for him or if it sometimes feels as though he is fighting a loosing battle. “It makes me feel that I’m being more truthful,” he admitted. “I’m painting something that is meaningful to me, that moves me deeply. I know it’s not always easy to confront these topics; most of us would rather not deal with them. People say to me, ‘Why can’t you just paint nice things? I can’t hang this stuff on my walls.’ I can paint nice things. Most of the illustrations I did were fantasy, escapism, and ‘nice things.’ But then I asked myself, In the history of culture and art, isn’t there a place for tragedy? Isn’t that a part of the reality of the world? Was Christ’s crucifixion not a tragedy and an injustice? That is one of the most painted topics in the canon of art history. Not that there’s anything wrong with painting nice things or comedy — I paint that too. When I see injustice or inhumanity, I express my outrage. But when I see positive human experiences I celebrate and express joy. But it is important to remember that throughout history, art also reflected the conscience of humanity.”
I also asked Ginsburg about the art of suggestion versus spelling out a message in detail. I wondered if his experience in illustration played a part in his graphic narrative instinct. “I think many good works of art leave something to the imagination, yes,” he said, “but I don’t think making art that is vague, esoteric, or incommunicative should be the goal. I believe art in a free society can be straightforward and direct — why hide behind a metaphor or the safety of an obscure message? Some of the greatest art in history was very specific and confronted difficult and unpleasant matters head-on. I learned in illustration that you have to communicate: art is the vehicle for the message. It’s not like the modern mindset where the less you communicate the better you are as an artist.”
As we discussed the large-scale paintings in Ginsburg’s studio that resulted from these convictions, the artist talked about his preparatory process for creating them. In some instances, especially in the work done shortly after his illustration career, he would set up a photo shoot similar to what he was accustomed to for creating book covers. This involved gathering models, costumes, and props to create the scene he envisioned and hiring a photographer to shoot the photo reference from which he would paint. More recently — since about 2008 — Ginsburg’s process begins with creating compositional graphite sketches and character-study paintings in oil from life. For these pieces, he is not as focused on the message of the final painting but rather on the elements of art and design. These studies are looser, more fluid, and all about painting what he sees. While describing this part of his process, Ginsburg walked to the back of his studio and took out several crates of studies. Seeing sketches, studies, and quick demos that rarely get shown is one of my favorite aspects of visiting with artists in their studios. These drawings and paintings often say so much about the artist’s thought process — they have a freshness and spontaneity that finished paintings can sometimes lack, and they are often a great educational tool in understanding what information the artist chose to include and omit in order to quickly and accurately convey form.
In Ginsburg’s case the studies he shared had all of these qualities and more. It was interesting to hold the studies up to the finished works and see how they affected the composition. Some of the studies he shared included individual and group character sketches for such paintings as Unemployed Online and Bus Stop. “I like the process of painting from life,” he said. “It brings the reality and uniqueness of the individual into the picture. A lot of times the person posing offers an energy through their movements or expressions that inspire new ideas or help clarify a direction.” The artist also shared crates full of portrait studies and demos completed throughout his career either in his studio or while teaching at the Arts Students League of New York and other institutions. One of those portraits was of a man named Pat, whom he met during the “Occupy Wall Street” protests. He explained how he and Pat shared a lot of similar views on social and economic inequalities, and that he found him an interesting subject for a portrait. The painting, titled Pat Shirtless, won the William Draper Grand Prize in the 2015 Portrait Society of America’s International Portrait Competition.
As Ginsburg talked about the individuals in his paintings, I learned that although he sometimes has to rely on professional models, the majority of those who pose are family members, friends, or students. For instance, in the 1977 Union Meeting — which is a post-humous painting honoring the Hospital Workers Union organizer and family friend of Ginsburg, Elliot Godoff — Ginsburg had students, friends of friends, and workers from his apartment building pose as the various union members. In the 2007 War Pieta, the mother holding her son on the battlefield is Ginsburg’s daughter, Liana, whom Ginsburg felt possessed the quintessential qualities of a “Madonna in mourning.” In the painting Foreclosure, the father is played by a former student of Ginsburg. In this painting the artist wanted to convey the colossal feeling of loss felt by the family, and focused the attention specifically on the patriarch’s sense of responsibility. “When you lose your job or business as a man, it is devastating and emasculating,” he explained. “What does this scene depicting the rescinding of a family’s home, which is a reality for so many in this country, mean? It means we’ve made money more important than people’s lives.”
Another section of the slide show focused on Ginsburg’s professional illustration work from 1980 through 2004, when he decided to return to fine art and once again paint the kind of pictures he is known for today. “I was making a lot of money and getting tremendous professional recognition when I was an illustrator,” he shared. “The work just kept pouring in — I was averaging four wraparound book covers a month. I knew a lot of what I was doing was vacuous and superficial, but it was hard to walk away from a good income. Finally I reached a point where I couldn’t keep creating art that didn’t reflect my real feelings about the world I live in. I believe, as John Keats said, that truth is beauty and beauty is truth. I realized that altering and glorifying for the sake of selling a product is neither truth nor beauty. In 2000, I resolved to leave illustration and devote myself to my fine art, and I finally did so in 2004.”
While Ginsburg went to the back of the studio to search for a specific illustration, I looked over several of his book covers sitting on the table and was surprised to discover that the cover for the novel A Separate Peace — which I remember vividly from high-school English class — was painted by Ginsburg. I then started leafing through the many Harlequin romance-novel book covers, and as I did I glanced up at War Pieta on the wall. The images and messages were so vastly different, it was difficult to believe they came out of the same studio. I realized, however, that although the sentiments conveyed are worlds apart, the skillful and serious way in which the artist approached his job as a storyteller throughout the years, whether as an illustrator or a fine artist, remained the same. In the first, Ginsburg created a pretty fantasy world to give readers an escape from the harsh realities of life. Today he paints the harsh realities of life and asks viewers to not look away — even if it’s not always pretty.