DAN: My name is Dan Byers and I'm the Robinson Family Director of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University.
TAMAR: And how do you know me?
[laughs] From high school.
We are looking at a painting of a man who's staring into the middle distance. His face is somewhat obscured by shadow. And more so than his face. The first thing that I notice are his hands, which are well lit, and there's incredible light that falls on his fingers and articulates the way in which the hands are held. One hand is resting on a hip and you get a sense of weight and pressure where the hand meets the hip. And one hand is dangling in front of his torso holding a cigarette. The man is wearing a tuxedo and it's painted in a really sort of stark and generalized way, so you’re really made aware of the two colors of black and white and then just some gray as shadow, to give it dimension. It's a very simple image because they're just black and white and gray and brown with some flesh tones in the face, but there's no background, really, besides a sort of generalized white that's very brushy. And then wainscoting or a door frame that's defined by brown paint. And the arm that is resting on the hip disappears into a shadow on the right side of the canvas and that shadow is almost an identical black as the shadow in the tuxedo. So the body sort of disappears for an instant and then comes back where the hand meets the hip. The man sort of looks past you. Not at you. And at least the way the painting is hung, the height of it, the hands are much closer to where an average person's gaze might be. Probably about four feet off the ground. And the head floats above where most viewers’ heads would be. So he really is looking above or past you.
So why was this your favorite painting? What drew you to it?
I think…my father was the one who introduced me to Max Beckmann, and he worked at Harvard Law School. And so he – he’d gone to Harvard as an undergrad and he'd spent a lot of time… My dad is a psychologist, but he spent a lot of time in the Fogg [Museum of Art] when he was a student here. And knew the collection very well and obviously he knew that I was interested in art, and so we would come here together often and…I would say by the time I was, I don't know 14 or 15, we were looking at the Beckmann paintings in this collection and there is a kind of startling self-confidence to this piece. It's so decisive and it's…it's almost showing off in some of the ways it's painted, especially the hands, which, to me, the way personality and body is defined by so few brushstrokes. The cigarette which, from a distance you see immediately, and you get up close and it's this feeble…almost looks like smoke itself. Just…as a young art student I was so impressed by how it was painted and also at a time, you know, as a teenager, I think everyone is pretty awkward and self-confidence is not exactly something that is in great abundance and decisiveness was not something that defined my adolescence. And so the sense of inevitability, of stability, and also just elegance, a kind of cool, I guess, totally permeates this piece.
And, I think what I saw later works by Beckmann that were so torturous and so complex in their, kind of formal structure, and the bodies sort of wrenched, and these, you know, theatrical kind of lighting…there's a calmness to this piece in relationship to those and it just…it was really centering. And, you know, the sort of proverbial still point in a turning world, and I'm not sure even at the time that I would have said it was my favorite painting but I can tell as time has gone on and it's remained constant, there’s a way in which it reminds me of who I was then, what I liked then, and also the formation of my own taste. And it's so interesting when you think about the images, the artists, the music, that were the first things that really excited you that you felt some sense of recognition in, and how your relationship to those things changes over time.
I'm so interested in – not just artworks but the quality of our relationship to the artwork. Like there's a narrative and a content and a history in those relationships. Like any relationship. And how do you…how do you talk about that, how do you write about that, how do you kind of articulate that? For me, now working next door at the Carpenter Center and coming to this museum for lunch, you know, three or four times a week and walking, you know, through the courtyard, you catch the… the curators have placed this in such a way that you catch a glimpse of it.
…from public spaces and you see him down the hallway. And so, to check in with him three times a week or four times a week, I'm reminded of you know who I was, where I've gone. He's still here. Still confident. Still cool. Still totally…kind of like erect and present…
Still in the sharp tux.
Still in the sharp tux, hasn't changed. And I think I…yeah, I don't even remember his face when I think about the painting and even standing in front of it – I mean it's well done and it's fine and there's so many Max Beckmann self-portraits that you recognize him if you've seen his self-portraits before, but…I just look at the hands. I mean for me it's just all about the hands. I mean, they're so solid and the light on them feels so alive and this painting is, what, 1927? It just makes you think about that light, you know, almost a hundred years ago. And even smoking now feels sort of…from a different time. The casualness especially with which he's holding that cigarette because when this was painted people would've been smoking in the galleries and they would have stood in front of this holding their cigarette.
Yeah, like when smoking was cool.
When it was like a high-class, tuxedoed activity.
Totally. And you think about, like, the cigarette is this ultimate register of time. It's this thing it has a finite length built into it in the way in which it burns down, and the way he's standing here you imagine that cigarette is just slowly burning without him even, you know, smoking it. And that, you know, after a hundred years it should be gone. But it's still there and its sort of half-smoked capacity and so as a kind of marker of time in an otherwise, like, very timeless image. I mean, even though we can look at the collar and look at certain things and imagine it's the early 20th century, it could be the 1960s could probably even be, like, the 1840s, like you know, it's a pretty timeless image except for then, that cigarette, for some reason is the one thing that feels like there should be some expiration or something that happens with it. So I don't know. I think all those reasons. When I was a teenager thinking about what paintings could do just was…it just stuck with me.
So…you did a lot of self-portraits in high school.
Right? And – and sometimes they had a little bit of the kind of Beckmann-esque, um…
They were pretty derivative, yeah.
…thick lines… well, I mean everything is in high school.
But…what about his self-portraiture informed yours?
I mean, I think some of it was just like the variety of it and the, you know…there's self-portraits with him sort of like turning towards the viewer, towards the mirror, there are these very frontal ones. There are self-portraits that register the different times in his life when he was a young man, like I think there's one done when he was an ambulance driver in the First World War, and then there's the later ones where he's more world-weary, and there's one where he's wearing a kind of colorful suit like a blue jacket and a red shirt or something like that, and I think about that in relationship to this, where it's just like he's gone through…I mean, life in some way.
And so I think that variety was something that was appealing. Also I never could resolve the relationship between painting and drawing. And classically, like, drawing is supposed to be about the line and paint is supposed to be about color and its application or fields of color that are built up, and you're really not supposed to define things with lines – that was something that I remember being taught. And Beckmann, along with a number of other German Expressionists really refuted that and there is a sort of forcefulness in which things were separated and defined and that was just really natural for me in the way that I enjoyed drawing. And so I think those heavy lines – it’s like a shortcut to expression in a lot of ways. Like the anger of a line or its thickness or its energy or, like, dark lines around eyes, around mouths, or on hands like it's basically exclamation points in grammar, you know, there's no semicolons, there's not ellipses, like –
Well, you can, like, feel the fist –
– like, pushing the thick crayon.
And I'm sure that has a relationship to, like, comic books which is also something that I read a lot of in middle school and high school and that sort of decisive, like, illustration. I mean, it has – line is a very dominant thing in classic illustration and so I'm sure…because there's a kind of economy of storytelling that you can do with that…yeah. I did make a lot of self-portraits [laughs].
I used to make a self-portrait every year as a way to, like, mark time and because I don't really make art anymore it was like a way to just warm up the hand and remember like the sort of hand-eye coordination, which feels so good. It's been probably two or three years since I've done it…
Oh, keep doing it!
I know, I really need to. Usually sometime around New Year's too, so just like dark and brooding. You know it's a winter self-portrait so…
Very Beckmann-esque. Very high school-esque [laughs]. I mean you really learn to look when you do that.
And…yeah. You can only get better. But.
So…I guess one last question. I mean, why are we drawn to – usually self-portraits do have that kind of brooding, navel gazing, you know, kind of like, “I think I'm so interesting…”even though, you know, I have deep insecurities and this is how, you know – this introverted artist…
This mask, yes.
…who's only showing you, kind of, what…you know there is a kind of…invitation into one's, kind of, vulnerability…
…that you'll see in a lot of self-portraiture.
And yet…this is somebody who, it's like, we're wasting his time.
Why are we so drawn to this portrait? Because people love this portrait.
Yeah, I'm not the only one, that's for sure.
Yeah. And you know this is one of the jewels in the collection of the Busch-Reisinger [collection]. And it's like…why are we drawn to a self-portrait that doesn't need us?
I mean I think there's so many ways to answer that question and the first thing that comes to mind is our relationship to celebrity. I mean, any of the people that we worship or whose images we worship who are movie stars or whatever they're not looking at me or looking at you and it's only recently I feel like that there's even been an attempt to pretend to be “of the people” through social media or something. But, that distance…I mean by him not looking at us we're allowed to look at him and examine him. I mean he's…I don't know, I feel like when you walk down the street, and you meet someone's eyes, like…one of you decides to look away, which is an invitation to be looked at. Or can be perceived that way. You know, if you don't want me to look at you then like the eye contact remains, and then I look away because I've violated something. But there's a sort of deferral that can happen where it's like…an invitation to look, in a way. I think his perceived apathy to the world, to us, creates a situation where we can project onto him. And I mean, the face is almost like a mask. Almost cartoonishly symmetrical and generalized. I mean, the sort of veins and skin quality that you find in the hands and the fingernails that are – almost feel translucent even though they're very generalized brushstrokes. You get none of that kind of…a little bit of flesh in the most light-colored part. But otherwise he’s to be looked at.
And I think in that way it's a very generous gesture. I think the sort of cerebral cool that he is projecting into the world, which is a disregard, creates an entry for us to feel comfortable examining him and the conditions that would create that that distance. I mean I think about like…I don't know, just thinking about other things in this gallery where the subject might meet your gaze, and it's just a very different kind of penetration or…like this is not a mirror whereas I feel like with some self-portraits you're very aware that the artist is looking in a mirror and then you're the mirror, and so there's supposed to be some sort of relationship whether it's empathy or distance that's created. But I don't know.
He's not Egon Schiele.
No. Exactly. There's none of that kind of…totally. I mean, there's none of that vulnerability.
Yeah, I mean it's funny, it's like a very basic idea about a painting, that it's a thing to be looked at, you know, and that's like the basic premise of a painting. It's like putting something in the world that is for us to see and I think he does that.
So that actually, I mean, your …the way that you come to this is so…the idea that you look at this self-portrait and you see kind of a younger Dan where you’ve outgrown that kind of self-portraiture and that kind of adolescent introspection that we all have, especially as artists…
And yet…this kind of self-portraiture…like, you have to wonder, if Schiele had lived past the age of 28, is this what his self-portraiture would have turned into?
When he, like, didn’t need us anymore.
And he didn’t need our own validation. There is something very mature about this kind of a self-portrait that isn’t asking as much from the viewer to kind of validate him, like, he doesn’t care about us.
Cool can be seen as aloof or too important for people or in some ways sort of an ungenerous gesture. But I'm interested in the ways that that is a performance you know and it's a construction, so it's ultimately something much closer to the kind of like moments when all of us create a sort of superficial, crystalline image of ourselves for other people rather than letting people in. And I think there's like an assumption of a kind of artificiality in this. I don't think he's trying to convince us that he always walks around in this way and always feels this confident. I mean, it's a performance. And it's, like, distilled. It's like a high-test, high proof version of self.
But I think he's earned it.
You know by the time he gets to this age there's a kind of…like I almost feel like he…this is his response to the kind of self-portraiture that is saying, you know, you don't have to beg for it.
You can actually just be who you are and that there’s – again, not somebody who necessarily waltzes around in tuxedos all the time. But there is something very innovative about the way that this painting pushes self-portraiture into something more mature.
I think you're totally right. I mean it's very hard won. I mean it's the kind of like…as much as it's a performance, it has a kind of ease that you can't do unless you've done a hundred of these before, you know? And it's the confidence that comes with age. And, you know, it's the whole, like, fake it ‘till you make it thing. I think he's made it and no longer faking it, you know…yeah, there's a certain confidence in painting, too, that something so simple could have such power. I mean, there’s no pyrotechnics here. There's none of the theatricality that you see in the triptychs or other setups where shadow is really dramatic. It's just like…very plain spoken. You know?
So do you think you might have a different relationship with this painting now?
Yeah. I mean you're not…you know, I mean this is…now he's kind of meeting you where you are now.
Right. Like the confidence isn't something to…well, I mean I'm still we're all still needing of self-confidence, but…
What would you say to your 16-year-old counterpart standing in front of this painting right now?
I mean it's funny, I don't think I can – I mean I can intellectually tell you that the difference is around questions of self-confidence and insecurity and image projection and these things…which I feel much more comfortable in my own skin now and I know my weaknesses and my strengths and I'm more an adult than I was and I can identify with that kind of…it's like a very adult painting when I probably didn't realize that at the time but because I've, like, grown up with this work – I mean, there was a long gap that I didn't live in the Boston area and didn't see it all the time, although I probably visited it, like, once a year when I'd come home for some holiday. So…I actually don't have the kind of distance from it that I do from, like, certain music that I just don't listen to anymore because I just know it doesn't do the thing for me anymore.
This still does something for me and so is a kind of constancy in it which I think says something about the way it's painted as well as my own relationship to it. I mean it's like a…it's definitely it's like a standard. It's like a jazz standard or like a Cole Porter song or something that has just, like, really good structure to it and its affect is so…particular that it gives you more of a mood than a story. I mean you could create a story about this person but I think the overall thing is not necessarily narrative and more effective and emotional and tonal. Like it creates a feeling of self or of a room or of a body more than any story about who this person is or where he's coming from or where he's going. Because it does feel so…like, I actually don't care where he's come from here. There is no, like, before or after somehow. He's, like, just frozen here. So.
Like his cigarette.
Like the cigarette, exactly. Exactly. And there's something really exciting about that. That's actually like a very liberating idea. It's a very…it's like living in the present which I think most of us have trouble doing or can be a hard thing to do. And this is frozen in that kind of suspended animation – which I never really thought about it that way until now, but I think it definitely does that.
…Thoughtprints! The best cultural institution I've ever been a part of. To this day! [laughs]
[laughs] Newton’s premiere art/lit mag.
Well, the north side, anyway.
Where it all started. Yeah. I wrote to the faculty director or something. I forget what I said but…I never heard back [laughs]. They're like, move on. It’s what happens when you peak in high school.