Joel Peter Witkin: 8 February, 2020


Witkin’s grotesque work appears to be that of a provocateur, one who seeks to shock provoke disgust from viewers. His images often feature human and animal body parts, humans with unusual morphology such as hermaphodism, and backdrops which are not dissimilar to ones pictured in Bosch’s Hell.

Witkin, J.(1987) Las Meninas. From 12 Photographs.
Bosch, H. (1482)The Last Judgement. Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.

While Witkin’s work has been described as “calculated madness”, Witkin employee classical elements into his work. Characters stand as if marble statues, such as in Bacchus Amelus (1986), while book piled at the figure’s feet are topped by a skull are reminiscent of momento mori. Abatemarco (2018) states that Witkin’s works “call to mind the Dutch vanitas paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries- compositions depicting objects that are symbolic of death and human transience.”  Witkin’s Las Meninas, however, appears to have similarities in composition and tonal variation to scenes from Bosch’s The Last Judgement. For example, the plane that supports the figures creates a sense of depth to the work, while the figures themselves are not fixed to perspective formed by the plane.  They appear to be flat pieces stuck to the canvas/ image. Witkin states that he sees beyond the surface of the objects in his work, and believes that, although the objects may be disfigured or dead, “my work shows the beauty of difference” (Abatemarco, 2018).

With a few exceptions, I don’t agree that Witkin is showing the beauty of difference.  Witkin’s choices of material and subject vary greatly from what might be identified as beautiful.  In Las Meninas, a skirted figure appears to be sitting on or in a hooped, dome-shaped device—the wheels are distributed on the round base in a way that suggests that the hooped seat is meant to pivot in circles, never going anywhere.  The skirted figure smiles enigmatically.  While beautifully lit and constructed, I do wonder, is this meant to shock me? 

Witkin’s use of severed body parts appears to be less about the beauty of the part itself, but more about that nearly anything can be arranged and lit in the manner of the Dutch or Italian masters and pull a viewer in, who, only after seeing the body parts, becomes repelled. Sontag (1977) states “Much of modern art is devoted to lowering the threshold of what is terrible. By getting us used to what, formerly, we could not bear to see or hear, because it was too shocking, painful, or embarrassing, art changes morals—that body of psychic custom and public sanctions that draws a vague boundary between what is emotionally and spontaneously intolerable and what is not.”

Witkin has a reputation for allowing his negatives to get scratched and damaged, which to me is akin to “aging” a wooden chest by sandpapering the sharp edges, and creating artful dings and damage by the application of carefully aimed hammer. In addition, his use of silver gelatin printing gives the images a look from a former century – which Glueck (2006) calls “19th-century horror”. I wonder if part of Witkin’s appeal is his images often appear to be aged– which can encourage the viewer to place more value in them, while also creating a feeling that, what ever these contain, they are not contemporary. If these images are from another time, they can provide the viewer with psychological distance from the subject, which makes the images easier to accept as they are not occurring in this world.

Despite the subject matter, his technique is interesting and beautifully constructed.  I am interested in applying the chiaroscuro, or cellar light to scenes incorporating contemporary objects, like toothbrushes and toilet paper, or fast food.  Witkin provides an inspiration for further exploration, as Glueck (2006) suggests “You don’t have to buy into Mr. Witkin’s Stygian visions to realize there’s a master of surrealistic photography at work.”

Abatemarco, M. (2018)  The beauty of difference: Photographer Joel-Peter Witkin. Pasatiempo. Santa Fe New Mexican. From- https://www.santafenewmexican.com/pasatiempo/art/the-beauty-of-difference-photographer-joel-peter-witkin/article_61829c74-e5de-51df-ad12-63b5d1ae46e9.html.
Bosch, H. (1482). The Last Judgement. Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.
Glueck, G. (2006). Art in Review: Joel-Peter Witkin. The New York Times. p 37.
Sontag, S. (1977). On Photography.
Witkin, J. (1987). Las Meninas. From 12 Photographs. From: https://www.museoreinasofia.es/en/collection/artwork/meninas-self-portrait-after-velazquez


Tavormina, Paulette 10 March, 2020

Tavormina, P.(2010). Peaches and Morning Glories, After G.G.

The byline of Paulette Tavormina’s commercial website states: “This beauty all around us is fleeting, and yet can be embedded forever in a perfect moment that is the photograph”. Tavormina indicates that her work is a “personal interpretation of timeless, universal stories” in “response to the Old Masters” (2020) which she hopes that will affect others like the 17th century painters affected Tavorima.  Critics have raved about Tavormina’s work, such as this from The New York Times (2016): “At first glance, you might easily mistake one of Tavormina’s images for a Zurbarán or a work from the Dutch Golden Age of painting”

Paulette Tavormina’s still life photographic images have been described as “beautifully collected and displayed …[and] have the ability swallow you whole. They embrace the viewer in a dark, lush sense of nostalgia that is dually intimate and larger than life”(Glembocki, 2016). Tavormina’s 2015 book, Seizing Beauty, features her nature morte images inspired by 17th century European masters.  Her use of cellar light and dark backgrounds illuminate the artfully styled fruit, vegetables, flowers, insects and sea creatures. Her work mimics and can be mistaken for an oil painting. Tavormina’s images are sensuous, visually pleasing, detailed and – almost perfect. So, what’s not to love about Tavormina’s Seizing Beauty?

After creating images depicting America’s nuclear testing program in the 1950s during last term, I had a desire to focus on lighter and more relatable subject matter.  I just wanted to create pretty pictures.  I studied art history for two years in college and, like many people, was enamored with the high-angled side-lighting, deep shadows and chiaroscuro pervasive among the master painters in Europe during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Dutch painters appealed to me, especially the memento mori and vanitas styles. However, I wanted to convey that life exists right now, in this moment, which is a slight shift from the “remember you will die” refrain featured in the Dutch paintings. As I began my visual experiments, a friend recommended Paulette Tavormina’s work. 

Tavormina, P. (2010). Cabbage and Melon, After J.S.C.

Paulette Tavormina’s images in Seizing Beauty are visually arresting.  While paging through Seizing Beauty, I was simultaneously amazed and jealous (l realize that nothing is new under the sun, but I do try to be original). Tavormina’s lighting is sophisticated: She captures a full range of tones, from the very dark, to the very light without having an issue with overblown whites or flat blacks  Each individual leaf, grape and insect is equally well illuminated, an effect that is at once flattening and freshening.  Many of her images are inspired by the masters such as Spanish artists Zurbaran and Cotan; Flemish painters such as Claesz and Heda (Tavormina, 2020). Malaguzzi, writing about Tavormina’s work, states “Heda achieved a trope l’oeil effect with pictorial proficiency while in Tavormina’s work it is a natural consequence of photographic technique…[through photography] the artist turns something intended as an illusion into something real (n.d.). When is a copy of an original an addition to human culture? Is it more of the same? Roland Barthes (1975) had written “The bastard form of mass culture is humiliated repetition… always new books, new programs, new films, news items, but always the same meaning.”

Her work is voluptuous and strangely distant. Not a particle of air stirs, and butterflies hover with strangely straight wings. Fruit, perfectly placed, appears float in masses, like clouds, undamaged by the burgeoning weight of the arrangement. The New Yorker (n.d.), of Tavormina’s images, describes “Fruits, vegetables and flowers spill from their containers in an almost obscene display of abundance…Everything seems poised between voluptuousness and rot, at once gorgeous and doomed.” The irony of my desire to display life through still life is not lost on me here.  Indeed, life itself is always moving and changing, something that is not appreciable in still life.

I searched for a deeper grounding in theory or message in Tavormina’s work. What does Tavormina want the audience to experience?  Her artist statement reads “I have made in response to the Old Masters are intensely personal interpretations of timeless, universal stories. Years from now, I hope that the photographs I create will affect someone as deeply as the Old Masters’ paintings have affected me (Tavormina, n.d.). I would wonder: Will a photograph of a still life inspired by a painting outlast the original?  I begin to hold suspect her statements, like this one: “I am particularly fascinated by Zurbarán’s mysterious use of dramatic light, Garzoni’s masterful compositions and color palette, and Coorte’s unique placements of objects.” Artists have a unique opportunity to market themselves and their work through statements. The introductory essay in Seizing Beauty explains “the artist’s personal cipher is revealed within this complex and refined intellectual operation, as if by an enigmatic game, through meaningful individual touches that rightfully earn her a place in the art scene and cast it in the internal play between illusion and reality (Malaguzzi, 2016)”. Reads to me like word soup. So, what’s wrong with Tavormina’s work?  It’s visually pleasing and demonstrates a talent for food design.  Tavormina does have an opportunity to better describe her motivations and message.

Barthes, R. (1975). Image Music Text.

Glembocki, A. (2016). Mar 9 Book Review: Seizing Beauty by Paulette Tavormina. Musee: Vanguard of photography culture. Accessed: https://museemagazine.com/features/art-2/features/book-review-seizing-beauty-paulette-tavormina

Malaguzzi, S.(n.d.) Paulette Tavormina “The Oysters”. Paulette Tavormina Website: https://www.paulettetavormina.com/silvia-malaguzzinew

Malaguzzi, S. (2016). Gossamer Threads: Paulette Tavormina and the Golden-Era Still Life. Paulette Tavorima: Seizing Beauty. Monacelli Press: New York.

Tavormina, P. (n.d.) Paulette Tavormina website. Accessed:https://www.paulettetavormina.com/artist-statementnew

The New Yorker. (n.d). Goings on about town. The New Yorker. Accessed: https://www.newyorker.com/goings-on-about-town/art/allison-schulnik-2


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