Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jonathan Silver

J.Silver in studio, 1983

“Silver’s sculpture is steeped in classical and religious myth.  It is assembled, however, with a keen sense of modernist history, in particular, of the formal and psychological implications of Cubism and Surrealism.  In Silver’s work, myth is not quiet and controllable, but something that grows and evolves on its own and obliges mere mortals to flail away in its wake.” (Michael Brenson, 1984, The New York Times)

Barbarian killing his wife, 1985

Jonathan Silver was born in New York City in 1937.  He decided not to go to high school, preferring to be educated by tutors at home.  He received a B.S. degree in general studies from Columbia University and later enrolled in the Art History Ph.D. program under the famed historian, Meyer Schapiro.  Schapiro was impressed by Silver’s intellectual prowess and supported his dissertation on Giacometti.  Silver, however, started making sculpture seriously in the late 1960’s and never completed his doctorate.  As a Columbia student, he drew in Peter Agostini’s class between 1960 and 1966, where he met future colleagues Christopher Cairns and Bruce Gagnier in 1965.

head, 1974, plaster

head, 1975, plaster

During the 1970’s Silver worked alongside Cairns, collaborating on ideas for heads and figures.  The two approached their work with the ambition and stamina of scientists tackling big questions, in it for the long haul; it was clear they neither expected, nor were interested in, quick or dramatically “personalized” solutions.  Cairns and Silver developed a common method of assembling and reassembling, or embedding fragments of one head or figure into another, thus creating new works.  The sculpture produced during this period was shown by Silver and Cairns at the 4x10 Gallery in New York in 1976.  The same year they showed at Haverford College’s Comfort Gallery with their fellow alumnus from Agostini’s class, Bruce Gagnier.  Cairns and Silver also exhibited together at the Weatherspoon Gallery in Greensboro, NC, in 1978, and at the New York Studio School in 1979.

Agamemnon, 1977, mixed media

Silver began working on larger figures in the early 80’s.  Abounding with classical, mythical and art historical references, these ambitious works further developed the method of combining and recombining elements from several different pieces.  Elaborately constructed, they often included found objects or sections of the plaster molds themselves. Wounded Amazon, which is in the Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden, dates from this period.  Silver liked to say his work “tended towards the Greco-Oriental.”

Wounded Amazon, 1984, plaster

A visit to the Medici Chapel while traveling in Italy with Cairns in 1982 was formative.  Silver began experimenting with placing groups of figures together in a room, leading to his Room Dedicated to Septimius Severus, exhibited with other large pieces at the Gruenbaum Gallery in Soho in 1985.  Shows at the Victoria Munroe Gallery followed in the early 1990’s.

Chapel of Septimius Severus, 1985-86

During the last seven years of his life, Silver worked on rooms of sculpture, including the Lower Room installed at the Sculpture Center in 1990.  Consisting of a dramatic ensemble of figures evoking the disabling effects of memory and aging, the room was filled with figures seized by uncontrollable and incomprehensible forces.  Silver’s late works were often scenes of torment or rage, where the expressionistic surface treatment contributed to their high emotional pitch.

The Lower Room, 1989, mixed media

“Silver’s figures are survivors.  They are vulnerable, yet unalterable, sacrificial, yet in command.  Violence has been done to them, but through their statuesque power, or through the force of their will or rage, they retain the ability to avenge or punish, and to impose themselves on their situations.”  (Michael Brenson, 1995)

Birth of Venus, 1985-86

Chance, 1987-1990, plaster

Silver spent his entire life drawing from the model.  He would stand at an easel, drawing with a number 2 pencil, making small, exquisitely constructed figure drawings.  He also drew incessantly while watching television.

head, 1977, mixed media

To support himself, Silver taught Art History at Montclair State College in Montclair, NJ.  Noreen Sanders, a student of his in the late 70’s, wrote in an email, "In class, he would walk up on the stage, in front of the screen and directly into the paintings he put in the slide projector… talking passionately about the piece (good or bad) – smoking Kool cigarettes with his saggy-ass jeans and bits of plaster stuck in his hair.  He would assign novels from the same time period.  Before class, you could catch him playing piano – some Schubert piece or other.  Or he’d recite poetry.  For me, the work came alive." 

Silver was a frequent lecturer and visiting critic at the New York Studio School and at Haverford College, where he had a profound influence on students for over twenty years, inspiring those who worked closely with him by his penetrating intelligence, erudition and aesthetic probity and his willingness to share his perceptions.  Silver wrote and published extensively on art historical topics.  His articles on Giacometti and David Smith were published by ArtNews.

The New Gretchen, 1991

Jonathan Silver died in New York in 1992 at the age of 54.  There was a posthumous show of his heads at the Sculpture Center in 1996 and one of heads and figures at Lori Bookstein Fine Art in 2008, co-curated by Cairns’ son Nicholas.

figure, 1983

Text adapted with permission from an essay in the exhibition catalog for the 2006 show Five Sculptors.

Additional photos of Jonathan Silver's work can be viewed on our Flickr page.

Photo of Silver is from the announcement card of the 2008 exhibition of his work at Lori Bookstein Fine Art.

See also:
Jonathan Silver: Drawings
Jonathan Silver's Studio, As Photographed by Michael O'Keefe


  1. Jonathan Silver could be a forbidding character for those who didn't know him. He wore his hair long and shaggy back in the late '70's, and between that and his somehat brutish forehead, heavy eyebrows, broad brimmed hat and the cigarette that was always hanging out of his mouth, he gave off a seemingly-cultivated aura of sinister-ness - or at least unapproachability.

    Jonathan's was a formidable intellect and he didn't suffer fools. The first time he lectured at the Studio School, he rather systematically took apart a couple of students who challenged him, and, in at least one case, the kid had no idea what hit him. He literally did not understand some of the vocabulary Jonathan used to calmly obliterate his arguments. When Silver was invited to do an end-of-term critique, I expected more of the same. Instead, he was polite, respectful, and thoughtful in his criticism. In cases where one suspected that he'd like to slash and burn, he was restrained. I asked him later about it, and his response was "The eagle doesn't swoop to catch the fly."

  2. The first time I visited Jonathan's studio was well after his death, some time around 2001 or 2002. Barbara Silver graciously had me into her apartment above the studio for tea and a little history of Jonathan. From that conversation I remember her description of Jonathan's love of classical music, the piano and for Beethoven specifically. And I recall Barbara's comments about how at the end of his life Jonathan worked very late into the night and while doing so listened to strange talk radio shows, often what she described as "christian radio".
    Upon entering the studio I was struck by the amount of work that was still present in this space that had not been used for many years. Barbara mentioned that it is more or less just as he left it, except she recently swept up all of the plaster dust that covered the floor. One can easily imagine this room with an overwhelming amount of dust and debris, maybe even piles of discarded sculptures, molds, shards, etc, that Jonathan turned to as his stock yard of materials.
    Barbara left me to look around. I took my time as there was a lot to look at. I had only ever heard about Jonathan and seen just a few of his sculptures, and so this was a large dose of the artist, all at once. There was writing all over the walls, often times illegible. I recall making out some things about Rodin, something to do with Rodin's use of "color", meaning light, I think. Most of the legible writing seemed over my head or hard to piece together its relevance to the work - it was very clear that Jonathan had a massive intellect. But the work itself is more often ruled by expressionistic desires.
    After looking closely at the many sculptures in the front room I went into the small back room where I sat down with the stacks of drawing pads that were in the back room. I flipped through hundreds of drawings, most of them very small, all of them careful and precise while maintaining a remarkable sense of spontaneity. Discovering the work in these drawing pads remains one of the most exciting and inspiring art viewing experiences of my life.
    Two years later I returned to the studio to look again at the drawings and to take some photographs. By that time the drawings had been moved from the desk into a closet. I shudder to think where their final resting place might be. And so it goes.

  3. Jonathan was my art history teacher at MSU. I remember in class he once challenged us to define "art" and each time someone responded he would argue and explain why their definition was incorrect. I also remember on more than one occasion accidentally sitting in front of the slide projector in class obstructing everyone's view, and he'd say, "Let's hope this isn't an omen of how your life is going to be."

  4. @ Michael, I truly enjoyed your comments. I only wish I had gotten to know Jonathan better when I had opportunity. After I left Montclair, in 1982 I sent him an anonymous letter. Afterwords I regretted almost everything I had written except for one thing; I wished he was a believer in Christ. I later went to him and apologized in person for sending the letter. He was gracious and kind. I am so glad to hear that he may have found some comfort in Christian radio toward the end of his life.

  5. @ radvibes...
    I always assumed, based on what I have observed in Jonathan's work, that if he did in fact listen to "christian radio" it was not as a believer but as someone who was curious about general religious impulses and desires in humanity... Maybe also that he found meaning in various biblical narratives. I have also heard that he leaned to the right politically, so maybe when Barbara said he listened to "christian radio" she just meant conservative political radio shows.
    I saw a handful of drawings that Jonathan made while he was sick, near the end of his life - these drawings seem to reveal a complex sense of suffering and struggle and a few seemed to show moments of profound acceptance, but none revealed an end-of-life comfort in Christ.

  6. I first saw Jonathan’s sculpture by accident at the Gruenbaum Gallery sometime in the ‘80s. I was at the gallery looking for paintings by Daniel Brustlien. Brustlien’s work is nice. Jonathan’s work is not nice. I was shocked enough still to remember that visit. And I remember a lecture Jonathan gave at the Studio School about David. And a year-end crit: sculpture is not a hobby, Jonathan told me. He also told me only bronze sculpture sells. And he compared some sculpture from Indonesia up at the Met then to Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel. I remember going to a show of Jonathan’s work at the Victoria Munroe Gallery: there was a big table on which were scattered small sculptures of heads, and real, rose petals. I remember when Jonathan was dying: I heard reports he was drawing pictures of dogs. I remember the 1995 show of heads at the Sculpture Center. It was “strangely unsatisfying” for the NY Times. And friends of Jonathan’s felt Michael Brenson, who curated the show and wrote what I thought was a terrific catalog essay, had screwed things up somehow. I was checking all over the place for a “correct” response to Jonathan’s work—still way too unsure of myself to be able to respond on my own. Close friends of Jonathan’s—people who knew a lot about Jonathan’s work, and a lot about sculpture—would find fault with the work: “He knew when to stop” I remember hearing. But I knew these people loved Jonathan—and his work. I remember being surprised—and feeling a new doorway had opened—when Garth Evans, who didn’t know Jonathan well, told me he was “astonished” by Jonathan’s Agammemnon. Jonathan’s work has been in group shows at Lori Bookstein Fine Art. In 2008, there was a one man show at Lori’s gallery, full of stuff I’d never seen. I still don’t have a 25-words-or-less response to Jonathan’s work, but I can say for me it’s nourishing, alive. . .

  7. @ Michael. I would like to visit his studio myself. I hear that it remains relatively the same as it was.

  8. (radvibes) @ Michael...Not sure how much one could conclude based on his work alone. I sat through many extensive lectures by Jonathan in Calcia Hall. He often mentioned God, and referred to the great depravity of humankind. Jonathan and I used to talk a little, and he once asked me to pray for him. Consequently I do not find it unthinkable that he listened to literal Christian Radio.

  9. Great artist/great teacher. He was the real deal.   He had a provocative and inspiring intellect and a contagious passion for art. There was something haunting about the man and his work. Nothing about him was a simple walk in the park.
    As a teacher, he opened doors of perception by giving you a visual vocabulary to understand sophisticated concepts.  Well, he offered the key if you chose to use it. He suffered no fools if you didn't get it.
    In class, he talked of Cezanne and how through color and composition, he broke up the picture plane and held it together at the same time. He was really teaching the art of seeing the delicate balance between seemingly opposing constructs. Realism/Abstraction, Classical/Romantic, Intellectual/Emotional, Order/Chaos, Movement/Stillness.  Giacommetti used a different and personal visual language and found the same essence. It's what separates the artist from the craftsman.
    You can see it in his sculpture. Jonathan studies then ruthlessly cuts away at the surface until he finds the essential.  It's a process of deconstruction and reconstruction as a personal expression of something timeless, universal and powerful. (and haunting).
    What he taught, what I learned has stayed with me. When I look at a Matisse, it talks to me. So, I'm just grateful.

  10. Very elegant comments above helped me to remember some of those MSU class experiences with Jonathan in the early 70s, actually, his first year there! My own memories are of his kindness and his perceptive use of gentleness and provocation, ranging between Miss Manners and Zeus with a Kool. For me, he was a "living treasure" experience. His most valuable transmission to me was validation of what I was up to in my own "off-the-path" ways. I was majoring in art and minoring in classics, doing what I loved to do and combining those seemingly diverse doings, and he was very enthusiastic and supportive of how I was thinking, what I was doing. When we "bargained" on what I could do with him as an independent study (for a very needed and fun one credit), he asked me to translate all the mentions of art and art techniques and materials in Pliny's Natural History. It was so much fun to do that and to have him be so supportive and appreciative of it!
    I never saw any of his sculptures until I came to this site (and Alexis, I appreciate so very much your sharing this). And so, yes, seeing the sculptures and their titles, and remembering our conversations about the influence of the Greeks and Romans upon our imagination, yes, yes, it all comes together. Also, seeing the background room/studio settings is very enlightening because I also remember that he very carefully considered and prepared the physical space of his studio in the city; he was very aware of space and object and seeing through distances and representing that with as much attention, verity, and drive as anyone could.
    I also remember first seeing him. I was immediately startled by him and drawn to him.
    Jonathan, now that your connection to the grid is a bit more ethereal, you know how many times on my path I've thought about you and thanked you!

  11. I think we need a Jonathan Silver alumn gathering. He deserves a toast. I'm coming to NY in November. Who's in? Alexis?

  12. I think this is a very informative website about Jonathan Silver. I am making a short film about him and have interviewed several people who knew him.

  13. @Anonymous. Who have you interviewed? You might try speaking with Walter Swales. He is still teaching sculpture at Montclair State University, and have you spoken with Jonathan's widow, Barbara?

  14. I was a student of Jonathan silver, Peter agostini, Bruce gagnier and lance solaroli in the late 60's at UNC-Greensboro. They were wonderful and wild and terrifyingly brilliant. I learned to draw from these masters. They had white German shepherds and walked everywhere with them, wild true artists in this sea of southern girls they got so impatient with! What times those were, so soon after desegregation in the south, and during the viet nam war and the protests, the assassination of Martin Luther king...I dated guys at Duke on the weekends and drew and painted my heart out during the weeks, in love with these purists, all of us smoking our Kools! I will never forget their teachings, and their belief in me has been my inspiration ever since those early years.

  15. I took "Modern Theories of Art" with Jonathan at MSU mid-80's. Wonderful, wonderfully stimulating experience! He decided to analyze Shakespeare's "The Tempest". He started by playing - from memory - Beethoven's Tempest Sonata! Stunning! The piano was very old and dry; the keys went flying all over the place! Jonathan calmly reached down, picked them up and continued. He was a concert-class pianist and told us he had trained as a cantor, but he never got to sing. Having graduated as a physicist, in the middle of one class, he asked me to explain Einstein's Theory of Relativity to the class ... as it was a modern theory that had had a strong impact on art. I did as he was very warm and very appreciative. I never saw the hard edge others have mentiined ; he was always appreciative and encouraging. He was, however, a great opponent of form following function and argued strongly against the notion that, for example, that only wood could represent wood or metal metal. He felt no problem with using plaster to represent wood or metal or flesh. I sought him out the following semester to see what he was teaching only to hear he had died ... and few details of how or when. I was deeply saddened, but still remember him warmly.

  16. For those who are interested, I am in the final stages of a documentary about Jonathan and his work, featuring interviews with critics, curators and students, as well as Jonathan himself. You can check out the trailer and the Indiegogo here:

    1. That's great news about the doco, can't wait to see what everyone turns up on Jonathan,... Looking forward to it!

    2. Well this years past his death a di only heard of him as my friend Dave Carrow, you recently died was an admirer of his work. But to me seeing the pictures of scluptors reminded me of the first time I saw Jimmy Hendrix in Denver: the howl of rage over the human condition the whole American culture was exploded into by the insanity of Viet Nam.
      That was 1968.