New York City-based artist Dan Witz returns with I Feel, which finds the multi-talented painter once again paying homage to the Old Masters in his ongoing series of realistic paintings. For this piece Witz turns his attention to the dance scene and captures hundreds of ravers caught in what he calls a moment of transport. Seamlessly combining his lifelong love affair with painters like Bruegel, Bosch and Caravaggio with a healthy respect for punk/noise/art rock Witz forms the cornerstone of his realist paintings in the studio, all the while creating and disseminating his pioneering brand of street art to the public. We caught up with the prolific artist to talk about his latest edition, earliest influences and much more. Read on below and be sure to snag I Feel available in two sizes before they are gone. . .
1xRUN: Tell us a little bit about this piece, anything immediate you would like us to highlight about this image?
Dan Witz: “I Feel” is the third painting in my rave series. This particular one is from photos I took at some underground rave parties near where I live in Brooklyn.
1x: Would you say these pieces in the same vein as your mosh pit series? When did that series first begin?
Witz: Yeah, in one way, all the large baroque compositions can be seen as one long unfurling canvas. I think the first mosh pit painting I did was around 1995. Over the years most of the focus has been on the punk and hardcore concerts, but every few years I get sick of painting white guys with tattoos. In between I’ve done dogs fighting, orgies, commuter scrums, and now the rave pieces, which focus more on women and people of color.
1x: What materials were used to create this original piece?
Witz: This one is oil on canvas. Lately though I’ve been experimenting with different substrates. Around 2004 I began using digital aids for composition. This particular painting has at least 15-20 different photos that I combined and tweaked in Photoshop, only the embracing couples were actually interacting with each other. Before digital I used a slide projector to compose, which was crude, and frustrating, and took forever. Now, with Photoshop, the process is considerably easier. Or should be. Since there’s so many possibilities, the compositions have become increasingly complicated—which is fine—but they’re harder and harder to paint.
1x: When was this piece originally drawn and created? How long did it take from start to finish?
Witz: 2015-2016. I’d guess it took about 6-8 months to paint. That’s if I worked on it continuously, which I doubt. There’s no way to hurry these—whatever I do they gestate at their own pace. Just going through the photos and getting the feel for the material can take weeks; then puzzling the compositions together can take another month or so. The composing part in particular has to simmer slowly: often there will be several drafts and do-overs for a prospective canvas. The most difficult part, the actual painting is comparably straightforward after all that.
1x: Tell us how the idea and execution came about for this image?
Witz: With the rave paintings I’ve been exploring liminal states—that ecstatic moment of communal bliss that people get up to in mosh pits and dance clubs. Most paintings I do reference common academic painting tropes. In this case the idea was not only to update the baroque, but to find a modern corollary to that ‘aha’ moment of Christian spiritual revelation. But replace the clichéd piety with my own 21st century anxiety.
1x: What is unique about this piece compared with your other work?
Witz: Everyone has their eyes closed. It’s also the warmest palette I think I’ve ever used.
1x: Why should people buy this one of these prints?
Witz: One of the reasons I look at art, and search it out, and why I’m constantly on Instagram, and prowling museums, is art gives me a sense of expanded possibility, a vivid reminder that beneath the surface of everyday life are surprises and enchantment. Maybe when people buy art and hang it on their wall, they’re wanting a physical objectification of this feeling, a daily reminder that there’s more to life than meets the eye.
1x: Describe this image in one gut reaction word.
Witz: That’s not something I would do…and I hate to use the cliche of “eyes wide shut” …but that works.
1x: When did you first start making art?
Witz: When I moved to New York City in 1978 and was exposed to punk rock and graffiti. I was the kid in my high school who could draw, and always wanted to be an artist, but I had no idea what that meant until I arrived in NYC. There were three key factors that tipped me towards making my own original work. First and foremost was that I was a suburban kid hearing punk rock for the first time. This was in the late 1970’s when it was underground and had some authenticity to it. The second thing was the graffiti tagged trains rolling into the subway stations — that vividly felt sense of expanded possibilities I mentioned earlier. The third thing was growing up and wanting so badly to be an artist, then fighting my way from the Midwest to art school in New York City, and being exposed to the art world, the museums, the galleries and the whole scene at the time, and being tremendously disappointed by it. Art back then had to conform to a very narrow movement of the moment, and this particular moment was conceptual, and non visual, and involved reading and deciphering a lot of highly coded text to be let inside. The whole game seemed so rigged: a smug insider’s club that clearly needed disruption.
So all that bumped together in my budding little 19 year old brain and my response was to start painting on the street. And play in art-punk bands. It wasn’t until much later that I figured this out, but one of the main reasons I focused on realist painting was that I loved how offensive it was to the “serious” art world of the time.
1x: Do you remember what some of the earliest shows you went to were? What were some of the moments where you realized this was for you?
Witz: There’s so many moments. The Ramones for sure…I can remember exactly where I was the first time I heard “Mongoloid” by Devo. That first Devo album still holds up really well. Brian Eno was a huge influence on me. Some of the songs were kind of wistful and melodic, so I could take my 1970’s Pink Floyd ears and still make sense of it, but it opened me to new ideas, and tipped me towards the possibilities of a challenging but accessible avant garde art experience.
I’m old so I actually participated in that pre-historic scene — at CBGB’s, Mudd Club — those (now) highly romanticized bad old days of downtown NYC. I loved bands like DNA, and Theoretical Girls and most of the transgressive energy of the No New York scene—made somewhat notorious by Brian Eno who produced an album with some of the bands. Besides my own projects I ended up playing for a guy named Glenn Branca, who was a real character—a punk rock “composer”—he actually stood center stage and conducted us. The music was roaring walls of sound, largely unintelligible, but had tremendous power. Being in the middle of that storm definitely cracked me open too: it made me realize that art could be messy, and annoying, and even fail miserably (or magnificently) and still succeed on its own terms.
1x: You also mentioned the graffiti writers, do you remember any of the writers specifically at the time? Did you ever end up writing graffiti yourself?
Witz: This was the first generation, the Wild Style kids in the mid to late 1970’s. More than the paintings itself, the thing that impressed me was the holy shit realization that you didn’t need anyone’s permission to make art. As far as the artists go I’m really bad at dropping names, but I’m sure everyone knows who they are.
No, I never wrote graffiti, or have ever used spray paint. Remember, I was an art student, highly self critical and schooled in diversity. Also, cultural exploitation aside, it was dangerous back then for a suburban white kid to be caught on the street ripping off these kids’ art form. I did however come up with a tag –or an anti-tag– in that it would take 2-3 hours to paint, it was tiny, and anonymous, and very few people would ever see it. Also they were unashamedly (and I hoped, rebelliously), beautiful. This was in 1979. I painted about 40 very realistic life sized hummingbirds on doors and walls around downtown Manhattan.
1x: You mentioned that you were in art school at the time, where were you going?
Witz: I went to a school on the Lower East Side called Cooper Union. Which was totally part of that elitist brain trust at the time, but had some cool kids and teachers and wasn’t totally a bad experience. And it was free. While there I spent most of my time in bands, which was as much a part of my art education as anything. Especially when it got to the point where I would travel with Branca. On tour in Europe it would be one of those twelve cities in 11 days type of things. But I would always– no matter where I was– drag myself out of bed and go to the museum in that city and go stalk the Old Master collections with my sketchbook. That’s probably the fourth key factor that drives what I do. I have this life long fascination with academic realism. To me it’s magic. Old master museums are something I’m still completely obsessed with. Galleries, art openings, art fairs, not so much, but museums have never gotten old to me.
1x: Who were some of the Old Master artists that you found yourself gravitating towards over and over again?
Witz: The “I Feel” painting I guess would be (Pieter) Bruegel and Hieronymus Bosch, a bit of Hans Memling, and as always, a nod to Caravaggio–who’s usually lurking somewhere in the back of my mind. With my street art travels I’m thrown into more northern European countries, so I reference a lot of German, Flemish, and Dutch art. My temperament is more ‘northern’ so that works out pretty well.
1x: You mentioned you were in a bigger band at the time? What was his name?
Witz: Glenn Branca. That whole scene was a semi big deal for a few years. I don’t know how well known he is in the larger world, but a certain nerd class of people around here seem to still remember. It was wall of sound drone stuff, noise music. Usually he’d have like 14 people in the band, sometimes more. I was a keyboard guy, so when I came along it was less of a guitar army and more keyboards and mallet instruments, all tuned to a dissonant micro-tonal scale. This was a crazy period for me. We would occasionally play punk venues which is where I saw my first mosh pits. Of course I’d been to concerts, but to be on stage and have that going on right in my face was pretty amazing. Also, because it was art music, we’d play opera houses, art museums and weird performance spaces. But it was a hard life and I couldn’t support myself. I already had a career as a painter going on, and always knew that was what I’d end up doing.
1x: After that were you more focused on gallery work or street work? Was the street work always fairly constant?
Witz: Half and half. I started having shows in galleries in the 80’s, but I was always doing street stuff. Since the late 70’s I’ve done street art every year, changing my imagery, style etc. regularly so I don’t get stuck with a look or brand. It took a quite while before I was supporting myself selling paintings, but luckily I had jobs that would let me go on tour and travel and come back to work. Back then it was a lot easier to live in NYC and be an artist and not have to have a full time job.
1x: Let’s change gears and talk about your most recent show…
Witz: Yeah, that was a survey of mosh pit paintings in London. All hardcore concert paintings and studies except for one rave painting I did in 2010, with about a hundred tiny little figures drinking, flirting and dancing. It’d been awhile since I’d seen that one. A totally ridiculous painting—I can’t remember how I survived that, it must have driven me crazy.
1x: Any big shows or events coming up that you’d like to share?
Witz: The big event now is that my wife Tiffaney is about to give birth to our second child. So I’m on hold. All I can do is stay home and paint. And wait. We’re literally at that point where every time she winces, I’m like, “Is this it? Was that a contraction–are we going in?” Without any major shows planned, in the back psycho-artist part of my mind, I do feel guilty, like I should be working–planning some new activism intervention, or researching costumes for my new characters, or trying to get another book published, instead of just self indulgently sitting around and painting.
1x: Haha, yea that’s work though…
Witz: I heard recently that most working artists spend about 20% of their time actually making art. 80% is the real work, tending the inbox, the support structure…all the prep and schmoozing so we can have that slim 20% of free time to make art. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining; I’m aware how incredibly lucky I am to have survived this long and still be in the game. But yeah, I mean, at this point (I’m 60) what else could I do?
Dan Witz was interviewed on the phone while in his Brooklyn, New York studio by 1xRUN Editor-In-Chief Pietro Truba. He has previously interviewed Niagara, Leni & John Sinclair, Ricky Powell, Doze Green, Fred Armisen, Janette Beckman, Dennis Morris, and Shepard Fairey among others for 1xRUN. Follow him @pietrotruba –