Artist Snapshot: Jerry Weiss

Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions

Artist Snapshot: Jerry Weiss
Jerry Weiss in the studio. Photo: Bettina Archer

At what age did you decide to become an artist?
Very early. I was drawing on walls and furniture at age four. Everything since has seemed like a natural extension of the initial impulse. Moved through the childhood lexicon of animals, movie stars and athletes, and eventually started drawing from life exclusively. I settled on painting at my mid-teens, and began painting in oils at the suggestion of the illustrator Tom Lovell.

How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
With complete support. My parents met at the League in 1940; my father was a cartoonist, and my mother could paint. My father amassed an impressive collection of American illustration. My siblings’ career choices were the law and professional gambling, so someone had to cover the art thing.

Who are your favorite artists?
Where do we start? Degas, Rembrandt, Kollwitz, Monet, Inness, Homer, Bellows, Corot, and Daumier, for starters. A colleague mentioned Sickert, and I’m good with that. Also Whistler and Cézanne. You borrow what you need from everyone. And different artists offer a mirror to different aspects of our own personalities.

Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
Is there such a thing? At opposite ends of the spectrum, Ingres and Munch. Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline. Thomas Lawrence.

Art book you cannot live without?
Also too many to list, though not as important to me as when I was young. Anything written by Kenneth Clark is worth keeping. I’ve owned a Painting Techniques of the Masters by Hereward Lester Cooke since I was a kid. Goodrich’s double volume on Eakins, though it leaves out the damning stuff, is beautifully done. Lately, I’ve been coming back to Deane G Keller’s Draftsman’s Handbook, imperative for a figure draftsman.

What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
Personal integrity. That manifests in many ways, but simply put, it’s an engagement in thought, culture, humanity, or formal picture-making that transcends the artist’s ego and is un-self-conscious. More simply still, no bullshit.

Do you keep a sketchbook?
I don’t keep one with me, but draw as often as I can alongside my students. I once read that Daumier didn’t carry a sketchbook, and drew everything in the studio from memory. So that’s my out.

What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
Haven’t seen enough outside of the States. The National Gallery in London and the Ufizzi are high on the list. Here, the Met, our National Gallery of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Best of the small museums are the Clark Art Institute and the Frick, which I liked better before they started moving everything around.

What’s your go-to NY museum?
The Met.

What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
Kind of like asking one’s favorite meal, ever. Let’s take “best” off the table. In the early 80s the Met put up a good show on Inness that was illuminating for me as a landscape painter, especially in the spiritual aspect. My first year studying at the League—1978—some fellow students invited me to a Degas show at Acquavella Gallery; that was meaningful. Recently I’ve enjoyed two great exhibitions that landed in small venues: one on Sisley at the Bruce Museum, and a current installation of Turner watercolors at the Mystic Seaport Museum. Both were Met worthy. I remember a show of Lucian Freud at the Met years ago, that left me emotionally reeling. And this: around 1990 the National Gallery had exhibitions on Van Dyck and Titian simultaneously, and I made the mistake of going through the Titian first. After that, Van Dyck seemed superfluous. By the way, the Frick did a great Van Dyck show a few years ago.

If you were not an artist, what would you be?
Nobody is willing to pay me to throw a frisbee, so it would be a writer of some sort, which I already do. In the wake of Watergate, investigative journalism appealed to me. And I tried stage acting just before I moved to New York to study at the League. It was not a particularly good fit.

What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
I got exactly what I wanted from art school. Besides, you have to learn pretty much everything, be it art or life, on your own.

What work of art have you looked at most and why?
I don’t think I know. Yesterday, I hunted up an Eakins portrait on my iPhone to show to students, the head of Maude Cook. It’s immensely satisfying to me as a solid, three-dimensional conception, as well as for all sorts of emotional and psychological resonance. Surely not my favorite painting, but I return to it as an example of academic painting that goes far beyond academic practice.

What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
Oh, everything on earth offers visual pleasure. Manhattan is difficult, because it tends to assault the senses with so much stimuli. My engagement with the rural landscape, and of the human form, are hardly secrets. I like watching my loved ones. And the dogs.

Do you listen to music in your studio?
Not so much as I used to when painting. When I was younger, I blasted rock and rhythm and blues the way other painters drink coffee, and probably for similar reasons. Now, I usually prefer quiet or talking with the model.

What is the last gallery you visited?
The Rockport Art Association and Museum in Massachusetts, to see a retrospective on the landscape painter Charles Movalli. Part of a trip celebrating my birthday a couple of weeks ago.

Who is an under-rated artist people should be looking at?
There are a lot of good painters who are relatively unknown to the general public. Raphael Soyer remains one of my favorite New York painters. Isabel Bishop, too. Tom Thomson, Theodore Robinson, Henry Ossawa Tanner. Every art student should know R.P. Bonington. William Coldstream, Uglow’s teacher (James McElhinney introduced me to him).

What art materials can you not live without?
Fine double-primed Belgian linen. A pencil and paper.

Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
I paint when I’m not teaching, writing, or steeped in domestic life. Or wasting time on the Internet. In the studio, I usually work with a model in three to three and a half hour shifts. I always hope that at least half that time will be productive, and that the high point will happen at the end of the session. Out of doors the sessions are shorter, especially if the sun is out. The most productive periods seem to be mid- to late summer; the cold months are more conducive to hibernation.

What is the longest time you went without creating art?
Probably a few months. When I was just out of school, if I couldn’t paint for a day or two I was bereft, completely intolerable. It depends on how much you identify your work with your self-worth, which is a tricky business.

What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
Teaching often helps, as does looking at art. Sometimes you wait for the muse, and sometimes you chase her down.

What are the questions that drive your work?
Is it truthful? Is it interesting? Is there pleasure in the process? Is it time to eat?

What is the most important quality in an artist?
Truthfulness trumps talent. A capacity for joy beats conscientious drudgery.

What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
Where to begin? I’d like to paint more multi-figure compositions. But generally, I prefer not to list a lack of achievements. Still waiting on the Nobel for painting.

What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
Access to art we hadn’t known previously, and the crosscurrent of correspondence that has resulted.


Jerry Weiss teaches “Drawing from Life” and “Painting and Drawing from Life” at the Art Students League of New York.

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