In Plain View
words by Jeroen Smeets
Having a published monograph of thirty years of your artwork makes you part of a select group of artists. Dan Witz is now part of that group. In Plain View shows Dan Witz’s career to be that of a traditional artist who looked for and found the right balance in the juxtaposition of traditional oil painting and temporary street installations, merging the two to progress and transcend as an artist. His work over the last thirty years is to be considered a milestone for generations to come, and Witz had humble accepted that role. Prior to this interview I had the honor of working with Witz on his first solo show in Amsterdam in April 2009. At that time, we were hoping to host the European book release at the same time as the exhibition. Unfortunately plans got delayed and the book launch got pushed back a few months, a few months turned into half a year, and finally a year later the book was released.
“I swallowed my pride and sent a book proposal, blind, to all the major publishers. And no one responded.”
You’ve recently published your book, which shows the last thirty years of your work. After you got the first copy, how did it make you feel? Now being an artist that has a book out which shows the last 30 years of your life. Did you feel different after that realization?
When I first saw the finished book I was totally blown away—just completely floored. David Lopes the editor and Kim Groebner the designer did an incredible job. I’m a bit of a micro-manager but at one point in the process of creating the book I had to let go and turn it over to them. So not being there every step of the way I was assuming I’d be disappointed with something—the quality of the reproductions, the color separations, or at the very least how lame I sound in the interviews. But it just wasn’t the case. Good editing, I guess. I honestly could not find one thing that bothered me in the finished book. And instead of the practical compromises one would expect, Gingko actually pushed to make the book bigger and longer and wider in focus. Amazing. So in the end I was pretty much just dazed by it all.
I understand what you’re getting at though. That this is a momentous occasion in the life of an artist. I guess being so involved with the details I might have missed the bigger picture. I will say that while we were working on the book I was a bit wary of the whole thing because it ends, you know? Unlike most books, there’s no wrap up, or ending per se: it just gets to 2010 and on the last page I thank my dog. Which suggests what?—that I’m supposed to be starting some kind of totally new chapter in my life now? That I should be entering some kind of fancy middle period? I’m just sorry that this summer’s street art: What the $%#@? (WTF), and my new mosh pit paintings missed the deadline and couldn’t be in the book.
How did the book come about? Was it your idea, or who contacted you about it?
Well, it came about because I was embarrassed. People kept saying how overdue it was for me to have a book about my long career in street art. So I swallowed my pride and sent a book proposal, blind, to all the major publishers. And no one responded. Apparently I needed an entrée—a benediction from someone who knew someone who was ‘in’ with the powers that be. Which, believe me, is a fact of life about the art world that I’m all too familiar with. And which frankly, is a huge resentment of mine. The art that makes it into the public eye—and eventually into the canon of art history, is as much a product of an artist’s social personality, of his or her ability to hustle and cultivate allies and advocates, as it is about the quality of the art itself. Not only does this severely limit the quality and variety of the art we get to see, but it’s particularly unfair to the socially maladroit artists, the ones without charisma and networking skills. True, the internet has mitigated this a bit, but all the same, this is one of the main reasons why long ago I decided to just say fuck it, and put my work up on the street.
But, as much as this bit of reality saddens me, and in spite of the success I’ve had by bucking this system, when it came to getting a book made, I had to give in and do it their way. Actually, it was easy. I reached out to a couple of friends of mine who knew David at Gingko, who kindly wrote him, he wrote me right back and the process began.
What is the process like of creating a book? Painstakingly slow? Rewardingly satisfying? Egoistical or self-reflective?
All that and more. Except maybe for the egotistical. And this isn’t false modesty. Corny as it sounds, my natural inclination has always been to ignore my past work, or at best, regard it as prologue. Maybe this is a coping strategy, some kind of denial padding that buffers me from all the frustrations and disappointments of the creative process, but I’m really only interested—I’m really only invested in the work that I’m about to do. Past work is a clerical burden, a storage problem and sometimes an outright annoyance. And let’s face it: opportunities for ego deflation abound. One of the first street art projects I did was a series of hummingbirds painted on walls and doors in lower manhattan. A piece I did when I was 21 or 22. From what I can tell that’s still a lot of people’s favorite work of mine. You can see how that might be annoying.
Have you included all of your work, or did you select pieces? If so, how did you make that selection?
It was a pretty straight-forward highlights collection. But of course there were difficulties. Some of my favorite pieces don’t represent well in photographs and some so-so pieces photograph better than they looked out on the street. I really tried to keep it to the successful pieces, which was a struggle—some really pretty pictures had to go into the dustbin of (my personal) history…little deaths. Over the years you get used to it, but that’s part of what I mean by the frustrations and disappointments of the creative process. Constant compromise and waste…editing can be such a brutal act—a year’s struggle, a hundred absorbing dramas reduced to a couple of 4 inch photos. Over time this frustration can build up, accumulate in the creative channels like fat in an artery, and eventually, if unchecked can choke the flow to a standstill. Then my heart attacks me and I spend the rest of my life sadly painting hummingbirds. I think somewhere deep in my psyche I must recognize this dilemma, and it’s fatal nature, and that’s why it’s so crucial for me to let go of old work and focus on what’s next.
Do you still get the same creative impulses from New York City, or are you traveling more nowadays to get these impulses elsewhere? And if so, where do you find them?
NYC’s still a pretty stimulating place. It’s been a real bonus that I get to visit other cities and do street art—I’m really happy about that development in my career, but, to be honest, I’m still a bit behind the learning curve on working in foreign locales. It has happened that when I bring my nyc stuff somewhere else, the pieces don’t integrate as well as they need to. I’m finding that I need to spend time in a place, absorb the local light and palette and other subliminal factors and go back to that city and do something more site specific. Except for the WTF series I’m in the midsts of now. That was an idea born in LA, stuck in traffic, which seems to adapt pretty well anywhere. Highway interchanges are pretty interchangeable it turns out. The Do Not Enter signs are easily portable too. I need to use the country’s signage of course, and the imagery’s gotta resonate locally, but that’s a concept that seems to travel pretty well. I hope to be doing a massive series of those in (my return to) Amsterdam this coming year.
How would you describe the balance between your studio work and your street work? How much time to you spend on these two?
I bounce back and forth. My easel paintings can take months to complete so it can be a relief for me to get out of the house and do some street art. I used to just work on street stuff in the warmer months and paint in the studio when I couldn’t be outside. But now, with all the new opportunities on each side, I keep both activities going at once. My studio’s kind of chaotic but I have an excellent assistant who helps keep things from spinning out of control.
I’m aware that some people assume the studio work funds the street art (and my lavish lifestyle), and that’s why I do it, but that’s not the case. I love painting. Part of me would be content to just be a traditional painter, maybe teach, live somewhere leafy, have a quiet life. But there’s another part of me that’s perpetually restless and dissatisfied—self destructive and always at war with myself. That voice demands I seize more from life and art-making. To this end I’ve tried concentrating solely on street art, which, with the travel and meeting new people and all, can be very exciting. But it’s a dangerous and daunting lifestyle and at the end of the day leaves me worn out and ungrounded. I’m usually pretty glad to get back to the nice safe studio and making paintings. But of course after awhile I start getting restless again.
One of the things that grabbed my attention in the book is that almost all of your work seems to fit within a series. What is it that attracts you to work in a series?
I guess that’s my way of keeping things under control. Even though I’ve been at this for years, I never get used to how messy and unpredictable the process is. Every project I do starts one way, with what I think it’s going to look like, then one thing leads to another, all sorts of accidents happen and invariably I end up with something totally unexpected. The end result is always a more interesting thing than I’d planned, but to be honest, the constant lack of control can be nerve wracking. I mean it’s exciting but my life seems lived in a state of constant emergency. Thank god for yoga. Without that I’m pretty sure my head would have exploded years ago.
Jeez- I just read through this and I’m really sounding kind of negative this evening. And solipsistic. I mean I’ve never been the happy go lucky type of artist, but all this complaining is making me sound like I’ve gone over the edge into early curmudgeon-hood. Listen: things have never been better for me. All my years of struggle and hard work seem to be paying off. I’m blessed. The book is awesome and the new stuff I’m working on is an exciting adventure. What more could i want?
Yet for some reason I seem to be raging in the dark like in that old William Butler Yeats poem:
The intellect of man is forced to choose
perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse
What is in the agenda next for Dan Witz?
I think I need to do more yoga.