New York is nothing if not a city of contrasts. In the same week that an Andy Warhol painting of Marilyn Monroe sold for $195 million to much ballyhoo, the exhibition “Jonathan Silver: Matter and Vision” quietly opened its doors to the public.1 Could there be a greater discrepancy between these two events? Warhol we know about: the bemused huckster who made an initial splash nipping at the heels of consumer culture only to succumb, all too gladly, to its wiles. But Jonathan Silver? Though the work has been on display here and there over the years and has garnered a coterie of fans, Silver hasn’t come close to enjoying the fifteen minutes of fame Warhol predicted for all and sundry. Celebrity isn’t the sole litmus test of art, of course, nor should it be. But that an artist of Silver’s distinction remains unheralded is indicative of the benighted parameters within which our tastemakers operate.
Like the bewigged Svengali of Pop, Silver died young, succumbing to cancer at the age of fifty-four. (He was born in 1937.) Unlike Warhol, Silver didn’t believe that “art is what you can get away with.” Rather, he considered creativity part of a greater historical continuum, and he felt a distinct responsibility toward it. Silver was too driven and too grounded to settle for the easy gratifications of cynicism. Indeed, the initial impression upon entering “Matter and Vision” is that of a talent as grave as it was tenacious. The exhibition contains forty-two pieces, split down the middle between drawings and sculptures, and there’s not a moment in them that isn’t animated by curiosity. If anything, the folks at Victoria Munroe Fine Art have erred on the side of excess: there’s little respite to be had from the intensity Silver brought to bear on his art. A little breathing room would’ve allowed for better consideration of the work’s densely clustered energy.
Silver was a fledgling music composition major at Columbia University when he took a class with the art historian Meyer Schapiro. The effect was decisive. “What Schapiro had,” according to Silver, was “a vivid sense of the metaphorical power of art.” Silver shifted his focus to art history and even signed up for studio classes. Among the most pivotal was a figure-drawing course taught by the sculptor Peter Agostini. After initially butting heads with Agostini—the good professor thought his student’s attempts at self-expression were lousy and told him as much—Silver was ultimately, and in no small measure, transformed: “I began to find I could lose my self-consciousness in an outward attention to the object.” His subsequent statements and writings carry with them the fervor of the convert. Silver subsequently aimed high as an artist and as a thinker. Michelangelo, Dante, Ovid, and the glories of Hellenistic Greece—they were worth taking on. Possibility is, by definition, unbounded. Why not go for broke?
The artist with whom Silver is regularly compared is Alberto Giacometti. The relentlessness with which both pared down the figure in order to energize the space around it is a patent commonality. The nubbly surfaces, too—indicators of the anxiety that can accrue through fealty to observed phenomenon. But the similarities between the Swiss master and Silver are, I think, superficial. Silver is less schematic in the rendering of mass and more generous in his treatment of surface. Giacometti worked with an eye towards the integrity of his materials, sure, but one couldn’t properly describe the pieces as sensual. Silver, so much more the romantic, embraced a latent eroticism, imbuing totemic figures like Antique Paige (1991) and the winsome Flora (1990) with a sense of longing and intimacy. The same is true for the drawings, wherein contour lines invariably confirm the organic rather than codify the essential.
In a 1992 interview with the critic Michael Brenson, Silver spoke of how “a certain neurotic component” eventually hobbled Giacometti’s art. Whereupon Silver extolled Picasso—of all people!—as a paragon of mental health or, rather, a figure whose “vitality was stronger than his neurosis.” Cubism was integral to Silver’s vision, and its influence can be gleaned from a series of plaster heads made during the early 1970s. Their remarkable tenor—at once terrifying and tender—seems to have stemmed from frustration. With what, exactly, it’s hard to know—the rigors of representation, perhaps, or the daunting precedent set by antiquity. Whatever the case, the violence embodied in their shattered hollows and upended planes is gripping to behold; beautiful, as well. The abrupt winnowing of volume in #61 (ca. 1971) is no less dramatic than the shards of foil, paper, and metal that festoon another head done seven years later. Silver’s work doesn’t lend itself to easy nostra—which is likely why the work remains under the radar. With any luck, “Matter and Vision” will be a first step toward a wider recognition of this rare and arresting artist.