An Interview with Harold Wortsman: A Sculptor in Clay
by Jonathan Goodman
Harold Wortsman is a sculptor who has made his adult life in New York. Growing up in Queens, he studied art at Brandeis University outside of Boston, and then spent three years in a kind of apprenticeship working with sculpture at The Studio School in the West Village. He specializes in clay sculpture, both volumetric and relief, and makes as well drawings and prints of unusual beauty, influenced by many cultures. He now lives and works in Brooklyn. Very much the independent, in both his thought and his art, Wortsman reexamines ancient and modern traditions in light of what it means to make art in the cultural vacuum contemporary life seems to have become. The questions I have posed to him reflect a long familiarity with him as a person and with his art.
Jonathan Goodman: Please talk about the time when you realized you wanted to make art.
Harold Wortsman: As a child I played with clay – plastiline. The leader of my toy soldiers was a plastiline hero, reincarnated in many forms. A trip to the Met’s Hall of Armor made him a knight. Or he could become a deep sea diver, or a Roman gladiator. All the fantasies of childhood were visited upon these plastiline beings. But it was pure play; I knew nothing of art.
Then, for several years, I could not touch clay. Somehow, before high school, it came back, and I have been working in clay ever since. I took my first sculpture course with Chaim Gross at the Henry Street Settlement House. I didn’t talk to him, nor he to me. For three weeks we worked on a head from a model who posed. I worked dutifully and carefully. The fourth week of the pose also happened to be the last class before summer. Not having properly packed the clay, to my horror the head collapsed as I unwrapped it. Within two hours I remade the head, this time making something alive. Gross ended up giving me an award.
During high school I considered becoming a biologist. That passed, and only art remained. My pursuit as an artist has always been by default; that which remained when I could do nothing else.
Jonathan Goodman: Please talk about your art education at Brandeis University, at the Studio School, and with Sheila Marbain.
Harold Wortsman: At Brandeis University I studied sculpture with Peter Grippe. My work, mainly in clay, was a mixture of expressionism and cubism. In my senior year everything came together. I had my own studio with an exhibition of my work at the end of the year. Grippe was in Rome that year, so I was pretty much on my own. I also studied the history of modern sculpture with William C. Seitz, late curator of painting and sculpture at MOMA.
I spent the summer before my senior year at the NY Studio School. Grippe had given me a letter to Morton Feldman. Renowned as a musical composer, he was also briefly dean of the school at that time. Whatever Grippe wrote, Feldman read the letter and simply said, “Ok, you’re in.”
After graduating from Brandeis I returned to the Studio School in New York City as a full-time student in sculpture. I stayed there for two-and-a-half years, studying sculpture with George Spaventa and drawing with George McNeil. At the time there were no grades, no degree, and no one told you when to leave. It was an extremely unhappy time. I left in the middle of my third year and eventually took my first studio on 28th Street between Lexington and Park.
You ask about the late, great printmaker Sheila Marbain. I had always been interested in printmaking, but never thought I had anything that merited “printing.” I had dabbled in silk screen and wanted one year to print a holiday card. Somehow I met printmaker Kathy Caraccio who told me about Sheila Marbain. So I went to Sheila’s studio and showed her my design. She nodded and said: “Very nice, do you have some time? Here’s a screen. Go play.” Sheila, having grown weary of conventional silk screen printing for Marian Goodman, had developed a silk screen monotype technique. We ended up working together every week for the next two years. Through Sheila I became a printmaker, as well as a sculptor,
Jonathan Goodman: Your primary output is that of clay sculpture. Can you talk about some of your cultural influences--archaic cultures and African tribal arts in particular?
Harold Wortsman: Duke Ellington said: “If it sounds good, it IS good.” That pretty much sums up my approach to art history and the work that has influenced me over time. I have no interest in cultural hierarchies. If work moves me, it moves me, and if not, not, regardless of who made it.
Occasionally I have been lucky enough to come upon work in a state of complete ignorance, only later to find out the artist in question was very famous. Such was the case with Chaim Soutine and Albert P. Ryder. Egyptian art has always touched me deeply, especially its 3,000-year-long sculptural grammar. Even in the naturalism of Amarna there is the rigor that preceded it. And there is so much else across time. African tribal art in its diverse complexity has always moved me, no matter whether it be Dogon carving or the splendid Ife clay heads. The archaic Greek, the Cycladic, the more abstract side of Etruscan and the lesser known Nuraghic art from Sardinia are other influences. The Romanesque world in Europe held particular attraction, especially the work of Gislebertus, sculptor of Autun, France. Travel to Mexico introduced me to the Maya and Olmec world. And then there is the great body of Oceanic Art, unparalleled in its power. Other favorites are Coptic weavings and Fayum portraits and the vast, sensual body of Indian sculpture. There is no greater delight than to be touched by an image made by another human being, centuries or cultures ago – a kiss across time.
Jonathan Goodman: Modernism also plays a large role in the way you work. Can you mention some of the art and artists that influence you--and how they do so?
Harold Wortsman: I never know exactly why a work of art influences me. It can seduce, touch or move. Understanding and reason follow later. Modernism as a term has become almost quaintly classic. I have never tried to fit myself into any style or school. If there is a consistency of style in my work, it is not by intent and arrives almost by default.
Many twentieth-century artists have influenced me. Medardo Rosso, the great Italian contemporary of Rodin, was an early favorite. Matisse’s sense of color cannot be overlooked. Braque and his friend, French sculptor Henri Laurens come to mind, as do the drawings of Juan Gris. The work of Julio Gonzalez, father of welded sculpture is deeply moving. And then there is Giacometti, whose singular path created work of unique power. Other artists whose work inspires, are painters: Bonnard, early Vuillard and the less well known (in America) Julius Bissier. The artists’ books of Spanish painter Antoni Tapies were a revelation and inspired me to make my own.
Other artists who have been important are Basque sculptor Eduardo Chilida and the American modernist Mark di Suvero, as well as the potter Hans Coper. The above are just a few of the many twentieth-century artists whose work has touched me.
Jonathan Goodman: You also make drawings and prints. Do these genres also reflect influences similar to those affecting your sculpture? How is this work related to your three-dimensional art?
Harold Wortsman: Whether it be drawing, prints or sculpture, what interests me is space. The exploration of space, whether two-dimensional or three-dimensional has become my obsession. All my work derives from that pursuit.
I never try to make something in a particular style. You asked about influences. All the art works mentioned above are sources of artistic nourishment. But the effects are never direct. Rather, over time, they influence in often unknown ways.
I generally do not make “sketches.” Each piece, drawing, print or sculpture is just that. I am also not very good at linear production. Sometimes periods of silence precede intensely productive times.
A recent series of black and white drawings appears to relate to an earlier ongoing series of black and white reliefs. But that too, is by default rather than intent.
Printmaking and sculpture seem to follow in waves, the one alternating with the other.
Jonathan Goodman: Briefly describe your working process for the clay sculpture pieces you make, the surface treatment especially. Please also talk about your print methodologies.
Harold Wortsman: My work is abstract, rather than naturalistic. But it is rooted in, and comes out of, the “real” world and hopefully evokes it.
Sometimes a piece will begin with a plastic idea or feeling, which is almost always lost during the work process. The successful pieces come out of that loss of intent which can lead to a more interesting place.
One of my tools is a rock found on Monhegan Island, Maine. I also use stone carving tools, to carve and hack into the clay after it has somewhat hardened. Many years ago I discovered oxides as a source of color. Unlike glaze, which covers all, oxides are more like a tattoo or watercolor, revealing the surface below. The work is high fired in a gas kiln with reduction. At a certain point oxygen intake is reduced to the kiln (reduction). The fire needs oxygen and chemically takes it from the clay. Like a jazz improvisation, each kiln load is slightly different. I use the wonderful gas kiln run by Adrienne Yurick at Third Avenue Clay in Brooklyn.
The prints that I made with Sheila Marbain were all drawn directly on silk and then printed using her wax based monotype technique. Later I worked with printers Sheila Goloborotko and more recently with Kathy Caraccio. Most of the prints are produced through hand-tooled aluminum intaglio. Using stone, chisel and knife, I cut and gouge the aluminum like a sculpture. The plates are then proofed and printed on a normal etching press.
Jonathan Goodman: You have spent most of your life working as an artist in New York. Please comment on the way the city has influenced you.
Harold Wortsman: Arthur Miller once recounted a walk he took with the great Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, along the entire length of Broadway. Neruda turned to Miller and said: “What a dirty city, but so alive!”
New York is less dirty today, but still alive. I am a city man, and New York is my city. Like other great cities, whatever people do, both good and bad, happens here. That unending cacophony of life is a great source of artistic nourishment. And then there is the Metropolitan Museum. As a young art student I went there every week. Now months may pass without a visit, but many “friends” are always there to comfort me at moments of confusion or doubt – the tiny archaic Greek armor maker, the broken Egyptian face of Senwosret III, an early Christian bronze hand holding the world that holds a cross.
Because I was born into New York, the city has always had the odd familiarity of home. Different places here and there, evoke memories of life lived. There are favorite secret spots. Throughout it all is the constant, Schwitters-like collage of the sidewalk-dog pee, rain, stray paper and broken cement construction that continuously create abstract images of great beauty, even if these imagers never make it into any gallery.
Jonathan Goodman: It is also true you come from a European background--your parents were Viennese. How has European culture affected you?
Harold Wortsman: My parents were both born in Vienna, Austria. They were lucky enough to escape the Nazis, spent the war in England and then came to New York, where I was born. In retrospect, my childhood was spent in a country suspended somewhere between America and Europe. I grew up bilingual and multicultural. My memories are of Davy Crocket and Lassie, as well as Max und Moritz (classic characters of dark German humor).
My parents, although fully embracing their past, were completely uninterested in nostalgia. The delights of a Viennese childhood were never kept separate from the Auschwitz that awaited those not lucky enough to escape. European culture was their past, but it was never the exclusive path of wisdom, being simply where they had come from.
Much is made of Modernism’s embrace of African art in the early twentieth century. But Albrecht Durer already alludes to the beauties of African sculpture that had just then begun to enter Europe. For whatever reason, European art has always been for me just that – the art of a small part of our world – no better or worse than the Egyptian, African, Indian, Oceanic or Mexican (to name but a few).
Jonathan Goodman: By indirect implication in your work, you are criticizing current art being made. What are the feelings you have about contemporary art? Why do you have them?
Harold Wortsman: People often comment that my work has an archaic quality. That may be, but I am as much a part of the contemporary art world as anyone else.
Duchamp was very smart, but the artistic path that he charted seems to have led to a dead end. Conceptual art was never my path. I prefer philosophy but did not have the mind to pursue that.
Avant-gardism for its own sake long ago became boring. Every moment in time has its Academy. Our current art market, with its crazily inflated prices, is perhaps not so different from the Salons that the early Modernists fought against.
A friend recently talked about a good artist “of the new sort, not really visual.” The imagery I make is personal and comes from wherever it comes. But my constant attempt is to make clear visual images, as full of visual life as possible. There are many others trying to do the same thing in different ways. Contemporary art still has room for the visual image, even though our sense of the visual is changing in response to social media and the digital revolution.
Jonathan Goodman: Sculpture now seems to be almost a dead genre. Do you agree or disagree? Please explain your response.
Harold Wortsman: In the Bible, Abraham’s father, Terah, was an idol maker, probably a sculptor in clay. After idols went out of style, sculpture was never quite the same. But that was a long time ago. And much interesting work has been made since that time.
Our present moment is redefining the visual. Painting, sculpture, drawing, and now photography have all been declared dead long ago. But still artists are creating visual images which, if we are lucky, capture shreds of reality.
There is a resurgent interest in the artisanal; work made by hand. Nothing is more artisanal than an image created by an individual. I make images out of clay. Call it sculpture or whatever other term one wishes. I will continue to make images out of clay (as well as prints and artists books), because it is the only thing I know how to do.
Jonathan Goodman: How important is an arts community, especially one as complicated as exists in New York, to you? Or do you see yourself as a lone wolf?
Harold Wortsman: For two years I had a studio at Lafayette and Prince. It was the tail end of Soho, just before the area became a shopping mall. One day, while getting lunch I was stopped by a tour group. Their guide wanted to know if I was an artist. I said, sorry I am a plumber, and walked away.
I sometimes hung out in all the cool places, but never was a part of anything. I just wasn’t into the artistic fashions of the moment. That said, my close friends have always been artists; writers, actors, musicians, as well as painters or sculptors.
My brother, Peter Wortsman, is a writer, and we have had a long artistic collaboration. You and I have also had a many years long conversation about art and what it means.
Every artist is a lone wolf. Making art, in whatever form, is a solitary business. But after work, we all need friends, like anyone else. I suppose it is no accident that all my close friends come from the New York arts community.
Jonathan Goodman: What are your artistic and life plans in the near future?
Harold Wortsman: That’s a big question.
For many years I was artistically reclusive and remained relatively invisible. It is now important for me to exhibit as widely as possible.
My daughter is about to begin college. I hope to travel more. Three places I have always wanted to visit are Stonehenge, Easter Island, and the Kailasanatha at Ellora, India.
Mainly I intend to continue doing what I have always done, work in the studio, exploring the different forms that I inhabit, wherever they lead. And I try not to forget my origins, the child who did not know about art but knew how to play.