Thursday, May 29, 2014

Dan Witz – Interview & Studio Visit – Brooklyn, NYC

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of visiting street artist Dan Witz’s studio and home in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.  You might be wondering who is Dan Witz?  He doesn’t hide his face, or use a four-letter moniker like BAST or DOLK.  Instead Dan Witz inadvertently became a pioneer in the street art world.

Dan moved to NYC in the late 1970’s to attend Cooper Union and study art.  Cooper Union at this time was free for the lucky few who were accepted, and even helped their students get jobs to earn some income to pay their rent:

“They set me up with a part time job at NYU where I painted the windows advertising shows at the Grey art gallery on Washington Square Park. Before that I’d worked as a billboard painter’s assistant and did a lot of outdoor painting but I never was very good at lettering.”

Witz’s first works on the street where his now famous “Hummingbirds”.  Using acrylic paint Dan painted around 40 life like hummingbirds on public walls below 14th street in Manhattan. Keep in mind at this point the term “Street Art” did not even exist, and modern superstar artists like Banksy were still in diapers. 

Dan explains how the hummingbirds came to be:

“The “Birds of Manhattan” was my first street art series. The hummingbirds were a personal symbol, a reaction or expression of my feelings about being a young artist in NYC at this time (the late 1970’s)."

These hand painted little birds did not go unnoticed.  It seems that they brightened some people’s day. Dan was awarded a National Endowment of the Arts grant, in 1983 that lead to his first book entitled “The Birds of Manhattan".

So what is Dan working on 30+ years later?  Firstly, he is still putting up street art in the US and Europe. He also has a healthy studio practice, these days mostly exhibiting giant realistic paintings of mosh pits at hardcore shows.

Let’s begin with Dan’s recent solo exhibition at Jonathan Levine Gallery entitled “NY Hardcore”.  Witz painstakingly spent on average 4 months on each hardcore painting recreating the realism and passion of a mosh pit:

“Each of the pit paintings took me 3-6 months to complete.  I use a pretty standard old master technique so there’s about 3-4 layers or glazes for each figure. This is how I produce the realistic feeling of depth—and that old master presence, which, even though I’ve been studying it for years, is still mysterious to me."

Witz played keyboards in punk noise bands in the early 1980’s, which allowed him to tour Europe.  On his days off he toured the museums and got an education in old master realism:

“I’ve always loved those giant pompous 18th Century Salon paintings you walk by in museums on the way to the ‘good’ art. Obviously not because of their triteness etc, but because of their ambition and technical skill and the magnificence of these guys’ failure as artists."

This style of realism is captured in his mosh pit paintings.  Berserk Groups of tattooed hardcore characters could be Roman soldiers.  Witz's paintings are An updated snapshot of music and baroque aggression captured for the ages.

“I originally was drawn to the hardcore scene because of its energy and authenticity.  Bands like Vision of Disorder and Agnostic Front have amazing committed fans, and I wanted to transpose that uncompromising passion to my own pictorial needs.  Gradually by spending time at the shows I became a fan of the music."

These giant oil on canvas paintings are absolutely amazing in person.  A photograph really cannot do them justice.  Just like Witz’s hummingbirds over thirty years earlier these paintings’ realism and meticulous attention to detail create a deja-vu for the patron, especially those like myself who have spend some time at hardcore shows.  You immediately can smell the sweat and cheap beer.

I recommend snagging of the prints from Jonathan Levine Gallery before the very small edition of 20 sells out:


Once again Witz is always re-inventing himself.  He can not be happy just doing the same thing over and over:

“I know that as an artist the smart game plan is to create a brand and a style and stick to that if you want to have a long and successful career.  But I must have missed that day in art school. And by now it’s too late for me to adjust my personality and settle on one style. So I keep trying out new stuff. Next week I’m going to be experimenting with 3-D printing."

Witz most recently has been bombing both Brooklyn and Manhattan with his “Prisoner” pieces.  These are hand painted digital images of faces behind metal grates, or hands trying to escape from the openings.

“These pieces are created with a technique I’ve developed mixing old master oil painting with the latest digital technology..  These are a natural progression from my past series’ Dark Doings and  “WHAT THE &^%$? (WTF)”.  WTF involved me installing similar trapped behind grate pieces by the side of the highway at traffic bottleneck points where drivers where forced to slow down and confront my pieces, but since they were in their cars they couldn’t get out  to steal them."

Dan Witz will be making a limited amount of two new prints available at his group show at the Bushwick Collecive on May 29th  Featuring many other pioneers such as Blek La Rat, Chris Stain, and Jerkface and some new talent.  The remainder of the prints will be available on his website after the show.

So make sure you mark your calendars and keep your eyes pealed for masked people behind bars staring at you from an old building.

Dan sums up his intentions by explaining:

 “I‘m an accidental pioneer… never in my wildest fantasies did I imagine that so many people would  become so passionate about street art. For me, back in the 80’s and 90’s going out was always a private thing, a slightly foolish hobby. These days I still enjoy how my work is under the radar and that when someone comes upon one the first thing they think isn’t, ‘that’s a Dan Witz’, but rather, ‘what the fuck is going on behind that grate?” 


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Author: Matthew A. Eller
All Photos & Text Copyright Matthew A. Eller 2014
Twitter: @ellerlawfirm
facebook.com/ellerlawfirm

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