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Shock Value

Jerome Witkin's paintings bear witness to the Holocaust in grapic detail

by Naomi Pfefferman

April 20, 2000 | 8:00 pm

Jerome Witkin, perhaps the greatest figurative painter alive, is strolling through his show at the Jack Rutberg gallery, recounting moments of his life. Every picture tells a story. There, he says, is the triptych based on his torrid, youthful love affair in a Florence pensione, in the same room once frequented by Dostoyevsky. There is a Christ figure, about to be hit by a rock, who feels as Witkin did when he discovered that his son was born with a life-threatening blood disorder. And over there, he continues, is a charcoal drawing of a Holocaust survivor brooding alone in a cluttered room: "Anne Frank, had she lived, at 50."

The drawing offers a voyeur's view of its subject, and Witkin, 60, admits with relish that he, too, is something of a voyeur. As a child, he used to peer in on the residents of his Brooklyn tenement house in a rough part of the waterfront, until the day his grandfather caught him. His grandfather then dragged young Jerome back to his mother's apartment, picked him up by the ears and declared in Italian, "This one is a spy."

Witkin still is a spy, of events both intimate and universal. His work includes small, still paintings and vast, cinematic polyptychs that bear witness to the terrible events of this century: political torture, assassination, AIDS, the Holocaust.

He is most renown for his Holocaust works, which have received an "almost reverential" response from the curators and critics who have visited the show, Rutberg says. Rutberg adds that he placed the most disturbing paintings in the back room of the gallery so they will not upset children or survivors who wander in off the street.

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