The bio on artist Ben Schonzeit’s website is brief: Born May 9, 1942 in Brooklyn, New York; BFA (1964) Cooper Union, New York, NY; lives and works in New York City. But our interview is not brief—he has plenty to say and he says it well. He doesn’t kid himself much—“I’m a terrible painter—terrible. I’m an observer but I don’t really appreciate too much. The things that really move me are not paintings …” If that makes you curious, then read on. Also he’s not a terrible painter. He was one of the original Photorealists, along with artists like Chuck Close and Richard Estes although that is no longer a categorization he particularly cares for. One of the few artists still living and working in Soho, it was a pleasure to be visiting this loft, which Ben shares with his wife Miriam Hsia and to see the space as a living, breathing home and studio.
When I look at Photorealism now, the first thing it reminds me of is something like 17th century Dutch painting – is that a strange connection to make?
There’s probably some connection between New York painters and Dutch painting. If you’re talking about Dutch still lifes, well, they’re painting flowers—I paint flowers. In Dutch still life it was all very symbolic, whereas when I paint flowers, I’m just painting flowers.
But do you have a set of concerns in your work – are you trying to say something?
Yes, but I don’t do it in the flower paintings. The flower paintings are for me about color and space. They’re the most abstract things that I do. To me they don’t have much meaning that I know of—you know art critics know a lot more about my work than I do.
So what of your beginnings as a Photorealist … did that start out as just a kind of exercise in something?
No, no, not at all. When I started out as photorealist, all I was looking for was a neutral subject. That kind came out of the culture because I was following, you know pop-art. I started painting after I got out of college and tried to forget everything they taught me and find out who I was. And then 50 years later[I] find out that what I’m doing is exactly what they taught me.
What did they teach you that you wanted to forget?
I was never taught to paint realistically. I painted realistically on Mother’s Day when my mother wanted something that looked like something. What they taught was space; where is this in relation to the picture plane? Blah blah blah. I didn’t know what they were talking about. I didn’t really listen.
It sounds like math.
Yes, well I thought: art is about things and life and people …
And feelings …
Feelings … I suppose that is true – I had a feeling once and it was very uncomfortable. I don’t want to do that again. [sighs] I mean how honest should I be?
As honest as you can be.
But I’ll get into trouble … I’m a terrible painter—terrible. I’m an observer but I don’t really appreciate too much. The things that really move me are not paintings—firstly I know how the sausage is made. The things that move me most are literature, music, theater … I’ve never looked at a painting and couldn’t get up because I was crying. But that certainly happens in the theater or when you read a book and all of a sudden you’re a wreck.
So why did you choose painting?
As opposed to another medium?
John Cage would say that’s a very good question and I wouldn’t want to ruin it with an answer. I chose painting because I am primarily visual. And part of that has to do with having one eye. So I lost my eye when I was five years old. A bunch of kids were playing in Brooklyn, you know and [when I was a kid] we were just running around playing in one house, going down to the basements, going to backyards. There were a few rules: don’t cross the street; don’t go around the corner; don’t talk to strangers; don’t play with knives. I found an ice pick. It wasn’t a knife. I started carving a tree with an ice pick and it slipped … it’s complicated because the reason why they removed my eye is because at that point in your development and your growth, if one eye loses sight, then the other eye will also [fail] and eventually you can become blind. The brain tries to balance these things out.
So you became intensely visually aware, did you?
Yes, I think so. I also see differently from most people. The world for me is really flat – flatter than it is for most people. The only way I know where something is, is if it moves.
I’ve read about this before—it’s not unusual for artists to have problems with their sight and other disabilities that then inform their work.
I think it’s a big thing. There’s the vision thing and then there’s the brush with mortality. I was five—most people learn that lesson much later in life than I did. Trauma often precipitates a certain distance from the world because you’re different. I was always an artist. One of my handicaps in terms of “branding” is that I can do almost anything and I want to do all of them. I’m not too bad a writer, even.
So this branding is everything these days … how are you dealing with that?
Badly. Very badly. You have be identifiable, to have a “look”.
Isn’t the problem with wanting to do lots of different things is only doing a few, or even just one of them, well?
Of course. I mean I don’t impose my writing on anyone.
You don’t seem anxious about not being “branded”. Is that because you’re experienced? Did you feel anxious when you were younger?
No. The anxiety is, “Am I going to sell enough of these so that I can do more of them?” I’m terrible at commissions. Once in a while I get it right but what [often] happens is that I become too careful.
Can we talk about Photorealism?
Well, I’m an artist, not a Photorealist. I just happen to use photographs for my subjects.
Then you’re not a Photorealist?
I am! I’m a famous photorealist! I am one of the original Photorealists. In point of fact I have a French art dictionary that has one of my paintings as the definition of quintessential photorealism.
So when you’re painting from a photograph, is it an interpretation or is it a composition?
It is composition. I suppose I know what I’m doing and what I’m talking about—this is the horse’s mouth—but I think of painting—this isn’t the thought I wanted but I’ve just come up with it—I think of it as really building these things in paint. It’s like a big puzzle. You have to figure out how you make something that isn’t a photograph, something that excites in a different way. I just call it painting; other people call it photorealism. These [photorealist paintings] do things that only paintings can do.
Is Photorealism fashionable?
No it’s not—unless you happen to be Chuck Close.
How much does it get to you, the in, the out, the market, the fashion and so on?
You have to pay attention to the business side. I mean I’m hopeless.
Because you’re not interested?
Because I’m hopeless. I don’t want to look in the mail. You can’t be a good businessman unless you respond—especially now with email. You’ve got to respond in the next minute. I don’t want to live in that world. Friends come in, collectors or businessmen and they say to me, “Why don’t you just paint that? That’s a good one. Do more of those.” The virtue of art is that there is only one of them.
But Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst will do “more of those”.
Yeah. Someone like Bach did a thousand of almost everything! Okay by Sunday you need something new? What do you want? Do you have any money?
But you have a life here that any aspiring artist would envy. You have the big Soho loft; you’ve made a mark. You’ve presumably made some money. All of that is beyond most artists’ dreams …
I suppose it is, yeah. But I couldn’t afford this Soho loft if I had not been here for 45 years.
We need to talk about what Soho was like 45 years ago.
When Soho was the center of the art world, I knew an awful lot of people. You know you’d go out for lunch and you’d stop into galleries or restaurants on West Broadway and Leo Castelli is sitting there … and you could get by on a whole lot less money. We would work and the wives, Leslie Close and Katherine Snelson and Susan Posen … they would be in playground on Houston St [with the kids] and then we would all go to the playground and figure out whose house we were going to have dinner at. It was wonderful. It was just wonderful.