A visit with Bob Witz, quite possibly New York City's only remaining outsider artist
The artist Bob Witz, 77, has lived in the same cluttered studio apartment on West 26th Street in Manhattan for the past 36 years.
In that time he has participated in only a handful of small, mostly group exhibitions. Perhaps his biggest claim to fame is a series of letters he published in Artforum forty years ago, critiquing what he considered to be the magazine’s elitist ideology.
If such a thing as an outsider artist still exists in New York City, Bob Witz may well be it.
“I think of Bob as the Thoreau of New York,” said Bill Jensen, a painter and longtime friend whose work is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. “He’s this stoic, sage-like character whose life is completely dedicated to his art. And yet he lives right in the center of Manhattan.”
A survey of Witz’s oeuvre from 1962 to the present, entitled I Know Where I Am Goin’, is on display now through April 16 at The New York Studio School. The show, which represents the largest exhibition of his work to date, is somewhat shocking to behold; the 45 paintings and sculptures resemble less the work of a single man than a collective of slightly disturbed, post-war folk artists from the Deep South.
In the first room, heavily impastoed paintings of an ominous bottle motif hang beside a series of voodoo-like sculptures of Don Quixote and the Statue of Liberty, made out of milk cartons, frozen-orange-juice containers, and assorted detritus. The second room features a large painting of James Joyce surrounded by whirling mandalas, as well as a verdigrised tower of bronzed coffee cups.
It’s strange to think that the creator of these ghostly works is still living—let alone residing in an apartment in Chelsea. Even Witz himself has trouble comprehending it.
“I can’t believe I’m still alive, honestly,” he said with a laugh during a visit to his studio on Tuesday night. And yet Witz—a small, lean man who looks like a cross between the cartoonist R. Crumb and the novelist James Ellroy—seemed perfectly healthy, even upbeat in his red Galapagos Islands T-shirt. Having worked as an Army medic, a day laborer, an underground magazine editor and a part-time building superintendent, he now collects social security and spends his days painting, often rising at 5 a.m. and continuing into the night. To relax, he sketches customers at a McDonald’s near his home for hours at a time.
“Thoreau had Walden Pond, Bob has the McDonald’s on 34th Street,” said Jensen.
Of course, Witz’s apartment bears little resemblance to Thoreau’s cabin. The 1,000-square-foot space doubles as his living quarters and painting studio, though the latter long ago engulfed the former. Visitors must wend their way through piles of bronzed shoeboxes, tilting assemblages of scavenged Nutrament and Mountain Dew cans, and stacks of 30- and 40-year-old oil paintings that he is continually retouching.
“I just put these silver glasses on Dante today,” he said, gesturing at a painting called Die Sterne (German for “The Stars”), which also features the faces of Kafka and Baudelaire hovering in a sea of bright white dots. “I needed something a little less literal, you know what I mean?”
Remove the art, though, and the apartment would be as spare as a monastery. Witz’s appliances are limited to a refrigerator, four high-wattage light bulbs, and an ancient hot plate with a single, handle-less pot. He shares the cramped and dimly lit bathroom with a man in the adjacent loft, whom Witz believes to be “some kind of country musician.” He threw out his TV years ago, has never owned a computer (“I can’t see myself sending an email”), and though he does have a telephone—a rotary phone, with no answering machine—he considers it a kind of extravagance.
“Duchamp, De Kooning, Giacommeti—none of those guys had telephones,” he said.
As such, Witz has managed to stay blissfully out of touch with the latest developments in media and technology. He is currently reading a weathered advance readers copy of a 1989 Picasso biography by someone named Arianna Stassinopolous Huffington.
Asked if he knows who that is, he replied, “Not really. But she’s probably Greek.”
Bob Witz was born in 1934, and grew up in the small town of Tomah, Wisconsin. In addition to Nicolas de Staël and Vincent Van Gogh, he cites his cousin Bob Koenig as one of his biggest artistic influences.
“Bob could really draw, man,” Witz recalled. “As a kid, he won a trophy for this drawing he did of Lindberg flying into Milwaukee. When he grew up he went to World War II, and walked back from a battlefield holding in his intestines. He’s quite a character.”
Witz did a few years of college before joining the Army in 1954. As a medical technician, he was stationed in Paris, Berlin, and finally Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, after which he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin on the G.I. Bill. It was here that he began to paint and write, contributing the odd poem to the campus magazine Arts in Society. He split the next 15 years between working in a V.A. hospital at Camp McCoy and trying to be a painter in Madison, where he explored what it means to be a starving artist.
“I didn’t like to work, so for a while I got by on bread, milk and a can of those Dinty Moore beef stews a week,” he said.
In the '60s, Witz had taken to writing letters to the then-editor of Artforum, an esteemed critic named Robert Pincus-Witten. “Some of it was kind of stupid and silly—little criticisms of art and things,” he said. To his complete surprise, Pincus-Witten decided to publish a two-page spread of these letters, along with a small drawing of Witz's, in the September 1973 issue of Artforum under the title "Robert Witz: Selections from the Tomah Letters";. Their tone and content range widely, from half-joking advice to strident declarations of artistic independence.
From March 19, 1973:
“Why don’t you grab somebody off the street and let him/her write a few articles…. Or why don’t you do one issue when your entire staff is drunk. You need major surgery of some kind.”
From March 29, 1973:
“Society has said no a lot to me. So I say no to it. No to General Motors, no to Superman, no to the most powerful nation on earth. This no is not directed to all of America but to the kind of arrogance, willfulness and sadism that those three types of institutions represent to me.”
From April 1, 1973:
“I also want you to know that I’m not some sweet prissy little Andy Warhol, if indeed that’s what he is.”
Bill Jensen, who at the time was an MFA student at the University of Minnesota, said that Witz became a “cult figure” on the art school campus as a result of the letters. “I thought, ‘Finally someone’s taking down Artforum like they should!’” he said.
Emboldened by the publication of his letters, Witz moved to New York City the following year. He worked construction jobs during the day, putting up sheetrock with other aspiring artists like Tom Otterness and the Japanese sculptor Jiro Naito, and painted at night. His constant proximity to dumpsters led him to incorporate trash into his sculptures, and he often painted directly on sheets of plywood that he'd found on the sidewalk.
Larry Webb, 69, an artist and longtime resident of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, recalled seeing his first Bob Witz painting at a friend’s studio in the '80s. “It just glowed. I said, ‘Who the hell does that belong to?'” he said, adding that he now owns 20 paintings by Witz.
In 1980, Witz founded Appearances, an annual arts and poetry magazine that ran until 1996. A conventional underground publication in many ways, it is notable for Witz’s determination to publish fiction by people in jail.
Through Appearances Witz fell in with The Unbearables, a loose collective of downtown poets, artists and anarchists. Every September 13, they gave erotic readings to passersby on the Brooklyn Bridge, until 9/11 put an end to it. In a sprawling 2011 collection called The Unbearables Big Book of Sex, published by Autonomedia, Witz contributed a poem titled “In Beckett’s Bar,” which contains lines like: “she kept displaying her vocabulary/ as well as her prodigious memory/ and I kept getting more and more excited.”
Over the years, Witz has exhibited works in group shows in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. In the '80s and early '90s, he had a few one-man shows at long-gone Manhattan spaces like Neo Persona and Speed Limit 55. But his friends believe that his disinterest in promoting himself or adopting a consistent, recognizable style has resulted in his lack of commercial success.
“Bob has never tried to endear himself to the cultural establishment of New York City,” said Ron Kolm, 64, a founding member of The Unbearables. “He can be prickly. He doesn’t kowtow or network. But in a world where a lot of people are simulations of the real thing, Bob is the real thing. He’s a real artist.”
Jensen and the art critic John Yau, another Bob Witz fan, have had trouble persuading even gallerists like Phyllis Kind, known for her embrace of outsider art, to exhibit Witz’s work. It was finally due to Jensen’s connections at the New York Studio School—where he and his wife Margrit have at a painting atelier—as well as his friendship with the artist and independent curator Phong Bui, who organized the show, that I Know Where I Am Goin’ exists.
Regardless, Witz displays almost none of the cantankerousness of many older, under-recognized artists in New York City. Part of this may be due to the fact that he pays just $700 a month for his rent-stabilized apartment—though his landlord is actively trying to buy him out, he said. But Witz also seems to relish his distance from the art world and society-at-large, for the simple freedoms it provides.
“Society has all kinds of pressures,” he said at his studio, dragging out a cartoon collage of frolicking Wall Street types that he insists has nothing to do with Occupy Wall Street or the financial crisis. “I say, ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ Society doesn’t have the right to make you do what they want.”
Witz visits with friends once or twice a week. He has traded in the Dinty Moore for a more diverse diet of bagels, beans, and Chinese food from the place around the corner. “They have a chicken and broccoli in brown sauce for six bucks a pop,” he said.
Lately, he added, his regular visits to McDonald’s have drastically improved his sketching technique. Opening his sketchbooks, he flipped through hundreds of drawings of unwitting New Yorkers rendered in quick, graceful strokes. One showed the restaurant’s pretty young female manager, to whom Witz had given a few paintings in thanks for not kicking him out. Another captured a 22-year-old Mexican girl, to whom he’d given a dual translation of Federico Garcia-Lorca poems. “Who knows if she’ll read it,” he said, laughing.
He lingered a while on a drawing of an older, dignified-looking woman—a frequent customer that he’d failed to draw on prior occasions.
“She came in a few weeks ago, but this time she stayed for hours,” he said, shaking his head in amazement. “I got her that day. I finally got her.”
'I Know where I Am Goin'' is on view now through April 16 at the New York Studio School.