Joseph Holtzman: New Paintings

by Matthew Stadler

The surface is a two-hundred-pound slab of marble, roughly the size of a short man, hung on the steel-reinforced wall of Joseph Holtzman’s painting studio. Joe paints with oil on marble. In the nine years since closing Nest (the cult interiors magazine from 1997–2004), he has completed three dozen paintings, eight of which will be shown in his first solo exhibition during the fall of 2014 at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum.

Joe’s studio takes up half the upper floor of a former hunting lodge near Hudson, New York, a place he calls “Camp Nest.” The other half is his library. Joe paints by shuttling back and forth between the two—reading and then painting and then painting and then reading—all day long until he’s done. The studio smells of linseed oil and pot. It’s littered with thousands of used razor blades, filling jars, and paper bags scattered around the floor. In the several months that a painting takes, he applies between 150 and 200 tubes of oil paint to the marble’s surface, and scrapes off anywhere from 100 to 150 of those tubes, leaving a thickly layered, heaving surface of paint.

Mahalia Jackson is on the stereo. Joe stands inches from the marble—painting and scraping. Then he’s twenty feet away, lying on the couch, looking back. Then he rushes across the room, applying more paint, scraping fields of color off to reveal other colors. Razor blades, thick with paint, drop from his fingers into a partly full Mason jar. It’s a kind of alchemy, turning the history of painting into the act of painting. 

Here’s Joe: “It’s a portrait of my mother titled, Frieda Holtzman with the Phases of the Moon (2009). It evolved. I don’t know what I’m painting for the longest time. At one point it was a crucifixion, but I kept working on it. I had a camera on a stationary tripod aimed at the marble as I worked. I took 320 images over the course of painting it. I promised Richard Tuttle I’d make it into an animation, as a gift to him. I was reading Voltaire’s Candide and thinking about the Enlightenment. The animation has helped me come out and give a little bit of love, not just spinning my wheels. Maybe my ideas have some legitimacy? You know, I’m reading this really interesting Titian biography . . .”

Matthew Stadler was the literary editor of Nest magazine and is currently writing, based in the Netherlands.

Visit An Animation for Richard Tuttle to view other versions of this animation.