Whitehot Magazine

Donald Kuspit on Michael Zansky’s Van Gogh Portraits

Michael Zansky, Saturn Paintings & Carvings 2015 - 2018 Carved & painted plywood 16 x 12 ft panels

By DONALD KUSPIT November, 2018 

Ah! portraiture, portraiture with the thoughts, the soul of the model in it, that is what I think must come.                                                                    
Vincent Van Gogh, Letter to Theo Van Gogh, August 1888(1)

Small wonder that the list of artists, in say the last 150 years that have become shipwrecked on these reefs is so long—Hölderlin, John Clare, Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Antonin Artaud.  R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience(2)

In a series of twenty-four paintings, following one another like stills from a horror film—for the face of Van Gogh is often distorted beyond recognition, sometimes into animal-like monstrousness, as in 4397, his mouth a black pit ready to swallow us after his large teeth have chewed us to bits, at other times reduced to a macabre fragment of face that seems like a death mask, as in 4376—Michael Zansky has given us a soul portrait of Van Gogh.  If, as the art historian Max J. Friedländer convincingly argued, every portrait is in effect a self-portrait—elaborating the idea, Friedländer quotes Dostoyevsky, who remarked, with psychological acumen, that “the painter seeks the moment when the model looks most like himself”(3)—then Zansky’s portrait of Van Gogh is a portrait of his own soul.  He has said that Van Gogh represents his father, who had the same red hair as Van Gogh, and was also an extraordinarily gifted artist, and also had deep emotional problems.  But, if the son is a chip off the old block of the father—writing this I cannot help thinking of Zansky’s extraordinary works in wood, huge murals in which he chips away at it, making gestures that have the vehemence, incisiveness, and sweep of Van Gogh’s, indeed, outdo his for they are made with a blowtorch rather than brush(4)--then Zansky’s portraits of Van Gogh are as much portraits of himself as of his father. 

Michael Zansky, Ecliptic 0100, 2018, 40 x 32 in

Zansky has said “there is no me without others who came before me,” suggesting that without his father and Van Gogh—in effect his grandfather—he would not be himself, more particularly, not be an artist, suggesting that his Van Gogh portraits are a homage to them.  Zansky calls his portraits of Van Gogh “psychological fragments,” with a certain “quality of madness,” suggesting that his father’s madness and Van Gogh’s madness have become his madness—the madness of being an artist.  A psychological fragment is an internalized image, typically of a person important to one for some emotional reason, more generally what psychoanalysts call an internal object, an object that has become an indispensable and motivating part of one’s psyche—an object fraught with what Kandinsky called “inner necessity.”  So Zansky’s father and Van Gogh are—with the difference that Zansky did not become as mad or psychotic as they became (they both spent time in mental hospitals) because he sought psychoanalytic therapy for his madness, allowing him to be as creative as they were without becoming shipwrecked on the reefs of the unconscious, to allude to the Laing epigraph.  Unlike them, Zansky became conscious of his unconscious, and with that gained a measure of self-control and self-respect, avoiding the fate of Van Gogh, a suicide:  his destructiveness, eventuating in his self-destruction, is evident in what the psychoanalyst W. R. D. Fairbairn calls his corrosive slashing convulsive brushstrokes,(5) a kind of mortification of the painting, the image flayed alive, stripped to its painterly flesh.  

Michael Zansky, Ecliptic 0400, 2018, 40 x 32 in

Zansky’s portraits of Van Gogh cut away at his physical appearance to uncover his psychological reality:  it is as though Zansky dug him up from the grave, dissecting the remains of his body to show the remains of his psyche.  Zansky’s portraits are mnemonic traces of Van Gogh, and like all unforgettable memories—memories vital to one’s existence, all the more so when they are catalytic of creativity--they are paradoxical momento mori:  bits and pieces of a dead saint of art—a martyr to art--held up for veneration and inspiration in the reliquary of the painting as signs and proof of his living soul.  Like the fragments of a true saint the fragments of this true artist are sheltered and protected behind glass—the train window through which we see Van Gogh on his voyage through emotional hell.  The window functions as his aura, confirming his sacred character, even as it is also an open casket, displaying the remains of his profaned body, mistreated by alcohol and tobacco.  The Night Café, 1888 is a study in alcohol-induced dementia—Van Gogh was a heavy drinker.  He was also a compulsive smoker:  Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette, n. d., an ironic self-portrait, shows that he realizes that smoking leads to death.  Both works suggest that he knew he was on a self-destructive path.  For him, excessive drinking and smoking were instruments of self-defeat, consciously chosen however unconsciously driven by the death instinct.  At the same time, these works, like Van Gogh’s many self-portraits, show his strong sense of self, even a certain defiant omnipotence, a courageous insistence that art can triumph over death.

Michael Zansky, Ecliptic 0600, 2018, 40 x 32 in

 Van Gogh was a missionary, and his art is on a mission to save the world, if finally at the expense of himself, as Zansky’s portraits of him make clear.  Admiring them, we are in Van Gogh’s aborted presence:  stripping him to his emotional essentials, Zansky’s bleak and barren portraits—peculiarly “minimalist” to generate “maximum” expressive effect, Van Gogh often no more than a disembodied squiggly stick figure (4413), confrontational intimidating mask-like face (4388), or bizarrely animal or hybrid (a dog smoking a pipe in 4380)--convey Van Gogh’s masochistic self-doubt and anguish, not to say the absurdity of his existence.  They are epitomized in 4401, a masterpiece of mortifying suffering, the incurable sickness unto death from which Van Gogh suffered—his luminous flower paintings were an elated relief from his almost unbearable suffering but did not cure it--conveyed by the dismal gray and depressing black of the paintings, suggestive of the dark night of the soul that saints necessarily experience on their way to seeing the light of salvation.  Van Gogh saw it in nature, but Zansky gives us a denatured Van Gogh, or at least a Van Gogh with an unusual body, ruined beyond repair or transformed into a Kafkaesque insect.  Looking at Zansky’s nightmarish rendering of Van Gogh’s excruciating misery, it becomes clear that his soul was not saved by art, although we believe in his art, for we are convinced that it conveys our inner life in all its downs and ups, and thus is a kind of saving grace.  Nonetheless, we are unwilling to sacrifice our lives to art, as Van Gogh did.

Michael Zansky, Ecliptic 1200, 2018, 40 x 32 in

Where Rimbaud had A Season In Hell, to allude to his poem, which prefigured Surrealism, so Van Gogh spent his life in hell, however much the “radiance and vibration” of his color, used “arbitrarily,” as he said—expressively rather than descriptively—lifted his paintings to heaven.  They also were peculiarly surrealistic that is, uncannily fused dream and reality.  Van Gogh’s painterliness often has the quality of  pure psychic automatism—which is not without the manic violence that Fairbairn saw in it--that Breton thought was quintessentially surrealist.  It is worth noting that Rimbaud and Van Gogh were almost exact contemporaries.  Rimbaud was born in 1854 and died in 1891, Van Gogh was born in 1853 and died in 1890.  Both lived 37 years.  The Surrealism that began with Rimbaud’s poems and Van Gogh’s paintings climaxes in Zansky’s Van Gogh portraits.  They are the ne plus ultra of Surrealist figure painting.  They strip Van Gogh emotionally naked, showing the tortured, damned soul intimated in Van Gogh’s self-portraits.  Zansky’s imitatio Van Gogh—his identification with Van Gogh—reminds me of the imitatio Christi—identification with Christ—in Christianity.  But Zansky sees through the holier-than-thou Van Gogh, coolly stripping him to his core, undermining the canonical Van Gogh of hero worship by showing him as a pathetic ruined barely human being, indeed, less than human, a sort of failed evolutionary experiment.

Michael Zansky, Giants & Dwarfs 1990 - 2002 Carved & painted plywood 200 4 x 8 ft sheets

Zansky is clearly fascinated by Van Gogh—Zansky’s portraits are unusually imaginative fantasies, even more mysterious and strange than the fantastic creatures in Odilon Redon’s Dans le Rêve, 1878, thus closing the circle of Surrealism that opened with their appearance.  Redon’s weird creatures embody his insanity—they’re sort of nightmarish alter egos--and with it his self-estrangement and social isolation—his alienation and “outsiderness.”  Similarly, Zansky’s animalistic Van Gogh—he sometimes has bug eyes (4393), sometimes a beak (4410), sometimes an elephant foot (4399), sometimes a tail (4380), and sometimes crawls like a worm (4403)—conveys his regression to less than human being, the sub-humanity of the insane marking one a social misfit, a sort of nonperson who doesn’t belong in society, a social embarrassment who is always “out of place,” as Van Gogh felt he was, whether in the gray and cold Netherlands where he was born or the colorful and warm south of France where he died.  And also out of place because he was an artist—not an ordinary artist following constricting academic rules, but an original artist breaking them by following the Impressionist path to uninhibited self-expression, just as Zansky has followed the Surrealist path to even profounder, more original self-expression, for Zansky’s Van Gogh, along with his manically bizarre Giants and Dwarfs, 1990-2002, epitomize what the psychoanalyst Michael Eigen calls the psychotic core of the self. 


Artist Michael Zansky

What is particularly brilliant about Zansky’s rendering of Van Gogh in black and gray—with a touch of cold northern light, typical of the Netherlands in the winter—is that it returns him to the repressive world of his father, a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, the deathworld where his emotional problems began.  And what is particularly insightful about Zansky’s rendering of Van Gogh as a freak of nature is that it conveys what the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion calls his “inability to subordinate himself to the group” that gives one the illusion that one is sane.  (It also conveys respectable society’s view of an unrespectable artist.)  Unable or unwilling—and Van Gogh was known for his stubbornness—to do so, whether the group is the family or the academicians or the Impressionists, all of whom he broke with, all of whom he was unable to seamlessly fit into, suggesting his unfitness for society in general and thus his incurable insanity, it trapped him in himself, imagining he was self-sufficient, drawing the life-giving water of his creativity from the well of himself until none was left, leaving him exhausted and depleted, and feeling less than human.  He became the unholy creature imprisoned in a cell of Zansky’s train, its 24 cells stations on the way to Van Gogh’s cross—a cross of art that guarantees no salvation.  Was Van Gogh “framed”—deceived, betrayed--by art, as the frames that confine him suggest?  He is on his way to his death—perhaps he is half dead, squirming in his coffin, agonizing for a misbegotten life and misbegotten art, crying like a baby for his misfortune (4390), beating his head in despair (4401)--for both the Netherlands and France had exhausted their welcome. 

Ecliptic, 2018, 40 x 32 in

They were no longer creative alembics, what the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott called facilitating environments.  The Northern Netherlands was a stern, demanding, religious father, Van Gogh emulating him by preaching through art, and southern France was a warm, nourishing Mother Nature, his art flourishing at least until the black crows of predatory death began to destructively pick at her, as they famously do in Wheatfield with Crows, 1890.  Van Gogh finally took his own life that year because it had become futile and absurd and lonely, as his absurd appearance and isolation in Zansky’s psychodynamic portraits make clear.  Redon said that art begins in the unconscious; Zansky shows that life also ends in the unconscious.  Certainly Van Gogh’s did.  “My monsters,” Redon said when asked what his favorite subject matter was.  “I believe that it is there that I have given my most favorite personal note.”  It is a remark that Zansky could have made, considering the monsters in his Van Gogh series and the even more grotesque, horrifying ones in his Giants and Dwarfs series.                  

Michael Zansky, Ecliptic Studies, 2018, 30 x 22 in, Oil on paper

Traveling on the funeral train of Zansky’s imagination, Van Gogh is on a schizophrenic journey, described by Laing as “(1)a voyage from outer to inner, (ii)from life to a kind of death, (iii)from going forward to going back, (iv)from temporal movement to temporal standstill, (v)from mundane time to eonic time, (vi)from the ego to the self, (vii)from outside (post-birth) back into the womb of all things (pre-birth), and then subsequently a return voyage from (1)inner to outer, (2)from death to life, (3)from a movement back to a movement once more forward, (4)from immortality back to mortality, (5)from eternity back to time, (6)from self to a new ego, (7)from a cosmic fertilization to an existential rebirth.”(6)  Except that Zansky’s Van Gogh did not make the return voyage, but remained schizophrenic to his dying day.  Boxed in by Zansky—forced inside himself--Van Gogh can only squirm and twist in place, making faces at us—attempting to stare us down in a futile attempt at a relationship, for the aggression in his stare backfires, becomes self-destructive rather than destructive of the other--as a last assertion of a self that has lost its body.  Van Gogh is all head and no body in 4376, 4378, 4382, 4388, among other works, and thus without foundation, if the body is the foundation of the self, as Freud said.  He has lost his humanity when he has an animal or insect body, making him peculiarly monstrous.  Zansky’s Van Gogh often has one eye, suggesting that he is a Cyclops, and like the Cyclops a stupid monster, however knowing his piercing glance may seem.  “Schizophrenia reflects a fundamental disorder or ‘warp’ in the basic organization of the personality, constituting a ‘disaster to self-esteem’.”(7) 

Michael Zanksy, Ecliptic 0200, 2018, 40 x 32 in

Zansky’s Van Gogh is clearly “warped”—a disaster--as his ugly appearance suggests.  The figure in 4401 seems to be suffering from self-hatred; none of Zansky’s Van Goghs have the self-esteem that comes with creativity, creativity perhaps the deepest expression of self-esteem, certainly an assertion of the self at its most confident and glorious.  But the ugliness—repulsiveness—of Zansky’s Van Gogh suggests that he was a failed human being however creative an artist—the emblematic mad artist of romanticism, that is, the artist whose human failings paradoxically made him (somehow) a creative success.  Van Gogh was a creative success--his art has come to be regarded as beautiful (even though they lack the subtle harmony of traditional beauty, but have become emblematic of the warped beauty of modern art [whether expressionistic, cubist, futuristic, surrealistic, etc.])—but he was a human failure.  Identifying with him, Zansky announces that he also is a mad artist—and an even madder one than Van Gogh.  For Zansky’s portraits of Van Gogh make no pretense of beauty, as Van Gogh’s paintings of nature do, and with that are more authentically creative, if creativity involves plumbing the depths of the self to bring back the raw feelings that are at the psychotic core of the self--the raw feelings conveyed by the raw surfaces of Zansky’s Giants and Dwarfs masterpieces.  

Giants & Dwarfs (Detail) 1990 - 2002 Carved & painted plywood 200 4 x 8 ft sheets

In the psychotic core the self is divided against itself—split into bad black feelings and good white feelings, partially reconciled, their intensity blunted, in gray, to allude to the tonalities of Zansky’s Van Gogh paintings.  They are also the sober noncolors of death—brittle white bone, flesh blackened by disease, the gray of the shroud—and, intriguingly, they are completely at odds with Van Gogh’s “ardent,” “temperamental” colors, as he called them, suggesting that Zansky is distancing himself from Van Gogh in the act of portraying him, that is, disidentifying with him even as identifies with him, alienated from him even as he admires his originality, thus saving his own soul while showing Van Gogh’s damned soul and demonstrating his own originality, ingeniously negating Van Gogh’s, for Zansky’s Van Gogh is not a creative artist but a pathetic creature.  Sometimes a huge bright sun suddenly—miraculously--appears in an amorphous matrix of black, white, and gray, as occurs in 4384, looking like the enlarged core of a sunflower in a Van Gogh painting or the glaring sun of southern France, blinding to look at directly, as Van Gogh may have been tempted to do, as the often overwhelming luminosity of many of his landscapes suggests.  It also conveys the turbulence of the mistral—its dots bombard one like bits of sand—that can drive one mad.  Van Gogh experienced, internalized, and represented it as his turbulent, maddening gestures suggest. 

But what saves Zansky from Van Gogh’s self-defeat—“the most broadly characteristic feature of all psychopathology”(8)--is his cunning sense of humor.  There is something comical about Zansky’s Van Gogh portraits.  They are all caricatures, a point made clear by the comic strip like studies for them (001, 002, 003), line drawings that have the incisive clarity and declarative format of a comic strip illustration.  Enriched by being painted--given a new density of expression by their bold texture—Zansky’s illustrations become expressive tours de force, catalysts of his passionate creativity, more than equal to Van Gogh’s.  Psychoanalysts regard humor as a mature defense, and another sign of defensive maturity is Zansky’s transformative use of traditional motifs, suggesting the truth of the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s view that there is no originality without tradition.  Like the mother, it nourishes creativity.  Thus Zansky’s ironical--perverse?--use of Leonardo da Vinci’s sensitive drawing of the beautiful head of a happy baby and his clinically precise drawing of a female vagina.  For Leonardo’s beautiful happy baby becomes Zansky’s ugly unhappy crybaby (4390), and Leonardo’s vagina becomes Van Gogh’s amorphous (anamorphic?) skull (4397) and warlock (4401).  Or is it a horn of light, cousin to the two that grew from Moses’s head when he became enlightened by God?  But Zansky’s Van Gogh is the devil—daemonic rather than angelic, as Leonardo’s beautiful baby is.

Zansky calls his Van Gogh portraits Ecliptic Series, an appropriate title because they are about the eclipse of Van Gogh, and eclipse Van Gogh’s paintings in their psychoticism, that is, in their “aggressiveness and interpersonal hostility,” making one more vulnerable to schizophrenia, as the psychologist Hans Eysenck says.  Zansky’s Van Gogh is clearly an interpersonal failure, as his relationship with Gauguin, among others, indicates, and aggressively in-your-face, even as Zansky’s paintings are a creative success and, peculiarly, more reserved, for we see Van Gogh as though through a glass darkly, or as though he was some bug seen through a microscope, a specimen of an artist preserved forever on a slide, as the glass window through which we see him may also be.  Zansky’s paintings are insightful èmasterpieces of subjective portraiture in the same high expressive class as and even more emotionally profound, by reason of their depiction of psychotic breakdown, than Edvard Munch’s Anxiety, 1894, Ludwig Meidner’s Self-Portrait, 1919, Erich Heckel’s Portrait of a Man, 1919, and Ernest Ludwig Kirchner’s Self-Portrait as a Sick Person, 1918, among other great “degenerate” Expressionist masters. WM


(1)Quoted in Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley and London:  University of California Press, 1971), 35

(2)R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience (New York:  Ballantine, 1967), 141

(3)Quoted in Max J. Friedländer, Landscape Still Life Portrait (New York:  Schocken, 1963), 245

(4)Many of Zansky’s works are carved paintings, that is, relief carvings covered over with paint.  The image—typically a figure--ruthlessly carved away remains latent in the wood.  Haunting the surface like a ghost, it is in effect the latent content of the dream image--a damaged internal object, psychoanalytically speaking, distorted by the dreamwork of the destructive carving into monstrousness, that is, dehumanized.  Thus the monsters in his Giants and Dwarfs frieze, the creatures in his Saturn Paintings, and the insects in his Flatland Drawings.  One might say that Zansky’s Van Gogh Paintings rehumanize the figure, showing it to be all too human—introverted and suffering, extroverted and aggressive, that is, oscillating between self-destructiveness and societal destructiveness—while showing that it remains non-human, or rather incompletely human, a hybrid of man and animal, and with that inescapably monstrous, a permanent contradiction in terms.  Van Gogh is an absurd being in Zansky’s theater of the absurd, the visual equivalent to the theater of the absurd of such playwrights as Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco.  The theater of the absurd aims to show “the absurdity of human existence in a meaningless universe,” more particularly the inescapable isolation of the individual in a purposeless world.  The stage is often vast and empty—“an undifferentiated endless space,” like the “vast hermetic whiteness” in Zansky’s Saturn Paintings—as though to make the emptiness implicit in the actor explicit,  the hollowness at the core of his futility.  All of Zansky’s characters are actors performing their limited selves, that is, acting out their suffering in a futile attempt to escape—artistically transcend--it, but their performance hides their emptiness even as it evokes it. 

Zansky’s Van Gogh has a certain affinity with Antonin Artaud, a poet, playwright, and actor who identified with Van Gogh, writing “Suicided by Society,” a poem about Van Gogh’s fate.  Artaud blames Van Gogh’s suicide on society rather than his willful alienation from it as a self-creative artist, a human being who rebelliously chose to create himself by making art rather than submissively let society create him, who found the meaning of his life in art rather than in society, which made him a kind of social outcast, all the more so because the art he made was “insane,” for it went against the grain of the established tradition (just as his insane raw gestures went against the grain of its sane refined surface, as Zansky’s even more insane carved raw gestures do)--that Artaud wrote when he was hospitalized in an insane asylum, as Van Gogh was.  One might say that Zansky shows Van Gogh locked up in a room in an insane asylum after he has had a catastrophic breakdown—traceable to childhood, as the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott says—that is, become irrecoverably insane.

 (5)In “Prolegomena to a Psychology of Art,” Fairbairn writes:  ”The destructive impulses must play an important part in the phenomenon of art.  Art may be a channel for the expression of sadistic phantasies, and that this actually happens may be seen in the pictures of Goya and of the Surrealists,” he adds by way of example. “The sadism of Goya and the Surrealists is expressed chiefly in the subject matter of their pictures, but sadism may be expressed in the brushwork of a picture, even when it is absent in the subject—as in the case of Van Gogh.  From Instinct To Self:  Selected Papers of W. R. D. Fairbairn, II (Northvale, NJ and London:  Jason Aronson, 1992) 389.  Noteworthily, Zansky is indebted to Goya and the Surrealists, as he acknowledges.

 (6)Laing, 128-129

 (7)Jay R. Greenberg and Stephen A. Mitchell, Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theory (Cambridge, MA and London:  Harvard University Press, 1983), 85

(8)Ibid., 172



Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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