“The Risk of Existence (for Anya),” 1997–98
The first painting that I saw by Mark Greenwold was, it seemed, a kind of cozy domestic scene. Some people stand in a beautiful room before a lit fireplace, dressed as family might be while hanging around over the holidays. Greenwold himself is front and center, a self-portrait in a zipped-up cardigan and pants. Next to him, his elderly father wears a mismatched flannel robe and pajamas. Greenwold’s mother stands behind them, and a young man on the left holds his head at an alluring angle, and behind him is another guy in a sweater. But there are some things happening that maybe shouldn’t be. Greenwold’s arm passes through his father’s shoulder and comes out the front. The other man wears a black velvet dress—and hovering over his outstretched hand is a tiny ballerina in first position.
These people have been rendered at a granular level with precision and resonance. Greenwold has also paid close attention to such things as the light reflecting off his mother’s glasses, which creates a doubling image of her eyeballs. One critic has compared this “obsessive verisimilitude” to Van Eyck, which I took to mean that you could go back six hundred years to one of the great practitioners of Western art to find a comparable exactitude in paint. But, when I first saw the work, what really entranced me were the facial expressions. Somehow, Greenwold made me think (a little crazily) that I knew these people who were crammed into that room together—what they thought of themselves and of one another. It felt very strange, and the longer I looked, the more mystified I became. My lungs tightened; I got worried. I saw in the painter’s face an exasperated attempt to grasp the whatness of being. The painting was only fourteen inches square. How did he fit all that information into such a tight space? The ambition, commitment, and perfectionism in his work seemed a little unhinged.
I discovered Greenwold while looking at the big mugshots by Chuck Close, the photorealistic work that he did in the seventies, and learned that Greenwold was the model for the iconic painting “Mark.” Although Greenwold hasn’t achieved Close’s level of fame, his painting does more for me than Close’s. It’s warm and relational, imbued with psychoanalytic drama. (Close happens to be Greenwold’s good friend and appears in many of his paintings.) Greenwold has been written about with great admiration by Sanford Schwartz, Robert Storr, and Ken Johnson, among other critics, and has inspired strong reactions going back decades. In 1979, the art critic Lucy Lippard viewed a single-painting exhibition of Greenwold’s “The Sewing Room,” a scene of domestic violence, in which a figure who looks exactly like the young Greenwold is caught in the act of stabbing in the throat with scissors a person who looks a lot like Greenwold’s then wife, Barbara. Lippard urged the gallery to take down the show. Greenwold defended the work: the point was to upset people, to violate decorum. Barbara, who was pregnant at the time, had not been the model for the painting. He was not endorsing his wife’s murder. After all, he’d dedicated the painting to her.
Right now, there’s a show at Garth Greenan Gallery, in Manhattan, spanning nearly fifty-five years of Greenwold’s career, and there’s still plenty to get excited and upset about in his scenes of domestic drama. I went to the opening to see one particular painting, “Bright Promise (for Simon).” Even forty-four years later, it’s a shocker. It’s big, roughly seven by nine feet, depicting a scene in an over-the-top teen-age girl’s bedroom from the seventies: twelve-inch TV, princess telephone, chemical colors, with a bedspread in the center. On one side of the room, an attractive naked couple is embracing, and, on the other side, a young woman throws off her clothes as if to join them. Greenwold told me that doing that painting changed the way he worked, because it almost killed him. “I spent four years on it, working in little tiny incremental ways,” he said. “I spent a year of my life just painting that bedspread. It’s covered with these chenille balls, and someone once counted twelve hundred of them. I knew I’d never fucking do that again, although after a while I started to fall in love with what I could do. The sheer ambition of it strikes me now as immensely optimistic and somewhat insane. Was it Nabokov who talked about giving more attention to a thing than God would? That’s how it felt to me.”
“Bright Promise (for Simon),” 1971–75
The painting’s elements—the eye-popping décor and private parts—are not easily integrated. Greenwold creates disquieting domestic scenes that are emotionally direct and psychologically fraught, bursting with energy and with his own conflicts, nuttiness, impulses, narcissism, and love of bodies.
I spotted Greenwold’s wife, the painter Betsy Kaufman, who appears in his recent work. We looked at one of his newest. “I loved this one, but it disturbs me,” she said. The painting that we were looking at, “And Now What?!,” is one of the first Greenwold did after undergoing prostate surgery, in 2016. Greenwold painted himself naked, face down, at his son’s feet. “He’s dead,” Kaufman said. Greenwold appears three other times in the painting. He’s sprawled naked on a table; he’s lying underneath the table while clinging to Kaufman for dear life; he’s peeking out from behind a staircase with a sneaky grin.
“Look here,” she said, pointing at a smaller painting. “After surgery, he had a colostomy bag and that’s it, and that’s his diaper, because he couldn’t control his pee for a long time. And that’s me, naked, taunting him with my ass.” Greenwold joined us. In person, he’s a more refined-looking version of the many likenesses of himself. “I’m on the other side of seventy-five,” he said, “and after the surgery I wanted to see if I could still do it.” He gestured at the painting that Kaufman hated, with him lying there dead. “It’s a sad painting—look at my fucked-up body—but it’s a thrill to finish anything.”
In some of Greenwold’s work, he paints himself as a kind of bystander, watching what we’re watching, sometimes floating, or wearing only socks and shoes, or dressed in a towel or in a woman’s housedress, or tethered to the world by a single shoelace held by a loved one. In many paintings, he’s naked in a way that’s completely ridiculous. The scenes are often intimate, dreamy, and beautiful. In one of my favorite paintings, “A Moment Of True Feeling,” from 2004-05, four people dwell together in a room, caught in a nanosecond of joy. Greenwold holds a paperback book, seemingly glad to be alive. His friend, the painter Katia Santibañez, looks at us with intense equanimity as her husband, the painter James Siena, handles a luminous cantaloupe. Greenwold’s people can be violent, suicidal, rude, shocking, or reckless. Their facial expressions and body postures are strangely riveting and remind us that human beings live outside of ordinary time, without a script. Our clothing, décor, urges, and associations are weird, and underneath these poses we’re naked and awkward, even as our colorful, multidimensional thoughts project out from us.
Greenwold’s son, Simon, joined the conversation. I recalled one of Greenwold’s most infamous paintings, “The Broken Home,” in which he wrestles in the middle of a well-appointed house with Simon’s mother, Barbara—it’s definitely her this time—while a very young Simon stands off to the side, pointing a gun at both of them.
“As a child,” Simon said, “I thought it was the coolest thing in the world to be put in a painting, but, as I grew up and read about Sally Mann, and saw her castigated in the press for using children inappropriately, without the children’s consent, that opened my eyes like, Oh, wait a minute, this might be problematic.” Simon has a Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literatures and was an associate dean at Northwestern for many years, and now works for a digital-education company. He looked around the room. “But my dad’s always said his relationship to figures is not narrative, and I accept that. I always do think of him painting me as a gesture of affection. I’m not a topic of anger.” He explained that this gallery opening was being attended by many people who’ve been subjects of Greenwold’s work. He pointed out his daughter in a painting, holding her stuffed animal, and said, “She’s had her ‘lovey’ since she was a baby, and was thrilled to see it celebrated in a work of art. My half-sister, her mother, many people who’ve been in my life for most of my life, this community—it’s pretty wild. They come out for him, which is nice.”
Anya, Greenwold’s daughter, who is is a magazine editor in Los Angeles, joined us. She’s also appeared in his paintings for her entire life. She admitted that she didn’t love the way she looked in a recent painting, “Paris.” “I think he made me look definitely heavier than I hope that I am,” she said. “Maybe not. Maybe that’s me.”
Greenwold had been chatting in a loose cluster beside us, but overheard Anya and turned to her with alarm. She said to Greenwold, “I told him I’m fatter in this.”
“Don’t talk to either of them anymore!” Greenwold said to me. He was mostly kidding.
Greenwold asked if I’d seen a certain painting from his last show with a red background. “Anya’s wearing glasses, and it’s very flattering. The problem was I didn’t have a really clear photo of her.”
A man approached and introduced himself to Anya. “You look just like your dad.”
“Oh, I thought you were going to say I look just like that painting.”
The red painting that Greenwold referred to was “Human Kindness,” and there are seven people and an apparition of a man’s head in it. To one side of Anya stands Simon, in sweaty workout clothes, with a winded look of tolerance, patience, or understanding. Simon’s daughter is beside him, lovingly rendered. Greenwold’s wife is beside Anya with a devilish grin, and in front of her is Close. His bright-blue eyes beam, as if to say, “Get a load of this craziness.” On the other side of Anya stands a tall, thin, tanned, long-necked, beautiful woman, naked and untroubled, smiling, sneaking a look back to the middle of the painting as though she has some wonderful secret. And in the center of the painting is Greenwold, squinting, eyes shut, mouth open, tongue sticking out, dressed, if you’d call it that, in a negligee and matching G-string. There are abstract splashes of color over his penis, so that he seems to be emitting a glowing penumbra, and below him on the floor is a chihuahua.
Many people I recognized from Greenwold’s work were standing around us. The collector Mickey Cartin talked with Santibañez, Siena, and the painter Oona Ratcliffe, as Greenwold huddled with his daughter and son. I’d seen so many interpretations of these faces, painted with such acute attention to detail. All evening, as we stood there together enacting this weird opening-night ritual, I’d had the feeling I was in a Greenwold painting.
I asked Siena about a new painting on display, “A Magic Summer,” that features him, and he explained that Greenwold photographs his subjects first, encouraging them to act out specific emotions. He said that the big meat cleaver that he’s waving around in the painting is one that he keeps handy in his studio to cut homemade pizza that he often brings in for lunch. Actually, there’s a second representation of Siena in the painting: he’s lying in the middle of the scene, in just his bright green underpants, with Old Holland’s cadmium-red oil paint all over his chest, in place of blood, as his wife pretends to stab him to death. (There’s also a cat, a flying baby, Close out the window over the ocean, Kaufman, and Ratcliffe in a lacy blue bra.) Siena introduced me to Sarah Walker, who makes beautiful Abstract Expressionist paintings. I asked whether she’d be willing to participate in one of these scenes by Greenwold, and she offered a tentative smile and gave it some thought. Siena watched her, looking on with patience and some concern, as I watched him, searching for some indescribable expression of the layers of feeling that might disclose the conflicts and depth and beauty of their souls.