Tasini – From where do you think your talent as an artist derived?
Schonzeit – Honestly I think it’s genetic. My mother was a singer, and my father, who was in the furniture business, had a great eye. There were always interesting objects around the house. We also had a small collection of very good paintings, mainly Dutch and American.
On top of that, I kind of always was an artist. When I was three years old I was drawing better than the average kid. While they were drawing stick figures, I was drawing contours. And then when I was five, I had an accident and lost one of my eyes. This experience placed me inside the house drawing while the other kids were outside playing. It made me more focused on seeing and working alone. Like most artists, I experienced trauma that turned me into someone who needed to express himself.
Tasini – How did you come to be a photographer?
Schonzeit – I always took pictures. When I was at Cooper Union I was in a photography course, but didn’t take it seriously because I thought of myself more as a painter. However it was still very interesting to me.
I was discouraged for a while after I worked photographing scientific equipment. It was just so technical and difficult. I was much more interested in abstract painting. After college I traveled around Europe for a year and brought with me a 35 mm Leica, sparking my interest again.
When I got back to New York I began a job teaching art in high school. To assist in lessons, I shot slides of “everyday” objects in order to show my students how elements of art are integrated into such things. This is what actually accelerated my own interest in painting and photographing everyday objects. I was inspired by what I saw.
Tasini – How do you feel about being labeled as a “photorealist” painter? How do you feel about artists being labeled in general?
Schonzeit – I hate being labeled a photorealist painter, but I’m willing to accept that I paint in that style sometimes. The verisimilitude of my paintings to photographs is of no interest to me. Photography for me presents ideas for paintings – it’s a lens through which I can see the world. It’s a jumping off point. I’d much rather be labeled as simply an artist who works in painting, photography, and drawing, etc.
An artist being labeled in general is a marketing tool. The labels, though I hate them, can really be key to understanding the work and the commonalities between one artist and another. They can help reveal what the work is about and give you further insight.
Tasini – When painting, do you always look at photographs or do you also look directly at three-dimensional objects?
Schonzeit – I usually work from photographs. I rarely work from actual objects, although occasionally I will have something in front of me for the purpose of reference to color or shape, etc.
Tasini – Why did you decide to exhibit works of photography after such a prolific painting career?
Schonzeit – A dealer came to me and told me we should show them, and it sounded like fun. I had a lot of photographs that I did not want to paint, so I might as well have exhibited them as they were.
Tasini – Have you seen a great change in photography within the art market transpire over the years?
Schonzeit – An enormous change. Photography is now on the same footing as painting, as long as it’s called art.
Tasini – What inspired the photographic series of flower still lifes?
Schonzeit – I was looking for a neutral subject that had color and could be arranged in the different ways I wanted. Flowers allowed me to create something new, manufactured, imagined, and structured by myself in my studio. They became sympathetic juxtapositions that created some visual experience. They are subjects without thematic meaning and all about color.
Schonzeit – I mainly choose them for their color and busyness. It seems to be the great impressionist painters were primarily the great colorists. It could also be a nod to a painting that I really admire, suggesting a continuity and universality of painters through history. I am using works that I admire as a jumping off point to recontextualize.
Tasini – If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?
Schonzeit – I might have been a musician or an architect or a furniture designer.
Tasini – Do you have certain pictures that you’d call your “favorites,” or ones that are very meaningful to you?
Schonzeit – Of course, many. My favorite paintings are the ones that happen by themselves like The Music Room, My Favorite Tie, and Shaggy Palm.
It would be hard to name my favorite photographs because I just have too many.
Tasini – What do you hope people appreciate when they look at your pictures?
Schonzeit – I hope that people enjoy my pictures. I hope that they get a certain excitement that you get when you look at something that’s interesting and beautiful. I hope they will look at them and want to look at them again and again. I want them to feel a sympathetic vibration.
Ben Schonzeit was born in Brooklyn in 1942 and developed a love and talent for painting and composition from an early age. He attended Cooper Union in New York City enjoying superb artistic training, originally studying architecture, but then switching to fine art graduating with a BFA in 1964. Schonzeit was a pioneer in the 1960s SoHo art scene in Manhattan and then became the youngest of the original thirteen Photorealist artists in the 1970s that included artists such as Cluck Close and James Rosenquist. Beginning with an extraordinary group of crisp, tightly painted works based on photographs he made in downtown Manhattan, Schonzeit’s career blossomed in the 1970s when Photorealism came into its own. Photorealism generally defines a type of painting that is inspired by the realistic precision and detail of a photograph meaning photography has always remained paramount to Schonzeit’s artistic practice. Schonzeit himself discovered the aesthetic potential of everyday objects in exquisitely painted, large-scale translations of photographs.
Since the mid-1980s Schonzeit has been creating imaginative and painterly setups that often involve the use of his own paintings as the backdrop, and photographs them. He has produced a stunning series of prints using the alternative process of the cibachrome print. In a recent series, he places lovely bouquets of flowers against backdrops of modern master paintings (Monet, Degas, Watteau), creating an artistic dialogue between art history and contemporary still life. This integration of old and new, three-dimensional objects and two-dimensional images, has further evolved into his newest body of work he began creating in 2014. His penetrating explorations of consciousness made a quick and lasting impression and found their way into the collections of many major museums in the United States and Europe. These include the Guggenheim in New York, the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Schonzeit continues to live and work in New York City.