By Ryan MacGibbon
A juice carton rests next to his left hand. Its four edges rise from the table and fold into a pint-sized peaked top. A straw juts out of the punched out hole in the waxed cardboard container. The thirsting mouth of Professor Bertram Katz reaches for it and draws juice.
Katz now roaming the studio, his students are painting. “Where is my juice?” he questions, sarcastically accusatory. He moves about in a white lab coat stained with colorful paint. “Did you take it?” he asks trivially, knowing that some step of his movement misplaced it.
He searches with a head of short, wavy-white hair and a strong face with a rounded nose. “Here it is,” he says with a bit of glee. He lifts the carton by its edges and pulls on the straw.
Katz is a teaching artist. He tells his students that all of existence is involved in form. Including juice, everything is a combination of matter and action. He recognizes perspective as the agent between the two, the force maintaining their interaction. For him, to understand perspective is a means to understand the continual happenings of the world, a means of “being aware of the various transitions.” And art is seeped in perspective.
Katz’s most influential years of study were at Hunter College with the abstract expressionist, Robert Motherwell. With the completion of his studies, he left the states and created artwork in Europe. He returned to teach studio art at Ohio State. He’s been a teacher since, currently, a professor of studio art at New York University, and an artist always. He sees himself as a “picture-maker.”
It was Motherwell who got him to consider what a picture really is. Part of the Dada movement of the early 20th century, Motherwell rejected the traditions of art to work irrationally and ecstatically to free the imagination. His paintings rejected the logic of capitalist society that seemed to lead to world war. He purposed his creation to realize a new value system, one that questioned and contradicted standards. Katz incorporated this freedom into his own point of view, realizing that “You don’t need to adhere to the academic traditions of art.”
No longer directed by traditions, the creation of a picture became an exercise in perspective for him. Art became a means to realizing an individual’s relationship to life’s elements of form. He believes, “the most interesting art is created in the subconscious.” What’s “interesting” is the fresh point of view that is shared through unrestrained creation. For him, an irrationally created picture communicates a person’s individual interaction with the world.
“I am particularly interested in people who are part of a creative act,” Katz comments. Realizing individual perspectives through artistic creation, one can begin to understand the workings of history. “I’m seduced by history. It means a lot,” Katz asserts. He tries to, “understand how a point of view is acted out, how people react to their situations.” He sees historical events as the culmination of varying perspectives interacting. To him, a person’s perspective reacts to its surroundings, initiating action that then creates new matter (form) for further reaction. Another viewpoint then responds to that matter, again creating a new form. In this way, form is continually propagated, affirming its universality.
Katz elaborates, “Art is just a replication of that process, recognizing the particular events of form that are peculiar.” To practice art is to improve one’s ability to understand how an event occurs. He believes when an artist makes a picture, he or she converts the elements of form of the world before him or her into a new from through a personal point of view. By realizing the mechanics of perspective through art, he came to understand how general perspective interacts to form an event.
For Katz, when life is seen from as many angles as possible, it “is much more fascinating than otherwise.” “As an artist,” he believes, “one challenges the traditional state of mind.” This sentiment has driven him to be a teacher—he gets to challenge his students understanding of perspective while also learning fresh points of view. He explains, “What interests me in teaching is being a facilitator in the creative mode. The students I come in contact with become creative people. It’s extremely gratifying. Their work blossoms. That’s what I look forward to.”
He teaches picture-making. To him, a work is successful if it causes people to intensely react. Disgust is nearly as good of a reaction as awe. He sees picture-making as working on the level of perspective, not concept. Katz elaborates, “Real invention comes from the subconscious. It’s unadulterated.” In this sense, an adverse reaction corresponds to a shock of perception—both awe and revulsion mark a realization of a new view of the world. The viewer has perceived a certain element of existence’s universal form from a new angle. Without concept, the picture works on its own to change perception. He believes the value of the art is therefore in itself. This is why Katz creatively equivocates his title as an artist to “picture-maker.”
Katz has a drive to challenge perception and is intuitively a teacher. The picture-maker is naturally a teaching artist. “It’s not a passive life. It’s engaging,” he assures. When he asks, “Where is my juice?” he alerts all the eyes into the room to the peculiar form of missing juice. He challenges their perspectives to find the container, encouraging creation of its new form in discovery, thus enabling him to take another fascinating sip.