I first saw Martin Wilner’s work in 2005 at Pierogi Gallery in Brooklyn. I was particularly struck by a notebook-sized drawing in which Wilner documented his impressions of a trip he and his Holocaust-survivor parents made to Poland, trying to find the stuff that people who’ve lived to see the other side of something terrible can never find: reasons, the past, closure. The experience didn’t yield what anybody expected; for Wilner it was something on the order of an emotional disaster. The drawing, however, was a success. I walked up to the gallery’s director, Joe Amrhein, gave him my phone number, and told him, “Tell this guy to call me—we have a lot to talk about.” Our friendship began a couple of weeks later.
Wilner and I have talked about a lot of things since. There’s no one quite like him for dispelling your anxieties about the world, while affirming your right to feel anxious in the first place. Maybe it comes from the fact that he’s spent years making emotive diaristic drawings while maintaining an unjaundiced eye on the world at large; maybe it’s because, as a practicing psychiatrist, he’s seen it all. (A specialist in treating Holocaust survivors, he’s had to scale back his practice of late to make more time for his art.)
Wilner works five hours a day at least, so I felt a bit guilty taking up time for this interview. (Wilner understands guilt!) He arrived, as usual, with his pocket stuffed with four Rapidograph pens, their nibs ranging from 2.0 (tiny) to .13 (extraordinarily tiny), all the better to limn the near-microscopic texts that fill his works, which are on view right now at Sperone Westwater. On display are two tour-de-force series: “Making History” (2010-2011) and the “Journal of Evidence Weekly” (2010). The former comprises two sets of 12 drawings displayed in hinged frames because they’re two-sided, each of them composed like a typical calendar month, each day drawn in by Wilner based on news headlines he read in the papers on the corresponding days. Some of the versos are filled with strange musical scores while in others, the calendars coalesce into maps. The latter series are Moleskin notebooks, arranged unfolded, accordion style, to reveal images and dialogues that Wilner encounters on the New York City subway—transcribing the “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” recording, or depicting the strappy sandals worn by cross-legged girls with buxom frames.
Wilner is one of the funniest people I know. That said, he began our talk by telling a joke that left us both scratching our heads.
MARTIN WILNER I sort of want to tell you a joke. I know from experience that it’s always good to start with one.
SARAN SCHMERLER Sure.
WILNER This is a true story that happened to my father, and I like to tell it to people, specifically when people ask me how I came to make drawings on subway trains. I have to qualify the joke: when I first heard it I didn’t understand it, and I’m not even sure it’s a joke, but we’ll see what you think. Like all great Jewish jokes the punch line is in Yiddish, but I’ll tell it in English.
SCHMERLER Sounds good.
WILNER So, my father came to the US as an immigrant. He was a Holocaust survivor, and he didn’t have any papers and he didn’t speak any English and one day he had to go to some agency in the city and ride the subway there, and of course he’d never done that before. He was given an address to go to, and he gets on the subway, and he immediately gets lost in the station. So he looks around and finds an old Hassidic man sitting on a bench. He approaches him and says to him in Yiddish, “How do I get to this place?” but the man doesn’t respond. He shows him a piece of paper with the address and asks the man again and still he doesn’t answer. My father persists and he finally says, “Shh. When I’m under the ground I’m like a dead man.” And my father flees the station and for the rest of his life, he never rode the subway again.
WILNER Well, I’m sure it sounds better in Yiddish. Whenever you translate Yiddish punch lines into English it’s never the same.
SCHMERLER So that’s the punch line: “When I’m underground I’m like a dead man”?
WILNER Yes. Well, it’s not funny, but for me it’s rich in meaning . . .
SCHMERLER What do you make of it?
WILNER It’s one of those great metaphorical Yiddish responses. It makes a connection between the underground world of the subway and death. It’s not surprising that I started this epic project in a realm that’s associated with death and loss. Also, one of the recurring nightmares of my childhood was of being lost in the subway.
SCHMERLER You’ve mentioned before that it was a dream, or maybe a nightmare, that inspired you to make the “Journal of Evidence Weekly.” Would you mind telling it again?
WILNER It was in 1998. I dreamed that I had a deadline at a [an imaginary] publication called the Journal of Evidence Weekly. It was a big deadline and I knew I wasn’t going to make it. It was a very vivid dream and I thought, “I’m in some sort of trouble,” and I woke up in a sweat. Then I did what people of the analytic persuasion do, I analyzed it. I tried to think: “What are my associations here?” My first was that the acronym of the Journal was Jew, J-E-W, and that struck me; given my background, it had resonance. I decided that I would create a project that would produce a kind of record of all my journeys on the subways, without missing any trips. It would be a project that would go on indefinitely—so I could continuously try to meet the deadline of the dream; but inevitably it was a deadline that could never be met.
SCHMERLER I tried to make a go of it on the subway on the way here, record all my impressions sort of like you do, so I opened up my laptop, and it was all I could do to keep up with what I was thinking and feeling, the visual noise of the advertisements, the conversations. How do you do it, what’s your approach?
WILNER There are many things happening in the surround of the subway, and artists have recorded them in different ways. William Anastasi would record the motion of the train while he was on his way to see Duchamp by holding pencils in each hand and recording the motion of the train. He’s representing something more abstract about his journeys. My method of working resists the movement of the train. Rather, I’m condensing what’s happening as a way of presenting my experience.
SCHMERLER Let’s talk now about the sort of experience conveyed in your “Making History” drawings. You told me earlier, while we were in the show, that you hoped the work was rife with a sense of “intriguing anxiety.” Can you elaborate?
WILNER For starters, my background as a child of Holocaust survivors is one of anxiety—I come into the world with a sense of terrible things having happened, and that they can happen again. So this project is part of my effort to contend with it. Also, this project was started in the immediate aftermath of 9-11—which unfortunately has become a cliché in and of itself—but it was happening outside the windows of my home, and I saw this drawing project as a call to action. And then there’s the fact that I am the sort of person that, if somebody says to me “It’s a nice day outside, it’s 85 degrees,” I’ll start to worry. I’ll think, “Why is it 85 degrees in New York City in March?’ I wonder, “how many beautiful days are we going to have if this is the way the planet is progressing?” Later that same day, I’ll read the papers and I’ll probably notice a story about global warming. I don’t look for that topic deliberately, mind you, I just try to read freely as I can on what interests me. Later on I’ll notice that what’s on my mind in a larger sense related to what other people are relating to during a period of time.
SCHMERLER Do messages about the world at large leap out at you? You’ve been doing this series of calendar drawings for 11 years now. What in particular is worry worthy?
WILNER I don’t have a message and I don’t want to take a political approach. I want people to draw their own conclusions both about what I’m trying to say and what it means to them. Take for instance an artist like Mark Lombardi, who did these amazing drawings of financial scandals. What’s really compelling about his work is that he’s like a crime detective. He shows how money flows through a system, and the drawings are very lyrical documents showing that flow. Mark worked from a pre-existing hypothesis. I’m working from a much less “conscious” position where I let the daily choices of events speak for themselves. So in one month’s work there’s the Arab Spring and the presidential elections and global warming, and I let you make a hypothesis of how they all relate. I let the stories come to their own conclusion. In a sense it’s like a variant on the surrealist game of the Exquisite Corpse, where I’m playing against history and the future. I don’t have any way of knowing what I’m doing today because I haven’t seen today’s papers.
SCHMERLER What papers do you read?
WILNER Primarily the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the L.A. Times; some weekly news magazines like the New Yorker, the Guardian, Newsweek, and some online publications like the Huffington Post and the Daily Beast.
SCHMERLER And can you tell us a bit more about how you read the paper?
WILNER Over the course of time I’ve developed my own method of trying to read everything and letting my eye be drawn to headlines and images. Some days I realize immediately what I want to draw, sometimes it takes an hour. I notice certain threads going and get drawn to them, wildlife in Tanzania, what Mitt Romney said in a debate. What’s humbling about this sort of endeavor is that you’re faced with the insignificance of history in the larger scale of human existence. It’s a dot compared to the dinosaurs, which existed for 150 million years and have left no record other than their bones.
SCHMERLER Speaking of science, let’s shift to a term that too many artists use, and probably confuse, with it: “alchemy.” It’s how they always describe the weird magical way they transform one thing into another. What’s your response to that?
WILNER My hope in doing this body of work is that I can shift the events in my own life to make a tiny bit of difference. So yes, it’s my wish to be able to make magic and transcend the limits of human limitations. I remember reading a great interview with Lucian Freud in which he said he viewed his process as trying to do something that he’s not capable of doing, something that’s beyond his capacity. That’s how he viewed his process in an ongoing way.
SCHMERLER Can you give us an example, specifically, about how you tried to do something beyond your abilities?
WILNER There’s something magical about learning a skill, without being mentored in a time-tested way. As you know, in this “Making History” series, a number of the drawings have musical scores. Well, it was through the drawing process that I learned how to become a composer without having any musical background. I’ve always enjoyed music, but I’ve never played an instrument in any formal sort of way. So I looked for ways to transform events into music. In one method I developed, I’d first read a story in the news and then I’d try to find a song or a piece of music that related to it—rather than reading something happening in Egypt that day and rendering an uprising or a person in the story, say, I would think, “What sort of score would be playing if this were a film?” I’d think, “Maybe the Egyptian national anthem would be playing at this moment?” and so I’d find it and appropriate a bar or two for that day’s drawing. As the year progressed I took my methodology a step further and developed a code where every letter of the alphabet and every symbol (punctuation marks) was assigned a note value, and then I’d be able to compose original music by turning headlines into scores over the course of a month. It’s not meant to be played through, though it could be played. It’s meant more as an allusion to the idea of music. Music is one of the most abstract art forms, and this is one step further because it’s not aural, it’s thinking about the idea of music, it’s almost like meta-music, if that’s not too ridiculous.
SCHMERLER Nothing you say is ever ridiculous. Absurd, maybe. Want to take another whack at that joke punch line before we go?
WILNER I guess not, after all. Talking about one’s artwork is a bit like trying to explain the punch line of a joke. If you have to explain it, then you just haven’t delivered it properly.