While visiting Philadelphia a number of years ago, the poet and critic Wayne Koestenbaum asked me “Is Trevor Winkfield a real person?”
I smiled. Somehow it was exactly the right question: was Winkfield a pseudonym, or a disguise? Was there actually such a person? In nearly every way Winkfield is an alchemical painter, known for his far-flung pilgrimages to see single works of art: in pursuit of a medieval Baptismal font in an Anglo-Saxon church; flying to Berlin for Watteau’s “Gersaint’s Shopsign” in the Charlottenburg Palace and visiting it every morning for five days; or day tripping to Atlanta for Cezanne’s “Mardi Gras” on loan from the Pushkin Museum, which he spent two hours with before flying back to New York City.
Trevor Winkfield might well be a character from Proust, Pessoa, or Huysmans. When queried, the poet Charles North jokingly came up with L. Frank Baum, Lewis Carroll and Flann O’ Brien as other possibilities (leaning, he wrote, towards O’ Brien). The last-of-a-breed New Yorker Jonathan Rabinowitz speculates that Winkfield is the fabrication of mystery writer Dorothy Sayers, in the manner of her British gentleman detective Lord Peter Wimsey. Whatever the case, in Winkfield there is the uncanny feeling of an off-stage hand at work.
Even in the art world he remains a rare case: a connoisseur, a serious trickster, and a flesh-and-blood aesthete in the very vein of Valery, (the more private) Wilde, or another Englishman in New York, Quentin Crisp.
This eccentric artist/writer was born among the back cobblestone ginnels of Leeds, England, in 1944, and moved to New York City in 1969. He is best known for paintings that have been described as both mysterious and daft. Raphael Rubinstein recently included Winkfield in his “Top 10 in Painting” Art in America column: “Imagine a mad toymaker’s workshop reconfigured as a page in Diderot’s Encyclopedie or Juan Gris reincarnated as a Pop artist. Every millimeter of Trevor Winkfield’s densely packed, highly calibrated paintings reward careful looking.”
Winkfield has collaborated with numerous poets and writers (Harry Mathews, John Ashbery, and others), and has translated works by protosurrealist writer Raymond Roussel. He also edited small magazines such as Juillard (1968–72) and The Sienese Shredder, co-published with painter Brice Brown (2006–2010). The duo are currently working on a new visual arts magazine called Tightrope.
But it is Winkfield’s recent books — Georges Braque & Others: The Selected Art Writings of Trevor Winkfield (1990–2009) (The Song Cave) and How I Became a Painter (Pressed Wafer), a book-length conversation with poet Miles Champion — which most attest to such a steadfast life of looking, reading, writing, and making art. Winkfield’s essays range from more familiar artists, such as Florine Stettheimer, Marcel Duchamp, and Vermeer, to those less discussed, such as Myron Stout, Richard Dadd, and seventeenth-century still-life painter Lubin Baugin.
Winkfield’s urbane voice and pointed dash hold the fabric of his essays together with a finespun sensibility. His essays do not set out to show the ways of seeing so much as they enumerate a lifetime of looking.
The pleasures of Winkfield’s prose embody the best of the belles-lettres tradition. On Vermeer: “Never was so much missed at first glance, or so much gained by lingering.” On Jasper Johns and his laboring under the label of “Greatest Living American Painter,” he writes, “Much better, then, to think of him as a Remarkable Painter, a maverick isolationist who has never stopped painting his best work.”
For Winkfield the act of description is revelation. Writing of Braque’s 1949 “Studios” painting series, he remarks on the “Multiple entry points,” before continuing on in a mode of wider speculation:
[…] it often appears Braque harbored a wish to have been born an insect and to know different perspectives. Objects are visibly shaken into relentless complexity, which he then proceeds to examine from below, from the side and from above simultaneously.
The phrase “it often appears” is seemingly innocuous, but it provides an opening for a more personal journey into Braque’s world, especially in his “Studios” series, as Winkfield writes: “There’s no end to excavating them.” It’s been said that Winkfield’s prose reveals his probing painter’s eye, which is true, but his aspirations go even further. His suggestive image of an insect inching across the picture plane is both startling and a dramatization of the ambition to approach an artwork as many ways as possible.
Winkfield is opinionated, but he is never an embattled purist or an iconoclast. He speaks his mind: “By and large people like what they’re told to like.” Even for the artists that he most admires he is not shy to say what he finds less successful and explaining why: “Compositionally, the Last Supper remains one of Leonardo’s most boring conceptions.” Again, he is adverse to knee-jerk pieties or false praise. His essay, aptly titled, “Looking Into Vermeer” opens:
Judged solely in terms of his subject matter, of all the great painters Johannes Vermeer was the least original. Artists’ studios, women perusing letters by the light of windows, servants about their duties, languorous scenes imbibing, concerts with figures alone or in tandem—all these were the hackneyed stock-in-trade of painters from the Golden Age of Dutch painting.
Winkfield’s art writings are the field notes of one who has looked deeply and variously. They go for depth rather than breadth, but the depth achieves a kind of breadth of its own. “Palmistry,” on Samuel Palmer, acts both as a prose poem and geography of the imagination, tracking over three hundred years of observation with the greatest economy. Both the optics of art and the lenses of science converge in a single paragraph:
“Ice under people’s beds. Water bottles burst in chambers. Meat frozen…” So recorded the clerical naturalist Gilbert White in his journal of 31 December 1783. Almost ninety years later, the clerical poet Gerard Manley Hopkins recorded in his journal of 12 February 1870: “The slate slabs of the urinals even are frosted in graceful sprays.” These observations act as convenient bookends to that period of English arts and letters when chronicles dispensed with lofty ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and got down on their hands and knees to begin poking around, looking very intently, and noting things they’d never been allowed to notice before, including frozen chamber pots and urine traceries. Darwin was only one culmination of this tendency.
How much is Winkfield intuiting himself into the art he is discussing? It’s impossible to know, yet commenting on the paintings of the French still life painter Lubin Baugin, he is equally illuminating both about his own painting and Baugin’s magnetism. For him, Baugin’s Still Life with Chessboard, also known as The Five Senses, is “a composition celebrating pleasure.” Here “Everything is ever so slightly ‘off,’ perceived from an odd angle, off kilter.” He continues:
But why—and exactly how—Baugin placed his objects in the locations he did, is far harder to fathom. His architectural placements (for he was as much planner as arranger) predict de Chirico’s metaphysics rather than Chardin’s realism.
For Winkfield most of the correspondences remain a mystery, and yet the many semblances reverberate. Here looking is creating, and yet the singularity of the art he most adores remains. In the wide-ranging book of interviews with Champion, he remarks, “Gerard Manley Hopkins writes somewhere in his Journals that one of the effects of studying masterpieces is that they make one admire them, and you then go off and do something entirely different.”
Meditating on the films of Kenneth Anger, again with Champion, Winkfield is emphatic: Anger’s “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome,” he says, “is still the most exhilarating use (or abuse) of color I’ve ever seen in a film.” And this said from a painter whose own achievements in color are as queer and marvelous as they are uniquely bold. Winkfield continues, “For Anger and Reynaud, for Roussel and myself, ‘the work must contain nothing real.’” And it is here that we are in the heart of Winkfield’s liminal space, one fed by numerous hidden, or half-hidden streams of thought in the mind of a mystic puppeteer or self-reliant automaton. It is that counterfeit reality, which, as John Ashbery tells us, “is more real than reality.”
Georges Braque & Others: The Selected Art Writings of Trevor Winkfield (1990–2009) (2014) is published by The Song Cave.
How I Became a Painter (2014) is published by Pressed Wafer.