I first encountered one of Doron Langberg’s paintings at a group show at Danese Corey in 2015. The exhibition, 8 Painters, was under review for the “Review Panel” (a monthly discussion of current exhibitions) when I was a panelist.
Recently I came across my notes for the talk. I had written about “the ghosts hovering” in the exhibition — meaning that the show’s curators allowed art history into the show, and highlighted younger painters who were actively expanding the conceptual and expressive capacity of painting, as opposed to reinventing the wheel or rejecting the past. I remember Langberg’s painting vividly. The way his figures emerged from the color ground recalled the bathers of Pierre Bonnard: never announcing their presence, but rather, waiting for you to find them.
Langberg isn’t afraid of art historical ghosts, and that is one of the pleasures of his work. After my visit to his studio, I laughed to myself that he’s one of those people I affectionately call “painting nerds”; we could have spent hours hashing out other artists’ paintings in obsessive detail without a pause.
He, and his work, have a generous spirit. At the end of our conversation, he was eager to introduce me to his longtime studio-mate, Gaby Collins-Fernandez. He talks about his artist friends a lot, and it’s obvious that he takes pleasure in their successes. His 2018 solo exhibition at 1969 Gallery used a seductive and complex palette to draw us into an intimate world. His paintings orchestrate multiple figures, details of clothing, textiles, and interior patterns through a variety of textures and mark-making across the surface. He portrays friends, family, and his husband, and his affection for them is palpable. He lavishes the same kind of painterly love on his more explicit, queer sex paintings, and on what he calls his “dick portraits.”
Langberg was born in Yokneam Mashava, Israel, in 1985, and now lives and works in New York. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and received his MFA from Yale University in 2012. His work was on view this past spring at the American Academy of Arts and Letter’s annual Invitational exhibition, and it is currently part of the exhibition Semblance: The Public/ Private/ Shared Self at the Louisiana State University Museum of Art in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (through October 6, 2019. Likeness, his debut solo exhibition at Yossi Milo Gallery, which represents his work, opens September 5, 2019.
Jennifer Samet: Did you make art as a child? Do you have specific memories of art you looked at growing up?
Doron Langberg: I grew up in Yokneam, in the north of Israel, and started taking art classes when I was five years old. The urge to make figurative work was always there, and when I saw it in the world, it was an intense experience. I remember going to a Lucian Freud exhibition when I was 11 or 12 years old and thinking, “This is what I want to do with my life.” I wanted to make emotional, empathic work.
I had a similar experience when I saw a retrospective of the work of Avigdor Arikha: an amazing Israeli painter who lived in Jerusalem and Paris. He paints from observation, one-session paintings that are large, airy, and flickery. Representation felt very meaningful to me.
I started painting in oil pretty early. My dad is a professor, and, on a trip to the US for a conference, he stopped at an art store to get a gift to bring home. He asked the salesperson, “What should I get for my son? He is a painter,” and the salesperson said, “Get him this oil kit.” I don’t think my father mentioned that I was six years old. So I started painting in oil and fell in love with it.
After elementary school my parents suggested I attend an art school in Haifa, the closest city to Yokneam, so that’s when I started my formal training.
JS: After high school did you have to serve in the army? What was your experience like?
DL: I did, begrudgingly. I was assigned to be an airplane mechanic, despite being clueless about it. All of the other people in my unit had gone to technical schools. While I was stationed in Tel Aviv, I took a painting class one evening a week with Aram Gurshuni who was one of Israel Hershberg’s first students from the Jerusalem Studio School. The class was four hours with a model, and it was a way for me to stay in touch with painting.
I hated being a mechanic, so at some point when I was pretty desperate, I went up to the guy who was in charge of discipline and keeping the base tidy. I told him, “I’m a painter, just so you know, if you need anything done,” on the off chance he might be interested. As it happened, the base was up for inspection and he wanted me to decorate the dormitory. I made these huge murals – trying to embed political criticism in them, which kind of went over their heads. They ended up giving me a studio and I painted high-kitsch paintings for a good year and a half.
JS: After serving in the army, you went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. What made you go there and what kind of work were you making?
DL: I heard about PAFA from my high school printmaking teacher Orit Hofshi, who is an incredible international artist. She makes monumental woodcut installations, one of which was just purchased by the Metropolitan Museum actually! She attended PAFA as an undergraduate.
I totally drank the Kool-Aid at PAFA and was enamored with painting from observation, and making brushy figure studies. I was influenced by the landscape painter Stuart Shils, who was an important professor for me, and very generous with his students.
The way the program was structured was that you have two years of studio classes and then two years of private studio time. When I first got my studio, I was doing self-portraits from a mirror and setting up still lifes. I was interested in the materiality of paint and the gesture of painting, but I felt like the process didn’t have a home in that work. I was pouring materiality into subject matter that didn’t mean anything to me.
The first time I worked with subject matter that I cared about was after a visit home to Israel. During my visit I met up with the guy I was hanging out with at the time. We made a video of ourselves hooking up – just for fun. Then, when I went back to school, I thought the space in that video was really interesting and decided to draw from it. I wasn’t even thinking about the sexual subject matter. I told myself it was a formal exercise, that they were figures, and that I was a figurative painter.
That was the first body of work that I felt truly connected to. They were tiny drawings: 5 ½ x 8 inches. But there was something about the marriage of the subject matter and the process. The eroticism of the imagery came together with the eroticism of the mark-making. For me, that was a huge breakthrough: that the content can be arrived at through the process. All the formal aspects I was interested in finally had meaning.
When I was a junior I went to Yale Norfolk. Initially, I was talking about my drawings in formal terms. Sam Messer, who was the head of the program and later my professor at Yale, said, “What are you talking about?! These are guys having sex. Can we talk about the content?” It took time for me to be okay with declaring that the work was about queerness and my sexuality. I felt almost like I wasn’t entitled to do that.
During my time there, Mickalene Thomas gave a talk which was really influential for me. I remember asking her, “How did you take ownership of your subject? How did you allow yourself to represent women of color, queer women?” She said, “It’s your content. You don’t need to represent the entirety of a community or be a voice for your community. It’s just you and your experiences.” It was so important for me to hear in that moment, and liberated me to make my work.
JS: Speaking of Yale, how did your work change? What was your experience there?
DL: I loved Yale. It’s where I met my closest friends, and some of my heroes too. It was color boot camp. Lisa Yuskasavage was my critic and when she came to my studio, she said, “I see a lot of colors but I don’t see any color.” It took me a while to even understand what she meant. When I was at PAFA, I had worked with color, but I was just mixing what I saw. I wasn’t considering the implications and associations that come with color.
Color is doing 15 different things at the same time and that’s why it’s so hard. It’s both light, and a signifier. In Bonnard’s and Matisse’s painting, the color elicits a phenomenological feeling. You know that kind of light, but it’s not described in the way that we see it. I think about the Matisse exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, In Search of True Painting (2012-13). In the last room of the show, there was a painting of a still life against a window: “Interior with an Egyptian Curtain,” (1948). Tonally it created the feeling of a super-bright, mid-day light. But the actual colors he used are not at all perceptual. That combination of conviction and invention is what I aspire to with my color.
JS: One thing I have admired about your work is the variety of mark-making and technical approaches that you apply and combine within a single painting. Can you talk about these different ways of touching your painting and what they mean?
DL: Different ways of painting can communicate different kinds information. For example, a line can describe things that an area of color cannot, and vice versa. But more importantly, there is an emotional narrative to the way that the paintings are touched. If my body touches the surface aggressively or lightly, smearing or sanding, it creates different emotional notes, different speeds, and different focal points. It is a way to move through a painting that’s much more sensual.
This relationship between seeing and touching is huge for me. With all of the artists we call “renderers,” like Ingres, Caravaggio, and Holbein, the work is not about description: it’s about touching. They describe something to a degree that you can feel it; you can feel the softness of the skin, beard, or fur. That’s what I want the different textures and gestures in my work to do — to breathe life into the people I paint.
JS: I have always thought about Renoir’s work in terms of the relationship between the touch of paint and touching another person. What do you think?
DL: It took me a long time to understand Renoir, and I saw a lot of his work while I was living in Philadelphia. I was finally able to access his figurative works through his landscapes. The landscapes feel sweaty and sexual, and there is something so bodily about them. They are so bold. It’s almost like how Rubens paints a tree or fabric; everything feels like flesh.
JS: You make portraits of your friends, and you also make more explicit paintings. Can you talk about this spectrum of representation in your work?
DL: In my early 20s, my work was much more explicit. There was a conflation of intimacy and sex. As I grew as a person, these aspects of my life started diverging and I found that my language could also describe friendship or familial closeness. It doesn’t have to be tied to sex or sexuality to be about queerness. Queerness can be a lens through which to view the world and experience relationships, beyond the sexual.
Even with the sexual imagery, my intention was not to be shocking or explicit. It’s part of our everyday life. There’s something very intimate, but also something very casual about seeing your partner naked, for example. Experiencing those moments is part of who we are in the world.
Also, I believe that the queerness of the work can make it feel more explicit than it actually is. If we were looking at a depiction of a woman by a man, there is a context and a history that makes it palatable. Depictions of straight sexuality have the privilege of being a nexus of meaning and can stand in for a variety of ideas, from war to God, whereas representations of queer sexuality are perceived to be only capable of talking about queer sex.
The way I’ve found to open up that reading of queer imagery is by contextualizing explicitly queer moments within more mundane scenes. If you think of Wolfgang Tillmans or David Hockney, for example, there is a diaristic feeling to the work that makes it tender. Hockney can focus on a still life, or his partner showering, with the same sense of care towards the subject, and the two inform each other.
JS: I was also thinking about R.B. Kitaj. Is he an artist you think about?
DL: I love R.B. Kitaj. Obsessed. First of all, I love his writing. His First Diasporist Manifesto  is amazing. He was so disgruntled about the reception of his work, and I love that he talks about it. And he does a great job connecting the form of his work with the narrative. Coming from the United States from a Jewish family, and then moving to Europe, post-Holocaust: What is that experience like? The paintings reflect that fragmented sense of displacement. They have an intense personal feeling, which comes through. His draughtsmanship, stylization, and the way space is broken down has always been inspiring to me.
JS: Can you talk about your process? Do you use photography or projection? Do you work from life?
DL: I mostly work from life. I used to use projection but I don’t anymore because I find it more trouble than it’s worth. Photography has so little information, somehow.
For every figure in the large paintings, I make a small portrait from observation where I can test out ideas about color and mood. The subjects sit just once for me, and I try to capture their likeness. Maybe this is old school, but I think that when I’m painting a friend, and it “looks” like them, it really means that it feels like them, or that it has their presence — which is what I’m after. That’s why I can only paint people I’m close to, because otherwise I won’t have that accesses to who they are.
The large works start very loosely, by laying down large areas of color. I rely on the qualities of the pigment itself, such as transparency and opacity. I tend to use the same colors over and over again: magenta, Scarlet Lake, ultramarine blue, Prussian Blue, Indian yellow. The environments, which are half-invented or from photographs, build up over time and I add objects as I need them. The figures, sourced from the small observational portraits, start out as line drawings or shapes of color, and become more specific as the painting progresses. It’s a very responsive process. I don’t have an exact plan but I do have an idea of how I want the paintings to feel.
JS: Can you talk about other figurative artists who are important to you, who exemplify that kind of approach?
DL: Yes. Alice Neel is one; I admire the sense of closeness you get with the subject when looking at her work. You can feel her unpacking the interiority of the sitters in a beautiful way. There is so much empathy in her description. Obviously, I paint very differently, but I aspire to that in my work.
Bonnard was very influential for me as well, as you can probably tell in my work. I think about the emotional charge that comes with his paintings, his color, his materiality, and his ability to take a simple domestic scene and imbue it with so much intensity. A few years ago, I tried to make a painting following a Bonnard color palette. It made me understand how complex his color is. He basically used every color in the spectrum and still arrived at a super specific color world.
JS: As you consider these artists, do you think about your work as reclaiming art historical territory and reinventing parallel subject matter from a queer perspective?
DL: I don’t think of it as re-writing an art historical narrative or queering an art historical narrative. I’ve never thought of it as an activist move of reclaiming territory — although I guess it is. I think more about the bonds I’m creating. When you’re looking at painting, the meaning comes from the history. As you are painting, you are creating bonds with the history of painting.
My painting, “Morning 2” (2018), was a combined Hockney and Bonnard homage. I want the content and continuity in terms of dealing with that subject matter. Bonnard’s paintings are deeply human and I connect to that when I look at them. It is similar in Van Gogh’s work. I feel the artist’s presence and the interiority of the subjects. Approaching that from a queer perspective is a political move. It is about claiming the full humanity that other artists are assumed to have.