Meet a Brooklyn-Born Pioneer of the American Photorealism Movement

Artsy Editorial
Oct 27, 2014 4:21PM

Painter Ben Schonzeit was one of the pioneering members of the American Photorealism movement, and has since developed an expressive, often visceral style using a bold palette and masterful technique. 

Born in Brooklyn, Schonzeit was raised by his mother a lounge singer at legendary Sammy’s on the Bowery, and his father, a fireman. At age five, he lost sight in one of his eyes in an accident, strongly influencing his depth perception and peripheral vision, and eventually, his art. He attended Cooper Union, and upon graduating, began work on abstract shaped canvases influenced by Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland, and Mark Rothko. He soon moved towards more pictorial work, eventually picking up airbrushing techniques and teaching himself how to imitate the exact look of photos that he had taken of food, friends, and objects from day-to-day life in late 1960s and early ‘70s New York City. This large-scale, highly realistic work developed in tandem with that of other artists working at the time in New York and Los Angeles, such as Chuck Close, Malcolm Morley and Ralph Goings, and was dubbed Photorealism by art dealer and author Louis K. Meisel in 1969. Evolving from Pop Art’s use of photography and working against Abstract Expressionism’s emotionality, Photorealism imitated the look of photography but in many ways was able to move past it to analyze the nature of human perception, a continued line of inquiry in Schonzeit’s work. 

Schonzeit attempts to tease out the essence of his subject, saying, for example,  “If I paint green apples, it’s really all about green. We already know what apples look like.” Crediting his inability to see depth as most people can, Schonzeit has attempted to break down vision into its components to make work that looks not just like a photograph, but like the way people see objects in space, by using airbrushing techniques to  create blurred backgrounds. Since his pioneering works in the 1970s, Schonzeit has continued to make paintings influenced by these methods, using photographs as source material while experimenting with varying subjects and techniques. In works from the ’80s and ’90s he explored vibrant, atmospheric environments with dreamlike inhabitants, and a scattering of pop culture and art historical references. Schonzeit would juxtapose objects like colorful flowers in vases against backgrounds mined from art history. 

More recently, he returns to his early roots both with large, zoomed-in depictions of decadent food that recall his first hyperrealist works, but also with a recent foray in a new direction: a 2010-11 series titled “Battle Ribbons,” in which he experiments with colored stripes, à la Rothko and the other color field painters that influenced his youth. Schonzeit’s work in many ways seems to borrow equally from both of these camps, while employing many techniques from photorealism, in addition to elements of Surrealism, inflecting his works with a lush ethereal language.

—K. Sundberg

Discover more artists at Baker Sponder Gallery.

Artsy Editorial