FIGURATIVELY ABSTRACT. The artist Bernardo Siciliano was born in Rome in 1969. He lives and works in New York and is best known for his depictions of urban landscapes and nude figures. The son of writer Enzo Siciliano, who was a close friend of Alberto Moravia and Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Siciliano is a multi-award winning artist in both Italy and America. His work has been represented by the Aicon Gallery in New York since 2016.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Bernardo Siciliano, why did you decide to be a painter?

As a young child I studied the piano, but I secretly loved painting way more than playing the piano. When I was just a child I understood that I need reality. I paint what I see around me with my eyes, and I also need a certain type of emotional connection with what I see. In order for me to make a painting I need to be in front of that subject matter, sometimes for years, without even thinking of making a painting. It’s becoming a familiar type of image that suddenly needs to be painted.

Most contemporary art is abstract but your work is figurative?

We are in the first half of the 21st century, and if I look at the history of art every century goes against the flow of the previous one. It’s a natural reaction. After a century of modernism, we are getting into this phase of postmodernism, which is a big and quite vague container in which painting representational images is becoming welcome. I now see a lot of new generation painters working in that direction.

How did you learn how to draw and paint?

I was self-taught. When you learn the piano and there is a difficult passage you play that passage millions of times until it feels effortless, flawless, very fluid. But that’s the result of a huge amount of effort, and I translated that approach into painting, for example trying to make a drawing of an apple. 20 times I draw the same apple in a stupid composition, just focusing on trying to build up volume and depth; and then after the drawing I make a small painting. Doing this one, two, three, four, ten times, twenty times, thirty times; and every time trying to find a solution from a little different point of view, in order to finally breakthrough and be able to make something with apparent effortlessness.

“I am surrounded by younger artists coming from everywhere, and compared to 20 years ago they want to paint, want to improve, want to understand the techniques.”

Bernardo Siciliano, being self-taught, how did you build up your knowledge of painting and composition?

My father Enzo was a writer who collected and read many books in his life, but as a child I had a reaction to this and didn’t read anything with pleasure until age 18 when I stopped living with him. 20,000 books of my father’s huge collection were books of art, and instead of reading I was looking at those images all the time, compulsively. Observing those reproductions was my intellectual training, and the first time I saw a big retrospective of Cézanne – in Basel, Switzerland – I was disappointed by the colors because I was so used to the reproduction colors in the art books of my father’s library. But this is the way I became a painter.

Which painters do you reference in your mind when you work? 

The first one is Cézanne. Because he was also self-taught he gave me a lot of hope, and his paintings really helped me find some strategy as a teenager.

Which other painters are primary influences?

The way I paint is very Italian and the painters of the Italian renaissance are very important for me, especially Masaccio. His Santa Trinita (Holy Trinity) in Florence is a textbook of linear perspective and proportion. Over the centuries since the moment of Masaccio the history of art has had two types of schools, the Italian school and the Flemish school which uses a completely different strategy. With detail after detail the Flemish painters are busy constructing the composition, while Italian painters start from the general and then slowly go to detail. It’s a different purpose. For an Italian painter like Masaccio you are in a large church and need to appreciate the big altarpiece from far away, like a bullet shooting into your eyes in one second. Flemish paintings of the same period were done for way smaller spaces, with lower ceilings, and their commissioners were important upper class people, merchants and people like that who needed to underline the quality of what they were selling, the quality of the texture of the dress and the details.

Who are the portraitists that you most admire?

From the 20th century, Egon Schiele, Picasso, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon.

And from the Italian or Flemish old masters?

Rembrandt is god to me. Velasquez, Manet, Titian, Raphael. There are so many! It’s hard to tell. There are too many, which is a good thing.

What does it mean to be a very Italian painter?

It means the language I use and the strategies I use come from Masaccio and Santa Trinita. It’s stained in my DNA. But you know, there are many American painters that use the same Italian strategy. They are American, yes, but in the other hand, the way of structuring and composition is so Italian. The relationship between climax and anticlimax, a moment of rest, a moment of action, is very Italian. Francis Bacon is very Italian. Look at the background of Francis Bacon and the way he’s dealing in balance between the foreground, the actions of the figure and the quietness. The Italians are so sweet, so amazingly elegant, and that’s the beauty of Bacon. He talks about brutality using elegant tools, typical Italian. Freud instead is very, very, German.

What does it mean to be very Italian or very German?

The Italian painters structure the canvas somehow always using a centered type of linear perspective, even if it’s not completely developed. Bacon is always centering the figures and the background is simple, it is clean, so your eyes go immediately to the core of the energy of the painting. In Freud everything is spotted. He is able to make a painting double pose the two men dressed in black foreground, in the background there is a wall with a little painting placed on the wall, and then the window with the whole view of London. And the view is so detailed and is stealing your attention for the amazing, beautiful quality of the face painted on the foreground. That’s because he is German, he is placing and constructing his images like a patchwork. While Bacon no! Bacon is doing the opposite, general masses and then details.

“I don’t believe in being naive and just incredibly talented, you need to be aware of the complexity that you are dealing with.”

Bernardo Sciliano, you are Italian by birth but you spent most of your adult life in New York?

Yes. Half of my life exactly. I’m 52. 26 years in New York, and 26 years in Rome before that.

Why did you move to New York?

For two reasons. My ex-wife – who wasn’t my wife at the time, but she was someone I really wanted to be with – had moved here from Rome one year before me. Also my ex-dealer, an Italian guy called Sandro Manzo with a gallery in Rome, was living and dealing in New York and kept saying, “Come over. This is much better for you.” We worked together for the first two or three years from 1996 to1998, and then I found an American gallery and everything changed.

What did New York offer you that made you decide to stay?  

The extraordinary, vibrant, cultural energy that you have here. I met so many artists, and that is unthinkable in Rome. Since more than ten years I teach once a week at the New York Academy of Art, and if I compare this school of art with the academy at home it makes me cry. Here everything is so strongly taken seriously. The most important artists of the United States, not only of New York, go there and lecture, make critique, teach a course; and they do it with so much passion. At the end of every semester we get together for a week and look at the paintings of the students for 6 hours a day, doing critiques in public rooms with 300 people listening in silence. Painting teachers from the academy and professional artists are invited and everybody talks for 5 minutes regarding the student’s work and then there is a debate. Everything is so intense, so serious. In Rome you are lucky if the school is even open on a Friday.

What did New York change in your own art?

There was a domino effect. From the quality of the light of the sky and the water of the city, from the amount of amazing shows of the best art that I was able to see in the most important museums and galleries, from meeting important painters, artists, musicians, writers. My mind was blown.

Did your ability to make a portrait improved? 

You keep improving. It’s a difficult, very physical task and also very technical. Compared to the way I made paintings 20 or 30 years ago, today I am another painter and another person. If I’m still alive in another 20 years I hope I can say that I am still improving. That’s the key. And that’s why every time I make a new painting I try different strategies.

What’s the difference for you between painting from a photo and painting from life?

I use photos and I work from life, and I’m very flexible because I know what matters most is that the painting is itself strong. Every source is welcome, because everything is not coming from the source. Not from the photo, not from life. It is coming from your mind. Paintings are always abstract: a bunch of marks, stains and colored lines combine in a piece of stretched cloth. So the language, the most important point of reference, is related with my imagination and memory of whatever I see in front of me and memory of the language itself. You relate with paintings done by other people, dealing with a language of six, seven, eight centuries of masterpieces. You cannot avoid them. I don’t believe in being naive and just incredibly talented, you need to be aware of the complexity that you are dealing with.

What is the point of the self-portrait?  

Just as Rembrandt did self-portraits to train himself for his commissions, I paint myself every year to train myself. Working from life is very challenging, and painting yourself from the mirror is doubly challenging because it’s very hard for us to really see our features properly, with some distance from our emotions. We think we know how we look, but we actually don’t. We really don’t know the way we move and the way we sound. We know how other people sound and move because we hear and see them.

Is it easier to make a portrait of someone else?

Absolutely. When you are in front of yourself you are very emotionally involved, so first you need to cut that emotion. If I am having emotional feelings to the person I paint I need to really pretend that that’s not even a person. When emotions kick in you need to be tough about it and cut them out.

A section of the library of Enzo Siciliano

In the studio of Bernardo Siciliano

In the studio of Bernardo Siciliano

Bernardo Siciliano at work

In the studio of Bernardo Siciliano

In the studio of Bernardo Siciliano

“I always say to my students, embrace mistakes. Mistakes are welcome. Mistakes are good. They make you a better painter.”

Bernardo Siciliano, why do you also paint cityscapes and buildings?

I like to paint space, and it’s also much easier to paint something squareish than something round. It’s hard to explain. Trust me on this, it is way more difficult to paint an apple than a building.

Are you very attracted by the city of New York which you have painted a lot?

I paint what I love, but when I start the painting I need to pretend that love is not there and we have just got subject matter. Otherwise I’m going to be sentimental. When I am working on the painting and trying to focus on the technical aspect of the way I’m working I need to forget emotions for a little while.

How do you work?

I was very organised when I was younger and always followed a structure. Today I’m not, and I paint multiple works at the same time. I jump from one painting to another very different one, and I have maybe 20 paintings open that need to be done.

Are you of the school that thinks that talent is to work every day?

Yes, the most important talent to me is stamina. Lucian Freud and Pablo Picasso had huge stamina, so they were unstoppable. They were painting all day, all the time.

Do you do the same?

I wake up every day at 7:30. I am in the studio at 9:00. I work from 9 till Noon, then I go back home and take a little break for a bite. I come back here at quarter to 2 and I stop working at 6. That’s my schedule every day.

Why do you stop at 6?

I’m exhausted by then, and in any case I rarely paint at night. I don’t like it.

Are you less isolated now than when you started?

It’s quite amazing, I am surrounded by younger artists coming from everywhere, and compared to 20 years ago they want to paint, want to improve, want to understand the techniques. They don’t know that much about painting so the risk of illustration is always near, and there is big difference between illustration and painting.

You gave up being a professional pianist but I believe tennis is still extremely important to you. Why do you never paint tennis?

One painting is titled Tennis Player, and it is of a crucified guy, and that guy is a tennis player who used to beat me all the time. That was my revenge. I crucified him in my studio. 

Why don’t you paint the tennis court?  

It’s very difficult. I would love to, but we see those tournaments all the time on the TV screen and you need to get away from that and find something completely unexpected. That’s not easy. When I come home after dinner I always turn on the Tennis Channel, even without sound. I need to see with the back of my eyes this ball going back and forth across the net.

Do you sometimes envy the great craftsmanship and the genius that makes someone a champion rather than just a good player?

I’m very competitive, but in a positive way. I don’t feel frustrated. When I see something outstanding related to paintings I try to copy it as much as I can by training. I believe in training. Training is the key. That understanding comes from my piano training of long ago, I know that if you train yourself you can achieve some results.

Do you carry a sketchbook with you?

I did when I was younger, now I like a break, I like to be fresh and clean, I like to watch again. After dinner I come back home, turn on the TV, read a book, and then my iPad is very important because I will have taken a picture of the painting I was doing during the day, and I look at it until I fall asleep.

If you’re not pleased with your painting do you sometimes destroy what you did because you don’t like it?

I always say to my students, embrace mistakes. Mistakes are welcome. Mistakes are good. They make you a better painter. We need to make mistakes. I actually like it when the painting is very bad and it seems like it’s going nowhere. It is the best moment, because I can really blast it out with no fear. There is nothing to lose. When you start feeling, “Oh my God, this is so good, there is a risk if I touch I am going to ruin it.” Then you are not a pro anymore. You need to be fearless.

Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein, Basquiat, and now Jeff Koons, are now valued in millions of dollars. What do you think about American art?

Jeff Koons is not a painter. It is another game. He’s probably a great artist but he is not what I call a painter. He is an artist that is dealing with the market, a little industry. I’m less interested because when I see his paintings at the show at Gagosian I don’t know what to look at. They’re so mechanical. But if you see the overall work of art, then everything together makes sense. It doesn’t go to my soul like that. I’m more an old fashioned type of artist, so I like painters who work using the easel. I love John Currin as an American painter. Alive. Amazing, outstanding artist. I think American painters in the 20th century did incredible things, de Kooning is one of my favourites. Or Jackson Pollock or Richard Diebenkorn. Philip Guston. There are so many great painters. Koons is another type of art, another language.

Are Lichtenstein and Warhol and Basquiat painters?

Yes, they are. Absolutely they are painters. Basquiat is a painter. Lichtenstein is a painter. Jackson Pollock is a painter. Jeff Koons never makes his paintings. There is a crew of people that go with his command, his idea, and then it’s done. That’s why they are very mechanical.

Did you never want to be abstract?

I feel I am.

Thank you very much.