WITKIN & WITKIN

Both of Them, Artists

(The 2018 AFI Docs Film Festival runs June 13-17 in Washington D.C. Hammer to Nail lead critic Chris Reed, who also hosts a killer podcast on documentary filmmaking called The Fog of Truth, is at the fest and will be providing his usual excellent reviews and interviews.)

If, as I was before watching this film, you are somehow ignorant of the artistic achievements of identical twin brothers Jerome and Joel-Peter Witkin, have no fear: Trisha Ziff’s in-depth documentary about the pair, Witkin & Witkin, will more than hold your interest, regardless. Jerome is a painter, Joel-Peter a photographer; each is a noted figure in his chosen field. Though both work in and with visual media, and grew up in great physical and emotional proximity, they now rarely speak and live a significant distance apart, the one in upstate New York, the other in New Mexico.

Recently, they have begun to exhibit together, however, and Ziff (The Man Who Saw Too Much), beyond following each sibling on his own, takes us to Mexico City for their first joint international show, where the Witkins are surprised to see, despite their differences, that they share certain themes in their work. With great precision and beautiful images – I loved her carefully considered compositions, throughout – ­Ziff tells the story of each brother’s journey from twin to individual, how and why they grew apart, and what their creative expression means to them and to the world. It’s a moving cinematic odyssey that has as much to say about the overall human condition as about its particular subjects.

Ziff is no stranger to the art world, and just recently published a book on the Witkins’ work. She is therefore the perfect guide to reveal that which we need to know to fully appreciate the brothers’ œuvre. Jerome is a mostly figurative artist who often tackles strong socio-political subjects in his paintings; Joel-Peter analyzes similar topics, but does so staging surrealist tableaux where models dress in evocative costumes while frozen in provocative poses. Their long-ago falling-out seems based, at least in part, on the fact that Jerome blossomed early as a painter and was hailed as a genius right away, while Joel-Peter was left to find his own way out from under his brother’s shadow. Jerome is also much more of an introspective introvert to Joel-Peter’s gregarious extrovert, which may also help explain their differences. Irrespective of cause, their estrangement fascinates, if only because monozygotic twins usually remain close throughout their lives.

Beyond the work, we learn much about their lives, as well. Both have suffered losses – Jerome of a son, Joel-Peter of a wife – which, now that they are almost 80, lends them perhaps another topic to share, though it’s mostly Jerome’s wife Lisa who appreciates the connection. Each unorthodox and unique in his own inimitable way, the Witkins make for compelling viewing in this bold, intimate portrait of their relationship, which is both a profound meditation on art and an excellent dual-biopic. Uninformed when it started, I emerged enlightened and transformed at the end.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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