Geoffrey Stein is a painter based in New York City.
You describe yourself as a ‘recovering lawyer’, I am curious to hear why you left that profession to become an artist and how you managed to make such a radical career change work for you.
I have always made art. As a kid I made wood and welded metal sculptures, worked as a photographer for the local paper in high school, and briefly studied product design at Parsons School of Design. After graduating from Bard College, and looking for a job in New York during the recession of 1982, I fled to law school. I was a reinsurance litigator for 12 years. During that time, I spent ten years trying and failing to combine art with practicing law. In 1999 my wife heard me complaining, again, about being a lawyer. She said if you want to paint, go to art school. But if you don't, you can never complain about being a lawyer again. So in February 2000, thanks to a little tough love, I quit my law job and started painting full-time at the New York Studio School. After the Studio School I studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, ultimately receiving my MFA in 2007. I have been painting full-time in New York City since Fall 2007.
What is the inspiration behind your art practice? For example, why did you decide to use collage to produce many of your works?
In my studio practice I utilize collage as a formal element. It provides a way of putting down tone or erasing previous marks. There is a randomness in collage; the secondary meaning in the text or image becomes an important part of the finished work. Collage provides a method of capturing the fast-paced, often fragmented images of our 21st Century culture. It brings together multiple images and text from various sources into a final portrait. Collage allows me to put layers of images over the scaffolding of a drawing. Conceptually, collage has been an appropriate medium for many of my portraits. For portraits of modern subjects, I am using collage material from their worlds and of their time.
Your work seems to be influenced by what goes on in the world of politics and entertainment in America, how do you choose the public figures that you represent in your paintings? I have noticed that your president’s famous yellow quiff pops up frequently in your work…
I think of my work as being about seeing and correcting marks on the picture plane, measuring and other formal concerns. However, I try to find collage materials from the subjects' world, such as Bankruptcy papers for Trump, car magazines for Jay Leno or a Supreme Court opinion authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This is a modern take on the renaissance trope of putting objects into a portrait to illustrate the attributes of the subject, for example books to show the subject was educated or a dog to indicate loyalty. Instead of showing the symbol of the attribute in the painting as a Renaissance era painter would, I make the portrait using the material from the subject's world. The first yellow quaffed hair I painted was actually of Boris Johnson in August 2015 at the Slade School of Fine Art London Intensive. While finishing the Boris Johnson collage I saw the first Republican contenders' debate. It occurred to me that Boris' hair was very similar to as certain then candidate Donald J. Trump. After finishing the Boris portrait, I collaged Trump with legal papers from his third corporate bankruptcy. After Trump won the election I have made several pieces of protest art, depicting his hair in black. I am actually trying to go out of the Trump business and make work about people I admire, such as Justice Ginsburg.
How do you think the Trump years have affected artists and the arts in general in your country? Do you think that artists have become more politically engaged as a result?
I think that Trump has energized the arts. In the face of such an awful political situation, artists are becoming more political. They are making protest art, doing their work, and refusing to be silenced. In October 2015, I made a large (60 x 72 inch) collage of Trump using legal papers from his third corporate bankruptcy. After Trump was elected president, I made a portrait of Rachel Maddow using material from the New York Times. Before the inauguration I also created “Stop” a mixed media portrait of Trump on a stop sign, which I then made posters of, selling and giving the proceeds to the American Civil Liberty Union and Planned Parenthood. Finally I had stickers made of “Stop” which were given to participants in the Women's March and have been pasted on walls around the world.
You studied art in New York City but also pursued your studies at Slade School of Fine Arts in London, how did that affect your practice?
The New York Studio School, where I studied after leaving law, emphasized perceptual drawing and painting from life. The Studio School had philosophical links to the British figure painting tradition that goes back to the founding of the Slade, which emphasized working from life. The Slade has always provided models for students to paint. I was one of the few graduate students working from life. As such, the Slade forced me to articulate why I wanted to paint from life (often seen as an old fashioned notion in modern art schools). This was very helpful after I finished my degree and returned to New York to paint, because so much of the art world still takes a dim view of figurative work done from life.
Who are the artists that influence your practice?
I sometimes feel like I look at everyone from Rembrandt to Alex Katz, mid-career Richard Diebenkorn, Lucian Freud, Euan Uglow, Jenny Saville, Alyssa Monks and Michelle Doll. Jenny Saville has been a particularly large influence. I remember in the 1990's first seeing her painting Fulcrum in Soho. The painting felt bigger than the gallery wall. The huge figures were made up of chunks of paint. Beautiful, powerful pieces of color. This was a new way to paint a figure. I was blown away.
Can you tell us more about your future plans?
I am trying to finish a commissioned collage portrait of a college friend. I have also started a Trump portrait using material from the Mueller Report, and I am working on a paper about the Life Room at the Slade.
Finally, how would you convince us not to give you a hard time for having once been a corporate lawyer…?
I can't. Hell, I'd make fun of me for having such a sketchy background. For the record, however, I would note that I was not a “corporate” lawyer, i.e. an attorney doing deals, but rather a reinsurance litigator representing Lloyd's of London and London Market Reinsurers ...
More information about Geoffrey's practice can be found on his website.