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David Stern talks pigments, the Holocaust, and iPhone art

Stern Lecturing

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Looking at art can be a powerful experience, but nothing compares to hearing the artist talk about their work in person. David Stern gave his fans that opportunity Thursday afternoon at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. Dressed in a dark, crisp suit, the painter spoke with Halsey director Mark Sloan and a large crowd of fans.

Stern moved to New York in 1994. As a Jew in Germany, he had found the constant reminders of the Holocaust difficult to handle. “It weighs on you,” he said. “Coming here, I was freeing myself from that situation. My work is now stronger.”

At first he mainly painted landscapes — tall buildings and the slice of sky that sometimes surprises you in the big city. “In the beginning I wasn’t able to see people at all,” he explained.

Eventually he got into a habit of drawing an “emotional” self-portrait every day for a few years — several of these are on view at the Halsey. He included the weather forecast from The New York Times on each drawing, like a haiku.

These days, Stern focuses on figurative work, working from memory more often than life. He also regularly draws pictures on his iPhone — he nervously passed his phone around the crowd to show his most recent work.

Stern’s art must be seen in person to be fully appreciated. He makes his own paint, resulting in a variety of textures, then he layers it on his canvas heavily, with whatever instruments he has at hand. Up close, it looks like a sloppy, beautiful mess. Step back, and distinct but shadowy figures emerge.

David Stern: The American Years is on view through Oct. 8.

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