By Darold Treffert, MD
Jonathan Lerman’s remarkable artistic ability emerged quite unexpectedly at age 10. Already now, at age 14, Jonathan has had several art shows of his own, and a New York Times article on January 16, 2002 has given his work national visibility.
His mother describes Jonathan as a normal, happy child who began to “slip away” into autism at about age 2. At age 3, he was given a diagnosis of Autistic Pervasive Developmental Disorder with many of the characteristic symptoms and behaviors associated with the Autistic Spectrum Disorders. His extraordinary artistic ability is described in detail in the New York Times article below, and more information about him, and some of his drawings, can be viewed at the K.S. Gallery website at http://www.ksartonline.com/jl.html.
An Artist’s Success at 14, Despite Autism
By Ralph Blumenthal, The New York Times, The Arts Wednesday, January 16, 2001
(used with permision)
In the strange world of outsider art, Jonathan Lerman, at 14, is already an insider. Autistic yet prodigiously artistic in the way of savants who display extraordinary talents, he suddenly began drawing at 10, breaking through autism’s isolating walls with a deluge of intensely rendered, sometimes comical and oddly familiar faces that one art writer compared to the work of George Grosz and Francis Bacon.
He has had two solo shows and several group shows, and this month he will again be in the annual Outsider Art Fair in the Puck Building in SoHo, now in its 10th year of exhibiting the creations of self-taught artists, including the mentally disabled, visionaries, prisoners and hermits.
“Most autistic artists don’t show faces,” said Kerry Schuss, whose gallery, K. S. Art on Leonard Street, has represented Jonathan for four years and sold about 60 of his charcoal drawings for $500 to $1,200 each.
Jonathan, retarded with an I.Q. of 53, is unusually gifted, said Mr. Schuss, who also exhibits another autistic artist, Chris Murray, and Aaron Birnbaum, a folk artist who died in 1998 at 103. “How the heck can this kid draw these things?” he said. “It’s almost like a musician with incredible chops. It’s kind of scary.”
It is such artistic quality that experts say distinguishes Jonathan’s work from the creations of others who are mentally impaired.
On a recent visit to the K. S. gallery, Jonathan, a gangly teenager with sandy hair, bounded through its rooms, clearly excited by his drawings on the walls but unable to answer questions about them. “Hey, what’s your name?” he asked strangers again and again with the obsessiveness that is a hallmark of autism. Repeatedly he dashed to the front door, apparently expecting a crowd like the one that showed up for his 1999 show. “Is anyone home?” he kept asking.
Jonathan’s father, Alan, a gastroenterologist, tried to get his attention. “Are you happy?” he asked. “If you’re happy, say you’re happy.” There was no response.
But soon, urged to do a drawing, Jonathan sat down at a table with a fine-tip pen and a CD album and with sure stokes and crosshatching deftly caricatured the cover photograph of Nirvana with Kurt Cobain, one of his rock star idols, complete with rude gesture.
Jonathan’s oeuvre has yet to be critically reviewed, but John Thomson, chairman of the art department at the State University at Binghamton, near Vestal, where the Lermans live, said his work “would not be out of place in my classroom.” He called it “really exceptional, characterized by an amazing lack of stereotypes common to drawings of all age levels.”
Lyle Rexer, an art writer, said Jonathan’s work has elements of Grosz and Bacon “without the horror and shame” and made comparisons to the caricatures of the Mexican satirist Miguel Covarrubias, Carroll Dunham and Al Hirschfeld.
Like Jonathan, outsider art defies easy definition, overlapping in some cases with folk art and covering not only the disabled and outcast but also ethnic artists and rural imagists like Grandma Moses and Horace Pippin. First applied to work produced by psychiatric patients in a Swiss asylum in the early 1900s, it came to embrace a wider genre, championed by the Surrealists and Jean Dubuffet, who dubbed it Art Brut, raw art, uncooked by cultural influences.
This year’s outsider fair, from Jan. 25 to 27 at Lafayette and Houston Streets, also features the work of the reclusive fantasist Henry Darger and other untutored masters of the intuitively offbeat: a onetime Tunisian shepherd who made his first charcoal drawings on the wall of a bakery, an Englishman who began painting after a mystical experience in a churchyard, and a Romanian who swam across the Danube to flee Communism and is obsessed with painting flying saucers. (Further information on the fair is available at www.sanfordsmith.com.)
Science is still struggling to understand what two Harvard neurologists have called “the pathology of superiority,” the linkage of gift and disorder that explains how someone unable to communicate or perform simple tasks can at the same time calculate astronomical sums or produce striking music or art. Some studies have found that fetal damage to the left side of the brain results in overcompensation by the right side and special gifts.
People with severe mental deficits and such gifts are called savants, from the French verb savoir, to know. (The term idiot savant has been discarded.) Earlier renowned child art savants included Wang Yani of China, who painted an astounding panel of monkeys at age 5 in 1980 and 4,000 other acclaimed works within three years, and the autistic English schoolgirl referred to only as Nadia, who at age 5 in 1973 sketched a foreshortened horse and rider worthy of a Renaissance master.
Jonathan, born when the family lived in Queens, seemed normal at first, said his mother, Caren, a surgical nurse. But as she wrote in an unpublished memoir she called “The Solitary Heart,” he cried uncontrollably at his first birthday party and soon began lapsing into long silences.
He knew a few words but mostly used gestures to convey his needs. “When our friends would come to our house, he would find a wall, lie along its side and stare at it for hours,” she wrote. “We began to wonder why he ignored us when we called out his name, and why he’d pull out clumps of his hair when he became upset about something. He would sing the alphabet song, count to 12 and even learned to identify some body parts. Then one day, without any warning, those milestones in Jonathan’s growth simply began to fade away.”
It was, Mrs. Lerman recently recalled, “like someone slowly turned the water off.”
Jonathan’s parents took him from specialist to specialist. Finally, before Jonathan was 3, a neuropsychiatrist on Long Island diagnosed “autistic pervasive developmental disorder,” a life-long condition that would keep him from properly communicating or understanding what he saw, heard or felt. Autistic people, they learned, are prone to extreme hyperactivity and unusual passivity, and 80 percent fall below normal intelligence, although many display peak skills in the arts, mathematics or memorization.
The Lermans—he by nature introverted, she extroverted—went through intense grieving and searched for explanations. (They are now divorcing but still closely share Jonathan’s upbringing.) Mrs. Lerman came to think his condition was either genetic or virus-induced in utero. They hired a speech therapist and other specialists, and when Jonathan was 3 they moved to Vestal to enroll him in a behavior-modification program at Binghamton.
Raising him was heartbreaking, Mrs. Lerman recalled. At the circus he embarrassingly helped himself to his neighbor’s popcorn. In a restaurant he once grabbed a stranger’s piece of birthday cake. Mortified, she explained the problem and the table sent over another piece for Jonathan. At a lake he heedlessly stepped on the bodies of sunbathers to reach his blanket. For a while his diet consisted exclusively of hamburgers, french fries and Coke. Later he added pizza, but the pieces had to be triangular with very little cheese, no bubbles and no oregano.
He watched a lot of television. “He was the only 3 year old who knew who Ted Koppel was,” Mr. Lerman said. “He knows all the sitcoms. It looks like he’s not paying attention but he knows all of them.”
Jonathan showed no particular aptitude for art but drew strange doodles. His parents started taking him to museums. Picasso at the Guggenheim Museum did not move him, but at the Metropolitan Museum, he tried to touch the blank eyes of the Roman sculptures. A van Gogh exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington mesmerized him. And passing the White House, he asked if Hillary lived there—and Ken Starr and Monica, too?
Meanwhile, the Lermans, wanting another child but fearful of the risk, adopted a newborn girl, Alyssa, now 9. Mrs. Lerman’s father, Bert Markowitz, insisted that Jonathan had promise. “He used to say, `He’ll surprise you, you’ll see,’ ” Mrs. Lerman recalled. In 1997, when Jonathan was 10, his 75-year-old grandfather died. Jonathan became very upset, his mother said, asking constantly where he was and when he could be visited in Heaven.
Not long after that, while Jonathan was enrolled in a program in the local Jewish Community Center, Mrs. Lerman got a call from his helper, Eryn Hartwig.
“You got to come over to see what he’s doing,” she said.
Mrs. Lerman asked wearily, “What, holding the other kids hostage?”
“No,” came the answer. “He’s drawing.”
And what drawings. Flowing from Jonathan’s clutched charcoal, five and ten sheets at a sitting, came faces of throbbing immediacy, harrowing and comical. Some, hauntingly specific, seemed to portray people Jonathan knew.
“I didn’t know what I had on my hands,” Mrs. Lerman said. She thought her father’s death might have unlocked something within Jonathan. “I became spiritual,” she said. “Like, he’s orchestrating this.”
In the magazine Raw Vision, devoted to outsider art, she looked up some galleries and called to see if any would look at Jonathan’s work. None seemed interested. Mr. Schuss of K. S. Art gave her a hearing but counseled patience. “Lady,” he told Mrs. Lerman, “he’s only 10 years old, let him draw.” But then, he said, “As soon as I saw the slides, I flipped.” Within two years Jonathan, at 12, had his first solo show.
Meanwhile, Jonathan continued in school, mainstreamed as much as possible. He reads swiftly, flying through the words but often not understanding them. He grew enamored of rock music and took up the guitar, struggling to play, and tried his hand at painting and sculpture with indifferent results. Clearly, drawing with charcoal and pastels is his medium.
A second one-person show at K. S. Art was scheduled for last September and was postponed a month because of the World Trade Center attack. With downtown still in shambles, few attended Jonathan’s exhibition.
In his latest work, some of which will be shown at the Outsider Art Fair, Jonathan expresses more of what is on his mind, Mr. Schuss said. “He’s putting in more backgrounds, there are sexual references, people smoking, adolescence and rock MTV references.”
To what extent Jonathan knows the hit he has made is not clear. “Jonathan’s capacity to understand is not that great,” Mrs. Lerman said. “I said, ‘People really love your art,’ and he was happy.”
Update on Jonathan Lerman
Just released is a very insightful book about Jonathan Lerman and his extraordinary art. The book was written by critic Lyle Rexer. It contains 50 of Jonathan’s drawings, and chronicles his progress as an artist since the emergence of this remarkable artistic talent at age 10. An afterword by Jonathan’s mother, Caren, provides more insightful context for the artwork certainly, but additionally, it also provides a very sensitive context for the artist himself — Jonathan — through the eyes of his mother.
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For more information, please contact:
Darold A. Treffert, MD St. Agnes Hospital, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin
Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry University of Wisconsin Medical School, Madison
Personal website: www.daroldtreffert.com