Edward Bekkerman is an American artist with a unique biography and an impressive scope of interests. He first trained as a ballet dancer at the Bolshoi Theatre School in Moscow. In the 1970s, he moved to the U.S.A. with his parents. There he continued his studies at the School of American Ballet, known as the Balanchine School, one of the best in the U.S.A. Having completed his studies, he toured Europe, performing classical ballets. However, due to an injury, Edward had to abandon his dreams of becoming a principal. He eventually chose a career in art.

According to the American art critic Phoebe Hoban, “as a dancer, he was physically immersed in transcendent beauty and has brought that sense of elevated, even spiritual grace to his work, especially his images of angels, guardians, and flowers.” In the words of Alexander Borovsky, head of the Contemporary Art Department of the State Russian Museum, “even in his behavior, he adheres to the mythology of modernism (which the classics of modernism have themselves already broken, appearing in the role of newsmakers). He is a solitary artist, an individualist far removed from the professional environment and little concerned about public relations or his relationship with the establishment.”

Edward Bekkerman’s exhibition is now running in London, and the artist himself was present at the opening. And this is how we talked about art, his artistic practice, and his creative experiments.

As far as I understand, a dancing career was your first professional choice. So, how did you end up becoming an artist?

Yes, I trained as a professional ballet dancer. However, I seriously injured my spine, and this put an end to my aspirations. I realized that I would never become a principal, and the idea of a second best did not excite me. I decided to quit. That unfortunate event set me on a new career path, but before that happened, I had to live in tormenting uncertainty.

I started looking at other creative options. It was in Israel where I began to take painting and drawing classes and read the biography of Cézanne for the first time. I was working there with a classical ballet troupe and studied art in my free time. My art teacher lived quite a long distance away and I needed to change buses three times before I got to my destination. It is from him that I borrowed books on art, including the volume about the life and work of Cézanne. I also took a few introductory anatomy lessons.

When I returned to New York, I enrolled in a course at the Art Students League, whose alumni, such as Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko, are the definitive figures in the history of American art. I studied there for five years, taking classes in anatomy, life drawing, and portraiture, and experimenting with drawing and painting techniques. My major goal was to find my own personal artistic style and way of expression. I graduated from the Art Students League with distinction.

The school granted me life membership status, and on obtaining that, I rented my first studio, where I lived and worked. I was 25 years old at that time. Full of enthusiasm, I locked myself up in the studio and painted for hours on end, searching for my own expressive language.

What difficulties did you encounter while searching for your own mode of expression? When did you realize that art was your vocation?

I had to live through the time of hardship. I had a day job that supported me financially, and I painted at night. For several years, I lived in survival mode and slept only for 2-3 hours a day. Nobody knew that I was doing that. Fortunately, all those efforts were not in vain, and my perseverance was rewarded. I realised that I had some potential and should continue as a professional artist.

Who inspired you to persist in your efforts throughout those difficult years?

I read a great deal of artist biographies, including those of Van Gogh and Rembrandt, and had some living examples in front of me. I also had a strong belief in myself and my abilities. Somehow, I felt that I might contribute something important to the world. I still cannot explain why I was so certain. My art was important not for the sake of money or fame, but because I could reveal something important from the depths of my soul.

I also believed that painting and sculpture would continue as genres, regardless of what critics predicted at that time. As you might remember, some decades ago, it was believed that conceptual art would overtake all traditional forms of painting. Other new forms of contemporary art took centre stage and were in high demand. I was told many times that painting was dead and nothing new would emerge out of it, but I could never agree with such statements.

Apart from Rothko, who else had a decisive influence on you?

Hieronymus Bosch, Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti, and Pablo Picasso, German expressionists. I adore Modigliani. I am a fan of Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, and Lucien Freud – I admire the British school. I liked painting expressive portraits early in my career. I loved Dali when I was young, but I grew disappointed in him with the passing of time. As we mature, our tastes and understanding of many things change. Nowadays, it does not matter how famous or popular the artist was if I see a truly significant work of art in a museum or a gallery. Many great masters died in obscurity, having dedicated their whole lives to art. They were the real heroes who followed their calling despite living in penury, being malnourished, and being sleep deprived. I went through this school. I had to live through some tough times when I had no money to pay my rent. I believe that I did not give up only because I had their examples and knew what they all had gone through to remain artists.

Being an artist is a test of one’s strength; the entire history of art demonstrates it. Only a few artists remain in art history. And one cannot afford to be weak. One can be flexible, resourceful, diplomatic, and ingenious, but not weak. So, when acknowledgement comes an artist’s way, it is truly deserved and achieved through persistence and hard work.

It took character and grit to practice painting when it was unpopular. How would you object to your critics?

You know, even my father asked me, “Do you seriously want to become an artist?” “Yes, father, this is my choice.” “Are you out of your mind? You do not even understand what kind of life this is! Only one in a million will achieve something! Now look at IT specialists or computer data scientists; they make plenty of money, and this is what you should do as well,” he concluded.

I should add that my father, Igor Bekkerman, is a well-known sculptor. He became famous for his monument to writer Nikolai Ostrovsky installed in Sochi (South of Russia). To produce that work, my father had to compete with thousands of other professional sculptors and their projects. Despite being self-taught, he won the commission! So, in a way, art runs in my blood.

The effect of my father’s expostulations was quite the reverse, though. His words only whetted my interest and motivated me to pursue my goals further. I thought to myself, “Ok, really? You do not believe in me either? Well, let us see what happens. I actually like my chosen path, and I will follow it.”

Do you believe that challenging situations nurture artists?

Not just artists—any person who struggles through difficult times and then achieves some degree of success. In my opinion, an art career has more potential risks than any other profession. One has no such guarantees as, say, a doctor, a lawyer, or an academic who can get their professional qualifications, earn a certain degree, and then be employed and earn some decent income. In an artist’s life, there is no such certainty. It is not exactly clear why an artist’s work is needed. And yet, art is something that can unite us and bring us together. For this reason, I hope that I am contributing something important, making this world better, but only time will show.

There is an undeniable dramatic element in your paintings. Do you find anything in common between theatre and painting?

If you take a closer look at my works, you will notice a great deal of theatricality and a performative element in them. You might get the impression that my canvases are a stage. Quite often, people exclaim while looking at them: My God, this is so theatrical and expressive!

There is always some kind of action or movement, either behind the scenes or on the canvas itself. For instance, I painted a series of works called “Victories.” Many of them are in good art collections, and one is currently displayed in London. In the centre of the composition, you can spot a target-like area. I shot it at close range with a nine-gauge pistol. I really like this series because it says a lot.

Apparently, that part of myself that could not express itself onstage began to manifest itself in my paintings. I am sure that if I stayed at the theatre where I had performed, I would most likely end up as a choreographer.

And, in fact, I did stage a few shows! You might have noticed a ring on my hand. It was made by a friend of mine. At some point, I was offered to act as the king in the play poem “The Tale of Fedot the Strelets." And I thought to myself: All famous actors and singers wish to become artists; they draw and paint. Why a professional artist cannot try his hand in acting then? So, I challenged myself. I managed to memorise my role in verse, although prior to that I had believed that I had no memory at all. The play was a hit. Thereafter, the lady director who staged it asked me to reprise the same role again in the next season. However, the COVID pandemic began, and she was dead in three months following our conversation. I felt so sorry for her project that I decided to take the initiative into my own hands and finish what she had started. I gathered the troupe and offered to stage the play in her memory. The actors agreed and even offered to work for free. I designed the sets and costumes, including that ring; staged the play; and played the king as had been requested of me. And we had a full house! We ran three performances instead of one. People were queueing on Broadway to get the tickets. Our theatre was small, with the capacity of only one hundred people, so not everyone managed to get the tickets. Quite unexpectedly, we became a Broadway hit, if only for a short time!

So, you acted as a decorator, an artist, an actor, and a production director! Impressive!

Yes, and I really enjoyed the process and the discovery that I could manage all that. I was subsequently approached by various theatre and film directors who offered me other roles, which I refused. However, a recent offer from a Hollywood-based film director was too good to turn down. He eventually persuaded me to play two different characters in the same film. “You will enjoy it, as these are two completely different types,” he promised. I was intrigued. I thought that could be an exciting opportunity to express myself in a new way, and I agreed. He shot the film, I played the roles, and apparently the result exceeded the director’s expectations. Indeed, I took my job seriously, studied the Stanislavsky system, and read his books. So, this film director now encourages me to take part in other projects and reprise other roles. “You don’t understand who you are,” he once told me. Well, I see myself as an artist who occasionally likes to venture into other artistic realms.

You have an interesting way of combining colours. How do you do this? Do you have colours that have a special meaning for you?

I cannot explain how I make such combinations; it is a matter of internal perception. For me, the process is comparable to composing music, when one records the melody and then adds some highlights.

The colors purple, blue, and red have a special meaning to me. Especially the purple and dark blue. I recently read somewhere that my zodiac sign, Sagittarius, is associated with purple. Interestingly, when mounting an exhibition at the Russian Museum a few years ago, I painted all walls in dark purple and displayed my paintings of spirits and guardian angels against that background. Each painting was lit in a special way. The artworks, standing out against the purple walls, evoked a certain mystical mood, a sense of otherworldliness. Again, there was a performative, staged element to that display.

My work is mainly about love. I want to express something elusive and beautiful. Initially, I produced a series of spooky, eerie paintings. And by putting them on canvas, I released myself from those images. I started using a completely different, lighter palette afterwards. A new stage began.

Do you prefer oils or acrylics?

I spent a lot of time painting in oil and exploring this technique. I used to work with delicate, thin brushes, building layer upon layer of paint. Oil paints, however, have one undisputable downside: they dry up extremely slowly. My physical energy is directed to the areas where I need to express myself the most, because creating a painting is a very physical process for me. I work with a palette knife and other knives, and on a number of occasions, I even tore through canvases as I was working. Physical action is very important to my character. Perhaps I am a sculptor at heart.

By the way, I noticed that many of your artworks border on relief. Auerbach’s influence?

Yes, which confirms that I am much more of a sculptor. I work in marble and other materials, such as bronze. I have a studio in Florida where I make my sculptures. I am also a regular at the artists’ residency in Colorado, with a marble quarry nearby, which is an eight-hour drive from Denver. It has a perfectly creative atmosphere without any mobile or internet connection. Lots of sculptors come to work there. However, I do not display my sculptures; I sculpt for myself, as I do not wish to confuse my collectors. They might not understand me, I am afraid. The relief in my painting apparently comes from sculpture.

Does a blank canvas have any special meaning for you?

For me, the canvas is some sort of empty wall, which eventually becomes transparent and reveals the whole world hidden behind. The invisible things suddenly manifest themselves to the viewer, owing to the energy and technique of an artist. This is how a dialogue with the invisible takes place. And for me, the process of painting is comparable to going through a wall. I usually paint with canvases nailed to the physical walls, because otherwise I might tear the canvas that is simply stretched over a frame. If the canvas is put against the wall, it responds; it fights back, preventing me from overusing my power. I also like to work on untreated canvases; I never work on primed ones. I usually take a good, thick linen cloth, which is extremely expensive. I have no idea of what I am about to paint; it is a mystery to me. Prior to painting, I sketch. I make a lot of sketches, which I occasionally exhibit alongside my sculptures.

How do you combine abstraction and figuration? How does one show through the other?

The visible image must speak to me. Simultaneously, I like the decorative quality of abstraction. Pure abstraction has been painted by a multitude of artists, but I like to use my own language that is accessible to me. I hope to discover something new in painting and in art in general. Capture an internal perception. Also, as it turns out, most recent abstractions resemble one another. For instance, I recently saw paintings perfectly similar to those of Gerhard Richter. I love him very much; he influenced me too. But Richter remained grounded in abstraction, while I wish to reach another ream. I would like to go a little further, as I believe.

You mentioned that you are interested in angels, prophets and other spiritual beings. Your personal angelology also has some sort of a hierarchy: “healing angels, water angels, protectors…You started painting in Israel, in the Holy Land. To what extent this area of the sacred is reflected in your work?

It is true that spirits and prophets are my subjects. I find it curious that I first experienced the wish to become an artist in Israel. To be honest, I never thought about it this way or focused on this fact. It was only when I began to paint angels and all kinds of guardians that I realized that, despite all the prohibitions of Judaism to depict higher beings, inspiration comes from there. I couldn’t stop myself from depicting them. And it is no coincidence that I felt a craving for painting in Israel.

How do you feel about the fact that your works are displayed in dialogue with the sculptures by another artist?

A very worthy sculptor. I can see a lot of mysticism in her art. I do not think my work could be displayed alongside traditional sculptures. I think the combination is perfect, and this is why the dialogue takes place between them.