In the fall of 2003 the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio showed for the first time Robert Natkin’s recent Heads paintings. In May, the artist wrote to Louis Robert Zona, the museum’s director:

Dear Lou,

I’m happy that we got to speak on the phone. I’m looking forward to my exhibition of heads (portraits) with you this coming September. I just completed one of the most ferocious (and yet pleasant) heads of a woman wearing a hat. Unless I’m making a realistic drawing of an actual person, my hand and eye and loaded brush grope in the light, desperate to find the narrative, the geography, the faceness that they are to be. (I feel that I have morphed into an unstable committee during the process.)

I remember reading how Dostoevsky wrote “Crime and Punishment” as a newspaper serial. Whether it is true or not, I imagine him having to get into a condition–a state of literary entrapment (Oh, God how did I get into this. Where can I do, what can I go?) The where and what deliberately scrambled. Most of these heads I’ve painted are portraits. In other words, they exist in particular shape or plot. A man is not like a man like the generic design of man in ancient Greece, Rome, or Egypt. Specificity is always crucial in these works. In Kabuki theatre, the audience accepts the tradition of anonymous performers changing the actor’s costumes on stage before the audience. In most of my heads, the brush, the color, the paint ties und unties story and narrative while the audience is aware of other aspects of spectacle, of show. This is usually my process of working towards what is finally to be “The Painting.” I gaze at this processing drama, sometimes with a bit of impatience or annoyance. Why did the paint and its strokes go this way rather than that? Often, the next day, at early morning, with coffee or tea in my hand, and sleep grains still in my eye, I go to the studio and gaze at the surprise, my surprise, to myself. I take it in as a reviewer number one. I now have to deal with this created thingness. A Pirandello experience. The “thing” knocks rings and buzzes.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Natkin is in conference now.”

“Oh, yeah?” the thing snips, “you tell Natkin he’s in deep **** and none of us gonna make it easy for him.”

“None of us,” I think, “It’s now a group action.”

“Am I watching the phony six o’clock news?”

“No, ***hole, don’t give yourself airs.”

“Pull yourself together, man. First of all, change the direction of the face, load the palette knife and do it quickly.” Etc, etc, etc.

When the picture is finally finished, I bluff. “Please God, is it complete?” If a put a border around it, will that put the picture in its place? Can I now be safe?”

I realize what I want is to seize the day, not cease the day.

A Jesuit friend asked me if I believe in an afterlife. I believe only in life. My torment is that I believe in and celebrate change.