Brooklyn artist Michael Hafftka's work reflects life's darkness

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Michael Hafftka's work is often called dark, but he says it is realistic.

"Life is difficult. There are a lot of trials and tribulations in everyone's life, we all struggle," the renowned artist explained on a recent afternoon in his studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn. "I think the darkness is really a reflection of anxiety I feel, I think we all feel." 

Hafftka traces his anxiety to his family's roots. Both of his parents are Holocaust survivors whose entire families were wiped out by the Nazis.

"The reality of understanding that you come from a family that perished and from so much suffering, there is a sense of responsibility you have to express some of that," Hafftka said.

That expression is pronounced in many of his works, some more obviously.

"The Selecting Hand" depicts the selection process many of Hafftka's own relatives faced in the concentration camps, and Josef Mengele, the German physician infamous for his inhumane medical experimentation and for selecting those fit to work and those destined for gassing.

"The vision that I understood of Mengele in the concentration camps selecting which Jews, which will die and which Jews will work—it expresses the hell it was," he said of the 1986 painting that features an actual handprint.

Haffka's handprint shows up in a number of his works over the last few decades, including one of his most recent ones called "The Schematics of Angst."

"I identified with this figure as having angst in the world, of being kind of produced by monstrous forces we can't really figure out and being observed continuously like we are in the sense that social media is always observing us," he said.

Social media platforms, like Instagram, have helped Hafftka share his art with a vast audience, though he is already internationally known. His works are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, among a long list of other museums. His paintings are sold in galleries across Europe. 

The way he tells it, his big break was just luck. In the 1980s, an uptown gallery agreed to keep some of his etchings in its files, where a big art collector discovered them.

"He saw my work, and he was so excited by it," Hafftka said of the collector, Dr. Isaac Schenkein, a cardiologist.

Schenkein had connections in the art world and sent Hafftka's etchings to the MoMA, which accepted them. Hafftka later learned Schenkein was a Holocaust survivor.

"I think because he was so aware of reality, having been a survivor of Auschwitz, and also having been a doctor, life and death was his trade, that he was able to relate to it," Hafftka said, "and was able to bridge my work as an unknown artist to the Museum of Modern Art."

Ultimately, Hafftka said it was luck, which is another theme in his work and his family life. It's how his father said he managed to survive.

"Everything he told me was luck, so I see that in my career and all people's survival, luck is a big factor," he said.

Hafftka's career as an artist is expanding to music. He and his wife Yonat are about to release an album with their band Feeding Goats.

He can't predict what his next great piece of art will be. All of them are based on feelings, not ideas, he said.

"As the saying goes, work makes you free," Hafftka said. "It's how I live."