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Among the 15 or so personal questions I throw at artists for the weekly G2 interview Portrait of the Artist, there is one that tends to make people think more than any other – do you suffer for your art?
“Yes,” said both Jane Birkin and Michael Ball without missing a beat – they get crippling stage fright. Painter Lucy Jones, who has cerebral palsy, admitted that she is often in a great deal of pain after kneeling for hours before a canvas. But Herbie Hancock didn’t like the question. “No,” he said. “I just don’t look at art and life that way.”
I was very interested, therefore, to hear what the panel at yesterday’s debate at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, called “Should artists suffer for their art?”, would make of the issue. As the art historian and curator Tim Marlow was quick to point out – addressing the packed room alongside collector David Roberts, sculptor and curator Soraya Rodriguez and performance artist Mark McGowan – the image of the penniless artist quietly expiring in a Parisian garret assumed its emotive power during the Romantic period.
So do we, as today’s consumers of art, still expect its creators to suffer? Do we still picture them in a modern-day equivalent of the draughty attic?
The panel agreed on the fact that the vast majority of artists – with big earners like Hirst and Jeff Koons as notable exceptions – find it very difficult to make a living from their work. This fact can be both liberating, allowing them to further push the boundaries without worrying about whether or not the piece will sell, and galvanising, preventing them from settling into complacency and becoming stale. Mark McGowan’s own provocative (and innately difficult to sell) works have included pushing a peanut around London with his nose, and crawling the streets of New York wearing a George Bush mask and an invitation to “kick my ass” (many people took him up on it). He said that artists should strive to preserve art’s “economy of the spirit”, rather than thinking about how to earn a living from it. Soraya Rodriguez agreed – although she said she’d rather refer to the artist’s necessary poverty as a “struggle”. “If life is easy for an artist,” she said, “will their art be any good?”
By the same token, an artist’s more profound suffering – whether emotional or psychological – can often seem to enhance their work. Some works (the paintings of Van Gogh or Goya, the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, and the music of Ella Fitzgerald and Amy Winehouse, to name a few) are inseparable from their creators’ personal pain. We are – as Marlow said last night, quoting Damien Hirst – a “trauma culture”, expecting to watch an artist’s suffering play out on canvas or stage or screen – and relating to them through it.
They may not all call it suffering, but every artist I’ve spoken to for Portrait – even those whose art has brought them fame and fortune – has described the real sacrifices, whether personal or economic, that they have made to dedicate themselves to their work. Yet very few of them have said they regret them.
As the ICA panel concluded, for the best artists, the drive to create is so strong that it can withstand almost any amount of suffering – and the life experience it gives them serves only to make their works more powerful.
Bruce Nauman describes his place in art this way:
“I think that it’s not knowing what’s coming or what art is supposed to be or how you’re supposed to go about being an artist that keeps it interesting. It’s going into the studio and finding out what seems to be available or not. It’s almost, in a sense, a philosophical kind of quest, but on the other hand the reason I became an artist was because I like to make things. Sometimes they help each other out, and sometimes they get in each other’s way.”
He had a thing for blue. Also clay pipes and Victorian postcards, ticket stubs, bits of tulle, starfish and old clock parts. He was drawn to automats and secondhand-book stalls, corresponded with ballerinas, filmed pigeons, liked pie.
These are among the oft-repeated facts about Joseph Cornell. Notice, in even so brief a litany, the transition from art to life and back again. Perhaps more than any other artist’s work, Cornell’s is best appreciated in the context of imagining the life of the man. Put another way: what Cornell lovers love most may be not the objects themselves — the evocative boxes, collages, dossiers and short films — but the story of their making, which is the story of an awkward dreamer walking the city, finding treasure in flotsam, spying magic all around.
Since his death, Joseph Cornell (1903-72) has been the subject of more than 20 books, from scholarly explorations of his art and life to poetry and fiction inspired by him. Yet for all the scrutiny and the mulling, he remains elusive, almost chimerical: a figure embraced by the art world even as he rejected the label “artist,” a voyager who never strayed far from home, an idolater of innocence whose work could be eerily erotic. In photographs he is gaunt and unsmiling, almost invariably looking away from the lens. His face appears drawn and deeply lined, as if scored by loneliness, and his lean frame has a tentative look, as though he has yet to make up his mind whether he is meant for this epoch, this planet.
Perhaps a desire to understand this enigmatic man in terms that would count him as one of us explains the seemingly endless flow of literary responses to his work. Best known for his glass-covered box creations, many of them made in tribute to people he idealized, Cornell has elicited just as many tributes himself. John Ashbery, Octavio Paz, Stanley Kunitz and Robert Pinsky all wrote poems for him. He’s been immortalized in music and plays. And many of the books about him — from Dore Ashton’s “Joseph Cornell Album” to Charles Simic’s improbably beautiful “Dime-Store Alchemy” to Jonathan Safran Foer’s anthology “A Convergence of Birds” — could themselves be described in Cornellian terms: collage-like, experimental, quixotic. Even those that take the form of conventionally linear narratives (like Deborah Solomon’s definitive biography, “Utopia Parkway”) tend to carry echoes of the magical qualities associated with Cornell.
The latest addition, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan’s mammoth catalog “Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination,” accompanies the first retrospective of the artist’s work in 26 years, a deliciously bountiful exhibition curated by Hartigan and recently on view in Washington, San Francisco and Salem, Mass. If you missed it, this book really is the next best thing: thorough, lavish, disturbing, beguiling…
This book stands out, too, for being utterly unfey, devoid of the poetic eruptions Cornell induces…those who linger may be rewarded, for it turns out Hartigan has done something lovely. She, too, has modeled a response to Cornell’s work on his own methods, assembling and inventorying a pastiche of the ideas, innovations, people, philosophies and experiences that most likely influenced the artist. She doesn’t navigate his imagination so much as map the explicit tributaries that fed it. And is her map ever detailed…
Hartigan’s esoteric, even idiosyncratic approach — heavily sprinkled with illustrations of places, people and objects Cornell encountered — provides a vicarious experience of the man who was himself an idiosyncratic “browser,” drawn to “nonlinear exploration.” The slow accretion of varied and seemingly disparate influences, which Cornell wove together in such singular, suggestive fashion, also lends weight to Hartigan’s intriguing speculation that he might have suffered from synesthesia, the neurological phenomenon that causes some people to “smell” colors or “taste” letters of the alphabet…The crowning stroke to this mapping of Cornell’s mind is the inclusion, in the bibliography, of some 150 books that are not about Cornell but that were important to him, that nurtured and informed his perceptions. Taken together, the words and images offer the sense that we are apprehending the world from the artist’s perspective, rather than witnessing yet another admirer’s artful display. There’s no fault in such a display. Hartigan tells us Cornell thought of art as “a spiritual gift to humanity.” But what she has fashioned is a gift, too, which feels, in its faithfulness, like a special kind of homage.
Cornell gives us hope. The notion of a curious, wistful man walking the city and turning up treasure in debris, seeing the transcendent in the forgotten, the discarded, the mundane — such a notion is intrinsically hopeful. By inviting us to fathom how he did it, Hartigan brings us one step closer to the promise of our own longings.
Leah Hager Cohen
New York Times
Richard Long is one of Britain’s most influential living artists. Based on the artist’s walks from the mid-1960s, his work takes the form of photographs, maps, drawings and sculptures (generally lines or circles constructed from natural materials). A new exhibition at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art (June 30 – October 21 2007) will span the artist’s career and feature a number of new works created specially for the show…
For more than 40 years, Long has insisted on his art’s simplicity. This goes against the grain of modern life, which is one of the reasons why Long’s work is worth returning to. The limitations are part of the pleasure. Simplicity is reason in itself. A new book, of the artist’s collected statements and interviews, returns again and again to this same basic premise, the same plea to keep things uncomplicated, in our approach as much as his.
Famously, Long walks, though he has been known to cycle and to travel by kayak. He goes in straight lines and in circles. Pacing back and forth, like a writer in a room in search of an idea, Long once walked the grass flat in an English field. He has also circumnavigated mountain ranges, used dried riverbeds as paths, and followed his compass and a line ruled on a map to find his way across Dartmoor and the high plains of the Canadian prairie.
Once, on a 15-day walk in Lapland, Long turned 207 stones to point into the wind. Sometimes, a text on a gallery wall is the only record that the artist went somewhere with some small, entirely useless yet significant aim in mind. More often, he photographs what he has done and the places he has been. These photographs – always using the same camera, the same lens – are often accompanied by a few lines of text. They are more than just a record.
Ireland, Scotland, the Australian outback, Kilimanjaro, the Himalayas, Berkshire: the exoticism of the location isn’t what matters, but it helps. Looking at Long’s photographs in a book, we imagine journeys we shall never take, places where we shall never stand. There is a sadness in this. The words Long uses are like the stones and sticks he picks up along the way. They are descriptive, declarative and plain, and just a few of them put next to one another are enough to take the reader somewhere else. The line “Earthquake in the forest” is dizzying enough. Long insists his words are not poems. I guess for him they might be sculpture, which is what the US conceptualist Lawrence Weiner also says about his own use of words on the wall. Or perhaps words for Long are a kind of drawing.
But the walk’s the thing. Long has fallen in rivers, narrowly avoided being shot by a farmer in Montana, and been beset by natural and unnatural hazards of all kinds, but the drama is mostly kept off stage, out of sight, a traveller’s tale we are not privileged to hear.
A monumental new Gerhard Richter south transept window [is being worked on], replacing one that had been destroyed during World War II. The new window is scheduled to be unveiled to the public on Aug. 25…
The window design was subjected to computer analysis, to insure that no “unfavorable [i.e., inappropriate] imagery” could be discerned within its ostensibly abstract patterns. (Can’t you make out that fuzzy Baader-Meinhof group member in the lower left? Just kidding.)
Richter, who lives in Cologne, is said to have based his design on his 1974 Color Chart painting, “4096 Colors,” now on loan from a private collector at Cologne’s Ludwig Museum, where it is one of five works by the artist spaciously displayed in a prominent gallery.
My guide could not provide any cost figures, but Artnet reported last August that “the artist is making a gift of the work, whose production cost, some €350,000, is being covered by donations.
Horn has been a “permanent tourist” in Iceland from her home in New York for more than 30 years. Library of Water, her permanent installation in the small coastal town of Stykkisholmur, three hours from Reykjavik, has just opened to the public for the first time. Water has been “archived” from glacial sources in all parts of Iceland and decanted into a copse-like stand of transparent glass columns that have replaced the shelves where books were once stacked. Some of the columns are clear, others are opaque, with traces of ancient debris drifting in them. The debris is a reminder that the glaciers were formed many millennia ago and are rapidly receding. Horn describes Library of Water as “in some sense an end-game, since many of these sources will no longer exist in a matter of years”. But Vatnasafn, to give it its Icelandic name, isn’t primarily an ecological/political work; it isn’t agitprop.
Horn imagined Library of Water as a place for quiet observation and reflection, “a lighthouse in which the viewer becomes the light. A lighthouse in which the view becomes the light.” This connects it to her work of the past 30 years, which has ranged across drawing and sculpture to photography and essays, and whose guiding principle has been anonymity on the part of the artist and minimum intervention in the work’s execution. She has spoken many times of her “desire to be present and be a part of a place without changing it”. Detachment, humility and surrender, that is the ambition. She’s there, and then she isn’t there, like the weather…
Horn was born in 1955. There are now monuments to the achievement of artists just a generation older all over the United States. Following the model of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, the minimalist shrines range from James Turrell’s Quaker meeting house in Houston, to Donald Judd’s museumification of the entire town of Marfa, Texas, to Walter de Maria’s mile-wide Lightning Field in Quemada, New Mexico.
These are projects on a grand scale. Roni Horn’s Library of Water in Stykkisholmur (population 1,100) on the north-west coast of Iceland, on the other hand, is modest, unassertive and intended to serve the community rather than coerce it into an appreciation (or even a viewing) of the work of one of the more recondite practitioners of conceptual art. In addition to the two installations of Horn’s work – a rubber floor scattered with childishly rendered words in Icelandic and English, and the glacial water housed in its top-lit, floor-to-ceiling columns – the space will be used by the local community for activities ranging from yoga classes and AA meetings to gatherings of the local (women-only) chess association and reading groups.
As is always the case with his work, Mr. Polke said, the paintings for the biennale sprang from specific ideas yet evolved in mystical ways as he experimented. “This is the meeting point of ideas and materials coming together,” he said in his German-accented English. “You see what you want, but you have to work with the painting, and the results are always different.”
Altogether, it has taken him two years to apply and dry the poured lacquer surfaces of the seven abstract paintings he has created for the Biennale. Jointly titled “The Axis of Time,” they are to form the heart of the biennale’s signature exhibition in the Italian pavilion, called “Think With the Senses — Feel With the Mind. Art in the Present Tense.”
The show was organized by Robert Storr, the artistic director of the biennale and a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Given that he views the exhibition as “a meeting place of conceptual and perceptual art,” Mr. Storr said, it was a natural choice.
“Polke for a long time has been the most interesting, least predictable of the painters around,” he said by phone from Venice. “He’s almost impossible to get a bite of. People don’t know what to say right off the bat when they see his work. It has a deep kind of shrewdness.”
Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate in London, who has exhibited Mr. Polke’s work since 1995, said that quality of inscrutability played into the fascination. “He turns base metal into gold and base fabrics into great paintings,” he said. “But he is a very difficult artist to get hold of. He makes Richter, who’s complicated, look simple.” (Mr. Polke is often grouped with Gerhard Richter because both came of age and experimented in West Germany in the 1960s.)
New York Times
Mr. Serra, 67, says that as far as he knows he has missed only one of these installations, last year, thoroughly against his will, while recovering from knee surgery. It genuinely puzzles him when people ask if he always feels the need to be involved in the moving and placing of his pieces.
“Some painters don’t even hang their own shows — I never understood it,” he said dismissively in a recent interview at the Modern, sitting near a group of undulating models for the three sculptures, all new, that would soon be adding about 550 tons of art to the museum’s second floor. As an artist whose work grew directly out of the near-religious devotion to process that arose in the 1960s, he said he still considered every step associated with his sculptures — from the models to the molten steel poured in a foundry in Siegen, Germany, to the long, complicated heavy-lifting finale — to be part of his art.
Such obsessiveness is partly an expression of Mr. Serra’s dominating, master-of-all-details personality. But it is also philosophical, a lesson he said he learned by osmosis from Mr. Johns and other mentors like John Cage.
“If you’re going to watch the process, watch it all the time, because it’s always bespeaking something that’s of interest,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s Duchampian. I think that’s more Eastern. That’s more Suzuki.”
New York Times
When a painting really lives, has a right to exist on its own strength and weaknesses, I consider it finished. When I have put all I can into it and it really breathes, I stop. There are times when a work has pulled ahead of me and goes on to become something new to me, something that I have never seen before; that is finishing in an exhilarating way.
From the installation of his show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
[John Adams] dismisses talk of the so-called “death of classical music” as pretty meaningless. “The world is full of people with creative ideas,” says Adams. “We could, to make things simpler, just forget about the term ‘classical.’ That might make things easier. But I still like to use it, because it reminds me that what I do aims at having a very long shelf-life.”
The composer finds it impossible to generalize about contemporary music right now. “There are composers, very young indeed, who absolutely love atonality and hard-edged “industrial”-strength dissonance, and they have found a significant following,” he observes. “And there are others who are making headlines writing the blandest, most carefully composed ‘audience-friendly’ orchestra pieces. They too have found a serious and grateful following. Some young composers are deeply influenced by rock and indie music, while others are combing the past to find what they construe to be the key to winning back the confidence of a lost public.”
American Composers Orchestra