To someone who loves art, walking into a gallery and seeing stimulating art is inspiring and uplifting. However, at times, it can be intimidating when you’re trying to emulate success for yourself. When Chuck Close started his career, like a lot of artists he was affected by the best art of the time. De Kooning became a massive influence on Close’s earlier work. De Kooning stirred Close into practising his style and technique.
It all started so well. After several years, Close had De Kooning’s style and technique down to a tee. However, Close struggled when he realised that when people stood in front of his work, they thought of De Kooning. When he realised that he quickly hit a crisis point. He felt he needed to throw everything out and start again. Every stroke and splash of colour that was influenced by De Kooning had to go. This was not Close’s own unique style. His work had to be purged of De Kooning.
At first, Close wasn’t sure where to start. However, through journalling Close came up with an answer. He decided to start with the fundamental question; What is painting?
He wrote; “It is coloured dirt smeared on a flat surface stretched around some wooden sticks. It is for me the most magical of all mediums. You smear that colour dirt, and it makes space where there is no space. It allows you to make associations with life experiences that you have had. It can even make you cry, and it is just coloured dirt smeared on a flat surface.”
He continued, realising; “That magical transience is so rooted in process. No painting got made without a process. So paintings have more evidence of what happened and how it happened. There is touch, or every attempt to remove touch and the hand and make it appear like an apparition, just floated on to the canvas. Have you any idea how a Veneer gets made? If you look at it, it is magic. Usually embedded in the painting is all the evidence of its own making. What we can call its physicality.”
Close came to the conclusion that if he was going to start again, he needed to make sure that no one else’s work was relevant.
“We often don’t know what we want to do, but we sure as hell know what we don’t want to do. So the choice not to do something is often more important than the choice to do something.”
Ed Reinhardt became Close’s new hero. Reinhardt had made a list of the things he couldn’t do anymore into a positive and forward-looking decision. He titled it “Twelve Rules for a New Academy” in a statement intending to “render art pure”. Close took on board Reinhardt theory and purged his bad habits.
He changed his equipment and decided to use photography as a reference and as a starting point. The first of Close’s new paintings were large black and white portraits. He developed a process to make a mirror image of the photos. Close followed his series of paintings with a sequence of strict rules for the use of colour.
He first covered his canvas in a grid formation. Then using a die transfer colour separation technique Close knew how much red, blue and yellow each grid of the framework contained. Through experimenting Close realised that if he painted a series of incorrect colours first, then used the correct colours on top, no one area would become more important than the next. By developing his rigid process, Close’s art was genuinely purged of De Kooning. He had developed his own unique style.
He stated that “You can put yourself into a position where you really are functioning in a very intuitive way. It is about following your nose. The word craft is despised and ridiculed, but this phase associated with women’s work, like knitting and making quilts, is ideal when you’re a nervous wreck, and you choose not to reinvent the wheel every day. Having the outlook that today I will do what I did yesterday, tomorrow I am going to do what I did today, and if I stay there long enough, if you knit one and purl two long enough and believe in it you get a sweater.”
What surprised Close the most was that his new approach was an extremely satisfying process. It allowed Close to be more intuitive and inventive than ever before. By making the same shapes over and over again and using the same colours over and over again the permutation allowed him to purge his art. As a consequence Close had fallen more in love with the process of painting.
“When I was free to make anything, I ended up making the same shapes over and over. The same colours over and over. By giving yourselves to a process like that has allowed me to permutation more change more invention more intuition than I ever had before.” Chuck Close.
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It wasn’t that long ago that there was a common belief that humans were separate from the natural world. If people wanted to experience the fundamental characterises of the sublime the only option was to journey to the countryside to observe nature and the natural world. In his new show at the Tate Modern in London, the artist Olafur Eliasson attempts to bring the sublime to the city.
When l visited this art exhibition l saw the physical response to the wonders of nature. Eliasson highlights that not only are we part of the environment, that Art, can directly acknowledge and portray a wake-up call that draws attention to the fact that global warming is taking place. In this review I want to contemplate, can art have an impact that leads us to modify our behaviour? And is it really possible that art can change the world?
The show Olafur Eliasson, ‘In Real Life’ contains forty artworks looking back over the 25 years of the Danish Icelandic artist’s work. Eliasson (b. 1967) uses a wide range of materials to make work about his central concerns of nature, geometry and climate change. Eliasson has three studios in different parts of the world. Additionally, he has co-founded an architect’s practice called Studio Other Spaces, with architect Sebastian Behmann. His main collaborative studio is in Berlin where he collaborates with a team of scientist, architects, art critics, and artists.
The many people in the UK who love art will remember, Eliasson’s ‘Weather Project’ made in 2003 at the Tate Modern’s turbine hall. Before that show, it was expected that a hundred thousand visitors would make their way to see a large orange and yellow intangible sun. However, Eliasson hit a home run and two million visitors came. The artwork turned the turbine hall into not only a jaw-dropping theatrical experience but also into a highly successful social and public space. Visitors lay down under the fake smoke and mirrors, basking in the unnatural dazzling artificial sunlight and smoke, like moths to a light bulb. It was definitely the closest near-religious experience I have had in an art gallery.
Eliasson has always sought to attract people who are not necessarily specialists in art believing that art has the potential to draw attention to how we feel about the world. He believes that it is important to attract as wide as possible an audience in order to get his message across. Particularly those people entering museums for the first time. Eliasson’s art certainly does that successfully, capturing fun and fascination and the interest of young minds. His work has attracted many families to look at art and interact with it over the summer holidays.
The exhibition starts outside the museum with ‘Waterfall’ (2019) when Eliasson brings a natural spectacle dramatically to the streets of London. The waterfall is inspired by the many of waterfalls he experienced as a child and adult in Iceland. The eleven-metre high man-made structure is made out of scaffolding. Surprisingly, the work feels dwarfed by the surrounding buildings that dominate it. Although it was enjoyable to cool off by walking through the watery mist on a hot summer day, I felt the scale limited the artworks magnitude and impact. It could have been absolutely breathtaking.
However, the ‘Waterfall’ starts the journey into the flux. Entering the Blavatnik building and going up one floor the lift arrives at an entrance with incredible yellow mono frequency lighting. It is the same lighting he used for the ‘Weather Project’ (2003). ‘Room for one colour’ (1997) startlingly turns down all colours so everything becomes yellow and black. After this starling eye feast, it is back to the conventionality of exhibition rooms.
Well almost, Eliasson’s work deals with sensory experience after all. After waterfalls and yellow light, there are geodesic models of all shapes and sizes. I am met with a wall of Reindeer moss, a natural phenomenon that makes a comment about how we ruminate over our built environment.
This is followed by more artworks, that are certainly not conventional. ‘Your blind passenger’ (2010) is a thirty-nine-metre long walkway down a tunnel of bright fog where the atmospheric content becomes another Eliasson Moment. I stumbled through blindly with my arms out like a zombie as if trying to grasp the intangible experience. I could only see one or two metres in front of me, and due to being in a public space, everyone has their arms up to prevent a compromising contact with a stranger.
One of my favourite works was ‘Beauty’ (1993). A super-fine mist of rain dramatically lit in a dark room. A faint rainbow shivers in the water. It made me consider and question what was being portrayed. However, once you realise is it a simple pump and hose creating the work, it doesn’t diminish its value. I reminded myself it is only water, there is no sculpture and no one owns a rainbow but my mind was left thinking about the dematerialisation of an art object, and how Eliasson had taken such a simple idea and made it a noteworthy occasion of significance.
Walking into another dark room there is a sudden burst of light in the centre of the room. It takes a moment to realise a strobe light is illuminating a fountain of water. The ever-changing sculptural form ‘Big Bang Fountain’ (2014) is constructed for a fleeting split second. This work encourages you to consider how the space and the artwork are constructed. When the strobe snaps, a different water sculpture is at the forefront of your mind. The mental sculpture stays with you until the next bright flash of light appears. It is certainly illuminating.
These individual artworks successfully cloud the distinction between culture and nature. I now understand that nature is not just something out there; there is no outside. I felt like I had an education in a playfully way without realising it. I had an Eliasson Moment.
However, I came to the show with a question, about whether art can change the world? I now realise that Art can undoubtfully be used to stimulate conversation and create a meaningful debate about what scientists and politicians are doing. It can bring an important conversation about climate change to the front of our minds. Unfortunately, the exhibition failed to convince me to stop everything I am doing that has an impact on climate change, like using my diesel car. But how could it? Nevertheless, it did give me cause to think about my actions more closely. I will definitely consider using my bike for shorter journeys, use fewer plastic bags and consider other measures l do to help the environment. Hopefully, this exhibition will help instigate a change in our awareness.
At the end of the exhibition l sat playing with Zometools models for fifteen minutes, children were sitting next to me. I watched the world go by as I tinkered. The tangible and at times touchable art l witnessed for me hit the ball out of the park. Although occasionally I thought it lacked a bit of emotionalisation and the scale of the waterfall didn’t quite reach the full sublime moment, I left thinking about our miraculous planet. Eliasson gave me an awe-inspiring feeling and respect for nature. I left educated about how we are destroying our planet beyond repair. I am not confident that art can change the world but I did feel that the message needs to be repeated a hundred times in order to evoke real change.
I dream of sitting in my dusty studio. I can smell the pungent scent of turpentine. I can see the photographs and sketches stuck on the wall. Devils Haircut, by Beck, plays in the background and newspapers, magazines and books litter the paint-covered floor. I have a primed blank canvas on the easel, all ready to go. I sit, staring and reflecting on what to do next. I wonder shall I draw or paint today? I wish there was nowhere else l have to be.
I often only wish it was true; that I had nowhere else to be. The idea of being unbound by time feels like the ultimate emancipation.
Instead, as a committed parent, I am aware I need to collect the kids from school soon. Which leaves me a narrow window of time to get something made. When I think about what my greatest enemy is as an artist, it is easy to look at a clock and say time. But is it really?
I remind myself of the recent trip to the National Gallery. The inspirational time l spent with Rembrandt and Rubens. Then I think about a walk through the countryside with my family when I took my camera and noticed the wildflowers. I remember the happy times I had on holiday with my family. I ask myself, was that wasted? Clearly not is the answer!
If time was abundant, I wouldn’t be scared of growing old. I would be like a zombie without the need to respond to life and art. I know that our lives are short and that time robs us of our essential things, like our loved ones. If time was abundant I don’t think I would feel the need to stand on the shoulder of giants. I won’t feel the need to respond to great art and make a mark before it’s too late.
With time ticking away, I want to make the most of it. Nothing of beauty, intellect or authentic merit comes from a stale imagination. I first need time to absorb life and let my imagination range freely. You could say I am most creative when I am least productive and when I think about it, I certainly wouldn’t want it any other way.
I realise the journey is the reward; I will discover myself on the way. I will not be the same person, the progress will change me. The outcome won’t be just a career or a lifetime of painting; the genuinely satisfying thing will be the gradual change in me over time.
Creativity is about connections, and connections are not made alone in a pristine white studio with no doorway to the outside world. My busy short life is full of ideas and profound questions. Although I have often thought that time was my greatest enemy, I now realise if I had all the time in the world with no connection back to the reality of family life and the pressure of earning a living, I won’t have the motivation to leave a dent in the universe. I recognise that l will always continue to struggle to carve out time for myself to paint. However, I need it that way. Slivers of time help motivate me to get the work made.
Time isn’t the artist’s greatest enemy, it’s my motivator. Martha Truly-Curtin tells us that, “time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” While Zig Ziglar states that “People often complain about lack of time when lack of direction is the real problem”.
As I get older, I have noticed I need less sleep. I get up earlier and look forward to getting something done. I seek protection from interruptions to achieve my daily goals. One to two hours of writing, when the house is quiet, is pure bliss. Blocks of two to three hours to do focused painting day after day, week after week and l can see progress towards making that dent in the world.
Have you ever wondered about the best way to approach art-making? In Art and Fear, Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Art Making, by David Bayles and Ted Orland the artists and authors take on the challenge of verbalising the disquiet and unease of making art.
It is somewhat comforting to read an artist talking about typical problems and how to overcome them. One of the memorable anecdotes from the book comes from a ceramics class. The ceramics class is put into two groups and are told they are going to be graded differently. One group is informed to produce as much work as possible, while the other group has to focus on quality over quantity. At the end of the term, the first group will receive an A if they turn fifty pounds of sculptured clay into pots. The second group only needs to hand in one perfect vessel to gain an A, but it has to be their most significant accomplishment.
Once quality and perfectionism were given a back seat, I can easily imagine the first group rising to the occasion and completing pot after pot. With no trepidation about the outcome, there was no looking back. Each student made gradual progress and refined their techniques as they made their pots. With a brief reflection before moving on, mistakes were quickly learnt. Their skills and grace improved with each container.
The other group, with their focus on thinking before they start, were doomed before they began. These makers became frozen in time not sure what the consequence of each action would be. I have experienced this first hand. Striving for perfectionism cause massive anguish. With perfectionism as a focus, they found that they couldn’t help focusing on their shortfalls. Suddenly they were scared of making even a little mistake.
This short story from the book highlights the journey and experience artists have to overcome when art-making. It highlights that theorising can’t replace action. Consistently knocking out solidly average work, where good enough is the goal is the best approach and is a sound way to undertake art-making and progressing skills.
As Bayles and Orland say “you learn how to make your work by making your work.” “The hardest part of art-making is living your life in such a way that your work gets done, over and over. Finding a host of practices that are just plain useful.”
Although there are several good motivating points in the first half of this book, I found the second half of the book not as strong. As l neared the end of the book, I was looking forward to it finishing. As at times, I found the book frustrating, especially the section on art and science. I was surprised that a book that tries to explain the benefits and problems of art-making avoids the one essential ingredient, creativity. However, the is some real insight to;
“Provocative art challenges not only the viewer, but also its maker. Art that falls short often does so not because the artist failed to meet the challenge, but because there was never a challenge there in the first place. Think of it like Olympic diving: you don’t win high points for making even the perfect swan dive off the low board.” Bayles and Orland
Overall I felt that reading this book was money and time well spent. After reading this book, I returned to my studio, with renewed focus to churn stuff out and work as much as I can. Instead of sitting down and imagining myself getting better. As Bayles and Orland said, “The overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars.”
In my previous blog post, I mentioned Michael Craig-Martin’s interest as a child in the shape and form of American cars. From a very young age, Michael Craig-Martin had the ability to identify every make and model of an American car. I found this profound because as a child I also had this ability, but with British cars in the 80s and 90s. This foundational understanding and appreciation of form is clearly something that many artists unconsciously encounter from a young age.
This week l stumbled on a black and white BBC documentary about Henry Moore (1898 – 1986) and my appreciation of form was enhanced. In the documentary, Henry Moore discusses what he thinks is behind his work and motivations. He stated that he believes that “Appreciation of form, comes from an appreciation of sex”. He said that;
“If you want to interpret form from this point of view then everything is sex. Everyone’s appreciation of form is built on this appreciation of sex. I think that my art in my part of early training as a young sculptor comes from going to a mixed secondary school where I could look at all the girl’s legs. All from the age of 12 or 13 and I could tell you in the school which girl was which. If you’d only show me her figure from the knee downwards. The fullness of form. The tautness of form, all these things are connected with life and life is sex.”
I was fascinated when Moore talked about how he gets started when he enters his studio. In his studio, he has a tray of objects that he found on the seashore, in his garden and in ploughed fields. Picking up and examining one of these objects often inspires him and sparks a powerful passion to get started. The outward appearance of the stones, flints and other bits and pieces on the tray remind him of the form of a person or the contours of the landscape. A distinctive form begins to form in his mind. Moore works from this arousal into his sketchbook trying to determine and embody a particular idea.
Henry Moore explained that “A sculptor is a person who is interested in the shape of things, a poet in words, a musician by sounds.” It never occurred to me until then that maybe l should start collecting three-dimension objects. I must agree with him when he states that “All art is an abstraction to some degree.”
Henry Moore felt that reading the book by Neumann titled, The ‘Archetypal World of Henry Moore’ gave away too much about his work. So he stopped reading it. He believed that it is a mistake for a sculpture or a painter to speak or write very much about his work. Stating that it releases the tension he needs for his work.”
“By going into what its deep motives and reasons are, I think [it] might stop me from wanting to go on…One can give a tiny clue perhaps in talking about what you’re trying to do, so people don’t look for something you’re not trying to do. But all I mean is you can’t explain, in a few words, what you’re been trying to do for a whole lifetime…You shouldn’t try to use up words and get rid of a tension that should be used in your artwork.”
Henry Moore’s comments made my wild and untamed mind think about the suitcase in Pulp Fiction. There is an intriguing mystery when the actors John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson react to a light-emitting from a suitcase in the film. By holding back the mystique, the audience never finds out what was in the suitcase. The situation encourages a deeper level of curiosity. No matter what is in the suitcase, it wouldn’t be as powerful as the mystery of not knowing what was in the suitcase.
Our minds are free to make subjective assumptions as we view artworks but we will never know the truth. The more wide-ranging and varied the interpretations are the more successful the artwork becomes.
It is hard to understand the incongruities between a successful artist and the work of mere mortals like the rest of us. I want to put into words how can a simple drawing of an object can be turned into a world-class sculptural form. Michael Craig-Martin, the once significant tutor of the YBAs at Goldsmith between 1974-1998, is now showing his latest sculpture at the Gagosian Gallery on Britannia Street in London. Is it the snap at the moment of impact when seeing his work, where he is best in the game? Is it the skill of his placement that no one else comes close to? Or is it the degree of Craig-Martin’s unparalleled expertise? I realise all this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of seeing the distinguished simplicity of Craig-Martin’s artwork. I went along to his current show to see first hand, the beauty and genius of Michael Craig-Martin’s game.
I walk into the exhibition at Gagosian Gallery, on Britannia Street, I am met with a void-like atmosphere in the exhibition space. I am confronted with brightly coloured magenta frame in the shape of headphones, a cobalt blue safety pin and an emerald green fountain pen. They stand eight-foot-tall immediately in front of me in the empty space. The white walls and grey concrete floor stand in contrast, drawing my attention to the simplicity and colour that comes from the metal-framed sculptures.
When the shapes first come into sight, there is a snap at the moment of impact, like observing a professional tennis player’s powerful backhand. All I am witnessing is the finished point in time that is gratifying and noteworthy. However, my first thought is how the finished result looks so straightforward. As I walk around, I notice how the apparent three-dimensional work is really two-dimensional from the side.
I imagine not thinking about the countless paintings and wall mural I have seen of Craig-Martin’s work. It must be hard to understand how much effort it has taken to produce this work for a new viewer of Craig-Martin’s work. There is not much for a viewer to go on. The highly refined three-dimensional objects sit there like a simple act.
It feels inconceivable to figure out how top performers reaches these dizzy heights of visual power from only witnessing the finished result. I think of a non-sports person watching the raw and powerful backhand of professional tennis winning at match point.
The player sprints to the corner with his weight moving towards the edge of the line. The participant throws a forehand with a topspin screaming down the line past the competitor. It is hard to imagine all the thousands of practices it has taken to reach this eminence moment. As the viewer stands there in shock. They look to find something to grab hold to understand the players elegant and effortless form. Asking themselves “did I really see what I just witnessed? How did they do it, it looked so easy?”
The white cube without any tendency towards anything leaves space for the viewer to really considering these simple-looking sculptures. Witness the work the viewer asks themselves the same question, what have I missed and how did the artist get to here?
Craig-Martin enables the viewers to carry out a time transportation effect to recollect the viewer knowledge and experience of the object in a profound and meaningful way. What can I perceive beyond the physical and tangible object? What does my intuition tell me?
The choice of colour stands out. The bright contrasting colours are like a centre punch in the gallery. In essence, Craig-Martin sculpture starts with a simple kind of reductiveness. He began by choosing an essential thing; an informed selection of all the art forms. The first step is making a pencil drawing; an original form of art-making.
From studying the work it possible to realise no one else would have taken the solitary steps. No one else would come close to this outcome. The skill of placement takes an original object and refines it. Lifting its significance and drawing attention to it.
When Craig-Martin was young, he had a keen interest in what things looked like. He loved great American 50s cars, and even today, he is still able to use his visual memory to identify the make and model of every car from this period. Through drawing, Craig-Martin has followed his natural engagement with things.
Drawing enables Craig-Martin the opportunity to follow his nose in an open and unparalleled way. Rather than choosing cars, he deliberately chose objects we take for granted. A careful selection between all the commonplace items. Each item has its own significance in its own unique way.
Craig-Martin recognised the precise snap in his distinct drawings. Craig-Martin’s drawings have a peculiar look. The finished image looks like a technical drawing taken from an instruction manual. It imparts just enough knowledge on the viewer, so they recognise the object depicted.
The simple appearance at first glance appears as if the original drawing that inspired the sculpture could have been drawn by anyone. However, Craig-Martin’s picture of an everyday object is refined and distinct due to the sharp and precise line without shading, tone or predilection. No matter who set out with the same task, Craig-Martin’s approach of reducing the object without personal inflection is one of a kind. It leads to an outcome to be free from style and be remarkable in their own way. Successively creating Craig-Martin’s own visual language and system of communication.
The unparalleled skill comes partly from the expertise of Craig-Martin’s drawing but more so from the carefully selecting of what not to draw. Chuck Close, the American painter, known for his photorealistic process paintings talks about developing a practice based on the process;
“We often don’t know what we want to do, but we sure as hell know what we don’t want to do. So the choice not to do something is often more important than the choice to do something.”
The persistence of completing the task again and again and knowing what you don’t want to do draws awareness to what appears to be mundane, functional items. The visual idea is then repeated over the years as paintings, murals and sculpture. Through this repetition of presentation, novelty turns into aesthetic importance for the viewer.
Craig-Martin picked up a pencil and started drawing what he was interested in. He had found something. He didn’t know it was a good idea when he started, it was just an idea. Through a long journey, Craig-Martin’s has located what was indeed his.
At its heart, it is a simple drawing. Craig-Martin took a modest idea and elevated it. Through a conscious selection of things between the obvious stuff, the everyday item that we take for granted has been given a new significance. Every reiteration confirmed the unique style into a recognisable calling card and signature style. The distinct visual language is now comparable to his initial interest in the 1950s American cars. It is a clear personal vision that holds the viewers’ attention and tells the viewer a truth…
“There is no shoe, yet everybody sees a shoe. It doesn’t look anything like a shoe not even slightly. It has no relationship to a shoe whatsoever except it looks like a shoe. There is another object there, it’s not in one’s imagination. There is an object that is not a shoe, being seen to be a shoe. It is really extraordinary human ability and phenomenon.” Michael Craig-Martin explains, “There reason why dogs don’t watch television, it’s because they can’t see and read pictures. We have this extraordinary capacity to read pictures.”
There is a common phrase in art, ‘Painting comes out of painting.’ In this case, sculpture and painting come out of drawing. Craig-Martin original task wasn’t like a visionary architect, seeing a finish conceptual artwork in his mind from the start. It is more like a gardener, growing and pruning a garden and seeing which way the plants develop while nurturing them.
The beauty and genius of Michael Craig-Martin game is the commitment to baby steps without being able to see where they will lead. Following intuition and trusting inner belief that it will work its way out in the end. Stepping on the court as a novice and only seeing the winning backhand, it is impossible to understand of practices that have lead to this result.
Michael Craig-Martin was born in Dublin in 1941 but spent most of his childhood in Washington D. C. He studied Fine Art at Yale School of Art and Architecture. He has lived and worked in Britain since 1966.
I love what I do. I want to go to my studio every day and have a perfect day. On my perfect day I want to express something of significance. Once I am in my studio, my mind starts to make connections. By fostering a studio practice with risk-taking and openness, I open an infinite space. Every painting l create opens a new conversation about, What if?
I like to stay open to the possibility of generating tension in my work. I don’t want to overthink what I am doing. Words have never been a strong point of mine, so l stick with making art to express myself. Words about sincere motives and reasons might spoil my passion and inspiration. It takes more than a few words to simplify a lifetime of thoughts. I have realised that meaningful discoveries will come through my use of paint.
I see art as a co-creation of new possibilities. I believe we can all connect with something much bigger than our individuality through creativity. I have also discovered that by looking at art made by others, I have an opportunity to step into somebody else’s shoes and see between reality and subjectiveness. The work l view becomes an initiator of further ideas for myself and other viewers.
Through art, we can bridge realities, we access a higher level of capacities, where we can all grow together.
I believe man’s greatness comes from the quality of their culture. With a prominent, enriched culture comes an enhanced quality of relationships and conversations. I feel the responsibility and need to contribute to the remarkable, visual culture of art.
At some point, most creative people realise that something needs to change. The book ‘The Art of War’ by Steven Pressfield, can help explain what old behaviours and mindsets are holding you back. Essentially it is a self-help book for amateur artists and writers battling with inner self-doubt and fear. There is a diamond of an idea about learning to overcome resistance and ‘turning pro’ as the book asks, “Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what “Resistance” is.”
When I tried to read ‘The Art of War’ for the first time, several years ago, I struggled to get past Steven Pressfield’s zany unconventional rhetoric. However, I am pleased I gave the book a second chance. In this first part of the book, Pressfield tries to define resistance in its every form. Although I found this first part the hardest, there were several parts I related to.
“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands resistance.”
Pressfield explains that instead of getting rid of fear for good, it takes a prolonged time of compressing hard work. Pressfield’s gem in the middle is that artists and writers need to realise that fear will always be there. The trick is a better understanding of it and learning to live it.
The War of Art in part two and three presses home the resolve needed to recognise and overcome amateur mindsets and distractions. Combating resistance means learning what the term ‘professional’ means and making changes to your work routine. As a professional, the ground rules have to change. The artist needs to show their highest level of discipline and keep professional hours. Pressfield explains;
“It is one thing to study war and another to live the warriors’ life.”
“I write only when inspiration strikes, fortunately, it strikes every morning at 9 o’clock sharp.”
“I turn up everyday day in and day out, no excuses.”
“Turning pro is like kicking a drug habit or stopping drinking. It’s a decision, a decision to which we must recommit every day.”
“Pros who sit down, roll up their sleeves and do it every day.”
“The qualities that define us as professionals?
1) We show up every day.
2) We show up no matter what.
3) We stay on the job all day. Our minds may wander, but our bodies remain at the wheel.
6) We accept remuneration for our labor. We’re not here for fun. We work for money.
7) We do not overidentify with our jobs.
8) We master the technique of our jobs.”
As a creative person, I know it is too easy to overthink the consequences of each and every action. However, the work you could accomplish will only get done when you overcome your resistance. Pressfield’s book explains that only through true love for the activity and by having success as a by-product, can you do the work and achieve your goals.
Dealing with criticism and knowing fear will always be there are just of couple of things we need to learn to live with. If it were easy, someone else would have already done it. In fact, fear can be used as a guide to let you know that you’re doing something important.
It is challenging at times to see beyond some of Pressfield’s turn of phrase. However, it is certainly worth the effort. Procrastination is a creative killer. This book, along with a handful of other intriguing like-minded books, can arm the artistic person with the tools and skills to give them a chance against an unrestrained and undisciplined mind. Making it in my view one of the essential books for all artists and writers to read.
It is well known that during Philip Guston’s career and throughout his life’s work, he toyed with two opposing forms of art. There was the figurative cartoon style of his earlier work in the 1930s and abstract expressionism in the 1950s. Philip Guston’s career highlights what he believed to be the central concern in the career of an artist. No matter what anyone else says or does, Guston believed that “A painters first duty is to be free.” Free to make their own choice, that is said, “unless you’re the kind of an artist that gnaws on one bone all the time.”
After a decade of teaching Philip Guston became part of the Abstract Expressionists movement. Its art was about finding ways to communicate the emotional reality of life and portray more significant metaphors about the wider universe. Despite being involved in the movement from its beginning after several years, Guston felt unsatisfied. He thought that Abstract Expressionist’s were losing touch with everyday life. The group, instead of looking into the real current subjects of the time, were too busy wrapped up in their own conceitedness and making grand pronouncements.
Over time Guston began to have powerful yearnings towards figuration. He felt that what he was making as an Abstract Expressionist was unrelated to what was gravely distressing him. It was now the 1960s, and he couldn’t stop thinking about the devastation and calamity of the Vietnam war. Thoughts about the flawed political errors he felt where morally wrong. Rather than just feeling exasperated by what was in the news, Guston wanted to discuss and show the world what he felt really mattered in his work.
In the end, Guston had a sudden compulsion. After serious consideration, he concluded that abstract expressionism was a cover-up for the poverty of spirit. Figuration and his morality won.
Guston was held in high regard within the abstract expressionist community of artists in New York. He was there from the beginning. The friendships he had established had filled his soul and bolstered his place in the epicentre of the art world. He had felt content in the community, nourished and understood. Well almost!
Once Guston made clear his intentions to return to figuration, the warm swell of admiration changed. The richest of friendships were now laced with tension and conflicts. The strain was building up, and the common ground between Guston and the artists of his generation began to erode and fade.
Things started to get unpleasant. Guston’s friends and peers were shaking their heads, and uncomfortable statements became common. Elaine, Willem de Kooning’s wife, said when talking about Guston and his change to figuration that, “This is embarrassing, this is really embarrassing.”
Guston felt it was time to leave New York and the painting style of the New York school of Abstract Expressionism. He wanted to return to motifs of his earlier work, the cartoon style of figurative work. As long as Guston was content with what he was doing, and he painted what he wanted to paint, he felt everything else in his life would take care of itself.
Guston concluded that he didn’t need to worry about what other people thought; good relationships would survive. All he wanted and needed was to feel free and be true to himself. Even when he was part the ‘New York School’, a term he preferred, rather than ‘Abstract Expressionist’ s’, he always showed a great deal of individuality in his work.
Guston now wanted more freedom believing that “nothing is ever solved in a painting. It’s a continuous chain that doesn’t go in one line, it goes in a serpentine line or in crooked paths, detours that have to be investigated. I felt like an explorer who almost got to the top of Mount Everest and somehow stopped just short and remembered and thought, well perhaps maybe I forget some gear, you know. I forgot some equipment but going down to recover this equipment I took some side paths that looked exciting and full of possibilities.”
He went on to say “Comments about style are strange to me. You’re working in this style or that style in the matter. It is not as if you had a choice. You’re trying to stay alive, continue and not die. It’s circular you’re still back there. I don’t feel any different now that I did in the early fifties. When I was doing so-called non-figurative things. I know that they dissolve and they don’t have this figuration and all that, but that is really beside the point. Because what is to the point that I am in the same state.”
In going back to the figurative style, he now had what he wanted; he had a new solitude in Woodstock. Guston valued his freedom and independence; however, it came at a high cost. His friendships didn’t survive. The critics were outspoken about his work. Instead of continuing painting, Guston felt at a loss. After a few years and a period of intense self-reflection, Guston eventually went to Rome for a two year residential to find a new path, leaving his wife and child at home.
When Guston returned, a year early than planned, he was eager to start his new work. He had found a new way forward. However, this time rather than plains of abstraction, there was a playfulness that mischievously took on the immoral and evilness he saw around him. There was a viciousness under his new hooded figurative work. From the Klansmen figures covered in blood to the references to Nixon with a political punch. Guston defied expectations.
Guston’s work alluded to painful experiences. Grappling with personal issues and the way his father, a jewish immigrant, was treated when arriving in America. Guston’s father committed suicide in 1923.
For Guston it was the only decision. What was significant to him came out in his work. He had a massive belief in the conviction that the artist needs to be free. Now with Pop Art centre stage, the art establishment slowly recognised the strength of his decision.
Guston continued to make crucially meaningful figurative work up until his death in 1980. Thankfully Guston had the satisfaction of reading about the changing views of the critics. Robert Hughes, who had once called his work “Ku Kluz Komix” retracted his options with, “a figurative artist of extraordinary power.”
Philip Guston, “There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art, that painting is autonomous, pure and for itself. Therefore we habitually analyse its ingredients and define its limits. But painting is ‘impure’. It is the adjustment of ‘impurities’ which forces its continuity. We are image-makers and age-ridden.”
Elizabeth Peyton review – Sadie Coles London until 15 June 2019
Elizabeth Peyton returns to London with exhibition paintings and prints at Sadie Coles Gallery. The first thing I am drawn to as I view this new body of work is her passion for painting and the people she depicts. Over the years the configurations of her paintings have become more and more involved. The subject matter is still the same but Peyton’s use of light, colour and poignancy has compounded. She brings out more physical aspects in her lush romantic paintings.
It is perhaps surprising that a few abbreviated spontaneous strokes can capture feelings sending them beyond merely descriptive marks. She captures his life force in ‘David (Dave Bowie)’ (2019). The watercolour brushwork is pure and clean like freshly fallen snow, allowing her to express direct expressions of emotion. Peyton uses the variations of bristles to portray a simple beauty and ideal concept.
A love story between a painter and the subject – Elizabeth Peyton review
It is satiable to fall in love with the subject. However, falling in love is something Peyton does very easily. Her paintings and her marriage to the Thai artist Rirkit Tirvanija is evidence of that. In 1991, a few weeks after meeting Tirvanija, he was due to leave the US due to visa difficulties. But Peyton told her, “I will marry you” and he meant it. They were married three weeks later.
The happy marriage, unfortunately, came to an end in 2004 when they divorced. Nevertheless, Tirvanija introduced her to Gavin Brown, the art dealer, before he had his own gallery space. Gavin Brown encouraged Peyton to have a solo show in Room 828, at the Hotel Chelsea, in New York. This was to be the beginning of Peyton’s art career.
A love story between a painter and the subject – Elizabeth Peyton review
Peyton started off her career painting a personal homage to artists and musician of the nineties. She was inspired by reading Stefan Zweig’s ‘Marie Antoinette: The portrait of an Average Women’ and Vincent Cronin’s ‘Napoleon’. Peyton understood and realised that Zweig’s book was a portrait of women infused with feelings and human insight. In Cronin’s ‘Napoleon’ book he showed that because of Napoleon’s individuality, he was able to use his magnetism to transform and change the world.
Elizabeth Peyton says, “I’d always made pictures of people, even when I was a little, little person. The urge was there. I just didn’t know why. When I did that drawing of Napoleon, I realised this is something I have to do and want to do.”
A love story between a painter and the subject – Elizabeth Peyton review
Once it occurred to Peyton that all she needed to validate her work was to realise that ‘history is in people’ and by romanticising the image she was able to capture the spirit of the time. By painting certain selected people in her show, Greta Thunberg, Jackson, Ally’s kiss in the film ‘A Star is Born’, she is participating in what she sees as a highly important cause.
“I really love the people I paint. I believe in them, I’m happy they’re in the world.”
The images she chooses to paint are in comfortable and relaxed poses rather than the glamorous tabloid snaps of the front page. In her images, vulnerability and susceptibility are on show and warm and fuzzy feelings of desire and affection radiates.
The paintings make the viewer and artist come alive with Peyton’s work reverberating powerfully with the viewing public. Peyton, by essential painting the characterise of the period, has deeply embedded her work in the zeitgeist. James Baldwin the American novelist, playwright and activities once wrote,
“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them”
A love story between a painter and the subject – Elizabeth Peyton review