Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Art rhetoric

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

February 3, 2008

It’s always gratifying to have one’s beliefs confirmed, especially by the likes of Jasper Johns. Following yesterday’s post and comments about the relative necessity of artists being able to articulate what their work means (I think that’s what critics are for—why do their job for them?) comes a piece in today's New York Times about the upcoming exhibition at the Met organized around his gray paintings, about which Johns says, “Yes, gray is important to me. But I don’t tend to think of it as separate from the rest of my work” and explains his relationship to the tradition of monochromatic painting by stating, “I was trying to do something else.” A good press release that does not make. I’ve met Johns and found him, as he’s known to be, distinctly unresponsive in conversation. But does that mean he's any less an artist? Sometimes people choose a visual means of expression because words are not their strong point. Johns’s reticence, however, may be seen as a matter of choice rather than the result of simple inhibition when, at the end of the article, he’s quoted as saying, “To me…self description is a calamity.” You can’t get more emphatic than that.
February 1, 2008

Visiting with 25 or so artists last week at the Vermont Studio Center, I found that part of my job there--besides eating as much bread, butter, and dessert as possible--was to poke holes in some closely-held art world tenets:

Artworks must be consistent for a final review, to show a dealer, or for an exhibition. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. I’m not sure where this reverence for sameness came from. Even though its usefulness has been flagrantly disproven by two of the most famous artists of our time, Louise Bourgeois and Gerhard Richter, it persists among young artists who are afraid to experiment because their job, as they see it, is to produce a “body of work” with a singular character. Sometimes I have to remind them that what looks like a big difference to the artist is negligible to the viewer, and that their work is unified simply by being theirs. But even if the leaps were huge, so what? While I’ve never been to an exhibition where observers complained that the work was too diverse, I’ve been to plenty where it was criticized for being too similar.

You have to have a concept in mind—and be able to articulate it—before you can start working. This belief stops many people from making art before they even begin. Ideas come from the process, not the other way around. It’s about starting somewhere, anywhere, and seeing where it leads. The starting point can be a concept, but as such it’s just another tool, a means to the end. If you know the outcome before you do the work, why bother?

After it’s finished, the artist should be able to explain what the work is about and why he/she did it. I have to admit that I had no idea what my work meant or could mean—to me or anyone—until I read the reviews. And while other people have contributed many interpretations, all of which feel valid, if you ask me what my current work is about I really have no clue. Where did it come from? I don’t know; it just happened. In his New York Times obituary Roy Lichtenstein was quoted as saying “I don’t think artists like myself have the faintest idea what we’re doing…”

When I’m king, along with regulating how early in the season stores can start flogging for Christmas and changing the term “ice pellets” back to “sleet,” I’m going to outlaw artist’s statements.