Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Artists' Statements

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

September 19, 2012

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson
I love comments, even the one that said that artist statements are a fact of life, and I should get over it. I will not get over it, any more than Caitlin Moran should get over bikini waxes. (What do artist statements and bikini waxes have in common? Well they hit the culture at about the same time and represent industry influenceart school and pornin areas that should remain private, are  disagreeable to accomplish and anti-aesthetic.) At least we're getting people to think before they do it.

Joan says: I think it's really important for a student to be able to put into words what they are trying to come to terms with in their work. There's a time and place for it. Doing the work, working without trying to explain every move is important, stream of consciousness, allowing one thing to lead to another, etc. We all know that but then it is useful for a student to talk about what's going on and why, what motivates her, what she is trying to say, where it's coming from. Nonsense to think that a student shouldn't be verbalizing their struggles at different times as they work. As a graduate student I hated the idea of the thesis I had to write, a whole semester course no less. When the words came out of me "my work is my religion, my altar, my way to make an offering, et. etc." it changed me, it helped me understand something I had never thought or said before. Same with artists. Pretentious to think we can just go on and on making art and never talk about it, never say what it is we're trying to do, to get at, to find. Critics do it, why shouldn't artists at times speak about their work. And who wants to write artist statements, nobody does but....When I give a lecture I try to give it all I can. Tell what a piece may (because who knows in the end) be about for me. What I was trying to do or say. If I was GR I probably wouldn't have much to say either. He paints and things happen. Would that I could do just that. Sorry for the long entry. Not in the studio this morning with the muses.

No apologies, I’m grateful for the long entry! I also know that you are particularly adept, poetic even, at writing about your work and life. Whether this stems from nature or from having to do it in art school – or both—we may never know.  However I do know that had I been required to write about it when I was beginning to paint (at nearly 30) it would have killed it—like writing about sex. And like sex, I was in it for the pure pleasure, for the relief from thinking. This is also why I played the piano, and in my 20 years of classical training, I’m grateful no one insisted that I write about why I played, or the experience of playing, because it would have killed that too.

I was also a complete flop as a student, barely making it into college and then dropping out. Maybe this has something to do with it?

Yet I am a writer, as well as an artist, by profession, so I hear you asking, isn’t this a contradiction? Isn’t writing about thinking? Yes, but in a way it’s also about stoppingthinking. Stopping the thoughts that would be maddeningly insistent until given expression, containing them, focusing them, which means shooing away all thoughts that don’t contribute. My understanding of other people’s art comes from writing—essentially from observation. Being required to describe and translate the experience is the gateway to insight. I write because it’s a way of making myself stand still, really look in a way I wouldn’t otherwise. My understanding of my own art, however, has come from other people—critics, writers, artist friends—and is the only reason I can write about it now.

Of course I never would have thought about any of this if you hadn’t prompted me…and now you've gotten me to write a writer's statement!

I just now found an online archive of artist’s statements. It’s important to note how the most interesting ones are by older artists reflecting the wisdom gained through a lifetime of art making. I never said artists shouldn’t write or speak about their work, just that it should be voluntary. If your inner being calls upon you to write something, do it! If it enhances the experience of your work, do it! However, the requirement that all artists accompany their work with a statement is not only very recent, it’s as absurd as requiring writers to provide illustrations with their texts. Or maybe that’s next. 
September 13, 2012

Nothing could bother me more than the way a thing goes dead once it has been said. 
Gertrude Stein, What Are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Few of Them (1936).

Suddenly the crisp cool air of fall is upon us, and everyone in my inbox seems to be panicked about artist’s statements—although why anyone would choose to turn to me for such advice is baffling, as I‘m famous for wanting to abolish them.

One ex-student wrote that it’s the scariest thing he’s ever undertaken—but I’m not sure if the scary part is writing the statement, or showing it to me. Another fears that his teaching job depends on his treatment of the subject, now an integral part of any college art program. I tell another friend not to write one because he’s too well known and ask, “Would Picasso write an artist’s statement?”

The biggest reason I hate artist’s statements is because I’ve hardly ever read one that enhanced the art experience; most of the time they turn me off—or make me laugh at their earnestness and foolish rhetoric. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard arts professionals say, “I was interested until I read the artist’s statement.”

The other reason (or maybe it’s the same) is because what makes art ART is its ability to communicate without words—at its best it’s a distillation of life experience in visual form that has more to do with the emotions than the intellect. The way art works is, or should be, mysterious and ineffable. Break it down into nuts and bolts (description, influences, techniques, biographical trivia, etc.) and its effect dissipates. There’s a reason magicians don’t give away their secrets; artists shouldn’t either.

Words make things concrete when what we want is fluidity. I worry that this insistence on being able to articulate every step of their development makes students “think” when they should be “intuiting,” causing them to distrust what they can’t explain. When a teacher asks, “Why did you do that?” answering, “Because I wanted to” will not get you to the head of the class.

Gerhard Richtercan get away with saying, “I can’t verbalize what I am working on” * because he’s Gerhard Richter. It’s also why he’s Gerhard Richter. His writing doesn’t deal with descriptions or reasons for what he’s doing, rather the impossibility inherent in the endeavor. Agnes Martin also:

I hope I have made it clear that the work is about perfection as we are aware of it in our minds but that the paintings are very far from being perfect — completely removed in fact — even as we ourselves are. (from Writings).

Not only are we expected to put words to the wordless, artists, whose lifestyles are generally hermetic, are also expected to speak articulately about their work in public—however few do it well. I will never take Dana Schutz seriously after hearing her give a talk (I won’t dignify it by calling it a “lecture”) where every word was preceded by “kinda” or “sorta” which made it a kinda terrible sorta talk—you’d think an MFA at Columbia woulda ironed those kinda things out, wouldn’t you sorta agree? Same with Matthew Ritchie, but for different reasons. 
I think about my friend, Fred Sandback, who simply refused to do either. When I asked him to speak at Bennington he said, “I don’t have anything to say.”

But here’s the Catch-22, which is that if you don’t write something down, someday, at a gallery somewhere, an intern is going to write a REALLY STUPID press release about your work. The message here is, be in control of your publicity and, if necessary, hire a ghostwriter or a coach. Whatever you put out there has to be the best it can be. Your art deserves it.

March 12, 2012
Sometimes I think it’s my job to be the contrarian, although that hardly applies where Gerhard Richter is concerned. His work and philosophy have long inspired me, so it was a special pleasure to see Corinna Belz’s film, “Gerhard Richter Painting,” which confirmed everything I always wanted to believe about the artist. Belz has great understanding, both visual and intellectual, and strikes just the right note, which films about art hardly ever do. I won’t say more, because I’m most likely reviewing the film elsewhere, except to urge you to see it (even twice, as I did) at Film Forum, where it opens on Wednesday and runs through the 27th.

Also I learned, from watching Richter doing interviews in the film, how to answer impossible questions.  Which of his painting styles does he prefer? “It varies,” he says. What is his response to fame? “It varies.”  So helpful! Now when people ask me how much time I spend in the country or the city, I can say, “It varies.” Which do I enjoy most, painting or writing? “It varies.”

So now for the curmudgeon part—are you sitting down? Prepared for a terrible shock?  Okay, here goes…I am not a fan of Cindy Sherman. This is almost as huge as admitting I liked some of Damien Hirst’s spots, but I have always thought of Sherman’s work not as feminist, but anti-female, even mocking—clichés of women as established by the male world. Unlike the women I care about, her permutations are not warm, nurturing, sympathetic, or even sexual.  Would you choose any of them to be your best friend? I didn’t think so.

I may also be prejudiced because I remember how, just before Sherman made her film stills in the seventies, Eleanor Antin was transforming herself in photographs in ways that were more haunting, funny, varied and complex—as well as more human. Where Antin was clearly on a quest for self-knowledge, Sherman’s portraits come off as unflattering commentary on the aspirations and ways of life of others--especially in this series, which still strikes me as ageist, sexist, and just plain mean. (I’m plagiarizing myself here, as I wrote about this in an earlier post.)

Eleanor Antin, The King, 1972 (image from the Web)

Eleanor Antin, The Angel of Mercy (Florence Nightingale), Myself-1854, 1977 (Image from the Web)

And on, curmudgeonly, to Doug Wheeler’s sleeper show of the year, which had people braving the winter chill, lining up around the block to be admitted into the David Zwirner gallery, five at a time.  Before going further, I want to make it clear that I found the piece admirable, and waited to write about it because I didn’t want to interfere with anyone’s experience of it. If there’s a single form of art that has engaged me to the point of indefatigable research, it's this, “light and space” as it is called, the art of atmospheric environment, as exemplified by the work of Robert Irwin, Olafur Eliasson, James Turrell—as well as Fred Sandback, whose work, though not directly involved with light, engages the viewer in similar ways.

One of the things that impressed me most about Olafur’s famous weather project at the Tate Modern, is how he gave thought to every aspect of the experience, from the pre-publicity and catalogue (neither of which contained images or descriptions of the work, to the length of its run (when asked by the museum to keep it up longer, he refused).  Through my study of his work I took on this hyper-criticality, which has contributed to my campaign against artist’s statements and museum wall text, as they often to serve to direct and limit how work is experienced. So, for instance, while I admire Turrell, I began to see his requirement that viewers remove their shoes and put on Tyvek booties before entering certain installations, as a not only part of the experience, but an unpleasant one—even a form of subjugation on the artist’s part, as they make you look stupid.

I also dislike having to circumvent black curtains or don headphones.

So for me, the Doug Wheeler experience began with Ken Johnson’s rave review in the Times, after which everyone was talking about it, then the happily chatty and anticipatory cue along West 19thStreet, which began forming at least a half hour before the gallery opened. Once being allowed to enter the building, five at a time (throughout we were attended by a bevy of friendly, courteous gallery assistants, each more beautiful than the next), we were ushered into a room to wait our turn, sitting on wooden folding chairs (or in my case, a scarily wobbly shared bench next to the wall) arranged in a square so that we faced each other, as in Quaker meeting.

From there, again five at a time, we were invited leave our bags in a pile, take off our shoes and put on white booties similar to Turrell’s, which folded around our ankles like oversize institutional house slippers.

But then there was the space Wheeler created. With no evidence of floor, ceiling, or walls, it was like being suspended in air. When we went in, the slowly changing light was white. I tiptoed as far as I could go, stopping, as instructed, when the floor sloped up, and stood immersed, as if by fog.

My friend, Roberto, remarked that it was like being in heaven.

Photo: David Zwirner Gallery

Heaven, yes, but with refugees from an insane asylum, as everyone was moving slowly and their booties caused them to shuffle. The effect of the lighting was so much like that of seamless photography background paper that everyone looked like part of a fashion shoot, and thus highlighted became inadvertent performers.

Roberto and I became fascinated with a young woman in our midst who was shuffling about in a particularly distracted way. Everything about her was slack—her mouth hung slightly open, rumpled clothing fell loosely over her heavy frame, and her hair looked as if she just gotten out of bed—in marked contrast to the art students she came with and the fashionable gallerinas. Roberto dubbed her Sloppy Girl. “Meds,” he whispered to me. Who was she? What was she doing there? Was she going to be okay?

Ultimately Sloppy Girl is what we remember and still talk about—not, perhaps what the artist intended.

(Also note that the people in the publicity shot above, courtesy of the gallery, are NOT wearing booties.)
March 2, 2012

In the interest of raising the bar on artists statements, I've decided to post all I come across that fulfill my basic parameters, which you will remember are:

An artist’s statement should be fun to read, and shed no light whatsoever on the intention, content, or experience of the work.

Therefore this from Barbara Barg, who I know from the poetry world:

Barg was the first being born out of formless chaos. For billions of years, Barg grew in a cosmic egg, working ceaselessly to create order by separating her clear yang from her turbid yin. The clear became the egg white, the turbid the yolk. 

After incubating for billions of years, Barg hatched from the egg and laid down to rest. Her breath became the wind, her voice the thunder. Her left eye became the sun, her right eye the moon. Her limbs and trunk became the mountain ranges. Her blood became the rivers, her flesh the fertile soil. Her hair became the stars and the Milky Way, her fur the trees and forests. Her teeth and bones became metals and minerals. The marrow of her bones became jade and pearls. Her sweat became the rain and the dew. And when the wind blew, the fleas on her fur became fish and animals. Then, feeling well-rested, she got up and wrote some poems.

So now that we’ve gotten artist’s statements out of the way, let me vent a bit on another prose genre—the interview—which I’ve always considered a low form of journalism. Andy Warhol made interviews famous, but he loved vacuity, and that’s fine when one celeb is asking questions of another and no one is pretending to be a writer or even serious. In art magazines, however, interviews often come across as a legitimized excuse for the writer to get out of actually writing something, or even doing their homework (“Where did you grow up?”), with little more insight than we’d get from a press release. I remember starting to read one interview with an artist whose work I was not familiar with, where the first question was, “How does it feel to be back in New York?” Needless to say, I turned the page.

However I love being proved wrong. Recently I read an interview that showed me that the format can be used to generate more insight than a straight article ever could. Coincidentally it happens to be by son, Matt, with David Lynch—in Interviewmagazine.
February 21, 2012
I’ve said before that when I'm king, the first thing I’ll do is abolish artist’s statements—which will make me very popular in the kingdom, as I’ve never met anyone who likes them. What I want to know is, how does something no one likes continue not only to persist, but become increasingly unintelligible and ridiculous? The form is only about 15 years old, and how it evolved and took root in the culture would be a (semi) interesting study.

However since I’m not king yet, and schools, galleries, and curators seem to require them (in fact graduate students complain that their teachers often put more emphasis on the quality of the statement than the artwork) I am pleased to provide a formula that’s been very successful for the artist I stole it from, and you can then use the time you would have spent on your statement to work in the studio:

My work emerges in the interdisciplinary space of art, -----------, and social practice. After leaving behind my formal training as a ---------- and relocating to ----------- (note: you MUST relocate. Jesus couldn’t work miracles in his hometown either) I have created a diverse body of artwork that explores urbanity, spatial justice, and land-based poetics. Employing a broad range of media from ------ to ------ to ------ these works examine the tension between politics and poetics, individual action and impotence.  I reconfigure time, making reference to the concept of --------, originating from the work of Charles Baudelaire and developed by Walter Benjamin (you may substitute Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard or Lacan for either of these).  Cyclical repetition and return also inform the character of my movements and mythology, contrasting geological and technological time through land-based and social practices that examine individual memory and collective mythology.

Notice that the artist left out a few essential terms, such as “gender,” “social identity,” and “the body.” So that all artist’s statements from now on don’t look exactly alike (you don’t want to be accused of plagiarism, not that anyone would notice) it’s your job to insert them in a creative way; just don’t spend more than five minutes doing it.
Of course after I wrote this, I realized that eliminating any kind of written accompaniment to an artwork would restrict creativity unduly, so I’ve decided to modify my ruling to allow statements if they fulfill the following requirements:

Are fun to read.

Shed no light whatsoever on the meaning and experience of, or impetus for, the artwork.

I liked my friend, Colin Brant's statement for his 2011 exhibition at the Bennington Museum, where he wrote:

My approach is one in which reverence and skepticism coexist naturally. I like to imagine the possibility of a world in which men and women in their underwear read poetry by a reflecting pool, looked on by deer and birds.

If Colin's paintings don’t fit the description of “land-based poetics,” I don’t know what does. But as for "reconfiguring time," well, only God can do that.

Colin Brant
Colin Brant
June 1, 2011
This looks to me like a diagram for negotiating the Creative Age. By William Kentridge at Marian Goodman, exhibition through June 18th.

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. My frustration in the toy store (see the post below) had less to do with gender stereotyping or even materialistic messages, than my inability to find anything that would 1) interest an intelligent five-year-old for more than two minutes and 2) not clutter up the household with ugly shit.  Believe me, if I'd found a girly girl toy that was really cool, I would have bought it. 

However the plethora of toys that narrow, rather than facilitate, the imagination are symptoms of a larger issue, which I’ve finally realized is behind the intention and philosophy of this blog: the increasing tendency to see information as an end in itself, valued over creativity and imagination, even experience. I have nothing against information, but it’s simply another commodity, absolutely useless unless you do something with it.*  I saw a magazine ad for an investment firm that boasted, “We take the emotion out of investing.” Well if investing could be reduced to a set of rules, anyone with the right computer program could make himself rich.  Instead what I’d look for in an investment counselor is someone with imagination and intuition, who has the ability to understand (imagine) my lifestyle and needs, and who’s had enough experience to trust his or her hunches (what are hunches, anyway, if not the ability to recognize and respond to positive and negative emotion?) to successfully negotiate the market.

This issue is also behind the crisis in medicine, which is slowly, very slowly, coming to recognize that “the test of replicability, as it is known…the foundation of modern research” is fallible:

(From The New Yorker): Replicability is how the community enforces itself. It’s a safeguard for the creep of subjectivity. Most of the time, scientists know what results they want, and that can influence the results they get. The premise of replicability is that the scientific community can correct for these flaws.

But now all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain. It’s as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable. This phenomenon doesn’t yet have an official name, but it’s occurring across a wide range of fields, from psychology to ecology.  (Read more…)

Hence the rise of artist’s statements, museum wall text, and pre-concert lectures, all attempts to reduce to information experiences which, when at their best, are ineffable—emotional rather than intellectual.

The valuing of information over creativity and experience are also part of the current crisis in higher education, in all education:

(From The Nation) Online courses, distance learning, do-it-yourself instruction: this is the future we’re being offered. Why teach a required art history course to twenty students at a time when you can march them through a self-guided online textbook followed by a multiple-choice exam? Why have professors or even graduate students grade papers when you can outsource them to BAs around the country, even the world? Why waste time with office hours when students can interact with their professors via e-mail? (Read more…)

[So as well as substituting information for experience, we also expect to substitute online teaching relationships for those that are face-to-face.  Where does it stop? With online marriages? How about Skyped parenting? If we have the whole world to choose from, surely there’s someone in India who’s a better parent that you.]

Instead of getting rid of primary school playgrounds, eliminating liberal arts programs, and emphasizing rote like the Tiger Mother, we should be doing the opposite—because, without our recognizing it, the Information Age has segued into the Creative Age. There’s no longer such thing as career or even information security, and starting right now everyone has to be an entrepreneur. That’s what recent college graduates are finding out, that there’s no safe job to slip into, no set path; they have to make the whole thing up.  As do we. Those of us who’ve been at whatever it is we do for any length of time, have to completely rethink it—and furthermore, understand that this process of reinvention is not going to stop.

This rapidly changing world is one for which artistswho have always had to make it upmay be the best prepared.

Who knew?

*This idea is not original. In Self-Reliance, Emerson calls “spontaneity” and “instinct” the “essence of life.” “We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition,” he says, “whilst all later teachings are tuition.”

May 22, 2011

I had to take a mental health break from my blog—make art instead of thinking about it—but got back in gear when I read Jon Pareles quoting Lady Gaga in the Times this morning:

“It’s always very strange when people say, ‘Is this the real you?,’ or ‘Is this really who you are? Is this an act?,’ …I believe magic is real. I believe fantasy is real. I live halfway between reality and fantasy all the time.”

Meanwhile the rest of the world seems bent on substituting linear thinking for emotion, and information for experience.

The same week I watched Lady Gaga’s Madison Square Garden blowout on HBO (on a neighbor’s insanely big flat screen—snob that I am, I don’t have TV access, but I’m grateful for my friends who do) I went to a concert in the Berkshires—the Avalon Quartet performing Osvaldo Golijov, Steve Reich, and Schubert—where my worst nightmare came true. Readers know about my antipathy toward artists’ statements and museum wall text (my reason being that it puts the emphasis on the intellect rather than the senses and becomes the lens through which art is experienced, thereby inhibiting personal reaction) and have pointed out how, at a musical performance, no one feels the necessity to get up and explain it first.

No longer.

Before the Avalon concert began, a man who didn't introduce himself but was, presumably, the artistic director, gave a little speech, incorporating biographical tidbits about the composers and making points about the relationship between speech and music (the theme around which the pieces were chosen), even “singing” a passage from Beethoven's 7th Symphony (dum dum-dum dum dum). I wanted to scream. And that was before I read in the program about the upcoming Tanglewood season, where you'll be able to go to the concerts an hour early for a talk by the conductor about what you’re about to hear.

Next magicians will be explaining their tricks in advance.

October 23, 2010
Thoughts are so onerous. I’m envious of birds that can flit around without having to think about stuff all the time. I mean maybe they think about stuff, but it’s important stuff, like where to find the next worm. As humans our heads are filled with…filler. Thoughts that serve no practical purpose. Nature could have at least provided us with an on/off switch. Oh there’s sleep, of course, which can, as Shakespeare so beautifully put it, knit up the raveled sleeve of care, but that only lasts until we wake up and are again at our own mercy.

Meditate, they say. Well I have, forever. There’s a great misunderstanding about meditation, as it’s generally perceived to be a state without thought, and I’m here to tell you the bad news—that thoughts are inevitable, and no matter how much you meditate, they keep on coming, like waves on the sea. What you learn from meditation is not to be attached to them. You get a thought, wave it bye-bye, and are on to the next thought. You learn that, while the act of thinking isn’t optional, the content is. Great! All that practice to finally realize that our thoughts are absolutely meaningless, and the beliefs we once held so dear are simply thoughts we think more consistently than others. Trust me, it was much more fun when I took the shit my mind made up seriously. 

So now what?  I’ve lived long enough to know that, outside of the occasional glass of red wine and a complete dependence on chocolate, drugs are not the answer; further, I just can’t get into golf, and Sudoku makes my head hurt.

This is why I am an artist. Because art is language without words, communication that’s capable of skipping over the thinking part and going straight to feeling mode. This is why I hate artists’ statements, because they’re an attempt to add a rational motive to something that, when it’s at its best, is irrational. And this is also why I lean toward abstract, or rather, non-representational, art, because it’s mediation-free; with few indications of how one is expected to respond, it just is what it is. While I didn't start out with an intention—I was simply doing what I was doing—I  realize now that for the last few years I’ve been experimenting with recognizable images, to see if I can create a non-directed, abstract experience while still using pictures, if that makes any sense, which I hope it doesn’t. Fuck, I think I just wrote an artists’ statement.

Where I End and You Begin, 2007, oil on panel, 12" x 18".