Tuesday, May 15, 2007

I saw a famous artist Saturday...Or, the Inevitable Dulling of One's Edge

This is one of those muddled, rambling, "I've got to get more sleep" type posts that I'll apologize in advance for.

I saw a famous artist Saturday, making his way uptown in Chelsea, and my first thought was "Wow! That's so-and-so." My second thought was "He used to be so bleeding edge, and now he's really just riding that wave, churning out signature work with a seasonal/fashionable update every so often." And this got me to wondering about maturing within a successful career, finding one's groove, letting other artists take over "reinventing the wheel," and simply enjoying one's place in history. I'm sure there's something to all that, mind you, but as I was making my way to the Western most parts of Chelsea, it struck me as awful, this odd sense that one has outlived one's legend-in-one's-own-time status. Perhaps not though, I can't say.

This came back to me this morning reading Todd W's response on Gallery Hopper to Jerry Saltz's review of the current Andreas Gursky exhibition (and no, the artist I saw was not Gursky). It probably helped me connect these ideas that Saltz's review is titled "It’s Boring at the Top":
Jerry Saltz's review of the new Andreas Gursky show at Matthew Marks is in this week's New York Magazine.

Gursky is still trying to render purring pre-9/11 space, where commerce ticked along without an undercurrent of fear. But his rigor and criticality have been replaced by grandiosity and theatricality; figures feel frozen; compositions are stagy; structure devolves into carpetlike pattern. Gursky’s new pictures are filled with visual amphetamine, but now they’re laced with psychic chloroform.

I have not yet seen the show. I probably won't. Saltz's review was almost, in my opinion, inevitable. It's hard to keep topping yourself, particularly when you basically defined the current epoch of photography. Reinvention is no picnic. Nor particularly lucrative.
I've read enough biographies of influential artists to know that it's not only unfair, but highly unrealistic, to expect anyone to continue to be at the forefront of new ideas, breaking the boundaries, breaking the rules, and there's nothing at all wrong with an artist "doing what they do" (especially if they love doing it) as long as they like. But when one trades in the "new" (and let's face it, that's what the bulk of contemporary art criticism is currently consumed with...what's "new"), there must be tremendous pressure to reinvent.

There's a good argument in all this, I realize, for ignoring the critics when making one's work (and I love the Warholian idea of not reading one's press, but simply weighing it), but most artists are genuinely interested in the dialog/response that critics offer and so it goes, round and round, ad infinitum. What used to happen with daring manifestos (the slaying of the father to supplant the son) now happens in the popular press, only it's no longer one's ideas that are targeted, but one's freshness (read: one's youth?).

There are those artists, of course, whose exploration ages so incredibly well, we think of them as cutting edge for decades (Louise Bourgeois springs to mind), but even they eventually will repeat themselves. All artists do, in my experience, suggesting that artmaking follows a spiral trajectory, with themes or ideas radiating out like spokes in a wagon wheel, and the artist coming back round to them again, a bit further out mind you (a bit wiser and better informed), but still hitting that same line (idea/theme) again, and then later again, and then later again. Often artists are caught by surprise, I find, to realize what seemed a new idea was actually connected to the essence of a much older exploration. After a while, one would think, they'd suspect each "new" idea was an older one in new clothing.

OK, so this is getting maudlin. let me switch gears. The one part of what Todd notes that goes a long way toward explaining why so many older artists don't seem to mind not reinventing the wheel is how very, very lucrative it is to produce what the public expects of a well-known and well-loved practice. There are still museums out there waiting to get their hands on a "so-and-so," collectors too. Hell, me too. I'd love to own one (suggesting to me that an accomplishment is still an accomplishment, and good artists make good art, and good art is worth having, even after it's past being fresh-from-the-oven hot). Suggesting again, that artists should ignore all those positioning measures that the world outside their studio fusses over and continue to make what they want to make, and make it well.

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17 Comments:

Blogger Molly Stevens said...

Depressing. As an artist, I think about this all the time.

The thing is, probably, no one is really original, no one breaks new ground all the time. Not gallerists, not chefs, not inventors. I think something about integrity is all you can really hold to.

5/15/2007 09:34:00 AM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

I see the spiral trajectory too -- fascinating how life winds you around over and over, and each time you're somewhat higher over the terrain.

I get that artists should be able to find a groove and stick with it, but for some it just seems to go on forever and nothing changes.

You don't have to be at the bleeding edge, in my opinion, to avoid settling into a groove. It doesn't have to be "Oh My God" new to be interesting and fresh.

You just have to be open and receptive to other ideas as they arise in your work, open to pursuing them and to parting with what's lost its challenge for you.

Don't succumb to monotony just because it's easy and gets you the Escalade with the spinny rims and DVD players -- 'sall I'm saying. The human 'spirit' is bigger than that. It's a shame to lay it down and cover it with dreck.

When an artist is doing the same thing literally for twenty years it's hard for me not to become suspicious that the mind is in PARK and they're more interested in their stocks or real estate.

5/15/2007 10:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nauman?

5/15/2007 10:43:00 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Torak said...

This is a great post. I think your spokes on a wheel analogy is perfect. The only thing I would add is the way that the artist feels. I have been painting professionally for over twenty years yet my work always feels new to me and I frequently experience the exhilaration that accompanies the discovery of an entirely new set of ideas - the catch being that my "new" ideas are in many ways the same ideas that I have always had though I don't realize it at the time. These ideas genuinely feel completely new; I think this is due to the effect of going around the spiral you describe: I keep coming back to the same place but since I have shifted a level in the process it seems completely new, and, I would argue, it is new in the sense of being deeper, more complex and more completely realized.

5/15/2007 10:46:00 AM  
Anonymous ml said...

Another way of looking at this is that the artist spends 20 or 30 or 40 years developing the concepts behind the body of work which is considered cutting edge. After recognition starts, then the artist is supposed to come up with new ideas every two years?? For some artists, the recognition brings an excitement which catapaults the work. For others, it brings the realization that what is in style today will not be tomorrow.

Great post, Edward.

5/15/2007 10:52:00 AM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

ML, good point, except where the artist is recognized out of grad school. Thankfully a number of those who were recognized at an early age did in fact change, in some cases substantially, after a number of years.

"Every two years ---" I'd only advocate change that's natural, whatever the time increment -- or I'd advocate against avoiding change, at any rate.

5/15/2007 10:56:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Nauman?

Nope.

5/15/2007 11:08:00 AM  
Blogger Molly Stevens said...

Performance?

5/15/2007 11:32:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Performance?

Even if you guess, I'm not going to confirm (but you're warm), but if you were in Chelsea on Saturday, you can probably figure it out anyway.

5/15/2007 11:35:00 AM  
Blogger ec said...

What ML says is often true. Work often takes years to develop. There's something to be said for the notion of refinement, which addresses the spiral. Refinement moves slowly at the artist's time not the market, so can be mistaken for inactivity or falling off one's game.
Only a retrospective and the staying power of the work confirms the gamble. The gamble is always there, it would have to be! Running out of steam happens, artists are human beings, but its a critic's idea, for a younger mindset that doesn't savor the rich visual or conceptual trajectory. So easy to say "early Claes Oldenburg was great, what happened," but circumstance and people change. Some artists get better, some fall off--but when someone achieves the power to communiate broadly, the work reaches common interest.

5/15/2007 12:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Todd W. said...

In photography, it's even harder to resist the temptation of inventing some sort of visual short-hand or trope because of the difficulty of devising a recognizable personal style. Which makes it all the more admirable when someone does it successfully.

And, thanks for the link...

5/15/2007 12:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How sad.

You expect to much from art and artists.

5/15/2007 05:19:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

How sad.

heh.

You expect to much from art and artists.

Yes, I do. And isn't it marvelous when they surpass my expectations?

5/15/2007 05:39:00 PM  
Anonymous la artist said...

The other problem with edgedness is assimilation. Every revolutionary becomes mainstream.

5/15/2007 05:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's like the spiral dance or peeling the layers of an onion- if we assume the artist is making work from the soul, it is a circular process inwards, not a linear procession upwards or a corporate ladder...

5/15/2007 06:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the gursky show was a snoozer saltz was spot on;and i'm not a naysayer i still love his greatest hits. Plenty of artist keep em coming:guston, dekooning; isa genzken did a brilliant aboutface.of course titian and all the huge names

5/15/2007 09:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like the scene in the movie Basquiat where the young artist is starting to hit it big and his friend casually says, "Ah, you don't want to get famous. If you get famous you have to make the same shit over and over or people will get mad with you."

5/18/2007 12:34:00 PM  

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