I saw a famous artist Saturday...Or, the Inevitable Dulling of One's Edge
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.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.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 But his rigor and criticality have been replaced by grandiosity and theatricality; figures feel frozen; compositions are stagy; structure devolves into carpetlike pattern.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.
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.