Saturday, April 23, 2011

Human Rhinovirus

I have often thought that a truly representative film of a serious painter's life would be quite boring. In order to make great paintings, it is necessary to sit or stand quietly, and do the work. For every hour that Schiele spent hounded in court, or that Picasso spent having women throw crockery at him, or that Caravaggio spent knife-fighting with the Jets:

Caravaggio on a typical Thursday night

...for every hour of that business, there were probably a hundred of work in the studio which would be mind-numbingly dull to watch.

Generally speaking, I am a partisan of the level-headed-life school. I have known bohemians and hipsters, heroin girls and traveling rockers, lotharios and histrionic tyrants and cafe philosophers. All of them were leading interesting lives, and without exception, they failed to produce anything of note.

My own life is of little narrative interest. I have a telecommuting job that is not art, which pays most of my bills. I do it at a place and time of my choosing, although I always choose a coffee shop, and the morning. I spend some time on correspondence early in the afternoon. I go to the studio as frequently as I can, and I try to get home early enough to spend some time with Charlotte. We make an effort to see our friends. Until recently, we had a cat.

This is what you would call the modern form of a middle-class existence.

There is some poet, or something, whose name eludes me now, who advocates for this sort of existence, in order to provide a stable foundation upon which aesthetic flights of fancy can be built; that the energy for drama which resides in every human heart should be reserved for the work, not the life. I think this poet, or whoever he was, had it about right.

Also, consistently with my always-be-wrong approach, he had it wrong, and I bloody well have it wrong too. Somewhere, there is an optimum balance of drama and life, and it is not on the setting-your-watch-by-Immanuel-Kant's-afternoon-stroll end of the spectrum. It may be near it, but it is not there.

I was happily reminded of this by an incident earlier this week. A while back, I showed you this painting, Industrial Object #1:

Industrial Object #1, 36"x36", oil and silver leaf on canvas

Charlotte happens to be out of town right now, and I had been planning on painting Industrial Object #2 last week. Then I was colonized by our friend the cold virus:

This gave me aching joints, a facial headache from sinus pressure, a runny nose, a sore throat, nausea, chills, and dizziness. I decided to try the one-two of megadoses of vitamin C and sleeping in. Eleven hours of sleep later, I could still barely concentrate or summon the will to move. By 3 pm, I hadn't gotten out of bed. Being a good Protestant (I'm not actually a Protestant), I felt massively guilty at my lack of productivity. So I hauled myself up, put on some clothes, and walked the 1.1 miles from my apartment to my studio, very slowly. Then I walked up the four flights of stairs to my studio - also very slowly. I had a bitching headache by the time I got to the top. So I sat for a while in the comfy chair in my studio, feeling like maybe this was a stupid idea and I should go home and get back in bed.

Then I sat down in the uncomfy chair to paint, figuring that once I had a paint brush in my hand, I could settle into doing that, and get it done. I started working on Industrial Object #2, and had to fight the urge to stop as I tackled each new section. I was in a blurry wooze of sickness, but I managed to paint for 9 hours, and painted the entire thing:

Industrial Object #2, 36"x36", oil and silver leaf on panel

This wasn't smart and it certainly didn't make me get better faster. The painting itself is cruder than I might have done if I were on top of my game or weren't rushing it. But by god, I really like how it turned out, and I like that it was a stupid move to paint it when I did. It felt invigorating to carry on painting in the face of opposing force.

It is good to cheat circumstance sometimes, and to carry on melodramatically when you ought to stop. None of this should be taken into account in evaluating the work - the work is the work, it doesn't matter how it was made. Rather, it will make you a better artist - or at least, it will make me a better artist - to replicate on any available scale that elemental dying and being born again which characterizes the true artistic act.

It is in dying that the senses are heightened, that the irrelevancies are scoured away, that the final sums are tallied and the ledgers all thrown out. It is in the interval between dying and being born again that the soul, bared and permeable, is exposed to the fundaments of the universe, to the mighty forces that undergird existence itself. It is in being born again that a new world is made, unencumbered by the assumptions, inertia, and detritus that gradually ossified the old world. The new world is fresh, richly colored, and characterized by a continuous state of revelation and discovery.

The artist must, absolutely must, find some means of accessing this new world at regular intervals, or the work becomes stately and old, and soon dies.

A life of continuous adventure leaves no room or energy for the work. A life of Kantish regularity leaves no room for life. The optimum is somewhere in the middle path: a path that gives you substance yet allows your substance to crack often.

A virus gave me the opportunity to walk the middle path this week. All hail the virus.

Postscript: It should be noted, even so, that a movie of this entire episode would have consisted of a dude sitting in a chair, wiping his nose, drinking orange juice, and painting. Very boring.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Always Be Wrong

Back to art.

A while ago, I wrote a long post that could be described as an extended justification of my aversion to the gestural sketch. And let me just say that by god, I was right.

But I was also wrong. And my being wrong in this instance demonstrates, to me at least, that it's important not only to always entertain the possibility of being wrong, but also to be actually wrong, as frequently as your schedule permits.

What happened was this. I was at Spring Street and Leah was modeling, and I decided to try and do the entire figure during the 1-minute and 2-minute poses. Usually, I select some extremely small part of the body and draw it in my usual finicky way for really short poses:

That's how I match my interest in detail with the time constraints. But during this one session with Leah, I felt like I should use the time the way normal people do:

And this was tremendously rewarding: models often take very interesting poses for the short ones - poses they couldn't hold for longer intervals. Ace model and blogger Claudia writes marvelously about it here. That's not all there was to it for me, though. I also had to do something that I don't usually do. Let me explain in terms of my favorite metaphor resource, calculus.

In calculus, the integral of a function is the area underneath the curve defined by the function. Let's look at it visually. You have a curve, that you call a function. The notation for this function is "f(x)." The use of "f" is arbitrary - it could be any letter:

graphic swiped from here

The integral of this function from point a to point b on the x-axis is the area that's shaded green. The integral is represented using the notation printed in the green area in the graphic. A whole big part of intro calculus is figuring out the values of integrals. This is called integration, and there are standard formulae for how to integrate a variety of functions.

The reason integration is a whole big part of intro calculus is that it's hard as hell to do. Sometimes you have to use tricks. One such trick is called integration by parts. Integration by parts is a trick you use when you run into a function you just can't integrate. So you chew on the function for a while, and you realize that this function is actually a product of two simpler functions. If you can integrate those simpler functions, you can apply a special "integration by parts" formula, and integrate your more complicated original function.

Get it?

You have to integrate f(x). But you can't. Then you notice that f(x) = g(x) x h(x). You can integrate g(x) and you can integrate h(x). Given that, you can use a formula that gives you the integral of f(x).

Life drawing, for me, is a process of integration by parts. I can't draw a whole body. Well, I'm lying. I can, but I don't like to. I'm lazy. I like to draw a knee, or a shoulder, or whatever. Those are my g(x) and h(x). So I integrate those parts, and then I use the integration by parts formula to make a whole picture - in this metaphor, f(x) is the function "the entire figure," and the integration by parts formula is "make the parts the right size and in the right place relative to one another."

So my 1-minute pose drawings are usually the raw product of an incomplete integration by parts - the drawings are integrated parts, but the entire function is not integrated.

And my 80-minute drawings, nice though they may be, are also integrated by parts. I have not gone directly for the entire area under the curve. I've just found it out by means of a bunch of tricky steps.

When I did those 1- and 2-minute drawings of Leah, I wasn't using my usual tricks. I was integrating f(x) directly. I did it again with her 5-minute poses:

Doing all of this was like getting a bucket of cold water to the face. It's good for you to get this kind of bucket of cold water to the face sometimes. It reminds you that you're not all that, that things can be tough and you don't know everything.

Also, it opens up new possibilities. For instance, the next week Natalya was modeling at Spring Street, and she did a really cool 10-minute pose. Ordinarily, I wouldn't have noticed the entire pose, because I'd have quickly scanned her for a 10-minute-drawing part, and zoned out on the rest. But because I had just been practicing seeing the entire figure all at once, I saw the whole pose and felt like I ought to draw it:

I like this so much I think I'll make a damn painting of it, that's what I think. So - I got a painting out of my exercise, and I also loosened up my attitude: I brought more life into my work.

In that earlier post, I was right that my brain naturally seizes on details, from which I build up an image. I was wrong that it's reasonable never to go against this tendency.

Why is it important to be wrong?

Let me quote for you a bit of monologue from one of my favorite films, Andrey Tarkovsky's Stalker. This monologue has walked beside me ever since I first heard it:

Let them be helpless like children, because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing. When a man is just born, he is weak and flexible. When he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it’s tender and pliant. But when it’s dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being.

Always be wrong. You will become a better artist if you are wrong than if you are right.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

An Object of Beauty

Let's imagine, for a second, that you're an artist. You have decided to crawl out of the comparative paradise of your studio, where your only concern is to make your work, and enter the fallen world - the art world. There is only one fundamental reason you could have for doing this: to succeed.

What do you mean by success? Consider a few of the possibilities:
  • having a large number of people you do not know see your work
  • providing insight or pleasure to your viewers
  • producing work immediately recognized by many strangers as yours
  • changing the way art is made
  • maximizing sales frequency
  • maximizing sale price
  • placing your work somewhere that it won't wind up in an attic or a junk shop
  • getting on the cover of magazines that specialize in art
  • getting on the cover of magazines that do not specialize in art
The art world is a complex phenomenon, and some of these metrics of success conflict with others. And the list, obviously, is incomplete.

The art world can be attacked in many ways. However, it is a system, so for my part, I think of a successful attack as consisting in large part of the same tactic you would use to decode any system: information analysis.

My own analysis is painfully incomplete, but as I see it, the art world (at least in America) consists of several nodes of influence: artists, dealers, collectors, critics, the press, academe, and curators and their hosts - the museums and fairs. Translating this data set from a list to a network produces this outcome:

Where possible, I have grouped as neighbors those nodes which seem most reciprocal in activity. For instance, dealers go beside collectors because each feeds directly on the other through the reciprocal art/money transaction. However, all the nodes are connected and apply force to one another.

Let's go back to you, our hypothetical artist entering the art world. The network of entities seems to you incomprehensible, intimidating, and partly occluded. Understanding the artwork is manifestly a part, not the whole, of understanding the system, consisting as the system does in so many competing interests that only indirectly relate to the content of art.

A good thing to keep in mind, then, is that because this network consists of human beings, it is permeable. Moreover, its permeability is enhanced by the same problem that afflicts keeping a secret in any large group: the large number of individuals tends to include some who are leaky. So this network is not a circular fort. It is a very porous cell.

Here's a very brief summary of what I know about how to penetrate this permeable network:

1. Identify a node to which you have access - any access. If you have no access to any node, concentrate on improving your work until you do.

2. Get to know all of the individuals in this node that you can immediately reach. Learn their interests and biases, and clarify whether you have any complementary interests and biases.

3. If so, develop both your ability to communicate the complementary nature of your interests, and your ability to create and maintain a relationship.

4. Once the relationship is established, figure out the connections between your node and the broader network.

5. Move from one individual to the next, gradually weaving yourself into the wider entity.

That is really all there is to it. As far as I can tell, all progress in the art world, from the most lightning-flash overnight sensation to the slowest career process, from the most Borgia-like machination to the most intuitive flower-child meandering, includes some form of this sequence, executed in different ways, with different players, at different rates.

But keep in mind another consequence of the fact that this porous network consists of human beings - everything you do, you do to a human being. Therefore, you are constrained by morality. And even if you are personally amoral, the gallery assistant you screw today will one day be a museum director with the opportunity to screw you back. So keep the screwings to a minimum.

Now let me add a sixth procedure to my list:

6. Continue to collect information. Even if it has no apparent use, collect it. The entire system is your target, not any one part of it. Know as much of it as you can.

Which brings me to a very interesting book I read recently, on the general principle that I wanted to know more. The book, you may have guessed, is called An Object of Beauty, and Steve Martin wrote it.

Yes, that Steve Martin.

The book is about the art world, and technically, it's a novel. Happily, Mr. Martin isn't going to trouble himself too much with the whole "novel" part, using it to sex up a philosophical essay in the manner made famous by Voltaire and Robert M. Persig. There's a main character, named Lacey Yeager, who is a hot chick:

artist's rendering of Lacey Yeager

The decidedly mixed reviews of the book have frequently taken issue with her alleged lack of interiority, her only explicit narrative characteristics being raving ambition and hot foolings around. These reviewers are missing two things about Yeager: that she's a philosophical cypher, and that the actual narration of the book is essentially the content of her mind, which does nothing for nearly two decades but contemplate art and the art world. The whole book is interiority.

Mr. Martin tackles the art world itself from a similar angle to the one I am espousing here: information analysis. His approach is more sociological than mine. Specifically, he pursues the method of the longitudinal study. A latitudinal study compares a broad array of sociological objects over a short period of time. It's a panoramic snapshot. A longitudinal study selects a smaller number of objects from the available array and follows them over a long period. Their changes reflect and illustrate the subtle workings of the sociological system itself.

An Object of Beauty focuses on three elements in the art world: art, dealers, and collectors. Artists and critics make peripheral appearances, curators and academics hardly any at all. The time period is about 1993-2009.

We started this discussion by talking about leaving the studio, where one makes art, and entering the art world. For a lover of art, a parallel passage is possible. Yeager's passage - occurring not when she enters the art world but when she realizes where she is - gives the book its title:

If a picture had been on the market recently without a sale, she knew it would be less desirable. A deserted painting scared buyers. Why did no one want it? In the trade, it was known as being "burned." Once a picture was burned, the owner had to either drastically reduce the price or sit on it for another seven years until it faded from memory. When Lacey began these computations, her toe crossed ground from which it is difficult to return: she started converting objects of beauty into objects of value.

To me, there is something drily heartbreaking about this passage, in part because I have experienced it myself. Remember, I'm bent, if not hell-bent, on making art a career. This transmogrification, which destroys all, is part of the deal. The key is to split yourself into parts. One part never leaves the studio, and if possible, the other part never enters it. I would say I'm doing not badly, but if you are in a position similar to mine, it is worth making your own psychological accommodations, or you will lose your fucking soul.

Yeager makes accommodations, and while the narrative tragedy of the book is that she does not ultimately succeed in the art world, the thematic tragedy is that she doesn't really get to keep her soul either. The book is sprinkled with sharp passages describing art, but they give way under the pressure of art-dealing to a more completely objects-of-value outlook.

So much for the story. It's Yeager's story, not mine. The rest is delicious portraiture of people and transactions, extracted from all sorts of different nooks and crannies. Here a collector couple examines a Milton Avery painting -

this one, actually

- on sale at Sotheby's, where Yeager starts her career:

"Do you mind?" he said, indicating he would like to take the picture off the wall. He held up the picture and looked closely at it.

"He likes to hold pictures. I say why do you have to hold them?"

"She's right," Saul said amiably, "I don't know what it means, but I do it."

"You do it a lot," said Estelle.

His portrayals of cold people are cold, as in a scene of rivalry between two dealers over the attention of a collector who has invited them to dinner:

Gayle was more like a great basketball player than an art dealer: she unfailingly covered her man, making it impossible for Talley to throw him a pass. However, Talley knew that there would be a moment after dinner when Gayle would have to go vomit, leaving her man wide open.

But he is not inhuman, and neither are they:

He [Flores, the collector] once sneaked into a Manhattan art fair a day before it opened by disguising himself as a janitor in order to get first crack at the best in the show. But Talley thought Gayle had misjudged her man. Flores never thought of himself as a competitor; he just liked art.

The emotional nature of collecting is illustrated in interaction with the corrosion of Yeager's outlook:

...she realized, after sending Patrice Claire a check for eight thousand dollars in Paris, that she hated it [the painting]... This was an eight-thousand-dollar souvenir, the price tag on an exotic and egotistical moment far away. However, it was the most expensive thing she owned, so she hung it in a place of honor...

And the perspective sometimes zooms back to the explicitly systemic:

The collectors liked to meet museum people because one approving word from them about a single painting in a hallway could, by liberal extrapolation, validate an entire collection. Directors liked to meet collectors because maybe they would soon be dead and their collection would come to their museum.

Steve Martin is a collector, and he is at his most natural depicting the quirks and experiences of collectors. But he is at his best depicting dealers, because he's put so much work - observation, research, and imagination alike - into understanding them. His tone reads as detached delight, but once the dust settles, what remains is dismay.

The longitudinal approach yields a timeline of booms and crashes - the booming market of the 90's, the crash following 9/11, the boom, a different kind of boom, in the 00's, and the crash resulting from the general crash of 2008. The cast evolves, grows older, and prospers or fails over time. Each success and failure is a lesson - the book looks like a history, but it is itself a lesson, in the social ecology of a specific corner of the human enterprise.

Enough about it - An Object of Beauty embraces the double-sided nature of becoming engaged in a temporal way with art, so glorious in its interaction with the art itself, so stomach-turning in its politicking and predation - and the glorious part only makes the stomach-turning part more horrific. If you've made the dubious choice to enter into the art world, you ought to read it.


Reading back over this, it seems to me a very bleak description of a phenomenon. And it is bleak, but you should not be bleaked out if the issues involved apply to you. For one thing, there is a wonderful line of dialogue in a play by my friend, Mac Rogers (whose plays you should always go to if you can): "There is no 'shouldn't have to' in nature." And for another, we are still discussing human beings, doing the best they can to implement in the world a thing that is essentially immaterial. They fail and do petty and wretched things - the system itself can fail and be petty and wretched. But when engaged in it, you are always in companionship with human beings, with all the joys and complexities of that companionship. I experience kindness and generosity in the art world all the time - and they are not absent from An Object of Beauty either.