Monday, December 10, 2007

Exceptional


My last post warned against the temptation to believe either yourself or others that you deserve recognition. I recommended against ever going there. Pit of despair. A hole you'll never get out of so you will just keep digging deeper and deeper and deeper. It is a question of grace. Humility. Shame, even. But the message I sent was loud and clear if you want to live a healthy, happy, productive life as an artist: don't you dare!

Its twisted twin of temptation is just as dangerous: ever believing that you are exceptional. If you or anyone else either whispers it in your ear or shouts it from the rooftops, don't believe it. It is a trap. This hole will be just as hard to get out of and take years of penance. Exceptional is the secret secret of the spoiled brat, the selfish jerk, the crazed egomaniac. Special rules.

In earlier posts I've invited everyone to think of themselves as special, in that way that all life is special, in that way that all life is a miracle; and I believe that. I believe that everyone has the gift of life; the gift of a mind of one's own; the gift of a free spirit. THIS IS NOT THE SAME! This does not make you better than anyone else!

How can I explain this to the satisfaction of both sides of this argument: to the ones who believe that no one is special and that to think otherwise invites only chaos; and to the ones who accept this as an invitation to be spoiled, selfish, and arrogant.

The first group discourages all things in others. To discourage is to cut the legs out from under. It is to invite failure and foster cowardice and fear.

The second group encourages the wrong sort of behavior. It's my-party-I'll-cry-if-I-want-to behavior. It is a poor substitute for true encouragement, which inspires others to be brave, to do the right thing, to lift themselves and other up, to reach for the best in themselves and each other. That is what encourage means.

Embrace that you have been given a special gift as an artist, but never believe that this makes you exceptional. Again, it doesn't make you better than anyone else. The gift is for giving. It is inner, and personal; and the other thing, the aberration, is the worst in us, some sort of license to run roughshod over the world.

Some might say that this is all really a question of balance; balancing the rights of the individual against the rights of the group and vice-versa. Perhaps this is so. Knowing where to draw the line. I think it is more appropriate to call on the idea of the heart, which has always been synonymous with both courage and goodness. I think that is where we find the answers.

In our hearts we know what is right, and in our hearts we know that life is special, and that it demands that we are brave. This covers both the individual and the group. Choose that. Exceptional is indeed the province of all things ego. And so I caution: don't go there.

* * * * *

Nonetheless it might be worth adding that in the rare, rare instance of the truly exceptional, if and when it exists, one would more than likely find nothing less than complete grace and humility, and not even the smallest whisper of...

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Surviving The Fall


I'm not sure anyone else experiences the fall from grace the way art students do after they leave school, and although everyone graduating feels the wound; the future art-makers get it with more salt. This may explain why so few graduates go on to actually become artists.

What am I talking about? The gold star, the support/reward system, the pat on the back, feedback, the people who are paid to care. When you're in school there is a giant support system in place for you whether you know it or not. At the very least they know you're alive, and that is not the case when you leave.

After you graduate no one knows you're alive, and the fall is so sharp, so far, so dramatic that few people can take it. Because you're making something visible, the proof of this is all the more painful. You're hanging it out there. You're making something that can be seen, can be touched, can be responded to, and when no one sees or touches or responds to your work the results can be devastating.

When your work goes ignored, when no one engages your efforts, you will question why you're doing what you're doing, whether it is worth it, whether you should quit(or worse, whether you should go back to school so you can get it all back).

If you're just out of law school and you hang up a shingle, it will take years to establish your practice. That's why you will probably join a firm instead. Twenty years later maybe you're a partner. An artist is on his or her own. The chances of joining a gallery out of school are slim, and an entirely different matter. Few galleries recruit. Fewer artists are ready. It takes an artist years to shake their influences and develop a mature style. Other support systems are almost non-existent. Parents and families are going to be concerned. Do you have a job? Are you selling anything? What about commercial work? The pressures are going to be relentless. Every letter, every phone call, every visit home is going to be piling it on.

What do you do as a young person who really wants to be an artist but is really feeling the pain and the pressure?

First off, don't take it personally. You haven't done anything wrong. This happens to everyone. Everyone. They just might be hiding it better than you.

Next, this is going to be really hard, but you can do it. Know that it is hard. No one cares whether you're an artist or not. No one is supposed to care. You're supposed to care. You're not going to get a medal for doing something really hard. No parade. In fact, no one is going to like you for living your dream. You think someone who chose to work nine to five instead of writing novels or making sculpture is going to like you for doing it. You think they're going to be cheering you on? They are going to think you're a bum, or, you're going to make them feel bad and look bad for not following their dream, if they had one. So get used to it. You're going to get some abuse. You're going to be blocked, denied, knocked down, resented and begrudged. It just makes sense. This is what you're up against.

Also, for what it's worth, learn to carry an umbrella when it looks like rain. Your parents and family are naturally going to be concerned and they are going to put pressure on you to be self-sufficient and secure, in part so that you won't be at risk and in part so you won't be a financial burden to them. Be smart about it. Help them to feel at ease about your choice. If you're happy, they'll be happy. Let them know you're ok with the challenges you face. Let them know it's worth it to you, that this is what you want. Show them you can survive.

Next, all you need is one friend who can give you feedback. Braque and Picasso had each other. You'll have to make it a two-way street. Give as good as you get, or better.

Be VERY patient about getting recognition. DO NOT give into the ancient temptation about deserving recognition. It will only make you bitter. It is a bad mistake and a bottomless pit of despair. If you're in it for recognition then choose a different profession, fast. Do this thing you love for its own reward.

Then the obvious is two words: low overhead. Don't spend money you don't have. Work inexpensively. Find cheap space, and live where you work. Put your creativity and imagination to work for you. I know a painter who made her own furniture, and then ended up being an artist who makes furniture. Don't want what others have. Make it yourself. Make it happen yourself!

You can survive the fall.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

No Fear of Painting


I'll get right to it. Painting is like flying. It is fun. It is free. You can see! You can see better. Or, it's like swimming, which if you're holding onto the edge of the pool, or standing in the shallow end, means you're not-- swimming. If you're swimming in lanes, well then, you're up to something else as far as I'm concerned. People want to make painting like swimming in lanes. They want to put a stop watch on it, they want to bump you out of their lane, make you get out of their way, decide if you even deserve to be there, if you're any good.

You can't hate haters, and you can't judge judgers, or you're just like them. So ignore the people swimming in lanes, and if they want to call that swimming, well then, more beer for you. Mark Spitz, arguably one of the great swimmers, once said swimming was just being comfortable in the water. If you do feel comfortable in the water, if you're happy in the water or happy flying, then this whole obsession with being any good, being judged, is not only beside the point, it is a waste of precious time, time for swimming, or flying, or painting. It is not only not positive, it is negative, like a four point turn around in basketball. Something is lost. How do I know this? I ended up in the lane swimming world of painting many years ago, and I was a critic too! I was young. Mea culpa, Mea maxima culpa. I live in another country now.

OK. I've said this before: people say someone has a mind of their own as though this is a bad thing, as though it was not only not ideal--the way it is supposed to be, but also definitely a problem. We can go into why it frustrates people if you have a mind of your own, why it is threatening and so forth, but I'm going somewhere else. People say someone is a free spirit in the same sort of strange way, as though it's flaky or not for everyone. How strange and how sad that we are born into bondage and ushered into more by the very people who should be setting us free and protecting that freedom. I guess its more beer for them.

Have a mind of your own, first and foremost, and be a free spirit. What else should you do and be? Treasure your life; like the baseball manager that said treat every out like gold. Treat your life like the most valuable gift you possess, because it is. It all starts there.

If you want to be an artist, then be the best artist you can, but also be the worst, because if anything worth doing is worth doing well, it is also worth doing badly. Be the worst artist in the world if that means you can do the thing you love. I have been steered in different directions in my life by people who supposedly had my best interests at heart, but it wasn't true; they just wanted me to do what they did, or what they needed from me for themselves. They tried to pimp me as far as I am concerned.

I paint because I like to. Like flying high in the sky, or playing in the mud, or swimming in the open water. What could I care if I am a bad painter, if such a thing could be true, if doing the thing you love could ever be bad; and furthermore, what do I care what some critic thinks? I don't paint for them. I don't ask them to pay to see my work. If they want to stop and drink, well, I hope they enjoy it because I want them to be happy. Otherwise I just paint for free, and maybe for the ones I love and that love me. The others, the lane swimmers; I feel no opposition, and hope the same for them. If opposition is in their hearts, if they feel compelled to argue or judge instead swim, well, I will wish the best for them. I give no quarter and expect none in that regard. We are all free.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Culpa Minor


You have to be willing to be bad. You have to be willing to fail. No one tells you this.

As an artist you have know this. You are going to make awful things. You are going to make mistakes. Never mind that this is in large part how we really learn. Hard knocks. We learn by screwing up.

So here is the kicker: if we can't admit to our mistakes, if we can't admit when we've been bad...what? We don't learn!

Doing something bad or making mistakes is impossible to contemplate for so many of us, especially those of us who have high expectations of ourselves or thrust upon us. This is what accounts for what are called underachievers and overachievers. High and low expectations.

Admitting to mistakes or failure is so impossible for some people that they resort to denial, lies, blaming, cover-ups, misdirection, and anything else that will get them off the hook. They are PARALYZED by the very idea of mistakes or failure. They even become hostile.

Admitting to mistakes and failure not only allows us to learn, make amends, and move on; it allows us to take risks. Risks become impossible if mistakes or failure are forbidden. Learning from our mistakes not only helps us grow, so does taking risks. Admitting to mistakes and failure takes courage; not doing so is giving into fear.

As an artist one learns very quickly to treat failure and mistakes as friends. So often you hear of the "happy accident." Artists make a special effort to incorporate what would otherwise be considered a mistake or failure and learn from it. It enlarges their experience, and it makes them brave. It explains why so many of us give up on our dream to become an artist. We can't tolerate the shame of so much disappointment. It also might explain why so many of those who do go on to be artists aren't afraid of a lifetime of failure. It is more than art being its own reward; it is more than learning to get back up after getting knocked down on a regular basis; it is the profound knowledge that we are always learning and that we and our work will be better for it, and that that is what is most important.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Humble Pie


I doubt there is an artist out there who doesn't know that the next thing they do could be a complete bust. We live with it. We try to beat it; we try to get around it. We can't. Of course, it cuts both ways. There are two sides to what we face; the glass half full and glass half empty of it. Tabula Rasa; abyss. Fresh start; bottomless pit/fall of dispair.

John Ashberry complains about how as a poet he has to start over every time and every time can be a disaster and that this is hell; novelists get to tinker securely with the more solid ground of a work in progress. But I don't think so. Even with a novel in progress under your belt you still face the blank page every day.

I like to admit I don't know what I'm doing, but nobody really knows. Seriously, who knows? This keeps us real. As soon as you think you're in the zone, you're out of it. Pride comes before a fall.

I work in serials. These allow me to face the abyss. Bit of a crutch, but it gets me there. An excuse to make a painting I always say. I work away until I feel like there is nothing left of something, and then I start again. But still, if I do something where I think, yes, wow, I'm sailing free, well, before you know it I have a death spiral on my hands.

They talk about it in baseball all the time. Not just for hitters, but pitchers too. You think you have your best stuff and you get lit up; you think you won't be able to find the plate and you throw a no-hitter. I heard the Indians manager, Eric Wedge, talk about it, staying real, assuming nothing, taking nothing for granted, when the media wanted him to talk about their recent success: he said he had to live what he preached.

When I was a drawing teacher I had only one thought I wanted to impress on my students: don't assume anything and you'll do fine. Never think you know. Look and see.

Assuming anything is our first mistake. Do we want to be able to assume things. Of course. Does it make us secure. Of course. But if you can assume as little as possible, and take nothing for granted, well then, you can be right there, and give yourself the best chance in any situation, and best of all, you can be truly grateful. Assuming things rules out learning and gratitude, two of life's greatest gifts.

How do we do this thing? One breath, one heart beat at a time.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Three Ps


When I was a teenager and hitch-hiked everywhere, I learned the lesson about letting go. It was a quasi-spiritual revelation, and more than likely drug induced, but it still applies. The letting go thing was uncanny. When you're standing on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere for hours at a stretch, you get a lot of time to think.

One of the things you're thinking about, of course, is how to get somebody to stop and give you a ride. You start to develop a psychology, and if you spend enough time out there, hitch-hiking long distances, you develop a lot of theories. Theories about everything, but especially about hitching, which in turn become about everything. Things like: needy is unattractive; and that hard-to-get could be surprisingly more effective. You don't want to look desperate, but instead like picking you up would make their day. Of course, some people actually wanted you to make their day, or night, and I found that polite but firm worked just fine when saying no. No, thank you.

But the real lesson I learned was about letting go. Whenever I let go, I got a ride. Every time. Never failed. Well, almost never failed, as I remember it(not hard to tell yourself you haven't REALLY let go). So much so that the huge temptation is to tell yourself you have let go even when you haven't. Yes, I have let go, so pleeeeeease pick me up. Dead give-away is of course telling yourself. If you're telling yourself, you're not letting go. You can't fake letting go. We all want to; we all try to, but it never works, and for obvious reasons. You have to really let go.

I love the trying thing. To this day I know people who are convinced you get points for trying. I ask them to show me where it shows up in the box score, and of course they can't, but the denial is so HUGE.

For all our might we want to saying trying counts for something. We want to say: but look, I tried. Doesn't wash. Never has. The reality is that as hard as we try to sell it to everyone else, we won't buy it when someone tries to sell it to us. If the pilot comes on the loud speaker and says: I'm sorry, I tried to get us to Denver, but how's Toledo? NO WAY! Doesn't fly. Sorry.

We keep trying with the trying nonetheless. I ask you though, show me a time when trying doesn't really mean failure? We say "I tried" instead of "I failed." Check this out: I tried to save my marriage. What does that really tell you? I'm divorced! How about: we tried to win the game? We lost. Do it, with anything. He tried to swim across the lake. He tried to climb the mountain. He tried to pass the bar. Didn't, didn't, didn't.

Otherwise we just say: I saved my marriage; we won the game; he swam across the lake; he climbed the mountain; he passed the bar. We're supposed to try. We're not supposed to talk about it. It is supposed to be understood. Trying is the language of failure. Lose it.

In all fairness, I have to add, sometimes trying seems like all you want to do. Like trying is just enough, any more would put too much pressure on the situation. We don't really care about results. It is a variation on: it is the thought that counts. It is trying that counts. Not results. I didn't really want to save my marriage, I just wanted to try. Maybe then I won't feel so guilty. It is a guilt-free way of removing results from the equation. If trying is enough, then, of course, you didn't really try, you didn't even really want to try. Maybe all the trying in the world wouldn't have made a difference, which of course only makes my point that much more. This is when letting go, really letting go, comes in handy.

We have to know when trying won't ever get it done, and stop. Stop trying. Let go. A scary idea for most of us. Trying seems a lot easier to swallow. Trying and failing. At least I tried. The funny thing is, letting go has a way of getting results of course. Really letting go. Something's going to happen. Something for the best. But you have to let go.

Reminds me of this joke an artist friend of mine told me when he really wanted to get into this one gallery, about the guy who gets a flat in the middle of the night and doesn't have a jack. He sees a farmhouse in the distance and as he goes towards it he imagines again and again that the farmer won't let him borrow his. By the time he gets there and the farmer politely answers the door, he tells the poor farmer that he can take his jack and shove it. It is the wanting that gets us in trouble time and again. Wanting, trying, and the guilt are all part of the same stinky ball of wax.

Which gets me to the three Ps. Came to me in a dream, funnily enough. Perseverance, patience, and peace. Works in hitch-hiking; works in painting; works in everything. Don't want, don't try, no guilt, just do, and love doing it! We do it, "just DO it(deep down even the most stubborn and ornery know the fun is in the doing)," and let come what may.

Again, do whatever it is you do as an artist(no one can take that away from you). Don't want results, don't try, and that means success, appreciation, recognition, respect, gallery, money, any of it. Don't feel guilty because you're surrounded by idiots who think that those are the measures of being an artist(the guy who came up with "eyes on the prize" was of course blinded by want, and should have had his eyes poked out with a stick). You know better. Trust yourself. Just do, and be happy. Peace.

Why an artist like Rothko, whose work represented nothing if not this very idea of faith, should have folded so badly in the end, should give us all pause, and make these three Ps that much more imperative. Whatever else happened to him and so many other artists, whatever caused him to abandon the two essential principles of faith: I can do it, and It will be ok, I'll never know, but this is why we call the straight and narrow the razor's edge. Rothko is now more than anything a cautionary tale.

When you stumble, when your green grass has been taken from you, get it back. Somehow, someway. And know that it will come back, somehow and someway. I'm an atheist but the religious proverb: god helps those who help themselves, resonates with these principles. You can do it, and it will be ok. A two part harmony. Perseverance and patience; and peace.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

What Counts!


Many years ago, well over twenty, I taught a class at RISD called Light In The Tunnel. At that point I was thoroughly aware of the risks of being an artist and that we all needed to take care of each other. I suppose I grew up with the dark tunnel because as long as I could remember I was an artist, and as long as I could remember people warned me how hard it would be.

Even as a little boy I hung my brother and sister's work in my room because my mother didn't acknowledge what they did, only what I did. It didn't seem fair or right even then, as much as I may have personally enjoyed the attention. I still feel exactly the same way. I feel like there has to be room for all of us, that that comes first, that that is the law. I still try to hang the work of my brothers and sisters. I still think being an artist is just something we do. I still think it is not a competition.

Comaraderie was one reason I liked being a young artist in Rome. It seemed more of a together thing. Brothers and sisters. Even New York had quite a bit of that. For that I liked New York. People in the arts looked out for each other.

I've talked about how artists start wondering if what they've been doing adds up(usually happens when another artist dies and we look at their life's work). The numbers thing struck me. Adding up. And then: what counts. Counting. Mattering. Counting means mattering; mattering means counting. The numbers. It gives one a little peak into the way we think. The way we operate. It gives one, a little light in the tunnel.

One way or another we have to come to terms with the numbers. We have to do the math. We have to play the numbers and decide. What matters? What counts? Again, values. Values means numbers. We can talk values all we like, but at the bottom it is still numbers. What's number one? Whose number one? Sounds mean. Is mean. Life isn't fair. Fair is up to us. Each ONE of us. And then the numbers can add up to something good, and that is good news!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Nobody Needs To Be Somebody


Like I always say, I’m not too sure about my take on this, but last week TWO artists in different situations within an hour of each other told me the same thing: that they couldn’t deal with not being somebodies.

Now you hear this all the time from artists in some form or another, but always more disguised. These two both used the same word: SOMEBODY! I don’t know if this is the result of having Paris Hilton go to jail and having to hear about it; that it got in the water supply somehow. I don’t know. But for two people who don’t know each other to use the same language to express the same lament within minutes of each other is amazing to me. I am sure my head must have rocked when the second person said it. And I wasn’t in Hollywood or New York, mind you; I was in Harvard Square!

In both cases I did my usual: careful what you wish for; be lucky you’re a nobody; you’re free. Clearly they didn’t feel that way, and in no way appreciated my attempt to comfort them. THEY weren't free; they were PRISONERS OF NOBODY!

And this gets to my previous post, and some before that. Don’t let life make you a prisoner of nobody. Don’t let anyone tell you your grass isn’t green, I don’t care what color it is. Don’t let anybody tell you you’re not special. Don’t let anybody put Baby in a corner.

I heard that there is actually some jerk out there that wrote a book criticising Mr Rogers for telling kids they were special. Apparently the saint of kid tv should have been teaching them to work harder! Work for whom? Him? So we can dominate the global economy? Whoever you are I hope you get kidnapped into slavery making running shoes twenty hours a day in China. That should teach you about hard work and not feeling special and liking it.

On the other hand, paradoxically, NOBODY NEEDS TO BE SOMEBODY! Of course nobody doesn’t need to be somebody. I’m sure Mr Rogers would say just be yourself, and be happy to be yourself, and don’t look over the fence for greener grass. It is not going to make you a better artist, or a better person, that’s for sure. Just leave your campsite a little nicer. I loved that Fran Leibowitz, in the late 70’s for INTERVIEW magazine, once said that if she was interviewing someone the chances were they weren’t a very nice person. The point being that if they were somebody enough to be worth interviewing, they were a jerk getting there.

Ironically, again, over a dozen years ago the last words I said, blurted, shouted, to my friend the long since dead artist Leon Polk Smith were, unrehearsed and for being mean to my now wife: if you’re not nice, you’re nobody. To which as I was leaving he shouted down the corridor: then I’m nobody. To his credit. Of course I didn’t mean it that way. What I might have said was that the very least you might be in this world is kind.

Leon was just being himself, none the less. Did he fret about being somebody sometimes? Absolutely, and it could be scary. He thought that he had been denied the greatness he deserved by people who had stolen from him. He thought that Elsworth Kelley and many others had ripped him off and gotten the glory.

What was funny about that was that anyone who knew Leon admired him and could have cared less about that stuff. They liked him for him, not for being somebody. I did. I was glad to know him, and I was glad that he was not some big somebody so that I could know him, because he was real. Really real. Authentic, as they say. How he got to be who he was is a fascinating story, and it wasn’t because he went to the right art school, studied with the right people, and knew the right people in the right places. He wasn’t a Motherwell, or a Tuttle, or a Marden. He was the real deal. The real McCoy. Yes, he’s dead now, and I miss the old nobody.

Green Grass


If you don’t think the grass on the other side of the fence looks greener, then chances are people probably think you’re smug. So it goes. But the whole point is that the grass just looks greener; it isn’t really greener! Some people spend their whole lives looking for the greener grass and never figure this out.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, I’ll reference my one brief mentorship with Richard Tuttle yet again, to make my point. Richard Tuttle said one thing to me at the opening of my show at PS1 in 1980(and yes, by this time our relationship was already in decline after just a few years). I had two large murals in oils in a project space. I was hiding out in the basement listening to a Giants game with the janitor. I ran into Tuttle on the stairs. With a giddy smirk he dismissed my show, saying it was like a really nice truck sitting in the back yard; in other words, all dressed up and nowhere to go. I mention this for two reasons.

Yes, I was one of those people; my grass was plenty green, thank you very much. All dressed up and nowhere to go is just a negative spin on the fact that he was always looking for the action, while as far as I was concerned my grass was green enough for me. I was happy to get dressed up and just be. Maybe dressed up was just how I looked to him. It is a way of saying that there is no there there, of course, but who decides? One person’s frontier is another person’s back yard, and I learned that young. The “action” always made me want to take a shower. All those people caught up in the grass on the other side of the fence made me uncomfortable, mostly for them.

My oldest is doing graduate work. His teacher is a well-known contemporary art historian. He is in the same position as a Richard Tuttle, or that I was at one time as a New York art writer and teacher at RISD. Decider! People look to you for judgment. Judgments. It is a corrupting force. It is why I quit writing art criticism and why I quit teaching. I refused to go there. I was reminded of the whole thing with Tuttle because my son told me that this teacher just saw his new paintings and that the first thing my son was aware of was: would his work be dismissed, in this case with a sound his teacher makes with his lips. Apparently that didn’t happen. Instead he got something more positive, more along the lines of pleasant surprise, which was nice for him.

The thing I tried to give my students, as well as the artists I wrote about, was that other sense; that sense that their grass was green enough, if not really green. Of couse the whole system collapses if we are not driven by the doubt, the need, the greed, the lust for greener pastures. And of course, we will be reviled for being smug.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Stranger In Paradise


I saw an old friend of mine yesterday. At one time an old boss. It was very interesting. She was part of an effort to show the work of an artist who was getting the support of a nearby gallery. The artist's work was everywhere. The nature of the work was in some ways what one expects if one is to be an artist: obsessive.

What was interesting to me was two-fold. This was my old boss. Someone who was a good boss, and had my best interest at heart. Best of intentions. Maybe even right. Just not right for me. Not the first time someone had plans for me that put being an artist a distant second to a career that was kind of like art that would give me financial security. A mentor/professor in college wanted me to be a museum world person; conservator/curator sort of thing full-time and a painter on the side. I transfered. Needless to say this was the same. Be a graphics artist during the day; artist in your spare time. Problem is graphics, like architecture, is not just inside the lines, it is draining work that demands long hours. I quit, of course. Would rather be poor and live under a bridge. Would rather risk losing approval(affection-place-belonging) to be true, salvage the little bit of integrity and honor leftover critical to being an artist.

The reason I mention all this was that my boss never understood how I could be so ungrateful to blow off her generosity, the life-saving opportunity she gave me. How could I chew off my paw to be free? The professor never understood or forgave me either. But here, right in the middle of my old bosses life was a less polished version of me, I suppose, this strange guy making strange sculptures because it was his life. It was all he could do. My problem, of course, was that I could do these other things. My father was the same way, always trying to figure out what I could do with my talents other than be an artist. He still does after all these years. First it was architecture since I was good with numbers; then it was illustration because I liked writing; then it was interior design because I liked fixing up my home; etc, etc, etc. The difference here was that this guy was a vet, and really wasn't suited to be anything but an artist, socially, mentally, or careerwise.

He was what people call an Outsider. Outsider Artist. Outsider Art. Untrained, untutored, uniformed, unaffiliated, unpedigreed, uninfluenced, un-fucked-with. That is sort of what that means. Outsider. Outsider Artist.

To me that is what every artist wants to be. Has to be. Free. They put up with the training, tutoring, informing, affiliating, influencing, fucking-with, so that they can get permission to be an artist. This guy, and other outsider artists, generally come late to the game, without all the crap. They didn't choose it young and therefore they didn't have to go through the "proper channels." Everybody knows you can't teach art, but they still try. The irony is, of course, if you can't teach it, then what's going on in art schools: doesn't it occur to just about everybody that maybe they are doing something contrary, oppositional, messed up? Making something happen that will make being an artist impossible. Every artist is self-taught(since you can't teach it) but maybe art school does something worse. Something destructive, maybe permanently damaging. I always found it interesting that RISD 's most successful grads NEVER graduated; they always dropped out. You have to consider yourself lucky if you have gotten to be an artist without someone trying to mess with you.

And this is what really pisses me off. Me and other artists who were forced a million times to jump through hoops just so we could make stuff, make art, whatever, just wanting that freedom. When people sort of ou and ah about "outsider" artists. What? You're going to make a fuss about someone who didn't jump through YOUR hoops. Huh? It's one of those lose/lose things. The same people that gush about some guy who is untrained(self-taught) are the SAME ones that tell you that you HAVE to have the training, LEARN technique, LEARN to draw, LEARN art history, etc.(To RISD's credit, and no one but me seems to appreciate it, they didn't try to teach much of that stuff.)

Which gets me to my next point. Insider Outsider. As far as I am concerned, I don't care if you're Brice Marden(the ultimate insider); every, EVERY, artist is an outsider. By definition. Think about it: originality is the benchmark of art. Originality. In other words, unique, in other works DIFFERENT! Original is by definition different. Different: outsider. Same thing.

Artists have to be different every day to distinguish themselves. From cradle to grave. Insiders on the other hand are all the same, they have to be, they want to be, and that is not the artist. I don't care if you went to art school and have a PHD(you still taught yourself!). Some artists even want to be insiders. Not going to happen. If you an artist, you're not the same. If you're not the same; you're on the outside. Artist: Outsider. Enough said.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

SO YOU THINK YOU'RE SPECIAL? well, so do I!


I'm going to take a crack at this. What do I know? Not much, that's for sure. I just have a feeling about this, this idea of special.

Ok, I'm going to start with this very daring statement: I'm special. I'll say it again: I'm special.

Now I'll put that into context. I'm not alone. I think everyone is special; I think all life is special.

First off some people will say that everyone can't be special, that it undermines the meaning of the word. That if everyone is special then no one is special. I used to buy that. Not anymore. Life is special. Being alive is special. The gift of life is special. That's that. To paraphrase Camus: there are two kinds of people; those who know they're special, and those who don't.

Now could I be dreaming? I don't know. But there is more. In a funny way I've already defined special: being alive. But I'll say this; it is not the same as important, and I'll explain why. For starters, I don't think I'm more important that anyone else, just so that is clear. Period. I feel special with all my being, but I don't feel important. I believe special is a private thing, an innocent thing, a state of being. Important is relative. A matter of degree. Some things are more important, less important, it depends. It is comparative, even competitive. Not so with special. Nobody talks about special that way. Nothing is more special, or less. If something is special, well, then you can't take that away from it.

Or can you? So before I go too far I want to say that this is why I'm writing; I am making a case that this is a battleground. That not only is the world divided between those who know they are special, and those who don't, but that those who don't wage war against those who do; that they want to take special away from everyone.

How often do you hear someone say in the most glowing and positive terms: so and so doesn't think he's special(that's why he's our guy--team player). And likewise, those same people will say in the most accusatory way: you think you're special! See, it's bad. Heaven forbid that you should think you're special! Every chance they get, those people will try to take special away from anyone and everyone.

DON'T EVER LET ANYONE TAKE SPECIAL AWAY FROM YOU(or, as Patrick Swayze said: nobody puts Baby in a corner!)

Special is a state of being. It is spiritual. It is spirit. It is your spirit. When they talk about breaking a horse they say that you want to break its will, not its spirit. This is important. So often in our quest to break the will, we break the spirit instead, and the will gets stronger while the spirit disappears. Spirit and will are like love and lust. They sort of look the same, BUT THEY ARE NOT. Special and important sort of look the same, but they are different in the same way. As different as night and day. Now I know some of you don't feel special, hate special, can't remember when you felt that way, if you felt that way, when you lost it. Get it back. Take it back.

Special is spirit, not will. It does not try to prove; it just is. Will is all about proving, about fighting, about competing. Will is ego, and ego seeks to rise. These two things are often confused. Those who don't know they are special are generally threatened by special and sense some ego greater than their own that they must destroy.

Preserving one's innocence, one's spirit, being special, is not easy. It is not supposed to be. It is a challenge. One must also be wary of those who would seek to take it away. One must stay focused on the spiritual, the special. Do I have the answers here? Not at this time. Maybe never. But I do believe that along the way, we are all tested, sometimes from all sides. This is a road we walk alone much of the time.

And now I will talk about this in terms of art, in terms of being an artist. After everything I've said, maybe you already know exactly what I'm talking about in this regard; maybe you already sense that yes, some artists are all spirit, and some are all will, though most are probably some of both. Yes, there are artists who for all of us stand for this idea; artists whose work was more special than important; artists more about light than muscle; artists more about being than being important; more about spirit than glory.

Which explains why children seem so natural when it comes to art. It seems to just happen. Everything they do turns to gold. Yes, innocence, spirit, special, even happiness all seem to go together for children. And then, after a while, as they get older, it gets taken away from them bit by bit. First family and then school makes them have to prove themselves every step of the way, compete, and with each step they lose their innocence, their spirit, and that feeling of being special. That feeling of being special gets traded in for feeling important, superior, like a winner, like they are on top, and when that is complete all innocence is lost.

Which also explains why Matisse is so beloved, or E B White, or the Beatles. Each of them touched the innocence in those who feel it inside themselves. It is something we preserve. It is something we keep. And some of us, when we know we've lost it, do everything we can to get it back. We spend time with children, animals, we garden, we dream, we make art. Yes, maybe I'm dreaming, but I don't think so.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

THE WHATNESS OF DRAWING


This is a video companion to the previous post about the role curiosity plays in life in general, and in drawing and art in particular; in this case involving the process of tackling a drawing installation whose nature is essentially abstract: at Bow Street Gallery in Harvard Square.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

What's Next: How Curiosity Keeps us Guessing AND Going!


In the last couple of days I've been discussing something with writers and artists that brings up an old theme, one that circles around again and again in our lives from the first moment we can breathe to the last: curiosity. I hit on it the other night when I was talking about something that keeps me writing, inotherwords, keeps me working at writing a particular thing when otherwise I might give it up, to a person who understood that it was the same thing that kept him READING when otherwise he might stop. Curiosity.

I tried to point out, not successfully I might add, that I write like I read: that I want to know what happens next; that I write with as little knowledge or plan of what will happen next JUST SO I DON'T KNOW, so that I can find out through the writing while I'm writing, and that that will keep me going. Again, the CURIOSITY. I was pointing out how important it was that I was my own "avid" reader! That I want to know, that I'm curious, that the anticipation is part of the motivation, part of the pleasure, even part of the thrill!

The very next morning I was at Bow Street working on my drawing installation and an artist walked in and while explaining my whole "no plan, just draw" philosophy, it hit me like lightning that it was the same thing I was talking about the night before; that I was almost first and foremost a VIEWER; that I wanted to see what was going to happen as I was drawing and not before(Knowing full well that there is so much more that can come from my unconscious than from my conscious intellect. I've always thought that we unknowingly do what we are looking for; that the music or writing or painting we make is the thing we need from the world, the thing that is missing and we can fill in that blank, find and complete that in and for ourselves)!

Which reminds me of something else. I'm always a little sheepish because I find that I'm not always like a lot of other artists I meet. I'm a little naive in this way. "I'm an art lover." There, I said it. So many artists aren't to my surprise( I remember Richard Tuttle being very dismissive of this, this art love thing. He thought it was wrong. Misguided. Even kind of pathetic. I remember where I was standing when he said it. I knew I was guilty. I knew he knew I was, and that was why he was telling me. He was very protestant. Art was work; all she wrote.).

Frankly, I don't get it. I find it a little sad, myself, in a confused and non-judgmental sort of way. It happened just the other day when I thought for sure this other artist shared my "art lover" passion. He was noticeably not there. It was like a hot potato. There was an awkward silence. It was like I was a kid all of a sudden. Men, real men, real artists, aren't art lovers. They aren't "fans." Real men put away there love. But if you ask me, well, maybe they did it, do it, at their own peril.

And here is where this all comes into play: when I work, I'm an art lover, and I await the things I make or do with the same anticipation I get when I go to studios, museums, or galleries to see other people's work. It's how I feel about writing. It makes me want to write. It is how I feel about everything, almost. It is why people fear movies, because they fear that young people are going to want to go out and do these things that they see in these movies. Dangerous things. Call it influence. A dirty word in art. I read Louis Menand put down the new novel by Michael Ondaatje in the New Yorker recently by making an issue of his influences. It allowed Menand to treat him like a boy to his man; a boy, by the way, whose power and INFLUENCE he will never ever, ever, EVER know. Still, the academic tried to get on top of the artist by calling him out into the street and publicly horsewhipping him with his weakness: his influences: his art love.

So this is where I live. Art lover. It keeps me reading, writing, playing music, listening, painting, drawing, sculpting, and looking and loving art. It keeps me childish. It keeps me curious. It keeps me happy. It keeps me alive!

***************************

By way of a little post-script. So what happened? Someone asked me: "how do other artists do it(hang their work out there, their love out there, and suffer the slings and arrows or the indifference)" because they can't, they suffer too much, it is all too much.

The love was there in the beginning with every artist, I'm sure. Like a puppy. And then what? The love wasn't returned. They hung their work out there and the love didn't come back. And then what? They put the love away. They hid it away. And then they called it all something else. They made art something else. They made it "work." They made it important in some other way. To compensate. Over-compensate. When I would interview someone this was always apparent, this secret love, hidden love. First they would tell me it was all this and that, juxtaposition of this and that, and then, when I would get them to put away their armor and sword, well then, it was about some pair of pajamas they had as a kid, or the way their mother smelled. But it was understood that it was off the record. Hide the hurt. If I wrote this stuff I exposed them, and I did, and they never talked to me again.

Monday, June 04, 2007


Click To Play



Ok, old video...BUT! New Vlog!

This is a discussion of what it means to leave one's mark as an artist.

Monday, May 21, 2007

But does it float?


It has been my experience that whenever anyone starts asking the question "but is it art?" they are barking up the wrong tree. They are not only asking the wrong question; they are not even near the forest, forget the tree.

When the painter Milton Resnick was younger he used a thin paint and a vivid palette. Those paintings from the Fifties were what he later dismissed as his "pretty" paintings, and he did it in such a way to suggest that anyone who liked those paintings was made of less sterner stuff. I was one of those people and I have to say I cared for him less after that. But that's me, the wimp.

But I wonder... Because his later paintings from the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties, the one's he wanted us to like, well, were they so stout? Were they so tough? Were the paintings from the Fifties the real thing, the brave thing, the brave heart, and were the later paintings just tough, like over-kneaded dough--crusty slabs of paint that were all wall, walls of paint, but a scab really, a scab over a broken heart.

Resnick was always the painter's painter, but no one else's. He was a god among painters, and he dwelled among the people. Brice Marden has never been that. In all my years as a student, painter, teacher, curator and critic, I never ONCE heard anyone say, ooouuu or wow, that Brice Marden, can he paint. Never once. But Resnick was held in awe by even successful painters, and especially by anyone who loved paint the way young painters love paint.

Paint, of course, isn't it. Word has it that Resnick blew his brains out. The final act. What was he doing with a gun? Still, how does that add to the story? His story. Robert Miller showed only the Fifties paintings. The pretty paintings. They were poetry. The poetry of a young man. The passion of a young man. He wasn't chosen. Like de Kooning, like Pollock, and yes, like Marden. Tough to be an old poet.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Calling All Artists


One of life's really interesting experiences always clobbers me. I witness someone behaving really badly and as I run for cover I'm forced to ask myself: "Oh my god, I don't do that, do I? Please god, say I don't." And as I flip through memory flashes and hold them up like slides to the light, I scramble for clues as to whether I have indeed crossed the line.

A long time ago, when I ran a gallery on Newbury Street in Boston, I wanted to publish two little handbooks. One for those visiting art galleries, giving them ideas for what to look for, how and how not to look at art, and offering them things they might say, useful catch-phrases, like "I love the way the artist moves the light through the painting," or "This video installation really puts me inside the artist's head," along with things one should never say, like, "The color is so garish," or "This artist doesn't know how to draw." Sounds fascist, but it was really intended as an times humorous guidebook for people who are lost in the world of art, and lost for what to say.

The other little guide book I wanted to publish was one for artists on how to behave when outside the studio. I did do "One Hundred Ways to Survive as an Artist without Cutting Off Your Ear," but that was a little different. Some of the same thoughts pass through all three.

For the artist's guidebook I would have rules of art world etiquette. Like Emily Post. Just a few, and just for those one or two artists who seem to have been brought up by bears.

Rule number one: NEVER bring your slides to someone else's opening! I put that one first because although it would seem impossible and unnecessary, it actually happens. I know examples of both, the artist who had other artists, friends, bring slides; and I've known a few artists who brought slides. But just in case what's so wrong about this doesn't occurr to you, just remember: it's not your moment. Learn how to celebrate someone else's moment, as painful as that might be. I'm glad to get that one out of the way, thank you.

Rule number two: Keep your opinions to yourself when viewing art in a gallery. AND don't make faces. That's important. My ex-wife did that, and it was probably over as a result. This is another variation on the golden rule, but it still needs to be said. Wait until you are at least two blocks, maybe three, from the gallery before you start passing judgment, and always keep your voice down, wherever you are. Never risk saying something negative within earshot of the artist, or their family, or friends, or the dealer. This one is hard when wine is being served.

Rule number three: When you enter any gallery and start sizing up the walls imagining how great your work would look, at least pretend to look at the work already hanging where your masterpieces will demand to be reckoned with, and if you can actually give the work hanging in your future space the time of day, so much the better! But at the very least pretend to be interested in something besides yourself.

Rule number four: Never give someone, a gallery, your slides and then ask that they get back to you as soon as possible with an answer as to when you're going to have your big show, as though you're about to fly to Venice to represent the WORLD at the Biennale and only have a few moments to spare before you have to get on your private jet. And like you're actually going to get a show! Also, don't keep going back to the gallery because, godammit, they haven't gotten back to YOU!

Rule number five: Don't eat all the food at the opening. Save some grapes for someone else, and never hover over the cheese and crackers and FEED like a horse at the trough!

Rule number six: Don't argue with the work; inotherwords, don't argue with other people's art. First off, everybody knows what's really going on. By arguing you keep yourself in charge, the focus on you, you at the center, you in control. All about you!

You ever notice how some people never cease to do this. They might be on a committee; they might be at your breakfast table. To argue is to create crisis, which shuts down movement, and impedes change or progress. It divides. It also inflates the ego: you argue therefore you are, therefore you exist, therefore you are important. It is also a way of dismissing what is clearly at that moment is not about you, even more important than you. When something threatens us we argue, thereby making the thing we're arguing about less important, and as a result elevating ourselves instead.

It is exhausting. People who argue of course never listen, make the possiblility of listening the last thing that will or could ever happen. By design. Keeping the message on them. So. Don't argue. Listen. Be open to the work! It won't be the end of the world. It won't kill you.


Rule number seven. See rules one through six and hold them up to the light like slides. Oh yeh, and find something nice to say, even genuine; be generous in the artist's presence, even if it kills you!

Next up: Rules of etiquette for dealers, curators, and museum people. Ha!

And finally, I'd like to thanks my parents, Mr and Mrs Bear.

Friday, May 04, 2007

One Long Victory Lap

I beat my wife and daughter at Fish this morning. THREE TIMES! After my press conference at noon I'll be flying off to do the Larry King Show, but it doesn't stop there. Next is the White House, of course, and then the usual late night talk shows. The really big question is whether I want the Wheaties box or the cover of a video game, because apparently you won't get both. My agent, however, assures me that I will. The possibilities are endless.

For example, there was the extraordinary come from behind victory at Horse with my two boys. I was H-O-R-S but was able at the last second to do a backwards set shot that won me the game. That made the highlight reel on ESPN. TWICE! I was basking in the glow of that for a whole day. And then of course there is Scrabble, I always clean up; and UNO, I'm just a natural; and ping-pong, what can I say?

These are the rewards of being a stay-at-home dad. Who knew? Sometimes I feel like Rocky. I assume that position with my arms raised in the air, sometimes it is automatic, sometimes I just keep them that way all day long. What a life! It is just one long victory lap. The SI photographers are coming any moment. In the meantime I keep my badminton racket firmly in hand and wait for the bus. The kids have a half day.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Plastic, Paper, Scissors

I know a lot of artists who face this dilemma. I'm not saying I'm one of them, and I'm not saying I'm not. It's kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don't sort of thing. We have too many of these paper/plastic, lose/lose scenarios in our lives. Bad options, or really no options. Artists are faced with the choice of following a dream that is going to break their heart, or breaking their heart by not following their dream. Again, paper/plastic.

Because no matter what you think of someone's work, or what they tell you about it, what they hang out there is their heart. It may look like a lump of coal, but it is their heart. At one time I made a living writing about art in New York City, the big art dormitory, in the late Seventies/early Eighties, and the only reason I was a success, and I was, was not because I could write, because I couldn't, but because what I wrote about was just that: the heart that they hung out there. Maybe it was masked in rhetoric, wrapped in armor, buried in code, but it was their heart, and I could see it and write about it. I made seasoned, tough-minded artists CRY! You could see that, feel that, they would ask. How? It made what they were doing a success.

The other thing would happen too, and it did. Some artists felt exposed, and as a result, angry. They didn't want anyone to know that their heart was there, and that they could therefore get it broken.

Because that is what happens. You hang your heart out there and it is going to get broken. Sooner or later. Just happens that way. Goes with the territory. Comes with the job. Sure, some artists think that by trying to hide it or guard it they can protect it. Maybe for a while. But some night they are going to wake up and feel it breaking. And then what are they going to do?

What does everybody think has been happening all these years with all these artists who hang themselves or drive their car into a tree. Sure, I came from the other school of thought, that art was the thing that saved them, but in the end, yes, twas beauty that killed the beast!

As Charles Giuliano, the former Boston art critic, said in print somewhere, or maybe in an interview with me, I can't remember, the worst thing that can happen to an artist is to be ignored. I thought the worst thing was not to be an artist. Paper/Plastic.

The reason I bring all this up is because I am dumbfounded by the striking resemblance the life of the artist bears to the mental disorder they call bipolar. What we have here is the artist as yo-yo lurching between the giddy heights of glorious grandiosity and the loathsome self-pity of a bottomless depression. There isn't an in-between. No artist sets their sights on anything less than world fame. Picasso is the bar. Nothing less. It is like the kid shooting free throws pretending that there are two seconds left and the championship rides on his shot. BUT, we're talking about grown-ups. There should be an in-between. Not paper/plastic.

I spoke to two artists last week, and got a message from a third. We're all in the same boat. We all want to keep afloat, keeping our dream of the artist in us alive. But we need something no one can give us. We need a ringing world class endorsement of our greatness. Again, nothing less will do. Aspiring to anything else is what is called embracing mediocrity. Oooouu! There is no such thing, of course, as proof of being a great artist, which is why even seemingly successful artists perish by their own hand. Gregory Gillespie did it at this time a few years ago. It is probably in his honor that I write this; it is certainly because of him that at this time every year since, what he did is on my mind. There is something wrong with the art world that this happens. There needs to be a voice, somewhere, but we don't hear it in the academy or the media, quite the contrary. The message we do hear instead is all or nothing.

Recently I was berated by some art curator for my lack of ambition. He started to quote something about small ambitions when I reminded him that I had said I had NO ambitions, and then he got it.

“Most people would succeed in small things if they were not troubled with great ambitions." Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The question, of course, is who cares about small things? I'll say it again: who cares about small things?

“I'd rather have roses on my table than diamonds around my neck.” Emma Goldman

While I was sitting outside thinking about these things a Great Blue Heron flew over head with its giant wing span like a prehistoric beast, like a god, really. It was a humbling experience, and at the same time inspiring. Made me ashamed that I could ever get caught up in stupid stuff. I like to tell the story of how when my oldest was little and we were looking for interesting rocks on a hike one day, he reminded me that when you're looking for just one rock you miss out on all of the others.

Seems to me as artists we could all breathe a little easier if at the very least we could tell ourselves and somehow believe it that Picasso is not the bar; that the bar is sharing what is in that "small thing" that beats in our chest, that we can only hold it out in front of us, cupped in our hands, like a bird. That if we can share that sweetness, with perhaps only those closest to us, we have made the world a better place, and only good can come from that.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

An Inside The Park Homer


As a boy my dreams were of Homer's Odyssey(that's me painting a mural about it in Rome in 1964), but as an adult I have more in common with Homer Simpson. What happened? Good question. Life happened, as they say. We all have boyhood dreams, and then one day we have to put them away, and maybe, if we're lucky, we can make room for the dreams of our children.

My dad was a modern day Odysseus of sorts, business man, flying all over the world poking out the eyes of cyclopses. And sure, I was Telemachus, and I never saw him, literally. In my first marriage I was still Odysseus, still the artist, but I dragged my first son around on my adventures. He seemed to enjoy it, but he knew nothing of stability, because niether did I.

I still paint, I did this morning, but only because I enjoy it, because it connects with another kind of dreaming; a kind of musing. My kids, second marriage, second chance, seem to like what I do, but it stops there. Who knows? But you make choices, and I wouldn't do this one any other way. These Telemachuses are going to have a father, and this Odysseus is going to have them, even if, doh!, he is just a Homer Simpson.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Art Charade



Sol LeWitt gouache, Addison Parks oil
(Courtesy Bow Street Gallery, Winter Salon, 2007)



ArtDeal is not called ArtCharade for a reason, although maybe it should be. The charade is out there for all of us to see and be a part of all the time--the deal is something else. The charade calls to us, and we are alone facing it. Everyone else is urging us on, saying come on in, the water is fine. The bigger the better. If we are concerned about getting swallowed up by the charade, big or small, the one or many, we are pretty much on our own.

There are the individual ones, and the collective. Ones we do to prove something to ourselves, and ones we do to prove something to everyone else. Sometimes we aim high or low, raising or lowering the stakes, raising or lowering the bar; or we target particular groups: maybe our peers, maybe our family, maybe our colleagues, maybe our community, maybe THE WORLD!. I live in suburban Boston(It is rural in feel and abutts Walden Pond, so there is that charade). Suburbia is famous for its unrelenting, muscle-flexing, to-the-death parade of charades, one on top of another like some giant ice cream sundae.

The art world is also pretty grand when it comes to these same kinds of human performances, these same kinds of HYPE; they come in all forms, some more convincing than others, and sometimes it seems that being more convincing is all that matters(more charade to the charade!). What are we to do with them all? Do we give our best performance? Do we strip ourselves naked? My first thought is that whatever we do, the thing that we don't want to do is to believe the charade to be true. If we could dismantle all charades that would be great, but it is not going to happen. I suspect the answer is, as in all things, awareness. As long as we don't buy into the hype, our own or anyone else's, then maybe, just maybe, we stand a chance.

I remember as a boy getting very nervous when people started putting me on a pedestal. I immediately wanted to get down. Often I would behave destructively in order to be removed. I had seen how far others had fallen, and I didn't want to be knocked off when I least expected it. I thought it better to get down by myself. I'm still not sure why.

I read today that the conceptual artist Sol LeWitt died. I was saddened by the news. I've always had a soft spot for him, for his works. I have some. About fifteen years ago I even "drew" some of his wall drawings, at the Addison Gallery no less(all the installations are done by assistants--he doesn't actually physically make them), so that I could write a feature about him for the Christian Science Monitor--see Artdeal Magazine: Features. In that article I raised questions about his role in the careerism(charade!) that obsesses the art world. I regretted that attack today. Apparently he was a very private, shy, and humble person. I didn't know that. I regretted that anything I said might have caused him or anyone close to him pain.

So I asked myself why I had written what I wrote. Why I had found it necessary to end this grand feature I had invested so much time in with a knife to the gut. And then I remembered.

About thirty something years ago LeWitt had come to speak to my school. The way I remember it, that is, the impression he made, was entirely careerist. I was young and hungry for talk of the mysteries of ART, and all he did was boast about how many shows he had had around the world, including Japan, in just one year. I believe the number was 105 or 6. Nothing else. No insight, no chunks of wisdom, no art lore. Just what a successful guy he was. All I saw at that moment was a showman, and I never quite forgave him until today. At that moment I was shocked and dumbfounded and disillusioned, and as a result I never really felt the same way about him again after that. When I read the sweet send-off the Times gave him this morning I asked myself if this could even be the same person. How did I get it so wrong? He didn't even look like the same guy I saw over thirty years ago(and of course neither do I).

Just a few years later, I'm not sure how many, I saw the painter Alex Katz speak and I had a similar reaction. All he did was talk career. Sounded like a merchant--the Music Man--right here in River City. I left the auditorium reeling and that was when I bumped into Richard Tuttle, and went on that bumby ride. He was up to something else, Tuttle was, and I wanted what he was selling. A different type of hype.

Now I don't know if life is a cabaret old chum, but it seems to me that we all have our own charades, and we need not rain on one another's. Tuttle liked to live like a hillbilly in New York. For whatever reason I found that charming. Who knows what kind of issues I was compensating for or surrendering to. Did I think careerism and commercialism were bad where art was concerned? Evidently. Do I still feel that way? I'd say the chances are that I'm worse than ever.

The art world has endless charade possibilities. Commercial, academic, idealistic, and eccentric. Made of bricks, sticks, or straw. More ego, libido, or id. Just step on board. There are guises and masks to suit every shape and size, and every appetite or inclination. One can be a rebel, a maverick, a troublemaker, a malcontent; a visionary, an artiste, an inventor, a philosopher; a charlatan, a hedonist, a sexist, a wiseman, a fool; a purist, a witness, a reformer, a problem solver, a realist, a voyeur; a seducer, a victim, a misunderstood, a truth-seeker, a truth-sayer, a nay-sayer; a liar, a magician, a creator, a destroyer; a classicist, a romanticist, a hero, a saint; a feeler, a healer, a warrior, a peacemaker; a thinker, a perfectionist, a craftsman, a shaman; a god, a demon, a comedian, a whiner; a pessimist, an optimist, an expressionist, an exhibitionist, an explorer; a poet, a dreamer, a naturalist, a spiritualist, a teacher; a uniter, a divider, an entertainer, a communicator, a genius, a catalyst. One and all! All and one! Pick your poison. I can only speak for myself; I know I'm in there.

I just have to keep my eyes open.

Thank You Sol LeWitt


A giant in the art world died. Sol LeWitt. It reminds me how sad it is for someone to have to die before they are not so much given their due as honored for being who they were and what they gave the rest of us. Thank you Sol LeWitt. Thank you for being who you were and we wave goodbye knowing somehow that wherever you're going, that place is going to be better for it--and probably have some great wall drawings too!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Half and Half: In Honor of the Vernal Equinox


The Ineluctable Redolence Of It All: half dream, half waking world; that moment when if we turn left we see that dream and turn right we see that other, the waking world; when we can shuttle the best of each back and forth, bringing light to both, bringing ENlightenment to both.

Sometimes things are not what they seem. Never have been. I can't speak for the future, but it seems unlikely that this is going to change. Happens over and over again. The way things are is sometimes not the way things are.

But before we kick this around in the context of art, let's hit on some history. Not world history. Just you and me history. For most people it starts with their parents, who aren't telling them everything, or maybe anything, really, not what's going on, not what's what, you know, and then one day we come home from school and daddy isn't there anymore. And of course school is no different: they aren't telling you what's up there either. They're doing one thing and saying another. Sorry to state the obvious, really I am, but it has to be said. It just goes on and on. Workplace. Relationships. These days we get to watch it play out in Washington, live, on cable. And what are we supposed to do with this knowledge? What are we supposed to make of the deception, misdirection, obfuscation? Throw in the towel? Choose some Nietzschean worldview? Good luck!

In the art world the artist and art witness must contend with a double dose of deception. A layer cake of it really. Something Escher would devise, where you didn't know what was what, top or bottom or in-between. I have never had much use for Escher, as they say, nifty art, but for these purposes he is perfect. Anyway, a lot of people seem to like a headgame. I, for better or worse and probably the latter, am not one of them. I grew up with it in my kitchen before I could even think, but knew right off I didn't like it, and promised myself I wouldn't invite it, like some vampire, into my life ever again once I got away. For example, I had such an aversion to the mindgame that whenever I was being intentionally tested by someone, in the classroom, in a standardized test, or with just the riddle, where the idea was to trick me, I froze. A little voice would say: don't mess with me! I would back away. I still do. I've kept my promise too well.

So what of this with art? The coming and going of it. Where to start?

Do we know what art is (ha! or just what we like)? An excellent question! This answer is no. We don't. We think we do. And more importantly, we think we know what isn't(negative!), and that not only includes what isn't art but what isn't good art. But again, we can't know and that is the truth. We don't know what art is just like we don't know what god is, or what love is(there is that old question of whether we love or just think we love, and is there a difference, which is not much different from I think therefore I am), or even, ultimately, what death is. We don't know. There is only what we believe, what we think we know, that we have to know, that we want to know, that it is a matter of ego, pride, zeal, and that's where the trouble starts.

So right away we're in a mess. All down hill from here. Someone makes something that raises the question of whether it is art and then whether it is good art. Are these good questions? Well, maybe, just maybe, they are not even to the point if we can reach some kind of agreement about what might be the thing we are trying to identify/qualify--that is, art.

More paradox? Absolutely!

Have I got anything to add? Beyond beware? Beyond beware that things are never what they seem?

I'm perfectly willing to concede that if not for my aversion to the proverbial mind-game I would not be in this fix in the first place. I would have accepted all of this a long time ago. I would have recognized that the truth, instead of being this thing somewhere in between, is actually an ideal, and therefore an extreme, an unattainable absolute presumably opposed by the equally unattainable absolute of pure lie. And because there is no pure truth, OUR truth IS, like everything else, somewhere in the middle! Somewhere in the sea of grey that is our lives.

For this incredible lack of awareness on my part I apologize. I was one of those really stupid and annoying and often destructive people running around forcing the issue(Life is a parade, so the emperor isn't wearing any clothes, shut up about it kid!). Everything shocked me. Shocked no more. The answer is not Nietzsche, of course, who was clearly a very disturbed individual(so how could his conclusions have been anything but). The answer is more along the lines of eyes wide open, the razor's edge, the straight and narrow, etc. The answer is that sometimes things are what they seem and sometimes they are not. In fact the only truth we may ever know is at best somewhere in between. At best can be a very good thing. And thus I revise my opening statement. We just have to pay attention, which is of course no small statement. It is everything.

Night and day. Truth and lies. Yes and No. Good and bad. Yin and Yang. Half and half. Life is a half a glass of water. That's it! Whether it is half full or half empty is entirely up to us. I have seen deaf kids with a yes so palpable it was blinding, and people who seemingly had it all that couldn't get out of bed in the morning.

I'm often amused by expressions like "fools rush in where angels fear to tread." We can keep peeling them like an onion. The idea of the razor's edge pretty much suggests that that temptation is everywhere, on all sides, but that by walking that paper thin line, which can't help but be cutting, we can do this thing that is not always what it seems. The temptations are huge of course. The power and the glory of art is huge. Immortality. Importance. The temptation to inflate, to compare, to judge, to aggrandize, to compete; to take this wonderful gift and exploit it for power and glory and primacy and superiority and exclusivity over others, over our brothers and sisters in this world; to take this wonderful gift with the power to heal and enlighten and share pleasure and joy and knowledge and feeling and hope and good, and then corrupt it for the purpose of achieving what I believe in Australia they call the plight of the tall poppy. The temptation is huge, but these things are worth nothing. Nothing. Certainly not our first and greatest gift, our life, our self, our soul. They are illusions, sand castles on the water's edge, gone in an instant. In the end all we have is our tall glass of water, and what we do with it makes all the difference.

Of course we are all fools. Fools rushing in. Fools for love. Fools for friends. Fools for family. Fools for politics. Fools for art...

When it comes to art, we are in the extreme. Most people don't even go there. Some people may have it on their walls somewhere, by mistake, but for the most part it is ultimately a painfully acquired taste. We like something we call a work of art that we have experienced. It says it feels what we feel. How we feel. It sees what we see. How we see. It thinks what we think. How we think. There is the first trap. Narcissism. Need. Want. We WANT to connect, and more, to be connected to. We make associations to keep us from being alone. We gather them around us like teddy bears to make us feel safe. And then we begin.

We relate and we are not alone. Art takes us some place. It reassures us. If we make it, then we search for answers, the grail, paradise, perfection, or peace. Which of these can it possibly bring us? Illusions. Illusions that comfort us. Illusions which put us to sleep, like blinders. Or is art just a mark left by where someone has been, like the yellow snow my dog leaves around the yard in winter. That is where it takes us. The mark. Is that all? Is that enough? Why wouldn't it be enough? Van Gogh was here. Frida Kahlo was here. Kiki Smith was here. And then we can tell ourselves "I've been there!" or "I like that place" or "I know that place" or "I hate that place" or "I want to go there!" or something like that.

Is that ok? Is that a reasonable truth? It would seem so. Why ask for more? Why make it about anything more, have to be anything more, or about something else? Can we know this much about art? This small truth? Maybe, but I don't think so.There are phenomena/concepts unknown to us by design--phenomena/concepts we invented that need to remain independent of the control of anyone or any group in the name of knowing, power, or anything else--and we just have to keep them that way, and any frustration we might feel is a small price to pay for the power and freedom these phenomena/concepts, like art, give every living, breathing individual on the planet.

Friday, February 23, 2007

ABOUT Tuttle and Jensen; Through the Looking Glass and Back Again



I was thinking about Bill Jensen(above:LUOHAN/PERSONA; 2005-2006; Oil on linen; 28" x 23"), and something I had written about him almost fifteen years ago for Provincetown Arts (you can find it at artdealmagazine.com). It still largely applies. Actually it applies to a lot of things, but most of all it makes me remember how I feel about painting.

And then it made me think about Richard Tuttle. I only wrote about him once, really, about thirty years ago, and it wasn't much(I first wrote about Jensen for Arts in '81). I tried, foolishly, to go there, and I haven't tried since. Tuttle is a bear. So is Jensen, but he gives you more to work with. Tuttle doesn't, by intention. I get a chuckle thinking about the people who try to write about him. Tuttle does too, I'm sure. It is such a trap.

The word "about" is appropriate. Tuttle expressed disdain for the whole notion. "About" is circling around the cave instead of going in. About is a lot of what we get in this world. After all, who wants to go into the cave? Who wants to face the bear? I've always had a bit of the fool about me. A bit of the naive. I happily rushed in where angels(????) fear to tread. I went into Tuttle's cave, a few times, I just never wrote ABOUT it. I didn't want to write ABOUT it, and if I couldn't write it, I wasn't going to write at all.

So why write ABOUT Jensen and not Tuttle? Jensen is a painter. I was just writing ABOUT myself. And so here is what I was thinking this morning. Tuttle is always referred to as something of an enigma. Why? Well, duh! Whatever it is he does, as an artist, is that which cannot otherwise be realized. It is why he seems so inarticulate when it comes to his work. If he could really talk about it, he has failed. And he is very clear about this. He was clear about it thirty years ago.

The reality is if you are circling around Tuttle's cave(above:"20 Pearls:3 Blacks", 2004; acrylic on museum board and archival foam core with brad ;19 7/8" x 18"), you don't and can't know what's going on. You could apply this to anything and everything, but it is completely true with his work. I once said about Jensen either you go or you don't go, but at least something sticks. Some redolence, some residue. With Tuttle almost nothing sticks, and that is what gets people--that's what intrigues them, because although they may never go, but they are attracted to that kind of hard to get.

The thing with Tuttle is that you can't know, at least not the way people like to know. Tuttle doesn't know, and that is the point. If he knew he wouldn't have done it. It is the wanting to know, or the appreciation that comes from everything we don't know. The wow of it--the surpise--if nothing else both of these artists paint for that, they would just be happy to be surprised. If he "knew" it, well, then it was already "been there, done that." He was always interested in what he didn't know. It was the one thing we shared. He wasn't an artist to be good at it. He was an artist to hunt. You could say art was the paddle and canoe he used to move through the water, forgive me, the water that is life, and then maybe art is just the wake. Still, if it is the wake, you couldn't separate it from the canoe and paddle, or from him for that matter.


There are people who apply the experience of abstract painting to Joyce, you know, just read it, don't try to understand it, stop asking questions, just go, and let the experience of reading him wash over you. Then what you get is IT, and when you read it again, it might be different, but that is still it. Tuttle is the same. You go in the cave. What you get is IT. No about. Just it.

There are a lot of us who just can't be sustained by that. It is not enough. For the rest of us it is everything. The language of everything. Jensen goes there with paint like a landscape painter; he brings painting to the mystery while Tuttle just is the mystery. Tuttle gives us something more like the White Rabbit's fare. A tough pill to swallow; one... makes you larger, one... makes you small, and the ones that mother gives you...

What seems strange about Tuttle isn't strange at all, but we have been so trained to think in a certain way about not just art, but everything, that it looks that way. Of course thirty years later he doesn't seem so strange. Still, Tuttle is our modern day Thoreau. He's gone his own way, lights his own way, while we've followed the highway signs like lemmings, and made all the wrong turns over and over again. Jensen gives us postcards, maps, snaps shots from that some place else, almost like a dream, so that maybe we can dream our way there. With Tuttle we can be damn sure it's not going to be that pretty. Damn sure. No. Instead, instead he gives us example.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

TO BE OR NOT...Part 2; No Questions Asked

Hamlet made a mistake. He should have run away with Ophelia. Or just made the most of it. He was a disaster. He was a prince, so much was expected of him. But he should have suffered the slings and arrows along with everyone else, and been happy that "bee" didn't get in HIS ear. He made things worse, pure and simple, and if he had had more presence of mind than just to ask to be or not to be, he would have realized that he was already asking the wrong question. The real question was: when did I choose to become a victim, because it was his "outrage" that was really self-pity, and from there he was just on one long slide. Be lucky you're not a prince, of course. Get a life. Live it. Be. No questions asked.

Be. Bee. B. Hamlet didn't die, at least not in the beginning. His dad died. His father, uncle, mother, they had their issues. That is their business. Leave it alone. We get in a bind. We get in the middle. Life puts us there. We are at a crossroads. A big one. But if we're asking to be or not to be it really is too late. It is really a question of how we see ourselves and life. What we expect of ourselves and life. If we have been set up, maybe to be a prince, maybe we went to Harvard or Yale and a lot was expected of us. Little Princes. Maybe we really had a different dream, and maybe we needed to prove that our dream was worthwhile by achieving success, and getting the approval. Well, get ready. Very few artists ever seem satisfied with what they get. It's like money. We always want more. Satisfaction, of course, is a dirty word in most art circles. Losers are satisfied. And how strange is that? We're never supposed to be satisfied. That is so bourgeois. And then there is the asking questions thing. SOOOOO the right thing to do. You know, it's always: the questions are what count, not the answers. But really. Questions are like trying to untie the Gordian Knot. The reality is stop asking questions! Shut up! Just watch the movie! Just whip out your sword and chop the GD Knot in half. Quit being such a prince!

And then you can just BE. Afterall, the world doesn't have to be all Paper/Plastic. Just grab your food and go!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

WHAT'S AN ARTIST TO DO? KEEP DREAMING!

They are the rule. Artists who work in isolation, in oblivion, without support, without feedback, without real hope. In the current climate, during wartime, it is even worse. We have a Republican White House that has stolen all messages of hope, and culture, and humanity, and made everything about fear. Art is nowhere in the mind of our government.

I have said many times that art did not come over on the Mayflower. They were hard times, severe times, times about order and survival. Dreamers not welcome. Of course. When there is a job to do, dreaming gets in the way.

Needless to say, dreaming is essential to art. Call it musing. It is older than history. Musing, dreaming, meant tapping into some greater consciousness. You got me. Dreamer. The kid sitting by the window in school. And when there were no windows and I was sitting right in front of the algebra teacher and looking right at her, yes, I was somewhere else, far away.

What is it about dreaming? We know what Einstein said about imagination--that it's more important than knowledge(but then what did HE know?). We know what Freud and Jung said about the conscious and unconscious mind--that our awareness was limited--that we are no more than 10 to 50 percent conscious(inotherwords--half conscious at BEST!). We know that it is somewhere we go alone, by definition. Somewhere vast. We might share dreams, but they start inside us, and if we do share them, it means that they were already there.

To artists struggling in isolation, despair, I say, keep dreaming, and keep doing the thing you love, if only for a few hours a week. Don't let go of your dream.

Because here is the question: when we have a lifetime of work that keeps piling up, and no chance to share it, show it, let people come to it and contemplate it, enjoy it, benefit from it, celebrate it, get it, eat it, just look at it, listen to it, take it in, respond to it, share in it, experience it, maybe even admire it; well, how do we go on?

I have a friend showing his work in a church right now, and he is thrilled. Would he rather be at the Whitney, well, that would be hard to resist, but he is sharing what he does with his friends and neighbors, and well, you can't beat that.

But back to dreaming, because that is what the artist has to look forward to. Dreaming and working. And not dreams of success, or recognition, or grandeur or fame. Not dreams of glory. Those are hard dreams to resist, especially when you feel like you've done something special. No, it is the dream of life, of love, of family, of space, of color, of light, of stars, of mystery, of connection, of flying, of water, of fire, of peace, of the garden, of the streams and rivers, of the clouds and birds, of the beyond.

Dreams are a part of life, make no mistake. It is precisely the absence of dreams that makes the world we have to face these days on the news and in newspapers so grim and mean. We count on dreams. Not just our own. We count on the dreams of others, of children, to imagine a richer, sweeter, more harmonious, more thoughtful, more conscious world.

So artists have no choice but to take heart in their dreams, and their lives, and their work. To take heart in being an artist, being able to be an artist, that that is its own reward. To allow their dreams, and their lives, and their to flourish. To dream, and to become. To dream and to become their dreams.

And how do you do that? Reality check. You support yourself like everyone else. You don't look for appreciation, you appreciate it yourself. You don't look for recognition, you recognize yourself. Like everyone else. If being an artist is its own reward, than appreciate and recognize that you have been well rewarded. That you are lucky. That you are living your dream. Don't expect any more reward than that. This should all be pretty obvious, but it isn't. Somehow from the getgo fame, recognition, glory, success, are built into the definition of artist, and we all bought it. Again, it has nothing to do with excellence, it has to do with getting ahead, because all that stuff has never been a measure of excellence, even though we are being told it is. History tells us otherwise. History tells us that art happens in all kinds of strange places. Forget "outsider," whoever coined that one should be tarred and feathered. And put in a museum.

Reality check: support yourself. Believe in yourself. If you can do that, maybe you won't have to choose door number three. Maybe you can live to a ripe old age and die sitting in your garden in a straw hat. Now there's a dream!