Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Calling

My most recent entry mused about that call an artist hears and has to answer; why this of course becomes the artist's calling.  When I was a boy living in Rome, walking home down Via Margutta, I would turn into #48 and all was right with the world. It was the most beautiful and enchanting sight. I know people experience this, they turn into their driveway, come around a bend in the river, fly over a piece of mountain, and their heart lifts because they are home. This was my favorite home growing up. It wasn't about feeling safe or being back in my own space. Via Margutta was beautiful, and as a ten year old I felt it intensely. It is more responsible for me being an artist than almost anything else, and it is especially responsible for the artist and person I am.

I've joked about how Richard Tuttle gave me grief as a young man for my blind devotion to beauty, about how else could he have thought otherwise considering he grew up in New Jersey. Not fair, of course, because beauty is everywhere, but there is something about certain kinds of beauty that day in and day out cause you to wonder, to be enchanted. Some people are not easily enchanted, and they are proud of this, who knows why. They like to say that they are not easily impressed and they take comfort in some sort of sense of superiority that this gives them; they are picky. You have to feel for the picky ones, perhaps a question of imagination, or the law of attraction.

#48 was a simple doorway compared to #51 where they shot Roman Holiday ten years before, (one scene right under our window as a matter of fact); but everyone agreed #48 was a vision when you looked inside. Stone steps led up a long stairway framed by dusty carmen pink walls, plants, flowers, and vines and sculpture to an archway which supported the stairs to our apartment on the top floor. Through the archway one could see the tops of the pines of the Pincio, and the sky. It was as magical as a dream. Our apartment had three floors and a terrace on the roof that looked out over every hill and dome of the golden city, the top of the Spanish Steps to one side, the twin cupolas of the Piazza del Popolo on the other, etc., etc., etc.

That doorway is always with me. It is part of what art is to me, and what calls me. Of course anytime we talk about art, it is always from where we are standing, like looking at a building or a flower, we can describe what we see from that perspective at that moment. The rest is from memory. Memories of doorways.

One of the strangest questions I am sometimes asked is how long does it take to make a painting. As long as it takes, of course. We're not talking about boiling an egg after all. But the questions persist. How do you know when a painting is finished? Now that is an interesting question, because of course even the artist wants to know that one. The answer might be the same as for the first: that it depends.

It depends on what the artist is up to. You could say that a painting is finished when it purrs. Like a car when you start its engine. When a painting is somehow complete it will purr and you will hear it purr, that's how you'll know. But that is not enough for some artists. Purring is just the beginning for them. 

As a parent you bring a child into this world and at first you are thrilled that they are alive and well. It's huge, but it is just the beginning of course. Soon you have help them to eat and stand and walk and swim and catch a ball and read and so on and so on. Maybe it ends, maybe it doesn't. But when you've achieved one of these milestones at a child's side, because surely you share in their triumph, you think for a split second, well, I've done my job, there...but it passes quickly and you are on to the next challenge so fast you can barely catch your breath. It keeps you going, it keeps you climbing to the next level. 

Painting is the same. Maybe a painting seems finished because you have brought it to life. Maybe you want that painting to just be happy. Maybe you want that painting to go far. Maybe you want that painting to make you proud. These differences will factor into how long a painting takes and when it is done. Parents are different and so are painters. Some are cats and let their babies fend for themselves; other breeds never let their offspring leave home.

Where I fit in between these two is a concern. Recently an art dealer who wants to help me, and I've definitely alienated a few of them along this line, suggested I let her rent my paintings to companies that need something on their walls. She chided me for mourning a painting I had just sold. She asked me if I was nuts. They are not your children, she said. Here was my reply:

I'm sorry this is so hard for you to get about me. Imagine if you were a painter, and everyday that you painted you were surrounded by the family you loved, that each painting was painted in their presence, and was fed by your life with them, well, that would be me. I am not a greenhouse painter. I am not a corporate painter. I don't go to a studio, like an office, and punch the clock. I paint where I live and I live where I paint. If this is nuts, then I am nutty. I can't imagine doing it any other way if I can help it, and I feel very fortunate to be able to do this. Maybe a dozen years from now when they are all grown up and I am not so fortunate, maybe I'll be there, but I don't think so. There is nothing in this other thing; this painting like a businessman. I grew up in Europe and was influenced by a non-commercial art world. I remember how my European friends used to complain to me when I lived in New York. How commercial the art world was. I ignored both. 

My paintings mean something to me,J. I wouldn't do them if they didn't. I'm not knocking them out, especially these days. Each one is a place on a journey I try to make count every second. I put learning very high on my list. Learning and growing. Each painting is as much about where I'm going as where I am, and where I've been, but MOST of all, they are about where I am at that very second, which is why they are always changing. If they don't change, then I need to be afraid. It means I'm not learning or growing. It means I'm not alive. It means I'm not paying attention, to the world or myself. Maybe this will help. I spend a lot more time with each painting these days because I can. Not so much about time spent working, as time spent paying attention. I'm really happy about that.

No word. I've never made any secret of the fact that I'm sentimental. A good thing in my mind despite how it plays out in the world. I'm sentimental up front and no one has to like that.  It is who I am, as a person and a painter. Doesn't make for good corporate art, and I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm still in that stairway in Rome, and my paintings are finished when they take me to the top.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Making Something of Something

I was talking to my friend, Ulick Mahoney, at his extensive exhibition of paintings at UMASS Boston's Harbor Gallery yesterday, and one of the things he said to me was that he only felt good when he was working/painting. He may not have said it exactly like that, but that is what he in effect said. I understood.

Artists need to do what they do, to paint, or write, or compose music; to realize something about themselves and the world in some external way. People who aren't artists don't need to do this. They're fine. Artists do what they do because they have to. If they don't, they don't feel like themselves.

I was just explaining this to someone who wanted to be an artist but never got around to it. Artists, real artists, don't work that way. They can't help it. Calling them driven is wide of the mark. They have to make something to feel ok, to fill some need in themselves, to fill a hole, and it isn't about just accomplishing something either. It is about making something that connects them, grounds them, COMPLETES them. Artists are artists to complete themselves. Other people feel relatively complete already.

Which brings up another way of looking at it. Artists DO NOT understand how other people can't, don't, won't make art. They don't understand how other people can function, be happy, feel complete without making art. Artists would go crazy if they couldn't make art. Should I say crazy-er? This is what makes artists seem so arrogant to other people. It makes them seem like they know something other people don't know. It makes them act like other people have missed the boat. 

Again, they can't help it. It our world of therapy, yes, we probably wouldn't have such a thing as art if everyone was NORMAL. Like Woody Allen once explained in a joke at the end of I think Annie Hall: this guy would commit his brother who thought he was a chicken but, he explained, he needed the eggs.

Ulick's show was pretty amazing. A primordial sea of color and paint and marks and shapes. A tribute to how he has completed himself through his work. He confessed that he spends every nickel he has on canvas and paint, that he scours the art stores for deals, that he is convinced he has somehow saved money when he buys a lot of supplies on sale.

Sitting there in the gallery surrounded by his paintings he is awash in their glow; he is himself. Not as much himself as he would be if he were in his studio painting, but not bad; he gets a kind of closure, a sense of summation, a chance to take it all in and see how it adds up and maybe where it might be going. 

Ulick paints with a fierce fusion of mark and marklessness. Collectively they take off, get lift off, they become almost something like a trip to a planetarium. The installation reinforces this experience of the work. Together they do more of what they already do individually. I would have to say that they indeed "add up."

So what is it about making something, making art, that completes the artist? It is more than connecting the dots, connecting with the world. One could do that in one's mind. No need to make it physical, no need to realize those connections in a concrete way.

So what is it about the physical nature of making something that to an artist is like adding an arm or a leg that everyone else already has? This completion is about something more like the way a dog marks where he has been. That was what what so interesting about graffiti art; it did that in such a direct way: Kilroy was here. Like planting a flag on the moon.

When you look at Ulick's paintings you get a sense of that. He is not just going into space, he is working it, like the sculptor he once was, and then he is leaving a record of having been there, having experienced it, but he is also leaving a record that he WAS there. That makes him feel good, feel ok with himself. He needs that for himself. Other people don't. Other people might need other things. This is what gives the artist a sense of power, of meaning, of property, even. Of security even. They have made something. It makes them feel real, worthwhile, maybe even lasting. These are their children. This is their line. It will keep them alive. It will make sense of what they were. It will prove that they were here.