Venetian Red Bookshelf: Inside the Painter’s Studio

Venetian Red Bookshelf is a monthly feature which highlights books of interest from our bookshelves and studio worktables.

By LIZ HAGER

Ross Bleckner, Throbbing Hearts, 1994
Oil, powdered pigment, and wax on canvas, 96 1/8 x 120 1/4 inches
(Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Gift of the artist © Ross Bleckner)

Thanks to a friend of Venetian Red, who passed along an excellent tip regarding Joe Fig’s 2009 compilation of interviews, Inside the Painter’s Studio. I casually picked up the book one evening recently, thinking it was the sort of work in which one could dabble, leaf through an interview or two, put it down, come back to it intermittently. By the second interview (Ross Bleckner, as it turns out) the book had hooked me, and I read straight through to the end. (A 90 minute investment.)

Fig asked the same 18 questions of 24 accomplished artists of different generations (with himself as the 25th). Most of Fig’s questions reflected his primary interest in exploring the nature of the creative process and the role the studio space plays in that. While he fixed-question method has its uses (i.e. levels the playing field, creates boundaries for information), it can also hinder the process of collecting truly penetrating information from interviewees.

On the face of it, some of his questions seemed banal—How long have you been in this studio?, How often do you clean your studio? Do you listen to music or have the TV on or something like that? But other queries drew out more philosophical responses, though, in a number of instances, even those just plain stumped a few interviewees (or they were just unwilling to answer). In these cases, the conversation appeared be grinding to a halt, though Fig skillfully pulled the session back the brink by guiding the artist to the next topic on his list. (That, or interviews were rescued in the editing process.)

Chuck Close, Self Portrait, 1997
Oil on canvas, 8′ 6″ x 7′
(Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Agnes Gund, Jo Carole
and Ronald S. Lauder, Donald L. Bryant, Jr., Leon Black,
Michael and Judy Ovitz, Anna Marie and Robert F. Shapiro,
Leila and Melville Straus, Doris and Donald Fisher, and purchase.)
© 2010 Chuck Close

You will find no profound revelations in Inside the Painter’s Studio. Instead, its pages are punctuated with important (and often eloquently articulated) reminders regarding the creative process (and the business of art). The artists among us may viscerally or intuitively understand these pearls, but hearing them repeated in different ways is always welcome.

More fascinating are those moments when a particular personality emerges through the interview process. Malcolm Morley comes off as a pragmatic curmudgeon; Amy Sillman appears to shoot from the hip (though looking at her paintings you don’t see how that can be true) ; Philip Pearlstein seems plainly sincere; a tinge of haughtiness colors Matthew Ritchie’s responses, etc.

And finally, because you just can’t keep track of everyone, the book was useful in prompting an exploration of artists’ work unknown to me, specifically Inka Essenhigh and Barnaby Furnas, who paints on his canvasses on the floor.

Malcolm Morley, Messerschmitt with Spitfire, 2000
Oil on linen, 79 x 111.3 inches

Following is a brief selection of extracts from some of my favorite responses:

How long have you been in your studio?

Malcolm Morley: That’s totally irrelevant.

Joan Snyder, Blood On Our Hands, 2003
Mixed media on board, 16 x 16 inches

Can you describe a typical day, being as specific as possible?

As Fig expresses surprise at Ross Bleckner’s 7-day a week work habit, Bleckner further elaborates:

Ross Bleckner: Yup. That’s the way I work. It’s very athletic. It’s just good for me, and it is the only way I can really create the rhythm of concentration. For me it is all about the process. There is no idea that I have ever had that comes to me outside the process of work. So therefore, the few months in a row I am working seven days a week—and if I am having a show or not is irrelevant—I guess the operative metaphor for me is that I am a scientist in a lab, on the verge of discovering something. Or  I am just a hound dog sniffing around trying to catch the scent. But in order to do that, I need consistency.  Then when I stop working, when I take a break, I take a break for a month or two.

Amy Sillman, Cliff 2, 2005
Oil on canvas, 183 x 152 cm.
(Saatchi Gallery)

How often do you clean your studio and does it affect your work?

Ross Bleckner: It affects my work a lot. I clean my studio many times a day. But specifically when I come in and when I leave. I don’t like to leave any traces of the day before. . . Brancusi said something that I have always felt was true, which is “All you have to do is show up. All you have to do is get to your studio and put a broom in your hand. Just by the act of sweeping and cleaning you will start working.”

Amy Sillman: I never clean my studio. I’m sure my work would be better if I would. Again, I wish that somebody could come over and help me, but I would have to tell them where everything is, every single thing. I can’t explain it to anyone. . . Once in a while I go around with a huge garbage bag and pretty much throw everything away. . .

Eric Fischl, Bedroom Scene #6 (Surviving the Fall Meant Using You for Handholds)2004
Oil on linen, 72″ x 90″
(Mary Boone Gallery)

Do you have a motto or creed that as an artist you live by?

Bill Jensen: . . . Artists are people who go in a room everyday, let the art drag them a little further, and then sitting back twenty years later say, “How did I get here?” You’ve made this whole other world. You know, there was no idea of what heaven and hell used to look like. Artists made the idea of what heaven and hell looked like. We have the same kind of job today. We’re making these worlds that no one ever dreamed of, yet they are very real. They come from reality.

Chuck Close:  Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work. . .

Julie Mehretu: To take care of my work as best I can. . . you know, really put everything into my work, and the work would return that to me. . .

Jane Hammond, Some Species Like It Hot, 2002
Oil on wood panel, 52 1/2” x 89 “ x 6”

What advice would you give a young artist who’s just starting out?

James Siena: . . . Don’t go knocking on Willem de Kooning’s back door saying “Can you look at my work?” He’s busy!

Bill Jensen: . . . You have to spend the time and pack as much energy into the work, and it will over flow into the world.

Malcolm Morley:  . . . (A) young composer asked Mozart for advice on what he though he should write: whether he should write a saraband, a suite, a romance, a symphony, etcetera. So Mozart looked at him and said, “Well, in your case I’d write a waltz.” So the young composer was very sort of angry. And he said, “But Mozart! At the age of ten you wrote a symphony.” And Mozart replied, “Yes, but I didn’t have to ask anybody’s advice.” So any artist or student that asks advice is already a failure in my view.’

Joan Snyder: My secret is. . . well, it’s not a secret that I have never hung out too much, and I’ve just worked very, very hard for thirty-five years. It’s just a lot of hard work. That’s my secret—it’s a big secret (laughs). . .

Joe Fig, Jackson Pollock, 2008
Wood, polymer clay, oil/acrylic paint, metal, plastic, paper, canvas
(Byron C. Cohen Gallery for Contemporary Art)

Wider Connections

Joe Fig—Inside the Painter’s Studio

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7 Responses to “Venetian Red Bookshelf: Inside the Painter’s Studio

  1. I like what you highlighted, Liz. Thank you for the review. And for the link on Twitter to Hammond.

  2. I just ordered this new book…between the Gilded Page with Seth Apter I am going to be the poor house for sure. Imagine and Live in Peace, Mary Helen Fernandez Stewart

  3. Great compiling ! My favourite is Mozart’s answer: Of course, each one needs to walk on his own path…
    But once in a while there’s a real, real, need of help and in those specific moments there is always a door that can open. Then the challenge is to find the right one !
    From France. All the best.

  4. I read this post yesterday and it has been ringing-round my head ever since. Thank you for pointing to this book!

  5. Christine Says:

    I like the idea that Fig’s questions are so prosaic–both questions and answers underline the fact that ultimately it all comes down to working hard, showing up, putting in the time. No magic bullet–just hard work, long hours.

    I especially like Bleckner’s remark that all of his ideas come from working, from engaging in the process—from sweeping the floor to the actual work at hand. I think we often imagine that in order to start working we first need a big idea— when in fact the best work comes out of the process. Do you think that you can tell when work stems from an idea, a concept—not an outgrowth of a process?

    Thanks for the review.

  6. I sincerely appreciate the support of my book.

    When I began interviewing artists 10 years ago it was to get a better understanding of the creative process and day to day realities and practicalities of what it is to be an artist. I did this for myself and my own work. The interviews and photographs were mere by-products of my creative process and I had not anticipated compiling the information and images into a book when this project began. I feel fortunate that it was done as I do feel there are some great answers (and some not so great…)but in each interview there is something of value, of inspiration. I’ve been fortunate to get to know the artists in the book and without their generosity, kindness and support, it would not have been possible. What I took away from the whole thing is that successful artists are successful for the same reasons people in other fields are successful. Hard work, dedication, generosity and a willingness to help others.

    Thanks again and I wish you all the best.

    Joe Fig

  7. Joe,
    Thank you for weighing in on this discussion with additional perspective.You make a really important point about the elements necessary to succeed (in commercial life), which I think also comes through loudly and clearly in the compilation.

    Do keep us posted on upcoming opportunities to see Joe Fig “studios” in the Bay Area; I personally was amazed by your ability to replicate articles down to the most minute detail!

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