When I was a boy my dad owned a sign shop. There were four employees: Nort, Mort, Phil and Bert. Each had their specialty — show cards, banners, silkscreen, illustration. It seems my dad was always walking around and asking, “Do you have something to get on with?” Dad lived in fear that one or the other would run out of something to do.
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Not so long ago, I moved to New York to paint the paintings I had always longed to paint, with the dream of showing them in a place where they needed no explanation. I found a small loft behind Canal Street, between the fish market and the counterfeit handbags, and began filling my new-old studio with the largest paintings I could muster. There was no purpose or goal to it other than to see if it could be done.
”To sense the invisible and to be able to create it,” wrote Hans Hofmann, “that is art.” An English clergyman wrote a letter 235 years ago proposing the idea of a giant but invisible star so massive that it swallowed its own light. Based on his calculations, this body could be detected by its gravitational effect on surrounding objects. In 1915, 114 years later, Albert Einstein was developing his theory of general relativity, building upon his already proven theories about gravity’s influence on the motion of light. Then, in the 1950s, astronomers with radio telescopes noticed that seemingly peaceful galaxies were emitting disproportionate amounts of energy from their cores.
Artists with integrity and high standards can fall prey to a particularly nasty condition. It’s called “Prior disappointment syndrome.”
Failed works of art and even disappointing passages, particularly recent ones, can haunt and disarm your current work. You may have noticed when returning from a holiday, you sometimes paint freshly and well for a few days and then the old decay sets in. If you’ve ever experienced this situation, I’m here to help you understand why the decline happens and what you can do about it.
Around 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach composed his Two-and-Three-Part Inventions, the keyboard exercises he wrote for his students and his growing brood of kids. Bach described these call-and-answer, contrapuntal inventions as a means of obtaining and carrying out good ideas by learning to play clearly separate voices. Wanting to give his students a taste of how to build compositions, Bach arranged the Inventions in progression, ascending in major and minor keys. The result is a structure that serves as a backbone for understanding the melodic variation possible while hinged on one musical theme.
In 1880, when Hilma af Klint was 18, she watched her 10-year-old sister Hermina die of the flu. Their father was a Swedish naval commander, and her family had spent the summers exploring the rocky hills of the island of Adelsö on Lake Mälaren, just west of Stockholm. There, Hilma nurtured her interests in botany, mathematics, Darwinism, physics and music. The loss of her sister also opened the door to inquiring into the spirit world.
The never-quite-satisfactory answer to the question remains what my dad told me long ago: “Keep busy while waiting for something to happen.” And while the old system stands — of visiting galleries in person, getting to know their programming and pursuing a shortlist with excellent images of current work plus support material — a new and remarkable artist’s marketplace is teeming with an active audience of gallerists, curators, agents, consultants, designers, collectors and advocates. You will find it on your phone.
One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Colossus of Rhodes, stood near the harbour. It was constructed by Chares of Lindos over an eight-year period starting in 292 BC. Felled by an earthquake after only 56 years, as a pile of bronze shards and stone rubble it commanded just as much attention (a thumb, it was said, was larger than a man). Sold for scrap 800 years later, it took 900 camels to carry the remnants away.
If you drive for about a hundred miles due east out of Los Angeles, you’ll reach the Mojave Desert and the edge of one of its National Parks, Joshua Tree. There, among a dusty network of roads to nowhere, a ten-acre plot sprouts with assemblages made from the detritus of 20th Century America. Repurposed and redesigned to tell new stories, they cut, wind-worn and bleached, into a cerulean, high desert sky.