Dear Artist, Last night, I dreamt about being part of a group of friends who,…
It’s raining in Paris. The open-air book and print kiosks along the Right Bank of the Seine are clothed in plastic sheeting, their owners huddled in overcoats. They smoke soggy cigarettes, pull down their caps and complain to their neighbours how the weather is ruining the business.
Notre Dame Cathedral rises up behind, a grey eminence, as if it has always been there. Through the streaming droplets, I’m looking at contemporary Japanese woodblock prints, clothes-pegged alongside inexpensive, shrink-wrapped reproductions of Hiroshige, Hokusai and Utamaro.
“Shall I tell you what I think are the two qualities of a work of art?” asked Pierre-Auguste Renoir. “First, it must be indescribable and second, it must be inimitable.” With these two celestials in mind, how might we get closer to our own highest expression of quality? And in these days of conceptual spectacle, deskilling and verbosity, how is it even properly measured?
When I was a student at Art Center School in Los Angeles, California, I used to lift the odd glass at a certain suburban bar. One evening I was sitting next to an elderly gentleman who looked vaguely familiar. When he said something to the bartender I knew immediately it was Stan Laurel. Stan, if you remember, was part of the comedy team of Laurel and Hardy. We struck up a conversation. Stan told me that Oliver Hardy, the round one, had died some years before. He also told me that he was now living in reduced circumstances, having, he said, “sold my rights to the films for a low price.”
Ballerina Sarah Murphy-Dyson, once First Soloist for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, wrote recently to share her new passion. “I’m a little embarrassed to be asking you this… I started drawing and painting ballet-themed stuff a year ago and can’t stop. My style has continued to develop and grow and I feel I’m finding my voice on paper and canvas. I wanted to ask you about galleries and shows and such… I have no idea about that world. Might you be able to connect me with people from there or advise me yourself? I’d love to have a show and could perform at it, too…”
Subscribers often email me the reasons why they don’t go to work. One should not work for money, they say, or for relatives, intellectuals, selves, instructors, men, dealers, patrons, governments, customers, the masses, or religious organizations. The variety boggles. Every day I spin this sort of information in my ever-boggled brain.
This inbox also fills with comparisons of fine art to other art forms — particularly film, literature and music. Film, they say, has now become work that is fit only for a committee. In film, apparently, no one knows what’s going on any more.
In the summer of 1936, 33 year-old photographer Walker Evans was invited by writer James Agee to take time off from his work with the Resettlement Administration to collaborate on a story for Fortune magazine about Alabama sharecroppers. The two set out to the tenant farms of rural Hale County and began documenting the impoverished lives of three families. Today at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, I’m staring back at Evans’ most famous work — a portrait of 27-year-old Allie Mae Burroughs, mother of four and wife of Alabama cotton and corn farmer Floyd Burroughs.
I am dedicating this letter to a nutty old Frenchman because Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) (not Henri — Le Douanier — Rousseau, the primitive painter) was one of the most valuable creative thinkers of all time. This unsettled and often irrational writer had a direct effect on the sentiments that we express today — sentiments that many artists stated in those letters.
In 1749 Rousseau entered a competition and won first prize for his answer to the question: Has the progress of the sciences and arts contributed to the corruption or improvement of human conduct?
In 1893, ten years after first moving to Giverny, Claude Monet bought a meadow next to his property on the other side of the railway. A little brook called the Ru ran through it — a diversion of the Epte, which is a tributary of the Seine. With permission from the local council he dug a pond, inspired by the water gardens depicted in his collection of Japanese woodblock prints. He bought books on botany, made designs for the layout and plants and wrote daily instructions for his seven gardeners. All this was made possible because his dealer…
In times of reasonable painting I often ask myself where my confidence comes from. Why is it that some days this goddess merely appears, seemingly unbidden, while other days I have to work hard to get a glimpse of her? What are the conditions that bring this goddess to our easels?
I’m pretty sure that in art as in love, it’s the little things that mean a lot. Don’t, for example, have outstanding issues with spouses, dealers, friends. I’ve found it vital to sit or stand at the easel, guilt free.