“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?
“You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal,” wrote William S. Burroughs, and so we strive for something that can be mysteriously but undeniably felt. “Quality is always in style,” said my Dad, like a mantra. “You should be able to get within an inch of the painting and see it. And you should be able to recognize it from across the room.” As a lifelong pilgrim of quality, I can tell you that the search for it takes on a deepening urgency.
When I was starting out, quality seemed most within reach by showboating techniques like zippy gradations, handy brushmanship, design and by drawing from nature — the goddess of quality herself. If I could over-prepare by ticking a few boxes, I thought it might earn me in future the right to reach for wider, more unexpected markers of quality — those inventive, personal and abyssal stirrings that artists understand as truth — the ineffable good stuff. Quality surely lives there, too, even if her more obtuse packaging also holds the dangers of confusion and technical error.
Think of the quest as first asking yourself a few hard questions and then embarking on a long course of incremental tweaks, whereby your very reason for being, your message, can be refined and deepened. Then neaten or loosen, sophisticate or simplify, leaving your strokes as the audacious, virgin treasures they are. Step up to the easel with the understanding that there’s always a little bit more to give. My Dad called it, P.M.I.I — “Put More Into It.” In the home stretch, when you stop short of overworking, pluck a hair from the varnish and tie off the wire, you tell the world, “This is how I love you.”
PS: “It’s neither contrived, nor surprising and smart, not baffling, not witty, not interesting, not cynical, it can’t be planned and it probably can’t even be described. It’s just good.” (Gerhard Richter)
“Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort.” (John Ruskin)
Esoterica: It dawned on me during a recent conversation with a new contemporary art magazine that it’s been 25 years since my first show. I observed in my memory — like a floating, orbiting space station — how it was able to messily germinate because of the quiet encouragement of so many bemused and patient friends. I realize that not much has changed in the time between then and now. Today still holds the disquieting gnaw of obligation to try to fulfill quality’s basic requests. “The things that we love tell us what we are.” (St. Thomas Aquinas)
Sara’s interview with Create Magazine is here.
“Be your own discriminating connoisseur.” (Robert Genn)