“Autopoiesis” might just be a new word to you. It means “self-creation.” The term was introduced in 1972 by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. In the understanding of biological cells, for example, the components of a cell interact and are their own support system. Autopoietics have since been expanded to describe some types of machinery, social systems and corporations.
You can get an understanding of autopoiesis by knowing what it isn’t. A frequently given example of its opposite (known as “allopoiesis”) is a car factory. All the components in a car factory are fed by time and place into a system that pops out the desired item at the end — a car. In autopoiesis, on the other hand, the various components may be randomly fed in and the end result may not be known until it exists.
Autopoiesis is useful in the making of art. Think, for example, of a painting as a living organism in which the introduction of parts suggests the introduction of other parts. The end product, while not pre-visualized, still becomes a tangible thing of its own.
What good, some might ask, is such a system? Apart from its brilliance as an exercise, autopoiesis simply and handily creates new forms and can be used as a legitimate art-production method. As well as its obvious value in abstract work, remarkable realistic forms can also evolve before your eyes.
How to do it: Take a canvas and place on it a significant gestural splodge with as big a brush as possible. It might be one stroke of mixed colours and textures. This initial mark, while perhaps arbitrary and meaningless, may suggest whatever the next mark might be. Just as oxygen is drawn into the biological cell to excite the nucleus, the next elements you put in are automatically attracted to and become part of the initial commitment. Your image bank, unique stylistic flourishes and personal processes make their contributions. A previously unseen image begins to appear. An autopoiesis canvas has a journey of its own.
PS: “Things do not exist until they begin to appear.” (Humberto Maturana)
Esoterica: One of the conundrums for those of us who might work in abstraction (or realism, for that matter) is the frequently felt need to run processes in the same manner as a car factory. That is, we start out with an end product in mind and bend our tools and timely consciousness toward that end. In autopoiesis the creator lets the work itself determine the nature and artistry of the end product. Surrendering thus, the artist might even accept that a higher power is moving her hand. Seems a bit woo-woo, I know, but if you’re looking for uniqueness, visual magic, and the breath of life in a work of art, give it a spin. You have, as they say, nothing to lose but your chains. “Quidem te est,” said the great Roman philosopher Kjerkius Gennius (36BC) — “It is in you.”
by Brian Smith, ON, Canada
Always enjoy your notes in my email box and this morning’s was on a subject that I have been studyingfor awhile without knowing the name for it: autopoiesis. One of the workshops that I teach is on “Experimenta/Contemporary Drawing” and on day four of this five-day course, we focus on making collaborative work. This idea came to me from an article I saw while researching the Art Students’ League of New York. David Black had visited Tunisia and was fascinated by the collaborative art being created there as a political statement and eventually held Tunisian Collaborative Painting sessions at the school. These paintings begin with a single mark made by a moderator and then continue to develop as the participants make additional marks inspired by the first. The painting continues in complete silence until one of the members of the group suggests by raised hand that he/she feels the painting is finished. At that point, the moderator takes a vote and determines whether or not it is, indeed, finished.
The point, of course, is collaboration, but also (now I know the term) “autopoiesis.”
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Autopoiesis not for dummies
by Marinus Verhagen, Dongen, Netherlands
It surprised me to read about autopoiesis in one of your letters. Having seen something of your way of working on the Internet, everything you do seems neatly planned — from the colour you mix into the gesso before starting out to the glazing you put on the painting when it’s half way finished — every stroke of the brush, every dot of paint.
The word autopoiesis might be new to me, the idea isn’t. Back in the seventies (when I was young :-)) here in the Netherlands a lot of things were believed to be autopoietic. Social processes, art, etc. People who did not know the least about painting, who didn’t even like drawing, could put some (a lot of!) paint on a piece of canvas and truly believe they were making art. In my opinion they weren’t. When you sit down at the piano and just hit some random keys, you are not playing Beethoven, not even Satie. You are not playing anything interesting at all UNLESS maybe you are a trained pianist.
This is why I write this reaction: I would not recommend to give in to autopoiesis unless you are a skilled artist. Then you will be able to respond to the initial “splodge” in a proper way so that it might add something to your art.
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Evolution of work
by Bruce Miller, Stanwood, MI, USA
With an injection of “Autopoiesis” our work will evolve. If we stick to a formula we will crank out images perhaps like the Henry Ford quote that is paraphrased… “They can have any color car they want as long as it is black.”
Visiting some galleries there are wall after wall of somewhat similar paintings. Of course many create/ make what they think “customers” want and what sells. I ponder if those type of images are art without the “Autopoiesis.”
For a species to evolve it must however survive and pass on its fitness (genes) to offspring. If it fails to survive the tests of the environment it passes into extinction.
Why do we do it?
by Sandra Bos, Cookeville, TN, USA
I loved this letter, it confirmed what I’ve always believed Art (with a capital A) should be. It makes sense that if the work is original, it would reflect the Artist. Which makes sense that ‘we always paint ourselves,’ our own shapes, color, and feelings about the subject. This is a very wonderful thought, because we are all created different. There is, and never will be anyone like you (or me) so if we are honest in our work, it will reflect the very soul of the Artist. How exciting is that?!
Actually, if you do not believe that, to some degree, what would be the use of painting at all? If you’re only looking for a picture, you can find lots of those in your local Wal-Mart store.
Sometimes we wonder, “Why do we do it? — Well, this is why, so thanks for the reminder.
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The medium will dictate
by Tony Last, Oakville, ON, Canada
Autopoiesis flourishes in the art of sculpture, especially in stone and wood carving. As a sculptor, I have many times altered a piece, whether in wood or stone, to conform with the vagaries of the grain of the wood or the fractures across the grain boundaries of the stone. Although I usually start with a clay maquette, I find that the medium very often dictates some change, and one has to become really creative and change the direction. I remember some time ago I bought a piece of dark soapstone which told me that it was a swordfish leaping out of the water. Unfortunately, there must have been a flaw at the bottom of the sword which broke off and now it is a bottle-nose dolphin leaping out of the water! One thing I always try to teach my students is to use their own heads, and not to follow too slavishly the plan or maquette, because the medium will dictate to you what it is in no uncertain terms.
by Beaman Cole, NH, USA
A few years ago I did a whole bunch of still life paintings built on this idea. I would just start somewhere on the canvas placing a piece of fruit, candy etc… I would then continue adding whatever I felt would work well with what I already had done. Sometimes I painted or drew placement of some items, as with the apple baskets and orange boxes. Other times I just painted one item and kept adding another as with the watermelon and peppers. I don’t think I ever removed a single item; it was all about where the best placement was for the next item. Color played a big part in that I often had that figured out beforehand. It was very fun to work this way with the “flying by the seat of my pants… feeling. It is very abstract in concept but I painted very real substance. On some occasions I started with a model in a setup but most times not. The watermelon piece was started plein air from a model at my feet. I painted one and then went inside to imagine the rest. The peppers I painted one by one. With the onions I started with a center of interest using 3 onions. I drew the shapes on for the rest and determined colors as I went along. It’s liberating to just start somewhere on the canvas with little or no plan and see where it leads.
Orchestrating the unknown
by Brian Crawford Young, Forres, Scotland
Thank you for sharing another pearl of wisdom with the world. I have been using this method for several years now, especially in my seascapes.
I hadn’t heard this word to describe it, though. I usually describe myself as being ‘process-led.’ When I start a canvas I have no idea where it is going, except that I am working with a theme in mind. In my ‘Making Waves’ series I was inspired by the beautiful Findhorn Beach near my house, and by the low winter sun here in the North of Scotland striking a glancing blow across the tops of the waves. This approach gives me, I think, a fluidity and spontaneity comparable to the waves themselves but, like the waves, I have a general direction of travel, and an ultimate destination. I do sometimes think a higher power is moving my hand. It may be my super-consciousness or higher self, or it may be my long-deceased grandfather, who was a housepainter and occasionally crits my painting style. At any rate, sometimes it seems like a group project, this autopoeisis, and I am merely the orchestrator! Some of your readers may have heard of the nearby Findhorn Foundation, a ‘new age’ community which celebrated its 50th anniversary last week. Not bad for a bunch of hippies! A living example of autopoiesis applied to community building.
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Crazy exciting hybrids
by Darrell Baschak, Manitou Beach, SK, Canada
Robert, finally a term that describes fairly accurately my painting process (if it indeed has anything to do with me). I have been painting for close to 40 years now and feel that I have learned a small bit about materials and methods but the fun thing is seeing all of that manifest itself in these crazy paintings that seem to happen of their own accord. I confess that of all the different genres that I explore, these “Autopoiesis” hybrids excite me the most, as they seem to have a life and agenda of their own. Out of chaos come beautiful patterns, colour and light, much like creation of nature itself. I want to add that your ancestor, Kjerkius Gennius, was a very wise man and always seems to be able to say the right thing at the right time. We would be wise to pay attention to our elders!
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The butterfly effect
by Noel Leone, Pasadena, CA, USA
There’s chaos theory at work here. For sure, much of what I have been studying is right in that first paragraph — self-constrained chance. The second paragraph blows this all to hell, because my studies indicate that while an assembly line looks like a linear system to most people, I suppose because a car comes out at the end, it is a non-linear system in that you cannot increase the number of workers, the number or parts, the speed at which the assembly line runs, or any other factor and be assured of increasing the number or quality of the cars that come out at the end of any given day. That is because of the butterfly effect — not being able to control the infinite number of initial factors that cause major changes after a large number of iterations, no matter how small they may initially be.
How does one get into the clickbacks?
I am writing this letter under anonymous as my previous letters to you have been ignored. I need to know what is your policy regarding putting letters into the clickbacks. I have submitted several times, including illustrations of my current work, and they have not been put in. How do you decide who gets in and who doesn’t?
(RG note) Thanks, Anonymous. When the responses first come in, one of our staff goes through them and puts a green flag on six to ten that cover various points of view. We are particularly looking for letters that have personality, a contrary opinion or some further insight that might be of value to artists. If the writer sends along interesting or superior art, that can also influence the decision. We also like to strike a balance between those who respond frequently with valuable material, and those who may be writing for the first time. Further, people often write expressing the same opinion as many others. When this is the case, we try to include the best expressed letter rather than the first one that arrives. In many cases, where we think a letter is valuable, we may ourselves put it into the live comments that follow after the featured responses. In both cases we edit for clarity and brevity — and chop off the effluvious compliments, if any. We do not include responses that say only “Right on! — or “Amen — or other brief encouragements.
While the live comments are not illustratable, they are a fairly sure way of getting your point across. In some cases when the responses are too repetitious of other responses already sent, or in outstandingly bad taste, we remove them. We welcome, however, links to your sites and directives to see other informative or inspirational material. While you can’t make these links hot as you enter your live comments, we do it for you within a few hours. If I had fifty cents for every one who wrote to say how valuable these featured responses and live comments are to people, I’d certainly be able to buy myself a new Bentley.
Enjoy the past comments below for Autopoietic art…
Leeward Shores, Windward Dreams
pastel painting, 56 x 44 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Heather Orr >of Cypress, CA, USA, who wrote, “Funny, this one reminds me of you. I don’t know how you say the “autopeiosis-whatever” word, but it’s interesting stuff, nonetheless.”
And also Elihu Edelson of Tyler, TX, USA, who wrote, “Oooo! A fancy word for improvisation. …Salvador Dali said something like Kjerkius Gennius. He stated that when you start to work an angel must guide your hand.”