Autopoietic art

Dear Artist, “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. Best regards, Robert 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.”   Collaborative art by Brian Smith, ON, Canada  

“Listen to the music”
acrylic and pastel painting
by Brian Smith

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.” There is 1 comment for Collaborative art by Brian Smith
From: Anonymous — Dec 07, 2012

Nice painting!

  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. There is 1 comment for Autopoiesis not for dummies by Marinus Verhagen
From: Elizabeth Dodd — Dec 07, 2012

I’d say it’s a matter of what you are hoping to accomplish: a crafted “masterpiece” or, perhaps if you are fortunate, a true expression of your soul

  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  

original painting
by Sandra Bos

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. There is 1 comment for Why do we do it? by Sandra Bos
From: Sarah — Dec 07, 2012

Really love your painting — thank you.

  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.   Liberating idea by Beaman Cole, NH, USA  

“In the fall”
original painting
by Beaman Cole

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  

“Breaking Point #2”
oil painting
by Brian Crawford Young

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. There is 1 comment for Orchestrating the unknown by Brian Crawford Young
From: Patsy, Antrim — Dec 07, 2012

The moment I saw you were from Forres I immediately thought, aaah, Findhorn! I read what was possibly the first book about it back in 1970-something, and was fascinated, but visiting it then was a (literally — 6,000-mile) distant dream. The concept was so foreign to that of the climate in which I lived, it was all the more appealing. I read about its anniversary last week, and was amazed at how successful it is — I confess I had wondered if it would be sustainable. I decided I must visit this coming summer (a wee bit cold right now!), as it’s now only a short ferry ride and a long drive away from my home. Fantastic painting, by the way.

  Crazy exciting hybrids by Darrell Baschak, Manitou Beach, SK, Canada  

“First snow”
original painting
by Darrell Baschak

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! There is 1 comment for Crazy exciting hybrids by Darrell Baschak
From: Brian Bastedo — Dec 11, 2012

Really nice painting, Darrell! Whenever I fell the need to “loosen up” and put some fun and sponteneity into my artistic endeavors, I employ a similar methodology. When I’m having fun making it, it shows in the end result!

  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? by Anonymous   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.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Autopoietic art

From: Dee Poisson — Dec 03, 2012

Back in the day, we called this doodleing. I tended to do this with a pencil and paper in math class. It’s nice to know that it has a fancy name too.

From: Tracey Mardon — Dec 03, 2012

It’s exciting to hear “the why of it” explained. I had exactly this experience this summer when I underpainted my new oil painting paper in oranges and pinks, very loosely. I was doing a demo and had a few reference photos to choose from. One of the photos would jump out as the right one, based on where the swooshes lay. I was a little afraid to talk about it out loud lest I sounded like I’d been smokin’ something! Nice to know I’m fine!

From: DM — Dec 03, 2012

The point is not to begin with the splatter, or smear, or slosh, or whatever, and then try to force it into something you want it to become. Let the thing grow into its own reality. It’s not meant to be an “underpainting”. It’s meant to become an organism of its own reality. Some of my favorite paintings — and most of my best ones — were done in just this way. Sometimes, it seems like a “possession” or a “takeover” by some “other”. (The new agers call it “channeling”.) I prefer to think of it as my subconscience kicking in. It’s far more fun to just let it happen. Of course, control freaks or those who tend to fear what they might discover within themselves will never be able to let themselves go into such a “zone of freedom” as this requires…

From: padmaja — Dec 03, 2012

This is a new word to me, thanks for the introduction Robert.. I have tried this out without knowing this word and I thought it was serendipity that happened on my canvas, one stroke led to another, finally I could see a mother and child come out live! It is an intriguing process since we dont know the end result.

From: DM — Dec 03, 2012

Try this: Put on some jazz or classical music. Play it loud — like you used to do when you were young and free. Get naked, and “dance with the canvass”.

From: Anne Barberi — Dec 04, 2012

I have just discovered this, not through my oils and canvas, but with digital painting. One literally starts with splotches and such until something begins appear and you go from there. So creative and relaxing.

From: Wyn Easton — Dec 04, 2012

Hi Robert,

My question is somewhat related to you subject. I was at a workshop and the instructor mentioned a word that I can’t find in my notes. The definition of the word is; your knowledge outpaces your current ability. It was a new word to me with much the same meaning as “capability”. Any idea of what the word is?
From: Diane Fine — Dec 04, 2012

I found this letter resoundingly spoke to me and expressed my sentiments perfectly. True creation cannot be manipulated to fit an end result. Beginning with no plan, no external guidance or direction can be intimidating to most and that is why there is a plethora of well executed replications of our surroundings often cleverly cropped. But for someone like myself, who can copy too easily, starting with a blank and allows my imagination to roam . It kicks in after some intial primitive markings as you suggest. Everyone has to find their own way to restrain the automatic and encourage the spontaneous.

Visual people are instinctively prone to make associations with the world around them… ie see faces or objects in trees or clouds etc… So a more obscure outcome also encourages the viewer to participate more in the interpretation of the piece. My challenge is to delve deeper and surprise myself. I never know where the work is going. By working in mixed media collage, I can keep working the puzzle until it tells me it is finished.
From: Chris Carter — Dec 04, 2012

Great word! Though I didn’t know my studio work is autopoietic, I’m glad I now have a word to describe it in less than four sentences. Thanks. My out-of-the-studio work is mostly exercises in realism to hone all of my skills so that they are sharp and ready to respond to the canvases in the studio.

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Dec 04, 2012

OK, but how do you make your autopoiesal art to accept one possibility rather than to keep exploring numerous possibilities? Autopoiesis can be so seductive and autonomous that it can totally ignore the need to actually poise anything. I have a blast changing one piece and trying out endless ideas – perhaps all I need is one big canvas and a digital camera!

From: Nikki Coulombe — Dec 04, 2012

This intuitive process is exactly how I work, and every piece might be entirely unique from the last. It has been said to have too many voices, which is a valid criticism because generally, galleries have limited space and want consistency, so I’ve zeroed in on trees as a common subject.

From: Mary Lea Bradley — Dec 04, 2012

I’ve never read a better explanation of the kind of painting that I do. I can’t tell you how excited I got when I read this letter.

After being criticized for not having a plan, painting too fast, not enough layers etc., this was music to my ears. Thank you so much. After reading this I’ve decided to continue doing what I do best and to stop struggling with it.
From: Iola Loría Benton — Dec 04, 2012

Thank you for your words on this subject. It is a fascinating theme and it explains part of the creative process. I believe autopoiesis leads to direct expression rather than the opposite method.

From: Joseph Jahn — Dec 04, 2012

Why are you giving away my secret process? Based on the accounts of Cezanne never placing a mark next to another without study and time. However the secret is safe from most as it takes the “artist’s vision” to place the next mark in relation to all others. But Robert, you do come close sometimes to giving away

the farm. Haahahahahahaha.
From: Cynthia Wick — Dec 04, 2012

I LOVED this one. Took the shackles right off! Thanks.

From: Charles Beisch — Dec 04, 2012
From: Claudia Roulier — Dec 04, 2012

There are two kinds of artists, those who know what the end product will look like and those who let the process determine the outcome. I first noticed in art school that people always seemed to work in one of two ways, one group with the product in mind or mostly in mind, and the second, which I fall into which is to let the work take the lead and see where the process ends up. I think it might be called product oriented artists or process oriented artists. Idledale, Colorado

From: Ngobi Nugu — Dec 04, 2012

Rob, your letter brings up why making art is such an interesting thing to do. And there are so many ways to do it. I am always amazed.

From: Reg Roxx — Dec 04, 2012

It’s funny but you just described how I work on many of my abstract creations — I always thought this was “automatisme” — how do you think this differs from “autopoiesis”? In my version of automatisme (aptly named or not), the last application of paint dictates the next and so on – is this not pure automatisme or is it autopoiesis? i.e. should all gestures be self sustaining and independent or should they be related to what’s already there? Just wondering.

From: Ida Lozano — Dec 04, 2012

Hi Robert — I am so laughing at this new word — Just last night I watched Virginia Cobb’s Abstract tutorial and kept telling myself this lady was crazy!! At the end of the video she had an interview recorded and I did understand what she had done – but not before as she was doing it – as she doesn’t talk much while doing the abstract . In the beginning I considered it a waste of my time and money – but here you are validating what she does (more or less!!). so Yes, i am up to the challenge, Thanks, Robert (You presented the same thing, FREE, in one paragraph and even told us what it is – self creation – don’t think I need the video after all!) Love your emails!!

From: Moncy Barbour — Dec 05, 2012

Do you agree that we will sometime sit on the moon to paint?

From: Terrie Christian — Dec 05, 2012

I did not know there was a word for what I have been doing! Thank you so much! I lay in color and let it run together, because I love watching watercolor run and bloom and sort of paint itself. I like being out of control in that way which feels so free, and I also like breaking rules that I learned in early watercolor classes, like blooms are not a desirable thing, you must mix your own black and never use Payne’s grey. I bloom on purpose, use sharpie markers for black and often infuse a little Payne’s grey into my work. Then, when the colors are down, I do line work and it is actually the way the colors mixed on the page that informs the line work. Often, I do not see the possibilities of anything representational until the end, and then when I do, I develop that. It is the most fun that I have had in many years of doing art. Plymouth MN

From: Bob Breur — Dec 05, 2012
From: Nikolay Semyonov — Dec 05, 2012

Autopoietic Art it’s a mind-brooding issue indeed! I suggest that autopoiesis and allopoiesis are the two main approaches we use to create art. On the one hand, it is the result that defines, on the other- it’s kind of free sale of your soul where the process is the target, not the result. Thank you for putting my kettle on fire again!

From: Junardi Armstrong — Dec 05, 2012

Now I have an explanation for what I’m doing with my abstract painting. It has been a continual process in letting go, letting it unfold, ask the painting what it needs and or, what can I do that pleases me to make it “work”. It’s been a fascinating experience and I’ve been learning a lot about abstract expression and about myself in the process. It is enlightening and exhilarating to paint……FINALLY! I’d like to get there with realistic and plein air painting someday. But for now, I’m just going to enjoy myself in this process.

From: Rick Rotante — Dec 06, 2012

Oddly enough- aren’t we talking about procreation and birth? Mom and Dad….do it and nine months later viola! Autopoietic! The product is new and improved and yet has the elements of both Mom and Dad. Call me crazy!

From: Linda Franklin — Dec 07, 2012
From: Kay Elmore — Dec 07, 2012
From: Diane Rosen — Dec 11, 2012

The autonomy of living systems is a central feature of autopoiesis. Yet autopoietic theory recognizes that systems exist within environments, obtain resources from them, and remain open to them. This allows for both operational autonomy of autopoietic systems (in terms of their self-referentiality), and for mutually affecting relationships between such systems and their environments. In other words, they are simultaneously autonomic and dependent. This autonomy-dependency paradox, which is a characteristic feature of living beings, is better understood in terms of dynamic relationships between the parts rather than a binary model of either/or.

Following this concept of dynamic relationships, I would suggest that art-making is always both allopoietic/ determined AND autopoietic/ random. No matter the genre or style, the very act of deciding to paint something sets up an allopoietic condition: there’s a specific goal… to create a piece of art over time using certain materials — involving a system outside of ourselves (the painting) which depends on input from the environment (us) in order to come into being. On the other hand, the work also exists independently from us in an autopoietic state, making the artwork both the product and producer (of itself). But we need to keep in mind that though the work is ‘autonomous’ and the final result unpredictable, it is also shaped by interactions with its environment (us) just as our responses are shaped by interactions with the work. In this ongoing ‘dialogue’ between artist and our art, we adjust colors that look too warm or cool when applied to the canvas; deepen values that appear too light only in context; or rework a composition that just seems to ‘need something’ for more satisfying balance. It is necessarily a transactional, recursive and dynamic process. My own work always begins with an element of randomness in spattered, dripped or poured acrylic paint to give the blank canvas a semblance of autopoietic life. I eventually incorporate ‘realistic’ figures, but even as I attempt to guide some aspects of the process I am guided by and responsive to the autonomy of the evolving piece. Relishing the paradox, I find, expands the options and the pleasures!
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Leeward Shores, Windward Dreams

pastel painting, 56 x 44 inches by Mary Aslin, CA, USA

  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.”