Inside the Painter’s Studio

I enjoyed Joe Fig’s interviews and photographs of 24 visual artists (in NYC and Long Island) mostly for the descriptions of their typical day and advice to people just starting out—it reminded me of the Paris Review series that asks writers about their writing process (who writes standing up, etc.). The questions posed to each artist: when did you first consider yourself a professional artist and dedicate yourself to that full time? How long have you been in this studio location? Does it have any effect on your work? What’s your typical day? Do you listen to music or TV while you work? Do you have any special tools you use? Do you work on one thing at a time or several pieces? How often do you clean your space? How do you come up with titles? (I loved the artist who mentioned that she enlisted the help of a Title Muse) Do you work with assistants and have you ever worked for other artists? Do you have a motto or a creed? (No one had a good answer to that one) Advice to artists just starting out? (Mostly it was around sticking together with your peers, seeing their shows, creating noise and vibration from your group, and working always working)

Actually, Chuck Close’s answer to the motto question was best: “Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work.” Barnaby Furnas‘s advice resonated with me, as I tend to immerse myself in 19th and 20th century literature: “Stay in your time. You need to participate in what’s going on now.”

As for the daily routine, it was eerily similar (although a few outliers liked to sleep late): up by 7 or 8, a bit of puttering, some breakfast, then to work until lunch, work four more hours then break. All preferred no interruptions and didn’t want telephones nearby (the interviews were in 2006 before cellphones were absolutely ubiquitous).

April Gornik had some great things to say about photography. When people tell her that her paintings look just like photographs she thinks how revolting a comment that is, “Don’t you see how different this is?” And she thinks it’s hard for people to see art now, because photography has become the “common visual denominator in all the arts. And people tend to see things as images, and they don’t understand or even experience the somatic import of the art. They’re seeing it only with one of their senses—they just see the image. They don’t know how to read into it…. people are accustomed to seeing things as kind of a quick fix. So when they see representational, figurative painting, they tend to reduce it to an art historical past or they see it in terms of simply being an image. I don’t know of any so-called realist painters that, in fact, aren’t riddled with abstract notions about what they are doing. Even plein-air painters that I have known will talk about painting in the same way I will, which is about an investment in time, a building up of surface—that’s an entirely abstract activity that then arrives at something that looks recognizable, but it’s as much of a surprise to you as anybody. I think we are on the brink of visual illiteracy even though we have so much visual information culturally.”

I loved Bill Jensen‘s story, how he stayed in Minneapolis after graduating, working as a mason to make money to come to NYC in 1971. He describes showing at a big gallery but feeling terrible about it because his work was purchased by the people who had financed the Vietnam War, so he dropped out of the art world for five years, working as a carpenter and mason (painting at night in the Williamsburg studio). “To support myself I could ride my bicycle from Williamsburg with my mason tools on the handlebars and do jobs on the Upper East Side. I could do a job for three weeks and take off six weeks to two months to just work on my painting.

Matthew Richie called art grad schools a scam, “the professionalization of something that is not a profession… I always got the feeling that a successful person would have done just as well having not gone to grad school and the other 80 percent of that group have no reason to go and will go nowhere afterwards.”

Dana Schutz’s work looks incredible (and I just realized that I know her controversial “Open Casket” shown at the Whitney) and she’s so young in this book! She has been making art since she was 15 and comes across as a nice, fun spirit. I liked the story she related about de Kooning supposedly asking Gorky how he could afford such great paint during the height of the Depression and Gorky saying, “Priorities.”