The following post was written in 2014, but could’ve been written today.
I was just thinking back to the last time I was making a bunch of working drawings for a museum show, way back, and how that, too, was all about process.
It was 1990, and I was 20, living in Manhattan and working as an assistant for the artist Chuck Close.
At that time, Chuck was asked to curate the second in a series of “Artist’s Choice” shows from the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, Ellsworth Kelly having curated the first. Chuck and I spent nearly a month in MoMA’s various departments, pouring over ring binders with laminated images of the museum’s collection.
The show’s theme was settled early on: portraiture. (I believe it was during the period of time I was working for Chuck that he softened his conceptual stance regarding his own work, which is nearly always an image of a specific person’s face, usually a friend or family member, allowing it to be called portraiture. Prior to that, coming out of the late ’60’s – early ’70’s era when process art and minimalism was peaking, he called the subject of his work “heads”, and would have said he wasn’t interested in the concerns of a traditional portrait artist – including having no interest in ever doing a commission for anyone who’d want to see their image on a 9′ x 7′ canvas.)
Once Chuck had selected a few pieces for possible inclusion in the show, be they prints, photos, paintings, drawings, or sculptures, he’d ask for some of them to be brought out of storage for viewing. (I clearly recall there were a few pieces, however, that were selected and propped against the wall for our up close and personal viewing not because they were going to be in the show, but because when you get some opportunities, you take them.) Eventually Chuck compiled around 150 works to pack into a relatively small room for the show.
The next thing to figure out was how the selected pieces would go on the wall. For that, when we were back in Chuck’s studio, I was asked to take paper and cut out each artwork’s measurements at 1:12 scale, on which I’d write each artist’s name and the piece’s title. I also drew the measurements of each of the room’s four walls on a long sheet of foam core, laid flat on a table, and having done so, Chuck would slide the little pieces of paper around, determining the placement of each piece.
As he did, I began a self-appointed task of going back through all 150 works of art and making scale drawings (or sculptures) of each. Taking mat board that I had cut down to the same 1:12 scale, I drew each piece either by eye with graphite pencil if the piece was black and white, colored pencils if it was a color photo or painting, or with clay if it was a sculpture.
It took a few weeks to do them all, and don’t ask me why I was allowed to do so on the clock. Perhaps Chuck could sense my enthusiasm. After I finished, and he had positioned the original set where he wanted them, I built a three dimensional scale model of the room with foam core walls on a medium-gray mat board floor and placed my second set of drawings within it, gluing each piece to the walls or to the little foam shelves that lined much of the room.
One day, the Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA, Kirk Varnadoe, visited the studio, viewed the model and suggested that it be placed on a pedestal in the hall outside of the show. Chuck agreed, and, of course, I was elated to have what I’ve since, tongue in cheek, called my solo show at the Museum of Modern Art.
Curious that in some ways my current project, slated for a solo museum show, parallels the one I’ve just recounted.
As it was for the work I did for the MoMA show, however, I’m doing working drawings – preparatory sketches – drawings in the service of something rather than ends in and of themselves, these days. As was also true back then, I’m doing the drawings more for the sheer enjoyment of drawing than for any real need of the information they provide me. Back then, the drawings weren’t truly needed for the MoMA show; the original set was sufficient to the task. Today, the information I’m needing to gather to create the final form of my show could happen much faster thanks to copy machine, projector, and computer.
But here’s what you have to ask yourself:
Is the end goal truly the goal, or is the goal being lived out in the moment?
A central leitmotif of my upcoming show is, as mentioned, process. Not just process, but a revealing of the creative process – a look “behind the scenes”, as it were, just like when DVD’s first came out.
For the first few years that DVD’s were produced, many included “behind the scenes” documentaries, revealing a bit of how the movies were made, often from the outset, interviewing the producer, director, and screenwriter, through to post production. I’d often enjoy watching the making of the art as much as the art itself.
I remember watching one such documentary for the movie Stranger Than Fiction, starring Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, and Maggie Gyllenhaal. They interviewed the writer, Zach Helm, who said he’d had a working relationship with the producer, Lindsay Doran, and that he called her up one day and said he had an idea for a film involving a guy whose watch tried to communicate with him. That’s all he had. She said she loved it and to keep developing the idea.
Every few days or weeks Helm would call Doran with incrementally more of the story line fleshed out. Highly interesting to me is the rather odd way he wrote the story – he said he wrote the scene where Hoffman, playing Literature Professor Jules Hilbert, asks Ferrell, playing Harold Crick, questions to determine what kind of story he was unwittingly playing out with his life (a hilarious scene) prior to having any idea what proceeded or followed the scene. He didn’t have any other characters or know anything more about what the story would eventually look like than Hilbert did in his office, investigating Crick’s odd predicament.
I find it interesting that the producer would be willing to trust that Helm’s inside-out process would result in something fully formed, and I find it curious and amazing that his process unfolded in such a non-linear, non-outlined way.
That’s exactly what I’m involved in these days. It’s what’s been waking me at 2 or 3 am for the past five or six weeks, and will, I don’t doubt, carry me through to completion. I say carry because that’s exactly what it feels like – like riding a wave, or perhaps being carried along by a strong wind. It’s what began, not coincidentally, if you ask me, with a couple of days of extremely windy weather outside. Winds that tore shingles off our roof and huge downtown trees. Winds that have often curiously signaled a change in attitude or in circumstance for me. Sweeping, it would seem, the cobwebs from my mind or heart. Carrying me along. Making my current effort rather effortless.
Much too early to predict how things will end up. It helps to know I’ve got a internal clock that does a good job of determining how I’m doing, time-wise, on a project.
It also helps to have written what, all assembled, would probably be a thick book’s worth of blog posts that nearly all began the same way: with me waking early and creeping downstairs to the dining room table, opening my laptop, opening up Blogger, pressing the “new post” button (after hitting the “start” button on the Mr. Coffee) and wondering what I might possibly have to write in the next few hours that anyone might want to read. I can’t think of a post I’ve had to abandon. (Ed. note – my first blog had over 300 long posts before I “retired” it.)
As for the museum’s curators, though, I’m clueless as to what they are thinking. Then again, perhaps I do have an idea:
Because it pleases them.
That’s my best guess as to one of, if not the chief reason why good curators do what they do. For sure, it’s why artists create art, macro lens, but more specifically, micro: why if you slice off the thinnest moment of time during the making of a piece of art and examine it under a microscope you’d find pleasure a primary impetus. That is, you’d find a primary motivation for that moment was eliminating the negative (displeasure) and accentuating the positive (pleasure). It’s why a painter, for instance, mixes a certain color rather than another and places it just so on the canvas. Why a printmaker isn’t satisfied with what, to you or I, might look like a perfectly good print, and puts it in the reject pile, or a motion-based artist spends so much time editing a piece that, to you or I, looked identical an hour and a half ago, before the changes. Why go to all the trouble? Who would’ve known?
They would’ve, that’s who. And knowing their work wasn’t living up to what they saw in their mind’s eye, they would’ve been displeased. It’s as simple as that.
Therefore, artists keep at it until they can lean back in their chair or workbench or stand back from the painting or leave the dark room and examine the work in the light to see if the blacks are rich enough or the composition avoids the pedantic or any of a million similar expressions of… pleasure.
That’s not to say that artists don’t sometimes compromise; compromise is a constant bedfellow.
There’s a continuum from inferior to “spot on” that everyone must contend with in their work, from “good enough” on one side to “it’s gotta be perfect” on the other, but my contention is that the needle, for artists, stays fairly fixed on the latter end, whatever their particular stylistic bent.
Years ago I heard the painter John Hull describe witnessing a young Jeff Koons first-hand as he was preparing one of his vacuum cleaner pieces in a museum where Hull worked as a guard.
He said Koons spent hours meticulously polishing and shining up the vacuum cleaners and the glass case housing them. To Hull, everything looked perfectly fine from the get go. Evidently not to Koons. It was then that Hull, on the fence about Koons up until that point, decided that he was the real deal. A huckster would’ve been satisfied with the condition of the brand new vacuums right out of the box, but not an artist.
Perhaps this is on my mind because I’m currently spending an inordinate amount of time, on my current art project, making stuff that may or may not ever be seen by anyone. Lovingly crafting a long extension arm for a GoPro camera. Easing its wood edges. Sanding off the table saw’s burn marks. It won’t work any better without burn marks, but they displease me. All to take progress pics that will probably never see the light of day. Why?
I think back to when I had a one-man-band business building all manner of things for all manner of clients. Back to one of my first set building projects in 1998. The client, a large computer storage systems business just outside of Boulder, Colorado, did quarterly live in-house videos, regularly hiring a set designer who, in turn, hired me to build backdrops for the shoots. The main element of the first set she hired me to build was supposed to look like a Shoji screen – one of those paneled Japanese dividers that separate rooms. I was given the dimensions for each screen and told they needed to hinge, accordion-like, behind the small stage.
I built the screens and used vellum rather than rice paper for the window portions. More compromise. Prior to attaching the vellum, but after I’d painted the frames with black paint, I decided I wanted to use the traditional Japanese method of hinging the screens where one takes leather or cord and winds it in and out of angled through-holes in the woodwork, a beautiful technique to hinge things I’d seen in one of my older copies of Fine Woodworking. The finished hinges worked like a charm.
However, no one – absolutely no one in the live audience, watching on camera, or on stage – either knew or cared that I’d taken the time to hinge the Shoji screens like this. It was invisible to everyone but me and the set designer, who, as I recall, shook her head at the irrationality of it.
It didn’t matter to me that nearly no one else saw it. It didn’t matter that those who did thought I was off my rocker to spend the time doing something no one would ever notice.
I wish I had a few photos of the hinges to show you, but I didn’t take any. Back in the day, I was rather bad at documenting my work. Then again, I wasn’t making the hinges to show them off.
So again, why did I do it? Why did I go to all that effort, rather than simply, and expeditiously, connecting the panels with standard, store-bought hinges?
There’s a documentary about the German painter Gerhard Richter (called, appropriately enough, Gerhard Richter Painting) which, to some, may be just about as compelling as watching paint dry or reading long blog posts, but as with writing long blog posts, at least I enjoy it. It ends much as it begins, with Richter in studio working the camera for the documentary. The brief closing scene has him doing a panning shot of some off-white paintings in his pristine studio. The subtitles have him saying, “A panning shot for madam (presumably he’s referring to Corinna Belz, the filmmaker). Man, this is fun.”
If the viewer isn’t a painter, they might think he means it’s fun to be making a documentary of his work, and I’m sure it was. But it’s quite plain to me he’s talking about something else. And so I’ll say it yet again. He may paint for a living, but he paints for pleasure. It’s one of the central reasons we create. It’s why, despite the effort, it hardly feels like work.