|Olitski, Jules. "How My Art Gets Made," Partisan Review, vol. 4, Fall, 2001. pp. 617-623.|
An artist’s vision does not strike him in the face, with an “Aha! Now I see
the truth!” It lies quiescent; it waits. He finds it, as his art gets made.
It was the mid sixties; I was teaching at Bennington College. That particular day, a seminar. I said to the students, “How about going over to Shaftsbury and visiting Ken Noland in his studio?” They were eager to go. They knew who Ken was, of course. I say, “of course”, because Bennington art students famously know everything about art, even before they arrive at the college. Anyway, off we go.
At this time Anthony Caro was teaching at the college and hearing what we were up to, happily joined us. So there we were in the noted artist’s studio, surrounded by Ken’s recent work lining the walls. My students made themselves comfortable, sprawled out on the floor, or slumped against a wall. I introduced them to Ken. Ken, a former teacher and a generous man, I knew welcomed the opportunity our visit afforded. But silence. My students, all female, usually vocal and all knowing, sat slumped, sprawled, forlornly silent. What to do. Tony, maybe to save the situation, turned to me and said, somewhat loftily, “What I would want for my sculpture is to emphasize its density, its materiality.” This remark provoked from me, what seemed at the moment, an amused if not a facetious response, which was, “Well, Tony, what I would like in my painting is simply a spray of color that hangs like a cloud, but does not lose its shape.”
Fortunately my remark got a laugh from the students and they began to talk, telling us what art is really about. All in all a successful afternoon.
This “spray of color”: I had in fact a year before tried using spray cans, the kind one buys at a hardware store, but the paintings didn’t work, or, so I thought at the time. I had continued working with paint rollers, rolling, merging colors into one another. It occurred to me as I lay in bed that night after the visit to Noland’s studio a spray gun might speak to my vision. The color cloud suddenly appeared real, something that could be made into art. The next day I drove to the main hardware supply store in Bennington and rented a spray gun. I am apprehensive of almost anything that plugs into a wall. I am defeated by TVs and microwaves. I can handle a toaster, but short of that it’s fear and trembling. It turned out that the spray gun - a sinister looking instrument - comes attached to something called a compressor, a tank-like object, sullen and alien. Later that day, in my studio in Shaftsbury, Vermont, I stapled a large canvas to the floor. I attached the spray gun to the compressor and filled the spray gun container, and held it in one hand while I plugged the compressor extension cord into a wall socket. The compressor roared and advanced on me in a threatening manner. I wrenched its plug from the socket.
Clearly things were not going smoothly; however, I managed to secure the beast and holding the gun, I slowly squeezed the trigger, recalling suddenly the Zane Grey heroes of my childhood, “Son, when you go after Snakeye Charlie, remember to take aim and just squeeze the trigger slowly.”
A mist of color had spread itself on part of the canvas. It was ravishing. A new light, a new color; I was Apollo. If one gun was great, two guns, two colors - ecstasy! A world of possibilities had opened. In this manner I covered the canvas. That was about thirty-five years ago. I still use a spray gun, sometimes as a last touch, and I still feel the same excitement. Fortunately I found a spray gun that doesn’t need a compressor.
So that’s how the spray paintings came about, lying in bed, imagining a painting. It doesn’t always work. It’s more frequently like this: in the bedroom darkness I may visualize a way of making a painting: I can see it - if I do this and this and that and this, my God! Why haven’t I seen this until now? I can hardly wait to get to the studio and do the this and that and make the vision real. Alas, all too often, the dream turns into a mud puddle. I am left looking at a disaster. What to do? Keep working. I ask the Almighty for help. That frees me. Look at what He is able to do with a handful of dust and a rib, and here I am with all this paint and a brush and my life in my hands. I get back to work and make a painting as good as I can make it.
Several years ago I was asked to give a talk about color and color theory, about which I’m supposed to know much, having been one of the Color Field artists. Well, I told the truth. I said, “I don’t know a damn thing about color,” meaning I have no theory about color. I’ve read some theories by very knowledgeable people, but they did not penetrate, because they were not useful to me. I work intuitively. I like to surprise myself. Let’s see what happens if I do such and such? And squeeze a yellow glaze on top of it? In other words, like most artists, I try things out. I’m always impressed by Matisse and his “Notes of a Painter.” His way with color is: he puts down a red, he puts down a green, something tells him that the red needs more red. He expands the red. He puts down another color. He composes. To see a painting come alive and turn beautiful doesn’t have a lot to do with theories. Theories come after the fact, after the creation. When an artist dallies with theory to explain or describe his art, my hunch is he does it to allay his fears, to comfort himself. (Clement Greenberg once said an artist can become frightened by his originality.) Theorizing about art is not useful. An artist I know tells me his theory of color. Black and white are not colors. Blue is a color, orange, yellow, red - all colors. Black and white, not colors. “So Manet didn’t know what he was doing?” I say. “It would be better if he had not used black and white.” My friend should be institutionalized. “Stupide comme un artiste,” the French say.
A work of art begins with a vision...first the vision, then the means to make the vision real. Consider Dr. Frankenstein, a failed sculptor you might say; but he did have a vision and having a vision he found the means, which lay near at hand in the graveyard. He needed fresh corpses, the way an impressionist needed a motif, the way Rubens needed a model with a “Rubens-like” posterior. Passion is involved. Recall that moment in the film when the creature’s eyelids flutter, and finger moves, and Dr. Frankenstein, near swooning, trills, “It’s alive.” and then “It’s alive!” That is the beginning and the be-all of creating life, but to lift us up a work of art, of high art, must be beautiful too. There lies the failure of Dr. Frankenstein and it breaks his heart. He has created a hapless monster with the brain of a criminal. He has let loose a bad work of art within the community and much unhappiness. Poor man, depressed by failure, he gives up creating and finally, finally seeks solace in the arms of his beautiful and long waiting virginal beloved. All artists must sympathize with Doctor Frankenstein. He’s one of us. Now, Dracula, he’s to be shunned. Dreadful fellow, unredeemable, disgusting, and blood sucking. I saw the film when it first came out. I couldn’t have been more than six years old. I stayed in bed for days, face to the wall, paralyzed.
Isaac Bashevis Singer in his novel “The Penitent” has a character saying he does not believe in chance or coincidence; “Coincidence is not a kosher word.” So, is there a plan, a pattern, a meaning? Unlikely things do happen; making sculpture in St. Neots, for example. Once again Tony Caro was the instrument. I was on my way to the south of France for a vacation. I had stopped in London for a couple of days, a week at most, to see Tony. He urged me to stay in London for several weeks. “Use my studio. Paint, make sculpture if you like.” I am the least tidiest of painters, so the notion of destroying the studio of a dear friend was not to be countenanced. Nor could I see myself making sculpture in his studio. But make sculpture! Yes, I could see myself doing that, and suddenly I had to make sculpture. Sculpture began pouring out of me in the shape of drawings on scraps of paper, on yellow pads, dozens and dozens of drawings. And just as suddenly I knew how they were to be made. I would need a huge space. Tony helped me find an unused factory in the midlands in an ancient town - it looked ancient to me - named St. Neots. A man named Sam Carruth (not his real name) owned the factory and he provided a cottage where I would live and he would get all the materials I needed and a motorbike, which I could use to get to the factory several miles away. The motorbike broke down almost immediately, but Sam loaned me his bicycle. Good Sam. He was a bit of a shyster, but thanks to him I made my sculptures. I’m grateful.
I asked Tom to get me sheets of aluminum, their surfaces anodized in various colors. These sheets were to have a variety of thicknesses, widths, heights, lengths, and a variety of shapes, curved and flat, corrugated and so forth, even a huge aluminum cone shaped object which he somehow managed to steal from the British Air Force, or so he said. While Tom was gathering all the material I joined Larry Rubin and John Kasmin on the French Riviera and waited. Finally the day came that all was ready. I flew to London and drove to St. Neots, which is not far from Cambridge. I was terrified. Sculpture does that. It’s not flat. Facing an empty canvas is scary enough but it is flat. Daring to make art, high art is a humbling thing to try. I don’t know any sane, sensible, so called well adjusted artists. (Art therapists take notice; you practice a dangerous profession.) It does feel like a death for an artist when his picture dies.
For myself, I’ve never destroyed a painting. I paint over it. It becomes a new painting; if it dies again, I paint over it. Some of my paintings have become very heavy.
Why had I chosen aluminum to work with? It’s light, I could move it around, juxtapose shape, compose by myself, choose from the many shapes I had ordered and were now awaiting me, piled against the walls. I tend to work at night, all night. Sam Carruth had hired three metal workers to assist me in the things I don’t do, like welding, and naturally they work by day, which was fine by me. I don’t like people around when I’m working. They’re in my way. For many years I had a cat named Caro who was okay in my studio. I always felt that cat knew something, wanted to tell me that special something while I was painting, that could help me, but all Caro ever did was nudge my hand and make opera like sounds.
It was a week before I had the courage to go to the factory. It was late at night and I stood looking at all that aluminum and wished myself somewhere else. But once I began moving shapes around, sculptures began to appear and I took heart. When the workers Tom had hired arrived in the morning around ten I was done working and could tell them where I wanted them to weld the shapes. But they had to have their tea, so it was closer to eleven before they would stir themselves. I began to love those guys. What a time I had. They too. They became very involved in the sculptures, even began to fancy themselves as sculptors. When I’d come to the factory to begin my night’s work, I’d see some of my aluminum put together into sculptures they had made. I was not amused. I wanted to paint the sculptures in such a way as to appear to follow the shape of the various elements. Goodness! Sounds like a theory. Anyway, I felt I had to do it. I painted the sculptures, using car enamels and my dear old spray gun, which I’d had shipped over from the states. What excitement. I ended up with close to thirty sculptures. I spent about five months working in St. Neots. I was not without occasional company. Some of the sculptors and painters living in London would drive out to see what I was up to and were generous in their comments. A New York sculptor came by once. Not so generous.
One day Henry Geldzahler arrived. “I heard you were making sculpture in St. Neots.” Henry was the curator of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum. He stayed a few hours, admiring the sculpture, and as he was leaving, said, “How would you feel about showing these at the Met?”
“I would feel very good at showing these at the Met. Are you kidding?”
“I’m serious. There is one problem. The Met has a rule that forbids showing living artist’s work, but I’ll call the board together and persuade them to change the rule.”
“Good luck,” I said and forgot about it. The rule change was most unlikely, or so it seemed. But they did change the rule and I showed five large sculptures which Clem Greenberg helped me choose. I thought the show was wonderful; some critics thought otherwise. “The worst painter in America is showing the worst sculpture being made,” one wrathful critic trumpeted. Wow! Record crowds came to see.
Anton Chekhov, in a letter, said, “having read over the years a thousand reviews of my plays: I never read one single sentence that was any use to me.”
If indeed fate, or something, prods the direction my work is to take, it’s the exception, not the general practice. Most of the time I go to my studio and just begin. Something, a sentence I’ve read can get me going. “Do the thing and you will have the power.” It’s in Emerson’s essay, “Compensation” It’s addressed to farmers: sow, plow, reap. It’s a gem of a sentence for artists. An artist’s studio is a marvelous situation. It’s where an artist can be by himself, truly himself, to sing, dance, paint, pray and play. I have to pray standing up...getting old in the knees. “Do the thing and you will have the power.” I say it to myself. It’s freeing. It works. An artist looks at his work and asks himself, and anyone who happens to be there, “Does it work?” What does it mean, “does it work?” We know what it means. Someone says, “I think it would work if you took an inch off the top.” Another remonstrates, “Don’t touch it. I don’t believe in cropping.” Someone shouts, “If it makes the painting more realized, he’d damn well better take off an inch!” When a painting “works”, it looks as if it had to be; otherwise it’s merely art.
G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Behind every artist’s mind there is a certain vision, a pattern, a design, a structure; it is a thing like the landscape of his dreams.”
Looking at great art helps. It gives me pleasure. I go to museums for pleasure. In New York, the Met and the Frick are pleasure givers. How can I look at a Tintoretto, a Titian, a Rembrandt, a pastel by Manet, quite small of a young woman in profile, a pink rose in her hat, and not want to rush home to paint? The Manet was at the Guggenheim in one of those side galleries where one can see impressionists, if motorcycles and fashion are not one’s cup of tea. For the most part I stay away from what is to be seen at most of the galleries. There are exceptions: that extraordinary show of Cezanne watercolors at Aquavella, a first rate Marin show at another gallery, and that beautiful, beautiful “Rembrandt and the Venetians” at Salander-O’Reilly. But for the most part art is not to be seen in most New York Galleries, unless a political sign lifts you up and takes you to paradise. Feces are in. Lots of shock, lots of shlock not only in the galleries, it’s all over the place. Jacque Barzun calls it an “age of decadence”. It’s worse. The level is that of a roman circus. Darwin was mistaken. The neanderthals never went away. They began to paint. This started about twenty or thirty years ago, led on by charlatans like Duchamp and a handful of French and American philosophers writing in a language neither French nor English, and encouraged by the radical spawn of the sixties, now tenured professors of art in our most elite universities, by journalists pretending to be art critics, (there are exceptions; some of my best friends are critics,) and what can one say about our art curators and art directors in the museums? When Philippe de Montebello, the director at the Met, having seen the “Sensation” show at the Brooklyn Museum said, “The Emperor has no Clothes,” he was savaged, and particularly so by museum directors. Poor fellow. He believes a museum should be a repository for high art, for the best. Low is in. It’s cool. It swaggers, it’s popular, the level is rap.
Excellence, beautiful, quality are dirty words. One has to watch one’s step if not to be labeled a capitalist, imperialist, fascist, or maybe worst of all, a monogamist! On the other hand, it’s a wonderful situation for creating art. Creative energy can thrive when there is a culture to go up against. Manet and Cezanne and Degas and Monet and dozens of others are examples. I can hear a despairing artist, one who can’t get his work seen, or sold, saying, “Yeah, easy to say. What do I do at three o’clock in the morning? What’s the point?” I say, “Were you asked to be an artist? No one asked.” In the face of our present culture, I say to myself, “Expect nothing. Do your work. Celebrate!”
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