Monday, November 5, 2007

in denial

Just about every artist of-a-certain-age has had to deny themselves all kinds of things to keep at it – money, homes, children, glamour. The suffering bit may hold interest at first, but eventually loses its charm.

Save, I hate to venture – for a certain mythic rendition of the woman artist – who, if consistently pitched as stoic, alone, unglamorous and unpainted, may indeed finally be seen as truly serious. Even tough.

There was a particular pavilion at Venice which housed some fairly playful installation work inside. I found the craft a little shoddy, but perhaps that doesn’t always matter. People were exploring and having fun in there.

Outside the pavilion was a bastion of propaganda of all sorts, of which I greedily partook – leaflets, badges, posters. Some of the press confirmed that the artist was certainly a hit with young people. They liked her unpredictability and she was rightfully proud of that.

But another thing the writing stressed, like a pitch to unbelievers, was how hard working she was. How alone she was in her cold studio, from dusk to dawn. How unadorned her face was, how shorn her hair, how deadpan her voice. While making work quite playful, we were to understand that she was not. And in this, of course we were to read the depth of her commitment.

The longer this pitch went on, the more my impatience grew. Is this what it takes to be perceived as a serious woman artist? It’s like Here Comes Success but God forbid you enjoy it!

Yeah, I know, someone is about to tell me how spiritually meaningful it is to live a life of denial.

It reminded me of how Agnes Martin is pitched - and I am not so sure I wish to be aligned with a vision of dying in a hard twin bed, after such an influential game at the top. While her contemporary Ellsworth ran with the wolves in living color, she chose grey in a distant white room. Her choices I do not condemn, but if they are uniformly seen as an emblem of appropriate success, I am wondering why.

Even recently a local critic wrote to the effect of Martin’s “…tough, makeup-free serigraph grids…” What makes them tough? The no makeup bit? The fact that she didn’t wear any? Or does “makeup” refer to color? And is color not tough?

- Or is she tough because she denied herself many, many things in life? OK, she did not go to the disco. Is that what makes her tough? And is that necessary? – the model of the washed-out woman living in elevated retrench comes up so often (and right in the here and now) that I feel the need to ask those questions.

No one doubts the aim and sincerity of Brice Marden, MOMA retros and all, as he floats from one well-appointed studio to another (didn’t the Times say there were four, a couple of fabulous ones in Greece?). And they are all probably handily well-stocked with great wine. No one is expecting him to deny himself, as a way to prove worth, depth, talent.


S.L. Butler said...

Elizabeth Murray forged a neo-feminist vision of the triumphant, uber-artist who is also a dedicated mother. Unlike earlier painters such as Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner, who bought into the need for denial, felt childrearing would dilute their focus and diminish their ability to paint, Murray opted to have kids.

For a female artist who has spent every available hour of her adult life in the studio, choosing to have a child is a difficult decision, for it prompts a relentless, daily, internal debate over whether she should be with the family or in the studio. Guilt is inescapable, like having paint spatters on her shoes. Some artists, like Judy Chicago, intellectually recognized the importance of motherhood and explored it as a theme in their art, but never came to the conclusion that raising children, one of the most primal of human experiences, could actually strengthen and inform their work.

Murray had her first child, a son, in 1969, before her work was well known, and her daughters in the eighties when things were undoubtedly more financially secure. It’s clear from Murray’s paintings that raising children, rather than diminishing her art-making capacity, inspired her. Her paintings channel the screaming, fractured energy and frustration that come from being both an artist and a mother, but ultimately transcend specific circumstances to make a more universal statement that is neither masculine nor feminine.

In a book accompanying a traveling exhibition of Murray’s paintings and drawings in the late eighties, Murray offers a paragraph about each painting in the show. The one concerning “Can You Hear Me?” – completed in 1984 – stands out. The painting, consisting of shaped canvases with undulating forms of a table and exclamation mark, is mostly blue, with bright green, yellow and red accents. “The formal challenge,” she writes, “was to allow the structure of the painting to remain fragmented while making the table and the room out of it. It’s just one of those paintings where everything felt necessary once it began to come together.”

Murray herself openly embraced the notion that we should paint what’s in our subconscious. Although she was quick to dismiss any observation that she painted domestic life, something similar to what she mused about “Can You Hear Me?” could be said of an artist’s embrace of motherhood. In any case, something exquisite about life came together in her art.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Sharon. What Murray accomplished is nothing short of amazing, especially considering the circulstances.

I chose to not have kids and it was not a tough decsion, but I most definitely did not see many role models, these women who quote unquote have it all.


Anonymous said...

Try as I might, I can come up with no women artists who were elegant, sophisticated, bon vivants and serious artists that one can use as a role model. Of course there are plenty of men (Manet sprang instantly to mind). My knowledge is not complete but good enough that it shouldn't have been that hard. The only person who came to mind was not actually an artist, but the photographer Lee MIller who was beautiful, self serving, and walked all over Man Ray's heart and photographed enough dead Germans to not give a fuck about what people thought about her doing cheescake in Hitler's bath tub.

I am aware of how this lack of president effects me. I don't dare look too stylish ... I often leave the ruby ring at home and dress down when dealing with the art world. As a male artist if I was a sartorially endowed and interested in the finer things life has to offer I would perhaps be known as an eccentric or a dandy, as a female artist I would be called a dilettante.

I am wonder if this is more American than European although no examples readily come to mind in that category either.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.