Years ago I wrote down a quote by Bill Ball of San Francisco's American Ballet Theater: Artists need to be working all of the time. That way the best work just gets tossed off.
In a perfect world, yes, we get to work all the time. Or rather, we produce work all the time. But I've come to realize that processes, over a lifetime, vary with the individual.
I wrote down that quote after going through a stretch of not making art, or least art that anyone would see. You can get panic attacks when the constant question is what are you doing now?
Tom Cramer once said to me: "You've got to know when to not make art." That makes so much sense to me. Some of us make art not by making it, but by thinking about it, or by just taking a long walk - maybe for months.
When you are young and don't paint for a month, you can feel all worried. And it's true that many artists do not survive after 35 or so - I mean their intensive art practice does not survive, or their aspirations. So I guess you better worry and always get back to work.
But I no longer feel that way. Just making objects for the gallery system doesn't cut it for me - though without them, many would grasp no real measurement of an artist. I think young artists also get confused because they want an interesting, courageous life and then find themselves stuck in a room, whether it’s making objects or teaching - and that often does not feel very courageous. Real life is much more interesting. I'm glad to have had both, but you can pay a price.
While putting together a punk art show in 1979, I received an immense amount of heat from my supposed peers. "Our art doesn’t belong in the gallery system, blah blah." I almost buckled and didn't go through with the proposal. It was Katherine Dunn who told me: “Don’t you see - you've got a responsibility as an artist. If you step down, you'll have done what so many women do in the face of men trying to tell them what they shouldn't do. You have to do this thing.”
I don’t think Katherine considers herself a big-time feminist, but it just so happened that it was a bunch of cool dudes telling me what I shouldn’t do. They were all my friends, so I couldn’t see a bigger picture. But the point is there are many ways to be an artist and it goes way beyond making work. She really clued me into that.
Fast forward to around 2001, when I was visiting NYC and ran into Leon Klayman. He told me about his book project called Who gave you permission? He asked various artists: did an individual provide some kind of lightbulb or turning point for you? And what was the story? Many of us have one, a crystallizing relationship or event. It might have been that moment for me.