Saturday, May 1

Books: All the Inspirational Self-Help Won't Save Me

The Studio Reader
Today I started The Studio Reader: On the Space of Artists. An interesting anthology of interviews, essays and older writings that all think forward. Put together from the Art Institute of Chicago, it has a little bit of old and a little bit of new. A book like this is always neat to pick up because it helps quell my anxiety of my own practice. But it got me thinking of all the odd inspirational books I've read and if they make any difference.

A good example from the book: artist Michael Smith's simple but true list for a perfect studio day:
Wash dishes.
Fresh Coffee.
Window with view.
Plenty of ideas.
Room to pace.

Robert Henri's classic, The Art Spirit
For all of us, the list may be different - but as I've grown more confident (or at least more set) in my ways - it always has included a place to think, pace, do absolutely nothing or everything - another words: space. And whether or not artists admit it, I think in our dark moments we always look elsewhere for a slight confirmation of our fears. That's why making art is so hard. You'll never find yourself in someone else's practice. You'll only recognize bits. You have to find your own solutions.

Art & Fear
My practice lately might involve inventing trips to the sink. Sweeping out the corner. Rearranging the small amount of items on my bookshelf. Or gaining a huge interest in whatever is on the radio (have you not heard Terri Gross?). Sometimes absolutely nothing happens in the studio. Sometimes everything does. And it's easy to be terrified either way.

I've just spent the last year building and settling into a studio space adjacent to a few handfuls of artists all over the spectrum. It's created as much anxiety as it has work. Both are good. But sometimes other artists appear to have themselves so figured out - or at least it appears that way. Something quoted from Frances Stark in The Studio Reader that pretty well sums up my current feelings:
There is nothing photogenic or charming about the way I do what I do, and there's no special atmosphere created by doing it. I am starting to think that, for me, being an artist in the studio is a complete fantasy. Don't get me wrong, I believe in what I do, and I even love what eventually goes out my door, but my methods have yet to form a place that feels like home. Sometimes I think my studio says as little about my work as a basketful of my dirty clothes conveys of what I look like.
I'm reminded of Art & Fear, first given as as required reading in Junior-level painting. It was terrific then, as it dealt with, well, FEAR. But now in retrospect it had a motherly and justifying tone.

During college, suggested by my Illustration professors, we read Robert Henri's The Art Spirit. Also really good. But written in 1923. Apparently written for his students. I think it helped alot with the discipline of art making. There was also The Artist's Way. But this is a bit more spiritual.

Press Play
A few years ago though I found Phaidon's pressPlay. A great candid collection of artist interviews. Until this point I hadn't realized other art making practices, completely opposite to my own, could be so affirming. It's been a bible. It was as this point in my own studio practice that I realized the studio was any solution that worked for me. And the only confidence I needed at that point was knowing that. Just recently there is a cheeky packaged followup.

A Painter's Life
There have also recently been a host of books trying to talk about the studio. But they all go in extreme directions. Inside the Painters Studio interviews a set group of artists. But it sets them up in the usual idolized and mythological fashion. They give cavalier answers to ridiculous questions. Art is not magic, it's hard work. And there are these strange art dioramas of the artists studios with the artists in them.There is also Art Making & Studio Spaces  but this ends up more as artist studio as interior designed space than about studio practice.

There is A Painter's Life, a fictional diary of a working artist today. This I suspect is more of artist as a lifestyle or rockstar. Not interested.

Or also The Fall of the Studio. It takes an entirely opposite, ArtForum-like approach (or in-approachable). Sometimes it's hard to even recognize what kind of practice it's discussing. Although  there is an excellent essay by Bruce Nauman on how his studio practice became about him as an artist:

If you see yourself as an artist and you function in a studio and you're not a painter...if you don't start out with some canvas, you do all kinds of things-you sit in a chair or pace around. And then the question goes back to what is art? And art is what an artist does, just sitting around the studio.
I look forward to The Studio Reader, as it borrows backward and forward to examine what the studio means. It so far doesn't pretend the studio is this hip, secluded factory of ideas that aren't accessible to everyone. It also doesn't attach space to spiritual or magical ideas. I think like the purposes of all these books, it helps demystify the practice. It's reassuring to realize some of the greats have wasted years of time. It's really just about artists who've done alot of pacing to know how to work.

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