Thursday, December 11, 2008


We watched a truly wonderful movie last night called Simplicity. Ellie brought it home on loan from her Wednesday morning art teacher and, since it's a movie about artists made several years ago, we were surprised that we had never heard about it before. If you're interested in the creative process and what it means to be an artist, this one's for you.

(Please note that the images below are pirated from the internet without the artist's specific permission. I trust that I'll be forgiven for reproducing them on this small-circulation site.)

The key to it all is suggested in the title: simplicity. The artists are extraordinarily diverse, ranging from the late minimalist painter...

... Agnes Martin--aged 86 at the time of the movie--to the wild, cartoon-based maximalist, Robert Williams; from the bare-bones tinkerer, Richard Tuttle...

... to the man widely known as the mentor of California conceptualism, John Baldessari (look for "image results"; the East Coast painter, Joan Snyder (ditto); and the much younger, relatively new arrival on the "art scene," Amy Adler (ditto). If this list of contemporary artists sounds unfamiliar and possibly elitist, please don't let it put you off watching this introduction to each of them and their work.

I have worked closely with artists and have written about their work for many years, and what struck me most as I watched "Simplicity" was the clarity these fine creative people have about themselves and their lives. While critics bloviate and museum-goers sometimes scratch their heads at the spectacle of much contemporary art ("You call THAT art???"), what's remarkably similar about these very different people is their uncomplicated dedication to what it is that they do. In the words of the dreadful current cliche, they "just do it."

They do it because they know, as Agnes Martin is seen saying at a particularly poignant moment, that this is what they are given to do with their lives. It's no more complicated than that. Even Baldessari, whom many would suspect to be "difficult" to understand as an artist and complex in his thinking about art, declares what is obvious about those famous colored dots that cover the faces in photo-based collages like this one...

They hide the face because the face is not what's important to him. He wants the viewer's attention to go elsewhere. It's no more difficult than that.

Richard Tuttle achieved notoriety with works of astounding and evidently disconcerting simplicity: a short length of rope, a few inches only, attached with a nail to the wall; a wire bent in the rough shape of a rectangle... Others, critics, fuss about challenges to the whole idea of what art is about, or castigate him for making a mockery of it. To the artist, it's all about making things, putting things together, pretty much to see what they look like. It's as simple--and as tough--as living out on the edge of the desert in New Mexico, as he does; it's as vast as the unending landscape and as intimate as the crack in the floor.

These are all artists who have met with considerable "success" in the art world, but seem utterly unfazed by their success. What's clearly--and exclusively--important to each of them is to have the kind of space that is conducive to the doing of what they do, and the time in which to do it. It's a very practical matter, and you leave with the sense that they lead the most practical sort of lives. They seemed to be notably lacking in pretension, or even particularly ambition. They just do what they do because that's what has been given them to do.

There's a lot more that goes on in the artist's mind, of course, than they may be willing to share in ways other than what they make. I have always felt that the "artist's statement" about the work--which seems to be a requisite today for anyone seeking gallery representation, and is taught as a necessary skill in graduate schools--is a really bad idea. All it succeeds in doing is reducing a complex of thought, feeling and action in the world to an oversimplification of the experience that the finished art work offers. All I want from artists is to show me what they've done and let me have the adventure of discovering it for myself--an experience that, like much human experience, is both irreducibly simple and incredibly complex all at once.


Richard said...

Peter -
You are hitting the nail on the head. There is a book here. Really.

Lillian Abel said...

Thank you, Thank You, THANK YOU. How refreshing.


mandt said...

Always so enjoy the art posts---more, more!

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks, all...!