Some thoughts on the meaning of success for an artist, Or, The art school and its former customers

Today I receive from a former student one of the many exhibition notices I get, for a group show, including other former students. It’s a phenomenon rarely discussed: faculty who teach over a long period of time track the careers of their former students over years, not all of them but those who stay in their memory and on their screen, and among these not just the few who make it big, possibly bigger than the teacher–in fact often those former students never even keep you in the loop, because they are doing so well and most likely feel their teachers had no role in their success, and perhaps quite rightly so, and they may even erase their education from their bio notes–but from the ones who two, three, and more significantly five or ten years on, continue, getting their work into galleries, organizing group exhibitions with some of their fellow artists/former classmates, their immediate cohort.

You can see the patterns of friendship and allegiance and ideology, you can see the struggle to just get a show in the city you live in much less the global arena that the rhetoric claims we are training them for. As an artist I know how hard that struggle is just to continue to make work and try to get yourself out there and create a discourse around yourself in the face of jobs done to survive and in the face of waves of new fresh MFAs and in the face of the sheer difficulty of continuing and defining oneself, and growing. If you continue at all, if you continue to grow as an artist, that is, you remain alive within thought, maintaining a belief in your work that is inflected with self-criticality and willingness to expose yourself to challenge, you have achieved a measure of success, though not success as it is presented in the media as defined by monetary value nor necessarily success according to dominant values in art academia at any given moment and place.

Educational institutions often don’t show enough interest in many of their former students’ accomplishments, particularly if they are of this journeyman nature rather than of the spectacular framed by the market and selected elite art institutions. The individual teacher who has had a human relation to the individual student and who has at best invested some of her own life energy into someone else, has a different relation to the former student than the institution which moves on to what can only be best described as both new future product, but also current customers who are by definition fungible. Faculty who teach a long time in sense have deeper institutional memory than the institution itself and what their memory holds may even be inconvenient: the institution is always reconstituting itself as being up to the latest date, that is both the genuine desire, the rhetoric, and the marketing ploy. It seeks to, it promises to prepare the student for what it sees as the future that the student will live in, which is of course an important goal, particularly when education is increasingly generating enormous student debt, but inevitably the institution’s concept of the future is based on ideologies that are themselves date-stamped in one past or another. Only rarely is there a fortuitous near synchrony between the ideology and the school–we mark those in history, the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, Yale, NSCAD, CalArts, among these, each at specific moments in time even if the institution continued to exist past that moment of cultural synchrony.  When the institution asserts that its goal is to shape the artist /citizen of the future, it may call on new ideologies that it feels necessitate the erasure of the old ones so it is inconvenient if long time faculty know that former students who are successful according to the terms of the new ideology in fact emerged from instruction in the old, discredited regime.

This is part of what I think of when I receive the email announcements from one former student or another, from last year or two decades ago. When I posted a version of this text on Facebook a couple of days ago most people took it as an appreciation of the teacher / student relation, and of the struggle just to continue to be an artist and thus a questioning of  what definitions of success are for the artist. But that very questioning is embedded within the experience gained over a lifetime of being an artist who teaches in institutions of higher learning in the arts and how that very experience is considered by the institutions.

Teaching is also a very human interaction so that for better or worse, patterns of favoritism based on aesthetic, political, and philosophical ideology, but also on the simple relations of affinity and friendship persist through time, past graduation, favoring some students over others depending on the regime in place.

However the lack of connection between student and educational institution is also a mutual thing: many MFAs programs do have websites for former students to send in notices of exhibitions but most former students don’t use them. Nevertheless the institution is more likely to be indifferent to markers of the every day survival of the every day artist, rather than to the star turn which will reflect best on the institution.


In the June Issue of The Brooklyn Rail

This month’s Critic’s Page section of The Brooklyn Rail is organized and introduced by artist and educator Ann McCoy. In her words from her introduction “Wellsprings Reconsidered,” it presents “a long overdue re-examination of the role of the unconscious in art making.” This subject seems very timely, and the contributions include very interesting texts and images. I am delighted to be included. Because the communities of The Brooklyn Rail, A Year of Positive Thinking’s subscribers and readers, and the Facebook community don’t overlap as perfectly as might seem likely, here is the direct link to my contribution, “The Warp and The Woof.”

In my text I refer to four works. Two are reproduced in the Rail. Here are all the works referred to, beginning to the first two works or series of works referred to, which are not reproduced in the issue.

The first, The Two Miras, is part of a group of gouache on paper works from 1972-1973 that I called “Story Paintings,” a number of which were done based on dreams, including this one, according to what friends remember my saying at the time. Each painting was on Arches paper, 22″ x 30.”


The second instance is from Dreams, a series of works done in 1977-1978, ink and mixed media on rice paper, each was about 18″ x 29,” worked from front and back so that they are two sided works. Each presents the text of a dream written in black ink, with my analysis of it written with a different pen in sepia ink. Here are two such works, including a detail of the second piece. The first one, directly below will be included in “Four Figures,” a group exhibition curated by Tom Knechtel at Marc Selwyn Fine Art opening  in early July in Los Angeles.




I created a very limited edition color Xerox artist’s book in 1979, mostly typing diaristic reflections, artists’ statements, and dreams onto pages from a series of booklets I found in Chinatown, Vere Foster’s New Civil Service Copy-Books Medium Series, this one #6, from Hong Kong. These were relics of colonial British rule which taught cursive script in a manner and style very similar to the way I was taught how to write, in a French Lycée (a trace of a colonial experience in itself). The series begins with the basic forms of letters and ends with a booklet of sometimes familiar, sometimes esoteric British proverbs and sayings. I called the book Chinatown Notebooks. These were the final two pages.



The last image reproduced is My Dreams Are Emptied Out, an ink on gesso on linen work from 2011.





When I’m 64!

Being 64 was very distant, for the Beatles as for me, back in 1967, but compared to my thirtieth birthday, today was a walk in the park. In fact I just took a walk in the Park to the Frick Museum, content to be alone on a lovely afternoon. I stood in front of the Pietà by a follower of Konrad Witz from 1440 and then in front of the nearly identical but flatter and more “primitive” but somehow equally powerful Pietà with Donor from the School of Provence, a near copy of the Witz school painting, from some time later in the fifteenth century, studied with the deepest engagement and pleasure the complex similarities and differences, why the less sophisticated painting nevertheless manages to represent Christ’s “humanation” (cf. Leo Steinberg) with if anything more contingent embodiment, while feeling sorry that anyone could today consider being an artist without giving themselves the opportunity to experience such works even if they are so far in our distant past.

Thinking back to past birthdays, turning thirty was a dark transition. Although my older sister Naomi told me that basically one’s twenties were an utter waste of time, as I turned 30 the energy, intellectual drive, and native optimism of youth that had gotten me past my father’s early death, through adolescence, into the world, into the artworld, suddenly dimmed. Old habits of being no longer functioned properly at my new age and in changing cultural conditions. I was blindsided by the radical changes in art, theory, and politics, which in 1979 became suddenly tangible if not immediately at least to me comprehensible. It took me several years to take the measure of the new culture and to adapt, essentially reeducate and recreate myself on my own, on the fly, not in school, more or less into the person who writes this blog, and my understanding of the meaning of those cultural changes continues to unfold even now, maybe more clearly than ever now, because we are only now, post 2001 and 2008,  living in a present of the full effects of things that began to manifest themselves then.

I have had to recreate myself several times since then, as we all have to do. And, by the way, every major birthday since my thirtieth has been so much better, being whatever the age and also the actual celebration itself: by the time I arrived at my thirtieth birthday party, I had been so miserable about everything that some of the friends who were throwing it for me were barely speaking to me and the day was thunderous, humid, and sulpherously dark; I threw my fortieth for myself and it was fine; my 41st birthday, with chicken wings from Pluck-U and freshly blended strawberry daiquiris, was the most fun ever; 50 was fine though it was about 100 degrees and 50 was a great year. I threw a great party for my sixtieth, having gotten past the major regeneration of my life and work after the death of my mother. So I could take in stride a modest and quiet “When I’m 64.”

As one example of a reinvention: the year of 1983, as part of a desire to move from the kind of work I had been doing towards work that was larger, whose goal was to project a new and more accurate metaphor of self, one less fragile than that projected by my earlier materials of delicate rice paper,  I turned from small works on paper to sculpture, done with plaster and paper on a simple armature, in a back-assed manner, since I had no technical experience in how to create something large by hand that would stand in three-dimensional space.


I worked on forms similar to figurative, nature-based stencil shapes I had developed in the early 80s, as in a delicate pastel and dry pigment work on rice paper from 1982, The Birth of the Little Shark, and my biggest most solid sculpture from 1983, the year of sculpture, was a work called Birthday.

290Birthday-1983-A 291-Birthday-1983-C


Just one little fly in the ointment of “When I’m 64″ is that some forces in the world turn their beady little eyes on you and want from you things that would require changing the few irreducible things you absolutely can’t change–the time and the place of your birth, the history you have inherited by birth, and the memory and lessons of the times you have lived through. In other words, you can learn a lot of things, and adapt as well as any of us can to changing circumstances and ideologies, but if you’re 64 the one thing you can never do is be thirty again. But, to those some forces in the world, as the song says, someday “You’ll be older too.”

But, staying on the positive, I thank my friends including my many Facebook friends for the many warm greetings and let’s sing along with Sir Paul, who is about to turn 72 June 18,

When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now
Will you still be sending me a valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
If I’d been out ’til quarter to three, would you lock the door?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m sixty-four?

You’ll be older too
Ah, and if you say the word, I could stay with you

I could be handy, mending a fuse when your lights have gone
You can knit a sweater by the fireside, Sunday mornings, go for a ride
Doing the garden, digging the weeds, who could ask for more?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m sixty-four?

Every summer we can rent a cottage
In the Isle of Wight if it’s not too dear
We shall scrimp and save
Ah, grandchildren on your knee, Vera, Chuck and Dave

Send me a postcard, drop me a line stating point of view
Indicate precisely what you mean to say, yours sincerely wasting away
Give me your answer, fill in a form, mine forever more
Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m sixty-four?


Tabula Rasa, Sine Qua Non, from 2013 (back on delicate paper): Sine Qua Non, what you carry with you, what the world says that you must carry with you, that without which you are not yourself, and Tabula Rasa, where you always begin again, seemingly at zero, with, and for a painter, on a blank slate.