April 28, 2014

How to Be A Successful Artist

Administrator's Note: I received the following email from a Los Angeles artist, referencing an exchange I had with Lenny Campello about so-called "Mistakes Artists Make." Even though the exchange dates from August 2009, this artist's interaction with a "well-known architect" about the topic of commercial galleries and "making it" as an artist has prompted me to post his email (with his permission) and my reply to him here:

I enjoyed reading your post and your debate with Lenny on your review of the book "The Artist's Guide to Getting into Galleries and Selling More Art" by J. Jason Horejs, owner of Scottsdale’s Xanadu Gallery. [Note: My comments on Lenny's blog entail my "review."] 

I agree with you. 

I had an interesting dinner conversation a month ago with an artist and his wife, an actress friend of mine. (Quick background - I have been pursuing an art and acting career for a few years, with successes here and there, but neither has been so lucrative that I can afford to quit my regular 8-5 job. But I always hold out hope for that.) She invited me over to meet her husband and to see his studio, in Venice, CA, which was spacious and beautiful. He is a well-known architect, he told me, and this has allowed him to build this fabulous studio, but his passion now is making art. In getting acquainted, he asked me when I found time to create my work and I told him I dedicate my Sundays to painting, as my acting pursuits take a lot of my time - with acting classes, studying scripts, going to workshops, etc., as well as working a weekdays 8-5 job. He had gone to my website, he said, and left quickly. He said, "You cannot or should not call yourself an 'artist' since you don't have a 'voice' in art, you are adding nothing to the art conversation." Neither did I concentrate on one particular style, which he felt was the worst sin towards art. He argued if I didn't paint every day and didn't focus on one subject matter or one style, I could never hope of being anything more than a "Sunday Painter", without gallery representation.

I feel this philosophy is like "the tail wagging the dog" approach to representation. Where the gallery and public tell the artist what to paint. Instead of the artist painting what he likes and the gallery and public follow after. Shouldn't an artist be following his own drummer?  I admit, I have fallen in the trap of trying to adhere to the other way of thinking . Currently, I am doing paintings of Paris. But, luckily I like the subject matter, for now, and it interests me. It feels to me, my style of painting on this so-called series has evolved. I've only gotten maybe 8 done. By the time I get 100 paintings done, which I am sure I will lose interest by then, my first paintings will be completely different than the last, I suspect. 

Anyway, I honestly didn't mean for this email to be this long. I came upon your posts because someone on Facebook posted a link to Horejs' mistakes artists make - and the things he wrote about were the same things regurgitated to me by the artist I met. It upset me all over again.  I then did a Google search for anyone that disagreed and came upon your post. Thanks for writing that.

[Name withheld for anonymity.]

Dear [blank],

I went back to re-read what Lenny Campello and I "debated" on his blog re: Horjes' book, which I never actually read due to his ideas about those "mistakes." I'm pleased to report that I haven't changed my mind, particularly on these points:

An intelligent gallery needs to catch-up and learn to spot the unifying reasoning or theory behind the work...
Still "spot on" as to the necessity of gallerists to educate themselves on contemporary art theory and open their minds to the concepts an artist is working on and/or with; it's not all "visible" in the objects.

We're beyond the traditional ways of making, presenting, representing and selling art.
Never truer than now, as the growth of "pop-up" shows and alternative spaces clearly shows that the "old school" (read commercial) approach is quickly losing traction with young artists as they realize making a living off your art is neither required or even possible - and that's not a bad thing.

But what I want to address is what this pompous "well-known architect" said to you: 
"You cannot or should not call yourself an 'artist' since you don't have a 'voice' in art, you are adding nothing to the art conversation." Neither did I concentrate on one particular style, which he felt was the worst sin towards art. He argued if I didn't paint every day and didn't focus on one subject matter or one style, I could never hope of being anything more than a "Sunday Painter", without gallery representation."   

First and foremost, how can someone who is not "making a living" off his art (since he presumably supports himself with his architect's income) have the arrogance to tell you how to do it? So he's got a fancy studio in high-rent Venice, CA and can putter around with his "art hobby?" Good for him, but I wouldn't take his advice on anything related to the art world.

His mistake is in believing that your "voice" is your artistic "style." Your "voice" is based in linguistics; to be a part of art discourse all one has to do is read, think and discuss art. We've reached the era where concepts are driving the form we use to convey those concepts - it could be a painting, but it might be a video. Concentrating on "one particular style" is a methodology borrowed from literature, and athletics to a certain extent, and it doesn't work in contemporary art. As a method of making art I would liken it to working with blinders on, ignoring one's cognitive revelations that occur during the conceptual processes of art making.

I don't make art every day but I do think or read about it, or teach it daily. In this way, I have been most fortunate to have my "voice" continually refined within the art discourse and that has been essential to my development as an artist. No one has the answer to "how to be a successful artist" and there is no formula either. Rather than equate "success" with monetary goals we ought to work to develop new ways to perceive artistic success itself.

Thank you for your email and I wish you well in your continued pursuits.


April 18, 2014

Always Alreadymade: Found Object or Readymade?

Now that submissions are starting to roll in on our "Call for Entries" for Readymade@100 at AU's Katzen Arts Center, some definitions are in order before the deluge. In unpacking "what constitutes a readymade" in 2014, 100 years after Duchamp's first object was tagged with the name, there are two art terms that should be examined, both for general readers of this site and, most urgently, for those artists out there who plan to submit their "new readymades." 

The easier of the two terms is assemblage, which is essentially a three-dimensional collage composed of objects instead of flat materials like paper or photographs. Assemblage in art (not to be confused with MIT's now defunct architectural theory journal or the on-line collaborative for "real-time connectedness") can be made from natural or man-made objects, is labor-intensive, sculptural and an additive process to develop form. As such, it is far from the essence of a readymade, even though it is sometimes constructed of found objects.  

That's the thornier of the two art terms, the found object, or objet trouvĂ©. The difficulty arises because some art historians, scholars, critics and curators throughout the 20th Century have exasperatingly continued to classify found objects as readymades, and conversely, confuse readymades with found objects.

True, readymades must be found first but let us be clear: it was Marcel Duchamp who definitively established the manufactured, mass-produced, commodity object as a readymade, first using the term in 1914. As will be mentioned often during the next four months leading up to the September 6th opening of Readymade@100, it was Duchamp's choice that defined his act as an artistic one. Furthermore, Duchamp's engagement with the context of an art exhibition (Society of Independent Artists, 1917) by entering his readymade Fountain (subsequently rejected) that sparked over a century of debate about the definition of art and what constitutes an artwork. 

At this juncture, and again I stress "before the deluge," I simply want to offer Margaret Iversen's distinguished essay, "Readymade, Found Object, Photograph." Let this serve as evidence of the complexities of the associative "unconscious" designation of the objet trouvĂ©:

"The found object shares with the readymade a lack of obvious aesthetic quality and little intervention on the part of the artist beyond putting the object in circulation, but in almost every other respect it is dissimilar. The difference is attributable to [Andre] Breton's positioning the found object in a different space -- the space of the unconscious. [...] The object found as if by chance is situated at the point of connection between external nature, perception, and the unconscious, and thus has a peculiar, elusive relation to vision. The space occupied by the found object is carved out by traumatic experience, defined precisely as an experience that has failed to achieve a representation, but on which, nonetheless, one’s whole existence depends. I will argue that this object calls attention to itself by creating a hole in the fabric of normal perception. This may sound as though I'm contrasting the found object with the readymade in terms of a subjectivity/anti-subjectivity polarity, but the matter is not so simple. The traumatic subject is not the personal self that was so strenuously avoided in the tradition of disinterested art. Both that tradition and Surrealism were interested in the displacement of the artist’s agency."(1)

With both found objects and readymades requiring "little intervention" from the artist we can perhaps see the confusion between the two. However, Iversen's emphasis on the "traumatic experience" that allows the subject to find an object that visualizes the "hole in the fabric of normal perception" distinguishes the found object as an unconscious selection. Moreover, Iversen cites Breton's Mad Love (1937) for later influencing psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's retooling of the Freudian trauma as a "Surrealist encounter," to crystalize her distinction between found object and readymade: 

"The found object is encountered and the effect is traumatic. The contrast between the Duchampian rendezvous and the Bretonian encounter should now be clear. While the readymade is essentially indifferent, multiple, and mass-produced, the found object is essentially singular or irreplaceable, and both lost and found."(2)

How will this figure in my curatorial consideration of your "new readymade" submissions? Instead of requesting a psychoanalyst to accompany my review of the Readymade@100 image submissions, I will have to trust my visceral response to each of the objects that I regard. The possibility that a mass-produced, commodity object may fulfill an artist's "singular or irreplaceable" traumatic need is obviously very real. Certainly, I do not wish to miss such a delightful object as Breton's little wooden spoon that he found in a Paris flea market, and whose delicious mystery Man Ray's evocative photograph, reproduced above, only slightly captures.

IMAGE: "From a little spoon that was part of it..." (1934); photograph by Man Ray, published in Andre Breton, Mad Love. Copyright 2004, Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London. 


1. Iversen, Margaret. "Found Object, Readymade, Photograph" in Art Journal, Vol. 63, No. 2; Summer 2004; 48-49.

2. Ibid., 50.

April 1, 2014

Dear reader...

It has come to my attention that I have yet to submit a single essay for you thus far in this new year. However, apologies will not be forthcoming for my life has been anything but static because of my focused energies on physical and theoretical fronts since 2014 began.

The Corcoran saga continues, of course. As adjunct professor, my profile is relatively low thereabouts, even as my theory courses have run sequentially each semester since 2004. However, the angst pervading the ranks, both tenured and contracted, has provoked some of us to speak our minds publicly and in print. My own comments, though edited and taken somewhat out of context in this GW Hatchet article, expressed my gut concern for the “Corcoran experience” to survive this inevitable Academic Merger. And I was humbled to find my name amongst those “key” faculty mentioned by Corcoran students in Kriston Capps’ somber piece on “The Final Failure.”  

I must tell you that the thought of finding myself adrift, untethered from academia and my students, is simultaneously depressing and exhilarating. As an artist who teaches, my steady, part-time employment at Corcoran has been a godsend, ever more so because I deal with language, texts, and the discourse that enables this art experience that we are all so enamored of and fortunate to know. However, as a practicing artist I will undoubtedly benefit from those extra hours that would be returned to me if I were not reading about, lecturing on and teaching art theory.

And so it goes. We will not know how it will go until George Washington University and the Corcoran hammer out the details. Nevertheless, I have a good feeling that I will continue as a professor in their resultant institutional organization.

Meanwhile, I will be jurying two upcoming Virginia art exhibits: first, for Gallery Underground’s “Mayhem” show that opens April 29, with the opening reception on Friday, May 2, 2014; then for Target Gallery's Open Exhibition 2014, opening July 19, 2014. Submissions for both shows have closed and I look forward to viewing all of the artwork this month.

Finally, my "Readymade @ 100" exhibition for the American University Museum at Katzen Arts Center is heating up with my planned research visit to the Norton Simon Museum's Archives in the coming weeks. My interest is Marcel Duchamp's 1963 retrospective and the Archives have generously agreed to my request to peruse all correspondence, interviews and ephemera associated with that exhibit. Seeking mid-Twentieth Century perceptions of Duchamp's readymade concept, it is also my fervent desire to spend some quality time with the Norton Simon's Bottle Rack and La Joconde.

I promise that I will touch base periodically with updates, enlightenments and critiques as time permits. This little soapbox is still one of my true loves and I shall not ignore you loyal readers of this site.

IMAGE: L.H.O.O.Q. or La Joconde, 1964 (replica of 1919 original); colored reproduction, heightened with pencil and white gouache, edition of 35, No. 6 (Arturo Schwartz edition); Norton Simon Museum, Gift of Virginia Dwan; © 2008 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / Succession Marcel Duchamp.