Making Art as a Battle Between Artist and Material

The New Yorker’s Calvin Tomkins wrote an engaging profile of artist Bruce Nauman in the June 1, 2009 issue.
I found myself underlining a number of quotes, but was most struck by Nauman’s studio routine.
Tomkins writes of Nauman’s younger days:

His studio process, then and now, was to read and think until an idea took hold of him. . [emphasizes his reading list here]. . “I was trying to understand what art is and what artists do,” he told me,” and a lot of that, for me, seemed to involve watching and waiting to see what would happen. When I’m desperate enough to just do anything, even if it seems completely stupid, it’s such a relief.” In those days, he hoped that sooner or later he’d figure out how to make art without such a struggle, but it never happened. “My dad once said, ‘You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day,’ but I think you do,” he told me. “Maybe not every day, but pretty often.”

“Read and think.” “Watching and waiting.”
Artist as observer and synthesizer of words and ideas.
And nothing is easy. Every piece of art is a battle.
If you struggle with your work, you’re in good company.

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21 thoughts on “Making Art as a Battle Between Artist and Material”

  1. I’ve just come through a very active period of creativity and now find my self frustrated. Everything just ebbs and flows with me. If I think too much about the outcome I get stuck. If I give up and let go and just become engaged in the process I’m okay. Seems I have to go through this over and over again.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Debora: Interesting. In that same article, Nauman says that working with horses helped him learn to relinquish control. And he thinks his art got better after that.
      Of course, there’s always the reading thing.

  2. This is an area that I find endlessly frustrating, particularly because my work is my full-time business and sole source of income. There is a natural flow of highly productive periods followed by relative droughts for all creative types. When I want or need to present new, innovative work “on demand”, the stress level seems to elevate exponentially. I find it takes a lot of dedication and determination to allow myself to relax and get to the point where synthesizing and creating comes naturally. I do find myself waiting, and waiting, for inspiration to strike at times. It’s tough when all the fresh ideas have dried up and think that you’ll never come up with anything new again. There’s a lot of “hanging in there” and trusting that it will all come back again.
    During the down times I just go through the movements and fill in the voids with production work. For me, new ideas will often arise naturally out of this automatic, second-nature “doing”. Having the colors and metal in my hands wakes up that dormant creative side, and going back through old sketchbook never hurts either.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Angela: A lot of experts recommend the Doing. Don’t just wait, do something. Nauman found his inspiration in books. For others it could be a walk, a movie, whatever.

  3. Art should appear effortless. If I can see the artist’s struggle with their medium or their genre in the work itself, I get stuck in that struggle with them and I can’t go anywhere else with the piece.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Gwenn: Don’t you think there’s a difference in it appearing effortless and being effortless?

    2. Yes! Art can be difficult to make or not, but, until I’m interested in the work, I don’t care to know about the artist’s struggle.

  4. This is great to read. Some days (heck, some weeks) I feel like I’m spinning my wheels, and all the while I’m reading artist updates on twitter saying they’ve finished eight paintings a day for the last two months.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Lesley: Hmmm. Maybe you should read that post on comparing yourself to other artists from last week. 😉 Not really my words, but the comments.

  5. Being a full time artist and work “on demand” as Angela pointed out is not easy. I think there is still a misconception in the world about the “artist” concept. Of course, we LOVE what we do, otherwise we wouldn’t be in this very competitive business. But it is also a hard work. I hope that everyone would understand the complexity of the creative process, time and imagination it requires.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      HJM: Most artists who get into the biz have no idea what they’re getting into. They love making art, but they don’t love making it a business. I try to emphasize how hard you have to work to make a living as an artist. If you haven’t learned the work discipline somewhere (art school, another job), it’s hard to pick up mid-life. But you have to if you’re going to be a pro.

  6. I took a sculpture class from Nauman at UC Irvine in 1973. He didn’t reveal himself as the teacher for a couple of weeks. If I remember correctly, he said he was “watching to see what we would do” After a few more weeks, I told him I wasn’t interested in what he was teaching and he was kind enough to congratulate me, release me from attendance and give me a A.
    It’s always been a good “dine out ” story.

  7. Following The Next Great Artist, I’ve been impressed with what a difficult challenge they’ve accepted – because there’s not much time to think, process, and produce. There’s no time to watch and wait. And you see that relief when they at least come up with some idea to work on, even as they know it’s not good. I’ve felt that at times, too.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Becky: I KNOW! I can’t imagine being stuck in a room with many people you don’t like and given instructions to produce something (based on someone else’s criteria) in 48 hours. You’re right, though. It is kind of fun to see the relief phase–like Abdhi at the ocean last night.

  8. Very interesting thought. I typically don’t think too much about what I’m doing when I paint. I’m more of an active painter who enjoys the process of painting itself. Good thoughts though.

  9. I think that my work reached a turning point when I was finally able to let go. I can be a control freak sometimes and this translated into my art. After working with fold forming metal for a while I learned to let go and see where the metal takes me sometimes. It helped to create more flow and freedom in my pieces. I still have pieces where I use a lot of control, but now I know that I don’t have to and it’s opened up new possibilities.

  10. Olivia Alexander

    I really love this article and the comments posted! I’m glad I’m not alone. sometimes it feels like ‘giving birth’ when I’m working on a painting and hitting that point of frustration and struggle. I have learnt to walk away for a while, a week, a day; whatever. I have also learnt to have the confidence to know that the creative flow will return, don’t panic! Sometimes the more I push, the worse it gets.
    I create in ‘blocks’, maybe 8-10 paintings at a time, over a month or so and then there is nothing. This is when it is my time to ‘refill’ myself; visit galleries, read books, interact with other artists and just observe life around me.
    Because I don’t paint realism but rather Abstract Expressionism these times are very important.

  11. From what I’ve read and experienced these ‘blocks’ Olivia speaks of are common among us and to my mind seem the most plausible way for creative energy to live. I am a huge believer in the rest and run theory – I feel it’s healthy to go through the creative spurts and then rest again waiting for the spurt to fill up and over flow. I don’t think I could live with myself (or anyone else live with me) if I was creative more than 35-40% of the time.
    The more time you spend on a project the better the feel you have for your energy for it – you know when it’s just not ‘happening.’ I have a rule. When I get to a point in a studio session when 3 things have gone wrong or aren’t ‘happening’ I pack up for the day, go home and purge the frustration in my process notes while having a beer!

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