Your Life’s Work: The Artist’s Retrospective

A retrospective is an exhibition that shows off the entire oeuvre of an artist’s career. Typically arranged chronologically and later in an artist’s life, retrospectives treat art viewers to the progression of the work in a single space.

I try to visit as many retrospectives as I can for artists I admire, which sometimes involves traveling and going out of my way as necessary. You never know when they will happen again since it’s difficult to borrow or gather the work in one place.

Retrospectives aren’t just for viewers. They provide an excellent opportunity for artists to examine their accomplishments.

Even without an art venue for your retrospective, you can take stock of your life’s work by creating a virtual retrospective.

Virginia Folkestad discovers insights into her life’s work by using a visual timeline.
Virginia Folkestad discovers insights into her life’s work by using a visual timeline.

I was delighted to come across Virginia Folkestad’s timeline in her studio several years ago. She made this by tacking color images of her art chronologically to the wall. She then used yarn or string to connect ideas and thought processes between earlier and later work.

[Tweet “Examine your life's work with a virtual retrospective #artists “]

Try this for yourself. It’s virtual because you don’t have to schlep artwork around or borrow it back from collectors.

As you go through the process, look for:

  • Common themes that crop up across time
  • Repeated use of a motif
  • Favoring a certain color, palette, or subject
  • Big change in direction and, perhaps, corresponding life events
  • Maturity of technique

I love this approach because it’s not only visual but also kinesthetic. I think you will uncover unexpected things when you add movement and a sense of touch to an exercise you might have been tempted to do on the computer.

You can’t help but benefit from this process.

You are spending more time with the work and reviewing it with the benefit of hindsight. This allows you to think about it intellectually rather than monetarily or emotionally, which will help you become more articulate about your work.

To expand the vocabulary around your work, record, in writing, why you connected the images.

What did you discover?
What were you reminded of?
What ideas came up?


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16 thoughts on “Your Life’s Work: The Artist’s Retrospective”

  1. This is a great idea. I have been traveling down memory lane recently and had not thought of posting photos up on a wall. It really is a fascinating trip. Thanks!

  2. You can also do this if you have a good inventory software system that displays images of the work. The majority of my pieces are numbered in chronological order in my database, so I can scroll from beginning to end to see how my work has grown and changed. It’s not as in-depth as putting everything up on the wall and connecting them, but it’s a quick and easy way to get a glimpse of it.

    1. Yes, of course, Robert. But that takes away the kinesthetic benefit. Still, I can see a benefit to doing both and great value in being able to do it quickly on the computer when you need to.

  3. This piece is a work of art in itself, this post…It is so beautifully written, it dances in my brain like a cloud with streaks of rain on an airplane window…Joseph offered to make me a cup of tea, & I said yes as long as it had no strings attached…He answered ok I’ll give you a tea bag with no string…Such a kind gift on this dreary morning to get this wonderful piece of writing that uses the word kinesthetic…Kinesiology the study of movement is not so well known…Kinesthetics in art is just so Now! (Calder mobiles more than mobile phones I mean)…

  4. I’ve been thinking about a retrospective for some time now. Thank you Alyson for this thoughtful article.
    I am already planning a “Virtual Exhibition” for this fall. Stay tuned.

  5. Alyson…when i try to share to FB…i get a different Post (about art licensing that comes up…how to stop/heal this???!!! Want to share these great posts to FB! Thank you…

  6. This is what i get:

    If you’re interested in licensing your art, read on

    I’m a little late sharing this information with you, but if you’re interested in licensing your art, this is a terrific opportunity to learn about licensing from the comfort of your own home.

  7. Your website can act as the definitive retrospective exhibition of your art…organised from most recent first to the oldest last…

  8. While getting ready to have a garage sale,(Oh misery!) my wife was pricing some of her old books. One was nothing but quotes on different topics and I turned to the section on art quotes. I came across two that seems to fit with the idea of a retrospective.

    “Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man (or woman) consciously, by means of certain external signs hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.” Leo Tolstoy

    “An artist carries on throughout his life a mysterious, uninterrupted conversation with his public.” Maurice Chevalier

    As you look at your life’s work it will mirror the peaks and valleys of your life and how it influenced your art. I recall the first painting I did after my father passed away over 30 years ago. It turned out to be the best painting I did prior to that as well as a time after.
    It seemed to paint itself. It’s size was 15″x30″ and was a night scene with the moon showing in the sky. I still have that painting. Whether we realize it at the time or in hindsight our art has a story behind it even if it’s a short story. Given enough time stories are added and it becomes a collection and it begins to speak volumes.

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