Saturday, August 8, 2009

Artist's Statements and Titles

A journalist to Sorolla: " Maestro, you have had such a brilliant success with works on social themes, will you please tell me what you think about them?" Sorolla: " My friend, I just paint pictures – other people do the explaining!"

For myself one of the most dreaded duties in the art business is writing an artist's statement. Galleries want them because it's good promo material. They can hand them out to interested collectors or as a media packet. But does anybody ever read them? And do they say anything? I bet most artists would say they just BS the whole statement. It's not hard. There is a whole lot of gobbledy-gook artspeak in the culture. Or they make a bland, generic statement about their love of light and form...

Artist Alex Kanevsky doesn't include an artist's statement because he wants his art to speak for itself. Yup...that's what I think too, and if it's good enough for Alex, it's good enough for me.( Come to think of it I've never read an artist statement from Wyeth, Sargent, Hopper, Homer, Innes, etc. either. When did it become de rigueur to have an artist statement? I'm going out on a limb here wondering if maybe it has something to do with that period when art needed to be explained? Maybe around the time of abstract and conceptual art?

One problem with writing an artist statement is that the darn thing is obsolete almost the minute I dot the last period. What I think about my work and my goals changes hourly, though it does tend in a general direction. (Okay maybe not hourly - but it changes.) It's why I have such a hard time titling pictures also. Picture titling is right up there with that odious artist statement. Maybe I'd just rather paint than write?

In my humble opinion the painting is a dialogue between viewer, painting and artist. Anything that comes between that dialogue siphons away some of the richness and power of the relationship. A title can do just that. Here's a list of some titles from paintings in an OPA catalogue: "So,What'll you have?", "Three's Company", "Imposing View", "Warm Winter Wishes", "Beloved Hope", "Grapes and Pears", "Wanna Ride?", "Lemons in Box", "Pigtails, Princess and Pilar". Without even looking I can say "Grapes and Pears" and "Lemons in Box" are still lifes. Gonna look now...Yup I was right. Think the viewer needed to know that? Wouldn't it have been better if the painting were "Untitled"? I mean it's lemons in a box so whatever emotional import the viewer brings, a title doesn't help them. But they look away from the painting to read the title and lose a moment to feel the painting. If it were up to me I'd have every single one of my paintings "Untitled", unless it was extremely important for me to give the viewer more info than the painting provides.

There's another reason titles and statements are dangerous, ie what the artist felt painting the picture may have nothing to do with the emotions I feel looking at the picture. Here's an example; take Wyeth's "Brown Swiss". When I look at that painting (or a repro) I'm about 16 or 17 sitting on a hill on a cold evening ,watching the shadows lengthen across a farm pond. I've got all the time in the world to sit and future to spend - yet I'm a little sad and scared because I don't know where that future will take me. The wind is sighing in the tiny pines behind me and I know soon I've got to go down the hill - but for a few moments I can sit here....

The reality is Wyeth painted that picture with completely different emotions. He knew the farmer in the house was German and that fact got all tied up with emotions about Wyeth's relationship with his father and family, with Karl Kuerner and Germany and ...cows. (Brown Swiss is a cow - I think.) All that means nothing to me when I look at the painting, nor should it. I have my own world I bring to the painting, and I don't need to know his reasons. It's a powerful picture.

Am I starting to sound a little shrill here?

Okay, knowing the history of an artist's intention can add to the richness of the viewing experience. It just doesn't need to be in the viewer's face. To go back for a moment to Wyeth's "Brown Swiss', the information given about why he painted the picture wasn't in an artist's statement. I believe it was given years later during an interview. The hook can be set, the painting made personal, and then the viewer can go back to explore the artist's intentions. Nine times out of ten the viewer will say, "Hmmm that wasn't what I thought/felt at all when looking at the painting."

Yes, yes I know I'm no Wyeth or Sargent. It doesn't mean I have to like writing an artist's statement - just that I have to do it. And for the record if Arcadia Gallery calls I'm all over it.


  1. How now, brown cow? Sorry. Couldn't resist.

    These are gorgeous portraits with beautiful strokes. I especially love the streak of light running down her thigh. And I must tell you how much I love, love, love the stable painting on your website. The lighting. Wow, incredible!

    For someone who detests artist's statements, you sure make a strong one here. :) Excellent points, well taken. You write so well. Always entertaining and thought provoking.

  2. You never liked Wyeth, did you? Start blogging again so I can leave some comments on your site like: "Run Oz Run", or "Twinkle twinkle little star."

    Seriously, thanks for stopping by Bella. It's high praise when you love something.


About Me

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Elmira, New York, United States
In many ways I think like a photographer. The image itself is becoming more and more important to me; the actual application of paint less and less. Blasphemy in some painterly circles. I choose to paint figures and portraits because I consider them the most difficult subject.