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BOOKSHELF

  • INSIDE THE PAINTER'S STUDIO

    author:Joe Fig

    If you have wondered about the things that painters see and do once they have crossed the threshold into the artist’s studio, then Joe Fig’s book is a great primer. He presents cross-section of the New York artist community—those who have made it in the way that most art students fantasize about—and opens them up to discuss what it takes and how they get down to work daily.

    The first thing I love about this book is its oblique reference to Vasari’s 1550 text Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects in which the italian artist and architect documented the work of his contemporaries in a series of Vitae (biographies). Its title however is a nod to Inside The Actors Studio, the popular TV program where noteworthy actors are subject to a set of fixed questions. This 240-page book is filled with interviews with contemporary artists in New York and the images of artists’ studios and the objects that occupy them: books, paints, brushes, paper, canvas, walls and tables that have seen years of use. The text is nicely typeset, and comfortable to read almost anywhere: my copy passed the “Inside-the-moving-train-to-White-Plains” Test. The textured paper stock also makes it convenient for marginalia.

    The questions Fig presents to all the artists include discussions about the artist’s everyday practice: when to show up, to have or not to have music while working, what materials are used, and so on. He deviates carefully from the stock questions and will easily pursue an interesting thread in the conversation or delve further into an area that is unique to an artist, that the reader might find interesting.

    In the latter part of the interview he switches it up to soliciting mentor-style advice, asking each artist about their motto or creed, and what younger artists might want to consider as they commit to the path. This aspect makes the book more interesting for the mix of straightforward, tactical material and wisdom that artists will sometimes sheepishly introduce as personal insight from experience.

    The artists in the book include Gregory Amenoff, Ross Bleckner, Chuck Close, Will Cotton, Inka Essenhigh, Eric Fischl, Barnaby Furnas, April Gornik, Jane Hammond, Mary Heilmann, Bill Jensen, Ryan McGinness, Julie Mehretu, Malcolm Morley, Steve Mumford, Philip Pearlstein, Matthew Ritchie, Alexis Rockman, Dana Schutz, James Siena, Amy Sillman, Joan Snyder, Billy Sullivan, and Fred Tomaselli. Joe Fig makes an appearance interviewing at the of the book, much like Vasari did in his series.

    The photography is well lit and clear. Aside from the generous, reportage-style shots of the studio interiors, there are casually composed close-ups of unique equipment, and other small details that might prepare you for the inevitable double take: miniature dioramas that the author(and artist) has created of the artists’ studio. The book, it turns out, is a further exploration in Fig’s own work as an artist who “explores the creative process and the spaces where art is made.”

    One of the possibly acceptable criticisms of the book is that it invests primarily in New York artists, a rare breed given the rising cost of living, and the quickly increasing lack of feasibility for artists to make a home here as many of those in the book (the author lives in Connecticut). Given, however, Vasari documented peers within close proximity, the parallel is easy to understand—and forgiven—as a curatorial constraint that works for both logistical and artistic reasons.

    I found Inside The Painter’s Studio book comprehensive, and an interesting mass-material “art product”, of Fig’s areas of interest and exploration. The content resonated with me easily, and likely would with painters in New York or indeed anywhere. It works for any artists who strive to maintain a studio practice, whether professional or otherwise.

     

     

  • SO GOOD THEY CAN'T IGNORE YOU

    Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love

    author: Cal Newport

    I had not heard of Cal Newport until he started talking about how advice to follow your passion—in the common way that most people often took it—was misunderstood, and generally bad advice. In this book he explores what works instead and how to go about it.

    Newport’s work in his blog Study Hacks and the subject matter for his other books demonstrates his long-term focus in various aspects of Performance Science. In this book, his material is specific to following passion as a means to success and on what distinguishes the people who achieve this success while many others don’t.

    “Part of what makes the craftsman mindset thrilling is its agnosticism toward the type of work you do. The traits that define great work are bought with career capital, the theory argues; they don’t come from matching your work to your innate passion. Because of this, you don’t have to sweat whether you’ve found your calling—most any work can become the foundation for a compelling career.”

    I discovered this book soon after its its release. Cal had made his point on numerous video interviews and cut through the major arguments that support the “follow your passion” recommendation. In the book, he discusses how the success stories of people who follow their passion are narratives prone to confirmation bias—that we are likely to discount the examples that don't fit our idea of what should work. In other words if 10 people decide to follow their passion, and eight fail in the process, we selectively remember the two that succeed as proof that following your passion is a valid idea.

    There are a few key concepts in this book. The first, The Craftsman Mindset, is about how the reader can approach skill-building methodically, the motivations required and the mental models that are best suited to pursuing excellence. The second concept, Career Capital, guides the reader toward the best possible circumstances for success in a highly competitive market. One significant concept that rightfully gets attention is Deliberate Practice, coined by Anders Ericsson in his groundbreaking performance science study The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (also the source of Malcolm Gladwell's often-cited 10,000 Hour Rule ) and Peak. Here, Cal is careful to separate conventional interpretation from the serious analytical assessment of the concept. In doing so, he clearly establishes its connection to his larger framework of how the Craftsman is, coupled with the right Career Capital, best positioned for success.

    Once these main concepts are out of the way, the writing changes from being about ideas to guidebook-style recommendations for anyone interested transforming themselves and their performance toward excellence, in practically any field. The book refers back to the concepts as foundational parts throughout, especially as he starts to explore some of the likely obstacles in defining and pursuing success. He gives great examples of people in various fields, citing both successes and failures to make failsafe arguments for his recommendations.

    So Good They Can't Ignore You is a treatise on the importance of developing “ability” within the domain of any field. It is the antidote to the self-help section's feel-good, often unsubstantiated writing on the topic of what to do if you are jaded by what you studied in college, and what you have been doing with that degree since.

    “Follow your passion” is advice commonly given to people who arrive at your doorstep looking for guidance on what to do with themselves. This is the book for them.

     

     

  • Tibor Kalman, Perverse Optimist

    authors: Peter Hall & Michael Bierut

    The book chronicles the work as one of the most interesting minds in the graphic design field in any era. Tibor Kalman's design firm M&Co is mostly the subject of this book, and a comprehensive survey of the breadth, consistency of ideas, and his love for engaging the public rather than attend to them passively as consumers.

    The sheer physicality of this tome is comforting to any fan of Tibor Kalman and his work. Coming in at a solid 420 pages, every page is designed more for feel-of-content than for the content itself. Kalman (and his team) worked in a variety of media, from print to music videos to product design, and this book’s design/writing team of Michael Bierut and Peter Hall have nicely captured the urgency you feel when you encounter something by Kalman.

    Kalman was an ideas man with an international sensibility. It is one of the first things that comes through page after page. The book covers his work from Barnes and Noble, to his work at M&Co., and his subsequent work as co-founding editor-in-chief for COLORS Magazine. There's also the work for, among other things, the Red Square building which involved erecting a permanent statue of Lenin, and his work for Florent, an after-hours diner in the meatpacking district, here in New York.

    There’s the section for work done for the music people (Talking Heads) and the stuff for a variety of clients from Artforum to Interview and music videos and film titles.

    The COLORS Magazine section is among my favorite parts of the book. I had a subscription to the magazine in its early days. It was the first full-color, not-fucking-around, politically charged, well-designed publication paid for by a commercial client that I’d ever come across, it introduced me to the possibilities of a design activism that was fueled by a "global citizen" appetite.

    The book features a number of contributors including Paola Antonelli, David Byrne, Jay Chiat, Jenny Holzer, Isaac Mizrahi, Florent Morellet, Leonard Riggio, Rebecca Robertson, Ingrid Sischy, Elizabeth Sussman, and Oliviero Toscani and essays by Kurt Andersen and Rick Poynor.

    “Good designers are no longer satisfied in taking the manuscript from someone and making it look nice. One of the things that I've tried to do is move from being a designer to a content provider.”

    — TIBOR KALMAN, 1998

    I love this book because every page is delightful to look at for both its visual content and for its editorial surprise. That's the guaranteed thing about designers who come to it with a personality: there's a point of view, and it is often unrelenting. But I also like to look at the pictures of some of the M&Co objects I have eventually collected.

    Kalman and his work are singular in what he brought to the profession. He believed that designers ought to be more involved in understanding how their work matters outside the client’s needs, and he pushed hard to move the needle on how things play out in culture. Even before the COLORS work (which would be his last period of work before his death from cancer), a number of his projects brought attention to poverty, homelessness, the AIDS crisis, race, and corporate greed. The other thing is that Kalman had the fearlessness of a polymath. In the course of his short-lived career, he had produced an incredibly large volume of interestingly designed projects. Throughout, he had managed to do it on his terms.

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  • Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting

    WRITINGS 1960-1993

    authors: Gerhard Richter, Hans-Ulbrich Obrist, David Britt

    Gerhard Richter has long been considered one of the most important artists of the late twentieth century. This collection of private and personal writings is a revelation of one of the most significant artist minds of the latter part of the twentieth century.

    I picked up this book after attending the Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting exhibition at the MoMA, in 2002. I’d already been following his work for years. His 18 October 1977 series (Baader Meinhoff ) was my gateway to his pictures, and I had not been prepared to enjoy so much the work of someone who seemed to work without any signature motif or style—it changed my thinking. It was also difficult to find any significant interview matter on him, so this book looked like a good place to get some insights into his personal views.

    The book is elegantly put together, tastefully typeset and peppered with photographs of Richter in the 60s and 70s. The content is a compilation of personal writings, letters and interviews. This is a collection of diaristic work and expectedly, Richter’s thoughts are candidly paradoxical—they move from the profound to the mundane, and back. The writings often resist the limitation of language, as is typical of a visual artist who understands the problem of what is lost in translation when discussing their work in idiomatic terms.

    “One has to believe in what one is doing, one has to commit oneself inwardly, in order to do painting. Once obsessed, one ultimately carries it to the point of believing that one might change human beings through painting. But if one lacks in this passionate commitment, there is nothing left to do. Then it is best to leave it alone. For basically painting is total idiocy.”

    “Talk about painting: there's no point. By conveying a thing through the medium of language, you change it. You construct qualities that can be said, and you leave out the ones that can't be said but are always the most important.”

    The Daily Practice of Painting is a solid compilation of thoughts and reflections on the act of painting, and the role of a singular painter who has devoted his life to persisting with the medium bravely, as new technologies and modalities have ebbed and flowed through the arts over half a century.

    I come back to this book on a regular basis. I’ve read it cover to cover more than once, and these days I find specific passages that make sense for where I am in my own work. This is among the great companion books for any artist struggling through self-doubt, the uncertainty of purpose and modernity in general. Some of these ideas ring as true today as they might have 60 years ago when they were written. They echo much of what every artist feels at some point or another, if not always, when they have the courage to admit a certain futility in it all.

     

     

  • Interviews with Francis Bacon

    In contact sports, the best opponents are respected for the rigor, stamina and skill they bring into the ring. This set of nine interviews between writer David Sylvester and artist Francis Bacon were conducted between 1962 to 1986. Two of the most erudite figures in the art world of their time bring an impressive honesty to the metaphorical fight toward truth in these conversations with the kind of ease you only witness with masters at their game.

    The cover of this book is a shot of Bacon in his legendary studio on 7 Reece Mews. The casual pulp exterior of my softcover edition belies the depth and breadth of coverage that its 208 pages would present to an admirer of Bacon’s work, let alone any artist working today. The interior is mostly text, with black-and-white reproductions of a number of his works, as well as referential images (photographs and other pictures by other artists).

    DS: In fact, you've done very few paintings with several figures. Do you concentrate on the single figure because you find it more difficult?

    FB: I think that the moment a number of figures become involved, you immediately come on to the storytelling aspect of the relationships between figures. And that immediately sets up a kind of narrative. I always hope to be able to make a great number of figures without a narrative.

    There is a depth of obsessive honesty throughout the conversations. A transcript from audio recordings, every interview is a heady read from start to finish, with Sylvester exploring and respectfully challenging Bacon’s ideas about narrative, photography, and personal biography. How does an artist “show” pain in a work, without illustrating it obtusely? How and what determines taste in a season of “decoration” and unoriginal, yet fashionable, motifs? What emerges is a portrait of the painter in the context of the art world interests and obsessions of that time, and the subsequent effect on the artist's thinking and output.

    DS: I want to ask whether your love of photographs makes you like reproductions as such. I mean, I've always had a suspicion that you're more stimulated by looking at reproductions of Velizquez or Rembrandt than at the originals.

    FB: Well, of course, it's easier to pick them up in your own room than take the journey to the National Gallery, but I do nevertheless go a great deal to look at them in the National Gallery, because I want to see the colour, for one thing. But, if I'd got Rembrandts here all round the room, I wouldn't go to the National Gallery...

    Sylvester approaches these questions by introducing quotidian ideas about artistic process and philosophy to Bacon and getting out of the way when Bacon responds. As the talks progress—and Sylvester lets Bacon lead— the artist appears less as a stereotypical “artist” concerned with a conventional image, and more as in inquisitive mind who explores his own intentions and psychological needs by making pictures that are ungoverned by excessive premeditation. Sylvester has a technique (it comes up repeatedly) where he uses charged psychological language with Bacon, prodding, poking, almost challenging an argument, who then responds in kind with insights that reveal a vivid and obsessive imagination, and an obsessive, crystal-clear mind who was not afraid to give chase to some of his darkest fantasies.

    DS: Have you ever got anything from what's called destructive criticism made by critics?

    FB: I think that destructive criticism, especially by other artists, is certainly the most helpful criticism. Even if, when you analyze it, you may feel that it's wrong, at least you analyze it and think about it. When people praise you, well, it's very pleasant to be praised, but it doesn't actually help you.

    There is a radioshow tension in all of these conversations, with both Bacon and Sylvester's choice of language, and the tangential nature of the course. It is always serious, never a sport but I could not help but notice how every exchange is a master stroke by either—a move provokes counter-moves, slips, counter-counter-moves and feints, and so on. Here are two seasoned men genuinely in search of a singular—albeit fluid—truth. They are patient and accurate in each interview, and bring with them a stamina that I’ve only seen from people who care deeply about their respective legacy. With each volley, these thinkers are unrelenting in how they keep each other honest.

    DS: Do you find you can criticize their personalities and keep them as friends?

    FB: It's easier, because people are less vain of their personalities than they are of their work. They feel in an odd way, I think, that they're not irrevocably committed to their personality, that they can work on it and change it, whereas the work that has gone out--nothing can be done about it. But I've always hoped to find another painter I could really talk to—somebody whose qualities and sensibility I'd really believe in-who really tore my things to bits and Whose judgement I could actually believe in. I envy very much, for in- stance, going to another art, I envy very much the situation when Eliot and Pound and Yeats were all working together. And in fact Pound made a kind of Caesarean operation on The Waste Land; he also had a very strong influence on Yeats—although both of them may have been very much better poets than Pound. I think it would be marvellous to have somebody who would say to you, "Do this, do that, don't do this, don't do that!" and give you the reasons. I think it would be very helpful.

    DS: You feel you really could use that kind of help?

    FB: I could. Very much. Yes, I long for people to tell me what to do, to tell me where I go wrong.

    When I pick up Interviews, I often jump to a random section and start reading. Every section carries its own lattice of ideas. In every case, however, there is an obsession with clarity and honesty of work in these pages, the degree of which I have almost never seen in conversations with artists. Interviews is a Hagakure for the contemporary painter—or artist, or musician. I have noticed this book in the possession of a number of artists whose work I follow, and believe that every artist, actor, musician or creative thinker in any field should have their own copy. Bacon was one of the most interesting artistic figures of the 20th century, if not among the most perceptive. This book is a great introduction to the why of it.