Artists Write: Thinking While Making Things
Where are essays by contemporary artists on theory? That is, written pieces beyond the dreaded, largely pedantic and seemingly omnipresent “Artist’s Statements”? Yes, we creators on the whole speak most significantly through our work, but there is an authentic need for intellectual reflection arising out of the working practice of artists, and from our haptic interaction with the world, whether such articles are straightforward, personal research notes or extended essays demarcating the conceptual and formal frontiers of single creators and groups. Let us say there is a need for primary secondary literature: theoretical musings by artists, not critics, curators, or professional theorists (unless they are artists first and foremost and do one of the latter activities as a sideline).
Let’s be frank. Theory has become something of a bugbear or bogeyman … for good reason. Literary theory of a Deconstructivist bent has became hegemonic in the artworld, frequently producing naught much more than a cynical “mise en abyme” of sophistry. Badly understood, second-hand Theory-with-a-capital-T is used to over-explain and justify every consensus-correct gesture. Nonetheless, theoretical reflection has often been an indisputable source of appreciation and innovation in the arts. Furthermore, it need not be left in the hands of art “mediators” —such contemplation and assessment has been and can be undertaken by “producers” of artworks.
The question of why there is so little theoretical writing by artists published has arisen repeatedly in various venues over the last years. Recently Catherine Spaeth, a commenter on gallerist Edward Winkelman’s well-known eponymous art blog, summed the situation up well and caused much discussion. Spaeth is a professional art historian and critic, and a lecturer on Contemporary Art at Purchase College, as well as a blogger herself.
[N]otice how when you reach for an example of an artist who writes, it’s Donald Judd? Can’t we admit to nostalgia for the early years of Artforum? Avalanche? etc.? Is there a Robert Smithson of our time? Who do you think [this] is?
This discussion continued on Winkelman’s blog in an open thread titled “The Robert Smithson of Our Time.” There were 198 comments; many insightful, some suggesting artists shouldn’t do that anyway, and quite a few discussing the existence of artist-critics—so-called “artists who write, “ including Peter Plagens, Stephen Westfall, Joe Fyfe, and your present author. I added a comment to the batch as well.
I think people are aching for an artist who gets a chance to stretch out, dig down, and —in part—promote a new vision. That is what is missing. I get endless opportunities to publish in high quality places, even though my art is much better than my writing, just because I seldom launch into “required” theory (although I’m a heavy theory guy, I’m quirky rather than consensus). Yet only the journals, philosophy journals, and the like offer real theoretical opportunities. The glossies are the problem here, not the artists. One of the first things I would do if I were an editor would be — besides publishing my own stuff — to commission a long piece on geo and material painting by Joanne Mattera, commission a long Edward W. piece on whatever he wanted, etc. Where are THOSE types of editorial ideas.
In short, theoretical essays by artists are not published primarily because the major publishers and editors no longer desire them.
Who are the artist-as-theorists who come to mind when we make such assertions? For one, Robert Morris’s three-part essay, “Notes on Sculpture 1-3,” originally published in three successive issues of Artforum in 1966, and delineating and promoting Minimalism. The same artist’s later essay, “Notes on Sculpture 4: Beyond Objects,” originally published in Artforum in 1969, attempted to do the same for what came to be called Post-Minimalism. Robert Smithson’s essay “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects,” published in Artforum in September 1968, brought the idea and possibility of Land Art to the fore. This artist’s notorious article A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, from 1967, was a poetic vision functioning as a speculative treatise. More recently, it could be maintained that Neo-Geo, Appropriation Art, and even the enthronement of Neo-Conceptualism owe considerable debt to Peter Halley’s writings on art, which were heavily influenced by French Poststructuralim and originally published in the 1980s by Arts Magazine, New Observation’s and others. Looking farther back, we can appreciate articles, lectures, and other intellectual contributions by Robert Motherwell, John Graham, Eugène Delacroix, Wassily Kandinsky, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (he was a painter first), Albrecht Dürer, Leonardo da Vinci, and others.
I assert that artists are indeed thinkers … and deep ones, especially when they do not spout pre-digested, memorized, consensus-approved jargon. I discussed this situation with Ed Marszewski and Mairead Case of Proximity, the new and promising art magazine you hold in your hands, offering to write my own essays and, perhaps more importantly, to seek out, edit, and assist other practicing artists in doing so. For better or worse, they were excited about the idea and have given me the space to work.
Are you an artist and have an unpublished piece of writing in this direction about visual art? Or have one lurking in your soul? Or have musings you feel could be corralled into some readable form with my assistance? Then please contact me by way of this magazine or through my website (www.markstaffbrandl.com/). I am truly thrilled with the opportunity this publication offers to rectify the current high-handed dismissal of artists as concrete theoreticians and thinkers. Help me in this endeavor. It is your opportunity. Grasp it for the sake of all artists.