When I taught myself how to paint—I taught myself how to paint—I taught myself by painting on paper, it was only much later, after switching to canvas, that I realized how difficult, on top of the already colossal difficulty of teaching myself how to paint, how much more difficult (I mean to say) I had made it for myself by painting on paper rather than canvas. I did not know it at the time that I began to teach myself, I did not know how much less forgiving paper is than canvas—I didn't know! Paper is the glowing white austere northerner, whereas canvas is a Mediterranean bon vivant—I do not wish to carry that metaphor any further. I am not terribly happy I introduced it. I will not delete it, although I have not made that rule for myself here, though I have made it for myself elsewhere, that I am not permitted to delete—well, in point of fact, I've never made the rule for myself that I am not permitted to edit, so I am sorry I introduced this digression as well. Back to the matter at hand. Paper. It was very hard! Paper can't take a lot of paint before it simply gives up and says it can't, it can't do it anymore! Too much paint, and it is overburdened. Although in my opinion paper is the most beautiful substrate, it is not terribly strong, and it is even less, as I say, forgiving. When I made the switch from paper to canvas, after about two years of painting on paper, it was a revelation, and at first it was not a good one. I had trained on paper, and I did not like how canvas behaved, it was like a slut! I could not get refined results the way I had learned to on paper—I simply could not, and every mark therefore had to be broad, I could not paint little things. Eventually, of course, I grew to love canvas, and I began to work with it exclusively. But I do not have a lifelong love affair with canvas the way I do with paper. I am grateful to canvas for existing, and I am grateful to it for letting me be a bad painter making terrible choices during the course of any given painting before I am able to right myself and make better choices that lead to a better painting, I am grateful to its patience, sufferance and endurance. (I think that becoming a better painter is merely the evolution of making fewer mistakes for a shorter duration...paintings are always made out of mistakes, are they not, we should not wish to eliminate them, only perhaps to make fewer than I am even at present known to make?) I am very grateful also to canvas that I can buy yards upon yards of it for not very much money (gesso is another matter, and I am not grateful to gesso for much, except of course for existing, I do not wish to work on unprimed canvas), which is lucky because I am so prolific. I am grateful to canvas, and I love it. But I do not love it like I love paper. With the exception of the blood of my family, I do not think I have loved anything as long or as fully as I have loved paper. Full stop. Did you know, sometimes you can write and write and write, and the point just doesn't arrive? There comes a moment when you, as the writer, realize: there isn't a point, there are many points, but no center, nothing I am orbiting around, I am just millions of stars in the vast unstructured darkness. I did not know that would happen, but here it has happened. Oftentimes writing contains the very force that causes coalescence—that is how I write, generating that force with my words. But sometimes, and it has happened today, it does not contain this force. I am very sorry about this! I owe you many apologies for leading you to not much of anything at all, to an entirely underwhelming conclusion. Writing unlike painting is not built on mistakes.
I want to say two things to you, an A thing and a B thing. So, here is A: I know I have said this before, in fact I know I have said it recently, but I am now saying it again, it is the A thing, I am saying to you that sometimes when people neither like nor understand the work I'm doing, that is to say the paintings I am making, it is an indication to me that I am on the right path. In the work I am doing now, this is most certainly the case. Eventually, it may prove everybody else is right and I am wrong, but I sincerely doubt it, I sincerely believe that the work I am doing is exactly what I ought to be doing, and when I see people scratch their heads or when they say to me, "But what does it mean?" then I have my little indication that it means something, it is only up to time to ferret out what. The B thing is this: The air quality these past days has been super horrendous! One day, when I finally move to the country, into the green woods heavy with leaves and animated by an immeasurable lot of many things, I will take deep breaths of air every day and thank my lucky stars that finally I have fresh air. In the meantime, I will tell you A, B and C things as much as it comes to my mind to, but I will not be getting good air. It is really a little like being up a chimney.
I feel such eagerness to get to it, to get to where I'm going in my work, but in order to get there, I must go through what I am going through, I cannot just skip ahead, I cannot get there without getting there, step by sometimes laborious step, painting by painting, making paintings that are not, I think, where I am going, but only where I am. My vision of what I am getting to is hidden behind a dense fog (that is to say, I have no vision, only the dimmest awareness that one exists, that somewhere inside that fog, there is something, I do not know what it looks like!); it will come clearer the nearer I get to it. In the meantime, I must do what I am doing in order to get there, knowing that I am not, perhaps, even close to arriving at clarity, but not knowing this too, for perhaps I am closer than I think. Or—this is also a possibility, though not a happy one—perhaps I will never get there, perhaps this dim awareness I have of what it is I am driving for will remain forever elusive, out of reach and outside comprehension. That is a possibility, and an unhappy one. What is not possible is that I have already arrived, I cannot think this is possible!, for I am fighting too fierce a fight, and if I am not fighting for some undefined but vaguely sensed eventuality, but rather for something that already exists yet does not satisfy, then I am fighting a fight that not only can I never win, but that I have already lost, staying in the ring long after I am bloodied and defeated, and I do not think I am that stupid. I am foolish and oftentimes very foolish and imprudent, and at times I can even be obtuse, but I am rarely if ever stupid. Well, I was stupid when I did things 1, 2 and 3, etc., but I am not stupid. It is a lifelong force that drives me, and I am wise to trust in it, even if I am essentially blind and using my hands as feelers and that is how I am making my way toward where I am going, even if that is true!
I cannot think that social media is good for the artist. I will only speak for myself, I will say, for myself, social media is detrimental to my work, but I will speak for others too because I cannot think it is good for the artist! Can you imagine Willem de Kooning posting every new painting, in the wake of its being made, on Instagram or Facebook? The idea is laughable. (Although it is not too difficult to imagine Picasso doing this, but Picasso was a rooster and liked to show his feathers, and that is what people like to do on social media, they like to show you their bright feathers and little strut.) Of course I am not saying anything new when I say that social-media sites are merely arenas where popularity contests are waged, won or lost depending on one's sociabililty, attractiveness and engagement, much as it was in junior high. If that is what you are selling, if what you are selling is yourself, is the idea of yourself as being highly likeable, then I guess these sites are exactly the perfect venue for you, and it is not an act of absurdity to post, for instance, your acceptance letters from contests or galleries but one of necessary self-validation. But if what you are trying to do is to develop a body of work that has meaning and salience, resonance and weight, then I cannot see how offering that work while it is still wet, as it were, to the world to not precisely judge but dismiss or accept with the offhand motion of a finger (as though we were petty tyrants!) is at all beneficial or wise. On the contrary: It is an act of sabotage. If one truly wishes to develop, one doesn't offer one's work to be judged—blithely and dumbly dismissed or accepted—too soon, or even at all, for who are these people dismissing or accepting our work? Yet, we do it—yet, I do it! Do not think I am pleased by this hypocrisy, I do not like to be a hypocrite, yet I am a hypocrite! I show my work not quite as it is made, for I have some little sense of self-preservation, but not long after it is made, too soon, too soon, because I can. Not because I should, but because I can. After all, we cannot always be relied on to do what's best for ourselves, especially when we work in isolation and tilt toward the summit of Recognition without ever moving much nearer to it because, in fact, we are isolated and introverted artists. At least some of us are, and I am fairly sure there is a tradition of the isolated, introverted artist in this world, although social media would have us believe that such a character is not only an anomaly, but a freakish and pitiable one as well. Admittedly, there are times when my virtual connection to other artists throughout the world is something I enjoy very much—such connections are unprecedented. I am not speaking here of Facebook, for there is simply nothing that is not loathsome to me about Facebook, but Instagram, where the people I follow are all artists and all unknown to me, and, as I say, they are situated all over the world. It is a loose network of mutual support, and I find it meaningful in its way. It is the one thing about social media (Instagram) I cannot undervalue. But as far as the development of work goes, it is still, I fear, pernicious, and the more Instagram mimics the loathsome and infantilizing Facebook, the more loathsome it becomes to me. One day, it will give me tremendous pleasure, I hope I will delete the account. But here is what I do not know, this is what I do not know the answer to!: Is it more useful than it is pernicious, does the benefit of the connections outweigh the damage to or inflation of my confidence (and therefore influence the development and direction of my work [it is my fear]) as a result of the swift judgment of so many strangers, many of whom are completely unqualified to judge? (You might say, “Ah, but you shouldn’t be influenced, you should be proof against others’ opinions of your work!” and I will in turn say to you, “You try it. You try creating work out of nothing while remaining consistently and continuously impervious to the opinions of others!”) I do not, cannot know the answer to that, and so I continue on in my hypocritical way, at once engaging with and utterly despising social media.
I wanted, ever since I was probably a few minutes old, I wanted to be a writer, and then I was one, I think I was a writer from the time I was several minutes old, but then I stopped writing, then one day I made the decision to turn my back on writing, and on this day it felt like a relief, I have marked the date forever in my thoughts, it was January 12, 2011, when I said to myself, I will no longer write, I will not write anymore! and I stood from where I was sitting at my kitchen table and walked toward the thing I do now, which is the thing that makes me miserable more than it makes me happy, but I am compelled to do it nevertheless, and I do not think after all it is a relief to paint instead of write, it does not relieve me of any trouble or anguish or struggle or difficulty or loneliness, it was only temporary that I was relieved of all difficulty and struggle in giving up writing in order to paint, and it is true also that sometimes I miss writing very much, I miss it as much as I would miss the absence of anyone truly beloved by me. But I cannot go back, and I do not think I can go back; instead I have to go forward into the greater anguish of painting, forward into a cave that admits no light, and I do not know the contours of this cave, and it is only in my painting it that I will know it and will therefore know where I am. That is hard.
Away from painting, blessedly away from painting for a while, sometimes I think painting has determined it will kill me, and it conspires with environment to do me in, and I am sometimes almost done in, but I am not done in, and I am quite happily out of painting's reach right now, safely without its reach, and the world I am looking upon is green, and this, I believe, is called summer vacation.
Working in a two-dimensional space to create the illusion of the third dimension—what a funny thing to do, a funny way to spend one's time, attempting to create the illusion of what exists in abundance all around one as one practically kills oneself in an undertaking that is essentially completely irrelevant and redundant. This is not despair that is speaking to you, maybe it is ruefulness, I don't yet know, as I am only two sentences in, I could very well remain two sentences in for many more lines, since I favor the comma over the period, with generous help from semi-colons and dashes and the occasional colon, but now I will end this sentence and take up my thought on the next train. (I think I would have preferred to end that with a colon, but then I would have been a kind of liar, and that is something, lying, I abhor, so): But I do not even think it is ruefulness, I think it is, on this morning, simple amusement, it amuses me that this is what I do, and I wonder if it is the very fundament, the wet cold stone of painting, that what it seeks to do, on the most basic level, is to create the illusion of the third dimension in, of course, a two-dimensional space. (Remember, I did not go to art school; we did not have these conversations over beers at the Rathskeller!) Because no matter what else I achieve in any given painting, it is always that illusion that is the thing, the achievement, if you will, that gives me the deepest satisfaction, really holds me in its thrall, a little awestruck, actually, delighted. And why shouldn't it? It is the creation of illusion, and that is magic, and who does not love magic? Of course it is more than that—it not just the illusion of three dimensions one is after (in a fundamental, pre-thought way), but also the depth and mystery and the richness and ephemerality of the fourth dimension, so that really, basically, what one is creating is spectacle, is theater, is life. If a painting is good, I mean really good, so that it strides with ease and purpose away from irrelevancy and redundancy, then it does not stop once the optical illusion is created. That is only its launching point, or, if you prefer, the stone around which the living fruit of the painting forms itself. And now, having said that, I would like to contradict myself (well, I wouldn't like to, but I have to), because of course it is not the creation of the illusion of the third dimension that gives me the "deepest satisfaction," of course it is not! Yet, I cannot expunge the statement, for it is very much a part of the architecture of this paragraph, and I do not, I can tell you I do not! have the energy left for dismantlement and reconstruction, so I will let it stand, but as it stands, know that it does so falsely, for it is an inaccurate statement, for the very deepest satisfaction comes once that painting is a living thing full of story, history, future, selfhood and autonomy. Put simply: full of breath. There is so much that is inaccurate about this paragraph, in light of this last sentence! There are times when writing is so self-devouring, it would have been better to have remained silent, to have the left the page unstained. The complexity of everything is just too much sometimes. I should have remained in my blue chair (what others call green), reading someone else's efforts! It is almost as though I need some aspirin now.
In painting, I find that I distrust design, that anything too designy feels cheap and unearned, although I often admire it in other paintings not my own, especially polka-dotted borders. It is only a standard I uphold for myself, not for others. I do not care for signifiers as well, chairs and wall things such as windows and the like, I sometimes admit trees and flowers and horizon lines, I do not have any problem with horizon lines, I find them exciting, the way they alter the meaning of the picture in such subtle, mysterious ways. It would be more accurate to say that I do not like interior signifiers, I rarely place my figures within walls, they are almost exclusively lone figures in an empty landscape, I do not think it is loneliness that I am painting but vast aloneness and perhaps oneness or unity (self-sufficiency?) and a kind of monumentality that that implies—lately, a monumentality. Clothes are signifiers, but I often clothe my figures, I do not always paint nudes. I like making striped clothes, and stripes are pretty designy, but I like them anyway, in fact it might be said, I love stripes, most especially striped socks, though it's been a long while since I've painted socks, since I have not been painting the figure, and only recently, having returned to the figure, I am only painting the torso, not even the head. The trouble with signifiers is that everything that is not abstract is a signifier (forgive me, I did not go to art school, I do not know if I am using the term with strict correctness, but I am using it loosely well enough, I think, for you to know what I am talking about), so I cannot be steadfast against them, I cannot not paint signifiers unless I were to become a purely abstract painter, and even then, I would imagine that the paint itself would become the signifier, and so the only way not to paint signifiers would be to cease painting altogether, and were I to do that, I think I would die. So I keep my small clutch of signifiers, and I am happy with them, but sometimes I struggle with the idea that perhaps I ought to use more—really make a picture—but I always seem to rear away from what I consider to be unnecessary elements, quite a lot like design but not design, and if I have gone ahead and painted them, I quickly obliterate them with heavy strokes of paint, and then the painting is on its way to ruin, for I am not a gentle destroyer of things I think are cheap and unearned that have come from my own hand. But things that are not cheap and unearned come at a cost, or they do not come at all, and I would say that is a concise description of the twin realities of my work, that all my efforts come at a cost, for only painting counts, or they do not come at all, for only painting counts, and that, after all, is what this paragraph was driving for, I didn't know it when I began it, and that is the magic of writing, where all the words, once put together, signify the thoughts one didn't even know one had, and one is better defined (to oneself) than when one began.
It is often that I have remarked that I am like a dog, I have been saying to people, "I am like a dog," for so many years, I do not know that I say anything else to people other than, "I am like a dog." Certainly, it is true that I am loyal, that loyalty runs through me like a steel beam, but that is not why I say I am like a dog, which I am. I say it because, like the dog, my present reality is my only reality, I am quite unable to compare my present reality to past experience, so that if I am sad in the moment, then I am always sad, I am sad from the moment I was born until the one in which I hit the grave, probably with a heart so engorged with sorrow, it will have to be an extra-large grave; if, on the other hand, I am feeling joy, there is no such thing as sorrow, it does not exist. Actually, as I write this, it seems the equation is not that algebraic, for I do believe in sorrow, even in joy. It is joy that is sometimes difficult to believe in: when it is absent, it is fully absent; yet when sorrow is gone, it is still present. In fact, sorrow is probably the crossbeam within me, and that is my architecture, loyalty and sorrow. But I have strayed from today's theme, I have lost the point, I am astray (it is true, I sometimes feel like a stray)! I am telling you all of this not because I have told too few people in my life that I am like a dog, but because the last time I wrote, I said I didn't like my work, but that was only on that day, I was lacking the perspective that I do like my work, that I am quite happy with the work I am doing! But perhaps I am not all that much like a dog, for I am certain that although I am presently loving the work I am doing, I will one day dislike it intensely and disavow my entire method—I possess that knowledge and perspective, and that is not like a dog at all!
The fact, it is a hard fact, it is a jagged stone of a fact to swallow, that no one likes the work I'm doing makes me more determined to continue doing it. It is true that I myself no longer like the work I'm doing, I cannot find a way to regain my belief in it, that belief cannot be revived and it cannot be faked, but the very question of belief can be put to the side, it can be shoved behind a bunch of bottles and jars as if discarded, long forgotten, it can be all but discarded in the interest of making work that turns its back on collective opinion, blackens its heart against it, defiance is as powerful a motivator as is praise and esteem and the bone-held and all-too-friable belief that what one is doing matters. (I may have felt that for a while, it is a beautiful and fleeting state of grace.) I suppose what I am trying to tell you is this: I have determined that I will continue making this work not despite the fact that no one likes it but because no one likes it, and I will cut through the knitted jungle of unknowing alone, I and my detested work, I and my dim vision and dull tools, I with my heart hard against my own paintings, and I will see what clearing I come into, it is not the same clearing I would arrive at were I to listen to and follow the noisy birdsong opinions of others, it is not the same clearing, it is a different clearing, I am betting it is the one I would rather arrive at, and if it is not, it will not be the first time in my life I will have hacked my way to a disappointing conclusion. Now I will leave you with a logic problem: If the paintings are detested, does that make them detestable?
If I were an abstract painter by nature, I would most likely be struggling to paint the figure in these months in which I have been struggling to suppress the figure, struggling and failing, I am at some kind of unfortunate war with the figure, I say unfortunate because that is what I do, I am a figurative painter, yet I have come to be repelled by the figure, I do not know why! It has been a source of renewal in these past months, taking the figure out of my work, although I never took the figure out, I was still painting figure and ground, although in this case it was more like form and ground, or lack of figure and ground, but it was still figure and ground, stage, essentially, stage and space, or space and space, but that is still figure and ground. It was renewal, whatever it was, and I enjoyed painting again. But that time seems to have passed, and the figure has reemerged, and I will tell you that yesterday, I did not even pretend not to be painting a figure (for all along I was painting figures!), and I will tell you also that I hated every minute of it, or almost every minute anyway, although it was not hatred so much as repulsion and although I do not hate the results, it would be impossible to hate the results of a successful figurative painting. It is not that I want to be an abstract painter, I do not, I am happy to be a figurative painter. It is only that I am at war with the figure, and I do not know that it is not impossible to be a figurative painter without any special reliance on the figure or without the figure at all, this is what I am trying to discover, and it may be that I am trying to discover the undiscoverable, and I am no more apt to succeed than a hamster is to reach the edge of the world running mightily inside her wheel.
I cannot say I left the Broad feeling edified, although I did remark to my companion that it is a welcome addition to the cultural landscape of Los Angeles, which was basically me being old and upright and boostery and maybe touched by a little of the sparkle that abounds within its forcefully muscular walls. But here is what I am telling you, who are my companion in this moment (it's statistically likely you are the same companion!), I am saying to you that it is more like a Museum of the Open Checkbook. It is also the Museum of Sparkle. There was pleasure in it, I do not say there was not pleasure in seeing a great portion of that collection, but I did not leave with any afterglow, which is the afterglow of being in the presence of the numinous, and the only afterimage I retain is that of the Eric Fischl triptych that was itself, to my way of seeing it, a not-fully-realized afterimage, I did not like it. But perhaps it was only my mood. Certainly, I did not study the individual works closely, I only passed before them, as I was meant to do, an animal through a chute, we are spectators there, pushed steadily along through the vaginal passageways of neofascist architecture that announces, "I'm important! I am the Museum of the Open Checkbook! Visit, but Do Not Linger."
Social media is social engineering. Why does this not frighten us?
On this morning, I am confronted with the unsettling fact that I cannot afford Los Angeles. It is madness how much rent I pay to be here—rent, mind you, on a place that offends my senses on a daily—nay, hourly!—basis. Mostly my nose and my eyes are offended, but often my ears are too. It is a place that is more like a tomb than a home, and I pay very dearly for this privilege, it is the privilege of knowing death in life, but I do not need to pay so high a price for that, for I am always knowing that, I have known it since I slipped into this world through the thin skin of All Hallows Eve, death is always with me, I do not need to live in an expensive tomb! I consider it profoundly lamentable, the changes that have happened to Los Angeles over the past 15 years, I would put that offhand number to the years it's been since L.A. began its earnest stride toward being as expensive as New York, as expensive and, therefore, as soulless, a city devised by the calculating greedy mind of the developer and hostile to the person without money and/or property. Of course, we will never have her back, the city who was all haphazard beauty, all rough heart, she was not yet spun by the bloodless Rumpelstiltskins who think net worth is the only game worth winning.
It is not solipsism that causes an artist to remain inward with her work, keeping it within the walls of the space in which it is made, it is not solipsism but a necessary culling and containment of energies, a protectiveness and a recognition of the fragility of the creative process which those who do not spend their life under its rule cannot possibly understand. The making of paintings is combat. What happens on the canvas is a battle—it is not picture-making, it is war. It is war whose battlefield is the head. To quiet that critical voice that says, "What you do is worthless; what you do is meaningless; what you do is unoriginal; what you do is bad," to quiet that Medean voice long enough to let the painting happen, that is a battle of colossal scale, and it is not always winnable, and the small victories along the way—a good painting here, a good painting there—are only skirmishes, they are not true victories, and even true victory is not true victory, for it is never lasting victory. So if the battle has been fought, or is in the midst of being fought, and if the voice has been silenced temporarily, long enough for the artist to make work she believes in and is passionate about, then it is not solipsism that causes her to want to protect what is, perforce, nascent work (she is not, after all, showing old work) against the eroding offhand comments of those whose criticisms seem as valid to the artist as if they were the word of law, for surely they mimic her fiercest enemy, the Word of Law itself, her inner voice that says, "You suck!", it is not, as I say, solipsism, it is self-preservation.
There is depth and light and darkness in the sky this morning, it is a sky that in one portion of itself reveals an impersonal as well as my own personal past, it is a sky that permits one unencumbered passage, a historical sky in which many histories are revealed, including my own: Sag Harbor in the spring and the long flat-road scrubland drives I would take; Pennsylvania in the summertime, in those green woods I loved beyond all green woods— But I cannot go on naming these places I am given passage to through this eternal depth of light, this hole of light garlanded and carried forward, driven into memory, tapping memory, by darker closer clouds that curtain pure and formless achromatic light, clouds that are now dissolving into a less remarkable sky as the dawn gives way to morning, I cannot go on naming them because then I would be too swamped by memory to breathe, they are only brief passages we can bear, memory is too crushing.
It is a day that I have decided to write anything. Although I do mean to say that exactly as I have said it, you may go ahead and assume that I did not mean to say it that way. You may assume this because I am a woman, and women do not think things through, in art or in the sentences they produce, they only come upon their creations accidentally and haphazardly and without incisiveness or adherence to or respect for the traditions and movements that precede them, they do not belong to any lineage except that of water- and children-bearers because they are women and are not therefore the great masters of incisiveness and intentionality and intellect that those godlike colossi called men are.
I do not wish to live anywhere. This is a peculiar state of being for me, for I am someone who always wishes to live somewhere, usually somewhere other than where I am presently, and usually with great romantic surges of wanting and imagining. Presently, I am here: here. I do not wish to be there. I do not wish to be here, especially, but I do not wish to be there, either, that is how completely and thoroughly I am existing within painting, within the act of painting, and within the paintings themselves, which stare back at me as I stare at them, we are like gruff mute animals who size one another up throughout the minutes of the many days we are together. It like a death, but it is not death, it is just the death of living. What remains is all impulse, all compulsion, all arm, all hand, all mind, all doing, all creating, all assessing, all rethinking, all doing, and some sleeping.
Living is very nearly entirely lost to painting.
I do not know what to tell you! There are too many things to choose from, there are so many things to tell you that they number in the unnumbered range, and, as we all know, the unnumbered is very much like zero, for there is no number to the unnumbered, and so there is nothing to tell you, nothing at all. You see my difficulty.