Post #533 • May 8, 2005, 8:37 AM • 5 Comments
Michael Kimmelman authored an article of such scintillating common sense that it merits a rare Sunday post to call attention to it: Wake Up. Wash Face. Do Routine. Now Paint. Much of it centers on Chris Ofili, whose work tends to make me wish I was looking at Robert Colescott instead, but the article celebrates blessed normalcy:
Mr. Ofili, it turns out, has been painting his watercolor heads nearly every day for 10 years - for himself, mostly, although some of them have made their way into the world. Watercoloring is his daily ritual. A few years ago he added the occasional bird or flower, to stop the routine from becoming a rut.
Everyone has routines. What works for one person may not for someone else. Routines can be comforting. They may be our jobs. They define our limits and we try to make something constructive out of them.
The myth is that artists are somehow different. That they leap from one peak of inspiration to another. That they reject limits - that this is precisely what makes them artists. But of course that's not true. Most artists work as the rest of us do, incrementally, day by day, according to their own habits. That most art does not rise above the level of routine has nothing necessarily to do with the value of having a ritual.
This paragraph gave me great pleasure:
Twyla Tharp wakes up every day at 5:30 and takes a cab to the gym. Chopin played Bach. Beethoven strolled around Vienna with a sketch pad first thing in the morning. Giorgio Morandi spent decades painting the same dusty bunch of small bottles, bowls and biscuit tins. Chuck Close paints and draws and makes prints of nearly identical dots or marks, which, depending on how they're arranged, turn into different faces. "Having a routine, knowing what to do," he has said, "gives me a sense of freedom and keeps me from going crazy. It's calming." He calls his method Zenlike, "like raking gravel in a monastery."
Beethoven strolled around Vienna with a sketch pad? Can we see these drawings somewhere?
Out of routine comes inspiration. That's the idea, anyway. To grasp what's exceptional, you first have to know what's routine. I once spent several months watching the American realist painter Philip Pearlstein paint a picture of two nudes. He has followed the same routine for years. One of the models, Desir Alvarez, who is also an artist, said that the value of watching someone else's studio routine was "in terms of discipline and day-to-dayness and commitment to work even when it isn't going well."
"I know Philip is interested in Zen monks," she continued. "They have their routines, because they think that within routine, and only within routine, enlightenment comes."
Despite the care he has taken to attend to this daily ritual, Mr. Ofili said he had never really stopped to think about it so explicitly until someone happened to ask. "I never realized I was so set in my ways until now," he said, thinking it over during our conversation. "But I guess I have tons of rules. They say Morandi mixed and mixed color until he felt there was no color left and then he would begin to paint. He painted his little objects, but I think he was trying to paint what you might call the spaces between the objects. Philip Guston is another example. He had his own routine. He was heavily into political subject matter, into issues in his own life, but he was looking to get beyond those issues, to find the zone. He talked about the process of painting as an emptying out: he said everyone was in the studio with him when he started and gradually they all left until finally he left, too, and then there was only the work."
I realized that while I now have a method to organize my space, I ought to do something similar for my time - not just in general, but in the studio itself. I've been taking Chinese brush painting classes, which have gotten me back into making art after my personal disaster in March. That worked because at the beginning stages, calligraphy requires rote above anything else. Rote gives rise to comfort, comfort to mastery, and mastery, with any luck, to inspiration. I pledge to follow Mr. Ofili's excellent example with a routine of my own making.