My wise old friend Dina used to say: “Every artist has ten good years.” I used to disagree with her, but, unfortunately, as I live and learn, her observation is probably valid. Of course, there are the Picasso’s and the Matisse’s, geniuses who constantly re-invent themselves, but if you carefully examine their work, it would probably boil down to ten great years with a few extra good ones tossed in here and there.
The interesting question is not “whether” the phenomenon exists (and it’s true for writers, composer, all creative types) but “why?” What causes an artist to have a creative outburst that he or she can never duplicate? Sometimes, it’s the times that create innovations in all areas of life, a period of growth (or despair) that is conducive to great work in science, literature and art. The High Renaissance of course comes to mind. You could not conceive of a Michelangelo or a Da Vinci doing what they did one hundred years earlier or one hundred years later. The period in which Modern Art developed, 1905-1915 was another such golden age, giving birth to innovations in physics, mathematics and music as well as art. Most of these high points are usually brought to an end by large-scale, catastrophic events such as wars or economic collapse. The interesting “exception” was Weimar Germany, a ten-year period of economic and social disaster after World War I that brought about a burst of creativity in music, film and art that has never again been equaled.
In my lifetime, I have had dozens of artist friends, and the ten- year rule seems to hold true for them as well. None of them ever became famous; quite a few should have, but life, damn it! kept interfering. They did however, often have ten good years before everything fell apart: family illness, the need to earn money, lack of recognition all took their toll. One friend, the most gifted of us all and on her way to major recognition, quit when her child was injured in an accident and needed constant care; another stopped when his wife (and enabler) divorced him (he deserved it for fooling around with all her friends.) Without her taking care of his life, he could no longer concentrate on his art work and went back to being a commercial illustrator. Another stopped because her sculpture wasn’t selling and it was becoming a storage problem. But, they all had ten good years before LIFE interfered.
Even so-called successful artists seem to run up against the ten-year window. Is it because fame is ultimately destructive, eating into the time they should be in their studio, filling their days with stupid, self-aggrandizing activities? They are constantly being invited like show dogs to dinner parties and openings, celebrity events that eat into their creative time. I once attended a dinner party at the Whitney Museum (only once, not bragging) and found myself sitting next to Jasper Johns, all dressed up in a monkey suit and drinking himself “under the table.” All I could think of was how could he work the next day? I would be out of commission for a week.
So, in looking back, what can I say about my own “ten good years”? Judging by last week’s trip to the attic, the good years might already be over. Dina was right; I had ten good years, but because of circumstances beyond my control, they weren’t contiguous. A year here, a year there, made evident by a variety of styles. With luck, however, I might have a few more good years left. If not, it won’t be because I didn’t try.