I’ve met a lot of very capable artists over the years, but what most of them seem to lack is a voice of their own. Either their work is a very expert copy of someone else’s (sometimes they don’t even know whose style they’re copying) or, it looks like a “Group Show,” a potpourri of various subjects and media derived from every work of art they’d ever liked. I don’t care how good their work is, how beautiful their use of color, design, their technical skill; if it’s not original, if you can’t look at it and say “I know who did that!” then they will always be a hack – nothing more than that. The good news is they might do quite well as a hack in the art market, since their work is much less expensive that the originals they are copying. If it’s not as good, who will know? I once encountered a woman putting up a show of her work at Silvermine: exquisite little collages using scraps of detritus and commercial lettering. “Ah, Schwitters,” I said to her, referring to the great German artist who had “invented” the scrap collage she was imitating, and she replied “Who’s Schwitters?” She was a fifth generation copyist who didn’t even know where her stolen ideas came from; she probably thought she was copying Joseph Cornell, another font of ideas for the un-original.
The problem with an original style is that it requires developing a personal language and not everyone is capable of doing that. Most people are conformists, carefully raised to do the right thing, be “liked” and not make mistakes. But to be an artist is to take risks, to do something that might be unacceptable: shocking, ugly or distorted. You know if you paint pictures of sailboats in pretty sunsets, your viewers will probably love what you do and praise you effusively, but try something more risky, experimental, and the reaction might not be so positive; You should hear some of the responses I get (and the looks that go with them)! “Ladies with ample bodies! Oh no! Sick! Sick! Sick” It takes guts to be a real artist. For the past 150 years, every artist we now respect was shocking and unacceptable.
However, once you develop a style of your own, one that is unique, identifiable, you may find yourself trapped, especially if you have created an audience, a reputation and a market for what you are doing. Are you ready to risk all this to explore a different path? Of course, if no one knows who you are and no one is buying your work anyhow, there’s less of a problem. But if you have “made a name.,” have a dealer and (gasp!) buyers, then you really are stuck. I wonder about poor Josef Albers. He must have gone nuts repeating that “verdammt” square of his, even with “variations.” I know I would, but then, I’m not Albers. As a child, I probably would have been diagnosed as ADD and medicated; I can’t do anything more than two or three times without getting bored. My late husband used to sigh and wonder how (given my short interest span) he lasted fifty years with me.