Friday, February 27, 2015


A sculptor friend of mine was fond of saying that “every artist has ten good years.” I would argue with her, protest that this wasn’t so but her words scared me. What if she was right and my “best years” were over (or, worse yet, never going to happen.) Since I was teaching art history at the time, I set out to prove her mistaken. Instead, the more I looked into her theory, the more she appeared to be correct. Why are there only ten good years?

Untitled Street Scene I
Charcoal and oil stain on canvas. 67"x45"
Let’s examine the pattern:
First, few artists emerge from art school fully-formed. Most take at least ten years to find their own personal language and develop the technique and skills they need to build their reputation. Then there is the peak period, the time (the next ten years) in which they do their best work, the art for which they become known. After that there’s usually a period when they concentrate on buying property, marrying, having children, paying psychiatrists, cultivating dealers and collectors, living the “successful” artists’ life. This is the time in which artists tend to repeat themselves, lose their creative edge: divorce, drink, fritter away the talent that made them famous. And then, if they are lucky, there is a late period, when all is calm, the storms of life have past and the artist is free once more to concentrate on his or her work –  if he’s lucky.

Untitled Street Scene II
Charcoal and oil stain on canvas, 72"x67" 
I got to thinking about this subject because I am in the process of preparing a talk on Chagall. I wanted to concentrate on the work he produced from 1911 to 1915, the period he spent in Paris prior to World War I, but because I am part of a Judaic Studies lecture series, the sponsors asked me to focus on his years at the Yiddish Theater in Moscow, right after the Russian Revolution. By the time he fled Russia in 1922, he was famous and in my opinion, his best period was mostly over. The irony is that much of the work he did in Paris was lost, so we’ll never know the full story.

And so, I’ve been looking at the artwork I have stored in my attic. Are my ten best years ahead of me, behind me, or am I now in the middle of them? Or worse yet, am I never going to get there? I tend to think my “best” years were spread out: a year here, two years there. Then a crisis would occur in my life and I’d have to stop working. That’s why I’ll probably never “fulfill my potential” (assuming I have one.) In order to be a great artist (or even a consistently good one) you need to be able to set everything aside, ignore the needs of those around you and just create. If you try to be a well-rounded human being with a “life” you’re never going to get the unbroken time you need to fulfill your potential.

By the way, (in keeping with my theory) when Chagall did his best work in Paris c.1912, he was free of any personal obligations and distractions. He had a modest stipend, cheap housing (at La Ruche), no emotional entanglements, no wife or children, only a fiancée a thousand miles away. He stayed away from the other artists at his rooming house (whom he claimed copied him), socialized with poets and potential patrons, but mostly, holed up in his pie-shaped atelier and worked. 

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