In Post #12, (almost two years ago) I wrote about keeping trade secrets, how artists (past and present) hide their work methods, hoping to keep the magic to themselves. Like the Wizard of Oz, they are (correctly, I believe) aware that once you learn how simple something is to do, you’ll have less respect for it, or worse, can easily imitate it. Picasso was known among his contemporaries for stealing their ideas, while he, on the other hand, didn’t trust them and kept his studio door locked at all times. Chagall, in his days at La Ruche, an artists’ rooming house in Paris, refused entry to fellow artists, assuming that he had nothing to learn from them and they had much to steal from him. Of course, the rumor that he painted in the nude (he supposedly had only one suit of clothing he didn’t want to get dirty) might have discouraged him from admitting visitors.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop me from blabbing out all my trade secrets; too many years of teaching art have taken their toll. My theory (probably incorrect) is that just because you know how I do something, doesn’t mean you can do it, or, do it well. I recently cut out some small figures and projected them on a superhuman scale as silhouettes on my studio wall. They looked an awful lot like the Matisse cut outs recent shown at MOMA. Matisse “supposedly” drew the figures on large sheets of colored paper using a long stick with a piece of chalk tied to it. His assistants then cut them out. But it’s hard to draw that way; any art student can tell you that. You don’t have much control and how do you correct your work? What if Matisse worked small (he was bedridden with arthritis at the time), and used a projector of some kind to blow up life-sized silhouettes for his assistants to cut out?
But what should I do if I really came up with something new? My stuff is so low tech that anyone can duplicate it. Or can they? Or do they even want to? I recently printed photos of my latest paintings, those mournful, surrealist cityscapes I showed you in the last blogs onto sheets of acetate and found that if I matted small sections and framed them under glass, they looked like late 19th century miniature etchings or aquatints. Unless you really looked carefully, you couldn’t tell the difference. The first people who saw them asked if they were for sale. At last I had a saleable product – and one that I could make more of at any time at a price anyone could afford. The only hard part was finding suitable frames. But my artist friends all wanted to know how I did them. Do I tell? Any idiot with a camera and a computer printer could copy the technique. But, would the work have my soul? My vision? Never! Could Picasso’s fellow artists at the Bateau-Lavoir ever equal him? They all tried and nobody was as good as he was and besides, by the time they got the hang of it, he was on to something new and more wonderful than ever.