An artists’ life is filled with pitfalls and challenges. If his work doesn’t sell, he can’t pay rent or buy art supplies or feed his children. And if his work does sell, he’s got another problem: he will probably get stuck in a style. Think of poor Jackson Pollock, forced by his dealers to keep producing “drip” paintings because that’s what his buyers wanted and that’s what they were willing to pay millions to get. So what if he wanted to explore new territory? or go back to the Jungian dream abstractions he had been experimenting with before the drips? Forget it. His public wanted drips not dreams. There are many artists who did their best work when they were no longer in the public eye, freed by failure to move on and experiment. Philip Guston is a case in point.
In some small (very small) way, I’m facing a similar problem. Do I want to continue painting dreamy NYC rooftop scenes? I sold almost ten of them at a recent exhibit of my work. It’s a record for me! My typical satirical paintings while much admired, rarely sell. Not many people want to live with corseted babes and their leering lovers. But give them dreamy water towers and Roman rooftop arcades, that’s another story. What to do? Keep producing what buyers can live with, or, go back to Lust and Avarice and borrow the house tax money from my kids? If I were George Grosz or Max Beckmann I might get away with Sin, but there’s no market for it in the suburbs.
In the past, I was able to resolve this dilemma easily, earning the money I needed by teaching art history or writing articles on historic preservation for government agencies. Not a bad compromise and one I could happily live with. But now, in my “advanced” years, I don’t have the energy to do three different things at once. I need to concentrate on the artwork before it’s too late. I actually loved painting the rooftop scenes; they were based on drawings I did several years ago during an enforced stay (broken ankle) in an eleventh floor New York City apartment. Although the view from the window was the same, the paintings are all very different from one another, depending on time of day and weather. I also took a lot of ‘artistic license,’ re-arranging the scene without regard to what was actually there. Even the style of painting evolved during the two years I worked on the series, moving from a dreamy sort of romantic realism into surrealism. These rooftop paintings are some of the best, most original work I have ever done. They’re easy to live with and I’m not surprised they sold so well. And if I stay with the subject matter, who knows where it will take me? Maybe further into abstraction? Or into Magic Realism?
|Street Scene (diptych) oil on canvas 72"x 96"|
On the other hand, my wild and lusty characters are calling me back. I’m eager to start on a series of paintings of Harlem, 125th St., similar to ones I did that were inspired by photos I took of the Lower East Side right after I graduated college. Both neighborhoods are part of my history and I’ve watched them evolve over the past few decades, losing character while becoming chic and safe.
I’m taking the summer off, allowing the “well” to fill up again. In September, I plan to tack a couple of large, brown-toned canvases up onto my painting wall, pick up a piece of charcoal and see where it goes.