The headline show at the de Young in San Francisco right now, “ Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years,” is immeasurably enhanced by some photographs that Rose Mandel took of the painter in his studio during the 1950’s. No tricks, no heavy effects here – just the kind of shot that a compatriot (which she was) would take if they were allowed into the workspace. A young man – intense, restless, absorbed by the work all around him – taking a momentary break from the mostly figurative painting that was soon to evolve into the geometrical, agonizingly colorful work that would confirm him as a modern master.
No surprises in that room: cans of paint, pots of brushes. Paint spatters. Canvas. But lately I’ve been thinking about the tendency of some artists to actually embellish their studios. Artists spend so much time there, equipped with all of the tools, time and inspiration that they can assemble, that it would be surprising if some of us didn’t cross the line and start treating our workspaces themselves as art. At the very least, our studios are often so full of new ideas, half-baked concepts, and unrealized explorations that, in fact, they offer a lucky viewer more than many a minimalist installation might.
One’s eye is also drawn to the gems that come from other artists and designers; check out the omnipresent bulletin board in shots of famous artists’ spaces. That little rectangle is a treasure trove of ideas and inspiration. Sometimes the board may expand to fill a wall – and who’s to say that wall isn’t worth considering in its own right? Rauschenberg’s quilt requires a longer jump for most people.
Of course artists must of necessity create workspaces that don’t distract them from the task of making art, but what if they go beyond the job that society has (often begrudgingly) grants them? What if they spend valuable time tricking out their studios? What if they ultimately waste enough time and materials on such dubious activities that the line between the work they display and the place in which they make it becomes disturbingly indistinct? You can’t sell that studio wall, and maybe you don’t even want to show it to anyone else; how can you justify spending so much time getting it just the way you want it? In recent decades, of course, the popularity of installations has rendered this dilemma less intense: installation artists eagerly display a chaotic workspace, a room full of random junk, or even a bed with their soiled sheets as objects of curatorial interest. Jasper Johns famously decided to model a couple of Ballantine Ale cans; the result is history. Darned expensive history.
What should an artist do, when assailed by the urge to decorate a workspace? An art coach (there are such creatures, and they provide lots of valuable advice concerning artists and the marketplace) would undoubtedly advise “all things in moderation” – indulge the whim if you must, but remember why you’re in the studio in the first place. (Hint: it has something to do with the marketplace) I would counsel what would amount to complete abandon: if it feels right to you aesthetically, do it, and damn the clock. The artist’s mind is constantly balancing the claims of at least two sets of visitors: Artistic Curiosity and its bedmate Inspiration, and The Voice of the Marketplace. Which, I ask you, is harder to come by, and often more evanescent?
Show me an artist’s studio, and I’ll show you a panorama worth looking at. Even if the place has been cleaned up for the photographer, a working studio is pregnant with possibilities – and beautiful in its own right.