Monday 20 October 2014

Deserted Making and the Search for Solitude

I am wondering what it is about solitude and seclusion that appeals to artists as a vehicle to foster creative activity. Or should I frame my question differently? What is it about artists that they seek solitude and seclusion as a vehicle to foster creative activity?

The frequently quoted line from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden comes to mind: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” Is it possible that in the city, deep into the forests of brick, concrete, glass, metal, we have become so wrapped up in culture, in the motions, the movement that we fail to really live on purpose? Perhaps there is some truth to this, that in the midst of all the commotion, the hustle bustle, the shared emotion, we forget how to really be an agential participant in the own making of our lives? There is more to this though. It is not merely a matter of fashioning ourselves, but it is also how we produce creatively and how we add to culture. It seems a bit counter-intuitive that key moments of creation and contributions to culture are facilitated by a removal from it, but not only that, a removal from other people. Why have artists gotten the reputation for being loners?

I am not exactly talking about the way in which Van Gogh is often viewed as a crazed and eccentric kook who spent too much time alone that he cut off his ear. But at the same time, I guess I am not not talking about Van Gogh.

Perhaps more to the point, upon the death of her dear friend and fellow artist Ad Reinhardt in the late 1960s, American abstract painter Agnes Martin, in search of complete solitude, left New York for New Mexico, what would become her remote sanctuary. It was only after six years of not making art that she emerged back into the scene, writing for her 1973 retrospective exhibition, claiming that “the extended periods of solitude that the making of her work required and the renunciation of materialist rewards that she viewed as a prerequisite for an ‘untroubled mind’ were central features of this paradigm”[1]. Is this about matter then, about capital? About seeing nature as matter rather than becoming lost in attachments to products as matter? And Martin is not the only artist attracted by desert(ed) land. I am not only thinking of Jackson Pollock and Georgia O’Keefe here but also of Donald Judd’s Marfa.

This is all probably most relevant now with the emergence of artist residency programs globally. I first began to really probe this issue during my short internship with the arts organization on Fogo Island in Newfoundland, Canada. Fogo Island Arts is just one of many residency programs that offer artists an opportunity to live in a remote area, typically surrounded by nature, and to spend some weeks or a few months creating art in this alternative space.

What is it then about not only removing yourself from what you know but also entering a space of quiet and solitude that leads to creative thinking and artistic production? Is it just a matter of gaining perspective on it all? I think yes, but its more than that, otherwise Martin wouldn’t have needed six years of it without producing anything. Is this kind of solitude sustainable? Or does it need to be considered exclusively a second home, a retreat from something else more central, something more social? Have I gotten this all wrong and is living on Fogo Island in fact somehow infinitely more social than living in New York or London? Maybe its all just an artist thing.

[1] Cooke, Lynne. “…in the classic tradition…” in Lynne Cooke, Karen Kelly and Barbara Schroder (Eds) Agnes Martin (DIA and Yale University Press 2011), 16.

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