Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Louise Bourgeois

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

April 10, 2013

I saw Leonard Cohen in concert, at Radio City last Sunday, part of his extensive “Old Ideas” world tour. A friend wanted to go. I won’t admit how much the tickets cost—something ridiculous—but then I read son Matt’s review of the tour in Rolling Stone, and was convinced. Later he said, “It doesn’t make any difference if he’s bad or good; he’s an icon of our times.  I saw Bob Dylan and he was terrible, but I’m still glad I did.”  I saw Dylan around the same time, and can agree, although have never gotten over the rotten Neil Young show that ruined him for me forever.

Well it turned out to be one of the greatest musical experiences in a lifetime of great musical experiences. Cohen is 78, and instead of being one of those performers whose later shows generate nostalgia for his younger self, he’s at the top of his form. Growing instead of fading, this show is—as it should be—a synthesis of everything he’s learned over the years. It’s as if he was always meant to be 78.

Perhaps Cohen’s deepening artistry has to do with his practice of Zen Buddhism, which I gently mocked in a post in 2008. Actually it wasn’t the practice, which I certainly respect, that bugged me, but the sanctimonious rhetoric that characterizes so much writing about New Age pursuits. Of course Louise Bourgeois’s artistry grew with age as well, and she was (in my experience) as neurotic as they come—sometimes delightfully and other times not-so-delightfully so.  Fortunately, for those of us who love her work, the early childhood issues on which it was based remained unresolved.

A lean, elegant figure, Cohen is a showman, and from the moment he walks on, in his (no doubt) bespoke suit and fedora, the stage is his. The show was a generous 3 ½ hours long – and I have a feeling he took on the length as a challenge: “Can I keep you on the edge of your seat for 3 ½ hours? Yes I can.”  Cohen is also a collaborator who surrounds himself with musicians who are, if not his equal, close to it, and showcases their talents, often kneeling in front of them, fedora to heart, as they perform (he nimbly dropped to his knees and bounced back up many times during the evening, and at the end, skipped off the stage).  His back-up singers, the ethereal Webb Sisters, whose intertwined harmonies often sound like one divine voice, were the perfect foil for his gravelly vocals. They were joined by Sharon Robinson, who has co-written a number of Cohen’s songs, and whose solo, “Alexandra Leaving,” brought down the house. No obligatory applause here.  Other standouts were traditional Spanish guitarist Javier Mas, from Barcelona, and Alexandru Bublitchi on violin, whose inter-weavings were almost as tight as those of the Webb Sisters.

And yet, after spending 3 ½ hours with him, Leonard Cohen remains unknowable. I’m sure each concert on the tour is exactly the same: same music, same patter, with no opportunity for spontaneity—not that it matters. He spoke of wanting to start smoking again when he’s 80, yet I’m sure he doesn’t mean it, as meditation practice is all about the breath—master the breath, master your life. He just wants to appear to be someone who would smoke, as if trying to associate himself with a little bit of decadence he can no longer muster. I always thought authenticity was the key to art, but in Cohen’s case the mask works. He gives everything, and reveals nothing. Way to go.

Times review here, Newsday here.

January 25, 2012
Louise Bourgeois, Fugue, 2003
Screenprint, 30 cm x 42 cm

On a Facebook friend’s wall the other day:

I have erased a black cloud eating my stomach with an unknown weight. I am young, 34, but I am not young within the context of New York. The black cloud is from the perception of myself I feel from others. There is this, what I would, call "petit bourgeois" view of success that runs through the art world. A false belief art is a career that can be measured by degrees of success that correspond to age. I have been around art long enough to know in reality most artists do nothing until their thirties or later. But I face day to day the idea I am too old.

My comment: “If this even crosses your mind, it indicates that you're looking outside yourself for validation. The best art is made by people who don't care what others think.”

Even though he’s part of the OWS movement that’s causing such great change so quickly, he’s stuck in the assumption that the art world and its values are always going to stay the same. Again, we can’t predict! The only thing we know for sure about the future is that it will be different. And isn’t that fun? Wouldn’t it be boring if it stayed the same, if we knew exactly what was going to happen? Therefore, since the art world has been predicated for two or three decades on the coming of The Next Big Thing, a concept that has everything to do with money and speculation, perhaps once we get off our current financial merry-go-round, it will come to reflect more meaningful values.

I recently saw the first one-person show in NY of another artist, who happens to be around the same age. He is tense with ambition; his desire and extreme need are palpable, evident in his every word and gesture—and it would seem that he’s done everything right. A deft marriage of painting and sculpture, the work is competently executed around a concept that comes off as smart and cool when described in a press release. Not too big, not too small, perfect for people who want contemporary art on their walls that’s not threatening, it lacks only one ingredient: soul. 

I know people in the art world who, while not particularly talented, attractive, smart, or even nice, have “made it” through sheer persistence. I could also point out some who just happened to be in the right place at the right time, whose ideas merged with those of an important exhibition or Whitney Biennial, which set them on a path for life. Unfortunately, it is not a meritocracy. But then there are those, like Louise Bourgeois, whose work was of such value that it couldn’t be ignored, regardless of her age, gender, and prickly personality.

For true success to happen, an artist has to make art that’s not only exceptional, but is a reflection of the needs and desires of his time. The first is more or less in our control; the second, as adroitly described in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, is not. The reason you can’t pay heed to what others are thinking, doing, or making, is that they’re stuck in the present, while you’re creating art for the future.

I wouldn’t be surprised if, in 20 years, when our FB friend has reached the ripe old age of 54, everyone will be wanting art that enhances their lives, takes them to a higher place, the kind of work that, in most cases, only a mature artist can do. And he’ll be the right person for the right moment, glad he didn’t burn out at 34.

June 1, 2010
Photo: Christian Coigny for Vitra, circa 1995

Today the New York Times published an article claiming that happiness comes with age. Researchers, apparently, are confounded as to why this might be, but anyone who is older than they were yesterday knows that it’s because with experience we learn to appreciate the present, and that nursing old wounds—or new ones—doesn’t serve us. (What they failed to consider, however, is that those who are content may live longer.)

Interesting that this article should be published on the same day as the obituary of someone for whom this was famously not true: Louise Bourgeois who, in her long lifetime, came to her art through replaying the traumas of her early life, and for whom feelings of helplessness and abandonment were just as vivid in her 80s as in childhood. Maybe more so, for all we know.

I first met Bourgeois in the mid-1990s, when I was producing celebrity ads (some of the first ever), a print campaign that ran only in Europe, for the high-end furniture company, Vitra. The celebs ran to the intellectual, and part of my job was to get the famous people to sit in the famous chairs—Martin Scorsese in an Eames chair, Jean Baudrillard (my biggest coup—Baudrillard in an ad!) in a Citterio chair. When we came to her home to photograph Bourgeois in a chair designed by Philippe Starck, she could not have been more gracious, and while the photographer, Christian Coigny, was setting up, she inquired about my painting and introduced me to the writing of Edward T. Hall, whose books came to have an enormous influence on my thinking.

Emboldened by this warm visit, I called to ask if I could interview her for a story in Art & Antiques, and Bourgeois agreed. However this time, she was totally prickly—trying, while I sat with my tape recorder running, every possible gambit to get rid of me (I was later to learn just how much she hated interviews). Finally she said, “I know how we should do this. There’s a book about me that’s all quotes. Go get that book, make a list of the quotes that interest you, come back and we’ll work from there.”

“Great,” I said, pulling the list from my backpack, because that was precisely how I’d prepared, “Shall we begin?”

I never saw Bourgeois nonplussed again, but from that moment we were friends and she was completely cooperative—in fact I could say we co-wrote the article, one of my favorites ever. She gave me complete freedom to shape it, but made many suggestions, all of which were on target, and enthusiastically participated in honing the smallest details.

After that we spent time together and I helped her with a couple of projects, but had to pull away when my time began to look like more hers than mine. She taught me a lot, however, much of it about how to stand up for myself as a female artist. Around that time I also wrote an article for Art & Antiques about my artist great-grandmother, and when I called to check what they’d written in the blurb about me for the contributor’s page, was horrified to find that it read, “Diehl has recently received a grant to do some painting of her own. Will it be in the style of her great-grandmother?” The twenty-something assistant who’d written it didn’t grasp the problem, but pulled it when I told her they couldn’t run the article if it stood (there was no blurb for me in that issue).

That evening I attended the premiere of a film about Bourgeois (which began with her running away from the filmmaker and hiding) and at dinner told her my story. When I said that she’d taught me to have that kind of courage, Bourgeois started pounding the table with her fist saying, “It’s not about promotion—it’s about defending our art! We must defend our art!”

Thank you, Louise.
August 22, 2008
This from Matt Freedman:
I was pleased to see the Lost Puppy pop up on your blog (below), Carol, especially in the context of a post about art storage, self respect, and need for artists to devise schemes to defend their art. The Lost Puppy's only reason for being, as a matter of fact, is to address all those issues. That you snagged it off the Internet on a whim speaks volumes about either the power of chance or your supernatural curatorial eye. Perhaps both. The Puppy was made for artist Adam Simon's Fine Art Adoption Network (FAAN), which he created in cooperation with Art In General. It's a website designed to put artists together with art lovers who lack the means to buy art. Basically the artist posts an image of a piece he or she is interested in giving away. Visitors to the site who like the piece can write the artist and enter into an online conversation with them. If the artist deems the potential collector worthy, they work out a mutually agreeable means of transferring the piece from the artist to the collector. The idea for the project began when Adam realized he could no longer afford to keep a large old painting in storage. It was a good painting, but there was no one around to buy it. Why not find a collector who had the same interest in art that a "regular collector" does, except without the money? The work would be saved, a person who loved art would have a piece they liked, the art world would grow in size and diversity, and the artist would have one less headache in the studio. Everything would be ideal, except of course, the artist would still be broke. Nothing is perfect. Anyway the idea caught on and now FAAN is a pretty thriving operation. It's a brilliant project, I think, and I was eager to join, but my own contribution, the Lost Puppy, was not kicking around the studio taking up space. In fact, it was made specifically to be given away. No one ever said I was practical. I liked the idea of giving work away, but it was the relationship between the giver and the taker that fascinated me more than the opportunity to unload stuff. One of the half-joking objections made to Adam as he was organizing FAAN was that he was simply giving artists the opportunity to learn that they couldn't even give their work away, and I too was drawn to the idea that at its bottom what was really being conducted was a test of the desirability of the work itself. Putting a monetary value on a piece changes it into a commodity—with all the market-driven forces at work outside of its pure appeal coming into effect in determining whether or not someone decides to acquire it. Taking away any monetary value laid it bare, so I felt I had to make a piece that literally begged to be taken in. What could be more desirable than a lost puppy, with big eyes, floppy ears and a crooked tail? Nature designed them to be adorable as a survival mechanism after all. At any rate, it worked and the Puppy was wooed by many suitors, finally ending up with a class of fifth graders in Canada, whose own cuteness worked as a kind of reverse lever on me, prying loose the Puppy after much backing and forthing. It's in a case at the school now, I hear, with a broken ear that the teacher repaired. As long as a work of art resides with the artist, it can be protected; after it leaves the studio it has to fend for itself. I remember back in 1999 Santiago Calatrava was asked to design a time capsule for the Museum of Natural History that would not be opened for 1,000 years. Various schemes where considered to ensure that it fulfilled its function; should the capsule be so big and strong it could never break? Should it be buried deep in the ground to protect it with the hope it would someday be rediscovered? As I recall, in the end Calatrava said the best defense the capsule could have against its own destruction would be that people would value it and take care of it for the 1,000 years of its life, and the best way to ensure that was to make it as beautiful as possible: beauty as survival mechanism. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder of course—sleek swoopy time capsule or lumpy Puppy, take your pick. In the end, we can only defend our art for so long; sooner or later, somebody else has to care too. c

I think it was Lost Puppy’s innate appeal that prompted me to choose it to represent Matt’s art when writing about the care of artworks. A fine example of purpose inherent in the work—hurrah! Needs no explanation. What I didn’t realize until now is that the article I chose to link to when mentioning Louise Bourgeois—one I wrote for Art & Antiques years ago—about the garden sculpture her father collected, is on the same theme. Protected by their value as art, the sculptures survived only until their material—lead—became worth even more when melted down to make bullets for World War II.
August 21, 2008
Yesterday my team of teenage assistants, led by the industrious Leah, helped me to complete the cleaning and reorganization of my painting storage, and it feels as if the studio can finally breathe—although now that everything’s so tidy it hardly looks like a project that would take weeks to do. I found it interesting that when, at Joanne Mattera’s suggestion, I wrote my first post about it, people were moved to comment, underscoring what an issue storage is for artists. Then, as I was sharing my elation at putting this task behind me with my friend, sculptor Matt Freedman, he commented that, “taking care of your work is a way of acknowledging your commitment to it, of being respectful toward it”—something I’d never thought about—and that “conservatorship is the final act of assessing a work’s value.” He was reminded of an anecdote I told him many years ago, about Louise Bourgeois pounding a table and saying, “We must defend our art!” That was in a different context completely—after I’d told her how I’d managed to keep a sexist contributor’s blurb about me from being published—but it works here as well. Yes, we must defend our work. Because if we don’t, who will?
Matt Freedman, Lost Puppy, 2006.