December 5, 2006
by Robert Genn
Yesterday, "Bill" was in my studio. That's not his real name
because he's got some personal issues. Bill is thinking about
leaving his wife, family, and stockbroker job to become a
full-time painter. Bill is 45 and has been attending art
classes in his spare time for the 15 years I've known him. Good
looking and energetic, Bill is also verbal, enthusiastic,
argumentative, curious and philosophic. He loves the milieu of
art, hangs out with others half his age, and has a surprisingly
well-informed distaste for capitalism. He's a sporadic painter
who has periods of several months where nothing happens. He
wants to move to a rented cottage on a remote island and "work
steadily." Currently his family "is going along with it." He
wants to know if I think he has the right stuff to make it. He
wants to be "famous." He feels that in my case, much of my
"fame" is not based on my art but on my legendary cash flow.
Bill is an idealist.
If some of this sounds a bit familiar, you might be remembering
that Paul Gauguin also left his wife and stockbroker job.
Within months he was penniless and his family removed
themselves from France to Denmark. As they say, "When poverty
comes in the door--love goes out the window." Gauguin spent the
rest of his life stumbling around Paris, Brittany, Provence,
Martinique, and finally Tahiti. He was looking for venues,
arguing, finding supporters and finding himself. Together with
other artistic anarchists including Serusier, Bonnard, Vuillard
and Maurice Denis, he formed the Nabis (Prophets) who spoke and
wrote in an arcane manner about the "big ideas."
I'm not sure that anything like the Nabis can happen again.
Noted not so much for their painterly capability as for their
symbolist beliefs, they seemed to be drawn to art, in Bonnard's
words, "in order to avoid a monotonous life." These days many
art schools continue to populate our world with artistic
literacy but not necessarily creative competence. As in the
case of a lot of artists, Bill's life has become a sprawling
salon. "But what does it take to get dealers, to support
yourself at it?" he asks, not knowing anyone else who has sold
out like me. I find myself mumbling that it's a different world
these days--that there's a conservative shift, and that
proficiency and skill are once again on the rise. Regarding the
success he craves, I suggested to him that it's less like a
supernova bursting onto an eager firmament--it's more like the
loving assembly, brick by brick, of a private stairway.
PS: "In art, all who have done something other than their
predecessors have merited the epithet of revolutionary; and it
is they alone who are masters." (Paul Gauguin)
Esoterica: So what did I tell Bill? While I try never to
discourage anyone from art, in these sorts of situations I'm
always interested in the biographies of the near and dear--Mrs.
Bach, Mrs. Pollock, Mrs. Gauguin and all the little Gauguins. I
suggested he take a leave of absence from the brokerage office
and go to his island cottage for a finite time (six
months)--sans TV, sans telephone, sans Internet, sans salon.
Take canvases, books and the imperative to become temporarily
mute. "Teach yourself what you want to learn," I said, "Then,
when you get off the island, show your wares to a variety of
dealers. You might then decide to sell out once more to the
NYSE, or be a dad, and that might be considered a success,
too." What would you tell him?