I wonder what kind of shape I will be in when I eventually leave my job. Right now, I feel that I’m in pretty good condition. There’s a little gray in my beard, and I sometimes get frustrated at not being able to pull out of my head a commonly used word or a familiar name; but I remain relatively fit, able still to cross country ski or hike for hours in challenging terrain. I would say, on the whole, I’m doing okay.
Considering my artistic production over my career, I would have to admit that I’ve never fully tapped into my potential. There have been times in the past, particularly during my schooling, when I’ve worked my artistic “muscle” so thoroughly and consistently that significant progress was made nearly unconsciously. I’ve recognized that, if I’d made such considerable headway while still addressing academic requirements and working part-time to pay for my schooling, having an extended period of pure artistic focus would certainly lead to some incredible results. Whatever slow progress I’ve made in recent years is the result of sheer tenacity and the determined application of intellect (rather than intuition). So I’m rather anxious to see if this anticipated late blossoming comes to fruition.
Luckily for me (and the world), I don’t want to be a professional athlete or a rock star, careers reserved for the very young. Without a doubt, most artists produce their most important and challenging work while still relatively young. The rule of thumb, I would say, is: the twenties are for erratic experimentation, the thirties see the mature results of that experimentation, the forties succumb to facile (and profitable) regurgitation of the achievements of the thirties and the fifties bear witness to an inevitable decline in abilities. Not a very optimistic forecast for someone hoping to produce his best work post-55. Is it realistic of me to expect that given favorable circumstances I will rise to the occasion? Or will my skills and intellect so erode that even with steady, applied labor and focus I will be unable to accomplish much of anything? This set my mind to thinking about how age impacted the careers of many successful artists. How did other artist fare?
In my opinion, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner is one of the most talented artists of the 20th century. His mature work embodies the technical innovations of the Fauves while asserting a worldview in revolt against the conventions and morality of his age. There is a depth, a seriousness, to his work. I would say his approach was intuitive, and seldom did his intuitions fail him. Matisse’s art is about art; Kirchner’s is about the world.
|Mature Work - Kirchner - Marzella - 1909/10|
During the last phase of his life, Kirchner became obsessed with his reputation, his standing in the art world, in his historic legacy. He understood that Picasso and Matisse were universally accepted as the two giants of modernism and hungered for the recognition he felt he too deserved. He changed the dates on his youthful work to make it seem that his innovations had come earlier. To make his art appear more radical, he over-painted paintings completed decades ago, thereby, in my opinion, ruining them. Under the pseudonym, Louis de Marsalle, he reviewed his own wok, providing the attention and praise that the critics were withholding.
Seeking to embrace the most contemporary vocabulary, he developed a cubist-inspired, abstract style that was ill-suited for his personal predilections and abilities. The resulting paintings were unintuitive, cartoony, clumsy and plodding, having none of the spontaneous energy and innate grace of his mature work. At the same time, the Nazis had declared his art “degenerate”, his work being removed from museums and confiscated from private collections. What couldn’t be sold abroad was destroyed. By 1938, Kirchner felt isolated and abandoned by the intellectual community; on his 58th birthday, he received not a single congratulatory communication, at that time a noteworthy break from protocol within German-speaking art circles. That same year he committed suicide by shooting himself through the heart.
|Late Work - Kirchner - Cafe in Davos - 1928|
|Late Work - Kirchner - The Rider - 1932|
|Mature Work - Renoir - La Promenade - 1870|
|Mature Work - Renoir - Path Through the High Grass - 1876/77|
|Late Work - Renoir - The Umbrellas - 1883|
|Late Work - Renoir - The Large Bathers - 1884/87|
recognized that he was moving in the wrong direction and returned in his last
years to an impressionist mode of painting.
Dix, an influential member of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement, wasn’t so
lucky. Neue Sachlichkeit or New
Objectivity, a movement that reacted to the horrors of the First World War,
rejected the optimism and utopianism that often characterized German Expressionism. Dix and similarly minded artists like
Christian Schad and George Grosz wanted to dissect their society and reveal the
hypocrisy, depravity and greed that discredited the apparent comfort and
security offered by social norms and long established institutions. Dix painted capitalists, war cripples and
prostitutes in a painstakingly detailed style that necessitated the application
of paint to the canvas in numerous thin layers called glazes. While reminiscent of the work of early
northern artists like Van Eyck and Holbein, Dix’s paintings did not strive to
present a convincing illusion of reality but relied on distortion and
exaggeration to suggest a kind of hyper-realism, exposing more than just
|Mature Work - Dix - Self-Portrait - 1912|
|Mature Work - Dix - Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden - 1926|
|Mature Work - Dix - Randegg in the Snow with Ravens - 1935|
|Late Work - Dix - Self-Portrait as a Prisoner of War - 1947|
|Late Work - Dix - The Resurrection - 1949|
|Late Work - de Kooning - Untitled - 1984|
|Late Work - de Kooning - Untitled - 1985|
|Late Work - de Kooning - Untitled - ?|
Being greatly interested in de Kooning’s work, I had looked forward to seeing this show, not knowing what to expect but sure that the painting s would be worth viewing. Upon seeing the collection, I was disappointed. The artist was clearly simplifying, most images being composed of a series of sweeping strokes of paint on bare white ground. Most were constructed using only primary colors, making them bright and cheerful. There’s no doubt in my mind that de Kooning had been considering Matisse’s last cut-outs, work that was produced when the artist triumphed over physical limitations to create an innovative and elemental new style. While it’s evident from Matisse’s cut-outs that he is fully engaged and tapping into a lifetime of experience, the late work of de Kooning confirms the artist’s inevitable decline. The brushwork is flat and unvaried, exhibiting none of the energy and spontaneity of his earlier work. There is little nuance to these lines. They are opaque and seldom vary in thickness. There is no accidental splattering, dripping or smearing of paint, the hallmarks of action painting. Each stroke has hard, defined edges, beginning with and ending in blunt stubs or tapered and onion-domed tips. The lines fill voids on the canvas, often mechanically echoing the path of a preexisting line a foot or so away on the canvas. I suspect that much of de Kooning’s mature abstract work started out similarly. It appears to me that de Kooning didn’t make a choice not to take these further but instead found himself unable to chart a passage beyond these skeletal beginnings. De Kooning died while the MOMA show was still on exhibit.
|Mature Work - Balthus - Children - 1937|
|Late Work - Balthus - The Moth - 1960|
|Late Work - Balthus - The Cat in the Mirror - 1978|
|Late Work - Freud - After Breakfast - 2001|
|Late Work - Freud - Irish Woman on a Bed - 2003/04|
|Late Work - Freud - Naked Portrait - 2004/05|
Permit me to digress a moment to tell a story. Back in 1975, when I was still in high school, an 85 year old artist in Kansas City was completing work on a commission that was awarded him a year before. The artist had tackled this commission with energy and enthusiasm, creating a mural six by ten feet filled with over a dozen figures. Before beginning, he made countless sketches and oil studies and created a plasticine model of the whole composition. He used friends of his daughter and other local acquaintances as models for many of the figures and even traveled to the Ozarks to find authentic musicians willing to be portrayed in the final painting. Exhaustively researching his imagery, he collected photographs of the specific train he felt would be appropriate to his motif. Even for a young man this commission would have been a challenge, but this 85 year old had thrown himself totally into the project, completing the mural ahead of his anticipated schedule. He had put his last strokes on the canvas the day before but was as yet unsure as to whether the painting would require a few final adjustments. On January 19th, 1975, after having his dinner, he went out to his studio, informing his wife of his intention to sign the painting if he found that he was satisfied with it. When he didn’t return to the house by 8:30 pm, his wife went out to the studio to see what had become of him. She found him on the floor of the studio, immediately in front of his work. He had died of a massive heart attack. The painting remained unsigned.
|Late Work - Benton - The Sources of Country Music - 1975|
The artist was Thomas Hart Benton and the mural was The Sources of Country Music, in my estimation one of the artist’s finest works. I have always appreciated this work for its complex, energetic composition unified by rhythms of strong diagonals and an overall sweeping, circular vortex of activity. It seems a perfect summing up of many of the themes which
throughout his life. Every now and then
I would use The Sources of Country Music
as my work computer’s background, long before I knew the story behind its
creation. After learning how Benton had passed away
upon completing one last great work, I couldn’t help but feel a little envious
of him. I mean are there any among us
who wouldn’t want to go like that? Benton
Rembrandt didn’t live to be particularly old. He died when he was 63 years old. In his youth, he had experienced great professional success, but his last years were defined by personal tragedy and financial instability. By the time he was in his late 30’s, Rembrandt had seen three of his four children die in infancy and his wife, Saskia, succumb to tuberculosis. Poor investments and living beyond his means led ultimately to serious financial hardship. At 50, he was forced to sell off his own paintings and his collection of antiquities; four years later, his house and printing press were lost. A relationship with his surviving son’s nurse ended poorly with Rembrandt being charged with breach of promise and forced to pay alimony. A second relationship with his maid could never be legitimized or Rembrandt would lose control of a trust set up for his son. Throughout these turbulent years, Rembrandt’s professional reputation was pretty solid and his paintings and etchings continued to sell.
Considering the quality and innovation inherent in his mature work, Rembrandt would have been remembered as a unique and influential artist regardless of his last decade of production. But, amazingly, during his last ten years, despite suffering so many hardships, Rembrandt painted his most important works, a series of reflective self-portraits which changed the way the individual was represented in art. Stylistically, Rembrandt had developed a more painterly approach, color being applied to the canvas loosely with individual strokes asserting their autonomy, leaving it to the viewer’s eye to infer the transitions. These works are masterful, representing an artist at the height of his powers. Rembrandt has pared down his approach to the minimum, ignoring distracting detail, only devoting attention to those areas most necessary to convey meaning. And light is critical in these works. For Rembrandt, light is a liquid substance which he pours over his subjects. Unlike his earlier self-portraits in which he strives to flaunt his wealth and success, these late works present the artist as he was. These works are dark and gloomy, usually illuminated by a hazy, atmospheric glow. The artist wears dark clothing which melds with the shadows that envelope his figure. The mass of his kinky, graying hair swirls around his broad, swollen face like a cluster of storm clouds. His face, lined and pitted with age, covets the faint, glimmering light. These portraits present a disillusioned man, sober and stoic, suffering the outrages and debasements of old age yet retaining a piercing mental sharpness undiminished by infirmity. But rather than express self pity, his eyes seem to project empathy with his viewers, the countless generations of future centuries who will reexperience this cycle of growth and decline. These late self-portraits truly represent the
career. Quite an achievement for an
aging man who has experienced professional setbacks and crushing personal
losses. My supposition is that during
his last years it was solely his art that sustained him. peak of Rembrandt
|Late Work - Rembrandt - Self-Portrait - 1659|
|Late Work - Rembrandt - Self-Portrait - 1660|
|Late Work - Rembrandt - Self-Portrait - 1660|
|Late Work - Rembrandt - Self-Portrait - 1669|
In conclusion, I must ask myself what my abbreviated survey has taught me. It would be easy and reasonable to state that the results are too diverse to draw any justifiable conclusions, but, on the contrary, there are a few broad observations to be gleaned from my efforts. For instance, substance abuse severely diminishes an artist’s chances of having a productive and impressive late career. And, it’s a dangerous though enticing game to reevaluate a life’s work in one’s golden years, thereafter choosing a totally new path to follow. A long life doesn’t necessarily ordain decline, but extreme longevity almost inevitably leads to a diminishment in skills and focus. Genetics definitely play a big role here. And that, let’s face it, is just a crap shoot. There are a few shining examples of artists whose career paths have remained stable in their later years or even followed a trajectory of continued ascent, but that, without a doubt, doesn’t appear to be the norm. So, considering my intention to devote my latter years to fully maturing as an artist, I would have to say that the odds are definitely not in my favor. But I really have no choice but to give it a serious try. And should I fail the alternative is not that horrific. With my AARP card securely tucked away in my wallet, I foresee a rosy future of discount matinee movie showings and early-bird blue-plate specials at the local Red Lobster.