Don’t Try to Understand an Artist by Pamela Beck

Consider Jackson Pollock’s approach to defining artists and their art: “Every good painter paints what he is.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat

by Pamela Beck

I went with a friend to a local gallery where one of the featured artists was present. My friend liked a drawing and asked the artist: “What was your inspiration while you drew this?”

“I was in the zone,” the artist replied. “But I think a lot about John Coltrane and Jean-Michel Basquiat.”

My friend felt confused. Unfortunately, he wanted the artist to make sense; Do you, too, labor under the illusion that artists can explain the precise source of their “inspiration?” Then you also must think people know what you’re talking about when you describe your nighttime dreams.

We often hear artists discuss their work. But the reasons for the compulsion to make it, where that comes from and what will result, are as mysterious to artists, as the origins of our dreams are to ourselves (although both come from the same fertile place.)

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat, In Italian, 1983. Acrylic, oil paintstick, and marker on canvas mounted on wood supports, two panels. The Stephanie and Peter Brant Foundation, Greenwich, Connecticut

Here’s what some artists have to say on the subject:

Jean-Michel Basquiat: I start a picture and I finish it. I don’t think about art while I work. I try to think about life.

Helen Frankenthaler: There is “no formula. There are no rules. Let the picture lead you where it must go.”

Henri Matisse: I do not literally paint that table, but the emotion it produces upon me.

John Chamberlain (from an interview with Joan Altabe): All who don’t do something peculiar to their own insanity fall on their face. I feel I have an attitude and it’s being explored. The more places I can put that attitude, the more places it comes out. It’s my insanity that I’m letting out.

I dare you to describe that “insanity.” Then I double dare you to stop trying. After all, there’s a simpler way to understand artists, their work and “the zone.” Consider Jackson Pollock’s approach to defining artists and their art: “Every good painter paints what he is.”

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