Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions
by Stephanie Cassidy | December 10, 2019
At what age did you decide to become an artist?
Young. Drawing and painting was pretty much always something I liked doing and was good at from a very young age. So I kind of always knew I was going to be an artist, but what that actually meant was pretty vague. It got a bit more clearly articulated through conversations with my older brother Andrew while I was in middle school and high school; he was reporting back from college and must have taken some art classes and met some artists. As a kid I didn’t know any adults who were professional artists except perhaps for my watercolor teacher at the local art center. I held, and still hold, the title “artist” in high regard. I want the term to mean something and not be dished out lightly. So I didn’t call myself an artist until I felt I had earned it by making work that was really worth something.
How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
I was always doing art since I was very young, and my parents always encouraged it. There was never a big moment—no grand showdown where I said, “Father, I don’t care what you and mother want, I’m not going into law, I want to be…to be a…(choking back tears) an artist!” It just kind of was always what I was going to do. It was really just a question of what other things in addition to being an artist I was going to do. In some ways, that was where the difficulty was. It took a while for me to realize what interests I needed to let go of in order to really be able to focus and make something happen with art.
Who are your favorite artists?
Edwin Dickinson, Michelangelo, William Kentridge, Max Beckman, Goya, Degas, Caillebotte, Kollwitz, Benton, Hopper, Bellows, Rubens, Franz Kline, Cassatt, Rembrandt, Euan Uglow, Kerry James Marshall, to name a few! Some background: The French Impressionists will always be my first love in terms of art. The Art Institute of Chicago has an excellent collection of Impressionist painting, and it was there that I had my first real connection to works of art. At some point in high school, I started to open up to the work in museums, and I began to see and understand some pretty exciting ideas—especially in the work of Caillebotte, Monet, and Lautrec. I really connected to the idea of capturing the moment that the Impressionists explored (especially Monet) and the mix of drawing and painting that you see in Lautrec and Degas. In college at Indiana University, I studied the canon of Western art and was introduced to the whole gamut of artists that you find in Gardner’s surveys. It was all exciting—even the stuff I slept through in lecture—and opened up a vast treasure trove of ideas and influences. Many of these artists I would pursue in later studies on my own or in other contexts, but the art history courses really gave me a familiarity and a framework to approach all different kinds of work. I studied in Florence for a summer and that helped cement my love of artists of the Italian Renaissance. I was floored by Michelangelo’s sculpture and still regularly look to his work for inspiration. After Italy, I traveled around Europe on a grant, looking at multi-figural compositions by some of Europe’s greatest masters. That trip helped me understand so much about composing with the figure and gave me a lifelong appreciation of Rubens. When I moved to New York after college, I decided to school myself in abstract painting and picked up a copy of The Triumph of American Painting from a bookseller in Union Square. That was a good move. Learning more about the work definitely strengthened my appreciation of abstract painting. And I also want to credit my teacher and mentor Andy Reiss for introducing me to so many great artists and deepening my appreciation of so many others. I learned about Edwin Dickinson from him—a great American artist who is so unique and poetic.
Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
Franz Kline, although I’ve tried to make my work look like his on occasion. I think that it would be a success for me to make an Eric March painting that has the same energy and rawness of a Franz Kline.
Art book you cannot live without?
With everything online these days, I can’t say I am absolutely attached to any one art book. But I have a great exhibition catalogue of Edwin Dickinson’s work called Edwin Dickinson: Dreams and Realities, which I’ve had for years and always enjoy going through. Another might be Peck’s Atlas of Human Anatomy for the Artist, which was my first anatomy book and a damn good one.
What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
Honesty or “Truth-to-Self.” The question of honesty is one that I can ask of other artists and is one that I ask of myself and my work: Is this piece coming from a true thought or feeling? Is this a truth that is coming from me that I know to be true from the inside? Or is this a borrowed idea, someone else’s truth? Am I being honest about who I am, what I understand, what I am ignorant of, my joys, my frustrations, my life, my time, my mortality, society, the world? The question of Truth-to-Self can also apply to a piece. Does a piece honestly express the truth of the artist? Is the composition and the mark-making true to this reality? Is it expressive or merely impressive? Do the parts of this painting add up to an internal graphic integrity? I think artists who are tackling the question of honesty don’t let themselves off the hook. They seek a deeper understanding of themselves, their world, and their craft. It’s what can make an artist vulnerable, but also what can give their work incredible strength and clarity.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
Yes, I always have one on me. Sometimes it gets used, sometimes not. Sometimes it’s a journal or a place to do lesson plans. Sometimes it’s subway sketches, sometimes early compositional ideas. Before I had an internet-connected smart phone, I would sketch more than I do now. I recently made a commitment to myself to sketch first before I sink into reading the New York Times on my phone. The news is important to read, and I love learning new stuff, but it’s someone else’s truth. What’s in front of my eyes or coming out of my own brain is more my own.
What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
The Met, although honestly I’m not really enough of a regular at any other museum to have a large menu to choose from. I’ve been to a lot of museums, but the Met is the only one I’ve been to a lot. I did the copyist program there, I’ve taken my classes there, seen so many great shows there, learned so much from the work there. And until recently it was still donation-based, which kept it really accessible to me and all the other folks who couldn’t fork over the steep ticket prices of the other major NYC museums.
What’s your go-to NY museum?
The Met. Although since they’ve started charging out-of-staters, I’ve been going there less. (I live in Connecticut now.) One of these days I’ll bite the bullet and get a membership so I don’t have to stress so much about the ticket price.
What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
William Kentridge at the Hirshhorn. I think it was 2001. The Kerry James Marshall show at the Met Breuer in 2016 pretty much knocked my socks off, too.
If you were not an artist, what would you be?
Well, I work three or four different jobs at the moment, so maybe let me answer that question when I’ve gotten that number down to one. Maybe a better graphic designer? But that’s still being an artist—just a different kind.
What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
A deeper understanding of contemporary art movements—I felt like I was playing catch up for a long time after I got out of school—maybe even still. Although now I don’t think I should have fretted so much. Knowing the art scene is important, but knowing yourself is much, much more important. I think my undergrad education at Indiana University focused on the right things—mostly how to draw and paint and art history—and there’s only so much time in a four-year program. Really learning how to draw and paint takes a long time. That’s why I ended up back in class with Andy Reiss and at the Art Students League after I graduated from Indiana and moved to Brooklyn. Maybe I wish I had serious drawing training much earlier—in high school—and then followed it up with a conservatory program instead of a liberal arts program. I think that would have put me on a bit stronger footing earlier and helped me get a head start on a professional career.
What work of art have you looked at most and why?
Hmm. It might be that Tiepolo panel at the top of the stairs at the Met, Triumph of Marius, the one with the chained king being paraded through the streets of Rome. For one, it’s the gateway piece to the European collection, so I always see it when going to see other paintings. But I also love Tiepolo—such form and movement and color and clever plays of light and shadow. I have studied and drawn the paintings in that gallery several times. Just last week I was thinking about that painting and using it to (hopefully) resolve a lighting issue in a piece I’m working on.
What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
I like looking at trees, I like looking at dance, at my children, my wife. Visual pleasure outside and within art are kind of hard to separate.
Do you listen to music in your studio?
Yes. WFUV until I get tired of rock and roll, then classical on WQXR, then silence. I listen to the radio, so I can let the DJ handle all the music decisions and I can just paint—otherwise I spend fifteen minutes scrolling through my tired music library trying to find the perfect thing to listen to. But sometimes any music is just annoying, and silence is best. My studio is above a music school, so sometimes I also get some live cello or piano, although it’s not always masterfully played.
What is the last gallery you visited?
Brice Marden at Gagosian and Bill Traylor at David Zwirner. The class signaling at Gagosian is so intense, it makes it hard to see the work sometimes. But I liked the work in both shows.
Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?
I’ll say Käthe Kollwitz, although I know she’s not exactly underrated. I first saw her work in a modern art class, but she was mentioned in passing on the way to dwelling on the Die Brucke movement and the German Expressionists. My friend and I in class were like, hold up, why are we spending so much time on Kirchner when Kollwitz is awesome? There’s such deep humanity in her work. And her biography is a good antidote to the usual artist-as-cloistered-genius-jerk story that we hear a lot. There are a lot of artworks about war, but few that show the deep internal grief of familial loss like hers. You can also see Kollwitz’s empathy for others and a deep searching for self. It’s not too showy, and it gets me in the heart. Another might be Adolph Menzel. The man was a drawing machine—and entirely democratic. Anything in the world was worth looking at, worth studying. There’s a good lesson in that.
What art materials can you not live without?
Charcoal & paper. They are so fundamental and so expansive at the same time. Almost everything I make starts with these materials or involves them at some part of my process.
Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
I am definitely engaged with art in some way every day, either in working on a concept in my sketchbook, on my computer, or in my head or doing some drawing from observation or doing a demo in class. But I am not in my studio every day. I’ve come to accept that my resources have not and perhaps never will allow me to support myself and my family along with a daily studio practice. I do the best I can between teaching and other work. I usually have at least one full day in the studio every week. I do my best to “prep” for this day to make the most of it, including having the reference material I need, compositional directions worked out, materials ready, etc. If my bills are paid, I’ll usually get in another day or half day or evening, depending on how things work out with my family schedule and exhibition deadlines. My wife is a dancer with her own company, so the balance of our creative lives, family lives, and professional lives is a constantly shifting puzzle. It certainly never gets boring, and my life is wonderful in so many ways, but it can take a long time to get major paintings finished.
What is the longest time you went without creating art?
Months. Not sure. I was really in debt after my last big show in 2017, and it took a while to recover from that. Which means I was doing web design and other paid work instead of painting.
What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
Work other jobs or work on other studio projects. My studio time is so precious, I can’t waste it staring at a wall. It’s pretty unusual for me to not know what to do. There’s a long backlog of projects I want to work on should I ever run out of new ideas or inspiration—paintings, drawings, poster designs, sculptures, puppets, masks.
What are the questions that drive your work?
Am I being honest? What is important to me? What is important to others? How can my studio practice be of value? Am I having fun? Does this feel right? How can I grow love in the world?
What is the most important quality in an artist?
Honesty and perseverance. Honesty for the reason to work, perseverance to see the work through.
What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
A large gallery full of large paintings. I’m working on it.
What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
I’m not sure social media is so great for art in general. It has changed how people interact with each other and with the real world in ways that tend to move attention away from actual experience. With social media we are constantly placing ourselves in relation to future memory and an imagined global audience instead of really seeing and understanding what’s going on in front of us- what’s actually happening to us and the actual impact of our own actions. So much of my art practice and a lot of the art practice taught at the League involves honing awareness, honing observation, honing concentration. Online and social media, as we engage with it now, often breaks that concentration apart for everyone—for artists just like everyone else. While I believe social media is here to stay, I think we all need to better understand what it is and how best to engage with it. It’s explicitly designed to consume us as we consume it, so we need to figure out the best way to not get eaten. It’s not quite like a snake eating its own tail, more like a snake eating its own tail while getting eaten by an alligator.
Eric March teaches “The Fundamentals of Drawing” at the Art Students League of New York.