Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions
by Stephanie Cassidy | December 17, 2019
At what age did you decide to become an artist?
I started studying art in my early twenties, which is one reason I can relate to my adult students at the Gage Academy of Art, where I teach. If you learn to do art when you are in single digits or early teens, you don’t necessarily remember all the missteps and mistakes and blind alleys. I remember them all, and hopefully I help my students avoid the issues that sidetracked me and share with them the things that helped the most.
How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
I had very supportive parents. They introduced me to the arts which were very important to them. They took me to symphony concerts, Broadway shows, and local museums, and when we traveled, we visited the art museums in the towns we stopped in. My parents had friends who were artists — some of their work was in our house — and they had prints on the walls of the dancers of Degas and the flowers of van Gogh. The fact that I could successfully make a career of making art and, eventually, support a family and sustain a middle-class lifestyle was something that pleased my parents.
Who are your favorite artists?
That’s too long a list! Artists’ reputations survive for a reason, and I appreciate art from a broad range of styles and eras. I grew up obsessing over the great Diego Rivera murals in the Kresge Court of the Detroit Institute of Arts, my local museum, so he was a touchstone. But I also obsessed over the Louise Nevelson wall with its black paint and mysterious nooks and crannies. My own work has been most influenced by the artists who follow in the tradition of the chiaroscuro painters of the Baroque: Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Velázquez. Homer was a prime American example, and then Hopper during this past century, an artist I can’t get enough of. Capturing the effects of strong light, of paramount importance to all of these artists, has also been a main driver behind my studio practice.
Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
Mondrian. If you look closely at his grids, their painterly quality is quite at odds with the severe geometry, and he makes lots of surprising decisions: this line is thicker than that one, or this line doesn’t quite meet the edge of the canvas. His work has been so widely imitated and co-opted, that you have to go back to his originals to see how inventive they are compared to the rigid copycats. Mondrian created paintings, not diagrams.
Art book you cannot live without?
When I was a student at the League in the eighties, I used to haunt the Rizzoli Bookstore down the street. After I saw the amazing Antonio López García show at the Marlborough Gallery in 1986, I bought a major tome on his work at Rizzoli, and it was the most money I have ever spent for a book. (“More than a week’s groceries,” I remember my wife chiding me.) Now, the book is considered a collectors’ item, and I go back to it many times a year for inspiration. The drawing of López García’s uncle alone is worth the price of admission; that drawing was one of the stars of the Marlborough show, and now it’s buried in a private collection. When we visited the artist during a Gage art tour in Madrid, he told us that there were only 1,000 copies of the English edition in print, and that he had to help pay for the publication by giving Rizzoli one of his paintings. Shocking!
What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
I admire artists who use art for exploration, posing a question and then creating a series of works that attempts to find an answer. Art is one of the most powerful tools we have for expressing our ideas and feelings about the experience of being human. Artists, like everyone else, evolve and change as their lives progress, and a great artist does work that expresses those changes. Look at Morandi. Although he painted the same beat-up bottles and bowls for forty years, he changed his painterly language to reflect his new insights into the fuzzy line between reality and abstraction. The later into his career you go, the more he seems to question the very nature of perception itself, and his paintings reflect that process. Morandi makes you reexamine how you see.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
I never go anywhere without a sketchbook in my pocket, including houses of worship and concert halls. I couldn’t imagine waiting at the gate at an airport without sketching sleeping passengers, and I’ve even tried to record weddings in progress. Most of my drawings aren’t particularly successful, but a sketchbook is meant as an artist’s tool with lots of room to fail. Lately I’ve been going through my stacks of notebooks – several hundred or so – and culling the best pages. There have been some pleasant surprises, and I’ve gifted a dozen or so friends sketch portraits that both they and I had forgotten I’d made.
What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
The Prado. It’s not encyclopedic like the Louvre or the Met, but what it lacks in breadth it makes up in quality. You have to see Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights in person to fully appreciate its transcendental details; it’s much bigger than you think, and never mind the profound mystery of its meaning – it’s gorgeously painted, creature by tiny creature. And of course, that’s not to mention Las Meninas, all of Goya’s career, or Weyden’s Deposition. And then there’s the Rubens, and the Titians….
What’s your go-to NY museum?
The Met, of course. In at least a hundred visits over the years, there are still parts of the museum I’m sure I’ve never seen. How many people have stumbled over the cyclorama of Versailles, or the unfinished (ink under-drawing visible) Durer? My teacher at the League – Robert Beverly Hale — bought their Pollock, so of course, I’m partial to that, and the many other modernists he acquired for the museum. And where else in New York can you see great examples of intarsia, or five Vermeers?
What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
First, the embarrassing part. I was an art student in Paris, and the whole class was leaving early to go the Chardin show at the Grand Palais. “Who’s Chardin?” I asked innocently. Perhaps my ignorance was part of the drama when I started through the show. As far as I know it was the most comprehensive Chardin survey ever mounted, and by the time I was done, I was ecstatic. Not a bad painting in the lot, and an incredibly satisfying trajectory, slowly evolving from one focus to another, with the amazing mid-career figurative detour, a bas-relief period (!), and the late self-portraits. It’s very hard to sustain that level of joy and inventiveness decade after decade, but Chardin was a magician, and if there is a better way to spend several hours with art, I don’t know what it is.
If you were not an artist, what would you be?
A journalist. I love writing, and I still get to do a fair bit – I’ve written over 150 published or on-air art reviews, not to mention my book, The Artists Complete Guide to Facial Expression. These days the local paper calls me up to write artist obituaries, which is a responsibility I take very seriously. And I get great stories from the survivors.
What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
Clothing! I was fine with figures as long as they were nude, but to this day I haven’t quite figured out how shirts, pants, and dresses work. I should move to Florida or some other place where the clothing is minimal.
What work of art have you looked at most and why?
Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. I don’t particularly like it as a painting, but it’s considered such a landmark of the twentieth century that I can’t help but keep going back and questioning why. It’s truly an oddball work – not really finished, a stylistic mishmash, and definitely not cubist, as many people incorrectly think. What it did that is historically important is to break all the rules of art that Matisse and Derain hadn’t gotten to yet, particularly regarding the integrity of the female form. It also abandons modeling, and compositional coherence. And, Picasso considered it his epic statement; it was so large that he had to rent a separate studio to paint it (he also wanted complete privacy), and his friends and colleagues who saw the finished version thought he had lost it. It wasn’t sold or exhibited for several decades, and yet its influence leaked out. Matisse tried to one-up Demoiselles with paintings that seem much less confrontational. And being confrontational is what Picasso at that stage was all about. The painting is still shocking if you look at it in the context of its time. At MoMA, Demoiselles gets completely upstaged by van Gogh’s Starry Night, but that allows you to spend time in front of it without a crowd.
What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
Architecture. My wife is a licensed architect, and I learned a lot about architectural history and the issues that architects think about from being around her. I’m fascinated by some of the radical new buildings that are going up around the world, like those by Zaha Hadid, Santiago Calatrava, or Rem Koolhaas. As an art tour guide for Gage Academy of Art, I’ve been to Bilbao several times to see Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim. As a form, it’s somewhere between sculpture and architecture, and it is a visual feast to see its titanium skin glow on a sunny day. What’s more, Calatrava did the glass and steel footbridge nearby, and the sleek airport.
Do you listen to music in your studio?
I listen to music when I’m not glued to NPR, or when I’m doing something that requires 100% attention. It’s an eclectic list: Nino Rota, Boris Godunov (Mussorgsky), Leonard Cohen, Porgy and Bess. And there’s also WFMU, a former college station in Jersey City that plays an outrageously eclectic mix of lesser-known music and spoken-word; it’s freeform in the purest sense. If I’m really looking to cheer myself up, I binge on They Might Be Giants.
What is the last gallery you visited?
Most recently, I visited an exhibition of mostly Baroque art, borrowed from the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, on view at the Seattle Art Museum. The heart of the exhibit are dark, Counter-Reformation altarpieces in the wake of Caravaggio, plus two works by Ribera which almost steal the show—no one ever painted old men with his virtuosity and power. Then, there’s a Titian portrait of Pope Paul III that’s my favorite piece; in my opinion, Titian was the first truly modern artist, painting people without inflection or stylization, and inventing, late in his career, painterly realism.
Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?
Leaving aside France, nearly every European country had excellent late nineteenth-century artists who have never gotten their due. Because American collectors of that period were serious Francophiles, what they bought in Paris—Cézannes, van Goghs, Gauguins, and the Impressionists—often ended up dominating the nineteenth-century departments of their local museums. It means that the amazing painters of the Itinerant movement in Russia, the Macchiaioli in Italy, the Northern Light painters in Scandinavia, and the Pre-Raphaelites in England are barely, if at all, represented in American museums, which means they tend to be written out of our art histories. The Russians Repin (epic narratives) and Levitan (landscapes) were geniuses of the highest order, for example, but you must travel to St. Petersburg or Moscow to see their work. Of course, they are heroes in Russia, but their reputations haven’t registered in the West.
What art materials can you not live without?
Let’s hear it for yellow ochre, historically one of the oldest pigments on the planet, used for thousands of years. Although you can mix it with primaries, it’s present in nearly every subject – still life, landscape, portrait, interior – so why would you? Yellow ochre is cheap, perfectly balanced in terms of level of chroma, and can be used right out of the tube when you need a zippy highlight on something like a gold ornament or a tree branch. It’s also a perfect 50% gray, so you can use it to check the value of the mid-tones on your palette. I find that only a few colors need to be mixed brighter than yellow ochre, but if you don’t have those brighter values (used in limited doses) your paintings go flat.
Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
What is the longest time you went without creating art?
When I was sick and in bed, I was a frustrated painter, so I used the time to master my digital tablet (which is such a useful artist’s tool). Otherwise I can’t remember an extended period where I wasn’t making art on some level. My groaning plan files, painting racks, and piles of sketchbooks are the evidence. But I better cull the stacks before my kids have to do it!
What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
Go to my studio anyway. It’s my job, and I have working hours, and if you wait for inspiration to strike, it could be a long wait. I try to have a few projects lined up so I always have something to work on. Making art is what I do, and it has become an unbreakable habit, fortunately.
What are the questions that drive your work?
How can a work of art be both striking visually and mentally engaging? How can concerns I have about issues like mortality, global warming, and the nature of visual reality be communicated in works that are poetic rather than didactic?
What is the most important quality in an artist?
Dissatisfaction. All good artists feel that their ultimate goal has yet to be achieved, and each artwork is only a partly successful attempt to reach that goal. It drives artists to continue to create and explore. If you finally achieve a plateau where you feel that you have “arrived,” you are in danger of becoming smug and repeating yourself. If you go to any area that is dominated by tourist-oriented galleries – like the blocks around the Place des Vosges in Paris – you can see the worst-case scenario of artists who have hit upon an attractive, slick product and they put it out like widgets.
What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
Feeling like I’ve found the right balance between form and content. The twentieth century was all about morphing the way paintings were made to better express the message, so pretty much anything goes. I have experimented with painting with paper towels, spattering, and scraping, for example, to open up my own expressive language, but I’ve never been quite satisfied with the results. I’m still trying.
What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
Our new internet-driven social media has given artists a space to share what they are doing, a communication channel that was completely non-existent just a short while ago. Instagram (which I don’t use personally) is like a visual diary, where artists can share spur-of-the-moment glimpses of their works in progress, artists they admire, or their finished art. Instagram has supplanted websites as the go-to place for artists to see and be seen, and it has given artists marketplace power that they did not formerly have, cutting into the gallery monopoly of what art is visible and what is not.
Artist, author, and educator Gary Faigin is the co-Founder and Artistic Director of Gage Academy of Art in Seattle. Faigin received his art training at the Art Students League in New York and the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris.