BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 19 DEC 17
Featured in
Issue 192

Beginning, Middle, End

Growing old and growing value 

BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 19 DEC 17

Age and ageing affect artists and writers, their reputations and images, in every sense. Their debuts can stimulate fervour in those who charge artists’ careers with value – gallerists, curators, collectors, critics. The first show, first novel, might claim attention; the fall off can be fast.

The middle years: the worst period for careers. A mid-career artist is perceived as snoozing in the studio, doing the same old same old. And writers are presumed to be at work on, essentially, the same novel.

The middle may be the worst place for anyone, squeezed between youth (a streetcar named promise) and the Grim Reaper. It could also be a fabulous time: a person feels freer of early anxieties, or as Marlene Dietrich’s character Tanya said of Orson Welles’s Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil (1958): ‘He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?’ Maturity, should it occur, fosters a ‘Who cares about this shit anymore?’ attitude and other compensations.

Logically, though, the middle is unaccountable, amorphous, since it doesn’t exist until the end is known. The ‘middle years’ is conjecture, an abstraction, which death concretizes, unless a writer commits suicide, determining when those years were.

I wonder if artists’ and writers’ alcoholism – famously Jackson Pollock’s and William Faulkner’s – liquefied the middle into oblivion, speeding it toward the end.

After first and second openings, books, artists and writers persist, though they might wonder why. Some believe they can’t do anything else, don’t want to, anyway. If they are thinking, examining, abandoning ideas that no longer hold up – changing – they tend to develop, which might positively augment their work. This would seem obvious, if ageing weren’t considered a disease.

Entering older age can add frisson to male artists’ reputations and, lately, women’s. Second-wave feminists investigated subjects of gendered obscurity, a fine result of 1970s identity politics. Also in the 1960s and ’70s, photography, video and other new media opened non-traditional art-world doors, allowing women to walk into more rooms.

Etel Adnan, Untitled, 2014. Courtesy: the artist, Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg and Beirut, Galerie LeLong & Co., New York, and White Cube, London; photograph: White Cube/George Darrell

Older women artists are being ‘discovered’ at a clip. They had been showing work, but let’s say they didn’t register or find much appreciation. Eva Hesse, Agnes Martin and Georgia O’Keeffe – some knew acclaim during their lifetimes. Infamously, Louise Bourgeois had her first retrospective in 1982, when she was 70. Luckily, she lived a long life. In recent years, focus and attention have been paid to Ida Applebroog, Jo Baer, Phyllida Barlow, Lee Bontecou, Joan Jonas, Marisa Merz, Lygia Pape, Dorothea Rockburne, Carolee Schneemann, Joan Snyder, Pat Steir and more. Sustained applause later in life might diminish the anguish of years of relative invisibility, few reviews or none, and financial insecurity. Some bloom; for others, it’s too late.

For a writer, only his or her death causes new excitement and interest. The dead writer can’t experience it, of course. Age accrues some distinction or respect to a living writer who goes on; but she is also perceived as hanging around only to write yet another novel. ‘Death is a good career move,’ is now a cliché. Some writers imagine their books will find acclaim after they die. A misguided hope.

Lebanese-born painter and poet Etel Adnan is 92. About six years ago, she was ‘discovered’. Several events and influential art-world characters, who admired her work, effected this. For years, she’d been living and working in Sausalito, California, painting, writing poetry, teaching philosophy, which she’d studied at the Sorbonne, Paris, in the 1950s.

Adnan came into my awareness in the mid-1980s. I attended her poetry reading at The Graduate Center, CUNY, New York; her language, imagery, special intelligence and composure thrilled me. Adnan was better known as a poet then, though she’d been painting most of her life. Her vivid, abstract paintings explore seeing, being. She’s a visual phenomenologist.

Adnan and I discussed her reversal of fortune in Paris, where I visited her and sculptor Simone Fattal, long-time partners in love and work. The sudden demand for Adnan’s paintings has been overwhelming. The art world is a little mad. She can’t produce enough fast enough. ‘I’m 92,’ she says. Besides, she doesn’t work that way. Years ago, she might have sold two small paintings a year for US$800 each. What does it all mean? It’s crazy, funny, makes her happy, doesn’t happen to everyone, she’s fortunate. What is value? The art world is based, in large part, on scarcity, the fewer the better, the more costly. In writing, good reviews and publishers don’t sell books. A great book doesn’t often produce great sales. What is value is what is valued. The question is always: ‘Why?’

Main image: Etel Adnan, Untitled, 2014. Courtesy: the artist, Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg and Beirut, Galerie LeLong & Co., New York, and White Cube, London; photograph: White Cube/George Darrell

Lynne Tillman is a writer. Her most recent title is Mothercare (Soft Skull Press, 2022). In 2025, Soft Skull Press is publishing a book of her selected stories titled Thrilled to Death.