BY Sam Thorne in Features , Opinion | 30 SEP 12
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Issue 1

The Evolution of the Artist's Studio

The Director of Nottingham Contemporary shares his notes on the nature and evolution of the artist's studio

BY Sam Thorne in Features , Opinion | 30 SEP 12

The clichés are easy to recite: there’s the all-consuming clutter (proof of a brilliant mind), the unfinished canvases or half-hewn objects (this is the place of creative production, after all). It will be damp, hopefully drafty — isn’t it important that artists suffer for their art? — and inhabited by a possibly misunderstood genius. This artist, almost always a man, will be without company. As Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his ‘Treatise on Painting’, published posthumously in 1651: ‘If you are alone, you belong entirely to yourself.’

This image of the artist’s studio persists in the popular imagination. But, as an idea and as a physical space, the studio of the last 100 years has been characterized by flux rather than tradition, by dialogue rather than isolation. It has been a factory as well as a convivial space (for Andy Warhol, it was both), a workshop but also a school (at the Bauhaus there was no distinction). This hybrid state is latent in the studio’s rangy etymological roots: a study (from the Latin, studium) while, more obliquely, atelier derives from the Old French word astelle or ‘yoke’. The latter might be suggestive for the contemporary studio — not some garret, simply a mobile space where things and people and images can be brought together.

Gustave Courbet, L'Atelier du peintre, 1854-55. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The notion of the expanded studio isn’t a new one. Its most famous evocation can be found in Gustave Courbet’s 1855 painting L’Atelier du peintre (The Artist’s Studio), a canvas that the artist himself called a ‘real allegory’ in which ‘the whole world is coming me to be painted’. On the right are friends, peers, critics and philosophers; on the left is, as Courbet put it, ‘the other world of everyday life, the masses, wretchedness, poverty, wealth’. As a constellation of relations, the studio always embodies the negotiations between art and life, just as it stands for the relation between art and other kinds of production at a given moment.

Visiting Francis Bacon’s London studio today, it’s easy to forget two things: firstly, that you’re in Dublin; secondly, and more alarmingly, that the artist died 20 years ago. The rooms are still knee-deep in books and scraps of paper, walls and emptied champagne crates encrusted with paint. In 2001, when more than 7,000 objects from Bacon’s studio at 7 Reece Mews in South Kensington — what the artist called his ‘compost heap’ — were relocated to the Hugh Lane Gallery, a team of archeologists was enlisted to excavate and catalogue the chaos. The studio has arguably become Bacon’s most recognizable work. Several other artists’ studios have been relocated to museums in recent decades — for example, that of Constantin Brancusi at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and of Eduardo Paolozzi at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh — but is it ever possible for the reality of day-to-day work to be exhibited adequately? By enshrining the studio, can the institution obscure the artist as well as the art work?

Bruce Nauman’s photograph Failing to Levitate in My Studio (1966) turns this myth of the studio — as sacrosanct, a catalyst, a dishevelled haven — inside out. The artist attempts the miraculous but is found to be lacking. The work is inscribed with a two-fold failure: the artist is unable to levitate, though the (deliberate) double-exposure is also proof of his inability to produce a ‘proper’ photograph. Many of Nauman’s early studio-bound video performances invert the Romantic model of the studio: they show that it’s not just the artist who designates the studio, but the studio situation that produces the artist. As Nauman once said: ‘Art is what an artist does, just sitting around the studio.’

Toonder's Studio in Nederhorst den Berg, 1978. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Inactivity is often the reality of what happens in the studio. Dust, the index of nothing happening, was never so well captured as in Man Ray’s 1920 photograph of Marcel Duchamp’s work-in-progress Le Grand Verre (The Large Glass, 1915-23). Titled Dust Breeding, it surveys a silvery lunarscape of motes, mountains, canyons. An early visitor to Alberto Giacometti’s studio was careful to note the bottles of turpentine ‘shrouded’ in layers of dust, and dust was also crucial to the myth of Brancusi’s mews in Montparnasse. One visitor to the Romanian artist’s studio remembered an encounter in the 1920s: ‘His hair and beard are white, his long working-man’s blouse is white […] the sculptor’s dust that covers everything is white.’ Man Ray, who taught Brancusi photography, described entering this bleached-out environment as ‘penetrating into another world’. When the latter died in 1957, he was buried in a white burial dress, almost as though, after creating this white world, it had subsumed him.

The high-energy opposite of this monochrome stillness can be found in Hans Namuth’s 500+ photographs of Jackson Pollock (who died a year before Brancusi) at work in his East Hampton barn — a dance-like movement around the canvas far more varied than the phrase ‘drip painting’ allows for. Is this documentary or a collaboratively contrived dramatization of the creative act? At the time, photos of artists’ studios were popular staples of magazines including Vogue, Life and Harper’s Bazaar. The most prominent of these photographers was Brassaï, who shot both Henri Matisse and Giacometti, the latter of whom, a few months before his death in 1966, instructed him: ‘Photograph me like this, Brassaï …’. In this prompt we can sense a consciousness — one that had, according to art historian Briony Fer, been on the rise since Auguste Rodin — of the studio as a mediated realm, as a commodity form. It is here that the studio moves emphatically from a solo retreat to a full-on social experience, something closer to a film set.

Of course, this is exactly what Warhol was after. In 1964, his friend and ex-lover Billy Name began to ‘silverize’ a former hat factory in Manhattan. Because of all the amphetamines he was taking, Name was especially meticulous: even the toilet bowls were wrapped in foil down to the waterline. As Warhol later remarked: ‘Silver was the future, it was spacey […] And silver was also the past — the Silver Screen — Hollywood actresses photographed in silver sets.’ Warhol immediately knew that he didn’t want to call this East 47th Street space the Studio (too clichéd), though he briefly considered ‘the Lodge’ before deciding on the Factory. From the Minimalism of Donald Judd and Charlotte Posenenske to Robert Smithson’s buckets of ore, the 1960s was a decade that saw artists bring mechanized production into the studio, as well as outsourcing it to industrial manufacturers. As Warhol said: ‘A factory is where you build things. This is where I make or build my work.’

Kurt Schwitters, Hannover Merzbau, 1933. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons 

At the same time, many artists began to focus on the body as a medium. These artists were often active in emergent feminist discourses, while remaining aware of the conflicted traditions of a woman’s presence in the studio, a history shaped by exclusion and objectification. Carolee Schneemann wrote in 1963 that, ‘covered in paint, grease, chalk, ropes, plastic, I established my body as my territory’. This sensual involvement with sculptural work is also evident in Yayoi Kusama’s 1964 photographic self-portraits, in which she plays the part of the pin-up amid a roomful of twisting phallic knobs. As curator Helen Molesworth has argued, the ‘swarming tactility’ of the artist amid these encrusted objects begins to confuse the divisions between the body, the art work and the studio space. Echoing Kusama, Alina Szapocznikow was — from the 1950s until she died in 1972 — photographed hundreds of times in her Paris and Prague studios, posing laughingly with her sculptures. Often she is seen holding up cast parts — breasts, legs, torsos — to her own body, seeming to ‘wear’ her work. In the studio, these pieces aren’t displayed so much as inhabited, their status confused.

Many significant studios have been simple domestic environments. As Félix González-Torres once said: ‘I’m just a kitchen-table artist.’ But there have been many more idiosyncratic approaches to working from home. The paradigmatic example here is Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau, a white-painted Dadaist grotto which he began in 1923. This transformation of the artist’s family home in Hannover went through two other iterations over the following 25 years, first in Norway and then in the north of England. This deranged domicile was both one of the earliest examples of what came to be known as installation, but it was also an exhibition space, incorporating works by Schwitters’ peers including Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann. Friends and acquaintances are often present in studios, whether exhibited or invited. As Louise Bourgeois said of her own studio in New York: ‘I have an open house on Sundays, anyone can come.’

In the last 50 years, the studio has — as art historian Katy Siegel has argued — come to be associated with a variety of suspect ideas: handcraft, autonomy, genius. The ostensibly more serious values of critique, concept and public life became the realm of a generation of artists identified by the sometimes misleading tag of ‘post-studio’. The term was most probably first used in 1972 by the British curator and critic Lawrence Alloway, to refer to Smithson’s work in the deserts of Utah and Texas, though today it is more closely associated with the ‘Post-studio Art’ class at CalArts, the Disney-funded art school close to Los Angeles. This course was headed by Michael Asher, John Baldessari and Douglas Huebler, and students were encouraged to ‘stop daubing away at canvases or chipping away stone’ and to embrace a wider framework. But this isn’t to say that the studio was completely abandoned. In a recent interview, Baldessari himself remarked that: ‘I was a fully-fledged conceptual artist. You know, they don’t need studios. God forbid that it leaked out that I had a studio …’

Maria Petroni in her studio in Bologna, 1960. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Pushing this idea on a step, in recent years the artist Joe Scanlan has coined the semi-serious term ‘post-post-studio’ to refer to his own work as well as that of his contemporaries such as Tino Sehgal, Artur Żmijewski and Roman Ondak. In these projects, instead of inhabiting their own studio, the artist delegates the work to others who take their place. This, the argument goes, allows for a return to a discredited studio-based practice while offering a chance for some critical distance from the old indulgences. For his part, Scanlan, a white American man, provocatively hires a series of young black actresses to play the character of Donelle Woolford, a young artist who often completes residencies and participates in exhibitions on his behalf. Scanlan calls himself the ‘author’ of Woolford, but not of her work. Here, unlike earlier studio-based work, the body is no longer the site of authenticity. Creativity has become outsourced.

Extreme configurations of the studio as a small-scale corporation have emerged in the last two decades, in response to a rapidly expanding, globalized art market. Jeff Koons, for example, is reported to have around 120 assistants in his studio in midtown Manhattan, while Damien Hirst has employed as many as 150 in Gloucestershire. (This hangar-like facility once belonged to the sculptor Lynn Chadwick who, on first seeing the refurbished space, is said to have remarked: ‘This isn’t a studio, it’s a showroom.’) The size of these operations matches demand, but some also mimic the commercial logic of a company. When Takashi Murakami opened his Tokyo studio in 1995 he initially called it the Hiropon Factory, in homage to Warhol, but in 2002 he renamed it Kaikai Kiki (after its two mascots, a rabbit and a mouse), reshaping his entire studio operation along corporate lines. Large-scale studios, with the decisions made by the artist and most of the work executed by assistants, dates back at least as far as the 17th-century Dutch and Italian studios. What’s new with Murakami’s studio is that production has become both vertically integrated and dramatically increased.

As Daniel Buren wrote in his famous 1971 essay ‘The Function of the Studio’, once art is thought of as a response to a specific site, it becomes insufficient for an art work to be generated here (the studio) in order to be exhibited there (the gallery). For Buren, the studio is a stationary place where portable objects are produced, and has a function that is ‘simultaneously idealizing and ossifying’. But these days, the studio — or the idea of the studio — is always mutable. Suzanne Lacy, in writing about her own activist and educational work, has argued for a ‘studio in the streets’, a space where ‘reflection and production are sometimes indistinguishable’. Whether or not the isolated studio of Romantic imagination ever existed, artists have always worked where, when and however they can. Today, ‘the artist’s studio’ has come to refer to anything from a laptop to a community centre, from a laboratory to nowhere at all.

Main image: Alex Mittelmann in his studio, 1990. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons 

Sam Thorne is the director general and CEO of Japan House London.