When Mary MacNaughton, director of the
Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College, in Claremont, CA, sent me an email last spring saying she wanted to do a retrospective of my work, I was ecstatic. A retrospective! Wow. This is every artist’s dream. It means you’re important!
OK, maybe that’s delusional, but at least you’re someone. No, not that, either. But it does mean this: You get to see — all at once — what painters never get to see otherwise, or can see only in sequence, or in their memory — a life’s work. A retrospective will demonstrate my development, which I hardly ever think about except when I say, “I used to do that.” And it will validate, however fleetingly, this strange activity to which I’ve dedicated my life — the uncertain, anxious business of painting.
The show will open in 2010. Last spring, that seemed eons away, but now that Mary and I have settled on which works will be in the show (all told, there will be about 35 paintings and an equal number of drawings, going back to 1992), it seems much closer.
Right now, I’m busy clerking — doing stuff like tracking down the works, hauling them out of storage and into my studio, dusting them off, assessing their condition (there’s some damage here and there, but it’s fixable), figuring out photography and framing logistics, and working with Mary to figure out fund-raising approaches to support the show and its catalogue. I’ve already started some of the photography, and Mark Stevens, whose writing — and aeshetic judgment — I’ve always admired, has agreed to write my catalogue essay. Mary and I saved a few slots for new work that I will be making during the coming year, giving everything I’m now doing in the studio a sense of urgency.
Since hanging several of the older paintings on my studio wall, however, I’m finding myself sitting in my painting chair, staring at them in bewilderment. Who painted those pictures? I mean, I know who painted them — I painted them. But looking at them reminds me of the times I’d visit my mother, long after I’d become an adult, when she’d show me old drawings she’d found that I’d made in the third grade. I’d look at them and feel absolutely nothing.
Hanging next to new paintings that are in progress, the old paintings invite comparison to the new ones. I’d like to say that my paintings have become demonstrably better — that they’re more mature, or refined, or something like that. Instead, I can’t shake the feeling that everything’s more or less the same. I’m reminded of what an artist friend told me many years ago — that painters are lucky if they come up with even one good painting idea during a lifetime.
I also can get an entirely different feeling — that the older paintings are better than what I’m doing now. All my paintings clearly derive from the same hand. Oddly, my older paintings are simpler, more classical and restrained than my newer ones. You might say they’re less raucous and happy, more stoical and quiet. You’d think it’d be the other way around, wouldn’t you? Shouldn’t paintings evolve naturally from youthful ebullience to mature sobriety? Nothing’s predictable in art, that’s for sure.
Mind you, I want this retrospective. But it’s shaking up my painter’s mind. The older paintings stare out at me, hounding me even when I’m working on a new painting. One minute they seem better than what I’m doing now. Another moment they seem pathetically juvenile, and I’m ready to rip them up. Another moment, they seem like ghosts from a past I can’t get a hold of. As I work on new paintings, I feel the constant tug of the older, calmer paintings, but it’s unclear which way they want me to go.
I’m going to have to begin repairing the old paintings soon, and then ship them off to the framer. But I don’t want to let them go just yet. For all the disturbance they’re causing, they’re somehow comforting. I made these things. I put them out there in the world.
Today, a sunny Valentine’s Day, inspires me to think of my paintings a little poetically, not to say forgivingly. Like love, they give meaning to life. And like love, they require, very simply, that I be kind to them. All of them.