- May 17, 2005The New York Times
> May 8, 2005[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
> Wake Up. Wash Face. Do Routine. Now Paint.
> By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
> CHRIS OFILI'S watercolors at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the spring
> art season's rapturous sleeper, are of imaginary heads. There are 181
> of them, all the same size, of men and women in bright African garb,
> deliriously colored and intricately detailed. Mr. Ofili is, obviously,
> the British artist (lately transplanted to Trinidad) whose "Holy Virgin
> Mary," with elephant dung, caused a ruckus a few years back when the
> "Sensation" show was at the Brooklyn Museum. He is also adept at rather
> lovely, clever and not at all inflammatory art, including these
> silhouettes and straight-on portraits, which are titled "Afro-Muses."
> Mr. Ofili, it turns out, has been painting his watercolor heads nearly
> every day for 10 years - for himself, mostly, although some of them
> have made their way into the world. Watercoloring is his daily ritual.
> A few years ago he added the occasional bird or flower, to stop the
> routine from becoming a rut.
> Everyone has routines. What works for one person may not for someone
> else. Routines can be comforting. They may be our jobs. They define our
> limits and we try to make something constructive out of them.
> The myth is that artists are somehow different. That they leap from one
> peak of inspiration to another. That they reject limits - that this is
> precisely what makes them artists. But of course that's not true. Most
> artists work as the rest of us do, incrementally, day by day, according
> to their own habits. That most art does not rise above the level of
> routine has nothing necessarily to do with the value of having a
> Twyla Tharp wakes up every day at 5:30 and takes a cab to the gym.
> Chopin played Bach. Beethoven strolled around Vienna with a sketch pad
> first thing in the morning. Giorgio Morandi spent decades painting the
> same dusty bunch of small bottles, bowls and biscuit tins. Chuck Close
> paints and draws and makes prints of nearly identical dots or marks,
> which, depending on how they're arranged, turn into different faces.
> "Having a routine, knowing what to do," he has said, "gives me a sense
> of freedom and keeps me from going crazy. It's calming." He calls his
> method Zenlike, "like raking gravel in a monastery."
> There are routines and there are routines. On Kawara, the Japanese-born
> artist, paints the date. Since the 1960's, he has made thousands of
> "Today" paintings. His routine entails at least four or five coats of
> the same brand of paint, the letters white and hand-drawn, always in
> roughly the same proportion to the size of the canvas.
> Out of routine comes inspiration. That's the idea, anyway. To grasp
> what's exceptional, you first have to know what's routine. I once spent
> several months watching the American realist painter Philip Pearlstein
> paint a picture of two nudes. He has followed the same routine for
> years. One of the models, Desirée Alvarez, who is also an artist, said
> that the value of watching someone else's studio routine was "in terms
> of discipline and day-to-dayness and commitment to work even when it
> isn't going well."
> "I know Philip is interested in Zen monks," she continued. "They have
> their routines, because they think that within routine, and only within
> routine, enlightenment comes."
> Mr. Ofili said, "That's exactly it," when we spoke the other day about
> his daily routine. He arrives in his studio at 9 or 10 in the morning,
> he explained. He sets aside a corner for watercolors and drawings "away
> from center stage," meaning where he paints his big, collaged oil
> paintings. "I consider that corner of the studio to be my comfort
> zone," he said. First, he tears a large sheet of paper, always the same
> size, into eight pieces, all about 6 by 9 inches. Then he loosens up
> with some pencil marks, "nothing statements, which have no function."
> "They're not a guide," he went on, they're just a way to say something
> and nothing with a physical mark that is nothing except a start."
> Watercolor goes on top. He estimated that each head takes 5 to 15
> minutes. Occasionally he'll paint while on the phone. He may finish one
> watercolor or 10 in the course of a day.
> "There have been days I have not made them," he added. "Sometimes it
> felt absolutely necessary to do pencil drawings instead. It was
> cleansing. There's a beautiful sound that pencil makes when it's
> scratching on paper. Very soothing. Watercolor is like waving a
> conductor's baton. It's very quick. I almost don't even have to think."
> "Sometimes," he added, "I will return to the watercolors in the
> evening. And that's a completely different atmosphere. If things
> haven't gone well during the day, I can calm down. The big paintings
> are like a performance - me looking at me. It's self-conscious. There's
> a lot of getting up close to the canvas, then stepping back, reflecting
> on decisions, thinking about gestures. I try to take on all sorts of
> issues and ideas. So my mind is busy. With watercolor, it's just about
> the colors and the faces. They're free to go any way they want to go. I
> may tell myself, 'This will be the last one I do.' Then I'll do
> another. That's liberating."
> No two heads are quite alike. There are ballooning Afros and pointy
> beards, ponytails and hairdos that resemble butterfly wings, earrings
> that look like fishhooks or like raindrops, necklaces in gold,
> turquoise or emerald. The heads are as modest and charming as the work
> that made Mr. Ofili famous is outsize and occasionally over the top. It
> is wrong to make too much of them. But if they can become repetitive,
> they convey - like the passing of days, each day akin to the previous
> one but also a little different - something about the nature of variety
> in life, which can be subtle.
> Despite the care he has taken to attend to this daily ritual, Mr.
> Ofili said he had never really stopped to think about it so explicitly
> until someone happened to ask. "I never realized I was so set in my
> ways until now," he said, thinking it over during our conversation.
> "But I guess I have tons of rules. They say Morandi mixed and mixed
> color until he felt there was no color left and then he would begin to
> paint. He painted his little objects, but I think he was trying to
> paint what you might call the spaces between the objects. Philip Guston
> is another example. He had his own routine. He was heavily into
> political subject matter, into issues in his own life, but he was
> looking to get beyond those issues, to find the zone. He talked about
> the process of painting as an emptying out: he said everyone was in the
> studio with him when he started and gradually they all left until
> finally he left, too, and then there was only the work."
> "In the end, it doesn't really matter what you paint," Mr. Ofili
> concluded. "It's all just a routine to connect yourself finally with
> other people. Someone else's routine would seem restrictive to me. But
> rules and limits are something to push against. It's like doing your
> morning exercise. Things don't kick in until you push at your limits."
> After we spoke, I came across the composer Eric Satie's "Memoirs of an
> Amnesiac." It's an irreverent gem, like his music. "The artist must
> regulate his life," Satie wrote, then listed his daily activities:
> Up at 7:18. From 10:23 to 11:47: inspiration. Lunch at 12:11. Leave
> the table by 12:14. Only white foods, including boiled chicken and
> camphorized sausage. More inspiration: 3:12 to 4:07. Bed at 10:37.
> "Once a week I wake up with a start at 3:19," he wrote. That's on
> "I sleep with one eye open. My sleep is very deep. My bed is round,
> with a hole in the middle for my head."
> Hey, whatever works.