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Art routines

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  • Jill Littlewood
    The New York Times ... [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
    Message 1 of 1 , May 17, 2005
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      The New York Times
      > May 8, 2005
      >
      > 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
      > ritual.
      >
      > 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
      > Tuesday.
      >
      > "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.
      >


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