Bonfire of the Vanities

Just can't have anything nice around here ...

Just can’t have anything nice with you around here …

During my survey of the art news this week I happened upon a provocative headline from the Daily Beast: Why Artist Gerhard Richter Destroys His Own Art. The title of the article is a bit misleading: the writer asks the question but she does not actually attempt to answer it; instead she merely elaborates on the fact that Mr Richter has destroyed a considerable number of his own paintings over the years. She did, however, get me thinking about artists and their emotional relationship to the products of their craft — because I, too, often feel the desire to haul a big load of my artwork out into the yard and set it on fire.

Although most Americans know the phrase “Bonfire of the Vanities” as the title of a 1987 novel by Tom Wolfe, it actually comes to us originally from an event in 1497, when the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola and his followers collected books, art, musical instruments — anything that might tempt the faithful to the sin of vanity — and burned them in the the town square of Florence, Italy. A passionate reformer, Savonarola alienated everyone from the Pope to the powerful de Medici family and eventually ended as the star attraction at yet another bonfire, when he was hanged and his body burned in that same town square.

For me, personally, the urge to destroy has nothing to do with what I think of the quality of the work. It encompasses good pieces, bad pieces, even pieces I love: any product of my hands and mind can suddenly cry out to be included in the autoda. Instead, it has more to do with the way the products of creative effort can slowly accumulate into a kind of crust, cutting off air and light, stifling new ideas.

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William Faulkner once advised his fellow writers to “Kill your darlings”. The Nobel laureate was speaking about the risks of becoming so emotionally invested in certain characters or situations that the work as a whole becomes nothing more than a tribute to those “darlings”, devoid of interest to anyone outside the author’s own head and heart. (After all, listening to someone singing the praises of his own offspring, while endearing in small doses, can pale rapidly when no other topic is ever permitted to intrude.) This can apply to a visual artist as well: the artist finds a technique or a subject that works well, that gets the results that she craves, and then slowly allows everything else to atrophy. Innovation, risk, and experimentation are lost, and after everyone has become sated with the confections she’s been providing, she realizes to her dismay that she’s forgotten how to do anything else.

As with so much in art, there are no hard and fast rules. Some artists have repeated themselves endlessly, and yet remained endlessly fresh and relevant. Rembrandt’s self-portraits, Degas’ dancers, Modigliani’s mistresses, the collages of Hannah Höch or the little theatres of Joseph Cornell: all of these tap into a vein of creativity that could not be exhausted in a year, a decade, or even a lifetime. Others, like Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol, having successfully made important statements about art and life, then proceeded to repeat those same pronouncements ad nauseam, until only death could save their bedraggled artistic reputations.

Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Nicolas de Staël, upon reaching a level of success that most artists can only dream of, each woke up one day to realize that he had become little more than a machine for turning out lucrative and popular Pollocks, Rothkos, and de Staëls. The creative landscape is littered with the corpses of careers that died a slow and ugly death as artists found themselves paralyzed by a moment of success, the reports of their activities gradually moving from ARTnews, the NY Times Review of Books, or Variety to the supermarket tabloids and the police scanner.

In 1950 Dutch-born American artist Willem de Kooning, after decades of poverty and obscurity, produced a painting titled “Excavation“, that catapulted him overnight to the pinnacle of the New York art scene. Influential critic Clement Greenberg praised “Excavation” as one of the greatest paintings ever produced in America; collectors began snatching up works that a year before they wouldn’t have accepted as gifts. The artist had arrived.

De Kooning never produced another painting even remotely akin to “Excavation”; in fact, he turned away from abstraction completely and began working on “Woman I“, the first of what would become a series of savage and terrifying explorations of the female form. A horrified Greenberg condemned the new work, and de Kooning once again slid — for a time, at least — back into the shadows. In retrospect, we can see what a courageous act this was: with “Excavation” de Kooning achieved fame, but then, rather than allowing that moment of success to define him forever, he simply descended back into the mines for dig for new treasures.

Like de Kooning, Richter has been both acclaimed and ridiculed, but he has never allowed himself the luxury of becoming “the man who paints Richters”. Instead, he continually reinvents himself, a strategy that has allowed him to become financially and critically successful while still remaining artistically relevant. Occasionally destroying valuable artwork is part of that process of reinvention.

Richter himself has expressed mixed emotions about his periodic pogroms. He speaks of some of the lost works with regret, yet he does not question the need for the cull. His ruminations evoke the Hindu tradition of Shiva, the Destroyer, who destroys not out of malice but impersonally, arbitrarily, to make room for the ongoing work of Brahma, the Creator: push and pull, constant movement between the two poles.

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The market value of the works that Richter is known to have obliterated is estimated at somewhere around $65 million. My bonfire of the vanities would encompass little more than a few hundred dollars’ worth of paint and plywood. Still, it is strangely comforting to know that sometimes the cat and the king may both warm themselves at the same blaze.