Points of Entry, or Grounds for Departure?
If you keep an eye out, practically every day brings another reminder that an artistic career is a results-based business. Rules, expectations, and consensus all too often shift based on final outcomes rather than creative merit or a sound process.
And yet the game isn't ENTIRELY Russian roulette, either. It's more like craps or blackjack: Anyone playing can make certain moves to try to tilt the odds closer to even than they would otherwise be. The question, as always, is how.
I was reminded of all of this yesterday, when I listened to Marion Maneker's latest Artelligence podcast, this time with vaunted collector (and sometimes dealer) Stavros Merjos.
Early on in the interview, Merjos waxes rhapsodic about the shared virtues of two of the artists he collects most deeply: Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol. Primary among these virtues is the breadth and diversity he finds in each man's work. To Merjos, Ruscha and Warhol's shape-shifting is proof of their genius—an irresistible pheromone to any knowledgeable collector. It not only verifies their allure. It also offers a range of different "points of entry" into their overall practice.
Not responding to Ruscha's photography? Then try his paintings. The silhouette works are too monochromatic for you? Consider his sunset horizon series instead. Dig the wordplay and humor but can't afford a five (or six or seven) figure acquisition? Pick up an iconic limited edition artist's book like Various Small Fires or Every Building on the Sunset Strip for a fraction of that.
And while certain strong central themes and motifs worm their way through this entire spectrum, Ruscha also experimented with a wide variety of different techniques, processes, and imagery within each medium. The same can be said for Warhol. They weren't just constantly tilling the fields. They were also experimenting on the freshly overturned soil like a couple of one-man Monsanto's.
Obviously, Ruscha and Warhol are now considered superheroes of postwar American art, so it's easy for anyone gazing back from 2015 to give their varied output a standing ovation. Today these two artists look like the creative equivalent of diversified investment portfolios, offering something for every taste and perspective on the overall market, which only strengthens the full package.
But as I wrote in response to a Helen Pashgian artist talk last year, there's a flip side, too. For an unbranded artist, experimenting with such a wide variety of different media and techniques today is more likely to sour collectors' appetites than trigger them.
The reason is the 21st century art market's pace. Collectors, curators, and gallerists simply need to move too quickly to appreciate slow burn development, despite that it could lead to a more brilliant and sustaining fire down the road.
Instead of a chameleonic visionary, an emerging artist who diversifies her practice a la Ruscha is more likely to be regarded as "lacking a consistent point of view." Instead of finding evidence of long-term creative growth, collectors are more likely to conclude the work is too far off to support yet. Instead of multiple ways to get in, they're more likely to see multiple reasons to get out.
The difference is purely one of results and reputation. With a proven exhibition and sales record behind her, an artist who once might have looked like she was wandering without a compass transforms into a courageous adventurer discovering new, exciting territory.
This is why I've written over and over that every contemporary artist needs a cohesive narrative to package her work. But what I haven't said before is that artists also have to be careful that their chosen narratives don't suffocate them. The right story is the one that keeps the trunk strong while leaving enough space to branch out organically.
It's a delicate balance to be sure. But it's also a critical one. Because ultimately, it might be the difference between collectors, curators, and gallerists seeing multiple points of entry in your work... or multiple grounds for departure.