"Light Invisible" & the Dark Path Forward for Young Artists
On Monday night, I scurried over to LACMA to attend the latest in their Director’s Series talks between Michael Govan and a chosen artist with a connection to the museum. This installment featured Light & Space O.G. Helen Pashgian. Although she hasn’t enjoyed anywhere near the attention as friends and contemporaries like James Turrell or Robert Irwin, Pashgian has been crafting innovative sculptural and installation work for roughly fifty years. She’s now having something of a moment thanks to the exhibition of Light Invisible, a twelve piece installation conceived, executed, and just recently acquired for LACMA.
I found Pashgian to be sharp, introspective, and forthcoming throughout the discussion. But the comment of hers that hit me squarest between the eyes had to do with the idea of creative evolution.
Light Invisible is the culmination (if not necessarily the endpoint) of a body of free-standing column pieces she first exhibited at ACE in 2010, when she was a spry, impressionable 76 year-old. She noted that since that time people have often asked her, probably only half in jest, how much she wishes she’d produced this particular body of work when she was still in her thirties. And every time it comes up, she apparently swats away the hypothetical like Mutombo in his prime, just as she did again on Monday.
Pashgian stated that she believes creative growth simply takes the time it takes. I’m paraphrasing and extrapolating a bit here, but she seemed to believe that not only would it have been unhealthy for her to have crafted the column works earlier in her lifetime, it would have been impossible. She needed an entire career of trial and error, research and experience, hardship and growth to reach the point where she could conjure these entrancing pieces.
Pasghian coda’d that idea by expressing concern about today’s young artists, who must contend with a much less patient and emotionally invested industry. She is dead-on about this. Led by COINs (Collectors Only In Name), much of contemporary art’s new client base will be unwilling to grant the current generation the time and space needed to build a grand, unique vision brick by brick.
The art market is now a volume business, as I’ve argued before. Sales must move at such a frenetic pace that it’s harder than ever for artists to develop in meaningful new directions; the clock is ticking, and the end result is irrelevant anyway. Fewer gallerists and collectors than ever care if the work speaks for itself, or innovates, or plumbs unexpected depths. They’ve got places to be and product to move.
What matters is that one can weave a captivating narrative around something familiar or banal. Art world actors prioritizing profit have little interest in going along with artists on a surprising, challenging journey. Commodities are not meant to be challenging. They are meant to be intuitive. The longer it takes to understand them, the harder it is to flip them to the next buyer.
What does this mean for young artists today? It means that there are almost no incentives to evolve in today’s market - at least in the short term. If you’re fortunate enough to generate a hit, far better to keep producing work as similar as possible to that hit than to push yourself in new directions. Especially since new directions would likely take time to develop and perfect.
Unlike Pashgian and a range of her contemporaries, the rising stars of this era don’t have time. Though he’s a scorching commodity again today thanks in large part to David Zwirner’s resurrection efforts, Doug Wheeler made a name for himself as a young artist in the late ‘60s and '70s, then decided to take a quarter century smoke break from creating new work. Jasper Johns has allegedly spent the majority of his career producing an average of four to five paintings annually, partially because he will sometimes go an entire year without finishing a single piece.
Yet today Wheeler is considered a reclusive master of Light & Space. Johns is a living legend credited with one of the most diverse and challenging bodies of work by any post-war artist. And I would attempt to eat a live scorpion if I thought any of these artists could follow the same career path in 2014.
This isn’t the fault of today’s young artists. They’re simply responding to the environment around them. It’s irrational to expect human beings to consistently act against their own interests. That’s why I bristle when people label my skepticism of artists like Oscar Murillo and Lucien Smith antagonistic.
My trepidation has nothing to do with their talent, intelligence, or taste level; I think practically every one of the COINs’ lusty artistic crushes has potential. I just also know that they’re operating in a market with little interest in seeing them strive for novelty, be it visual, emotional, or intellectual… and that they’re all smart enough to recognize as much. Each of these artists will thus be confronted with savage pressure to clip their own wings rather than try to loft themselves on an unpredictable wind toward the unknown.
There are only two real motivations for refusing easy money for redundant work early on: self-actuating ambition, i.e. the pursuit of greatness for the sake of greatness, and long-term greediness. The two are not mutually exclusive. Denying an immediate good is only logical if an artist believes that doing so will benefit her after the initial sprint morphs into a marathon.
It’s immaterial whether the rabbit in that race is creative achievement or net worth. Short-term success not only doesn’t guarantee long-term success, it sometimes directly undermines it. The spotlight is hot, and every young artist in every field is flammable. Think of the baby-faced mavericks in the visual arts the same way you would child stars in the entertainment industry; for every universally respected, well-adjusted, long-running career there is a blast crater full of singed debris: one Justin Timberlake for a thousand Corey Feldmans.
Pashgian developed in an art world almost entirely free of those pressures and stakes. To me, it sounded like she counts herself lucky for it. I think art enthusiasts are, too. Had her career instead tried to take root in the constantly churning soil of today’s market, there’s no telling whether she would have been able to make an impact quickly enough or survive long enough to grow into Light Invisible.
And for better or worse, it’s an open question as to how many of today’s emerging names will cap fifty-year careers with masterworks as far removed from their starting points as Pashgian’s - let alone how many of them can manage to avoid being mowed down before they have a fifty-year career in the first place.