Letters To A Young Artist: Thomas Nozkowski
In the summer of 2005, artonpaper magazine published a special issue titled "Letters to a Young Artist," inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet." It included a collection of twelve letters by established artists written in response to a letter from a fictional "young artist" – a recent art school graduate who is struggling with the moral and practical implications of being an artist in New York City.
The following letter is taken from a subsquent book by artonpaper, which included 23 inspiring letters from some well-known artists such as the Guerrilla Girls, Joan Jonas, Yoko Ono, Adrian Piper, Stephen Shore, and Lawrence Weiner, among many others. While the original letter from the young artist is not published anywhere, in reading these letters you will see reoccurring patterns of thought that will reveal to you its essential questions, such as "what does it take to be an artist working today?" and "is it possible to maintain one's integrity and freedom of thought and still participate in the artworld?"
artonpaper (Shelly Bancroft, Peter Nesbett, Sarah Andress) and Saatchi Online editors
Thomas Nozkowski, 'Untitled (8-42)', 2003
Dear Young Artist,
Nice to hear from you. While I have some skepticism about your questions and the commonplaces that lurk behind them, I am happy that you are writing to me and hopefully I can give you some guidance you will find worthwhile. Schools are worthless for this kind of information, and every real artist eventually goes to others to learn from their lived experiences what it is one can expect to encounter in one's own career. I survived as a young artist and my work grew because of the kindness and support of older artists. I owe them everything and that is a debt that gets repaid this way.
But that's a mixed blessing, isn't it? Another part of me wants to ask if you are kidding. Isn't the voice of geezerdom, with its war stories and self-regard, the last thing a young artist wants to hear? Who can stand one more story about My First Loft in SoHo, you know, the one that rented for $100 a month? Or how about The Day I Met Duchamp, How I Stretch My Canvases, The Beautiful Blonde on the Train to Paris? Isn't it high time the old folks shuffled off and room was made for the new ideas and language of the young? What can I possibly say that might be of interest to a cool kid like you? My generation, well, we are just in your way — and we know it, too. The reality, as usual, is all mixed up. It is good to be reminded of the commonalities of our experience, that we have brothers and sisters — even parents and children — and that we are not alone; still, it's a bore to be buttonholed by some garrulous old uncle who really just wants to brag about his own successes.
But heart speaks to heart — and I do want to talk to you. Edward Dahlberg says it is presumptuous to assume we can do anything to help another person and it is vulgar not to try. Maybe if I keep it short and sweet and touch on a few obvious points we'll both get out of these letters with our spirits intact.
First of all, welcome to New York City! It's a trip, isn't it? More art, more artists, more art noise than anyplace on Earth. Ever. You ask about the necessity of New York and, no, it's not really necessary but it is so unique and so intense that it's worth some degree of sacrifice and discomfort to play this game. If you can find a way to live and work in New York you would be mad not to. If you can't find a way, well, then there are all those Urbinos to our Florence, like Berlin or Los Angeles — hell, LA is probably a Venice! — or lots of other interesting places. But I would hope that every young artist tries this energy hit on for size, to establish a standard of the art life that the rest can be measured against. Charles Burchfield, Myron Stout, and David Smith's careers would suggest to me that the only important location is the studio. And how often did Matisse actually get to Paris?
You worry too much about the dangers of premature success and recognition. We are all different and not every artist has to work her way through years of apprenticeship and practice before she is somehow ready for the world. Hey, we artists have it tough enough that I would never suggest that there is any good to be found in avoiding early success and whatever confrontation with capitalism that might entail. We each make this call for ourselves. Masaccio and Eva Hesse, to name two, seem to have survived their early laurels. Believe me, the preservation of virtue requires a lot more effort than simply ducking a creepy art dealer or some fawning journalist! Integrity, like freedom, is an earned condition and you must find it, in any milieu, for yourself. The worst thing about being embraced young might be the implication that one's work can be easily understood. I think of Jean-Luc Godard sneering at Roger Vadim that he was "only on time." Now there's a curse that artists can understand.
For myself I prefer careers that last thirty years to those that last thirty months, but there is no reason to believe there is always more integrity to one pattern than the other. Let's face it, it's not like this is something that is under our control. Not really. Much of the time, if an artist is any good, she is developing a way of understanding the spirit and the stuff of the world that is bound to go beyond the way just about everyone else sees and thinks about it, at least for a while. We are not ignored for malicious reasons, alas. Recognition, when it comes, sometimes can seem like a misunderstanding. The real life of the artist is solitary.
The central fact of artists' lives — the part that non-artists never seem to quite understand — is the loneliness of the studio. Before our runs are over we will have spent more time –thousands upon thousands of hours — alone, just staring at these things we make. This part of our experience must be factored in to every idea about artists' lives if you want to understand them. More artists stop working because of this loneliness than for any other reason.
If there is one essential survival skill that you must learn, it is how to sustain yourself and your work over the years. There is really only one way to do this, and that is by loving what you do, being fascinated by your work, and by being obsessed with making art. You will get in trouble if you need the approval of others to keep your work moving forward. After all these years, the one essential element in my practice, the one thing I am sure of is that I need to be interested in and happy about what I am doing in the studio.
So many of the concerns you bring up in your letter, these worries of yours — the Seduction of Commerce, the Cost of Studio Space, the Need to Develop a Sense of Self — they all sound like the topics for think pieces in the Sunday Times, and they have the same slightly banal gravitas. We have fatter fish to fry, you and I, some really important issues to ponder, like the mysteries of space and light and color and form. The rest is just living, and your problems there, my friend, are the same as everyone else's. There's nothing special about the world part of the art world although we like to pretend there is.
Let's get back to work.
High Falls, New York
(Photo: Stephen Shore)