Portrait of the Artist as Sole Proprietor

"Dream of Light", a wonderful documentary about the Spanish painter Antonio Lopez-Garcia, has a scene that I rewind frequently in my memory. 

Lopez-Garcia and his wife, the artist Maria Moreno, are kneeling on the floor of his studio in the dim light of late day, talking in low voices to each other as they affix what looks like a large piece of paper to a panel.

It's a persnickety job, and they're probably murmuring directions to each other like "smooth your corner" or "move it a little this way."  They're not young, and they look tired, working together quietly there on the dusty studio floor.

Henri Matisse, "The Attic Studio"

When we painters fill out tax forms, we list ourselves as "sole proprietor". This means we run a small business that usually employs only ourselves.

Sometimes, feeling flush, we may hire an office or studio assistant (I've had both in the past, and never have my tax receipts or paint tubes been better organized.) Galleries also partner with artists, providing publicity, showrooms, and buyers in return for 50% commissions. 

Yet even with occasional hired help and relationships with galleries, the emphasis for artists is on "sole". Like the farmer tilling his field, going round and round at night by the light of his tractor's headlight, we painters for the most part work alone, worry alone, dream alone.

Peter Paul Rubens, "The Disembarkation of Marie de Medici at the Port of Marseilles"

The all-time mother of art factories, King Louis XIV's Versailles, was directed by  Charles Le Brun, the all-time Great Kahuna of CEO artists. While Le Brun was in his Parisian workshop administering the manufacture of huge history paintings, his old friend Nicholas Poussin was painting alone in a studio in Rome.

Day after day, year after year, Poussin was working out a private obsession with that ancient city, building elaborate miniature dioramas of the forum, and painting detailed evocations of the poetry and plagues of the classical world.

Poussin, one of the first "sole proprietors" in art history, supported himself well by painting exactly what he wanted to, and selling directly to a small, loyal group of collectors who appreciated the skill, intelligence and deep feeling of his work.  

Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, decorations by Charles Le Brun

These days, when I'm browsing Chelsea galleries or leafing through "Art in America", I'm reminded that the "artist as CEO" role is alive and well.

In places and periods when money, power and art coalesce (Florence in the 1400's,  Paris in the 1600's, New York now), CEO artists prosper. Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, two of the most financially successful artists ever, oversee companies worth millions.

Ambitious young artists are greeted by museums eager to show the next new thing, a frenzy of international art fairs, and pressure for product in a market flush with investment capital.

Assistants to Takashi Murakami working on one of his paintings in his New York studio

 

 

I like art history because, by placing my own time in perspective, it makes me feel better about the state of things today.

I can remind myself that Charles Le Brun, once the most famous artist in Europe and art CEO extraordinaire, is today largely forgotten. His work is too impersonal, too grand, to be of much interest to anyone other than specialists.

In the Louvre, I hurry past the huge history paintings made by the Damien Hirsts and Jeff Koons of their day, and make a beeline towards the Watteaus, Chardins and Corots.

In these rooms at the Louvre, a painting will draw me in close, to hear a story told just to me by a painter's own mind, heart and hand. I lean in, and listen across centuries.

Antonio Lopez-Garcia, "Room in Tomelloso", graphite on paper

I keep returning in mind to this homely moment in Lopez-Garcia's daily life because it so visibly sums up the traits I admire in an artist: independence, craft, devotion, will, humility, endurance.

Piero, Chardin, Corot, Cezanne, Matisse, Diebenkorn: I can imagine these painters kneeling in their studios, preparing a canvas with just the right shade of umber tint.

Each of these painters worked alone, experimenting with space and color like a scientist in his lab. Each knew his craft, and stubbornly followed his unique vision.

 

Edwin Dickinson, "Self Portrait in a Grey Shirt"

 

 

There is another painterly prototype, however, that goes back to the Renaissance and beyond-- the artist as CEO.

These artists supply the brains, and their employees provide the brawn, down on the floor stretching canvas or up on scaffolds painting murals. Part school, part shop, the studios of artist CEOs like Raphael and Rubens churned out both disciples to their style and exact copies of their compositions.

The larger and more complicated the commission, the more valuable the painting. For clients looking to increase their own wealth and status, grandiose was good.

 

Nicholas Poussin, "The Plague at Ashdod" (detail) 

It's hard to imagine two painters as different as Le Brun and Poussin, and their sometimes intersecting, sometimes parallel lives tell a fascinating story of artistic personalities and ambitions.

When Poussin was summoned to France by his king in 1640 to work as a CEO painter alongside Le Brun at Versailles, he had no choice but to go. He stuck it out for two years, then made an excuse of family troubles and hightailed it back home.

It's easy for us, all of these centuries later, to imagine Poussin's joy as he walked alone into his quiet, dusty studio and saw again the waiting canvas on his easel. 

 

 

Julie Mehretu, commission for Goldman Sachs, 23' x 80' 

Working in cultural hot-spots around the world, today's CEO artists typically come up with the visual ideas, then hire a staff to handle everything from fabricating the work, to organizing digital files, to managing the studio help.

Career-savvy MFA graduates generate designs for complex, obsessively-detailed installations, then hire other MFA graduates to push in thousands of pins or color in thousands of shapes.

Delegating, rather than creating, has become a new normal for today's most commercially successful artists.

Jean-Antoine Watteau, "Pierrot" (detail) 

So when this sole proprietor painter feels overwhelmed by media reports about CEO artists, I rewind that image of Antonio Lopez-Garcia, one of the great painters living today, whose work will endure, down on his knees gluing paper to panel.

I think about Giorgio Morandi alone in his small, dusty studio, moving a white bottle in a still life set-up just a fraction to the left, to get the empty spaces between the shapes just right.

Or I imagine Cezanne, hitching on the straps of his easel and walking slowly towards his mountain, a small figure disappearing into blue distance.

I think about all of the painters working now with just their brush mediating between their eyes, emotions and understanding.  To work alone, and yet in such company, is the greatest privilege.

Giorgio Morandi, "Still Life" 

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