Teaching with Contemporary Art

On representations of the artist at work

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In the Art:21 Season 4 episode Paradox, artist Mark Bradford cites the legacy of Abstract Expressionism as an influence on his process-oriented paintings and collages. On a formal level, Bradford’s paintings share AbEx’s treatment of surface as an anti-illusionistic field of play and action. But in watching the video segments of Bradford at work in his studio, especially when working on pieces on the floor, I was struck by similarities to Hans Namuth’s documentary, Jackson Pollock 51 (1951), which is perhaps the most famous documentary of an artist at work. Namuth’s photographs of Pollock painting in his studio appeared in LIFE magazine in 1950, after which the artist became an instant sensation and celebrity. In his oft-repeated mythology, Pollock was traumatized by the public exposure of his working process and became paranoid that his celebrity persona overshadowed his actual paintings. His alcoholism deepened and he died in a drunk driving accident at the peak of his career.

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In April 2007, the Chelsea College of Art and Design in London held a symposium entitled, “Did Hans Namuth Kill Jackson Pollock? The Problem of Documenting the Creative Process.” The following is from their press release:

When Hans Namuth and Jackson Pollock finished filming on the Saturday before Thanksgiving in 1950, they walked inside from the barn, out of the cold. Pollock walked over to the sink, reached down, pulled out a bottle of whiskey and said to Namuth, “This is the first drink I’ve had in two years. Dammit, we need it!” The rest, as they say, is history.
— Jeffrey Potter, To a Violent Grave, 1985

Embedded in this brief account is the very real problem of how the creative process can be documented. Does documenting art ‘kill’ it? Arguably, the film assured Pollock his place in history, but can the archive deal with living process? If it is not possible to make a document that doesn’t impinge in some way on the creative process, can it tell us much about how creativity happens? How do we interpret and understand such documents? Does knowing about an artwork’s evolution spoil our relationship with that work?

More recently, artists have collaborated to make documents of their thinking and making, so is the Pollock anecdote simply not relevant today? Can contemporary artists use documentation creatively, as an integral part of their process? How have new technologies impacted on this documentation of process? And what role do conservators and archivists play in documenting the creative processes?

While I don’t believe that documenting a work of art ‘kills’ it, I do question whether a behind-the-scenes documentary demystifies the artistic process or in fact adds another layer to the mythology of artistic genius.

My students and I discussed the Mark Bradford Paradox episode and the excerpt of Jackson Pollock 51. We observed the similarities in the documentaries and the manner in which they construct a representation of the artist at work:

  • We see the artist’s studio and working environment.
  • The artist narrates his biographical origins of family and place. He also recounts his experience and influences as a student of art, which establishes his place within an art historical and pedagogical lineage.
  • The artist is the primary narrator of his own practice; the director and interviewer are off camera.
  • We witness the physical process of making an artwork. For example, we see the artists’ hands manipulating materials and close-up shots of the artworks’ surfaces.

The questions I posed to the students were: “Is there anything missing from this portrait of the artist at work?” and “If you were to make an Art:21 segment, what would it include?”

What transpired was a conversation about the realities of working as (young) contemporary artists—the mundane matters that both support and undermine the creative process.

(to be continued in my next post…)


  1. Pingback: On representations of the artist at work (Part 2) | Art21 Blog

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