“Do I contradict myself? So I contradict myself! I am large, I contain multitudes!”
-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
As a young artist in my twenties I came to despair of ever doing anything original (before I understood that nothing is original) because Pablo Picasso had already sucked all the air out of that room.
Like some Anti-King Midas, every material Picasso touched from canvas to napkin turned alive, became fuel for his unorthodox fire. Picasso seemed able to conquer in only a matter of months every avenue that material had to offer, claiming it with his defining mark.
Despite his chokehold on my future creativity I was in his thrall, even toting around a book filled with pages of his clever, perspective-changing commentary on art.
It was a collection compiled by a friend of the master who seemed to have scribbled down every drunken remark P proclaimed at some dinner table and promptly forgot. But I didn’t. Each thrown plum left a bruise on the thin skin of my artistic innocence.
But they were such cool things! Like asserting that if one connected all the steps he’s taken in his life it would outline the form of a Minotaur.
Whew! Just the fantasy that the accumulation of one’s random decisions could reveal an overarching motif thrilled me! A shape seen from the sky.
But what caused me decades of brain damage was P’s comment that his biggest fear as an artist was repeating himself.
What the FUCK did he mean by that? How does one know one’s repeating oneself?
Did he mean that after he did his thousandth line drawing he’d drop dead before ever doing one again? Or succumb to the temptation to revisit old techniques long abandoned?
Did he mean he feared depleting his mother load of drive and begin unconsciously cranking out oldies but goodies to maintain his income?
Did he mean he might finally do what was expected so he never had to hear out loud, “Hey, paint ‘Desmoiselle D’Avignon’ again, man!” Or one more critic proclaim his greatest work happened when he was 20?
Did he condemn the Japanese master who dedicated his spiritual life to painting the same Koi fish over and over, perfecting it until the day he died?
Pablo himself had helped me know that any medium was fair game and artists had the right, even the duty, to use material change agents as one’s aesthetic needs (or curiosity) shifted.
But what if within that cornucopia of supply I repeated myself?
There are certain motifs every artist is compelled to return to as the bridge to their personal mystery.
They mine it for its magnetism. In this gallery alone James Tyler has explored the male body for decades, Julie Levesque plumbs the depths of white on white, Robin Winfield’s ruined architecture is ever bulls-eyed by a sharply focused door.
There are artists obsessed with little squares, 50’s boys, antique toys, acrobats – I should ask them why.
At one legendary Picasso exhibition in NYC there was an entire room practically wallpapered with small, square sketches of a weeping Dora Maar. Her frenzied, violent grief burst from his savage lines. Over and over he repeated the same face, the same gesture, and the room became a devastation greater than the sum of its parts. Not one of the identical Dora Maars was the same.
Long ago I had two dreams that stayed with me.
In one I was standing in a phone booth when Pablo Picasso handed me a flute through the door, but I knew I didn’t know how to play it.
In the other I was trying to cross a vast, freezing tundra, knowing I needed to get to the other side if I were to live. Somewhere in the middle of the dark frozen plain I stopped, unable to go farther in spite of the fact that I would die if I couldn’t make it across.
Then I heard the voice of an artist I knew, long dead now, counterintuitively instruct me not to attempt to go across but instead stay in one place and go deeper. I willed myself in one place and beneath my feet an opening melted through the dark ice. I went down into the light of the world.
I think the artist was saying, “Mine what you have, it is never depleted.”
And so, fellow artists, if you are accused of repeating yourself, tell your accuser to get a life.
I think what Picasso might have meant was simply the artist’s credo: Do what you want but just don’t bore yourself.