My Life as a Failed Artist
It pains me to say it, but I am a failed artist. "Pains me" because nothing in my life has given me the boundless psychic bliss of making art for hours at a stretch, as I did every day in my twenties and thirties-always thinking about it, looking for a voice to fit my own time, imagining scenarios of success and failure, feeling my imagined world and the external one merging in things that I was actually making.
Now I live on the other side of the critical screen, and all that language beyond words-all that doctor-shamanism of color, structure, and the mysteries of beauty-is gone. With time, I've come to consider myself fully and purely a critic, working through the same problems of expression from the other side. Yet I miss making art-miss it terribly. I've never really talked about my work to anyone. In my writing, I have occasionally mentioned the bygone years when I was an artist, usually laughingly. When I think of that time, I feel stabs of regret. But once I quit, I quit. I never made art again.
Of course, I often think that everyone who isn't making art is a failed artist, even those who never tried. I did try. More than try. I was an artist. At times, I even thought I was a great one.
I wasn't totally deluded. But I was a lazy smart aleck who felt sorry for myself, resented anyone with money, and felt the world owed me a living. For a few years, I attended classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, although I didn't always pay tuition and got no degree. But I did meet artists there, and I learned that staying up late with one another is how artists learn everything-developing new languages, communing, trading ideas.
In 1973, I was twenty-two, full of myself, and frustrated that I wasn't already recognized for my work. I walked into my roommate Barry Holden's room in our apartment, three hundred feet from Wrigley Field, and said, "Let's start an artist-run gallery. The two of us and our friends." He said okay-and we did it. For lack of a better name, we called it N.A.M.E.
It was great! People took notice; articles were written. I was interviewed by Peter Schjeldahl, the bigwig New York art critic. I met hundreds of artists and felt part of a huge community. I lived across the street from the gallery, in a huge sixth-floor unheated cold-water walk-up loft for which I paid $150 a month. The place had previously been a storage facility for Jerry Lewis's muscular dystrophy foundation, and my furniture was mostly what had been abandoned there: a wooden bench for a couch, a huge drafting table in the center of the space, a hot plate, buckets on the floor to catch the leaks from the ceiling, a pail to fill for pouring down the toilet to make it work, and a mattress on the floor. I was an artist.
By 1978, I'd had two solo shows at N.A.M.E. Both shows were part of a gigantic project I had begun the day before Good Friday in 1975. I was illustrating the entirety of Dante's Divine Comedy, starting with Inferno. Both exhibitions sold out. Museums bought my work. I was reviewed favorably in Artforum and the Chicago papers. My work was shown by the great Rhona Hoffman in Chicago and at the proto-Barbara Gladstone gallery in New York. I was delirious. Mice were still crawling on me at night; I was still showering at other people's houses. I didn't care. I had everything I needed. I even got a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, for the huge sum of $3,000-which, along with the help of an artist girlfriend, enabled me to move to New York.
But then I looked back, into the abyss of self-doubt. I erupted with fear, self-loathing, dark thoughts about how bad my work was, how pointless, unoriginal, ridiculous. "You don't know how to draw," I told myself. "You never went to school. Your work has nothing to do with anything. Your art is irrelevant. You don't know art history. You can't paint. You only draw and work small because you're too afraid to paint and work big. You aren't a good schmoozer. You're too poor. You don't have enough time to make your work. You're a fake. You're not a real artist."
Every artist does battle, every day, with doubts like these. I lost the battle. It doomed me. But it also made me the critic I am today.
I still wonder, Was it my upbringing that sealed my fate? Art certainly wasnÕt in my life in the Chicago suburb where I grew up, unless you count the cheesy reproductions of French-ish Impressionists in our rec room.
When I began as an artist, my main spiritual home wasn't the Art Institute-even though I spent hours there, spellbound. It was Chicago's Field Museum of natural history. I loved that the work there wasn't freighted with art history; I felt freer fantasizing about it. More important, I loved that the ancient artwork at the Field Museum was for more than just looking at. It was meant to cast spells, to heal, to protect villages from invaders, to prevent or foster pregnancy, to guide one through the afterlife. I was devoted to art from the Northwest Coast, the Plains, the Southwest, and South and Central America. My favorite schools of abstract art were Navajo sand painting, Oceanic art, and the newly revealed work of Swedish visionary Hilma af Klint. All this work felt driven by innate spiritualism and inner necessity, a far cry from the abstraction coming out of New York.
What did the contemporary art world look like to me then? There were plenty of artists whose work I loved: Nancy Graves's sculptures of camels, Eva Hesse's gnarly materials in space, Lynda Benglis's giant poured-paint blobs coming off the gallery wall, Jennifer Bartlett's process dot paintings. And the work of my friends. At the time, I imagined that our nonrepresentational, process- or performance-based, and conceptual art would save Chicago from a group of artists I now love: the figurative surrealists-Jim Nutt, Roger Brown, Christina Ramberg, Gladys Nilsson, and Jeff Koons's teacher Ed Paschke-who became known as Chicago Imagists.
But art history was more important to me. I adored the Byzantine, the medieval, early Sienese painting, Native American art, Tibetan mandalas, Japanese prints, all of the Baroque, everything from the Northern and Southern Renaissance. I especially loved the cryptic illustrations, charts, and diagrams dealing with magic, mysticism, and visual mnemonic systems made by medieval and Renaissance-era alchemist-metaphysician-philosopher-artists most people have never heard of: Robert Fludd, Athanasius Kircher, Giordano Bruno, Ramon Llull, Giulio Camillo. By the time I was twenty-one, I was making hard-edged geometric drawings and paintings based on the I Ching, which looked a lot like Southwest Native American art and pre-Columbian Peruvian feather art. I thought, or hoped, they could tell the future.
Another regional strain coursed through me, too: Chicago's powerful connection to self-taught and outsider artists. I saw and loved the great outsider Lee Godie selling her drawings on the steps of the Art Institute; I admired the work of the self-taught Joseph Yoakum, who was promoted by many of the Chicago Imagists. The work of two outsider masters was discovered and embraced by Chicago in the 1970s: Mart’n Ram’rez in 1973 and Henry Darger in 1977. I was a guard at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art during its show of Adolf Wšlfli. I even worked at the New York gallery of Phyllis Kind, the Chicago dealer who showed many of these Imagists and outsiders. I wanted to be an outsider worm in the bowels of the insider hyena.
I began my inferno project just before dawn on the Thursday before Easter 1975, because Maundy Thursday is when DanteÕs story begins in the poem-lost in Òthe dark wood of error,Ó having strayed from the Òtrue way.Ó I planned to finish on Easter, the same day Dante finished his own journey, in 1300. I would finish in the year 2000, by which time I would have made one hundred opening-and-closing altarpieces for each of the hundred cantos of The Divine Comedy. The ten thousand finished altarpieces would represent an idea of the infinite-and a way to set myself free.
Why Dante? Especially considering that I barely read at all and didn't believe in God? I think because The Divine Comedy, which is a gigantic organized allegorical system where every evil deed is punished in accord with the law of equal retribution and divine love, supplied me with the formulated structure I craved. The highly established internal architectonics, the almost primitive definitiveness, what Beckett called the "neatness of identification," offered me what seemed like both psychological shelter and weapons of revenge. A way to right my own world, to grasp an order like that in the Bible: "all things by measure and number and weight." Most of all, it was a vision of justice-the good being rewarded and the bad getting their punishments.
All of this seemed like a powerful counter to the chaos of my childhood. My mother had committed suicide when I was ten; my father remarried shortly thereafter, to a Polish Catholic woman with two sons-one of whom was my age, so that I felt I had to go to war with a twin. My step-twin brought drug use into our house; I committed petty crimes and got caught by the police. This was in our otherwise stately suburban home, where the children and parents had absolutely no overlap-right down to the separate entrances and dining rooms, which came to feel almost like compartments. Or hell.
Dante's world was also compartmentalized, but it was enormous-the most systemized megacosm I'd ever seen. It was a galaxy of good and evil, catharsis, sin, injured spirits, saints, battle scenes in heaven, a fallen world, those waiting for redemption, monsters, yearning, shame, Satan, and rising again. I did not believe, in the conventional sense of the word, but Dante's metaphysical, moral architecture got me through my twenties, at a time when I had no internal structure whatsoever. (Or perhaps I had one that was already collapsing under the weight of repressed pain, rage, loss, self-pity, and fear.) Dante is a paradigmatic figure of the canon-therefore a perfect picture of the dream of artistic canonization-but he's also a weirdo Boschian fantasist; as such, he satisfied my obsession with hermetic traditions, indexes, myth, archaic cultures, and mystics and visionaries like William Blake. This late-medieval universe freed me from making choices; the story and structure told me exactly what to do, what to draw, where to draw it, what came next, what shape things should be, everything-even sometimes governing colors, making Virgil blue and Dante red according to past art. Without knowing it, but in desperate need, I'd contrived a machine that allowed me to make things that I couldn't predict, which is one of the first jobs of any artist.
I made art obsessively. I'd wake up and go down to the local diner at the corner for coffee and breakfast, smoking, reading the sports section. After breakfast, I'd stand at my desk all day and work while smoking and listening to my music-1970s rock and disco-on an old tube radio that had no covering, just the guts. Lunch was at the same place; dinner at one of two nearby local bars, where I was a pinball champion. I also won a local pool tournament. Other times I'd nurse beers and talk to artists, or go to Chicago's great jazz and blues clubs, which were so underattended that I met a pantheon of living gods simply by showing up.
I worked on paper because I didn't have a choice. I had no carpentry skills; I had tried to make stretchers, but I failed miserably, so canvas was out. So were wood or Masonite panels: too heavy, expensive, large, and I didn't know how to cut them. My medium was pastel, charcoal, and colored pencil. I was too much of a smarty-pants to ever learn to paint. After all, painting was dead and only losers did it. So I would use my hands and rub, drawing over, making ruler lines, scratching and blurring this supersaturated pastel. Every minute or two, I'd take a huge breath and blow the colored dust off the drawing. (The space around my desk looked like a coal mine.) To this day I'm convinced that my susceptibility to upper respiratory infections comes from years of breathing all that dust at close quarters.
I didn't know what I was doing. I was delusional. But I knew how to do it, and I had the feeling that I was doing it to save my life.
My process was as structured as the rest of the project. I made paper and cardboard templates so that every drawing could have the same size and layout. Since I knew I couldn't really draw, I turned to drafting tools. I had none of the technical skills you were supposed to be taught in school (what an asshole I must have been), so the tools helped immensely: They were cheap, small, easy to use, and fun to misuse. They let me measure everything and be able to make the same thing over and over again. This meant that my symbolism, shapes, and system were all semi-geometric. (It never occurred to me that I was making geometric abstraction. The thought would have horrified me.) I devised my own pictorial language for everything: hell, Dante, Virgil, boats, dead souls, the whole thing. For the funnel cone of the Inferno that Dante and Virgil descend into-seeing ever more evil sinners and increasingly hideous punishments-I used an upside-down triangle. Above it, always, was a small upward-facing triangle, a symbol of the Mount of Joy that Dante tried unsuccessfully to climb to avoid hell.
On the outside, things were great. On the inside I was in agony. I was terrified of failing, anxious about what to do next and how to do it. I started not working for longer and longer periods. Hiding it. Then not hiding it. Until all I had left was calling myself an artist.
At twenty-seven, I had what I think of as a yearlong walking nervous breakdown. It was shattering. I began having panic attacks; couldn't be around people even though I was dying to be around them; got insomnia; took five-hour walks to wear myself down; was filled with bitter envy for everyone and everything. In this state of self-deprecating deprivation, I wanted what others had. I hated anyone who had more space, time, money, education, a better career. To this day, I tell all young artists: Make an enemy of envy, or it will eat you alive. Like it did me.
Copyright © 2022 by Jerry Saltz. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.