By the early 1980s I had been making art for fifteen years when I learned there was a gallery on Madison Avenue that hosted a monthly open house for unknown artists. It was a chance to show your work to a curator. If the curator liked it, a show might follow. Armed with a selection of slides, I waited nervously until it was my turn to show what I had done.
The curator looked attentively at every image and perplexed, turned to me and said, "Your work is interesting but you don’t have a style. You need a style.”
Admittedly, my artwork was very variable. It changed according to which artist I was studying. It was my idea that this was the way I could instill a lasting quality in my work. Some months my artwork looked like the abstract square paintings of Paul Klee (see image below). During other periods it was representational, reflecting the simplicity Matisse’s line. Kandinsky, Soutine, and other artists had their turns as I absorbed qualities in their work that I believed were absent in mine.
Disappointed by his lack of interest, I left the gallery discouraged. How can this be? I was under the impression that my artwork was truthful and expressive. I didn’t understand his comment. How could I? I didn’t know what a “style” was or what the lack of one signified. Having spent almost twenty years in seclusion, with little or no contact with other artists or “the art world” the word had never entered my vocabulary. I decided to find out what “style” is.
At a local bookstore I found Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist, and Society by Meyer Schapiro. Years earlier, I had read Schapiro’s book On Modern Art and admired his insights. He understood art from the inside out, from his experience as an artist first, and as academic art historian second. With “style” in the title, and a 50-page essay within, I was certain I would find answers to my questions.
I plunged into the essay. The very first paragraph was illuminating:
“By style is usually meant the constant form—and sometimes the constant elements, qualities, and expression—in the art of an individual or a group. The term is also applied to the whole activity of an individual or society, as speaking of “life style” or “style of a civilization.”
“A style is like a language, with an internal order and expressiveness, admitting a varied intensity or delicacy of statement.”
“Style, then, is the means of communication, a language not only as a system of devices for conveying a precise message by representing or symbolizing objects or actions, but also as a qualitative whole which is capable of suggesting the diffuse connotations as well and intensifying the experience of his medium.”
From Schapiro’s essay I gathered that style was simply an artist’s personal way of speaking, of expressing him/herself using the basic elements of art—line, color, form, composition. Style is the sum total of an artist’s actions and decisions. We immediately recognize a style when we see it. Style is what distinguishes a Van Gogh from a Picasso from a Soutine.
Armed with theory, I faced two practical questions: How is one’s style learned? How do you know if a style is really your own?
I began by shedding my preconceptions. I began a slow process of reevaluation. I stopped judging what “art should look like.” I took an oath to stop looking at art books. Instead, I concentrated on defining who I was as an artist. After years of self-reflection and trial and error I settled on a few basic, defining facts: I am an unschooled artist who grew-up in the NYC Boulevard Housing Projects in East New York, Brooklyn in a working class family; the first time I went to MOMA was after graduating from Brooklyn College; with little technical training, I know little about formal drawing or art materials. I am Naive. Primitive. Untrained. Unsophisticated.
Reluctantly, I admitted to myself: “You will never make art like the great masters.” I decided instead to make art in the simplest, most direct way possible. I would avoid tricks or pretensions. “Be yourself. Be honest.” became my credo.
I began by rejecting the use of perspective. I couldn’t do it, and I felt it was a trick of the hand. Medieval art, which I adored, didn’t use perspective. Why should I? An essay by Dubuffet reinforced my thinking. “Illusions, such as depth or relief, created by means of chiaroscuro, do not enrich a painting, they distort and adulterate it. There is something fraudulent and dishonest about those devices, something off putting… make the surface speak its own surface language and not a bogus language of three-dimensional space, which is not its own.”
At the same time, I searched for a personal content, for images that expressed my thoughts and feelings. From the art of Basquiat, another Brooklyn-born artist, I learned that one can make, from the humblest experiences of daily life, paintings of profound emotional and spiritual depth. My life would become the source of my art.
My wax crayon drawing Portrait of Adolf Eichmann, (see below) was a breakthrough. While reading Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil, I discovered that by substituting for Eichmann’s face his SS #, Bureau #, a list of the countries from which he deported Jews, and other impersonal facts, I was able to create a faceless portrait with a personal identity. I could express the impersonal bureaucratization of evil.
I had discovered something about the content of my art, but I also needed to discover my way of making art? How would it look?
I started drawing, day after day, month after month, year after year. I did hundreds of drawings a week. I carried a drawing book everywhere and drew anywhere. I drew on trains, on napkins, while talking on the telephone, even while watching television. When I was not busy at work, I used my 9-to-5 job to draw. A friend gave me thousands of sheets of paper. This freed me to experiment and to ruin, without cost or concern, as much paper as I wanted. It didn’t matter. There was always a stack of blank paper waiting to be used.
I drew, without plan or preconceived idea, everything I saw and everything I imagined. I drew pens, pencils, graphs from reports, the view from my window, portraits of coworkers at meetings, ads, words from conversations, abstract patterns, and much more. I drew each thing again and again, varying the size, composition, color and quality of line. At work, people who saw me drawing would ask “Are you doodling again?” “Yes, it helps me think,” I replied, casually hiding the drawing until they left.
Through repetition I gradually learned to recognize the marks and lines that are mine. Drawing became instinctive, non-rational, like moving my arm or breathing. I also lost my self-awareness and stopped judging what I did. I just kept doing it until I was bored or satisfied. Slowly, very slowly, I evolved a style of my own.
Even now, as in the beginning, there are countless frustrations and unsuccessful efforts. But unlike the past, these are met with the knowledge that given time and patience, I will emerge in the artwork, in my own way, as I am, no more and no less.