Artist's Notebook

Lost in Space: Art Post-Studio

This essay, which examines the evolving studio needs and expectations among contemporary artists, originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of The Brooklyn Rail.

Contributed by Sharon Butler / Renaissance artists were members of professional guilds, maintained studios known as workshops, and staffed them with assistants to help complete monumental commissions. But that was an era in which princes and popes extolled artists as the aesthetic lifeblood of the city-state and supported them accordingly. In modern times, artists haven’t been able to count on such public largess. Yet, in spite of reduced expectations, the compulsion in even unseasoned artists to secure dedicated workspace has persisted. When I was in my twenties, my friends and I yearned for square footage. Renting a loft was a rite of passage, and after graduation we all tried to find as much space as possible, preferably in an old sweatshop or other disused manufacturing building. Cavernous studio space, no matter how raw, cold, and uninviting, was the Holy Grail. We’d heard about the storied Coenties Slip in lower Manhattan, where Robert Indiana, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Fred Mitchell, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Lenore Tawney, Jack Youngerman, and others all homesteaded in the fifties. Older artists had already colonized Tribeca and Soho, so we expanded into Brooklyn, targeting DUMBO and Williamsburg.

Being a genuine artist meant having a vast, if unheated, space close to Manhattan. No matter how skimpy the résumé, a capacious urban loft said you were a serious artist. Thanks to America’s industrial decline, in the eighties they were cheap and readily available, and for a while we were able to live out our Coenties Slip fantasies, usurping entire floors. Once the leases were signed, the hangar-like spaces were divided with two-by-four framing, then sheet-rocked, taped, spackled, and finally kitted out with makeshift toilets, showers, and kitchens. But circumstances have diverted the obsessive quest for the studio. Today, large inexpensive spaces in acceptable proximity to Manhattan are rare, and artists, both emerging and mid-career, have adapted their art making strategies to meet the challenges of the post-studio era.

Children of necessity

Commonly, under-recognized mid-career artists have long-term leases in industrial buildings, but their situation is tenuous at best. Consider the plight of 475 Kent Street in Williamsburg. Over 200 residents, many of them artists, rented space in this converted loft building for over ten years, and although the building was zoned as work-only space, they lived there as well. This past winter, on the basis of vaguely explained building code violations, they were summarily evicted, given only a few hours to remove their belongings. These undoubtedly included plenty of unsold artworks—records of artists’ intellectual and emotional past that they would be loath to discard. Eventually, the artists had the eviction order overturned, and were allowed to move back in after the code violations were fixed. But the next generation won’t find many 475 Kent Streets. The best spaces they are likely to hunt down are ugly mutations like the 248 and 255 McKibbin Street loft buildings in Bushwick. Each floor of these structures, pre-divided into overpriced warren-like cubicles, houses an ever-changing cast of twenty-something artists and musicians, their wistful visions of loft life dashed by thrashing parties, overcrowded living areas, crime, filth, and mismanagement.

Under these challenging circumstances, artists are rethinking the studio imperative. Many would rather not sink all their resources into studio space that in time can come to seem like a ball and chain, tying the artist geographically and practically to a very small and often squalid world. Coining the term “free spacing,” Brooklyn-based artist Austin Thomas packed up her supplies and created a mobile studio, which she takes to libraries, laundromats, borrowed studios, vacant office cubicles, and other available spaces throughout the city. Instead of outfitting a working studio, Thomas recently opened Pocket Utopia, a tiny exhibition space in Bushwick, where she holds salons and regularly invites other artists to “free space” (her term for making art in public places) along with her. Street artists work publicly in most parts of the city, too, but their primary interest is more extroverted and entrepreneurial. They expressly want to subvert the gallery system by bringing their artwork directly to the people.

In addition to the street-art cohort, other young artists, like some of those included in the Whitney Biennial and the New Museum’s inaugural show, have also rejected the notion of making traditional art objects, but have adopted a less populist approach, articulated as having deeper theoretical and conceptual underpinnings. Whether by choice or necessity, they have not bought into the romantic notion of the artist’s insular studio, and are more likely to engage in a decentralized practice that includes collaborating, networking, shopping, writing, performing, organizing, and documenting rather than making a permanent object. For this type of work, a traditional studio isn’t mandatory; a tabletop and a computer will do. These artists develop ideas, write site-specific proposals, and create work tailored to their individual circumstances. The work requires little space to build or store and tends to be quite portable. Seventies performance and conceptual artists, as well as artists like Sol LeWitt, who simply wrote directions for creating his drawings and paintings and didn’t actually produce them himself, were pioneers of this kind of space-free approach.

An evolving paradigm

Acutely aware of shrinking real estate opportunities yet persistently nostalgic for the kind of old-fashioned, three-dimensional community that’s threatened by the Internet, some artists are making their contemporaries’ space predicaments the focus of larger projects and installations. Simon Draper, trained as a sculptor, is building a shantytown of portable artists’ sheds out of recycled materials in Beacon, New York, and stimulating the development of a fledgling artists’ community. Over the summer, the artists involved (including me) will work at the site, which he has dubbed “Habitat for Artists.” Some will treat the 6’ x 6’ shacks as sculptural artwork and installation projects in themselves, while others will simply use the little lean-tos to paint, draw, or write. Provided he can get the required funding, Draper plans to move the portable shacks to Miami in December for Art Basel Miami, where he envisions them morphing into an exhibition shantytown.

Of course, since the invention of metal tubes made paint portable in the nineteenth century, landscape painters have worked beyond the studio and painted “en plein air.” Rackstraw Downes, among others, admirably sustains the custom. Painters like Cindy Tower are taking the practice a step or two farther by eschewing natural beauty and consciously painting our degraded, non-picturesque surroundings. Tower paints abandoned industrial sites, like the killing floors of the meat packing plants in St. Louis, in situ. In a post-modern variation on the studio visit, she has brought dealers out to the ravaged sites to view work in progress. According to Tower, who brings along pepper spray and a bodyguard, the history and the atmosphere of each site is vitally important and can’t be captured when painting from a digital image. She totes large canvases to each locale, covering them at night with leaves and branches so the homeless people and drug addicts who live in the abandoned plants won’t steal them. Better known for her installation work from the late nineties, Tower has shown at the New Museum and the Trans Hudson Gallery, but has rejected installation as too expensive and ultimately unrewarding.

Artists working three-dimensionally with non-traditional materials have also embraced the great outdoors. Deborah Fisher spent three years managing the Socrates’ Sculpture Park studio program in Queens, where her compensation included unlimited use of an open-air cement slab, which she shared with resident artists during the warmer months. Working outside, Fisher had no size limitations, and was able to use potentially hazardous recycled materials like tires. She enjoyed the community of artists, and also encountered fewer problems transporting the finished work, with no stairs, doors, or elevators to negotiate. Downsides included unpredictable weather, interruptions from curious park visitors, and the physical discomfort of working in the cold. Since leaving the park, Fisher has been toiling in her attic, where she tends to work on small studies for larger projects, which she will complete during artist residencies.

The gilded cage

That artists have embraced making art beyond the confines of the traditional studio is certainly evidence of human resilience, of our ability to adapt and survive. In the nineties, grant-giving institutions began favoring proposals that engaged the community over independent studio-based projects, and that brought artists out into the neighborhoods. There may be a more affirmative impulse at work, too. For überartists like Takashi Murakami and Jeff Koons, of course, the big-studio paradigm is alive and well. But the carrying costs—psychic and aesthetic as well as economic—are not insubstantial. Brice Marden has four studios: one in Manhattan (a 5,000 square-foot duplex overlooking the Hudson River), one in upstate New York, one in Greece, and one in Pennsylvania. “It’s gotten rather baroque,” Marden said in a 2006 New York Times profile. “Sometimes you can’t remember what you’re working on where.”

Marden’s multiple spaces reflect his need to produce vast, large-scale work as well as enabling him to do so. Although most artists can’t afford his kind of setup, it may also be that fewer and fewer would actually welcome it. Marden no doubt reaps benefits from his infrastructural stability and storage space. But in suggesting that running four painting studios can be oppressive, he also hints that his life as an artist has in some ways become disjointed, hermetic, and tense. Getting out in the world, working among other people, and changing the physical circumstances of making art may seem counterproductive from moment to moment. But artists unburdened by onerous commitments to space may end up freer, and more inspired, to just make art.

Related posts:
Studio update: Itinerant painter (May 9, 2008)
Habitat for Artists: Studio shack update (May 18, 2008)
Studio update: Unplugged in Beacon (June 6, 2008)
Studio update: Studio visits, exhibitions, new work (July 12, 2008)

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