by Jacquelyn Gleisner
I’m writing this letter in response to your recent letter of resignation. Last October you quit the art world, noting that "Art editors and critics… have become a courtier class. All [they] do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people” 1. Being a warden to the whims of the wealthy is no longer worthwhile. I think you’re right and I support your decision. In fact, I’m going to quit, too.
Dave, you and I aren’t the first quitters and we shan’t be the last. Take the Mayans, for example. Now it’s plain that Mayans were not foretelling the apocalypse; they were quitters. The Mayan calendar spanned thirteen baktuns, a period lasting three hundred and ninety-four years. Then, after a little over five thousand years, the Mayans stopped counting. They quit.
In 1969 John quit the Beatles; in 2011 Jay-Z quit the rap game. (Both rebounded, of course.) Two years ago Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater became a hero for the common man. As he signed off, Slater scored two beers and slid down the airplane’s emergency slide2. The same year the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan announced his would quit his job as an artist. His resignation was to become effective following his New York City Guggenheim retrospective, titled “All,” in which Cattelan suspended his work from the ceiling inside the hallow core of the spiral-shaped museum3. This world, and its embedded art cache, is littered with quitters.
Before you, Dave, the greatest artist among the quitters was perhaps Marcel Duchamp. In 1918 the Frenchman completed his last work in oil paint, Tu m’, a commission for long-time patron Katherine Dreier. Duchamp labored over the work over many months; his final painting was painstaking. Although Duchamp remained a key figure in avant-garde art circles, made posters for exhibitions, sat on panels at esteemed art institutions, and curiously, had his hair cropped into the pattern of a comet, he never finished another oil painting 4.
Within a year of his last painting’s completion, Duchamp had moved to Buenos Aires (after the United States entered the war), joined a chess club, and began calling himself a “chess maniac” 5. The “chess maniac” became a Chess Master. He wrote a book about endgames and also translated a book about beginnings. Duchamp became so devoted to his childhood pastime – to the exclusion of everything else – that his wife once glued all his chess pieces to the chessboard. Duchamp’s obsession with chess peaked as his practice as an artist reached a stalemate. By 1923 public belief held that Duchamp had quit making art for good.
In truth, Duchamp had quit painting, but not making art. His death in 1968 revealed that his art practice only appeared dormant. The installation Given opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on July 7, 1969, the year after Duchamp’s death. Over two decades at the end of his life Duchamp had been secretly working on this idiosyncratic piece, which involved lights, a motor and plaster casts pieces of a female form. Duchamp was inactive in theory, but not in practice.
Duchamp is not the only artist who attempted leave of the art scene. In 1970 the American conceptual artist Robert Irwin claimed to quit, too. He sold his belongings and got rid of his Venice, California studio. In Lawrence Weschler’s book Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Irwin declared: “I cut the knot. I got rid of the studio, sold all the things I owned, all the equipment, all my stuff; and without knowing what I was going to do with myself or how I was going to spend my time, I simply stopped being an artist in those senses. I just quit” 6. Moreover, Irwin returned every painting and piece of art that he had amassed over the years from his friends and fellow artists in the business. Without plans or possessions, Irwin went down to the beach and stared at the waves for a while.
Why? The proverbial corner that Irwin had painted himself into led right out of his painting practice altogether. Irwin’s work had distilled over time from its beginning as painterly abstraction, to lines, then dots, and finally nothing 7. Irwin reflected, “I’d dismantled the art endeavour, but in the process I’d dismantled myself” 8. He divested himself from materiality as his roots as a painter dematerialized.
Like Duchamp, Irwin gave up painting, but continued to work as an artist, making installations with light and transparent materials such as acrylic and wire. Consequently, Irwin’s work became increasingly invisible. Scant documentation of Irwin’s early work exists because more often than not, photography failed to capture its subtle and elusive presence. Irwin, who lives and works in California, continues to make ethereal installations that over the years have morphed into a meditation on nothingness itself.
Artists usually make something out of nothing, but why not make nothing out of nothing? I don’t want to make Art anymore. Like you, Dave, I want to make nothing. In a 2007 interview by the Canadian author Sheila Heti, you explained that “people don’t make literature, architecture, and art—the culture makes those things. We make books, buildings, and objects. We do our crummy little shit, and the culture assigns value to it” 9. People make shit and then the culture massages that shit into art.
So, art is shit, art is nothing, and art is everything. Art can take a myriad of forms. Five years after your interview with Heti, a character appeared in her novel How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life, who proposed three iterations of art:
“Yet the three ways the art impulse can manifest itself are: as an object, like a painting; as a gesture; and as a reproduction, as a book. When we try to turn ourselves into a beautiful object, it is because we mistakenly consider ourselves to be an object, when a human being is really the other two: a gesture, and a reproduction of the human type” 10.
Because humans are not objects, maybe we not should aspire to make objects, as Duchamp and Irwin believed. Humans reproduce and repeat. We are gestures.
Quitting is a gesture, too. Duchamp, Irwin and now you, Dave, are artists of the gesture. Quitting can be controversial – even artful – but need not be repeated. Like Duchamp, Irwin and perhaps myself, I know that you won’t quit the art world forever. Yet for now, for who knows how long, let’s quit.
2 Gardner, David, “World discovers a new hero: The air steward who lost his cool, grabbed a beer, slid down plane's emergency chute and launched himself into stardom on Facebook,” Dailymail Online, 11 Aug. 2010, 10 Jan. 2013
3 Smith, Roberta, “A Suspension of Willful Disbelief,” The New York Times Online, 3 Nov. 2011, 14 Jan. 2013
4 Paz, Ocatavio, Marcel Duchamp, (New York: Viking Press, 1978) 189 – 193.
5 Paz 189.
6 Weschler, Lawrence, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982) 156.
7 Russeth, Andrew, ”Blink and You’ll Miss It: Robert Irwin Brings His Mind-Bending Art to New York,” Gallerist NY, 11 Sept. 2012, 15 Jan. 2013
8 Weschler 156.
9 Heti, Sheila, “Dave Hickey [ART CRITIC/JOURNALIST/SHORT-STORY WRITER],” The Believer Magazine Online, Nov./Dec. 2007, 14 Jan. 2013
10 Heti, Sheila, How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2012) 184.