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Artists Are Hunkered Down, but Still Nurturing Their Inner Visions


Under most circumstances, the life of an artist or architect requires a lot of solitary time. But none of the 10 artists and architects I spoke to expected to be sheltering somewhere, hiding out from a deadly pandemic with a small number of family members or close friends.

When asked how they were spending their time, they answered that, despite their fears, the pandemic is proving to be fertile ground — and they sent along some proof. The anxiety of the coronavirus era has already seeped into the work of Rashid Johnson, who suddenly started making blood-red drawings. Steven Holl depicted a pair of struggling lungs, and mourned a close friend — while continuing to design buildings. Adam Pendleton, whose artwork incorporates text, looked out the window and said he saw the words “SEE THE SIN.” Frank Gehry sketched, but his big meeting got Zoombombed. Leidy Churchman started an epistolary romance, and Doris Salcedo doubled-down on her constant theme: memorializing the forgotten.

One thing is clear: Like the generation after World War I, today’s artists will take this traumatic and uncertain time and turn it into something unexpected. As Maya Lin put it, “We’re going to get really interesting creativity out of this.” The following interviews have been edited and condensed.

The artist, 82, emailed from his home in France — where he was with his partner and an assistant — to say that he was continuing to paint what he sees out the window, and that he’s looking to ancient art for inspiration.

I am in Normandy, and we don’t have TV. I am in the middle of nature, which I prefer to the city. I must admit I had been planning this for the past year — I don’t like crowds. So for me, nothing has changed that much.

My book “My Window” [the U.S. edition comes out in May] consists of drawings made on an iPhone and then an iPad of a window in Bridlington, East Yorkshire, starting in 2009 and 2010.

Being backlit, I could draw the sunrise I could see over Flamborough Head [on the Yorkshire coast], in the dark without getting out of bed. I wouldn’t have done these without this technology. In fact, you couldn’t. I would have had to get up, put on the light and get paper and colors, so I was thrilled to draw this way.

Now I have a new iPad, and we got a mathematician in Leeds to make a new version of a drawing app. So when I came here I started drawing the arrival of spring. We have a large garden here that has apple, pear, cherry, plum and apricot trees. The blossoming is just now beginning and I am very occupied. The only difference is now we can’t leave here, and the restaurants are closed. But nobody can cancel the spring. Nature just goes on relentlessly, I am glad to say.

I also plan to attempt to make something like the Bayeux Tapestry, which is just nearby to me. The tapestry [which tells the story of the conquest of England by William, Duke of Normandy in 1066] is like a Chinese scroll, it has no shadows, no reflections and of course no perspective. I think it’s a great work of art that is ignored in European art histories. It was made in about 1100. If you really think about it, it is like a movie, but you do the moving. It’s 70 meters long and you have to walk past it. I find it totally engrossing.

I’m not sure how I am going to do it. But I will work it out, pondering with the aid of tobacco, which I find very good for thinking something out.

At 91, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect was sketching at home in Santa Monica, and chafing at being cooped up.

I’m at my dining room table sketching now. And they’re raw sketches. Just a Pilot pen on tracing paper.

It’s unusual to be home this much, but we’re pretty well connected with the office. We did a Zoom meeting the other day, about 150 people — but we got hacked. You don’t want to know about it!

What I’m doing now is redoing the entrance to the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. And now we’re looking at it and wondering if we haven’t focused too much on the functional things and forgotten that this is the major entrance to the building. The client mentioned it, and I’m agreeing with him.

I listen to a lot of music, because I’ve been very involved with music all my life. I’m working on the sets for an opera, Michael Tilson Thomas’s production of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman,” which is probably going to be delayed, in San Francisco.

I listen to recordings by Daniel Barenboim — we worked on the Berlin concert hall together — the L.A. Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, Esa-Pekka Salonen — all my buddies. It makes me feel closer to them, and to the music. I’m not a musician, so I can’t explain it all to you: It’s a big feeling.

I don’t use free time to look at classic architecture a lot, and I’ve wondered about that myself. Is it an ego thing? I hope it’s not. I’m an older guy, so I know that stuff pretty well — I can draw it, and used to do that.

When I was a kid, it was World War II, so I lived through all of that. I remember polio too. You can’t get yourself cornered into fear about things. But this is something out of this world that I’ve never experienced; it’s scary. And especially when you have kids and grandchildren.

I’ve been fantasizing about pulling out my old watercolors to use. At my age, the ideas are coming at me at a fast speed. I can’t even keep up with them. I guess I’m trying to get everything done before I leave the Earth.

The Colombian sculptor, 61, spoke from a house in the mountains, three hours from her home in Bogotá.

We’re at the bottom of a mountain, and my husband and I can go climbing. And then we come back and go to work again.

I don’t have a studio here. My work is so painful, I didn’t want to bring it here‚ but now I miss having a studio. I do have a place where I can draw.

I like seeing artworks, but not online. My full library is in Bogotá. And I hugely miss it. But I’m reading Judith Butler’s latest book, “The Force of Nonviolence,” and some poetry. Not for solace, but for understanding.

The drawings I am doing are part of my project “Bosque de Humo” [“Smoke Forest”] about Colombia’s disappeared people; there are between 50,000 and 200,000 of them. I call the works acts of mourning, and I do them in areas that have what I call the geography of fear, because of what happened there. I found a place where, between 2001 and 2004, the paramilitary had crematory ovens.

But recently the site was taken over, and they planted a coriander field. I was horrified. These people were disappeared — and now someone comes along and tries to disappear the disappearing. It’s very sad. The paramilitary said they burned people and they sprayed the ashes with water. I’m trying to draw in a way that brings these molecules back to life.

I’m shocked when I look at the news. All I can read about is the pandemic. No one is writing about war or violence. I’ve always done stories about the most vulnerable population. And this pandemic is going to make that population even more abandoned. What’s going to happen to the million and a half Venezuelan migrants here? People talk about isolating in your home, but most of the migrants don’t have a home. I wish the world was thinking about them more.

The conceptual artist, 43, who works in various media including film, painting, and installation, was at his home in the Hamptons with his family.

I’ve actually been busy doing drawings similar to one from 2018 called “Anxiety Drawing.” They were black, and now they are red. It’s the first one in this series that depict anxious men. I posted one on Instagram.

There’s a real brutality to them, they feel visceral and really current. It’s just a small move, just by adding a different pigment. And it just speaks volumes to how it has changed the urgency of those works.

These are, if you will, my quarantine drawings. I’m hesitating to use that language because I think it’s probably going to be massively oversubscribed.

This is going to have probably one of the most significant impacts on artist practices for multiple reasons. For one, the limitations of it, meaning what we have accessible to us materially — some artists have had assistants or help in fabrication and that’s been fundamentally a part of a lot of contemporary art practices.

The removal of some of that means getting back to the individual just responding to the world. From that perspective we’re going to see a lot of inner visions, you know? It’s Stevie Wonder time.

I think the most current thing that I’ve really spent any time looking at is Brutalist architecture, mostly in books. There’s a book called “Atlas of Brutalist Architecture.” I grew up in Chicago near a Brutalist hospital on Division Street, and I think there’s a strictness and heaviness that you can recognize in this architecture. It feels foreboding and all-consuming now. There’s a loneliness to it.

The artist was at her house in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles with her daughter and her daughter’s three friends. Ms. Simpson, 59, works in photography, painting, film and other media.

When I left New York, I had a studio full of work that I was in the process of finishing. I did ship out some collage materials, and I have a bedroom that is like an office here. I circled around the boxes at first, which has to do with this new normal. We’re all watching out for one another now, and that takes a lot of mental energy.I’m also giving myself the permission to take a break and just submerge myself and make some art.

I’ve only made one collage so far: “Walk With Me.” I don’t edit myself when I make collages, but I’m sure they are connected to my subconscious. I see it as part of a series.

A lot of the collages I’ve done in the past are clippings from Ebony magazine. And I have a 100 copies here from different eras. It’s an amazing, beautiful archive of American history. Many of the pictures come from ads and some from editorial photographs. And it relates to the paintings that I have done recently, showing these special characters that are digital collages, creating more surreal-looking faces.

So with “Walk with Me,” I said: Let’s try to do it in a very analog way. It is a portrait of three women, and I manipulated their faces, just with cutting and pasting with acid-free glue, scissors and an X-Acto knife. It’s always kind of fun to juxtapose things and keep it moving.

The multidisciplinary artist, 36, who frequently makes text paintings that address the history of race in the United States, was at his Hudson Valley house with his husband.

Right now, I’m looking out across a road to an open plot of land, and the grass is sort of that rusty, red color with a little bit of sand tone to it. And there’s a small evergreen blowing in the wind. And I think it’s the fact that nothing is happening — other than this sort of welcoming but barren landscape — that is the most inspiring thing at the moment.

In my work, I grapple with things that allow us to have a perspective on culture. And if you look at a moment like this, you realize that this is a mere blip in the span of time. And it fortifies you. I think we’re in this hurry-up culture. If something lasts longer than a week, we’re like, “I’m so over this” [laughs]. And I have to say, I have a little bit of anxiety about going back to the hurried-upness of everything.

I think when things happen like this, there’s this kind of leveling. We’re all as important as the person next to us.

So I’ve been looking out of this window and thinking about three words, very simple: SEE THE SIN.

Who knows how it will manifest in the work. But looking out of this window, I know it has something to do with a perspective change.

The painter, 40, spoke from an island off the coast of Maine, waiting out the pandemic at a family house.

I have some art books with me: Giorgio Morandi, Milton Avery and Fairfield Porter. And a lot of Dharma books. I’m actually up here with my mentor in Tibetan Buddhism. And we practice together. We’re going to do a lot of gardening.

I actually have a crush on someone, and I used this time to write to them. It just feels like in this moment, it’s really important to reach out to people and tell them how you feel on all levels. And they did write back. So far it’s really nicely up in the air, because right now there’s no action to be followed. It feels like it could be an amazing correspondence.

Maybe people will feel a lot more connected to art in their isolation. The world is very precious, it’s very sacred. I think art speaks to that.

I’ve been setting up my paints like a shrine. I’ve been having flashes of feeling that my work will have more vibrant colors — somehow everything is a bit closer up now, like something flashing in your face, more vivid than normal.

The architect, 72, whose addition to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is slated to debut this fall, spoke from his home in the Hudson Valley.

I’m in my studio looking right at a 30-acre freshwater lake from a big, six-foot window.

My close friend, the architect Michael Sorkin, just died of the virus. I wrote a tribute to him. He was a great writer himself, and I knew him for 40 years. So it kind of knocked me out. It’s a shock.

My way of working really is unchanged. It’s all online. Every morning I have to do my China work — our China office is back up — so that starts at 6 a.m. My wife and I just taught our Columbia class via Zoom, to 12 students.

I also work on watercolors, then I photograph them and send them to my Beijing office and my New York office [to be turned into CAD drawings].

I read a lot of poetry. Looking across the room here, I also have a couple of first edition books on Frank Lloyd Wright, I have a lot of Le Corbusier books, including the biography of him by Nicholas Fox Weber. I have the work on Louis Kahn, “Beyond Time and Style.” I think it’s important to have those books around you so you can randomly grab one and find another world inside.

I’ve made a few paintings that relate directly to this. I just drew the human lungs, and I wrote: “Mystery of force takes your breath away outside versus deep within.” It’s too literal, but the breath of life is what’s being taken away.

Best known for her Vietnam Veterans Memorial and for blending architecture, art and landscape in her work, Ms. Lin, 60, spoke from the mountains of southwestern Colorado.

We’re next to a national forest, and I’m looking at a mountaintop covered with snow. We’re miles up a dirt road, it’s very remote. The forest has vast die-out areas caused by beetle infestation. And that led me to “Ghost Forest,” my installation for Madison Square Park that has been put off for a year [originally scheduled for June].

I’ve been looking out the window and I’m starting a series of drawings that are about rivers, in walnut ink.

A lot of my time is spent on the project What Is Missing?, a website that is a global memorial to the planet. This is my fifth memorial. I’m focused on what we call Mapping the Future, and it’ll be these interactive maps that will showcase nature-based solutions to carbon emissions.

It mourns what we’re losing — just think, some 70 percent of all songbird species are in a state of decline, but we don’t necessarily notice it. So we asked the question, “How can you protect it if you don’t even realize it’s missing?”

I’m also starting to read a book on Alexander von Humboldt [a Prussian geographer and naturalist]. Embarrassingly, with one of my daughters, we’re also binge-watching Marvel movies.

Celebrated as the father of color photography, Mr. Eggleston, 80, emailed from his hometown of Memphis, where he was staying temporarily with one of his sons.

Memphis is turning green again and I’m spending a lot of time on the screened porch which is very pleasant, looking out at the backyard.

Just a few weeks ago I was in Los Angeles editing my next book. It is a group of previously unseen work called “Outlands” that should be published this fall. These volumes represent the last definitive pass of my early work shot on Kodachrome, the same body that formed the basis of my first book, “William Eggleston’s Guide.”

We reviewed images that I haven’t seen in more than 40 years — all from Memphis and environs, with very much a pure use of color, and of a vanishing world at the time. Revelatory images that I look forward to sharing. All of these images are very much on my mind right now, just as if they were taken yesterday or today.

I’m also looking through the bookshelves. I found a book of photographs by my friend Dennis Hopper, which has some early pictures of another friend, Walter Hopps. Both gone, but still present.


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