A Voyeuristic Look Inside the Painter’s Studio

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Inside the Painter’s Studio, a collection of interviews by artist Joe Fig, explores the practice of 24 contemporary painters by delving into their quotidian habits and customs. Beyond some fascinating insight into the head space behind the easel, we’ve also gleaned a few tidbits that would make for interesting trivia.

To wit, Will Cotton only uses six colors of paint on his canvases — white, “a really cold” red, yellow, orange, blue, and sometimes a little green in place of black. Composer Philip Glass was Richard Serra’s only paid assistant in the early days after Yale. Eric Fischl only works on gigantic easels; his partner April Gornik isn’t that kind of artist who sloshes paint on the floor. And quite a few of our favorite contemporary painters never, ever worked as someone else’s assistant.

After the jump, we have a pictorial preview of the book plus some questionnaire sound bites.

Joe Fig stuck to a basic format of 18 questions when speaking with the painters profiled in the book. Here, we’ve culled some of the most illuminating answers to four of the questions. A cross-section, if you please:

How long have you had your painting table, and how did you decide to set it up?

Alexis Bockman: “I have this cart, which is made by Rubbermaid, which I really love. I prefer it to be organized and pristine like an operating theater, but because of my [broken] hand I have to have all my materials out — it’s a little more chaotic. I much prefer to have everything hidden.”

James Siena: “Just over ten years ago, I’d sort of sit down and smoke pot and paint and it was really inefficient — the sitting and smoking of pot! I stopped smoking pot, and I started buying these antifatigue mats to stand on and I use them religiously now. I really believe in them. I work standing up.”

Chuck Close: “[It’s] a simple wooden table my wife used for her begonias, and I just sort of appropriated it for my use — I slapped on a couple of pieces of plywood, attached a shelf to hold my brushes and paints, added some wheels and a piece of glass for a palette.”

Chuck Close

How often do you clean your studio, and how does it affect your work?

Will Cotton: “I think the palette I might clean up once a month. The brushes I don’t ever actually clean. The studio I tend to clean up whenever I am going to have a visitor, which has been about once a week these days.”

Inka Essenhigh: “Maybe once every two months I’ll sweep it. And then maybe once a year I’ll paint the floors, and that makes me enormously happy. I always wish that I would do it more often because it just makes me ridiculously happy to have my floors painted.”

How do you come up with titles?

Joan Snyder: “Well that’s like asking how my brain works. [laughs]”

Philip Pearlstein: “They just describe the objects in them. Back in the fifties the younger abstract expressionist painters used to give very poetic titles. One I’ve always remembered was titled Where Shall We Live When the World Goes Dark and somehow I’ve always remembered that title… and it scares me.”

Julie Mehretu: “I have a title muse. [laughs] I’m not joking. Usually I talk to Jessica [Ed. note: her partner, with whom she has a son, Cade] a lot about the titles and things I am thinking about with the painting and then we have a title muse. We call her, her name is Jenny Liu. I give her a few ideas, she usually sends back a whole list. ”

Ryan McGinness: “I’m always writing down titles in my sketchbooks, and then when a painting is done, I’ll match the title to the painting based on feel and intuition.”

Ryan McGinness

Did you ever work for another artist?

Gregory Amenoff: “Never. I didn’t know any artists when I was young. I was the only artist I knew.”

Fred Tomaselli: “No, I’ve never worked for another artist.”

Eric Fischl: “No, I never did. When I was in Chicago, I worked at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where I was a guard, and I also installed show. But I was never an assistant.”

Mary Heilmann: “No I didn’t. Too crabby and self-centered.” [laughs]

Ross Bleckner: “No.”

Fred Tomaselli

All images from Inside the Painter’s Studio by Joe Fig, Princeton Architectural Press 2009.