The Artist’s Block

Recently, a friend asked me for advice because she had begun to dread going into the studio. I took the question very seriously because while a musician, I had a full on, catastrophic block that led ultimately to my putting my instrument away for fifteen years. Later, about ten or twelve years into my career as a visual artist, I had an equally rough block that I eventually got through. Blocks are natural. They happen to everyone. Unfortunately, people don’t talk about blocks much. I find it particularly distressing that experienced artists who have been through blocks don’t often share their experience with younger artists facing blocks for the first time.

Let me begin by describing my two blocks in greater detail. Soon after leaving music school, I moved close to New York. During that period I would listen to the best avant-garde jazz composers during the day and work on my own compositions at night. I became more and more aware of how naive my compositions were in comparison to those of my heroes. I ultimately became depressed about my work and began to freeze up. Hoping to get some good advice, I called Chick Corea, the great jazz pianist. He, of all people, could have given me genuine advice about blocks, learned through personal experience. Instead, he just tried to talk me into becoming a Scientologist. Apparently that would solve everything. I didn’t become a Scientologist, my block became catastrophic and I stopped being a musician.

Many years later, after I had been a visual artist for at least ten years, I took a five month trip to Europe. From my beginnings as an artist until that trip, I had been working on a consistently evolving direction in figurative drawing and painting. When I returned from that trip I tried just picking up where I had left off but found I couldn’t. Doing more of my familiar kind of work was like pulling teeth. I had lost all my motivation for that direction. I didn’t know what to do. I tried all sorts of things to no avail. Eventually I came to the conclusion that I was no longer an artist. I had no ideas, no motivation, no momentum, no enthusiasm. I decided it was over, that I had come to my end of my line as an artist. So I decided to quit, but I made a deal with myself that I wouldn’t quit for nine months.

I wrote “Nine Months” on the wall of my studio. For nine months I forced myself to work every day, to do something, anything to keep my hands moving. Many of the things I tried were idiotic. I tried landscape drawing (not so idiotic). I made illustrated journal entries. I created ridiculous board games with primitive cartoons. I even traced other drawings just to keep busy. Most of those days in the studio were truly excruciating. Finally, I arranged a marathon figure session with one of my favorite models. The session was to be six hours, though three was my typical limit. At about four hours in, something broke. I was too tired to do my usual thing any longer, so I just started swinging my arms around on great big paper, using a huge marker. I didn’t look at the picture while I was making it. I just moved physically the way I wanted to and let hundreds of marks pile up, contradicting each other, crossing each other, not lining up, not making sense, not building on one another. It felt good to work this new way. I had no idea what would get made, what what I was doing would look like. I made a bunch of these huge, ambiguous, perhaps senseless drawings, then looked at them all. They made a new kind of sense, very different from my old work, in fact inconceivable from the framework of my old work. While my old work moved consistently toward clarification, this new work avoided clarification and developed implied structure through intentional ambiguity. I was excited about this new direction. My motivation started returning and building. I got so I couldn’t wait to make more work each day. I have been riding this new direction for over twenty years now and my enthusiasm for it has only grown. I may have another block at some point but I have confidence that I will be able to move through it if and when it happens.

Here are my thoughts on blocks. I think each direction an artist takes has a shelf life. The direction begins. The artist learns more and more. The work develops a degree of sophistication, a consistent language that the artist knows how to manipulate. The expression gets better and better, clearer, more expert. These things are getting pretty damned good. Eventually the work becomes repetitive. It feels to me at that stage like the work becomes self-parody. It gets stale and it becomes hard for the artist to keep making this crap.

Now the real problems begin. The old work has lost its appeal but what shall the new work be? For the longest time, the artist tries to formulate the new direction as somehow an outgrowth of the old direction, but that won’t work. The new work has to come from an altogether new conception, something inconceivable from the framework of the old direction, something that is not implicit in the old work, something truly new, actually different. I think the hardest thing is letting go of the old framework and embracing something unformed, not known. The only guide one can have at this point is how it feels to work, not what it will look like because one doesn’t know that yet. Another challenge is that this new work will be inescapably primitive compared to the old work. The old work was at its point of greatest maturity, in full bloom. The new work is in its infancy and can’t yet stand up to the maturity of the old work. However, as this new direction matures it will eventually reach a greater richness than the former work allowed.

I see this cycle in the work of many artists who have inspired me. The most obvious example to my eyes is Cezanne. If you ever get a chance to study an oeuvre complete of Cezanne’s drawings, you will see over and over the cycle of a direction maturing until it is in full bloom, then becoming repetitive. At that point Cezanne lets go of the old direction and embraces a new one that is comparatively primitive. The new direction, though primitive at first, eventually surpasses the sophistication of the previous direction. This cycle happens time and time again over the course of Cezanne’s career.

To conclude, as I said at the beginning of this essay, blocks are natural. Each direction has its own lifespan. Often an interruption in one’s work will expose the exhaustion of a direction. After that, the process of finding the next direction can often be painful, partly because one is so fluent in the dead direction that it is difficult to think any other way. The birth of the new direction is often painful. The important thing is that the new direction can only emerge through work. Thomas Edison was quoted as saying that great ideas come from the muscles. What he was getting at, I believe, is that problems get solved not by thinking about them in the abstract, but rather through making work, wrestling with the problem through making. I don’t think for a moment that my personal experience resolving a block represents the only way or even the typical way. I’m sure there are plenty of variations of my experience and plenty of paths through blocks that were nothing like mine. The main thing, though, is to understand that blocks are OK, that blocks are common and solvable. The solution won’t necessarily be easy. Often, probably usually, the solution is excruciating, but don’t give up. I would have been a far better musician had I fought through that first block. I know I became a far better artist by doing battle with and vanquishing my second block.

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One Response to The Artist’s Block

  1. Thank you for this. Just what I needed to read, and so eloquently expressed. I totally agree. Change can be uncomfortable in process, but we have to keep evolving, tuning in to what calls us next. The exploration might need us to spin about aimlessly first in order to evaluate and re-orient. Much food for thought. Tfs.

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