I’m a gigantic fan of Robert De Niro’s work (the actor, not the painter). I still remember my astonishment upon first watching Taxi Driver. I’d never seen acting as powerful as De Niro’s in that movie. I continued to savor his performances in many of the movies that followed. At a certain point, I began to see all his characters just as him, Robert De Niro, rather than as the novel inventions of a great artist. I know some critics would argue that at a certain point De Niro stopped trying. I think there is another dynamic at work.
When I first saw De Niro’s acting, I had no experience with him. His characters seemed inventions from whole cloth. As I watched more and more of his films, I became familiar enough with the overlaps, character to character, that I began to see Robert De Niro the person. Now, I see each new character as primarily De Niro, with an overlay of efforts toward the specific character. It reminds me of how I see Jimmy Stewart’s roles. They all seem so natural, in part, because he is just being Jimmy Stewart. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy his films. I love them, but I can’t see them as acting, as creating a character, because I know Jimmy Stewart so well.
The more I think about this issue, the more I believe it is inevitable. I have often read quotes from actors about their taking acting less seriously as they grow older. I suspect that part of that change in attitude comes from their realizing that no matter what they do, the character will be primarily them, that the authenticity of the character, in fact, can only exist if the characterization comes from their own experience. I don’t believe for a moment that the late work is lessor. It is just an inescapable fact that a late Pacino character can only be seen as a coloration of Pacino.
The same thing happens in visual art. Matisse’s early breakthroughs read as astonishingly new. His late work reads as Matisse continuing to be himself. The late work is no less interesting, but it can only be read as an outgrowth of Matisse’s sensibility, with which we have become very familiar.
One interesting counterexample is Philip Guston. His late work was such a contrast to the work he was known for, that he had seven years during his late career when he sold almost nothing, after having been, for years, a world renowned artist represented by the Marlboro Gallery, probably the most powerful gallery in the world at the time. However, what was really happening in Guston’s case was that he had edited large parts of himself out of his early work. His late work was actually more honest and more inclusive of his entire nature than his earlier work.
Brando eventually became bored with acting. He found it stupid and shallow. I wonder if some of the conflict had to do with facing the reality that each successive character was more Brando and that the early illusion that one was creating characters from scratch had disintegrated.
I think the relationship of this realization to one’s work is slightly different in visual art. I have written before that visual artists often spend their early career trying to shore up their weaknesses. They eventually realize that their areas of weakness remain areas of weakness, while their areas of strength become the places where astonishing growth can occur. Self-acceptance becomes the foundation of their work’s strength. Visual artists’ goal is not the creation of different characters, but rather the mining of one character. The visual artist is creating progressively richer and more complete presentations of the self.
As I age, I become more and more fascinated by what visual artists create toward the ends of their lives There was a wonderful artist here in Portland who’s late work represented a reversal of what he asked of his earlier efforts. His drawing, for the longest time, was about pushing to see more. He was forever scrubbing out parts of his drawing to remake them in ways that were ever closer to the literal reality. In his final years, the struggle toward growth was dropped and he gave in fully to the present, to the ways he both saw and miss-saw his subjects. His late work was poignantly honest evidence of his seeing and making without correction.
One of my favorite painters in Portland, a painter of great facility, just keeps mining in greater and greater depth and with ever growing self-acceptance the full range of her emotional, visual, and material experience without ever being threatened in the least by the ever changing language of her work.
Another Portland artist who’s work I admire has relentlessly grown his strengths. I think what I most admire about his late work is how he has to a great extent abandoned his narrative and political overlays and is now willing to just see and just paint what most moves him.
Personally, I am becoming more and more comfortable with the ways that I most love to work. That may not sound like much of a challenge, but it is for me. Many of my favorite ways of working seem kind of idiotic to me. I’ve always made how I wanted to make, but there has also always been a self-consciousness, a concern that I have to prove something, I don’t know what, maybe that I’m not an imposter, that I’m a real artist. With age I’m becoming less concerned with that. Whatever it is that I am, I certainly am that.
So much energy can be wasted worrying about issues over which one ultimately has little influence. If one is working, the work develops a momentum of its own that has almost nothing to do with intentions and self-consciousness. The changes that happen over time are the result of changes within the maker, brought about by experience. What will happen to one’s work can’t be anticipated or planned because we can’t know what we will learn from our work until we make it. Even then, what is changing often only registers long after the fact. As time passes it slowly becomes obvious that the work of one’s heroes is simply human work, embodying all the flaws of any human life. It is only from the the point of view of one’s early career that heroes and lives can be idealized. As young artists we often beat ourselves up comparing our work to a false model that evaporates as we approach it. Eventually, the act of working is all that matters. I think many of my early anxieties came from fear that things wouldn’t work out. It turns out things do work out, but not in a way that we can control or anticipate. The whole enterprise is a leap of faith that unfolds in a way that can only be witnessed.