Letter to a Young Artist
An interview conducted by an art student at Pratt with the author

Before you start a piece of artwork, do you first give priority to the concept or the specific aesthetic of the artwork?

There is no separation between concept and aesthetic. If the formal concept — design, arrangement, call it what you like — is not beautiful, why bother? There is visual ugliness all around us. If our vocation in the studio is not to create beauty, what is the point of being an artist? The rest is politics and theater.

Maureen Mullarkey: Sweet Doubles (2008)

Artists overvalue their own “concepts,” many of which are quite muddled. Even mindless. It is part of the comedy of Academia's hold on studio art. The visual arts — and artists themselves — were better served by the old atelier system which knew the difference between pictorial ideas and mere pretension to individuating cleverness. And the atelier system trained the hand, the single organ that serves the artist's eye. For an artist, sensibility is infinitely more important, and more rare, than “concepts.”

I begin each piece by brooding over materials. That can take quite some time. I am an accomplished brooder. The final choice of objects results from much caressing and communing with stuffs. Beautiful scraps of things; or, perhaps, scraps of once-beautiful things. Everything begins there in the aspiration — a hope and trust — of bringing them into pleasing relations that make a gracious whole.

Collage has been described as an art of interruption because of the medium's abrupt breaks of texture, pattern, and plane… [“painting by other means” as you’ve termed it], which do you prefer, painting or collage work?

I do not know if preference gets to the heart of it. I had a conversion experience a few years ago — from painting to collage. It was not a shift of preferences but the initiation of a sudden passion. It was a Pauline moment. And it has not passed.

Because of your career as a visual artist and art critic, do you fear criticism by your critic peers when you wear the artist hat?

Fear is too strong a word. No one likes to receive negative criticism and, certainly, I do not like knowing that my own critical stances leave me open to reprisals. Nevertheless, honest criticism — the kind that has no malice in it and does not denigrate — is not something to fear.

Besides, that drive to excel — while wearing both hats — is all-consuming. It does not leave much psychic room for fear of criticism. And in the studio, I am my own hard critic.

Your question reminds me of something Satchel Paige, the famous pitcher from the old Negro League, used to say: “Don't look over your shoulder. You might see someone gaining on you.” Or, you might hear a discouraging word.

That is simply part of life. No point hiding from it.

You call your collage art “intermezzos”, do you believe that art is art regardless of what form the canvas takes?

My early collages were called intermezzos for the simple reason that, at the time, I fully intended to return to the canvas, be back at painting in short order. I had no idea how passionate I would become about them or how much pleasure I would take in producing them. The word intermezzo no longer fits but I have not troubled to find another.

Yes, of course, I believe that art arises in sundry contexts and with a variety of means. Canvas is only one of them. [ And possibly an overvalued one. But that is another topic.]

Nostalgia seems to be an inspiration for you collage work, what memory or memories trigger you to create each work in their unique way?

I know what you mean but I am not sure nostalgia is the right word for it. None of my collages commemorate sentimental occasions. It is cultural memory that matters to me. That, and the habit of memory which so often seems to be dissolving in the acid of an expanding present, a great Now that knows little and remembers less.

That is why old books — parts of books, book paper, old manuscripts, anything with the work of a hand — have become my materials. These are repositories of societal remembrance. Each book, in its way, is an embodiment of mind, an incarnation. There is no nostalgia in acknowledging the fragility of the life of the mind and of cultural memory.

Which solo or group exhibit have you done would be considered to be the turning point in your art career?

I really cannot point to any one watershed exhibition in my career.. My career has always taken second place to the vicissitudes of family life. That is not something I regret. It is simply a fact. Those watershed events have all taken place — and will continue to take place — off stage, so to speak. Career moves are not necessarily the most significant life moves, though contemporary culture tends to conflate the two. And, in the end, our art is an ineluctable expression of our lives, of the depth of feeling we bring to daily living.

Few contemporary artists seem to recognize that. There is a fashion for using art to make statements about one's identity. It is the death of art, a narcissistic evasion of living encounter with the demands of one's craft. Career concerns are not to be taken lightly but, ultimately, what matters is depth and quality of expression and the perfection of one's hand.

What would be your strength and weakness in your collage work?

My strength, if I can claim it, lies in an innate design sense and absolute love of my materials. That love encourages a kind of surrender that is not possible — not for me — in painting. My own painting has always been tethered more tightly to an impulse to control. While I am, of course, exerting conscious control over collage materials, I am also more free to play, to permit the materials to make suggestions. I cannot explain why. In part, it is temperamental. But it is also tied to the fact that my collages remain abstract while my painting is figurative. In collage, I do not have to work to get the nose right.

It is critical for us as artists that we recognize our weaknesses so you are right to ask. For me, it is knowing when to stop. When “to let be, call off thoughts awhile,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins phrased it. In short, editing myself is a constant challenge. This is precisely because abstraction does not contain within itself definitive limits. You can only distort a rib cage so far and still have a plausible figure. But abstract elements contain no such brake on expression.

Which historical figure's artwork has inspired your artwork and/or career?

As a painter, I have to say Balthus. was the primary trigger. I gave up gainful employment — to my husband's horror at the time — to paint after seeing that first retrospective at the Metropolitan in the early '80s. The exhibition simply broke my heart. I had to get on with what I had wanted to do since childhood — become a painter.

Keep in mind here that artmaking is in the blood. My father, a gifted man, had ached to become a painter. World War II finished the dream. He came from a family of British bricklayers — Liverpudlians, all — who took up the gentlemanly art of watercolor in their off hours. My paternal grandparents lived with a marvelous collection of their old ink drawings and watercolors of construction sites and stone walls. I grew up enthralled by those works.

[In my early painting years, I brought in income by working as a textile designer for West Point Pepperell. The job immersed me in color, composition and texture — good preparation for the so-called fine arts.]

After Balthus, the floodgates opened and I began falling in love with just about everyone who could pull it off. In whatever century. Though, truth to tell, if art history had stopped with the Sienese and the Florentines [Balthus' critical influences] I would have no complaints.

Early on — sometime in the '80s — I had seen collages by Anne Ryan at the Brooklyn Museum. I was entranced by them. In retrospect, that was the beginning of a long-gestating pull toward collage. Kurt Schwitters and Hannelore Baron are also among my patron saints. Though if I were obliged to light a candle to only one, it would be Baron.

Would you have any advice in terms of philosophy or lessons for college art students who are just beginning their journey as an artist?

Know who your betters are, be grateful for them, and do not be afraid to acknowledge them.


This conversation took place as part of an classroom assignment, April 2002.

Copyright 2009, Maureen Mullarkey

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