Antemortem Glory: An Essay by Brad Phillips



Two Acrobats,  Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1932-33

There are two kinds of suffering. There is the suffering you run away from, which follows you everywhere. And there is the suffering you face directly, and so become free. – Ajahn Chah


I’ve become older. It will continue. It’s happening now and I can feel it. I make art and have done so my entire life. I’ve shown as a ‘professional’ for almost 20 years now. When I look back at what I made 20 years ago, I become upset and find my head resting in my hands, slow soft sighs filling the empty room I sit in. When I think of what I made and showed 10 years ago, in “esteemed” galleries, I feel my body get warmer, I fight the blush, I remember the ones I should have left out of the exhibition. Everyone now is an artist, and they’re all much younger than me; the artists showing today are younger than at any time I’m aware of in the past. I think they should be careful, and I worry for them. Whether or not I, or anyone, likes Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman, these artists waited until at least their forties to begin exhibiting their work. I think that’s smart. In some ways I wish my upcoming solo show was my first, instead of my thirty-first. I am 42.

Essays are apparently supposed to state a position and proceed to defend it. But I just make this all up as I go along. What I want to suggest is that a great many artists tend to make their best work towards the end of their lives. I can cite two examples that refute this theory though. Although it’s generally accepted that Henri Matisse’s paper cut-outs are his best work, I do not like them at all, and think his best work was made during the 1920s. As well, Edouard Vuillard, the best of the Nabis painters, made dismal commissioned paintings as an elderly man.


Femme au collier, Kees van Dongen 1877- 1968

Arletty, Kees van Dongen. 1931

The counter to Vuillard is Kees van Dongen, the Dutch Fauvist painter. Most people are familiar with his highly mannered paintings of women or street scenes, everyone seeming to be made of triangles. Those paintings are indeed good. But beginning in the 1930s, van Dongen began to paint commissioned portraits of wealthy high society matrons. He said that the entire enterprise involved making them look slimmer, while making their jewels look larger. Van Dongen was part of a group of artists attempting, effectively, to challenge status quo ideas about painting. They, and he, were successful. The paintings he made early in his life are often beautiful and complex. However, a commission is freedom. Painting is a difficult endeavour. You sit with an empty white rectangle, and, if you are intellectually ambitious, you attempt to turn that rectangle into something historical relying solely on your intuition. When given a commission, one can abandon thinking altogether. This is very wonderful. Van Dongen’s thoughts were simple;  slender body, big jewels. Thoughts so simple they could be put away. In turn, all the knowledge gained in making his early work, the instincts that had allowed him to be a sought after portrait painter, could be employed in essential uselessness. A portrait is a useless thing. A token of vanity. Van Dongen not having to consider his contemporaries, not having to consider historical acknowledgement (having attained it already), not having to consider ‘pushing the envelope,’ was finally in some ways allowed to express himself most simply and instinctively. His portraits of grand dames are perfect. No brushstroke is extraneous and none are missing. Nothing is underworked or overworked. Van Dongen knew he had carved out his small place in the history of art and could now just paint for the sake of painting, which, it should be common knowledge, is what leads one to make great work.

Why a very similar trajectory failed Vuillard is confusing; although Vuillard was a notorious neurotic, and perhaps not as financially set as van Dongen. Neurosis is not the friend of the artist unless she makes her neurosis the subject of the work. Vuillard’s late portraits fail because while they’re portraits,  you can sense he’s still attempting to be avant garde—to fulfill his Nabis ideals. In doing so he lost the freedom a simple portrait commission could have offered him, and the paintings are clunky collisions of portraits and attempts to still look intellectual. When painting a portrait, just paint it. Van Dongen did this well. Vuillard was holding onto the idea of Vuillard. The late portraits look like poor replicas of his work, while van Dongen’s late portraits don’t look like his work at all. Being able to become someone else, appear to be a different artist, is a beautiful and rare thing. Many of us wish we had pseudonyms for this very reasons, or at least myself and two of my close friends.


Brunette & Blonde, Francis Picabia, 1943


Bathers, nude women by the sea, Francis Picabia, 1941

I do not like the early Dadaist works of Francis Picabia. Many people do. First, he was a Cubist. I do not like Cubism.  I don’t like Dadaism or Surrealism either, so I’m aware of my bias. Picabia made a name for himself with strange paintings of unknown mechanisms. Boring. Typical. Manifesto adherent visual material. Picabia, like van Dongen, secured his place in history. Then he decided to do what sadly few artists now do, he let himself do what he wanted, and he flirted with failure. To this day the late nudes of Picabia are disliked by most. Retrograde critic and colossal bore Hilton Kramer in 1970 said of these works, “the last three decades of Picabia’s production are amongst the saddest of modern times.” Kramer is wrong. One thing that frightens art critics most is an artist making work that does not abide with their “signature style”; one thing that frightens artists most is being painted into a corner, forced to forever make work that reminds the audience of their previous work. Because that sounds like a job. That sounds like factory production. That sounds like the denial of instinct. Gordon VeneKlasen, director of Michael Werner Gallery in New York, discussing their last exhibit of these late, gaudy, lascivious nudes, some painted from photos, some copied from magazines, said, “the work is still hard for people to understand. Many of the artists we work with are obsessed with Picabia. Artists have always understood it. The rest of the public is still catching up.”

This is an important point. Artists, good artists, do understand this work. Admire this work. And for this very reason, bores like Hilton Kramer do not. It is full of experimentation, love of the medium, and bravery.

Unafraid to fail. It is painting for pleasure, not profit.

Pushkin said “I write for pleasure, I publish for money.” Picabia, like van Dongen, had money. So now it can all be done for pleasure. This is the enlightened space of production from within which we’d all love to work. And those who never stray from this way of producing art often suffer from poverty and neglect. But they are true to their beliefs. You can have integrity, or you can have a Lexus, but rarely can you have both in a creative field. Artists understand and love Picabia the way artists love the Period Vache paintings made by Rene Magritte, an artist who seems boring and gimmicky. Magritte, not towards the end of his life, but instead for the occasion of his first solo show in Paris, as a Belgian, spent 1948 making “fuck you” paintings that everyone hated. Save a few of his friends. Save almost anyone who loves painting now. They look nothing like his usual magic trick paintings. Again, they do not resemble Magritte. They look a lot like they were fun to make, and they look a lot like freedom. A period of “fuck you, disdain for the French bourgeoisie,” is essentially the same as the period of “fuck you, dying soon.” Without this 12 month period of producing solely what he wanted, there wouldn’t be, whether you like them or not,  George Condo,  Sean Landers, and many other lesser known painters. Artists understand. We don’t understand much. But we understand the encroaching fascism of the audience and the market, and the desire for liberation from both.


Pebble, Rene Magritte, 1948


A Stroke of Luck, Rene Magritte, 1948

Interestingly Michael Werner gallery also exhibited late work by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who was a triangulaphilic contemporary of van Dongen, and founding member of Die Brücke. Kirchner had some problems, had his work confiscated by the Nazis and included in the infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition they put on in 1937 (possibly one of the greatest art exhibitions of the 20th century). Kirchner was a real cliché: alcoholic, mentally ill, he had all the right stuff. He put a bullet in his head effectively and really sealed the archetype. He was also insanely neurotic and concerned with his place in history, often back-dating paintings to appear more prescient than he was. Kirchner’s early work, the work he gained his reputation for, is often brilliant. Most brilliant though, (shockingly, upsettingly) was the work he made towards the end of his life, having been treated for cancer, addiction, alcoholism, and knowing he would end his life soon. These paintings look incredibly contemporary, in part because contemporary painting sadly involves so much sampling from the past. Kirchner had, like Picabia and Van Dongen, solidified his place in the history books, felt his mortality approaching, and decided to paint whatever the fuck he wanted to. And what he painted is stunning and unparalleled. I only recently discovered these works by him, and wanted to retire from painting immediately. Who else liked them? Other artists I showed. All of them said basically the same thing: “For Christ’s sake.” And this is the common reaction to work like this, like Picabia’s late gaudy nudes. It makes us want to give up. We don’t though. But we consider it. 


Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Three nudes in the forest, 1935


Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Archers, 1937

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Three nudes in the forest, 1935

There are others. Edvard Munch, Pierre Bonnard.

But, literature.

Patricia Highsmith was a singular talent of 20th century procedural novel writing. Deeply existential themes buried within typical and mannered crime narratives. This woman was an island. Misunderstood her whole career, she was also miserable. Hitchcock’s adaptation of her novel Strangers on a Train (later inspiring Throw Mama From the Train) made far more money for Hitchcock’s studio than her numerous novels ever made for her. Highsmith was an alcoholic, a sex addict, and a brutal misanthrope. Another great cliché. Her most strident obsession throughout her life was that the New Yorker never published her writing. She was taken for a crime novelist. It was a mistake. She was not one. She brilliantly hijacked a genre to explore major themes, making accessible to the layperson concepts that Kierkegaard or Sartre made inaccessible. Highsmith also notably published the first lesbian pulp novel, The Price of Salt, under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. She did fine for herself, living in Switzerland in her botanically shrouded estate with her many cats and thousands of snails. Towards the end of her life, she abandoned the genre she’d borrowed from and mastered, and focused on what really occupied her mind. Snails. She would compose a short story about say, giant snails taking over Earth, a snail oligarchy, and submit it to both the New Yorker and Omni, the science publication. Omni published them all. The New Yorker I can only imagine relegated her dispatches to the dustbin. While I truly love her early work, its creepy narratives (a peeping Tom in This Sweet Sickness, is invited in for tea by the woman he is peeping on, only to have her fall in love with him), I’m truly amazed and startled by the bravery and creative insanity in her late works, works about, well, mostly snails. And short stories showcasing her own cruel misogyny. Highsmith was writing from the ivory tower so to speak, cloistered away in Switzerland, Graham Greene perhaps her only remaining friend and visitor as she was prone to push everyone who cared for her away. But after Strangers on a Train, after a French adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley called Purple Noon, Ms. Highsmith drank whiskey and photographed her Siamese cats surrounded by unopened royalty cheques she had no use for. She knew the end was near. She knew her place in history had been miscategorized, but was nonetheless there for eternity, and so she went deeper into her weird brilliant mind, producing some of the most outlandish and readable science fiction stories I’ve ever encountered. Again, importantly, resembling in no way at all her early work. She was free. She went bananas. It made for brilliant art.


Picasso I don’t like, but I think said something about how we must forget what we’ve learned and become children again. Okay. People also make comparisons between babies and old people. I think it’s a simple one built off diapers, loss of motor skills, and a sense of helplessness. Sometimes in writing an essay I realize the answer to the question I’m asking isn’t complex, may in fact be obvious. One of those times may be now.

Prisoners on death row are the only people I’m aware of who know exactly when they’ll die. From interviews I’ve seen, this knowledge often produces a sense of peace, a kind of liberating calm. Artists are, in some ways, in a prison of their own making. When you start out making

art, if you have ambition, that ambition can squeeze out mental space reserved for innovation and experimentation.

Artists might take into consideration fashionability, may feel drawn to trends, groups, aesthetic camps. There is also the consideration, once you’ve been doing it for a while, that you need to make some money. If you hit on a type of work that’s selling, it may seem difficult or impractical to stop once you’re tired of it and move onto something else. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Art is a terrifying way to make a living, to secure a comfortable future. Other reasons exist which would prevent one from truly following their instincts, from making sudden turns and stops. From what I know though, the mind of a good artist is usually making sudden turns and stops, becomes bored of what feels easy. There is also, with some artists, a sentiment of antagonism and disdain for the status quo. But in a profession where making a living is difficult, antagonism and disdain for the viewer are ill-advised unless family money allows it, unless you’re accustomed to suffering.

Ultimately then, what leads some artists to make their best work at the end of their lives, must be some sense of resolution with these above obstacles. Picabia and the rest of them all had long careers wherein they sold a great deal of work. Highsmith could live off her royalty cheques for the rest of her life and never publish again. Sadly, as is often the case, money is the solution. The peaceful hammock money builds lets artists lay back, relax, and explore the outer regions of their creative minds. Making art for oneself instead of for the market will, if you’re talented, always produce better results than art made for any other reason.


Model on the Couch, Edvard Munch, 1924-1928

It’s okay to be ambitious. Being called a careerist in art is apparently an insult. In any other profession wanting to advance in your career is normal. People equate not thinking about your career with having integrity. It’s a fairly unsophisticated, insecurely self -righteous idea. Again, making art is a very hard way to make money. There is no pension. So wanting to do well, to be a “careerist,” is simply wanting to make money like everyone else, and possibly save money for your pension-less late years. Careerism relates to reputation, and wanting one. Beyond money if an artist has serious faith in her chosen field, the desire to be remembered is real and pressing. Money and fame. Two bad words. Fame in art being altogether different however than fame in most other fields. In art, “fame” means “not forgotten.” Munch, Kirchner, Highsmith—all of them became aware in their lifetime that they would not be forgotten, that they had secured their place in the history of their chosen art forms. Intellectually, that’s as liberating and comforting as money is in practical ways. If you don’t have to prove yourself anymore, if you don’t have to maintain your place in the hierarchy any longer, you can let go of everything. Letting go of everything is another way to access the parts of your mind that allow you to  make the best work.

It all ends up being very simple. Ironically art itself is also very simple, although it’s been made to appear incredibly complicated and problematic, particularly by those people in the arts who don’t make the actual material, but manipulate, recontextualize, and commodify the material. Picasso, or whoever it was, was right in some way then. The encroaching fact of death returns the artist to a place they were long before they knew art was a job, a world, a way of living. Before they knew of galleries and curators and C.V.’s.  Success with good work, allowing the narrative of financial success and esteem to be built, lets artists then make great work, like little kids, using their instinct and their intuition, albeit an intuition of a entirely different, informed, suffered lifetime