Old Dogs and New Tricks: What Happens to Old Artists?
Leo Segedin | September 12, 2007 | Print this essay
Having been an 'old', professional artist for 10 years - using age 70 (the proverbial 3 score and 10) as a dividing point, and being acutely aware of the impact of age on my own work, I began to reflect on how age affected other old artists For how many was old age, as some have claimed, the fruitful culmination of years of experience? Is there a mature, old age style in which the artist does his best work? Or do old artists lose their skill, their imagination and creative drive so that old age becomes a time of increasing frustration and repetition? Are painters more like poets, scientists and mathematicians who are said to do their most significant work when they were young? Or is it that some artists make their historical contributions early and others late? In the beginning of Plato's Republic, old Cephalus says to Socrates that contrary to his complaining old friends, he finds that "old age has a great sense of calm and freedom, when the passions relax their hold...", and that complaints that "a life is no longer life" could be attributed, not to old age, but to men's character and temperament. Should the success of artists in their old age, then, be considered as a matter of their personality or of historical judgment?
I had found in a 1962 Time magazine article a list of 102 American painters "to wax enthusiastic about" and wondered what had happened to them. How many had reached old age, continued to work and exhibit, changed their styles and so forth? How would the work of their old age compare with that of the 'old masters' in their old age? I noticed that although I recognized the names of most of the artists on the Time's list, with a few notable exceptions, I had no recollection of any of their late work. It is a disturbing fact that, although we know about the work of new, young artists, we know almost nothing about the late work of most of these once famous artists.
We do know about the old age of historically famous artists by reading what art historians have to say about them and we can judge the significance of their works in the context of contemporary values. For example, we believe today that Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Titian did some of their best work at the end of their lives. But however significant and original such works were, we also know that these artists always worked within the general parameters of the art of their time. They never questioned its function, its religious, mythological and historical content, oil or fresco technique or fundamental representational characteristics. They learned their traditional craft as apprentices of established artists and struggled to create a recognizable style within the limits of the tradition. Their work was always done on contract for the aristocracy or the church and although artists competed for jobs, there was no art market, no dealers, no galleries, museums or auction houses. They developed their skills and styles over a lifetime and, as a result, they were honored in their old age. Patrons hired them late in life, not only because their paintings served some social function, but because of their reputation. Patrons wanted a Michelangelo or a Titian in their churches and palaces. Although some artists received income as diplomats or civic and religious functionaries, all of them made their living primarily from their artwork.
We can see today that what the late work of all these artists had in common was loss of interest in natural appearances and a rejection of traditional notions of beauty. They were pessimistic, inward turning and thus their work demonstrated an increasing concern with the expression of personal feelings. It was the history of art which changed or rather it was the late work of these old artists which changed the history of art. Late Michelangelo led to the Baroque and late Titian and Tintoretto, to Mannerism. Along with the work of young artists like Massacio and Raphael, the late works of these artists are now represented in art history books and museums and rather than indicating the downfall of painting, they are now famous, not only for their exceptional visual qualities, but also for their influence on later artists.
It is important to recognize, however, that although their late work was well known during their lifetimes, it was often condemned by critics for just those qualities which are so prized today. For example, brushstrokes, which now are seen as indicating the artist's expression, then were signs of his incompetence. Allowances were made for Titian's freer brushwork in his late work because he was in his nineties. Vasari, a contemporary admirer of Tintoretto, wrote about his late paintings that they were executed by him in a fashion of his own and contrary to the use of other paintersÉ This master at times has left as finished works, sketches still so rough that the brush strokes may be seen, done more by chance and vehemence than with judgment and design.
Even as late as 1893, the art historian, John Addington Symonds, explained the looseness of Michelangelo's late style as demonstrating that "the frigidity of old age had fallen on his imagination and faculties - (a late work) was obviously indicative of decaying faculties".
What happened since the period of the 500 years of traditional western painting that resulted in such radical change in perception and value, from judgments of incompetence to masterpiece? Whereas, during the earlier period, painting as a Fine art did not exist as an independent cultural entity, just the opposite is true for artists of the last 150 years. By the end of 18th century, with the loss of the power of the church and the aristocracy, art had lost its major social functions and had become almost autonomous and self sustaining. Gradually the art world became a place of art markets, agents, critics and dealers, art galleries, public museums, auction houses and newspaper and magazine reviews In order to survive and stand out against their competitors for public attention, young artists had to develop new ways to give value and significance to their work. In doing so, they looked for sources and validation in older Western art such as the late styles of old Renaissance artists, as well as in science and the arts of other cultures. In France, after Manet, with limited market support and diminishing public style limitations, innovation and newness became the main dynamic, even though, as original as Gauguin and Van Gogh were, they tried not to deviate too far from what the market demanded. As innovation became important, the works of older, traditional artists, such as Bouguereau and Meissonier, came to be regarded as reactionary and out of date and lost their high status and value. Young artists increasingly ignored them. Thus, as these older artists lost their authority, the age of the significant, innovative artists gradually became younger and the time that a particular style remained dominant, shorter
For these reasons, after 1750, periods during which an art style remained dominant were, for the first time in the history of art, within the lifespan of an artist. Medieval artists did not see any changes in style or content during their lifetimes for a 1,000 years and the Renaissance and its influence lasted for 500 years, but Neo-classicism, on the other hand, lasted for 70 years and Romanticism for 50. Impressionism, the beginning of Modern art, lasted for only 15 years. Cubism was a definable style for only a few years after 1907, although its formal influence continued and Expressionism and Surrealism generally persisted as attitudes rather than as specific styles. When New York replaced Paris as the art center of the Western art world after WWII, abstract expressionism, the dominant art movement of the 50s, lasted for only 10 years and, according to the art critic for the New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl, in the 1960's, the period in which the Time artists were famous, "a generation was five years." The 1970s and after were sometimes referred to as the age of 'pluralism' because there was no longer any one dominant style. Along with Pop art, there was conceptual art, minimal art, happenings, performance art, site specific installation art, video art, body art, and many more. For the first time, artists could choose the style in which they would work or create new ones.
The drop in the ages of significant artists during this time is dramatic. If we compare the ages of major French artists born before 1850 with those born after, the median age when they produced their most valuable works (as determined by critical judgment, prices at auction, artistic influence, etc), drops from 44 to 35. Although Cezanne and Monet did their most important work - work that influenced 20th century artists, in their old age - most of major French artists in the early 20th century did their ground-breaking work when they were young. Picasso, Matisse and Renoir continued to work in old age, but their best, most significant work was their earliest Cezanne, born in 1839, was 67 when he painted his influential, almost abstract landscapes and figure paintings, but Picasso, born in 1873, was only 29 when he painted Les Demoiselles d'Avingnon, the stimulus for Cubism and the whole formal tradition in the early 20th century.
This tendency continues among the American artists in the 20th century. If we divide famous American artists, such as those on the Time list into those born through 1920 and those born after, we find that the median age at peak value falls from forty-four years to thirty-four If we limit our comparison to the dominant historical movements of the 50s and 60s, the age difference is even more evident. Abstract expressionist artists in the 50s did their most significant work at the average age 45.4, whereas Pop, Op and similar artists working in the 60s peaked at age 32.5. With the rapid turnover of kinds of exhibited art, it would be increasingly difficult if not impossible for any artist to develop or maintain a style that would be influential into his later years.
Thus, the dominant characteristic of art during the 65 years since the Time article was rapid change and the increasing youthfulness of the significant artists. Of the 102 painters on the Time list, 75% were born before 1920. 83% lived past 70 and 18 even made it to their 90s. In 1962, at the time of the article, fifteen were 65 and older. Thus, the large majority continued to work well into their old age, but although their work was occasionally seen in galleries and museum retrospectives, it is difficult to find examples of their late work in national publications. Most of these artists did their most significant, identifiable work during the time of the Time list, when most were relatively young and it is primarily such works that appear at auctions, in reproductions in art books, on the internet and in art lectures. In a 1985 survey of late 20th century art, published by the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, out of the approximately 100 artists included, only 6 were born before 1920. In other words, in a crude generalization, if about 15% of the artists famous in 1962 were 65 and older, only 6% of the artists 65 and older were famous in 1985, 23 years later. Major representational artists like Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper were belittled during this time by avant garde art critics as traditional illustrators and although their reputations have since revived, Hopper's late work is still ignored. In a major biography, by Gail Levin, only two paintings from the last twenty years of his life are reproduced.
After WWII, the education of artists radically changed. Refugee European artists had already spread their new, often contradictory ideas about form, expression and the subconscious, and, as a result, apprenticeship as a way of teaching craft lost it prominence. To oversimplify, by the late 40s, artists had integrated these ideas into primarily abstract-expressionist forms of painting. Because no one at the time was buying their work, not only did they have the freedom to do what ever they wanted; they soon were supporting themselves by teaching in art schools and universities. Consequently, painting as a Fine art increasingly acquired academic validation. BFAs in painting had been offered before the war, but in the late 40s, MFAs were introduced and a few efforts were even made to offer PHDs. All these academic curricula, of course, required intellectual as well as visual and technical skills. As a result, by the early 60s, art had come to reject its previous subjective emphasis and became more conceptual and philosophical. Courses and programs in art theory were offered, often taught by non-painters. (Northwestern even has a Department of Art Theory and Practice.) These curricula were sustained by books and articles, written by academics, which often disseminated "post-modern", deconstructionist definitions of art. During this time, also, Feminist and, to a lesser extent, Black critiques confronted the white, male bias of the art world and introduced untraditional objects into the pantheon of art objects. These critiques were often taught at universities and published by university presses. Some of the artists on the Time's list had university degrees or had studied at universities, but most of the younger artists who came after did. Thus, as universities contributed to painting's loss of significance, they also diminished the status of old painters.
During this time, also, the art market grew. Painting and other forms of art became commodities, often bought as investments as well as for status or appreciation. Almost anything called art became collectible. New art, even abstract expressionist works, began to sell well and, as corporations and wealthy collectors bought art, prices rose. Art schools turned out thousands of young artists each year, each demanding representation and recognition. As a result, modern galleries and museums proliferated. Art magazines, supported to a great extent with ads for gallery shows and museum exhibitions, printed reviews and new artists looked for whatever it took to attract their attention, to "make it". Technological media (video, computer, etc.), became acceptable art forms. Since, by the middle 60s, anything could be rationalized as a work of art if it was placed in an art gallery or museum, painting, especially as it was practiced by old artists, was no longer the dominant art medium. The art critic, Grace Glueck, in the influential art magazine, Artforum, in 1968, in challenging this perception, wrote:
Easel painting lives! Knocked by kineticists, laughed at by light artists, humbugged by happeners, and maligned by multimediaries, good old-fashioned painting, the kind that's done with brush and canvas (and traditionally on an easel) is doing very nicely, thank you. And reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated.
She's right, of course, but, although most artists, especially those on the Time list, continued to paint, you would hardly know it from the decreasing number of their paintings you saw in major exhibitions, read about in art reviews or learned about in art schools.
As far as I can tell, most of the artists on Time's list continued to work in variations of their successful early styles, but they could not compete with the publicity devoted to the novelty of the new works. Thus, work which was thought worth "waxing enthusiastic about" in 1962 began to appear 'dated' by the 70s and the art world lost interest. Although some artists sold stylistically recognizable work on the basis of their early reputations, others changed their personal styles with varying results. Innovators of the 50s and 60s, like Robert Rauchenberg and Jasper Johns, continue to do interesting work, but the excitement of their influential, early work is gone and if not for their early reputations, would not stand out. George Tooker did his best, most disturbing work in the 50s and into the 60s, but then, in the late 60s, eliminated his provocative subject matter and, while continuing with the same style and technical proficiency, began to repeat himself. Artists like Bernard Perlin and Henry Koerner, who did their best works in the 40s and 50s, radically changed their styles, apparently to keep up with what was happening in the art world, and lost the qualities which made them uniquely affective. And De Kooning, the most famous artist on the list, painted well into his 80s, but in spite of exhibitions and praise of his late work, his mind was gone with Alzheimer's, his work, repetitive and done with the aide of assistants who mixed his paints and rotated the canvases as he applied the paints.
During the last twenty years, Andrew Wyeth produced repetitious watercolors and very saleable prints of his work, but probably the last significant painting he made was done in 1987 when he was 70. He called it "Around the Maypole" and described it as a 'summation'. Richard Diebenkorn and Milton Avery continued to develop their semi- abstract work and Leon Golub made powerful social statements at the end of his life in a style that he had been using for several years. Their late works did receive some notice and may show the fruitful culmination of years of experience, but among all these artists, perhaps only one, Philip Guston, developed a significantly radical new style and content late in life which attracted any real attention in the art world. Whether his change from abstract expressionism to a kind of pop imagery can be considered a 'fruitful culmination' of his years of experience or simply the third major change in the style of an excellent, famous artist, however, is debatable.
In the art world I have described, then, there obviously can be no common characteristic, no one particular old age style in which an artist does his best work. For some, there were perhaps signs of change and sometimes an increasing fluency, but also, often, a kind of easy, repetitive slickness. Others continued to do excellent work even after their reputations faded, but no artist in this group did their most important work in old age and none, in their old age, made a major contribution to art history similar to those made by the old men of the Renaissance. Nor, in this cultural environment, was it possible.
From the Pocket Book of Quotations, on old age.
We toil for fame,
We live on crusts,
We make a name,
Then we are busts.
-L. H. Robbins, Lines for the Hall of Fame Ceremony