Painting the Pandemic

It’s possible to be more creative.

Posted Nov 10, 2020

Adriaan de Lelie, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Art Gallery of Jan Gildemeester Jansz
Source: Adriaan de Lelie, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“I’m so damn frustrated,” said my patient Paul. He actually wanted to talk in person because, he insisted, “all this virtual stuff is ruining my life.”

Paul was an artist whose first gallery show was postponed from May to November. The gallery that represents him was closed from March to August and, on reopening, had reassigned his show its place in the queue. In the interim, some of his work was posted online but, according to Paul, “no one buys an artist they don’t know from just looking at digital images.” What Paul hoped would be his breakthrough was, in his mind, a dud.

The pandemic has postponed a lot of events like, for example, big splashy weddings. But in Paul’s case, this show was to be a coming out, an affirmation of his identity as a legitimate, practicing artist. “It’s on a par with when I came out as gay,” he said. “It’s my identity.” He thought that when people saw his work — and bought it — they’d be affirming that identity. In his view, being an artist wasn’t just painting per se; it was interacting with people who love you and love what you do. “I’ve been waiting so long for this moment, and now I have to wait six months more.”  

The wait was especially significant to Paul because he’d waited so long to start painting in the first place. Now in his mid-30s, he’d started off as a civil engineer. “I built bridges and highways,” he said. “Big stuff.” He’d always loved lines and precision — the way pieces fit together and click into place. Civil engineering seemed like a good fit. But as he began to practice and joined a firm, he’d felt isolated. “It’s a very macho profession. The guys who design the bridges have this affinity for the guys who build them.” As a gay man, he didn’t feel part of the culture. He began wondering what else he could do.

In his late 20s, he started taking classes at the Art Students League, the storied West Side institution whose alumni include Winslow Homer, Thomas Hart Benton, Maurice Sendak, Helen Frankenthaler, Thomas Hoving, Mark Rothko, Peter Max ... towering figures in American art. It was instant acceptance all around. “After about a week, I knew that I belonged. I couldn’t get enough.” By the time he’d finished studying, he’d begun to develop a distinctive style. “I wasn’t just abstract or figurative. I was somewhere in the middle, but with very clear outlines.”

Paul’s training in math and engineering had set him apart from the other students and, right away, he’d set off on a personal adventure. His teachers didn’t always know what to do with him, but they saw that he had talent and they’d let him develop it. “The great thing about the League,” he said, “is that they don’t straightjacket you.” Paul’s been on his own now for a couple of years, so when he finally got the gallery show he was ecstatic.

“I know I’m good,” he told me. “I don’t need validation. What I do need is to get known.” Paul wanted to become part of the art world, with his works auctioned off at Christie’s. He wanted his work to be photographed, discussed, featured in Artforum. He had fantasies of Chinese billionaires giving him commissions. “Maybe when John Grisham writes his next novel about some killer law firm, they’ll have my work on the walls.” While I suppressed a smile, I realized quickly that Paul was not an egotist. Rather, he felt that he’d built an identity — sort of the way he’d carefully design a bridge — and he wanted to live that identity to the max.

The delay was a delay in making his identity manifest.

It was also having collateral, more pernicious effects. Paul said that during this period of protracted waiting – to which he now added the year or so of waiting until he’d found a gallery to represent him — he’d been unable to paint with the same intensity that he’d displayed while at the League. “You know,” he said, “other people are part of who you are, and if they’re not around to encourage you then you’re can’t be all of who you are.” He cited Andy Warhol and The Factory, the group with Andy at the center that revolutionized art in the ‘60s. “I’m not fully inhabiting my identity,” he said.

So, the question was how to tide Paul over from late August to November when, he was sure, his show would bring sales, commissions, and the buzz that he needed.

I reassured him that his was a common predicament. Creative people frequently run out of energy when they’re isolated. Their logical minds can taunt them — “hey, why bother if nobody knows and nobody cares?” We’re can be our own worst enemies, questioning our place in a vast jigsaw puzzle that’s perpetually under construction. So, I told him “Look, you’ve waited this long, you can wait a few months longer. In the meantime, try to think of yourself as preparing for your reception.” I thought that if he looked forward to being recognized (rather than backward at all the downtime), he’d rev himself up and paint furiously. “Don’t you want to be ready?” I asked.  

The pandemic is a study in delay and postponement. One patient told me, “I feel six months younger than I am. The past six months didn’t happen.” But we can’t just suspend who we are. We have to act as if the world is coming to meet us — sooner or later, but eventually. In Paul’s case, at least he has a pretty firm date.

I suggested that instead of fretting, he could perfect his technique. I’ve seen photos of Paul’s work, and I was impressed. There is an intriguing tension between the figurative and abstract elements that seemed to waiver — sometimes one element seemed to be favored, sometimes the other. “Does this represent a tension in how you want to represent the world?” I asked. “Maybe it’s something worth considering.”

Paul said that every painting was its own unique take on the world and that maybe he really hadn’t worked out some larger vision. “Maybe I need to think about that. I know that I like outline, but I should probably figure out how I approach shape.” That sounded interesting, and like a useful way to be productive with his time. I pointed out that theorizing one’s work is often a late development after one has enough actual work to think about. “Sounds like this is a good time to start,” I said.

As we emerge from the first acute stages of this pandemic and try to recapture some sense of living in a present that actually does “happen,” it’s important to figure out what we can actually do to make it happen and to connect with the future. Paul’s initial option — waiting for the other shoe to drop — wasn’t much of an option at all, and seemed in practice to be self-defeating. If we are going to look to the future, we have to be ready for it. We have to make ourselves ready for it.