An artist friend of mind mentioned that as artists we really paint the same painting over and over again. Subject and Object matter may change but the Core matter does not. Patterns of work, approach, organization, and deep themes appear over and over again. As much as we think we make progress, the progress is a fog of technical mastery and emotional depth. What makes us artists, what drives us to spend hours in the studio, what brings us to manic highs and depressive lows? Warren Criswell calls it our addiction–the art drug.
I was looking over paintings I had made in 1972. Typical student work: attempting to make something original by negating every thing I had learned about good painting and combining two disparate styles: Clifford Still and Phillip Guston.
But what struck me was how close those paintings looked and felt to my current thumbnails. The same self-enclosed stories, the diagrammatic elements of the work and the space between each idea or impulse. This was an aesthetic epiphany.
First Meeting, 1976, Oil on Canvas, 48 x 72 inches • Thumbnail studies for Book, 2011
As artists, we change the subject matter (the story) and the object matter (the elements) but we can’t change the core matter– the indescribable and intangible chemical, electrical, biological makeup of our psyche -the conglomeration of memories and emotions that require expression.
We may never come to grasp or even understand what that core is but it remains stubbornly fixed and reinforced throughout our lives. The frustration, therefore, is how important that core is to creating our subject matter and how insignificant our subject matter is to expressing it. The art drug is the need, the compulsion, to express the core through our work so well and completely so as never to have to experience it again.