General 2-26-2007

The Artist Walks Alone

Michael Fallon tells some tales about the strange turns taken by art and life, and the burden and glory of the compulsion to make artworks.

Michael Fallon

Listen up and I’ll tell a story,
‘Bout an artist growing old.
Some would try for fame and glory,
Others aren’t so bold.

Every one, and friends and family,
Saying, hey, get a job.
Why do only you do that only?
Why are you so odd?

We don’t really like what you do.
We don’t think anyone ever will.
It’s a problem that you have.
And this problem’s made you ill….

        –Daniel Johnston, “Story of an Artist”

ARTISTS’ STORIES ARE OFTEN REPLETE with pathos, tragedy, and riveting life affirmation, which is why I write them. What most interests me is that despite all of the attendant hardship—economic and psychological and otherwise—I think it’s wonderful that people still somehow continue to make art.

One of the more intriguing artist stories that I’ve come across lately is that of Daniel Johnston, who was a bright light in the otherwise dismal 2006 Whitney Biennial and subject of a recent film documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Johnston grew up in the 1960s and 70s in West Virginia in a strict and religious family. His talents were not much appreciated by his siblings and parents, who favored pious hard work over other kinds of activity. Still, as much as the sensitive and nervous young man could, he dabbled in his basement bedroom, writing and recording music, collaging found scraps of paper on the walls, and drawing eccentric and naïf drawings, somewhat reminiscent of the style of Napoleon Dynamite, in felt pen on paper. Recurring characters appear in Johnston’s art, and occasionally in his music—for example, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Captain America, Jesus, John Lennon, and King Kong. The singer and artist also exhibits, perhaps for obvious reasons, a fascination with subjects like death, the devil, pain and suffering, and Bible-thumping spiritualism.

To summarize his life: Johnston became a growing burden to his aging parents after dropping out of college in the early 1980s, so he was sent to live with his older brother in Houston. Removed from the comforts of home, Johnston struggled with alternating bouts of creativity and dysfunction. He wrote and recorded music on a rudimentary cassette recorder in the garage: two albums of strangely compelling primitive folk-blues; but at the same time his behavior grew erratic. He was unable to hold down a job and after ruining a family holiday by lashing out at his loved ones, he was sent to live across the state in San Marcos. He soon escaped to a traveling carnival, and, five months later, he was attacked by thugs and hospitalized in Austin with severe head injuries.

Johnston couldn’t have found a more fortunate place to land than Austin, as its music scene in the mid-1980s was booming and welcoming even to odd acts like Johnston’s. Settling into a janitorial job at a local MacDonald’s restaurant, Johnston began playing his eccentric music in local clubs, handing out free handmade tapes and garnering a select following. When a camera crew for MTV’s “Cutting Edge” show came to town looking to feature local music, Johnston made a central appearance, cementing his reputation among the American music underground. He eventually recorded with members of Sonic Youth and the Velvet Underground and landed a record contract with Atlantic, but his music career eventually fizzled as he struggled increasingly to keep on his meds and out of hospitals and asylums.

Johnston’s mental state worsened, and he disappeared for nearly ten years, until, buoyed by modern medicines and set up back at his parents’ house, he recorded new albums in 1999 and 2003, began selling his art works around the country, became the subject of the 2005 documentary film, and made his appearance in the Whitney Biennial in 2006. Happy endings all around, I suppose, despite being one of the more unlikely paths to artistic success you’ll ever hear about.

….The artist walks alone,
Someone says behind his back.
He’s got his gall to call himself that.
He doesn’t even know where he’s at.

The artist walks among the flowers,
Appreciating the sun.
He does this all his waking hours.
But is it really so wrong?

They sit in front of their TVs,
Saying, hey, this is fun.
And they laugh at the artist,
Saying, he doesn’t know how to have fun….

        –Daniel Johnston, “Story of an Artist”

I’VE KNOWN A NUMBER OF DANIEL JOHNSTONS, some more and some less ill, and most, but not all, the victims of their own creative impulses. A number of artists I know shoot themselves in the foot, economically and socially speaking, every day of the week for the sake of their art. Some of the artists I’ve met lived in dank, cluttered, unhealthy studio-living spaces. They ate terribly unhealthy food (when they bothered even to eat), indulged in too many indulgences of every sort, and rarely spent time with any kind of health or dental care professional.

I became familiar with this type of artist—the dysfunctional hermit—early on in my career as a writer on art, when I would occasionally stumble upon them during regular rounds. The first story I wrote where I tried to pinpoint an initial impression of this archetype, on the Minneapolis artist Frank Gaard, would, in time, fundamentally change my outlook regarding artists.

When I wrote the story, I was thirty-five years old. I was a practicing artist, an arts writer, an employee at a proverbial day job, and I was struggling to find the time to do it all. Frank Gaard was twenty years older than I was and had already produced art locally for more than thirty years. He was, in fact, a towering figure in Minneapolis; his art and that of artists who worked with him in his heyday (one artist called him a “father figure to a really brilliant collection of misfits”) are still considered by many to represent the Golden Age of Twin Cities art. During the interview what surprised me most was that, despite Gaard’s distressed conditions, he was supremely confident about what he wanted to do as an artist.

Here’s what I wrote of my first encounter with him in the fall of 2001:

“Today Gaard is 56, and he seems indelibly changed by time and experience. A week or so before the opening of a ‘mini-retrospective’ of his paintings at Flanders Contemporary Art-—the name of the show is ‘Superbright’—Gaard greets me in his basement apartment studio in south Minneapolis. People who know Gaard have told me that meeting the artist can be an unpredictable experience. He has been treated for bipolar disorder, and he seems particularly hard-struck by the swirling terrorist crisis… When he answers the door, though, he is quite warm, and as we settle at his kitchen table, he serves me a cup of tea.
         “Gaard has a haggard look about him these days. His face is lined and sags heavily into his thick shoulders; his skin is pale and his wispy gray and white hair flies from his head in unkempt bunches. His eyes and his occasional smile still exude charisma, but the overall air about the artist is what doctors from another age might have called melancholia. The effect could also be that of stress stretched over a long, bleak period. Gaard had to leave his Northeast apartment this past summer after his landlord sold the building… His new apartment contains colorful acrylic canvases leaning against walls and furniture, stacked on tables and counters. These may not be the best of times, but Gaard continues to work at an impressive clip; he is nothing if not a persistent man.”

Gaard’s problem was, as with Daniel Johnston, the blight of manic depression, and because of Gaard’s illness his life and career had a similar arc to Johnston’s, though certainly not as acute. Gaard’s behavior led in turn to a lost teaching job, two divorces, and time spent in a psychiatric hospital, as well as general and constant financial distress and all the attendant problems; still, as Gaard put it during the interview, despite all the trials “I was a survivor. I wasn’t somebody who lay down and died. I am alive and still doing my work…. I’ve read a lot of Baudelaire. I always liked that despite all the horrors he experienced, he kept writing. I think that’s the bellwether as to whether or not your work will survive to posterity.”

The 41-year-old version of myself who writes today knows in retrospect that I was then at the age of trying to define myself once and for all, to pin down my relationship to other people, to my own creativity, to my career, to the world; I also see in retrospect I was about to give up on a practice that had shaped the previous fifteen years of my life. I didn’t realize any of this at the time, but I must have known, in the animal part of my brain as I watched this man battle heroically to continue making art, that I was about to give up doing the same. Perhaps, then, it was shame about my pending capitulation in the face of this artist’s bravery that explains my cavalier bluntness in describing a struggling artist who had survived doing art twice as long as I had.

I often wonder what Gaard must have thought when that article appeared. We have since become occasional acquaintances, and he sometimes writes to me after one of my ramblings appears in print—so I can assume he wasn’t too terribly put out. I wonder too if he has any clue that his life was catalyst for great changes in mine, and that in fact I owe the most significant work I’ve done to him and to that one article.

Indeed, shortly after that event not only did I give up my long struggle to continue making art, but, perhaps spurred by relief or by guilt or some other emotion, I began to reconfigure my perspective about the artists I profiled. I began to wonder consciously if there were not more artists in America whose struggle to continue making art was as heroically difficult as Gaard’s and who were worth writing about. I began, slowly, to ask what exactly was the state of aging artists in America, and this in turn led to seeking out such artists around the country, to the leadership of a large research project on the subject, and to a desire to write a book about these artists whom I admire more than I probably ever can express.

….The best things in life are truly free,
Singing birds and laughing bees.
You’ve got me wrong, says he.
The sun don’t shine in your TV….

Listen up and I’ll tell a story,
‘Bout an artist growing old.
Some would try for fame and glory,

Others just like to watch the world.

        –Daniel Johnston, “Story of an Artist”

SOMETIMES I FEEL ALMOST CHEATED IN LIFE that I don’t have the artistic brilliance of someone like Johnston or Gaard or some other artists I’ve met. Sure, I’m an adequate and workmanlike artist/writer, and I’m occasionally clever, but to my chagrin I’m simply not brilliant. Of course, I should also be grateful I don’t have the illnesses and asocial tendencies often associated with creative genius, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that I’m not destined for the immortality that is every creative person’s dream.

When I was a young art student at university, I thought often about one particular artist who was widely considered a genius—Kenneth Noland. Believe it or not, I had a running fantasy wherein I posited that being related to Noland—a long-lost grandson perhaps—might grant me the sheer genius necessary to make it as an artist.

Why did I focus on Noland? Well, he was a sort of a paragon, not for stylistic or ideological reasons but because at the time he was as successful an American artist as there is. Noland was a seminal figure of the Color Field Painting movement in the late 1950s and through the 1960s. His particular genius, which led critic Michael Fried to deem his work “a new world of color” and some commentators to dub him the coloristic successor to Matisse, was his manner of harmonizing complex combinations of flat areas of colors in deceptively simple geometric compositions. So successful was he at his peak that his work occupied half of the American pavilion at the 1964 Venice Biennale.

This particular exhibition, which notably also included the work of Robert Rauschenberg, is often said to have signaled the emergence of American artistic hegemony through the 60s and 70s—so it’s no exaggeration to say at the time Noland was one of the best two or three artists in the world. Indeed, John Russell, in looking back at Noland’s 31-year oeuvre in a New York Times article around the time of my graduation from college in 1988, said: “There was a time in the 1960s when it seemed that the whole of painting would go Kenneth Noland’s way.” Noland’s work today is in many major public and private collections of modern art, and he has had major career retrospectives at the Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum, and the Houston Museum of Art.

But the real reason I was fixated on Kenneth Noland was my grandmother, Billie Ruth Sinclair, was married to him in the early years of the last Great War. She had been working in Asheville in the early 1940s as an office assistant managing payroll for American O.S.S. spies (or so she once told me), and Noland was an eager and as yet unknown young artist with a studio in what was his home town. How they met is a mystery to me, as whenever I asked the question she seemed a bit reluctant to talk about too much ancient history (probably because granddad was listening in), but I do know that by today’s standards she married young, at 16 or 17, in her words to “get out of her house”—i.e., away from an unbearable mother. This was not an escape to better things, as Noland was abusive and alcoholic, prone to rages when days in his studio did not go well, which apparently was often, and my grandmother fled from the troubled marriage after only a few months.

Did Noland suffer from manic depression, like so many creatives before and since? Or was he simply fueled by the rage of youthful creative juices and couldn’t be bothered to extend simple decency and caring to his young bride, my grandmother? I’ll never know if he ever managed to tame his demons or whatever was driving him—his private life is well hidden from the public record—but I did hear once, about ten years or so ago when visiting an Asheville art gallery where he was still prone to visit from time to time, that his remained a troubled love-life throughout, and he was by then on his fourth or fifth wife.

If my grandmother had somehow stuck it out and I had ended up related to Kenneth Noland, I have no idea if I would have been touched by his genius, or if I would have suffered his rage or depression or whatever it was. I have no idea if I would have become a great artist, or if I would have had to, like Gaard, Johnston, et al, walk alone.

My imaginings about Noland were and are, of course, silly schoolboy games—we can’t change the past nor affect our essential make-up in any real way. Truth is, the closest I can ever hope to come to such artistic genius is to share, if only in passing, in these artists’ stories. And, I hope too that by sharing in these stories perhaps I will have a part in helping these artists feel a little less alone.