Old Masters Academy

Francis Bacon’s London studio reconstructed in the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin.

Francis Bacon’s London studio reconstructed in the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin.

Francis Bacon's London studio reconstructed in the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin.

Museums are finding ingenious ways to connect visitors with the artist’s interior world
by Ann Landi

The artist in his studio has been a source of fascination at least since Velázquez painted himself paintingLas Meninas, his portrait of the Infanta Margarita of Spain and her companions. Painters (and, more rarely, photographers) have long depicted themselves hard at work—standing or seated at the easel, studying the model, or even entertaining collectors and dealers. Props and costumes, brushes and easels: all the accoutrements of the artist’s livelihood might find their way into the finished canvas.

“The raw materials of art are on view in the studio painting,” says Pepe Karmel, associate professor of art history at New York University. In canvases by Rembrandt or Delacroix, he says, “you get the sense of the studio as a place of the imagination, where people dress up in costumes and create fictive realities which are then recorded.”

The studio painting was also a way for an artist to let an audience into his (or, very occasionally, her) world. It was a window into the creative process. That’s why museums have organized shows around the theme of the artist’s workplace, like “Lucian Freud: L’Atelier,” for example, at the Pompidou Center in Paris (through July 19). It focuses on the artist at work, beginning and ending with photographs and films of Freud in his London studio.

Today museums are using the Internet to connect visitors with the artist’s interior world: point and click and you can pull up images, watch a video, or send comments. Even the nature of the studio visit has changed enormously in the online era. “Basically, you sit down with the artist, and out comes the laptop,” notes Harry Philbrick, director of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

Philbrick recalls meeting with the Copenhagen-based installation artist Ann Lislegaard before her exhibition at the museum six years ago. “Nine months before the show, I wanted to do a studio visit with Ann. She was living at the time in New York, and she said, ‘Come meet me in Brooklyn.’ And the address was a coffee shop. And there’s Ann with her Mac, and she opened it up and said, ‘This is how I do a studio visit. All the content is right here on the machine.’ She had sound files, she had animation, she had videos, she had still photos of previous installations, but also files that were in preparation for new pieces, so you really were engaging with both existing work and work in creation, all directly from the laptop.”

Nevertheless, in spite of our high-tech era, people still crave access to that very private physical space where art comes into being, and museums have gone to great lengths to make the studio available to the public in all its immediacy. In 1998, six years after Francis Bacon’s death, his sole heir, John Edwards, gave the painter’s studio to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, where Bacon was born and lived until the age of 16. The gallery assembled a team of conservators, archeologists, and curators to inventory and move the workspace from Reece Mews in London to Dublin. “This is not a facsimile,” Barbara Dawson, director of the Hugh Lane, emphasizes. “We divided the studio into hundreds of parts, and every single item was taken out for relocation. We took the walls, we took the door—the door is absolutely beautiful, because it was used as his palette. We took the skylights, the floorboards. We even took the dust.”

In all, some 7,000 items have been logged into a Bacon database, and the unfinished works from his studio are also available to the public. “It’s become one of our chief attractions,” says Dawson, “and a major attraction for Dublin.”

Other museums have taken similar steps to bring the artist’s milieu to the public. The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, moved the illustrator’s converted carriage barn and all of its contents from his home to the museum grounds in 1986. For a reinstallation last year, the curators restored the space to “reflect an actual moment in Rockwell’s work life,” says museum deputy director and chief curator Stephanie Plunkett. The half-finished painting on the easel is a facsimile on canvas of Golden Rule, which appeared on a 1961 Saturday Evening Post cover. Contemporary photos helped the curators determine exactly what the studio looked like in that year. Seeing “what was on the walls, what were Rockwell’s references, his sources of inspiration,” Plunkett says, gives visitors “the feeling that the artist has simply just left the room, and they can plunge into the world he lived in at a specific moment in time.” (The installation continues through October.)

When the actual studio has not been available, institutions have offered facsimiles, such as architect Renzo Piano’s 1996 reconstruction, at the Pompidou, of Brancusi’s white-walled atelier. Brancusi willed part of his collection to the French state on condition that his studio be reconstituted as it was on the day he died, with his works in progress and tools in place.

The Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College designed what head of collections Nancy Weekly calls an “evocation” of Charles Burchfield’s studio from contents donated by family members and a neighbor, with additional input from a colleague of Burchfield’s who had visited the artist many times.

“It was like putting puzzle pieces together,” Weekly says. While planning the installation, Weekly and her team visited other artist home-studios that are open to the public: Olana, Frederic Edwin Church’s estate in the Hudson River valley; Chesterwood, Daniel Chester French’s retreat in Stockbridge, Massachusetts; and the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs, New York.

Seeing an artist’s studio helps people understand art’s origins in time and place. For the 1998–99 Jackson Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the organizers, Karmel and the museum’s late director of painting and sculpture Kirk Varnedoe, thought it was important to re-create Pollock’s workplace in the exhibition.

After visiting the artist’s modest shed-studio in Springs, both curators came to believe that his working quarters had a huge impact on his paintings. “One of the things that struck Kirk and me when we went out to Springs was how small the studio was, how the paintings filled up the entire floor,” Karmel recalls. “There must have been a tremendous sense of compression in working on them—not quite claustrophobia, but an intensity that comes from making something so big in such a small space. And we had the intuition that that factors into the density of the pictures themselves.”

They considered doing photomurals based on Hans Namuth’s famous pictures of Pollock flinging paint onto canvas, “but Kirk didn’t particularly like that idea. He felt the physical quality of the studio, the roughness of the boards, the flimsiness of the structure, the fact that the wind could blow through—all these were equally important to capture,” Karmel says. In the end, they rebuilt the studio as a bare space and exhibited Namuth’s photos as well.

At the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, visitors can see the real thing, a modest outbuilding only 23 feet square inside. Reactions, reports director Helen Harrison, are “all over the map. Some people think it’s a work of art, which it isn’t. They think of the floor as a painting. They look at it and they see Pollock’s work in it without appreciating the fact that his paintings are composed in a way the floor is not. They also see the energy, they feel the energy, and to me that is the most interesting aspect of it—the same colors and the gestures that are reflected in the work. From that point of view, it can be very invigorating. People who are familiar with his work can make out where individual paintings were lying when he was working on them.”

A dollhouse-size version of Pollock’s work space, meanwhile, was shown three years ago at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, New York, in Joe Fig’s exhibition of his miniaturized versions of artists’ studios—scaled one inch to the foot—that meticulously re-create each detail of the originals. Fig, who chronicled his process in his book Inside the Painter’s Studio (Princeton Architectural Press), replicated the spaces of artists ranging from Johns and Rauschenberg to contemporary painters Ryan McGinness, Inka Essenhigh, and Dana Schutz.

Most museums, of course, can’t offer a renowned artist’s studio to the public, though many do offer space and residencies to qualified candidates. Few, however, incorporate the artist at work as a kind of “living exhibition,” as does the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, which turns over part of its sixth floor to artists who toil there a few days a week for three or four months. In planning the layout for the two-year-old institution, explains director Holly Hotchner, “we wanted to have process embedded in the whole museum. So if you start your visit on the sixth floor, as we recommend, and work your way downward, you’re likely to encounter art that’s related to activities you’ve just seen.” Of course, Hotchner adds, the artists chosen for the program must have a particular kind of temperament. “Many have been teachers or are people who like to interact with the public,” she says.

A similar artist-in-residence project will be tested this July, when Anthony Campuzano takes over the second floor of the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania for four weeks. Campuzano, whose text-based images are generally on a small scale, will work at a desk and table, and has invited four friends and mentors to teach the public some of the lessons that were significant to him as an undergraduate. Campuzano calls the space “a little oasis in the museum,” but he adds that he usually works at night, “when there’s no one else around. This is going to be an adjustment.”

An institution’s Web site is another tool for connecting artists and the public. P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, in the “Studio Visit” section of its site, invites artists to upload images or videos of their studios and work, plus a short statement and résumé. The only requirement for inclusion is residency in the New York area. As of this writing, more than 950 artists were featured on the site. The Drawing Center in New York has a similar program, although it is curated and does not display images of the studio or e-mail addresses. By contrast, P.S.1 has regular “curator’s picks,” about ten at a time, chosen by professionals not affiliated with the institution.

Philbrick, of the Aldrich Museum, says he is expanding the online presence for artists on his museum’s Web site this fall. “We’re planning to work with a small group of artists we’ve been following,” he says. “We’ll ask them to create something like a blog, but they’ll have a page showing what they’re up to, what’s informing their thinking and creative process. And we’re hoping to make it interactive so that people can go online and ask questions.”

If the online revolution is changing the nature of the studio visit, so too has the studio itself changed dramatically. As Dominic Molon, associate curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, points out, we’ve come a long way from the prop-heavy, intimate spaces of Vermeer or Courbet. Today, many high-profile artists, like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, follow the Factory model established in the ’60s by Andy Warhol. (Koons has 120 employees to help fabricate his art.) It’s a way of making art that “moves beyond the standard studio comprising a professional artist working with one or two assistants, functioning instead like a business with multiple divisions of labor and numerous employees,” Molon wrote in an introduction to the museum’s recent show “Production Site: The Artist’s Studio Inside-Out.”

The exhibition examined the studio as a subject, presenting the interpretations of 14 artists. William Kentridge’s films, for example, showed him in the studio drawing and painting, with the edited footage playing both backward and forward, negating any sense of temporal continuity. Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss painstakingly re-created various objects found in their work space, fabricating 105 different pots, bowls, and tools, as well as boots and pillows, from painted polyurethane. And Justin Cooper’s short video, made while he was a resident at the Skowhegan art colony in Maine, was a playful response to his stay there, to “being subjected to numerous studio visits throughout the summer,” as he puts it, enduring “the intensity of having people, strangers really, coming through in an endless parade of opinion giving.”

In his five-minute film Studio Visit (2007), an unidentified creature, grunting behind a shaky handheld camera, enters the artist’s peaceful rural shed and tries to draw a vase of daylilies. When he fails in his savage scribbling, he trashes the space and its contents.

“It plays off the idea of the clichéd tortured genius, the artist who tries to create but can’t quite capture reality,” Cooper explains. (The video is on the artist’s Web site, nessiecoop.com.)

With the exponential growth in technology, materials, and global communication, the nature of the artist’s studio seems destined to mutate in ever more compelling ways. But one thing will probably remain constant: the spectator’s boundless curiosity to know what goes on in the hearts, minds, and physical spaces of people who pursue the creative life.

Ann Landi is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

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