And you may find yourself Living in a shotgun shack And you may find yourself In another part of the world And you may find yourself Behind the wheel of a large automobile And you may find yourself in a beautiful house With a beautiful wife And you may ask yourself, well How did I get here?…
You may ask yourself What is that beautiful house? You may ask yourself Where does that highway go to? And you may ask yourself Am I right? Am I wrong? And you may say to yourself “My God! What have I done?” [Talking Heads Once in a Lifetime]
Mid-Career is the most difficult part of an art world journey, and most are unprepared for it. When artists first “arrive” it may have taken 10 years to sort themselves out, to find the ideas and styles that would get them that first public opportunity. But after a couple of years showing this work, it’s imperative that they come up with something more, something that pushes those early ideas a bit further. However, when an artist is in production mode – let’s say they might have an art fair, a mid-west museum exhibition and a speculative introductory show in Berlin coming up – it’s hard to gauge at what point they must begin to develop their work rather than repeat their work. After all they have customers to satisfy. A mid-career artist might find that they do not have the time to develop – between the needs of collectors, gallerists and the market – they may never get the chance to think their way into a new body of work, a new style, and a more complex vision. Their focus, their lives, have changed.
“It is definitely a sensitive time for male and female artists,” said Mary Sabbatino, who, as vice president and partner of Galerie Lelong, has worked with or represented the estates of artists such as Nancy Spero, Etel Adnan, and Ana Mendieta. Collectors will take a chance on younger artists, especially at a lower price point; artists with established museum track records are considered a surer bet. Curators, meanwhile, would prefer to be credited with the discovery of a new voice. “In mid-career, artists are kind of in the middle. They’re neither completely vetted, nor are they new,” said Sabbatino. “An artist might make a big splash when they’re younger and then they get into this mid-career phase when they’re not the name any more, and then they kind of disappear,” said Gilrain. [Anna Louise Sussman on Mid-Career Artists]
Mid-Career is when a lot of “branded” work gets outsourced. Artists whose market has grown and are struggling with production values and scale begin to rely on hired hands to carry that market load. And by expanding the scale of their work, outsourcing the mechanics of production and becoming more of a producer than a director – the work generally becomes predictably commercial looking – clean, cold, object-like and ultimately, decorative. However, even though market demands can be satisfied by mechanization, the artist must still address the old problems, the ones that caused them to be artists in the first place – the reasons to make art, the subjects of art. The truth is that these artists may need time to gestate, to incorporate and try to understand their lived experiences. It’s the only way to grow as artists. But the market and the needs of their careers won’t wait. So the artists send out half-baked work or sloppy, unrealized ideas – and no matter how well made, how beautifully manufactured these works may be – their art begins to suffer along with the “promise” their first works once had.
“Back then, I drank a lot, I had a lot going on. It’s no excuse,” he says. “The main thing for a practicing artist is to focus on having a show. What happened to me in 1986 is that I started making paintings of TV dinners. For some reason I had a crisis of confidence. I didn’t think they were any good. So I stopped trying to show.” The TV dinner paintings suggest loneliness amidst lean times. Robinson’s then wife Beatrice Smith (the daughter of sculptor Tony Smith) became sick and died, and he became a single father. “The whole thing is completely odd, but life is odd,” he says. “My life up until then had been one of wandering, being aimless. Suddenly, I was motivated to go to the hospital, to go pick up the kid,” he says. “Even though it was sad and tragic, it wasn’t a grief-saturated experience for me. It’s just something you do everyday. We live our lives while all kinds of barbarism are going on around the world. What the hell are we supposed to do about it, actually? All that personal stuff is complicated but I don’t like the idea that that’s an excuse.” [Walter Robinson]
What doesn’t make the headlines is what happens next: when the difficulties of being a mid-career artist replace the promise of emerging, when the honeymoon’s over, artistic accomplishment begins to count for more than the shimmer of potential, and the long grind sets in. Collectors are often blamed for not sticking with artists as their prices rise, preferring newer and cheaper works by the next crop of artists or investing in super-expensive pieces by artists whose reputations are well established. …the situation is more complicated than that — and much crueler: that most artists who make it to mid-career status never get through this often drawn-out phase, instead getting stuck in the purgatory of never quite making it to the next level. [David Pagel on Mid-Career Artists]
The toughest thing an artist can do at these times is to take a pass, risk being left out of the market’s demands and say – “No. I’m not ready yet.” But so many artists don’t have the guts to do just that – their careers have become more important than the art. And so they show and sell empty, beautifully made things that have half the impact, and little of the meaning of the earlier work. Then the artist is faced with the “Mid-Career Slump.” The critics turn away, other artists stop mentioning their names and the collectors stop buying. These mid-careerists are failing in public – to their own detriment, and ultimately, to ours as well. Take the moment. Back away. Follow your ideas. Experiment. Because if an artist doesn’t do just that – that’s when a reputation can go a bit sideways and a once promising legacy can get loose.