Nine warriors of art who conquered their age

I have been meaning to write about time and ageing for a while now. What prompted me to do so is the autobiography of Dorothea Tanning, Between Lives: An Artist and Her World (2001), which I am currently reading. I discovered Tanning a few weeks ago, when I was writing a blog post on “artwives” and instantly became fascinated with this extraordinary woman who, after a few decades of painting and sculpture work, embarked on the second career as a writer, declaring that she preferred to be known as the “oldest living emerging poet.” After her first novel, Clasm was published, one reviewer made an observation that “with the best will in the world, her future potential is unlikely to manifest itself in a lengthy writing career,” as we read in The Telegraph obituary. The second novel, Coming to That, came out only a few months before she died at the age of 101. Dorothea Tanning started her career relatively late, but her dedication to work, never-ending passion and curiosity resulted in an exquisite body of versatile work. Christopher Masters says in the Guardian obituary: “As they gradually outlived many of the first generation of surrealists, Tanning and the British painter Leonora Carrington (a former lover of Ernst’s) faced similar challenges. Instead of becoming avant-garde monuments, they worked into their 80s and continued to exhibit. If anything, in her mid-70s Tanning became more productive than ever.

Dorothea Tanning: Some roses and their phantoms, 1952

Image from | © The Estate of Dorothea Tanning

Ever since my teenage years, I’ve had something that my old French teacher used to call “the psyche of an old lady.” I’ve been looking at life through the eyes of a 90 year-old, devoid of the illusion typical among young people that there is plenty of time, and aware of how quickly the time goes and how important it is to value the time one has. An near-epiphany I experienced a few years ago only strengthened my view. I was in my 3rd year of BA at Central Saint Martins, on my way to an assessment. As I was holding onto the pole of the tube carriage with my one hand, with a bag of drawings, sketchbooks, model parts etc. in the other hand, I was thinking intensively about all the things I wished I had completed for that project but failed to do so because of time running out. It was a 4-month project and like everyone else, I spent the first month brainstorming, researching, casually gathering ideas but also talking to my college friends and socializing in the evenings. As the time was passing, and the project was taking its shape, I was beginning to realise the scale of it, and started working faster and faster. The last weeks were insane – I was working until 2am, getting up at 6am and setting down to work at 6.30am. And still, on the memorable tube journey, I felt that I had the lost in the battle with time. And then a thought occurred – a realisation that life is exactly like an art project where one thinks there’s a lot of time ahead, before realising that there isn’t and that a lot of the things that might have happened simply won’t.

This year I will be turning 30 which certainly intensifies the “old lady” syndrome of mine. I have been reassured by various older and wiser women that they found the 30th birthday far more daunting than any subsequent ones but in a society obsessed with the cult of youth, leaving the 20s is a little scary. It is, however, inevitable, and so rather than look for the first wrinkles, I try to think about the significance of time passing by. While the twenties are a great time for experimenting, stepping onto the next decade is the moment when one becomes even more aware of the importance of choice, and of narrowing down life goals. Of course, I am a firm believer than one can (and should, if they have a desire for it) change their life at any point, for it is a journey which can be altered, and an adventure which can take unexpected turns. But from the point of view of an artist, it is an important time to make sure we’re on the right path leading us to realise our plans and dreams before “the assessment” time.

Inspired by Dorothea Tanning, I decided to look for other female artists who not only did not get defeated by the time, but actually bloomed in their older age.

Carmen Herrera: Pasado, 2010

Image from | © Carmen Herrera

Carmen Herrera, “a quiet warrior of her art,” as described by Julián Zugazagoitia, the director of El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem, is a 98-year old Cuban painter living in New York. She gained recognition relatively recently – she was 89 years old when she sold her first artwork, after six decades of painting for herself. Inspired by the Salon of New Realities which she discovered on her trip to Paris in the late 40s, she began pursuing her obsession with ascetic geometry. She remained immune to the influences of abstract expressionism, and other fashionable trends at the time, and as a result was overlooked by the art society. But she persevered. Deborah Sontag from The New York Times quotes Herrera: “I do it because I have to do it; it’s a compulsion that also gives me pleasure, I never in my life had any idea of money and I thought fame was a very vulgar thing. So I just worked and waited. And at the end of my life, I’m getting a lot of recognition, to my amazement and my pleasure, actually. Only my love of the straight line keeps me going.” In an interview for the Guardian in 2011 she said that every time she’s painting, it is a fight between her and the piece, but she’s even more dedicated to her art now and more watchful.

Louise Bourgeois: Untitled, 1986

Image from | Photo: Christopher Burke | © Louise Bourgeois

Herrera isn’t the only example of an artist who worked with a tremendous strength and dedication before gaining a proper recognition. Louise Bourgeois (a.k.a. Spiderwoman), one of the most important artists in modern and contemporary art, famous for large-scale spider structures, had her first retrospective exhibition in 1982 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Before that, she had been “a peripheral figure in art whose work was more admired than acclaimed,” as we can read on the Wikipedia. Jerry Gorovoy, the artist’s long-time assistant, commented on the long wait in his beautiful obituary: “It took the art world a long time to digest her output, with its lack of a signature style.” In 2010, in the last year of her life, Bourgeois was engaged in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) equality movement. A piece she created, I Do, was donated to a nonprofit organization Freedom to Marry. She kept working right until her death, and finished the last the week before she passed awayAccording to Gorovoy, Bourgeois, however shy and vulnerable in real life, was “utterly fearless in her art.

In an article on the Guardian website, Age shall not wither her, Emine Saner presents several other successful women who are working with a similar passion to Herrera’s and are not considering retiring: Paula Rego, Bridget Riley, Maria Pacheco, Gillian Ayres, and Maria Lassnig.

Paula Rego: Mist IV, 1996

Image from | © Paula Rego

Paula Rego, a 78 year old British painter of Portuguese origins, like Herrera and Bourgeois had to wait years before she got recognised. In an in-depth article for the Guardian, You punish people with drawings, Simon Hattenstone explains that she lived in the shadow of her husband, Victor Willing, speaking of her own work self-deprecatingly: “He was a great artist. Not me. Oh no. I don’t do paintings in oil paint, and proper artists do oil paint.” It wasn’t until 1987 that she had her first major exhibition in Britain. A year after her husband’s death in 1988, Rego was shortlisted for the Turner prize which marked a change in her career. After years of financial problems (she and Willing relied on Rego’s support) she was extremely glad to be able to sell her work. But the major thing was the recognition: “I felt good because it’s worth something. They’re taking me seriously. They’re taking me seriously.” She was signed by the London based gallery Marlborough Fine Art in 1987, and the following year, she had a retrospective exhibition at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon and the Serpentine Gallery in London, which led to being invited to become the first Associate Artist at the National Gallery. Five years ago, at the age of 73, she was telling Hattenstone: “I work harder now than ever. But you also have more desire to do it. You do it because that is what you do. I feel better when I draw. I haven’t even begun to learn how to draw — I practise and practise. Eventually, I will be able to draw.” Rego hopes that when her time comes, she will die at the easel: “just fall down sideways.”

Ana Maria Pacheco: Domestic Scenes 1-10, 2000

Image from | © Ana Maria Pacheco

Maria Pacheco (71) is a Brazilian artist based in the UK,  whose work ranges from painting and sculpture to printmaking, and takes inspiration from Brazilian folklore, classical myth, mystical Catholicism and medieval satire. She is famous for her multi-figure groups of polychrome sculptures carved from wood. She was 30 years old when she moved to London in 1973 to study at the Slade School of Art, and 24 years later she became the first non-European painter and sculptor to become the Associate Artist at the National Gallery (1997 – 2000). As a result of this residency, she was given a major exhibition of her work which toured on to further venues in the UK. Saner quotes Pacheco’s view of ageing: “Notions of mortality come to us all, but when you are so engaged in creating something, you tend not to think about that.”

Maria Lassnig (94), an Austrian painter preoccupied with the exploration of body in painting and drawing, had dedicated her whole life to art, pursuing a solitary existence without neither a partner nor a family. The passion of creating kept her too busy to worry about ageing. In an interview with Brigitte Werneburg for Deutsche Bank she said: “You know, I’ve never celebrated my birthday. Then you don’t notice it. Hans-Ulrich Obrist recently congratulated me on my 90th birthday. But people told me that’s not true, you’re only 89! But I don’t give a hoot. People have such prejudices, they probably think I’m like a dead stone. But in reality you’re very lively. Not even your libido stops. And the ambitions and dreams continue: “I still want to do something new, even if it’s something very small.

Gillian Ayres (84), one of the most acclaimed British abstract painters, like Herrera and Rego carried on working regardless of fashion trends. She told Emine Saner: “One can never have enough. Your art does change over the years — you’re still trying to find out things. I know that I won’t be here in another 78 years. I think that does come with a slight pressure, but I just carry on. I’ve always just wanted to paint and work.

Bridget Riley: Fall, 1963

Image from | © Bridget Riley

What is the force driving the creativity that manages to conquer the obstacles? According to Bridget Riley, it is a quest for deciphering a text within. Riley, an 82-year old English painter famous for Op art-style black and white geometric patterns which disorientate the viewer’s eye, lives and works between London, Cornwall, and France. Michael Bracewell from Frieze Magazine describes how in 1997 he attended the artist’s William Townsend Memorial Lecture entitled Painting Now at Slade School of Fine Art. Riley was discussing the nature of artistic work and Proust’s artistic credo as declared in Time Regained – “the task and duty of a writer are those of a translator.” Riley said then: “This could also be said of a composer, a painter or anyone practising an artistic métier. An artist is someone with a text which he or she wants to decipher (…) However, as can be seen from the practice of the great artists, although the text may be strong and durable and able to support a lifetime’s work, it cannot be taken for granted and there is no guarantee of permanent possession. It may be mislaid or even lost, and retrieval is very difficult. It may lie dormant, and be discovered late in life after a long struggle, as with Mondrian or Proust himself.”

“She’s taught everyone from Martin Creed to Rachel Whiteread, but it’s only now, at 70, that Barlow is getting her dues as an artist,” Kira Cochrane begins her article on Phyllida Barlow, the British artist who primarily creates sculptures and large installation pieces. Her latest commission for Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries is Dock 2014: a vast installation consisting of seven giant structures and sculptures, inspired by the view from Tate Britain’s Millbank entrance of shipping containers carried by boat along the river. I saw the installation when it was in progress, during one of my trips to Tate Britain, and now I look forward to seeing it completed. I wasn’t familiar with the artist’s work and so was quite thrilled when I discovered it. Barlow, whose first major exhibition at a public gallery was a joint show with fellow sculptor Nairy Baghramian at the Serpentine gallery in 2010, is yet another living testimony to the value of perseverance.

Time goes fast and life is short. But I believe that a lot of the text can be deciphered when one carries on trying, and doesn’t let time corrode the passion.

Phyllida Barlow:Untitled heap 4, 2010

Image from | © Phyllida Barlow