Anatomy of the Studio Visit
20 years ago or so a European curator came to my studio. He was curating a major exhibition with prominent artists and one of those artists had suggested to him to come see me. I put up many of the things that I was working on at the time, including a few drawings and a model for a large sculpture. As he walked in, I was impressed by his dry and serious demeanor, with a deep stern look that made me very nervous. He asked me lots of questions about my work. I felt like I was a student again, failing the test, as my answers were always met with dead silence.
At some point he pointed at my sculpture and asked me why it had the shape it had.
I had no good answer for that. I was paralyzed. But I had to say something. So I ventured an answer that came to my mind that very second— something that I would say as if I was looking at someone else’s work. I said something related to metaphysics.
A few excruciating seconds went by as he continued looking at the work in silence. And then, he finally said: “That is exactly what my exhibition is about.”
The sculpture was included in the show.
What is a studio visit? I can’t remember asking that question when I was an art student, nor before, nor after, until a few days ago. It is one of those things that, like in much of the art world, is referenced as pre-established convention. For the most part as artist you learn to do studio visits by having studio visits. And, like many other things in professional life, we do them because they are part of the expectations of the field, but we largely have to navigate them in an intuitive way. I do know that studio visits are often commiserated about, parodied and there might even be a PhD program out there for studio visit theory, but for all its ubiquity and importance in the advancement of art making and production, it remains an under-discussed subject. As for me I have never seen a phenomenological study about them. Edmund Husserl didn’t have a studio and probably didn’t ever conduct a studio visit himself. So we are on our own at doing it. Here is my poor attempt at a phenomenological understanding:
Studio visits are a socio-cultural ritual. Seen from the American perspective, they fit within formal encounters such as the job interview, the first date, or a therapy session. In the studio visit sometimes some of the dynamics of those three rituals are present, sometimes none of them are. But in its very essence it is an encounter between an artist who can show and speak about what they are working on and a visitor who, as a nomadic explorer, is there to absorb what is there in an investigative way.
Some studio visits have clear purpose: they include those visits that one does to students or artists in a residency program, where the goal is primarily to have a conversation about the work and provide feedback. Other times like in the job-interview format, they are specifically geared toward consideration for inclusion in an exhibition or commissioning of a project. Or they can be linked to a group critique in art school, where a good or bad grade hang in the balance (although the group critique is a matter of its own, to be treated in a future column).
The studio visit can merely be social and informational, but at times it takes place in conditions that are where the stakes can feel high for the artist and cause great anxiety. These range of circumstances are the background for the performative portion of the studio visit.
Studio visits can be operatic or a minimalist action devoid of action or drama. For those of us who do them, either as visitor or visited, the most memorable are usually the most unsettling (and to me the ones that we can learn the most from in this quasi-phenomenological exercise, because their anomaly indirectly points at what we expect to be the norm).
I recall, for example, an art student who, upon my entering into the studio for the visit tried to describe her work but instead burst into tears. On another instance, the student announced that she was two artists embodied in one, which led the visit to turn into some kind of a group critique with only myself and the artist(s). On another occasion, as a visiting artist in an art school, I was confronted by awful, pretentious and exploitive photographic work by a middle-aged student who was making immigrant children, as her subjects, pose in humiliating ways and calling it social practice. She demanded positive feedback, which I refused to give. She was not happy that I had not provided the critical praise that, seemingly in her view, I was contracted to deliver. In yet another studio visit I made, the visited artist acted as if he didn’t care that I was there, didn’t want to say anything about the work, and was evasive in monosyllabic answers to my repeated questions over the course of several minutes. He was a kind of Bartleby of studio visits, nonetheless hoping to be seen as a powerfully captivating and elusive Warhol. I told him that it was clear that my presence was not required, and I wished him luck, leaving his studio. He was puzzled about the utter failure of his seductive powers.
Museum sociologist John Falk, director of the Institute of Learning and Innovation, along with his team, has over the decades conducted important and exhaustive studies about museum visitors, most importantly proposing a classification of them based on their interests, instead of demographic traits (age, gender, income, etc.). I wish similar work would be made about studio visits. Lacking that much needed research again, I will do my best to offer a few ideas here.
In the previously mentioned studio visit cases the hosting artists exhibited a behavior that, in broad terms, reveal a specific expectation of what a studio visit should be:
1. The emotional support encounter: under this view, a studio visit is a full confessional revelation of an artist’s deepest obsessions and fears with cathartic outcomes.
2. The neoliberal contract: the studio visit is seen as a commercial relationship where the visitor is expected to serve as a criticism concierge or butler, offering adulation to the artist as if they were working for a paying customer.
3. The Pride and Prejudice theory: the studio visit is characterized by a set of interactions whereby the artist, desperate of attention, acts with indifference to the visitor with the hopes that this attitude will result into burning desire and love for their work.
This is, of course, the phenomenon from the standpoint of the visited. The visitor faces their own set of challenges, primarily stemming from the fact that they are the active agent in this relationship (as they are physical coming to the studio). Because of this, there is a certain expectation that they will not simply sit there in silence but that they will do something, even if it means just asking questions. As for me (and I would like to think it is a common feeling) I want to show the courtesy to the artist of learning as much as possible about the work through conversation and be helpful in whichever way I can. And I do believe that as a studio visitor one owes the host their undivided attention and willingness to explore the work and the issues it touches as deeply as possible in spite of the short time available.
I believe that our professional behavior in the context of the studio visits relates somewhat to our experience in being on the other side of the visit equation- a little bit like the person who gives a good tip to the waiter because at some point in their lives they were waiters themselves and know what it is like.
From that experience I can also suggest a typology of the visitor virtues and ailments. In terms of virtues, I believe not much needs to be said about them. The most necessary virtue is patience. The most useful is curiosity. But the most valuable (and one of the rarest to find) is the power of insight. I often think about this because of the most important studio visit I had in my career, as a student, had that quality. It was with Robert (Bob) Loescher, a legendary professor of art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. A mountain of a man à la Orson Welles, he literally and figuratively embodied an encyclopedic knowledge of art history (not by coincidence had been the editor of the arts of the Encyclopedia Britannica). But his greatest gift was his perceptive ability of art and artists. After a minute of looking at my work (at a time a series of paintings) he immediately told me I would not be a painter, but a performance artist. His conclusion was partially drawn from the fact that my work was sequential. At the time performance art couldn’t have been further from my mind, but Bob was able to predict exactly the direction I would unequivocally take a few years later.
As to the types of inconvenient behaviors exhibited by the typical studio visitor include many, but just to name a few:
1. The socialite impulse. Studio visitors who say are professionals and want to network but looking at the work is not only a pretext but rather an obstacle for them. ( I learned this specially after a studio visit with a socialite curator who came to see my work for inclusion for a show, but barely bothered to look at anything and still all his questions were about trying to elicit gossip about the curators at the museum where I worked).
2. The Imparter of Knowledge impulse. Studio visitors who come to the studio of professional artists (not students) not to see or listen from you, but to tell you what art is and what art you should be making.
3. The power play impulse. This should go without saying: the studio visit is a key scenario where power relationships in the art world come into play. For young and emerging artists, particularly women, the studio visit can be a risky endeavor when involving male visitors in positions of power. Artists deserve to be taken seriously for their work, not for other external reasons.
But the studio visit, like art in general, is a vast territory of complex encounters and relationships, impossible to trace completely here. We can nonetheless recognize that some of the most interesting and unexpected insights can emerge from unusual approaches. I learned this from artist Dannielle Tegeder, to whom I am infinitely lucky to be married. She is an expert in studio visits. One of Dannielle’s most memorable visits to her studio was by Richard Tuttle. According to Dannielle, Tuttle — a true eccentric— simply stood in front of the work and described what he saw. “I never had a critique like that”, says Dannielle. “It was a completely non-subjective observation process, without comparing the work to anything, without making any suggestions about how to improve the work, nothing like that.” It was only about observing. “And the amazing thing is that the mere process of describing the work was in it of itself revealing. When someone simply states what they see, from their own perspective, that is when you realize that you don’t really see you own work. You are able to learn something new, to see it in a different way.”
So what are studio visits after all? Stephen Daedalus, in Ulysses, describes a ghost as “One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners.” Studio visits, instead, are acts of presence meant to encounter the palpable, with the hope of advancing our art practice —thanks to, or in spite of, our and our visitor’s manners.