The Studio Reader: On the Space of Artists

The Studio Reader: On the Space of Artists edited by Mary Jane Jacob, Michelle Grabner. University Of Chicago Press. Paperback, 328 pages. $25.

The cover of The Studio Reader: On the Space of Artists

In the late 1960s, French artist Daniel Buren, on visiting many artists’ studios, was impressed by the “quality and richness, especially the sense of reality,” of the artworks. Encountering the same works later in museums and galleries, he found “they had lost their meaning and died, to be reborn as forgeries.” What had happened between their creation in the studio and their death in the gallery? In his seminal 1971 essay “The Function of the Studio,” Buren posited that an essential link was broken when the art left the site of its creation. Now, he revisits his essay in The Studio Reader, a survey of the studio as a space of artistic production that includes fifty contributions by artists, curators, and academics.

Art historian Svetlana Alpers traces the idea of the studio as a retreat from the world to early-Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca, painting his fresco cycle in the San Francesco basilica while on scaffolding. There, the artist—by necessity—created in isolation, literally above the masses. In late-twentieth-century Europe, the studio was a gathering place for artists in conversation, in apartments as ornately furnished and cluttered as any Victorian drawing room. Transplanted to America, the image of the great man alone in his large, empty warehouse dominated: Jackson Pollock in his barn is perhaps the prototype. Women in the studio mainly served as models, professor Mary Bergstein writes, “objectified as belonging to the artist’s orbit of personal creations and possessions.” More recently, Andy Warhol’s Factory, postmodern critiques, and artist collectives have eroded the myth of the male genius working alone. In the 1970s, John Baldessari, who taught the legendary “Post-Studio Art” course at CalArts, quit traditional painting and said, “God forbid that it leaked out that [I] had a studio,” demonstrating how outmoded the place had become. For today’s transnational artist, writes art theorist Lane Relyea, the studio is little more than “a mailing address and a doorstep, thus providing the means for one to show up within the [global art] network.”

Many artists in this collection describe how the studio facilitates flow and concentration, while most of the academic authors deem it a confining space. The struggle to get beyond the strict mores of the studio is best illustrated by critic Marjorie Welish’s essays on studio visits. She notes that it’s frustrating to engage artists who desire only praise rather than criticism or conversation. Because she is also a painter, her candid account is one of the most telling illustrations of the studio’s psychic constraints.

Memorable contributions include artist Shana Lutker’s catalogue of dreams in which a studio appeared, Andrea Bowers’s conversation with multimedia artist Tucker Stilley, who is now confined to a studio because of ALS, and a piece on the reconstruction of the Francis Bacon studio at Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane, which doesn’t include any actual artworks, existing solely “to capitalize on the mythology of the modern artist.” But while many of the pieces in the Reader are engaging, too many are banal, and the collection feels diffuse: less like a vigorous conversation than a selection of propositions toward one.

Nevertheless, an important question arises: Does one need a studio in order to be an artist? Poststudio practice now has its own codes and mythologies, while traditional studio practice continues. “To not have a studio, as well as to have a studio, automatically implies the production of a certain type of work,” Buren writes today. Such conventions, while exclusionary, also serve to delimit the conversation, ultimately making it possible to speak about artmaking at all.