The Stories That Only Artists Can Tell

05/10/2013 11:21 am ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

Here is a pitch for artists to write their own stories, their autobiographies, because there aren't many fine artists who have done so. A handful have -- including Thomas Hart Benton, Man Ray, James Rosenquist, Leroy Neiman, Larry Rivers, Margaret Bourke-White, Eric Fischl, Anne Truitt (if you count her published diary entries), Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali (neither of whose books were intended to be revealing, so they hardly count at all) -- and occasionally some artists have written essays for catalogues (usually about their art). However, the most important artists of the past century or so have been content to let others write about them. Why does that matter? A couple of reasons: First, it seems to me that artists talk about different things when describing themselves than do their biographers and commentators. Biographers focus almost exclusively on the artwork, who taught and influenced the artist, changes in the artist's work, an estimation of the artist's work. Who the artist knew and spent time with, as well as notable events in the artist's life, are detailed to the degree that they explain the evolution of the artwork.

Biographers often find it amusing to note the job an artist had before becoming able to live off the sales of their artwork, but for artists those jobs are not just anecdotes. Should the day job be art-related or not? Does the job take up so much time that little energy remains to create art? How do artists develop a presence in the art world while maintaining a job? What factors determine when an artist decides that he or she can quit to create art full-time?

The second reason is that art students need role models for their own careers. (The artists may not be people art students want to emulate morally, but they do offer at least their own story of how they went from unknown to known, met people, sold artwork, began to support themselves from the sale of their work and became the type of artist that a biographer might want to write about.) Quite a few independent art colleges offer Business of Art courses for their students, but not so many of them describe the real world experiences of artists, because most artists haven't told their stories and art critics and historians aren't interested in how a career actually happens How does that first exhibition come about? How does that first show lead to others? How did Artist X get into that gallery? When did sales starting taking place? When did sales reach a certain plateau enabling the artist to pursue art full-time?. Young artists always seem to have to reinvent the wheel, because they haven't a clear idea how this or that artist got from there to here. Autobiographies aren't how-to manuals, but they help artists understand ways in which a career may come about, which is helpful.

In all of the artist autobiographies I have read (cited above), the artists have a much easier time describing their backgrounds and the early parts of their years better than when all the success came. Pop Artist James Rosenquist claimed that he was drunk for much of the 1970s, and painter Eric Fischl -- whose Bad Boy was just published in May -- notes that alcohol and cocaine were fixtures in his life for a number of years. Neither of them were able to analyze in their books why they turned to drugs and alcohol (did it help them deal with success and expectations? did it make seeing others assuming the spotlight that once was theirs easier to bear?). What they don't say can be as telling as what they do, but art students can see that success can be as difficult to deal with as the struggles to become successful.

Artists start out liking to create art, then wanting to create art full-time, then wanting to make a good living from their art: We see their expectations and how those ideas of what they want change as success reaches various milestones. Fischl earned plaudits for his eye-catching work, drawing the attention of one gallery owner and later more prestigious dealers, selling internationally and becoming the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1986. After that, his expectations for his career continued to increase, although his career arc began to plateau. He was a name, but less and less a name on everyone's lips. Fischl discusses the problem of wanting to win his own sense of the competition (for prestige, for prices) with other artists of his own generation and then the next generation and how bitter the sting can be when hopes are dashed.

About ten years ago while I was in Aspen for a show, [longtime collector Stefan Edlis] and I were having one of our customary conversations about art. Stefan was reviewing the market's latest ups and downs while I bitched and moaned about the obscene prices being paid for work by Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, then the darlings of the art world "Why would anyone choose a ten-million-dollar shiny balloon bunny over one of my paintings?" I asked.

Stefan shot me a leveling look. "You've got to face it, man," he said. "You didn't make the cut."

"You didn't make the cut" may have been the most devastating critique that Fischl (or any artist) had ever received in his life and career, but the artist seems to take a deep breath and continues telling his story, sadder but wiser. There is a similar moment of bitterness in the second edition (1951) of Thomas Hart Benton's An Artist in America, in which he visits Regionalist rival John Curry shortly before that artist's death in the mid-1940s. Benton sought to cheer up his dying colleague,

"John," I ventured, "You must feel pretty good now, after all your struggles, to know that you have come to a permanent place in American art. It's a long way from a Kansas farm to fame like yours."

"I don't know about that," he replied, "Maybe I'd have done better to stay on the farm. No one seems interested in my pictures. Nobody thinks I can paint. If I am any good, I lived at the wrong time."

Benton undoubtedly was reflecting on his own career at that time. It wouldn't be until the third edition of his book was published, in 1969, that Benton could bring himself to offer any words of praise for his former student and friend Jackson Pollock or see that he now belonged to American art history, as both influence and teacher, rather than to the forefront of American art.

In the years between the first and third editions of his autobiography, Benton learned about the vicissitudes of art world acclaim, writing about his experience of denying and then accepting his changed place in American art. Few other artists have allowed their own lives to serve as a lesson to other artists, and for that Benton, Fischl, Rosenquist and a few others are owed a deep measure of gratitude. Again, I wish more artists would tell their own stories.