Who'd become a painter?

Trevor Winkfield (1993 Grantee)

Published in the Foundation for Contemporary Arts 2015 Grants Booklet

“Who'd become a painter?" a forlorn painter friend asked me after the failure of his first exhibition. He never painted again. It wasn't until many years later that his badly phrased wail revealed to me the real reason he'd failed: you don't become a painter, you are one. In other words, you're born a painter. It's not a career path you choose later in life: it chooses you, right from the beginning.

What was it that separated my lapsed painter friend from myself, and the rest of us who'd continued painting through middle age into old age? The simple lack of that essential piece of machinery, an interior motor that continues churning through thick and thin, come what may. I actually conceived of it as some kind of cylinder invisibly lodged in the chest, a perpetual motion machine that never stops ticking over. Ambition, I suppose, is one tiny component, but it's more a case of finding out 'what comes next?' That's the propellant driving us on, regardless of prams in the hall, bank accounts in three digits, and dubious health.

“With age, art and life become one," observed Braque in his old age, and unless one has fallen by the wayside and become a mere 'purveyor to the trade,' it's a sentiment most artists eventually concur with. Braque himself is one of the leading exemplars of not giving up… not giving up his researches, either. After the traumas of the Second World War, glad to have made it out alive, Braque threw all caution to the wind and let loose his inner Bonnard, one might almost say his Cubist opposite; a real devil-may-care attitude that often erupts in middle age—for most, in the guise of broken marriages and younger partners. Without that kind of courage from Braque, we would never have had his late series of Studios, nor the Van Gogh-influenced cornfields, which now seem to be some of his greatest achievements (works we could never have imagined him inventing if all we had to go on were his early Cubist compositions). Though perhaps Chagall would have done both himself and us a great favor if he'd died during the twenties, before his endless flotillas of floating lovers and inflatable cows dissolved his talent in saccharine mush.

Sometimes, of course, artists make a complete volte-face in middle age, as Guston did when, from one show to another, he abandoned the lyrical abstraction he'd become famous for and returned to his earlier figuration (though distorted to the nth degree), to everyone's disgust at the time. It's an example of bravado I still find admirable, much like Mondrian resolutely painting Neo-Plasticist canvases in Paris throughout Surrealism's heyday. Maybe, as another friend of mine once suggested, every artist should go through life with a psychiatrist in full-time attendance, to explain and defend his or her actions. Or a doctor to diagnose: should we blame cataracts for the rough brushstrokes in Titian's Flaying of Marsyas, painted when he was in his early eighties, and is the same ocular defect to be credited with Monet's late water lilies, painted when that artist was also in his eighties?

Lucky are those who persevere into old age to evolve a late style… though it's usually only posthumously acknowledged as a culminating point rather than a decline. On the other hand, it's a sad fact that the interior motors of certain great artists run down well before a late style can be achieved: Van Gogh and de Staël ended their lives not due to madness, but after realizing they'd exhausted their store of images. Of those who find a successful style early on and endlessly repeat it, the less said the better. For them, alas, the doorway to success paradoxically doubles as the gateway to failure.

For around ten or twelve years after leaving art college, I'd occasionally bump into old college friends. Almost without exception, they expressed a wistful regret that they'd abandoned painting. Whether they still have regrets after fifty years, I've no idea. They simply disappeared from my life.And my painter friend who abandoned his painting career after his first show forty-five years ago? Did he re-enter the fray? All I could find on the internet was a brief mention of a drawing class that he'd given several years ago in a technical college at the back of beyond. That, and his name on a petition to stop the closure of a local cinema are the only visible traces he's left. Metaphorically, I've wept buckets: he was the most talented painter I ever knew.

Trevor Winkfield is a painter who lives in New York City and exhibits at Tibor de Nagy Gallery. He received a Grants to Artists award in 1993.