So What Type of Artist Are You?

View of Julian Schnabel’s hot-pink high-rise at 360 W. 11th

I’m in the middle of Calvin Tomkins’ book “Lives of the Artists” (2008), which is a compilation of his short artist bios in the New Yorker. He profiles the top contemporary artists (well, according to his calculations): Hirst, Sherman, Schnabel, Serra, etc. What do they all have in common? They’ve all dabbled in many types of media. And in doing so, they’ve taken heat for it.

Schnabel started off as an artist, but has since worked in film — two of which have met great acclaim: “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)” and “Before Night Falls” (2000). When someone recently asked him if he was switching to film-making, he responded, somewhat indignantly, “I’m a painter. I’m a painter. Does that answer your question?”

Cindy Sherman is another artist who has straddled the abyss of not knowing (or caring) what medium she “falls into.” More to the point, at the beginning, she was never really accepted as part of any community/medium. She takes photographs, but she is not considered a photographer — at least not in the vein of documentary or fine-art photography. But once others slapped a genre on her work — when her photographs were put up in Christie’s auctions in the “contemporary art” category (rather than photography) — they flew like hotcakes.

But this evolution is key. Artists styles are always morphing, changing, evolving, aggregating, spinning off into different directions, and this, I think, is what characterizes the best artists.

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