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The Artist/Writer Conundrum

Part One


By Deanna Sirlin

You can imagine my elation when I read the press release for Per Kirkeby’s upcoming exhibition in October 2012 at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. He is a Danish painter, born in 1938, and I have often admired his paintings. The release informed me of an important fact that I was totally unaware of: “Kirkeby has published more than 70 books of poetry, essays, and novels. He has written books on artists he appreciates, including Eugene Delacroix, Paul Gauguin, El Greco, and Vincent van Gogh, as well as Scandinavian artists. Not traditional monographs, his books are poetic reflections on the artists’ work.” This is the first time the artist’s writing will appear in English. I was both surprised and very pleased to discover that a painter whose work I respect is also a writer, since we don’t take it for granted that visual artists also express themselves effectively in words. It is often said that artistic skill resides in the right brain, while verbal skill is housed in the left-brain, and that people tend to favor one side or the other. This is the yin and yang of the artist who writes: the left-brained artist who achieves a working balance with their right-brained inner writer.

Deanna Sirlin Open and Closed  2012 44 x 30 inches mixed media 

Many artists have written about art, or other artists, or their own ideas; some maintain journals of their lives as artists, while others serve as art critics. I had asked the esteemed artist and writer Carol Diehl to write about the conundrum of being both an artist and a writer, and so we thought to provide two essays, hers and mine, so that we might achieve a balanced perspective on the puzzle of how something that is visual in nature can be meaningfully put into words. 

Deanna Sirlin, Horizon 2012  9 x 12 inches, Mixed Media. Photo: Hayley McIntyre

Early in my academic career, an esteemed Rembrandt scholar told me that artists have an advantage in analyzing artworks because they know how art is made. He was right, but at the time I felt myself to be at anything but an advantage since all verbiage was a struggle for me. Later on, an art historian friend clarified what this scholar was trying to tell me when he said that description, as clear and truthful as possible, is important in looking at art.

Deanna Sirlin, Ides of March 2012  9.5 x 14 inches, Mixed Media. Photo: Hayley McIntyre 

It seems to me that artists who write are in a unique position to articulate this clarity and truthfulness. I recently read another press release, this one for the artist Ron Gorchov's recent paintings at Cheim & Read: “Beneath these bifurcated, split-zygote forms, a highly articulated surface evolves, often with light dribbles of paint, streams of wet pigment that have wriggled through the surface and dried in place.” When I read this passage, written by Robert C. Morgan of Whitehot Magazine, I immediately suspected that Morgan had been an artist. I flipped to the end of the article, and sure enough: “Robert C. Morgan is an internationally renowned art critic, curator, artist, writer, art historian, poet, and lecturer.” As I thought, Mr. Morgan had trained as an artist. There is something about the specificity of his description of Gorchov’s paint and the way the artist uses it that suggests he has inside knowledge of these materials and processes. His is not dry description—he describes the paint as if it were a living organism, lending the passage a poetic quality. But it is the poetry that can be found in the paint itself by someone who knows where to look for it. 

Deanna Sirlin, Emergency Orange 2012  11 x 13.75 inches, Mixed Media. Photo: Hayley McIntyre

Carol Diehl also does just this kind of writing; she has written beautifully about paint while writing about the artist Terry Winters for Art In America: 

For some painters, paint can be almost like a living thing, a willing tool but with inclinations of its own. Always of interest is how much the artist has agreed to collaborate with the medium, guiding it and allowing it to sing, rather than ignoring its potential or, the opposite, controlling it into complete submission. De Kooning, more than most, exalted in the expressiveness of paint, and this ardor contributes to the magnetism of Winters’ work as well. Although the graphic impact is greatest from far away, no matter how close you get, there's always something rich to see.


Carol writes here about paint almost as if it were a horse to be ridden; the collaboration of painter and paint parallels that of rider and animal. Like Morgan, she understands at first hand the power of the medium, the way it seems to exert its own will. She clearly enumerates the different kinds of relationships painters can assume to that force, and what the implications of those different relationships are. 


It is important to me that the language one uses to talk about art be simple and straightforward even if the ideas expressed are not, which is the case for both Morgan and Diehl. Artists who write well about art understand that the most effective way of communicating the formal properties of visual art is by translating them into concrete language, not be trying to express them in abstract terms. An artist friend of mine, a photographer in Italy, does not speak English, although his French is quite good; I speak really no Italian and my French is not so good. Nevertheless, we often talk to each other about art. The ideas we share are not simple ones even if the words are, of necessity. Another friend who speaks both English and Italian once commented, “When you both converse it is very interesting, you manage to communicate with one another in words that anyone can understand.” This clarity, which is not inimical to either complexity or poetry, is what I strive for when I write and what I value in the writings of other artists.


Thank you, Carol, for being my partner in writing about art and language.

Deanna Sirlin is an artist based in Atlanta. She is writing a series of profiles for TAS of living American woman artists whose work she has been following.

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