IMG_0348WHEN YOU EXPERIENCE AN ARTIST’S WORK at a museum or gallery, do you wonder where it all came from? Where it was imagined, conceptualized and created? “Art Studio America: Contemporary Artist Spaces” answers these questions in spades, taking readers inside the studios of 116 artists from the West Coast to Chicago and New York and countless destinations in between.

Los Angeles-based Mark Bradford assembles large-scale collage paintings in the Leimert Park building where his mother once operated a hair salon. Photographer Lorna Simpson spends her days in a light-filled Brooklyn studio she shares with her husband—an architectural gem designed by David Adjaye. Theaster Gates works out of a 25,000-square-foot warehouse on Chicago’s South Side, a former Anheuser-Busch distribution center he transformed into a studio.

The spaces contemporary artists choose for themselves weigh economic circumstances, aesthetic considerations and practical matters such as whether they work on a large or small scale and if their practice is a team effort or a solitary pursuit. More often than not, a connection to the community is a determining factor too.

A bountiful journey across the country, “Art Studio America” offers a glimpse into private studios rarely seen by the public. Two generations of artists are featured—from Maria Abramovic, Diana Al-Hadid and Dan Colen to John Baldessari, Chuck Close and Sheila Hicks—including 10 of the most celebrated black artists working today: Bradford, Simpson and Gates, along with Rashid Johnson, Artis Lane, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, Julie Mehretu, Wangechi Mutu and Mickalene Thomas.

The 600-page volume is edited by Hossein Amirsadeghi, a Middle East expert who has authored books on art in the region. He recently turned his focus to the wider world of contemporary art and published a book about UK artists and their studios.

 

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Page 530: Kerry James Marshall lives and works on Chicago’s South Side. Early on, he painted in a 6-by-9 foot room at the YMCA and only began working on large canvases when he could afford a bigger studio.

 

For this book, Amirsadeghi began with a master list and by virtue of competing schedules, PR interference or lack of interest, the group was modified and enhanced by recommendations from the artists who did participate. Twenty-five percent of the profiles emerged through “artist-to-artist” introductions. Johnson suggested Angel Otero. Photographer Deana Lawson, an accomplished protege of Thomas is included.

Essays by Robert Storr, Benjamin Genocchio and Mark Godfrey give shape to the American contemporary art scene. A few pages are devoted to each artist and feature images of their studios and a Q&A interview. Throughout the hefty tome, sections divided by theme- and geography-based introductions provide pacing and give context. An interlude titled, “My Kind of Town,” sets up a section dedicated to Chicago artists Marshall and Gates. The copy reads:

“The question of color in American art is something that we’ve taken considerable care over in bringing this book to fruition. Not in terms of positive discrimination but rather in terms of positive attribution of talent across America’s racial divides. Though the struggle for civil rights began in earnest fifty years ago, the debates and difficulties surrounding race in the United States are still very much alive for African-American artists…”

The introduction continues:

“The relationship between the art world and race remains tenuous, but for many of the African-American artists in this book, it’s not for lack of trying on their part. The unassuming Bradford, who calls himself a ‘creative anthropologist,’ spent his youth walking boardwalks and people-watching. Now a successful artist he works with young members of minority groups, encouraging their participation in the arts. Tracing the origin of such thinking, the evolution of ideas, became a primary drive for this book.”

It’s an admirable proclamation and this line of inquiry is the most successful aspect of the book. While the studio photographs satisfy curiosities and feature compelling, fact-filled captions, the revealing conversations Amirsadeghi has with the artists turn out to be even more engaging.

He tends to raise predictable issues and cover similar terrain with the black artists—outsider status, defining “black” art, the election of President Obama—but the candid and thoughtful way each discusses their unique background, motivations and practice overcomes this shortfall. Brief excerpts with four artists follow. CT

 

PAGES 222-227: JULIE MEHRETU | HARLEM AND CHELSEA, NY

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Page 224: Julie Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and raised in East Lansing, Mich. Her paintings are composed of layers of acrylic on canvas and overlaid with marks made in pencil, pen or ink.

 

Q: As a viewer coming across your works for the first time, it is hard it is hard to place oneself within the context of this morass of interactions and negotiations.

JULIE MEHRETU: Really? I don’t understand why. But I also don’t think looking at and experiencing art should be easy or descriptive. That is a misguided way of approaching how art and artists have relationships with their work. The role of art is completely separate. It lives in its own plane.

Q: Yes, but some biographies are more exotic.

JULIE MEHRETU: People talk about it, but I don’t think that’s what drives my work.

 

PAGES 178-181: ARTIS LANE | LOS ANGELES

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Page 178: Artis Lane, the first woman to attend Cranbrook Academy of Art, working in her kitchen/studio. Her bust of Sojourner Truth was the first sculpture of a black woman installed in the U.S. Capitol’s Emancipation Hall.

 

Q: You were born in Canada in 1927. When did you move to the States?

ARTIS LANE: My Family moved to the United States during the depression. My father was a mechanic and moved us across the border to Ann Arbor, Michigan to get work. Later we returned to Canada. We owned a farm in an all-black village called North Buxton which was one of the terminuses of the Underground Railroad.

Q: Do you consider yourself Canadian or American?

ARTIS LANE: I became an American so I could vote for Obama and qualify to create a full-length sculpture of Rosa Parks. His speeches move me so. And I had met him at the California African American Museum when he was a senator.

 

PAGES 354-357: WANGECHI MUTU | BROOKLYN, NY

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Page 357: Wangechi Mutu creates Afro-futuristic paintings and collages of women using images cut from Vogue, National Georgraphic and even porn magazines. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, she attended art school in Wales.

 

Q: What is the role of money in the art world today?

WANGECHI MUTU: Have you interviewed any artists who aren’t commercially successful?

Q: Touche! So what’s the root of your obsession with the female body, whether ugly or beautiful?

WANGECHI MUTU: All women are both beautiful and ugly, it’s the same thing. Women are held to a standard and that standard is what I have a problem with.

Q: Does your art try to attack that standard?

WANGECHI MUTU: I pick at it. It doesn’t make any sense in this day and age.

 

PAGES 324-329: GLENN LIGON | BROOKLYN, NY

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Page 326: Glenn Ligon invokes the words of James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Richard Pryor in his work with neon and stencils. He was the first to occupy his floor in an 1885 canning factory that now houses artist studios.

 

Q: James Baldwin and Walt Whitman are two of your literary icons. But there is a huge gap between Whitman and Baldwin, isn’t there?

GLENN LIGON: Not so huge. Both were interested in life on the street, in other people’s bodies, in what it means to interact in cities.

Q: You’ve said that some of your work is autobiographical…

GLENN LIGON: It uses autobiographical details that can be fictionalized or distorted or played with. I am also interested in how one’s autobiography is shaped by the society one lives in. That’s why I am interested in Baldwin. He was always thinking about how his individual story could be mapped onto the story of the nation.

Q: Does being a black artist set you aside in any sense?

GLENN LIGON: I resist the notion that the words black and artist create a territory in which your work is only about race or identity. And if it’s not? Then you’re not a black artist? Those terms have to be much more open and fluid. I’m deeply interested in the history of black people in the United States, and I am deeply interested in the history of the United States in general. The two are inseparable.

I’m deeply interested in the history of black people in the United States, and I am deeply interested in the history of the United States in general. The two are inseparable. — Glenn Ligon

Q: When did such distinctions begin to show up in the American art world?

GLENN LIGON: The early ’90s saw the rise of identity politics, the moment when artists of color were entering museum and gallery spaces with work that was reflective of their own experience. This was in some ways new, but it also created an expectation of subject matter and approach—of configuration, almost. The black body had to be figured in the work somehow. My work, because it was text-based, refused that kind of narrative.

 

“Art Studio America: Contemporary Artist Spaces,” Edtied by Hossein Amirsadeghi and Maryam Homayoun Eisler (Thames & Hudson, 600 pages) | Published Nov. 19, 2013.

 

A LOOK INSIDE ‘ART STUDIO AMERICA’

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