A few years ago a man came up to me at an opening of a solo show of my work and said without preamble, "well, someone
has certainly been influenced by someone else
!" I looked at him blankly, no clue what he was talking about. He went on to say that my work was so obviously derivative of--well of course, I knew, why didn't I just admit it?
Really I was speechless. Not only did I not know what he was talking about, but usually people are so polite at openings! He persisted in an aggressive manner with this stuff (while I looked anxiously around hoping someone would rescue me from this boor--I am not good at dealing with rudeness.) Finally he gave up--realizing that either I honestly did not know what he was talking about, or that I wasn't going to come clean--and said with a sneer, "Rothko, of course." (With just a touch less self-control, he'd probably have added, "you idiot.")
Rothko? OK, yes, he is in the mix, along with about two hundred other artists and photographers and even a sculptor or two. Some are known to the art world, some not at all. Like a lot of artists I soak up visual ideas like a sponge, but when it's all wrung out in a painting, I have to believe the result is unique. I am constantly pushing to find that core of expression that is most true and meaningful inside.
Looking at the work of others, I sometimes find clues and signposts that point the way on my own journey. I also see roads I don't want to go down, and this is especially enlightening with the work of someone who at the same time offers much that is positive. For me, Rothko's work is in that category. As much as I admire his minimalist color fields, I find when viewing the work in person it looks a bit too thin and flat. A criticism then can become a positive direction--for me, towards color fields with intricate texture. The texture, the linear scratches, the subtle color shifts, the geometric contrasts--all these aspects of my work have come from other realms of thought, other paths explored.
So, after a little back and forth in my own head, I didn't take this mannerless man too seriously, and he's just become an anecdote about weird things that happen at openings. I also know that some people have a need to pigeonhole everybody's art into categories that they themselves recognize, such as "follower of Rothko." It is disturbing when other people want to put you in a box like that, but a good idea not to take it personally.
Underlying his criticism, though, is the idea that derivative work lacks authenticity, and I think this is true. (I would call something derivative if the artist has clearly "copied" the work of another artist, rather than using it as one ingredient in a unique soup of ideas, reactions and connections.)
In searching for unique expression, plenty of artists (dare I say most?) have veered closely at times to another person's work--and then back again onto a more personal track, taking along a few key ideas. It can also work the other way, with hints of one's own ideas suddenly popping up in the work of someone else--and it's not clear whether to feel pleased or uneasy and territorial. ("Pleased" works pretty well, I think.) For everyone, Rothko included (!) working through and integrating myriad influences is vital to the creative process, and the end result is work with complexity and personal meaning.
The painting above, Casa (36"x36" oil and wax on panel) is part of my current exhibit at Circa Gallery
in Minneapolis, which will be on view through March 13.