In the late 1970s, just after I had just earned my bachelor’s degree in art, an art dealer offered to introduce me to the painter and poet Robert De Niro Sr. Since I admired De Niro’s work, I called and asked if I could drop by sometime and show him a few of my paintings. He said “Yes.”
De Niro, who lived in New York City, was briefly staying in the Bernal Heights neighborhood of San Francisco (painting and helping a friend extricate her daughter from the Moonies) in a small home that had a distinctly Bohemian air. I remember strands of glass beads hanging in the doorways and a caged green parrot named Demetrius. As I showed De Niro a group of my recent canvases — brushy landscapes of coastal scenes — I nervously rattled off a list of influences. This composition showed that I had been looking at Diebenkorn; the color relationships of this study were inspired by Van Gogh’s palette; I was thinking about Corot’s ability to suggest atmosphere when I painted this one and so on.
After patiently enduring my pompous monologue, De Niro — who had been quietly inspecting my work — made it clear that he was unimpressed by my attempt to justify my work by connecting it to that of famous artists. He told me: “Don’t worry about whether your work looks like anyone else’s. As you paint, you simply need to ask yourself ‘Is it any good?’”
De Niro’s sage advice has stayed with me, although I remember finding it intensely challenging when first offered. Just how, I wondered, could I find out what made art “good”? How would I ever gain admission to the Art World, which I had come to realize was a very complicated and foreboding social construct. Was I really supposed to search my own soul — and develop my own sense of judgment — instead of holding Artforum in my left hand while painting with my right?
The implications seemed overwhelming. Like most art students I had been spending as much time as I could visiting museums and galleries and poring over art books and magazines, but I gathered that De Niro wasn’t necessarily suggesting that I do more of that — that would just have given me a longer list of influences — but was instead telling me that I had to develop an internal and highly personal way of discerning and measuring quality. He was, of course, right.
What De Niro’s comment challenged me to do — to turn inwards — is something that every artist needs to do, unless you are content with being an epigone: a lesser follower of a recognized artist. Turning inward was hard to do when I was young and it seems even harder now, with the vastly entertaining deluge of images that come our way through social media, each picture a deftly contrived piece of eye candy. It’s hard to think deeply about what makes a work of art “good” when you are holding an iPhone, scrolling though Instagram, and “liking” the art of anyone you want to flatter.
And for artists who are yearning for the sense that their art at least has social value — or even a sliver of profundity — has it ever been easier to earn instant mass validation? Even if you live like a hermit in a one-room cabin in Montana, your latest daub can still earn 1,000 likes in an hour. If it doesn’t, you can hire an Asian click farm and present the illusion of being massively “liked.” I worry that someday art historians may look back at this era as the one in which easy likes replaced hard-earned plaudits.
Standing in front of your own work and asking yourself “Is it any good?” is not a recommended activity for the immature or insecure. It needs to be done in the privacy of the studio with all devices turned off and all outside biases and preconceptions (including your own) absent. Philip Guston was referring this this situation when he once spoke about “studio ghosts:”
When you’re in the studio painting, there are a lot of people in there with you — your teachers, friends, painters from history, critics … and one by one if you’re really painting, they walk out. And if you’re really painting YOU walk out.
The kind of quiet and emptying out needed in the studio is perhaps similar to what one might experience during a silent retreat. I recently met a woman who had taken a ten-day Buddhist retreat and I asked her “How did it go?” She replied: “For the first few days, I was climbing the walls.” For an artist, letting go of all of the external influences, forgetting about what sells and what doesn’t and not caring what your friends and family think will also likely induce — at first — that same sense of anxiety.
But when you start asking yourself “Is it any good” on a regular basis, and do so with a sense of sincerity and focus your work is bound to improve. Just thinking hard about what is “good” in art will give you an endless stream of questions that will occupy your mind whenever it needs something to chew on. The questioning state you will find yourself in will lead to greater humility and authenticity. That, in turn, will be accompanied by greater maturity and freedom.
The painter David Park — whose work changed profoundly in mid-career after he abandoned the then dominant style of Abstract Expressionism — understood this very, very well. He said: “As you grow older, it dawns on you that you are yourself—that your job is not to force yourself into a style, but to do what you want.”