Why Do We Care How Long It Takes Artists to Make Their Work?
In paintings, quick brushstrokes swish into invented figures set against moody, abstract backgrounds. In Invincible (2018), for example, a shirtless boy—a fictional character, like all of Yiadom-Boakye’s subjects—sits in profile atop a red-and-black ledge. He writes on a white piece of paper with one hand, gripping his seat with the other. His upper body appears against a shadowy brown backdrop that’s lighter around the top of his head. The nubby canvas is visible beneath the paint, suggesting that the artist applied thin, brisk brushstrokes. The work is patchy but immediate; its sacrifice of a more worked-over surface allows for a vulnerable, naked appearance.
Indeed, Yiadom-Boakye frequently completes her canvases in a single day. According to Tamsen Greene, senior director at Jack Shainman Gallery, that’s partially a function of her “wet-on-wet” process: The artist applies oil paint to a canvas so quickly that no single layer of pigment can dry before the composition is complete. (This is changing, however; in her latest body of work, on view this month at Jack Shainman’s Chelsea location, Yiadom-Boakye began experimenting with other types of canvas that absorb her paint at different rates.)
Greene mentioned that the artist’s speed has long fascinated collectors and the press. But that’s not the full story of her works—it can take multiple attempts for the artist to achieve her intentions for any one canvas. Instead of a single day, “you could say that a painting took three years to make, because [Yiadom-Boakye] made it over and over again, and discarded or changed it,” Greene said.
While Yiadom-Boakye’s all-in-one-sitting process has certainly contributed to her mystique, she’s hardly the only artist to complete works within 24 hours. Examining other instances of swift artmaking reveals more about our obsessions with time than anything else. We’re all racing against the clock to complete our own projects and live the lives we envision for ourselves. Artworks made in a single day can serve as symbols of such striving. Viewers’ preoccupations with how long it takes to make a painting—and their frequent skepticism at a brief process—also betrays how much we buy into the myth of artistic struggle: It’s easier to value intensive physical labor over conceptual rigor when an artist’s thought process can feel so intangible and impossible to grasp.
In truth, most cultural experiences deal with time. It might take you a week to read a novel. A play or film lasts around two hours. A song plays on the radio for about three minutes. It’s more difficult, however, to bracket the process of looking at a work of visual art. Unlike filmmakers or writers, painters and sculptors have little control over their audience’s attention spans. A sense of time isn’t embedded in their media, which offers visual artists a unique provocation or challenge.
In recent history, artists have complicated the experience of time in their works.
Before the advent of modernism in the 20th century,
For artists who want to address ideas about time—both on and off the canvas—the one-artwork-per-day production schedule can be a fruitful basis for conceptual projects.
Kawara was so devoted to his stringent process that if he didn’t complete an artwork by the end of the day, he’d destroy it. Altogether, his series reflects almost 50 years of artmaking, a kind of autobiography wrought in precise brushstrokes. Kawara’s death in 2014 marked the end of the series, but looking back now, the repetitive project seems like a ritual that attempted—and failed—to stave off mortality.
That’s not to say that Halvorson, like Yiadom-Boakye, conceives of her artworks in just a day. In the catalogue accompanying a 2015 exhibition of Halvorson’s work, filmmaker Wesley Miller discusses the artist’s unique planning and “editing” processes. He relays a story Halvorson told him about “stalking” a mural of a clock that she’d wanted to paint for weeks. On the appointed day, she piled her materials into a van, drove to the site, set up her easel and a shaded canopy, and painted for about eight-and-a-half hours straight. But Halvorson wasn’t happy with the result. She decided to return to the site to try again, implying that she was going to burn the first canvas, like the rest of the works she chooses to “edit” out of her oeuvre. All in all, it took her months to finish the painting.
There’s certainly something exhilarating and dramatic about such time constraints. Artist
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.
Correction: A previous version of this article referred to Nathaniel Mary Quinn’s work as collages; he creates paintings that sometimes resemble collage. The text has been updated to reflect this change.