Midlife Big Bangs
As an artist, have you ever looked around and felt ancient, withered, and uncool? Well, this pep talk is for you, because we’re about to find out how later in life, big bangs can be the bravest and most creative big bangs of all.
The Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot once said: “I am overcome by an insurmountable laziness. I feel sad. I feel alone…disillusioned and old, into the bargain.”
I read somewhere that it was common knowledge that the art world is particularly unfair to anyone over 40–especially women. And then I thought about all the youth-obsessed shows like the “30 under 30’s,” the “Younger than Jesus-es,” the YBA’s, and the MFA-to-Gallery-Pipeline, and I felt so…old. So, I set about to find out at what age artists really got going. Like, when did they really make their most daring and successful work? What I found out was that the art world’s youth obsession is in direct conflict with the very artists we revere and lionize in museums. Because (drumroll) history shows us that, in general, artists began their most important and radical work in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. And these artists are not some kind of rare “late bloomer.” In fact, it is extremely common for the big bloom to happen late.
And yes, maybe Picasso and Mozart were early bloomers, but most artists need a little more time in the genius cooker.
Let’s review the data.
Alice Neel only developed into her mature, recognizable painting style by age 35. Piet Mondrian only started experimenting with abstraction at age 43, and the work we know him for only surfaced in his work by age 49. Before that, he was painting naturalistic landscapes. Agnes Martin began making her subtle abstract paintings based on hand-drawn grids around the age of 46 (She was hardcore and destroyed all her earlier work). Faith Ringgold made her first quilt in her 50’s. Before that, she was making masks and political posters. Philip Guston’s first break from subtle abstraction to the new figurative cartoony style we know him for today, was with a painting titled “In the Studio” at age 56. In her 40s, Betty Woodman moved away from making functional tableware and started creating the colorful and whimsical ceramic sculptural objects and installations that she’s famous for. Romare Bearden made his first collage when he was 54. And in his book Old Masters and Young Geniuses, David Galenson tells us that Cezanne’s best years for working were his mid 60’s. He completed his famous “Bathers” in 1905, when he was only 66 years young.
And last but not least, no catalog of badass late bloomer artists would be complete without the artist Mark Rothko. Before his mid 40’s, Mark Rothko was making these Gorky/Miro-like doodles and paintings of surrealist subway scenes populated by lanky figures. We don’t even see that stuff today. But he had been steadfastly creating that kind of work for years before he switched his style and subject matter to the glowing, vibrating abstract color blocks he is known for. In his 40th year, he even sent a manifesto, together with his friend Gottlieb, to the New York Times on June 7, 1943. And this letter illustrates how radical the midlife artist can be. I’d like to excerpt a bit of it here as a battle cry of sorts:
“—To us, art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risks.
—This world of imagination is fancy-free, and violently opposed to common sense.
—It is our function as artists to make the spectators see the world our way, not his way.
—We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal.
—We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.”
Whatever your thoughts are on the ideals of Abstract Expressionism, you have to admit that sending an unsolicited manifesto to the New York Times about your artistic theories is kind of punk rock (It’s also spoken aloud in a Le Tigre song: check out “Slideshow at Free University”).
Rich Karlgaard, in his book Late Bloomers: The Hidden Strengths of Learning and Succeeding at Your Own Pace, outlines many key strengths of those who hit their stride a bit later down the road, but still killed it. For me, three of these traits were the most resonant: 1) A childlike curiosity, 2) Resilience and 3) Wisdom/Insight (as one category).
Under the first category he suggests that late bloomers might have more curiosity than early bloomers, but that it’s more of a hindrance than a help in the early going. As the “early-success conveyor belt picks up speed and primacy as a sorting mechanism, youthful curiosity becomes a liability in the eyes of school administrators and employers.” Curiosity is inevitably discouraged in favor of practical concerns, focus and getting “serious.” But ultimately it comes down to a contest between the curious tortoise and the practical hare. Karlgaard asks, “Who is in a better position for success, fulfillment, happiness, and health? The conveyor belt’s early-blooming superstar who learned to suppress childhood curiosity in favor of focus? Or the late bloomer who retained more childhood curiosity and now finally has executive functioning to give it a direction?”
I don’t know about you, but my bet’s on the LB.
And moving right along to Karlgaard’s second category of note, Resilience. He writes that late bloomers are on a more challenging path than early bloomers and may encounter hurdles like “the push for conformity, the oppression of groupthink, and the pains of self-doubt.” But he asserts that only by enduring these difficulties can we discover our individuality and our unique road to excellence: “Within these challenges lies our true power, our covert talents and secret advantages as late bloomers.”
Per David Galenson, Georgia O’Keeffe’s works that bring the highest market value today were made at age 48, and she believed an artist must mature slowly: “Great artists don’t just happen. They have to be trained, and in the hard school of experience.”
And let’s dig into the final and last category of the successful late bloomer in Karlgaard’s book. He asserts that late bloomers make connections and recognize patterns more quickly than early bloomers. Here he references The Wisdom Paradox by NYU Neuroscientist, Elkhonon Goldberg:
“Goldberg began to realize that as he aged, he was increasingly adept at a kind of ‘mental magic.’ ‘Something rather intriguing is happening in my mind that did not happen in the past,’ he wrote. ‘Frequently, when I am faced with what would appear from the outside to be a challenging problem, the grinding mental computation is somehow circumvented, rendered, as if by magic, unnecessary. The solution comes effortlessly, seamlessly, and seemingly by itself. I seem to have gained in my capacity for instantaneous, almost unfairly easy insight. Is it perchance that coveted attribute…wisdom?”
They say the Big Bang started out as a “singularity,” and that, as the universe expanded, it formed black holes. These arose like enormous black suns at the center of every galaxy, and it is thought that one day they will absorb us all. What if we Midlife Big Bangs aren’t like hot-burning stars, but instead are like the churning engines at the core of every black hole: dark anti-suns, complete with strange borders that bend time and space, capable of changing the very stuff of the universe within their dark matter spheres. Or maybe we are wormholes, connected to each other…black hole-to-black hole…sharing our radical ideas amongst each other, a closed loop of new thought.
Thinking back on that first list of artists, I wonder if at times they felt old and dried-up, and like an infinitesimal point of energy. But then they ultimately decided:
‘No, screw that. I’m more curious, resilient, and insightful than ever. And conditions seem perfect for me to explode outward in a radiant burst of crashing galaxies and stars.’ Let’s remember this as a rallying cry when we hear of another hot young thing shooting across the sky. Because yes, the universe is bright with starlight: 8 million electron volts per cubic meter, in fact.
But we black holes are too busy to notice, because we’re bending the fabric of time, trapping light rays, curving space around on ourselves, and basically just crushing it–for eternity.
Amy Talluto is a multimedia artist working in painting, sculpture and collage who lives in Upstate NY and hosts a podcast called “Pep Talks for Artists.” This written piece can be listened to as an audio essay in podcast form, as well as many others on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or anywhere you get your podcasts. Amy Talluto’s monthly column “Whisperings from the Wormhole” will bring you artist-to-artist pep talks with topics ranging from self-doubt to artists who make work in their kitchens.