What Makes a Great Artist? Let’s See What They Think…

Fifty influential artists explain the creative process behind some of their most powerful works.

Sin Wai Kin, If I Had The Words To Tell You I Wouldn’t Be Here Now, 2019. Photo © Ivy Tzai. Courtesy Chi-Wen Gallery

“What is the popular conception of the artist? Gather a thousand descriptions, and the resulting composite is the portrait of a moron.” So says Mark Rothko in Artists on Art, a new book by Holly Black, Elephant’s Managing Editor. Whether you agree with Rothko or not, artists clearly define our world so wouldn’t it be nice to know what they were thinking?

There’s an inherent mystery in the practice of art-making that keeps us coming back, that elusive magic that some people seem to be gifted with while others stand in awe. This book is a comprehensive and concise way to satisfy that urge, described by Black as the “impulse to know more, to discover the ways and means that brought a piece into being, not to mention the inner workings of the artist’s mind”.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Night Watch, 1642. Creative Commons

Through texts on fifty exceptional artists that hone in on a compelling citation from each, Artists on Art gets right to the core of what artists think about art, and by extension, what they think of themselves and their role in the world.

“The reflections here are hugely varied, from the grandiose to the humble, from the philosophical to the practical”

For Tracey Emin (one of five artists exclusively interviewed for the book), art can be life-saving. “Without art, I am 100% sure I would be dead,” she says. For others, such as the late great Hokusai, art takes at least a century to perfect. Yayoi Kusama creates out of fear, while for Wangechi Mutu it is all about harnessing innate power.

Ultimately, it might not even be what artists make that matters at all, but why. As a quote from Gabriel Orozco suggests, “What is most important is not so much what people see in the gallery or the museum, but what people see after looking at these things.”

Sin Wai Kin, Dragon Woman, 2019 © the artist

The reflections here are hugely varied, from the grandiose to the humble, from the philosophical to the practical. They rarely converge in agreement, encouraging the reader to continually question and reassess, rather than conclude. It all makes for highly engaging reading.

This is also one of the major strengths of Artists on Art, since immense effort has gone into shaking up the stale perceptions of what makes a ‘master’ and what art should be, resulting in a glorious cacophony of voices and ideas.

Charlotte Jansen is a freelance arts writer and former commissioning editor at Elephant. Her second book, Photography Now, is out now