What Does It Mean When an Artist Retreats From Public Life?

A small and highly influential group has chosen to disappear from society in favor of letting their work speak for itself.

We Are Family
Chapter 3: Legends Pioneers and Survivors

What Does It Mean When an Artist Retreats From Public Life?

The Shadows

These days, artists of all kinds are expected to be available for public consumption. But a small and highly influential group of them has chosen to disappear from society in favor of letting their work speak for itself. What does it mean to be inaccessible in an age of oversharing?

T commissioned original works by the artist Jessica Wohl, who made pieces inspired by the artists mentioned in this essay. The snowballs that blanket this family portrait are a reference to the artist DAVID HAMMONS’s ephemeral 1983 piece “Bliz-aard Ball Sale,” in which he sold snowballs on the streets of New York City. The frame is an interpretation of his “African American Flag,” which Hammons created in 1990, replacing the flag’s traditional red, white and blue with the black, red and green of Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African flag. Artwork by Jessica Wohl. Photographed by Weichia Huang. Source photograph: Stockbyte/Getty

FOR THOSE OF us old enough to remember an era when we didn’t account for our existence on social media, when we could attend a dinner party without being tagged like a shot deer on someone’s Instagram story, when privacy was respected and deeper meanings had room to quietly take root and bloom, it is no surprise to see artists flinching from the din of publicity. How can we really look and listen when we are so busy being seen and heard?

Art, as Susan Sontag wrote in a 1967 essay, “The Aesthetics of Silence,” has acquired a spiritual quality in secular culture, becoming a place to reckon with and question the human project and, perhaps, even transcend it. To create, in other words, isn’t only about self-expression; it is also a realm of mystification, satisfying our “craving for the cloud of unknowing beyond knowledge and for the silence beyond speech,” as she puts it. Silence is an essential part of the creative process, opening a space for contemplation. “So far as he is serious, the artist is continually tempted to sever the dialogue he has with an audience,” she goes on. To withdraw from the public is “the artist’s ultimate otherworldly gesture: by silence, he frees himself from servile bondage to the world, which appears as patron, client, consumer, antagonist, arbiter and distorter of his work.”

Shapes that reference nature and the cosmos (including fish, plants and black holes) are common in the work of the sculptor LEE BONTECOU. Artwork by Jessica Wohl. Photographed by Weichia Huang. Source photograph: Superstock/Everett Collection

All art legislates between private and public spheres; it has also often been a way of hiding in plain sight, a place for coded identities, for the obliqueness of lyricism. As Marcel Proust claimed, “That which enables us to see through the bodies of poets and lets us look into their souls is not their eyes, nor the events of their lives, but their books, precisely where their souls, with an instinctive desire, would like to be immortalized.” And so it fits that Sontag — both an outspoken critic and a novelist — would appreciate these tensions: the artist’s need for abstraction and ambiguity, the critic’s desire to elucidate. That she wrote this before the art market exploded, before artists were deified and cast as saviors of a broken world, before we looked to them not only for beauty, inspiration and affirmation but also for a form of self-critique, surely had a lot to do with her own fraught relationship with celebrity. Sontag, one of the last public intellectuals until her death in 2004, knew firsthand the cost of attention: what a distraction it could be; the risk of self-censorship to buff one’s own image. (Even posthumously, her biographer, Benjamin Moser, took her to task in his 2019 book, “Sontag: Her Life and Work,” for not speaking out about her own sexuality during the AIDS crisis.) Today, we expect artists to perform a public role, to assent to interviews and magazine profiles in which they explain and justify their work, to attend openings in enviable clothes, to hold forth on feminism and racism and social injustice and the latest catastrophes, political and environmental.

YET THERE HAS always existed a small but powerful shadow world of creators who have managed to outfox public expectation to varying degrees, evading de rigueur press and book tours while making their impact resonantly felt. Some have pulled this off with pseudonyms, among them Banksy and Elena Ferrante, who has written copiously on the liberation she found in detaching her public face from her work. Others have employed alter egos to convey their message, like David Bowie, who adopted the persona of Ziggy Stardust, an alien rock star who comes to Earth with a message of hope only to be destroyed by his fans and his own excesses. It is one of music’s great commentaries on fame, created at a time when Bowie himself was self-destructing in celebrity’s glare. As a critic whose work hinges on the notion that there’s a great deal of value to be learned from the particular contexts, personal and otherwise, in which art is made, I find myself shuttling between two impulses: the desire to get closer to those difficult truths and to understand the very real costs to exposure. I want to protect inspiration’s riverbank, those Romantic “thoughts of more deep seclusion,” as Wordsworth put it, while also making space for the kind of powerful storytelling possible in art, stories that, so often these days, seek to fill a historical void.

A family portrait is embellished with visual motifs (bullet holes and American flags) from “Oozewald” (1989), a work by the conceptual artist CADY NOLAND that alludes to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Artwork by Jessica Wohl. Photographed by Weichia Huang. Source photograph: Image Source/Getty

Rare, in fact, is the artist who has succeeded in entirely separating personal identity from work, like Martin Margiela, one of the most influential designers of all time despite the fact that few fashion insiders know what he looks like; his name has become a metonym for avant-garde cool. In fine arts, withdrawal from public life is often interpreted as an extension of a larger artistic project, as when the conceptual artist Lee Lozano pulled a Duchamp and retired with “Dropout Piece” around 1970, refusing contact with longtime friends and collaborators and essentially drawing a frame around her own absence, writing in her notebook that it was the “hardest work I have ever done,” because it “involves destruction of (or at least complete understanding of) powerful emotional habits.” Cady Noland, still among the highest-selling living female artists, stopped showing her work around 2000 and even began to disavow some of it: In 2011, she renounced a damaged 1990 silk screen, “Cowboys Milking”; in 2014, it was her 1990 sculpture “Log Cabin Facade,” which had been extensively restored without her consent or consultation. Like that of the interventionist artist Laurie Parsons, who left her art career in 1994 to become a social worker, these women’s departures feel not so much like the “ultimate otherworldly gesture” but rather a deliberate form of resistance to a patriarchal and market-oriented art world. But few artists have been as successful at this kind of recusal as a form of protest as David Hammons, among the most respected contemporary artists despite the fact that he rarely submits to interviews (he likens them to police interrogations) or attends his own openings. This, too, has largely been viewed as a commentary on the art world’s smug — and still largely white — self-regard, but the artist, who is black, has said that he is simply too private to talk about where his work comes from, that doing so would feel like a bodily violation.

Across these three family photographs, a tree and a bench are a nod to the work of the artist LAURIE PARSONS; V-2 rockets and bananas are images found in THOMAS PYNCHON’s 1973 novel, “Gravity’s Rainbow”; and a pair of Tabi shoes (inspired by traditional Japanese split-toed socks) reference those originally designed by MARTIN MARGIELA in 1989. Artwork by Jessica Wohl. Photographed by Weichia Huang. Source photographs, from left: Classicstock/Akg-images/H. Armstrong Roberts; Superstock/Everett Collection; Mirrorpix/Topfoto

Hammons is famous enough to let his work largely speak for itself, not unlike the author Thomas Pynchon, whose reclusiveness hasn’t diminished his eminence or influence on American letters (arguably, the opposite is true). And yet withdrawing from public life entirely is never without risk: I suspect for any Pynchon or Greta Garbo or Hammons there’s someone like Lee Bontecou, who was one of the most exciting names in 1960s art before she left New York in the early 1970s and faded from view. The first woman represented by the powerful gallerist Leo Castelli, Bontecou was known for her strikingly original, imposing wall reliefs made of steel and canvas; often, they featured the motif of a black hole. At the time, it almost seemed as if she had disappeared into one of her own works when in fact she’d only moved out of the city with her husband and daughter (and continued to teach at Brooklyn College for the next two decades). She never stopped making art, as a 2003 show at the University of California, Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum revealed: Over the course of three decades of relative isolation, her work had evolved into more delicate, elaborate sculptures that evoked celestial bodies, solar systems and star charts. It’s hard to imagine that without this period of seclusion it would have looked quite the same. Her story is a reminder of just how arbitrary — and how irrelevant — public accolades can be to creation itself. As the artist once told Ann Philbin, the director of the Hammer, “I’ve never left the art world. I’m in the real art world.”

How much do we need to really know about the artists we admire? I thought of this recently when reading a Pitchfork profile of Dan Bejar of the music act Destroyer, who claims that some of his best shows have resulted when he turns his back to the audience and sings toward his bandmates. “As a member of the audience for all the shows I’ve ever seen, I just wanted to be flummoxed. That’s all I ever ask from art. Just stagger me, stop me in my tracks. We don’t need to go through something together,” he said. But surely we do go through something together — or at least, that’s the spell cast by the song or novel or film we “love”: The very language we use to talk about art is suggestive of romance. It’s difficult for me — hearing the voice, reading the words — not to feel a connection to the person behind any creative work that succeeds in truly flummoxing me. Like love, this experience of art is rare and real and wonderful and ultimately unpin-downable; like love, it is privately felt and personal in origin yet publicly affirmed by our culture. And so we seek to know more, to maybe even find ourselves in the artist’s story and become part of its mystery. It’s worth the risk, we think, of actually solving it.

Megan O’Grady is a writer at large for T Magazine.