Subtle inspiration: a grab bag

Kubrick’s willpower, Nicole Eisenman’s mantra, Baldessari’s “Johnisms,” and other nuggets from my move-scattered brain

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Normally, I devote each issue to an individual creator and some aspect of their creative process and/or struggle. But last week I was too busy packing up our apartment for a crosstown move to do my usual deep-ish dive. As part of the packing process, however, I did spend some time flipping through a mountain of old New Yorkers, New York Reviews of Books, and Artforums to see what articles should be torn out for my files before recycling the rest. Along the way, I ran across several quotes and anecdotes that sung out to me with brilliance, wittiness, vividness, or something-else-ness that I thought I would share with you all here.

The painter Philip Guston on what bored him

“What bores me,” he said in 1974, “is to see an illustration of my thought. . . . I want to make something I never saw before and be changed by it. So that I go in the studio and I see these things up and I think, Jesus, did I do that? What a strange thing.”

Quoted in Susan Tallman, “Philip Guston’s Discomfort Zone,” New York Review of Books, January 14, 2021. Photo via Apollo.

Alison Lurie on her motivation for writing novels

According to the writer Phyllis Rose, Lurie once described her motivation as follows:

“You have an impulse to interfere in people’s lives, but you don’t want to interfere in the lives of your family and friends because that’s not right, so you interfere in the lives of imaginary people.”

Quoted in Claire Messud, “Alison Lurie (1926–2020),” New York Review of Books, January 14, 2021. Photo by Dominique Nabokov from the same article.

David Hammons on the worst way to see art

“The worst thing in the world is to say, ‘well I’m going to see this exhibition.’ The work should instead be somewhere in between your house and where you’re going to see it, it shouldn’t be at the gallery. . . . That’s why I like doing stuff better on the street, because the art becomes just one of the objects that’s in the path of your everyday existence. It’s what you move through, and it doesn’t have seniority over anything else.”

From a 1986 interview with Kellie Jones, quoted in Peter L’Official, “On the Waterfront,” Artforum, May 2021. Photo by Dawoud Bey via the New Yorker.

Stanley Kubrick’s drive as a filmmaker

Paul Mazursky, to whom Stanley Kubrick gave his first substantial role in Kubrick’s own first feature film, Fear and Desire (1953), recalls their driving together on a mission to hit up the young director’s uncle for a loan to finance the film. “I’m gonna get the money from him no matter what—I can tell you that right now,” Kubrick said. “And he spat on the windshield from inside the car.” Some sixty years later, Michael Herr, the author of the Vietnam memoir Dispatches and collaborator with Kubrick on Full Metal Jacket (1987), wrote, “You’d have to be Herman Melville to transmit the full strength of Stanley’s will.”

Andrew Delbanco, “Kubrick’s Human Comedy,” New York Review of Books, May 13, 2021. Photo via Reddit.

The painter Nicole Eisenman’s mantra (!!!)

When Eisenman was in her thirties and living with [her ex] Victoria Robinson, she was a serious triathlete. “Running always felt hard,” she told me. “But my mantra, this thing I would repeat to myself when it got hard, was ‘Smooth as butter, smooth as butter.’ And this would smooth me out, and take me into a calmer place when I was struggling.” She remembered this mantra when thinking about how, around 2006, “something clicked” in her work. What followed, she proposed, were “the butter years.”

Ian Parker, “Figuring It Out,” New Yorker, March 1, 2021. Photo by Jody Rogac via Frieze.

Finally, a selection of the late artist John Baldessari’s “Johnisms”

As reported by the artist Ashley Bickerton, who studied with Baldessari at CalArts:

Don’t worry about technique. Do anything long enough, technique will come. Worry about what you want to say!

If I think art should do something, then I shouldn’t be an artist.

Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.

Ashley Bickerton, “John Baldessari: 1930–2020,” Artforum, April 2020. Photo by Kirk McKoy via the Los Angeles Times.

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Also in my teetering piles of periodicals: the latest issue of the Paris Review, which features an interview with the cartoonist Roz Chast by her fellow cartoonist Liana Finck. The whole thing is a delight, but I especially relished the following exchange. (Finck is asking how Chast kept up her cartooning while she was the mother of young kids.)

Did you find humor in being a new parent? Or did you force yourself to find humor because the alternative was too dreary and grinding? Sorry, I’m projecting my own fears onto you.

That could be said about everything for me. That if I didn’t draw cartoons, everything after getting out of bed would be too dreary and grinding. “What T-shirt shall I wear today? . . . I’m so glad we still have Muenster cheese in the house . . . And so to bed!” Aaaagghhh. Not that I draw cartoons every day, because, a, I am lazy and avoidant, and, b, in these COVID days, the day goes by very fast and sometimes it’s dinnertime and I realize I have done nothing but check my email. But in general, making cartoons is a way of avoiding feelings of pointlessness and despair and still not being too upbeat.

Read the full interview here


I’m devoting the last issue of each month to an advice column. Send me your creative dilemmas and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into great minds’ work habits.

Email me

(Read my past advice here.)

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