Sculpture 2015-08-12 16-51-49

Man Ray, Surrealist Chess Board, 1934.

This is a continuation of from the previous post. Click here for Part I.

Object Making:

One genre of art that the Surrealists took from Dada but adapted to their own uses was the construction of Surrealist objects. The artists combed Parisian flea markets and found various elements that they could combine to make assemblages that were not quite sculpture and not quite functional object. Marcel Duchamp was the forerunner of this idea. He chose ordinary objects and deemed them works of art by putting them within the context of a museum. Later he would begin to combine objects to make more complex ‘Readymades’.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917.

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1964.

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1964.

Marcel Duchamp, Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy?, 1921.

Marcel Duchamp, Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy?, 1921.

Duchamp’s friend, American artist Man Ray continued this trend and bridged the gap between Duchamp and the Surrealists through the creation of works like Gift, Object to Be Destroyed, and The Mystery of Isadore Ducasse titled after the real name of the Comte de Lautréamont. These works took functional objects and made them useless but still somehow inviting like some strange object from a dream. From there the other Surrealists began to create their own strange objects in a similar vein.

Man Ray, Gift, 1921.

Man Ray, Gift, 1921.

Man Ray, Indestructible Object or Object To Be Destroyed, 1958 (replica of 1923 original).

Man Ray, Indestructible Object or Object To Be Destroyed, 1958 (replica of 1923 original).

Man Ray, The Mystery of Isidore Ducasse, 1920.

Man Ray, The Mystery of Isidore Ducasse, 1920.

One of the most famous is Meret Oppenheim’s sculpture Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure). This work (unlike many Surrealist objects) seems to have many levels of meaning. It seems like something out of a dream and has become, like Man Ray’s works, a useless object. It is also a sexual pun (sex and the fear of sex were common theme of Surrealist art) having to do with putting one’s mouth onto a hairy vessel.

Meret Oppenheim, Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure), 1936.

Meret Oppenheim, Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure), 1936.

Another example were the odd works constructed and photographed by Hans Bellmer. Bellmer created built disturbing  dolls of young women which were manipulated in various ways and conveyed themes of voyeurism, molestation, rape, abuse, and even murder. He photographed these dolls in various positions and created some of the most sexually charged and violent of the Surrealists’ works.

Hans Bellmer, Plate from La Poupée, 1936.

Hans Bellmer, Plate from La Poupée, 1936.

Many other Surrealist artists, such as Dali, created objects of these kinds but very few have the importance or staying power of the objects mentioned above. Nonetheless the construction of objects (as well as installations and performance) was an important aspect of the Surrealist movement’s output that would be taken up in a more successful form by later art movements in the 1950’s and 60’s.

Salvador Dali, Lobster Telephone, 1936.

Salvador Dali, Lobster Telephone, 1936.

Robert Rauschenberg, Monogram, 1955.

Robert Rauschenberg, Monogram, 1955.

Photography and Film:

From the late 19th century up until to around 1920, photography had tried to be a form of art on part with others by co-opting the expressiveness of painting, a period of photography known as ‘Pictorialism.’ Then came faster film and more portable cameras. Photographers could now be more inventive and experiment in ways wholly new and not tied to any other minimum.

Leonard Missonne, London, 1899.

Leonard Missonne, London, 1899.

Edward Steichen, Rodin, Le Penseur, 1902.

Edward Steichen, Rodin, Le Penseur, 1902.

The  Constructivists in Russia such as Alexander Rodchenko, and later the New Vision photographers like Lazslo Maholy-Nagy (whose style would become the dominant form of photography during the 1920’s and 30’s) used new light cameras, strange new angles and points of view, sharp focus (Pictorialists had been obsessed with fuzziness that resembled the fuzzy quality of Impressionist painting), and whole new styles of  photo-montage by artists such as the scathing Dadaist political satirist John Heartfield to push photography in totally new directions.

Alexander Rodchenko, Shukhov Tower, 1929.

Alexander Rodchenko, Shukhov Tower,


Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, Oscar Schlemmer in Ascona, 1926.

John Heartfield, Hurray the Butter is Gone!, 1935.

John Heartfield, Hurray, The Butter is Gone!, 1935.

Soon photography became not a medium attempting to rise to the level of painting but a medium of art in its own right with the capabilities of experimentation, abstraction, montage, portraiture, and whole new ways of seeing the world. One of the originators of this trend was Man Ray.

Although Man Ray is most famous today for his photography, he wanted to be known for his painting. He only did photography for the money, so he claimed. Though he has some important painted works, the vast majority of Man Ray’s important output was in the form of photography and film. Along with creating whole new grammars in advertising and fashion photography, as well as portraiture, Man Ray invented new forms of the medium in general.

Man Ray, Observatory Time: The Lovers, 1936.

Man Ray, Observatory Time: The Lovers, 1936.

Man Ray for Harper's Bazaar, 1936.

Man Ray for Harper’s Bazaar, 1936.

Man Ray, Arnold Schoenberg, 1927.

Man Ray, Arnold Schoenberg, 1927.

Man Ray, James Joyce, 1922.

Man Ray, James Joyce, 1922.

He invented what he called ‘Rayographs’ (named after the artist) which consisted of placing objects on photographic paper in the darkroom and then exposing the paper leaving odd ghostly white shadows of objects over a black background. He experimented with this technique in film as well. He also invented solarization, the technique of quick exposing full light to the paper during a negative exposure, which creates a kind of halo effect, and played with effects usually thought of as mistakes within photography such as double exposure.

Man Ray, Rayograph, 1922.

Man Ray, Rayograph, 1922.


Man Ray, Solarized Portrait of Lee Miller, 1929.

In the end he captured some of the greatest images of Surrealist photography including those featuring the notorious Parisian bohemian celebrity Kiki de Montparnasse. His images brought photography into a dreamlike world that had previously not been possible and because of this he was championed by the French Surrealists even before he arrived in Paris and became officially part of the movement.

Man Ray, Kiki, La Violon d`Ingres, 1924.

Man Ray, Kiki, La Violon d`Ingres, 1924.

Man Ray, Les Lames, 1932.

Man Ray, Les Lames, 1932.

Though there were many Surrealists who worked with photography, Man Ray’s works were probably the most important. Nonetheless,  photographers such as Claude Cahun, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, and Henri Cartier-Bresson were embraced by the Surrealists without really being members but doing work tangentially related in subject matter, style, and theme. The strangeness of their imagery, either constructed or captured, aligned with what the Surrealists saw as either he construction of a dreamlike image in the vein of Surrealist painting or moments of the irrational unconscious making itself known to ordinary people in the split second the photograph was taken, what Cartier-Bresson referred to as ‘the decisive moment.’

Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait, Don't Kiss Me, 1927.

Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait, Don’t Kiss Me, 1927.


Manuel Alvarez Bravo, The Big Fish Eats The Little One, 1932.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Derriere la Gare Saint-Lazare, 1932.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Derriere La Gare Saint-Lazare, 1932.

Man Ray was also an innovator in film along with other important experimental Surrealistl filmmakers. These filmmakers came were heavily interested by developments in film and animation of contemporary practitioners such as Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, the German Expressionists, early silent Hollywood films, the abstract animation of Viking Eggeling, and Dadaist performance and film such as those made by Hans Richter. Probably the most famous of these Surrealist filmmakers were Man Ray, René Claire, Jean Coctaeu, Luis Buñuel, and Salvador Dali.

Hans Richter:

Man Ray:

René Clair: 

Jean Cocteau:

Man Ray and Salvador Dali.

Man Ray and Salvador Dali.

Buñuel and Dali are perhaps the most infamous, at least during this period as they created one of the most controversial short films of all time, Un Chien Andelou, known most critically for its sexual explicitness, strong imagery (ants coming out of a hand comes to mind), and its violence including a scene with a women getting apparently getting her eye slashed with a razor. The film was deeply surrealist in its use of dream pacing and imagery and would in some sense dictate the way experimental film and dream sequences would be filmed in the ensuing decades from Hitchcock to The Sopranos.

Meanwhile, although Dali moved away from film, Buñuel began to make feature length Surrealist parables about bourgeois society and the crisis of identity within capitalist catholic society up until his death in 1983.

Un Chien Andalou:

Hitchcock’s dream sequence in Spellbound designed by Salvador Dali:

A dream sequence from The Sopranos:

Buñuel’s feature-legnth Surrealist masterpiece, The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Decline and Legacy:

Like most of the art movements of the twentieth century, Surrealism had a short shelf-life petering out by the 1960’s. It began to decline because mainly of World War II. Many of the artists came to the United States as a result of the fall of France in 1940 and were influential on American artists, notably Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and filmmakers such as Maya Deren. However, these artists were (besides Deren) only tangentially interested in Surrealism and more interested in abstraction and personal expression. Although they used Surrealist methods for untapping the unconscious such as chance, their art was not cerebral like Surrealism but visual and about the experience of looking.

Arshile Gorky, The Liver is the Cock's Comb, 1944.

Arshile Gorky, The Liver is the Cock’s Comb, 1944.

Robert Mother, Elegy to The Spanish Republic, 1971.

Robert Motherwell, Elegy to The Spanish Republic, 1971.

Jackson Pollock, Number 11 (Blue Poles), 1951.

Jackson Pollock, Number 11 (Blue Poles), 1951.


Still from Maya Deren’s dreamy experimental film, Meshes Of The Afternoon, 1941.

Surrealism did become influential in another way. It was used by advertising, fashion, and movies in a form known as ‘pop surrealism.’ It became more important to applied art, entertainment, and commerce than it did a revolutionary movement of freedom. All trappings of its communist leanings went out the window when money entered the picture.

An example of 'Pop Surrealism,' Andy Warhol on the cover of Esquire, 1969.

An example of ‘Pop Surrealism,’ Andy Warhol on the cover of Esquire, 1969.


Surrealist-influenced fashion, 1930’s.

The most well-known Surrealist, Salvador Dali, became more famous as a celebrity figure and personality (not to mention buffoon in an emperor has no clothes sort of way) than as a serious artist. Later cerebral and literary art movements such as Neo-Dada, Pop Art, and Conceptualism became  much more attracted to the original Dadaists during WWI and the 20’S, particularly Duchamp, than they were with Surrealism, although Conceptual artists in particular shared Surrealist’s interest in language.

Surrealism’s fate was sealed by two factors; the rise of the New York art scene during the war and the state of the French Avant-Garde after it. With Abstract Expressionism, the first art movement in America to catch on as truly revolutionary and globally significant, along with a new booming economy, modern art institutions (of which there were few in Europe), and a strong stream of art patronage, the center of world art domination moved from Paris to New York where it would stay until at least the end of the century.

Meanwhile, when they returned to Europe, the Surrealists no longer had the moral authority they had once commanded among elements of the leftist avant-garde. Stalinist and Troskyite notions of communism had been sidelined in favor of an even more unfathomable attraction to Maoism among French communists. The Existentialists and artists like Picasso and Alberto Giacometti had stayed in France during those years and had resisted the Nazi occupiers. By the time the war had ended the Surrealists were no longer able to lead the way as a revolutionary artists, writers, and thinkers in the way that Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Alberto Giacometti, Jean Dubeffet, or even Picasso could. Their style had become stale.

A work of Picasso's during the German occupation of France, Still Life with Blood Sausage, 1941.

A work of Picasso’s painted during the Nazi occupation of France, Still Life with Blood Sausage, 1941.

Alberto Giacometti surrounded by his Existentialist-inspired works, 1951.

Alberto Giacometti surrounded by his Existentialist-inspired works, 1951.


Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beavoir.


Albert Camus.

The Paris art scene, severely weakened by the war, continued to have innovative movements such as Art Brut and the Nouvelle Réalistes but Surrealism was the last movement in France that dominated the art world. Breton continued to influence young artists in the Surrealist vein particularly in South America until his death in 1966 but it was really artists like Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists who would have a greater influence on the postwar Avant-Garde. Art in France and later in the U.S. became particularly influenced by philosophical fads such as Existentialism, Buddhism, Phenomenology, and the media theories of Marshall McLuhan that began to dominate the intellectual scene during the 1950’s and 60’s.

A work by Art Brut founder Jean Dubuffet, Limbour as a Crustacean, 1946.

A work by Art Brut founder Jean Dubuffet, Limbour as a Crustacean, 1946.

Yves Klein, L'accord bleu (RE 10), 1960.

Founder of the Nouvelle Realiste movement Yves Klein, L’accord bleu (RE 10), 1960.

Nonetheless, we shouldn’t totally write off Surrealism’s accomplishments. The idea of investigating dreams and other elements of the unconscious was an important precedent that many artists who were interested in deep recesses of the mind would continue to be attracted. Even today, one of the most popular works of art at The Museum of Modern Art is a work by Salvador Dali. Surrealism continues to attract us because the unconscious is a universal that, if we decide to tap it for creativity, can elucidate beautiful, disturbing, and deeply fascinating things.

Isamu Noguchi; 1929Isamu Noguchi is one of the most important and underrated sculptors of the twentieth century. He was the product of two separate worlds, spending his life and work trying to reconcile his Japanese and Western heritage and influences. He also spent  much of his life traveling across the world while creating public artworks that redefined sculpture and what it could do in a very real sense. Today, you can go to many countries and see important and riveting artworks by Noguchi and be in some sense brought into the serene and appealing world he created.

Here are three of Noguchi’s most famous and beautiful large-scale and public artworks and spaces:

1. The Noguchi Museum, Queens, NY


New York City is a major hub of modern and contemporary art. The city boasts such major collections as the Museum of Modern Art, MoMA PS1 the Guggenheim, The Whitney, The New Museum, The International Center of Photography, not to mention the modern art collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Brooklyn and the Queens Museums annual and semi-annual art fairs, public spaces, and countless galleries.

There are, however, places a little off the beaten track, gems that people visiting New York really should check out. One of these is the Noguchi Museum, nestled in an industrial area of Long Island City in Queens. You wander into the unassuming building and are suddenly transported into another world, an oasis, of beautiful, simple, and austere sculptures, ranging in size and scope.

Moving through the space of the galleries, you feel calm, a meditative ease comes over you. The sculptures and the space seem to interact in a synergistic manner, perfectly imbuing each other with a kind of sublime energy. Suddenly, the idea most art critics thought was long dead, that art could be morally improving, doesn’t seem so far-fetched.


Noguchi wanted to create something that integrated the elements of form and space into a unified whole. The sculptures inhabit the space in such a way as to convey a sense of both delicacy and strength. There are all sizes of sculptures from small to large, as well as abstract models for landscape architecture projects and large works for public spaces, industrial and furniture design from radios to his famous tables and paper lamps, early figurative works to his groundbreaking late monumental works.

The outdoor courtyard conveys both a sense of a Japanese Zen garden with its strict simplicity and natural elements and of the neighborhood of Queens in which it sits. The Noguchi museum is a triumph by an artist who truly understood the importance of a work of art’s effect on the human psyche and wanted to share this gift with others. It is, in a way, the museum is Noguchi’s most all-encompassing work of art, perfectly integrating the artworks with the space they inhabit and having an actual positive psychological impact on its visitors.

Noguchi Museum garden

2. Sunken Garden for the Chase Manhattan Bank, New York, NY


For many, the idea of a work of art built as decoration by a corporation can seem a little perverse. And often, works that corporate entities put outside their headquarters are ugly, vainglorious, or a ‘decorative ashtray,’ as the late art critic Robert Hughes described one such work. But every once and a while you get a sculpture or installation which actually uplifts the space, making it more beautiful, and creating a kind of parentheses of calm in a bustling metropolis.


Noguchi’s Sunken Garden is one such work. Walking up to the bank via concrete steps, the space at first looks like a typical entrance to late twentieth century skyscraper, a kind of blank slate. But soon you see a giant hole cut out of the middle of the space. You are drawn to it to see what lies within the well-like structure and are suddenly brought face to face with an usual sight. A sunken Japanese Zen garden set within this corporate architectural structure, which is accompanied during the warm months by a flowing fountain. The artwork plays off of a series of emotional responses valuable in art and extremely potent: curiosity and surprise followed by delight.

The garden has a different feel from below ground level within the Chase building, where the garden is can be seen at human scale via windows completely surrounding the physical space. This combination of two completely different perspectives is part of what makes the work so successful. It is continuously unfolding, different from every angle and at every season of the year. Like much of Noguchi’s work, it has a kind of spiritual element, simultaneously calming and re-energizing its viewers.


3. Expo ’70 Fountains, Osaka, Japan


Japan, the birthplace of Noguchi’s father and the sculptor’s spiritual homeland, boasts several important public artworks by the sculptor including Two Bridges for Peace Park in memory of the Hiroshima bombing. But the somberness he conveys on one extreme in the bridges could be matched by the sense of fun and excitement he created in other works.


For example, Noguchi designed and created many public parks that used sculptural elements in the designs of playgrounds and landscape architecture. The other area Noguchi explored with enthusiasm was fountains, as seen in the Chase sunken garden, but he also found new and innovative uses for fountains outside of how they had traditionally been conceived.

The Expo ’70 fountains in Osaka Japan are probably the most rich and beautiful example of this experimentation as well as of the sense of childlike excitement and fun that Noguchi was capable of injecting into his works. Noguchi says that he tackled the project with an interest in literally upturning the idea that of what a fountain had traditionally been conceived of, meaning a physical structure that propelled  water upwards. Instead, he created towers that would propel water downwards from a great height of 100 feet, giving the sense of a kind of waterfall.


In addition, water would be manipulated in new ways, spraying, rotating, and swirling. As he put it, the water also ‘disappeared and reappeared as mist.’ The concept of a fountain gave Noguchi the opportunity to play with the natural element of water while exploring ideas of kinetics in sculpture in new ways and inventing a new kind of space for viewers to inhabit.


The Importance of Noguchi:

Noguchi’s importance as a creator of large scale sculptural works should not be underestimated. He used his works as a way to redefine form and space in new and interesting ways while at the same time bringing in elements of both Western and Eastern sculpture, architecture, and landscape design. His works, while managing to be both understated and apolitical, bring joy and peace to a lot of people around the world. That is no small feat.



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Ah, the good life! Waking up, sitting down to work, no responsibilities but to create! This is the life that many creative people desire but very few are actually lucky enough to get. Most of us (those without immense private fortunes or incredible luck) have to have a day job. Sometimes those jobs can seem boring or stifling. We’d rather be home writing that novel, painting that picture, or composing that music. But unfortunately the reality of money can get in the way. But have no fear creative types! You CAN do your thing and have a day job. It may mean some sacrifices in the free time department but it’s doable. Many famous creative people have done it successfully. Here is a list of some of those figures who did their work while keeping their day job.

NPG P869(12); T.S. Eliot by Cecil Beaton 1. T.S. Eliot: Banker and Publisher

The celebrated poet of The Wasteland and Four Quartets is remembered for his revolutionary innovative style and his involvement in developing modern poetry. But the American transplant in London was notoriously conservative and middle class in his lifestyle and world view. This extended to his job as a banker. He worked in the foreign transaction department of Lloyd’s of London where he worked an eight hour day, with only two weeks of vacation a year. Even after The Wasteland made him famous, he continued to labor away as a banker. And apparently, he was really good at it, his co-workers noting that he could’ve gone on to a long successful career as a banker. Eventually, he went on to work at Faber & Faber publishing house where he later became a director. He never gave up on his poetry, which he believed only got better with time and he helped foster whole generations of British poets and writers. 2. Richard Serra: Mover

Serra is regarded as one of the most important sculptors of the twentieth century for his huge and impressive minimal steel works. These sculptures now fetch millions of dollars. But he didn’t always have his artistic work to fall back on.  He started a moving company before he became successful, Low Rate Movers, and worked along with such creative luminaries as Steve Reich and Chuck Close. He enjoyed the job because it meant he didn’t have to work any more than a few days a week and had the rest of the week off to do his artistic work. Since there was such a variety of creative types working in so many disciplines at the moving company, Serra said there was a ‘cross-fertilization’ between everyone which allowed them all to foster a ‘new kind of language’ between their disciplines.

Revolutionary_Joyce_Better_Contrast 3. James Joyce: Piano Teacher

James Joyce was the writer of one of the most famous and difficult novels in the English language, Ulysses, along as such classics as Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Finnegan’s Wake. He was famous for his disorganized nature and his enjoyment of the French café life. But that didn’t mean he didn’t need an income outside of his writing. For many years, he worked as piano teacher from 2:00 to 7:00 pm or later, smoking long Virgnina cheroots throughout. Before hand, he would sit down to practice and would often need to be reminded by his wife Nora, who would have to tell him to change his shirt. If he had time, after his lessons and before his usual late night drinking sessions, he would work on his writing. With his work and other distractions, he maintained that it took him approximately 20,000 hours to actually write Ulysees.


4. Philip Glass: Plumber and Taxi Driver

When people thing of the term ‘Minimalism’ in reference to music most (if they’re not like me and
immediately of Steve Reich) will think of Philip Glass. It is hard to watch a movie today featuring modern Classical music and not hear either Glass or something influenced by Glass on the soundtrack. He has become the poster child for a whole generation of post-war American composers. But Glass wasn’t always able to live off the proceeds of his music. Early on and for a long time he was struggling.

Besides working alongside Richard Serra at the sculptor’s moving company, Glass worked as a plumber in New York. On one occasion, while installing a dishwasher, he looked up to see the art critic Robert Hughes ask him puzzling, ‘But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here?’ Hughes was puzzled that someone as important to the musical and art worlds was degraded to doing this kind of work. Glass replied that he should go away and let him finish the installation. Glass also worked for three years as a cab driver just after finishing his landmark opera, Einstein on the Beach.

Anthony_Trollope_7 5. Anthony Trollope: Postal and Surveyor’s Clerk

Anthony Trollope, author of a series of novels based on mid to late nineteenth century topical subjects, known collectively as the Chronicles of Barsetshire, is not widely read today. But they were immensely popular during the Victorian Age. He was however, not lucky enough to be able to work only on his novels. For years, he woke early, working from 5:30 to 8:30 am on his writing with his watch in plain view. This was because he mandated himself to write 250 words every 15 minutes. This incredible stamina was what allowed him to write so many books. After he had completed his writing for the day, he would go off to his job as a postal service clerk.

Although he worked as a clerk for many years, he started off as a failure, often arriving late and fighting with his boss, who detested Trollope so much that he would try to thwart the future author’s career for many years to come. After working for the London General Post Office for 7 years, he realized he could move up no further in his current position. He decided to move to Ireland where he became a Surveyor’s Clerk for the Central District of Ireland, and his career and his skills began to improve. It was during these years that he began to write. Trollope is also famous for popularizing ‘pillar boxes’ or public mail boxes in Britain, which allowed people to quickly and privately send letters without going through a mail clerk at the Post Office.

SHORPY_4a20429a_20823 Why you should keep your day job:

Many people believe that to do creative work effectively you need freedom and limited distractions. For this to happen, your creative work needs to become your job. While this system may work for a lucky few, the rest of us don’t have such luxuries or we work better when our lives are compartmentalized and organized. For those of us who need to pay our bills while we do our art, at least until our art pays our bills, it is comforting to know that we can still be successful AND make a living.

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Recently, I decided to revisit one of the books that made me want to write about creativity, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. I wasn’t disappointed.

Daily Rituals delves into the process and lifestyles of many important figures, not just in visual art but in literature, music, choreography, film and even philosophy. The book takes each of these artists and thinkers and then goes into great and fascinating detail about their daily routines: how they structured their day, when and how they ate, worked, and played.  As the author puts it, “All of them found the time to get their work done. But there is an infinite variation on how they structured their lives to do so.” The book proves that there are many ways to success in creative disciplines and is captivating as well as inspiring.

When to Work and How Much:

While it is the variety of the experiences recounted in Daily Rituals that really engages the reader, there are some practices that these creators have in common. The majority of them started work in the morning, mostly between the hours of eight and ten and then worked until lunch. W.H. Auden went so far to state that “Only the Hitlers of the world work at night; no honest artist does.” The novelist Günter Grass also believes only writing during the day was the only way to go because as he says “it comes too easily.”

W.H. Auden

W.H. Auden

This is not true of everyone of course. The short story writer Ann Beattie can only write between the hours of 12:00 and 3:00 AM. The playwright Tom Stoppard says, “I never work in the mornings unless I’m in real trouble.”

There is of course another issue that many creative people have to deal with. How do you do your thing if you also have a 9-5 job? Toni Morrison, for instance, worked at first in the evening after each day at her job in publishing, but had switched to early mornings by the 1990’s saying she lacked intelligence and wit after dark.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

The poet Wallace Stevens balanced a successful career as an insurance lawyer with his poetry, which he would compose while walking to work. Currey quotes him as saying that a job, “introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life. I am just as free as I want to be and have nothing to worry about money.”

One aspect of routine that varies drastically among all the figures in this book is how much to work. Some kept long hours, like Voltaire who worked eighteen to twenty hours a day or Karl Marx who labored from when the British Library opened in the morning at 9:00 until well into the night.  Most worked between two and five hours a day, the limit it seems for the intensity it takes to concentrate on creative projects. Gertrude Stein put in as little as ½ hour, explaining that even that little work every day would add up to a lot after a year.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

The Importance of Routine:

One writer who really understood the value of routine was the German author Thomas Mann. As Currey reports it, he was up and ready to go by 9:00 AM. Then he would steal himself away in his study, completely shutting himself off from everyone including his family. He would limit himself to composing his fiction until noon which would force him to take his work slowly and carefully. Then he could attend to other matters in the afternoon. This kind of regimented schedule worked well for him and allowed him to progress at a relatively consistent rate.


Thomas Mann

Others were able to get work done despite their relaxed attitudes. Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, reportedly lay in bed and chatted with his mother well into the morning. His writing took him a long time as well. During the writing of Bovary, Flaubert only wrote two pages week, taking nearly five years to complete the novel.

Gustave Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert

The Urge to Create:

Patricia Highsmith, author of such classics as The Talented Mr. Ripley (one of my favorite film adaptations) and Strangers on a Train, saw writing as a compulsion. Not working led to unhappiness.“’There is no real life except for working, that is to say in the imagination,’ she wrote in her journal. Fortunately she was rarely short of inspiration; she had ideas, she said, like rats have orgasms.”

Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith wasn’t the only person to need to work to be happy. As Freud put it, “I cannot imagine life without work as really comfortable.” But he also understood the value of relaxation. He would take three month vacations with his family during the summer.

Environment and Distraction:

Freud’s onetime friend and later bitter rival in the psychoanalytic community, Carl Jung, also is described by Currey as being a ‘workaholic.’ At the same time Jung demanded something else that is important for the creative disposition: the right kind of environment. He built a home for himself called Bollingen Tower, which contained only the essentials needed to do his work: no electricity, phone, or even running water. This allowed Jung a simple existence, one that he could fill with his psychoanalytic writing, but also with physical labor which he loved.

Carl Jung in his study room _cropped

Carl Jung

Not everyone can work in a conventional environment. As Anne Rice mentions in the book, for some limiting distractions is essential if you want to get anything done. For others, like illustrator and author Maira Kalman, just the ‘right amount’ of distraction, cleaning, ironing, taking a walk.


Anne Rice

It is interesting to note just how many creative people discussed in this book took long walks and napped during the day. Apparently these activities, considered time-wasting and frivolous by many over-worked Americans, are quite beneficial to the creative mind.

The Struggle for Discipline:

The urge to create, that drive to express is something that comes up again and again in Currey’s book. Not everybody works that way however. Many struggle to find the work ethic to keep a routine going. Sometimes attempts at a rigid and defined discipline could falter even for the most productive of figures. Take the case of Benjamin Franklin who worked out a very calculated and considered routine for himself.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

“The plan worked, up to a point. After following the course several times in a row, he found it necessary to go through the course just one in a year, and then one every few years. But the virtue of order—‘Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time”—appears to have eluded his grasp.”

What’s great about this passage is that it acknowledges a struggle that many of us have with creative projects: that of staying focused, staying on track, seeing our work through. Many of us (myself included) are great at coming up with a plan but when it comes to accomplishing our goals we have trouble. We falter, sometimes we even fail.

Another great example of someone who constantly struggled with a consistent work ethic was William James. The philosopher who was obsessed with the ideas of routines and believed, whole-heartedly, that one needed to regiment time, focus, and be decisive, was an epic procrastinator.

As Currey relates, “James kept no regular schedule, was chronically indecisive and lived a disorderly, unsettled life.” He was obsessed with routines but was not able to enact the sorts of routines he recommended to others.


William James

Another famous example of a terminal procrastinator was the creator of the first English dictionary, Samuel Johnson. He had a great deal of difficulty rising in the morning and mostly worked at night after returning from taverns.

Bad Habits:

Rituals can be detrimental as well as beneficial in life as in creation. A constant theme in the book is that of the ritual of drink. It is something that has been tied to both the act of creativity and the social life of creative types for centuries. Sometimes it is a positive force. Some writers, for instance, see it as a way to loosen up their minds, to get ideas flowing. But it can be taken too far.

The Post-Impressionist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec basically drank himself to death. His hard-hitting lifestyle which allowed him to depict the Paris cabarets and brothels which he loved, along with the late nights and constant alcohol consumption that came with them, would kill him at the age of only thirty-six.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Fiction writer John Cheever too had a drinking problem managing to hide it for much of his adult life, eventually spending more time drinking than writing. He also, during the early part of his career, had quite a famously unconventional way of working, getting dressed like he was going to the office and then riding the apartment elevator down to the basement, undressing, and beginning to write.

Jackson Pollock too was notorious for his self-destructive habits, including drinking, that would eventually kill him in a drunk driving accident. It is interesting then that his most productive period occurred when he moved with his wife to Long Island, far from the New York alcohol-soaked art world.


Jackson Pollock

Why Creatives Have Routines:

There are many myths about creative people: that they are undisciplined, that what they do takes little skill or effort, that they are lazy. The most important success of Currey’s book is to prove that these are indeed untrue. Though many creative people have unconventional lifestyles, most need a strong work ethic to get anything done at all. Writing a book, painting, directing a film: these all take a great deal of work and so one needs to manage ones time wisely.

Most creatives eat, sleep, work, and play at regular times. Many work during the day. Some who live crazy bohemian lifestyles burn out quickly and get little done, and many of those who have difficulty with creative discipline struggle in order enact routines in their life and work. But even those things that may seem like procrastination can be helpful. Naps, walks, and drinking that may come across as luxuries to some are often beneficial in creative work.

In the end,  Daily Rituals is essential reading for anyone who is interested in creativity. It is an revealing and enlightening account of what it is to be a creative person and can act as a kind of blueprint for creatives to get some stability in order to do their best work.

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Alexander Calder made play the major theme of his art. Over the course of more than fifty years, he worked harder than most in the pursuit of the creation of his own universe, invented a whole new genre, an art of moving sculpture known as ‘mobiles,’ and made works on an unsurpassed scale. But he was also an incredibly interesting character, a man who had a childlike view of life which translated seamlessly into his work.

Calder had sculpture in his blood. His father was also a sculptor and many of his ancestors had been stone masons. He was not that interested in becoming an artist at firs however. He loved to work with his hands and went on to go to school to become an engineer. He didn’t do well in the program and decided to become an artist after all.


Alexander Calder with two of his wire portraits.

When he began his career, he worked primarily in wire, sculpting portraits and images of animals that resembled abstract line drawings but in three-dimensions. He could create whole exhibition on the spot with just wire and some pliers. He was always interested in sculptural materials uncommon or unknown to the genre including scrap iron, found stones, broken glass, even mercury. He was capable of building sculptures on almost any scale from gargantuan behemoths to tiny fragile works.


“Romulus and Remus,” 1928.


Detail of “Calder’s Circus,” 1926-31.

Early on, during the 1920′s, Calder began making extended trips to Paris. Here he became a part of the booming art scene. At this time, he built a fully-functional miniature circus out of wire and refuse. He performed the circus for art-world friends who came to see it on a regular basis. The circus highlighted his lifelong fascination with toys and childlike objects and was an early example of a moving sculpture.

Shortly after the notoriety of his circus, Calder began to experiment with abstract moving sculptures. He went to the studio of Piet Mondrian and was amazed at the sense of motion that could be conveyed through abstract shapes. Calder’s early moving works were controlled by motors. Marcel Duchamp called them ‘mobiles’ and the name stuck. From this point, he was obsessed with the cosmos and it became a major theme of many of his sculptors. During an early Paris exhibition of Calder’s mechanical mobiles, physicist Albert Einstein visited and was reportedly fascinated by one of the sculptures, A Universe, and stared at it for forty minutes.


“A Universe,” 1934.

After building a few of these mechanized works Calder decided to move to works that would be based out of a more natural idea of chance instead of out of mechanical predetermination. Chance allowed for infinite movement and combinations between elements within the work. Movement was thus dictated by other natural forces such as air currents in a room or wind outside. He wanted to get rid of symmetry in order to create more tension and visual interest. Many of his artworks involve color, but color was secondary to shape and movement, mostly acting as a differentiation mechanism between different elements of the sculptures.


“Red, Blue & Black Cascade,” 1974.


“Vertical Foliage,” 1941.

Despite their references to the mechanics of the universe, Calder’s works were not overly serious but playful and childlike.  They approached existence as someone viewing it from the naïve eye of a child, with a child’s attitude of fun. Perhaps that is why the mobile has become such a favorite toy for babies and young children. The sculptures were simple. They were the thing in itself. Nothing lay beyond the works besides his interest in nature through allusions, materials, and natural forms.


“Fish,” 1944.

In addition to mobiles, Calder invented a type of sculpture ironically dubbed ‘stabiles.’ Although these sculptures did not move, they seemed to imply a sense of movement through their design. They were often very large but appeared quite light as though they were liable to float off at any minute. Stabiles recalled architecture in their concrete yet airy design, for instance the solidly buttressed medieval cathedrals of France.


“Le Grande Vitesse,” 1969.

Sculpture was not the only genre Calder worked in. He painted, created stage sets, designed illustrations and wallpaper, tapestries and rugs, children’s toys and jewelry. He never stopped creating, working every day, and made or manufactured a reported 16,000 works.

Calder worked primarily in assembling sculptures from wire and scrap metal. He didn’t like carving because he often grew impatient. When creating one of his large-scale sculptures, he would start with a small model made of aluminum, which he would alter freely. When he had finished the model he would bring it to workers who would fabricate it on a larger scale. He would then make particular alterations he thought would improve the final sculpture.


“Untitled II,” 1965.

Calder’s studio was notoriously messy,  with wire, metal, refuse, tools, sculptures, and papers everywhere. He designed everything that went into his house including cooking tools and decoration. He even made alterations to his cars. In this way he created his own world, shaping it with his hands. This extended to friends and relatives as well. He spent a lot of his time fixing up their houses for them.


Calder’s studio.

Calder was incredibly unpretentious about his sculptures.  He never called his them works of art, preferring the term objects. When asked who he intended his sculptures for, he replied that he didn’t do it for anyone in particular. He worked and that was all. When asked if he liked his contemporaries, he responded “yes, but they are all idiots.” When he was asked if he liked the Louvre, he responded “the courtyard is nice. It is well tarred.”

Calder had quite a gregarious and silly personality and was physically big, especially in later years, like a friendly bear. He spoke simply and plainly. He ate and drank excessively. He didn’t care for decorum and dressed in informal wool shirts for every social function. He was also extremely generous, giving gifts of art to many of his friends and acquaintances.

Despite his simplicity and over-the-top personality, Calder was in no way stupid. He understood the importance of his work at a very basic level and spoke and wrote about it with great depth and articulateness. He was also usually paying attention even when it seemed he was not. He took naps on Parisian bistro tables but was only half asleep. He was able to pick up the conversations around him and upon awakening could pick them up in the middle.


“Bird,” 1952.

Alexander Calder was an important artist because he brought a certain playful energy, lack of pretension, and reverence for nature into modernism at time when many modern artists were often quite pretentious and over-serious about their work and no longer considered nature an acceptable subject matter for art. It is amazing that Calder was able to use synthetic materials to create such natural primordial forms, so full of spontaneity, and that had the facility to create such joy in those that viewed them. It is also fascinating how his own personality and attitude towards life was aligned with the work he created, making the two basically inseparable.

Calder’s work is so iconic that it led  the term ‘mobile’ which has become to become a ubiquitous part of everyday life outside the realm of art. His sculptures are immediately and universally recognizable as his own. How many artists can claim that kind of revolutionary inventiveness, that kind of cultural clout, or staying power? Calder is a great oasis, a break in the desert of super-pretentious over-intellectual modern art. In this way, he is an invaluable figure and not one to be discounted or downplayed in importance.

Standing Mobile 1937 by Alexander Calder 1898-1976

“Untitled,” 1937.