Theatres of Absorption:
the studio visit in contemporary art practice

Theory-based doctoral research project contextualizing, analyzing and assessing the significance of the studio visit in contemporary art. [1] The studio visit is the subject of my research because I believe it epitomizes a meeting or blurring between practice and ‘metapractice’ [2] (or absorption and theatricality) which I see as a key factor in the operation of contemporary art, itself situated in a wider cultural context marked by celebrity and the narrativization of everyday life. I plan to conduct a survey of studio visits across diverse artistic practices to challenge my hypothesis that lifelike or autobiographical art more readily accommodates the effects of the studio visit because of the art/life blurring it already precipitates. I expect to find a structural correlation between the blurring epitomized in the studio visit and the anxiety of disappearance enunciated in post-conceptual object-based art. Finally, I plan to asses the extent to which this model of the studio visit can indeed be extrapolated to the broader meeting of practice and ‘metapractice’ I claim it epitomizes, and how this research can hence contribute to a poetics of contemporary art as a phenomenon incorporated into, rather than differentiated from, the wider culture in which it participates.

Research Background

The gesture of the readymade has been read (De Duve 1994) in terms of the object’s isolation and inscription by the artist; a gesture later invigorated and problematized by practices of conceptual art that enunciate a ‘desire to disappear as art object’ (Newman 1999), and then reinvigorated in post-conceptual art through ‘the alignment of the desire to disappear with the acknowledgement of the impossibility of disappearing’ (Newman 1999 on Joe Scanlan). I propose that the metapractice associated with lifelike and autobiographical practices (esp. of Tracey Emin: see Lehman 2002; Betterton 2002; also evidenced in popular reception [3] ) is a parallel descendent of the readymade gesture of inscription and its subsequent problematization, and that in this way the person, personal experience and persona of the artist are employed to enact what post-conceptual object-based practices articulate through material objects. That is, I propose that the alignment of the desire to disappear and the impossibility of disappearing is enacted by these artists through the tensioned coexistence of practice and metapractice, of which the former is allied to strategies of ‘absorption’ and the latter to strategies of ‘theatricality’ (terminology from Fried 1980). Moreover I contend that this structure is not after all restricted to lifelike/autobiographical art, but instead vividly comes into evidence in a range of practices through the studio visit (for instance across Ingres, Mondrian, Giacometti, Pollock, Morris, Warhol, Rothko, Hesse, Kaprow, Hsieh, Emin, Nauman, Eliasson).

There exists a long and well-documented tradition of artists depicted in their studios from the Romantic garret (Zakon 1978), to the site of action (Rosenberg 1952, 1970; Orton 1991, Marie 2010), to the white cube testing-ground (O’Doherty 2007). Analyses also exist of the empty artist studio and its representation in documentary and art (Samaras 1964; Getsy 2002; O’Doherty 2007). Though increasingly prevalent today (Blaswick 1996), non-studio specific artist interviews also have a long history (Bickers 2007). Nevertheless, in 1971 Daniel Buren (as cited in Rodenbeck 2009) points out that the artist studio is ‘rarely even mentioned today’ in art discourse; and by 2003 Graw still sees ‘persistent lacunae in critical scholarship on the artist’s studio’. That critical interest has since increased is marked by the recent publication of three broad anthologies on the subject (Doherty 2004; Davidts & Paice 2009; Jacob & Grabner 2010), including reflections on ‘post-studio practice’ and the ‘fall’ of the studio following tendencies towards dematerialized, outsourced, site-specific, collaborative etc. practices. Discussion of the negative effect of the studio space upon artistic praxis (Graw 2003) tangentially relates to my study for the problematic of the contradictory tableau it implies. Beyond brief analyses of the studio visit (Welish 1988, 1989; Rodenbeck 2009), I have yet to find extended critique of the live interpersonal encounter with the artist in the studio, nor consideration of the role of this encounter in the interface between art and life.

Analytical Structures

Further to the Research Background outlined above, I have drawn terminology and analytical structures from two sources in particular:

In anthropological discourse hitherto only summarily applied to artistic inscription (via Allan Kaprow), Schechner (1985) distinguishes between indicative (here ‘uninscribed’) and subjunctive (here ‘inscribed’) strips of behaviour. This distinction helps to schematize the axes of restoration, absorption and theatricality at stake across practice and metapractice in my study, and to plot against these axes the interface between art and life and the impact of the visitor-spectator’s presence within or before the studio-tableau.

The notions of the tableau and the opposing representational strategies of absorption and theatricality are characterized in Michael Fried’s analysis of eighteenth century Paris Salon reports (Fried 1980; see also Foucault 1970). Though I do perceive a lineage running from the incipient subject position Fried elicits from the Salon reports, via the disembodied eye of the white cube spectator (O’Doherty 1976) to the interpersonal studio visit, my interest is essentially synchronic and this schema serves more to provide an analytical framework than a historical context.

Research Questions

1)  What is the nature of the studio visit? How does the studio visit affect the participants, processes, products and equipment of the art-making process during the visit? An empirical and phenomenological understanding of the studio visit is necessary for my discussion of its place in the operation of contemporary art at (2).

2)  How do the immediate effects of the studio visit established at (1) subsequently or consequently fold back into the operation of the art practice at stake? Specifically, to what extent and in what direction is the location of the inscribed art object shifted, either back towards a pre-inscribed state or outwards towards a non-inscribed state? Is this shift peculiar to lifelike/autobiographical art practices; and if not how can the shift be generalized across a range of practices? This question forms the crux of my enquiry, and develops propositions to test against the wider context at (3).

3)  Which aspects of the studio visit model established at (1) and (2) can be extrapolated across the wider intersections of practice and metapractice: i.e. is it indeed paradigmatic of these intersections? How do these findings add to our existing understanding of the interface between art and life in the contemporary culture of celebrity and the narrativization of everyday life? By moving to broaden my findings in this way I hope to demonstrate how my research can contribute to a poetics of contemporary art that is invigorated by its tensioned position between incorporation into and differentiation from its wider cultural context.

Betterton, R. (2002). Why is My Art not as Good as Me? In: Merck, M. and Townsend, C., eds. The Art of Tracey Emin. London: Thames and Hudson. pp. 22-39.

Bickers, P. (2007). Introduction. In: Bickers, P. and Wilson, A., eds. Talking Art: Interviews with Artists since 1976. London: Ridinghouse. pp. 13-23.

Blazwick, I. (2007). An Anatomy of the Interview. In: Bickers, P. and Wilson, A., eds. Talking Art: Interviews with Artists since 1976. London: Ridinghouse. pp. 25-28. First published Art Monthly, 200, October 1996.

Davidts, D. and Paice, K. eds. (2009). The Fall of the Studio: Artists at Work. Amsterdam: Valiz

De Duve, T. (1994). Echoes of the Readymade: Critique of Pure Modernism. October, 70, pp. 60-97.

Doherty, C. ed. (2004) Contemporary Art: From Studio to Situation. London: Black Dog Publishing.

Getsy, D. J. (2002). The Reconstruction of the Francis Bacon Studio in Dublin. Documents, 22, pp. 65-69.

Graw, I. (2003). Atelier. Raum ohne Zeit; Vorwort. Texte Zur Kunst, 13(49). Cited in: Davidts, D. and Paice, K., eds. (2009). The Fall of the Studio: Artists at Work. Amsterdam: Valiz p. 3.

Foucault, M. (1966). The Order of Things. Translated from French 1970. London: Routledge.

Fried, M. (1980). Absorption and Theatricality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jacob, M. J. and Grabner, M., eds. (2010). The Studio Reader: On the Space of Artists. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Lehmann, U. (2002). The Trademark Tracey Emin. In: Merck, M. and Townsend, C., eds. The Art of Tracey Emin. London: Thames and Hudson. pp. 60-78.

Lippard, L. and Chandler, J. (1968). The Dematerialization of Art. Art International, 12(2) pp. 31-36.

Newman, M. and Bird, J., eds. (1999) Rewriting Conceptual Art. London: Reaktion Books

Newman, M. (1999). After Conceptual Art. In: Newman, M. and Bird, J., eds. Rewriting Conceptual Art. London: Reaktion Books. pp. 206-221.

Marie, A. (2010). Action Painting Fourfold. In: Jacob, M. J. and Grabner, M. eds. (2010). The Studio Reader: On the Space of Artists. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 80-85.

Merck, M. and Townsend, C., eds. (2002). The Art of Tracey Emin. London: Thames and Hudson.

O’Doherty, M. (1976). Inside the White Cube. London: University of Chicago Press.

O’Doherty, M. (2007). Studio and Cube. New York: FORuM.

Orton, F. (1991). Action Revolution Painting. Oxford Art Journal, 14(2), pp. 3-17.

Rosenberg, H. (1952). The American Action Painters. The Tradition of the New. New York: Horizon Press.

Rosenberg, H. (1970). The Diminished Act. In: Act and the Actor: Making the Self. New York: World Publishing Company.

Rodenbeck, J. (2009). Studio Visit. Modern Painters, 21(2), pp. 53-57.

Samaras, L. (1964). Room #1. Installation at Green Gallery, New York.

Schechner, R. (1985). Between Theater and Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Welish, M. (2010). The Studio Visit. In: Jacob, M. J. and Grabner, M., eds. (2010). The Studio Reader: On the Space of Artists. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Welish, M. (1988). The Studio Visit. Art Criticism, 5(1), pp. 1-10.

Welish, M. (1989). The Studio Revisited. Arts Magazine, 64, pp. 55-60.

Zakon, R. L. (1978). The Artist and the Studio in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art.



[1] By ‘studio visit’ I mean the meeting of an artist and some external visitor (e.g. critic, gallerist, interviewer) within the artist’s studio space for the purpose of gathering some insight into the artist’s work or working practice. The exact scope of the term needs close definition to accommodate non-studio practices and local interpersonal encounters equivalent to the studio visit.

[2] By ‘metapractice’ I mean the artist’s management of a public profile or brand through public appearances, interviews, statements, etc. See also discussion of the ‘trademark-poncif’ in Lehmann (2002).

[3] E.g. Independent on Sunday elicited responses from the public, artists and interior designers for the feature ‘Debate: would you show your bed to the public?’ (24.10.99).

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