‘A kind of freedom’: 10 artists who found inspiration in isolation
Many of today’s highest-selling artists produced their best works in solitude, away from the clamour of society
Pain thrums through Frida Kahlo’s life and art: childhood polio crippled her; a near-fatal bus crash at the age of 18 led to a life of surgeries and recoveries; abortions and miscarriages left her traumatised. Then, of course, there was her turbulent on-off love affair with Diego Rivera, a string of adulterous liaisons and her strained relationship with her mother.
Kahlo channelled this personal suffering into her art, birthing a macabre creativity now feted the world over.
She began painting in 1925, during her nine-month convalescence from the bus accident, using a custom-made lap easel and an overhead mirror installed in her bed’s canopy. Over the next 20 years or so, Frida painted the frailty of the human body, life and death and decay with haunting poignancy.
‘I paint myself,’ she once said, ‘because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.’ Of her 143 surviving paintings, 55 are self-portraits.
Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) saw art as a means to effect social and political change. By the early 1970s, he was widely regarded in Europe as one of Germany’s leading conceptual artists. He was, however, less well-known across the Atlantic.
It was during his first trip to America in 1974 that Beuys unveiled I Like America and America Likes Me, a live performance piece — or Action — that has become one of his best-known works.
It involved Beuys spending three days in a room with a coyote. The artist later explained: ‘I wanted to isolate myself, insulate myself, see nothing of America other than the coyote.’
To Native Americans, the coyote was a god that could move between the physical and spiritual worlds. After the arrival of European settlers, it was seen rather as a pest. Beuys sought to confront the schism. ‘You could say that a reckoning has to be made with the coyote, and only then can this trauma be lifted,’ the artist explained.
In 1967, Agnes Martin (1912-2004) gave away her painting materials and fled New York in a pickup truck. She resurfaced around 18 months later on a remote mesa in Taos, New Mexico. ‘I’ve finished painting,’ she said to Arne Glimcher, the founder of Pace Gallery, just before she took off. ‘I’m never painting again.’
According to Glimcher, ‘She felt she had painted everything she could paint. She needed to go back to New Mexico, to that kind of space and solitude.’ But more than anything, he adds, ‘I don’t think she could cope with the notoriety that she was starting to gain.’
In Taos, Martin led a simpler, if isolating existence. She didn’t own a television, or a phone, or a cat for that matter. ‘I can’t have any distractions,’ she said to Glimcher.
She would not return to painting until 1974. And when she did, her aesthetic had changed — her grids had morphed into an exploration of horizontal and vertical lines, the pastel greys and whites replaced with soft pinks, yellows and blues. This new painterly language would earn her widespread recognition and cult status as a sort of desert mystic.
Ivon Hitchens (1893-1979) is perhaps best known today for his post-war abstract paintings of the British countryside, executed in blocks of rich, vibrant colour. Many such landscapes were painted in and around Greenleaves, the rural home he shared with his family near Petworth in Sussex.
The artist’s retreat to Greenleaves at the outbreak of World War Two — his London studio was bombed in 1940 — marks a turning point in his work. Surrounded by six acres of woodland, Greenleaves proved a fertile source of inspiration: the silver birch trees in his garden, the nearby meadows, and the sunflowers, poppies and dahlias from his courtyard garden would populate his canvases for the next 40 years.
Yayoi Kusama has described her work as ‘art medicine’; the making process as a form of ‘self-therapy’. ‘If it were not for art,’ she once revealed, ‘I would have killed myself a long time ago.’
By drawing and painting repetitive patterns, Kusama seeks to obliterate her hallucinatory daemons and escape them. ‘I paint them [dots] in quantity; in doing so, I try to escape,’ she explained of her polka-dot works in an interview with Artspace in 2017. Her ‘Infinity Net’ paintings, which first won her critical acclaim in New York, are her most sought-after works at auction.
Open about her illness, Kusama has lived voluntarily in a psychiatric asylum in Tokyo since 1977. She is now in her nineties. Most recently, in response to the current health crisis, Kusama shared a message with the world, in which she says it’s time ‘to fight and overcome our unhappiness’.
Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh’s painful last years saw the creation of some of his most famous works, including The Starry Night (1889), Wheat with Crows (1890), and Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890), the last of which sold for $82,500,000 in 1990 at Christie’s New York, setting a record price at auction for any work by the artist.
Much of his work from 1889, including Vue de l’asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy, was completed during his stay at Saint Paul de Mausole, a former monastery that had been converted into a private hospital for the mentally ill.
His urgent brushstrokes, use of electrifying colours and ridges of thick impasto would pave the way for early 20th-century Expressionism. Yet during his time at the asylum, maintaining the balance between his mental health and being able to focus on his work proved difficult. ‘To sacrifice one’s freedom,’ he wrote to his brother Theo, ‘to stand outside society and to have only one’s work, without distraction… it’s beginning to weigh too heavily upon me here.’
After the death of her photographer husband, Alfred Stieglitz, in 1946, Georgia O’Keeffe would spend summers and autumns isolated at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, living off a generator and without a telephone. The house was sparsely furnished, reflecting her minimalist aesthetic.
She said the solitude offered ‘a kind of freedom’ that brought her closer to nature. The view of the wide open desert backed by the Cerro Pedernal mountain, as in Red Hills with Pedernal, White Clouds (1936), became her favourite subject.
‘It’s my private mountain,’ she explained. ‘It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.’
Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde (1924-2001), more commonly known as V.S. Gaitonde, is one of the highest-selling modern Indian artists at auction. According to Deepanjana Klein, Christie’s International Head of South Asian Art, ‘his mostly monochromatic paintings have a depth that engulfs you in silence and stillness.’
Those same qualities of silence and stillness also characterised the man himself. As the late art critic Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni explained in 1983, ‘Gaitonde isolated himself very early in his career from everything in his environment which he considered irrelevant to [his] intensity as a painter.’
Gaitonde only produced around five or six paintings a year, and rarely mixed with fellow artists. ‘Everything starts from silence,’ he once said. ‘The silence of the canvas. The silence of the painting knife. The painter starts by absorbing all these silences.’
Born in 1839 in Aix-en-Provence, Cézanne studied law before leaving for Paris in 1861 to pursue a career as a painter. There, he met the Impressionist Camille Pissarro and later exhibited at the first (1874) and third (1877) Impressionist exhibitions.
By the early 1880s, however, Cézanne had returned to Provence and begun to withdraw from the Paris-centred Impressionists.
In the rugged solitude of his sun-drenched homeland, his work pivoted in direction. He played with perspective and used short, hatched brushstrokes, blocks of strong, saturated colour and irregular lighting.
Today, works from Cézanne’s groundbreaking late period are highly sought after by collectors at auction. Formerly in the storied collection of S.I. Newhouse, Bouilloire et fruits (1888-90, above) sold for $59,295,000 in May 2019 at Christie’s in New York, well above its on-request estimate in the region of $40 million.
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Born in New York in 1903, Joseph Cornell (died 1972) would become renowned for his exquisite shadow boxes — glass-fronted wooden constructions filled with combinations of ephemera — and his reclusive, solitary existence. The artist famously never married or left his family home on Utopia Parkway in Queens.
His imagination, however, roamed gloriously, wildly free. During excursions into the city, he would gather ephemera (trinkets, shells, postcards, coins, toys) that inspired imaginary travel to far-flung lands. These found objects would become the heart and soul of his shadow boxes. Assembled in his mother’s basement — usually at night — these ‘poetic theatres’ became his refuge.
Cornell established cursory friendships with Dalí, Duchamp and Lee Miller, among others, and an intense yet sexless relationship with Yayoi Kusama. Yet the more his reputation grew, the more hermit-like he became. After the death of his beloved brother in 1965, and his mother the following year, Cornell was plagued by a longing for the intimacy that had so eluded him.
In December 1972, during his last conversation with his sister, he confided, ‘I wish I hadn’t been so reserved.’