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Icicle propagation on a building facade in Pittsburgh: Living with constraints

A few months back I posted a quote from the artist Carroll Dunham that has a great deal of meaning for me:

The most basic thing to say about painting: it’s a limiting condition within which absolutely anything goes. But it’s a negative premise. It’s not, “I like painting because it’s so wonderful—it can do all these wonderful things.” It’s more, “I like painting because it’s so limited, it’s so uptight, so old and so flat and so rectilinear.” Within that, you’re good to go.

Recently I have been reading a lot about innovation, from breakthroughs in open innovation to high yield collaborations. Although a lot of my reading has focused on how innovation plays out in corporate settings (it is all of interest to me regardless of the context), the parallels to my personal experience are still relevant.

For example, this passage is from Jeffrey Philips on the blog, Innovate on Purpose:

What happens in with a tight brief, or a well communicated set of criteria, is that the team is then liberated to innovation within those criteria, or to achieve something incredibly new and different within that criteria. Since we all need a villain to slay or some fixed point to pivot from, having some fixed criteria or goals mean that we can then assume those goals are fixed and find all manner of outrageous ways to satisfy those criteria or goals. That’s when the really interesting ideas start flowing. Good ideas then lead to a decision making process based on the established criteria or constraints. This is a two-fer. You get better idea generation, better engagement and a team that can more easily choose the best ideas, since the constraints were clearly identified.

If you want a team to really excel at idea generation, set a big problem or goal for them, define the strategic opportunities and establish some key constraints. Then, allow them all the degrees of freedom possible outside of the constraints, and wait for the great ideas to come.

The role of constraints—be they within the confines of painting or within a team setting—continues to fascinate me. Given my personality proclivities that chafe at the very thought of limits (in that oft-circulated challenge to describe yourself in just six words, mine was “Don’t tell me what to do”), I have never tired of the limits that painting imposes on visual expression. Although Dunham is being both truthful and tongue in cheek in his comment above, I have never flinched from staying right there in the middle of that “limiting condition within which absolutely anything goes.”


The Crossing, video/sound installation by Bill Viola (Photo: Kira Perov)

One of the added pleasures of the MOCA Los Angeles show (reference to this is in the blog below) was the quotes from artists that accompanied their works. Many are worth sharing and are compelling even without the specific context of the work on display.

Here’s a sampling:

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When I paint, I liberate monsters. They are the manifestations of all the doubts, searches and gropings for meaning and expression which all artists experience. One does not choose the content, one submits to it.

–Pierre Alechinsky

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I never violate an inner rhythm. I loathe to force anything. I don’t know if the inner rhythm is Eastern or Western. I know it is essential for me. I listen to it and I stay with it. I have always been this way. I have regard for the inner voice.

–Lee Krasner

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My work is non-objective. But I want people, when they look at my paintings, to have the same feelings they experience when they look at landscape, so I never protest when they say my work is like landscape. But it’s really about the feeling of beauty and freedom that you experience in landscape.

–Agnes Martin

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The rational mind constantly wants to be in charge. The other parts want to fly. My painting is the encounter between the minds’s necessity for control and its yearning to fly, to be free from our ever-confining skill.

–Ed Moses

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I am not trying to illustrate religion. I’m a storyteller with a broken history.

–Anselm Kiefer

***
The most basic thing to say about painting: it’s a limiting condition within which absolutely anything goes. But it’s a negative premise. It’s not, “I like painting because it’s so wonderful—it can do all these wonderful things.” It’s more, “I like painting because it’s so limited, it’s so uptight, so old and so flat and so rectilinear.” Within that, you’re good to go.

–Carroll Dunham

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I believe that art us socially useful. If it is destructive, it is constructively so. What helps some hurts others—all art is not made for the same audience. We are in a very restrictive period where many think it is necessary to narrow the limits of what is allowable, to set up unitary reality and condemn the idea of multiple “realities”. I support an art of multiplicity, which is why I am an “anti-classical” artist. In fact, I like to think that I make my work primarily for those who dislike it. I get pleasure from that idea.

–Mike Kelley

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I prefer to consider the painting as a thing in the world than the painting as a picture of things in the world.

–Gillian Carnegie

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I do not distinguish between the inner and outer landscapes, between the environment at the physical world out there (the “hard” stuff). It is the tension, the transition, the exchange, and the resonance between these two modalities that energize and define our reality.

–Bill Viola