Read Daily Rituals: How Artists Work Online

Authors: Mason Currey

Tags: #Non-Fiction, #Biography, #Writing, #Art, #History

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BOOK: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work
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I’ve always painted while smoking. I am reminded of this habit in photographs from my youth. I intuitively understood that smoking doubled my faculty of concentration, allowing me to be entirely within a canvas. Now that my body is weaker, I smoke less, but I wouldn’t miss for anything the exquisite moments of contemplation before a painting-in-progress, with a cigarette between my lips, helping me to advance into it. There are also happy moments spent smoking after meals or tea; the Countess always places cigarettes on a little night table next to the table where I eat lunch. It’s a great moment of happiness, what Baudelaire called, I believe, “the pleasant hours.”

At 4:30 or 5:00, Balthus returned to the chalet and joined his wife for a traditional tea service, with jams, fruitcake, and chocolate tarts. After an 8:00 supper, they often settled in the library to watch movies on a wide-screen television. Balthus particularly liked action films, Westerns, and operas.

Le Corbusier

The Swiss architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret—who reinvented himself as Le Corbusier in the early 1920s—maintained a rigid schedule throughout his professional life, yet it was hardly a punishing one. After waking at 6:00
, he did forty-five minutes of calisthenics. Then he served his wife her morning coffee and, at 8:00, the couple ate breakfast together. The rest of Corbusier’s morning was devoted to painting, drawing, and writing. This was the most creative part of his day, and even though he often spent hours on paintings that had no direct relation to his architecture, and which he showed to no one other than his wife, he attributed his professional success to these private mornings of artistic contemplation.

Le Corbusier’s office hours were brief. He arrived at the studio (a short subway or taxi ride from home) at 2:00
sharp, and put his employees to work on the ideas he had come up with during the morning. He usually returned home by 5:30, although he occasionally lost track of time. An associate remembers:
The process of returning home revealed quite a lot about Le Corbusier’s character. If the work went well, if he enjoyed his own sketching and was sure of what he intended to do, then he forgot about the hour and might be home late for dinner. But if things did not go too well, if he felt uncertain of his ideas and unhappy with his drawings, then Corbu became jittery. He would fumble with his wristwatch—a small, oddly feminine contraption, far too small for his big paw—and finally say, grudgingly, “C’est difficile, l’architecture,” toss the pencil or charcoal stub on the drawing, and slink out, as if ashamed to abandon the project and me—and us—in a predicament.

Buckminster Fuller

The American architect and inventor (he called himself a “comprehensive, anticipatory design scientist”) was frequently his own research subject as well (he also called himself Guinea Pig B). Just as he questioned humans’ accepted modes of living and transportation—popularizing the geodesic dome and prototyping the three-wheeled, blimp-shaped Dymaxion vehicle, among other futuristic inventions—he also eschewed traditional models of behavior. In the early 1930s, it occurred to Bucky (as everyone called him) that ingrained human sleep patterns might no longer be practical for modern lifestyles. He figured that if he could train himself to sleep
less, he could have vastly more time to work. J. Baldwin describes the resulting experiment in “high-frequency sleep”:

A series of trials in 1932 and 1933 convinced him that feeling tired or sleepy was a sign that he had already overtaxed his body and mind to the point where they
to rest and recuperate. He decided to try deliberately sleeping before that point arrived. If he slept before pushing himself to exhaustion, repair and recuperation might not be necessary. Sleep would be for rest only. Perhaps it could be brief. If he kept to a certain routine, perhaps he would never be tired.

After trying many schemes, Bucky found a schedule that worked for him: He catnapped for approximately thirty minutes after each six hours of work; sooner if signaled by what he called “broken fixation of interest.” It worked (for him). I can personally attest that many of his younger colleagues and students could not keep up with him. He never seemed to tire. His lectures could go on for ten hours or more. He seemed to be always scribbling notes, reading, making models, or just prowling around. The ability to keep going in that manner continued undiminished well into his 70s.

Baldwin writes that Fuller also “
disconcerted observers by going to sleep in thirty seconds, as if he had thrown an Off switch in his head. It happened so quickly that it looked like he had had a seizure.” Nevertheless, despite the apparent success of his high-frequency-sleep experiment,
Fuller did not stick with it indefinitely; eventually his wife complained of his odd hours, and Bucky went back to a more normal schedule, although he continued to take catnaps during the day as needed.

Paul Erdos

Erdos was one of the most brilliant and prolific mathematicians of the twentieth century. He was also, as Paul Hoffman documents in his book
The Man Who Loved Only Numbers
, a true eccentric—a “mathematical monk” who lived out of a pair of suitcases, dressed in tattered suits, and gave away almost all the money he earned, keeping just enough to sustain his meager lifestyle; a hopeless bachelor who was extremely (perhaps abnormally) devoted to his mother and never learned to cook or even boil his own water for tea; and a fanatic workaholic who routinely put in nineteen-hour days, sleeping only a few hours a night.

Erdos liked to work in short, intense collaborations with other mathematicians, and he crisscrossed the globe seeking fresh talent, often camping out in colleagues’ homes while they worked on a problem together. One such colleague remembered an Erdos visit from the 1970s:

he only needed three hours of sleep. He’d get up early and write letters, mathematical letters. He’d sleep downstairs. The first time he stayed, the clock was set wrong. It said 7:00, but it was really 4:30
He thought we should be up working, so he
turned on the TV full blast. Later, when he knew me better, he’d come up at some early hour and tap on the bedroom door. “Ralph, do you exist?” The pace was grueling. He’d want to work from 8:00
until 1:30
Sure we’d break for short meals but we’d write on napkins and talk math the whole time. He’d stay a week or two and you’d collapse at the end.

Erdos owed his phenomenal stamina to amphetamines—he took ten to twenty milligrams of Benzedrine or Ritalin daily. Worried about his drug use, a friend once bet Erdoos that he wouldn’t be able to give up amphetamines for a month. Erdos took the bet and succeeded in going cold turkey for thirty days. When he came to collect his money, he told his friend, “
You’ve showed me I’m not an addict. But I didn’t get any work done. I’d get up in the morning and stare at a blank piece of paper. I’d have no ideas, just like an ordinary person. You’ve set mathematics back a month.” After the bet, Erdos promptly resumed his amphetamine habit, which he supplemented with shots of strong espresso and caffeine tablets. “
A mathematician,” he liked to say, “is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.”

Andy Warhol

Every weekday morning from 1976 until his death in 1987, Warhol spoke on the phone to his longtime friend and writing collaborator Pat Hackett and related the events of the previous twenty-four hours—the people he’d seen, the money he’d spent, the gossip he’d heard, the parties he’d attended. Hackett took notes during the calls, which typically lasted one to two hours, and then typed up the accounts in diary form. The diary was initially kept for tax purposes—Warhol detailed all of his cash expenditures, and the typed pages were later stapled to his weekly receipts—but it became something more, an intimate portrait of an artist rarely given to intimacy. In her introduction to
The Andy Warhol Diaries
, published in abridged form in 1989, Hackett describes Warhol’s daily routine in the late seventies and eighties:

Andy Warhol, circa 1981
photo credit 126.1

Keeping to his beloved weekday “rut” was so important to Andy that he veered from it only when he was forced to. After “doing the Diary” with me on the
phone, he’d make or take a few more phone calls, shower, get dressed, take his cherished dachshunds Archie and Amos into the elevator with him and go from the third floor of his house, where his bedroom was, to the basement kitchen where he’d have breakfast with his two Filipina housekeepers, sisters Nina and Aurora Bugarin. Then he’d tuck some copies of
under his arm and go out shopping for a few hours, usually along Madison Avenue, then in the auction houses, the jewelry district around 47th Street, and the Village antique shops. He’d pass out the magazine to shopkeepers (in the hope that they would decide to advertise) and to fans who recognized him in the street and stopped him—he felt good always having something to

He’d get to the office between one and three o’clock, depending on whether there was a business advertising lunch there or not. Upon arrival he’d reach into his pocket—or his boot—for some cash and send one of the kids out to Brownies down the block for snacks. Then while he was drinking his carrot juice or tea he’d check the appointment books for that afternoon’s and night’s events, return calls, and take some of the calls that came in as he was standing there. He would also open the stacks of mail he got every day, deciding just which letters, invitations, gifts, and magazines to drop into a “Time Capsule,” meaning one of the hundreds of 10×18×14-inch brown cardboard boxes, which would be sealed, dated, put into storage, and instantly replaced with an identical empty box. Less than one percent of all the items that he was
constantly being sent or given did he keep for himself or give away. All the rest were “for the box”: things he considered “interesting,” which to Andy, who was interested in everything, meant literally everything.…

He’d stay in the main reception area for an hour or two talking to people around the office about their love-lives, diets, and where they’d gone the night before. Then he’d move to the sunny window ledge by the phones and read the day’s newspapers, leaf through magazines, take a few more random phone calls, talk a little business with Fred and Vincent [Hughes and Fremont, Warhol’s manager and general office manager]. Eventually he’d go to his working area in the back part of the loft near the freight elevator and there he would paint, draw, cut, move images around, etc., until the end of the day when he would sit down with Vincent and pay bills and talk on the phone to friends, locking in the night’s itinerary.

Between six and seven o’clock, once the rush-hour traffic was over, he’d walk over to Park Avenue and get a cab uptown. He’d spend a few minutes at home doing what he called “gluing”—washing his face, adjusting the silver “hair” that was his trademark, and maybe,
changing his clothes, but only if it was an especially “heavy” evening. Then he’d check to make sure there was film in his instant camera. (From the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies, Andy was notorious for endlessly tape-recording his friends. But by the end of the seventies he’d gotten bored with random taping and usually would
record people only for a specific reason—that is, if he felt he could use what they said as dialogue for a play or movie script.) Then he’d leave for the night—sometimes to multiple dinners and parties, sometimes just to an early movie and dinner. But no matter how late he stayed out, he was always ready for the Diary again early the next morning.

Edward Abbey

When I’m writing a book I pack a lunchbox every morning, retire to my shack down by the wash and hide for four or five hours,” the American environmentalist and essayist wrote in 1981, in reply to a fan’s inquiries about his working habits. “Between books I take vacations that tend to linger on for months. Indolence-and-melancholy then becomes my major vice, until I get back to work. A writer must be hard to live with: when not working he is miserable, and when he is working he is obsessed. Or so it is with me.” Abbey typically warmed up for a morning of writing by lighting his corncob pipe and firing off a letter or two. He did not particularly like settling down to work. “
I hate commitments, obligations and working under pressure,” he wrote to his editor. “But on the other hand, I like getting paid in advance and I only work under pressure.”

V. S. Pritchett

Pritchett was a serious imaginative artist,” Jeremy Treglown notes in his 2004 biography, “but first and foremost he was a professional writer, one who took intense pride in managing to support himself as that.” To do so, the British essayist and short-story writer maintained a routine of unfailing regularity. Mornings he dawdled a little on the way to the writing desk, fixing a pot of tea for himself and his wife at 7:00 or 7:30, and taking it back to bed with the daily papers. After a first pass at the
crossword puzzle, he would return to the kitchen to prepare his own breakfast—the only meal he cooked, usually consisting of bacon, eggs, and burnt toast—and make a second pot of tea for his wife. Following a bath, Pritchett finally “
clocked on” to work in his study, a steep climb to the fourth floor of the house, far from the noise of the London streets below.

BOOK: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work
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