|Robert Motherwell |
Image © The Dedalus Foundation, Inc.
During his time as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, Wallace had an experience that would shape the way he thought about his career and life as an artist forever.
The artist, Robert Motherwell came to visit the university to give a series of lectures that coincided with his exhibition at the Krannert Art Museum. As an undergraduate in the painting department, Wallace was assigned by the school to chaperon Motherwell during his trip, driving him to appointments and lectures, and accompanying him on studio visits where he looked at the students work, including Wallace’s own.
People were all over him, clamoring to talk to him, asking him question after question about how to have a career as an artist, how to be successful. On the third day, he said to me, “Do you know Jonathan, you’ve never asked me anything. I’ve seen your work. Don’t you have any questions for me?”
I told him that I’d been listening, that I was taking it all in. Eventually, I said to him, “I know I’m still learning, but the truth is I don’t feel the work I’m doing right now is expressing my true self. I want to know how to do that.”
He looked at me. “But don’t you care about your career?”
I told him earnestly that I just wanted to figure out how to tell what I want to tell and say what I want to say.
Very quietly, Robert Motherwell turned and looked at me. Eventually he said, “Jonathan, don’t be successful. Don’t be like Jasper Johns and get discovered in your early twenties, because your life will be over.” He said, “Be like me—live your life, toil in obscurity until your seventies. Let it come to you. And if it doesn’t come to you, don’t care about it. Because your journey will be fuller and richer. I’ve had my whole life to be able to find out who I am and figure that out in my work and now it’s being given to the world. Hopefully that will happen to you.”
I don’t ever not think about that moment.