by Arnie Fenner

Cathy and I had dinner with Irene Gallo and Greg Manchess just prior to Spectrum Fantastic Art Live in May. The food was good (at the Savoy, how could it not be?), the companionship superb, and the conversation lively. One topic was particularly intriguing and I thought it’d be interesting to share it with the Muddy Colors readers and see what you think.

How many significant—or “classic” or “major” or “masterful”—works does an artist have in them?

There are innumerable creators with solid bodies of work, who are respected and successful…you know, all-around good artists. But regardless of their success or the length of their careers, a “stand out” piece doesn’t immediately come to mind. There’s not one which, if mentioned, others around the table would nod with familiarity and admiration. Everything just blurs together as an overall impression.

No one can snap their fingers and magically decide to produce a masterpiece—and as I’ve said elsewhere, that term has been misused and misapplied in recent years—just as no one can sit down and intentionally create a classic novel, film, song, sculpture, or poem. The artist can do everything “right” but the response of the audience (or of peers, academics, or critics) is always unpredictable. What makes an image, story, or message resonate? What makes it stand out from the crowd? What makes it timeless?

And, of course, regardless of what any of us might think today (or want to happen in the future) we’ll never know who or what will be revered two hundred years from now, we’ll never know what will be ensconced in museums or analyzed in art history classes. We’ll never know what will be discarded and forgotten. Leonardo most certainly didn’t know when he painted the portrait of Lisa Gherardini that people would visit it, write songs about it, copy it, or parody it for 500+ years.

So…how does it happen? Is every artist, once they’ve reached a certain level of proficiency or skill, capable of creating a “significant” work that will withstand the test of time—and if they’re capable, will they? And if they don’t, why? What is it that takes an artist to the tipping point of greatness and gives them the last shove? What makes a masterful work seem almost inevitable for some and little more than an elusive wish for others? And…how deep is the well of creativity for an artist? How often can that well be drawn from before it starts to go dry—and once dry, can it be replenished?

Pour a glass of wine, sit back, and…discuss.