In its most general sense, the artist statement is just that, an artist making a statement about their work. Of course, we often think of the term in the more specific sense of a statement that accompanies a body of work, or that is part of an application for a grant, exhibition or commission. This kind of artist statement has become part of what we now call professional practice.
However, beyond this narrower definition, there is a long history of artists making statements about their work. Such statements might be made in a letter or an email, they might take the form of an essay, they might be part of an interview or conversation that has been transcribed, they could be delivered as a public lecture or published, as a kind of collective artist statement, in the form of a manifesto. All these forms can be artist statements in the general sense of the term.
An artist statement can be artful in how it relates to the meaning generated by the work. An artist statement might;
• describe the materiality of the work
• give an account of an aspect of process that is not immediately apparent in the work
• be poetic in its use of metaphors and analogies that relate to aspects of the work
• address common misconceptions by telling us what the work is not about
• describe a feeling that the artist is trying to evoke
• outline a problem or question that the artist is grappling with in their work
The artist statement can communicate in all these ways without telling us directly what the work is about.
Selected Artist Statements
Cindy Sherman, Untitled Statement, from Documenta 7 exhibition catalog, 1982
I want that choked-up feeling in your throat which maybe comes from despair or teary-eyed sentimentality: conveying intangible emotions.
A photograph should transcend itself, the image, its medium, in order to have its own presence.
These are pictures of emotions personified, entirely of themselves with their own presence—not of me. The issue of the identity of the model is no more interesting that the possible symbolism of any other detail.
When I prepare each character I have to consider what I’m working against; that people are going to look under the make-up and wigs for that common denominator, the recognizable. I’m trying to make other people recognize something of themselves rather than me.
I have this enormous fear of being misinterpreted, of people thinking the photos are about me, that I’m really vain and narcissistic. Then sometimes I wonder how it is I’m fooling so many people. I’m doing one of the most stupid things in the world which I can’t even explain, dressing up like a child and posing in front of a camera trying to make beautiful pictures. And people seem to fall for it. (My instincts tell me it must not be very challenging then.)
Believing in one’s own art becomes harder and harder when the public response grows fonder.
Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artist’s Writings, 1996, University of California Press.pp. 791-792
EUGÉNE DELACROIX, JOURNAL ENTRY FOR 15th JULY, 1849
This famous quality of beauty that some see in the serpentine line, others in the straight line… they insist on only seeing it in lines. I am at my window and I see the loveliest landscape; the idea of a line doesn’t enter my mind. The lark sings, the river reflects a thousand diamonds, the foliage murmurs; where are the lines that produce these charming sensations? People only want to see proportion and harmony between lines: for them, the rest is chaos and the sole arbiter is the compass.
Eugéne Delacroix, “Journal 1822-1863”, Plon, Paris, 1996, p.199
I try to make my art about what I’m concerned with, which often tends to be survival. I do gear my efforts toward that end: I work on people’s beliefs, people’s attitudes, and sometimes I show concrete things that people might do. I try this on myself all the time, too.
I have shown things in galleries and museums in the last few years, but my main activity and my main interest is still in public work. From the beginning, my work has been designed to be stumbled across in the course of a person’s daily life. I think it has the most impact when someone is just walking along, not thinking about anything in particular, and then finds these unusual statements either on a poster or a sign.
Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artist’s Writings, 1996, University of California Press. p.886
Mark Rothko, I Paint Very Large Pictures, 1951
I paint very large pictures. I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however — I think it applies to other painters I know — is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger pictures, you are in it. It isn’t something that you command.
Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artist’s Writings, 1996, University of California Press. p.26
Nancy Holt on Sun Tunnels, 1976
I wanted to bring the vast space of the desert back to human scale. I had no desire to make a megalithic monument. The panoramic view of the landscape is too overwhelming to take in without visual reference points. The view blurs out rather than sharpens. Through the tunnels, parts of the landscape are framed and come into focus. I chose the diameter, length and distance between the tunnels based on the proportions of what could be seen of the sky and land, and how long the sun could be seen rising and setting on the solstices.
Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artist’s Writings, 1996, University of California Press. p.539
Marcel Duchamp, Apropos of ‘Readymades’, 1961
In 1913 I had the happy idea to fasten a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and watch it turn.
A few months later I bought a cheap reproduction of a winter evening landscape, which I called “Pharmacy” after adding two small dots, one red and one yellow, in the horizon.
In New York in 1915 I bought at a hardware store a snow shovel on which I wrote “In advance of the broken arm.”
It was around that time that the word “Readymade” came to my mind to designate this form of manifestation.
A point that I want very much to establish is that the choice of these “Readymades” was never dictated by aesthetic delectation. The choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste … in fact a complete anaesthesia.
One important characteristic was the short sentence which I occasionally inscribed on the “Readymade.” That sentence instead of describing the object like a title was meant to carry the mind of the spectator towards other regions more verbal.
Sometimes I would add a graphic detail of presentation which, in order to satisfy my craving for alliterations, would be called “Readymade aided.”
At another time, wanting to expose the basic antinomy between art and “Readymades,” I imagined a “Reciprocal Readymade”: use a Rembrandt as an ironing board!
I realized very soon the danger of repeating indiscriminately this form of expression and decided to limit the production of “Readymades” to a small number yearly. I was aware at that time, that for the spectator even more for the artist, art is a habit forming drug and I wanted to protect my “Readymades” against such a contamination.
Another aspect of the “Readymade” is its lack of uniqueness… the replica of the “Readymade” delivering the same message, in fact nearly every one of the “Readymades” existing today is not an original in the conventional sense.
A final remark to this egomaniac’s discourse: Since the tubes of paint used by an artist are manufactured and readymade products we must conclude that all the paintings in the world are “Readymades aided” and also works of assemblage.
Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artist’s Writings, 1996, University of California Press. pp. 819-820