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Clothes as Tools of Expression
‘What Artists Wear’
by Charlie Porter
Words by Dan Thawley
From a sociological and psychological point of view, the relationships between artists and their clothes are fascinating. For some, garments are a natural extension of their work — just another canvas for creative expression in harmony with the lived body and the central space it occupies in much of contemporary art today. For others, it is a means to an end — be that a utilitarian uniform with a purely pragmatic function, or as a cultural signifier; perhaps embracing or renouncing class structures, or positioning them in line with stylistic archetypes from the black-clad stoic to the art party peacock.
Humbly entitled ‘What Artists Wear’, a dense new paperback by the British writer Charlie Porter delves into the phenomenon of the artist’s wardrobe from multiple angles. With agility, nuance and insatiable curiosity, Porter explores the intrinsic connections between certain artists and their choice of clothing, as well as a handful of overarching themes that dissect universally recurring pistes from the correlations between artists and tailored clothing, to the age-old image of the artist in paint-spattered garms. Case studies are personal and brimming with anecdotes, as Porter’s approachable plume details the depths of his institutional research as well as the careful investigative journalism he’s done along the way. From Louise Bourgeois and Joseph Beuys’ fur coats and Francis Bacon’s pristinely-dressed studio portraits to Martine Syms’ obsession with bootlegs, Porter’s artistic taste remains evident throughout, as his diverse curatorial eye holds both geographic and historical breadth whilst remaining refreshing personal.
Below, the author shares an excerpt from the book’s fifth chapter dedicated to workwear.
“Agnes Martin built houses. Barbara Hepworth chiselled away at stone. Derek Jarman gardened. It is important to remember the physicality of an artist’s labour.”
— Charlie Porter
What Artists Wear by Charlie Porter (2021)
An excerpt from chapter five: workwear
“Lucie Rie was born and raised in Austria, fleeing to London in 1938. She was a ceramicist of eloquent finesse. Here is Rie (above), with an example of her work, in her potter’s apron.
You can see footage of Rie at work on YouTube. There’s a clip from 1987, a news report to coincide with her pottery appearing on a Royal Mail stamp. Rie was eighty-seven. Her control of the clay, the water, is precise. No mess spins off. Yet she has on two aprons for cover: one attached to her body, the other laid across her legs. Underneath, she’s wearing a white shirt, sleeves rolled up. Shirts were a favoured garment of hers.
On the other side of the world lived the Japanese ceramicist Shoji Hamada. Unlike most ceramicists, he threw his pots using a hand wheel, sat cross-legged on the floor. It was hard, physical work, within which he found serenity.
In 1976, he was visited by the artist and ceramics teacher Susan Peterson, who took this photograph of him glazing a bowl. Such delicious clothes, widely cut, fully covering his body in this open-legged pose. Peterson described the look. ‘He wears a treasured old kimono vest,’ she wrote, ‘woven years ago by a friend, which tops the traditional country style trousers, which are cut fully, tied at the waist, and tight at the ankles.’”
“A few decades earlier, American painter Grace Hartigan wore functional clothing in order to stay alive. It was 1951, she was penniless, no heating, just the need to survive. Here she is, on the roof above her studio, in heavy workwear boots. Of course, there are blinkers to my process. Instead of Hartigan in functional clothing, I could have chosen from many images of Hartigan, taken after she had found success, prettified at openings, parties. But in 1950s New York, the art world was dominated by men, the wider American culture one of fixed gender roles. Within this society, women were expected to be prettified. To concentrate on Hartigan at those openings and parties is to acquiesce to those fixed gender roles.
I’d rather show artists at work.”
What Artists Wear (2021) by Charlie Porter is published by Penguin Books and available here.
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