He began his art career as a commercial artist, a craftsman-artist similar in spirit to the Bauhaus, which he defined as very distinct from a fine artist. He seems to have defined himself as a first a commercial artist, doing decorative painting, etc. to make a living and then following his desire to paint in a modernist style on the side, almost as a hobby. It wasn’t until he met and befriended Arshile Gorky that he really began to believe in his ability to be a fine arts painter. And it wasn’t until the opportunity to work under the Federal Art Project (FAP) that he took the final step and attempted to devote himself to fine art painting full time. An interesting note, he was actually making pretty decent money working on contract as a decorative artist during the early years of the Depression and gave that job up in order to qualify for the FAP in the later Depression despite being offered twice his current salary to stay.
I have been struggling with a similar self-definition dilemma. Since I became serious about art – 18 years ago – I have always defined myself as something else first and artist second. That initial/primary label has changed continually over the years, but artist has always remained secondary. I have as of yet not met my own Gorky nor have I looked for or stumbled across an FAP-like opportunity. I have a feeling my reticence to define myself as an artist has similar foundation as de Kooning- a mix of social signals that define “artist” as a devalued thing and my lack of confidence in my own skills. I wonder if I can ever overcome this psychological block. All I know is that until I do I am limiting my ability to make art and the power of the art I create. I will continue to wander from style to style, subject to subject, and probably place to place always feeling a bit disjointed and awkward in my own skin.