25 neat numbers from 25 years of our Contemporary Artist Series
Want to know The number of blacks in Kerry James Marshall’s palette? How many volts Mona Hatoum ran through her early, dangerous works? The number of photos Nigel Cooke has on the walls of his studio? Our CAS books have the answers!
To develop a deep appreciation for contemporary art, you really need to take a deep dive into our Contemporary Artist Series. The engrossing monographs began back in 1995, and have since served to profile and contextualise the brightest and the best painters, sculptors, performance, video and installation artists, from Alex Katz to Ai Weiwei, Stephen Shore to Marina Abramović.
To mark a quarter century since the series began, we’ve done a deep dive and pulled out 25 intriguing numbers from the many books we've published. Read on to discover the on-the-dot time that Mark Bradford ends his working day every day, just how many shades of black Kerry James Marshall has in his palette and the incredibly young age Daan Roosevelt realised that the job he wanted to do in later life didn't yet exist.
0 – The number of Italian artists Andy Warhol claimed he could name, according to Jannis Kounellis . “He [Warhol] was sitting at a table with people like [novelist and journalist] Alberto Moravia and others, and when he was asked about which Italian artists he knew, he answered that the only thing he knew about Italy was spaghetti.”
1 – The number of still lifes Jonas Wood would limit himself to per-show, so as not to get typecast. “I didn’t want to be seen as a one-trick pony. My first three shows always had one of everything – interior, landscape, basketball player, still life. I showed drawings too. Then I got confident enough to say, ‘You know what? I can just show paintings. They’re okay, and the viewers will be okay.’”
2 – The number of chopsticks sculptures__ Yin Xiuzhen__ and her husband Song Dong make in each iteration of an on-going project. “We looked at our chopsticks and saw how the two became one. I could make one, Xiuzhen could make one, both in secret from the other then put them together so they become one work and yet we’ve kept our independence.”
2 – The number of totally black, featureless photographic portraits Bernar Venet made in 1961. “I did two photographic portraits in absolute darkness in 1961. One was of my brother Francis and another of a neighbour, Martine. Each one was made in total darkness and, of course, without a flash. I found it interesting to make these figurative portraits and to obtain a completely black and therefore abstract result.”
Almost 3 – The number of years Wolfgang Tillmans spent with the love of his life, Jochen Klein.
“PETER HALLEY: It’s nearly five years since Jochen died. How many years were you together?
“WOLFGANG TILLMANS: Almost three. Which always sounds so brief, but it was the perfect match. We met in early ‘95 when we both lived in New York. In ‘96 we moved to London to live together. That’s where Jochen started painting again, and in that short period he created a group of paintings that posthumously got a lot of attention. We didn’t actually know he was sick until a month before he died. The work from that time, autumn 1996 to summer 1997, when I was working among other things on Concorde, was fuelled by a profound sense of happiness. We had for example a great time when we worked together in staging and preparing the Kate Moss pictures. I helped him find source material for his paintings. He introduced me to Spanish and Italian Baroque painting, and we discussed each other’s work almost daily. It all ended the day after the opening of ‘I didn’t inhale’ at the Chisenhale Gallery in London, for which we’d had a huge opening party at our place. Jochen came down with AIDS-related pneumonia from which he never recovered.”
3 ½ – The time, in months, Sharon Hayes spent on the road for her Lesbian Love Tour artwork. “I said I was going to discover lesbians in their natural habitat. For three-and-a-half months, all across the country, I stayed with lesbians, very often strangers. They put me up and they hosted performances for audiences that were anywhere between two and fifty-five people. Then after the performance, I would host a conversation that I would record. I would also go into the towns I stayed in doing a kind of pseudo-research. Maybe it’s more accurate to call it unguided research – I just tried to notice everything lesbian in town!”
4 – The cost, in pounds, of the boards Cecily Brown used to paint on, back at college. “I used to paint on this hardboard that you could buy for about four quid. It was horrible, but I’d paint on it because it was cheap and large. I remember lugging these pieces of hardboard into the Slade.”
4 – The time, in days, it now takes Sterling Ruby to install a show. “I do enjoy the process of making exhibitions, but I’ve been giving myself less and less time to install. A show like the one I did at Hauser & Wirth in New York took four days, whereas a few years ago that same install would have taken two weeks. I guess logistically I know what it means to get work into a space now, but I also think that I work better by thinking through things in advance, intuitively shifting works around at a fast pace when I am there, and then letting it be, rather than second guessing decisions.”
4 – The hour of the day (AM) that Sarah Sze ’s students often wake up. “I have graduate students who suffer from a phenomenon of deep-sleep deprivation because someone wakes up at 4:00 in the morning, goes online to find out if anyone else is up, finds a few friends, and they have a gathering. The next day, other people hear about it, don’t want to miss out, and more people wake up to meet again at 4:00 in the morning, and this goes on with large groups waking to meet in this newly created space and time. Locating yourself in time and space is incredibly complex right now in operative ways that are hard to predict.”
6 – The hour of the day (PM) Mark Bradford clocks off.
ANITA HILL: Do you ever sit still?
BRADFORD: Every night. I don’t work past about six.
7 – The number of blacks in Kerry James Marshall ’s palette. “I’m at a point now where I have about seven variations on that black. If you look at one of these by itself, it looks like it’s just black, but if you stack them up on top of each other you start to see how chromatically different they are. Initially I was just doing a basic black when I was doing the flat things, and if there was variation I was trying to use surface modulations sometimes, to create a density that suggests volume. But that was before I really started to take account of the fact that ivory black is not the same as carbon black, and carbon black is not the same as iron-oxide black, or Mars black. There’s a way that this concept of difference operates with blackness, but not in whiteness. There’s this notion that blackness contains a full spectrum of skin tonalities, from looking completely white, like Walter White or Homer Plessey, to somebody from the Sudan who looks as black as that couch over there.”
10 – The number of drinkers Theaster Gates used to buy rounds for, after payday, back when he worked in construction. “When I didn’t have a job, I started working as a mason’s tender [assistant to stonemason/bricklayer], almost breaking my back. I needed to think, ‘I love working with my hands, I love clay, I love building stuff, and this guy is doing good work in the ’hood, and its hard work, but I’m going to do it even though he’s not paying me a lot of money. I won’t be a mason’s tender all my life; this is just a tough moment.’ Then, the other side was when I had extra money, and I could pay for all my friends to go drinking. I remember this night at Skylark in Chicago – I could buy everybody four rounds. There were ten of us. It was like, ‘Damn!’ When you have extra, you want to disperse it.”
12 – The number of years__ Alex Katz__ lived without central heating. “I spent ten years carving frames for two or three days a week. I lived without radiators for twelve years. I spent nothing on doctors, dentists or clothes. In the 1950s rents were cheap; the cost of living was low.”
16 – The age when Daan Roosegaarde realised he had to create his own career path. “When I was sixteen, my teachers asked me what I wanted to be. I answered honestly that I wanted to do something with art, with technology, and that I also wanted to be an entrepreneur and to travel. This made everyone pretty uncomfortable and worried. So, for two weeks, tutors, the dean and a psychologist worked with me on career test after career test. After two weeks, the conclusion arrived. They said: ‘Daan, what you want doesn’t exist.’ That was a big shock. I was depressed for a day because basically the world was saying no to me. But I remember I woke up the next morning and thought: ‘Fine, then I’ll just create it myself.’”
20 – The number of masks on offer on the day Paul McCarthy picked out his Alfred E. Neuman mask for his video performance, Bossy Burger. “The Alfred E. Neuman mask was bought the day of the performance. I went to the store and out of 20 masks, I just picked that one. And the same with the chef’s outfit: I went to buy pots and pans and just bought a chef’s outfit too. The character/persona of Alfred E. Neuman as a chef was unexpected and is related to chance and coincidence. Most store masks are in one way or another a personality, a stereotype of a film character or a politician.”
21 – The age__ Doug Aitken__ was when he began having strange dreams, which went on to inform his film work. “We were working long hours, day and night, but for me it was a new sensation, fresh and exciting. When finally I would go home to sleep, my dreams were extremely vivid. “As I was moving through a dream, I would look down at the lower right-hand corner of my dream and see numbers: a time code, like the date-time-minute-frame numbers used in editing raw footage. I was surprised that I had never noticed this time code in my dreams before! I also recognized that I no longer needed to watch and witness my dreams passively; I could stop my dream like a freeze frame and look around as if it was a giant, frozen photograph. That night I re-edited my dreams over and over again.”
20-27 – The age during which Adrián Villar Rojas turned his family’s home into his own art atelier. “Between twenty and twenty-seven-years-old, I gradually transformed our little home into my ‘workshop’. This was the first space that I parasitized in my practice. With six friends, I invaded the entire house 24/7 for two months, without a single word of reproach from my family. On the contrary, I remember my mother arriving home from work and peacefully going to her room, while we were distributed in every corner of her house, cutting through Styrofoam with her knives, that we had heated to red-hot on the stove, or moulding dozens of figures with epoxy putty on the dining table.”
Around 30 – The age__ Jimmie Durham__ was when he was at art school in Switzerland. “I wanted to be in Europe, I wanted to leave the Americas, but I really was not educated and it made me stupidly defensive. I wasn’t even very young by that time, I was in my late twenties, early thirties, not young enough that I could excuse myself very well. I kind of vaguely knew that there were art magazines, but I’d never seen one in my life until let’s say 1980. So Geneva was isolated, but no matter how much you try, the world creeps in. The art school was in trouble, it had no vision. There were some good teachers, but there was absolutely no idea of what they might be teaching, or why they might be teaching it. I had one teacher and one class for four years. I wrote a very long, long paper which I researched for four years. It was a comparison of Swiss masks and American Indian masks from a sociopolitical point of view of doing things originally for yourselves and then for tourists. And then it also became a paper about what folk art might be, the idea of folk art and where we get it. In fact, it’s a very recent invention. I went to all the Alpine villages and I was a real anthropologist.”
100 – The anniversary the Parisian Metro Line 1 was celebrating when Jean Michel Othoniel ’s work Kiosk for the Nightwalkers was installed in Paris at the turn of the 21st-century. “Kiosk of the Nightwalkers (Le Kiosque des Noctambules) that made me a household name. It was installed in Place Colette because it needed to be on the Line 1, which was celebrating its centenary in 2000.”
128 – The number of sentences in Adam Pendleton ’s Black Dada Reader. “A manifesto is a monolith in a certain way – it’s oriented in one direction – whereas the ‘Black Dada’ text splinters into many different directions, at least in the first sections. But when you get to the last section, which is 128 sentences, then you actually do get these more declarative statements:
Black Dada: we are not naive
Black Dada: we are successive
Black Dada: we are not exclusive
Black Dada: we abhor simpletons and are perfectly capable of an intelligent discussion!
And you get to the heart of the matter in a series of questions – ‘Did our conceptual artists join hands with our freedom fighters? / Did they demonstrate in Birmingham? / Did they cover their faces when the hoses were turned on them?’ – that problematize the relationship between conceptual art and civil rights, or the avant-garde and black history.”
240 – The number of volts Mona Hatoum ran through her early, fairly dangerous works. “When I was at the Slade I experimentation I was doing was quite dangerous. I was using 240 volts of electricity passing through a ‘circuit’ of metal household objects; or an electric current going through water to connect electrodes that intermittently lit up a light bulb. I could not put up these works without getting permission from security and fire officers, and very quickly got tired of all the bureaucracy. As a way out, I would put something up for a very short time – half-an-hour, an hour – to an invited audience.”
1971 – The year Lili Dewar Reynaud’s mum saw Sun Ra play live. “I asked her to tell me about it in a letter which I used as primary material for her performance. But she couldn’t remember very well. I realized that she’d searched for information about the concert on the internet. I love this completely inauthentic way of conveying an experience, through someone, my mother, who brought me into the world. I also played her some recordings of the concert she’d been at forty years earlier and she danced to it.”
2,000 – The number of photos of a single object Nigel Cooke might have up in his studio. “Practically speaking, I suppose the first thing I’ll do in the studio is to try to separate out the different attributes of each idea into a kind of shopping list. I’ll pin ten, twenty pieces of paper on the wall, each with a small, very basic sketch at the top, and start to write below these sketches the components that I see fitting into the scene. At this point, the strongest ones are very easy to spot, so I let the weaker ones sit for a bit to build up a head of steam, and I’ll pursue say four to six of the best ones. I’ll then see what images I have already for each. Sometimes, I’ll have 2,000 photos of one tree, but I’ll see it as having the form of a figure in the painting, so I’ll start exploring who that figure is. If I haven’t got something stored up ready to use, I might start by organizing models and drawing and photographing them, to see what arises in that process. Then I return to the shopping lists with this information to guide me, and some of the features of the other ideas may start to switch sides and become aspects of this painting. So often, twenty ideas will compact down to six or eight in this way.”
3,000 – The number of action painters in New York when Yayoi Kusama arrived in 1957. “At the time, New York was inhabited by some 3,000 adherents of action painting. I paid no attention to them, because it was no use doing the same thing. I am in my heart an outsider.”
Millions! – The number of different directions Jessica Stockholder ’s chaotic works ‘fly’ off to. “Another way to visualize my order in chaos is to imagine a bunch of threads over-lapping in one place. Where they overlap, things are tight and ordered. But the ends fly off in a million different directions, often having nothing more to do with each other.”
For countless further insights into the lives and work of today’s most important artists, take a look at our Contemporary Artist Series here.