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Rena SmallArtists‘ Hands began in 1984 in New York City, during a time when Jean-Michel Basquait was on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, an honor usually bestowed to someone much older, and the current art scene was all a flutter about the new generation of under 22 year old artists. Artists like me, then 29, were considered over the hill and artists in their 40s weren‘t even being considered. Since these notions seemed absurd to me, I had to retrace my steps living through this current event art history and seek out those artists I knew to be substantial and reacquaint myself with their new art. That is not to say that I didn‘t think that Basquait wasn‘t worthy, he was a great artist for sure. Artists‘ Hands, the concept emerged as a result and gave me direct contact with artists I admired and an opportunity to document a part of our talking shop experience to inspire our mutual development as artists.
Each artists‘ hands portrait session is a Happening, an arrangement of preplanned elements: The concept first, to honor the artist who devotes all of their life time to developing their vision, a result of our planned meeting, that we are collaborating on, and finally I give each artist one of three artists proofs in exchange for their time and collaboration.
When I call on Artists who are not familiar with my work as an artist using the camera and they hear the word photograph--I need to go into a long explanation, rightly so; that my sessions are not like "photo sessions" they‘ve experienced before, since I am an artist and not, for example, that "photographer" who once arrived at their studio and stayed for 3 long arduous hours setting them up into involved lighting and poses: I explain that the session with me for Artists‘ Hands is no more than the time they want it to be: I consider my camera a mask I wear, a means to an end, to honor their artistic vision, present to document their hands in action during our conversation that we are going to have about their art, or whatever, always a surprise and a fun collaborative living moment. And, that the moments later will be mailed to them to be reviewed in the form of a contact sheet first when I point out my choice and they too, could choose, their preference if need be, as to which number is their favorite of their hands: and I guarantee a hand printed silver gelatin print as a gift payment for their time and collaboration on the project-- a large scale installation Artists‘ Hands Grid Continuum and future book,
Once we arrive together, and sometimes, that appointment could take anywhere from 2-4 weeks generally, 6 months, or 24 hours as with Jean-Michel Basquait at the request of Andy Warhol, to ten years, as it did with Robert Rauschenberg, to be scheduled and confirmed; their hands move unconsciously while we talk shop about their work, ideas, passions from their heart and I listen, respond as the elements of performance art are activated in the art making process too. My role is to simply stop them when I observe the gestures that are crucial for some unknown reasons. That is the art of it for me, those unknown moments of reason.
Before hands, I had religiously been performing and photographing my back from 1977-1982, using an SX-70 Polaroid, in the moment or other large scale cameras, with text. The concept of artists hands emerged after my previous large scale work of 21, 20 x 24 inch Polaroid‘s "Flag Series, a Piece for Peace" which featured my deadpan face, body draped in the national flags of Warsaw Pact and Nato treaties installed in one grid structure--to promote the concept of a new treaty, joining enemy nations threatening the world with Nuclear Holocaust together as peaceful partners. My east coast art dealer didn‘t want to show the national flags during this Reagan era, my west coast dealer did what my east coast dealer said, and other art experts I approached, one in particular, absurdly thought I might be trying to copy Cindy Sherman who staged herself as an actress after film stills that had just been well celebrated at Metro Pictures....rather than compete with my friend, Cindy, I thought of doing Artists‘ Hands spontaneously while studying what worked in Flag Series, besides my deadpan face, was the use of my expressive hands.
Human beings do not prejudge hands secondarily, and hands don‘t worry about how they appear to others. We clap our hands to show appreciation for a performance, wave hello or goodbye. These hand messages are simple, stress free and positive. Artists‘ Hands began in 1984 as a deeper expression of self-portraiture by seeking out a community I felt most akin. The photographic sessions gave me direct contact with artists‘ I admired living and working as an artist in Manhattan, between 1978-1985, and an opportunity to experience their newest works firsthand, and to present myself in a way that would distract the poser away from judging me for what I looked like or what I was supposed to be. I continued in Los Angeles, when I moved back home in 1986, and over the years have traveled to New Mexico, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, San Francisco, and other locations to meet and photograph artists‘ hands.
My ongoing series is also among the first public relations vehicle for all of us artists as I have facilitated publication in LIFE Los Angeles Times Magazine,LA Magazine, and countless other newspapers, magazines and included in books over the years for this purpose. Coincidentally over time it has evolved into a historic collection of portraits of some of the most prominent artists of our time, and mutual admiration society for us all: and, will remain a tribute to the subjects’ powerful contributions, a symbol of our humanity and freedom of expression. As I tell my subjects, "I‘m hoping we will all go to hand heaven!"
Ten years into the project, feeling uneasy about separating the artists in individual frames and having to leave out some of the younger not as famous artists at curators request, wanting to show the hands of the most famous and celebrated artists, like Warhol, Diebenkorn, Baldessari, Nauman, for example, to name a few, Artists’ Hands Grid Continuum installation emerged to bring all the hands together, famous, not as famous, older, younger, black, white, male, female, chimp, dogs, in a democratic spirit so no one artist feels left out: When assembled, this expansive grid of large handmade silver gelatin prints 20 x 16 inches, placed side by side, last measured 17 feet by 50 feet at the Robert Berman Gallery in 2000, and captured the audiences attention that is given to movie screens. The grid formation as an exhibition installation vehicle weaves unique images together in a random dance of hand expressions; the art object itself. The text will be included in a future book too, and offers another gesture of communication of creative human thoughts.
The intense concentration on artists‘ hands highlights their greatest tools and points toward accomplishment rather than appearance. I don‘t know how many artists I will photograph or how long the grid will measure in the end, since I don‘t know when my life will end. However, I Will the first artist proofs to be permanently displayed in a public venue to provide generations with a reminder to appreciate the artists‘ contribution to the progression of a civilized humane society at work in a free society.
Hands and life hold secrets.
Rena Small (July 2008)