The Commonplace Transformed
An experimental approach to art making, coupled with an abiding sense of the poetic, are the hallmarks of my art. It is an art that has explored this approach and sensibility through a variety of media and artforms over the years: text works, poetry, artist’s books and bookworks, performance art, drawings, paintings, collage, assemblage, and constructions. Central to much of this work is the use of found or readymade material. While this practice is widespread, it doesn’t always lead to compelling results. What seems required is an experimental and poetic approach to art making that makes ideas clear and palpable. This is where cognition or the cognitive enters the picture. The clarity and concreteness of an artwork stems from an active imagination and an awareness of the many ways that we think, see and feel about things. Poetic ideas can be developed from found things by paying attention to and utilizing their salient or unusual characteristics. In my work, the ideas thus realized are generally of a symbolic and or metaphorical nature: poetic ideas expressed in either visual or verbal terms, or both. Given the broad range of my art making over almost fifty years, categorizing it in terms of recognizable media or artforms serves to highlight its ongoing experimental nature. Many of the artworks represented here are hybrids in the sense that they could be categorized in more than one way. How a work is classified depends upon what aspect of the work is emphasized. A particular artwork might have elements of both a text work and a collage, or elements of both a bookwork and a construction. Any categorization of artwork is somewhat arbitrary, but it is a helpful tool, especially when the artist seems to have no appreciable “signature style.” Considering the experimental nature of much of my work, it follows that many of the artworks have inspired written commentaries; musings on the processes of their making and offering possible interpretations as to their meaning or significance. For the creative artist, creativity doesn’t end with the artwork; it is an interrelated or integrative process bringing to bear perception, imagination, thought and feeling, for artist and audience alike.
1969 California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland
1990 Pollack/Krasner Foundation Fellowship Award
1978 National Endowment for the Arts, Artist’s Fellowship Award
Selected One Person Exhibitions
2017 AS220 Project Space, Providence, Rhode Island: “The Alchemy of Collage”
2014 The University of Rhode Island, Kingston, Rhode Island. “Poetic Vision: The Art of Paul Forte”
1998 Kim Foster Gallery, New York City (boxes and cases)
1981 80 Langton Street, San Francisco (photo-installation and video art)
1980 Museum of Conceptual art. San Francisco (performance art)
1977 La Mamelle Gallery. San Francisco (Artist’s books, sculpture)
1976 La Mamelle Gallery. San Francisco (installation art)
1976 San Francisco Art Institute. “The Annual” (performance art)
Selected Group Exhibitions
2019 Concord Center for the Visual Arts, Concord, Massachusetts. “Unfolding Object.” (collage and assemblage)
2013 Hera Gallery, Wakefield, Rhode Island. “Transformed Volumes” (Artist’s book works)
2012 The Thompson Gallery, Weston, Massachusetts. “Traditional and Avant-Garde Collage.” (collage and assemblage)
2011 Wattis Institute, San Francisco, California. “God Only Knows Who The Audience Is: Performance, Video, and Television Through the Lens of La Mamelle.” (video art)
2007 Francis Naumann Fine Art, New York, New York. “The Conceptual Object” (assemblage)
2004 Real Art Ways, Hartford, Connecticut. “Work from the Lewitt Collection.” (poetic object, hand-made prints)
2003 Baltic, The Centre for Contemporary Art, Gates Head, England. “Outside of a Dog” (Artist’s books)
1999 The Alternative Museum, New York, New York, “A Millennium Exhibition” (assemblage)
1991 The Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut, “Open Mind: The Lewitt Collection” (constructions)
1986 Center for the Visual Arts, Oakland, California, “Making Signs” (drawings)
1983 San Francisco Art Institute (drawings and poetic objects)
1979 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art “La Mamelle Gallery Survey” (Artist’s books, video art)
1978 A Space, Toronto, Canada, Video installation, Performance art
1977 Mandeville Gallery, University of California, San Diego, California, Artist’s books
1975 San Francisco Art Institute, San Francisco, California, “Information Show” (drawings and poetic objects)
2014 The University of Rhode Island, Kingston, Rhode Island, “Poetic Vision”
2013 Hera Gallery, Wakefield, Rhode Island, “Transformed Volumes”
2006 The University of Rhode Island, Philosophy Department: “Poetic Objects: The Commonplace Transformed”
2004 The Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence, The Artists Speak Program: “The Poetry of Detritus”
1997 The California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland, Visiting Artist’s Workshop: “Ideas About Form”
1997 Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island: “Artwork Survey: 1973-1996”
1997 Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York: “Artwork Survey: 1973-1996”
1995 Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island: “Honors Critique Program”
1982 The University of California, Berkeley: “Notes on Recent Artwork”
2019 Paul Crowther, “Theory of the Art Object” (Advances in Art and Visual Studies Series, Routledge Press)
2017 The Review of World Literature, No. 3, 2017 (Slovakia: Editor/translator, Peter Macsovszky)
2017 Suzanne Volmer, Artscope Magazine. “Wonderment and Confusion, Paul Forte, Visual Poet” (May/June)
2017 Experiencing Liveness in Contemporary Performance, Interdisciplinary Perspectives (edited by Matthew Reason, Anja Molle Lindelof (Routledge Press)
2017 Eclipse Archive (online publication) “Trilogy”
2013 Numero Cinq Magazine (online publication). Essay and artwork, “Visual Thinking and Cognitive Exploration” (December)
2013 Numero Cinq Magazine. Essay and artwork, “Transformed Volumes” (June)
2013 Numero Cinq Magazine. Essay and artwork, “Apothecary” (March)
2009 Doug Norris, South County Independent, “Artist’s Fresh Vision enlivens old mill” (January)
2007 Arthur C. Danto. Lecture/review, “Paul Forte’s Headstone at Yale” (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut)
1998 Ken Johnson, The New York Times, “David Eckard and Paul Forte” (Art in Review, January 16)
1998 Robert C. Morgan. Review: “The Critical State of Art in New York” (January)
1978 Will Torphy, Artweek, “Making Signs” (January)
1983 Thomas Albright, San Francisco Chronicle, “A Sampler of Coherence, Skill” (August 1).
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut: Word work
Mills College, Oakland, California: Drawings
University of California Los Angeles: Artist’s books
Museum of Modern Art, New York: Artist’s Books
Pacific Film Archive University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, California: Artist’s Books
Videos from La Mamelle Collection. Stanford University and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin: Artist’s Books
Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts: Artist’s Books
University of California, San Diego Library: Artist’s Books
Sol Lewitt Collection, Chester, Connecticut: Constructions.
40 x 60 inches (101.6 x 152.4 cm)
39.75 x 54.75 inches (100.97 x 139.07 cm)
34.5 x 39 inches (87.63 x 99.06 cm)
37.75 x 59.75 inches (95.89 x 151.77 cm)
30 x 40 inches (76.2 x 101.6 cm)
39.75 x 54 inches (100.97 x 137.16 cm)
49 x 41.5 inches (124.46 x 105.41 cm)
32 x 36 inches (81.28 x 91.44 cm)
Why I Make Art
There is in stillness oft a magic power
To calm the breast when struggling passions lower,
Touched by its influence, in the soul arise
Diviner feelings, kindred with the skies.
— John Henry
I am seventy-four and have been making art for nearly 50 years. As I have now entered my “golden years,” I feel a need to reflect upon my career; to take stock of both shortcomings and accomplishments and to share something of my life with others. The following synopsis is therefore meant to encourage not only artists my own age who might feel left behind, or unappreciated, but also perhaps even a younger generation facing a difficult and highly competitive vocation that is testing their resolve and creative potential.
Having moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s after a stint in the military, I enrolled in art school at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now the California College of the Arts) in the spring of 1969. I soon discovered that I was unsuited for academic life, dropping out after only one semester to continue learning on my own, while also becoming emersed in the anti-war movement. By the mid-1970s I was involved on the periphery of the San Francisco art scene and eventually gained some modest recognition (an exhibition at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1975, followed by other Bay Area venues), as well as securing a major grant: an NEA Visual arts Fellowship in 1978. At mid-career I garnered the attention of a few artworld heavy weights: Conceptual artists Sol Lewitt and Lawrence Weiner, and philosopher, Arthur Danto. Being an uncredentialed artist, my resume is not extensive, as I have not had all the opportunities that a degree makes possible. Nevertheless, my work has been included in a few group-shows on both coasts over the years. These inclusions, however, never led to representation by a commercial gallery or further group show invitations from museums and other exhibition venues. There were some hard years for me in the 1970s into the 80s; bouts of homelessness and depression, and substance abuse, but I never lost faith in my art or myself.
In 1987 I met a wonderful and caring woman and fell in love. I soon after left California and settled in Rhode Island, joining my angel in a small cottage in Narragansett. Back on my feet and with a small basement studio I was making art while holding down a job as a house painter. With renewed confidence after winning a Pollock-Krasner Fellowship in 1990, I began approaching commercial galleries, “alternative spaces,” and museums. During these years, I also applied for numerous grants: among others, an NEA Artist’s Fellowship; a Joan Mitchell Foundation grant, a Guggenheim (with excellent references), and a Gottlieb Foundation Fellowship, all unsuccessful. I repeated this process numerous times. But ever so slowly, I began to sour on what seemed like endless rejections. One of the last applications was a Pollock-Krasner Fellowship in 2009. All my endeavors to secure funding after the Pollack-Krasner Fellowship in 1990 were unsuccessful. It almost felt like being blacklisted, as if, however accomplished the work was, it didn’t matter because apparently, I wasn’t making the sort of art that interested these institutions. All this effort with no results led me to conclude, like some others, that the system was largely unresponsive to those artists without an inside track with those promoting and selling art, even accomplished artists recognized by art world professionals. To make a long story short, I eventually gave up applying for grants and making inquiries about exhibition opportunities. While my work has found some local and regional recognition since that time, other than a modest imprint provided by my website, it remains largely overlooked; lost in a sea of market-driven mediocrity.
Discouragement has certainly played a role in my giving up on grants, galleries, and museums. But more importantly, at some point around 2010, I asked myself a fundamental question: Why do I make art? With little recognition and no reward, why continue doing something that seems so fruitless? I struggled with these questions for some time, until I remembered what moved me as a young artist; a desire to explore what it means to be alive. I realized that the basic reason that I make art is that it gives my life meaning and deepens a sense of being in the world. As we get older a simple fact sets in: We only have so much time and energy to devote to our calling, whatever that might be. After the first decade of the new millennium, I reasoned that I would invest all my time and energy in art making and accept the relative obscurity of my situation. It was the right decision. And yet, I do wonder about my artistic legacy and what will become of my work when I’m gone. This is much more than a personal problem. This society has never treated its artists and poets with the respect that is their due. Frankly, my disappointment about this has been transformed over the years into a deep sadness, for myself and others. But this transformation has led to an even deeper realization: That the pain that we carry can be harnessed and channeled into positive endeavors resulting in outcomes that can enrich the lives of others. For creative people this may be the most important reason to continue working no matter what, knowing full well that there will be bumps in the road ahead.
Every now and again my inspiration ebbs and I begin to feel as if my creative life is coming to an end. As this dark moment descends, I also begin to question the significance of not only recent work but even the work of a lifetime. The spell of this uncertainty is sharpened by the fact that I have not shared in the worldly success of other artists my age. Whether real or imagined, I sense being judged irrelevant, perhaps because of my years, or my refusal or inability to respond to art world trends and the concomitant drive to exhibit or market my art. This perceived judgment of irrelevance spawns a cloud of dejection that would paralyze some artists, rendering them impotent. For some of us, however, the dejection that results from this perception spins a web of confusion amounting to a futile attempt to counter the darkness that only seems to draw one deeper into its grip. The challenge is, of course, one of will: The artist must accept this darkness and somehow keep his or her wits about them.
This self-analysis is important and necessary because the dejection that I sometimes feel never reaches the point where I question my identity as an artist, although it does give rise to a profound sense of alienation. This painful feeling of being left behind, of being nowhere, paradoxically motivates or energizes the will. I determine to prove to myself that the creative spirit is alive and well. But will, that most personal form of power, is nearly useless because one usually just goes through the motions and suffers one creative false start after another. But perseverance and such false starts can unknowingly contribute to one’s creative process. This floundering might then lead to a reassessment of past false starts: Half-realized ideas that can offer clues as to the presence of the creative spirit. By willfully following these traces I slowly begin to regain my footing and sense of purpose. And then, from the depths something miraculous: That shining face announcing the arrival of wonder. Something greater than mere will once again moves my soul. I feel alive, whole, or complete, comfortable, and confident. I am the artist that I have always been.
— Paul Forte, May 2021