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What Does It Mean When An Artist Retires?

By Megan O'Grady

 
 

We’re better at beginnings: the debut author, the ingénue, the voice of a new generation. Endings are harder. So when Daniel Day-Lewis, per- haps the greatest actor of our age, announced in June that Paul Thomas Anderson’s forthcoming ‘‘Phantom Thread,’’ about the couturier Charles James, would be his last film, eyebrows were raised and hands wrung. 

Throughout history, artists have ceded the stage with varying degrees of ceremony, but a retirement by press release prompts inevitable questions: Why call attention to a retreat? Why not just stop? Day-Lewis, who presumably has the freedom to choose any role he likes, has put as much as five years between films, withdrawing to his estate in the Irish mountains to spend time with his family and, it has been reported, take up hobbies like shoe-making. 

So what does it really mean to retire from one’s art? Being an artist is, perhaps, one of the few professions in which one has the luxury of never having to retire. Maybe that’s why such announcements can’t help but feel a little self-laudatory, like those holiday letters people used to send. The veil lifts awkwardly, revealing the meeting of private intention and public expectation. Unwelcome associations spring to mind of shuffleboard and pinochle, or a last grasp for a prize. 

We want our artists to be concealed but available, alive to our desires yet unyielding to public constraints. But these days, even in the non-performing arts, being an artist involves no small amount of public performance. There are gallery shows and book tours, not to mention increasing digital demands. In the age of the image, art is as much about being seen as seeing. Is retirement, then, simply a way of announcing one’s desire for solitude? What, then, of the private pursuit of one’s craft? Will the work cease, or will it be conducted under other terms? What is the relationship between external validation and the impulse to create? A creative mind, surely, cannot be shut down at will. Artists are our magi, our secular gods. Really, they can no more retire than can a unicorn or a planet. They will not stop seeing the world as they do. What will stop is them sharing that vision with us. 

And yet a sense of an ending can be elusive. Valedictions are few, and after a long and brilliant career, it is surely churlish to begrudge the need for one. But when Philip Roth revealed, in 2012, that he had written his last novel — with multiple interviews , the preparation of papers for his biographer and later a documentary — it was hard not to compare his exit style to that of his contemporary, Alice Munro. The Nobel laureate simply slipped her intention into her last story collection, ‘‘Dear Life,’’ writing in a preface to the final four ‘‘not quite stories’’ that they were ‘‘the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life.’’ What followed had the quality of something long distilled but freshly reconsidered. It was a return to origins, to the fox farm and the mother who wanted more, recounted with the ambiguity and the long-view-down-the-telescope temporal shifts characteristic of Munro’s work. If it was the end, it was a fitting one, the kind that makes you want to begin reading her all over again. 

Film actors, preserved whole body at specific ages and available on instant download, have an especially complex relationship with public memory. Most of us do not know Daniel Day-Lewis, nor is he the sort of person to be photographed at the Malibu Country Mart, but we have an impression of him from his choice of characters and what he brings to them: a puckish charisma and a scene-devouring devotion to craft, but also, in his less adrenalised performances, something finer. I will remember especially his Cecil Vyse, the pompous, pince-nezed aesthete wrongly engaged to Lucy Honeychurch in ‘‘A Room With a View,’’ the Merchant Ivory adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel, and the vulnerability he found in a comic and deeply coded character. 

Forster himself stopped publishing novels at the peak of his career, after ‘‘A Passage to India’’ came out, in 1924. Only 45, he must have been weary, one can’t help but think, of all the coding. He died in 1970, leaving behind the manuscript for ‘‘Maurice,’’ a love story between two men. ‘‘Publishable — but worth it?’’ read a note found attached to the manuscript. The novel, with its happy ending, found its own a year later.

 

Writing is the most private performance of all, and while we respect the productive literary recluse, the Pynchons and Dickinsons, we are troubled by those who seem to crumble under the weight of their own success, such as Harper Lee, who never finished a book after ‘‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’’ Art doesn’t come without great effort, and it’s easy to underestimate the burden of expectation. Stephen King has found retirement so relaxing he’s written more than a dozen novels since he announced he would stop in 2002. 

For some authors of the 20th century, narrating a self was a mode of survival. I think of Edna O’Brien’s extraordinary 2012 memoir, ‘‘Country Girl,’’ which is both a celebration of a life vibrantly lived, filled with legendary love affairs and photographs of her backlit in diaphanous skirts — and also a horror story about the personal costs involved in pursuing her work. It ends with the image of a room ‘‘readying itself for a last banquet,’’ a promise she’s lived up to, publishing a novel at 84, as well as an edition of her collected stories, reminding us, not that we needed to be reminded, of her greatness. 

To announce a retirement is on some level a way of stage-managing one’s own legacy; it’s not unlike attending your wake and getting to hear what everyone has to say. Of course, many retirements don’t stick. Generally there are no hard feelings about this, because the only thing we love more than a ‘‘new voice’’ is a comeback, especially when it’s someone like David Lynch, returning for more ‘‘Twin Peaks’’ wizardry after 10 years without a feature film. Some retirements are transparently hiatuses-as-publicity-stunts — Quentin Tarantino, Jay-Z — while others are a blatant critique of the industry the leave-takers have made their career in, like Steven Soderbergh, who has turned to less studio-dependent projects. 

For women in Hollywood, retirement is rarely of their own choosing. Here I think of the Amy Schumer sketch in which Tina Fey and Patricia Arquette toast Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s ‘‘last f-able day,’’ sending her off in a row- boat with a cigar. That they are, in fact, the exceptions who have managed to keep working made it easier to laugh. 

To flee the spotlight at the height of one’s powers takes a certain kind of courage. Even Greta Garbo, that genius of myth creation, a recluse at 36 in the wake of ‘‘Two-Faced Woman,’’ the 1941 film she referred to as ‘‘my grave,’’ seemed to find retirement a little lonely. 

In the art world, pulling a Garbo may be especially risky. It can fall a little flat, as when Marcel Duchamp gave up art for chess, only to baffle everyone with ‘‘Étant Donnés,’’ an elaborate secret final piece two decades in the making that involved a heavy antique door and a diorama of a nude holding a lamp sprawled on a bed of twigs. Lee Lozano broke into the 1960s New York art scene with phallocentric paintings of tools and machinery, but began to withdraw in 1970, the year of her solo show at the Whitney — rare for a woman artist of her time — retiring for good with ‘‘Dropout Piece.’’ ‘‘Artist, critic, dealer and museum friends, in fact, al- most everybody: I still smell on your bad breath the other people’s rules you swallowed whole so long ago,’’ she had written in her journal. She faded into obscurity. The influential contemporary sculptor and installation artist Cady Noland, who effectively dropped out of the art world in 1999, has taken to writing disclaimers that she does not approve of the exhibition of her work when it occasionally appears in galleries and at art fairs. Disavowal is the purest commentary, but it’s not a very satisfying one. 

And yet creativity isn’t always in infinite supply. Some rage on against the dying of the light, like Iris Murdoch or Willem de Kooning, despite diminishing returns. For every Lucian Freud, who painted his pending mortality into his late portraits of friends, creating masterpieces through his 80s, there’s a Norman Mailer, the author who claimed that the inner lives of great novelists were comparable to those of heavyweight boxing champions, and perhaps himself went a few rounds too many.
Perhaps we could all take a page from our master of solitude, Annie Dillard, who stopped writing in the last decade and took up painting when she no longer could carry the book around in her head, as she told David Remnick in a 2016 interview: ‘‘We’re here under conditions, and you either accept them or fight them, but the conditions aren’t going to change at all . . . so you might as well accept them.’’ 

Art freezes time. Day-Lewis’s repressed Edwardian, Munro’s young women too smart for their own good. Immortality is, perhaps, what every artist wants. To be told that those who reflect our existence are merely human reminds us that we are, too.