In his 2013 book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Michael Pollan cites the Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham, who claims that the beginning of the human species can be traced to the moment when we learned to make, maintain, and use fire. It warmed us, illuminated our nights, and fried our food. No longer would we spend the bulk of our days gnawing on raw tubers, as so many animals still do. Fire could predigest our food for us, allowing us to eat more calories more quickly and grow our brains to their currently impressive size.
This prehistoric moment constituted a radical shift in our relationship with flames. Before we could control combustion, it was only something to fear. You didn’t bask in its heat for very long. According to the mythos of the suffering, struggling artist, fire should be pure creative fuel, but its destructive nature engenders a far more complicated connection.
Thankfully, Jonathan Griffin’s On Fire avoids these tired metaphors. Fires are real, not just mythological, and this brief, frank document about fires in artists’ studios suggests not the slightest hint of transcendent meaning behind such disasters. In his introduction, Griffin eschews pyromaniac romance, writing that he found no underlying patterns among the affected artists he interviewed. Instead, Griffin presents a readable, sober account of a situation that is alarmingly common, especially for painters.
Griffin profiles his ten unlucky subjects (William J. O’Brien, Matthew Chambers, and Kate Ruggeri among them) each in their own chapter, their stories neatly bounded by an introduction and epilogue. Only a few attain the kind of cathartic rebirth that a pseudo-Jungian reading of fire suggests. Some artists made work directly about the incidents. For her first exhibition following her studio’s destruction, Ruggieri adopted tropes of the hero’s quest—characterized by the hero’s triumphant battle over some unknown scourge—to create a semi-autobiographical avatar, a green painted figure composed of bandages and string. Brendan Fowler, one of the book’s subjects, is warned by a colleague not to make any art in response to the fire, as if this would be somehow uncouth. A lawyer gives him the same advice, but the artist rages against the admonition and makes a piece with an explicitly referential title.
In February, I saw Griffin, a Los Angeles-based critic, speak at the LA Art Book Fair, where he discussed the project with Fowler. Griffin explained that many of the artists he approached for the book, including Josh Smith and Ann Craven, declined to participate, either because they didn’t want to psychologically return to the devastation, or because they didn’t want their victimhood to define their art. They simply wanted to move on.
Griffin spends most of the book parsing the idea of loss. When a studio is razed, where does the feeling of loss come from? Does it stem from the art, the time and effort that went into producing the work, the money lost, or perhaps the sentimental connection to the space? Most of the artists had different, and somewhat unexpected responses. Many felt the most acute sense of loss from the tools that were destroyed and the work that was still underway. Some of these artists recreated their lost work while others changed mediums entirely. Some seem wracked with guilt that the fire had been their fault—and in several cases, where linseed-oil-soaked cotton rags were left by open windows, it was. Most were younger artists, losing early, graduate school work. Some felt that they lost only their sense of security.
On Fire is published by Paper Monument, which began as a journal of lucid, unaffected art criticism, covering topics from Thomas Kinkade to the history of the artist’s statement. PM has since become a publisher of curious approaches to art (and artists’) writing, and this is the second in their series of essay-length books. The first, Raphael Rubinstein’s The Miraculous (2014), was among the most innovative and readable pieces of art-related writing in recent years, describing a series of artworks only through the processes used to create them. Like On Fire, it made no attempt to polemicize or reduce and simply presented its material so that the reader could experience a story of art through a lens suited to its short length.
Griffin’s subject is a smart choice for such an understated format. The incineration of artists’ studios doesn’t need to be clobbered with three hundred pages of tumbling prose and capacious history. The grandiose drama is implicit. John Baldessari knew this too, when he burned all of his early paintings in his breakthrough work, Cremation Project (1970). He didn’t have to make it a spectacle. He didn’t have put in too much work to get his desired effect. The fire naturally produced Baldessari’s desired transformation and cathartic symbolism. He could just sit back and watch it happen.