If you’re interested in making or learning about art, it can sometimes feel like you need to be an expert before you start. I am nowhere near an ART EXPERT. At first, that made me feel like a poseur whenever I went to a gallery and tried to articulate my reactions to what I saw. I thought, When I don’t know the difference between minimalism and constructivism and some-other-ism, what right do I have to talk about art? I didn’t yet know that a degree or a fancy title is cool and all, but it isn’t a prerequisite to having an opinion on what hangs on the walls of a gallery.
A couple of years ago, Minna gave a speech in which she talked about her early artistic years. “I had [below] average technical skills,” Minna explained, “But I had good ideas and good intentions. I would soon learn that these things are the most important.”
Her words made me realize that simply being inspired by or passionate about art—like Minna did when she was doodling, experimenting with being creative, and pasting quotes by Andy Warhol and Madonna on her MySpace page as a teenager—is qualification enough to form opinions about work that moves you. Some of my favorite artists share that trait with Minna: They strip away the pretension that sometimes comes bundled with the “Art World”—the culture that can look, to an outsider like me, like it’s filled with fancy galleries and people whose names you’re meant to know and be impressed by, but that exists behind doors you can’t open.
Minna and I worked together to create this list of duos who dedicated their lives to art and taught and supported each other in their pursuit of creativity. These teams of artists (and art appreciators) haven’t always kept their work confined to the walls of fancy galleries or required tons of prior artistic knowledge of their viewers. They taught me to be unafraid of art. Their devotion to each other made their work inherently communal; when more than one head and heart and pair of hands goes into making something, it only seems natural that it reaches as many people’s heads and hearts and art-lovin’ bodies as humanly possible.
Marina Abramović is renowned for her lifelong dedication to performance art, but she made some of her greatest work with her fellow artist and onetime romantic partner, Frank Uwe Laysiepen (best known as Ulay). The two were born on the same day and met on their birthday in 1975. Ulay was making art about gender, twinship, and male/female duality, and in Marina, he found his creative and personal other half. Even before she knew what body art or performance art were, Marina was creating it, often making herself very vulnerable in the process. She saw her body as a canvas and recognized its potential to make confrontational work, like “short, intense political pieces where I am plunging the knife between my fingers and cutting the communist star on my body.” With Ulay by her side, she was able to create art that spoke to the duality of their relationship. Their artworks flipped between romantic and threatening; platonic and aggressive.
One of my favorite pieces that they created together is Imponderabilia, which they performed during the 1977 performance festival at the Galleria Comunale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Bologna, Italy. Marina and Ulay stood naked against either side of the door frame at the entrance to the gallery. To get inside, visitors had to squeeze sideways between their two bodies and choose to face one of them, while turning their backs to the other. You might know this as one of the works that was recreated by performance art students at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and featured in the documentary Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present.
After obsessively making art and a life together for 12 years, they placed themselves at either end of the Great Wall of China and performed a piece called The Lovers: The Great Wall Walk. It was originally supposed to end with the pair meeting in the middle and getting married. Instead, after three months of walking, they embraced and went their separate ways. They didn’t see each other again for seven years. “He invites me over sometimes, grills a little steak for me,” Marina told her friend Laurie Anderson a decade after The Lovers, “but there is still a lot of pain from my side. It didn’t really finish well.”
In the most famous scene of The Artist is Present, Ulay surprises Marina by sitting across from her during her exhausting marathon performance piece after decades apart. I like to think that that wasn’t just two ex-lovers reconnecting through their shared medium, but also an act of closure. When Ulay took a seat across from Marina in the atrium in the Museum of Modern Art, he experienced her commitment to her art the way the rest of her audience does, where we see, are invited into, and are given the chance to contribute to it.
The creative and romantic relationship between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera has become a legendary artistic love story. Their marriage was filled with passion, ambition, volatile disagreements, and infidelity. At 41, Diego was significantly older than Frida when they first met in 1927, and he was struck by the 20-year-old’s fierce determination. He was painting a public mural (he was very loyal to the socialist revolution in Mexico City, and used paintings as a way to express the perspective of the common people), which she visited to demand he give her a professional artist’s opinion on her paintings. As she said to him, “I want you to tell me whether you think I can become a good enough artist to make it worth my while to go on […] I have not come to you looking for compliments. I want the criticism of a serious man. I’m neither an art lover nor an amateur. I’m simply a girl who must work for her living.”
Frida’s paintings, the majority of which were self-portraits, show what it was like to exist in her mind and body—a body that created barriers for her since she was struck with polio at age six. Twelve years later, a bus she was riding on collided with a trolley car, and Frida’s spinal column was broken in three places. After a month in the hospital, she was bedridden as a body cast worked to heal her broken collarbone, ribs, and pelvis. Frida’s mother rigged a special easel and a mirror for her, allowing her to continue painting her reflection and the parts of herself no one else could see. She sometimes even painted on her body, right on top of the cast. “I paint myself because I am so often alone,” she said, “and because I am the subject I know best.” It would be a few years before she would ask for feedback from Diego as he painted his fresco.
She and Diego divorced in 1940, but within a year, they remarried. Before and during their separation, Frida made paintings detailing the extent of Diego’s influence on her life. Pieces like The Two Fridas, What the Water Gave Me, and especially Diego on My Mind expand on her intense self-portraits by combining her husband’s image with her own, making them one in art. These works show how her love for and obsession with Diego influenced her views on herself and the world.
In turn, Diego loved, respected, and championed Frida and her art. She may be an iconic figure today, but in their heyday, she worked in the shadow of her husband, whose social commentary provided a voice to the working class and made him world-famous. A year before her death, he said in an interview that “Frida Kahlo is the greatest Mexican painter. Her work is destined to be multiplied by reproductions and will speak, thanks to books, to the whole world.” He was right.
The personal lives and artwork of the legendary artists Gilbert and George are inextricable. Gilbert Prousch and George Passmore describe themselves as being “living sculptures.” This means that everything they do is part of the art project that is their very existence, and that when they are together (which they have been, practically nonstop, since meeting at Saint Martin’s School of Art in 1967), their art just happens. Gilbert and George don’t stick to just one medium; instead they experiment with performance, drawing, and manipulated photo works.
“We are two people, but one artist,” George said in an interview. They live totally in sync with one another and are often described as finishing each others’ sentences, like an old comedy duo. “We don’t need friends, we don’t need cities […or] to go anywhere to be happy,” Gilbert said. “Together, alone, we are able to think in a very interesting way.” (Isn’t that a wonderful way to describe a partnership—“Together, alone”? ) Gilbert and George have a finely tuned visual look and daily routine so they don’t have to spend time wondering where they’ll go to dinner or what they’ll wear. They dress in similar suits and eat the same meals, at the same restaurants, at the same time every day. All that’s left for them to think about is the art they’re making.
Gilbert and George relish in the idea of shocking the art world. They give their audiences the impression that there’s nothing they love more than provoking negative reactions to their work. Their art materials (they’ve been known to use blood, semen, and feces in their paintings) and political views (since most of the artists they encountered shared politically liberal beliefs, they spoke out in support of the former conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) serve as attempts to remind the public that they’re different.
Their 1970 manifesto, Art for All, declared: “We want Our Art to speak across the barriers of knowledge directly to People about their Life and not about their knowledge of art.” Their commitment to making their art accessible and available to everyone, no matter their budget or background, led them to use their appearance in the BBC documentary Imagine to direct viewers to download an original artwork, Planed. “We don’t do art for the few,” Gilbert has said. George added, “We only believe in art for all. We believe that the artist should use a language that can reach people in any part of the world.” The pair never wanted to be included or accepted by gallerists or critics, but as their career enters its fifth decade, they have obtained legendary status, and are accepted by the people they wanted to offend.
Marina and Ulay famously share a birthday, but are one-upped by the Moroccan-born Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon and Bulgarian Christo Javacheff, who share a date of birth down to the hour. They each found a partner for life when they met in 1958. Until then, Jeanne-Claude thought that “the Louvre, with its ‘superb wooden parquet’ floors, [was] fit only for illegal roller-skating sprees.” I love Jeanne-Claude because she imbued art with the potential for fun and silliness: If you don’t let art intimidate or scare you, all that’s left is enjoyment.
The couple created enormous, temporary outdoor sculptures. The Pont Neuf Wrapped, Paris, 1975–85 saw one of the oldest bridges in Paris wrapped in beige cloth that glowed golden under the sun and lights of the city. An archipelago in Miami was outlined in pink fabric for the work Surrounded Islands (1980–83), which contrasted the natural environment with a Barbie-esque explosion of color. “The important thing to understand is that all of our projects have a nomadic quality, things in transition, going away, they will be gone forever,” Jeanne-Claude explained. “They are airy—not heavy like stone, steel, or concrete blocks. They are passing through.” I especially love the work they did in Little Bay, on the east coast of Australia: Wrapped Coast—One Million Square Feet, Little Bay, Sydney, Australia, 1968–69 turned a rocky cliffside in my summery home country into a frosty-looking moonscape that you’d need to walk many miles to see in full. At the time of its creation, Wrapped Coast was the largest single artwork ever made.
The artists were not constrained by money, time, size, or location. Even though their work existed in public, it was not for the public. As Christo told Sculpture magazine, “The essential part of these projects is that they are decided by us. It is something we want to do, we have the urge to do it, we enjoy doing it […] For all of the projects, we have the inexplicable urge to do it.” Despite these motivations, historic works like The Gates in Central Park allowed people to interact with art for free during their commutes, walking their dogs, jogging, or making out in the grass. Even if Christo and Jeanne-Claude didn’t think they were making art for anyone but themselves, all those years of work produced art that was, intentionally or not, enjoyed by the masses.
When Gilbert and George talked about making “art for everyone,” I imagine Herb and Dorothy Vogel as their ideal audience. In the early years of their marriage in the 1960s, Herb took painting classes after working the graveyard shift at the United States Postal Service. His wife, Dorothy, a library reference clerk, followed suit. It wasn’t long before the “wannabe artists,” as Dorothy called them, turned their attention to what would become their lifelong passion: art collecting. They didn’t take vacations or live luxuriously: They survived on Dorothy’s income and spent Herb’s paycheck on purchasing works directly from artists, many of whom, including Sol LeWitt and Christo and Jeanne-Claude, became their friends. By the time Herb (or “Herbie,” his nickname from Dorothy) passed away in 2012, they had collected close to 5,000 pieces of art. Their collection was largely built of contemporary work that was “done in our time,” as Dorothy described it. Their acquisitions filled every nook and cranny in their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment.
Major museums across America and the world knew about—and wanted pieces of—the Vogels’ famous collection for years, but when the time came to transfer it to a new home in 1992, they chose the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which they’d visited on their honeymoon. The lifelong governmental workers felt it important that their collection lived in a place where the public could access and enjoy it without an admission fee. After packing and shipping their collection to Washington in five enormous moving trucks, Herb and Dorothy used their allowance from the gallery to begin filling their tiny apartment with even more art. They expanded their creative donations in 2008 with the 50×50 initiative, which distributed 2,500 pieces from their collection between galleries, museums, and institutions across the United States. This was their final project before Herbie’s passing in 2012.
While answering questions at the premieres of the second film about them, Herb & Dorothy 50×50, Dorothy said that her relationship to art and to Herb were one and the same, and one could not exist without the other. “What we did then is now art history,” she said, quoting her husband in the film. Herb and Dorothy’s relationship to art, and to each other, proves that you don’t need a lot of money or a formal art education to appreciate the work of artists, enjoy it with others, or make an impact yourself. Art is meant to be shared by people like Herb and Dorothy—and by people like you and me. ♦