40 Years Old and Still Waiting to Emerge? by Norbert Marszalek


What does it mean to emerge as an artist? Is it selling work, showing work, worldwide recognition of our work or just getting work done? I’m not sure how many artists fall into the category of the 40 year old artist still waiting to emerge. It is a precarious group. Sometimes I think there are plenty of us out there…toiling away at our work year after year after year without any real recognition or financial gain. Other days I feel we are a dying breed because who wouldn’t give up by their early 30s?

Back in art school in the early 80s, art instructors instilled in us that an artist had to mature to see growth and evolution in their work. An artist had to be patient. Recognition would come after years of hard work–sometimes even 20 years of hard work! De Kooning was 44 when he got his first solo show…Hopper only sold one painting by the time he reached 40 and he painted “Nighthawks” when he was 60.

We learned stuff like this, but things were already changing around us. Younger and younger artists started getting bigger and bigger shows. Haring and Basquiat for example and then in the 90s, Saatchi started turning 25 year old MFAers into superstars, something he still does today.

Though there have always been early successes and others who mature later in life, it seems today that if an artist hasn’t received some recognition by the time they reach 30, they’re not likely to get any. Hence the casualty rate: some say that 85% of artists quit within 5 years of leaving art school.

I think the reason for the youth movement over the past 15+ years is all about high-profile schools pushing their MFA programs. This effects what is shown in galleries, the way curators judge work and the art world as a whole.  There is big money in MFA programs. The bigger the so-called “talent” the schools turn out, the more interest they create, and so on and so on.  Young artists become a commodity, selling to the highest bidder. They rise high and then crash low–becoming another one of the 85% who quit in less than 5 years.

So, is it possible to find success after many years of work?  Can you still emerge after age 40?  Do experience and growth count as much as an MFA?  Will we wait for anyone to mature into the next de Kooning or Hopper?