‘The truth is that artists are pretty well practised at isolation,’ says Rebecca Salter. Compared to her highly social working life at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where she served as keeper from 2017 until her recent inauguration as the institution’s first female president, this period feels like a return to her old routine. Artists with access to their studios aren’t beholden to the same fear of shutdowns and furloughs as the rest of us, because they respond foremost to an inner calling: what Salter describes as ‘a relentless feeling that you’re never going to have enough time to do what you want to do’. Rather than a rest, she considers the lockdown to be more like a surprise residency, comparing it to past secluded experiences at the Albers Foundation house, deep in the woods of New Haven County. ‘The place you’re in is different, but you’ve gone with yourself,’ she says. ‘You have to decide whether to ignore that fact, or actually work with your new circumstances. This feels a bit like that.’
The London-based painter Caroline Walker, who was only working one day a week after the arrival of her first child a few months ago, found ‘having a baby similar to being in lockdown anyway’. The restrictions have, paradoxically, offered her more freedom, with her husband able to take on childcare. ‘For me it’s been a productive few weeks, and with not much happening on the business side of things I’ve been able to just paint rather than have meetings,’ she says. Her family home in Scotland and its inhabitants are the subject of her next show (planned to open at Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh later this year) and the project offers one way of communing with the family that she can’t see in person. For Idris Khan, another parent but one whose days are taken up with homeschooling, the standstill has meant a break from his art. ‘I want to say I’ve been inspired in lockdown, obsessively painting, hidden away and working in solitude – but I can’t.’ Instead, new concerns have arisen about the futures of his assistants and studio in north-east London. ‘I keep thinking about all the things we took for granted,’ he says.
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov have been self-isolating since February at their home, which has a small studio, on Long Island in New York, where life quietly carries on. ‘I could tell a story about how our 100 assistants are swimming every morning in the freezing waters of Peconic Bay to boost their immunity, cooking exotic recipes and exchanging fantastic ideas,’ Emilia Kabakov says. Instead, their one assistant is too busy ‘stretching canvases, bringing in the mail and rehanging the painting that Ilya is working on – higher or lower – since Ilya cannot use the ladder anymore. Oh! And telling me all the latest horror stories about the virus.’ Ilya Kabakov is handling the coronavirus-induced anxiety by ‘disappearing into his paintings’.
The question of how far it’s possible to shut out the world beyond the studio comes up frequently. A few of the artists I speak to are routine listeners of Radio 4 while working. Fast-paced and overwhelming when it covered the early stages of the virus’s spread, the news has since slowed into a cycle of speculation that Bob and Roberta Smith (the nom de guerre of British artist Patrick Brill) finds ‘monotonous, depressing and not very healthy’. To escape it, he says, ‘I listen to the headlines and switch to Radio 3.’
Smith, who describes himself as a one-man band and fairly misanthropic, remembers an early enthusiasm for life under lockdown. ‘I depend on collision and chance encounters with people more than I thought I did,’ he has since discovered, ‘so I’m not finding that very easy.’ The instant connections we are able to make online, however, mark this period of isolation out from those of the past. The Apathy band, set up by Smith 18 years ago, broadcasts a cacophony of trombones and saxophones in response to an artwork every week as part of Smith and George Lionel Barker’s ‘Make Your Own Damn Music’ programme on Resonance FM. Band members past and present, globally scattered, come together on mix of platforms from Whatsapp calls to Zoom meetings. The resulting ‘chaos and unstructured noise’ lends, for Smith, a much-needed sense of anarchic serendipity to the new order imposed on our lives.
Many artists are concerned that the real casualties of lockdown will be those who are less established or still studying. Smith, who teaches, has seen the disappointment of young people who ‘really miss their studios, but are stuck in little rooms with their parents’. Salter has remained in touch with the RA’s older artists, many of whom live on their own or in remote places and had relied on the RA as a place to congregate with colleagues. Her role in planning at the institution has left her under no illusions about the challenges of the future. ‘We are not going to re-emerge with the art world we had when we went in. There’s still a bit of wishful thinking that in a few more weeks it will be back to the way it was,’ she says. ‘What we need is to enable the next generation of artists to reimagine a different sort of art world.’
As lockdown is gradually lifted, its long-term effects will become clearer. For artists, as for most people, the great pause will also have its own personal meaning. ‘I’d decoupled from the simple act of everyday looking and this extra headspace has made me start doing it again,’ says Salter. Smith reports that ‘the stillness has changed my sense of myself and made me a more contemplative being’. He believes that the pandemic will have an explicit relationship to the art produced in its wake, as has been the case in the aftermath of most historic events. Consistent among the artists I speak to is a resilient sense of hope. Emilia Kabakov describes filling her days with phone calls, reading, writing and composing new music – because, she says, ‘if we don’t continue looking into the future, we will drown in the present’.