25 great quotes from 25 years of our Contemporary Artist Series books

Here's a quarter century of artistic excellence and explanation, in each artist's own words, courtesy of our era-defining list

If you wanted to gain a deep and thorough understanding of what it means to be an artist today, you should probably start with our Contemporary Artist Series. The monographs began back in 1995, and have since served to profile and contextualise the brightest and the best painters, sculptors, performance, video and installation artists, from Ai Weiwei to Marina Abramović, Frank Stella to Elmgreen & Dragset.  

To celebrate this quarter century, here’s a selection of some the most insightful, honest and revealing quotes from that series, as expressed by the artists themselves.

"I had no time to dwell on which school or group I belonged to. Van Gogh would have thought little of schools when he was painting. I cannot imagine how I will be classified after my death. It feels good to be an outsider.” Yayoi Kusama

“When I studied art, I got really frustrated with the limits of traditional art theory, which often discusses art as if it happens in a vacuum. It made no sense to me that you could talk about a painting, for example, as being separate from the institutions, marketplaces and spaces where the painting ‘happened’.” Trevor Paglen

“I can’t help but think that teachers are often nothing but representations of the problems of the past. The student is always off-course.” Adam Pendleton

Cecily Brown
Cecily Brown

“There was a time in the early 1990s in England where you basically felt like people at a party would turn away if you said you were a painter. People would constantly say ‘Oh, why are you a painter?’, and you had to defend it all the time. There was this idea that if you were a painter it was because you had an unquestioning belief in painting’s power, rather than that it just happened to be a medium that you wanted to employ and that you felt you could still use to say something.” Cecily Brown

“The city is my medium. If the city is ill, then I have a subject, I have a patient. And that’s exciting.” Theaster Gates

“I like to explore the sensuousness of materials and use them to create an emotional charge, if you like.” Mona Hartoum

“For me, a painting is a wall of questions. It has a great mystery to it, especially after it’s finished. You look at it, and it asks you: ‘How did you end up here? What were you thinking? Why?’ If the answer is ‘I still don’t know’, then the painting has gone beyond you, taken you outside yourself and you’ve somehow made something authentic.” Nigel Cooke

Elmgreen & Dragset
Elmgreen & Dragset

“I think you need to be naively optimistic in order to make art. Why would you make it if you didn’t believe it would be worth it, no matter how critical you are? If you didn’t have a sense of hope, if you didn’t believe that things could change, you’d become the ultimate misanthrope.” Michael Elmgreen of Elmgreen & Dragset

“The studio isn’t the most creative place for us, in the sense that this isn’t where concepts are developed. Deeper thinking happens when we’re out in spaces where you feel no responsibility, and it can often be the trashiest places, a dive bar or an airport lounge, where you don’t relate to your surroundings or the people in them.” Ingar Dragset of Elmgreen & Dragset

“Mondrian didn’t make the paintings that everyone recognizes until he was in his late forties. This was really significant to me. The teachers were saying, ‘Set yourself up with a good practice, because you might not hit it until you’re fifty. This is an evolving thing. Don’t trap yourself too soon.’ That became part of my philosophy.” Jonas Wood

“I have always felt uncomfortable in museums and galleries. There’s a kind of a deadening in those places that I work in response to. I try to bring the work closer instead of having it all framed off and moved from me.” Jessica Stockholder  

“The bottle of mayonnaise within the action is no longer a bottle of mayonnaise, it is now a woman’s genitals. Or it is now a phallus. I suspect that that suspension of belief does exist within viewers, even though they cling to the conscious interpretation that ketchup is ketchup. I suspect that they’re disturbed when ketchup is blood.” Paul McCarthy

Sterling Ruby
Sterling Ruby

“I’m just as interested in leaving room for ‘failure’, so that a work can wind up becoming something completely different from the intentions I started out with.” Sterling Ruby

“I didn’t want my work to live on continuously as a conversation or product of the 1960s, the product of who I was as a very young artist.” Frank Stella  

“What I am doing is establishing a presence, a black presence that isn’t traumatically conditioned by its relationship to a practice or structure called racism.” Kerry James Marshall

Wolfgang Tillmans
Wolfgang Tillmans

“Classic photography seemed so remote, so irrelevant to me. It just didn’t touch me. Now I’m glad I never knew the history of photography until after I found my stylistic footing. However, photos on record sleeves—Peter Saville’s New Order covers and the photography in i-D magazine—touched me in the most profound way.” Wolfgang Tillmans 

“I was a very delicate, sensitive child. I realized that there were a lot of things in the world that were going to really fuck with a little boy like me.” Mark Bradford

“If there is anything thematically foundational for me, it’s that skepticism. That most often elaborates itself in an interrogation of the relationship between collective formation and individual formation.” Sharon Hayes

Adrian Villar Rojas
Adrian Villar Rojas

“I can’t speak of what I do as works or things isolated from one another. I think there’s only one overall project, which has taken temporal dimensions equivalent to my own life.” Adrian Villar Rojas

“I learned that if you have a new, innovative idea and you propose it to a large group of people and everybody immediately agrees it’s a really good idea, most likely it’s not a new good idea. People have to get used to ideas.” Daan Roosegaarde

“I’m trying to show vulnerability – my own vulnerability or that of art. To do so, I look for forms, gestures or characters which or whom would not normally be welcome in an art context.” Lili Reynaud Dewar

Jean Michel Othoniel
Jean Michel Othoniel

“The only advice I can give to a young artist is to be unique. That frequently involves great solitude, but it doesn’t necessarily mean being misunderstood. I’ve always viewed this solitude as an opportunity, as a particular island where I can to go to find myself.” Jean Michel Othoniel

“There aren’t any art historians. History is of use only to artists and poets.” Jannis Kounellis

“I wish I could lose my own identity. All of my life I wish I could. The problem is you can’t.” Jimmie Durham

Sarah Sze
Sarah Sze

“I like the idea that you might not be sure if a work is a present-day artwork or if it’s a leftover of our civilization.” Sarah Sze.

To read those interviews in full, as well as much, much more take a long look at our Contemporary Artist Series books, here.



Phaidon is the premier global publisher of the creative arts with over 1,500 titles in print. We work with the world's most influential artists, chefs, writers and thinkers to produce innovative books on art, photography, design, architecture, fashion, food and travel, and illustrated books for children. Phaidon is headquartered in London and New York City.
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