Legends at Work

TIME Magazine
September 23, 2013

Time is rough on a lot of life pursuits. Athletes dwindle, Dancers pull tendons. Politicians? It varies. But artists, if they work it right, they ripen. Here's Hokusai, the great Japanese painter famous for his Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, in the mid-1830s, puffing out his chest: "Nothing I did before the age of 70 was worthy of attention. At 73, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish... At 100, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at 130, 40 or more, I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive."

Hokusai didn't see 140, but he got to about 90 and produced some of his best work in later life. That's not surprising. Art history is full of greats who died early, but the truth is that people who make careers of their creative urges frequently live into a productive old age. For every Raphael or Van Gogh who disappeared in his 30s, there have been dozens like Hopper and O'Keeffe who combed gray hair, working all the while. Artists don't think about retirement. They're already doing what they always wanted to do.

With that in mind, last year TIME commissioned Eugene Richards to visit several prominent American artists who were in their 80s or about to arrive there. Over six months he photographed them in their studios, homes and galleries. What follows are pictures from eight of those encounters, with John Baldessari, Mark di Suvero, Robert Frank, Robert Irwin, Alex Katz, Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar and Wayne Thiebaud.

The work artists do late in life can sometimes rank among their best. Over the last decade of his life Renoir made scores of peachy, plump nudes. They look a bit campy to us now, but they fascinated Picasso and Matisse and helped them to rethink the human body. More than two decades later, when Matisse was in his 70s and largely an invalid, he developed the cut-paper technique that led to some of his most powerful and delightful work. That's the thing about aged artists. Every day, they can just pick up the old tools and take charge.

"You're always looking for more. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would end up where I am, you know. At the same time, I'm not satisfied," says Katz, 86, who is best known for the cutout portrait style he developed in the late 1950s. Though he has been called a modernist, he says modern art ended "like 50 years ago" and that his work doesn't really fit that label. "Modern art is predicated towards absolutes. My world is in variables," he explains. "Everything's changing all the time." 

Eugene Richards