Return to Articles



An editor I wrote a feature article for e-mailed me a week before the deadline with a reminder to "send along a photo and a short bio." It was flattering enough to kill my focus on the article itself. The idea that all of one's efforts can be summed up in a short line or two is absurd, and yet, it is pretty common.

It is different to have to write about yourself. Were someone else to write about you, the focus of their larger essay would contextualize the reason you were being included.

[Your Name] was a painter
back before painting died
for the fifteenth time.
Think of that close friend from art school. If he or she becomes the one in a thousand artists to be remembered a hundred years from now, your relationship with him or her will be all that you are remembered for. In a hundred years that goofy face you made in a photo with your school chum could be the only record of your existence. And if a picture is worth a thousand words, consider how quickly a biographer would record you as one of many stepping stones along the way to the other person's immortality. If there is a reason to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, it is the prospect of being a footnote: [Your Name] (pictured here holding the bottle of Jack Daniel's) was a classmate of Famous Artist, and was best known for sleeping with has-been art professors while Famous Artist was in the studio shaping art history.

See, it might serve you well to write up your own little blurb for future use. The art world imagines itself as flirting with history. But when pressed into summing up your outlook and accomplishments, it might make you pause when the scope of forever is focused on the decisions of the present.

There are a few types of short biographies. One can focus on accomplishments: [Your Name] is a Los Angeles based artist whose work has been included in over three hundred group exhibitions.

Emphasizing education is always impressive: [Your Name] graduated from California State University Los Angeles and hopes you think this means UCLA.

Some people name drop: [Your Name] is an artist who has exhibited alongside Jorge Pardo.

Accomplishments outside of the professional arena can make you seem quite glamorous: [Your Name] is an activist for any cause that allows them to critique capitalism from his parents' DSL line. A note on that one: speaking about yourself in the third person is mandatory in these bios.

Sometimes, you want to stick out from the crowd: [Your Name] is an artist residing in Southern California and a season ticket holder to the World Champion Anaheim Angels baseball club. Yes, that one will stick out, but all it will make the archivists of the future ask is "Why was this person in the art world, when he would rather have been at a ball game?"

Even if you write for the Los Angeles Times, you might still want your bio to reflect any trendy teaching gigs you have had recently: [Your Name] is currently adjunct professor of New Genres at an overpriced but still prestigious diploma mill.

Some writers don't have this insecure need to be viewed as intelligent by associations and instead use their bios to plug a new book or project: [Your Name] is currently working on an anthology of his early-1990s poetry.

Others cling to the one career accomplishment that towers over their otherwise mediocre level of achievement. Years later the bio still reads: [Your Name] was included in L.A. MOCA's Helter Skelter exhibition in 1991.

This is tricky because if you are solidly established in the art world, you should be sure to mention it: [Your Name] is a painter whose work is in the collection the Getty Museum.

The problem is, what looks like a career-maker to you might not mean diddly to anyone else: [Your Name] was the subject of a mid-career retrospective at the Smith Institute of Anderson College.

[Your Name’s] art was inspired
by underage mistresses submitting
to European colonialism.

Bragging about nothing is, however, better than thinking that your bio is time to get revenge: [Your Name] wants to remind the admissions committee at Cal Arts that I was rejected for admission in 1993 but look, here I am now and here you aren't! It might feel good writing it, but you could be revealing a little too much to your audience. In Hollywood, it is said that difficult actors do not get work. It is the same in the art world. Don't be a difficult artist.

Many people have read the same three pages of Michel Foucault that I have and question whether the construct of history isn't so artificial that aspiring to be remembered is absurd because the context whereby we gauge what will be worthy of reflecting on in the future is hopelessly mired in the present. Translation: Exactly! You might want your little bio translated into Arabic and Mandarin.

But many artists do see the absurdity in attempting to "make art history." All of Dada is founded on this premise, and many of its founders, ironically, went down in history. So a bio showing that you are not concerned with your historical place could be the perfect method to assure your immortality: [Your Name] is committed to living life to the fullest, beyond what art, women or marijuana can deliver.

Of course, if you are going to ignore establishing your historical reputation, you can use the bio to network: [Your Name] is currently curating an important exhibition of tenure track professors whose work deals with their interest in hiring curators for teaching assignments.

[Your Name’s] paintings were inspired by intense personal turmoil and possible addiction to mind altering substances, but not a desire to make art history.
And of course, impressing mom always takes precedence over future historians: [Your Name] is an important figure in contemporary art, and recently lectured about Impressionism to the Los Angeles County Quilters Guild.

If you are a fan of Foucault, you know your bio could help you find a new friend or two: [Your Name] lives in West Hollywood for the sole purpose of meeting members of the community, get it, the community, okay guys?

The need for public confessional is always looming these days: [Your Name] has been sober for seven weeks after a thirty year battle with drugs and alcohol.

Other confessionals cry out as icebreakers: [Your Name] is a Leo with a Moon in Scorpio.
If there is a secret recipe, do share: [Your Name] makes his richly derivative paintings after the fifth Diet Coke of the afternoon.

If you are looking for others in the art world like you, there is no reason you can't advertise with your bio: [Your Name] is looking for suggestions about which Beverly Hills Jewish singles group a Catholic boy should join.

But why not combine the unpretentious non-historical bio with the epic concerns of the Non-Foucault crowd. Why not have your bio be a philosophical statement? It could be personal: [Your Name] seeks to enlighten all of humanity with confused abstract paintings.

It could be political: [Your Name] endorses the philosophy of Neville Chamberlain and asks everyone to consider that peace is achievable in our time.

Of course, in these troubled times, overt politics is acceptable as well: [Your Name] is an artist who hates George W. Bush almost as much as she hates her father, and more than she hates her brother, who was obviously victimized by her father and Bush's capitalist cronies.
There are sophisticated dialogues in politics: [Your Name] critiques bourgeoisie consumption in artworks that are available in many sizes and shapes to match consumerist yuppie furniture and look good in any room of your house.

It could be religious: [Your Name] was raised Southern Baptist and moved to Los Angeles to discover the wonders of Buddhism, meditation and remains inspired by the ease at which women studying these philosophies eschew marriage as a prerequisite for physical intimacy.
It is always good form to acknowledge your influences, you might get lumped in with them down the road a century or two from now: [Your Name] is influenced by Picasso, Pollock, Warhol, Donovan, John Lennon, Sid Vicious, Michael Salerno, Morrissey, Karen Finley and Belinda Carlisle.

A focused policy statement might be over the heads of some, but those who do get it will be impressed: [Your Name] implores Governor Gray Davis to keep current trust-fund loopholes regarding the rent of artist studios as unregulated as have previous administrations.

Of course, there are a few things that should be avoided. Due to too many artists getting into the bio-writing habit, some clichés have arisen: [Your Name] has been making art since childhood. I mean, name me one kid who doesn't know what a crayon is. This is the kind of thing that sets off many a critic's pretentiousness detector.

Don’t bother attempting to discuss the essence of your art in an art critic's sound byte, whatever they said on that studio visit was a polite way of blowing you off: [Your Name's] art is a reaction against the constrictions of modernism. Who talks about the Rolling Stones as a reaction against the Beatles? People who are busy not getting laid, that is who. Ditto for the author of that previous bio.

Bragging about grants is risky--it will make your colleagues jealous and critics will assume you do not need a review since they were not on the panel that picked you: [Your Name] was recently awarded the prestigious Arts Grant.

Of course, if it is a biggie, rub our noses in it: The Pompidou Center has awarded its artist of the century grant to [Your Name], and along with it ten million francs.

If you are in academia, success like this is frowned upon by your mediocre colleagues. Cover up your achievements with a nod to the Politburo: [Your Name] attended every meeting of the Faculty Activities Committee this semester and thanks the committee for its moral support when the artist was awarded the MacArthur Genius Grant. You were able to do it without them, but now you will have to do it around them.

Never seek to be our personal savior: [Your Name] seeks with this art to complete a transformation in the human species. But why risk transforming us (accepting, of course, that you do have this power at your fingertips) at all? I'd advise staying away from the word transformation in any area of your life (I can demonstrate by transforming your bank account), but especially in your art. Any transformation an artwork causes in the viewer never has anything to do with the artist or the intentions; it has always been in the ready passerby just waiting for a trigger. But calling art transformantional sounds much better than calling it a trigger. What would Roy Rogers name his horse in today's art world?

Another word to avoid is, ironically, ironic: [Your Name's] work underscores the inherent irony in not giving money to homeless people, who benefit from our tax dollars anyway. If there is irony to be spotted, people will either get it or they won't, but telling them it is there means you are making art for people who don't get your joke. Sort of like writing about how to write your bio for people who. . . .uh, that about wraps it up, hope this inspired you enough to mention me in your biography.

--Mat Gleason has a two sentence biography in the Spring edition of Britain's Modern Painters magazine.