A few years back, my folks moved out of the house I grew up in and moved into a smaller place. Well, I guess it's smaller. It certainly has a lot less storage space. I know this because they called me up to come pick get my stuff, as they weren't interested in cluttering up their new home with it. I can't argue with them. It's their house, and I was in my 30's — it seemed only right that I become responsible for my old toys, comic books, and artwork.
I arrived at my parents' new home to find all of my stuff gathered into a single pile — a pile that was far larger than our rental car could accommodate. On top of not having enough room in the car, I also lived in an apartment in New York. This meant that even if I had gotten it home, I still wouldn't have had room to store all of it. I needed to do a bit of editing.
Mind you, the better part of this pile was my artwork. Some framed, some not. Elementary work, high school work, and college work. There were some sculptures in there, old sketchbooks, etchings...it was a pretty diverse and sizable collection. Too sizable.
So, equipped with a utility knife and some garbage bags, I began to destroy work.
I did what, now? Destroy work? Seriously?
Yes, seriously. But not everything. Don't get too upset. And before you ask why, I'll tell you.
First, I don't have the kind of space necessary to store every last bit of art I've ever done. Even now that I have a whole house to deal with, I still don't want to clutter it up. I've lived in tight, cramped quarters for much of my adult life, and I really didn't enjoy it. Bumping into all manor of old work because my studio is too cluttered is not something that interests me.
Second, since 1994, I have moved eight times. Dragging all that stuff around gets old quick. Seriously. I used to have several large, leather folios full of work that I couldn't have listed the contents of without looking. Same goes for several drawers in my flat files.
Third, a lot of the work just so happens to be atrociously bad. Don't get me wrong, I'm not throwing out elementary school drawings because they aren't any good. I try and judge each piece on it's own merits and in its own context. Still, there's a lot of work that I've done that I'd rather not have floating out there and I just don't see the point in keeping it. As any illustrator will tell you, not every piece is a portfolio piece, and sometimes there are pieces that are worse than that. Why keep them?
Fourth, sometimes something gets damaged. When this happens, I always run a cost/benefit analysis on it. How much work is it going to take to fix this, and is it worth putting in that effort? If the answer to the second part of that question is no, then the piece has to go.
Finally, some work I do is purely exercise. What do I need to keep newsprint pads full of figure drawings for? They're not archival and are likely to disintegrate in my own lifetime, anyway. Some pieces from college are just color problems or simple geometric patterns — seriously? We want to keep this? Plus, there's always experimental stuff that just didn't work out. Why bother with it?
To me, having work I don't like or want in my house is like storing corpses there. It's creepy and it stinks. I guess that in some respects the destruction of work is like letting go of certain aspects of my past. While I won't forget them, I don't exactly need to keep them around. However, I also understand that this type of things isn't for everyone.
I know lots of folks who keep just about everything they do. I know folks who even pay for storage to put it all in. I would never criticize or judge them. They do things their way, I do things mine. Simple as that. I suppose that if I had infinite space I might keep everything, too.
Nevertheless, there I sat in my parents' den slashing canvasses, smashing sculptures, and tearing drawings apart. I kept what I liked or what represented something important in the evolution in my work or had a strong memory associated with it. I gave away whatever someone expressed interest in. The rest ended up in a couple of garbage cans in Pennsylvania. I was able to fit everything that remained in the car, and when I got home, it fit snugly into what little space I had to spare.
After hearing of this, a buddy of mine asked, "If you destroy everything, what are they going to put in the book of your life?" He was half-joking, but there was a serious question in there. I told him that it was highly unlikely that anyone would ever write such a book. I'm not that interesting. But, even if someone did misjudge the demand for a book about me and commit to such a project, I'd like to have a say in what work went in those pages. Destroying the work that I do is the only way I can be sure they make the right decisions.
Now, I can't say that I'm completely detached from the work I destroy (after all, each piece represents hours and days of my life). In fact, I do experience regret, but not in the way you might expect. I do not regret the act itself, but the failures that lead to it.