It’s remarkable that the idea for the generous and inviting Open Studio: Do-It-Yourself Art Projects by Contemporary Artists, published in October by Phaidon, was not born out of the pandemic. Describing the book’s concept in its introduction, coauthors Amanda Benchley, a freelance filmmaker and journalist, and Sharon Coplan Hurowitz, an independent curator and print publisher, write, “We invited 17 of the most celebrated contemporary artists working today to contribute art projects for you to make at home or wherever you define your creative space. Each chapter takes you into the private realm of the studio and walks you through a project step-by-step with the artist as your guide.” Its timing, however, was purely coincidental—Open Studio was five-plus years in the making and completed before COVID-19 drove everyone indoors.
I spoke to the book’s photographer, Casey Kelbaugh, who moved up to his house in Lanesville, a hamlet in Hunter, from New York City in early March. “It’s bizarre,” he notes of the book’s timing. “Everyone’s at home with their kids, running out of projects to keep them occupied. It landed right when we needed it.” Kelbaugh was a natural fit for Open Studio. He’d been shooting portraits of artists and covering the arts beat for the New York Times, ARTnews, Frieze, Artsy, and other publications for over a decade. Despite his experience, the 46-year-old Seattle native was still awestruck by the group of artists who signed on, including Julie Mehretu, Mickalene Thomas, KAWS, William Wegman, Marina Abramovic, John Currin, Maya Lin, George Condo, and Sarah Sze, to name a few. “I can’t stress how large they loom in the contemporary art world,” says Kelbaugh.
While some of the artists planned their projects in advance, others came up with them on the spot. “We all flew in for this project and they’re like, ‘What’s going on here? What are we going to do?'” Thomas Demand‘s contribution, for example, was conceived in the moment, and it ended up being one of Kelbaugh’s favorites. “He draws whimsical, totally spontaneous, exquisitely rendered little stories on hard-boiled eggs every morning with Sharpies and colored pencils for his kids, like, ‘We’re going to grandma’s house later, and we are driving there in a shark car—here’s a picture of that.’ There were lot of fun moments like that, where we just kinda came to it while in the studio sharing the space with them.”
Open Studio is endlessly fascinating, and the insights it offers into these artists’ processes are illuminating and invaluable. The combination of the studio portraits, the accompanying text, and the projects grants the reader an extraordinarily comprehensive, multilayered snapshot of these brilliant minds. Each chapter is akin to an intimate, one-on-one tutorial with a master. While some of the projects are more challenging than others and require materials that might not be readily found in the house, they are all doable. One could think of worse ways to spend a few hours than collaborating on a work of art with a world-famous artist.