Opinion What powers artists who reach old age? The work.

British painter David Hockney poses at the Orangerie museum in Paris, on October 7, 2021, in front of his painting "A year in Normandy." (Thomas COEX /AFP via Getty Images)

Richard Lacayo, a former art and architecture critic for Time, is author of “Last Light: How Six Great Artists Made Old Age a Time of Triumph.”

David Hockney is an artist who spent a lifetime being eternally youthful. He certainly was all that for the few days I spent with him in England in 2006. Hockney was then 69, his famously bleached blond hair had gone gray, but he still had what can only be called a boyish enthusiasm for painting. We met up in East Yorkshire, where for more than a year he had been working in the surrounding countryside. One morning, he stopped the car and got out to show me a tree he had recently painted. What had especially attracted him was the way its branches bent down but then curved back upward. It seemed to symbolize — to embody! — the very idea of perseverance. “The life force pushes it up!” he explained. “Then gravity pushes it down. But it insists on rising back up!”

As he said this, he stood before the tree and threw both his arms into the air. At that point, I was pretty sure he was talking about himself.

Artists who make it into old age can be like that. Vulnerable like the rest of us to all the ills that flesh is heir to — Hockney, now 85, has been going steadily deaf for years — they can still soldier on, occasionally in a state of something like exaltation. And surely, for them that’s a work-related condition, because they do something they love. This would explain why they rarely stop doing it. Until nearly the end of her very long life, Louise Bourgeois drew almost every day. At 95, the painter Alex Katz is still climbing ladders to complete massive landscapes such as the ones that conclude his retrospective now on display at New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

This can be true even if they work for years in obscurity. The sculptor Louise Nevelson was in her late 50s when she finally achieved the great breakthrough of the wooden wall sculptures she assembled from found objects and street trash. But she had to wait until she was 60 before she was truly “discovered” as part of a group show at the Museum of Modern Art. Two years later, she was representing the United States at the Venice Biennale. For the rest of a long, productive life, she would enjoy every minute of her belated but ever widening renown.

Something similar happened to the abstract artist Alma Thomas. Though she had a degree in fine arts from Howard University, it was not until she was nearing 70 and retired from decades of teaching junior high school art could she fully devote herself to painting. Within just a few years she had developed the luminous signature style of the late work that would make her famous: small patches of bright color, assembled like mosaics into pulsing patterns. By 1972, she was the first Black woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

In his 80s, Edward Hopper was asked by an interviewer what advice he would give to a young painter. He had a one-word reply: “Work.”

Many artists have found that old age, for all its physical and emotional burdens, can be a moment of creative liberation comparable to, even superior to, anything in youth. By their 70s and 80s, their artistic judgments sharpened by a lifetime of lessons learned — and their heightened awareness of mortality a spur to productivity they could not have imagined in youth — they can operate at peak power. Better still, with the “life force” still pulsing, they can go on daring to try new things.

Titian, Goya, Monet, Matisse, Hopper and Nevelson — they all produced some of their greatest work in their advancing years. And though they could easily have kept turning out the familiar product that had conquered the world, they instead often branched out in new directions. That would describe the startlingly loose and expressive brushwork of Titian’s later paintings, so different from the “high finish” of his earlier work. Even Hopper, a devoted realist to the end, toyed with something like surrealism in some of his later pictures.

For some artists, longevity was also the necessary precondition to produce their most ambitious achievements. In 1989, when he turned 72, the Black assemblage sculptor Noah Purifoy moved his studio from Los Angeles to the Mojave Desert. Over the remaining 15 years of his life he would create more than 100 works there, including massive assemblages and building-size installations. He placed these all around a 10-acre tract that’s now the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum, a vast one-man meditation on art, life and the grotesque conundrums of race in America.

Others turned the physical setbacks of age to their advantage. Partly disabled by surgeries at 71, Henri Matisse worked for the rest of his life mostly from his bed or a wheelchair. But those very limitations led him to the great discovery of his final chapter. The delightful paper cut-outs were a new kind of art that he could make without the effort of staying upright before an easel, working with scissors that he learned to handle with the dexterity of the surgeons who had cut him open, but with more gratifying results.

As for the world outside the studio, the rules are: There are no rules.

Though his daughter, who worked with the French Resistance, was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo, Matisse would not allow the horrors of World War II to infiltrate his work. Hopper ignored the Great Depression. And then there is Francisco Goya. He was in his 60s and 70s when he completed some of his most powerful images. The outraged series of etchings called “The Disasters of War” were his response to Spain’s brutal Peninsular War. That was followed by the return of the reactionary King Ferdinand VII, who launched a vicious postwar crackdown on Spanish liberals, backdrop to the grim fantasies of Goya’s “Black Paintings.” At the very moment when his gifts as an artist were approaching their peak, he brought to those events his deep misgivings about human nature and a willingness to pass ferocious judgments in his paintings and works on paper.

If Goya had died in his early 60s he would still be remembered as a superb portraitist, savage satirist and frightening explorer of witchcraft and insanity, but not as one of the most influential artists of all time. Instead, he lived to be 82, time enough to witness the worst mankind could offer and to plumb his own depths in reply.

“Creativity” is a word artists rarely use, at least not as though it were some elixir that gets poured in your ear. Their byword instead is perseverance — meaning work and more work, because new ideas emerge out of the daily examination and reexamination of things you have done. And by old age you’ve done a lot, so you have a lot to work with.

This is why in her 70s, Louise Nevelson described her creative life in terms that made her sound like an industrious cobbler. “An artist goes to the studio to work. Not when the spirit moves you. You go every day and work. Just plain work … .[Then] the tools are put away at night, and the studio is swept down, and the things you want for tomorrow morning are placed out.”

And when you return the next day, she added, “Everything is clean, is nice. You are very happy. You start working.”

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