A view into Marcel Duchamp's Étant donnés at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo by Regan Vercruysse, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

The Work that Lasts

How does a creative project become a magnum opus?

The blessing of art is that we can all do it. Our lives are better when we take the time to make things, with our hands or voices or imaginations. Building an artistic practice into our daily routines as working adults makes us better friends, lovers, parents, people. As a hobby, a routine, a practice, art is something which connects us to our own spirits and those spirits that came before and will come after.

But to be an artist — to then take that practice and make it what each day depends on, and revolves around — requires a greater amount of commitment to a lifestyle and a purpose than most of us are able to muster. Not all of us are capable of that kind of commitment for an individual project, let alone across a career-length span of time.

As someone who is pretty permanently scattered, with piles of unfinished projects littering my past, what I admire most about artists who consistently produce original work is just that — their ability to conceive of and complete a piece, any piece, at all. During quarantine I started a draft for a novel that I still genuinely feel passionately about, but after less than a week of achingly slow progress I threw up my hands and gave up.

Sometimes I imagine, though: what if I kept going — and going, and going, and going? I have an especial level of fascination and respect reserved for projects that take a long time. I mean, a really long time. I can hardly commit to a career, or a unifying aesthetic for my tiny apartment, and yet there are artists out there spending ten years on a painting, twenty years on a sculpture, forty years on a film.

Gazing Into the Infinite

The contemporary art world was abuzz last year with the news that Michael Heizer’s massive City project was finally being unveiled. It had been in the works since the 01970s, when Heizer was a feted young artist in the New York City scene, hanging out at Max’s Kansas City and leading the charge, alongside artists like Robert Smithson, of the nascent land-art movement.

Located on a property in Garden Valley, Nevada, which Heizer purchased before beginning the project, City is the largest piece of land art ever completed, at a-mile-and-a-half long by a half-mile wide. Inspired by Mesoamerican monumental architecture and contemporary urban landscapes, City’s construction relied on Heizer’s idiosyncratic, perfectionist approach: concrete curbs, sculpted planes, oblong mounds all made out of locally sourced materials.

He completed other works during the forty years it took to finish City to his satisfaction, including the iconic Levitated Mass at LACMA, but City was his main preoccupation. Though Heizer can be dismissive, even self-deprecating at times about his work, just reading about it fills me with awe: “You’re meant to suffer its distances, its depressions and swells, and hear the crunch of gravel — to give yourself over to the peace and quiet, which itself takes on a sculptural presence.”

It reminds me of how I felt witnessing Marcel Duchamp’s final work, the elusive Étant donnés: 1. La chute d'eau, 2. Le gaz d'éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas). Towards the end of his career Duchamp went into seclusion, absorbing himself for over twenty years in the production of a single sculptural work. Many people believed that he had retired, or moved over entirely to competitive chess. Yet in his Greenwich Village studio between 01946 and 01966 he secretly completed Étant donnés, a sculptural work carefully constructed to be viewed only through a peephole.

The exterior of Marcel Duchamp's Étant donnés at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo by Regan Vercruysse, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

Installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art after his death according to a detailed manual he left behind, the assemblage of wood, plastic, twigs, glass, and even human hair forms a striking image of a naked woman, her legs spread and her arm outstretched, holding a lamp, against a forested landscape. There is almost infinite meaning there, infinite detail: one can easily imagine Duchamp spending twenty years living inside the world of the piece, adjusting it, one twig at a time. It’s like spying on a crime scene, a YouTube commenter says on a POV video of the work. I could’ve spent years just looking at it.

Works like John Cage’s As Slow As Possible were intended and promoted as durational from the start. But a project which merely starts and keeps going and going can, if it is worked on in private, become inherently interesting because of the combination of duration and secrecy. The self-control to keep something under one’s belt as it is slowly completed adds to the eventual mystique of the piece once finally revealed. Henry Darger, the legendary outsider artist, showed nobody at all the monumental paintings and manuscripts he carefully collaged in his tiny Chicago apartment for decades while he worked as a janitor. It was only once he moved to a nursing home that his landlord, an art dealer, caught a glimpse of his stacks of watercolors and collages and realized their importance.

Conversely, some long-term projects are worked in public, in plain sight — not blessed with the remoteness of Heizer’s ranch or the hermitage of Darger’s lonely bedsit. Antoní Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia is a world-famous visual of the unfinished opus, with a succession of architects carrying on work on the cathedral in the century after its original designer’s death. The Watts Towers of southern Los Angeles, built in the backyard of Italian construction worker Sabato Rodia, went up in full view of the neighborhood over the course of 33 years, beginning in 01921. The concrete and rebar complex, adorned with mosaics of porcelain and glass, has become a world-famous landmark.

From world-renowned high-art sculptors to lonely janitors, the call to a life’s work does not discriminate. Is there a unifying factor between all the different kinds of people who are able to turn one vision into a lifelong project? It seems clear to me in my attempts at starting projects that I personally don’t have whatever gene or tendency is necessary for such commitment. What moves a person onto this path? Is it any different from a more conventional artistic life? Maybe that movement could still come later, when the right project comes along.

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

To find out how exactly an artist gets started on a long-term project, I spoke to the only person I know who has committed to an endeavor like this. Through my abiding interest in Antarctica, I befriended Sarah Airriess, a Canadian animator and illustrator who left behind a successful career at Disney in Los Angeles in order to move to the UK and devote her time entirely to adapting Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s classic travelog, The Worst Journey In The World. To turn the book about Robert F. Scott’s last expedition into a series of graphic novels, she would have to commit to a project which might take her decades. Polar explorers like Scott journeyed into the unknown interior of Antarctica in order to pursue scientific and geographic truths, in a life’s work of exploration; artists embark on great projects for purposes a little more obscure, at least to onlookers.

Airriess acknowledges that the dedication which accompanies a lifelong artistic endeavor can be confusing and sometimes a point of concern. “People ask me, are you sure you want to do this? It’s going to take forever. But they never ask people who get married or have children if they're sure they want to do that.

Though her career was in animation, Airriess chose a graphic novel as her medium of choice because she knew of far too many animators who had spent a decade or more on a passion project with nothing to show for it. Because of its intensely effortful nature, in which every frame can be a work of art in its own right, animation, says Airriess, is one of the mediums in which a work can very easily become something that takes a lifetime, or more than. And while she understood that she was committing to a years-long project, she wanted to make sure that she didn’t get stuck in an endless maybe. She was far more confident in her ability to produce at least one volume of a graphic novel on her own than an animated film. “If I just make a graphic novel, I will have a graphic novel,” she reasoned.

Animation is the medium of one of the most legendary unfinished magnum opuses out there. Yuri Norstein, a legendary Russian animator, and his wife, Franceska Yarbusova, have been working on the same project for over 40 years: a feature-length animated adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s short story The Overcoat. Using a complicated and labor-intensive stop-motion technique involving glass panels and specialized film, the animation is spectacular, and quite unlike anything else. Norstein himself doubts that the film will ever be completed in full in his lifetime, but that has not stopped his continued dedication.

For visual artists in particular, serialization is one way around the problems presented by a life’s work. It can allow an artist to make a living, importantly, through the sales of each volume, as well as build up an audience for further instalments. Eiichiro Oda’s popular One Piece manga series has been serialized to the tune of more than 1,000 chapters since 01997. While he shows no sign of reaching the ever-moving finish line of the series, I don’t think his dedicated fans mind much, given that they keep receiving new chapters in the meantime.

It must be difficult, for an artist as well as any real or potential audience, to reach the end of something that has occupied so much time, energy, and emotion. Perhaps that is why long-term projects tend to get longer and longer as they’re worked on.

Like a liquid taking up whatever space is available to contain it until an inevitable point of spilling over, a magnum opus is often a project originally meant to be completed within a reasonable amount of time that ends up sprawling rapidly and uncontrollably in terms of schedule and ambition.

In modern media production and project management this phenomenon is called “scope creep” — something harmful to be avoided, because of the costs which it can incur on labor requirements and scheduling delays. In art and literature, it’s not uncommon; fans of novelists G.R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan know what it’s like to be on the receiving end. Jordan died with the Wheel of Time series unfinished, having to be taken up by other writers in order to be completed. And other creators have reached the end of their careers and lives without finding out if a work could be finished at all, let alone trying to reach that point.

The life work of a legendarium

Nearly all of J.R.R. Tolkien’s adult life was devoted to compiling and expanding the fictional world known as his legendarium. “Legendarium” was originally a word used to refer to medieval collections of the lives of saints, written in Latin; now it’s only really ever used to refer to the body of work dealing with Middle-earth. The project was so large and had such an impact that it changed the definition of a word.

Tolkien’s legendarium begs the question: does a magnum opus have to be a single project, either kept hidden or constructed publicly until its long-awaited completion, or can it be something broader, a world with no “ending” even planned at all?

Beginning in 01914, during the First World War, Tolkien began work on a private project which dealt with his pet theological and philological preoccupations, while also laying the groundwork for “a mythology of England.” Through constructed languages and alphabets, poetic epics, maps and myths, he created an immersive fantasy world which changed the landscape of literature forever.

The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings, which became worldwide phenomena during his lifetime, were merely casual stops on the way to what he saw as the serious, long-sought goal of his legendarium: the publication of a completed and finalized version of The Silmarillion, the collected mythology of the origin and early ages of Middle Earth. This never happened during his lifetime — he remained dissatisfied with the form and content of the endlessly revised tales, aiming for a level of literary perfection and historical synthesis which in the end was unachievable.

Is there something inherently incompletable about a magnum opus of this length and intensity?

Even if and when something is released at last into the universe, there is a sense that it is not quite done – that even in the context of extreme length it could have gone on for longer. Michael Heizer’s City was only opened to the public because of conditions involved in the 02015 designation of the Basin & Range National Monument, put through by Senator Harry Reid in part to protect City from the encroach of railroads and government nuclear waste facilities.

Time is a medium like any other, and for art which takes a very long time to make, that outsized temporality becomes embedded in the substance of the work. Part of the jouissance of viewing works like these is the knowledge of the artist’s nigh-impossible degree of dedication, a state of mind which so few of us are destined to experience in full. “It’s definitely what I’m here for,” says Sarah Airriess confidently about her graphic novel project. “I have no doubt about that. It’s been made abundantly clear to me.”

Unfinished but Adored

My father owns the film bible for Stanley Kubrick’s never-shot epic, Napoleon. The absolutely massive Taschen doorstopper is a work of art, filled with hundreds of pages of Kubrick’s notes, correspondence, research, and preliminary designs for what he planned to be his magnum opus: a high-budget drama which condensed the life of Bonaparte into three hours.

Kubrick hired a history professor, Dr. Felix Markham, as consultant, and corresponded with him endlessly, going back and forth via snail mail over details as minor as which names Napoleon would use to address a lesser noble and the appearance of a historically-accurate “fraternal embrace.” He had even gotten an agreement from the Romanian People’s Army to use tens of thousands of troops as extras in what promised to be some of the most intense battle scenes committed to film.

But as production expenses and delays mounted, and historical epics War & Peace in 1968 and Waterloo in 01970 both bombed at the box office, the studio withdrew its backing, and the project died on the vine. Kubrick eventually was able to turn some of the prep work into the grounding for Barry Lyndon.

On filmmaking and Kubrick-centric forums and subreddits, people wonder what Napoleon would’ve been if it had been made. The greatest movie ever made? Kubrick’s magnum opus, surpassing 2001 and The Shining? Or would it have been destined to collapse under the scale of its own grandeur, ruining him in the process? It’s easy to obsess over the what-might-have-beens in a project of that scale.

The devotion of an audience often increases with the unwieldiness, complexity, and size of a work, especially if it remains tantalizingly incomplete: hence the prevalence of die-hard fandoms for serialized pop culture objects like Homestuck, the 10,000-page webcomic running on and off since 02009, and the ongoing sagas of Doctor Who, chugging along since 01963.

There is a powerful, tantalizing quality to an unfinished project. Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, begun in 01927 and unfinished at his untimely wartime death in 01940, aimed to capture the essence of 19th-century life through the metaphor of the arcade, the enclosed passageways of Paris’s shopping district that represented, to him, the modern age of bourgeois consumerism. With its textual collages of quotations, assembled in varied thematic sections alongside his own thoughts, the project was a kaleidoscopic, perhaps quixotic attempt to capture the totalizing effects of capital. The cult around The Arcades Project, as scholars attempt to divine its intended meanings, has much in common with the persistent fandoms for Lord of The Rings and other neverending legendaria.

Walter Benjamin's Arcades project was left unfinished due to his untimely death in 01940 yet what passages remain from that project still resonate with contemporary readers.

“To great writers, finished works weigh lighter than those fragments on which they labor their entire lives,” Benjamin wrote. This dedication is mirrored in the response of fans and audiences, who commit themselves to sustaining enthusiasm, knowing a finished work may never be within their grasp. But even when it is, like viewing Étant donnés on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, there is still a tantalizing sense of incompleteness which only adds to its power. Perhaps every magnum opus, no matter how close to final perfection, is just that in the end — a collection of fragments, whose enormity of purpose and of time invested gives them their great weight.

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter

More from Art

What is the long now?

The Long Now Foundation is a nonprofit established in 01996 to foster long-term thinking. Our work encourages imagination at the timescale of civilization — the next and last 10,000 years — a timespan we call the long now.

Learn more

Join our newsletter for the latest in long-term thinking

Long Now's website is changing...