Why are artists intoxicated with Samuel Beckett?

Beckett’s legacy endures, and reaches far beyond the written word

What was it about Samuel Beckett? In addition to writing fiction and plays that continue to absorb audiences and tease the imagination, the Nobel Laureate attracted collaborators in life and continues to extend his influence today. Writers from Harold Pinter to John Banville have acknowledged their debt to him, but it's also a legacy that goes beyond words.

There was his Film made in 1964, with silent film star Buster Keaton. It met a mixed reception. "I took one look at the script, and asked him if he ate welsh rarebit before going to bed at night," Keaton said, wondering if cheesy dreams might have been responsible for the peculiar drama in which a man is pursued by a camera.

The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze described it as "the greatest Irish film", while a Sunday Times reviewer called it "a load of old bosh". Beckett himself described it as "an interesting failure". While he would never write another screenplay, he would go on to "fail better".

In 1977, he worked with composer Morton Feldman on an opera. The pair went to lunch and in an exchange between the two that seems pure Beckett, Feldman reports: "He was very embarrassed – he said to me, after a while: 'Mr Feldman, I don't like opera.' I said to him, 'I don't blame you!' Then he said to me 'I don't like my words being set to music,' and I said, 'I'm in complete agreement'."


Beckett wrote a 16-line poem, Neither, for the libretto. He had asked Feldman if some existing material might work. "I said that I had read them all, that they were pregnable, they didn't need music. I said that I was looking for the quintessence, something that just hovered," replied the composer. There's an intriguing lack of ego there. Beckett hadn't known Feldman, and wasn't familiar with his music, but he took a risk.

A 1976 collaboration with American painter Jasper Johns was even more intriguing. Pages from the limited edition book (just 250 copies) that the pair produced are currently on display at Something Resembling Truth, the Royal Academy's major survey show of Jasper Johns's work in London. The exhibition opens with Johns's workings and reworkings of the American flag, which he first painted in the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War. His aim was to challenge viewers to look differently at "things the mind already knows". As the bright red, white and blue is redrawn, dulled to black and grey, the series seems, if possible, even more eerily resonant today.

There's wit to his art. In the collage Fool's House (1961-62), Johns helpfully writes the names of the objects attached to the grey swathed canvas: broom, towel, cup. And yet there's a bleakness, too. It's a world where we're limited by realities, though our minds may strive for more. Johns has said that "one hopes for something resembling truth, some sense of life, even of grace, to flicker, at least, in the work". You start to believe he may have been destined to meet Beckett.

A Robert Doisneau photograph of the pair, taken in Paris in 1975, shows the two great figures, each at the very height of their fame, sitting at opposite ends of a sofa. They're staring at one another with what looks like intense scepticism. They were at the studio of Aldo Crommelynck, the Belgian master printmaker who worked with artists from Henri Matisse to David Hockney, Pablo Picasso to Richard Hamilton. Was it the tension of waiting to see their work realised? Did they, despite their penetrating gazes, not quite see eye to eye? Or, perhaps, did they see each other all too well?

The pair had been introduced by actress Vera Lindsay, who was at the time working for Petersburg Press. She had wanted Johns to illustrate Waiting for Godot, but Johns declined. He wanted something new from Beckett. "He looked at me horrified," Johns later recalled. "You mean you want me to write another book?"

"Sam, I'll be happy to explain," Johns reports saying as he showed Beckett his etchings. "No, no," Beckett replied. "It's perfectly clear."

In the end, Beckett gave Johns existing work, texts from his Foirades, which he also translated into English for the project. Titled Fizzles, it implies a kind of fading off, although the French meaning also translates as diarrhoea. Johns began work on his illustrations before even seeing the texts, which were themselves reworkings of themes he had used in one of his great paintings Untitled (1972). So, both artists asked for new work of the other, but used existing work of their own. "Sam, I'll be happy to explain," Johns reports saying as he showed Beckett his etchings. "No, no," Beckett replied. "It's perfectly clear."

Untitled (1972) is a four-panelled work, showing, from left to right, a series of cross-hatched lines, a pair of panels resembling an abstract stone wall (both familiar themes in Johns's work). In the final panel, a collage, shapes are attached, and come to resemble body parts, so that when you look back, what appears to have been purely abstract now seems like a microscopic view of blood in the veins. It's incredibly enigmatic, resisting reading. But, give it time, and you can get lost in it.

The same is true of Beckett's texts. "I gave up before birth, it is not possible otherwise, but birth there had to be, it was he, I was inside, that's how I see it, it was he who wailed, he who saw the light, I didn't wail, I didn't see the light, it's impossible I should have a voice, impossible I should have thoughts, and I speak and think, I do the impossible," reads Fizzle 4, which concludes: "he'll come to a place and drop, why there and not elsewhere, drop and sleep, badly because of me, he'll get up and go on, badly because of me, he can't stay still any more, because of me, he can't go on any more, because of me, there's nothing left in his head, I'll feed it all it needs."

Beckett asked Johns to use his crosshatched design at the start of the book, and the stones at the end. Why? Johns asked, remembering the moment in an interview with fellow American, Edmund White. Because "here you try all these different directions but no matter which way you turn you always come up against a stone wall", the writer replied.

Beckett was very interested, not just in plot and story, but in language, its structure and form. Because of that it's inevitable that it makes room for, and inspires artists

In 2014, Company SJ produced a play from Fizzles, siting it in a crumbling Henrietta Street tenement building. Another theatre company, Gare St Lazare, have made a vocation of performing Beckett's plays and prose works.

Judy Hegarty Lovett says that Beckett's vision crosses genres. She remarks on the musicality of his prose, and the incredible visual nature of his staging. We're used to them now, but imagine the initial impact of the disembodied mouth in Not I (1972), or seeing the characters deliver their lines, imprisoned in rubbish bins in Endgame/Fin de parte (1957)?

“Beckett was very interested, not just in plot and story, but in language, its structure and form. Because of that it’s inevitable that it makes room for, and inspires artists,” says Hegarty Lovett. After our conversation, she emails me a Beckett quote that has stayed with her: “I am interested in the shape of ideas even if I do not believe in them. There is a wonderful sentence in Augustine. I wish I could remember the Latin. It is even finer in Latin than in English. ‘Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.’ That sentence has a wonderful shape. It is the shape that matters.”

Whatever the reason for the fascination, Beckett’s legacy endures, and the richness of his work opens further doors. “Seeing a thing can sometimes trigger the mind to make another thing,” said Johns in an interview. “Naming or painting these ghosts sometimes seems a way to stop their nagging.”

Beckett left a lot of ghosts, but I suspect he would have liked that idea very much indeed.

Beckett in NYC

"Everything in Beckett is unambiguous, clear and exhilarating in its depressive," says artist Brian O'Doherty, whose homage to Beckett, Hello Sam, was first shown at Dublin Contemporary in 2011. More recently, a version was included in Gare St Lazare's Here All Night, which was part of the Beckett in London festival (2016). O'Doherty also currently has work in Delirious, the major show at New York's Met Breuer museum of contemporary art.

"Mr B had a huge influence on artists here," he says, speaking of New York, where he now lives and works. "Delirious is full of artists intoxicated with him. Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, Robert Smithson. Indeed, Beckett hovers over the whole exhibition. Why artists in the most affluent country in the world should be fascinated with the desperate poverty, skeletal frugality and negative void of Beckett is a bit of a mystery. It's part of the avant-garde outsider posture, perhaps. They are always at the core of the counter-culture, with its energy, paranoia and inspiration."

  • Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth is at the Royal Academy, London, until December 10th, royalacademy.org.uk. Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason, is at the Met Breuer, New York until 14th January 2018 metmuseum.org