Top 10 Reclusive Artists

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While some celebrities and artists embrace the attention their fame brings them, others shy away from the spotlight and choose to lead lives of solitude away from the constant examination of the press. Ironically, this often only inspires an evidaen more cultist devotion from their fans, and encourages the media to speculate about their whereabouts and reasons for wanting to remain unknown. As a result, some of these people become the victims of wild rumors and accusations, while others develop eccentric, almost mythic reputations. The following are ten of the most famous of these artists, both living and dead, who chose to opt out of being a public figure.

10. Cormac McCarthy

cormac_mccarthyBest known for books like The Road, All the Pretty Horses, and Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy is an author who is widely considered to be one of the greatest living American writers. On top of being known for his books, McCarthy also has a reputation for being one of the most reclusive and inaccessible figures in literature. For many years, no one in the literary community knew what he looked like or where he lived, as he never gave interviews and declined all speaking engagements. In one famous story, McCarthy even neglected to show at a literary banquet held in his honor. In recent years, though, McCarthy has started to move out of the shadows. He made an unexpected appearance at the Academy Awards when No Country For Old Men, based on his book, won Best Picture, and in 2007 he shocked the literary community by appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show after she selected The Road for her book club. Since then, though, he has again dropped off of the map, and continues to live quietly somewhere in New Mexico.

9. Terrence Malick

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Director of the classic films Days of Heaven and Badlands, Terrence Malick is one of the most mysterious figures in American cinema. A Harvard graduate and former Rhodes scholar, Malick studied philosophy in college, and even taught briefly at MIT before leaving to study film. In 1972, Malick made the film Badlands starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, which cemented his reputation both as a considerable talent and as someone who preferred to avoid the spotlight. He followed this up with Days of Heaven in 1978, before completely withdrawing from the film world and moving to France. For twenty years, Malick was not heard from, and most people believed he had retired from making movies, but in 1998 the director returned with The Thin Red Line, which was followed in 2005 by The New World. Malick is currently working on his fifth film, but he remains something of an enigma. His film contracts still state that no current pictures of him can be released to the press, and he has made only a handful of public appearances during his long career.

8. Bill Watterson

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15_watterson_lgl.jpgBill Watterson is the artist behind the beloved comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, which ran in newspapers across the country for ten years. During this period Watterson was known for being relatively publicity-shy, but it wasn’t until he retired in 1995 that he truly withdrew from public life. Watterson moved back to his hometown of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, stopped giving interviews, and refused almost all attempts to license his famous characters. Since then, a number of writers and journalists have attempted to track down the reclusive cartoonist, with little success. Two major Cleveland newspapers sent reporters after him on different occasions, but both came up empty-handed. In 2005, famed journalist Gene Weingarten went to Ohio and got in touch with Watterson’s parents. He asked them to pass along a message to Bill, and claimed he would wait in a hotel for Watterson to get back to him no matter how long it took. A day later, Weingarten was contacted by Watterson’s editor who, saying there was no chance Bill would ever come, convinced him to give up the search.

7. Harper Lee

Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the greatest and most widely examined novels of the 20th century, but its author Harper Lee remains something of a recluse. Lee published the book in 1960 to immediate acclaim, and after working for some time with writer Truman Capote, seemingly dropped off of the map. In the years since, she has seldom given interviews and made few public appearances outside of literary functions. More importantly, outside of a few essays and written statements, she has never published another book. She supposedly began a second novel sometime in the 70s, but abandoned it shortly thereafter. In recent years, Lee has begun to make a few more public appearances, most notably in 2007, when she appeared at the White House to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She still declines most speaking engagements, though, famously stating that “it’s better to be silent than to be a fool.”

6. Emily Dickinson

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Emily Dickinson is remembered as one of America’s greatest poets, but during her lifetime she was a notorious recluse, almost never leaving her house or even her bedroom. Dickinson grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, and after spending a short time attending seminary at a nearby college, returned to her parents’ home until her death in 1886. She was considered to be something of an eccentric by her neighbors, as she almost never left her home and would only speak to visitors from behind her closed front door. Still, despite her reclusiveness, Dickinson was a prolific writer, and along with her poetry she maintained several correspondences with other poets and friends through writing letters. Only a few of her poems were ever published during her lifetime, and it was not until she died at the age of 55 that her sister Lavinia discovered a locked trunk filled with over 1,800 short poems (see one of her love poems). Lavinia became obsessed with getting her sister’s work published, and finally succeeded in 1890. Since then, Dickinson’s work has never been out of print, and she continues to be one of the most celebrated literary figures of the 1800s.

5. Stanley Kubrick

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Between 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, and The Shining, director Stanley Kubrick was responsible for some of the most beloved and visionary films of the 20th century. In his later years, Kubrick also developed a reputation as a notorious recluse, thanks to a fear flying that led him to do all of his work from his secluded manor house in England. While Kubrick did have a wide circle of friends, his media shyness was such that even at the height of his career in the 80s and 90s, few people even knew what he looked like. One famous story about him states that when adoring fans would knock on the door of his house and ask to see him, he would pretend to be the butler and inform them that Mr. Kubrick wasn’t home. While this anonymity allowed Kubrick to work in peace, it also allowed impostors and wild rumors about him to flourish. The most bizarre of these came in the form of Alan Conway, a British con man who went around the UK impersonating the director for quite some time, using Kubrick’s name as a way of getting into restaurants and high society parties. Kubrick is said to have been fascinated by his impostor, though he never commented on the situation before his death in 1999.

4. Syd Barrett


Syd Barrett was perhaps the most reclusive musician of all time, to the point that at the time of his death, many of his most devoted fans believed he had already been dead for years. Barrett got his start with the rock band Pink Floyd in 1964, and was driving force behind the band’s shift toward the psychedelic sound that made them famous. Barrett himself was a heavy user of LSD and other psychedelics, a practice that is said to have led to increasingly erratic behavior in him. Barrett left the band in 1968 and halfheartedly released two solo albums, but eventually gave up on music after refusing offers to produce the records of many popular bands. 1978, he moved back into his mother’s house in Cambridge, and it was there that he lived out the rest of his days until his death in 2006. He gave no interviews, and is said to have spent the majority of his time painting and working in his garden.

3. Thomas Pynchon


Perhaps no artist is more stubbornly wary of the media than Thomas Pynchon, the author of the acclaimed books Gravity’s Rainbow and the Crying of Lot 49. Ever since the early seventies, Pynchon’s refusal to ever make a public appearance or grant interviews has led to the creation of a number of unusual myths and theories, some of which Pynchon himself has even commented on. One of the most famous, put forth by a California newspaper, was the bizarre hypothesis that Pynchon was actually the famed writer J.D. Salinger working under an assumed name. Pynchon’s amusing written response read simply: “not bad. Keep trying.” Since then, a number of reporters and fans have gone to extreme, often illegal lengths to discover the writer’s identity. In the 1980s, one man got an employee of the DMV to look up writer’s driving record, and in the late 90s CNN managed to film Pynchon, of whom no recent photos exist, on the streets of New York. Pynchon, enraged, personally wrote the network a letter requesting the footage not be aired. Despite his refusal to be photographed, Pynchon is a prolific writer, and in recent years, he has finally opened up to some interviews. In one of the most humorous twists on his story, Pynchon made two “cameos” on the TV show The Simpsons in 2004. The author’s actual voice was used, but even in the cartoon he was depicted as wearing a paper bag over his head to conceal his identity.

2. Greta Garbo

GRETA_GARBO

Commonly regarded as one of the all time greatest movie stars, Greta Garbo was a Swedish actress who gained fame as the preeminent performer of the silent film era and beyond, before retiring to a life of solitude. Garbo became a star with silent films like Flesh and the Devil and The Mysterious Lady before making the switch to sound with 1930s Anna Christie, a film that was publicized with the now-famous tagline “Garbo Talks.” But by the 1930s, Garbo had become quite discriminating about which films she worked on, and after a film called Ninotchka in 1941, she retired from movies altogether. Garbo withdrew from the business almost entirely, and spent her later years living anonymously in New York City. She became something of a legend in the city, as well as the number one target of the paparazzi, who considered shots of her the holy grail of celebrity photography. But despite continued interest in her as a performer, she chose to live out her final years alone and secluded, only meeting occasionally with a small group of friends and acquaintances. During her career Garbo never signed autographs, gave interviews, or answered fan mail, and to this day she remains one of the most unusual figures in film history.

1. J.D. Salinger

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There is not a more complete representation of the reclusive, publicity shy artist than writer J.D. Salinger, who has spent the last forty years of his life living in almost total seclusion. Salinger gained fame in 1951 with the publication of his still-controversial novel The Catcher in the Rye, which continues to be one of the most widely read and studied books of the 20th century. Following its success, Salinger released a collection of short stories and another novel called Franny and Zooey before retiring from professional writing and moving to Cornish, New Hampshire. He attempted to retire from public life, as well, but interest in him has led Salinger to frequently appear in court to stop the publication of unauthorized biographies and other examinations of his work. The most recent of these is an unauthorized, unofficial sequel to The Catcher in the Rye, which was written by a Swedish book publisher. Salinger has filed a motion to block the book’s publication, but as of now it is still tied up in court. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Salinger’s reclusiveness is that by all accounts he has never stopped writing. He continues to work steadily, according to his family, but sees publishing as nothing but “a damned interruption’ and claims that “I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” The idea that somewhere there is a stack of unpublished Salinger manuscripts has been a constant source of speculation by fans and scholars, but outside of a brief attempt to release one of his old novellas–an idea that was quickly abandoned–Salinger has shown no signs of breaking his silence.


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21 Comments

    • I love that Watterson is the teaser image for this article. Calvin and Hobbes is a classic from my childhood that is worth revisiting year after year. Great call on the uncle.

      Funny. That Simpsons reference to Pynchon was lost to me until reading this. I bet I laughed anyway and pretended I got it.

  1. I can understand what it is to want to be reclusive. I find it very interesting to be driven to not want to be in the spotlight. Their muses want them to create yet their want to not be interviewed and chewed on by the fans and to want their creations to speak for them is what I think these artists wanted. I myself am a recluse and do not like people as a general rule. I can sympathize with every single one of these guys and feel for them.

    I loved the Calvin and Hobbs comics. I can feel the joy of being a child and having a stuffed tiger that came to life when you have no friends. The comics alone made me feel less alone. I loved them for this feeling alone.

    • Yeah, I guess that is a bit unclear. Pynchon did once interview a band for an article in Esquire, and he also answered some questions via fax, but always on subjects other than his own career. There have been magazines that claimed to have interviews with him, but they're all most likely faked.

      That's interesting about Franny and Zooey. I've read the book, and I always assumed that the two sections were meant to be read together. I hadn't noticed that they were originally published separately.

    • Banksy is a great addition. I wish I had a good excuse for not including him, but the truth is that I just forgot. Otherwise, he definitely would have made the list.

      • I’d say Banksy doesn’t actually fit to this list. If he’d tell his true indentity he would probably end up in jail. The motive to stay out of the public eye is different than what the others have.

  2. Spencer Jackson on

    One of the UK’s reclusive artists is a friend of mine – Colin Hall. He’s very talented, but his moods make him very hard to get to know. It’s worth the effort though.

    Thanks

    Spencer

    • Hi Spencer
      I met Colin in our gallery last week. He did indeed seem extraordinary, and it was a privilege to meet him. Where can I find out more about his work, including past exhibitions?
      David

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