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At the Vision & Art Project, we delve into the profound influence vision loss due to macular degeneration has had on both historical and contemporary art and artists.

About macular degeneration
Two paintings by the artist Georgia O'Keeffe, the first of which is image of a large white iris rendered in pale warm off white and yellow hues with a chromatic yellow stamen in the center of the canvas; the second image is an abstract watercolor composition of a crescent moon shape cradling a sphere with the entire image rendered in a wash of pale blue
First image: Georgia OKeeffe, “White Iris No. 7” (1957), oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches. © 2021 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Second image: Georgia OKeeffe, “Like an Early Blue Abstraction” (1976-77), watercolor on paper, 29.8 x 22.5 inches. © 2021 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Macular degeneration is a leading cause of vision loss worldwide. Affecting over 11 million people in the United States alone (more than glaucoma and cataracts combined). While most common in people 60 years of age and older, on rare occasions, it affects younger adults and children in a form known as Stargardt disease.

Artists and macular degeneration

By the age of 75, about 3 in 10 artists will experience significant vision loss due to macular degeneration. Among many others, such notable figures as Georgia O’Keeffe and Edgar Degas are known to have developed the disease and adapted their working methods in ways that allowed them to continue creating art.

Artists adapt to vision loss

Regardless of how dramatic or subtle the effect, artists working with vision loss usually have to change their approach to artmaking. Often, an entirely new body of work emerges. One that can be hauntingly, and thrillingly, unlike anything they had created before.

Vision loss can allow deeper contact with the tropes and compulsions that animate an artist’s life’s work. This was the case for Lennart Anderson and Dahlov Ipcar, who engaged familiar subject matter in new ways. Or it can encourage exploration of new realms of visual experience, as in the late work of Thomas Sgouros. When Sgouros could no longer paint meticulous still lives, he began instead to paint what he called “landscapes from memory.”

Though challenging, sometimes even catastrophic to experience, vision loss can rejuvenate an artist’s familiar subjects with fresh insights. William Thon, for example, surrendered to painting completely by touch, pouring inks and water onto sheets of paper and drawing with his fingers by feel. His new working process led him to create images that were at once familiar and utterly transformed.

At the Vision & Art Project, we tell the stories of exceptional professional artists who experience vision loss due to macular degeneration. In so doing, we help ensure the legacy of individual artists at what can be a challenging time in their lives and shed light on a hidden side of art history. We also hope to inspire a deeper respect for our profound capacity as humans to adapt and change.