'The artist who inspires me': Major art-world figures salute their contemporaries

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Nothing is more vital than the inspiration that sets creation in motion, says Michael Glover

Inspiration is such a slippery matter. In an interview that was published in 1961, the American poet John Ashbery asked the Belgian neo-Surrealist artist and poet Henri Michaux how he had been inspired and influenced by the Surrealists. "The Surrealists gave me," replied Michaux, covering his eyes with his hand, because he always preferred to be partially rather than wholly seen by the prying eye of any interlocutor, "la grande permission."

That is a broad-brush statement – but it is also pertinent to what all these contemporary artists on these pages tell us about the nature of inspiration. To be inspired is not to be taught. It is something more nebulous, something that could even be said to connect up with ideas of the spiritual.

Inspiration is a strange kind of carrying over from one being to another, a key to the door of the self. It unlocks the spirit of the person who is being inspired in profound and unpredictable ways. It gives the artist permission to be himself, to pursue his own artistic goals.

This does not mean that this artist will then go on to make work akin to that of the figure who is the source of inspiration. It is not necessarily a matter of learning particular lessons about the making process – ways of fabrication; technical expertise of one kind or another; rules of a game that can be applied to some other game elsewhere. We are not talking about the handing down of particular skills as though the artist were an eager apprentice to some master in a Renaissance studio. It is subtler – and perhaps even simpler - than that.

Take the response of Richard Prince. Of all the statements here, Prince's is perhaps closest in spirit to what Michaux said to Ashbery in Paris all those years ago. Prince says that the art of Till Gerhard gives him permission to dream. Not the dreams of Till Gerhard, but the dreams of Richard Prince. Gerhard opens up an imaginative space for him.

That is all that he wants to tell us because the rest is his own affair. He doesn't want us to pry. He doesn't even want to articulate it any further, because to explicate baldly and boldly might be to wound or to partially destroy something that is precious to him. But we see from the reproduction of Gerhard's work how it connects in spirit with what Prince does. They share a love of some sense of imaginative drift, that excitement about the opening up of new ways of seeing.

The simplest thing can unlock a door, make the heart of an artist leap for joy. Gavin Turk is hugely impressed by the speed and playfulness with which Ian Dawson worked with a group of school children to create a boat out of junk and glitter over a period of five days. Speed! Playfulness! How anti-cerebral can you get than that? And yet the speed and the lightness of making are very important matters. They can mean the difference between a work which is fluid and a work which is laboured and pedantic. You can understand why to witness something wonderful being done at speed can matter so much.

That lesson may seem tangential, even relatively inconsequential and workaday. Tracey Emin looks and looks again at a painting by David Brian Smith that hangs on her wall because every time she looks, it seems slightly different. There are a thousand suggestive colours on offer. Who is the figure in this painting? Is he a shepherd or not? She never knows. It changes with her mood. One some days he is this and on other days he is that.

So that too is an inspiring lesson, that a work of art, like a great poem, can be richly, provocatively ambiguous, a baggy portmanteau kind of a thing, saggily heavy with potential meaning, never finally offering up all its possibilities because there is always something more to be found if you keep on delving.

We can speculate what relevance this may have for Emin's thinking about her own work, how she would wish to invest it – who wouldn't? – with a similar richness of ambiguity, a multiplicity of meanings to be teased out, reasons for returning to it again and again. She will not be aiming for this deliberately but she has clearly noted that it is something to be admired, pondered upon and looked up to.

What we also note here with interest is that some of the sources of inspiration are not very well known at all – one of them is a college student. The compact between the inspirer and inspired is nothing to do with great reputations. These sources of inspiration have been happened upon – perhaps they are works of art encountered at an exhibition or a college degree show or as a result of the onset of a friendship. They feel like relatively private compacts, almost whisperings from one individual to another.

What is more, these artists are not being inspired by artists of the past. It is the present or the near present that is engaging them. There is a reason for this: they have been asked to choose a source of inspiration who could be regarded as a contemporary, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of frieze. The contemporary art magazine's illustrious cover stars past marking out, perhaps, the cover stars of the future.

No artist should live unmindful of the achievements of his contemporaries. After all, the world of today is the one in which he or she lives, breathes and counts the cash. On the other hand, the art of today would not exist without the art of the past – everything that we are now is a kind of summary of all that has gone before.

Richard Prince on Till Gerhard

I like Till Gerhard. What do you want me to say? I'm tired and want to go sleep. And dream about Marshall McLuhan. And maybe wake up, lie in bed and stare at one of Till's paintings in front of me ... and go blank and not think and die a little bit and feel perfect.

Till Gerhard is based in Hamburg. He recently organised a group show at Galleri Loyal in Malmö, Sweden. His solo exhibition, 'The Future of Yesterday', at The Goma in Madrid, runs until 22 October.

Tracey Emin on David Brian Smith

I have a David Brian Smith painting. It is crazy to look at: a thousand different colours and a solitary figure surrounded by sheep. When I first saw the figure I saw it as a shepherd, but other times I see the Grim Reaper. The painting takes on the mood that I feel; this is why I like his work.

David Brian Smith lives and works in London. His work has recently been included in shows at the Saatchi Gallery and Carl Freedman Gallery in London and at the Atelierhaus Baumstrasse in Munich. His exhibition with Oliver Perkins at Galerie VidalCuglietta, Brussels, is on now.

Wolfgang Tillmans on Marte Eknæs

Marte Eknæs's sculptures are arrangements of reflective and transparent surfaces. She's interested in the oscillation between exclusion and intensified incorporation that we're all subjected to in urban environments. Often directly placed on the floor, her sculptures and installations leave me with a sense of suspense; they're half shop-front mimicry and half haute-Modernism.

Marte Eknæs is based in Berlin. Over the last 18 months her work has been exhibited at the Bonner Kunstverein, Germany; Kunsthall Oslo; and Kaleidoscope Project Space, Milan. Her work is currently on show at Between Bridges, London, and will be included in the Norwegian Sculpture Biennial, Oslo, in October.

Susan Hiller on Elizabeth Price

In the films of Elizabeth Price, material objects perform as our representatives. In 'User Group Disco' (2009), household utensils appear out of the gloom, framed by startling texts and pounding music. The camera reveals a grotesque array of bar ashtrays and mugs. Pink bosoms thrust, ceramic legs open wide. "Walk into the shreds of flames/ they will not bite into your flesh/ you will understand that you too/ are a mere appearance/ dreamt by another."

Elizabeth Price is based in London. Her work is included in 'British Art Show 7'. She recently screened 'Choir' at the Chisenhale Gallery, London; it was also exhibited in collaboration with Tom O'Sullivan and Joanne Tatham in 'A Direct Experience in Local Time', a public art project organised by Collective Gallery, Edinburgh in August.

Gavin Turk on Ian Dawson

Ian Dawson's work is exploratory, playful and has a kind of raw power. I once watched him work tirelessly for about five days with children to make a boat out of glitter, household junk, vegetation and bonding plaster – it was awe-inspiring.

Ian Dawson lives and works in London. He is co-curating a group show titled 'Two and a Half to Three' which will open at Pangolin, London, on 21 September. He is also working on a book, 'Making Contemporary Sculpture', that explores the studio practice of a number of artists including Fiona Banner, Anna Barriball, David Batchelor, Sara MacKillop, Goshka Macuga and Keith Tyson.

Eva Rothschild on Sophie Michael

Sophie Michael's films are like a visual hide-and-seek. Her work brings together sculpture and film in such a way that ordinary objects are transformed for us by the minutely directed specificity of her looking. The reels unfold kaleidoscopically before the eye, looping through analogue sequences of manipulated light and glimpsed environments that are both confused and familiar yet all shot through with an acute awareness of the nostalgia we attach to both formats and objects.

Sophie Michael is an artist based in London. Her work has been included in shows at 19 Sirdar Road, London; Outpost Gallery, Norwich; and the 36th Toronto International Film Festival. She is a student at the Royal Academy.

Shirana Shahbazi on Nico Krebs and Taiyo Onorato

Nico Krebs and Taiyo Onorato have long impressed me with their precise yet playful work, which is full of analogue subtleties, and this at a time when photography on film increasingly seems absurd. Back to the future with an artistic signature style – not something to be taken for granted in photographic works. The interaction of installation, photography, concept and aesthetics on equal terms makes this work as beautiful as it is intelligent.

Nico Krebs and Taiyo Onorato live in Berlin. Their work is currently on view at 'Un'Espressione Geografica' (A Geographical Expression) at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, and Kunsthalle Mainz, Germany.

Jeremy Deller on Bruce Lacey

Despite leaving college only 57 years ago, Bruce Lacey has notched up an improbable yet impressive body of work as a painter, performer, hunt saboteur, film-maker, apprentice shaman, musician and inventor. Next year he will have a much-deserved mid-career retrospective at the Camden Arts Centre, London. He's the living, breathing real thing.

Bruce Lacey lives in Norfolk. A major retrospective of his life and art was held at the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, in 1996. His 60-year career will be celebrated in an exhibition at Camden Arts Centre, London, next year. He performs regularly at the Norwich Arts Centre.

Mark Leckey on Andy Holden

Andy Holden is a cottage industry in Bedfordshire. He wills himself to inhabit that oblivious state in a Tex Avery cartoon when the character continues walking beyond the cliff edge. All that's preventing his fall is the belief that something firm exists beneath his feet.

Andy Holden is based in Bedfordshire. He has recently had shows at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, and Tate Britain. He has forthcoming exhibitions at the Benaki Museum, Athens, and is the recipient of the Stanley Picker Fellowship at Kingston University.

More artists and their inspirations are explored in the 20th anniversary issue of ‘frieze’, out now ( www.frieze.com)

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