Monday, December 7, 2009

New York Times Article

Damien Cave has written a profile about me in the New York Times today that talks about my position within the art world heirarchy.  Personally, I find the article fascinating in that it takes a relatively uncommon perspective by looking at the art world from the lower rungs.  This isn't a qualitative judgement about my position or the galleries that represent me.  It's just an observation of fact that our positions are all relative to the powerful, blue chip galleries that dominant New York, Los Angeles, and Art Basel Miami Beach.  I do want to qualify my characterization of Mr. Deitch by saying take a look at his gallery website ; I'm listening to the music and looking at ice cream cones right now.  I was trying to make an analogy about the way he markets his artists with a whimsy that masks an aggressive business practice.  The many gallery directors working for Mr. Deitch are responsible for promoting and marketing each of the artists.  Mr. Deitch puts up an enticing, cheery front for the sometimes ruthless business of dealing art.  Unfortunately, I have no idea if Mr. Deitch was presented with my quote or the context for it, and hats off to Mr. Deitch for taking the high road if he was aware of my sensational and satirical comment about one perception of his identity as a major dealer in the art world.  At least Mr. Deitch responded on record for Mr. Cave's article, which apparently many others were unwilling to do.  Perhaps Mr. Deitch also recognizes that press is press.

Success, then, is all relative within the art world and I recognize that I am not working outside of the system, but from within the system and with galleries who've taken considerable risks exhibiting my work.  What Cave's article does for me is validate their early support and belief in my work.  I've been slowly building an exhibition record largely on the support of art dealers beginning with Leah Stuhltrager and Cris Dam at Dam Stuhltrager  who gave me my first exhibition opportunities.  My affiliation with them led to an opportunity to show with Platform Gallery run by Stephen Lyons in Seattle that lead to two solo exhibitions and group exhibitions including The There currently on view at the gallery.  Showing with Dam Stuhltrager and Platform helped me develop a relationship with Schroeder Romero Gallery run by Lisa Schroeder and Sara Jo Romero.  The gallery is currently forming a new partnership with Sienese Shredder and will be opening up in a new space this spring with a new model for showing contemporary and historical work. Most recently, I've begun showing with Charlie James Gallery in Los Angeles, and my current show No One Here Gets Out Alive has gotten strong reviews in the LA Times (along with comments that strongly disagree), , as well blogs like Artwhirled.

These galleries as well the secondary fairs including Aqua and Pulse have helped bring my work to a broader audience, even though that work may be critical of the commercialization of art, the emphasis on celebrity and stardom, and the stratification of the art world.  When I say that there are a lot of contradictions, I mean it.  The gallery system and the attendant art fairs remain the primary model for exhibiting and selling work.  The thing that should be clear is that there are a lot of artists and galleries out there struggling to survive and even grow during the recession and many have not.  It's humbling to be the focus of Mr. Cave's article and it is because of the work I've shown.  Mr. Cave saw a print at Aqua Art Miami last year called "Market Crash" (see above) that caught his attention about the potential dangers of an art market bubble.   If it seems unusual for the Times to look at Art Basel Miami Beach from the outside looking in, it's because it is.  I guess I'm writing this post to explain that it's taken a long time to reach a point of recognition, Times article or no Times article.  Contrary to Mr. Deitch's sentiments, there may be a real difference between slowly building a reputation from the ground up than being vaulted into the spotlight.  It's the difference between being an art comet, blazing in and out of the art world, versus climbing slowly up the rungs of the system towards broad recognition. My recent interview with David Goodman for BOMB Magazine gets into more of my background and motivation for making art as we discuss the hierarchy of the art world. I can't please everyone, and I've really pissed some people off in the process, but it should be a challenge for every artist to claim a unique space within the art world whatever their genre despite the influence of the market.  Michael Kaiser has a great article about how money and market forces can actually slultify the arts by hindering risk-taking and growth. Read it, and then go make some art.  I'm going to continue working on the Hooverville drawing with artist Jade Townsend, which we hope to exhibit this spring.

Many thanks to everyone who has reached out in support through the social web and apologies to everyone who thinks it's a bunch of nonsense.  I'm sure you'll let me know as much, but we are all in contention in this system.  The difference between criticism and sour grapes is a short step.  I understand it intimately.  As my friend Jeff Parker put it "Congrats, bro. Nice depiction of the artist as an angry middle-aged fuck.


Mark Stone said...

Congratulations William! You're doing a wonderful job.

zipthwung said...

When I think of kudos I think of the expensive breakfast bar. Too sugary to be truly cruncher - don't get me started on Smart Water.

Commodify your dissent!

SOmwewhere over the radar, up so high...

Anonymous said...

If I remember correctly, agitation in the art world has historically preceded artists who are doing something right. So really, they're paying you a compliment by being pissed off. Nicely done.


Patrick McQuade said...

Cheers Bill! Pretty crazy - go get 'em.

Jasmine Maharisi said...

William, I'm a little confused with what I read in the NYT article. I'm hoping you could clear it up for me because I'd like to write a blog post about this (I won't promote it here on your turf, if you'd like to see it, just ask).

It's no secret that the class status between the artists that produce work and the people that buy it is like night and day. It's always been like that. And the explotive aggressive business practices by the dealers haven't changed much either. So...what exactly is it that you would hope to see change?

William said...


Part I (I've exceeded the 4,096 character limit)

Here’s some initial thoughts about what I’d like to see.

Your question was the main source of debate for myself and other artists when I was down in Miami this year. What the fair model lacks for me is a moderating/curatorial element to buffer the influence of the people that buy it bypassing any critical apparatus for judging the work. The model limits the amount of curatorial, academic, and critical voices generating the 'commonly agreed upon value of art'. I’d like to see more input in that aspect of art, since it has no intrinsic value. Then, there is the issue of collectors putting that art right back into museums, sometimes their own and sometimes ones they exert influence over. Along with that I would like to see more critical, as opposed to salutary, writing to evaluate the cultural worth of the art to at least offer some balance to the taste of the collector class. I think there are many knowledgeable collectors/connoisseurs, but there are also wealthy people with money to spend who look to the blue chip galleries, the salutary critics, and art consultants to define what art is important for them. The art fairs have between four and five days of exhibition time, which limits the amount of time the work is available for any critical discussion. It is only around long enough to buy it. The certainty of the financial value of the work comes from the gallery, the artist's track record, and what is already known about them. It is based on previous indicators of worth, and in an international situation, many of the collectors may be seeing work for the first and only time in a very limited context.

While the fairs are tiered according to a galleries ability to afford a booth and their reputations, this year represented for me a fairly conservative, safe turn. The longer term effect, which Michael Kaisers recent article about financial concerns driving programming choices in the arts suggests, is one where artists who are dependent largely on the market feel pressured to make the kind of safe, conservative art they see elevated in the art fair model. This leads to the kind of mannerism that has pervaded the larger art market. At Art Basel, there were historical artists like Guston and Warhol buttressed by established contemporary artists like Schnabel and Koons, who then validate works by younger artists working in similar ways. The system begins to perpetuate certain ways of working that increase the market value of all parties. At Pulse, the majority of the art on display was by emerging artists working safely within established genres, without being completely derivative. By the time I got to Scope, I saw a great deal of work that was very derivative within the genre. I saw works that essentially emulated Francis Bacon and Jeff Koons as well as a host of fashionable styles. Throughout Scope and Aqua people were talking about the Juxtapose and tattoo art on hand. A lot of it just looks the same.

If the model for the fairs wasn't so dependent on pushing products on the ideal viewer, a buyer, then there might be more room for appreciation, analysis, and critique by a broader audience that includes viewers with different agendas. From the VIP lounges to the resort setting of South Beach, the fairs are targeted at buyers. The way the art is hung (if you can't afford this, maybe you'll like the less expensive model), the emphasis on contingency this year (lots of safe bets, blue chip artists, dead artists), and the sheer volume of art make it harder to actually think critically about what the art means.

William said...


It would be wonderful to see an alternative to the fair model in the United States like the Venice Biennale or Documenta where there is a greater curatorial role, a longer exhibition span, more accessibility, and an emphasis on single artist projects (as opposed to mini-group shows in the booths). When a dealer has to present a show that is also dependent/vulnerable to criticism they may take more care in curating their booths. At this point, we've got some major survey shows, but they are the provenance of museums with their own agendas and insular relationships, some of which have become increasingly clear.

I'd like to see the fairs de-emphasized in their role in generating value or inflating the economic value of art. I think you miss the fact that the big, economically successful art fair is a relatively new phenomenon in the art world (making the relationship between artists and buyers even more pronounced) starting in 2002 and growing at an unsustainable pace. The older fair model was really about exposure, making connections, and generating curatorial and eventually commercial interests for artists, not just a rationale when a gallery doesn't sell anything. Miami has become something of a make or break scenario for some dealers, or a place to make a lot of money in one spot. I don't think we get to see the most experimental or difficult work galleries may represent, but the fairs receive a lot of attention and perhaps aspire to present a snap shot of the art world, which is really just the art market, not a broader look at the diversity of practices and work going on outside the commercial context.

Look, the ambivalence I exhibit in Mr. Cave's article stems largely from the fact that I am engaged in the game I am criticizing. The art world is self-authorizing and opaque. The more I can learn about it by gaining access, and that is incredibly difficult, the more transparent it becomes. There are ideal trajectories for commercial artists, some with more integrity than others, but as I told Mr. Cave, if I play the game for the brass ring, I should be aspiring to show with Larry Gagosian along side Jeff Koons until he's dead or too old to oversee the production of his objects, and grab for the mantle.

At this point, I'm able to make work based on my experiences within the art world that addresses the unspoken, unwritten, practices, conventions, and rituals of the art world. I think it's necessary, and if should ever become unnecessary in some utopian world without gross inequities, I'll quit. I hope you find value in asking difficult questions and not just in providing answers or solutions.

If a solution or answers to altering the class disparity between producers (artists), middlemen (dealers), and buyers (collectors), I'm certainly open to discussing them, but I'm a cynic and will question any system. Also, there are other ways besides economics to value artists, dealers, and buyers, but then again those don’t get much consideration. The majority of the press coming out of Miami has been about money.

What are your proposals other than accepting the disparity? If you want to really have a dialog, please get in touch with me via email.

Sasha said...

I agree with you and your thoughts about the art market and the art world. But at the same time the art world cannot function without the art market. And we are at this point where the collectors are the only ones driving it.
Let me ask you this question. Do you think a work of art from a contemporary artist's studio should go into the hands of a private collector, where it can gain monetary, social, and cultural value or to a museum where it too will gain cultural cred, but will probably be in storage until we can look at it retrospectively?

William said...


I believe the art market could, if it wanted, make some changes internally with critical and institutional support about what it chooses to market to collectors.

Recently, someone suggested to me that a radical solution would be for artists to stop selling their work. She also acknowledged that this would be unrealistic, given, as you noted, that artists largely depend on the market. I know very few artists whose position is to work outside the commercial gallery system. Cai Guo-Qiang, the Chinese artist, to my knowledge works entirely independently without a gallery, but sells directly to private collectors and museums.

I don't think avoiding the gallery system is a solution, because of the issue you've raised. I don't have any problem selling work to a private collector, and at this point the problem of having the work disappear into storage is a hypothetical question for me, since my collectors tend not to be at the point where they have so much work it has to go into storage. I am fortunate that most of my work is on display in homes of the collectors.

This wonderful photography dealer in Seattle bought my first enemies list and keeps it in her office. When she really wants to see what someone is about, she brings them in to look at the drawing. Brett Littman used to keep my Dear Dana Schutz letter in his office at PS1, which I thought was a sick irony, because I did the drawing after seeing Greater NY 05 at PS1.

What I'm trying to say is that unless your selling directly to a giant collector who doesn't really like your art (it happens if it's valuable enough) or want to look at it for some period of time, the question may not be of much concern. Even Charles Saatchi, who collects a lot of work obviously, exhibits the work widely to help increase the monetary, social, and cultural value of the work using his own money most of the time (Brooklyn Museum excluded).

So, I think your question would depend on knowing who is buying your work and what they intend to do with it. You can refuse to sell to a collector who is just going to put into storage until a curator comes calling. I'd rather sell to a collector who is going to put in their apartment in New York, their beach house in Long Island, their condo in Aspen, their office in La. How better to continue tweaking rich people on their own turf?

It's also something to just be able to exhibit work in other regional and non-profit venues where sales are a possibility, but less likely. I think trying to balance the mercenary aspect of selling art with maintaining a broader public presence is definitely something to think about.