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The Art of the Crash and Burn

Images: Kyle Kobel 

Words: Brad Phillips


What follows is a cautionary tale about the life of a dear friend, written in the first person. In the span of almost four years working as a professional artist, this friend went from having a spacious studio in Los Angeles with three assistants to living with his mother in a two-bedroom apartment in St. Louis. 


This is not a young adult story, but it is a story for young adults.

How to begin. This is always the big question with writing. Oftentimes I’ll start with that – “How to begin.” It takes the pressure off coming up with an inaugural sentence, and also, I hope, conveys charming self-consciousness. 


I give lectures at art schools occasionally, as long as they can pay for my travel and accommodation. Some of the students know my name and my work, but usually as a figure from the past, not someone they’ve seen in any of the usual art magazines that art students spend their loan money on. I talk about art, about my own and the history that precedes us. But I also talk about the business of art, the idea of a career, and offer advice. To demonstrate why learning the business is as important as learning about Matisse, perhaps more important, I always use the following example as an object lesson about the value of slowness and caution. Typically, there will be a few curatorial students in the audience. When I provide the following example, people will point to the curators and laugh, or the curators will blush and lower their heads. The students don’t laugh out of malice. They laugh because seeing the humour in something once taken for granted as wholly unhumorous is funny.


It’s funny in the style of Jerry Seinfeld. Observational comedy. Airplane peanuts. I make them laugh with the following:


Okay. So when I was your age I bought Artforum magazine every month, and I imagine that’s still happening (in reality, it likely is not happening, as at this point millennials seem to only process digestible content through their phones). It’s annoying, right, how it’s square? You really can’t put it on any bookshelf. If you ever end up at a curator’s apartment, you’ve probably seen how they all have stacks of Artforum on their floor or above their record collection, color-coded, a representation of time that goes from light yellow to pink to purple to blue to green. I don’t know why all curators do this, but I know that they all do. (This is where I take a pause to drink water until the murmuring laughter of recognition subsides. It’s also where I briefly feel my own pang of recognition, that of being old, a member of Generation X, and most likely, deeply out of touch.) 


What I want you to do, next time you’re at a curator’s home, or at your studio, looking at art magazines (and let’s be honest, we only really look at the advertisements — to see who is showing where, what to aspire to, who to be jealous of) is to scan the advertisements over the course of, if you have enough, a nine year period. Maybe some of you graduate students, forever taking leaves of absence as a way to avoid presenting your thesis exhibition, have this many years’ worth of copies. There are two things you will notice. The first is that certain galleries – Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner, Barbara Gladstone, Gagosian – will appear consistently throughout the years, taking up as much ad space as they do physical property. Sometimes five ads in a row will belong to the same gallery, advertising shows they have at their multiple galleries. (The last time I had a full page ad in Artforum, it cost 8,000 dollars. This was many years ago.)
You will feel a sense of deep aspiration. You will want what you see. But, I’m sad to inform you, perhaps only one of the 400 of you seated before me will ever achieve it. Correction: only one of you will find yourself in a position to possibly achieve this, and then, only if a myriad of circumstances align in your favour. I am not an astronomist, but I have a fairly certain belief that the chances of achieving this level of success are more remote than being struck dead by a meteorite. You’ll see ads for other galleries, and they will appear and disappear as regularly as the tide. This is not what’s important. This is just an observation, and one that will, in the end, not affect you personally. Or if it does affect you, it will do so in a way where it simply makes you sad, bitter, and inevitably insecure. Art magazines are the pornography of self-doubt.


What I want you to do, what’s most important, is to look at the names in those ads. You will see the names of artists, young artists, showing at prestigious galleries. Often you will see them in three ads or more in one issue of Artforum, so that the world understands they are on their way to global domination – New York, Tokyo, London. They will move from prestigious galleries to blue chip galleries within two years. They will typically be quite young, in their late 20s or early 30s. Never forget the Leipzig school of painters, if in fact you can remember them. Rest in peace, Eberhard Havekost. Every ad for every group show, they’ll be represented. At the mid-mark of the second year, these artists will be at their apex: museum shows, magazine covers, six different full page advertisements.


You will see their exhibitions reviewed in the places all artists aspire to be reviewed in. There will be no dissention in praise in terms of their part in ‘revitalizing’ painting.  But then — and this is where some of you can feel comforted, perhaps even a sense of retrospective schadenfreude — you will start to see their names less and less. By the end of three years, good luck finding their name in any advertisement, save perhaps a group show in Cincinnati or a solo show at a Kunsthalle in an obscure German town. Three years. Pick up the magazine that represents the fourth year, and their names will be gone. But what’s this? A new group of names. An identical narrative followed by an identical vanishing. Google those previously famous artists today and Google’s predictive URL won’t even attempt to fill the end of their last names.


This does not mean they will have disappeared from the roster of those blue chip galleries where they ended up. No. Instead, the infinity pool they once dove into is now a stale pond. They are “riding the bench,” and this is not good for them. Look at their CVs online; an almost complete absence of press. A solo show every two years, a group show or two a year, maybe every two years. Almost no critical writing whatsoever. They cannot, however, leave their blue chip gallery. They cannot get out from under the priceless rug that is Larry Gagosian. Why? Because their work is now so fucking expensive. Frozen in place, they remain quietly on the roster, unable to go back, as going back in art, lowering your prices, is as fundamentally impossible as reconstituting a peeled orange. It defies nature.


Don’t be jealous of these artists, and don’t feel bad for them. Learn from them. They never wanted this to happen, and it wasn’t their fault. They only wanted what everyone wants – success. It is really never the fault of the artist, it’s the fault of the world the artist falls into. What I want this to teach you, if it teaches you anything at all, is this: Do not allow yourself to fall. Instead, strategically lower yourself into place, using your own strength and your own wits. As in a zombie movie, don’t let them grab your pants and pull you down into grotesquerie from which there is no escape. Do not be, like a stupid dog or a stunned deer, enamoured of and paralyzed by headlights. Be like a human who sees an approaching car and runs. All good art is born of instinct. Trust your instincts outside of the studio. I hope this didn’t scare anyone. That’s not my intention. I just want to inject some truth and non-bullshit conversation into your education, because I know you’re only hearing bullshit here at school, not the truth, and that some of your professors may in fact be those very artists we once saw, and now do not. This is a lesson in avoiding what has become known as “The Three Year Career.” Now, if anyone has any questions about Matisse, I’d be happy to answer them.

I was 27 when I finished my Master’s degree at Yale. The year was 2005. The recession was unforeseeable, and all was beautiful. My career stretched before me, cloudlessly, like the beach I’d later lay on during Art Basel Miami. At my degree show, I was immediately  picked up by a prominent gallery in Chelsea. At the time, Chelsea was booming. You wanted to have a gallery between 21st and 27th street. Back then, the Lower East Side was where you went for dinner or drinks after your show, maybe at Billy Marks, or some place on Orchard Street.


I can barely remember those days, but when I do, it’s with a nostalgia comprised of both happiness and intense frustration. It is, to use a word I don’t like, bittersweet. As I tell those art students, my desires were pure and reasonable: I wanted to be successful. There’s no crime in that. In fact, in every other field it’s seen as absolutely normal. I was offered my first solo show six months after being picked up. They wanted more paintings than I felt I could make, but I made them nonetheless. A week before the opening, the show sold out. This is the dream, and again, an understandable one, because this sets up what any artist and their gallery wants most – a waiting list. 


My waiting list meant that now, to own one of my paintings, a collector had to prove themselves to the gallery, instead of what would seem natural, my need to prove the value of my work to the collector. Once that first show sold and the waiting list got longer, the gallery doubled the price of my work. Like hyenas (almost sensing an inevitable corpse), art advisors began to come around. They represented prominent collectors who did not have the time — nor the taste and intuition — to visit the galleries and make decisions on their own. Then, a gallery from Japan wanted to give me a show, and of course, I was thrilled. Then came Los Angeles, Stockholm, Paris, London, and Berlin. I said yes to each, because this is the dream. My dealer rubbed her hands together, taking me out with famous people for 10,000 dollar lunches, showering me with cocaine and cash money. I bought a Bentley, for fuck’s sake. I was so easily distracted by the circus tent that had been set up around me, I didn’t realize I’d become one of the attractions.


Cut to the beginning of the end. One of the paintings from my first show, which sold for a modest 20,000 dollars, ended up at auction. Because I was still in the glamourous spotlight of my second year, it sold for ten times the high estimate of 40,000. Now, a painting I’d made less than a year ago had been valued at almost a half a million dollars. This made my mother proud, my dealer strangely excited, and myself completely confused.


At my next exhibition, although retail prices are never increased to match auction prices, a painting that the year before had been priced at 20,000 dollars was now close to ten times that. Guess what quickly shrinks when this happens? Your collector base. If you have a smart dealer — one you’ve lowered yourself into strategically instead of being sucked into like a vortex made of magazine covers and fairly pure cocaine — they will tell you that it’s important to keep your work relatively affordable for the first three to five years. In doing this, you will be able to sell your work to a larger array of collectors, and these collectors, ideally, will support your practice. But if you’re trapped in the narrative of The Three Year Career, a small handful of artworld oligarchs own your work, and they will not support your career. They will do what most dealers of repute do not like, and will often prevent: They will begin to see what you’ve made as nothing other than an investment, and like all good investors, they will notice as your peak begins to shift into a slight decline, and they will flip your work at auction. Those blue chip galleries that once treated you to endless lobster will stop returning your emails. They’ve made their money off of you, and now you will have become nothing more than one more person who consistently writes them confused and somewhat pleading emails – emails that will not be replied to. Suddenly, with your market blown out, your work begins to show up at auction, and this means hundreds of works, because in the first two years of your explosive debut, you will have been encouraged to make that many. With those predatory investors now attempting to recoup a fraction of their initial purchase price, you will see something sad and foreboding. While the high estimate for your paintings will be in the region of that original sale of almost half-a-million dollars, those works will now be bought – if they are bought – for the same amount of money that they were initially priced at during your first solo show: 20-30,000 dollars. You will have become a liability. We still mourn for you, Sandro Chia. 


Back at your (now much smaller) studio, where you’ve had to let your assistants go, you will spend time flipping through those three years of art magazines which represent your most glorious self better than any painting. You will have come “full circle.” 


There is no one to reach out to. If you ask your gallery about doing a new solo exhibition, you will be told that the next four to five years are booked solid.


You will start to sell work from your studio to sympathetic friends and the occasional sincere collector who buys for pleasure, not for money. You will watch the documentary on Herb and Dorothy Vogel, and you will feel panged in multiform ways.


And then, like me, you will become an artist assistant for a new, hot, recent Yale graduate. When that becomes too humiliating, you’ll move back home with your parents. 


I used to believe that to be a “real artist,” it was important to have no back-up plan. A back-up plan would only serve to distract you from your true purpose, that of making great art for the history books. 


You will wish you had a back-up plan. That you’d learned drywalling or carpentry.


It is never too late to learn how to become an electrician. I’m almost done doing so myself. 


This article was taken from issue five of WIP magazine, available from Carhartt WIP stores and our online shop.