I recently asked a bunch of the hot new artists what the secret of their success was. They all gave me vague, self-glorifying answers like "total commitment to the work," "focus," "integrity," "tenacity," and "luck." (I especially hate it when people say "luck.") I earnestly tried to pry more specific, practical answers out of them, but for whatever reason, no one was forthcoming. I hope this column is different.
I have a question about the logistics of an American artist sending art to Italy for exhibition. My New York dealer has been contacted by a Milan gallery that is "very interested" in representing me in Italy. They show some top U.S. artists. Since they contacted my dealer and not me, she is handling negotiations and is requesting a cut in sales. My question is: How hard is it to get back work that hasn't sold?
By the way, my dealer is willing to be flexible on what percentage she takes from their sales. (Do Italian galleries expect to cut in the New York galleries of artists they want to share?) A gallery in London also wants to show me. I've never shown in Europe. Obviously, you've shown all over the world, so you're a pro at this. I've been enjoying your advice column in Artnet Magazine. I think you have very sound advice for a lot of young searching artists -- perhaps the old searching ones too.
Dear Brooklyn Artist,
I've found it's almost always a nightmare to get unsold work returned AND to get paid for sold work -- even from very prestigious Italian galleries as well as other foreign galleries. Therefore, now I insist that ALL the work is prepaid before I deliver. Getting paid or getting work returned from New York galleries can also be a problem, but if you live in the city it's easier to police.
Few things in life inspire me to use the word "hate." I HATE consignment.
Fortunately Italian galleries are well known for buying work up-front from American artists. If she hasn't already done so, ask your New York dealer to propose selling the whole show to them. You said she's willing to be flexible on her percentage, so she could offer a bulk discount.
You should NOT reduce YOUR percentage however. In doing these foreign shows, you are not doing any less work -- but your dealer is.
I am an undereducated, poor-born, rough-hewn kind of guy, who has a fine sensibility and can produce good art. When I target a gallery that looks as if it would accept my work and get the nerve up to go to that gallery and speak to someone about the possibility, I've been met with disrespect, curtness, distain and at best, condescension.
Now, I shower regularly and hold down a regular job as a creative director in a billion-dollar company. I know I can hold a decent conversation with most people, regardless of their social level. Is it a prerequisite of people who work/own/operate a gallery to be such snots?
Joseph (maybe I have an inferiority complex) Barbaccia
Leo Castelli was the world's most important art dealer of the last half century. He was not disrespectful, curt, disdainful or condescending. He was polite, straightforward and had at least a minute for everyone who approached him while he was in public. If he needed privacy he stayed in his office. His employees were also nice people. He had his act together.
Just about everyone else is a little less organized. However, it's understandable that, when a gallery's overhead looms large and it's staff is trying to sell art, they don't want to be bothered by the endless stream of rough-hewn guys with fine sensibilities offering their wares. Have you ever hung up on an annoying telemarketer?
Well, that's exactly how you are perceived when you storm into a gallery with your slide sheets. You are the fledgling traveling salesperson trying to sell to a more experienced salesperson. And that's why they swat you away like an annoying fly. They wipe you off like the first smudge of mold growing on the new shower curtain.
Realize that despite your "conversational skill," you were like a frustrated telemarketer. Try a more seductive, appealing, less desperate and less mechanical sales strategy. Think about all the people and companies that you give money to, in your daily life. Observe their behavior. What are they doing right? Do you buy your clothes and food from pushy salespeople? Or do color, familiarity, and comfort create the appeal?
The most difficult thing for me is to talk about my own work. For three years I've been trying to write a statement about my art. It's a never-ending process of writing and revising. Any thoughts on how to do it?
Yours is not a rare problem. Many artists memorize their first reviews and then pepper their casual conversations with their favorite phrases.
It's not an absolute must, but you'll have a huge advantage if you can speak interestingly about your own work, AND THE WORK OF OTHERS. It's no coincidence that successful artists like Julian Schnabel, Fred Tomaselli, Peter Halley and Julian Laverdiere all have a way with words. Andy Warhol, conversely, who was not known for his elaborate vocabulary, surrounded himself with articulate others, who spoke for him.
Consider hiring a ghostwriter. Or hang out with accomplished art-speakers and copy them, with a twist. Ultimately, you want to write and say things about your work that are quotable.
When I first started getting attention for my work in the East Village in 1983 I was a complete dud when it came to giving interviews. I almost fell into the common trap of arrogantly saying banal things like "my work should speak for itself."
But I wanted to be an art star so bad -- and realized that if I wanted long articles to be written about me, I'd better help these underpaid art writers with some good material. So when Carlo McCormick was scheduled to interview me for the East Village Eye in 1984, I dropped my flaming paintbrush for a day and made a list of the ten most commonly asked questions regarding my work and me. I approached it like a game and wrote clever answers in advance.
When Carlo showed up to my Rivington Street dump, he predictably asked me the ten questions and I read the answers into his tape recorder. Shortly after Carlo's interview was published, my pre-fab lines were quoted in the New York Times, the Village Voice and Art in America.
Now people can't get enough of my wily words. When I attended the Rhonda Roland Shearer lecture at the Studio School recently, where she passionately argued that Duchamp's Readymades weren't really Readymades, Josh Baer, of the Baer Faxt, lamented that it had been six weeks since my last Artnet column. Sometimes while making the rounds in Chelsea, I am violently accosted for not writing more frequently. If you write, they will bite.
Nice column! Any thoughts about age-ism these days in the gallery world? Do young artists fresh with (or without) their MFAs have a better chance than artists in their 40s or 50s?
A very prestigious, older art dealer once told me that he simply would not represent an older, unknown artist -- no matter how good the work was. His reason had something to do with wanting "artists with long futures and whole careers to help develop." Hearing this made me sick -- but this meat market mentality thrives throughout the art world. A major taste-making collector recently told me that "for magazines to succeed when featuring art, they must publish photos of attractive young artists, preferably without shirts." Surface deification is nothing new. If Duchamp, Picasso, de Kooning and Basquiat had not been considered extremely attractive, in addition to their talent, they simply would not have been as successful.
So what's a fogey to do? Thank the Internet for eBay, where you can sell your scribbles all day and night without wearing black. (By the way, technology is still huge.) Or, for a bricks-and-mortar approach, inform your work with your life experience and research the careers of the likes of Arnold Mesches, who, after having noteworthy success in Los Angeles, moved to New York in his later years and bravely reinvented himself while hanging out in a much younger art scene, whose members could care less about his L.A. credentials. Howard Finster began painting at age 60 is now America's most famous Folk artist. Jane Wooster Scott is also worthy of a Google search. Barnett Newman, Alfred Jensen, Hans Hoffman and Harold Shapinsky all became successful when they were older artists.
Don't feel any shame for using your life experience and success-from-another-profession, to open doors in the art world, like rock legend Captain Beefheart, who we now know as the serious painter, Don Van Vliet, and Milton Katselas, the famous film director and acting teacher, who has sold hundreds of paintings at high prices to his Hollywood following and is now represented by the prestigious Yoshii Gallery in New York and Paris.
I'm sure people have pointed out that there are striking similarities between you and Andy Warhol, most obviously in your genius at affecting the non-art-snob world via popular culture magazines. After all, Warhol was the driving force behind Interview magazine and you seem to be the impetus behind Shout magazine. Do you chalk this tactic up to having a purely democratic spirit or commercial genius?
Thank you, but I did not start Shout. I only write a monthly "Artists' Pick" column for them. Peter Halley has inherited the mantel of Warhol-as-magazine-publisher, with his consistently interesting Index magazine.
I write for Shout and Artnet Magazine because I like to see my name in print -- and it's even better than free publicity because they pay me for it -- and I can control the content. I also do it because, although I hate to ruin my reputation as a greedy-selfish-evil person, I actually like helping others.
We hope you can help us with a few questions about copyright
laws so we don't have to call an expensive lawyer.
1. If I use an image from a "stock catalogue" of photographs as the
basis for a painting, do I need to purchase the image? What if I change it significantly -- or, rather, what constitutes a significant change to the original photograph, so that it becomes "my" image?
2. What about using images from the Internet? Thomas Ruff, for
example, uses images from porn sites to make his photographs. Does he have an agreement with the Internet sites? Does the fact that his images are blurred make a difference? Is he, or anyone else running a copyright risk by using images from the Internet as a basis for work?
3. There are a number of places where one might find images to use to make paintings -- film stills, Old Master paintings, the Internet, book jackets. Where does "appropriation" end and a lawsuit begin?
C.H. and M.P.
Dear C.H. and M.P.,
The discourse on appropriation had been fully exhausted in the 1980s after Mike Bidlo and Sherrie Levine got through with it. Now that this academic tangent of 20th-century art history is well behind us, one would hope that the current crop of copycats would drop the cute rhetoric and get creative again. But if you really must copy -- why not raid the treasures of art history that are in the public domain. Honestly, Caravaggio and Piero Della Francesca have a lot more to offer than contemporary commercial photography and porn sites.
Rather than get sucked into a complicated argument about " what constitutes a significant change," drop the loophole logic and use common sense: It's okay to "be inspired by," it's not cool to rip off. Ask your heart of hearts. If you're actually worried that you're not changing your source material enough -- then you're probably not. Don't have doubts. Avoid the lawsuit by being an original maniac. Even if it means that miniature green chairs grow out of your knees every time you jump into an open jar of applesauce (at Rob Lazzarini's house.)
Is it true that Molly Barnes discovered you? Please tell us the story.
Molly gets the credit (or the blame.) She started representing me in her Los Angeles Gallery while I was still a 19-year-old art student at California State University, Fullerton, which made my unaffiliated teachers jealous.
One sunny day, I borrowed my mom's car, took the Pomona Freeway from Whittier to Los Angeles, while listening to Devo and Youth Gone Mad on KROQ. I wandered into the Molly Barnes Gallery on La Cienega Blvd. armed with a portfolio of crayon drawings, lots of confidence and even more naiveté. Molly's was the first gallery I ever submitted my work to. She said I was a genius and signed me up on the spot. Minutes later she began selling my work to Douglas Cramer, Aaron Spelling, Ray Stark, Billy Wilder and Norman Lear (L.A.'s top art collectors).
I like to theorize that my immediate L.A. success had everything to do with listening to the right radio station … but Molly Barnes was also the first dealer to show John Baldessari and many of the important Photo Realists, so maybe she just has an acute eye for genius.
In any case, being a teenage art star in Los Angeles meant nothing when I moved to New York a year or so later and I began my more reality-based strategy for world dominance.
A major American art dealer saw my photographs at the Miami Art Fair and in Basel. He now wants to show them in his gallery and also wants to bring them to many art fairs, starting very soon with some photography show in New York. He said he can find other galleries to carry me and knows which ones are best. I heard from other sources that he has a good reputation. He said his reputation is good enough that if he shows my photos in New York, others will want them.
He is proposing a 50 percent deal for normal sales, and if he makes a deal with another gallery, they would get 40 percent and he would get 15 percent, so I would get 45 percent. Does this seem okay with you?
He implied there was room for me to negotiate if my production expenses were high, for example. So I think I could get him to
take just 40 percent instead of 50 percent -- but my guess is that the more the dealer gets the harder they try to sell -- so getting them down on commission might be a false economy. Is this true?
I would never accept less than 50 percent on a consignment deal, even if another gallery is involved. You take 50 -- let them work out how they divide the other 50. If a dealer buys a large quantity of work up front -- then it's okay to consider giving them a 60 percent discount -- or even up to 75 percent, if it's a huge deal, if you have the inventory, and if they guarantee to promote the work in a way that pleases you.
Dealers will work harder to sell if they own the work -- much more so than if they are promised a bigger cut when the work sells. Make your goal to sell the work up front. As I noted before, consignment deals can be a nightmare to police.
I don't believe any of the letters since I think you write them yourself. You must spend most of your time dreaming up these letters and responses. Congratulations since the letters and responses are better than your paintings.
I actually would prefer to take credit for writing the questions, too. Especially yours. Then my writer-ego would be extra-massaged. But I can't. I only wrote the questions in my very first, introductory Artnet column in March 2000. Since then my inbox has been salubriously flush.
I enjoy reading what people have to say about your work (and implicitly about themselves) in your column. I especially liked your response to "sufidream."
Dear all who really want to know the truth. I can personally vouch for Mark's complete lack of an art background. I've known him since before Jimmy Carter was president (another person who got where he did without a background.) Mark and I went to school together; he couldn't do art then either. Our high school and college teachers had no backgrounds. In fact, none of us know anything, really. We have all become successful due to shameless self-promotion. You should try it too. It's great fun when we all get together and talk about how easy it is to be successful without talent or a good education.
I love your letter because it's not clear where the joke ends and reality begins. We really are a world of idiots, with more bluster than luster, settling for institutionalized enlightenment, fake food and an eight-dollar bottle of water. Fake it 'till you make it. To bluff is enough. Over the last four years, however, there is one thing I've learned that is clear: The quality of life is better in Italy.
Until next time,
Readers are invited to submit questions to .
MARK KOSTABI is an artist who lives in Rome and New York.