These days, the talk in the art market is not so much about the high prices being paid for blue-chip art -- that's become a given. Instead, everyone's focused on the action surrounding young artists, many just out of graduate school. In fact, stories abound about dealers signing up painters while theyre still undergraduates. Its become a little like the NBAs recent strategy of raiding high schools for professional basketball players.
Overlooked in all of the tumult are mid-career artists like Tony Fitzpatrick. Tonys career evolved the old-fashioned way. Since 1987, Fitzpatrick has consistently exhibited his work and built a constituency of collectors and critics. Unlike many artists, who have trouble finding someone to show their work, Fitzpatrick has had the opposite experience. He has gone through a revolving door of dealers, including Carl Hammer, Adam Baumgold and Bill Maynes. The problem was never the work itself, but the artists perception that these dealers weren't the right fit. All that may have changed with the breakout success of his recent show at Brooklyn's Pierogi gallery.
Fitzpatrick's first advocate was Philadelphia's John Ollman of Fleisher-Ollman Gallery. Ollman showed his earliest mature works -- a series of quirky colored pencil drawings on children's slates. These works were crammed with images from New Orleans's dark side -- alligators in murky swamps and voodoo rituals. They also depicted marginal characters such as criminals and prostitutes. Still other slates portrayed misunderstood sports heroes like Babe Ruth. The unifying element in the work was psychological -- the artist appeared to see himself as a kindred spirit with his subjects. He identified with the underdog. As a result, rather than being exploitive, the drawings came across as heartfelt.
One of the most unlikely aspects of Fitzpatrick's career is his allegiance to print making. Until recently, his work was best known through his intimate color etchings, which resemble tattoos. Eventually, Fitzpatrick opened his own print studio, Big Cat Press. Located in Chicago, Big Cat allowed the artist to control every aspect of the print process -- a rarity these days, when artists tend to do the bare minimum on their prints. While Fitzpatrick's etchings may not be as slick as those produced at Gemini G.E.L., they have a hand-made quality that works in tandem with the rough and tumble imagery. Among his best prints were a series of ten jewel-like images of insects called "Bug Circus," and something the artist refers to as "The Nickel History" -- a highly personal black and white cornucopia of boxers, walking fishes (!) and ghosts. Fitzpatrick's etchings range in price from $400-$1,800.
While his prints are popular with collectors, they have also attracted museum interest. In 2003, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago showed a group of 26 prints called "Max and Gabby's Alphabet." Named after the artist's two children, they are his most ambitious prints to date. Each work features a single capital letter along with a corresponding image. For example, one of the more memorable prints illustrated the letter O along with a cerulean blue octopus.
But print making can only take you so far in the art world. A few years ago, Fiztpatrick decided to up the ante and began producing unique works on paper -- a hybrid of drawing and collage. Priced between $12,000-$16,000, the new works found a receptive audience with collectors (the exhibition at Pierogi sold out), and with New York Times art critic Roberta Smith. The work was assembled primarily from the urban flotsam and jetsam of the artists childhood -- old matchbook covers, postage stamps, cigar box labels, and tiny flickering bits of lenticular plastic.
The collages are a series of love letters to Chicago. They also reverberate with echoes of vanishing Americana. While many artists, such as Joseph Cornell, have drawn inspiration from the past, Fitzpatrick goes a step further. He activates each collage by centering his stream-of-consciousness imagery around one of his drawings. These drawings display none of the virtuosity of a pure draughtsman like Jasper Johns. Instead, their charm is derived from the fact that Fitzpatrick's birds and moths can be read as surrogate self-portraits. Not to get too deep, but these central images allow the glued-on ephemera to swim around the "artist" in a swirl of visual delights -- which is probably how he saw growing up in Chicago.
While it's true that most artists need something akin to an irritating grain of sand to produce a pearl, they also need stability to create. If Tony Fitzpatrick can stay put at Pierogi (he's also scheduled for a show at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago), it should lead to a greater sense of stability in his career -- and good things will flow from that.
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer based in San Francisco. Comments can be directed to Polskyart@msn.com.