Remarks to young artists at UConn’s 2013 Art & Art History Convocation

For their 2013 Convocation, the UConn Department of Art and Art History invited New Zealand multimedia artist Shigeyuki Kihara and me to make presentations about emerging trends in contemporary art, how young artists get exhibitions, and the impact of social media on art. Co-sponsored by the William Benton Museum of Art with the support of the Gene and Georgia Mittelman Lecture Fund, the lively event wasn’t video taped, but here is the transcript of my remarks.

Brave New Art World

I�ve been painting for nearly twenty-five years. When I graduated from Mass Art in the late eighties, I moved to New York, sublet a loft on the outskirts of Soho, and worked as a freelance paste-up artist at magazines like Cond� Nast Traveler, Vogue, ArtForum and National Lampoon, barely making the $600 rent. Back then I couldn�t imagine what life might be like twenty-five years later. I would sit at the kitchen table every morning and enter sweepstakes contests because winning one seemed more likely than getting a show or receiving a grant. My future seemed to hinge on contingencies over which I had little or no control.

I continued painting nonetheless, and eventually did get gallery representation, mount plenty of shows, and sell a fair number of paintings. Still, my early experience of the painting life was somewhat flattening, as it involved churning out series of nearly identical paintings year after year in relative solitude. [Slide: Image of older work] The good news for all of us is that things have changed since the late eighties. That change has enabled me to develop a richer and more diverse art practice comprising writing, painting, bookmaking, and collaborative projects, and provided you opportunities to do so, too.

In my mind, the most important development for artists � bordering on revolutionary � has been the introduction and widespread embrace of Web 2.0 tools like Blogspot, WordPress, and self-maintained websites, as well as social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. It was back in 2006, while on sabbatical from a full-time teaching position, that I first discovered blogs. A tool that enabled participants to create their own online magazine or journal for FREE with no special software or programming skills was a groundbreaking innovation, and I sensed the impact blogging could have on the arts community. Artists, curators, and small galleries would be able to post images, write reviews, publicize exhibitions, engage in dialogue across continents � all outside the traditional gatekeeping apparatus and OUT LOUD, to anyone, anywhere, who had internet access.

Of the handful of serious art blogs I was reading regularly, few focused exclusively on painting, so I started Two Coats of Paint. [Slide: Image of Two Coats of Paint] Through the practice of blogging, I discovered my voice and learned that I had something to say. At the same time, I was contributing something to the art community, helping other artists as well as myself to focus on and evaluate painting and the artist�s life. At that point bloggers garnered little respect, but even so, articulating ideas for the blog began to inform my work in positive ways � thinking out loud about other people�s work inevitably compels you to think more critically about your own. Two Coats also ultimately did get some love and raised my profile, leading to many of the opportunities I had passively hoped for fifteen years earlier. [Slide: List of other Two Coats projects] In short, my blog � its exposure and impact enhanced via Facebook and Twitter � became a crucial cornerstone of my art practice. It�s no exaggeration to say that Web 2.0 Tools and social networking media have enabled artists to take the power and create opportunities for themselves and each other, rather than waiting, inert and helpless, for opportunities to come to them.

What is success?

Many artists have had the grim realization that the traditional notion of �success� � dedicated gallery representation, happy discovery by esteemed critics, eventual courtship by collectors and museums � is completely unattainable for the vast majority of art school grads. [Slide: Helen Frankenthaler in studio, 1950s–image at top] There are just too many artists and too few galleries and museums. The model of the hermetic artist-genius in the studio who lives off a stipend from a wealthy commercial gallery and has a museum retrospective by the time she is thirty-five has been replaced by the model of artist as creative opportunity-maker and community-builder. The art market is fickle, and many artists � for instance, Eric Fischl, who recently published an autobiography about his life in the art world � have reached the top of the career pyramid early on, only to learn that they don�t stay there forever. [Slide: Book jacket] The art market isn�t a series of ever-higher plateaus; it�s more like a roller-coaster. And although the idea may seem counter-intuitive to those emotionally beholden to the old ideal of the cloistered genius flattered and enriched by virtue of shining talent alone, artists who think beyond their own careers, leave the confines of the studio, and contribute to the art community tend to have more rewarding art practices over the long haul. This is not to say that today�s artist need be a brazen self-promoter or even a brash entrepreneur. A little extroversion, keyed to one�s own talents and preferences, should do quite nicely.

In New York, artists are increasingly taking this route. Many have opened their own galleries, but these are not in the mold of the collaborative galleries of the 1970s, whereby a group of artists chipped in rent, each mounting a solo show at the gallery, and taking turns sitting at the gallery each week. The new model is more like a commercial gallery crossed with Gertrude Stein�s Paris salon of the 1920s, with artist organizers mounting curated exhibitions, neighborhood events, salon evenings, installations, and performances. In Bushwick, the fastest-growing art community in Brooklyn, and neighboring Ridgewood in Queens, many artist-run galleries have opened in the past three years. They include Studio 10, Schema Projects, Associated, Sardine, Small Black Door, Airplane, Active Space, Regina Rex, Harbor, Parallel; I could go on. Several have gleaned mainstream critical notice. [Slide: Storefront, Parallel.]

Now I regularly get emails like this from Tennessee artist Karla Wozniak on Monday:

Dear Sharon,
I wanted to tell you about a new artist run project space located in Bushwick called Ortega y Gasset Projects. It’s a collective of artists from across the country who have come together to create a dialog about art and curate exhibitions. I’m thrilled to be involved in this venture, which is about artists supporting artists�.

And it�s not just aspiring artists who have embraced the idea of outreach. Established artists who don�t need the exposure but want to enrich the art community have also gotten into the act. [Slide: James Siena] James Siena, a renowned abstract painter represented by Pace, recently opened a small gallery in Chinatown called Sometimes (Works of Art). [Slide: de Balincourt] Jules de Balincourt, a celebrated painter represented by Salon 94 on Bowery, for several years ran Starr Space in Bushwick, which featured not only art events but also yoga, a weekly farmers market, music shows, church parties, and fundraisers.  [Slide: Deborah Brown] Deborah Brown, who has been represented by Lesley Heller on the Lower East Side for many years, just opened her second Bushwick space, Storefront Ten Eyck; she also serves on the community board in Bushwick. Other artists are writing reviews for online publications, organizing events, curating pop-up shows, and more.  

The involvement of the full spectrum of artists in building entire communities signals that artists in general aren�t as powerless as they used to be. By accepting responsibility for sustaining their own communities, rather than waiting for invitations to join existing organizations, they are taking control of their destinies in ingenious and unpredictable ways. In turn, the mainstream is starting to come to them. Developers and city-planners recognize that when artists migrate to a community, the neighborhood becomes more desirable, with growth and development soon to follow. State governments � including Connecticut�s � now call artists and arts organizations �placemakers� and recognize that investing in their activities can pay handsome dividends in the form of economic growth. In their 2013 Artists� Grant Application Guidelines, the Connecticut Office of Culture and Tourism declares in The first goal of the grant application guidelines states unequivocally (if somewhat prosaically) that artists and arts organizations are �essential in the development of great places.� To be sure, Web 2.0 tools have created a higher public profile for fledgling art communities that is driving growth and gentrification at faster rates, which yields higher rents for studio space than some artists can afford. But the hope is that the communitarian spirit itself will in time correct this problem, when artists themselves find a little prosperity, buy property, and share the wealth by providing cheap studio space. [Slide: Artists group discussing real estate]

But what about the art?

Inside their studios, artists are also thinking differently. The Bauhaus principles that we have taught and learned for decades are giving way to a new aesthetic. In a June 2011 article for the Brooklyn Rail, I coined the term �New Casualism� to denote the rising inclination of artists to explore the metaphorical implications of failure, imperfection, and imbalance � the artistic significance of the off-kilter and the not quite right. [Slide: Nudashank]

Others have also recognized this trend; poet and critic Raphael Rubinstein, for example, in a 2009 Art in America feature, identified what he calls �Provisional Painting.” Although my article primarily addressed abstraction, Casualist tendencies can be seen across all genres of art making, [Slides: Tracey Emin, Richard Tuttle, Chris Martin] Without sacrificing craft and skill, artists are exploiting a less refined look that verges on incompleteness to impart meaning. This summer, the gallery Garis & Hahn, located on Bowery near the New Museum, featured a large month-long show of work with Casualist tendencies, all of the artists under thirty. [Slides: Grill, Berg, Faux.] In film, the �mumblecore� approach taken by indie directors like Joe Swanberg seems to reflect a similar sensibility.

With Casualism, younger artists may be responding to the slickly produced work of artists like Damien Hirst, Kehinde Wiley, and Jeff Koons, with their armies of assistants, or to the lifelong brands built by artists like Ellsworth Kelly and Brice Marden that perpetuate themselves through proliferating international art fairs, by returning to the handmade, the small-scale, and the intimate. [Slides: HIrst�s Spots, Brice Marden, Pat Steir] Make no mistake: the work reflects current challenges in the life of the artist. Ballooning student loan debt combined with a five-year recession has left artists struggling to make ends meet and with less money for materials. Yet at the same time, the push in the art world�s upper echelons has been for �ber artists like James Turrell, Paul McCarthy, and Ann Hamilton to create super-sized installations in multiple venues, there is no doubting their superlative talent and effort, management skill, and business acumen. But the grand scale of their endeavors shouldn�t obscure the work of lesser-known artists with fewer resources � the folks I consider the backbone of the art world, the 99% if you will � who make compelling art as they continue working underpaid day jobs and garnering less mainstream media attention.

A Casualist might wryly turn the very notion of size into content � say, by rolling out a huge piece of blank linen tacking it to the wall, and propping a smaller, seemingly half-finished painting in front of it. In fact, I did exactly that a couple of years ago in response to an installation of mammoth Pat Steir paintings. [Slide: “Bigger than Pat Steir“] A conceptual piece like that does not incorporate the element of true spectacle, and will not appear in the Venice Biennial. But it�s clear to me that such a painting does speak, urgently if indirectly, to the challenges and circumstances of our troubled times, as at least some art should. [Slide: �Gone Wrong� Real Art Ways installation, a few images from �Precisionist Casual at Pocket Utopia] Moreover, in its reference, however ironic and oblique, to the mega-work of marquee artists and the polished work of more traditional ones, Casualist art embodies the overall unity of the art world and recognizes that we artists are all in this together.

Indeed we should be, and your job is keep it that way. Remember to be generous with one another, provide opportunities for other artists, and work to build a sustainable creative life for everyone. But the most important thing is this: keep making art.

To read the UConn Daily Campus report on the event, click here.


  1. Sharon this sounds really interesting. I'm in Australia will there be a podcast/video or a transcript somewhere?

  2. No, but I just posted the transcript.

  3. This is fantastic stuff thanks very much

  4. Fantastic, thanks very much

  5. really interesting and useful insights. sharing. cheers.

  6. Wow. Thank you Sharon for such an on-point, thoroughly engaging discussion of the art world as it is today. Artists taking control over the shape of their own art career is incredibly important. And your call for artists to also give back and support their artistic community is also valuable. Joanne Mattera(artist, blogger, creator of the International Encaustic Conference) and Ed Winkleman(gallery owner, blogger) are two such people who re-invest in the art community and encourage artists to be responsible for their own fates. I will share your remarks because there is much to learn from, think about and discuss.

  7. Thank you so much for posting this Sharon. You've articulated many of the thoughts I myself have been grappling with, as are many of the artists I talk to. I can personally relate to the description of yourself 25 years ago.

    Things have changed. proof here, commenting on a blog with a transcript of an event that only just happened on the other side of the world!

    Just making work can be a challenge in the face of outside pressures: studio rent, materials, food, clothes, mortgage for some and other societal expectations and of course the work we do make we want to be brilliant. Ha!

    Although things have changed it's also true that this is not a new dilema. I'm reminded of that everytime I read Van Gogh's letters.

    Thank you again and here's to the 99% – keep painting!

  8. Lucky kids to hear such a clear-eyed assessment of the contemporary art scene! It's bound to be encouraging to them–to take the reins and create their own Bushwicks.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *