Episode 3 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / The Interview

The Interview with John Currin

This an interview I did with John Currin, who is one of the most successful artists today, with paintings selling in the high six-figure range. He is a figurative painter, does not paint what is popular, and has not turned his practice into a more conceptual mode; he is simply making the paintings he wants to make and has met with criticism as well as great success with the subject matter he has chosen. In the interview with Robert Storr, when I mention this interview and how John Currin worked with his friends to build his career, Storr said his story was a common one—that is, gathering support from your peers can be a key to success and what it means to “network” within the art world.

Carey: You gave a lecture recently and talked about living in Hoboken when you graduated school. That’s where you had your first studio and were living, is that the case?

Currin: Yes, I was sharing it with Lisa Yuskavage and Matvey Levenstein. I think they hadn’t married yet but they were living together there, and they’re the ones who first got a place because I stuck around painting houses for a year. They moved out there. They had a room, so it got me out of New Haven, although it wasn’t exactly New York City, but I could see New York City from my studio so that was the good part and the bad part, I guess.

Carey: So you were you doing house painting—how did youget your first show? You’re an artist, you’re in Hoboken, you can see New York, what were you doing to try to get a show? How did the first one come about?

Currin: Well, I didn’t get a show when I was out there. Lisaand Matvey looked at my work and we kind of starved and starved and froze together there. All of my other friends had moved to Manhattan, to the Lower East Side and I was painting a house one day and, you know, literally had tears rolling down my cheeks on the top of the ladder. I’m thinking like, “What have I done? I’m such a loser.” I remember looking into a Village Voice and getting a sublet on Ludlow Street and when I moved there I was sort of hanging out with people and I guess maybe Julian Pretto, who was an art dealer, and he’s the first art dealer to come to my studio ever.

Carey: That was your first studio visit in Manhattan?

Currin: Yes, I think so, he came to my studio and I don’t know if he was interested or whatever but he told Bill Arning who was running White Columns to come over. So I got to sort of jump the line of kids waiting to have him come over and I got a show at White Columns.

Also, there was a kind of crummy gallery that took a bunch of my paintings, you now, the crummy Broadway gallery. And then when I got the thing at White Columns, Bill said, “I’ll give you a show at White Columns if you don’t do a show at that gallery.”

So my friend, Sean Landers, and I kind of did a commandor aid on the gallery, we just kind of showed up at the back of the gallery and broke into it and walked into the back and took all my paintings out. So that’s how I got my first show.

Carey: And you remember how Julian Pretto came to you at the studio? How were you getting people in the studio at that time?

Currin: I think probably because I was a good looking guy and Julian liked good looking guys. I mean, I think that was part of it and just being in the cohort of people that kind of knew him. You know, it was really just a kind of a social thing actually.

It was going to parties and going to openings and kind of standing around and hanging with your friends and then you end up knowing more and more people. Just kind of like that. I met Andrea Rosen at that time through that same circle of people.

Carey: So tell me a little bit about that, you had the show at White Column which was really your first show in the art world and that’s a great space. Bill Arning’s a really good guy. How did that show go? That was before you had any other gallery shows in the city, is that correct?

Currin: Yeah. I had been doing paintings, more joke paintings. Kind of all over the place and every painting in a different style and which—actually, it was kind of a good thing when I had that studio because it was entertaining, I think, for the people who came over just to see this kind of stupid, different, silly paintings—but actually when I got that show at White Columns, I decided to do like five paintings of the same style and those were those ones I did from my high school yearbook.

I kind of decided to play it really straight with those and just to see what would happen if I made kind of anonymous looking paintings rather than super goofy looking ones. They turned out to be more interesting, and weirder than anything I had been doing. I think they got noticed when I did that show—it was a great response and I sold them. I sold paintings. For the first time I started making a little bit of money.

Carey: You sold them through White Columns, which is kind of unusual because they don’t really sell work there, it’s a nonprofit space.

Currin: I think it was a place where younger collectors would go and buy things. It certainly got you exposed to art collectors. I think Andrea Rosen probably was helping. She didn’t have a gallery yet, but I think she sent people over and arranged a whole lot of sales. It was only five paintings, and they were really cheap, but it was probably her doing more than anything.

Carey: Somehow she was helping or suggesting to collectors to buy work there and White Columns wasn’t taking a percentage?

Currin: Well, no. I think they did take a commission. I can’t remember. It was like $1,300, you know what I mean. I was so excited to be selling something that it didn’t matter to me. Then I had a show about a year later at Andrea Rosen’s, and that went really well, too.

Carey: That was one of her first shows obviously.

Currin: She opened up in SoHo and started with Felix Gonzalez Torres, who immediately became a big star. That got the gallery a lot of attention and it meant that when I had a show there, it was a place people walked into. I started selling paintings and I could get off of the ladder and get out of the house painting jobs.

Carey: Can you tell me a little bit what a studio visit is like? When you had your first studio visit, how did that go? People are coming in now, looking at your work, that’s kind of difficult for a lot of artists. How did you manage that or handle that?

Currin: I would say that—to give a sort of plug to Yale—it helped for me to try to make funny paintings that would be easy to talk about, which I guess sounds cynical but it wasn’t. I enjoyed it. I wasn’t nervous about it. I think it was just because from just so much of the talk, talk, talk at Yale it seemed pretty easy. And I just felt really excited that somebody was there. I mean, I’ve had some studio visits that people just didn’t like, but see, again, after Yale I was used to that.

Carey: How did you manage that? That’s also an interesting thing to talk about because that’s difficult for artists. You do a studio visit, people don’t like the work.

Currin: Or worse, somebody buys, somebody takes something to their house—this happened once—somebody took a painting to their house and then called me like a week later and I had to go get it. They didn’t want it and I had to go up there and take a cab back with my painting in my lap. It was really humiliating but, you know, that didn’t happen that much.

One time I had to meet Andrea Rosen and this art collector for lunch, right around that time, in a really expensive restaurant. I was really excited to be taken to lunch by the collector and everything. It was a really expensive restaurant, and lunch was over and neither of them had a credit card and I had to pay. It was like a week’s earnings. I had to pay for the lunch! But generally there were no terrible experiences that way.

I was just happy to be an artist again, to have people, to have a studio, you know, such as it was. With a futon in the corner but people were coming to see work.

Carey: John, that’s an amazing story. They take you out to a beautiful lunch and they don’t have credit cards. How do you account for that?

Currin: You know even one of them was like, “I don’t carry any cash.” So it’s like, you know, but imagine it’s like the movie scene where the girl ends up doing porn or something instead of the modeling shoot and that was my really low-key version of that, I guess.

Carey: Were you showing with Andrea then or that was before that?

Currin: I don’t think I was officially showing with Andrea butI kind of was. Like—that’s another thing, it never was really like an official thing, it just sort of became the norm that I showed there.

Carey: So she never said to you at one point, “you are now represented,” or anything like that?

Currin: We were boyfriend and girlfriend for like a year and a half and so it kind of happened like that. Then we broke up but I still showed there. We were still friends and everything, so I kind of slept my way into the art world, I guess.

I imagine for young artists it’s a lot more official now when you get taken on or when you join a gallery. It’s kind of a big deal, but there really wasn’t anything official in any of my dealings, there wasn’t. Later on there was, but not then.

Carey: That sounds a bit official. The dealer became your girlfriend, right?

Currin: She wasn’t a dealer at the time but she became one—it’s more like she became my girlfriend and then, lucky for me, she became an art dealer with a really good gallery. So it was a lucky thing that way, but I knew her anyway.

Carey: You were out there looking for friends though, so to speak.

Currin: I’ll bet if you’re a pretty good artist, people are hungry for that, and if you sort of hang out and nurse your drink all night—I think it’s the way you get noticed—people will notice you if you’re good.

Carey: People also have to come to your studio first. So you’re nursing a drink all night—people are wondering where to go to nurse those drinks and who to invite to their studio. That’s kind of a key. I mean in a way things may happen naturally, socially, but you’re after something and you’re trying to go to places where there are interesting people to talk to.

Currin: Well, I also met a lot of different artists. That was another thing—that was most of what my studio was—there were just other artists coming over. They were my core group of friends that would come everyday because we all lived in the same neighborhood.

I kind of remember a guy named John who became a friend. He was a writer at the time for art magazines that don’t exist now, but he came over and then that’s probably how Julian Pretto came over, it was through John. Julian Prieto was the first real art dealer and he had a little gallery that showed a lot of young art. I never showed there but it was like you talked to people, and it was very casual, but it worked. I don’t want to make myself out to be like Patti Smith or something—“Oh yeah, me and Robert Mapplethorpe just sort of hung out at the Bottom Line and then I became a rock star.” It was a lot more casual.

Carey: It was your friends—a group of friends that were supporting you—but also you’re saying that still happens now. Going to openings and events and hanging out with people, talking to people and showing your work is still what it’s about really.

Currin: Yes, and your friends from school. They were the only people I knew in New York. That’s also actually how I got jobs. That’s how I initially got house painting jobs, was through the Yale network as well. The sculptors all became carpenters and the painters all became housepainters.

A girl who went to Yale with me, her husband turned out to be a contractor and I did a lot of plaster work with him, which was a big deal. It meant I could kind of work when I wanted to. I didn’t have to have a real job.

Carey: How do you see the world of artists now? It was a different world when you were entering into it. Now with online and social networking, do you think there’s more advantages to artists reaching out and meeting collectors?

Currin: I don’t really know. It’s so much bigger now than when I started—that’s both a good thing and a bad thing. I think it’s harder to hang out and develop in kind of secrecy. So if you’re thirty or thirty-two, I think there’s much moreon people to try to make it very quickly. And it’s so much more expensive that they do need to make it more quickly. You’ll starve if you hang out in New York without a way to make money.

There are probably five times as many galleries as there were then, maybe ten times. The other thing is that right around that time, there was a big crash right when I started into the art world. When Saddam invaded Kuwait and all the galleries closed in like two weeks. It was really amazing. They all just shut down especially all the galleries who’d been showing young people. It just got real quiet for like three or four years. That’s another aspect of when I was young, I guess. I was very lucky to have Andrea through that time.

Carey: Right, because it’s similar now in some ways. I mean there was a crash, things are coming back, but artists are grappling with an economic tightening in New York. It’s more expensive to rent space in New York but I think many opportunities and, certainly, some of what you’re talking about is possible.

To conclude, is there something that you want to say to artists that are out there? Some of them have been out of school for several years, some not; some living in New York, some aren’t.

Currin: I think the most important thing is in a way what people say, “Oh, it’s who you know. It’s who you know.” Well, it is who you know because that’s what’s going to make you a better artist, having friends that are interested in what you do.

I think it’s very important for people to work at their art—even if they have a job, to work at night. And try not to get too wrapped up in your day job—try to stay full of shit in your day job and full of ambition and seriousness about painting.

It’s a very daunting and a hard thing to enter the art world in New York but it can be done. The most important thing is your friends, really, it is the other artists you know. That’s more important than knowing collectors and art dealers because if you have a group of people that push you, you’ll get noticed no matter what.

Carey: That’s a really great point. Some people separate from their friends after school, some people don’t, but you’re saying to cultivate that, to keep those friends together and to keep visiting everybody’s studios. Is that what you’re saying?

Currin: What I mean is friendship based on being ambitious—don’t feel bad about being ambitious and wanting to be successful and a famous artist. That’s the whole point. You should want that. There’s no real point in moving to New York if you don’t want that. Having a group of friends who are also ambitious and also struggling is incredibly important, I think, psychologically and emotionally, to make it in New York.

I know I’m sort of talking only about money and making it but that’s all I thought about when I moved here. It was, “How the hell can I do this? How can I not sink?”

That interview of John Currin was one of the interviews that I think most clearly lays out the steps for an artist on his or her path and how you can go from a housepainter to one of the best-selling painters in the world. The details are all at the beginning. He moved to place where he could meet more people and he was not afraid of being ambitious and wanting a lot. By talking to people, going to galleries, and getting small shows in nonprofit spaces, he was noticed and then got the exhibits he needed. It couldn’t be clearer as to the path an artist can take, but the variables are in the relationships that you make by hanging out in galleries and even bars, as he says, while nursing a drink all night.

You could say there is an element of luck involved, but that luck was created by being in places where new relationships could start. It is also the case study that proves what Robert Storr was saying in his interview about the importance of friends in your success. The networking that John Currin was doing paid off.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.


Episode 2 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Perspectives on the Art World

Perspectives on the Art World / Interview with Robert Storr

There are two opposing views on how to navigate the art world. One view, which I have articulated in different forms, is a corporate-type structure where networking, an elevator pitch, and meeting the right people is what it takes to reach success. Depending on your pointof view, that is either a good path or a bad one. For many students graduating with a Masters in Fine Arts, or another degree, this is precisely the path they want to be on. It is also the path for all the artists who want to earn a full-time living, or something close to it, from their art. The desire to make money is not a bad thing of course, but it gets complicated when applied to the art-making process.

The other view of navigating the art world is one of exploration and investigation into life itself, and money may or may not play a major role in your success—which is defined differently in this case. It is art for arts sake, for the sake of making it and the pleasure the artist gets from that—supported by a second job or a day job, if you will. Most artists and curators that I have talked to—highly successful ones—say that art-making should not be about money first, because that can distract you from making great work that might be disturbing or confounding to the viewer. Can you do both? Yes, there are many examples of that, but you must understand the traps of the market combined with the pursuit of profits.

Making Money

In most cases, the reason artists want shows and successis because they want love and attention. They want good reviews, and they want buyers who admire their genius and talent. That is a very different goal than the businessperson who wants to make millions. You don’t know the names of most hedge fund managers because they are not interested in fame, they are interested in money and they do not equate it with self-worth.

However, an artist who is looking for attention, love, fame,and ego-satisfaction, encounters what appear to be endless cruelties. There is the bad review, the show that doesn’t sell, the collector that returns work, or a negative comment that is obsessed over. All of these elements, familiar to any artist, can send some into a tailspin of sadness and depression, because instead of receiving love and praise for art, the opposite seems to have happened. The psychological pain from this is acute, because the goal of wanting love and attention has been reversed, and now it is easy to think that in fact your art is not likeable or lovable, and since you made it, it follows that that applies to yourself as well. It becomes a dark day indeed! This is a feeling that you will recognize immediately if you are an artist reading this book. Can you withstand these slings and arrows throughout your career? Have you done so successfully already?

This approach to art-making is the first model, and in thisbook, the explanation of terms and the interviews will help you to navigate those rough waters, but it is essential that you take the larger perspective and recognize the size of your task and the psychology of your need to exhibit.

When taking those things into account, you can seek outsupport and guidance from books like this and from your peers. It will help you to see a larger view of yourself and your internal struggles so you can better manage them.

The first model is to have a day job, and to make artbecause you want to and need to, but not to make a pile of money or even exhibit regularly. The second model is about meeting people and making the right connections for you—in a word, networking. This is the model I use and find success with regularly. I will talk about the second model after the following interview with art critic Robert Storr.

The Art Critic

Of all the figures in the art world, the critic is probably the most controversial. What is a critic for and why do we need them? What is the role of criticism? I have interviewed several critics, some more well known than others, but Robert Storr is one critic that is not only an artist himself, but is also the Dean of the Yale School of Art, was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, and has written extensively about artists. In this interview, he tells us two very valuable things: his opinions on current art critics, and his views on art education—in particular the Master of Fine Arts degree and what he feels it takes to survive as an artist. He is actually using both methods—he is an artist that has not sought the market for his own work, yet he has extraordinary connections that have helped his professional career. He is very frank about other critics and is one of the few people who can give a unique perspective on how art is seen and digested by critics and the public.

The Interview

Carey: I think I’d like to talk about the role of the critic. I’veinterviewed the late Arthur Danto, Barry Schwabsky, Dave Hickey—they all have a pretty varying idea of what it is that a critic does. What’s your perspective on the role of the critic?

Storr: I think there are many different genres of criticism for starters, and there are different audiences for criticism. And I think the first choice a writer who wants to write about art has to make is decide for whom or about what they would like to write because there’s no one-size-fits-all definition of what a critic does.

Arthur Danto was basically a philosopher who wanderedinto criticism because his wife was an artist and he was interested in the visual arts. He was intermittently a very good critic and often really way off base because the undertow of philosophy and the desire to make sweeping statements was just too great to resist. Dave Hickey is a very able essay writer who is actually not a very good art critic at all and has devolved from being an interesting spoiler in the context of the art world to being a tea partier, basically. He mobilizes resentment against arts and he mobilizes people’s sense that it’s all a rigged game andplays off on that to give himself a reputation as an outsider—but he’s an outsider with a PhD in English literature. He is not a tough Texan—he’s a kid from Fort Worth and he’s created this persona which is actually an artfully constructed persona, but he’s not at all what he pretends to be.

He loves to go after academics and curators and assumethat they’re all, you know, sold out and so on but he’s the guy with the PhD, not me. And he’s the guy who has advised Steve Winn and he’s not known as a great Medici. And in the meantime, he’s actually not very good about art. He wrote a whole long essay about Larry Pittman without mentioning Larry is half-Hispanic and gay, which is an awfully big thing to miss when you look at the work. So he’s another type.

Barry Schwabski is a poet and a successful poet, a good poet. I would say he belongs to a belletristic type of criticism and he’s terrific. At least he’s written nice things about me so what can I say? I mean as a painter, but you know, there are all kinds of critics.

The theoreticians Hal Foster and Benjamin Buchloh, andso on—I think they have a lot of problems, as does Dave Hickey with actual art history. They know almost none. They’re technically art historians academically but they know very little art history. They’ve done very little primary research. They don’t know history very well because they read theory about history but they don’t read history.

So they will write articles predicated on certain sweepinggeneralizations about the 1930s in Europe and then apply them without any adjustments to circumstances which are not those. I admire all of the Frankfurt people but I don’t think the American version of French theory or a Frankfurt schoolin contemporary art criticism is of much use to anybody.

(Laughs) That’s being a critic of critics!

Carey: Understanding the different roles is helpful to a lot ofpeople. And then there’s someone like Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith who write for New York magazine and the New York Times, respectively.

Storr: Jerry is appalling. He’s the class clown. He is somebodyI’ve known a long time, since Chicago days, and he’s turned into a travesty. And the idea that he should be running around being the conscience of the art world and at the same time playing the game of the art TV show that he did—and that he should be championing women and then dissing the first African-American woman curator to do Site Santa Fe. All these things are about Jerry, long and short. And about Roberta, it’s all about Roberta, long and short—and it’s too bad because they are punchy writers and again, they draw interest because of the contrariness, but there are no principals, and they’re not fighting long term battles for anything and never have.

Carey: And how does that figure in with these other schoolsof criticism? I mean, Jerry, he’s also achieved this popularity that’s . . .

Storr: He’s playing to the peanut gallery. He’s playing to anaudience that actually doesn’t know about art, that doesn’t really like art. Roberta’s the same way. I mean, she’s writing for the New York Times and she’s writing insider writing for outsiders. If you read her criticism carefully, and I have for very a long time, she’s constantly playing into myriad battles about the art world—who’s in, who’s out, and who she has a grudge against—but she’s publishing it as if it was informationthat everybody needed to know, does know, etc., which it’s not.

If she would write about the art right in front of her, if shewould suspend her own sense of self-importance long enough to really give more attention to the complexities of being an artist, she’d write better, and Jerry the same.

Carey: But that’s not going happen because that’s part of howthey . . .

Storr: Because they get paid for it.

Carey: I suppose that has something to do with where journalismabout art is today.

Storr: Journalism now is at the lowest it has ever been. There was a time in the 50s when you had Greenberg who was an empire builder but a very gifted one, and Fairfield Porter, Donald Judd. Bob Morris. A lot of people were writing a lot of stuff that is still worth reading, you know, and I can’t imagine how much of this stuff anybody will read ten years now. Mostly, you can’t read it a week after it’s published.

Carey: And why is that? What’s happening? Is it kind of the dumbing-down of journalism? I was talking to a reporter not long ago who was saying everything is about comments now.It’s about how many comments you can get in an article, and the way that you get comments is by saying something inflammatory, and has this affected the art world and critics, too.

Storr: Totally, it is like critics have gotten confused about the issue of what their role is. I mean, they’re there not just to admire or just to observe but they’re there to weigh and think and look better than the average person in order that the average person can be tested and do it better themselves, right?

So if you set a model of what it means to look hard at something, think a while about it before you open your mouth, and then articulate it carefully—you will have done your job as a critic and then you can write about anything you want. There are many critics I read with whom I fundamentally disagree, but I always learn from them. But today it’s about instant response. It’s about the number of likes you get on your Facebook page. It’s all about the ego popularity presence of the critic. And frankly, none of these people are interesting enough to really merit being a presence overall.

Carey: So is there a way out of that? What is the future of writing?It seems that we’re devolving into this kind of popularity contest. What’s the hope for that?

Storr: Charlie Finch was the pioneer of this kind of vanity criticism and spoiling criticism. And, you know, does anybody read Charlie Finch? Now? No. Does he even write? No. What’s the future for it? Not much.

I’m a craftsman, I may have many faults and I’m sure I do, but I’m a craftsman, and I work very hard at writing well and I work very hard at looking before I write. And I do homework and I listen to artists and I do everything I think I need to do before I sit down and deliver an opinion that I hope would be thought about, not agreed with.

One of the people I greatly admire, Virgil Thompson, was a composer and critic and he wrote for the old Herald Tribune, and he wrote something I think is my motto. He said, “Never overestimate the information base of your reader and never underestimate their intelligence,” and most of the people we’re talking about do both—but backwards.

Carey: Are there other critics that you admire who are walking that road?

Storr: There are a lot of people that I read. I used to read Peter Schjeldahl with much more interest than I do now because I think he’s burned out. I like Christian Viveros – Faune, who, I think, is actually trying hard to write a principled criticism.Martha Schwendener I like reading. I really admire Holland Cotter, he’s doing a very good job. Mike Brenson tried to do the same thing at the Times but he was basically driven out. Chris Knight in Los Angeles.

Carey: Let’s talk about the academic environment, why does an artist need to go to school? What is the importance of that? And I know that some of these are obvious questions, and you can take this anywhere, but a school like Yale, the MFA program in particular, in one sense carries this kind of mythic weight in the art world—and then there’s plenty of artists that come from Yale that don’t move on to mythic careers.

Storr: Most artist don’t move on to mythic careers and the importance of getting an arts education is not measured by the fame index. To be able to sustain yourself making your work over a lifetime is an achievement in and of itself. It’s very hard to do. To become a good teacher of art is very hard to do. To gain enough from your work, from all angles, to be able to do it properly is very important in and of itself.

The fame factor is very disturbing, right. Some people got fame very early. Jasper Johns got it very, very early, relatively. Frank Stella got it even earlier.Jasper has been famous since 1957. It’s a long time, and to stay on top for that long is a very hard thing to do. Most people don’t, most people have a relatively short run and many of those people have very short runs early, and the ability to stay in the game, to make good work, to hold your head up and so on and so forth, it’s a real accomplishment and I think—to go back to your initial question—one of the things is that in art school you meet a certain cohort of your contemporaries and very often they become very important people for the rest of your life. And it’s not like college alumni buddies in other fields.

It is a group where the struggles and the difficulties that you face are shared in certain ways. These people are often more reliable as friends later on.

Carey: So you are talking about peers, classmates at school.

Storr: Yes. I think most good arts schools are distinguished by the dynamic among the students, and the teaching is secondary. The schools that are fostering energy among the students are, in a way, yielding to them in letting them do it themselves—those are the great schools. And often they don’t have great teachers or sometimes they have one or two great teachers.

Carey: But that also assumes that they’re going to get togetherafterwards, which seems is beyond the school and may or may not happen. When I interviewed John Currin, he told me he graduated, making paintings that nobody particularly liked and he was painting houses and at one point four years out of school thought, what am I doing? He’s crying on the scaffold thinking, I’m wasting my time, and he did essentially what you’re saying—called up some friends from school, started meeting regularly and saying, “How can we help each other out here?” But that wasn’t something that was even fostered by the school, really.

Storr: It’s because you create a situation where these bondscan grow, right. Of course it depends on the individuals and John’s story is actually a fairly common story and I think that the people who go the course often find themselves in situations like that.

Before I came to Yale, I did this as an experiment: What was it that students made here before they made the works for which they’re known? Nancy Graves was making Braque-like paintings and Chuck Close was making kind of Claus Oldenberg paintings.

Once when I did my first dean’s talk here I put a drawing on the screen. It was a drawing of a kind of a lumpy, middle aged woman, standard, you know, life-drawing class kind of thing. And at one point one of the female faculty members said, “Why do you have this nude woman up on the screen?” I said, “I’ll explain in a minute.” And at the end I said, “Okay, this is a drawing by Eva Hesse.” So first, it was the female gaze on a nude woman, not the male gaze. Secondly, it was a drawing nobody would have pegged as an Eva Hesse drawing, but it allowed you to see the enormous leaps that she took while she was here, and she was one of Josef Albers’s favorite students.

Now, she took those leaps while she was here and that gave her the ability to leap altogether when she left here with Tom Doyle and went to Germany. She took a series of major leaps so that when she came back—she had a very short life, you know, she died when she was thirty-four years old—she crammed more really serious art making into just a few years than anybody I know other than Felix Gonzalez Torres. I think it’s the kind of sense of seriousness of vocation and the risk-taking that needs to be done that occurred here that made that possible.

Carey: That makes sense and, of course, those are success stories and then there’s the stories you hear that I think Robert Gober touched on a few years ago when he gave a talk here at Yale. As he put it just kind of blatantly, he said, “You know, a lot of my assistants come from the MFA program and as far as I’m concerned it fucked them up. They can’t make work now.” Now this is not the case for everyone, but there is a phenomena where people get out of MFAs and I don’t know whether it’s not being able to withstand critcs, but some students feel that they can’t produce work after that.

Storr: I don’t want to sound like a social Darwinist, but if they can’t, then they’re not made for this profession. People have got to have a kind of need to do it. And they have to have, not self-confidence as a sense of knowing they will succeed, but a fearlessness about the possibility of failure. Franz Klein once said, “the artist is different from people because they have a higher tolerance for embarrassment.” People who come to programs like this and think only in terms of success and don’t think about failure are really ducking the issues, right?

How do you deal with failure? What do you with failure?How do you retool failure to turn it into something else? How do you just withstand the emotional strain? I’ve had a lot of failures in my life and that’s why I’m tough and that’s why I’m still at it. I think a lot of kids now are hothouse flowers. They come through very high powered programs in secondary school and college and then they arrive and they just think they’re going to continue succeeding. It’s not like that. It’s not like another profession where you can sort of get on the escalator and just go up.

Carey: It’s so complex because of that, and I understand thatas an artist and writer myself, but is that part of what they’re learning here at Yale—how to manage failure? How to retool failure? Even the emotional stress of what that means to someone?

Storr: There was a kid who was here, a few years ago. Hewas an Asian man. He was gay. He came from the South and he made work that was, I thought, quite interesting but many people did not. And there was a very famous gay photographer who was in the room and who took him apart, really took him apart. And did so from a position of an older gay artist saying this is not the way to deal with these issues—and he did it, I think, out of sincere regard for the guy but it was really rough and I cringed, you know, partly because I kind of liked some of his work more than the other person did.

I saw the student a couple of days later and I asked him,“How are you doing?” And he kind of had this wonderful plucky attitude and he clearly didn’t get wounded—anybody would have been wounded, but he had that ingredient. He had what it takes to bounce back. What it is, is hard to say, but you know who’s got it and who doesn’t. Some people do it by grinning and bearing it, some people do it by smiling through the disaster—he’s more of the smiling through the disaster type—but there are people who are just not going to stop and you can feel it and you know it. And they are the ones who become artists.

Carey: In conclusion, you’ve done an awful lot in the art world.You’re an artist yourself, a writer and critic and commissioner/curator of the Venice Biennial and, of course, this is your second term as Dean—what’s next for you? Those seem like peaks in the art world for an academic, for an artist, for a critic. I can’t imagine doing more, but what would be next?

Storr: I’m going to do what I started out to do, which was to make my own paintings. Most of the jobs that I have had, I did not compete for, they are things that people asked me to do, they were jobs I did because I needed to make a living to support my family. So now that I’m kind of at the age where I have enough money tucked away, I don’t have much else to do professionally, I’m just going to make my paintings. See how we go from being a quite well-known curator and critic to being a totally unknown painter and I’m really going to like it a lot.

Carey: So let’s just hear a little bit about what’s happening inyour paintings. You’ve been consistently painting, haven’t you?

Storr: I’ve painted always, though very little in recent years.I’ve done some print making. I’ve never, ever said I was not an artist or stopped being an artist because I know the minute you turn the switch off that way—you’re done. Inside, you’re done. So I’m always giving myself projects to do and I went to Yaddo—and I spent half the day writing a catalogue and half the day making drawings. I’ve been giving those drawings to benefit auctions ever since. There’s not a lot of work of that type but there’s enough so that I can work and say, “Yeah, this has got something going for it.” And so now I’m just going to go in the studio and make lots more. We’ll see.

Carey: Drawings?

Storr: Those are drawings but I’m a painter, basically.

Carey: And what do they look like now?

Storr: Abstract, geometric paintings on paper. Once upona time, I was a realist painter, an observational kind of new realist type. I was a big admirer and now still am a very good friend of Phillip Pearlstein, friend of Alex Katz, admirer of Katz. So that was my neighborhood for a while but I just decided I didn’t want to do that much describing so I was much more interested in the spaces in the paintings than I was in the things that occupied them, so I shifted over. We’ll see, who knows, maybe I’ll come out wild and wooly and do something else.

Carey: We’ll look forward to that!


The Other Path, the Other Way

Before that interview, I wrote that there are basically two waysof navigating the world as an artist: networking for pleasure and profit versus the less aggressive art-making with fewer exhibits. The first, which is more aligned with a corporate structure as I see it, is what Mr. Storr was articulating here. It is the most common model because it is about making a living from your art in most cases. It is about networking with peers and others who can help you. It is about being able to withstand the critiques of your artwork and to continue to make more.

There are always exceptions to this rule, of course. RobertStorr might be one of them; perhaps because of his intellect and his ability to write, he never competed for a job because it was always offered to him, and he took it to support his family. Other exceptions might be writers like Gore Vidal who do not do much self promotion of any kind, but find themselves in a very successful position.

But in the majority of cases, most artists follow the paththat Mr. Storr articulates, that is, they find ways to meet people that might help them with more opportunities, like exhibits, studio visits, and other ways to get artwork out in the public. We will get to specific tactics soon, but first is an interview I did with John Currin, who is one of the most successful artiststoday, with paintings selling in the high six-figure range. He is a figurative painter, does not paint what is popular, and has not turned his practice into a more conceptual mode; he is simply making the paintings he wants to make and has met with criticism as well as great success with the subject matter he has chosen. In the interview with Robert Storr, when I mention this interview and how John Currin worked with his friends to build his career, Storr said his story was a common one—that is, gathering support from your peers can be a key to success and what it means to “network” within the art world.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.


Episode 1 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / How Artists Define and Achieve their Goals

The Art World Demystified


I am not a saint or a sage, or a marketing writer with a recipe for success. I am an artist and I have interviewed hundreds of other artists, curators, critics, and other members of the art world. What I know, they have taught me. As an artist myself, I have also learned a lot by asking for things and failing to get what I want. I have learned that asking is often the hardest part—asking for a show, asking for a grant, asking for support.

Full-time Artist

I am an optimist, and you will probably find this book motivating because I am genuinely excited about the art world and the opportunities there are for artists and arts administrators. However, I also want to present a sober and serious look at the chances of earning a full-time living off of your art and the choices you will have in the context of the interviews I have done.

In all the interviews I have done (over three hundred as of 2016), there are some common threads as artists explain their failure and success stories and curators explain their methods. Here is a brief overview of what I have heard and what seems to point at the truth.


To begin with, there are some artists I talked to who succeeded very quickly—who at twenty-four years old won major prizes at shows, and continued to win major awards, getting prestigious teaching positions and gallery and museum exhibitions all over the world. In some cases, luck was involved—but the kind of luck that happens when you visit one hundred galleries asking if they are looking for artists.

There is rarely dumb luck, and most stories about luck and great opportunities are actually about persistence and not giving up—and then suddenly you meet someone by accident, and it is a meeting that changes your life.

This has happened to almost everyone, including the gallery owners and museum directors I have talked to. An example would be the artist asking gallery after gallery for a show, and after months of rejection finds that her roommate is opening a gallery that shows her work in the first show and launches her career. Those kinds of things happen all the time, but the failures that the artist was having and that her roommate was seeing all the time, were also significant — and something you cannot force by replicating her failures.

That is one the most complex aspects of building a career in art—how can you force the hand of luck? You can’t, of course, but you can tilt the odds in your favor so that more possibilities arise. You can see that this in itself is not a recipe but a possibility that might mean you have to keep your day job until something better happens, because this is a process to be dedicated to—for life.

Day Job

Unlike most other careers that I can think of, art making is one that usually requires a second job. One that often relates to the art making, but not always. Traditionally, this is a good thing—have a job that doesn’t demand too much of your time, and spend the rest of your free hours making art. Most of the artists I interviewed, but not all, had day jobs like teaching, painting portraits, being a doctor, or some other kind of work they might also enjoy. Some wanted to quit their day jobs, but most didn’t, feeling it gave them freedom to explore in the studio without the financial pressure of having to sell their art every week or every month.

The wisdom of many artists on the day job is that it should not be viewed as a negative aspect of your life, but one that must be adjusted correctly to support yourself enough so there is still time to make art. It does not mean that you should not aspire to be whatever kind of artist you like, as well as to the large financial gains of which you might dream, but that the day job should not be seen as a measure of your success. Pure success for an artist means making work in the studio on a regular and ongoing basis that is always changing and rewarding to the artist in terms of aesthetics and challenges.

How much you earn does not determine your success asan artist at all. We know this is the case from the hundreds of artists from history who werenot financially successful at all in their lifetime, but ended up in the history books because their work is good—or great—and has some real aesthetic value that can still be enjoyed.

So whatever your day job is or is not, be proud that it is thesponsor of your art career and that you are following the path that artists have taken for hundreds of years. Does this mean that if you simply make good work, the world will eventually notice it?


If you simply strive to make good work, you are doing your job as a professional artist. If, however, you feel that the quality of work alone will “rise to the top” so to speak, and that by merit alone you will find professional opportunities, you will be disappointed. In this day and age, excellent work is needed and required, but not alone. You will need the support of your peers, a good dose of networking, some charm, and the ability to write.

This is the third book I have written for artists to develop their careers in a professional manner. More resources are online at www.theartworlddymystified.com. The difference between this book and the other two, Making It in the Art World and New Markets for Artists, is that this book focuses primarily on demystifying the terms and ideas about what the “art world” actually is and how it functions. There is also a great deal of practical advice and clear directions in this book to build your professional career as an artist; essentially this book was written to clarify misconceptions that can burden an artist and drag them down by simply being mysterious.

This book also contains interviews with artists and curatorsthat help define how their careers are managed. Their words and advice are valuable in the sense that they give a direct view into the lives of professionals in the art world. In the past two books, I was using my experience in the art world to write from my particular perspective as an artist, and in this book, I am looking at the perspectives of others in the art world. This book features interviews from my Yale radio station, The Lives of the Artists, Architects, Curators and more, and you will hear some of the world greatest curators, writers, and artists talk about the art world from their own perspective. In chapter one we begin with an interview with Robert Storr that dives right into the depths of art criticism and how a Masters of Fine Arts might influence your career.

Then there is an interview with John Currin, who explains his rise to being an art star and a record-breaking selling painter. Currin explains his early frustrations, the nature of his struggle, and the way he got his first show and pushed himself to network. There are several more interviews throughout the text, and I hope you find them as inspiring and interesting as I do.


To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free webinars, click here.