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Micro Periods - The Plight of the Unbranded Artist II


Micro Periods - The Plight of the Unbranded Artist II

My ‘downtown’ period was a phase of deliberate anti-branding, a reaction to the predictable art world thrust of marrying a style with a name, i.e. branding, as in Agnes Martin, Barbara Kruger, Warhol, Serra, Jenny Holzer, etc. Even though these are the most serious of fine commercial artists, in art school we used to joke about how these artists get through a day doing essentially the same thing year after year. Clearly, they remain gripped by their vision. Still, the posture seems coy - the most commonplace art world tic - and effectively plays into expectations.

Here are two classic examples of micro periods in my work - phases within a phase. In this interval during the mid-90’s I painted mostly in groups of threes. In the trio Blessing, Plastic Egg Nirvana, and Ices (La Esperanza), I wanted all my painting techniques to be employed in one piece: collage, effects of gravity, drawing, painterliness, naturalism, slow art/fast art, a sort of story, and make the paintings still hold together. In the piece Blessing, deities bless a car for a safe voyage, a famous cartoon character’s deified as well - repetition and fame can imbue mystical powers - and iridescent paint changes as you move so the piece has an aliveness to it. The figures are filled with collaged text - the jumble of language as flesh and blood.

Plastic Egg Nirvana was inspired by those plastic egg toy things you can buy from bubble gum dispensers - sort of like a blend of snow domes and plastic easter eggs. I was trying to create a complete, wholly absorbing world that attracts with its presence and content, and offers various gifts. Collaged text, targets, and white oak leaves add layers of meaning and stir up the surface.

The connection with the downtown NYC 90’s mood was most deeply felt in the painting Ices (La Esperanza). The street vibe feels like a mise en scène, not a still life or staged grouping.  I tried to jam all my interests into one piece, like the ice cart’s umbrella doubles as an abstracted sailboat, and the graffiti’s the title of one of my favorite Phillip Dick novels, A Scanner Darkly, and the crow looks like Audubon could have painted it but with more brushy texture. And the anime inspired flying lovers ever-changing surface fax machine drone vision. And the general feel - the ‘90s contained in a 44 1/2” x 22 1/2” rectangle, a talisman.

This group was immediately followed by the ‘drip’ painting threesome: SLUMBODUMBO, Skate NYC, and Pied-Piper (Airport Carpark). These pieces employed one technique, no collage, have exposed wood, and are much larger. An intensive frenzy of painting, they are more naturalistic and linked by scale, treatment, and bottom third drip skirt. The Ices trio is denser in subject and execution, the ‘drip’ pieces more lean and luminous with a lighter touch.

These trios have a visual vocabulary that could be explored indefinitely. For me, they felt rich and complete and I was encouraged to move on. And then again, what about those one-offs?….


'blessing' ©1995, 44” x 25.5”, acrylic, collaged text, oil pastel on wood

'Plastic Egg Nirvana', 45.375” x 24.5”, acrylic, maple leaves, target, and oil-pastel on wood ©1996

'Ices (La Esperanza)', 44.5” x 22.5”, acrylic, charcoal, collaged text and grahite on wood ©1996

‘SLUMBODUMBO’, 68” x 48”, acrylic on wood, ©1995

‘Skate NYC’, 62” x 48”, acrylic on wood, ©1995

‘Pied-piper (airport car park)’, 68” x 48”, acrylic on wood, ©1996



The Plight of the Unbranded Artist


The Plight of the Unbranded Artist

Ever wonder how artists become well known? Think of the artists you like, no doubt a look comes to mind, a signature style that identifies them. Take for example the modernists Chagall Rothko or Pollock and I’m sure certain images are married to the names. Not only are these artists popular, likable, controversial, what have you, but they are branded. A branded artist, how can that be? Matisse = Adidas. Picasso = Nike. Doesn’t that go against the grain of the supposed purist strivings of artists?  In the marketplace their styles amount to a brand, something most artists would never admit. Many artists would say their art’s their most heartfelt voice, how could it possibly be reduced to a brand? This is how:

I think from the gallerists’ viewpoint it’s really hard to market an artist whose styles are all over the place. One style, one name. The notion is an artist must become known for a recognizable look, and if something’s working (i.e., selling and maybe even getting written about), why fix it? Selling art is the extreme sport of the sales arena. Why complicate things more? Or at the least make a logical progression, changing over time, like Mondrian’s twigs becoming grids. Never a complete departure in a different direction.

Which puts some of us in a bit of a quandary. In my little ‘career’ I’ve had 5 so-called signature styles, or let’s say modes of exploration, each one of which I most certainly could have mined for a lifetime. I explore these veins thoroughly, and then move on, generally in 6 year waves I’ve noticed, give or take. Restless. It’s an organic process, not a strategy. I would say I have effectively anti-branded myself. In some cases, like my ‘downtown’ period (1993-99), I went out of my way to do so. I did everything in clusters of three, and then completely changed everything: treatment, subject, scale. Micro periods within a period. Why should an artist confine him(her)self to one look their entire professional career asks my gemini soul? I know artists still investigating the same mode they stumbled upon in art school 30 years ago. A famous artist once told me No steve, it’s not repetitious, it’s just taken further and deeper. Different strokes for sure.

So I’ll just have to get known for each phase.

pictured top row: mark rothko 1947, 1952, 1955, 1957, 1968

pictured bottom row: steve sas schwartz 1983, 1987, 1995, 2004, 2012