Once upon a time, there was a group of young artists who exemplified a post-Strokes New York cool. Nate Lowman would probably resent that implication, but it’s true—it was fucking cool to be an artist in New York not so long ago. We’re a few years past all that. No longer is art the chosen fallback of roustabouts (blogging now owns that dubious distinction) and no longer does art have the bulletproof veneer of a Hirst-driven market. And Lowman himself has the whiff of an artist moving beyond the halcyon: his hair is handsomely streaked with gray, and he says things like, ‘Sure, I can create a cover with short notice. My studio is efficient.’
Lowman’s artwork still holds the vestiges of a time when he was young and out of control. The bullet holes are still present, the trash culture, the flip-offs and the fuck-yous, the rebellions against galas and such art world fuckery. But Lowman’s more conceptual side has grown, providing the content of those pieces a deeper sense of belonging.
The biggest show of his nearly decade-long career was a Maccarone and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise duel-gallery paroxysm of pop culture references, beautifully-lit landscapes (!), about 30 copies of a Willem de Kooning portrait of Marilyn Monroe, and other paintings done in Lowman’s signature xerographic dot technique. Lowman’s connection to his audience is filled with an anxious energy: what is he saying here? Is this homage or critique? What was his mind state like creating process-perfect approximations of one of art history’s most volatile figures?
But, Lowman zigged where you thought he might have zagged, and he’s onto the next thing and the previous thing all at once, accumulating a language of full-steam-ahead commentary on the things around him, good or bad. And it connects. Maybe it’s because Lowman’s kind of an every man, despite the fact that you thought he was cool in the first place. Okay, so maybe we all did.
We caught up with Lowman a few days after running into him at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s annual fundraising gala—where Kirsten Dunst and everyone else sought out his embrace. It’d been a minute since he’d been out to California, home of the cool.
You came from out here, right? You grew up in Idyllwild, California? Your dad did a non-profit art program there?
So, I was born in Vegas, where my dad grew up. We left in 1985, because my dad got a job running this artsy summer camp in Idyllwild. He had gone there—I think it started in the ’40s or ’50s. He went there as a kid because he sang, and then he worked there as a camp counselor in his early-20s. It was an artsy Meatballs basically, which I watched recently. It’s a cinematic masterpiece—Bill-motherfucking-Murray, dude. It was a summer program at the time, and my dad invented the high school.
And you had access to the conservatory.
Yeah, I studied jazz music. I played the saxophone, and I studied visual arts, and I took creative writing classes. You had to do the academic classes all morning from 7:30 to noon, then you had lunch, and then you had two or three classes in the afternoon. So, your day goes from 7:30 a.m. to sometimes 9:30 at night, but it’s all fun shit. I had a four-hour painting class one year, and that’s the best, you know? And you sneak cigarettes in between.
Did you learn from ‘masters’?
Yeah, I think that the jazz teacher is in the Miles Davis autobiography. His name is Marshall Hawkins, and he would bring in other people to do guest workshops, and the classical music teachers all had other jobs conducting symphonies. Everyone was super legit. My painting teacher was an artist called David Amico, who my dad knew from when he was younger—I think he worked at the camp, also—but he has been represented by Ace Gallery forever.
Did you start to get itchy and want to skip town like any teenager would?
No, I actually enjoyed it. Both my parents worked for the school, the students and faculty are 400 people or less, and it’s in a small town of like 2,000 people, so it’s a real small world. And I liked it. I was fortunate, because whenever I wanted to go work on a painting or something, I could just do it. I learned how to stretch canvases, and I once stretched 96 canvases in one day. I would go back and teach there in the summertime. Having the access is amazing.
Even though you’re in a small town and in a small community, did being at an art school make you feel like you had access to a bigger thing—you’re able to see out into the world a bit easier?
You know, I didn’t even know what the internet was until I was almost done with college—I came around to it late. We had a good library, so I discovered Cy Twombly when I was 14 and shit like that. Even just having magazines and a Cindy Sherman book lying around, because when you’re young and you’re going through those changes you go through as a teenager and you’re fucked up and confused or having growing pains or hormones or whatever, it was fortunate to have somewhere to put that weird energy. Because we would take amplifiers and like go out in the woods and make noise music. It all sounds pretentious, but it was a good time.
I couldn’t stand college. Probably because I had enough [schooling] already. I studied with great professors, but I can’t say I liked NYU as an institution. It’s just this giant real estate machine. It’s like its own little micro-situation, and it’s in fact very unrealistic, so it’s deeply frustrating. I don’t even enjoy going to visit open studios. I did critiques a few times with students in schools and it made me fucking crazy just being in those rooms, because it’s a mimicry of a situation that doesn’t exist in the real world.
I stuck with it because I figured that the degree would be useful. I would never say that I didn’t learn anything—for sure, I learned a lot—and also it’s good to have someone tell you what to read, because I never would have dreamed of Althusser or some shit. We had some interesting times in college, sitting around drinking whiskey and trying to read Deleuze.
I think we all did that in college.
You know, the art program was run by a really great lady named Nancy Barton. She had come from CalArts which was über-art school. It was a good antidote to NYU’s soullessness, because she was coming from the opposite direction, so that was great. I don’t even know how she pulled it off because NYU is such a rich school, but the funds are certainly not in the art department.
I recently talked to somebody that went to CalArts. They said that it was super about being a purist with your art practice, and they learned almost nothing about what it is really like to be outside of this womb of school—how it is to make it on your own. How do you become an artist from being a student?
They can’t really teach it in school, because there is no path. I’ve been showing my work since 2002, 2003, and back then—I’m sure it happens now—there was this weird formula where, if you went to Yale or Columbia, you could pay like $100,000 or whatever it cost to go for two years, and that was this career step where they would guarantee a gallerist and Jerry Saltz would come to your studio. It was not like experimental; it was professional. Art suffers from professionalism. You can’t package what you do. You can’t domesticate it for the sake of an art dealer. It just becomes meaningless. So, that was a big turnoff for me, but I do know friends who it served very well. I know people who went to graduate school, and they went there to make connections more than anything else, not to learn per se or hone their craft or whatever graduate school is supposed to be about.
I feel like you’re a part of a small sort of grouping of people that talk to each other or maybe deal with each other in art. It seems pretty tight knit. How did that group come together?
Well, most of my close friends I met around in New York, because New York is a great place for that. It’s a social city. I probably met half those people at Max Fish [a bar on the Lower East Side]. In 2000, I was a security guard at the Dia [Center for the Arts] on the weekends while I was in school. I worked there full-time for a couple years until they closed it down and opened the Beacon. That was great, because there were really great artists working there and it was in Chelsea right down the street from [Colin de Land’s seminal gallery] American Fine Arts and people were always hanging out around there. So, on that one little block of 22nd Street, you just met interesting people. Lizzi Bougatsos trained me on the first day.
One of the first group shows that I was in was curated by Clarissa Dalrymple, and it was in L.A., and that’s where I met Adam McEwen, and we became close pretty quick. We stayed in touch back in New York, and he’s someone I talk to all the time. I’ve had close relationships with some artists—a lot of us collaborated on some projects, Adam and I curated a show together, I shared a studio with Dan Colen. Dan slept with one of my friends a long time ago, and she introduced us. We didn’t know the other guy was an artist or anything until a month later. He lives over in Chinatown by where Maccarone was—when she first opened it was on the east side of Canal Street. He lived on the corner, and I would go by the gallery, and he would always be eating at this café called Brown’s around the corner.
I think it was the opening of the Greater New York show in 2005—he was like, ‘You’re this guy,’ and I said, ‘You’re that guy,’ because we just probably knew each other from being out and being drunk. A year later, I had broken up with this girl I was seeing, and I was temporarily homeless, and he was living with Ryan McGinley, and Ryan was always traveling, so I would stay at their house. I would stay in Ryan’s room when he was out of town, and then Dan and I would spend every minute together for a couple years, and we got a studio together, which we shared for three years—quite a long time—and now he’s just down the street from me.
Does all that stuff seem like a long time ago?
Yeah, but it’s not just memories yet; I still feel close to everyone. I mean I don’t even know where I met Hanna [Liden], but I talk to her every half hour. And as we all grew, got a little bit more adult, we’ve taken some pretty crazy trips together, like last year we went to, where did we go? Agathe Snow had a show in Berlin, and Dan had a show in Oslo, and we went to Marrakech.
Sometimes a curator will notice whatever friendships or groupings, and will curate everyone into a show in Greece or something.
That’s less interesting to me. I did a two-person show with Hanna a year ago in Salon 94, which is Jeanne Greenberg has this gallery in her house uptown. She has other spaces downtown, but this one is in her house, which is her original exhibition space. That was a show that couldn’t have been done by a curator because it was so intimate—it was drawings that [Hanna] made for me in the middle of the night eight years ago on napkins, along with some of her art and some of my art in conversation that we made in tandem. We planned it out a lot in advance; it was a huge project, but it was a tight, intimate show. Friendship shows are hard to pull off.
Sometimes friends are just hard to do things with, professionally. You never know when you’re crossing some weird line, or if people are going to get it. You have these inner languages that people probably won’t understand.
Totally. I did a collaborative show with Dan Colen. We did it in Greece and New York and a town in Italy. That was more than a year-long process, and it got pretty intense. I definitely had some breakdowns. But I learned so much, because he’s so different from me. He is the most systematic person on the planet, and it was driving me crazy. Like, ‘Can we paint this thing already?’ But it was completely worth it: some of the things we made, I’m really super excited about.
One of the first times I met you was at a conference I asked you to speak at. It was May of 2008, and things were a lot different. You were on stage with Hanna, Lizzy, and Gardar [Eide Einarsson], and it was moderated by this curator from the Gagosian, Tom Duncan. It was this interesting time right before the stock market crash. The bubble burst, and art became the first thing people stopped buying because it’s inherent non-utility.
I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t think people stopped buying art. That’s the thing.
It was a scare, for maybe like a couple months at least.
They’re scared now, too, and they were scared in 2008, but, shit, the only way I know how to put it is that I’m afraid that in times like these, and in 2008, the rich get richer, dude, and the people who suffer are not the people who buy art. Art’s fucking expensive; I can’t afford my own art. It doesn’t make any sense; it’s just true. Those people are never going to be poor. In fact, they probably capitalize on times like this. Certain things at a high level of expense, where the market had gone out of control already, so a certain artist that was overvalued in 2007—because of auctions or because that artist became really famous—then maybe that slowed down. They’re not selling a whole bunch of nine million dollar paintings as much, but art doesn’t really depreciate ever. An artist’s market can come and go. So, in fact, it is a good investment, because it’s never going to really lose its value.
I don’t really understand, because I don’t understand investing, and I don’t really do it, but that’s what people tell me. As I was saying, there’s not really a career path—I think that every artist finds their way—and then I think that everyone’s market is different to one another. There’s no model for how to sustain it, because art is unregulated hyper-capitalism, and the way business happens in the art world is illegal in every other profession. It’s crazy what people do. Even the ones we call honest are doing things that nobody could do in any other profession. You sell something for 10 dollars one day, and once that person has it, they can sell it for five million dollars the next day.
That’s not even to mention insider trading and collusion.
Oh my god, yeah. Somebody published a book—it’s just a Xerox of Richard Prince’s deposition from the case where the photographer sued him. At one point, the lawyer is questioning him, and they’re saying, ‘How much do your paintings cost?’ And Richard Prince is like, ‘I don’t know. The art dealer does it for me.’ And [the lawyer is] like, ‘Where’s your invoice?’ And Richard is like, ‘Are you kidding? Invoice? We don’t even shake hands.’ I’ve never signed a contract in my life. It’s a weird situation with some weird people.
Let’s start with Trash Landing. Tell me a little about that. Tell me a little about the de Koonings and this idea of reproduction and multiples and obsession. How did you start along that line?
Six or seven years ago, I was preparing for an exhibition in Basel, Switzerland. I was preparing work and there’s this really great T-shirt shop on First Avenue and 13th Street. I went there one day and I found one of those ‘Free OJ Simpson’ T-shirts from when the trial was happening, and I’ve always been interested in that.
You love OJ.
Well, it was a big deal, growing up in California. It was a really tense time, when you’re a kid and you’re learning how to understand the world, like racial dynamics in American. It changed the way everyone thought about everyone, it brought a lot of tension to the surface, and it invented court TV—it basically invented reality TV—so, it’s always on my mind.
I had this T-shirt, and I was just going to stretch it over a canvas, but it was not that interesting. I’ve always loved de Kooning’s painting of Marilyn Monroe, and it’s almost the same thing, because he painted her so violently. It’s one of the only de Koonings I can think of that’s not ‘woman with a number.’ It’s a person, so it had this extra weirdness to it. So, I thought about this violence towards blond women, and weird anger management, and what if de Kooning and OJ were the same person. I made a diptych painting—it was a black-and-white photocopy of the de Kooning painting—and it looked very crummy, and it was small—14 by 11 inches or something. It was so revolting to me when I looked at it, and I loved it. I was so proud. I always like to revisit those things if they hold their presence in my mind over the years. It’s just so obvious that it’s important.
So, in 2010, in the spring, I had worked on this giant painting of the Toys ‘R’ Us logo but instead of Toys ‘R’ Us it said Gen ‘R’ Us. I struggle with whether or not everything that I do as an artist is either generous or selfish. I don’t know if it’s a big indulgent waste of time or if there’s actually a certain profound generosity involved, which is what you almost expect from art, but I don’t actually know what’s going on, I have to say. So, I made this painting ‘Gen ‘R’ Us’ (2009). I taught myself how to stain the canvas with oil paint—I was thinking about that artist Paul Feeley and modernist stain painting and I was like, ‘Damn, this is fun.’ I was thinking about the de Kooning piece, and then I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to paint, and it’s going to be really fun, and I’m going to make these vibrant colors.’ So, we used this really awesome oil paint—the pigment is so good and vibrant—and then it’s like action painting. I’m painting a de Kooning painting. It’s the most fun thing you could ever do—you get into the rhythm—and I set out to make three, and I figured if one of them was awesome, then I’d destroy the other two, but I really loved all of them, and they’re so fun to make, so I started making them over and over.
You went a little nuts.
Yeah. I don’t even know how many there are, dude, but there’s a lot. I love them all. If you want to hunt someone down and kill them and, like a serial killer, you want to do it the same way to somebody else. Although I have not killed anyone, I imagine it’s a similar satisfaction. You can’t stop.
Was some of the satisfaction in pretending you were de Kooning?
No. I don’t think I’m quite as unhappy. Sometimes I am; I’m sure everybody is. It was really just this one painting that I was obsessed with, and not any of the other ones. I did at one point try to do a similar number on this Dubuffet painting that I really love. It was the worst decision. That one got the shredder—it just didn’t work out—and it’s really about this painting, this one Marilyn Monroe-de Kooning.
Let’s move onto a couple of themes in your work, one being this idea of painting Xerox-style. Is it just this aesthetic quality of the Xerox that interests you?
Art, to me, is really all about language. It’s about communicating. It’s not about a fixed idea or a fixed subject, but it’s about the possibilities that you can open up. Even a little minimalist box is supposed to make you question the way you look at the world. I like to think that life happens all around you, and you react to it. I love that there’s just things floating in the world that are parts of language and little pieces, and then ideas occur, and if everything lines up, [you are communicating]. A xerographic dot is a form of language. It’s an obsolete language, and it has an aesthetic value. To me, that’s on par with a drip of oil paint or a found bumper sticker—a brush mark, because of the history of Western art, carries a certain meaning, or reminds you of a certain visual experience. And you’re drawn to what you’re drawn to. I’m drawn to what I’m drawn to, and that dictates what language I engage with.
It’s interesting. A xerographic dot in some ways is a microcosm—art can be all these tiny little things that if you step back, it’s becomes a bigger sort of idea. You also work, in a certain sense, in memory and childhood nostalgia. How would you feel if I said that? I’m speaking about the Double Dare photographs and Macintosh logos.
I made the Apple logo because I was sick of seeing it around. I was thinking, ‘How fucking greedy is that company?’ When you buy a new gadget, it doesn’t work with the old one, so you have to constantly buy all these products all the time to keep up or engage. You know when they obtained the Beatles catalogue for iTunes, they had this picture of the Beatles that they aestheticized to all the Apple branding? I was like, ‘Oh, how did you steal the soul from that fucking band. How did you do that? Really? That’s what you’re going with? Fuck this shit, I’m painting that shit.’ That’s what that was about. I was enraged.
They should have just said, ‘Here’s the Beatles. We happen to be Apple.’ Instead they were like, ‘We’re Apple. Check out what we did with the Beatles.’ You kind of turned it around on them.
That’s just why I did it. I don’t know if what I did worked. I took one and I hung it on glass door. We’re hanging the painting and some guy came by and was like, ‘Oh my god. Are you opening an Apple Store here? No fucking way.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And then he kept asking me stupid questions. I was like, ‘Oh god. This joke got boring fast. I don’t know the answers to your questions.’ And he said, ‘You’re jerking me off; you’re not opening an Apple Store!’ He was really angry about it. How did they get that guy? How did they wet his appetite so much that he couldn’t wait to see what the new iPad looked like in the new Apple Store? He was physically upset. My painting was probably born of extra-negative energy in that case, but then I made another one that was made of a canvas that was stretched over the shape, so it’s just like this fucked-up, dirty thing. That was a secret homage to the artist Blinky Palermo, because he did that project to the people of New York City, so I thought, ‘Hey this is to the people of the Rotten Apple.’ Nas called New York a ‘Rotten Apple.’ That one was less out of anger, and more of trying to bring that weird logo into the realm of modernist formal concerns.
So, one of the things about the show that I loved was the Statue of Liberty piece. It’s, again, one of those things that you see every day, and it’s a cliché and you’ve taken that idea of the cliché and fucked it up.
Fuck, you know how I was saying things are always there? I don’t know how to articulate inspiration, but you live with this stuff, but you are also stuck with this stuff. Moments of real fortune are when you figure out a way to enjoy the things you are stuck with. I really don’t give a shit about that statue, but it occurred to me that it might be interesting to think at that moment to paint it. It was seven paintings in two rooms and those seven paintings were all landscape paintings. This is my third solo show in New York, and I had always felt like I had never really nailed it. I liked my other shows, there were some nice things about them, but I didn’t love them. I had failed, and I was like, ‘Man, I have to fucking do this right, because this is where I live and there’s a huge culture for art and people care about it and people go out of their way to see it every day in New York, so I have to do the right thing. I want to do a great show.’
And I was thinking about Michelle [Maccarone]—historically, the interesting and radical thing about her gallery since the beginning was that the artist really transformed the gallery for every show on Canal Street. You could do whatever with this dingy three-story building. People transformed it into all kinds of spaces. My artwork is fairly traditional: painting and sculpture. I do some installation pieces, but you can pin them on a wall; I’m not like into construction. The previous summer, I was not really happy, but freshly single and largely drunk, and with a few close friends spent late nights and into the morning. And I got really into the color of the sky at the sunrise and conversely, obviously, the sunset.
Because I saw so many sunrises—it was really on my mind—I decided I would make magic hour light inside the galleries, because there’s these two rooms that oppose each other. I would do dawn and dusk. I studied the Terrence Malick movie Days of Heaven and I tried to learn about it, and I talked to cinematographers, and architectural firms, and all these fucking stupid people, and it turned out that one of my best friends from growing up is a grip. She works on TV shows and movies. She said, ‘You know, I could do that. We’ll just do it with gels.’ It was perfect, and the economy of it was so good. I had tested out these machines that looked like cop siren disco lights. They were LED machines, but if you put one of those in this room and hung paintings on the wall, it would be a total farce. It would be like putting a wedding dress on an alligator. You wouldn’t be able to engage with the paintings at all, because you would be so distracted.
We did this simple thing—always the best solution, I find—and we spot lit the paintings. The paintings could be viewed in normal light, and the gallery ambient light in the room was the cool blue of early morning light and the warm magic hour film light in the evening. That light lends itself to vistas of the horizon, and that’s why I decided to make it landscape paintings. The Statue of Liberty seemed like an obvious thing. Also, it could be a little love poem to New York.
I like what you said about being stuck with stuff, and finding the good parts of that stuff—the sunny side. It’s very optimistic.
It’s not even about finding the good thing, it’s about finding your own way to interact with it to make it sufferable. I mean not to sound cynical, but there’s so much bullshit, and you don’t have any choice, unless you disengage, but that’s unrealistic. In my job, you have to deal with it otherwise you’re not talking to nobody. Another thing from that exhibition were Hurricane Katrina storm graphics. That still feels like yesterday, man. It still feels like an American hangover. It is and isn’t old news somehow, simultaneously. Another one was I painted this girl’s face ‘with nose’ and ‘without nose.’ American plastic surgeons gave her a new nose, so I thought her face had turned into the landscape sort of. And that Icelandic volcano, I painted that. That was really pretty. I was like, ‘This is too pretty. I have to paint that.’
That never really happens. I never paint something because it’s pretty, but I did that one time. I was thinking that is the most spectacular, beautiful fire from Earth—that’s rad, that’s about as good as it gets—but when you ask somebody they’re like, ‘Ah, man. That just fucked my air flight up.’ It’s such a sarcastic nuisance for international business-doers. I’m like, ‘Whoa. Slow down and check this thing out, man. It’s like magic.’
You said something before, about how the de Kooning paintings started six or seven years ago, and it came back, but for a long time you were strictly doing gunshots and smiley faces. Are those things done?
It’s not actually true. I’ve always worked on everything. I finished yesterday a giant smiley face painting, as well as this new Statue painting, and I’ve got a half-done Marilyn sitting in here, and, actually, I just made a whole new take on those bullet hole pieces—a whole different approach.
If something works for you, you’ll just always have it?
Good ideas should be engaged with until exhaustion. In 2010, I made these paintings of Nicole Brown Simpson based on an image that I used in a wall collage in 2003. And in five years, I might want to fuck with that image again. When an interesting part of something reveals itself, it’s important to acknowledge that, because otherwise it just remains a ghost. You just have to keep your mind turned on.