There’s a scene in the 1996 movie “Basquiat” where the incandescent young painter (played by Jeffrey Wright) has a handyman gig at a gallery. Willem Dafoe, making a cameo as an electrician, climbs down a ladder and delivers the immortal line: “You know, I’m an artist too.” Here are the two sides of the myth: the obscure martyr unsoiled by commercial success; and the unbridled genius who can’t help but have it all.
In reality, most artists, even most great ones, also have day jobs. During the late 1950s and early 60s, the staff at MoMA harbored grand ambitions. The painters Robert Ryman and Robert Mangold were guards, curator and critic Lucy Lippard a “page” in the museum library, minimalist Sol LeWitt worked the desk and sculptor Dan Flavin ran the elevator. (Miriam Takaezu, an employee in Personnel and sister to the famous ceramist Toshiko Takaezu, apparently took it upon herself to hire artists.)
Work from this MoMA cohort introduces “Day Jobs,” a group show of 38 artists at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas. The exhibition blows through the polite separation between artwork and money work. Not only does it name, in wall label after wall label, what each artist did to keep the lights on — it demonstrates how artists drew techniques, subjects, even inspiration from their diurnal grind.
Put another way, the show refutes the idea of the spontaneous generation of masterpieces. Far from it. Great artists need the world, maybe more than it needs them. “I think we overlook how much mundane moments can shape creative discoveries and directions,” the curator, Veronica Roberts, told me. When Frank Stella moved to New York in 1958, he painted houses. In 1959, he had his precocious MoMA debut: canvases covered with black enamel stripes the width of a housepainter’s brush. “When we view artists as living in this rarefied realm,” Roberts said, “we do a disservice to ourselves and to them.”
Which might be why the “Worst Job Ever,” a recent help wanted ad from an “Art World Family” seeking a combination personal assistant, babysitter, gardener and “dog systems” manager for less than $100,000 a year, got people’s hackles up. It wasn’t so much the conditions (unfortunately common enough), not even the post’s arch tone — but the fact that there was an artist behind it, asking to escape the surly gravity that holds the rest of us down: trying to be an artist without the world.
Why is it so hard to acknowledge that artists work for money? The art business puts the precariat and the bourgeoisie in proximity, which can certainly breed resentment. But it’s more than that. In the Basquiat/Electrician dualism, we’re given to believe that true talent will be rewarded, while those who change light bulbs for a living just aren’t that good. In the myth of artistic meritocracy, a day job is the mark of failure.
Pressure also comes from fellow artists. Virginia L. Montgomery, a video artist in “Day Jobs,” told me one of her (more privileged) classmates at Yale called her a sellout because she worked. Howardena Pindell, also in the show, climbed the ladder as a curator at MoMA for over a decade while developing her style of abstract, pointillist collage. (She had two separate résumés.) Pindell recalls misguided peers blaming her for gatekeeping. “One African American woman artist would heckle me in public settings and call me at home with veiled threats,” she told me, “and would say I was the reason MoMA did not collect her work.”
“Artists have this ambivalent relationship to their day jobs,” said Hannah Wohl, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California Santa Barbara and the author of a book on creativity and the art world. Day jobs provide stability through the feast-or-famine cycles of gallery sales. At the same time, “being able to give up your day job is a sign of upward mobility.”
Still, it’s not that simple. A job also signals a certain salt-of-the-earth authenticity. “I’m thinking of one instance of a gallerist who was bragging about starting to represent an artist while they still taught at the Y.M.C.A.,” said Wohl. “Or another dealer bragging about how she started representing this artist who used to be an art handler at her gallery.”
“Like everyone else,” said Wohl, “artists want their success to appear deserved. I’ve noticed that artists with wealthy families and family connections often downplay these advantages. One way they do this is by having a day job and acting like this is something they need. It’s more shameful in some ways to not need a day job than to have one.”
All of the artists in “Day Jobs” needed their gigs at the time. Jeff Koons, aptly represented at the Blanton by his gleaming steel bust of Sun King Louis XIV, was a successful commodities broker before he conquered the art market. (He also sold MoMA memberships.) Even Andy Warhol got his start illustrating shoe ads.
But maybe quitting isn’t the goal. “I’m grateful that I have a day job,” said Montgomery, one of two artists in “Day Jobs” who still have theirs. “If I was constantly thinking about myself and my own needs all the time, I would go a bit crazy.” Montgomery works as a graphic facilitator, transcribing corporate brainstorming sessions and TED talks into symbols in real time. Her videos are likewise full of morphing and empathic imagery, like a luna moth hatching from a ponytail. Ragen Moss, a lawyer since 2005, sculpts bodily, glassy, cocoon-like forms inscribed with legalese. Because of her career, she told me, “I feel authorized to ask huge questions: Where did law begin? What is it for? Who does it serve?”
I asked both Moss and Montgomery if they would quit if they could. Neither said yes. Their jobs ground their art in experience. And both mentioned the value of coming into contact with different kinds of people — a point echoed throughout “Day Jobs” under subheadings like “Caregivers” and “Service Industry.” Violette Bule’s “Dream America,” a photographic diptych of a dishwasher carrying a tray of red, white and blue plates and the stars and stripes, evokes August Sander’s famous portrait of a bulging, burdened bricklayer. Bule’s restaurant job brought her intimate knowledge of the tenacity and exploitation underlying more abstract debates about immigration. The art is stronger for it: less topical, more enduring.
Inside access can also sharpen critique. Barbara Kruger, known for pithy feminist slogans and bold graphics that have become selfie magnets, designed and edited magazines.
And Matthew Angelo Harrison, an emerging artist from Detroit, modeled prototypes for Ford with 3-D printers and CNC routers, then adapted that technology to print clay copies of looted artifacts. At the Blanton, Harrison contributes a “found” West African statue alongside a car headlight, both vitrified in resin, in a caustic conflation of industry and imperialism.
As Roberts admits, curating the show, she sidestepped two huge categories of common artist gigs: teaching, and assisting other artists. A work by Manuel Rodríguez-Delgado involving a climate-sealed notebook and custom shipping crates glances off the unwieldy category of preparator work, and the wall label for Sol LeWitt’s “Wall Drawing #48,” per his instructions, names the people who drew it. Who hung the rest of the “Day Jobs” show? Who will secret it away when it’s done? That crate would take more than one exhibition to unpack.
The need for such a reckoning is evident in the 115,000 followers of Art Handler magazine, an Instagram account and erstwhile journal focused on the art world’s back of house. Clynton Lowry, an art handler and artist who has shown at the Kitchen, in New York, started the project in 2015. “I was interested in hearing artists not just describing these jobs as a sideline,” Lowry told me, “but something that’s integrated in their lives, and in their thinking as artists.”
While union drives might make the news, it falls to Art Handler to represent, and advocate for, that profession’s particular view of culture. Lowry makes the point that the art world praises certain multihyphenates — curator-dealer-writers or artist-educators. But that clout “isn’t translating to these below-the-line roles.”
The label on my own canned latte says it’s so inspiring I might quit my day job. A subway ad for an art school tells me, if I love what I do, it’s not work. The semiotic landscape of consumer society urges us to pretend that gigs are art forms, when in fact they’re just jobs that sap your creativity. Of course, says society, if you want to be a true artist, you can always suffer and starve. In this light, the intertwined but distinct relationship of artworks and day jobs is something to be recognized, and protected: no shame in saying, “You know, I’m an artist too.” And no shame in confiding: “You know, I’m an art handler too.” You don’t have to be poor to be a great artist. You do have to live in the world.
Through July 23, The Blanton Museum of Art, 200 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Austin, Texas; 512-471-5482, blantonmuseum.org.