NEW YORK, NY.-
The phenomenon of the artist who drops out, whether only leaving the scene socially or actually ceasing to make work, may be as old as the scene itself, but it could be catching on. In 1967, Agnes Martin left New York for the New Mexico desert, avoiding the art world for years. In 1975, Bas Jan Ader disappeared after setting sail across the Atlantic alone in a tiny boat, giving rise to speculation about whether this was his final artistic gesture. Stanley Brouwn, Charlotte Posenenske and Lee Lozano have absented themselves, and, more recently, Cady Noland became legendary both for her work and for abandoning the art scene.
Now, another New York artist is making a unique and provocative exit. On Darren Baders humorously named website, aaronbader.com, a sign reads: 20 Yrs: Selling My Practice.
Its been a good ride, he says on the site. If he finds a buyer, he will be prohibited from being Darren Bader the contemporary artist, and that identity will be taken over by the buyer. All his works to date will remain under the existing artists purview, but if the buyer wants to keep making trademark Bader works, theyre welcome to take a crack at it. (Whether collectors and buyers will continue to buy them is, of course, another question.)
Whats the asking price? He has in mind a low-seven-figure sum.
Is it a gag? Hes often (unflatteringly) called a prankster, but if this is a prank, its the kind that comes with an eight-page contract, drawn up with attorney David Steiner (also known as artist Alfie Steiner). It will be published in the coming weeks, along with a video about the artist by filmmaker Pacho Velez and text by Bader, in an issue of the online journal Triple Canopy titled True to Life.
It does, to me, represent a common career arc, Triple Canopys editor, Alexander Provan, said by phone, from desperately working to establish yourself as an artist and as an individual who is representative of your own body of work to exhausting the possibility of that identity, in work and perhaps in life.
The contract lays it all out, in terms as simultaneously dull and amusing as you might expect, dryly defining terms like artist, work and practice. The buyer gets Baders practice: that is, his art world reputation and the right to use the name on new works. Bader wont legally change his name, and can use it when he becomes something new: television host, art dealer, comedian, etc. If all goes well, Bader sheds the art world skin hes been wearing for 20 years.
The project follows in a century-old tradition of immaterial and conceptual art that began as soon as Marcel Duchamp proposed an ordinary urinal (titled Fountain) for a 1917 exhibition under a pseudonym. He created a new thought for that object, said Duchamp, defending the fictitious artist, R. Mutt.
Beginning in 1959, Yves Klein sold zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility, in which a collector got a receipt for a certain amount of empty space. Conceptualists like Lawrence Weiner and Robert Barry, in the 1960s and 70s, opposed the commercialization of art by making art that sometimes consisted of mere description and didnt have to take physical form at all. And in the age of the non-fungible token, artists like Beeple and Pak have mastered the art of getting people to pay (into the tens of millions in Beeples case) for artworks so ethereal that even most in the art world couldnt explain what they actually consist of.
While not quite a household name, Bader leaves behind an enviable career and has produced an impressively varied and cerebral body of work. Hes appeared in career-making exhibitions, like the Whitney Biennial (in 2014) and the Venice Biennale (in 2019), and had solo shows at institutions like MoMA PS1. Hes represented by four respected galleries: Andrew Kreps in New York, Blum & Poe in Los Angeles, Londons Sadie Coles and Turins Franco Noero. In a 2018 profile in T Magazine, Nikil Saval wrote that Bader is renowned
for his elevation of the profane and ridiculous into the realm of high art. All the same, his self-deprecating description on the Kreps gallery website refers to him as an aging sculpture/literature brand working in AR, elision, found object, humor, permutation/chance, poem, rhetoric, and video.
So when we met at a bar in New Yorks Chelsea neighborhood, the question was obvious: Why do this? One, this is not meant to be an adieu, he told me. But two, there is a surfeit of identity. Everyone has an aggrandized me. And three, theres a bottleneck of creative talent.
The project makes fun of this codified notion: When did the term art practice even start? he said. Its playfully rancorous. He added in an email, It was just one of those semi-serendipitous ideas. I think it might have been when thinking about dentists selling their practice. Partly, hes vexed by the dubious concept of the very kind of art world brand name hes selling off.
A few examples illustrate the span of his ouevre. His first book, James Earl Scones (2005), contains an abundance of proposals for doomed projects. In one, he asks the director of Romes Capitoline Museums for permission to ride naked on the famous ancient Roman equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, ensuring the director that this performance is an act of sheer reverence for both the continuum of Western art and the inexorable presence of history.
In his 2012 book 77 and/or 58 and/with 19, he describes the piece motorcycle on birth control, in which the buyer would drop the pills, as prescribed, into the vehicles gas tank. Characteristically for Bader, it combines two objects in an ambiguous way, perhaps feminizing a cliche of masculinity, perhaps aborting the fantasies of freedom to which the motorcycle gives birth.
Behind the humor, the artist sees higher purposes. When the Calder Foundation awarded him the Calder Prize in 2013 (His installations often take on a strange character, the Atelier Calder acknowledged) and asked how his work extends Calders legacy, Bader replied, In questioning what the limits/definition of sculpture could be.
If it strikes the average person as absurd to put a price on a practice, hes interested in how we place value on things, including art objects and money. In a 2014 show at Kreps, some pieces consisted solely of monetary exchanges. For example, for $25,800, you could get the piece $15,031, while some works were the other way around: for $4,200, you could buy $16,937. (Kreps told me with a laugh that he admonished his staff, We simply cannot sell these works. Maybe he should buy them all.)
Some past works consist principally of instructions for how to interact with a work, even as they challenge the way we make some objects valuable while we discard others. Regarding the found object sculptures in the 2014 Kreps show To Have and To Hold, some as insignificant as a bottle cap, the collector was charged to live with the object, collect more just like it, destroy or lose the original object (optional), then begin to give the accumulated objects away.
Jeff Poe, of Blum & Poe, has made his peace with Baders decision. In a phone conversation, Poe remembered his awe on first seeing Baders work, in his 2012 show Images at MoMA PS1: You walk in and you see a couch and a couple of cats and two burritos on a windowsill, and, down the hall, a perfect grid of plinths with fruit on top. It was such a messy, precise, historically informed and hilarious show that it deeply upset me. If Duchamp and Phyllis Diller had a child, it would be Darren Bader.
Ive come to the conclusion that this is completely in keeping with his trajectory, Poe added. Hes embraced the wrong. He came onstage breaking the fourth wall. Now hes exiting through a trap door.
But if anything is wrong, Bader says, its the state of the art world hes leaving. In an online journal on the site where hes offering the practice for sale, Bader expressed disgust at dealer Barbara Gladstone telling The New York Times that late collector Emily Fisher Landaus habit of not buying artwork as speculation was a wonderfully old-fashioned tradition.
Bader asks, incredulously, What world have I been a part of for two decades?
This article originally appeared in The New York Times