Brand - Artist™
I think every artist starts out thinking something along the lines of, "I want to be famous." When my mom asked one of my high school classmates what she wanted to do in college her response was, "I don't want to write the art history books... I want to BE IN the art history books." There are so many artists working today whose work we will never remember, so naturally, it is assumed that most artists want some kind of fame to be remembered after they're gone. But what happens when you exceed fame? When your recognition mutates from not just "paying the bills," but becomes intertwined with our cultural identity. Today I'm going to be looking at a few artists who have reached this kind of success in their careers.
So obviously we begin with Andy Warhol (1928-1987). Warhol mass produced his prints, created films, and published magazines. At the height of his career, I would argue, his personality and image were just as famous as his art. Warhol began as an illustrator but is best known for the silkscreen prints he began producing of pop culture subjects in the 1960s. It was this decade that produced some of his most recognizable prints - Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Onassis, and his Campbell's Soup Cans (just to name a few). During this time, Warhol's studio space, The Silver Factory, became a meet ground for artists and celebrities to party and collaborate. It was at the end of this decade, in 1969, that he co-founded Interview magazine, giving him further access to the stars.
What I find most interesting about Warhol is his dedication to documenting himself and his daily habits. The Warhol Museum's bio on the artist goes into detail on this writing -
He published his first mass-produced book, Andy Warhol's Index (Book), in 1967, and THE Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) was published in 1975. Published posthumously in 1989, The Andy Warhol Diaries chronicle his daily life from November 24, 1976, through February 17, 1987, five days before he died; his assistant and friend Pat Hackett transcribed their daily phone conversations detailing the previous day's events.
All of the information for these books came from the Polaroid camera and tape recorder that Warhol carried with him to document his daily life. He had a sense, even then, that his mundane tasks must be documented for future use and public consumption. This evolved into one of his later artworks, Time Capsules. From 1974 and continuing until his death in 1987 the artist filled boxes, filing cabinets, and a steamer trunk with ephemera from his life. The objects ranged from photographs, clothing, and recordings to ticket stubs, food, and toys; all objects he had used.
I am only scratching the surface here; I could spend 500 more words discussing his artwork but this is only meant to be a summary. What is clear is that Andy Warhol not only created artwork, music, movies, and publications but he created a persona just as memorable. He wanted a record of his existence to live on long after his death.
Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) is an example of an artist who created an entire aesthetic around their design. Wright was an architect, but he didn't stop at the design for his buildings. If Frank Lloyd Wright designed a home for you he would fill it will furniture and textiles designed (or hand selected) by himself. Even the dishes you ate off would be of his choosing. Today, Frank Lloyd Wright homes are declared historical landmarks and the buildings (even the residential ones) are restored to his specifications.
Wright's legacy surrounds his architectural style - the Prairie style. America was struggling to find an architectural identity at the time that he started building houses. The Prairie style eschews European design in favor of a long, low, open plan structure, which mimics the horizontal lines so prominent in the prairie. The preference designers have today for an open floor-plan started with Wright's designs; he minimized the number of interior walls to emphasize openness and community. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation describes his philosophy,
Long before our modern emphasis on constant communication, Wright recognized that structure and space could themselves be powerful tools with which to create and convey cultural values. As such, he created dramatic new forms to promote his vision of America; a country of citizens harmoniously connected, both to one another and to the land.
Wright also founded the Taliesin Fellowship to encourage a new generation of architects and wrote several books over the course of his life in defense of his style. His dedication to the Prairie style and choice to work for clients who shared his vision, rather than demand something different, allowed him to create a completely realized vision of his style. The American Institute of Architects has labeled Wright the "greatest American architect of all time."
Xu Zhen - MadeIn
With Xu Zhen (1977-) we'll shift from artists who took the idea of creating a brand out of their aesthetic seriously to artists who create a brand to critique the system. Xu is a contemporary Chinese artist who took the concept of "artist as brand" to a whole new level. In 2009, he announced the creation of his corporation MadeIn (yes, that's a nod to "Made in China"). He surrendered his identity to this "art creation company," a workshop with several assistants helping to create the final product. In 2013, MadeIn launched its newest brand "Xu Zhen." From that point to the present all artwork made by Xu is attributed to "Xu Zhen as produced by MadeIn," turning himself into a product of his own corporation.
If you couldn't tell from the strategy above, much of Xu Zhen's artwork questions societal norms, of western expectations of Chinese art and the sociopolitical taboos of contemporary China. An example of his critique on China's overheated art market is Shanghart Supermarket (see below), first exhibited at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2007. The market is filled with items found in Chinese convenience stores, from soda to laundry detergent, but all of the containers are empty. While the installation can be read as a commentary on the buying and selling of art, the hollow packages add a layer of spectacle to viewing. By stripping the store of all its functions Xu Zhen tells us that consumption is essential but it can also destroy. Another Xu Zhen as produced by MadeIn work is Under Heaven, 2015. Barbara Pollack from ArtNews describes the frosting-like series as,
...lightweight abstractions featuring bright pink pigment on canvas, like frosting on a birthday cake, at once luscious and sickeningly sweet. But, it is important to know these works are intended as intentional critiques of the art market, purposely superficial so as to both undercut and take advantage of collectors’ preference for “mindless” abstractions.
The last two artists we'll look at have monetized their aesthetic and transformed it into something that lives beyond the walls of a gallery. Jeff Koons's (1955-) artwork, defined by most as kitsch, is highly reflective and playful. Balloon animals, basketballs floating in fish tanks, and Micheal Jackson are just some of the few pieces that make up a vast body of work. Koons is known for making playful commentaries with his art and elevating commonplace objects to high art. A reoccurring theme in Koons's artwork are the reflective surfaces he uses as his medium. Just by viewing the artwork you are interacting with it by seeing yourself reflected on the surface. Koons set auction records in 2013 with the sale of Balloon Dog (orange) for $58.4 million.
Koons has collaborated with musicians to make concert backgrounds, private collectors to decorate yachts, Lady Gaga for her album art, and now Louis Vuitton to make bags. The design house and artist see their collaboration as a way for the work of Koons and the great masters to exist on the street. Koons adds that this project aligns with his overall mission to erase the hierarchy and elitism of the art world. However, with a key-chain running $585 and the largest carryall bag coming in at $4000 it seems doubtful that the "art for everyone" goal is being achieved. Paintings like da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Rueben's The Tiger Hunt are strategically cropped with overlays of the iconic "LV" and the artist's initials "JK." Koons's iconic Rabbit sculpture is also included as a key-chain. While Koons has collaborated on several projects outside of his studio, projects with Lady Gaga and Louis Vuitton illustrates the artist's intent on branding his style to be remembered for generations to come.
Yayoi Kusama (1929-) is a contemporary Japenese artist known of her pumpkins and polka dots. That's oversimplifying things, her artwork stands alone and can't be placed into one box - Surrealist, Pop, Performance - it's all at the same time. Kusama has been producing art for over 50 years and isn't slowing down. Her Infinity Mirrors and Obliteration Rooms are all over Instagram. You can trace her love for repetition all the way back to the beginning of her career in New York with her Infinity Net paintings. Her aesthetic extends to her own appearance; she wears clothing patterned with her own designs and coordinating wigs to complete the ensemble. This merger of art and life creates a theatrical setting for her to comment on sex, war, and her battle with anxiety.
Kusama's works have thrived in the internet age because they are so aesthetically pleasing, or dare we say "Instagramable." She has achieved global recognition by moving beyond the canvas of a painting and creating environments for viewers to interact with. This recognition has also resulted in collaborations with prominent brands like Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton and Coca-Cola. In both instances, Kusama transformed the products into whimsical characters from her polka dot world. Outside of these collaborations, her recognition has also resulted in representing Japan in the 1993 Venice Biennale and the first woman to receive the Order of Culture award from the Imperial Family. It is safe to say that when you think of the polka dot you'll think of Yayoi Kusama.
If you liked this watch for future posts where we look at artists using workshops to create their finished product and artwork created for a commission.