Dan Colen on Shifting Perspectives Through Farming and Art
Artist Dan Colen built Sky High Farm in the same way all his ideas are realized: intuitively, and with the faith to see it through. A 40-acre self-sustaining ecosystem in New York’s Hudson Valley, the farm helps underserved communities by donating everything it produces to local food banks. Since 2011, Colen and his team have given away more than 70 tons of organic vegetables, fruit, eggs, and meat.
As the pandemic exposes the urgency of the farm’s raison d’être—spotlighting food insecurity and small-scale farming—Colen has sought new avenues to give back. This past August, he launched a GoFundMe page to double its production, scale up distribution, and increase its donation capacity by buying more food from other regional farmers. He’s also been working on a partnership with the concept shop Dover Street Market—a collection of naturally tie-dyed, vintage-sourced T-shirts, hoodies, hats, and bandanas printed with the logos and slogans of the farm’s partners—and funneling the proceeds to farm beneficiaries. When the merchandise promptly sold out, Colen, a former skateboarder, realized that fashion was an effective tool for spreading his message, particularly with a young, engaged audience. This fall, he unveiled the first in a yearlong series of covetable collaborations, created pro bono by 12 brands, including Awake NY, Noah, and Supreme. All profits will go toward running the farm.
Colen, who’s represented by the Gagosian and Lévy Gorvy galleries in New York, and Massimo De Carlo in Milan, bought the plot of land nearly a decade ago after moving upstate, which gave him the space, access to nature, and the sense of freedom he needed at the time: He’d just gotten sober, and cultivating the land was an opportunity to do something bigger than himself. Colen long struggled to understand his draw to the property. But after nearly a decade, as he says on this episode of Time Sensitive, he’s come to see it as an extension of his creative practice: making things to alter perceptions, or to act as a mirror. Like his art—which varies in style and often employs perishable materials such as flowers, feathers, and chewing gum—the farm is an inquiry into ephemerality and slow, constant change, a canvas for Colen to work out experiences that made him the person he is today.
On this episode, Colen recounts the circuitous journey that brought him to the farming life, speaking with Andrew about Sky High Farm’s efforts to combat food insecurity, how skateboarding introduced him to art, his profound relationship with the artists Ryan McGinley and the late Dash Snow, and the wide-ranging body of work he has created while grappling with life’s big questions.
Colen describes how he’s combating food insecurity through Sky High Farm while working the land as an exercise in creativity. He also discusses joining forces with retailer Dover Street Market to release a series of capsule collections.
Colen explains how farming has changed his relationship with time. He also details growing up with Jewish parents in New Jersey, and how his ancestry affects his work.
Colen recalls how skateboarding introduced him to art, couch-surfing at artist Ryan McGinley’s apartment, transforming his grandfather’s Coney Island junk shop into his first studio, and teaching himself how to paint.
Colen shares his pivotal friendships with McGinley and the late Dash Snow, the 2007 New York magazine cover story that probed their bond, and wreaking havoc in Jeffrey Deitch’s gallery to create one of the group’s legendary “Nest” installations.
Colen talks about processing Snow’s death through vastly different bodies of work, which have been shown in major exhibitions at the Gagosian gallery and the Brant Foundation, and what he’s learned by making them.
ANDREW ZUCKERMAN: Welcome, Dan. Thanks for joining us today.
DAN COLEN: Thanks for having me.
AZ: You’re in town to launch a project with Dover Street [Market]?
AZ: Cool. Tell me a bit about it. How did it come to be?
DC: To talk about this project is to talk about the whole [Sky High] Farm. We just 501(c)3’d—became a nonprofit—a few months ago. It’s a license that we had had for several years, and it was about to expire. You have to define how you use it. It had been its own entity, but we hadn’t been putting any money into it. We had never taken any donations. And I just for a long time, I didn’t know how to talk about this project. It’s just a new world for me, in so many ways, when it started nine years ago.
But when we were discussing whether or not to become a public nonprofit, the idea of being a charitable business came up. And at that point we just started discussing products, and I realized that I wanted to start talking about things. I didn’t want to just talk about it—I wanted to offer an opportunity for people to support [us], and then figure out their own conversations around it. And the lightest touch seemed to be through products.
So we started making honey and jam. In doing that, we came up with labeling and branding. I worked with an amazing illustrator, Joana [Avillez], and we came up with this really cool thing. I got excited about it. And I guess what I started realizing at the time…. you know, I grew up skateboarding. A lot of my friends had been in streetwear, and grew up around Supreme. And I just understood that I had, somehow, accidentally created this very unique thing that was very timely. I see so many brands now trying to carry a message and use the message as their face, in a way. But when you peel it off, it’s just a basic capitalist mechanism for whatever it is, whatever they’re selling.
I realized I had this thing, and we could use it. We could create these covetable objects that were used to fundraise. I reached out to Dover Street, and I went in there, and they thought it was cool. I was honestly amazed that they took to it—but we started working on it. And they understood that it was about my mission, and it was about education and advocacy. They offered me an opportunity to really have some space and time, and we set up some panel discussions, and they were very supportive.
But they were never going to participate in the charitable part of it. It was never the plan. But as we worked on it, halfway through it, they reached out and were, like, “You know what? We really want to be a part of this.” And they really just got sucked into it, and I watched it happen and it was encouraging. We created some apparel: T-shirts and hoodies, all made on vintage stock. We partnered with all of our different food banks that we work with to carry their message. We made a shirt for Food Bank For New York City and Regional Food Bank [of Northeastern New York], and some other organizations we work with.
After that project, they became very supportive, and we started imagining a bigger version of it where we were collaborating with other brands. And it got stalled by Covid, but a month into it, we started talking about it again. And, I think, I have become much more engaged in the farm’s work because it’s so relevant and more important than ever, as important as ever. It’s just, there’s more opportunity now because so many more people are listening and talking.
The last six months, we’ve been designing this really large-scale project and we’ve been working with amazing people and top-to-bottom, everybody is donating their time, energy, and creativity—from Supreme to Denim Tears, and Total Luxury Spa, Noah—it’s all of these great designers. Awake, Irak, really amazing people who have been a big part of it. Awake, in particular, has really helped me on many levels. We’ve worked on a small documentary around the project, and [founder Angelo Baque] came with me on some food donations. We’re working on a project this weekend with The Smile [restaurant in SoHo], and [with] an amazing restaurant in the Bronx called La Morada. Angelo has really helped and been a big part of it, but everybody has been really involved. So it’s been touching, honestly, to just start this thing with this pretty big community of people that I’ve known for a long time and just—
DC: Yes. Mission-aligned and just available.
AZ: How did you come to go from essentially just focusing on art your whole life to having a farm?
DC: Yeah. All these questions are really tough because I’m in a moment where—and I’m sure everybody is, out there—I’m really seeing the big picture. And there’s no way to explain how, really, through life: one thing happened, then another thing happened. You talk about time, and, the reason why I moved upstate is because I got sober then. That shift in lifestyle brings on a lot of questions and ideas around time. I ended up there because of that, but with no intention of farming or stewarding the land in any way, or dealing with animals or food in any way, or dealing with food justice in any way. How it really happened is the same way that everything happens for me in my professional life: I have ideas, I try to stay sensitive to the world around me, and try to have faith in these ideas and realizing them into objects or moments or performances or images.
They start in inexplicable places, in abstract places, and fantastic places. And they don’t necessarily end up in any different places, but as an artist, that’s really what’s happening in the most basic way: I have an idea, and it’s [a matter of] whether or not I can latch onto it and have the faith to go through the motions to realize it. And I know that what happens in that space and time is transformative. What’s in my mind is never going to come out. So it’s really a matter of faith and I’m going to discover something. I think the other thing that’s very important to it is that then I go and share that.
This farm happened in the same way. Because there was no R and D, ever. I think it’s important that we get to talking about the relationships between small-scale farming and food justice, which are so important. But I had zero clue of that. When I started this, it was very intuitive. Looking back, I had this idea—which I honestly couldn’t even tell you what it was anymore, similar to many of the artworks that I’ve made—but I know that it started with some idea that had nothing to do with what we’re looking at here. And the farm is really no different. I think it’s a unique farm, and it has a unique voice in food justice, and I think it’s because of that—because it was built through faith, not through research or intention or immediate experience. And there were a lot of those things along the way. There’s a lot of intentionality that comes into it, and there’s a lot of experience that feeds into it, but it was really just following an instinct.
Very recently how I’ve come to own it in a new way and trying to build it in a new way is, for a long time, there was this dilemma where I was, like, Where is my energy going?
Where’s my money going? Into the art? Into the farm? And it was very confusing. Do I really know what I’m doing here with the farming itself, with the politics, and the social justice, the policy? And should I be doing this? At a certain point, I decided that the dilemma isn’t real. I’m creating a narrative, but I’m an artist. That’s all that I am. As an artist, I am searching for new experiences and new ways to share my ideas and my relationship to the world I’m living in. And this is just a part of it. Obviously, there’s a lot of art-historical examples in social justice and the social sphere. And even in farming. But regardless I just have stopped worrying about the boundaries between—
AZ: Is that recent? Is that Covid?
DC: It’s super-recent. In a way, the farm and the work we do has been, not in autopilot—I’ve put a lot of work into it—but we established our growing style and how we’re working our land, and we’ve established the relationships with the organizations that we donate to. The farmer could handle a lot of the work. And in the last six months, I’ve really stepped into a role of transitioning from an executive director into a board president, but really dug in [to] speaking to a lot of people. And really trying to grow the scale of our impact, but also just refine the way in which we’re operating, both on the land in the communities we work to serve.
AZ: Well, food systems, and the food crisis, have never been more relevant than in the last six months, seven months. People are seeing it firsthand and feeling it firsthand.
AZ: And the idea of local, and disconnected, global coordination that didn’t happen with food—you start to realize this is locally produced for the people that need it in the immediate area, and they’re given the food for free. When I started looking at it, I realized there were so many relationships between the work you’ve made and this. It’s another art project. And it’s built to shift perception. It’s built to be a model. It’s built to be a mirror. And there’s a lot in there I want to get into.
So much of your work, and I imagine your farming, has something to do with this drifting or fading of time. It’s this ephemerality, and this consistent change. Even in a solid image that you’ve created, you feel a sense of “before,” and then there’s a moment about to happen. How has the farming shifted your relationship to time? Because it is all about time.
DC: My early work is very much about freezing a moment, and trying to hold on to that moment. There’s the first paintings that I made, which are these photo-realist interior spaces. I always thought of them as paintings of light. They each have a very prominent light source, and light is constantly shifting. Whether it’s the sun, or electric light—it’s all buzzing. To capture the way a room is lit just felt very much about capturing a hyper-hyper-hyper-microscopic moment. It was so much about that. And I tied feelings to that. Like, how feelings change just as frequently. And I wanted to capture that. The next paintings I made [were] these candle paintings, and there was smoke. And so the smoke formed these words, which could only ever exist for this split second, so it was about freezing that time.
What shifted eventually, in certain ways, slowly—because I started making paintings with non-traditional materials, with something like gum. Clearly, it would deteriorate and it was an unstable material. It wasn’t so much about that. But after the gum, is actually right when I went up to the country to finish my first show that I did at Rivington Arms, because I just couldn’t finish it here [in the city], and I needed to get out. And that was in 2002. In 2010, right before my first big show at Gagosian, I went back up to the same place. It’s a friend of mine’s property close to Hunter Mountain, in Greene County.
Again, I didn’t go up there with this intention, but I started using the natural elements to make work. And that’s where I came up with the idea for the flower paintings. When I started making the flower paintings—they are about death and beauty. They are about the impossibility of things lasting. And art is the thing that we try to use to defy that. Nothing is maintained with the same commitment as art, partly because it becomes commodity, but I think that there’s more sentimental reasons behind—
AZ: There’s more than that.
DC: There is more than that. The experience of it is something I believe in deeply.
AZ: How interested in your own history are you now? I don’t just mean your own lived history, [but] also pre-birth generational history. And how are you thinking about time in that way?
DC: All right. Well, you keep on asking these questions, which are like their own podcasts in and of themselves. Just jumping the flower paintings, they cannot last. They slowly disappear, is really what happens. I think that the art doesn’t disappear—they transform. And that’s really what happens: things transform. Whether we turn into dust, we turn into wind, we turn into the air, we continuously transform.
Right now, actually, what my big focus is—and it’s not quite active, in a way—I’m trying to figure out how to produce a large-scale performance. There’s a script that looks like the script of a play. It’s three acts and there’s a narrative arc. But it’s very absurdist and it’s very much about bodies and movement. There’s dialogue and characters. I used this legendary unreleased Jerry Lewis movie as a point of departure for it. The movie is called The Day the Clown Cried and is set in a Nazi concentration camp.
I’m Jewish, and my work is always considered that. Sometimes I consider myself through other people and through their identities, and over time, I’ve become more and more interested in looking directly at myself. And then, through that, I become more and more interested in looking at exactly what you bring up: the way in which my ancestry affects me in this moment. And that’s really my concern—what’s happening in this moment.
AZ: Did you grow up with a Jewish household or Jewish identity?
DC: I grew up not with a religious household, but my parents were both born in Brooklyn—very close to each other, both in Brownsville—but my mother, more with the Italians, although she’s Jewish, and my father, really in what was a shtetl in Brooklyn, really like a Yeshiva kid. This was in the late 1930s, early 1940s. And Judaism, the culture of it, really shaped our lives. And I would say the Holocaust really shaped his life and his relationship to—just being a part of helping to make sure that there are Jews in the world and that they’re safe, became a big part of his life. But much less religious, much more cultural.
We speak about time, it’s about what lasts through it, what travels through it. And it’s a conduit. The time isn’t affecting us. It’s like, what lasts. What is able to be transmitted through time is affecting us. Time, in and of itself, is this abstract thing, but many things. And so these things are invisible, because we can’t see the tube of time. I’m interested in that transmission, those invisible transmissions. In general, as an artist that’s what I’m doing.
I believe that artists can transmit an energy or power or potency into an object. It’s not necessarily something that they themselves have created. They’re another tool that can be a part of that process. But the end point is an object that has a power that has a life to it. And I’m interested in that transmission, and I see this transmission through ancestry—ancestry just being one example of ways in which time transmits experience. That’s my interest, and that’s really what this play is about. And I think trauma is maybe the easiest, most palpable way to consider that, but [it’s] just one of a million ways. There’s obviously a lot of joyous transmission. But then, just, all the subtleties, really everything. And I’m just curious how—
AZ: Well, they’re marks that seem to stick. And marks are also something that I’ve noticed throughout your work. I was remembering walking under the skateboard ramp. I think it was called “The Bridge.” Is that the name of it?
DC: Yeah. But it was like a bridge.
AZ: But I remember looking up and seeing the skids from the skateboard wheels, and it was about a moment that was fleeting, and a transference.
And it was at a very particular time, which, actually, I want to go back a little further before we get there, if it’s all right to talk a bit of history. When you were a kid in New Jersey, were you considering yourself an artist? At which point did you go, “This is what I do. This is all I know how to do.”
DC: No, not when I was a kid. But it’s very clear. I really, really wanted to be a basketball player. I mean, really. Like when I was very young. It stopped early, but fourth, fifth, and sixth grade, I was very serious about it. I wanted to be professional. I was never good enough to be, but regardless that was where all of my focus was. But I’ve always had a horrible authority complex. Just really bad. I’ve been mad, learned to contain it, but I still feel its rumblings—
AZ: I can relate.
DC: But when I was introduced to skateboarding, it really spoke to me. I always had a problem with coaches—they were no different than principals, or cops, or whatever. And so this idea of this freedom of expression that came with skateboarding, and just a different kind of socializing that came with it, really interested me. And so, that’s something that really consumed my life for a while. I was always drawing, and it was always something [that] I was recognized as having some talent at, and enjoyed, and didn’t enjoy much else in school.
There was this point in high school—I was a bit of an outcast, and I made friends with some of the older kids, and one of them introduced me to life drawing. Life-drawing classes. It’s just not something I knew about and never had any real formal training in. And so I did that, and I really took to it. That was what opened up the possibility of [art as a possible way of life] to me, then my imagination to it. I started taking classes at the Art Students League [of New York]. After my sophomore year in high school, I went to a summer program at Cooper Union, which was an amazing experience. I think that was really the point where I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. Funny, though, and it’s so much different now. Even it’s been so much different for a while, but by the time I got to college—I think that our generation is really at this tipping point, like pre-“post-internet”—
AZ: We didn’t have an email address when we got to school.
DC: No, definitely not.
AZ: At RISD [Rhode Island School of Design], right?
DC: Yeah, at RISD. There were some kids who were sophisticated, who understood what contemporary art was, and maybe understood what it meant to be an artist. And my father offered me some very interesting experiences, but I didn’t—I was naïve. I had no clue of what it meant to be an artist when I showed up at school, and I didn’t know who many of the most important contemporary artists [were]—my dad taught me a little bit about some of the generation prior, in his own research, trying to make it out of the small community he came out of. He found art and educated himself. But it was really, like, Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly, and [people] like that, were things that he pushed himself to understand and shared with me. I had no clue of what it meant to be an artist, but I did know I wanted to spend my time making art.
AZ: How did you get to New York City from RISD?
DC: Well, I grew up right across the George Washington Bridge, and my whole family, except for our unit, stayed in Brooklyn. And so everything happened between Jersey and Brooklyn. We spent a lot of time in the city, skateboarding. I was always in the city. And I met [the artist] Ryan McGinley when I was 13 or 14. And so we spent a lot of time skateboarding together, and he was two years older than me, I think. Anyway, he came to college, he was going to Parsons [School of Design], and I would visit him a lot. And then [during] my summers at RISD, I would actually just stay—sleep—on his couch during summers. By the time I graduated, I moved on to that couch, sadly enough. Truly lived—they lived in this closet room that had a couch—
AZ: Did you have a studio to work in or were you—
DC: My family, like I said, was still in Brooklyn. And my grandfather had an antique shop that he had just walked out of one day. It was a bit of a junk shop, on Coney Island Avenue. It was in the eighties and nineties, there were a lot of these kinds of stores out there. They were antique junk shops. And he basically walked out of his after decades of it just filling up. And I moved in there, it was a crazy first studio. But it was free, and my living situation was almost free, and it allowed me to make work. I actually sold two paintings to a drug dealer who went to our school, and basically had no rent. I was able to make [my] first body of work in that really fortunate set of circumstances.
AZ: Which was really laborious work.
AZ: I was curious about that moment, that first body of work. What was the labor about? Because over time it changed.
DC: Yeah. It’s funny to think about it because really—I’m not the craftsman anymore. I work with a lot of crafts that I feel like I know very well. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert of anything, really, but I do design the methodologies behind a lot of things that I work [on], or work very, very closely with experts and engineers to try to make their thing do what’s in my mind. So still, it really brings me into the fold and it’s very much about being a part of the exploration. But those paintings, and although I had had these high school art experiences, I really didn’t spend much time oil painting. It was much more drawing. Then in college, I got this idea—I saw some grad students and I was like, “I’m never touching a brush again. Everything is going to be without a hand.” And I started spraying and learning how to spray and stencil. And that’s really what college was about. I didn’t pick up a brush at all.
When I got out of school, I set up the studio, and I was spraying these paintings, which we’re talking about. And I got to a very early place in the work, and I was like, “Oh shit.” I was never good at spraying, also, by the way. I figured out how to do it, but it was very hard for me. And very slow—very, very slow, a lot of backwards and forwards, making mistakes. But I got to a point really quickly where I couldn’t do what I needed to do. And I was like, “I may have to paint this with a brush.” But then I had had very little experience, and I hadn’t picked up a brush in many years.
So I called all my friends. I said, “How do you paint?” The real advice that I got was, “Get good tools.” Because at least they’ll do some of the work—you don’t know what you’re doing. And so, I would steal an amazing amount of paint and brushes from Pearl Paint. A big part of that first show with Rivington Arms was, like, my trips to Pearl Paint. But I got all the best—the natural-hair brushes and the great paint.
And I just taught myself how to paint. I sat in that studio for two years, and I taught myself how to paint. And those paintings have four or five paintings underneath them, because there was a level that I needed to get them to.
What’s important to pull out of that is that, in the long run, what became important to my practice was not necessarily the fact that I’m sitting and painting, but that there’s a process, or an evolution of education, within the work. It was almost important that I stopped painting, because I felt like I was able to do it as well as I needed to. And the idea of a virtuoso, or a masterpiece, seemed irrelevant to me. Education being a part of the process became very important to me.
AZ: Yeah. Well, it has to do with time and shift and change. That needs to be embodied in the work.
DC: Right. And actually seeing the comfortability, seeing the skills and the craft develop within a single work, or within a single body of work, discovering the process and having evidence of that, [all] becomes very important to how I work.
AZ: And, of course, your lifestyle at the time was super well-documented. For people that don’t know, it’s now referred to as the Bowery School. And it was you, and an extraordinarily talented group of friends that were living your work in a way, living your life, but all very different work. How were you influencing each other, do you think? You look at the core crew of you guys, which is Ryan, you, and Dash—now, of course, the late Dash Snow. How is it that the three of you made such wildly different work, but spent so much time together?
DC: Yeah, it’s definitely part of the beauty of it. What helped me see it, when I met [artists] Nate Lowman and Adam McEwen and Banks Violette, and Terence Koh and Gardar [Eide Einarsson], when the circle opened up a little bit, it was through those relationships that I was able to see something with Ryan and Dash more clearly.
But, really what it was, was—we were kids. We didn’t know what it meant to be an artist. There was no strategy, there was no plan. There was our relationship, our friendship, our intimacy. So, I don’t know, but I think it’s an important thing. At the time, it felt disjointed, and it was hard for me to see how influential we were on each other. There were moments that stood out, but in retrospect, I’ve obviously benefited from dialogue and experiencing other people’s works and practices in huge ways—so many people and so many important people—but nobody like Dash or Ryan. And again, truly different, very different work.
AZ: But all super-focused on the personal. The work may have looked different, or may continue to look different, but there is this boldness and courage to explore self and the limits of self, which you did for those years, in extraordinary ways.
Ariel Levy wrote that New York Magazine article [titled “Chasing Dash Snow”], which I hadn’t thought about. And prepping for today, I went back and read it, and I realized the photographs were taken by [artist] Cass Bird right there on the High Line, before the High Line was The High Line. It was this mythology, or whatever, that was coming out. What I was curious about when I read it was, How did that feel? Did it feel like you were reading about yourselves? Did it feel like you were reading about a character they didn’t understand? What was that experience like? Because that, in many ways exposed you guys, out of the Bowery.
DC: Yeah. No, it was a big thing. We were on the cover of New York magazine in our truest state, which was, just, disheveled and piled up on top of each other. And actually, I’m going on-record about this. It’s nice to have an opportunity [to talk about this], because it was a different experience for everybody involved, and I would say, I was in the middle. For Dash, it was a horrible, horrible experience. For Ryan, it was much less complicated and much more just about building a career. And I would say I was somewhere stuck in the middle. But the article turned into really being more focused on Dash. It had the most curiosity about him, in a way, and I don’t think it started out like that.
AZ: It was almost like it was after something. Like there was an ambition in that story, whereas there was just a description, in a way, of the other two. Like with Dash, it was about his family, and is there something to uncover? It was noodle-y in that way.
DC: Yeah, totally. Exactly. And it was really hard for Dash. Dash was always trying to find a distance from his family. He was always trying to define himself and separate from that.
AZ: But for you, it wasn’t a totally negative experience?
DC: It wasn’t a totally negative thing, but this is the only thing that stands out to me that I do want to say: What’s wild about that—It ended up being a negative piece. It wasn’t a takedown piece, we were children. But it was, like—
AZ: It was a bit, “Who do you think you are?”
DC: Yeah. And a bit uncompassionate, and unforgiving, and really decided to look at it from a negative standpoint instead of looking for the beauty in it. What’s really strange is, I didn’t hear about [Levy] for a while, but then she came back up in the press because she wrote this book about her mother [titled The Rules Do Not Apply]. I don’t know if you’ve heard about it at all. She was on NPR. It was a big thing. And her mother was a socialite and an alcoholic and a terror. And she had this really, really complicated—I didn’t know any of this—but this really complicated relationship with her mother. And it was identical to Dash’s, and she was so uncompassionate. And it was just a really interesting thing. And again, it’s just—
AZ: It’s transference.
DC: Yeah. Just thinking about all of those things like how to deal with—
AZ: Who is that article about?
DC: Yeah, who was that article about? And that was so weird in the way we can have compassion for others and not for ourselves.
AZ: The blind spots.
DC: It’s sad because there was something so much more interesting there, and there was an experience for the two of them to have that could have been much more—
AZ: Well, that’s what struck me, is that, if an anthropologist, or a philosopher, or a social scientist had looked at what was happening, the more interesting draw would have been, “This is a reflection of what’s happening in this moment. Politically, this is connected to a period of New York. This is a response to the advent of technology.” There was so much happening, that when looking at it through that lens, can be seen.
DC: Well—I’m just thinking this now—I think she was more part of the story. And what needs to happen is, an anthropologist needs to look at it, because it was also at the time when things where changing in feminist politics. I think it’s always been really hard for people to understand my crew’s sexuality and relationship to sex and gender and all these things—and Dash, the most so. He was fluid in so many ways.
AZ: And used fluid in so many ways.
DC: Yes, and used fluid in so many ways. Yeah, definitely. And so [Levy] was really a part of that stew, and much more clearly in retrospect. And it would be an interesting thing, including her as a character, and to consider that moment and everything that was happening.
AZ: That’s the film, it’s about her writing the New York magazine article. [Laughs]
AZ: So I wanted to get to the “Nest” project, which is this incredible part of art history. That it’s a moment of collaborative work about raw primordial experience. How did that project start, and how did it end up all the way to [Jeffrey] Deitch[‘s gallery]?
DC: When I look back, the “Nest” is one of the most important works that has helped guide me with the farm recently, as a reference point. The “Nest,” I would say, really took shape on an early road trip Dash and I did together. We actually were driving down to [Art] Basel [Miami Beach], maybe it was the first or second year of Miami Basel. We didn’t know what an art fair was; we didn’t know where we were going. It was right after my first show, and Rivington Arms was doing NADA, the New Art Dealers [Alliance] fair. And going back to some of the ways in which you described what was important about our relationships with my friends is just, [the “Nest”] was just a way to create a stage to enact intimacy. It was really a way—all socializing with your friends is, but this allowed your body…. It’d be more of a physical experience.
AZ: Describe what it was for people that don’t know.
DC: So we would rent a hotel room, like a motel room, and an important part of it is we rationalized it. So what we would do is, there’s always phone books all over motels. Usually there’s a pile. There was always one in the room, but usually you can find the pile in the janitor’s closet or whatever like that. And so, we would bring the phone books into the room, and we would just spend all night, literally all night long, ripping them up and turning it into what looked like a hamster’s nest. But we would say to ourselves—because we felt, like, we thought we had a compassionate relationship to somebody like the person who had to clean up after us or something like that. Like to the maid, or the hotel staff. And we were like, “We’re really actually not doing anything. It’s no big deal. They’re going to have to sweep and vacuum the room anyways.” It wasn’t that simple. But it really was a conversation, just to set the mood in a way.
But, in actuality, we would destroy the rooms completely. It was also like an ode to the classic hotel-room massacre, destruction, rock star kind of thing. And we did the first few just by ourselves. And yeah, it was just, whatever, it was just hanging out. But there was an activity, and the activity would lead to more of a physical experience, and like, really ridiculous antics. But just with him and I, it was just [us] talking and hanging out and just being in there and building it. We were creating a thing—not just the performance, but we were physically transforming the space, obviously doing different things to the furniture and whatnot.
So as it developed, it always had that physical format. Sometimes water would get involved, and we’d overflow bathtubs and flood the spaces. We would bring in friends. We found some prostitutes, just to bring in, to do it with us and just to hang out, just to diversify the crowd. We’d just be walking back to our hotel room at six in the morning and be like, “Hey, do you want to come do this with us?” And they’d say, “Okay.” And then there was some sex that happened in them, some orgy stuff. Really the whole gamut, from games to sex to—
AZ: Heavy drug use.
DC: A lot of drugs, of course. A lot of drugs. But, again, no intentionality. And there was no consideration of the space as a creation, or as a creative experience, or as a performance. It really wasn’t like that. But Dash documented everything. In a way, those were artworks, the documentation. Although, what is really unique about Dash is, it took him a very long time before he was willing to call it art. Whatever it is that he did.
AZ: It’s not a surprise, given—
DC: Yeah, he wanted to defy his roots, and that didn’t do that. And also, he wanted to defy commodity and markets, and he really tried to give away his work. The idea of selling something, really, in a way—he was very sensitive to that.
AZ: Eventually it became a proper exhibition.
DC: What happened was, we did it a few times, and people heard about it, and we were invited by magazines, too—I think we did a big thing for Vice, which got co-opted by them. And I don’t think they shared the real experience of it. But it was documented well, and Ryan was there for that. And also for that, actually, we brought six parakeets [that] then lived with us for a while.
AZ: And we should remind people just for context that Vice was not a media conglomerate—
DC: No. Definitely not.
AZ: Vice was a small little store.
DC: They had just moved from Toronto; it was a free magazine. They had a little shop on the Lower East side. It was totally different. Pretty amazing, actually, to think about them in the story. Because they were a part of the story. Ryan was really a big part of it, and they covered [our graffiti crew] Irak in an early time. But yes, we had six parakeets. They were named Saddam One through [Saddam] Six, and it’s a nice anecdote. Then they came back, we fled—we had to flee that hotel. We threw them in a duffel bag, and I remember running out through the kitchen with [the] parakeets in a duffel bag—
AZ: This is in London?
DC: No, it did happen in London, but this was in New York, actually, for the Vice one. And then [the parakeets] lived in mine and Ryan’s [apartment]. They lived on the—
AZ: The rafters.
DC: The sprinkler system for a few weeks, until my girlfriend’s dad decided to take them, [and] adopt them. But so, [the “Nests”] became more of a public thing, or more of a known thing. And Jeffrey Deitch reached out to us. I remember going to his gallery with Dash. And Dash was much more skeptical of the meeting. But Jeffrey was always a real believer in Dash’s work, and in my work, and had shown that prior to this meeting. So we went, and we listened to him and he had this idea. He was like, “This ‘Nest’ is amazing, and I think you guys should do it in the gallery.” And we kind of just listened to him.
And when we left, it was really, like, “That’s crazy. Why would we do that in his gallery? It doesn’t make any sense.” We weren’t calling it art, and we had talked about that afterwards. And then, we were like, Well, it would be an amazing opportunity to do a “Nest,” regardless of [where] a “Nest” is: an art gallery, in a hotel room, whatever. Just a bigger, better space. And we came up with these very strict parameters that we’d do it in.
And we said that, [Deitch] couldn’t come [to the gallery]. We’d want the gallery for a full week. We want the keys to the gallery. And he obliged, but one of his staff [members] was meant to oversee it, this young woman we were friends with. And so that’s what happened. We got the keys. God bless Jeffrey. He is one of the most important people in our generation’s art world. His show “Post Human,” and some of the early things that he did, just really shaped the art world as we know it. But something like this—it’s not even like today.
I mean, today, the idea of this happening in [the art gallery] Hauser & Wirth is beyond ridiculous. But even then, it was crazy. The biggest fire hazard. We had butane torches in there. We were pissing in it. It was just a fucking mess. And then, we did opening and closing parties, and it was a really amazing experience. And we brought a lot of our friends in, and, in a way, opened it up to the community, which it really hadn’t been before. It was—I don’t know how to put it into words, but it was really special. People should look at the images that were the result of it. Because the space was turned into something really special. And it’s one of the works I’m most proud of and, obviously, most sentimental about.
AZ: The one that comes to mind is a very quiet one, at the end with the light coming through the—
DC: Yeah. That was documented beautifully.
AZ: And at the same time you were making totally different kinds of work.
DC: Yeah. At the same time. Again, my work was probably least stable then. It was really transitioning in a way.
AZ: Do you think of that as the peak moment of this unhinged, or—
DC: I think that was the highlight. It was all downhill from there, in a way, sadly. Dash’s daughter [Secret] was born on one of the important nights we were there. Things, in retrospect, became much harder after that. They were less celebratory after that, I would say.
AZ: And Dash passed away.
DC: It was two years after.
AZ: Two years after that. I’m sure that experience was traumatizing, and that’s a whole podcast. So I would like to just push through to the show [titled “Poetry”] at the Gagosian in 2010, which was, in a way, how you processed that experience. Were you aware in making that show that that was what you were going to deal with? Was it hard to come to that? How did you think about that? A huge opportunity. Like, let’s just set the table…. 24th Street.
DC: Yeah. That was a very big show, and I was still pretty young. I had just gotten sober. For that show, I was thinking about Dash, and the “confetti” paintings are about Dash. Definitely, directly about Dash. And about the “Nest,” and about this idea of freezing time, which we talked about early on, with my work. I think that the “confetti” paintings were about this idea where, you can freeze a moment, And on one side of that moment, it’s ecstasy and joy and celebration. And literally, once you play the tape, you could stop it at a moment where you end it on that. And when you start it again, you’re in a totally different space. That’s how emotions are, but that’s how some times in our lives are: you move from pure joy and celebration to devastation, terror, trauma—and that’s a real experience. And those paintings are definitely about that.
AZ: You were met by a [literal] brick wall when you walked into that show. Which was—I’m not sure what it was about, or what the intention was. I know how it felt to me. What was the thinking by this brick wall?
DC: Right. I wasn’t ready to engage a narrative that really looked directly at Dash, which is something that I came to do soon after that. And I don’t really know if I have fully processed that yet, but I attempted that in the shows that followed that. And that’s a hard thing to attempt. In a way, those shows suffered because I was so intentional about—it was more of that, it was more of processing a loss than it was of making art, in a way. It was more of a performance, more of—
AZ: The toppled motorcycles—
DC: Well, no, I’m saying—that show was, I would say, more pure art. And that show was really one of my strongest shows because I wasn’t ready to engage it directly. That show, looking back on it, it was very much about that experience, but I can’t really explain any of those pieces to you. Because they were pure creation, and that show was nine months after I got sober and after I came into rehab, and I started building that show four months before it. I had the ideas for that show, like, five months before it. And I remember when I shared it with the people I work with at Gagosian—it’s amazing, honestly, that they stepped up and helped me to make that show, because it’s a ridiculous show. And it’s funny: My reputation has preceded that show in many ways, in this way of, like, a “market artist,” and, like, a Gagosian artist. Which is crazy, because that was the show that defined that. And there was nothing there anybody could ever buy, own, or sell.
AZ: And harsh criticism. [The New York Times art critic] Roberta Smith responded in what I thought was a quite unfair way. She was seeing the work as very literal, where it actually was very open, I thought.
DC: Yeah. I think that that show is a very poetic show.
AZ: It was called “Poetry.”
DC: It was called ”Poetry.” That show is about a miracle for me, in a way. Anyways, the show was a great experience for me. And it’s hard for me to talk about what it is, but obviously, that wall is—it is what it is. It’s a relic, but it’s also a monument, and it’s a barrier. What I was doing with that wall—the most immediate reference was the Western Wall. And it’s just a place to mourn, and a place to believe, and a place to pray, and a place where, somehow, [a] miracle can happen. That was an important part of it.
AZ: And then, in 2014, the show at the Brant Foundation, called “Help!,” was truly a memorial to Dash Snow.
DC: Yeah. That was more there, directly. There was a piece there that was, actually, the outdoor sculpture—
AZ: Which is the one I want to talk about: these two fourteen-foot box trucks set up vertically. It looked like the Twin Towers. And it was entitled, “At Least They Died Together (After Dash).” And the parenthetical—it’s obviously deeply personal, but somehow, for me, it’s emblematic of your ability to be in the micro and the macro at the same time. Because, having no relationship to Dash, having no relationship to any of the story, one could view it simply as the Twin Towers. Were you thinking at that time about that, or was that just an outgrowth of it?
DC: No, that was important. So [Snow] had a collage, which I’ve lived with. I’ve always lived with. I own a lot of his work, and he mailed me—like, he put so much crazy shit in the mail that I have, that’s all actual artwork. But this was really the thing where I saw him make it, and I was, like, “I want that.” That really stands out as most that thing. And so I live with it, and it’s, like, a New York Post page [that] he collaged over. The [newspaper article’s] title was, “At Least They Died Together.”
I don’t even know what was behind it, but what the picture looked like. But he put over this kind of pulp magazine picture of these two naked men hanging onto a cliff, like the cliff edge of a waterfall. And it’s an amazing piece. Amy Winehouse happens to be on the page, also, and there’s something about Madonna. It’s an amazing New York Post page. So, that’s where the title comes from. That piece is complicated for me because the suggestion, for me, is—or, like, there’s the fantasy, which is of dying. Of dying with him. Which obviously didn’t happen, and really, in a way, I feel very indebted to and grateful for a series of experiences and people who came in and really saved my life.
Because there’s a different narrative, which—I wouldn’t have lasted very long. And Dash is one of them. And really it’s in his absence that he was able to be so. And really, that’s not even fair, because it’s really, like, in his daughter, that really had the impact on me. Because we lost a lot of friends, and we’re still able to kind of romanticize death. And nobody, who I was as close to as him—so I couldn’t tell you what the experience would have been [like] had he not had a daughter. But my experience of his loss was shaped by his daughter’s presence in my life.
So when I first had the idea, it was just of a truck. And then, something about it just made me think of the collage, and the idea of these two trucks, these lovers, or these soulmates, or something like that. And then, the idea of the Twin Towers came up very quickly from there. The gist of the piece is that the cab of the truck is buried under earth, but the whole backside of it, the trailer of it, or the box of the truck, is above ground. And it’s been installed this whole time. So it’s meant to create its own ecosystem inside of it. And so it not only is life, but it’s expanding life, in a way. The space is meant to be taken over by nature.
AZ: It also deals—and I’m just thinking about this now—with some sense of “survivor,” which is something that relates to the Jewish tradition and this idea that we talked about your dad. And this—not survivor’s guilt necessarily, but survivor’s awareness.
DC: Yeah. Definitely. And that’s what I was getting at, with this idea of the fantasy of not being a survivor, which is—that is what that experience is. [It] is this understanding that it could have been you, but it’s not. And so, what do you do with that?
AZ: Yeah, what’s your responsibility beyond that? And the next body of work, and the last one that I was most interested in talking about it a little bit, is “Help,” the [paintings of] seascapes. Which is actually about something that feels very different, this vastness.
And I’m curious if that—obviously it could have only happened in that time—in this moment in your life where you were making those paintings, but were you curious about this idea of “journey,” and, “now I’m moving beyond?” As if that show has not closed up that period, but there was the next thing?
DC: Well, just in what it is and where my practice is at right now. Really what happened is, I made these candle paintings I started in 2003-4, and I made the last ones around 2009. I really wanted to make a bigger series of them, but they were painstaking and really took me a long time. And as I was making them, I generated all these ideas for these bodies of work that came after them. And when I began the nontraditional material works, I never imagined that it would be a ten-year cycle.
In those ten years, they really made it hard for me to make these actual oil paintings that I wanted to, which were all these landscape paintings that were Disney paintings that came out of the candle painting, which was an image of Geppetto’s work table [from the Disney movie Pinocchio]. I would try to make them in that time, but I was so focused on the nontraditional material works and other works I was developing—the oil paintings take total concentration. And so, about five years ago, I decided to really refocus on them, but almost didn’t do it in a focused enough way, where I had these three bodies of work that I tried to explore at once.
Right now, I’m actually finishing these large-scale oil paintings, which I call “Mother” paintings. Which the “Help” paintings really complement. And they’re really a part of it. And it’s about journey. And the “Mother” paintings—these are the paintings, they are really coming out of 2009, and I desperately want to finish them, because I do feel like I’m ready to begin a totally new chapter. And this play that I mentioned is a big part of it. The “Help” paintings were a little smaller scale, less ambitious, and easier to resolve than these bigger paintings, but they’re all really a part of the same work.
The “Mother” paintings are landscape on land, but really explore the space between, let’s say, the coziest interior of a home, and the most depraved corner of a jail cell, and then all the space in between. So there’s a lot of landscape: some of it is dark landscape, and some of it is very bright and hopeful landscape. [In] a lot of [them], you are on the edge of something, so you’re looking towards a hometown or you’re looking into the dark forest. And the “Help,” it’s part of the same narrative, but it’s the expanse. It’s the generalization of that expanse between the home and the jail, or the security and the horror.
AZ: And it has a very strong relationship, when I’ve seen it, and hearing you talk about it, to [Andrew] Weyth’s painting, “Christina’s World,” and this relationship to this home. And then this—
DC: That’s so funny. Yeah.
AZ: This dragging up the hill.
DC: Yeah, I’ve never—
AZ: Have you ever seen that painting in person?
DC: Yeah. Because it’s at the [Museum of Modern Art]. It’s an amazing painting. It’s a great reference. I love that. That’s so funny. I’ve never thought about that, but it’s the perfect reference point.
AZ: In many ways, it seems like you’re able now to look at this, because Wyeth really was immersed in landscape, and he was responding to deeply universal issues through his personal relationship to landscape. They’re deep, and they’re about experience and time and all of these things. And it seems like as he got further and further into his career, post-[the] Helga [Paintings]. He was exploring more of that: “I’m standing here like any human. This is the primordial view.” So it’s interesting what happens as you move further in your career, do you become less representational, more focused on emotional touch points and things?
Anyhow, we covered amazing ground. Thank you so much for spending time on this today, sharing insights. It’s really fascinating to hear your perspective on your life and work.
DC: Definitely, man. Well, it was a pleasure. Thank you.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on October 14, 2020. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.