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The Art World's Slowpokes

Sure, everyone likes Jan Vermeer now, three hundred-plus years after the seventeenth century Dutch artist's death, but most art dealers want little to do with artists who can only produce two or three paintings a year -- Vermeer created fewer than 40 in his lifetime.
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Sure, everyone likes Jan Vermeer now, three hundred-plus years after the seventeenth century Dutch artist's death, but most art dealers want little to do with artists who can only produce two or three paintings a year -- Vermeer created fewer than 40 in his lifetime.

"There are lots of difficulties in building a career when you don't have a large inventory," New York dealer Louis K. Meisel said. "You want to have one-person shows every two or three years, but the artist may not have enough completed works to exhibit. You want to show the artist's work at galleries in other cities, in order to attract out-of-town buyers, but you can't do it because there is just nothing to spare. You also have to sell each painting for more money than other artists might receive just because the artist has so few other works to sell."

Meisel, who has represented the work of photo realist painters (most averaging four works a year) since the early 1970s, developed a number of creative approaches to surmount these difficulties, but many other dealers just don't want the bother and will forego otherwise promising artists. "Admittedly, there are times when you get frustrated, waiting and waiting for the works to dribble in, for the shows to take place," said New York dealer Nancy Hoffman, who represents a number of nonprolific artists. "It's much harder to keep an artist in the public eye if there are five years between shows. Shows give context to the work."

Finding an accommodating art dealer is no small challenge for artists with low productivity. "I've had dealer after dealer tell me that they like the images I do but not the low volume," William Beckman, who produces an average of two paintings a year, said. "Dealers just can't appreciate the length of time it takes me to get that image right, and they say they can't show me and pay the overhead." Beckman never was much faster. He may apply as many as 100 layers of paint, which he then scrapes and sandpapers ("I have an obsession with a certain surface"). In 1969, he worked all year long on a single six-foot tall painting of his (now ex-) wife, which he sold two years later for $10,000, keeping only $5,000 after the commission was paid. "I really began to question whether I could do this," he noted. "Now, I had a wife and child to support." Ohio State University offered him a teaching position in 1971. "I flew home [Brooklyn, New York] to talk to my wife about it and, as soon as I got through the door, she told me there was a buyer for the painting I was then working on, so I tore up the contract and stuck with it."

Even the most understanding dealers may show exasperation from time to time at artists who do not produce many paintings. Barbara Dixon Drewa, a trompe l'oeil painter in Houston, Texas, stated that "I've had dealers suggest to me that I get an assistant to do the finishing touches, to speed everything up. Others have suggested that I spend less time with my family and just paint. I'm working 30-40 hours per week in the studio on my painting as it is." Her one-person shows at the Fischbach Gallery in New York City take place when she is able to complete enough works to fill the space. A single oil-on-wood painting takes between 10 and 12 weeks to create, and each is sent up to her dealer as soon as the paint is dry. Usually, they are sold quickly but with the proviso that the gallery may borrow the works back for exhibitions--that is a common solution to the slow-producing artist problem, filling up the gallery walls for exhibitions even though half or more of the works may not be for sale.
At times, the walls just cannot be filled. Beckman noted that he has had shows with only two paintings, displaying each spotlighted painting in a darkened room, which adds a certain visual excitement to the event while making a virtue of necessity.

There are certain options for dealers of slow-producing artists and others for the artists themselves. In order to help artists work full-time on their art, some dealers offer advances against future sales or suggest foundations to which artists may apply for grants and fellowships. Similarly, some dealers also arrange commissions for their artists as well as recommend them for teaching positions. Some artists also become more productive when a specific exhibition date is scheduled. Artists are usually appreciative if their dealers are understanding and supportive of their slow processes, not carping at them or dropping them from the gallery when they don't produce a certain number of pictures. "Artists aren't factories," Robert Fishko, director of Forum Gallery in New York, said. "You can't put on a second shift. You just have to accept the artist with whatever level of productivity he or she has."

Expanding the regional or national exposure for artists with relatively few works to show sometimes entails a dealer placing advertisements in art magazines and other publications. Louis Meisel noted that he has been able to put together exhibitions of his photo realist artists for loans to galleries in other cities by including "two of this artist, two of that artist, two of another and two of someone else, because there just aren't eight works by one artist to lend out." In general, artists who may go long periods between one-person exhibits are more likely to be included in group shows.

All other things being equal, realist painters, especially those who concentrate on fine details, are more likely to have a small output than artists in other media and styles. "When I was an abstract expressionist, I produced lots and lots of work. It's the nature of the beast," said painter and sculptor Audrey Flack. "When I started doing the photo realism, that's when everything slowed down. I'd say to myself, 'Here I am working all this time on this finger and, during this time, someone else has already done 20 paintings.'" She noted that the slower pace of productivity increased the problem of earning a living as well as "raises the stakes" when the completed work is finally exhibited to the public. "You show your work and people don't get it, or some critic condemns it, you may wonder, 'Have I wasted the last few years of my life?' If I do just three paintings in two years, and only one sells, I think, 'How am I supposed to live off that?'"

The labor-intensive approach of painstaking realism requires career expectations as patient as the artistic technique itself. Realist artists cannot expect that their paintings will sell for much more than another painter's work simply because it took them longer to create them. Photo realist painter Don Eddy, who said that he "lived from painting to the painting" in the early 1970s and produces only four or five works a year, noted that he always spends "less than my income, and I've created a reserve that now could carry me through three or four years if there were a fallow period. That takes the pressure off."

Another way of taking at least some more of the pressure off is by creating works in different sizes and media that do not take as much time as the larger pieces. Audrey Flack and Janet Fish, for instance, both paint in watercolors (Flack: "because you can finish them in a day, and it's a way to get out of the studio and into nature"; Fish: "because I can do three or four a day, and it has helped me open up my larger paintings").

Studies for larger, more time-consuming works also flesh out an exhibition as well as provide more affordable pieces. William Beckman also helps "fill the gallery's walls with drawings," both in pencil and charcoal, that sell for between $3,000 and $11,000, far less than the large (six-by-five-foot: $160,000) and small (two-by-three-foot: $45,000) paintings. Candace Jans, a Boston artist, exhibits and sells the studies (gouaches and alkyds) for her larger oil paintings, of which she may only produce two a year. While the studies sell for far less ($2,500 for a five-by-eight-inch or $5,000-$6,000 for a 12-by-18-inch) than the oils ($25,000-$30,000), their more plentiful supply increases the likelihood of something selling right away. The studies are also less taxing for her: "They are straight-forward exercises," she said. "It's what I see in front of me. I don't have all the compositional problems of the larger paintings. The studies are a palette cleanser."

Varying the size also increases the artistic output of Scott Pryor, a painter who spends an average of two months on his four-by-six-foot paintings but just a few days or weeks on his smaller (five-by-eight-inch or one-by-two-foot) paintings. "After I finish one of the larger paintings, I think, 'Gee, I don't want to do that much more again for a long time,'" he said. "And even though I get more money for the larger paintings, proportionately I make more from the smaller works because I can do so many more of them." He added that he creates the larger paintings "on a lot of faith, because the larger works may be harder to sell since they cost more."
At times, the obsessive concern with detail that makes a large painting so difficult to finish can invade the smaller works as well. Douglas Safranek, a Brooklyn, New York artist who takes five months to create one three-by-two-foot painting in egg tempera, began to paint smaller works (from three-by-three-inch to eight-by-12-inch) "because I could do them more quickly. But now I find that making these miniatures is even more difficult because everything has to be exactly right--perfect. They became more and more challenging and a hell of a lot of work. I wonder how long my eyes will hold out."

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