Jerry’s Kids

Mark Dagley’s 222 Bowery studio (1987)
Photo by Ivan dalla Tanna

A good artist does not need anything.
Ad Reinhardt

When NYFA Current asked me to write a first-person account of the circumstances surrounding a not-so-recent exhibition of my paintings, a show that took place at Tony Shafrazi Gallery nearly a quarter of a century ago, I was surprised by their interest, but gladly jumped at the chance. I never hesitate to admit to any and all who care to listen that my 1987 New York City debut was considered a failure by local critics and collectors, not to mention the disappointed dealer. While preshow interest was high, in the end little work sold, and a well-regarded ARTFORUM writer snarkily dissed my efforts. Paradoxically, this perceived failure launched me on a fairly successful trajectory in the European art world: Spain, Germany, Switzerland, and Holland—but that’s another story.

Back to my Shafrazi solo show, which was perfectly planned and executed. An incredible studio at 222 Bowery—“The Bunker”—was secured with funds from prior sales, allowingme the necessary space to create the ambitious exhibit I had proposed, a group of paintings unlike any I’d made before: shaped canvases using video-game-referenced imagery, along with checkerboards, diamonds, and Picasso-esque harlequin designs. Cardboard models of all the shapes were experimented with for months before the full-size wood constructions were built. The long labor of painting and finishing these works came off without a hitch. In August of ’87, the 14 canvases were delivered to the gallery on Mercer Street. Soon after, advertisements appeared in several glossy magazines. Tony designed and printed a playful color poster. A brochure was also available, featuring an essay by George Condo.

Opening night, September 12, a steady stream of New York art world luminaries flowed through the gallery. Their sleek black limos flanked the entrance. An exclusive dinner at Indochine followed the reception. Yes, it was an absolute ‘80s cliché. But the party ended long before the decade. What initially seemed to be an uncontested success—three of my works sold immediately, another four were placed on hold by a very prominent collector, and two drew significant interest without a commitment—quickly proved otherwise, thanks in part to Black Monday, October 19, when stock markets around the world crashed, making history as the largest one-day percentage decline. By October 20, it became clear that the paintings on reserve would not be purchased and that any additional interest had instantly withered. Were there a doubt in my mind, or in Tony Shafrazi’s, it was soon assuaged by Kate Linker’s ruthless pan in that December’s issue of ARTFORUM.

Since the economy wasn’t entirely global at the time, I was able to continue my life as an artist abroad. In this present-day recession I suppose going overseas isn’t a realistic option. My advice to young artists back then was: “Go where you’re wanted.” Nowadays, I say: “Keep your day job.” Anything to prohibit dependence on dealers, critics, curators, or collectors. Anything to keep hold of your creative ideals. Chances are, given enough time, they’ll come into vogue.

Mark Dagley
Clone (1987)
60” x 90” x 4”
Vinyl acrylic, acrylic, polymer resin on canvas, mounted on wood

The pre-digital, low-fi fundamentals of the imagery in my early work have recently been discovered by a techno-savvy contemporary audience. Artists and writers who grew up with cell phones, laptops, and the Internet are able to understand and appreciate what was once dismissed as ironic neo-geometric endgame painting. This interest peaked curiosity about my newer work—paintings, drawings and sculpture—and spawned a resurgence in my New York career. Perfect timing. Some things never change.

I’m sure most Current readers follow Jerry Saltz’s New York Magazine column, which has, for the past eight months, focused largely on the recession’s effect on the art world. With titles like: Frieze After the Freeze, Art on a Shoestring, and After the Orgy, Saltz’s recent articles deliver fairly dire economic news along with predictions of a slew of commercial gallery closures this coming summer. Time to pull ourselves up by the sandal straps, or, according to Saltz: “It’s time to get over 1968; if we’re going to think of the past, let’s reconsider 1988, when artists, suddenly broke, were left to themselves.”

Having been a student in ‘68—does grammar school count?—and a suddenly broke artist in ’88, I can easily relate. It’s surprising to me how many artists, age regardless, can’t. Why go into the arts, after all, if not to be left to ones own devices?

In summary, while the economy (and the hairline) may recede, art—good art—goes forth. And sometimes conquers.

Mark Dagley is an artist who studied painting and sculpture at the Corcoran School of Art and electronic music at the Boston Museum School. His work can be found in the public collections of the Broad Art Foundation, University of Michigan Museum of Art, and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. Dagley is co-owner, with playwright Lauri Bortz, of the Abaton Book Company, a publisher of artist books and audio projects.


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