Nate Lowman has been a true American artist since his emergence in New York’s “Warhol’s Children” circle during the mid-2000s. (Think about it—he was born in Las Vegas!) Looking no further than the grand mass, and mess, of iconography that American life generates, he has amassed a vast pop-culture archive that includes clippings, articles, paparazzi photos, and ads. Brewing the good, the bad, and the ugly of consumerist modern life in his masterful paintings, Lowman draws a portrait of the times that is equally mischievous and somber. His characteristic renditions of celebrities or everyman types combine the dramatic effect of traditional European painting with the grunginess of mass-media print. In his current exhibition, Nate Lowman: Before and After at the Aspen Art Museum, the New York-based artist creates a dialogue between his figurative works and semi-abstract paintings on canvases in unconventional forms. I visited the artist in his spacious Tribeca studio while he was putting the finishing touches on the mockup of his museum installation.
Osman Can Yerebakan: We can’t say this is a survey or retrospective. You worked with Aspen Art Museum Director Heidi Zuckerman to select works to represent different threads in your career. Can you talk about these upside-down heart shapes?
Nate Lowman: The exhibition combines new works with loans from different collections. I had an exhibition in 2014 at Maccarone where I showed these upside-down heart shapes. I have been fascinated by these ready-made shapes, some of which look like air-freshener trees or Swiss cheese. They are rendered as generic templates, and the artist’s hand has no presence. The image registers in a way that is not about authorship, similar to clip art. I enjoy the idea of attaching my own languages of painting to these anonymous forms. As I added more from myself, I realized these ready-mades started to hold these languages. That’s when I started to worry that the process had gotten too formulaic, as if I was working on autopilot. I decided to work with a group of shaped canvases from my own drawings. First, I started with scribbling and playing around, and I circled back to drawing these hearts. Anybody can draw a heart in a number of interesting ways. One can draw 10,000 hearts and choose one favorite to isolate from others. Out of all the reasons why, there is no real answer to why that specific heart is the best one. I eventually ended up with all these heart shapes. Some of them have images and weird shit painted on them. For example, one of them looks like a stylized drawing of a mushroom or a hyperbolic rendering of a penis—formally these images go to interesting places without really doing anything.
Artist Nate Lowman will now be represented by David Zwirner gallery, which has locations in New York, London, and Hong Kong.
David Zwirner said in a statement, “The gallery is excited to represent Nate Lowman, an artist whose career I have been following with interest for many years. His critical engagement with contemporary culture as much as with art history is evident in his strikingly relevant works.”
Lowman, who will have a show at Zwirner’s London location in the fall, is known for scrappy paintings of smiley faces, bullet holes, and images of Americana. His career emerged in the early 2000s alongside those of a downtown New York cohort that included artists like Dan Colen and the late Dash Snow. He long worked with Maccarone gallery in New York and later Los Angeles.
Last year Lowman had shows at the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo, Massimo De Carlo in Milan, and Gagosian in New York, the latter an exhibition of map paintings timed to the 30th anniversary of the gallery’s presentation of Jasper Johns map works. A Gagosian rep said that it is planning a major project with Lowman in the fall.
Lowman, who appeared in the 2013 Biennale de Lyon, the 2008 Busan Biennial in South Korea, and the 2006 Whitney Biennial (through a project with the Wrong Gallery), will continue to be represented only by De Carlo, which also has locations in London and Hong Kong, according to a Zwirner rep.
A recent ARTnews survey showed that, between January 2016 and May 2019, Zwirner added 15 artists to its roster; by contrast, Hauser & Wirth added 24, and Gagosian added 20. The Lowman news brings Zwirner’s tally to 16.
Artist Nate Lowman Reveals The Inspiration Behind His Works In Progress
This December, the Aspen Museum of Art is opening a mid-career retrospective of works by the New York artist, which conjure the dreams and nightmares lying just under the surface of America’s everyday totems and talismans. Ever the cultural scavenger, he reveals recent inspirations for a few pieces in progress.
NATE LOWMAN: Last winter, I arrived in Bangkok with no real expectations. Delicious food, utter chaos, and severe heat yield an exciting and, at times, brutal atmosphere. There is also an overwhelming tourist dynamic to deal with (even as a tourist). The unlikely protagonists of our trip ended up being the ubiquitous empty plastic chairs. I grew up stacking and unstacking these types of chairs when my parents entertained. In Bangkok, they are everywhere. They weigh nothing and they come in every color. Their plasticity reflects the sunlight even when they are covered in soot. And being empty, they hold the ghosts we seek when we travel.
LOWMAN: This little Shell patch is about the size of a quarter. I picked it up on a trip to Tokyo. Is it possible for a tiny, slightly crude rendering of a corporate logo to hold and transmit the anger of thousands of protests from Seattle to Nigeria? Is that the ’90s me asking that question? Do the irregular contours stitched with bright primary colors mean that “cute” is the new “punk”? None of the above? I really don’t know, so I just stare at it all the time, wondering.
LOWMAN: When I was in Bangkok, I looked all over for these wooden deer sculptures (a Buddhist thing that I wanted to appropriate into a scarecrow to ward off real deer at my place in Amagansett). It turns out that the deer sculptures are quite rare, and these wood dick sculptures are abundant. I ended up with no deer and seven dicks—so, as my Italian friends would say, “Cazzo!” I’m trying to make a sculpture.
And Now, We Go Live to Nate Lowman with Your Global Warming Report
I was standing with Nate Lowman in his Tribeca studio in front of a canvas shaped like the United States, each state represented by a piece of fabric, or by a fragment of another, abandoned painting. Lowman pointed to where his great-grandmother lived in Colorado, west of a spackled Four Corners. “[She] was a crazy quilter, and I have most of the quilts that got left behind,” he confided. “I’m sure that’s where I got the idea to use all these errant scraps.”
Some background on Nate Lowman: He’s from California, but not LA; rather, a mountainous town called Idyllwild not dissimilar from Aspen. (He’ll be exhibiting, at the Aspen Art Museum, from December 15.) Along with his contemporaries Dan Colen and Ryan McGinley, Lowman once had the good (or bad) fortune to be assigned one of those oversized zeitgeist-y labels that the art world loves: “Warhol’s Children.” Lowman just had his first child, a son. In 2013, a particularly nasty review referenced Lowman’s “bad-boy career.” But as he stood in his Tribeca studio, the only subversive thing about the artist appeared to be his decision to wear one red Converse and one black.
Before and After, Lowman’s Aspen show, draws heavily on a personal archive that reaches back over a decade. Its curator, Heidi Zuckerman, organized it around the theme of desire, and the result takes in everything from smiley faces to the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano (which Lowman calls an “insanely beautiful inconvenience”). And while the artist has made reference to such events as the OJ Simpson trial and the Lockerbie bombing, he doesn’t concern himself with their timeliness. “You process what happens in your lifetime all the time and you find a way to make art about it and communicate the thoughts that are crystallized from your experience,” he explained. “The image of Nicole Brown Simpson from the early nineties, I’m painting that in 2011. Because that’s when I want to talk about it.”
Nate Lowman was one of the post-9/11 “Three Amigos” who set Manhattan’s downtown scene a fire, along with fellow provocateurs Dan Colen (on view at James Cope’s gallery during Fair Week) and late Menil progeny/prodigy Dash Snow. This internationally exhibited, Guggenheim-collected, Whitney Biennial painter/sculptor/maker with his preternaturally gray hair was also famously stalked by paparazzi when he dated an Olsen twin. Fresh from last spring’s eagerly watched show at New York City’s Maccarone — the gallery will feature his art in its booth, come Dallas Art Fair time — Lowman is an agile and adept conjurer of objects that seem to embody the American dream gone terribly awry. The artist’s raison d’être was most epically realized in 2012 at the Brant Foundation, where he transformed the cavernous Greenwich, Connecticut, art space into a kunsthalle filled with fronts from rusting gas pumps, cruciform-shaped structures salvaged from tow trucks, bullet-hole paintings and gargantuan air-freshener forms plastered across a wall, while setting the Bronco previously owned by O. J. Simpson upon the lawn. What does this creative have up his sleeve for Dallas? Catherine D. Anspon chats with Lowman via email about his love for car culture, being pals with Richard Prince and lighting out for the West.
What can you divulge about your Dallas Contemporary solo? I’m planning a pool party with barbecue. Do they make vegetarian barbecue?
Will you reprise the intriguing library installation, based upon your personal collection, which you created at the Brant Foundation? I will not be exhibiting any artworks from my personal collection in Dallas, but I will show a series of objects that come from my domestic life. I have begun making a few pieces of furniture, mostly lamps, which live in my apartment with my art collection, and I plan to show a group of these at the Dallas Contemporary.
The more you know about something, the harder it is to say something about it: One is encumbered by the weight of meaning, the artifice of language, the tiredness of metaphors used too often, but perhaps more than anything, simple fear. “One thinks a lot when one is afraid,” writes Denis Hollier. “And even more when one is afraid of being afraid. And even more when one is afraid of what one thinks.” What could be more luxurious than to give up, to turn away from this space where the familiar presses its face to the glass of reflection? What can be seen there? Perhaps the smeared surface of the mirror is the truest image of that which is too close for comfort. Nate Lowman’s exhibition “I Wanted to Be an Artist but All I Got Was This Lousy Career” at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center sustains the artist’s sociological impulse to research and catalogue a world that is, for all its immediacy, more customarily, and more comfortably, seen at a distance.
Lowman’s handpainted Xerox-dot patterns can be hard to look at, creating a labor-intensive aesthetic that easily passes unnoticed. The worker’s ethic of this faux-industrial process is borne out in Lowman’s approach to the installation itself: The Brant Foundation’s vast galleries have often encouraged artists to scale up—to create singular massive objects or images to complement the arena. Here, the artist relies on the methodology of accretion—dozens of modestly sized pieces, the silhouettes of taken-for-granted detritus of modern living, fill an enormous wall. The human scale of these works, along with their illusionistic production techniques, calls the viewer over for a closer look, drawing him or her into a relationship with evidence of a sullied culture. This process of interpellation echoes what Althusser has described as the physical turn toward authority and ideology that provokes recognition. Being hailed by a police officer, the individual stops and turns; “by this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject.” Lowman subjects us to recognitions we might prefer to avoid: An Arbre Magique air freshener is covered with bumper stickers that call out . . . PRESS 1 FOR ENGLISH, PRESS 2 FOR DEPORTAION; the Apple logo, design emblem of today’s Bauhaus, is sullied with mud and spilled Coca-Cola; the artist’s own bullet-hole paintings, valuable art objects, are referred to as evidence of a lousy career and stepped on by sneakers.
From the image in the multipart Four Seasons, 2009–12, of a wasted girl falling out of a car onto her face to his display on the Brant Foundation’s front lawn of the white Bronco driven by O. J. Simpson in the slow-motion car chase preceding his arrest, Lowman collapses distance, bringing home a culture that generally remains unimaginable because it is too omnipresent. In “Commitment,” Adorno writes, “Kafka and Beckett arouse the fear which existentialism merely talks about. By dismantling appearance, they explode from within the art which committed proclamation subjugates from without, and hence only in appearance. The inescapability of their work compels the change of attitude which committed works merely demand.” At our historical moment, is it possible for fear to instigate change, as Adorno envisioned? On the lower level of the Brant Foundation, a series of tow-truck cross braces are mounted as crucifixes in a dimmed space opposite gunshot-blasted bank-teller windows. The juxtaposition of shattered glass and these metal devices recalls the trappings of torture-porn films, and brings to mind -Frontière(s)_, a 2007 French horror film whose young heroes, seeking to escape from an Orwellian police state, rob a bank to shore up their finances. Pursued by police, they stumble onto the estate of aging Nazis with a preference for chains, perversion, and mayhem. When the pregnant lone survivor escapes at the end of the film, she is welcomed back to the real world by the police from whom she had been running. No Exit indeed.
A hallmark of pop art is taking a ubiquitous but overlooked totem of capitalist enterprise and reinventing it. Andy Warhol had the Campbell’s soup can. Claes Oldenburg had the lipstick tube. Nate Lowman, 33, has his: the smiley face.
The icon appears on shopping bags and bumper stickers, and has gotten a second wind as an emoticon that smartphone users plop at the end of text messages. And Mr. Lowman is somewhat obsessed with it, seeing in it a kind of collective mask — what he calls an “anxious hysteria to appear happy.”
“It’s like a casual formality,” he said, walking around his TriBeCa studio on a recent day in a tie-dyed, hooded sweatshirt, a pair of white jeans that were beat up to the point of no longer really being white, and a pair of old black boots. “It doesn’t make any sense. It’s just like ‘Happy! Happy!’ ”
He stopped in front of a canvas on which the icon was painted or drawn hundreds of times, and gave it a look that was somewhere between quizzical and perturbed. There were smiley faces connected to arms and legs that were contorted like swastikas. There were pizzas on which pepperoni appeared where the eyes and the nose would be; on yet others, there were smiley faces connected to a certain part of the male anatomy.
Of course, any artist drawn to a symbol so benign probably isn’t the most happy-go-lucky guy on the planet. Rather, Mr. Lowman comes off as pensive, slightly skeptical, a little removed. “I’m not a pessimist at all, but I’m not an optimist either,” he said. But that doesn’t seem to be hurting his stature of late.
Mr. Lowman is a star of a young downtown art scene that moves freely among the worlds of fashion, art and society. He is a widely photographed man-about-town, D.J.’ing at the Whitney Gala, sitting with Daphne Guinness at a dinner hosted by Interview magazine, and hobnobbing with fashionistas at a handbag party for Balmain.
Late last week, Lowman and his assistants were spread over two large studios (one the artist's own, in Tribeca; the other a Chinatown loaner from his dealer), preparing work for a behemoth, painting-heavy exhibition, "Trash Landing," opening May 7 at Maccarone and Gavin Brown's Enterprise. The two-gallery premise is a gambit by the two dealers that last fall featured Rob Pruitt.
The 32-year-old Lowman has shown consistently for the past decade, and makes work that hails from the twin temples of pop-culture atrocity and political disaster, with detours into environmental destruction. These have included Xerox collages examining Serena Williams's "sweet stalker," Albrecht Stromeyer (Why I Love Serena, 2003), and sculpture consisting of rusted gas station pumps that acts as a metaphor for the war in Iraq (The Never Ending Story, 2007).
Less obviously, the artist has used the language of mediation to create a vocabulary of recurring images – continually playing from his own picture deck to build an alternative iconography. Recalling artist Nancy Spero, whos invented dictionary of hieroglyphs substituted for semiotics, Lowman's catalogue of images suggests a desire to say something, repeatedly, about culture that goes beyond words. Since 2001, for example, he has reused the same image of a topless Nicole Brown Simpson (derived from a topless image that was allegedly sold to a tabloid by Brown Simpson's own sister). Several paintings based on this image will be included in "Trash Landing."
"I make paintings of certain images because I want people to remember them," says Lowman. "That's when I make a painting of someone like Oliver North [the infamous Iran-Contra conspirator and Marine, whose portrait Lowman exhibited in 2004 at Ritter/Zamet in London]. I wanted to be like: Remember him?"
This show features a herd of images from Lowman's recent popular series of variously sized, nearly indistinguishable paintings that reinterpret de Kooning's Marily Monroe (1954). Lowman's Marilyns come to life on unprimed linen, the figure rendered with lush daubs of oil in '80s surfboard hues. On top of the figure, Lowman paints a layer of striated high-gloss black alkyd paint; giving the image the look of a multiple-generation photocopy (i.e., the "Xerox of a Xerox" esthetic of punk show flyers and zines).
Lowman has used alkyd – a dense, shiny paint that, in Lowman's hands, mimics a glossier version of newsprint and Xerox – consistently for the last decade, and his use of the medium has often made the visual analogies between antique copiers and skin. This series also riffs on de Kooning's famous statement: "Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented." Lowman's alkyd application gives each painting a machine-made, reproduced appearance, suggesting that, in contemporary culture, the way we see skin appears less like oil and more like inkjet.
If Marilyn is the 20th century's iconic blonde, doomed to live eternally in an image, she's also a woman estranged from her born identity. Lowman says he came to the subject more as a meditation on a culture of violence and began using this specific image almost by chance. Marilyn, whose image represents a suggestively acquiescent sexual conquest maddeningly out of reach, has equally become a prized fetish object for collectors (everything from her chest X-rays to the couch from her psychiatrist's office have been put up for sale, purportedly in honor of her legend). "I don't have a connoisseur's interest [in this material]." says Lowman. He's never read a biography of Monroe, "and the only films I saw of hers were The Misfits and her singing 'Happy Birthday Mr. President.' I'm more interested in other peoples' interest in these [people]."
Lowman will also show landscape paintings, mostly depicting disaster imagery – both man-made and natural, including Iceland's erupting volcano and a house in Brazil floating away in a flood. These are made with a technique he developed by spraying oil paint through an automotive paint gun, and subsequently layering alkyd on top. The artist proposes a different sublime, one in which nature does not prevail – his images of catastrophe seem quotidian rather than heartbreaking. Lowman's sublime is a horror at the hand of man-the guilt of creating Frankenstein mixed with a keen sense of banality. "With that volcano, all anyone ever talks about is inconvenience," says Lowman.
Lowman will light the gallery with fluorescent gels, to create the effect of the Magic Hour, the first and last hour of sunlight in the day. "I talked to a lot of cinematographers about how to get the light to look perfect, but then I decided to do it in a more ghetto way," he explains. "A gesture like that has to be straightforward, or it dissolves into the decorative."
Lowman has consistently employed text in his work. On a large, unprimed canvas, the artist has copied the poetic phrase: "He's running on a treadmill in front of the mirror in his gym. She's coming home from work behind the wheel of her Smartcar. Will they meet?" The text comes from The Coming Insurrection, a call-to-arms (and Glenn Beck's bête noire) written by anonymous political collective the Invisible Committee in the wake of Paris's 2005 banlieue riots. Written as Horkheimer and the Weather Underground coming home to roost, the text "really describes contemporary alienation in the best way," says Lowman.