At UES Show, Lucien Smith Leads the Charge of the Opportunist Brigade


Alene Lee, possibly the only female African-American member of the Beat Generation, once asked that movement’s reluctant celebrity, Jack Kerouac, how he liked fame. He replied, “It’s like old newspapers blowing down Bleecker Street.”

Incredibly, Kerouac’s words were repeated almost verbatim last year in a YouTube interview by this year’s art model, the 25-year-old painter Lucien Smith. The occasion was an exhibition of Smith’s work at Jeffrey Deitch’s old Grand Street space, resettled since 2011 by the Suzanne Geiss Company gallery. In that show, Smith literalized Kerouac’s phrase by screwing found brooms of various types to the floor so that they stood upright and gluing crumpled newspapers to canvases to mimic what the artist called a Giuliani-era “clean sweep” of Gotham’s streets.

Smith said the brooms and fish wrap were “indicative of the gentrification going on in New York, of things being cleaned up.” It’s hard to believe he could be so disingenuous, especially after seeing prices for his casual abstractions climb nearly fortyfold in just two short years (one canvas bought for $10,000 from his Cooper Union graduate show in 2011 was resold last November at Phillips for $389,000). It’s paintings like his — along with the formally thin, conceptually vacuous canvases of a slew of high-profile, derivative young painters like Oscar Murillo, Jacob Kassay, Alex Israel, Petra Cortright, and Parker Ito — that are largely responsible for pushing up prices for emerging art and shoving aside anything not resembling investment-ready fare. Assessed in isolation, he is the Starbucks of artistic gentrification.

Smith, along with a singularly opportunistic generation of twenty- and thirtysomethings — call them the Opportunists — produce paintings tailor-made for the market. Like predecessors such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Takashi Murakami, they generate familiarly kitschy works that are both objects and agents of consumerism, but without offering any original commentary about art or its commodification. Their natural allies in this brazen Ponzi scheme are today’s rapacious auction houses, several strata of manipulative art dealers, and a pandemic of art-flipping collectors (one barefaced art trader claimed in a recent Bloomberg article that these artists’ paintings regularly “change hands five or six times within a year”). Mostly male overnight sensations, these investment artists have become marketers of high-grade financial stuff that up to now has promoted itself less as art — with its attendant claims on critical and historical attention — and more like juicy tech IPOs.

Smith’s newest exhibition, “Tigris,” at Skarstedt Gallery on 79th Street, provides a pitch-perfect, slicked-back, Mad Men–inspired variation on the genre. A show of 11 undistinguished, camouflage-patterned abstract paintings, the display proves a shrewd career move — especially as it constitutes Don Draper–style reputation repair for an artist who has been, commercially speaking, serially promiscuous. Big-money galleries like Skarstedt know how sensitive museums are to accusations of price-gouging and influence-peddling; in turn, they look for museums’ seal of approval to grow an emerging property like Smith. Tellingly, during my visit, a gallery director informed me that all the canvases in show had been placed at institutions — presumably as a hedge against erosion of the artist’s critical stock. To put it in AMC–speak: Smith’s move from speculative downtown asset to stable uptown value has Sterling Cooper written all over it.

But what about Smith’s actual artworks, you ask? Though the pieces on view at Skarstedt eschew his previous “innovations” with brooms and “painting” with a fire extinguisher (he has made more than 300 such so-called rain paintings), Smith’s current canvases have all the earmarks of the process-type noodling the New York Times recently identified as characteristic of “flip art,” i.e., art that changes hands quickly. Stenciled whorls that feature “tiger stripe” patterns, the works in “Tigris” — they range in color from green to orange to dark brown — essentially propose retreads of older, more accomplished art. The gallery press release claims Smith’s camouflage patterns are derived from South Vietnamese and U.S. military uniforms, information that provides its own razzle-dazzle. What’s really important about Smith’s work is its lack of originality. As with the appropriated-photo–based “Canal Zone” series by Richard Prince, the young artist’s anemic paintings crib so opportunistically that they recall Kelly Clarkson covers: celebrations of existing material that remain, cynically, one candid step removed from a copy.

What Smith’s paintings do reference heavily are Andy Warhol’s camouflage screen prints — who better to quote than the original “business artist” himself? — as well as the color-field staining techniques Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler used. Like the work of the former, the younger artist’s canvases simply repeat swirling shapes in organic and inorganic colors. As for the latter pair, it’s fitting to recall the words of art historian Michael Fried, who called the 1960s lyrical see-through technique a door opened onto “the unimagined possibilities for the future of painting.” No one could possibly say the same of Smith’s knock-off canvases, neither the watered-down pseudo-expressionism that Wall Street types conveniently leveraged from his earlier shows, nor the high-priced Warholiana hung inside the stately Skarstedt.

As paintings, Smith’s latest undemanding batch is basically as insipid as a viral Tweet: They exist to be favorited by everyone. But especially by millionaires willing to gamble that there’s a profit in easy popularity. The same goes for the rest of the deeply unoriginal, astonishingly successful abstract artists in his age cohort. For the time being, their acclaim is catching. But Smith’s disingenuous comments aside, this is not an art movement like Pop or the Beats. It’s just another reflection of a time when both art and money are dominated by unconstrained opportunism.