The Aesthete

Pop Goes the World

Out of his restaurant-cum-studio in Tribeca, artist Nate Lowman comes to terms with his lousy career

by Simona Rabinovitch photography Tim Barber

It's lunchtime at artist Nate Lowman's Tribeca studio, and two of his five full-time studio assistants are hunkered down in the kitchen enjoying some sort of grilled Asian takeout delicacy. It smells amazing. ("That eel was the bomb," is the consensus.)

In the big, bright work space, Lowman's work leans against the walls. "This is atypical of what it usually looks like in here," says Lowman, 33, dressed in head-to-toe black with his hair pushed back into an adult version of the over-one-eye skater flip he rocked in his early years. "We decided to do some spring cleaning. Usually the floor is covered with canvas. We put the canvas down to keep the floor clean which sort of works and sort of doesn't, but the pieces of canvas on the floor eventually get turned into paintings. It could take six months or two days or whatever, and maybe I paint on them and maybe I don't. There's usually about 10,000 staples on the floor from stretching and un-stretching canvas."

"It could take six months or two days or whatever, and maybe I paint on them and maybe I don't."

The studio is emptier than usual because most of Lowman's work is on view through March 2013 in his solo show I wanted to be an artist but all I got was this lousy career. at The Brant Foundation Art Study Center in Greenwich, Connecticut (The publishing magnate and art collector does only two exhibits a year in the barn he turned into an art foundation, so showing there is quite a coup.). The bullet holes are there. So are the smiley faces, pizza, Marilyns, license plates, T&A; all the Nate Lowman classics — iconic American images cut, chopped, repeated, reinvented and put back together again in a whole new meaning. To me, seen together like this, Lowman's paintings and sculptures felt like a story; an explosion of images and loaded moments in time that never quite leave you. Marilyn Monroe, Nicole Brown Simpson, Michelle Obama, California, cars, posters, T&A, movie stars, sex, desire, media, death and commercialism; Americana in all its boldfaced, brightened glory — and the tragedy of that as seen from more knowing eyes. It's moving, funny and kind of sad, haunted, really. The show includes a room full of, as Lowman puts it, "paintings of ghosts" (including the Twin Towers pre-9/11) called "Ghosts of New York and Other Cities." This is the language of my life too, images, words. and memories that changed the way we thought, saw ourselves and interacted with the world. It feels like something has ended, died; but there's hope. After all, the last painting in the show is "Nate's Smiley Face Painting."

Born in Las Vegas and raised in small-town California, Nate Lowman moved to New York in 1997. He hung out with a crowd of non-conformist downtown artists, among them, Dan Colen, actor Leo Fitzpatrick, photographer Ryan McGinley and the late Dash Snow. They skateboarded; dabbled in graffiti; lived, worked and partied together. They were authentic, rebellious, creative, anti-commercial and, for lack of a better word, cool. 

Lowman began making major art world waves in 2005, when his work was part of the Greater New York group show at MoMa's P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center. In 2010, his work was included in a group show at the Guggenheim, and he's curated exhibits for other artists, too. He's had solo shows at Massimo de Carlo in Milan, Italy; London's Carlson Gallery, the American Academy in Rome and Maccarone + Gavin Brown's enterprise in New York. That show, 2010's TRASH LANDING, featured bullet holes, many works done in his xerographic dot technique (i.e. paintings that look like Xerox copies), and his manic replications of Willem de Kooning's portrait of Marilyn Monroe, in which he [obsessively] repainted a single iconic image dozens of times, each finished piece just a little bit different, until it was out of his system. Nicole Brown Simpson is another favorite subject.

In fact, parked on Peter Brant's foundation lawn as part of the exhibit is the actual Ford Bronco that O.J. Simpson fled the police in that had millions of viewers glued to their television, watching the now infamous police chase. At Lowman's request, Brant negotiated to rent it from its private owner for the show. 

I wonder if interacting with the actual object of his obsession gave Lowman a sense of climax, or closure. "No," he exclaims. "I have been thinking about that for so long. The car was just another surprise, I thought it would fully charge the air in some karmic death pool, and it just doesn't. It's just this fucking car. It's a rental." 

Lowman met Brant two years ago when he was part of a group show at Andrea Rosen Gallery. Brant came in, acquired a Lowman piece, and Lowman was there. They hit it off instantly. "I suppose it's atypical to call a relationship with someone when you're selling them someone a friendship," says Lowman. "But in a way the nature of the art business with the galleries in between allows for a free and easy dialogue between an artist and a collector; we don't exactly have our hands in each other's pockets. Lowman says Brant was "super involved" with the exhibit installation. "That whole thing really is like a family affair, his kids were around, his wife was around. One of the biggest paintings in the show belongs to his son Harry, it's called "Gang Bang." It's a drop cloth painting."

Back in the lean years, Lowman lived in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. "I didn't have the Internet, so I would walk over the bridge and chill out at the gallery and my art dealer would buy me lunch." The gallery is Maccarone Gallery, which used to be downtown on Canal Street and is now in the West Village.

"I was shocked at how young Nate was; a baby-faced, scrawny kid wearing a an oversized sleeveless shirt and a big gold ring."

Gallerist Michelle Maccarone remembers their first meeting well. It was 2004. "I was curating a show and was under the gun to find an artist," she wrote me in an email. "A dear friend and gallery artist Chivas Clem recommended that I visit Nate. I had just come from playing tennis and drove over to his studio in Bed-Stuy. I double parked — I may have left the car running — and ran into his studio. I was shocked at how young Nate was; a baby-faced, scrawny kid wearing a an oversized sleeveless shirt and a big gold ring. I think it was the shortest studio visit I have ever done, but the work I saw that day, the large-scale installation "More More Less," remains one of my favorite works of art." Maccarone immediately brought famed Miami-based collectors Don and Mera Rubell to Lowman's studio and sold them its entire contents. (A blown-up copy of that first paycheck appears in the Brant Foundation show.) She asked if he wanted to be represented by her gallery, and they've been business partners and close friends since.

How have things changed for Lowman? "Well, I have the Internet sometimes," he quips. "The storm [Hurricane Sandy] kind of knocked it out, but I have a booster  I'm borrowing from a friend…and…lots of things changed, in fact. Everything…Nothing did not change. I have about one or two T-shirts left from that time, two pairs of socks with holes in 'em. That's about it…and a couple of artworks that friends gave me." Anything else? "And I'm buying lunch now."

Cue those bomb eels.

As for the show, he's proud of it. "It was the best I could do, and I don't think I've ever achieved that before. I go back and forth between feeling very happy and also really vulnerable because once you've acknowledged you've done your best, it's just sitting there, you know, and it's like, 'That's the best, you can't do any better.' So there's a vulnerability in knowing that if someone doesn't like it then you've completely failed. Not that I'm trying to please everyone — I'm just trying to make art, but if people think it sucks, then it's like, 'Well the best I could do sucks.' But going back and forth between happy and vulnerable isn't the worst state to be in."