Fjords-NB Interview-montage

This interview was published in the Fall/Winter 2015/2016 print edition of Fjords Review.

For over a decade, acclaimed oil painter Noah Becker has been steadily building his brand in the art world. The Canadian-American artist—also a writer, publisher, musician, and documentary filmmaker—moved to New York City from Western Canada in 1997, moved back after 9/11, and did not return to Gotham again until 2011. During his sabbatical from the U.S., the artist solidified his art career, largely in part due to the successful launch of his online contemporary art magazine Whitehot. Fjords recently sat down with Becker to discuss his practice and maintaining his position as a self-described “diversified creator” in this day and age.

 

Heather Zises: What initially inspired you to create art?

Noah Becker: As a young teen, I was heavily into drawing and I wanted to become a comic book artist. The line work, the graphic quality of all of those early Marvel Comics—before computers when they would have to pump out complete comic books illustratively–is still pretty amazing to me. When I was about 14, I was accepted as a guest student at Victoria College of Art in Western Canada and started taking figure-drawing classes. I thought learning how to draw figures would make my comic books better. I took my classes very seriously. Needless to say, I got really good at drawing. My teachers encouraged me to push beyond making comic books. Initially, I resisted this idea because I just wanted to make comic books, but eventually I started meeting other artists and became interested in contemporary art. By my early twenties, I was making oil paintings and regularly showing at local galleries. Eventually I became well known as an artist in my hometown. However, I realized if I didn’t start showing internationally (for example in New York City) I would risk becoming marginalized.

noah beckerHZ: So when did you decide to move to New York?

NB: A lot of my friends in Canada were jazz musicians and they wanted to go to New York to play jazz, and I wanted to go to New York to show my art and also play jazz. So I came here in 1997. Then 9/11 happened and all of the jazz and art projects I was working on got put on hold because the world changed…as a result everything that was in place for me changed too. So I went back to Canada in 2001 and stayed there for the next decade. I returned to the studio that I used to work in, and I continued making paintings. I participated in a bunch of museum and gallery shows, and started up Whitehot, an online contemporary art magazine. The idea behind the magazine was that there was no such thing at the time. The area of Canada in which I was living was very isolated, so I figured I would start posting things about contemporary art to feel more connected to the outside world. When Facebook came out around 2006, I launched the first Contemporary Art Facebook Group and created a Fan page for the magazine.  Shortly afterwards, Facebook started taking off, and it drew a large audience to Whitehot.  In a way, I started Whitehot as an art project and it accidentally became a known magazine. The impetus came from a “fit of insanity” because I was very frustrated with my art career and I wanted to have more power in the art world. I also craved more of a presence in the art world that wasn’t based upon someone else’s brand. I wanted to have my own brand. Around the same time, curators were inviting me to participate in magazine festivals and high profile art fairs. Ultimately, the magazine ended up de-marginalizing me and internationalizing me as an artist and as a publisher.  

NB-Warhol photobomb portrait from Lodge 2013 show
HZ: Let’s talk about your brand. You paint, you write, you publish, you curate, you play music and you make films. Would you describe yourself as a modern day Renaissance man?

NB: I have always done the same thing: play the saxophone and make paintings. I have not really known a different way of doing things, other than starting Whitehot Magazine and making my documentary, New York is Now (2010). I wasn’t turning the camera on myself for many years. Then I realized I had created an identity and an audience was interacting with it.

That said, people need to do more today. Market-worthy artists are expected to make hundreds of paintings. There is more media available to the average person; therefore there is more ability to distribute what you are doing internationally. I think everyone is a diversified creator nowadays and the “Renaissance/Da Vinci dream” can be made available on different levels. Certainly I like to think of myself as a painter even though I stared playing music first. I feel fortunate because my paintings have received a lot of international attention from the art world. I regularly exhibit with galleries and I also participate in museum surveys like the one in Chile right now at Centro Cultural Matucana called 100: The Politics of Celebrity. I also curate. I recently curated a few shows in Chelsea such as 60 Americans at Elga Wimmer, which was a response to the ill-gotten gains of flipper-based collectors, money corrupted and trend obsessed gallerists, shopping mall inspired art fairs nepotism and favoritism of the made men and women of the fast track MFA programs in America. This fall, I am curating several group exhibitions on the Lower East Side that will also include my work. I have been collaborating with a private curator, and we are finding that galleries are keen on the idea of us assembling shows under the auspices as curators from Whitehot.  Installation shot of Phillip IV in UPS uniform from Lodge 2013 show

HZ: What are your thoughts on being an artist in New York?

NB: I think people are intimidated by the idea of New York; particularly the machinery of the New York art world. And yet, people idolize places like Studio 54 or CBGB’s and have turned them into cultural landmarks. In most small towns, people go to bars, drink, and go home. But in New York, people end up making documentaries about all the places they frequent. I’m not one to talk, especially considering I have another documentary film in the works! Everyone wants to know that they are a part of a generation that will be preserved for world history. Undoubtedly, there are social scenes that know they are making some sort of cultural imprint here.  But this is a tough place to cut a profile that anybody notices at all. For me, it took twenty years to successfully break into a scene. I wasn’t a person that felt like I could do what I was doing and people would just find me somewhere. I always had to put my tendrils out into the community and connect with people that were doing meaningful things. Now, I feel like my profile is recognizable and I that I am a legitimate “New York figure.” A lot of this came to be by talking to other people, writing about other people, and filming other people. It is a strategy for certain.

Those kinds of psychological and philosophical ways of thinking about fame and who is gaining from the situation are things that go into publishing and filmmaking. Artists that come from other cities are a little bit more aware of what New York means and why they would come to a place like this. A lot of people are from here and they just want to leave. My documentary questions the role of the artist and whether or not you have to come to New York in order to internationalize yourself. Not too long ago, if you didn’t come to New York as an artist, you became marginalized. Now there are all kinds of artists in the world making strides without having to hang out in an East Village bar. The Internet has closed the gap on that.

NB in studio
HZ: A central focus of your paintings is portraits. The angles you use in your portraits—three-quarter views, profiles or tilted perspectives—remind me of camera angles.  Is there much crossover between your portraits and filmmaking?  

NB: When you get into my paintings, I like there to be an element of the unknown—similar to a space where you can look at something as painting and it doesn’t have to relate to a real experience. When I make a self-portrait, it ends up being a Cindy Sherman type of inspiration where I create a picture of me in a contemporary scene wearing glasses or whatever accessories are on hand. I find that people like a window into that kind of self-observation. I don’t put on a bunch of disguises or dress up in drag, but I am sure anything is possible! A lot of what I have been trying to do with my portrait series is create something that is very neutral and very monotone in mood, instead of having it be about a specific theme. A lot of artists describe what their paintings are about before they create them, whereas I take more of a deadpan, Warholian approach. In my documentary, I reference a story about Warhol where he was told that his movies were boring and horrible, and his response was “We [the Factory members and actors] agree.” I think Pop Art is the idea that the object is familiar to everybody, but also that the artist can be exactly the same as the audience. This approach maintains an element where the artist is challenging the viewer by saying that there is something happening that the viewer doesn’t understand. If you are going to make a Campbell’s Soup can, everybody knows what that is, which is kind of the whole point. So why not also consider yourself at the level of, or below, the audience. By conveying a still and anticlimactic mood, the monotone backgrounds in my portraits gain their charge. Conversely, some of the other paintings I make have a lot of color…maybe their subject is color. Either way, I don’t insert a lot of subtext into my work. I try to make my paintings shallow as possible, with a shallow mood. A lot of artists make work that is visually simple, but not intellectually simple. I am trying to simplify the way people can think about my work as well.  I guess it has a lot to do with trying to be restrained, and working with a lot of restraint when it comes to using color.

 

HZ: Where does that need for restraint come from?

NB: If you look at Basquiat’s canvases, there are aspects of DeKooning and Twombly that show up in his brushwork. They inhabit a kind of superficial Abstract Expressionism. During the late 60s, Warhol’s Factory crowd was not making much money and they were not taken seriously as artists. However, the Cedar Tavern crowd–DeKooning, Johns, Rauschenberg and Pollock–had established themselves as blue chip, uptown artists, and they were making a lot of money. On a certain level, Warhol showed people that he had a highly materialistic side to him where he wanted to produce a lot of art, sell his works for high prices, and exploit capitalism. When you look at his paintings, like his silkscreened portraits, they echo the artists that were making big money at the time. And Basquiat—at least from what Mary Boone has said—was obsessed with market value and the price of his works. So what I am doing with painting is adapting this form of restraint. I use empty backgrounds and treat canvases like an Ellsworth Kelly. As a result, my works convey a superficial minimalist feeling. It is my way of creating a pseudo-Abstract Expressionist work back in the 60s.

nb-studio-shot

HZ: Your show at The Lodge in 2013 is a great example of how you commingle genres and styles in your portraits. For example, Philip IV in a UPS uniform.

NB: That show was a statement on what the art world has become. As an artist you fall into one of three categories: artists that are fresh out of school and are in their 20s; artists that are established and are selling their works in the auction houses; or artists that are midcareer and are in their mid 40s. This last category is a bit of a no-man’s land, because people would rather spend $2 million than $25,000 on a piece of art.  For The Lodge show, I thought, “What if I appropriate a Warhol or a Basquiat and paint my portrait directly on top of it?” I felt it was exactly what viewers and collectors would want to see. The “selfie” is their God, their religion. And portraiture is becoming the only thing that anybody trusts as being authentically valuable art. So why don’t I just give them that? Close the gap, make it a one-to-one thing where you’re seeing me and you’re seeing what you value as being a part of something.

HZ: So is it working?

NB: Certainly I’m not in the no-man’s land that I was describing. I am starting to sell and show my work more frequently, but it takes a while. Naturally, a lot of tribalism happens in the art world and so part of my career path has been based on the “Warhol Model” where people don’t really care what you do if you are famous. Strangely, you can be famous and it solves a lot of problems in America…I think that is partially the “American way”. Not that I am aspiring to be a vacant famous person, but I think that some of that mindset spills over into art as well.  Furthermore, you would expect that artists would not be right wing lunatics, but the art world is strange bedfellows because a lot of the people that collect art at high prices are largely Republican. The top 1% collects art, and yet the artists that make the art are usually anti-1%. Quite often, the dealer breaks the ideologies of the artist anyhow, because the dealer’s goal is to connect with the collector.

HZ: Speaking of that construct, many new sales models have sprouted from the digital world. For example, artists who do not have gallery representation use their Instagram platforms as virtual dealers.  They become their own curator by choosing which works to feature in their feeds and then become their own dealer by selling directly to collectors. Have you experienced anything like that?

NB: I know some artists who have a sacred pool of collectors ready to buy their work, and don’t need a gallery to help with sales. There are also artists who make loose arrangements with dealers and also sell privately. The benefit of gallery representation is that it lends artists a certain amount of credibly they wouldn’t necessarily have just by selling privately. Galleries also can liaison with museums and foundations on behalf of the artist. However, galleries are limiting in the sense that they function as an exclusive dealer for the artist. If an artist with gallery representation starts selling work online from their own website or social media platform, there is going to be trouble.  So whatever your choices are as an artist, you need to stick to your business allegiances to which you have previously agreed.