Interview Series with Adam Caldwell About Art-Part 2
Updated: Aug 16, 2021
Have you ever questioned pursuing art as a career? Have you ever experienced having a friend or two who don’t believe in your dreams? Well. You are not alone! This Q&A article is the second part of our exclusive interview with the internationally exhibiting fine artist Adam Caldwell. We hope these answers will help you figure out some of the questions that have been haunting your minds for a while.
It was our pleasure to have a one-on-one conversation with Adam Caldwell, who is kind enough to share his insight into the mysterious fine art world and art market. Adam shared his tips on making paintings in the digital world and revealed who has the actual power in the fine art world. The artist also talked about the importance of making clear boundaries to let people understand when you can’t be bothered. Last but not least, Adam gave us the inside scoop on what makes him the most satisfied and proud as an artist.
When did you know art was the right path for you?
Not until I was 26. Before that, I didn’t even think about having it as a career. I was sort of just there. I lived in cheap apartments, and had jobs that paid $6 an hour. So I played music and partied a lot and didn’t want to have a career. Because I thought it was stupid to try to make money or do anything but live in the moment as much as possible. Then I saw the age 30 was coming, and that was when I decided between playing music and doing art. I realized making music couldn’t make any money. It’s just too crazy. So I went to art school. I had friends who went to art school that I hung out with a lot, so I wanted to go to the same school they went to, which is CCAC.
Name three artists you’d like to be compared to and why?
Degas, because he’s my favorite painter. And I like to compare myself to him because I’ll never be as good as he is, and that’ll always make me work harder. So another might be Neo Rauch. My work is a little bit more like his than Degas. We’re both modern surrealist figurative painters. The last one, I don’t know why, but I guess it is Moebius. Because he's my favorite at drawing, he sets a level of that. When I see his drawings, it always makes me wish I drew better, but it also gives me a lot of energy and makes me wanna practice more and get better.
Who do you consider to be leaders in the fine art industry?
They are gallery owners and museum curators, and those people are the people who actually have power. I mean, they’re the leaders. They’re the ones who are deciding what happens, who goes where, who gets famous, and who gets sold.
There are two theories of how history moves on or two main theories of how art progresses, and of how culture society and history progress. One is called the Great Man Theory. The Great Man Theory is people like Napoleon, Hitler, Genghis Khan, or Chairman Mao. These are the prime movers in the world, and these extraordinary people change everything. Like Picasso. They are why things change. Then they lead everything!
And then there's what's called the Trends and Forces Theory which is that none of that really matters. What really matters is large scale, societal, and technological movements and forces that are impersonal and are just operating on their own. And there's one person who takes advantage of it and becomes really famous. It would just be someone else if it wasn't them. There was going to be a Picasso, it didn't really matter who it was necessarily. He just happened to be that person at that time. If he wasn't there, that would have been someone else.
So just hopefully you're in the right place, at the right time to take advantage of either one of those ways of thinking about it!
In the fine art world, the traditional way is to go to a really big art school like Yale. Be a graduate student there. And while you're a graduate student, become the assistant to probably one of the painters or artists who teach at that school and is famous and live in New York. And then that's it. You're in! That's the ticket.
You go to a famous art school and then you become a famous artist's assistant helping them paint, and helping them clean up. Painting a lot of their paintings with them and for them and doing all this work, then you know everybody. You can just walk into a gallery and say I'm so and so studio assistant and they'll look at your work. That's the real way to the fine art world.
Who do you see as the biggest disruptors of the fine art industry right now?
The big things are NFTs. The digital thing; the blockchain stuff. That one jpg sold for $64 million, which is crazy. In the last while, technology is one of the main things. Social media, in general, is also really disruptive because it forces people to look at art on the screen. It's a tiny image, and people are scrolling so fast that they don’t even look. They don’t even look at stuff for more like four seconds, and I think that forces people to draw and paint differently.
I was talking to my friend Hiroshi about it, and he was like, I think the only thing you can do against digital medium is to make paintings that purposefully don’t look like they could have been painted digitally. Because you can’t compete with digital paintings for realism, it’s too slick. You can get the most incredible-looking paintings with a digital medium. And you can do that with oils, but you can’t really tell if it’s digital or oil. They can be so close! To be an authentic painter, you need to make your paintings look like paintings.
Why do you think the art market is mysterious?
I heard someone said that the art world is like a combination of a circus and a lottery. So half of it is all performance. It’s all about a big spectacle. Lots of lights and color and noise and things are exploding, and then the rest of it is just pure chance. So it’s just a lottery. I mean who gets famous and who doesn’t. So because of that, it has very little to do with quality. And we all know that quality is very subjective anyway. So someone could say, “Hey, I think that person is the best painter in the world,” and the next person is like, “Oh, I hate that painter.” So maybe neither statement is true, or both of them are true. So it’s very difficult to see that.
People see art that they don’t like becoming very popular and famous. And painters that they don’t like becoming very, very famous. You just got to realize so much of it is luck. So much of it is random. It’s also not luck; it’s who decides!
There are a few famous gallery owners and museum owners or museum curators, and they decide who becomes famous. They literally can decide. So they could say tomorrow, Adam, we’re gonna make you famous, and we’re going to put you in the Gagosian gallery.
So it doesn’t really matter what your paintings look like. They’re going to put you in this big gallery, and they’re going to raise your prices ten times. So that everything’s over $10,000, and most of your paintings are now $50,000. And that’s it. That’s what happened. You’re now a famous artist. And that happens all the time! That’s what happens. Because it’s now been marketed, and it’s all about the marketing. As soon as it goes into that gallery, it’s valuable.
Nowadays, it’s not just they decide. It also has to be a part of the current art world; current discourse like what people are talking about in their paintings. You have to be aware of that too!
Which part of being an artist makes you feel the most satisfied with or proud of?
There are two things. One is finishing a really good passage of painting; if I nail something. If I nail some drapery or a face, and I get it just right. It’s painted right, it looks really convincing, and it’s not too fussy. That feeling of having created something that’s that three-dimensional is satisfying. And then the other is when you sell something you feel good for maybe half a day or a day before you get anxious again. So, right after I sell something, it feels good.
It’s not even finishing the painting or doing a great painting for me. It’s usually like just nailing some little part of a painting is what makes me feel really happy. And it’s not the hardest thing either. I mean, it’s much harder to compose a painting and finish it. But part of me secretly loves getting something really right!
What do you like about your work?
I’m better at drawing and painting, I think. So I like my drawings. And I tried to make my work look like the kind of art that I’d want to see. So my main idea for thinking about how to paint, or what I should paint, are paintings painted by some other artists that I would love to see and what I tried to make my paintings look like!
I love weirdness in paintings, and I think my paintings have sort of a strange feeling to them. And I like paintings that are serious and have some depth. My paintings have that too. So I like those aspects.
How do you seek opportunities?
You probably need to spend about a third of your time as a professional artist just doing business stuff. Outreach, billing, promoting yourself, working on your website, and making sure your social media is up to date. All that stuff probably takes about a third of your time.
Have you ever questioned pursuing art as a career?
Yeah, of course. I have friends who questioned it. They’re like you’re not making enough money; you’re too old; you’re not gonna have enough money to retire; maybe you should try to do something else. As soon as they say that, I’d get so pissed off. How dare you say that!
It’s deadly serious to me. I doubt it, but I would never give it up. Even if I never sold anything else for the rest of my life, I would still be grinding out paintings and trying to sell them.
How do you maintain a work-life balance?
Not very well. One thing is because I teach. I have to do that, and I exercise a lot. I work out every day that helps!
One thing is that if you’re an artist, it’s really important that you let people understand that there are periods where you can’t be bothered. People want you to do things, and it drives you crazy because it makes you feel guilty. You don’t want them to call because you know they’re going to ask you to do something, and that made you feel bad, and you’re like, I can’t do that; I have to be there painting! So you have to protect that and be really clear about your boundaries. And be like, Okay, when I go into my studio, it’s not negotiable. You can’t try to make me feel guilty about not hanging out!
It’s interesting to learn that setting a clear boundary between your friends and your alone time is crucial to your professional success as a creative person. In addition, it’s mind-blowing to hear that being a successful artist is nothing but a pure chance, and the art world is like a combination of a circus and a lottery. However, on the other hand, we also learn that no matter how difficult this task is, the artist would never give up grinding out paintings and pursuing his dreams.
We hope these ten exclusive answers from Adam Caldwell will answer some of your questions and help you become more confident in pursuing art as a career. So what are some of the interesting ideas you’ve learned from this article? Feel free to let us know in the comment.