Now showing at David Zwirner, People Who Work Here is a celebration of the many artists who help run one of the world’s most powerful galleries. On display is a broad mosaic of artistic exploration across mediums that, despite its differences, accumulates into a larger discussion of how to parse a person’s artwork when we know their day job.
The central conflict of this exhibition becomes clear: How do we separate the artist from the employee? Although I would like to argue that one’s artistic practices can operate distinctly from one’s day job, this exhibition proves that the division is largely an illusion.
Living in New York is not cheap, and an artist with a day job is nothing new. Before he was an artist, Andy Warhol worked in advertising. And before he was a sculptor, Richard Serra owned a furniture moving business. Both of these men are ostensibly marked by their past lives in other professions — a mark that gives their art its patent thrills. Warhol’s work is known for its appropriation of the mass media and marketing industries, and Serra’s by his appreciation for the grandiose weight of his medium. What artists like Warhol and Serra have in common is that they lean into their survival jobs for inspiration instead of disassociating from it.
The art of adaptation is overwhelmingly lost on the Zwirner employees exhibited in People Who Work Here, or maybe it is lost on me. Cutting the difference between occupational inspiration and textbook appropriation is a matter of nanometers for any artist, let alone those who immerse themselves in the gallery world. For me, I cannot help but see within these works those of famous artists who’ve surely come through the Zwirner space. John Andrew’s “untitled (screenplay)” comes off as too diagrammatic of what Conceptualism looked like in the 1980s. (Is it a coincidence that Sherrie Levine is an artist on David Zwirner’s roster? Even the framing of Andrews’s work is similar to that on Levine’s.) When I see artists creating faux-modernist watercolors or neon abstractionist goop, I see the poor lessons of modernist pastiche that commercial galleries often turn for profit. This is not to blame the Zwirner artists for their attempts, but rather to question if a job in the gallery world is truly the most nourishing place for a practicing artist to be. It may be a catch-22.
The successful artists of People Who Work Here are the ones who smartly comment on life at David Zwirner. Brendan Loper’s cartoons make quick satire of buyers in the commercial art world with the brevity and wit of a New Yorker illustration — and truth be told, he is a freelance cartoonist for the magazine, in addition to working in David Zwirner’s warehouse. Similarly, Rhys Ziemba takes aim at buyers. His “White Whale” is composed of shredded USD, distributed in manner evoking the white noise of a TV screen, or the image of a glitched-out computer screen. Smeared and distorted across the panel, the USD speaks to the amount of money invested to both create and buy art. Further, “White Whale” evokes the themes of currency and trade that are manifest in Ziemba’s job at David Zwirner as an art handler.
Given the exhibition’s title and premise, it is hard for the viewer not to cast these artists strictly as employees. It is a common crisis in the 21st century, learning to dissociate ourselves and others from jobs. Especially in the arts, comments like “But what do you really do?” function as withering insults to a person’s artistic purity. As the artists in People Who Work Here demonstrate, artistic purity is a romanticized, if arcane notion. In actuality, it is the ability to be impure that creates a great artist, the ability to soak in one’s life experience in order to draft an artistic commentary on life.
People Who Work Here continues at David Zwirner (533 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 5.