Karen Sperling is an artist I met outside the Bridge Art Fair at Art Basel Miami Beach this past December 2008. I stumble upon most of the artists I meet and Karen was no different. As she walked by, she introduced herself and handed me an invitation to her group show. I’m glad that she did. While viewing the exhibition, I was impressed by what I saw … work that seemed gritty and edgy to me, yet warm and dreamlike. They were part of her Magical Mystical Tours series. She agreed to an email interview in which we chatted about her work, leaving New York for Los Angeles, the benefits of being a sociable artist and what it was like meeting the great Andy Warhol years ago. You can see some of her work at www.karensperling.com but first, take this tour. I think you'll enjoy the ride ...
MICHAEL: Hi Karen. Now that some time has passed since Art Basel Miami Beach 2008, how are you feeling about your experience there?
KAREN: Art Basel Miami Beach 2008 was a fantastic experience. As an artist, it was great to be in a group show during Art Basel in the Lurie gallery in the Wynwood Arts District. I met collectors, curators, students and artists from around the world who were all very curious about my Magical Mystical Tours series of abstracts, in which I show my childhood dreams of New York highways turning into roller coasters. Everyone I spoke to either wanted to know my ideas about my art or wanted to tell me their ideas about it. Either way, it made for some great conversations. For example, one collector, a therapist by occupation, analyzed my art and had a theory about why it's black and white. I have thought that I paint in black and white because the abstracts are about dreams, and I feel that black and white gives the work a dreamlike quality. The therapist offered another reason that I didn't know and hadn't thought of. She said that she encourages her patients to think of their dreams in black and white so that the dreams seem less terrifying, so maybe I painted with black and white to make my paintings less scary. The thing is, my abstracts ultimately are about life—highways turning into roller coasters are a metaphor for not knowing what will happen next in life. The feeling I hope my abstracts convey is excitement, but there's no denying that there's a scary quality, too, so maybe the therapist is right. Maybe I try to make my abstracts less scary by painting in black and white. I don't know, but it's very interesting to think about! In general, as a first-time visitor to Art Basel, I enjoyed the whole experience. I liked seeing the art that was both in the main convention hall and in the satellite shows. I thought the art ranged from the mundane to the magnificent, with everything in between, and what a treat to see it all in one city. And I enjoyed the parties at night. In a nutshell, my feeling about Art Basel Miami Beach 2008 is that I'm looking forward to Art Basel Miami Beach 2009.
MICHAEL: I take it you're a New York City native. Why did you leave New York for Los Angeles? Was the move one of those highways turning into roller coasters?
KAREN: Good question! Yes, it definitely turned out that way! I left New York for Los Angeles ostensibly for two simple reasons: Winters are warmer on the west coast and I have family here. But underlying it all was that as an artist, I needed a change of pace. I love to read artist biographies and it turns out that many, if not most, artists are nomads because seeing new places rejuvenates them. I had lived in Manhattan for 18 years. I used to kid that I knew every crack in every sidewalk by heart, but the truth was, I did know the city too well. There were no surprises. I had been an artist since I was a kid, and I minored in art in college. But I hadn't painted anything in years. In fact, when I left New York, I gave all my art supplies that I had accumulated since childhood to one of my neighbors, thinking I'd never paint or draw again. Moving to California gave me a whole new turf to explore, which revitalized my creativity. And I started drawing and painting again. Another thing happened when I got out of New York. I gained perspective. Growing up in the suburbs on Long Island and living as an adult in Manhattan, I had preconceived notions about art and artists. I was led to believe that galleries are beyond normal mortals and I thought I could never approach a New York art gallery with my art. Then when I no longer lived there, suddenly taking a shot at exhibiting in New York didn't seem so out of reach. Maybe since I didn't live there anymore, it didn't much matter if I failed to get a New York gallery show, so I didn't mind trying. At the end of 2006 I took a trip to New York and approached art galleries. I met gallery director Bob Hogge and in 2007 the first phase of my abstracts debuted at his Monkdogz Urban Art Gallery in Chelsea in New York. Ironically, there's a New York connection with the Lurie gallery, where I exhibited during Art Basel. I first met the Luries eight years ago when I came across their gallery here in L.A. It used to be called Soho gallery and I thought, these have to be New Yorkers, and I went in. I met three of the four Lurie brothers, and it turned out that not only were they from New York, but also we all grew up a couple of towns apart on Long Island around the same time. So I wound up in Art Basel Miami with gallerists I knew from Los Angeles who I practically grew up with in New York. So yes, leaving New York for Los Angeles has been a Magical Mystical Tour, with its excitement around every turn to see what's next.
MICHAEL: I grew up in New York as well. Every time I return to visit, I get sad upon arrival because I know I'll have to leave. Based upon your experience, is there any real distinction between the New York and Los Angeles art communities? Of course, the art and sensibilities are obviously different, but do you think having a solo show in a great New York City gallery remains more prestigious than one in a respected Los Angeles gallery?
KAREN: Hmm, have you thought of moving back? That was how I made the decision to move to L.A. I only did it when I preferred to be here versus there. Maybe you'd like it better in New York! That's a tough question, whether it's still more prestigious to be in a New York gallery. I'd say yes and no. Yes, because New York will always be New York. I think a solo or a group show in any New York gallery is a step up in one's art career. Having exhibited my abstracts in New York is certainly a calling card for me. Then again, we've become Marshall McLuhan's global village, in my opinion, thanks to the internet and email. It's easy to conduct any kind of business globally nowadays, including the exhibiting and selling of art. So, while New York doesn't lose its position as a prestigious art center, other locations, including Los Angeles, take on new importance. Larry Gagosian, for example, has galleries in New York, Los Angeles (Beverly Hills), London and Rome, and he's held shows in Moscow. I think that says something about the preeminence of all those cities as art venues if Gagosian wants to be in them.
MICHAEL: You know, we've been chatting a little about "the art world." So many artists say that they aren't really part of it ... or at least the stereotypical art world. You know, the openings, the parties, etc. How important do you think the art world should be to artists who would rather spend all of their time in their studios just creating art?
KAREN: It depends what you mean by the word, important. Important in terms of sales? You'd have to do a study comparing sales of artists who participate in the art world and those who stay in their studios. I don't have a guess about what the results would be. It's an interesting dichotomy, when you think about it. On the one hand, the internet and email have created the global village, where one day an artist can conceivably have a show in New York and the next day in London. On the other, the internet and email make it possible to be an "absentee" artist. You can get the London show, but do you need to be there? I don't know! In both of my group shows in New York and in Art Basel, there were artists' work from around the world, but not all the artists were in attendance. In the pre-internet days, being in the art world, forming bonds and friendships, was critical for the artist's career in terms of sales. In the days of Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, Basquiat, and their ilk, exhibiting was all about friendships. I've read a ton of books about Warhol. He was one of the most successful artists of all time and many (most?) of his sales were from his contacts and friendships in the art world forged by his ubiquity at parties, events, openings and happenings. At Youtube, there's a Charlie Rose interview with Julian Schnabel and David Bowie from 1996 when Schnabel's movie Basquiat was released. When asked if he knew Warhol, David Bowie said that you couldn't go to a party in New York without running into him. It's true! I even met Warhol at a party in New York! Warhol made a lot of money doing portraits and he got his portrait clients by offering portraits at every party and event he went to. So it would be interesting to see what a study today would reveal about stay-in-the-studio artists vs. "sociable" artists in terms of sales.
MICHAEL: I actually meant in terms of simply having a successful career.
KAREN: If you mean important as far as an artist's personal welfare, stature or creativity, I think being in the art world is part of the artist job description. The main part of being an artist is being in the studio creating art. I would think most artists are happiest in their studios creating art, that's what we do. But creating art is just one aspect of being an artist. In my experience, being out and about and talking with curators, collectors, students, spectators and other artists is a creativity and energy booster. It gets you thinking and feeling and observing and wondering and discussing, all of which find their expression in your art. Also from personal experience, when you put yourself out there, you make great contacts and things happen. I've gotten my gallery shows from being out in the world and meeting people. And I met you being in the art world at Art Basel! One night I went to art openings in Beverly Hills with an artist friend and there was a reporter interviewing people on camera and she stopped us and taped us for the show she was doing. It was great fun debating about art for broadcast! Another time I went to a Julian Schnabel opening at the Gagosian gallery in Beverly Hills. The gallery was packed and there was a line around the block to get in. In addition to Schnabel and Gagosian, in attendance was a who's who of art, fashion and Hollywood, including Diane Keaton and Dennis Hopper. It was fantastic rubbing elbows with these very successful and highly evolved people. It's like tennis. You always want to play tennis with someone who's better than you to improve your game. I like to be out in the art world with glitterati. Maybe some of the glitter rubs off on me and gets sprinkled on my art back at the studio. That is more than metaphorical, I really do have glitter on my art, I never thought of it this way before, though! Case in point how being out in the art world gets you thinking about your art!
MICHAEL: I consider myself BOTH an introvert AND an extrovert. The extrovert goes out and seeks things to write about and the introvert sits down, gets introspective about it all and writes. One really feeds the other. I think inspiration follows engagement. You certainly wouldn't have met Andy Warhol had you stayed at home that night. What was it like meeting him?
KAREN: I knew who Andy Warhol was when I met him, but it wasn't until recent years that I read biographies about him. When I met him, he was just like he's described in the biographies I've read. I met Andy Warhol at a party in Manhattan at Neil Sedaka's Park Avenue apartment, a cool, huge, expensive place that took up the whole floor of the building. You got off the elevator and you were in the apartment's living room. The occasion was the debut of Neil's cousin's children's clothing line. At the time, I was editor of a children's fashion magazine and I had written an article about Neil and his cousin, and they invited me to the party. There were tons of people there. And like in a movie, I suddenly found myself face to face with Andy Warhol. What I've read about him recently is that he didn't say much at parties, preferring to observe, instead. That was also my experience. He sort of looked me in the eye, and I sort of looked him in the eye, and we held this look for a few minutes. It was wild. If I met him now, being older, I might have said something. But I was very young at the time and very intimidated meeting him, and since he didn't say anything, I didn't think I should. After our eye lock, without a word, Andy Warhol walked away. I felt a little crushed. At the time, I was used to people making a fuss about me, and Andy Warhol seemed to have decided I wasn't worth his time. What we now know about him is that he surrounded himself with off the wall people. I read not long ago that he liked people who had a sort of craziness in their eyes. In retrospect, I felt that was definitely what he was looking at, to see what was in my eyes. Now, I'm a lot of things, but crazy was never one of them. So I'm satisfied that Andy Warhol probably walked away from me that night at Neil Sedaka's because I wasn't crazy enough to be interesting to him.
MICHAEL: That's funny. It’s yet another story that confirms the eccentricity of Andy Warhol. This was great Karen. Thanks for reminding me that being social is really what art is all about! I certainly hope that you find more thrills on your Magical Mystical Tour. Best wishes for the future.
For more information about Karen, check out her website at www.karensperling.com