There’s a scene in the 1996 movie “Basquiat” where the incandescent young painter (played by Jeffrey Wright) has a handyman gig at a gallery. Willem Dafoe, making a cameo as an electrician, climbs down a ladder and delivers the immortal line: “You know, I’m an artist too.” Here are the two sides of the myth: the obscure martyr unsoiled by commercial success; and the unbridled genius who can’t help but have it all.
In reality, most artists, even most great ones, also have day jobs. During the late 1950s and early 60s, the staff at MoMA harbored grand ambitions. The painters Robert Ryman and Robert Mangold were guards, curator and critic Lucy Lippard a “page” in the museum library, minimalist Sol LeWitt worked the desk and sculptor Dan Flavin ran the elevator. (Miriam Takaezu, an employee in Personnel and sister to the famous ceramist Toshiko Takaezu, apparently took it upon herself to hire artists.)
Work from this MoMA cohort introduces “Day Jobs,” a group show of 38 artists at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas. The exhibition blows through the polite separation between artwork and money work. Not only does it name, in wall label after wall label, what each artist did to keep the lights on — it demonstrates how artists drew techniques, subjects, even inspiration from their diurnal grind.
Put another way, the show refutes the idea of the spontaneous generation of masterpieces. Far from it. Great artists need the world, maybe more than it needs them. “I think we overlook how much mundane moments can shape creative discoveries and directions,” the curator, Veronica Roberts, who’s now the director of Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center, told me. When Frank Stella moved to New York in 1958, he painted houses. In 1959, he had his precocious MoMA debut: canvases covered with black enamel stripes the width of a housepainter’s brush. “When we view artists as living in this rarefied realm,” Roberts said, “we do a disservice to ourselves and to them.”
As Roberts admits, curating the show, she sidestepped two huge categories of common artist gigs: teaching, and assisting other artists. A work by Manuel Rodríguez-Delgado involving a climate-sealed notebook and custom shipping crates glances off the unwieldy category of preparator work, and the wall label for Sol LeWitt’s “Wall Drawing #48,” per his instructions, names the people who drew it. Who hung the rest of the “Day Jobs” show? Who will secret it away when it’s done? That crate would take more than one exhibition to unpack.
Through July 23, The Blanton Museum of Art, 200 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Austin, Texas; 512-471-5482, blantonmuseum.org.