The phenomenon of the artist who drops out, whether only leaving the scene socially or actually ceasing to make work, may be as old as the scene itself, but it could be catching on. In 1967, Agnes Martin left New York for the New Mexico desert, avoiding the art world for years. In 1975, Bas Jan Ader disappeared after setting sail across the Atlantic alone in a tiny boat, giving rise to speculation about whether this was his final artistic gesture. Stanley Brouwn, Charlotte Posenenske and Lee Lozano have absented themselves, and, more recently, Cady Noland became legendary both for her work and for abandoning the art scene.
Now, another New York artist is making a unique and provocative exit. On Darren Bader’s humorously named website, aaronbader.com, a sign reads: “20 Yrs: Selling My Practice.”
“It’s been a good ride,” he says on the site. If he finds a buyer, he will be prohibited from being Darren Bader the contemporary artist, and that identity will be taken over by the buyer. All his works to date will remain under the existing artist’s purview, but if the buyer wants to keep making trademark Bader works, they’re welcome to take a crack at it. (Whether collectors and buyers will continue to buy them is, of course, another question.)
What’s the asking price? He has in mind a low-seven-figure sum.
Is it a gag? He’s often (unflatteringly) called a prankster, but if this is a prank, it’s the kind that comes with an eight-page contract, drawn up with the attorney David Steiner (also known as artist Alfie Steiner). It will be published in the coming weeks, along with a video about the artist by the filmmaker Pacho Velez and text by Bader, in an issue of the online journal Triple Canopy titled “True to Life.”
“It does, to me, represent a common career arc,” Triple Canopy’s editor, Alexander Provan, said by phone, “from desperately working to establish yourself as an artist and as an individual who is representative of your own body of work to exhausting the possibility of that identity, in work and perhaps in life.”
The contract lays it all out, in terms as simultaneously dull and amusing as you might expect, dryly defining terms like artist, work and practice. The buyer gets Bader’s practice: that is, his art world reputation and the right to use the name on new works. Bader won’t legally change his name, and can use it when he becomes something new: television host, art dealer, comedian, etc. If all goes well, Bader sheds the art world skin he’s been wearing for 20 years.
The project follows in a century-old tradition of immaterial and conceptual art that began as soon as Marcel Duchamp proposed an ordinary urinal (titled “Fountain”) for a 1917 exhibition under a pseudonym. “He created a new thought for that object,” said Duchamp, defending the fictitious artist, “R. Mutt.”
Beginning in 1959, Yves Klein sold “zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility,” in which a collector got a receipt for a certain amount of empty space. Conceptualists like Lawrence Weiner and Robert Barry, in the 1960s and ’70s, opposed the commercialization of art by making art that sometimes consisted of mere description and didn’t have to take physical form at all. And in the age of the NFT, artists like Beeple and Pak have mastered the art of getting people to pay (into the tens of millions in Beeple’s case) for artworks so ethereal that even most in the art world couldn’t explain what they actually consist of.
While not quite a household name, Bader leaves behind an enviable career and has produced an impressively varied and cerebral body of work. He’s appeared in career-making exhibitions, like the Whitney Biennial (in 2014) and the Venice Biennale (in 2019), and had solo shows at institutions like MoMA PS1. He’s represented by three respected galleries: Andrew Kreps in New York, Blum & Poe in Los Angeles and London’s Sadie Coles. In a 2018 profile in T Magazine, Nikil Saval wrote that Bader is “renowned … for his elevation of the profane and ridiculous into the realm of high art.” All the same, his self-deprecating description on the Kreps gallery website refers to him as “an aging sculpture/literature brand working in AR, elision, found object, humor, permutation/chance, poem, rhetoric, and video.”
So when we met at a bar in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, the question was obvious: Why do this? “One, this is not meant to be an adieu,” he told me. “But two, there is a surfeit of identity. Everyone has an aggrandized ‘me.’ And three, there’s a bottleneck of creative talent.”
“The project makes fun of this codified notion: when did the term ‘art practice’ even start?” he said. “It’s playfully rancorous.” He added in an email, “It was just one of those semi-serendipitous ideas. I think it might have been when thinking about dentists selling their practice.” Partly, he’s vexed by the dubious concept of the very kind of art world brand name he’s selling off.
A few examples illustrate the span of his ouevre. His first book, “James Earl Scones” (2005), contains an abundance of proposals for doomed projects. In one, he asks the director of Rome’s Capitoline Museums for permission to ride naked on the famous ancient Roman equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, ensuring the director that “this performance is an act of sheer reverence for both the continuum of Western art and the inexorable presence of history.”
In his 2012 book “77 and/or 58 and/with 19,” he describes the piece “motorcycle on birth control,” in which the buyer would drop the pills, as prescribed, into the vehicle’s gas tank. Characteristically for Bader, it combines two objects in an ambiguous way, perhaps feminizing a cliché of masculinity, perhaps aborting the fantasies of freedom to which the motorcycle gives birth.
Behind the humor, the artist sees higher purposes. When the Calder Foundation awarded him the Calder Prize in 2013 (“His installations often take on a strange character,” the Atelier Calder acknowledged) and asked how his work extends Calder’s legacy, Bader replied, “In questioning what the limits/definition of sculpture could be.”
If it strikes the average person as absurd to put a price on a practice, he’s interested in how we place value on things, including art objects and money. In a 2014 “show” at Kreps, some pieces consisted solely of monetary exchanges. For example, for $25,800, you could get the piece “$15,031,” while some works were the other way around: for $4,200, you could buy “$16,937.” (Kreps told me with a laugh that he admonished his staff, “We simply cannot sell these works. Maybe he should buy them all.”)
Some past works consist principally of instructions for how to interact with a work, even as they challenge the way we make some objects valuable while we discard others. Regarding the found object sculptures in the 2014 Kreps show “To Have and To Hold,” some as insignificant as a bottle cap, the collector was charged to live with the object, collect more just like it, destroy or lose the original object (optional), then begin to give the accumulated objects away.
Jeff Poe, of Blum & Poe, has made his peace with Bader’s decision. In a phone conversation, Poe remembered his awe on first seeing Bader’s work, in his 2012 show “Images” at MoMA PS1: “You walk in and you see a couch and a couple of cats and two burritos on a windowsill, and, down the hall, a perfect grid of plinths with fruit on top. It was such a messy, precise, historically informed and hilarious show that it deeply upset me. If Duchamp and Phyllis Diller had a child, it would be Darren Bader.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that this is completely in keeping with his trajectory,” Poe added. “He’s embraced the wrong. He came onstage breaking the fourth wall. Now he’s exiting through a trap door.”
But if anything is “wrong,” Bader says, it’s the state of the art world he’s leaving. In an online journal on the site where he’s offering the practice for sale, Bader expressed disgust at the dealer Barbara Gladstone telling The Times that the late collector Emily Fisher Landau’s habit of not buying artwork as speculation was “a wonderfully old-fashioned tradition.”
Bader asks, incredulously, “What world have I been a part of for two decades?”