After meeting Todd Anderson, who is also a recent New York transplant to Los Angeles, I thought how wonderful it would be to feature him in the first installment of Occupied. He is a painter, after all, and is there a more romantic and enduring pursuit than that of art—of painting?
And how exactly does a modern-day painter make it? A life of art, it seems, can lead to a meandering trajectory of one job to the next in hopes of one day “making it.” For a writer, I can tell you, it’s not easy. I was only briefly brave enough to quit my job, go into debt and dedicate myself to writing full-time. And that was in my mid-20s while I attended graduate school and, in fact, I’m taking liberty with the word “dedicate.” Because even then I was worried about money and I worked too much and wrote too little (not for lack of time, but rather for lack of discipline).
I can tell you that I want this writing thing to be easy. I want to be good and I want to be published in prestigious journals and I want praise and awards and fellowships and money. And if that weren’t enough, I want all of that to be settled as soon as possible. But as with everything—damn it!—there is a journey. For me, it has led to some exciting jobs. And often, I fear that the new career will be fulfilling enough to burry my passion. And if that happens, should I consider myself lucky to have found work that excited me enough to keep my interest; or shall I look back and regret, regret, regret?
So, Todd, how is painting for you, I wondered.
Todd and I met on a sunny and warm winter’s day (there aren’t many places you can say that, you know) in his Downtown LA loft, where he’d recently moved after spending some time with his mother in Santa Barbara. Some time, enjoying life, being a good son and not painting, as he would later tell me. The loft, he said, reminded him of New York, except with more space and with lower rent. He said, he was ready to rededicate himself to painting, after too much time off, and this was the kind of place he could see himself being holed up for long stretches, working.
For the first interview in Occupied, the beginning was the best place to start:
NR: Did you decide you wanted to be a painter when you were a child?
TA: Yeah, it started when I was little. I was the kid that drew well in school. I was really shy when I was growing up. I was intimidated by the cool kids, and the only thing I had was an ability to draw. And that was a way of attracting girls. They actually wanted my pictures, so it was like ‘all right, now I’ve got something. I’ve got something I can do.’
But I never took it seriously until I was graduating from high school and deciding what I wanted to do. My father was very conservative and business-minded. He told me to go to Arizona State University and get my business degree and if I wanted to do art, he suggested I do a double major. But he didn’t want me to go to art school.
My mom was very, completely supportive of me going to art school. She was really always very encouraging of me being an artist. So we went to New York together in the spring of ‘96 and we looked at SVA, and we looked at Pratt and I fell in love with SVA.
NR: You just felt it.
TA: Yeah, I just felt it. It was a gut feeling and I just went with it. But in school I wasn’t really serious until I went to Paris. I studied abroad in my junior year and it was then that I started focusing. Beforehand I was drawn to New York’s music scene. I was really big into independent hip-hop. And I was obsessed with that culture and I was obsessed with being a DJ and learning how to scratch, so I became a turntablist.
I spent more time my freshman year learning how to scratch and tag—write graffiti—than paint. Immediately I had become friends with the graphic design kids that were from Connecticut and I learned that being from the east coast was totally different than being from the west, where if you wrote graffiti where I’m from (Arizona) it’s like you’re affiliated with a gang. On the east coast it’s what white kids do in the suburbs. They skateboard and they write graffiti. And that’s Connecticut life or whatever. So it was completely different. I went through this chapter in my life where I had a fade haircut and wore totally baggy clothes and went that whole direction. And then I finally came around and took the arts seriously. Even though I always was interested, I just wasn’t acting on it. But it took me meeting artists like John Miller to really grab me and be like, this is really interesting.
NR: Did you romanticize being an artist? Right now I’m reading Just Kids, Patti Smiths’s memoir and she writes about meeting Robert Maplethrope who says to her “I want to be an artist” which is what she wants, but actually, neither of them even knows what that means or what it entails but that’s what they want to do because of this outcast/romantic association that they have with this abstract idea. And so they wing it.
TA: Oh, yeah. In high school I discovered abstract expressionism and the color field painters. The people that put New York’s art scene on the map. Guys like Brice Marden. And minimalism, too was a huge thing for me. I realized when I was in high school, ‘wow, there’s something really going on in the art world. There’s more to it than pretty paintings. These are people that are really challenging the idea of what art could be’ and that really moved me.
NR: do you want your paintings to say something or do you just do it for the sake of doing it.
TA: I think anyone that says they don’t want their art to do anything other than make them happy is a liar. I think it’s show business. Because if you’re going to do something, you have to contribute. You have to say something different. You can’t just spit out what others have already said. The idea of inventing something is extremely important.
NR: So, you went to Paris and you started to take art more seriously and got your BFA in painting and then what? Where did you go from there?
TA: What happened was I started working for Jeffrey Deitch and I got my master’s degree working at the gallery. Working at Deitch projects was my MFA. Because essentially, that was again that connection where I’m meeting the collectors and going out and seeing what goes on in the art world. And that was another wake-up call for me, because I realized I’m a kid from Scottsdale, Arizona and this is what goes on in New York in the art world. Those are completely two different worlds and I was totally enamored by it.
But at the same time I was too easily impressed. My role in the gallery was to be the instillation assistant. I was low-level, and again, it was that whole thing where I aspired to be part of the click and part of the celebration.
NR: I feel like that’s the great secret of the art world and the fashion world, though. You said you were a kid from Scottsdale and then you were in the middle of Deitch Projects. Everybody’s just a kid from Scottsdale and then they come to New York and then they’re not that kid any more.
TA: It’s extremely rare to come across people who are actually from that world. Everybody’s from somewhere else.
NR: I was reading a great article about the CEO of Burberry and it was all about how she turned this iconic and failing British fashion house around. She’s this extremely bright, influential and savvy executive in the fashion industry and she’s just an American girl from an ordinary Midwestern family. I feel like at a certain point you go to New York and you either shed that, or you don’t.
TA: Yeah, there were lot of kids that I went to school with who were incredibly talented and as soon as we graduated they went back home and I was like, what the hell are you doing? To me, that didn’t make sense at all. But then the other side of that is that it did make sense finally when I moved here (to Los Angeles) because I was so tired of being a mouse on a wheel.
NR: Yeah, but let’s get back to the trajectory, so you were working at the Deitch Projects and then…
TA: Yeah, I worked for Jeffrey for about three years.
NR: were you painting through this?
TA: No. That’s the other thing. I was so involved with that scene it was really hard for me to work at the same time. I’m only really good at doing one thing. And that’s something I’ll never forget from an interview I had with Mary Boone. I will never forget it. She’s actually someone I really admire. Even when I was in high school I was reading Artforum and her gallery page would just stand out from everything else—it was a full page and it was in your face. It made an impression.
So at one point I just randomly met a woman at a benefit in the Wooster space who said, a friend of mine is looking for an assistant, would you mind if I gave her your information. At that point I was really frustrated with working with Jeffrey, because he would have temper tantrums and I was over it. So, then I get this call at 9 o’clock on a weeknight from Mary Boone. I had no idea that it was gonna be Mary Boone. My phone rings and I didn’t recognize the number so I let it go to voicemail and then I listen to the message it’s this voice saying “Hi Todd, this is Mary Boone.” And I’m like, ‘holy shit!’ I mean, I was just a kid. Recently out of school! So I set up an interview with her and I’m still so scared. Totally intimidated.
Basically, what I’m trying to get to is that when you’re doing one thing, you’re at your best. I’ll never forget it. In the interview, it was two hours at her townhouse. Most intense interview I’ve ever had in my life—or experience—or conversation.
She said, ‘I believe in doing one thing. So essentially, if you’re going to work for me, you’re no longer an artist.’ She wanted a three year contract. But I realized that I didn’t want to do that any more. I didn’t want to go to dinner with Steve Martin and sell the art. I wanted to be the artist.
NR: So, you stopped working for Deitch Projects and you didn’t take the Mary Boone Job.
TA: Actually, I left the art world all together. I had to shut it off. I started working in a totally different trade just to get myself away from the politics.
NR: What did you do?
TA: I started painting houses. High-end. Fancy, Park Avenue type shit. It had to be high-end so that I could pay the bills. And then I started doing custom finishes, and that’s still what I do to make money.
NR: And do you feel like that doesn’t take away from your own work, given that you believe in just doing one thing?
TA: No. This is totally ideal. Now I’m in a situation that I have steady work and it’s not nine-to-five. So we’ll do a project that’s five days on and then I’m off for a week or two and I can just focus and spend that time here in my studio.
NR: And do you? Are you painting?
TA: Yeah! I just did these two. This one I’m not done with. As soon as I moved in, and I’m only on my third week here, I made it a priority to open every single box and put everything away so that I could start working.
NR: Until now, how long had it been since you’d painted?
TA: I tried painting last year when I was at my mom’s place, but it never felt right, because I wasn’t alone.
NR: Have you had the opportunity to show your work yet?
TA: Yes. I had my first solo show at White Columns. It was work I’d done after the Deitch thing. So it was enough time for me to start moving back into my own world and not worry about what other people thought. ‘cus that’s the thing. At a certain point you just have to close the door and you can’t give a shit about what anybody thinks. You just have to do what you want to do. You have to follow your gut. Because that’s the only way your work is going to be genuine.
NR: If you hadn’t gone to art school, what do you think you’d be doing?
TA: I have no fucking clue. No idea.
NR: Did you ever entertain the idea of doing something else for a living? I guess you did with your work at Deitch and your Mary Boone interview.
TA: Yeah. A lot of people told me I should be a dealer because I’m so social. And I was always really ambitious and all about who is who. To be honest, there were times during that when I was a total prick. But in the end I really like people and that’s kind of the opposite of the stereotypical anti-social artist.
Except there was also that when I was working at Deitch I was so easily impacted by—because I’m so sensitive—when something would go wrong, I would instantly be super paranoid. And if you didn’t operate in a cool fashion or a cool way it was total suicide. We liked each other and I was fascinated with him but we totally clashed. When it came to sitting down, we never really clicked. He’s an alien, but I consider Jeffrey an artist, as well. He started the whole art consulting trend. He was the first one that brought the corporate world and melded it with the art world. And a lot of people hated that, but it was just a period of growth. So what if it reeks of corporate corruption but who cares. It’s money and you need that in order to support the arts. At the end of the day you can’t just be this total romantic.
NR: Would you be happy if you never became a famous artist and you just had your day job and you painted.
TA: I think I would be depressed. I would be a very sad person if I weren’t showing my work.
NR: So you said you were showing in New York.
TA: Yes, I was showing my work, but it was also a phase when I fell in love with relationships that were unhealthy for me and so, again, I sort of lost track of focusing on my work. It takes a lot of alone time and I wasn’t big on being alone. It was totally two different things. Couldn’t operate on the same track. Again, it was having to choose one thing or another.
But now I’m at a place where it’s just me. And it’s my place and I don’t even have to go outside. Now I can be holed up here and be totally content and focused. I plan to make my living by doing this.
NR: And do you think you will?
TA: (Pause)…Yes….Yes. Does that sound cocky?
NR: No. I think if you didn’t say that, it would be bad.