Oct. 23 will see the release of (Untitled), a satire of the New York art world in the key of The Emperor’s New Clothes that asks what is art, what is hackery and why does it seem like no one in Chelsea wants to admit the distinction.
The film centers around a successful painter (Eion Bailey) whose decorative, abstract canvases hang from the walls of hotels and office buildings, and the ambitious Chelsea gallerist (Marley Shelton) who represents his work even though she favors avant-garde conceptual art. The painter, Josh, and the gallerist, Madeleine, are entangled not only professionally but romantically, which gets complicated because she secretly finds his work pedestrian and regressive, and handles his dumb little pictures only because they do well with her corporate clients. To Josh’s chagrin, Madeleine refuses to exhibit his work in her gallery, preferring instead to keep it in the back where no one can see it. The film reaches its climax when Josh interrupts one of Madeleine’s openings by barging in and asking, despairingly, “When did beauty become so fucking ugly?”
You get to see a lot of Josh’s paintings over the course of (Untitled)—which also stars Adam Goldberg as an avant garde composer—but it’s easy to forget, while you’re watching it, that every canvas attributed to the fictional artist had to have been painted by a real one. But what artist would allow his work to be used in such an unflattering fashion? Who would agree to paint dozens of professional-grade pictures only to have them denigrated, for 90 minutes, as disposable, commercial kitsch?
That someone, it turns out, is the neo–Abstract Expressionist painter Frank Holliday, who came out of the 1980s Lower East Side art scene. Mr. Holliday said he was recruited by the film’s producers because someone who worked with the art director had used one of his paintings in a student film.
Mr. Holliday wasn’t chosen for the job because his work naturally resembles Josh’s—in fact, the paintings Mr. Holliday made for (Untitled) have almost nothing in common with his actual art, which he said tends to be much more aggressive.
“They said the paintings had to be colorful and beautiful and kind of traditional abstractions,” Mr. Holliday said. “They needed to be good but not great, and they needed to have kind of an edge to them—like, is this artist good or is he deluded? Because that’s kind of the conflict: Is this beautiful and meaningless, or is it beautiful and important? I had to walk the line.” He added: “One thing I asked them was, ‘Are we making fun of this guy? Are we?’ And they said, ‘Well, not really.’”
So what does Mr. Holliday think of Josh’s paintings? Are they good or what?
“There are aspects that I like,” he said. “They’re nothing like my paintings, but I stand behind them. What’s so funny is that I have incorporated some of what I learned into my own work since I did those paintings. They did make me shift a little bit in what I was doing—not on purpose, but, you know, I wasn’t just hacking them out—I still got involved in color and light and layering, and it did teach me something about my own work.”