Barking at Big Money: Tom Otterness Now Takes Shots at Capitalism, Not Dogs

Next was a model for a piece about the economic collapse, a spiral containing a fantasy about 18 different stages in the evolution (and disintegration) of the capitalist system—home buyers, lenders, then investment banks, then a stage labeled “America cracks up,” and the last, “everyone goes to heaven.”

Where will this be exhibited?

“Oh, this is just for somebody’s backyard,” Mr. Otterness said. “A private collector wanted to explain to his daughters the financial meltdown and how we arrived at the place we’re in now. I’m telling you, it’s incredible. You wouldn’t believe the kind of backyards you see in this business.”

There was a time when Mr. Otterness’ name was spoken in the same breath with his more famous contemporaries in CoLab. He was at the meeting when Ms. Smith and Ms. Holzer were voted in. He exhibited a series of 45-foot-long tables in MoMA’s sculpture garden in 1987. Now his work is thoroughly confined to the public realm and private commissions. His solo show at the end of the month is his first appearance in a gallery in three years.

“Context means so much,” said Andrew Witkins, the director of Barbara Krakow Gallery, which represents Ms. Smith and Ms. Holzer. “The work can stay the same, but if the context changes, it’s no longer about the ‘masterpiece.’ It’s just people doing interesting things and wanting to have conversations. Tom’s work is figurative and in some sense it’s accessible, and for that reason I think he’s frequently misunderstood.”

Mr. Otterness started out misunderstood. The CoLab artists were outsiders initially. The collective was conceived as a “grant-getting machine to recover what rightly belonged to artists,” according to a membership newsletter, The CoLab Daily Purge, from May 1982. “Personal animus against Marcia Tucker and Alanna Heiss was also involved.” 

“Ah, so they wanted to combat me?” Ms. Heiss, the founder of P.S.1 and the director of Clocktower Gallery, in Tribeca, told The Observer. “It’s my memory that in between studios we were able to house CoLab here at Clocktower as a temporary gathering spot,” Ms. Heiss, already successful in galleries and museums at the time of CoLab’s conception (and so, the enemy), said in her defense. “My thought about CoLab is that it provided a venue for the expression of people that were trying to be youthful, optimistic, utopian. These are platitudes, but they are real and necessary. We wouldn’t have much of a city if we never had these things going on.”

While many of the CoLab members have remained involved in public art, most made their names in the gallery system. Mr. Otterness has never quite found such acceptance.

“Everything still comes out of public projects for me,” he said. “At the time when we came up, in ’77, we had a whole population of artists that were unemployed. A lot of stuff was happening on the subways and on the streets. That’s where the action was for us. The gallery shows, in my mind, merely subsidize the public work.”

The man who shot his dog for art currently makes an average of seven figures for large private commissions in someone’s backyard. “Of course, there are some contradictions,” he said. “Talking about populism and having this studio? Working in bronze at that scale? I mean the inherent contradictions of where I came from and where I am. To be a critic of capitalism but to have these benefits? That’s kind of strange. But I made this gamble knowingly. It’s a conscious risk or sacrifice—either way.”

As for CoLab, the group fell apart in the mid-’80s when members started to get picked up by galleries. The building in Times Square that the collective occupied for the month of June in 1980 is now a Red Lobster.

Barking at Big Money: Tom Otterness Now Takes Shots at Capitalism, Not Dogs