Rising art star Josh Smith, famous for painting his name over and over, obsessively, on abstract canvases, has a well-considered strategy for success. “The best thing I could do for myself would be to not work. Just go to more cocktail parties and smile more. Go to more fashion shows,” he said.
Arrogant? Sure. Wrong? No. What’s interesting about Mr. Smith (and he knows it) is that talent at this specific moment in his career is–almost–secondary. Any art that’s been bought and displayed by Charles Saatchi (circa 2006), shown by Jeffrey Deitch (2007) and, as of next month, installed by Peter Brant and Stephanie Seymour in the collectors’ private museum is, if not a masterpiece, at least a solid market play. For Mr. Smith, for good or ill, fame is coming like a freight train. “He seems to be having a particularly good moment,” said Lisa Varghese, his dealer and a director of the Luhring Augustine gallery, in an understatement.
On a recent rainy afternoon, dozens of bright, messy Smith paintings and collages were stacked up against the walls and in piles on the floor of Mr. Brant’s stone barn-turned-museum in Greenwich, Conn. The collector’s estate is large and lush; polo ponies play in the paddocks adjacent to the Brant Foundation Art Study Center. For the past three weeks, the 35-year-old painter has been creating and installing works for his solo exhibition that will open at the bucolic space on May 7.
Relatively unknown until recently, the Tennessee transplant has abruptly become a darling on the New York art scene. His exhibition in Greenwich is just a precursor to a bigger fuss–he’s contributing a large grid of collages to the Venice Biennale and decorating the facade of its Palace of Exhibitions with large vinyl letters in a show opening in June.
Mr. Smith moved slowly around the gallery in a white T-shirt and suspenders, often tearing at the paper in his collages or instructing an assistant on how to glue them together. He is short and a little soft-bodied, talkative, with a nasal braggadocio that betrays his irreverent, occasionally cocky, demeanor. “I knew I was one of the best–going to be one of the best–artists, so I came to New York,” he said of his decision to come here in 1998.
Mr. Brant prides himself on his Pied Piper reputation for spotting new talent and leading others to it. “You have to remember that I asked Josh to do the show two years ago, and Urs [Fischer] three and a half years ago. Now Urs is recognized as one of the best contemporary artists in America. Josh has the Venice Biennale,” is in talks for some shows in California and has a major commission from Dakis Joannou in Greece.
It’s no coincidence that the exhibition will also expose his work to important collectors just in time for the May contemporary art auctions, potentially raising his prices there. Mr. Smith didn’t do too well at Phillips de Pury last year: Of the four pieces he had on the block, two didn’t sell and one fell below its circa-$15,000 estimate. This year, he has two works in its May 13 sale, a 2007 painting estimated disingenuously low (it’s a way to manufacture bidding fever) at $8,000 to $12,000, and a pair of collages at about $25,000.
The Brant exhibition will open doors worldwide for Mr. Smith. “It’s acknowledged that [Brant] is very well connected both within the art world and the press, so I’m sure this exhibition will certainly make a splash,” Ms. Varghese said. Artist Urs Fischer’s exhibition there last year, which featured a melting wax model of Mr. Brant and a giant pit tearing through the gallery’s new floor, drew the likes of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Val Kilmer, Jeff Koons and a handful of influential art collectors, curators and critics.
Mr. Smith has been working quietly for 13 years. But he didn’t attract much attention in the U.S. until 2009, when he had a large collage in the New Museum’s “Younger Than Jesus” exhibition. It was later bought by Mr. Brant. The following year, he painted a series of pieces directly onto the walls at Deitch Studios in Long Island City, challenging notions of art ownership and commodification. It doesn’t hurt that he keeps company with other art-world “bad boys,” as Ms. Varghese put it, like Harmony Korine and Urs Fischer. Mr. Smith worked as an art handler at Luhring before his other employer, the artist Christopher Wool, got him signed on there. (The New York Times‘ Roberta Smith has dubbed some of his work “terrific.”)
But not all of the subsequent attention has been positive. Mr. Smith has been criticized for his intentionally sloppy aesthetic, which has been called amateurish and even downright ugly. And his prolific output–for the Deitch show he created 47 paintings in just three and a half days–suggests to some a flippant attitude toward his work.
And the carelessness is part of the message, Ms. Varghese said. “He treats the paintings and collages a little more roughly than people are used to. There’ll be a stack of collages in his studio stuck together, or paintings with a footstep on them,” she said. “He’s trying to take away the preciousness of it all.”
“A lot of artists go after me, hate on me,” Mr. Smith said. “I really just do it effortlessly and I don’t care, and people can pick up on that.” Apparently he’s not too worried about this exhibition, either. “I’ve done every big show and lots of galleries, so I don’t view this as a big thing at all,” he said. The process was all very casual, with Mr. Brant, “a collector I’d met 20 times,” first approaching the artist about the show in passing. Mr. Smith eventually thought to invite Julian Schnabel and Mr. Fischer to come to Greenwich and advise him.
“I wanted some of Urs’ venom and casualness toward destruction injected into my work,” Mr. Smith said. “And I also wanted Julian’s casualness toward scale.” Mr. Schnabel encouraged Mr. Smith to take advantage of the gallery’s double height ceiling. Mr. Smith took the advice: He’s currently at work painting a 30-by-30-foot canvas. But being one of Mr. Brant’s edgy adoptees may have its downsides. “I want to downplay the element that it’s just a bunch of guys up here with shotguns and jeeps making art shows,”
One of Mr. Smith’s friends, Hungarian painter Rita Ackermann, insisted that for all the talk, Mr. Smith is an intensely serious artist. “He’s always in the studio,” she said. “He’s the hardest-working artist I know,” echoed Mr. Brant. “You don’t have to like the work, but anyone who doesn’t see the talent there is blind.”