The Ohwow bookstore in the West Village, because it is so small, can be something of a hot-box when it comes to smells. If anyone perusing the art books there has been smoking weed, everybody in the car-sized store knows it. A few weeks ago, at a book signing for the artist Lucien Smith, the store was wrapped in two distinct odors. The first was the heavy, gag-inducing scent of a week-old dead rat that rotted in the wall at the far end of the store. The second was fame.
The fame aroma emanated from Mr. Smith, a 23-year-old wunderkind who used to work for the artist Dan Colen and abuses his own canvases in a pretty punk-rock way. If Mr. Colen is, as New York magazine dubbed him in 2006, one of “Warhol’s Children,” Mr. Smith is Andy’s grandkid. Where Warhol and his cohorts pissed on copper paint to make “oxidation paintings,” Mr. Smith will fill a fire extinguisher with paint, spray it at a canvas, then name the whole thing after a dumb romantic comedy. The highlight of Salon 94’s booth at the Frieze Art Fair in London earlier this month was a wall-size canvas with gobs of white paint and a bunch of pie tins stuck to it, looking as though the painting itself had received a cream pie in the face. The idea was to show this with work by Claes Oldenburg, but Salon 94’s owner Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn decided their senses of humor weren’t as copacetic as she’d imagined. All the same, the smaller pie works, priced at $4,500, all sold “briskly.” Mr. Smith came up through the cool-kid Still House art collective, and he’s in the process of moving his studio from Claverack, N.Y., to Manhattan. Irving Blum and Jeffrey Deitch were spotted at his recent L.A. opening at Ohwow, the gallery that represents him, his works are in The Sender Collection, along with that of Herb and Lenore Schorr, and he’s dating David Zwirner’s daughter. For the rat smell, the woman who ran the signing had placed a little Diptyque candle against the wall, but it seemed nothing could stop the waves of potential rolling off Mr. Smith.
In person, he seems an unlikely vehicle for the hype that surrounds him. At the signing he sat on a bench near the rat wall, soft-spoken and in comfortable clothes. He has a sort of endearing tendency to talk about his work mainly by saying what other people have written about it on the internet. Asked how he has furthered the “fuck it” aesthetic of Mr. Colen and Nate Lowman, he said he thought he was a bit less pessimistic, or at least “that’s what I keep hearing about the paintings.”
“I like to hear what people’s reactions are to things,” he said. “I have mine, and that’s not necessarily important. I don’t try to weigh anyone down with what I believe the work is about.”
His book, Small Rain Paintings, was really a catalogue for a show he’d done in Los Angeles of the fire extinguisher works, and it was in hot demand. China Chow had a book signed. She said she had to meet Mr. Smith. Bill Powers had told her about him. So had Al Moran, Ohwow’s co-founder. She rested on her haunches and asked Mr. Smith to think about doing something for a magazine she is involved with.
A man with long gray hair who later identified himself as an art adviser asked Mr. Smith what shows he had coming up. “I have a show of new work at Half Gallery opening next week,” he said. The man nodded. “And then I’ll be doing a new show of photography work, which is kind of branching out for me, at Suzanne Geiss.” The man nodded again. “And then later next year I’ll have a show at Salon”—some threshold reached, the man pulled out his wallet and wordlessly handed a $20 bill to the woman selling books, his eyes still on Mr. Smith—“94, though we don’t know what I’m going to be doing there yet.” The man gave Mr. Smith his card.
Two of Mr. Smith’s studio assistants came by to say hello. Later, Mr. Smith explained that he has three studio assistants, all paid, because his time with Mr. Colen was so positive. “I want to give back that same experience that I had,” he said. If 23 seems young to have three studio assistants, it’s because, he said, nobody has ever had the kind of success he’s had at this age. “I don’t really hold myself up to any standard or any timeline,” he said.
His mother came by. “Oh Lucien, this is, these are so emotional!” she said, flipping through the book.
Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe, the artists who recently installed a sci-fi haunted house in Marlborough Chelsea, shook Mr. Smith’s hand. Had they met before? All three thought they had. They agreed that they’d most likely been drinking at the time.
The artist Marilyn Minter stopped by with Salon 94 Director Fabienne Stephan, who introduced her to Mr. Smith, but also to downtown fixture Aaron Bondaroff, another of Ohwow’s co-founders, with whom she seemed to form a more immediate bond.
“Where have you been all my life?” Ms. Minter asked, examining his prodigious freckles. She photographs freckles, she explained. “Fabienne, how long have you been keeping this guy from me?”
“You said you were done with freckles!” Ms. Stephan said.
“Not when they’re like this,” Ms. Minter said, rolling up one of Mr. Bondaroff’s sleeves.
“Of course, everyone at 23 is an open question,” said Mr. Powers, Half Gallery’s co-owner, “but I think the potential and what we’re seen from him so far is about as promising as it gets. It’s been 10 years since we’ve had a wave of young New York artists, and whether it’s Nate Lowman or Josh Smith or Dan Colen or Rashid Johnson, I feel like Lucien’s part of that next wave.”
Mr. Powers’s show with the artist opens Friday.