Fall Arts: Dean Levin and the Rise of the Bro Artists

The almost-famous painter and his crew shred the art world's gnar

Dean Levin. (Photo by Celeste Sloman/for New York Observer)

Dean Levin. (Photos by Celeste Sloman/for New York Observer)

In August, I was with the young artist Dean Levin who had tight jeans and stubble and long stringy hair, at Sophie’s, a dive bar in the East Village with barely a working bathroom. We were there to drink with his friends, a dozen or so other artists who are also young, and who also had tight jeans and stubble and long stringy hair. Many of them were from California, like Mr. Levin, and they talked about the local surf spots, and when they were going to head out to the beach that weekend. Not all of them are process-based abstract painters with representation from a blue-chip gallery and spots in fair booths next to Frank Stella, like Mr. Levin. But they are all near his age, which is 25 years old.

We were having Budweisers and tequila shots before inevitably ending up at Paul’s Baby Grand, the popular nightclub in Tribeca, when Harry Styles walked into the bar. Mr. Styles is the lead singer of One Direction, currently the most screamed-over and stadium-filling teen pop music group in the world.

Mr. Styles was with two young women who were very attractive. The man checking IDs at the door didn’t check their IDs. And then the young women with Mr. Styles went to sit by the artists who knew Mr. Levin, because they had invited these young women to the bar, and soon enough the whole crew was sidling up to Mr. Styles and his famous floppy hair, taking tequila shots, hanging out.

Mr. Levin didn’t care much. He seemed to rather stick with his friends: members of The Still House Group, an assistant to the artist and nightclub owner André Saraiva, budding painters who work as assistants to artists like Dan Colen, some Instagram-famous models-slash-bloggers, and young gallery directors at Upper East Side places like Half Gallery and Robert Blumenthal.

“You should probably sell Harry Styles something,” I said to Mr. Levin.

We were standing at the bar, a few feet away from Mr. Styles and the table he had commandeered.

“He’s British,” Mr. Levin said. “Harry probably buys, like, fuck, Banksy or some shit.”

“Not Banksy,” I said. “Leonardo DiCaprio probably tells Harry to buy Oscar Murillo.”

“Yeah, probably,” Mr. Levin said. Kids at Sophie’s were already in line for the one working bathroom.

“But you know,” Mr. Levin said. “Leo’s also got two works by me.”

***

Mr. Levin and his friends are all wellstudied, good-looking, hard-working and fun-loving future art stars. They spend all day in the studio dreaming up and eventually creating abstract works that don’t challenge the status quo so much as inch it forward at their own pace. The biggest collectors in the world love them, and they love surfing. They seem like nice, normal guys. Bros, even. 


Dean Levin and his friends are all well-studied, good-looking, hard-working, fun-loving would-be future art stars. Some of the biggest collectors in the world love them. They seem like nice, chill, normal guys. Bros, even.


And while there’s certainly a precedent for this sort of thing—there have always been cliques of young guys making art at an impressive clip who seem to just want to hang out and drink beer (or absinthe)—these Bro artists are unlike those who came before. The Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg bunch saw themselves as aesthetic pioneers on the fringe of society, battling to redefine what art is. The mid-aughts downtown set of Ryan McGinley, Mr. Colen and the late Dash Snow was hellbent on destruction via drug use and crude sex acts and radical politics. They funneled such debauchery into their art. There was a lot of bodily fluid.

The oeuvre of this new Art de Bro seems like a response to that. You’ll see no aspect of renegade street art. You’ll see no nudity. The art is all process-based, design-driven, highly architectural work. Some of it is brilliant. The artists work set hours, diligently, and can afford apartments in Manhattan. And while they all go to the best up-all-night clubs, there isn’t much public acting out—as if, perhaps, one could be worried about an errant, or purposeful, iPhone picture.

It’s this restraint (or, as some scoffed, lack of imagination) that goes into the work of the new Marianne Boesky Gallery signee Mr. Levin.

***

Though he spent his childhood in Los Angeles, where he attended Beverly Hills High School, Mr. Levin was born in South Africa. When he was  two years old, his mother, a divorced white Jewish woman in Africa, decided it was time to leave.

“She actually got followed home by a van full of people and was very afraid,” Mr. Levin told me, sitting in his small studio in Tribeca. He doesn’t quite sound like a West Coast skate kid reared on pot and punk rock—though that’s exactly what he is—but his fully formed bright sentences do come out very slowly, soaked in a surfer dude’s lilt.

His studio is filled with freshly stretched canvases, small and strange metal instruments with uses I couldn’t quite grasp, paint, and a laptop quietly playing a surf video, along with a few new works and a few old works. It’s not a far walk from the apartment in Soho he shares with his girlfriend, a model and actress.

“Basically,” he went on, still speaking about his mother, “there were these things in South Africa called panic buttons, and she would hit the panic button like every night. And there was this one time that scared her so much that literally the next week she packed her bags and left with me and my older brother.”

After high school and a few stints at school out West, he ended up at the Pratt Institute—but not for art, for architecture. By sophomore year he was living on the Lower East Side with his good friend Lucien Smith—at the time just another student at Cooper Union, now a polarizing but undeniably successful young artist—and Mr. Smith was a member Still House. And so Mr. Levin got involved with the whole mess of making and selling art through the rowdy kids in that Red Hook-based band of misfits, after Beth Rudin DeWoody, who became a collector of his work, offered to buy a sculpture he had made for a group show.

While still working toward an architecture degree, Mr. Levin found himself in a studio with his artist buds, making pieces steeped in a love of all things about buildings—utilitarian, domestic, functional, disciplined—while cheating on his major outright, and creating the first of a number of series consisting of paintings and sculptures that would quickly mature into the work he’s putting out now. These were, to some extent, products of South African displacement—monochromatic, scatterbrained, headstrong, outsider—as he did continue to go home twice a year to visit his father, and he’s still a South African citizen.

But the works were also redolent of his adopted home, his real home. They were Californian in the way that the Light and Space art forefathers intended such work to be—reflecting, breathing, elliptical, controlled—and immediately a hit. The coastal life is there in his art. Before he even starts talking about surfing, you can tell that his work is about the beach.

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Dean Levin doesn’t quite sound like a West Coast skate kid reared on pot and punk rock—though that’s exactly what he is—but his fully formed bright sentences do come out very slowly, soaked in a surfer dude’s lilt.

This seems to be part of a moment: of the artists who hang with Mr. Levin at, say, Sophie’s or Paul’s Baby Grand, most are from Southern California, and this comes out in their art. “There’s a lot of artists in New York practicing that came from Los Angeles during my time in high school and we’re all very close, and we all hang out at night, discuss different things,” Mr. Levin said. “There was a lot more happening when our parents got there but I think that our parents’ generation has now been pushed out as the creative generation. We all moved to New York at the same time.”

One of those people who moved to New York from Los Angeles at the same time was Mr. Smith, who has become something of a totem among young artists. Many of his paintings that were sold on the primary market for around $10,000 have been put on auction in the last year, and their prices have become extraordinarily high.

A work that was supposed to sell at a high estimate of $97,922 at Phillips during the contemporary evening sales in London last February—Feet in the Water, 2012—went for $317,431. A work that was supposed to sell at a high estimate of $98,500 at Sotheby’s —Two Sides of the Same Coin, 2012—went for $365,392. Both were Mr. Smith’s most coveted paintings, his “Rain Paintings.” But the sales were followed by an outcry over inflated prices, and a dismissal among critics who argued he was churning out too much too fast.

“When Lucien was producing the Rain Paintings he was 20 years old,” said Mr. Levin, whose own works so far have changed hands at about $10,000, and have been snapped up by major collectors. “I helped produce some of them with him in his studio upstate—like I literally physically helped him produce them—and when you’re 20 years old you don’t know … A lot of these critics are saying it was a conscious decision to produce work.”

I emailed Mr. Smith to see if he wanted to comment for this story, and he did not respond. When I ran into him in the Hamptons—he now lives in a house he purchased in Montauk, in addition to keeping an apartment near Washington Square—he apologized for not getting back to me, and explained he’s taking something of a break from painting. He’s playing drums in the band Cable, fronted by filmmaker Tracy Antonopoulos, and he drives back into town to DJ every Tuesday. “I really want to stay out of the art world right now,” he said.

***

In Mr. Levin’s case, it took dealer Marianne Boesky only a few months to pull the trigger.

“It took a while to get to the studio, and then I finally did get to the studio four months ago,” Ms. Boesky told me on the phone. “I was questioning myself because I don’t usually move that quickly. But it’s this young fresh voice. There are so many artists doing process abstraction, but there are many bodies of work that he has at the same time.”


Last May, I went to his first-ever solo show. the one work in the exhibition was fiendishly inventive, a steel frame that stacked a dozen paintings cheek-to-jowl, allowing viewers to slide out paintings as they please.


She was confident in the move but knew his age would be a conversation starter, especially when he’s sharing a booth at Art Basel Miami Beach in December with the 78-year-old king of post-painting abstraction, Frank Stella.

“Dean is young, he’s the youngest in the program right now, and the concern is more about allowing the artist to grow and not get caught up in churning out material,” Ms. Boesky said. “And it takes time to make what he makes.”

Alas, time is not something Mr. Levin has an excess of: he’ll be in a show at Ms. Boesky’s newest outpost, Boesky East on Clinton Street, he’s preparing works for nearly all the major fairs, and then in 2016, he’ll have his solo show at the flagship gallery in Chelsea.

***

Later that night, we left the studio, with its piles of stretched canvases and whirligigs more befitting a scientist than an artist, and went to meet Ellie Rines, the charming and ubiquitous art world doyenne behind the tiny gallery 55 Gansevoort.

“Oh, daaaahrling, I just had the strangest studio visit,” she said, and she said it like that because this is how Ms. Rines talks. 

I was first introduced to Mr. Levin through Ms. Rines. “Oh, you just have to meet him, he’s uh-maaaaaaaay-zing, you’ll love him—or did I introduce you to him already at Baby Grand last Tuesday?” she told me one day last spring. Neither of us could recall much from last Tuesday at Baby Grand, so in May, I went to see his first-ever solo show, at Robert Blumenthal Gallery, where Ms. Rines is a director. The one work in the exhibition was fiendishly inventive, a steel frame that stacked a dozen paintings cheek-to-jowl, allowing viewers to slide out each painting as they pleased—an in-joke reference to picking out tiles in a home-improvement store, or an art collector storing works in a storage facility.

“This kid,” said a man at the show in a thick suit, gesturing toward Mr. Levin. “This kid’s going to be big.”

The getting big part happened fast at Boesky. “Now, I have my accountant, my lawyer, my assistant, my handlers, my consultants,” he said. His scruff-covered face was cut through ear-to-ear with a shit-eating grin. “And I have my new best friend,  Frank Stella.”

Fall Arts: Dean Levin and the Rise of the Bro Artists