Dan Colen first appeared in 2005 as one of a small clique of hard-living downtown art punks who quickly captured the imagination of several dealers and a few collectors. They drew the attention of magazines and photographers, with the implied promise that they would deliver some sensibility-challenging art or die young—or both.
Skillful paintings of Disney-esque candles and stripes of encrusted bird shit, as well as gray “boulders” (actually papier-mâché) covered with graffiti, turned the artist into a hit at the 2006 Whitney Biennial. The energetic work let art-world insiders, including Gagosian Gallery, in on the fact that this youngster was hot. The same year, in Berlin, the artist caused an uproar with a poster of his erect penis covered by a Jewish prayer shawl.
The market didn’t find Dan Colen a hard sell. In May 2009, the artist’s painting of smoke rings rising from a candle (Untitled (Blow Me)) sold for $386,500 at a Sotheby’s evening sale. Sex, defiance of authority, profligacy, drugs—all the ingredients for a certain kind of art-world fame were there, and so was the money.
After the death of the clique’s spiritual leader, Dash Snow, from a drug overdose in July 2009, Mr. Colen reportedly gave up drinking, drugs and smoking. His solo debut at Gagosian Gallery in September 2010 was the hottest spectacle of the year, provoking intense debate in the art community. The New York Times issued sharply opposing reviews of the show, and Jerry Saltz actually agreed with his wife, Roberta Smith, on something (Ms. Smith: “juvenile nastiness”; Mr. Saltz: “spirit of stupidity”).
The debut, highly criticized, featured paintings with bubble gum, confetti, dirt and grass, elements begging for mass production. But they all sold. Two months later, Phillips de Pury sold Mr. Colen’s Untitled (Birdshit) at auction for $110,500.
Conflicting worries that Dan Colen had gone soft or was too edgy haven’t dampened the enthusiasm of buyers. In November 2012, Phillips de Pury auctioned his bubblegum-on-canvas S&M for $578,500. From here, any direction Mr. Colen takes promises to hold our attention.