The New Black: Sought-After Art School Grad Moves Beyond Puppy Paintings

Sebastian Black’s 125th Street studio lies between an elevated portion of the 1 train and an elevated portion of the

A puppy painting.

Sebastian Black’s 125th Street studio lies between an elevated portion of the 1 train and an elevated portion of the West Side Highway, though not directly under either of those conveyors. A recent graduate of the Columbia Visual Arts MFA program, his workspace belongs to the school, and as you walk through the building, which resembles an old YMCA—Mr. Black calls its overall palette “institutional teal”—you can poke your head into any number of dorm-size rooms and glimpse a student artist developing his style. In July, Mr. Black, 26, will be forced to clear out of the Harlem space, though he’s also received attention from some influential collectors and galleries lately—probably more than most others graduating, though such things are hard to quantify—and whatever else that means it means he’ll be able to have a studio next year.

Mr. Black is tall and rangy, and thoughtful when he talks. He literally holds his chin in his hand when he considers paintings and actually does wear a lot of black, in a way that doesn’t seem at all affected. On his left shoulder he has a large tattoo that seems to be a personified abstract painting, with arms, legs and a hat, taking a jaunty stroll. “Huh?” reads the text under it. “I think maybe the only thing worse than a bad tattoo is a tattoo you think is really awesome,” he said, sitting on a stool in his studio a few weeks ago.

If the art world is notorious for pigeonholing artists who find early success so that they become, for example, “that guy who only makes silver paintings,” Mr. Black marks what may be a next level, or at the very least a more complex one, in post-MFA desirability in that he both has already pigeonholed himself in a self-aware and ironic way and, cautious of actual pigeonholing, has moved on to newer works that are varied and difficult to categorize. This summer he’ll have works in three group shows, one at Thierry Goldberg, one at Room East and the last at Metro Pictures, though if you don’t know what to look for you might not even associate them all with the same artist.

He’s known for his puppy paintings, three of which hang in his studio, and they’ve consequently come to represent a complex inside joke. The first part of the joke comes from the works themselves, which were exhibited in a solo show at Chelsea’s Kathleen Cullen Fine Art and “reference early modernist appropriations of African masks,” according to Artforum. While the long strokes of bright color converge to something that might, for some, resemble a cartoon-like puppy, to most people the paintings look much more like a shoulders-to-thighs rendering of a nude woman, the puppy’s eyes her breasts, his cute little nose her pubic hair.

A bit more biography for the continued joke: Mr. Black grew up in Manhattan, near Chelsea, attending the Little Red School House and then St. Ann’s, and always wanted to be an artist, and his early gallery-and-museum going made the job seem not that radical (“It just seemed to me a completely viable job that you could have and your kids would be playing with the bankers’ kids”). The notion that this would be simple died sometime around Vassar, where he made gender-bending portraits of himself on foam insulation (“I wish someone had just been like, ‘Stop, that is the worst thing ever’”). A two-year stint as a studio assistant for Adam McEwen (he penciled the letters of the artist’s text-message paintings in Nokia font, e.g., “She looks like death its so hot”) restored some of his former beliefs about this being a sensible business, and perhaps something to rebel against, so he entered graduate school declaring that like Giorgio Morandi, the Italian painter who dedicated himself almost exclusively to still lifes, the puppy paintings were all he’d ever make during his time at Columbia.

“I had made already eight or nine of the small ones by the time I came here,” he said, “and that’s when I was totally gung-ho about this joke of me being just the guy who makes these puppy paintings. Like, ‘I’m going to go through school, this space where you’re expected to experiment, not experimenting or experimenting very microscopically.’ I believed that that was an interesting way of approaching graduate school, to be a pain in the ass. I don’t know if I gave in or if I just got bored, but it seemed like I probably shouldn’t waste this opportunity, just trying to make a point.”

The puppy schtick has to do with a “weird sublimated desire to be a cheesy kind of painter guy,” and he still indulges in making them for two hours a day to “get it out, to have some joy mixing colors.” Last summer he began experimenting with his more abstract works because the puppy joke “was a bit limiting, or it wasn’t funny as a joke—like a one-liner. If you’re gonna have a one-liner it better be fucking good.”

Half his studio is given over to a recent evolution he calls period pieces. These abstract works are varied, but all of them build on vinyl letter sets—like the kind you might use to make a sign for your garage sale—whose shiny backings still show the outlines of the letters Mr. Black peels off. He’ll stick portions of the letters to the backings, frame them with black lines in the corners, quadruple the size, add floating punctuation marks or even make massive works from the same material as the backings, cutting out letter-set-size holes in the shiny surface. He started these last summer and has shown them alongside a small sculpture built to resemble the oddly Bauhaus deposit-slip desks at Chase Bank. His other sculptural work includes photographic landscape “displacements,” using tri-corner elevator mirrors, after a 1968 project by Robert Smithson in Artforum.

All this may seem a little ambitious, but as my colleague Maika Pollock wrote in her review of the recent Frank Stella exhibition at L&M Arts, “When people chastise the contemporary art market for occasionally rewarding very young artists, they seem unaware that extraordinary things have long happened in the studios of those who are 22 years old.”

But to return to the period pieces, on viewing them you’re overwhelmed by their touchstones, the immediate ones being Kazimir Malevich, Robert Rauschenberg, Christopher Wool and maybe even Ferdinand de Saussure, though they exude a general, imposing theory-ness more than they do the influence of any one thinker.

“There will always be that camp that is anti-theory, but I don’t know that that’s a necessarily interesting approach,” Mr. Black said. “Like in the ’80s there were the Schnabels and there were always these people who just didn’t give a shit and wanted to make paintings and spew their subjectivity all over this rectangle and then present it to you. I think at this point there aren’t really such clear camps anymore at all, especially not in any sort of MFA program, where you have to read a bit of theory whether you want to or not.”

That may be one of the reasons that this sort of work is fairly popular right now. In fact, if you walked through the Frieze Fair last month, it felt like every few booths or so you’d encounter an abstract painting made from unorthodox materials.

“I don’t really know what’s inspired it, but there’s probably a lot being written about it right now with varying degrees of cynicism,” Mr. Black said, adding that the “what’s-the-angle” types always see young artists’ abstract works as selling to people who’d like more expensive versions and can’t tell the difference. He’s quick to make jokes about this, describing himself several times as a cheaper Wool.

Whatever the reason, he has been selling his period pieces, and the puppy paintings as well. The attention is new, and he’s still learning the politics of having strangers email him to ask what’s available. For one thing he finds it depressing to sell out of the studio. “It’s funny this thing of stressing out about not having attention and then getting attention and stressing out about it,” he said. “Like, ‘Is this what I wanted? For people to be bugging me?’”

“One of the things that I’ve started to become aware of is a certain pressure to produce a certain type of work,” he added. “So then it complicates your decision-making process in the studio, because there’s this little external tentacle that’s worked its way in here, and you can’t be sure if you’re making another one of these because I can sell or because I need to work something out. I think if you’re honest with yourself you probably know the answer anyway.”

Olivier Babin of the Brooklyn and Brussels gallery Clearing said that even though he has sold works by Mr. Black to collectors in Italy, France and the U.K., he’s hesitant to talk about a general market for the work since Mr. Black is so young.

“It doesn’t mean much—it means he can take his girlfriend on vacation,” Mr. Babin said. “It’s good, I mean he just graduated and most people who just graduated will never sell a painting.” It won’t be until the end of the summer, he said, after the three group shows, that there will be a real indication of a proven market for Mr. Black’s work. “For now, it’s just bubbling.”

“Probably it’s a good problem to have,” Mr. Black said in his studio, musing on hypothetical collector demand. “I don’t really have it at this point, which is nice. I totally feel now that I’m leaving Columbia, I can really make whatever I want.”

The New Black: Sought-After Art School Grad Moves Beyond Puppy Paintings