A Man Dies, and the Myth of the Self-Sufficient Vagabond Artist Dies with Him

He was born in Brooklyn, in 1924. His first art professor at Brooklyn College, architect and artist Serge Chermayeff, flunked him. So he moved to Alfred, New York, bought a horse, and enrolled in the College of Industrial Ceramic Design. He grew a mustache, and it became him. He moved to San Francisco, called himself a Merchant Marine, and got arrested. Done with the West Coast, he moved to Pennsylvania and made plates at Design Technics. There, he met potter Karen Karnes, with whom he would fall in love and have a child, Abel. The two separated and, later, he met and fell in love with another woman, JoAnne. Together they traveled throughout Europe and Asia, living on grant money. He had works in major shows and museums, and almost killed John Cage.

His name was David Weinrib. You probably didn’t know him, but I did. He died on February 7, 2016. With him, too, died my belief that anyone like him — the lifelong vagabond artist — could ever again exist.

"Statium," c. 1965. One of David's few titled pieces, which he only titled by request of the Whitney Museum.
“Stadium,” c. 1965. One of David’s few titled pieces, which he only titled by request of the Whitney Museum.

To understand my connection to David, and why his passing is so monumental to me, understand that I met him in February of 2013, roughly eight months into my time in New York City. He was a customer at the coffee shop where I worked, and he told a coworker of mine that he needed someone to help him write his autobiography, to record his stories, to document his art. And so I became that someone.

David was 88 then, so there was a lot of life for us to revisit. It’s difficult not to romanticize (as I have before) my time in his large, stuffed-with-art Chelsea loft, where he and I — and, for a brief time, JoAnne — sat at his kitchen table and discussed his life, which was endlessly exotic to me, a guy from Mingo Junction, Ohio. I had hardly met an artist before, let alone an artist who had been paid to be one.

He had pieces that were shown in the São Paulo Biennial and placed at the Whitney and LACMA, and there were Guggenheim and Fulbright grants that allowed him to live in India and Japan and, in an indirect way, paid for him to drop acid with Owsley Stanley in the mountains of Kyoto. Oh, also, that time he was a Potter in Residence at Black Mountain College.

Founded in 1933, Black Mountain College is perhaps best known for employing Josef Albers, who came from the Bauhaus after it was closed by the Nazis. It was a self-sustaining community, where faculty and students — including Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg — would work the farm and maintain the grounds in addition to completing their coursework. It was here that David met and befriended John Cage, who he almost killed with a poisonous mushroom stew.

Recounting David’s life could (and did) fill at least two books, but just know that David was, for me, this thing that was no longer supposed to exist outside of the movies: a lifelong artist who was able to carve out a respectable career without becoming a marquee name, one of the last of a generation of artists who could actually afford to travel and create art without sacrificing their daylight to a conventional job. And so David’s death, to me, was also the death of that myth.

It’s important here to note that the lifestyle I’m mourning is tied to visual art. I know firsthand that life is difficult for artists in any field, but life as a visual artist is especially trying. While writers only need laptops and willpower, visual artists require lots of space, and lots of materials. And while photographers can make money on the side taking photos for publications, only visual artists with graphic design skills can outsource themselves to the mainstream. Nobody is commissioning a sculpture to run alongside an article on Justin Bieber.

My grieving the death of an archetype — a myth — is more than sentimental melodrama: it seems to be correct. My first real whiff of the impossibility of a life like David’s came when I started working in coffee shops and found that most young, creative people I met in New York spent more time pouring latte art than painting actual art, because the city afforded them no other viable options. In 2013, another, more famous David — David Byrne — wrote for The Guardian an essay pining for the scrappy NYC of decades past, while lamenting the downfall of New York as an artist’s haven:  

It was where things happened, on the east coast, anyway. One knew in advance that life in New York would not be easy, but there were cheap rents in cold-water lofts without heat, and the excitement of being here made up for those hardships.

Byrne also says he “didn’t move to New York to make a fortune,” and even if that sentiment doesn’t hold true for this new generation of artists that helped make 2013 the busiest year for NYC transplants, the difficulty of “making a fortune” probably helped New York become one of the top cities people left between 2013 and 2014. Byrne goes on to point out that New York “doesn’t make things anymore,” and that’s fine, because the world no longer needs the centralized workplace of a Chelsea or SoHo to find art. Because, though art as a lifestyle is disappearing, art as a business is trending. It’s everywhere.

As William Deresiewicz wrote in The Atlantic — and although the trend has accelerated in the past decade or so thanks to tweeting, Tumblring, and Instagramming artists — art’s transformation from craft to medium for making a statement has been happening for centuries, starting with the 18th- and 19th-century Romantics: “As traditional belief became discredited, at least among the educated class, the arts emerged as the basis of a new creed, the place where people turned to put themselves in touch with higher truths.”

This led to the idea of the personality as commodity, of the artist’s name and exploits being worth at least as much as the artist’s work. Pablo Picasso did his part to exist as an outsize personality that at times eclipsed his work, Warhol made the work beside the point, and since then, artists have strived more and more for a signature brand, making awesome bodies of work secondary to celebrity status. And now, Deresiewicz says, art is hardly even about art — it’s about creating. A lot.

You’re a musician and a photographer and a poet; a storyteller and a dancer and a designer —a multiplatform artist, in the term one sometimes sees. Which means that you haven’t got time for your 10,000 hours in any of your chosen media. But technique or expertise is not the point. The point is versatility. Like any good business, you try to diversify.

If Deresiewicz’s words are taken as truths, they point to a very concerning curse on the future of art. But if this future comes to fruition, and all artists are happily doomed to promoting themselves as multiplatform brands on social media, rather than promoting themselves as Very Serious Art Brands at real-life NYC social gatherings, you’ve got to wonder if this trend of online-based artists is a response to what Byrne has argued. That is, are these artists reacting to the expense of the city? Or are these new artists simply not coming to the city because it’s unnecessary for whatever success they hope to achieve?

If you were to ask critic Ben Davis, he would probably tell you it’s the former. In his artnet piece, “Do You Have to Be Rich to Make It as an Artist?” Davis constructs a startling wall of evidence that says, yes, you do, and that having connections to the art world establishment is nearly essential. He does admit, though, that he “can’t even really know whether the assertion that ‘more and more cultural space is being occupied by extremely wealthy cultural producers’ is correct. I have only the data of ad hoc counting exercises as a guide.”

In an interview, Davis reasserts that the idea of a “young artist,” a thing whose name implies the importance of personality, has only been around for a handful of decades, and that this classification has pigeonholed artists’ development, craft-wise. “Young people are immediately the center of attention in a way that prevents their work from developing,” he says. “There’s so much, commercially, at stake. That creates this idea that if you don’t make it after a certain period of time, then you’re a failure.”

David said something similar over a decade ago, in a profile for a print magazine that no longer seems to exist. “I think it is a difficult time,” he said. “I think dealers are dumb, they don’t know what has happened ten years ago. I think there is a prejudice of age. Now there is a lot of interest in emerging artists, which could help a lot of kids, but a lot of them are doing things we did 20 years ago.” He also pointed out the way art as a business has pressured artists to pigeonhole themselves: “In eight or ten years, they aren’t going to be doing work.”

The very human fear of being labeled an artistic failure makes it difficult to sniff out working artists who have quietly produced art in the context of lives lived largely outside the art world. That is to say, how do you find an artist who is still making art, and has no qualms about discussing the fact that, though they have made art for decades, they still haven’t made it big? The answer, it seems, is to find people who have a realistic idea of how few people are actually capable of making a living as an artist.

"Asticou Garden," oil on canvas. Photo by Flora Hanitijo.
“Asticou Garden,” by Molly White. Oil on canvas. Photo by Flora Hanitijo.

Molly White is quick to identify as someone who has not found fame in the art world, but she’s by no means a failure. Her life is perhaps the closest I’ve found to David’s, only while David was literally living high on grant money, Molly was working as a Master Craftsperson at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — that is to say, she was painting the recreations of The Thinker that your grandmother gave you for Christmas. She began working that job in 1989, fresh from earning an MFA at Louisiana State University — something, funnily enough, that she says she pursued in order to put off dealing with the real world.

While she was working at the Met she was selling her own art on the downtown corners of Broadway, nearly half a decade before activist Robert Lederman fought for the right to sell art on the street. It was during this time that she learned fine art techniques, like gold leaf, that she would later use at her current day job, which is as a Jack of all restoration trades. She’s recreated water-damaged murals on the ceiling of Ladurée, and applied the patina of time to the walls of an entire farmhouse, and she’s been flown across the country to do so. And throughout it all, she’s painted.

Though there are similarities, there is also a pronounced difference between the life of Molly and the life of David, and it’s not just that he was a man — though, in any industry, that is a significant difference. The biggest difference is that, in the decades of David’s maturation as an artist — the ‘60s and ‘70s — money existed for artists, but by the time Molly moved to New York in the late ‘80s, those funds were literally disappearing.

In fact, the very year Molly moved to NYC was one of the most publicly turbulent times for arts funding in the US. This was the year of the controversy surrounding Piss Christ, Andres Serrano’s photograph of Jesus submerged in the artist’s urine. The American Family Association, based in Tupelo, Mississippi, protested a showing of the artist’s work, which had been funded by the National Endowment of the Arts, an organization that was founded in 1965 — around the same year David found success in major arts institutions like the Whitney. The Serrano controversy bled into the national art world, resulting in the cancellation of a major NEA-funded Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective. The Corcoran Gallery, which was meant to hold the retrospective, issued an apology, but the ire of conservatives led to cuts in the NEA’s funding that were so drastic that they’re still impacting artists today.

The public’s general anti-art sentiment permeated even liberal NYC. In the early ’90s, Molly participated in AIM — Artists In the Marketplace, a now long-running program meant to help artists navigate the business side of the industry. Molly describes her experience as laughably futile. “We would have these meetings, and get these long lists of hotlines to call for places that supported artists, and within a week of getting the numbers, the places would be shut down,” she says. “At the next week’s meeting, we would all compare notes, crossing names off as we went.”

She fell back on her more practical training, and has since created her own business out of it, but she maintains that anyone would be a “fool to think they could work [on personal projects] after work,” and so she finds success in residencies.

Not all artists have schedules flexible enough to permit them time for residencies, so in many situations, the only logical recourse is to give up. As painter-writer (there’s that multi-platform designation Deresiewicz was talking about!) Roger White plainly states in The Contemporaries, his recent true-life look at the inner workings of the art world,

The funny thing is, most artists quit working. If you take into account […] the artists who get married and have kids and get a full-time job to pay for them, and the ones who get sick of being poor and go back to school for retraining, and the ones who simply get sick, and/or drop dead, then you realize, statistically speaking, quitting making art is practically in heat with starting to make it in the first place.

An untitled work by Mitchel Volk, who know works as the lead meteorologist for the New York Department of Sanitation
An untitled work by Mitchel Volk, who know works as the lead meteorologist for the New York Department of Sanitation

Another artist I spoke to, Mitchel Volk, is not described by any of White’s above hypotheticals, but he did quit. He was already trained as a meteorologist by the time he became an East Village artist, a giddy post-grad palling around with Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf in the ’80s. Mitchel tells stories of his time in the art world like he’s telling you about this great movie he saw last weekend, his Long Island accent skipping happily toward Lower Manhattan. He remembers things going well as soon as he arrived in NYC in 1982, showing his work at a gallery next door to the first exhibition that would bless/curse the world with Jeff Koons. Later, Mitchel would choose the wrong gallery for representation, a move that almost instantly forced him back to the relative financial security of meteorology. Bad luck for Mitchel, given the frenzy of buying that went on in the ‘80s, but it was big names that were selling art: Basquiat, Haring, Julian Schnabel. One bad show and your name as an artist was sullied, and there were always dozens of fresh-faced artists eager to make a better first impression.

Mitchel now works at the New York Department of Sanitation, where he’s the lead meteorologist. You may have seen him on the news; that’s where I found out about him, his bizarro pastel wonderlands catching my attention. That’s an old piece above, though; he doesn’t create art anymore, at least not on such a large scale. He does, after all, live in a New York City apartment.

Specifically, Mitchel lives in Cobble Hill, an area of Brooklyn with property values so high that one of its buildings is on record as 2015’s most expensive sale for a single residence, which explains why his landlord reclaimed the adjoining apartment that Mitchel had been using as a studio. “Maybe when I get older and retire, I can make art,” he says. “I’ll have more time. But then, there’s that space issue, still.”

The disparate stories of Molly and Mitchel, two artists existing in different eras of the NYC art world, along with the longer story of David, illustrate the difficulties of attaining autonomy as an artist: the exorbitant cost of New York City, which is the (physical) nexus of the art world; the disappearing money available for all artists, emerging or otherwise, not to mention the full-time job of applying for the funding that remains; the financial risk of innovating beyond whatever art makes you initially successful; and the plain fact that people just quit. But perhaps the biggest strike against this idea of a financially secure vagabond artist is that maybe it’s just imaginary anyway.

“The idea of an autonomous artist, someone who makes a living off of art, is more a less a myth,” Davis told me. “There just aren’t very many people in that category. A couple thousand, maybe.” Bad news for the tens of thousands of students who are awarded arts-related degrees every year, and the 2.1 million American workers who identified as artists in 2013.

But perhaps even David didn’t live this ideal, or hadn’t since the ’90s. David was a professor at Pratt, and was also in charge of curating exhibitions at the school’s sculpture park in Clinton Hill, which transforms the campus into a large-scale, open-air gallery. This job, along with assistance from long-time chiropractor JoAnne, paid for the two books he and I went on to create in his kitchen.

Thanks largely to my own perpetual new-to-New-York busyness and lack of experience promoting such a thing, the two self-published titles amounted to little more than vanity projects for David, tomes to give to friends and acquaintances to prove that he had done more than hole up in that loft and fill it with work that only a handful of people would ever see. In a way, those books were his proof to the world that he was an artist, he had lived it, even if he wasn’t living it when he died. He did have a show, though, in 2015, up in the Hudson Valley. It was called Weinrib’s Pocket, an allusion to the claustrophobia of his Chelsea loft.

So it is tough to use David as a point in any argument, for or against the proof of the viability of the lifelong artist, because he lived both lives, first as the fully funded vagabond, then as the slave to academia. He told me once, “I don’t like teaching. For some people it’s a passion, but for me I just need the money. I need to teach to work.”

A tile wall designed by David for a family in Stony Point, NY.
A tile wall designed by David for a family in Stony Point, NY.

That phrasing — “I need to teach to work” — is indicative of a shift in the way art, as a job, is seen. For David, art was always work, or at least always something that required dedicated hours to master. What else would explain his moving to Stony Point, New York in 1954, where he and John Cage and others from Black Mountain College created a place where art-as-work was the center of life, and the cost of living was only $24.15 per month?

This isn’t to say that the idealism needed to dream of running off and starting a commune is dead, but that the core benefits of a commune — all the time for work, and all the space to store it! — are no longer core desires for young artists. Though not true of all so-called millennials, the goal of most young artists seems to be fame, however that manifests itself.

But young artists can’t be blamed for thinking of art as the fast track to stardom. More than ever, the glamorous lives of young, Internetloving artists are highly public and superficially carefree, even if they aren’t co-signed by galleries. Even the already-famous (Jim Carrey, Miley Cyrus, James Franco) are dabbling in the fine arts, and as much as I’m sure the art world despises the work, the art is sometimes taken seriously. People want to be famous, famous people want to be artists, so why wouldn’t we try to get at fame through art? Making a living, it seems, is not even a concern. If art doesn’t work out, something else will.

In this sense, David really is mythical. He was committed to the artistic life and devoid of fascination with celebrity. He often hated contemporary gallery shows, and even dismissed MoMA’s recent, lauded exhibition of Picasso’s sculptures as “awful.” But he was not cantankerous, just indebted to the idea of work. What did a celebrity actually do to earn his admiration? And further, why should the secondary work of Picasso be worthy of worldwide praise?

A week before David’s death, I visited him at New York Methodist Hospital, where he’d been taken from Pratt. His bald head was black and blue from the fall he took after fainting, as if he had been dipped in a bucket of watercolor and left to dry. He could barely move; he squealed so loudly when a nurse readjusted his pillow that I laughed. No, they insisted, he was in real pain. He couldn’t feed himself, but at least he could talk.

He chided me for not answering his recent phone calls. I again cited my constant state of busyness, my two jobs, my boyfriend. “I have another book,” he told me. “It’s laid out on the kitchen table. It’s all planned out.” He told me it was somehow inspired by his health problems, dedicated to all of the doctors he’d seen since his prostate started inflating a year earlier.

It was true, according to his caretaker, Bibi Khan. The book was real, practically finished; he had stayed up until 2am several nights in a row just to complete it. It was there for me to see, but I never did.

He had worked until he fell, but it was only really the end once he realized he would probably not regain mobility in his hands and legs, would never hold a pencil or manipulate a piece of steel. Eating was out of the question, and he refused to do it in the presence of anyone other than Bibi. This immobility was a fact that I’m told was too much for him bear, and when combined with the constant, agonizing pain of a broken bone in his lower back, resulted in his asking to be let go. If that’s not the stuff of mythology, I’m not sure what is.