Colen in his Brooklyn studio. Photograph by Ari Marcopoulos.
It's noon on a warm winter day on Dan Colen's farm in New York's Hudson Valley, and the 34-year-old artist is hunting for his cows. He's wearing a denim jacket over a black Hawaiian shirt, faded blue Levi's, and inappropriate-for-shit-kicking black Chuck Taylor high-tops as he trudges through streams of melting snow mixed with cow manure. "I have no experience with the animals," Colen says. "Sometimes I get weirded out by them." Colen bought this 40-acre spread in 2011 for $1.5 million and, by the looks of things, spent at least that much renovating it, transforming the barn into a studio, constructing a state-of-the-art building to house livestock, and hiring a hippie couple from Washington State to manage the farm. He loves the vibe out here and the rituals it inspires—a robust run at the crack of dawn, a breakfast of his own hen's eggs, some reflective time with the New York Times. Now Colen is cresting a hill when he encounters a half-dozen of his cows. They look up and stare. "I like the cows the most," he says. "You can't relate to them the way you can with the pigs and the sheep. It's harder to personally connect. They move around the property every day in the same pattern, carving paths in the grass. But I love just seeing that."
It's hard to reconcile this tranquil, wholesome country gentleman with the coke-hoovering wild child who, as part of a rowdy Brat Pack that included the baby-faced photographer Ryan McGinley and the late graffiti artist–slash–human wrecking ball Dash Snow, tore through New York's downtown art scene in the 2000s. Back then, getting high, fucking shit up, and making art were interdependent pursuits—and together produced a reliably effective commodity. Bad boys sell. "Oh yeah, everybody likes that," Colen says matter-of-factly. "And even the people who don't like it want to be a part of it. It's marketable. We were never the most famous artists, but we were the most notorious." The pressure to sustain such an outsize reputation can be fatal, as Colen, who's been sober since 2009, knows all too well. "It's crazy that I'm still alive," he says. And with two major solo exhibitions coming up, Colen is out to prove—to others but perhaps even more to himself—that his storied adventures in extreme bohemia aren't his only selling point.
In May, he'll be fêted in grand style when the art collector Peter Brant puts on a survey of Colen's past works at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center in Greenwich, Connecticut. Located across the street from Brant's 200-acre estate, the foundation is a showcase for his massive holdings of artists, including Andy Warhol This fall, the stakes will be much higher when Colen debuts all-new work at Larry Gagosian's West 24th Street gallery in Chelsea. It's his second major show under Gagosian's "big top," following 2010's critically reviled "Poetry," in which works were rumored to be priced at $300,000 a pop. Though the association has made him wealthy, Colen says he's just "a drop in Gagosian's bucket. He's selling Picassos and Jeff Koonses for $20 million. Larry maybe hopes that one day my sculptures will have the same value as a Koons, but right now I'm just a kid." One who happens to be arguably the most successful American artist under 40—at least in the eyes of the market, a fickle animal that requires constant management and feeding.
It's lunchtime on the farm, and Colen heads up the hill toward the house. In the massive studio that he constructed atop the bones of a 19th-century barn, the big job of the day is employing a homemade propane-fueled wood steamer to make long planks pliable enough to curve into semicircles for a large installation, which will be unveiled this September in Harlem's Montefiore Square. "Obviously, these guys are the experts," says Colen, referring to the project's foreman and his team, "and I am along for the ride." A couple hours' drive south, in Tribeca, five assistants use stills from Disney's Fantasia as references to paint enormous photorealistic canvases, while across the East River, at Colen's new 7,500-square-foot studio in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn—which will soon eclipse the Tribeca space as the command center of Colen's growing operation—a team of six temp workers are poking metal studs into canvases while yet another assistant violently pounds fresh flowers against canvases with, by turns, a hammer and big rubber dildos. (These are some of the pieces that will be at Gagosian in the fall.) Then there are the veteran model-makers in Los Angeles tasked with fabricating Colen's sculptures, like the realistic movie-quality figures that they cast for last year's Lyon Biennale, in France: Wile E. Coyote, Roger Rabbit, and a naked Colen—mammoth semi-erect dick flopped onto his leg—all arrayed on the gallery floor, as if recovering from some human-cartoon orgy. Meanwhile, in Brooklyn Heights, where Colen bought his parents a $2.6 million duplex last year, his 68-year-old mother, Harriet, oversees her son's business affairs, making sure everyone gets paid. "Over the years I've found different people who could devote themselves to these ideas that I have," Colen says.
Such industrial-scale production is made possible—and is in many ways required—when you're an artist represented by Gagosian, whose empire includes 12 galleries worldwide, with an overhead rivaling that of a major museum. And so, in 2010, Gagosian priced Colen's work 10 times (and higher) what it had been priced at four years before, and then, as if by decree, Colen's older work leapfrogged the new work in value. The law of supply and demand dictates that regardless of where the flesh-and-blood Dan Colen happens to be, Colens will continue to be churned out. According to McGinley, much of Colen's 2010 Gagosian show was fabricated by assistants while he was in rehab at Minnesota's Hazelden (Colen denies this). There are plenty of respected artists, such as Jeff Koons, who rarely lay a hand on the pieces that bear their signature, but critics tend to be wary. "Some artists have trouble embedding themselves in their work if too many people are touching it and they're making too much," says Jerry Saltz, New York magazine's art critic. "I'm skeptical of the bullshit of overproduction."
Reviewing "Poetry" in the New York Times, the critic Roberta Smith dismissed works like Cracks in the Clouds—reproductions of 13 Hell's Angels motorcycles, pushed over like dominoes—as "numbing, boring feats of nose-thumbing." She was more positive about Colen's two large canvases featuring multicolored globs of chewing gum and wondered about "the kind of painter Mr. Colen might become if he ever decides to grow up." But there was no glimmer of affection from Saltz (Smith's husband), who mercilessly declared the show "an array of ersatz art calculated to cash in on the mindlessness of overeager, oblivious collectors" and called Colen a "well-meaning but misguided . . . pawn in a dead-end game."
Above: Two works from "Poetry," Colen's 2010 solo show at Gagosian Gallery: Cracks in the Clouds (foreground) and In a Million Years (background). Below: Untitled, 2008—a "painting" made with chewing gum. (Click photos to enlarge.)
Colen grew sick of receiving condolence calls from friends, especially when it turned out that the critical backlash had a big upside: hordes of rubberneckers. "The horrible press just kept on coming in," he says, "but it brought a lot of people to the show. By the end, I found it thrilling. All I can do is touch somebody. I don't know how they're going to feel, but I want them to feel something." No matter how loudly critics have proclaimed that the emperor wears no clothes, the market clearly hasn't been listening. Last year, Sotheby's auctioned one of his gum paintings for just over $1 million—a rare milestone for such a young artist.
Of course, Colen is preoccupied not just with the issue of staying power but also with that of legacy—a frequent topic of conversation in his circle of artist friends. "We all love to look at old Artforums and be like, 'Who the fuck are these people?'" he says. "There's a hundred ads in every issue from 1985, and there's, like, three names you know. Is it different now?" Colen pauses to contemplate the heaviness of his own question. In one important way, he says, it's very different: "Back then, there definitely weren't 25-year-olds selling at auction for $300,000. To see how artists fizzle away after people have invested that much money in them will be interesting, I think."
Colen doesn't appear to count himself among the future fallen. Today, committedly sober, looking hale and outdoorsy in a beard, Colen sits down at a long wooden table with a half-dozen members of his crew and his soft-spoken girlfriend, Noot Seear, an earthy blonde model in a Grateful Dead T-shirt, to a lunch of sliced top-round steak with horseradish sour cream, twice-baked potatoes, and a salad, all prepared by a young culinary-school graduate wearing chef's whites. I ask him whether he knows the name of the sacrificial cow that has become today's entrée. "Tim," Colen replies, sawing into the meat. "He was well loved."
A not-yet-titled Colen piece made by pounding flowers into the canvas. Photograph by Ari Marcopoulos. (Click to Enlarge)
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Colen's career in art has undoubtedly been helped along by his staggering good looks. He's got placid blue eyes, a thick head of wavy hair, and a massive six-foot-six frame that's less imposing than ungainly, bringing to mind a young Ralph Fiennes with an appealing touch of Marmaduke. "Oh, he's gorgeous," says Melissa Bent, who gave Colen his first show in 2003, in the now-shuttered Lower East Side gallery Rivington Arms. "With every artist at the gallery, you have to be at least a little bit in love with them. With Dan, there was a charisma and confidence he had that was captivating."
That's a common refrain among Colen's friends. "He exudes extreme confidence and is extremely stubborn," says Ryan McGinley, who has been best friends with Colen since high school. "I feel like that's his recipe." Colen comes from Brooklyn Jewish stock, which is evident in his speech (he pronounces because as "bee-COSS"), but was born and raised in Leonia, New Jersey, right over the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan. McGinley's from nearby Ramsey, and the two met at a skate park, bonding over art and rebellion. Colen was constantly in trouble at school, usually for committing acts of petty vandalism. "The essential problem was, I really couldn't be told what to do," he says. "Art class was my thing, but not any other class."
Colen displayed enough talent to gain admission to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, where he was always on the verge of getting kicked out—trouble with authority again, though the photos of hip-hop stars he covered in his semen were surprisingly well received. Meanwhile, he was venturing into New York City every chance he got to crash with McGinley, who was enrolled at Parsons School of Design. Colen felt at home among the punks, freaks, and gays that McGinley drew into his orbit. "Dan always wished he was gay," McGinley says. Colen saw his heterosexuality as a lost opportunity for transgression. "I just felt it'd be nice to be even more against the grain," he says.
Colen in his Brooklyn studio. In the background: his new series of silk screens inspired by mail-order catalogs. Photograph by Ari Marcopoulos. (Click to Enlarge)