The Children’s Museum of the Arts hosted their annual benefit auction Tuesday evening at the Dream Downtown in New York.  The event, which was co-hosted by Ryan and Ethan Hawke, auctioned artwork donated by over 80 artists including Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, and Swoon.

Another artist and active supporter of the CMA, William Quigley, donated a piece he created entitled Ethan Hawke.  As the title would indicate, Quigley decided to feature the actor and event Co-Host as the subject of his painting, valued at $45,000.

I was discussing the piece with Quigley the night before the auction and having not yet seen it, my attention immediately piqued when the artist remarked:

“It’s not even that good of a painting.  It’s almost bad.”

Uh – excuse me?  This statement was immediately followed by:

“…on purpose.  Which makes it good.”

So, a little bit of backstory first: we initially got on this topic when we were discussing how it was interesting and even a little strange to choose the host of an auction as the subject for a painting to be sold at said auction.  Quigley initially got the idea when he heard that Hawke was a host, and had met the actor a number of years ago when he expressed interest a Quigley painting of Johnny Cash.  During the course of the conversation we both remarked on how celebrities as subjects of artwork ultimately get more attention for the piece than something obscure or abstract.  But should this even be a factor when valuing art?

“Does it really matter what a famous artists subject was?  As long as the painting is good??????  If you owned a Picasso would you care who the subject was?  Or a Matisse?”

Quigley makes a good point.  But in a consumer-driven society, it seems that collectors feel they are getting more value for their money when they can drop two names instead of one: the artist and the celebrity subject vs. just the artist.  A case in point, the highest generating piece auction Tuesday evening was a Polaroid taken by Andy Warhol.  It sold for nearly $25,000.  Yes, a POLAROID.  Of Diana Ross.  The value is that it captures a moment in time.  A moment that an iconic artist shared with an iconic performer during an iconic era in pop-culture history.

Getting back to Quigley and why he described his own painting as “bad”.  Of course, I asked him to elaborate.

“I don’t think it’s a good painting on an abstract level. Like more revolutionary in its process or construction... like Elizabeth Peyton painting…I was actually thinking of James Joyce…and cubism…when making his face…and Gorky, Pollock and DeKooning…Matisse... If I had more time, I could have made it much better, but I used the time constraint to try and make the best painting in that window.  But I don’t think because of the subject matter and the content of the personality the painting will ever be intellectual…although Hawke is also a very serious actor playing very commercial roles.”

This really got me thinking.  Quigley admits that given the opportunity, he could have made a better painting of Hawke.  But he also describes Hawke as a far more talented actor than what he is able to demonstrate in the commercial roles to which he is confined.  In this sense  -- in the way that the painting parallels the subject – does it not already become intellectual?

“The question in the painting is, will he see the investigation I made into him as a person from a distance? As someone trying to make important art within the confines of traditional, almost banal, common roles.  I tried to capture his intensity and passion for film and the craft. Yet I think acting in general, or American film is reaching a point where it is mediocre whereas art and painting is starting to really thrive intellectually.  And the fact the public is still in its infantile stages as a whole, makes a painting like this more of a study into my own investigations into art, and its lineage.”

Keep in mind that at the point in time when William and I were having this conversation was before the auction and before the painting sold.  We discussed how as celebrated an actor as Ethan Hawke may be, he’s also not yet reached a level where he can be compared to the like of Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe (two of Warhol’s most celebrated subjects).   Which automatically poses the question:  is the success or failure of a piece a reflection on the artist or the subject, when the subject is a celebrity?  If the piece didn’t sell, would it be more of an embarrassment for William or Ethan?

“I know that not many people would want Ethan Hawke in their living room for $50,000. That’s a ballsy statement to make from the guy making the painting.  So in that sense I’m setting myself up for being Mediocre.”

As Quigley himself admits, most collectors would not necessarily jump on the opportunity to display Ethan Hawke in their home.  With Hawke’s name attached to such a public event, and the possibility of how it could reflect on the actor should the painting not sell, did Quigley think the actor might be motivated to purchase the piece himself?

“Yes.  I wanted to put that pressure on him and I wanted to put it on me too. There is more pressure on me. He is already a highly paid actor. If he thinks the painting is not so good, him not buying it will not mean much in the media. I was trying to take the painting beyond it just being about HIM…I was trying to show him all the twisted intensity that he exudes in his work and how his countenance reflects that...”

So what if Quigley had painted, say, Meryl Streep or Robert DeNiro instead?  Would it automatically garner more interest or value because of the way those actors are regarded?

“If I painted Pacino, DeNiro, Meryl Streep -- which I would love to attempt -- there is an automatic interest because of who they are.  If I paint them poorly I am viewed ridiculous.  With Ethan, he may be doing great work, but the context in which he presents it is not a great script. The painting is always going to appear like a question mark. I did not have the time to take it to another level. So I went with keeping a very BASE almost junk mail attitude in it. Mediocre. Yet the lines, color, detail, and surreal qualities are really reaching and pushing within the confines of its mediocrity...when a scientist can’t fully solve an issue…”

Part of the “confines” that William mentions earlier involve serious time constraints.  The artist had originally planned to donate an abstract piece, until he became interested in painting the actor.  The idea struck so close to the event itself, that Quigley had to paint the 40”x36” piece within a week.  Could part of this motivation be the belief that a painting of the auction’s celebrity host would possibly garner more money for the museum?

“It being Ethan has nothing to do with its value.  I painted quite a few personalities and have taken a conservative road to pricing over the years.  Some clients value their Quigley's at over $200,000...When I sold them for $15,000-20,000, some less than $4,000 back in the 90s.”

Perhaps the most interesting caveat in this whole story was that Quigley did not meet with or even discuss the painting with Hawke.  What if the actor didn’t like the artist’s representation of him?  Or if he didn’t express interest in purchasing the piece?

“…it should not matter what he says about the painting.  But if he does buy it, it may form a real union of intellectualism that goes beyond the obvious of support for the museum, or pressure to buy it...I think the risk in making the painting was dangerous for me.”

Okay, getting back to the success/failure of the piece as a reflection on the subject.  We know it’s not possible, but theoretically let’s assume that Quigley painted an identical piece with the only difference being the subject.  The painting of Hawke -- assuming that he is regarded the same as now – and another exactly identical painting in which the subject were Meryl Streep…If Quigley died an iconic American artist, would one be worth more than the other simply because of the subject?

“Will it be more valuable, who knows?  I think it’s an important painting and painted well.  When I spoke of the mediocrity I was commenting on the attempt to take a common photo and make it look almost bad…like a Kodak moment.  And within those "rules" try to make a really good painting.  The problem I foresee and know about is most don’t get beyond the fact that its an ok, mediocre photo of a less well-known actor.”

This all circles back to the idea of how the mainstream media is influencing what is considered desirable when it comes to artistic endeavors.  Quigley is undoubtedly a talented artist.   He has reaped the benefits of attention gained by painting well-known personalities, but his success is more appropriately attributed to his creative process and approach to construction.  It’s a catch-22 when it comes to publicity and mainstream success; without featuring celebrity in his artwork. Quigley may not have achieved the notoriety that has enabled him a platform on which to showcase his abstract or more obscure works.  Because of his talent, he is able to achieve as much (if not more) success for those pieces as for the personalities that have more mainstream appeal.  But had it not been for the more commercial pieces, he may not have had the opportunity for his work to be as widely recognized.  And this is not and issue limited only to William Quigley, but one that plagues the contemporary art world in general.  There is a constant struggle to maintain a balance between creative expression and commercial success.

“I think that actors, musicians, media still control the destiny of a lot of artists. I want to control my own destiny by putting my work and myself in vulnerable situations.  It will force me to try and make better paintings. I’ve been very fortunate...enough actors, and others, athletes seem to say they like my work. I want to go beyond like and make important statements about culture.  Which gets back to my point. I don’t know if Ethan has gotten ‘the role’ yet to show the world his real talent, that he's a great actor.  I don’t know if I’ve made the painting yet to show the world my talent. That’s up to the public.”

Thank you to William Quigley for sharing his valuable insights.