Kenny Schachter on Taking the Art World to Task
Kenny Schachter has an insatiable appetite for all things art. The polymathic art dealer, curator, teacher, writer, critic, collector, and self-taught artist brings a Tasmanian Devil–level energy to all that he does, but always with great, arms-open passion and, even within his whirlwind of ideas and projects, deep focus. For good reason, he has become a sort of enfant terrible in the art world, someone who’s not afraid to speak his mind, and who doesn’t care about ruffling feathers or messing with the establishment. He pushes against the status quo, and happily so. Schachter is a believer in high culture as much as low, and brings little pretension to his craft, no matter the medium, even if considerable rigor underlies it. Often, he’s decidedly coy. “For me,” he says on this episode of Time Sensitive, “making art is like taking a crap, or eating. It’s sustenance.”
Schachter’s love of art is bona fide and lifelong. Not only did art prove a helpful outlet for him during a difficult childhood, but it has also blossomed into a way of growing closer to his family (particularly with his children, with whom he has mounted a series of inventive exhibitions). Schachter especially appreciates art for its ability to help him depict the time he’s living in. For him, art also serves as a form cultural and personal commentary (with his ongoing “Hoarder” sales at Sotheby’s, he offloads some of the numerous artworks he has amassed over time) and as a mode of humor, often the self-deprecating variety (for example, one sculpture depicts an oblivious Schachter as St. Sebastian on his smartphone, impaled with selfie sticks).
Schachter has also become something of an NFT oracle. Among the earliest of the believers, he was transfixed by NFTs the moment he learned about them. In NFTs, Schachter sees a way to support a wide range of experimental artists—himself included—who have previously lacked a dedicated marketplace and community for their output. His latest effort in this space will be presented at next month’s Independent Art Fair (May 5–8) in New York, with Greece’s Allouche Benias gallery. An exhibit of his ongoing “Crypto Mutts” series of NFTs, the presentation will show pieces that combine digital characters with iconic works by artists including Marcel Duchamp, Yves Klein, and Pablo Picasso. Coy, indeed. He sees the presentation as “a kind of coming-out party,” a long-awaited point of recognition for his provocative, forward-looking point of view, and the events in his life that have shaped it.
On this episode, Schachter talks with Andrew about art as a form of sense-making, the benefits of being an outsider, and why he employs humor in so much of his work.
Schachter speaks about the relationship between time and the work he collects, humor as a cathartic release, and his longtime fight for recognition in the art world.
Schachter discusses his reverence for the ahead-of-his-time artist Paul Thek. He also explains the ideas behind his “Hoarder” series of Sotheby’s sales and how he accumulated the items in them.
Schachter recalls how art was an outlet for him during a difficult upbringing on Long Island and the heart-wrenching challenges he has faced in adulthood. He also details the exhibitions he has organized with his family, including one that led to the accidental wrecking of a Tracey Emin artwork.
Schachter talks about his experience of the pandemic and how the content of his work has shifted over time.
Schachter describes making and selling his first NFTs. He also outlines the medium’s opportunities and common misconceptions.
Schachter discusses the personal significance of the installation he will present at the 2022 Independent Art Fair, and a documentary about his output that the director Chris Smith is currently making.
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ANDREW ZUCKERMAN: Welcome, Kenny. Thanks so much for joining us today.
KENNY SCHACHTER: Thank you for having me.
AZ: I wanted to begin today with a story you tell, which goes, “My wife sat next to someone on the [Art] Basel selection committee. And he literally said, ‘Who does Kenny think he is, that he could curate, make art, write, and deal? He can’t.’” You go on to say, when you’re telling the story, “But I can, and do, and will never stop. For me, there’s a continuous thread that connects everything I do.” And so, what I wanted to begin with is talking about that thread.
KS: Should I start by putting my foot into my mouth?
AZ: You could do whatever you want.
KS: [Laughs] Well, on one level, Karl Marx famously said, “Why can’t you be an economist in the morning, and a fisherman in the afternoon?” And I took that to heart. I think, if you’re not breaking the law or hurting anyone, why can’t you do whatever you want to do? And that’s what I do.
Funny enough, the person who made that comment at that dinner, I subsequently wrote an article about a work that they sold from the gallery with false attribution that I had heard from a good source was knowingly falsely attributed. I wrote that. I was threatened with a lawsuit against me and Artnet. What I said turned out to be true, and this gallery no longer shows at Basel, and the person who did this was on the ethics committee of the art fair, which is kind of perfect.
AZ: It’s not the first time we’ve seen this story, is it?
KS: This is just between you and I, off the record.
AZ: Of course. And everyone else listening. [Laughs]
KS: Don’t remind me. But, for instance, I teach. I lecture a lot. I teach a few classes per semester: University of Zurich, NYU, sometimes School of Visual Arts. Everything from studio practice to seminars on the machinations of the art world. The first art class I was ever in, in my life, I was teaching at The New School, in 1992.
But whether I’m curating, lecturing, making art, or writing, or organizing a one-person ”Hoarder” sale—like I do every year at Sotheby’s to clean out, do a little spring cleaning—for me, it’s all a continuous thread in what I do. I mean, I can be pretentious and say it’s my practice and that I’m like Joseph Beuys, teaching, making notes on blackboards that become artworks. But I’m not that pretentious.
AZ: Let’s get into a little bit about what that thread might be, thematically, through all of these things. Because in really engaging with your work, and prepping for today, some of it has to do with truth, in how I see it. And this passion for understanding the moment we’re in, and trying to make that visible through time. Some pursuit of…. It’s not quite justice; it’s not quite truth. I’m asking a question, really. What is it?
KS: Can I interview you about me? You know better than I do about my own activities.
Due to the fact that I’m self-taught, and self-wrought…. I mean, I went to the Outsider Art Fair two weeks ago, and I very well could be exhibiting in the Outsider Art Fair. Even though I’m firmly entrenched in the art world after thirty-five years of clawing my way to whatever position I’ve ended up in, I’ll always have a perspective from outside. There’s a famous Thomas Mann short story called “Tonio Kröger.” The character is longingly looking through a window from outside at this party going on that the character was never invited to. I always feel like that. So, as a result of that, I’m constantly observing the goings-on of the art world from afar. I’ve never had a job, pretty much, ever. I’m unemployable, more or less.
AZ: You’re the most productive unemployed person in the world.
KS: Thank you.
AZ: And that’s partly because you’re traveling [through] all these different worlds, constantly.
KS: The art world is a language unto itself. It’s an ecosystem unto itself. It’s an economic model with no peers, its own language. It’s similar to the mafia Omertà, where there’s laws of secrecy—nothing is spoken about.
I guess I just like to pull the curtains back. I have been involved for so many decades. I see a lot of things, know a lot of people. I’ve been reporting for decades about the goings-on—the good, the bad, mostly the bad, and the ugly, and the worst—in my column at Artnet over the years, and then occasionally for The Art Newspaper, New York magazine, and various other publications.
But over the last couple of years, since I found out about NFTs, and I’ve been able to, for the first time in my life—and I’m no spring chicken—I found a way to make a living from my own art. I embedded my videos into my writing. So I found a way to express myself and communicate, but I had all but given up hope of ever having the opportunity to participate in a more meaningful way in the art market. And that’s changed. My whole life has shifted gear in the last chapter, more or less. And I devoted more of my efforts and my time to mainly just writing, teaching, and making art. I love to teach.
The art world, I always say, the only word it knows is the word “N-O.” “No, you can’t do this.” “No, you can’t say that.” It’s all about prescriptive behavior, and these unspoken rules, like I mentioned. You mentioned honesty. I didn’t set out to be this person who robs information from the rich and shares it with the aspiring rich. I just hate hypocrisy. And look, I’m far from innocent. My hands are a little dirty, just like everybody else’s.
But I’m frank, and I’m self-deprecating. I hustle every day. It’s never easy. It’s as difficult now as it was in the beginning, but I have more opportunities. People think that, Oh, if you do NFTs…. I’m well-known and have a big audience. I’ve been working seven days a week for my whole career, and I’m 60 years old now, so I’m fucking old. Everything is hard-fought, and it continues to be. I have no idea when my next sale will come—if it will come. I’m getting into trouble all the time. I have this emoji I’ve created of myself. I should have the word “sorry” scorched on my forehead, because I’m always having to say, “I’m sorry.” I don’t have bad intentions—
AZ: But you behave unapologetically. In a good way, I’m saying. You go for it.
KS: Yes. I go for it. Because, look, you have one life, and it’s very short.
KS: And I’ve been through a lot with my family. I’ve been through good things; I’ve been through unspeakable tragedies, like many other people have. And art is the only…. Art has imbued my life with meaning. My family is involved in art, my kids. It’s really the only thing I care about. I mean, the only thing I know a little something about. I’m not going to waste my time or my energy. That’s why I could never be an art dealer, and [why] I couldn’t sell drugs to a drug addict, because I just don’t have the patience.
AZ: I want to talk a little bit about time. In looking at your work, I’m curious about how you see the relation of objects to time. You have a certain reverence for objects, whether it be art, cars, anything—track pants—that you collect. This idea of time and how objects testify to what they’ve seen: Do they mark you back to periods of your own time? I want to get into specifically more collecting later, but just this idea about objects and time, and your thoughts on that?
KS: Well, I never really thought of the connection between the two, which I think is very interesting. I consider myself a materialistic ascetic. I like being surrounded by the things that aesthetically please me, and enrich my life, and inspire me. But I’m not attached to any individual thing. You can just take it all away tomorrow, as long as maybe you substituted my walls with other things, and my closet with other old polyester, vintage Adidas relics.
Art is an [encapsulation] of freezing the moment in time—socially, economically, politically, and in relationship to technology. In that regard, I’m interested in the moment that I’m living in. I look back with reverence to the past. I’m very much engaged with the present, but I always have a foot in what’s next, or trying to piece together all of the information I’ve accrued over the years of my life, in my studies, in my career. And then trying to forecast in what sense…. What’s next? What’s going to happen with art? What’s going to happen with technology?
AZ: This near and far future thing, I want to get into it. I want to save it a little bit. I mean, you’ve been making digital work since the early nineties.
AZ: You’ve been presenting ideas that are quick and concept-driven, using digital tools, forever. And obviously, you were one of the first to really expose many of us to what NFTs were, and just explain a basic idea of how this is changing things.
But this near and far future idea: Around that, I want to look at it in two distinct ways. First, in terms of art-making. And, not personally to you, but just in the history of it, what hasn’t really changed since the beginning of art-making?
KS: Nothing has changed. Nothing. It’s the human impetus to express themselves through creativity, which differentiates us as a species from pretty much everything. I’m sure there’s some animal that makes some aesthetic choices in their life, and makes gestures. But since art came off the wall of the cave, it’s been coveted. For me, making art is like taking a crap, or eating. It’s sustenance. It’s a way of living and a way of dealing with…. I mean, humor, for me, is more than a defense mechanism. It’s a way of relating to the world. I employ humor a lot in my work, because I also think it’s a nice way to disarm people when you’re being a giant asshole, like I’m prone to be.
Everyone has a story about their life. It’s funny, because I was just doing this project where we’re doing these intense studio visits on camera with the Smithsonian [Channel and Paramount+]. I’m the only one amongst these people doing these visits relating to these, and I’m only interested in the formative biographical history of the person. Zaha Hadid became one of my closest relations in the world. I’m not an architecture fanatic. I never studied art, but I love personal trajectories, personal histories, again, in relationship to time. Life is so short. What do you do in that limited amount of time? How do you utilize your time? I love stories of people coming from adversity, or not necessarily even that. What you do with your space, how you mold your life, and create these narratives.
So for me, art is a way of just giving form to ideas, to experiences, and to time, especially. I wrote an essay about the artist Paul Thek and [a 2013 show of his work I curated at Pace Gallery called] “Nothing But Time.” There’s two meanings to that sentence: All there is in life is time, and it’s very brief, and we have a lot of it when it’s slowed down to a snail’s pace during the course of a given day. Sometimes it feels [like] it’s going slower than at other times. And then it’s, what do you fill that time with? What do you do? How do you do it? Why do you do it?
AZ: I’m looking at the Zaha building right there [looks north, from The Slowdown’s headquarters on West 26th Street, toward 520 West 28th Street].
KS: Cool. Perfect.
AZ: Separately, I wanted to get an assessment from you about the art market. What is the most basic primordial aspect that hasn’t changed about that? Even amongst change.
KS: Greed. I mean, people say crypto is rife with grift, tax evasion, money-laundering, scams, cash grabs. Crypto is crypto. Crypto is a bunch of computers and a decentralized network of computers called the blockchain. People are fucked up. People have criminal intent. There’s a bell curve of morality and integrity in the world, and it drives people.
The art market, like social media…. I mean, a lot of social media [is] disproportionately controlled by one person, Mark Zuckerberg, who should be divested of his companies today, because it’s disgraceful the amount of concentration of power, censorship, control. It’s absurd. It’s akin to the robber barons in the turn of the century, in post-industrial America.
AZ: Do you see him as the only…. Just quickly, in terms of technology. Because, in a way, technology is like our new religion. At one point, maybe art was more closely tied to religion. But technology as a religion and Zuckerberg as a demigod or an all-powerful—
KS: He’s among those people like Bezos, and Amazon, Google.
AZ: Do you see all of them as authoring corruption or problems in our world?
KS: Well, I just think no one makes a hundred billion dollars being a nice humanist. There’s an inordinate amount of greed, and control, and machismo, and competition.
AZ: Do you believe that—and we’re going to get into why NFTs matter—but that there are disruptions happening now and that things will change, or do you believe that the art market is something that will never change in that way?
KS: Things are always changing. I have never seen something transformed with the rapidity of NFTs, in particular over the last year and a half. Technology changes. A year in technology is like dog years. So one year in technology is fifteen years in real life. And everything was accelerated by the tragedy of Covid, when people, if you wanted to have a window into the world, there was your screen. One day during the initial lockdown, I clocked over sixteen hours of screen time on my telephone. I didn’t feel remorse. I was quite happy with my personal best.
KS: Because, again, like, as bad as Instagram is, and Facebook, extraordinary things have also come from it. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be as popular as it is, despite the fact it’s engineered to control our dopamine and serotonin release. I’ve met extraordinary people, and created great opportunities for myself and for other people, through the crushing of these geographical boundaries that never existed before the advent of social media. And I’m grateful for that.
AZ: Yeah, the democratization of it all, and the access.
KS: I mean, the access and the democratization are a little bit overexaggerated because of the algorithmic control of what you see and who gets to see…. That’s why the tech world is on Twitter, and the art world is on Instagram. And no one in the NFT space—nothing would ever transpire from Instagram. It just does not happen. You have to be on Discord and Telegram and—
AZ: All these other spaces.
So you’re a self-proclaimed hoarder. You said it a few minutes ago. And when you look at the work you’ve collected, made, written about, does it have a sort of transformational quality for you? What I mean by that is, do you see your own history? Is there an autobiographical quality to the collecting of all the things, whether made by you or not? How much does your collecting have to do with a personal narrative?
KS: I think all artists are vain narcissists. One of my kids called me—I love this one—called me a narcissist with low self-esteem. I feature in a lot of my art, whether it’s acting in videos or 2-D photo manipulations. But if the art was strictly personal…. I think nothing could be strictly personal, because we’re all, for worse or worse, interconnected on some level. We’d like to think of ourselves as unique and special, but we’re really just … everyone is fungible. You can’t even say that word anymore after “nonfungible token,” but we’re all fungible, let’s face it. I mean, we may have some degrees of distinction to differentiate ourselves amongst our peers. But more or less, we’re comprised of the same elements and atoms. One artist that I frequently speak about and write about is Paul Thek. He made these sculptures in the early sixties called “Technological Reliquaries.”
His name was Thek, T-H-E-K. So that could have played into his nomenclature about his work. Of course, if you just made art about yourself, it could be a little dull and a little bit conceited. So I think that we use our own experiences, and our own intuitive and intellectual reactions to things, to convey an analysis and a message of what we see before us and what we see ahead of us. I mean, I wish I could make beautiful things, because I’d probably have a much better art market.
My art, in a way, is kind of a reportage. The only way I can have my work seen for the last fifteen years, when I started incorporating my videos into my writing to create my own platform, when the art world afforded me no other opportunities, was the work was illustrative, to some extent. But art has to have…. Art, in the best of all possible worlds—you’d be able to live with a painting for your entire life, or a sculpture, or video. So in that regard, it’s this essence of…. I mean, timelessness is some unattainable ideal in the same way beauty is.
I found Paul Thek’s cross-sections of meat—some people found them revolting—terribly stunning and seductive. I’d never seen such a beautiful depiction of the fragility and the vulnerability in this line between life and death in a way that just stopped me in my tracks, and has brought me to tears. So, I think that my art is referential to myself. I hope that it has some element that [will] still have meaning in years to come.
AZ: Do you think the collecting, and the work of other artists, is also a reflection of you?
KS: It’s a reflection of me inasmuch as I’ve made the decision to buy the stuff, but I’m really all over the place. If you come into the room where I work, call it an office, there’s a hundred small pieces. The most valuable thing is a gift somebody gave me, but they’re all among the most meaningful things to me. And I would say it’s the closest representation of what a screenshot of the inside of my head would look like. It’s a lot of information. Like an atom-smasher, all of these things colliding off of each other.
Anyone else would be overwhelmed by being in that space. But it quiets my mind, and it puts me into a space where I can think, think about other people, think about writing. I’ve done a hell of a lot of lecturing over the last two years there. Since NFTs and since my early adoption in the space, I’ve given thirty podcasts and fifty lectures about technology. And to be very clear from the onset, I’m not a programmer, I’m not a coder. But I’ve always appreciated…. I remember Heathkits. When the first personal computers available to consumers was the first Apple computer, and the Heathkit kit to build your own computer.
When I was in graduate school—I went to law school because I had a philosophy degree and there was nothing else to do other than teach high school. So I went to law school to hide from the marketplace. And I got an IBM desktop before there were laptops—
KS: Which is like saying, “I remember when hamburgers were five cents.” I had a floppy disk, and I copied twelve hundred pages of notes on my word processor, just to interact with this device. And then it changed my writing. It has never been the same. It changes the way you constitute a sentence and the way you think about text.
KS: And I love text in art.
AZ: This is very logical in step with everything else, this idea of near and far future—and this idea of really wanting to harness this moment, and being super interested in this moment right now—that you always seem to hit. Connected to the hoarding idea, you’ve been making these auctions, selling off your pieces, or some of your pieces.
KS: But I would say also, my collecting is not…. You would never go through my collection and make any obvious associations to me as a human being. But they’re just the things that are meaningful objects, relics, things that affect the way that I think. And I love to just—every day I screw my nose up against a drawing, a painting, or sculpture, or move something a centimeter. If one piece was moved in my house to one degree, I would notice.
KS: And during lockdown, I was—
AZ: It’s a form of play.
KS: Yeah, but it’s a form of thinking, of being.
KS: I love playing, and I love touching, and I love doing things I’m not supposed to do. And I’m always saying, “I’m sorry”—today not excluded, but I won’t get into that right now. But I consider it, like, yes, I like play, because I never had a fabulous, fun childhood, and I’m making up for that. Or I used to, when I drank a lot and did a lot of drugs, which I don’t do anymore. I just think of it more like a chess game, where I’m making these moves and moving around things, looking at them in a different way, thinking about them in a different regard.
AZ: Activating them.
AZ: So you’ve been doing these auctions, the “Hoarder” auctions with Sotheby’s. What I was curious about when you did the first—I think it was two years ago—
AZ: Three years ago, when you did the first one, how do you decide what you’re ready to sell? How do you decide what to part with?
KS: Well, like a lot of things in my life, it was half a joke. But again, I don’t take myself or what I do seriously. I’m not curing cancer. I wish I was. Although clinical studies have found that living with art reduces blood pressure and lowers anxiety levels. I did some work with a hospital in London that’s accredited as a museum, and they have a very proactive commissioning process, so—
AZ: And the field of neuroaesthetics is exploding, now. The work at [Johns] Hopkins, and everywhere else—
AZ: I mean, this is a science now.
KS: I could not live without art. And like I said, it’s imbued my life with meaning. But the “Hoarder” thing came about as a kind of joke. After living for fifteen years in London, I always would—I mean, at first I made an installation in this basement that I had. There [were these] famous brothers in New York, the Collyer brothers.
AZ: The hoarders.
KS: Yes, the hoarders. I would see these articles in the newspaper of these older people, generally, that would fill their lives with so much junk that you could not enter the house, literally. I always thought that would be [me]. I made a short horror film that was three minutes long, where, on one trip I came back from being abroad, and I looked around in my office and I just felt as if I was being suffocated by my own things. I made a video where I fell down the stairs and my art collection attacked me and killed me. So after living in London for fifteen years, I had to shovel my way out of there.
In the same way, I had a gallery [Kenny Schachter ConTEMPorary] designed by Vito Acconci, a project space, because I’m incapable of operating anything professionally, like being a gallerist. So I sold the gallery literally in two chunks at a Philips design sale. Again, I was going to do it as a joke on eBay. And then I thought, fuck it, I’ll just put it into a design auction, when the design market just came into fruition, in ’04 at Phillips. So the “Hoarder” sale was, well, first of all, everything—I mean, I couldn’t do it without being tongue-in-cheek and taking the piss out of Sotheby’s. I’ve made ads of myself dressed up in a plaid jacket as a used car salesman, selling my stuff as in the guise of a Sotheby’s ad.
KS: And had a car on the floor of the salesroom. Then I had a desk installed. Then I worked the floor, which was the first time in two hundred and seventy-five years that a seller has ever behaved like that. And they made a desk for me with “The Hoarder” and a name plaque on it. I even wore the Sotheby’s apron, and was doing my “Let’s make a deal” routine.
But the idea was that I was being literally smothered by my crap. And in a way, look, I appreciate—I studied Freud and psychology. And Freud has written extensively [about hoarding]. He thinks collecting stems from bad toilet-training, which—I don’t think now is the time or place to get into how I wipe my ass. But you’re definitely plugging some kind of, I mean, there’s some loss, some—
AZ: There’s a connection to loss somewhere.
KS: Yeah. It’s just like, I mean, I lost my mother when I was very young. And I guess—
AZ: At 13.
KS: I was 13. And I guess, it’s kind of like compensating for a … for something.
AZ: Filling the holes.
KS: Yeah. So filling this kind of moral black hole, this emotional black hole, with stuff, and it never really works, as is pretty clear. Anyway, I was moving from London to New York in 2019, and I was inundated. It took four people four months to dig out. Then I just thought, as a joke, I would have a sale at Sotheby’s, an online sale before online sales became so prominent during the tragedy of Covid. And then I just thought, I’d call it “The Hoarder.” It was a joke. And I didn’t know they would ever go for it. But there was this renegade guy who was working at Sotheby’s, before he got fired. And he helped me facilitate having it called “The Hoarder.” And it did really well.
And I didn’t know—I’m always the one to sabotage myself, so I made no reserves. Some people gave me pushback: “How could you jeopardize a career or the market of some artist if you’re selling stuff potentially for peanuts?” But the only one who’s going to suffer is me. I’ve now done three of them, and I haven’t. Look, more often than not, I’ve lost money doing it. But I don’t have a regular stream of income in my career.
Until now, I never made money selling my art. I had a show in a gallery in East Hampton, Rental Gallery, in 2018 that did relatively well, surprisingly. Again, it was a joke of a fake retrospective. My expectations always start two degrees below zero, in which case, I’m rarely disappointed, because that’s normally how it ends up. The show did well, but I haven’t shown since then. So “The Hoarder” is, for me, a necessary evil where—I don’t like to sell art. I’m not a flipper by nature. I’d rather buy art than sell art.
I say I can’t sell drugs to a drug addict, so I employ others. I love art dealers. I used to be very hypercritical about some of their activities, and I guess I still am. But art dealers make the leap of faith. It’s a hapless job. It’s a very difficult job when you have these behemoths like Zwirner and Hauser and Gagosian and Pace. It’s like, you’re always looking over your shoulder or behind. And art is simply a zero-sum game. One person advances, whether you’re an artist, a dealer or a curator or anything, even a collector. You advance at the direct expense of somebody else.
KS: And, relatively speaking, you mentioned Apple or technology companies. The entire breadth of a year’s worth of the art market is what Apple does during lunch today: sixty-five billion dollars.
AZ: What would you never sell?
KS: My soul.
AZ: Not your Paul Thek sculpture?
KS: I’m always desperate for money. I’m always up and down. I don’t value money. I don’t want to die with a lot of money. That would be a waste. Unfortunately, I’ve sold some of my most significant Paul Thek sculptures, but all of the Paul Thek sales I’ve ever had to do were to, one, a private museum [the Phoenix Kulturstiftung], which is open to the public in Hamburg, [and holds the] Falckenberg collection. And then to a museum [the Gemeentemuseum] in the Hague. Most recently, I curated a show at Pace gallery in London, in 2013. Working on another one.
But honestly, I would never compromise and capitulate my beliefs. But again, I know it sounds stupid, because where I’m living now is about to sink into its foundations from the amount of crap that’s accumulating regularly now, since I’ve even moved here two and a half years ago. Close to three, I guess. But I wouldn’t want to live in a house with no art.
AZ: Did you grow up in a house with a ton of stuff in it?
KS: Zero. I did not, no. I’m an idiot, idiot savant. My mother passed away. She was a bit creative. I just have one vague memory of her painting on the wall of the basement. My dad was absentee and unsupportive. He once tried after I.… I mean, I worked all throughout law school. Told everyone I was in night school; there was no night school. I worked on the floor of the stock exchange. I worked as a writer. That’s how I honed my writing skills. I went into fashion. You would never know it from the looks of me.
But I did all of these disparate jobs, all in the search trying to find something that gave me some level of satisfaction. And I refused to have some kind of routine. I didn’t want to live for holidays. I hate holidays now. If you gave me a seven-star trip to a beach somewhere, I would be mortified, literally. I just can’t compute.
AZ: I want to hear more about your childhood, though. Where did you grow up?
KS: Wait, so just go back. What was the last question that I was—
AZ: Well, I was curious about what your house was like that you grew up in.
KS: Oh, yeah, so no art. When I was procrastinating, I passed the bar, took a part-time legal job. I was procrastinating between jobs.
AZ: But before that. I’m talking about—
KS: Yeah, I know. But in a nutshell, I never went to a museum or a gallery in my life until I was—
AZ: As a child, you were never taken?
KS: I didn’t know galleries existed until I was almost 27 years old.
AZ: But you grew up in New York.
KS: In Long Island, which could have been in Siberia.
KS: Seventeen miles away. But seventeen light years from—
AZ: Never came into the city, went to museums?
KS: I came in to go to—I mean, I was overweight, I stuttered. The reason I never shut up now, nor punctuate when I speak [is because] I had a speech impediment until I was 16.
AZ: From when you started speaking?
KS: Yes. So I was very overweight, alienated.
AZ: How did you transcend that?
KS: I lost weight. Then I would only go into the city to go to Studio 54 and Xenon when I was 16. Steal my parents’ station wagon, take a few Quaaludes, and become a disco thing.
AZ: How did you transcend the speech [condition]?
KS: It just came over time, and with the incremental buildup of confidence in myself. If I was called on in law school, before I quit attending classes, certain letters, like D, I would stumble over. It can occasionally still sputter out, but—
AZ: They say it has to do with how you feel that you’re being perceived while you’re thinking through the thought.
KS: Interesting. I mean, I’ve only become comfortable in my skin in the last couple of years. I was never really happy with myself, and satisfied with myself, and comfortable in my identity. And now you’re on a couch, and I feel like I’m in a psychiatrist’s office. But as a kid, I had no…. When I was 14, after my mother passed away, we moved into a house and the room, the wall in my bedroom, was covered in cork. I would frequently, as a child, cut out magazines like I was…. I’ve always been a journalism fanatic. And to this day, really, the art that I make stems from a very similar mindset of taking pre-existing images. I hate fiction.
AZ: Yeah. You’re a storyteller of truth, like where we started.
KS: When I lived in London, there were nine daily newspapers. I was in heaven. After seeing some of both the good and the terrible ways that people treat one another—like in the Ukraine today and this brutal attack on people minding their own business. It’s the World Trade Center, and various acts of inhumanity to animals and children. I’ve always just been fascinated by what people do with their lot in life, and how they do it.
As a child, I had everything from National Geographic to car magazines. And I hate sports. My biggest fear in life was…. If we would play on a team, it would be shirts or skins. If I had to take my shirt off, I would be paralyzed, incapacitated. I was so self-conscious. I guess I still have a few dysmorphic problems.
But I would take these existing images. And the way Richard Prince would go in the basement when he was working for Time magazine and re-photograph these cowboys—I wasn’t that clever, but I would just cut and paste the magazines and reconstitute them on my walls, even before I was 14, 13, 12. In a way, I was creating my own reality, and my own environment. And the work that I do today frequently also is cutting and pasting, and recontextualizing preexisting images.
AZ: Making sense of things.
KS: Making my own sense of it.
KS: Taking things the way they are, and then reshaping them and molding them to address how I feel the way things are today. I would have to say I’m fifty percent interested in now and fifty-three percent interested in what’s next. So I think basically, all the knowledge I’ve accrued, I write to make the mundane experiences of my life more focused. And I teach to learn.
KS: Otherwise, I wouldn’t read books. I would sit at home and watch cartoons all day.
AZ: Was there any kind of spiritual or religious background in your childhood?
KS: Once my mother passed away, incrementally, of cancer, I gave up the hope of ever finding any spirituality in life. And I became, by default—
KS: A cynical existentialist. I always call myself cynically idealistic. Because I’m miserable, but I’m hopeful.
AZ: But at some point you met your wife, Ilona, who’s also an artist, and made your own family.
KS: Yes. I mean, I love my kids. They give me great joy and satisfaction.
I lost one of my kids three years ago, which I mean, again, it was so…. I mean, my child had no issues, no problems, no psychological problems, no history of illness.
AZ: This is your son Kai?
KS: Yes. He took his life, and he was in one of the best—he got into graduate school at Slade, one of the world’s greatest art schools. He never went to undergraduate school based on the merit of his portfolio. After that experience, I mean, I basically … I can’t say that I’ll ever be happy again, or have anything remotely resembling joy in my life. All I have is my work and my children, and that’s it. It’s enough, because I have art, and that is medicinal to me. But other than that, I mean, I got sober. I got focused. I love to teach. I love to help people.
AZ: You got sober after your son passed?
KS: Well, before. One of my kids had some issues with drugs and alcohol, so I stopped drinking. But I was still using marijuana habitually. And it sounds innocuous, marijuana. But marijuana today has the potency of class-A drugs.
When I was young, marijuana was like dirt from Colombia, and you could smoke an ounce and nothing would happen. And now it’s all engineered with THC content off the charts. I think marijuana is insidious. Anything you habitually rely on is bad. So I had quit drinking just for the sake of setting an example for one of my kids. Then when I lost my kid, who was—drugs had some role in his choices in life and his experience. And then I just couldn’t look at marijuana anymore. When I quit, it was such a crazy revelation. Because you do these things and they end up—I mean, this is getting ridiculous, but—
AZ: No, it’s fascinating.
KS: I just feel like I had all these negative affirmations. My mother was gone, and my dad would only ever relate to me when I did something bad. So lo and behold, I ended up being—I never passed classes, I barely got into college. I barely got into law school, but that’s because I had no intent. I never had a conversation like we’re having until I was 14 years old, when my mother passed away and my dad remarried. So I have had zero positive input into my life, ever. Everything has had to be a kind of a self-discovery.
KS: So I guess—
AZ: And survival. I mean, I don’t think we should just discount the fact that losing a parent at that age is a dramatic shift in your life forever.
KS: That was the only warmth and encouragement. And even my mother was kind, but she was hardly also ever…. Didn’t take me to galleries, we never went on holidays, never did anything. I had no hobbies. I had no interest other than ripping apart my magazines. That was it. I’m not looking for sympathy, or, I mean—
AZ: It’s not about that. You’re describing the forces that made you who you are.
KS: Yes. So I wonder, not to sound—like, to simplify anything, but in my writing, a lot of it—I mean, I’ve written articles blackout drunk. Some of that was readily apparent to anyone who got stuck reading it, but they were a little bit meaner then. A lot of my relationships stemmed from my criticisms in the press, of people that I ended up befriending, and becoming close with.
AZ: Recently, you reconnected with Lucien Smith and—
KS: Right. And many [others]; that’s one example. So I wonder, is that, on some level, me trying to get attention? Because the only way I ever had any feedback from a parent was when I did poorly in school, which was regularly.
AZ: Whether it’s to get attention or just a way to engage with the world.
KS: A way to be noticed.
KS: A way to posit any kind of my existence.
AZ: But out of this sort of—
KS: You’re giving me a headache.
AZ: Tragedy that we’re talking about, you then built quite an enviable family structure for yourself, which is a response to that.
KS: I love my kids so much.
AZ: And your whole world, at least from the outside, is this world where creativity and love and beauty is totally honored. And you even formalize that, and operationalize that in these exhibitions of family.
KS: Which started back in 20—
AZ: So in—
KS: 2014 or ’12, I started doing shows with my kids. We traveled all over the world. With Kai, we did shows in California, in China, in New York, in London.
AZ: In 2012, it hit national news, I think.
KS: We broke a little Tracey Emin, and we ended up in a Pakistan daily newspaper—
AZ: Yeah. I want to hear that story because it was a show called “Friends & Family” where you engaged, I guess, your 14- and 13-year-old at the time.
KS: All of my kids, all of their friends, and all of my collection, cheek by jowl. And a few of their friends had bands, and that’s where the trouble began. But it was—
AZ: So what was the idea of the show?
KS: The idea was, everyone in this day and age wants—whether it’s social media heroes and YouTube stars, it’s asinine—everyone wants to be famous, and everyone wants to be rich, whether it’s the Kardashian model and NFTs…. You know, art is a slow-burning process, and takes a lifetime of accruing an audience for what you do, for a good reason, if you have good content.
Anyway, the idea was to do a show with my kids and engage them so they would do something positive, and they wouldn’t just want to hang around, and get high, and do nothing, and somehow get noted for it. So we did the show, and it was beautiful. I mean, it was extraordinary, and there was Richter and Polke and all these other artists beside, like, kids.
Because frequently, when I would curate shows in the early portion of my career, a lot of it—I have an aesthetic, which is I love good-bad art. I’ve literally exhibited garbage bags filled with garbage by Rachel Harrison, who recently had a retrospective at the Whitney. And one of the refrains, which I was constantly confronted with, was, “My kid could do that,” blah, blah. “This looks like shit.” Well, it is shit, but it’s still cool shit. So then I did the show with the kids, all their friends. The only artist we actually borrowed a piece from—because most of it was mine—was Tracey Emin. She was gracious enough to let us into her studio, and she let us consign a small bronze piece. And it was encased in a glass box.
During the opening, there were a few bands playing. One was Anish Kapoor’s kid. Another one was—not to name-drop—but Jude Law’s kid. And some girl just inadvertently knocked over a pedestal. It was a beautiful opening. The show was—it was covered in the press and—it was just, it really was the best of all worlds until we broke the Tracey Emin [piece]. Before the glass was swept off the floor, an article came out in the Evening Standard: “Dad lets his kid throw a rave at a gallery.” It wasn’t even a gallery. It was a shitty space that I used to do pop-up shows in.
And Tracey’s piece could withstand nuclear conflagration. It was a little bronze turd or something. The glass box broke. Somebody called the newspaper. The next day it was in another newspaper. Then I had a call from BBC radio, and they’re, “You ruined it for all the other families that would’ve been in the position of curating a show with their kids.”
KS: I’m like, “Fuck are you talking about? We just…. The piece is fine. Everything is fine. We did a nice thing. No one’s going to be dissuaded from doing a show.”
So the headlines were blaring that. I tried to encourage the kids to do something and get noted for positivity. And in the end, they were walking down the schoolway halls like the notorious kids that smashed the Tracey Emin. It ended up in a Pakistan daily newspaper, and I became enemies with Tracey Emin without even really knowing her terribly well. She withdrew her pieces from the show the first day of the show, and it turns out it was the work of her studio manager.
We were at a dinner party subsequent to that. And then I got into an argument with her friend, and the party was in honor of her, and she threatened to leave the party. And then she was bad-mouthing me to some people that I knew in the art world. So it was really kind of a bad turn of events. I made some artworks about her mocking the whole situation—since she once married a rock, so….
AZ: But you end up resolving with her?
KS: Well, the craziest story is that, a few years ago I was—I mean, every single time I lecture and including speaking to you, I will answer every…. If anybody has any question, if I can help anyone, without saying to me, “How can I sell my NFTs? Because I can’t fucking sell mine.” I get the most annoying…. You mentioned Lucian Smith. He sent me a DM and said, “I want to be on Nifty Gateway.” I’m like, “Manners, have some—say, ‘Hello.’ And then I’ll do anything I can to help you.” And I do.
I would say, [and] encourage anyone listening to this, if in any way I can give you any advice…. It takes the same amount of time to say no as to just answer. I answer every DM within twenty-four hours. Two years ago I was DM-ing, someone was DM-ing about art, and for two weeks we were going on and on speaking about art, and arguing, and having a really engaged conversation about stuff. And it was a private account, and I befriended it. I didn’t know if it was a man or a woman. When they accepted my request, it turned out to be Tracey Emin. Since then, we’ve become really close friends. I used to be super-critical of her work and her practice. I made this piece where I’m cowering underneath her skirt, shielding myself. Because, in America, we have Friday arts coverage in The New York Times, and that’s it. That is it. In the U.K., because they have so many papers and they need to fill it—
AZ: And there’s no Hollywood.
KS: Yeah. Well, they have their own kind of alternative entertainment universe of people. But anyway, it’s like, they really…. Artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey, and Sarah [Lucas], they’re public figures in a way that doesn’t exist in the United States. Every taxi driver knows who they are and what they’ve done, pretty much.
AZ: So, you’re cowering underneath her.
KS: I was literally cowering…. Every time I would open the newspaper in the U.K., there would be a profile of Sam Taylor-Wood, who’s now the director of Fifty Shades of Grey, and has gone Hollywood and married one of her young stars. It was either Sam Taylor-Wood or Tracey Emin every week, a profile. So, I knew basically, diaristically, what was happening in her life from one week to the next. And it was getting really tedious. Like, when’s the last time you saw a profile of, say, Matthew Barney?
I even did a book interviewing…. The impetus was—having been in the U.K. and done some work there, and seen the way that artists communicate and are embraced, whether it’s for yellow journalism or their antics as much as for their art—there’s a wide degree of recognition in the same way [that] in Germany, you would find an unlimited edition of Joseph Beuys in the houses of people that don’t go to galleries. That there was this kind of prevalence of culture in a way that disseminates way beyond in the United States. So, I did a book in 2002 where I interviewed a hundred people from Wall Street to Harlem, asking them, “What does art mean to you? Do you know who Roy Lichtenstein is, or Matthew Barney, or Andy Warhol? What’s your impression of creativity and art?” It was elucidating, and an amazing project.
So, I had this piece where I was cowering from Tracey because I was so … I just thought that her art was so solipsistic. It was so self-aggrandizing, and so much about exploiting personal experiences. Then when I came to know her, and I really developed an appreciation for what she did, how and why, it completely transformed my [perception of her]. And now I just think she’s one of the greatest living artists.
AZ: You mentioned quickly, and we grazed over it, [that] you studied philosophy and political science at G.W. So, you were in D.C. at G.W., and in just kind of a depraved art culture. [Laughs] I grew up near there. And then you come to New York to study law. And I think about philosophy and law, and I think about the things that you’re doing in all areas of your work.
I wonder if you recognize that these skills you may have harnessed throughout your life—in the way you can build an argument and in your convictions about ideas, in the way that you can construct the scaffolding around an idea, whether it’s beautiful or not.—it’s the scaffolding. It’s the raw construct of an argument. So, you graze over studying philosophy and law as something that, “Whatever, I didn’t have an intent.” But do you recognize that you’re possibly leaning on those skills on a daily basis?
KS: You’re way more interesting than I am. I’d rather just ask you about your childhood. Giving me a headache. No, that’s just a really fantastic question. I don’t graze over philosophy. I think what I’m doing is like [being] an illustrator for a book, a grand book on philosophy. I love philosophy and, in college, procrastinating or after I smoked a joint, I went to the east wing of the National Gallery, and ended up frequenting the National Gallery. And that’s where I began to see Warhol, Basquiat, Twombly, and all of these classic contemporary works. It subconsciously began to congeal in my mind, and set the stage for my future.
Law was like military school in gaining the discipline to teach myself. So that’s a great illustration, analogy, of the scaffold. In my own lame-brained, amateurish way, I consider philosophy…. Conceptual art is giving form to philosophical thought, and ideations, making material ideational concepts. Again, I’m not the most intellectual person. I just have a good work ethic. But philosophy, German philosophy in particular, colored everything I—
KS: Well, Hegel. Colored, everything that I … how I think, and the structure. And then law school, even though I didn’t attend the classes on a regular basis or on an irregular basis, I took the bar exam and I passed it. And that—just wading through this institutional amount of material covering a wide array of subjects, and having to memorize this material for this two-day, eight-hour-a-day bar exam—if anything, I couldn’t litigate my way out of a shoebox. I was a terrible lawyer, a walking malpractice with feet. I have an attention span like a mosquito, and literally people who know me know [that] if the content is not contained on one screen of a phone, very likely I’ll miss it. Not purposefully, just because I don’t—I can’t focus. But if I’m teaching, if I’m preparing for a lecture or writing, I could sit for days listening to the same song twelve hours a day, and give a four-hour lecture at 3:00 o’clock in the morning in Switzerland, which I did recently. So, I think law school prepared me for focusing.
AZ: And rigor.
KS: Yeah. I love discipline. And I love the rigor. Like my dad, even though we don’t get along—he literally tried to nearly forcibly dissuade me from an art career. He always said to me, “Do what you love. Just find what you love and do it. I don’t care what it is.” Well, I went to law school, found what I loved: it wasn’t law. And then he literally sat in front of me at one of my exhibitions there, I was gallery-sitting, and he said, “You promised you would leave art if you weren’t making a plausible living after a year.” It’s unbelievable. And of course, I never.… Well, I quit speaking to him, and continued with art.
AZ: And you’ve done just fine. So, it’s been an intense—this is a pivot—it’s been an intense few years, I think, for everyone. Right? We’ve been speaking around the pandemic a bit. And everyone’s processing it differently. So I was curious how it was for you, and how you experienced it. What was your perspective on it?
KS: The thing is, I’ve been married for twenty-five years, but my wife and I haven’t spent an enormous amount of time [together] over the past couple of years. She was largely living abroad for a while, while I rented a place in New York. And look, I would never underplay the impact of Covid, and I’m a long-term Covid sufferer. I’ve had it twice. I had it the first time, last October, over a year ago. And then I had it again, a lighter version in December, but thank God I didn’t have it too severely.
I was always late, but never going anywhere. So, during the initial three months of the lockdown, I stopped wearing a watch. I’m still not wearing a watch. I think it absolutely changed the way that we think, fundamentally, about a lot of basic things in our lives. About time, about travel, about interacting with people, and about what was important, what wasn’t important, and why.
AZ: Did you spend it with your family?
KS: For the first three months, I didn’t move. It came to a point during my journalistic beat—I was covering art fairs and auctions, for the most part—I was traveling every two weeks for fifteen years, all the time. And in London, you’re two hours away from everywhere. I saw Heathrow more than I saw London. Then I moved to New York. So for the first three months of the lockdown, I was homebound. I have to say, I mean, not to be dismissive or flippant about it, but it was a revelation that I was…. The hamster wheel came to a grinding halt, abruptly.
And I really started to look at the art in my house. I really started to think [about] how I wanted to live the rest of my life. I didn’t move for the first time in my life. I would stay put for three months. I taught nonstop, even when I had Covid. I did a two-hour FaceTime with Tracey Emin. I wrote an essay for a catalog for her work, for Xavier Hufkens gallery. I taught in Istanbul. I worked nonstop, even when I was sick, because it mainly got worse at night. But then, after that period, in May of last year, so well over a year ago, one of my kids was celebrating his twenty-fifth, and he was unhappy staying in New York. Kids were getting antsy. And he flew to London.
I got on a plane, four months into the pandemic, and I remember asking the students if I could change seats, and [the flight attendant] said, “We’d have to see what the weight distribution is on the plane.” There were so few people on the plane. I didn’t think that was terribly a nice thought to think about, that if one fat person moved from one side of the plane to the other, the plane would tip over. I have to say, once I moved, early on in the pandemic.… Well, old habits are hard to change. I did a lecture and a show with Johann König in Berlin, and I just started incessantly traveling. And I’ve been traveling nonstop for the past year, more than a year and a half. I’ve been teaching in Switzerland all the time, and I have an exhibition up now in Berlin with Nagel Draxler Galerie.
AZ: Of your own work?
KS: Yes. I’ve been moving around the whole time. So, I’m still not wearing a watch. I’m going to a hell of a lot less art fairs, unless I’m in them now. I mean, who would ever think that you could transform your life in your late fifties? It’s a very unheralded situation that I’ve strived for my whole life, and now it’s happening, and I’m grateful. I think the pandemic has been a wake-up call to everyone, to reassess the importance of various things in our lives.
AZ: Well, in the last twenty-four months, your work, your own artwork is garnering a lot of attention. It’s really changed, for a number of reasons. In both the traditional market and the NFTs, do you feel like your work itself has changed or the work has always been the same, but the world around it has shifted?
KS: By the way, I’m very grateful that you’re so considerate and put so much work into this, and even want to take the time to speak to me. So, I’m very appreciative. Thank you.
I think in certain formal respects, my work is exactly the same, but the content has wildly shifted. The only way that I could have my work seen in the past was to incorporate it into my journalism. So the work, by nature, had to relate. So, I would say ninety-five percent of my work was relating to the art world. And that’s kind of depressing. Art about art only goes so far, and then it becomes incestuous. I always say the art world is like picking up a rock, and finding three hundred incestuous worms all interconnected. It’s kind of gross, and it’s kind of boring.
I love humor. I use humor in all my work, writing, teaching. When I’m giving a two-hour lecture, if I can’t be entertaining and funny on some level—I’ve seen people go into deep R.E.M. sleep with puddles of drool coming out of their mouth, and that’s not a good sign from an audience. So I would say, in a certain regard, my work hasn’t changed since I was pinning it up on the cork wall in Long Island, when I was catatonic. But on another level, the content is completely changed.
So now, because I’ve moved into the world—I had no interest in Bitcoin, crypto. I’d never done anything for money in my life, to the consternation of my family. But now I’m analyzing in a more in-depth fashion, and it manifests itself in my art: things about the crypto space, about NFTs, and how technology is ever-increasingly directing and impacting on our lives.
AZ: Well, because it’s not like fiat currency. It is not stable. It’s active.
KS: It’s wildly volatile.
KS: And the rapidity of change, like I mentioned before, is unprecedented in life.
AZ: Let’s get into NFTs. I wanted to save some space for that, because we have one of the world’s experts on it. You’ve been at the forefront, really championing its potential since somewhat the early days, at least, the public early days of it.
KS: Yes. In the traditional art world, I would say among the first.
AZ: Yeah. What is it about it that drew you in initially?
KS: The auction record for a video is seven hundred thousand dollars, by Bill Viola. Nam June Paik sold a piece at auction for one point three—
AZ: But that’s a sculpture.
KS: It was a sculpture with a video in it. Steve McQueen—the artist and filmmaker—his auction record, disturbingly, is thirty-two thousand dollars. He’s one of the—
AZ: He has an Oscar.
KS: Correct. He’s one of the greatest image-makers in the world, [that the world] has ever seen. His auction record is thirty-two thousand dollars. That’s disgraceful. Vito Acconci, one of my heroes, conceptual heroes—not just because he masturbated under the floor in 1972, which gave me pause to think that perhaps art could be a field for me, since I was pretty expert—
AZ: Could find a home there. [Laughs]
KS: I was pretty good at onanism. I owned my onanism in Long Island, and I made a piece of an elephant sucking its own dick because I’ve tried it all, [as] an isolated youth in the suburbs of New York.
Vito Acconci died poor. He has his art in every museum, every museum of contemporary art in the world, and yet he was penniless when he died. Why? Because he flitted from one art-making form to another. He did a lot of videos and films and photography, and he never carried on making three thousand of the same works like certain unnamed artists who paint a lot of spots.
I’ve only ever been interested in technology as it relates to culture, and the everyday presence and essence of our lives. So I’ve always employed—like you said, I made digital animations in 1993. I started making digital prints in the mid nineties on vinyl, oversized and painted elements on top. I always made digital art. But digital art was the very, very, very poor cousin of painting. You couldn’t flex to your hedge-fund buds with a jpeg at that time. Nobody respected, regarded…. There was no system, mechanism for collecting digital artworks, or videos, film, and the like.
The auction record for a painting stands at four hundred and fifty million dollars. There’s now a Warhol, which [has] the highest estimate ever given to an artwork, at two hundred million dollars.
AZ: The [one shot with a] bullet.
KS: Well, that one wasn’t shot, but it’s in the category of Shot Marilyns, because it was in the room, but it was unscathed by the…. I thought it was the woman that shot Warhol that shot the painting, but that’s not—
AZ: Valerie Solanas.
KS: [She] was a performance artist [Dorothy Podber] that said to Warhol, “Can I shoot your work?” And he thought she was a photographer, and then she pulled out a gun and shot his paintings. That had nothing to do with his shooting. And it’s a friend of mine, Doris Ammann, who’s passed away from malpractice, basically. At seventy, she was wildly ill. Fit and healthy, and tragically, prematurely, died from a bad medical procedure. Anyway, her brother, Thomas Ammann, was one of the legendary aesthetics in the world.
KS: Thank you. From Long Island, give a break. As my kids will never let me forget when I try to say W-A-T-E-R, which I won’t do now, and have it on record for perpetuity.
KS: Anyway. No one ever valued digital art because it couldn’t readily be bought and sold. So, when someone first sang those three letters to me a year and a half ago…. I’m not a very technically-minded person. I could barely get my phone to play. It took me three days to get my printer set up and my external speakers speaking. But I liked the notion that you could sell a digital artwork. People complain. We can go through all the negatives, the environmental excessive footprint and consumption of energy, the grift and graft and money laundering, and tax, all these things that are usually—
AZ: Name an industry that doesn’t have vulnerability.
KS: This is the province of the art world. That’s why they were so pissed off. There was someone who was taking the wind away from their sails, and stealing money more readily and easily.
So I found out about it, and it appealed to me. I’ve been making digital art for my whole life. And there was never a way to sell it. The art world, begrudgingly, after fifteen years, once smartphones came along, started to take me, at least read me—I won’t even say, “take me” seriously, because I’m not sure I do, nor anyone else for that matter. But basically the art world said, collectively, “Okay, you could write, you could teach, but you’ll never be an artist. Don’t kid yourself.” Literally. I’m not even being facetious.
Someone mentioned NFTs. The chief financial officer of one of the large NFT platforms, Nifty Gateway, at that point was also wearing a curator hat, which was absurd. But I called Tommy Kimmelman and there was no…. I got my NFTs dropped on Nifty Gateway, and they sold for four thousand dollars. And I was just wildly appreciative and grateful, because that’s four thousand dollars that I never would’ve seen.
Then they scheduled another drop for me, that was in December of 2020, and the next drop was three months later. I was writing my first, one of the first—I’ve now written over a dozen articles on digital art and NFTs for Artnet. I think Artnet is not terribly pleased that I’ve quit. I never set out to be stealing information from the rich and giving it to the aspiring rich, like some kind of fucked-up Robin Hood figure.
I mean, and I had death threats. I had people trying to beat me up, sue me, cancel me, some really awful things, because I was telling all the dirty secrets of billionaires. One Russian, he.… That was the only time where I actually ever feared for my life and had to send an intermediary to meet with this person to dissuade them from murdering me. His brother was known as the “golden gun” in Moscow. And I’m not even exaggerating when I tell you that I was frightened. In London, people get poisoned on a regular basis there, and this man was … anyway.
By the second drop, I was expecting another four thousand dollars, and my work sold into the six figures. That was during a particular boom. But I’ve had a few other successes that even surpassed that over the past year. So, I never, I had no interest in going into NFTs to make a quick buck. I just wanted to make a buck, not a million of them. I had no intention, no expectations.
AZ: It was just like a trusted pipeline for you to take your work and get it to an audience.
KS: It was a new and different pipeline of non-trolling haters that would not judge me for being someone who had to deal work to keep a foothold into the art world. Beeple—I’m no great fan of his work, per se—but the fact that his dumb piece sold for so much money…. I mean, there’s one thing the world understands, and that’s big numbers. And that’s what people think about art. Why would someone pay a ridiculous price for something that a five-year-old could do with six dollars of pigment on a canvas? And so—
AZ: But it doesn’t cross over. There’s this story about Beeple approaching Larry Gagosian to be represented by him.
KS: Yeah. I wrote that story. People said to him, literally, “I’ll make you a shitload of money.” And that’s just—Larry has a shitload of money. So Larry does what Larry wants, and he’s not down with NFTs yet. His gallery is sniffing around it. Hauser’s going to do it.
The art world turned a blind eye because they—like I said, art is a zero-sum game. And the art world has one power, and that’s controlling access. Who gets to buy, who gets to sell, who gets to show. The art world was very suspect and reticent about a new system, a new model where.… I mean, it’s a cliché in the space [to talk] about empowering an artist, but artists were enabled. And also, whether you like it or not, the market cap of Bitcoin, at its height, was three trillion dollars. That’s a fuck of a lot of money. So all of this money literally spun from thin air came into being, and [it was] like a pent-up child at a toy store. Like, there was nothing to spend the money on until NFTs happened, and then the floodgates burst open. In the last year, the market went, in two years, from zero to forty billion dollars, soon to eclipse the breadth of the fine art market.
And the art world, just—it’s so stupid. Typically the buyers of fine art were typically white, old, rich people. Now there’s been enormous inroads in terms of artists of color, women, people of different sexual identifications, having opportunities to showcase their traditional fine art in ways and [at] levels that never existed before. But this whole crypto crowd, that’s money that was never interested in art. Still seventy percent of the NFT market is collectibles: the frogs, the unicorns, the hippos, the turtles, and all these other asinine…. It’s funny how—
AZ: The [Bored Ape Yacht Club] apes.
KS: Yeah. We are reversing into this kind of infantilism, where grown people are talking about apes and frogs and Pepes. It’s fucking absurd. And the most successful fine art is, like, Kaws and Daniel Arsham toys. Connoisseurship and these types of things are on the wane, because people don’t have the time to study, and to learn, and to apply themselves to understand, and appreciate the nuanced and the sublime nature of what art could really be.
But again, I don’t begrudge anyone. These people are also brilliant practitioners, and Banksy gets a lot of shit in the traditional fine world, but among those street-type mentality artists, I think his artist is filled with content and quite interesting. I really like him.
AZ: And humor.
KS: Yeah. I grew up with it in the U.K. over twenty years, seeing it on the walls in the East End of London and [have] grown to really appreciate it. You’re an idiot if you pay fifteen million pounds for one, but it doesn’t detract from the nature of his work, which I think is fantastic.
AZ: Agreed. What do you think people get wrong about NFTs?
KS: Everything. There’s no art in NFTs. I’ve seen brilliant artists that are utilizing crypto before NFTs, smart contracts, as the conceptual underpinning of various pieces. Rhea Myers—who used to identify as Rob Myers—Kevin Abosch, Sarah Friend…. There’s a host of great talent, but nobody looks. People love to dismiss things. It’s so easy to recoil from applying yourself to take the time to understand and appreciate. It’s so easy to say that all NFTs look like screensavers and video games.
AZ: What about the transference of physical, the virtual, and the work Tom Sachs is doing, and others? Damien, you mentioned, did his version.
KS: If they’re making mediocre art in the traditional sense, they’re going to be making mediocre art in the NFT sense, but all the power to them. People should do whatever they want. I’m not in any position to tell anyone not to. But I just think what people get wrong are: number one, no one gauges…. Damien Hirst—you just mentioned him—is installing a sixty-foot sculpture in London right now. That is displacing volume in the universe to the extent that a thousand NFTs wouldn’t displace, consumption-wise, and bronze and shipping crates. I’m not rationalizing or condoning.
AZ: No. But we have a hard time understanding the big picture.
KS: It used to be that you would gauge the success of a given Basel art fair according to how many private planes were in the parking lot. There’s never more than two to four people, typically, on these planes. Look, if you turn a blind eye to global warming, you’re a moron. These issues are among the most pressing issues of our time, along with racism and these crazy capricious political situations we’re in, and Trumpism, and extreme right-wing sentiment in this country and abroad. There’s all kinds of hideous problems, but NFTs are not one of them. When you look at the lion’s share of the environmental damages from mining Bitcoin and the Ethereum—Ethereum too has been in the pipeline for ages, and it’s near completion. That will ameliorate all the environmental issues.
AZ: Watching Netflix is a major carbon impact.
KS: Everything is.
AZ: Yeah. Every time you take a digital photograph, there’s a carbon impact.
KS: Of course.
AZ: I think people don’t understand that.
KS: There’s hacking, and security issues, and content issues. But I’ve had my bank account hacked, and it was an art ruse where they copy your language that you communicate with your financial institution [in]. Then they, in your voice, in your email, they try to extract your money from your bank.
And of course, I didn’t have enough money to suffer the loss of a couple hundred grand. But that emanated from Asia as a hack in my account, from Hong Kong. But anyway, it doesn’t matter. Again, like I said before, it’s people that are problematic. It’s not NFTs. And there are more and more dedicated devices to experience the work that connect to your wallets, freestanding TV devices.
AZ: It’ll all come out.
KS: Of course. Soon there’ll be holographic projections of sculpture into real space where you can view your digital works. I have a bespoke display from a young Korean artist, Taezoo Park, which is an NFT. And when I turn my light switch on, it goes on automatically.
I’m a prude when it comes to art. I have to admit that I’ve not been a great fan of art that needs to be turned on, because frequently, they only get turned on during a cocktail party or when there’s people over. And for me, art is like reading a book or reading a newspaper. I need to look at my art every day with the least amount of effort as possible. That’s why when I turn my light switch on, the digital art goes on. And then I get to just inadvertently enjoy it in the same way. I love drawings. I’m very non-hierarchical in my life. I love the democratization of art forms. I have posters hung next to sculptures and paintings and prints.
AZ: Sitting with design.
KS: Of course.
KS: I had a car under my desk in London. I just like things that are well done with love and passion.
AZ: Yeah. You said everyone [and] their grandmother wants to make NFTs. And then you sold your grandmother? [Laughs]
KS: I minted my grandmother and let her go too cheaply. It’s one of my best pieces, I think. [Laughs] There’s a low barrier to entry, which is great. If more assholes made art, they would be less inclined to kill people and shoot schools up.
AZ: But that piece wasn’t about being a race to the bottom.
AZ: That piece was not about it being a race to the bottom, or us being in a bubble. It was about—
KS: I don’t believe in bubbles. I ate a dozen tulips to prove that fact. I had someone on standby in case I keeled over because the core of the tulip is quite poisonous. That wasn’t a race to the bottom. That was a race to the top. I love my grandmother. I thought it was a really cool piece. And it was just a symbol or a metaphor for the fact that, like Joseph Beuys said, “Everyone is an artist.” Maybe that was before NFTs, and he would rephrase that having seen [with] how low effort it could be done. But why shouldn’t I?
When I did this book about, What do you think about art? If you’re cutting hair, you’re an artist. If you’re doing anything with care, and attention to detail, and love, then it’s art. What is art? Art to me—I have a car designed by Zaha Hadid in the exhibition I curated downtown. That’s art for me. Of course, I’m not going to say that I like the art that I like, and it has to be good on some level. How you define good is another story.
AZ: Yeah, but the conversation of, Is it art or not? It’s ridiculous.
KS: No, it’s fucking ridiculous. I have a poster by Christopher Wool. If it was on paper and ink, it would be two million dollars. It was substantially less than that, I assure you. And I get the same degree of pleasure looking at them.
AZ: You always have so much going on. And something that I’m looking forward to is the Independent Art Fair. Can you talk about what you’ll be doing there, and what we might be seeing?
KS: It’s funny, because when you’re looking for a partner in life, you can’t find one. You make a lot of rings around the disco looking to hook up with someone, but then when you’re with someone, then you seem to have all these other opportunities fall in your lap.
When I started to create a career based on my NFT practices, then I ended up with two gallery shows in the last year, one in Greece and one in Berlin, which—I curated a show for Nagel Draxler in Cologne. Now I have the opportunity to do an installation in the Independent fair in the first week of May. And it’s very exciting. It’s difficult to negotiate when there’s different galleries that you’re involved in. But it’s thrilling to me, because it’s like a kind of coming-out party. And I’m sure I’ll face a lot of resistance and I’ll get criticized.
AZ: Do you know what you’re showing?
KS: I’m going to make an installation, which I’ve been doing, which is, like, there’s a great exhibition which I’m super-excited [about]. At the Hirshhorn Museum in D.C., Laurie Anderson has created this all-encompassing environment. When I had my exhibition in Long Island, in 2018…. When you write online, even though it has a shelf life of carbon fourteen, at the same time, it’s off the main page in ten minutes. And it gets buried, [unless] someone is consciously looking for it. So I made this environment where I covered the walls, the floor, and the ceiling with text. And in a way, it was almost like a virtual reality experience.
AZ: Beautiful blue.
KS: Thank you.
AZ: It wasn’t actually how you would’ve seen it.
KS: No. I kind of aestheticized it a little bit.
AZ: Yeah, you gave it a look.
KS: But still it was a really cool, non-narrative way to dip in and out of reading a paragraph in a sentence, and it gave an architectural form to writing in a way that didn’t exist before. It gave another life to my writing. I love making that kind of environment that transforms you to a different space, and gives a new material form to writing and words. I love text in art. So I’ve now done, like, probably nearly a dozen installations like that.
AZ: On that strategy?
KS: Yes. At the Basel Art fair in Switzerland, at the Art Basel fair in Miami, in exhibitions, in London, all over. So, I’ll do something like that. My show in Berlin right now, you would think, A, that it’s a group show and B, it’s comprised of tapestry, which is one of the most ancient art-making forms, and painting. I can’t paint. I get them fabricated. But everything drives from a digital file. Part of that notion is to dispel another inaccuracy about digital art: that it could only be experienced on a phone or a computer.
Everything in my house, in my studio now—there’s a sculpture of me like Saint Sebastian, impaled with all these selfie sticks. Everything came from a digital file. When Covid first happened, I wrote an article and said, “The art world is such a beast. There’ll be art fairs in emergency rooms in the hospital.” And then I created one in a collage, and then somebody called me and asked me to buy “Corona Nurse,” a kind of fake Richard Prince painting. So I had one made. And then I made another version when I broke the story that Jeff Koons got some crazy Covid loan, even though he’s one of the richest living artists in the world today. He made these paintings with blue gazing balls, or sculptures with these blue mirrored balls attached to them. He was being photographed naked by Annie Leibovitz in his studio while all his assistants were slaving away at his paintings. They were all shackled by these gazing ball-and-chains. And then I made a sculpture out of that. So all of these things derived from, mainly, I can only create with digital tools at hand.
AZ: I heard a rumor that Chris Smith is making a documentary about you now?
AZ: Amazing. One of the great documentary filmmakers right now. He’s made some of the most entertaining films in nonfiction in the last few years. How did that come about? How was the experience of making it?
KS: Like everything, I’m pretty good at manipulating things to put my own self-interest, in a way … benevolent, of course. But one of my close friends stole a lot of money from me between 2012 and 2015. And then he stole money from a very dear friend of mine. If he had stolen money from me, Inigo Philbrick, I wouldn’t have cared about it, because we made money, we’d lose money. I don’t really care. But then he was very disregarding of an introduction I made to him of a friend, and he stole money from them. And he just was very, like, brushed it off with such nonchalance. It infuriated me, because really I feel.… I never understand why people do things like that.
AZ: Again, it’s back to truth and justice.
KS: It’s also like, I have respect for people. I believe in the humanity of others. When it comes to helping other people, like I said, I think half of what I do as an artist is inspiring people. Whether it’s talking about suicide and trying to help people that have gone through experiences, or feel experiences. And I’ve had this … I can’t even define it. The experience I’ve had, of losing a child like that.
The first time I spoke about it, my three kids were in the audience at the School of Visual Arts, and I was in tears. But then I got feedback from people that these things are like, they’re unspeakable and nobody…. It’s a pariah issue to even discuss. And I think that when you could be frank about these things, and express yourself, it’s very reassuring to people.
In that regard, if anything, if one positive thing can come from such a heinous experience, then that’s really—that’s a good thing. And turning it into some form of a positive. That’s really important to me. And I’m just, like I said, I thesis-advise. I mentor people. I just want to give back.
AZ: So the film…
KS: So on the film. So my dear friend stole a lot of money from me. Then I got really pissed off at him because we were communicating when he was on the lam. He would get in touch with me with various aliases, then I would figure it out. And I would start to ask him a few sneaky, personal questions to assure his identity. This went on for a year. And then I wrote an article for New York magazine, a feature, and I kept the rights to the article. It was a tell-all article about this asshole’s behavior.
I got an agent and all of these people wanted to make films because of the increasing popularity of documentaries, and especially after Tiger King, which Chris Smith was an executive producer of. In the end, after thinking about it, after initially agreeing to a conversation with Chris—he went to art school and studied fine art, so I felt an immediate kinship to him. And he did the American Movie, which, I really related to this. I’ll always think of myself as this self-sabotaging failure. And in a way, I’m like a successful failure right now in my life, but we’ll keep off the couch for the next five minutes.
So I spoke to Chris and, out of all the people that contacted me—people from all the big companies, Imagine and Sony and all of these other companies—he was the most attractive because of his experience with fine art. Then, after giving it some thought, I didn’t want to spend six months of my life dwelling upon such a negative experience. It’s such a mischaracterization: When you think about Goldman Sachs, there’s more crime—like with Jho Low, the Malaysian 30-something-year-old who stole ten billion dollars from taxpayers in Malaysia. That dwarfs the crime in the history of art from the Renaissance. But everyone—like Anna Delvey, which, to me, is the dullest, most pretentious, banal, inane story I’ve ever heard in my life. That’s three TV series. I should go to jail if that’s the key to success to that extent.
Then I spoke to Chris and, after agreeing to potentially explore the project, I changed my mind, which I’m wont to do on a very regular basis. And I just decided I wouldn’t do it. I said, like, the art world is not comprised of this clichéd stereotype of criminality. And these nefarious people laundering drug proceeds. So I got them to change the idea for the film [so] that it would touch upon some of the bad, but it would give a broader perspective about my life in the art world, and it happened to coincide with the onset of my NFT life.
We interviewed one of the founders of OpenSea, who went from living in a dingy…. I barged into his apartment unannounced with the crew, and he was eating Chinese food in a studio apartment. I just found out yesterday that this guy is worth two-point-two billion dollars now. We interviewed the founders of Nifty Gateway, and a bunch of crypto artists. I think, all along Chris Smith who’s—he’s done the Fyre festival, [Operation] Varsity Blues, about the high school cheating scandal, Tiger King, too—the whole while I had a very sneaking suspicion that he was hoping that I would get arrested, and Inigo would try to throw me under the bus and concoct some story, and I would end up being taken away in handcuffs. And that would’ve been the perfect ending to the film.
Thankfully—knock on wood—that’s never happened, so far. And Inigo is being sentenced in the next week or so to between ten and twenty years in prison. Amazing to think he got more time than most murderers get in this country, but that says something more about the country we live in. So this film has been shot across three countries over the course of over a year. And now it’s being shopped to Netflix and HBO.
KS: And it covers me sitting at the desk at “Hoarder II,” curating my first NFT exhibition in Cologne, during lockdown, interviewing artists like Tracey Emin in London, and my one-person show in Berlin, the opening and various points in between my teaching, all the other kind of activities. I think I was interested in painting a broader picture. I love art. It gives me chills when I see art today. Art has given, like I said, meaning into my life. Even though I’m cynical and I complain and I moan and groan the longer you have, the more war stories I’ll relate to you. But I get the same visceral experience standing in front of art that I like that I did thirty-five years ago. I love it.
There’s been no diminishing in how I feel about being involved in the arts. I would love for my kids to be involved professionally. All of them, too. One of them is kicking and screaming that even though he’s a great painter, Gabriel—he’s in my show on Morton Street now, but he’s fighting it. But I would be thrilled. My oldest, Adrian, has a major show in Florence, in September with the grandson of Cy Twombly at his gallery. My youngest switched to art. He’s at the School of Visual Arts now, where I teach. He’s in my exhibition. My wife is in my exhibition.
KS: I’m in my exhibition.
AZ: Of course.
KS: You could be in my next exhibition.
AZ: I can’t wait to see the film. I’m very much looking forward to it, Kenny.
KS: I’m scared to know what it’s going to look like, knowing Chris and his inclination to paint moral pictures.
AZ: Yeah, but you know—
KS: I shudder.
AZ: He’s going to pull something off, I think.
KS: I’m sure.
AZ: Kenny, thanks so much for coming in to spend time with us today. It’s been a real pleasure.
KS: You’re such a kind and conscientious person that I’m just—I’m very honored to be sitting here talking to you. And I’m very grateful.
AZ: Thank you.
KS: Thank you so much.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on March 23, 2022. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by Mimi Hannon and Tiffany Jow. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Mike Lala, and Johnny Simon.